'I'm willing, Dick,' he said. 'But you mustn't ask me to be friends wit_tumm. He makes my stomach cold, that one.'
For the first time he had stopped calling me 'Cornelis'. The day of make- believe was over for all of us.
'Not to be friends with him,' I said, 'but to bust him and all his kind.'
'Then I'm ready,' said Peter cheerfully. 'What is it?'
I spread out the maps on the divan. There was no light in the place bu_lenkiron's electric torch, for Hussin had put out the lantern. Peter got hi_ose into the things at once, for his intelligence work in the Boer War ha_ade him handy with maps. It didn't want much telling from me to explain t_im the importance of the one I had looted.
'That news is worth many a million pounds,' said he, wrinkling his brows, an_cratching delicately the tip of his left ear. It was a way he had when he wa_tartled.
'How can we get it to our friends?'
Peter cogitated. 'There is but one way. A man must take it. Once, I remember, when we fought the Matabele it was necessary to find out whether the chie_akapan was living. Some said he had died, others that he'd gone over th_ortuguese border, but I believed he lived. No native could tell us, and sinc_is kraal was well defended no runner could get through. So it was necessar_o send a man.'
Peter lifted up his head and laughed. 'The man found the chief Makapan. He wa_ery much alive, and made good shooting with a shot-gun. But the man brough_he chief Makapan out of his kraal and handed him over to the Mounted Police.
You remember Captain Arcoll, Dick - Jim Arcoll? Well, Jim laughed so much tha_e broke open a wound in his head, and had to have a doctor.'
'You were that man, Peter,' I said.
'Ja. I was the man. There are more ways of getting into kraals than there ar_ays of keeping people out.'
'Will you take this chance?'
'For certain, Dick. I am getting stiff with doing nothing, and if I sit i_ouses much longer I shall grow old. A man bet me five pounds on the ship tha_ could not get through a trench-line, and if there had been a trench-lin_andy I would have taken him on. I will be very happy, Dick, but I do not sa_ will succeed. It is new country to me, and I will be hurried, and hurr_akes bad stalking.'
I showed him what I thought the likeliest place - in the spurs of th_alantuken mountains. Peter's way of doing things was all his own. He scrape_arth and plaster out of a corner and sat down to make a little model of th_andscape on the table, following the contours of the map. He did i_xtraordinarily neatly, for, like all great hunters, he was as deft as _eaver bird. He puzzled over it for a long time, and conned the map till h_ust have got it by heart. Then he took his field-glasses - a very good singl_eiss which was part of the spoils from Rasta's motor-car - and announced tha_e was going to follow my example and get on to the house-top. Presently hi_egs disappeared through the trap, and Blenkiron and I were left to ou_eflections.
Peter must have found something uncommon interesting, for he stayed on th_oof the better part of the day. It was a dull job for us, since there was n_ight, and Blenkiron had not even the consolation of a game of Patience. Bu_or all that he was in good spirits, for he had had no dyspepsia since we lef_onstantinople, and announced that he believed he was at last getting eve_ith his darned duodenum. As for me I was pretty restless, for I could no_magine what was detaining Sandy. It was clear that our presence must hav_een kept secret from Hilda von Einem, for she was a pal of Stumm's, and h_ust by now have blown the gaff on Peter and me. How long could this secrec_ast, I asked myself. We had now no sort of protection in the whole outfit.
Rasta and the Turks wanted our blood: so did Stumm and the Germans; and onc_he lady found we were deceiving her she would want it most of all. Our onl_ope was Sandy, and he gave no sign of his existence. I began to fear tha_ith him, too, things had miscarried.
And yet I wasn't really depressed, only impatient. I could never again ge_ack to the beastly stagnation of that Constantinople week. The guns kept m_heerful. There was the devil of a bombardment all day, and the thought tha_ur Allies were thundering there half a dozen miles off gave me a perfectl_roundless hope. If they burst through the defence Hilda von Einem and he_rophet and all our enemies would be overwhelmed in the deluge. And tha_lessed chance depended very much on old Peter, now brooding like a pigeon o_he house-tops.
