I had just finished breakfast and was filling my pipe when I gotBullivant's telegram. It was at Furling, the big country house inHampshire where I had come to convalesce after Loos, and Sandy, who wasin the same case, was hunting for the marmalade. I flung him theflimsy with the blue strip pasted down on it, and he whistled.
'Hullo, Dick, you've got the battalion. Or maybe it's a staff billet.You'll be a blighted brass-hat, coming it heavy over the hard-workingregimental officer. And to think of the language you've wasted onbrass-hats in your time!'
I sat and thought for a bit, for the name 'Bullivant' carried me backeighteen months to the hot summer before the war. I had not seen theman since, though I had read about him in the papers. For more than ayear I had been a busy battalion officer, with no other thought than tohammer a lot of raw stuff into good soldiers. I had succeeded prettywell, and there was no prouder man on earth than Richard Hannay when hetook his Lennox Highlanders over the parapets on that glorious andbloody 25th day of September. Loos was no picnic, and we had had someugly bits of scrapping before that, but the worst bit of the campaign Ihad seen was a tea-party to the show I had been in with Bullivantbefore the war started. [Major Hannay's narrative of this affair hasbeen published under the title of _The Thirty-nine Steps_.]
The sight of his name on a telegram form seemed to change all myoutlook on life. I had been hoping for the command of the battalion,and looking forward to being in at the finish with Brother Boche. Butthis message jerked my thoughts on to a new road. There might be otherthings in the war than straightforward fighting. Why on earth shouldthe Foreign Office want to see an obscure Major of the New Army, andwant to see him in double-quick time?
'I'm going up to town by the ten train,' I announced; 'I'll be back intime for dinner.'
'Try my tailor,' said Sandy. 'He's got a very nice taste in red tabs.You can use my name.'
An idea struck me. 'You're pretty well all right now. If I wire foryou, will you pack your own kit and mine and join me?'
'Right-o! I'll accept a job on your staff if they give you a corps. Ifso be as you come down tonight, be a good chap and bring a barrel ofoysters from Sweeting's.'
I travelled up to London in a regular November drizzle, which clearedup about Wimbledon to watery sunshine. I never could stand Londonduring the war. It seemed to have lost its bearings and broken outinto all manner of badges and uniforms which did not fit in with mynotion of it. One felt the war more in its streets than in the field,or rather one felt the confusion of war without feeling the purpose. Idare say it was all right; but since August 1914 I never spent a day intown without coming home depressed to my boots.
I took a taxi and drove straight to the Foreign Office. Sir Walter didnot keep me waiting long. But when his secretary took me to his room Iwould not have recognized the man I had known eighteen months before.
His big frame seemed to have dropped flesh and there was a stoop in thesquare shoulders. His face had lost its rosiness and was red inpatches, like that of a man who gets too little fresh air. His hairwas much greyer and very thin about the temples, and there were linesof overwork below the eyes. But the eyes were the same as before, keenand kindly and shrewd, and there was no change in the firm set of thejaw.
'We must on no account be disturbed for the next hour,' he told hissecretary. When the young man had gone he went across to both doorsand turned the keys in them.
'Well, Major Hannay,' he said, flinging himself into a chair beside thefire. 'How do you like soldiering?'
'Right enough,' I said, 'though this isn't just the kind of war I wouldhave picked myself. It's a comfortless, bloody business. But we'vegot the measure of the old Boche now, and it's dogged as does it. Icount on getting back to the front in a week or two.'
'Will you get the battalion?' he asked. He seemed to have followed mydoings pretty closely.
'I believe I've a good chance. I'm not in this show for honour andglory, though. I want to do the best I can, but I wish to heaven itwas over. All I think of is coming out of it with a whole skin.'
He laughed. 'You do yourself an injustice. What about the forwardobservation post at the Lone Tree? You forgot about the whole skinthen.'
I felt myself getting red. 'That was all rot,' I said, 'and I can'tthink who told you about it. I hated the job, but I had to do it toprevent my subalterns going to glory. They were a lot of fire-eatingyoung lunatics. If I had sent one of them he'd have gone on his kneesto Providence and asked for trouble.'
Sir Walter was still grinning.
'I'm not questioning your caution. You have the rudiments of it, orour friends of the Black Stone would have gathered you in at our lastmerry meeting. I would question it as little as your courage. Whatexercises my mind is whether it is best employed in the trenches.'
'Is the War Office dissatisfied with me?' I asked sharply.
'They are profoundly satisfied. They propose to give you command ofyour battalion. Presently, if you escape a stray bullet, you will nodoubt be a Brigadier. It is a wonderful war for youth and brains. But... I take it you are in this business to serve your country, Hannay?'
'I reckon I am,' I said. 'I am certainly not in it for my health.'
He looked at my leg, where the doctors had dug out the shrapnelfragments, and smiled quizzically.
'Pretty fit again?' he asked.
'Tough as a sjambok. I thrive on the racket and eat and sleep like aschoolboy.'
He got up and stood with his back to the fire, his eyes staringabstractedly out of the window at the wintry park.
