Greenmantle, by John Buchan

Chapter Thirteen

I Move in Good Society

I walked out of that house next morning with Blenkiron’s arm in mine, a different being from the friendless creature who had looked vainly the day before for sanctuary. To begin with, I was splendidly dressed. I had a navy-blue suit with square padded shoulders, a neat black bow-tie, shoes with a hump at the toe, and a brown bowler. Over that I wore a greatcoat lined with wolf fur. I had a smart malacca cane, and one of Blenkiron’s cigars in my mouth. Peter had been made to trim his beard, and, dressed in unassuming pepper-and-salt, looked with his docile eyes and quiet voice a very respectable servant. Old Blenkiron had done the job in style, for, if you’ll believe it, he had brought the clothes all the way from London. I realized now why he and Sandy had been fossicking in my wardrobe. Peter’s suit had been of Sandy’s procuring, and it was not the fit of mine. I had no difficulty about the accent. Any man brought up in the colonies can get his tongue round American, and I flattered myself I made a very fair shape at the lingo of the Middle West.

The wind had gone to the south and the snow was melting fast. There was a blue sky above Asia, and away to the north masses of white cloud drifting over the Black Sea. What had seemed the day before the dingiest of cities now took on a strange beauty, the beauty of unexpected horizons and tongues of grey water winding below cypress-studded shores. A man’s temper has a lot to do with his appreciation of scenery. I felt a free man once more, and could use my eyes.

That street was a jumble of every nationality on earth. There were Turkish regulars in their queer conical khaki helmets, and wild-looking levies who had no kin with Europe. There were squads of Germans in flat forage-caps, staring vacantly at novel sights, and quick to salute any officer on the side-walk. Turks in closed carriages passed, and Turks on good Arab horses, and Turks who looked as if they had come out of the Ark. But it was the rabble that caught the eye — very wild, pinched, miserable rabble. I never in my life saw such swarms of beggars, and you walked down that street to the accompaniment of entreaties for alms in all the tongues of the Tower of Babel. Blenkiron and I behaved as if we were interested tourists. We would stop and laugh at one fellow and give a penny to a second, passing comments in high-pitched Western voices.

We went into a cafe and had a cup of coffee. A beggar came in and asked alms. Hitherto Blenkiron’s purse had been closed, but now he took out some small nickels and planked five down on the table. The man cried down blessings and picked up three. Blenkiron very swiftly swept the other two into his pocket.

That seemed to me queer, and I remarked that I had never before seen a beggar who gave change. Blenkiron said nothing, and presently we moved on and came to the harbour-side.

There were a number of small tugs moored alongside, and one or two bigger craft — fruit boats, I judged, which used to ply in the Aegean. They looked pretty well moth-eaten from disuse. We stopped at one of them and watched a fellow in a blue nightcap splicing ropes. He raised his eyes once and looked at us, and then kept on with his business.

Blenkiron asked him where he came from, but he shook his head, not understanding the tongue. A Turkish policeman came up and stared at us suspiciously, till Blenkiron opened his coat, as if by accident, and displayed a tiny square of ribbon, at which he saluted.

Failing to make conversation with the sailor, Blenkiron flung him three of his black cigars.

‘I guess you can smoke, friend, if you can’t talk,’ he said.

The man turned and caught the three neatly in the air. Then to my amazement he tossed one of them back.

The donor regarded it quizzically as it lay on the pavement.

‘That boy’s a connoisseur of tobacco,’ he said. As we moved away I saw the Turkish policeman pick it up and put it inside his cap.

We returned by the long street on the crest of the hill. There was a man selling oranges on a tray, and Blenkiron stopped to look at them. I noticed that the man shuffled fifteen into a cluster. Blenkiron felt the oranges, as if to see that they were sound, and pushed two aside. The man instantly restored them to the group, never raising his eyes.

‘This ain’t the time of year to buy fruit,’ said Blenkiron as we passed on. ‘Those oranges are rotten as medlars.’