It was not till the late afternoon that Hussin appeared again. He took n_otice of Peter's absence, but lit a lantern and set it on the table. Then h_ent to the door and waited. Presently a light step fell on the stairs, an_ussin drew back to let someone enter. He promptly departed and I heard th_ey turn in the lock behind him.
Sandy stood there, but a new Sandy who made Blenkiron and me jump to our feet.
The pelts and skin-cap had gone, and he wore instead a long linen tuni_lasped at the waist by a broad girdle. A strange green turban adorned hi_ead, and as he pushed it back I saw that his hair had been shaved. He looke_ike some acolyte - a weary acolyte, for there was no spring in his walk o_erve in his carriage. He dropped numbly on the divan and laid his head in hi_ands. The lantern showed his haggard eyes with dark lines beneath them.
'Good God, old man, have you been sick?' I cried.
'Not sick,' he said hoarsely. 'My body is right enough, but the last few day_ have been living in hell.'
Blenkiron nodded sympathetically. That was how he himself would have describe_he company of the lady.
I marched across to him and gripped both his wrists.
'Look at me,' I said, 'straight in the eyes.'
His eyes were like a sleep-walker's, unwinking, unseeing. 'Great heavens, man, you've been drugged!' I said.
'Drugged,' he cried, with a weary laugh. 'Yes, I have been drugged, but not b_ny physic. No one has been doctoring my food. But you can't go through hel_ithout getting your eyes red-hot.'
I kept my grip on his wrists. 'Take your time, old chap, and tell us about it.
Blenkiron and I are here, and old Peter's on the roof not far off. We'll loo_fter you.'
'It does me good to hear your voice, Dick,' he said. 'It reminds me of clean, honest things.'
'They'll come back, never fear. We're at the last lap now. One more spurt an_t's over. You've got to tell me what the new snag is. Is it that woman?'
He shivered like a frightened colt. 'Woman!' he cried. 'Does a woman drag _an through the nether-pit? She's a she-devil. Oh, it isn't madness that'_rong with her. She's as sane as you and as cool as Blenkiron. Her life is a_nfernal game of chess, and she plays with souls for pawns. She is evil - evil - evil.' And once more he buried his head in his hands.
It was Blenkiron who brought sense into this hectic atmosphere. His slow, beloved drawl was an antiseptic against nerves.
'Say, boy,' he said, 'I feel just like you about the lady. But our job is no_o investigate her character. Her Maker will do that good and sure some day.
We've got to figure how to circumvent her, and for that you've got to tell u_hat exactly's been occurring since we parted company.'
Sandy pulled himself together with a great effort.
'Greenmantle died that night I saw you. We buried him secretly by her order i_he garden of the villa. Then came the trouble about his successor … The fou_inisters would be no party to a swindle. They were honest men, and vowed tha_heir task now was to make a tomb for their master and pray for the rest o_heir days at his shrine. They were as immovable as a granite hill and sh_new it… . Then they, too, died.'
'Murdered?' I gasped.
'Murdered … all four in one morning. I do not know how, but I helped to bur_hem. Oh, she had Germans and Kurds to do her foul work, but their hands wer_lean compared to hers. Pity me, Dick, for I have seen honesty and virtue pu_o the shambles and have abetted the deed when it was done. It will haunt m_o my dying day.'
I did not stop to console him, for my mind was on fire with his news.
'Then the prophet is gone, and the humbug is over,' I cried.
'The prophet still lives. She has found a successor.'
He stood up in his linen tunic.
'Why do I wear these clothes? Because I am Greenmantle. I am th_aaba-i-hurriyeh for all Islam. In three days' time I will reveal myself to m_eople and wear on my breast the green ephod of the prophet.'
He broke off with an hysterical laugh. 'Only you see, I won't. I will cut m_hroat first.'
'Cheer up!' said Blenkiron soothingly. 'We'll find some prettier way tha_hat.'
'There is no way,' he said; 'no way but death. We're done for, all of us.
Hussin got you out of Stumm's clutches, but you're in danger every moment. A_he best you have three days, and then you, too, will be dead.'
I had no words to reply. This change in the bold and unshakeable Sandy took m_reath away.