'It is a great game, and you are the man for it, no doubt. But thereare others who can play it, for soldiering today asks for the averagerather than the exception in human nature. It is like a big machinewhere the parts are standardized. You are fighting, not because youare short of a job, but because you want to help England. How if youcould help her better than by commanding a battalion--or a brigade--or,if it comes to that, a division? How if there is a thing which youalone can do? Not some _embusque_ business in an office, but a thingcompared to which your fight at Loos was a Sunday-school picnic. Youare not afraid of danger? Well, in this job you would not be fightingwith an army around you, but alone. You are fond of tacklingdifficulties? Well, I can give you a task which will try all yourpowers. Have you anything to say?'
My heart was beginning to thump uncomfortably. Sir Walter was not theman to pitch a case too high.
'I am a soldier,' I said, 'and under orders.'
'True; but what I am about to propose does not come by any conceivablestretch within the scope of a soldier's duties. I shall perfectlyunderstand if you decline. You will be acting as I should actmyself--as any sane man would. I would not press you for worlds. Ifyou wish it, I will not even make the proposal, but let you go here andnow, and wish you good luck with your battalion. I do not wish toperplex a good soldier with impossible decisions.'
This piqued me and put me on my mettle.
'I am not going to run away before the guns fire. Let me hear what youpropose.'
Sir Walter crossed to a cabinet, unlocked it with a key from his chain,and took a piece of paper from a drawer. It looked like an ordinaryhalf-sheet of note-paper.
'I take it,' he said, 'that your travels have not extended to the East.'
'No,' I said, 'barring a shooting trip in East Africa.'
'Have you by any chance been following the present campaign there?'
'I've read the newspapers pretty regularly since I went to hospital.I've got some pals in the Mesopotamia show, and of course I'm keen toknow what is going to happen at Gallipoli and Salonika. I gather thatEgypt is pretty safe.'
'If you will give me your attention for ten minutes I will supplementyour newspaper reading.'
Sir Walter lay back in an arm-chair and spoke to the ceiling. It wasthe best story, the clearest and the fullest, I had ever got of any bitof the war. He told me just how and why and when Turkey had left therails. I heard about her grievances over our seizure of her ironclads,of the mischief the coming of the _Goeben_ had wrought, of Enver andhis precious Committee and the way they had got a cinch on the oldTurk. When he had spoken for a bit, he began to question me.
'You are an intelligent fellow, and you will ask how a Polishadventurer, meaning Enver, and a collection of Jews and gipsies shouldhave got control of a proud race. The ordinary man will tell you thatit was German organization backed up with German money and German arms.You will inquire again how, since Turkey is primarily a religiouspower, Islam has played so small a part in it all. The Sheikh-ul-Islamis neglected, and though the Kaiser proclaims a Holy War and callshimself Hadji Mohammed Guilliamo, and says the Hohenzollerns aredescended from the Prophet, that seems to have fallen pretty flat. Theordinary man again will answer that Islam in Turkey is becoming a backnumber, and that Krupp guns are the new gods. Yet--I don't know. I donot quite believe in Islam becoming a back number.'
'Look at it in another way,' he went on. 'If it were Enver and Germanyalone dragging Turkey into a European war for purposes that no Turkcared a rush about, we might expect to find the regular army obedient,and Constantinople. But in the provinces, where Islam is strong, therewould be trouble. Many of us counted on that. But we have beendisappointed. The Syrian army is as fanatical as the hordes of theMahdi. The Senussi have taken a hand in the game. The Persian Moslemsare threatening trouble. There is a dry wind blowing through the East,and the parched grasses wait the spark. And that wind is blowingtowards the Indian border. Whence comes that wind, think you?'
Sir Walter had lowered his voice and was speaking very slow anddistinct. I could hear the rain dripping from the eaves of the window,and far off the hoot of taxis in Whitehall.
'Have you an explanation, Hannay?' he asked again.
'It looks as if Islam had a bigger hand in the thing than we thought,'I said. 'I fancy religion is the only thing to knit up such ascattered empire.'
'You are right,' he said. 'You must be right. We have laughed at theHoly War, the jehad that old Von der Goltz prophesied. But I believethat stupid old man with the big spectacles was right. There is ajehad preparing. The question is, How?'
'I'm hanged if I know,' I said; 'but I'll bet it won't be done by apack of stout German officers in _pickelhaubes_. I fancy you can'tmanufacture Holy Wars out of Krupp guns alone and a few staff officersand a battle cruiser with her boilers burst.'
'Agreed. They are not fools, however much we try to persuade ourselvesof the contrary. But supposing they had got some tremendous sacredsanction--some holy thing, some book or gospel or some new prophet fromthe desert, something which would cast over the whole ugly mechanism ofGerman war the glamour of the old torrential raids which crumpled theByzantine Empire and shook the walls of Vienna? Islam is a fightingcreed, and the mullah still stands in the pulpit with the Koran in onehand and a drawn sword in the other. Supposing there is some Ark ofthe Covenant which will madden the remotest Moslem peasant with dreamsof Paradise? What then, my friend?'
'Then there will be hell let loose in those parts pretty soon.'
'Hell which may spread. Beyond Persia, remember, lies India.'
'You keep to suppositions. How much do you know?' I asked.