We were almost on our own doorstep before I guessed the meaning of the business.

‘Is your morning’s work finished?’ I said.

‘Our morning’s walk?’ he asked innocently.

‘I said “work”.’

He smiled blandly. ‘I reckoned you’d tumble to it. Why, yes, except that I’ve some figuring still to do. Give me half an hour and I’ll be at your service, Major.’

That afternoon, after Peter had cooked a wonderfully good luncheon, I had a heart-to-heart talk with Blenkiron.

‘My business is to get noos,’ he said; ‘and before I start on a stunt I make considerable preparations. All the time in London when I was yelping at the British Government, I was busy with Sir Walter arranging things ahead. We used to meet in queer places and at all hours of the night. I fixed up a lot of connections in this city before I arrived, and especially a noos service with your Foreign Office by way of Rumania and Russia. In a day or two I guess our friends will know all about our discoveries.’

At that I opened my eyes very wide.

‘Why, yes. You Britishers haven’t any notion how wide-awake your Intelligence Service is. I reckon it’s easy the best of all the belligerents. You never talked about it in peace time, and you shunned the theatrical ways of the Teuton. But you had the wires laid good and sure. I calculate there isn’t much that happens in any corner of the earth that you don’t know within twenty-four hours. I don’t say your highbrows use the noos well. I don’t take much stock in your political push. They’re a lot of silver-tongues, no doubt, but it ain’t oratory that is wanted in this racket. The William Jennings Bryan stunt languishes in war-time. Politics is like a chicken-coop, and those inside get to behave as if their little run were all the world. But if the politicians make mistakes it isn’t from lack of good instruction to guide their steps. If I had a big proposition to handle and could have my pick of helpers I’d plump for the Intelligence Department of the British Admiralty. Yes, Sir, I take off my hat to your Government sleuths.’

‘Did they provide you with ready-made spies here?’ I asked in astonishment.

‘Why, no,’ he said. ‘But they gave me the key, and I could make my own arrangements. In Germany I buried myself deep in the local atmosphere and never peeped out. That was my game, for I was looking for something in Germany itself, and didn’t want any foreign cross-bearings. As you know, I failed where you succeeded. But so soon as I crossed the Danube I set about opening up my lines of communication, and I hadn’t been two days in this metropolis before I had got my telephone exchange buzzing. Sometime I’ll explain the thing to you, for it’s a pretty little business. I’ve got the cutest cypher . . . No, it ain’t my invention. It’s your Government’s. Any one, babe, imbecile, or dotard, can carry my messages — you saw some of them today — but it takes some mind to set the piece, and it takes a lot of figuring at my end to work out the results. Some day you shall hear it all, for I guess it would please you.’

‘How do you use it?’ I asked.

‘Well, I get early noos of what is going on in this cabbage-patch. Likewise I get authentic noos of the rest of Europe, and I can send a message to Mr X. in Petrograd and Mr Y. in London, or, if I wish, to Mr Z. in Noo York. What’s the matter with that for a post-office? I’m the best informed man in Constantinople, for old General Liman only hears one side, and mostly lies at that, and Enver prefers not to listen at all. Also, I could give them points on what is happening at their very door, for our friend Sandy is a big boss in the best-run crowd of mountebanks that ever fiddled secrets out of men’s hearts. Without their help I wouldn’t have cut much ice in this city.’

‘I want you to tell me one thing, Blenkiron,’ I said. ‘I’ve been playing a part for the past month, and it wears my nerves to tatters. Is this job very tiring, for if it is, I doubt I may buckle up.’