'She made me her accomplice,' he went on. 'I should have killed her on th_raves of those innocent men. But instead I did all she asked and joined i_er game … She was very candid, you know … She cares no more than Enver fo_he faith of Islam. She can laugh at it. But she has her own dreams, and the_onsume her as a saint is consumed by his devotion. She has told me them, an_f the day in the garden was hell, the days since have been the innermos_ires of Tophet. I think - it is horrible to say it - that she has got som_ind of crazy liking for me. When we have reclaimed the East I am to be by he_ide when she rides on her milk-white horse into Jerusalem … And there hav_een moments \- only moments, I swear to God - when I have been fired mysel_y her madness … '
Sandy's figure seemed to shrink and his voice grew shrill and wild. It was to_uch for Blenkiron. He indulged in a torrent of blasphemy such as I believ_ad never before passed his lips.
'I'm blessed if I'll listen to this God-darned stuff. It isn't delicate. Yo_et busy, Major, and pump some sense into your afflicted friend.'
I was beginning to see what had happened. Sandy was a man of genius - as muc_s anybody I ever struck - but he had the defects of such high-strung, fanciful souls. He would take more than mortal risks, and you couldn't scar_im by any ordinary terror. But let his old conscience get cross-eyed, let hi_ind himself in some situation which in his eyes involved his honour, and h_ight go stark crazy. The woman, who roused in me and Blenkiron only hatred, could catch his imagination and stir in him - for the moment only - a_nwilling response. And then came bitter and morbid repentance, and the las_esperation.
It was no time to mince matters. 'Sandy, you old fool,' I cried, 'be thankfu_ou have friends to keep you from playing the fool. You saved my life at Loos, and I'm jolly well going to get you through this show. I'm bossing the outfi_ow, and for all your confounded prophetic manners, you've got to take you_rders from me. You aren't going to reveal yourself to your people, and stil_ess are you going to cut your throat. Greenmantle will avenge the murder o_is ministers, and make that bedlamite woman sorry she was born. We're goin_o get clear away, and inside of a week we'll be having tea with the Gran_uke Nicholas.'
I wasn't bluffing. Puzzled as I was about ways and means I had still the blin_elief that we should win out. And as I spoke two legs dangled through th_rap and a dusty and blinking Peter descended in our midst.
I took the maps from him and spread them on the table.
'First, you must know that we've had an almighty piece of luck. Last nigh_ussin took us for a walk over the roofs of Erzerum, and by the blessing o_rovidence I got into Stumm's room, and bagged his staff map … Look there … d'you see his notes? That's the danger-point of the whole defence. Once th_ussians get that fort, Kara Gubek, they've turned the main position. And i_an be got; Stumm knows it can; for these two adjacent hills are not held … I_ooks a mad enterprise on paper, but Stumm knows that it is possible enough.
The question is: Will the Russians guess that? I say no, not unless someon_ells them. Therefore, by hook or by crook, we've got to get that informatio_hrough to them.'
Sandy's interest in ordinary things was beginning to flicker up again. H_tudied the map and began to measure distances.
'Peter's going to have a try for it. He thinks there's a sporting chance o_is getting through the lines. If he does - if he gets this map to the Gran_uke's staff - then Stumm's goose is cooked. In three days the Cossacks wil_e in the streets of Erzerum.'
'What are the chances?' Sandy asked.
I glanced at Peter. 'We're hard-bitten fellows and can face the truth. I thin_he chances against success are about five to one.'
'Two to one,' said Peter modestly. 'Not worse than that. I don't think you'r_air to me, Dick, my old friend.'
I looked at that lean, tight figure and the gentle, resolute face, and _hanged my mind. 'I'm hanged if I think there are any odds,' I said. 'Wit_nybody else it would want a miracle, but with Peter I believe the chances ar_evel.'
'Two to one,' Peter persisted. 'If it was evens I wouldn't be interested.'
'Let me go,' Sandy cried. 'I talk the lingo, and can pass as a Turk, and I'm _illion times likelier to get through. For God's sake, Dick, let me go.'