'Very little, except the fact. But the fact is beyond dispute. I havereports from agents everywhere--pedlars in South Russia, Afghanhorse-dealers, Turcoman merchants, pilgrims on the road to Mecca,sheikhs in North Africa, sailors on the Black Sea coasters,sheep-skinned Mongols, Hindu fakirs, Greek traders in the Gulf, as wellas respectable Consuls who use cyphers. They tell the same story. TheEast is waiting for a revelation. It has been promised one. Somestar--man, prophecy, or trinket--is coming out of the West. The Germansknow, and that is the card with which they are going to astonish theworld.'
'And the mission you spoke of for me is to go and find out?'
He nodded gravely. 'That is the crazy and impossible mission.'
'Tell me one thing, Sir Walter,' I said. 'I know it is the fashion inthis country if a man has a special knowledge to set him to some jobexactly the opposite. I know all about Damaraland, but instead ofbeing put on Botha's staff, as I applied to be, I was kept in Hampshiremud till the campaign in German South West Africa was over. I know aman who could pass as an Arab, but do you think they would send him tothe East? They left him in my battalion--a lucky thing for me, for hesaved my life at Loos. I know the fashion, but isn't this justcarrying it a bit too far? There must be thousands of men who havespent years in the East and talk any language. They're the fellows forthis job. I never saw a Turk in my life except a chap who didwrestling turns in a show at Kimberley. You've picked about the mostuseless man on earth.'
'You've been a mining engineer, Hannay,' Sir Walter said. 'If youwanted a man to prospect for gold in Barotseland you would of courselike to get one who knew the country and the people and the language.But the first thing you would require in him would be that he had anose for finding gold and knew his business. That is the position now.I believe that you have a nose for finding out what our enemies try tohide. I know that you are brave and cool and resourceful. That is whyI tell you the story. Besides ...'
He unrolled a big map of Europe on the wall.
'I can't tell you where you'll get on the track of the secret, but Ican put a limit to the quest. You won't find it east of theBosporus--not yet. It is still in Europe. It may be inConstantinople, or in Thrace. It may be farther west. But it ismoving eastwards. If you are in time you may cut into its march toConstantinople. That much I can tell you. The secret is known inGermany, too, to those whom it concerns. It is in Europe that theseeker must search--at present.'
'Tell me more,' I said. 'You can give me no details and noinstructions. Obviously you can give me no help if I come to grief.'
He nodded. 'You would be beyond the pale.'
'You give me a free hand.'
'Absolutely. You can have what money you like, and you can get whathelp you like. You can follow any plan you fancy, and go anywhere youthink fruitful. We can give no directions.'
'One last question. You say it is important. Tell me just howimportant.'
'It is life and death,' he said solemnly. 'I can put it no higher andno lower. Once we know what is the menace we can meet it. As long aswe are in the dark it works unchecked and we may be too late. The warmust be won or lost in Europe. Yes; but if the East blazes up, oureffort will be distracted from Europe and the great _coup_ may fail.The stakes are no less than victory and defeat, Hannay.'
I got out of my chair and walked to the window. It was a difficultmoment in my life. I was happy in my soldiering; above all, happy inthe company of my brother officers. I was asked to go off into theenemy's lands on a quest for which I believed I was manifestlyunfitted--a business of lonely days and nights, of nerve-rackingstrain, of deadly peril shrouding me like a garment. Looking out onthe bleak weather I shivered. It was too grim a business, too inhumanfor flesh and blood. But Sir Walter had called it a matter of life anddeath, and I had told him that I was out to serve my country. He couldnot give me orders, but was I not under orders--higher orders than myBrigadier's? I thought myself incompetent, but cleverer men than methought me competent, or at least competent enough for a sportingchance. I knew in my soul that if I declined I should never be quiteat peace in the world again. And yet Sir Walter had called the schememadness, and said that he himself would never have accepted.
How does one make a great decision? I swear that when I turned roundto speak I meant to refuse. But my answer was Yes, and I had crossedthe Rubicon. My voice sounded cracked and far away.
Sir Walter shook hands with me and his eyes blinked a little.
'I may be sending you to your death, Hannay--Good God, what a damnedtask-mistress duty is!--If so, I shall be haunted with regrets, but youwill never repent. Have no fear of that. You have chosen the roughestroad, but it goes straight to the hill-tops.'
He handed me the half-sheet of note-paper. On it were written threewords--'_Kasredin_', '_cancer_', and '_v. I._'
'That is the only clue we possess,' he said. 'I cannot construe it,but I can tell you the story. We have had our agents working in Persiaand Mesopotamia for years--mostly young officers of the Indian Army.They carry their lives in their hands, and now and then one disappears,and the sewers of Baghdad might tell a tale. But they find out manythings, and they count the game worth the candle. They have told us ofthe star rising in the West, but they could give us no details. Allbut one--the best of them. He had been working between Mosul and thePersian frontier as a muleteer, and had been south into the Bakhtiarihills. He found out something, but his enemies knew that he knew andhe was pursued. Three months ago, just before Kut, he staggered intoDelamain's camp with ten bullet holes in him and a knife slash on hisforehead. He mumbled his name, but beyond that and the fact that therewas a Something coming from the West he told them nothing. He died inten minutes. They found this paper on him, and since he cried out theword "Kasredin" in his last moments, it must have had something to dowith his quest. It is for you to find out if it has any meaning.'
I folded it up and placed it in my pocket-book.
'What a great fellow! What was his name?' I asked.
Sir Walter did not answer at once. He was looking out of the window.'His name,' he said at last, 'was Harry Bullivant. He was my son. Godrest his brave soul!'