He looked thoughtful. ‘I can’t call our business an absolute rest-cure any time. You’ve got to keep your eyes skinned, and there’s always the risk of the little packet of dynamite going off unexpected. But as these things go, I rate this stunt as easy. We’ve only got to be natural. We wear our natural clothes, and talk English, and sport a Teddy Roosevelt smile, and there isn’t any call for theatrical talent. Where I’ve found the job tight was when I had got to be natural, and my naturalness was the same brand as that of everybody round about, and all the time I had to do unnatural things. It isn’t easy to be going down town to business and taking cocktails with Mr Carl Rosenheim, and next hour being engaged trying to blow Mr Rosenheim’s friends sky — high. And it isn’t easy to keep up a part which is clean outside your ordinary life. I’ve never tried that. My line has always been to keep my normal personality. But you have, Major, and I guess you found it wearing.’

‘Wearing’s a mild word,’ I said. ‘But I want to know another thing. It seems to me that the line you’ve picked is as good as could be. But it’s a cast-iron line. It commits us pretty deep and it won’t be a simple job to drop it.’

‘Why, that’s just the point I was coming to,’ he said. ‘I was going to put you wise about that very thing. When I started out I figured on some situation like this. I argued that unless I had a very clear part with a big bluff in it I wouldn’t get the confidences which I needed. We’ve got to be at the heart of the show, taking a real hand and not just looking on. So I settled I would be a big engineer — there was a time when there weren’t many bigger in the United States than John S. Blenkiron. I talked large about what might be done in Mesopotamia in the way of washing the British down the river. Well, that talk caught on. They knew of my reputation as an hydraulic expert, and they were tickled to death to rope me in. I told them I wanted a helper, and I told them about my friend Richard Hanau, as good a German as ever supped sauerkraut, who was coming through Russia and Rumania as a benevolent neutral; but when he got to Constantinople would drop his neutrality and double his benevolence. They got reports on you by wire from the States — I arranged that before I left London. So you’re going to be welcomed and taken to their bosoms just like John S. was. We’ve both got jobs we can hold down, and now you’re in these pretty clothes you’re the dead ringer of the brightest kind of American engineer . . . But we can’t go back on our tracks. If we wanted to leave for Constanza next week they’d be very polite, but they’d never let us. We’ve got to go on with this adventure and nose our way down into Mesopotamia, hoping that our luck will hold . . . God knows how we will get out of it; but it’s no good going out to meet trouble. As I observed before, I believe in an all-wise and beneficent Providence, but you’ve got to give him a chance.’

I am bound to confess the prospect staggered me. We might be let in for fighting — and worse than fighting — against our own side. I wondered if it wouldn’t be better to make a bolt for it, and said SO.

He shook his head. ‘I reckon not. In the first place we haven’t finished our inquiries. We’ve got Greenmantle located right enough, thanks to you, but we still know mighty little about that holy man. in the second place it won’t be as bad as you think. This show lacks cohesion, Sir. It is not going to last for ever. I calculate that before you and I strike the site of the garden that Adam and Eve frequented there will be a queer turn of affairs. Anyhow, it’s good enough to gamble on.’

Then he got some sheets of paper and drew me a plan of the dispositions of the Turkish forces. I had no notion he was such a close student of war, for his exposition was as good as a staff lecture. He made out that the situation was none too bright anywhere. The troops released from Gallipoli wanted a lot of refitment, and would be slow in reaching the Transcaucasian frontier, where the Russians were threatening. The Army of Syria was pretty nearly a rabble under the lunatic Djemal. There wasn’t the foggiest chance of a serious invasion of Egypt being undertaken. Only in Mesopotamia did things look fairly cheerful, owing to the blunders of British strategy. ‘And you may take it from me,’ he said, ‘that if the old Turk mobilized a total of a million men, he has lost 40 per cent of them already. And if I’m anything of a prophet he’s going pretty soon to lose more.’