'Not you. You're wanted here. If you disappear the whole show's busted to_oon, and the three of us left behind will be strung up before morning … No, my son. You're going to escape, but it will be in company with Blenkiron an_e. We've got to blow the whole Greenmantle business so high that the bits o_t will never come to earth again … First, tell me how many of your fellow_ill stick by you? I mean the Companions.'
'The whole half-dozen. They are very worried already about what has happened.
She made me sound them in her presence, and they were quite ready to accept m_s Greenmantle's successor. But they have their suspicions about what happene_t the villa, and they've no love for the woman … They'd follow me throug_ell if I bade them, but they would rather it was my own show.'
'That's all right,' I cried. 'It is the one thing I've been doubtful about.
Now observe this map. Erzerum isn't invested by a long chalk. The Russians ar_ound it in a broad half-moon. That means that all the west, south-west, an_orth-west is open and undefended by trench lines. There are flanks far awa_o the north and south in the hills which can be turned, and once we get roun_ flank there's nothing between us and our friends … I've figured out ou_oad,' and I traced it on the map. 'If we can make that big circuit to th_est and get over that pass unobserved we're bound to strike a Russian colum_he next day. It'll be a rough road, but I fancy we've all ridden as bad i_ur time. But one thing we must have, and that's horses. Can we and your si_uffians slip off in the darkness on the best beasts in this township? If yo_an manage that, we'll do the trick.'
Sandy sat down and pondered. Thank heaven, he was thinking now of action an_ot of his own conscience.
'It must be done,' he said at last, 'but it won't be easy. Hussin's a grea_ellow, but as you know well, Dick, horses right up at the battle-front ar_ot easy to come by. Tomorrow I've got some kind of infernal fast to observe, and the next day that woman will be coaching me for my part. We'll have t_ive Hussin time … I wish to heaven it could be tonight.' He was silent agai_or a bit, and then he said: 'I believe the best time would be the thir_ight, the eve of the Revelation. She's bound to leave me alone that night.'
'Right-o,' I said. 'It won't be much fun sitting waiting in this col_epulchre; but we must keep our heads and risk nothing by being in a hurry.
Besides, if Peter wins through, the Turk will be a busy man by the day afte_omorrow.'
The key turned in the door and Hussin stole in like a shade. It was the signa_or Sandy to leave.
'You fellows have given me a new lease of life,' he said. 'I've got a pla_ow, and I can set my teeth and stick it out.'
He went up to Peter and gripped his hand. 'Good luck. You're the bravest ma_'ve ever met, and I've seen a few.' Then he turned abruptly and went out, followed by an exhortation from Blenkiron to 'Get busy about the quadrupeds.'
Then we set about equipping Peter for his crusade. It was a simple job, for w_ere not rich in properties. His get-up, with his thick fur-collare_reatcoat, was not unlike the ordinary Turkish officer seen in a dim light.
But Peter had no intention of passing for a Turk, or indeed of giving anybod_he chance of seeing him, and he was more concerned to fit in with th_andscape. So he stripped off the greatcoat and pulled a grey sweater of min_ver his jacket, and put on his head a woollen helmet of the same colour. H_ad no need of the map for he had long since got his route by heart, and wha_as once fixed in that mind stuck like wax; but I made him take Stumm's pla_nd paper, hidden below his shirt. The big difficulty, I saw, would be gettin_o the Russians without getting shot, assuming he passed the Turkish trenches.
He could only hope that he would strike someone with a smattering of Englis_r German. Twice he ascended to the roof and came back cheerful, for there wa_romise of wild weather.
Hussin brought in our supper, and Peter made up a parcel of food. Blenkiro_nd I had both small flasks of brandy and I gave him mine.
Then he held out his hand quite simply, like a good child who is going off t_ed. It was too much for Blenkiron. With large tears rolling down his face h_nnounced that, if we all came through, he was going to fit him into th_oftest berth that money could buy. I don't think he was understood, for ol_eter's eyes had now the faraway absorption of the hunter who has found game.
He was thinking only of his job.
Two legs and a pair of very shabby boots vanished through the trap, an_uddenly I felt utterly lonely and desperately sad. The guns were beginning t_oar again in the east, and in the intervals came the whistle of the risin_torm.