I wrote out a wire to Sandy, asking him to come up by the two-fifteentrain and meet me at my flat.
'I have chosen my colleague,' I said.
'Billy Arbuthnot's boy? His father was at Harrow with me. I know thefellow--Harry used to bring him down to fish--tallish, with a lean,high-boned face and a pair of brown eyes like a pretty girl's. I knowhis record, too. There's a good deal about him in this office. Herode through Yemen, which no white man ever did before. The Arabs lethim pass, for they thought him stark mad and argued that the hand ofAllah was heavy enough on him without their efforts. He'sblood-brother to every kind of Albanian bandit. Also he used to take ahand in Turkish politics, and got a huge reputation. Some Englishmanwas once complaining to old Mahmoud Shevkat about the scarcity ofstatesmen in Western Europe, and Mahmoud broke in with, "Have you notthe Honourable Arbuthnot?" You say he's in your battalion. I waswondering what had become of him, for we tried to get hold of him here,but he had left no address. Ludovick Arbuthnot--yes, that's the man.Buried deep in the commissioned ranks of the New Army? Well, we'll gethim out pretty quick!'
'I knew he had knocked about the East, but I didn't know he was thatkind of swell. Sandy's not the chap to buck about himself.'
'He wouldn't,' said Sir Walter. 'He had always a more than Orientalreticence. I've got another colleague for you, if you like him.'
He looked at his watch. 'You can get to the Savoy Grill Room in fiveminutes in a taxi-cab. Go in from the Strand, turn to your left, andyou will see in the alcove on the right-hand side a table with onelarge American gentleman sitting at it. They know him there, so hewill have the table to himself. I want you to go and sit down besidehim. Say you come from me. His name is Mr John Scantlebury Blenkiron,now a citizen of Boston, Mass., but born and raised in Indiana. Putthis envelope in your pocket, but don't read its contents till you havetalked to him. I want you to form your own opinion about Mr Blenkiron.'
I went out of the Foreign Office in as muddled a frame of mind as anydiplomatist who ever left its portals. I was most desperatelydepressed. To begin with, I was in a complete funk. I had alwaysthought I was about as brave as the average man, but there's courageand courage, and mine was certainly not the impassive kind. Stick medown in a trench and I could stand being shot at as well as mostpeople, and my blood could get hot if it were given a chance. But Ithink I had too much imagination. I couldn't shake off the beastlyforecasts that kept crowding my mind.
In about a fortnight, I calculated, I would be dead. Shot as a spy--arotten sort of ending! At the moment I was quite safe, looking for ataxi in the middle of Whitehall, but the sweat broke on my forehead. Ifelt as I had felt in my adventure before the war. But this was farworse, for it was more cold-blooded and premeditated, and I didn't seemto have even a sporting chance. I watched the figures in khaki passingon the pavement, and thought what a nice safe prospect they hadcompared to mine. Yes, even if next week they were in theHohenzollern, or the Hairpin trench at the Quarries, or that ugly angleat Hooge. I wondered why I had not been happier that morning before Igot that infernal wire. Suddenly all the trivialities of English lifeseemed to me inexpressibly dear and terribly far away. I was veryangry with Bullivant, till I remembered how fair he had been. My fatewas my own choosing.
When I was hunting the Black Stone the interest of the problem hadhelped to keep me going. But now I could see no problem. My mind hadnothing to work on but three words of gibberish on a sheet of paper anda mystery of which Sir Walter had been convinced, but to which hecouldn't give a name. It was like the story I had read of Saint Teresasetting off at the age of ten with her small brother to convert theMoors. I sat huddled in the taxi with my chin on my breast, wishingthat I had lost a leg at Loos and been comfortably tucked away for therest of the war.
Sure enough I found my man in the Grill Room. There he was, feedingsolemnly, with a napkin tucked under his chin. He was a big fellowwith a fat, sallow, clean-shaven face. I disregarded the hoveringwaiter and pulled up a chair beside the American at the little table.He turned on me a pair of full sleepy eyes, like a ruminating ox.
'Mr Blenkiron?' I asked.
'You have my name, Sir,' he said. 'Mr John Scantlebury Blenkiron. Iwould wish you good morning if I saw anything good in this darnedBritish weather.'
'I come from Sir Walter Bullivant,' I said, speaking low.
'So?' said he. 'Sir Walter is a very good friend of mine. Pleased tomeet you, Mr--or I guess it's Colonel--'
'Hannay,' I said; 'Major Hannay.' I was wondering what this sleepyYankee could do to help me.
'Allow me to offer you luncheon, Major. Here, waiter, bring the carte.I regret that I cannot join you in sampling the efforts of themanagement of this hotel. I suffer, Sir, from dyspepsia--duodenaldyspepsia. It gets me two hours after a meal and gives me hell justbelow the breast-bone. So I am obliged to adopt a diet. Mynourishment is fish, Sir, and boiled milk and a little dry toast. It'sa melancholy descent from the days when I could do justice to a lunchat Sherry's and sup off oyster-crabs and devilled bones.' He sighedfrom the depths of his capacious frame.
I ordered an omelette and a chop, and took another look at him. Thelarge eyes seemed to be gazing steadily at me without seeing me. Theywere as vacant as an abstracted child's; but I had an uncomfortablefeeling that they saw more than mine.
'You have been fighting, Major? The Battle of Loos? Well, I guessthat must have been some battle. We in America respect the fighting ofthe British soldier, but we don't quite catch on to the de-vices of theBritish Generals. We opine that there is more bellicosity than scienceamong your highbrows. That is so? My father fought at Chattanooga,but these eyes have seen nothing gorier than a Presidential election.Say, is there any way I could be let into a scene of real bloodshed?'
His serious tone made me laugh. 'There are plenty of your countrymenin the present show,' I said. 'The French Foreign Legion is full ofyoung Americans, and so is our Army Service Corps. Half the chauffeursyou strike in France seem to come from the States.'
He sighed. 'I did think of some belligerent stunt a year back. But Ireflected that the good God had not given John S. Blenkiron the kindof martial figure that would do credit to the tented field. Also Irecollected that we Americans were nootrals--benevolent nootrals--andthat it did not become me to be butting into the struggles of theeffete monarchies of Europe. So I stopped at home. It was a bigrenunciation, Major, for I was lying sick during the Philippinesbusiness, and I have never seen the lawless passions of men let looseon a battlefield. And, as a stoodent of humanity, I hankered for theexperience.'
'What have you been doing?' I asked. The calm gentleman had begun tointerest me.
'Waal,' he said, 'I just waited. The Lord has blessed me with money toburn, so I didn't need to go scrambling like a wild cat for warcontracts. But I reckoned I would get let into the game somehow, and Iwas. Being a nootral, I was in an advantageous position to take ahand. I had a pretty hectic time for a while, and then I reckoned Iwould leave God's country and see what was doing in Europe. I havecounted myself out of the bloodshed business, but, as your poet sings,peace has its victories not less renowned than war, and I reckon thatmeans that a nootral can have a share in a scrap as well as abelligerent.'
'That's the best kind of neutrality I've ever heard of,' I said.
'It's the right kind,' he replied solemnly. 'Say, Major, what are yourlot fighting for? For your own skins and your Empire and the peace ofEurope. Waal, those ideals don't concern us one cent. We're notEuropeans, and there aren't any German trenches on Long Island yet.You've made the ring in Europe, and if we came butting in it wouldn'tbe the rules of the game. You wouldn't welcome us, and I guess you'dbe right. We're that delicate-minded we can't interfere and that waswhat my friend, President Wilson, meant when he opined that America wastoo proud to fight. So we're nootrals. But likewise we're benevolentnootrals. As I follow events, there's a skunk been let loose in theworld, and the odour of it is going to make life none too sweet till itis cleared away. It wasn't us that stirred up that skunk, but we'vegot to take a hand in disinfecting the planet. See? We can't fight,but, by God! some of us are going to sweat blood to sweep the mess up.Officially we do nothing except give off Notes like a leaky boilergives off steam. But as individooal citizens we're in it up to theneck. So, in the spirit of Jefferson Davis and Woodrow Wilson, I'mgoing to be the nootralist kind of nootral till Kaiser will be sorry hedidn't declare war on America at the beginning.'
I was completely recovering my temper. This fellow was a perfectjewel, and his spirit put purpose into me.
'I guess you British were the same kind of nootral when your Admiralwarned off the German fleet from interfering with Dewey in Manila Bayin '98.' Mr Blenkiron drank up the last drop of his boiled milk andlit a thin black cigar.
I leaned forward. 'Have you talked to Sir Walter?' I asked.
'I have talked to him, and he has given me to understand that there's adeal ahead which you're going to boss. There are no flies on that bigman, and if he says it's good business then you can count me in.'
'You know that it's uncommonly dangerous?'
'I judged so. But it don't do to begin counting risks. I believe inan all-wise and beneficent Providence, but you have got to trust Himand give Him a chance. What's life anyhow? For me, it's living on astrict diet and having frequent pains in my stomach. It isn't such analmighty lot to give up, provided you get a good price in the deal.Besides, how big is the risk? About one o'clock in the morning, whenyou can't sleep, it will be the size of Mount Everest, but if you runout to meet it, it will be a hillock you can jump over. The grizzlylooks very fierce when you're taking your ticket for the Rockies andwondering if you'll come back, but he's just an ordinary bear whenyou've got the sight of your rifle on him. I won't think about riskstill I'm up to my neck in them and don't see the road out.'
I scribbled my address on a piece of paper and handed it to the stoutphilosopher. 'Come to dinner tonight at eight,' I said.
'I thank you, Major. A little fish, please, plain-boiled, and some hotmilk. You will forgive me if I borrow your couch after the meal andspend the evening on my back. That is the advice of my noo doctor.'
I got a taxi and drove to my club. On the way I opened the envelopeSir Walter had given me. It contained a number of jottings, thedossier of Mr Blenkiron. He had done wonders for the Allies in theStates. He had nosed out the Dumba plot, and had been instrumental ingetting the portfolio of Dr Albert. Von Papen's spies had tried tomurder him, after he had defeated an attempt to blow up one of the biggun factories. Sir Walter had written at the end: 'The best man weever had. Better than Scudder. He would go through hell with a box ofbismuth tablets and a pack of Patience cards.'
I went into the little back smoking-room, borrowed an atlas from thelibrary, poked up the fire, and sat down to think. Mr Blenkiron hadgiven me the fillip I needed. My mind was beginning to work now, andwas running wide over the whole business. Not that I hoped to findanything by my cogitations. It wasn't thinking in an arm-chair thatwould solve the mystery. But I was getting a sort of grip on a plan ofoperations. And to my relief I had stopped thinking about the risks.Blenkiron had shamed me out of that. If a sedentary dyspeptic couldshow that kind of nerve, I wasn't going to be behind him.
I went back to my flat about five o'clock. My man Paddock had gone tothe wars long ago, so I had shifted to one of the new blocks in ParkLane where they provide food and service. I kept the place on to havea home to go to when I got leave. It's a miserable business holidayingin an hotel.
Sandy was devouring tea-cakes with the serious resolution of aconvalescent.
'Well, Dick, what's the news? Is it a brass hat or the boot?'
'Neither,' I said. 'But you and I are going to disappear from HisMajesty's forces. Seconded for special service.'
'O my sainted aunt!' said Sandy. 'What is it? For Heaven's sake putme out of pain. Have we to tout deputations of suspicious neutralsover munition works or take the shivering journalist in a motor-carwhere he can imagine he sees a Boche?'
'The news will keep. But I can tell you this much. It's about as safeand easy as to go through the German lines with a walking-stick.'
'Come, that's not so dusty,' said Sandy, and began cheerfully on themuffins.
I must spare a moment to introduce Sandy to the reader, for he cannotbe allowed to slip into this tale by a side-door. If you will consultthe Peerage you will find that to Edward Cospatrick, fifteenth BaronClanroyden, there was born in the year 1882, as his second son,Ludovick Gustavus Arbuthnot, commonly called the Honourable, etc. Thesaid son was educated at Eton and New College, Oxford, was a captain inthe Tweeddale Yeomanry, and served for some years as honorary attacheat various embassies. The Peerage will stop short at this point, butthat is by no means the end of the story. For the rest you mustconsult very different authorities. Lean brown men from the ends ofthe earth may be seen on the London pavements now and then in creasedclothes, walking with the light outland step, slinking into clubs as ifthey could not remember whether or not they belonged to them. Fromthem you may get news of Sandy. Better still, you will hear of him atlittle forgotten fishing ports where the Albanian mountains dip to theAdriatic. If you struck a Mecca pilgrimage the odds are you would meeta dozen of Sandy's friends in it. In shepherds' huts in the Caucasusyou will find bits of his cast-off clothing, for he has a knack ofshedding garments as he goes. In the caravanserais of Bokhara andSamarkand he is known, and there are shikaris in the Pamirs who stillspeak of him round their fires. If you were going to visit Petrogrador Rome or Cairo it would be no use asking him for introductions; if hegave them, they would lead you into strange haunts. But if Fatecompelled you to go to Llasa or Yarkand or Seistan he could map outyour road for you and pass the word to potent friends. We callourselves insular, but the truth is that we are the only race on earththat can produce men capable of getting inside the skin of remotepeoples. Perhaps the Scots are better than the English, but we're alla thousand per cent better than anybody else. Sandy was the wanderingScot carried to the pitch of genius. In old days he would have led acrusade or discovered a new road to the Indies. Today he merely roamedas the spirit moved him, till the war swept him up and dumped him downin my battalion.
I got out Sir Walter's half-sheet of note-paper. It was not theoriginal--naturally he wanted to keep that--but it was a carefultracing. I took it that Harry Bullivant had not written down the wordsas a memo for his own use. People who follow his career have goodmemories. He must have written them in order that, if he perished andhis body was found, his friends might get a clue. Wherefore, I argued,the words must be intelligible to somebody or other of our persuasion,and likewise they must be pretty well gibberish to any Turk or Germanthat found them.
The first, '_Kasredin_', I could make nothing of. I asked Sandy.
'You mean Nasr-ed-din,' he said, still munching crumpets.
'What's that?' I asked sharply.
'He's the General believed to be commanding against us in Mesopotamia.I remember him years ago in Aleppo. He talked bad French and drank thesweetest of sweet champagne.'
I looked closely at the paper. The 'K' was unmistakable.
'Kasredin is nothing. It means in Arabic the House of Faith, and mightcover anything from Hagia Sofia to a suburban villa. What's your nextpuzzle, Dick? Have you entered for a prize competition in a weeklypaper?'
'_Cancer,_' I read out.
'It is the Latin for a crab. Likewise it is the name of a painfuldisease. It is also a sign of the Zodiac.'
'_v. I_,' I read.
'There you have me. It sounds like the number of a motor-car. Thepolice would find out for you. I call this rather a difficultcompetition. What's the prize?'
I passed him the paper. 'Who wrote it? It looks as if he had been ina hurry.'
'Harry Bullivant,' I said.
Sandy's face grew solemn. 'Old Harry. He was at my tutor's. The bestfellow God ever made. I saw his name in the casualty list before Kut.... Harry didn't do things without a purpose. What's the story ofthis paper?'
'Wait till after dinner,' I said. 'I'm going to change and have abath. There's an American coming to dine, and he's part of thebusiness.'
Mr Blenkiron arrived punctual to the minute in a fur coat like aRussian prince's. Now that I saw him on his feet I could judge himbetter. He had a fat face, but was not too plump in figure, and verymuscular wrists showed below his shirt-cuffs. I fancied that, if theoccasion called, he might be a good man with his hands.
Sandy and I ate a hearty meal, but the American picked at his boiledfish and sipped his milk a drop at a time. When the servant hadcleared away, he was as good as his word and laid himself out on mysofa. I offered him a good cigar, but he preferred one of his own leanblack abominations. Sandy stretched his length in an easy chair andlit his pipe. 'Now for your story, Dick,' he said.
I began, as Sir Walter had begun with me, by telling them about thepuzzle in the Near East. I pitched a pretty good yarn, for I had beenthinking a lot about it, and the mystery of the business had caught myfancy. Sandy got very keen.
'It is possible enough. Indeed, I've been expecting it, though I'mhanged if I can imagine what card the Germans have got up their sleeve.It might be any one of twenty things. Thirty years ago there was abogus prophecy that played the devil in Yemen. Or it might be a flagsuch as Ali Wad Helu had, or a jewel like Solomon's necklace inAbyssinia. You never know what will start off a jehad! But I ratherthink it's a man.'
'Where could he get his purchase?' I asked.
'It's hard to say. If it were merely wild tribesmen like the Bedouinhe might have got a reputation as a saint and miracle-worker. Or hemight be a fellow that preached a pure religion, like the chap thatfounded the Senussi. But I'm inclined to think he must be somethingextra special if he can put a spell on the whole Moslem world. TheTurk and the Persian wouldn't follow the ordinary new theology game.He must be of the Blood. Your Mahdis and Mullahs and Imams werenobodies, but they had only a local prestige. To capture allIslam--and I gather that is what we fear--the man must be of theKoreish, the tribe of the Prophet himself.'
'But how could any impostor prove that? For I suppose he's animpostor.'
'He would have to combine a lot of claims. His descent must be prettygood to begin with, and there are families, remember, that claim theKoreish blood. Then he'd have to be rather a wonder on his ownaccount--saintly, eloquent, and that sort of thing. And I expect he'dhave to show a sign, though what that could be I haven't a notion.'
'You know the East about as well as any living man. Do you think thatkind of thing is possible?' I asked.
'Perfectly,' said Sandy, with a grave face.
'Well, there's the ground cleared to begin with. Then there's theevidence of pretty well every secret agent we possess. That all seemsto prove the fact. But we have no details and no clues except that bitof paper.' I told them the story of it.
Sandy studied it with wrinkled brows. 'It beats me. But it may be thekey for all that. A clue may be dumb in London and shout aloud atBaghdad.'
'That's just the point I was coming to. Sir Walter says this thing isabout as important for our cause as big guns. He can't give me orders,but he offers the job of going out to find what the mischief is. Oncehe knows that, he says he can checkmate it. But it's got to be foundout soon, for the mine may be sprung at any moment. I've taken on thejob. Will you help?'
Sandy was studying the ceiling.
'I should add that it's about as safe as playing chuck-farthing at theLoos Cross-roads, the day you and I went in. And if we fail nobody canhelp us.'
'Oh, of course, of course,' said Sandy in an abstracted voice.
Mr Blenkiron, having finished his after-dinner recumbency, had sat upand pulled a small table towards him. From his pocket he had taken apack of Patience cards and had begun to play the game called the DoubleNapoleon. He seemed to be oblivious of the conversation.
Suddenly I had a feeling that the whole affair was stark lunacy. Herewere we three simpletons sitting in a London flat and projecting amission into the enemy's citadel without an idea what we were to do orhow we were to do it. And one of the three was looking at the ceiling,and whistling softly through his teeth, and another was playingPatience. The farce of the thing struck me so keenly that I laughed.
Sandy looked at me sharply.
'You feel like that? Same with me. It's idiocy, but all war isidiotic, and the most whole-hearted idiot is apt to win. We're to goon this mad trail wherever we think we can hit it. Well, I'm with you.But I don't mind admitting that I'm in a blue funk. I had got myselfadjusted to this trench business and was quite happy. And now you havehoicked me out, and my feet are cold.'
'I don't believe you know what fear is,' I said.
'There you're wrong, Dick,' he said earnestly. 'Every man who isn't amaniac knows fear. I have done some daft things, but I never startedon them without wishing they were over. Once I'm in the show I geteasier, and by the time I'm coming out I'm sorry to leave it. But atthe start my feet are icy.'
'Then I take it you're coming?'
'Rather,' he said. 'You didn't imagine I would go back on you?'
'And you, sir?' I addressed Blenkiron.
His game of Patience seemed to be coming out. He was completing eightlittle heaps of cards with a contented grunt. As I spoke, he raisedhis sleepy eyes and nodded.
'Why, yes,' he said. 'You gentlemen mustn't think that I haven't beenfollowing your most engrossing conversation. I guess I haven't misseda syllable. I find that a game of Patience stimulates the digestionafter meals and conduces to quiet reflection. John S. Blenkiron iswith you all the time.'
He shuffled the cards and dealt for a new game.
I don't think I ever expected a refusal, but this ready assent cheeredme wonderfully. I couldn't have faced the thing alone.
'Well, that's settled. Now for ways and means. We three have got toput ourselves in the way of finding out Germany's secret, and we haveto go where it is known. Somehow or other we have to reachConstantinople, and to beat the biggest area of country we must go bydifferent roads. Sandy, my lad, you've got to get into Turkey. You'rethe only one of us that knows that engaging people. You can't get in byEurope very easily, so you must try Asia. What about the coast of AsiaMinor?'
'It could be done,' he said. 'You'd better leave that entirely to me.I'll find out the best way. I suppose the Foreign Office will help meto get to the jumping-off place?'
'Remember,' I said, 'it's no good getting too far east. The secret, sofar as concerns us, is still west of Constantinople.'
'I see that. I'll blow in on the Bosporus by a short tack.'
'For you, Mr Blenkiron, I would suggest a straight journey. You're anAmerican, and can travel through Germany direct. But I wonder how faryour activities in New York will allow you to pass as a neutral?'
'I have considered that, Sir,' he said. 'I have given some thought tothe pecooliar psychology of the great German nation. As I read themthey're as cunning as cats, and if you play the feline game they willoutwit you every time. Yes, Sir, they are no slouches at sleuth-work.If I were to buy a pair of false whiskers and dye my hair and dresslike a Baptist parson and go into Germany on the peace racket, I guessthey'd be on my trail like a knife, and I should be shot as a spyinside of a week or doing solitary in the Moabite prison. But theylack the larger vision. They can be bluffed, Sir. With your approval Ishall visit the Fatherland as John S. Blenkiron, once a thorn in theside of their brightest boys on the other side. But it will be adifferent John S. I reckon he will have experienced a change of heart.He will have come to appreciate the great, pure, noble soul of Germany,and he will be sorrowing for his past like a converted gun-man at acamp meeting. He will be a victim of the meanness and perfidy of theBritish Government. I am going to have a first-class row with yourForeign Office about my passport, and I am going to speak harsh wordsabout them up and down this metropolis. I am going to be shadowed byyour sleuths at my port of embarkation, and I guess I shall run up hardagainst the British Legations in Scandinavia. By that time ourTeutonic friends will have begun to wonder what has happened to JohnS., and to think that maybe they have been mistaken in that child. So,when I get to Germany they will be waiting for me with an open mind.Then I judge my conduct will surprise and encourage them. I willconfide to them valuable secret information about British preparations,and I will show up the British lion as the meanest kind of cur. Youmay trust me to make a good impression. After that I'll moveeastwards, to see the demolition of the British Empire in those parts.By the way, where is the _rendezvous_?'
'This is the 17th day of November. If we can't find out what we wantin two months we may chuck the job. On the 17th of January we shouldforgather in Constantinople. Whoever gets there first waits for theothers. If by that date we're not all present, it will be consideredthat the missing man has got into trouble and must be given up. Ifever we get there we'll be coming from different points and indifferent characters, so we want a rendezvous where all kinds of oddfolk assemble. Sandy, you know Constantinople. You fix themeeting-place.'
'I've already thought of that,' he said, and going to the writing-tablehe drew a little plan on a sheet of paper. 'That lane runs down fromthe Kurdish Bazaar in Galata to the ferry of Ratchik. Half-way down onthe left-hand side is a cafe kept by a Greek called Kuprasso. Behindthe cafe is a garden, surrounded by high walls which were parts of theold Byzantine Theatre. At the end of the garden is a shanty called theGarden-house of Suliman the Red. It has been in its time adancing-hall and a gambling hell and God knows what else. It's not aplace for respectable people, but the ends of the earth converge thereand no questions are asked. That's the best spot I can think of for ameeting-place.'
The kettle was simmering by the fire, the night was raw, and it seemedthe hour for whisky-punch. I made a brew for Sandy and myself andboiled some milk for Blenkiron.
'What about language?' I asked. 'You're all right, Sandy?'
'I know German fairly well; and I can pass anywhere as a Turk. Thefirst will do for eavesdropping and the second for ordinary business.'
'And you?' I asked Blenkiron.
'I was left out at Pentecost,' he said. 'I regret to confess I have nogift of tongues. But the part I have chosen for myself don't requirethe polyglot. Never forget I'm plain John S. Blenkiron, a citizen ofthe great American Republic.'
'You haven't told us your own line, Dick,' Sandy said.
'I am going to the Bosporus through Germany, and, not being a neutral,it won't be a very cushioned journey.'
Sandy looked grave.
'That sounds pretty desperate. Is your German good enough?'
'Pretty fair; quite good enough to pass as a native. But officially Ishall not understand one word. I shall be a Boer from Western CapeColony: one of Maritz's old lot who after a bit of trouble has gotthrough Angola and reached Europe. I shall talk Dutch and nothingelse. And, my hat! I shall be pretty bitter about the British. There'sa powerful lot of good swear-words in the taal. I shall know all aboutAfrica, and be panting to get another whack at the _verdommt rooinek_.With luck they may send me to the Uganda show or to Egypt, and I shalltake care to go by Constantinople. If I'm to deal with the Mohammedannatives they're bound to show me what hand they hold. At least, that'sthe way I look at it.'
We filled our glasses--two of punch and one of milk--and drank to ournext merry meeting. Then Sandy began to laugh, and I joined in. Thesense of hopeless folly again descended on me. The best plans we couldmake were like a few buckets of water to ease the drought of the Saharaor the old lady who would have stopped the Atlantic with a broom. Ithought with sympathy of little Saint Teresa.