He tore up the papers and enlarged on politics. ‘I reckon I’ve got the measure of the Young Turks and their precious Committee. Those boys aren’t any good. Enver’s bright enough, and for sure he’s got sand. He’ll stick out a fight like a Vermont game-chicken, but he lacks the larger vision, Sir. He doesn’t understand the intricacies of the job no more than a sucking-child, so the Germans play with him, till his temper goes and he bucks like a mule. Talaat is a sulky dog who wants to batter mankind with a club. Both these boys would have made good cow-punchers in the old days, and they might have got a living out West as the gun-men of a Labour Union. They’re about the class of Jesse James or Bill the Kid, excepting that they’re college-reared and can patter languages. But they haven’t the organizing power to manage the Irish vote in a ward election. Their one notion is to get busy with their firearms, and people are getting tired of the Black Hand stunt. Their hold on the country is just the hold that a man with a Browning has over a crowd with walking-sticks. The cooler heads in the Committee are growing shy of them, and an old fox like David is lying low till his time comes. Now it doesn’t want arguing that a gang of that kind has got to hang close together or they may hang separately. They’ve got no grip on the ordinary Turk, barring the fact that they are active and he is sleepy, and that they’ve got their guns loaded.’

‘What about the Germans here?’ I asked.

Blenkiron laughed. ‘It is no sort of a happy family. But the Young Turks know that without the German boost they’ll be strung up like Haman, and the Germans can’t afford to neglect an ally. Consider what would happen if Turkey got sick of the game and made a separate peace. The road would be open for Russia to the Aegean. Ferdy of Bulgaria would take his depreciated goods to the other market, and not waste a day thinking about it. You’d have Rumania coming in on the Allies’ side. Things would look pretty black for that control of the Near East on which Germany has banked her winnings. Kaiser says that’s got to be prevented at all costs, but how is it going to be done?’

Blenkiron’s face had become very solemn again. ‘It won’t be done unless Germany’s got a trump card to play. Her game’s mighty near bust, but it’s still got a chance. And that chance is a woman and an old man. I reckon our landlady has a bigger brain than Enver and Liman. She’s the real boss of the show. When I came here, I reported to her, and presently you’ve got to do the same. I am curious as to how she’ll strike you, for I’m free to admit that she impressed me considerable.’

‘It looks as if our job were a long way from the end,’ I said.

‘It’s scarcely begun,’ said Blenkiron.

That talk did a lot to cheer my spirits, for I realized that it was the biggest of big game we were hunting this time. I’m an economical soul, and if I’m going to be hanged I want a good stake for my neck.

Then began some varied experiences. I used to wake up in the morning, wondering where I should be at night, and yet quite pleased at the uncertainty. Greenmantle became a sort of myth with me. Somehow I couldn’t fix any idea in my head of what he was like. The nearest I got was a picture of an old man in a turban coming out of a bottle in a cloud of smoke, which I remembered from a child’s edition of the Arabian Nights. But if he was dim, the lady was dimmer. Sometimes I thought of her as a fat old German crone, sometimes as a harsh-featured woman like a schoolmistress with thin lips and eyeglasses. But I had to fit the East into the picture, so I made her young and gave her a touch of the languid houri in a veil. I was always wanting to pump Blenkiron on the subject, but he shut up like a rat-trap. He was looking for bad trouble in that direction, and was disinclined to speak about it beforehand.

We led a peaceful existence. Our servants were two of Sandy’s lot, for Blenkiron had very rightly cleared out the Turkish caretakers, and they worked like beavers under Peter’s eye, till I reflected I had never been so well looked after in my life. I walked about the city with Blenkiron, keeping my eyes open, and speaking very civil. The third night we were bidden to dinner at Moellendorff’s, so we put on our best clothes and set out in an ancient cab. Blenkiron had fetched a dress suit of mine, from which my own tailor’s label had been cut and a New York one substituted.

General Liman and Metternich the Ambassador had gone up the line to Nish to meet the Kaiser, who was touring in those parts, so Moellendorff was the biggest German in the city. He was a thin, foxy-faced fellow, cleverish but monstrously vain, and he was not very popular either with the Germans or the Turks. He was polite to both of us, but I am bound to say that I got a bad fright when I entered the room, for the first man I saw was Gaudian. I doubt if he would have recognized me even in the clothes I had worn in Stumm’s company, for his eyesight was wretched. As it was, I ran no risk in dress-clothes, with my hair brushed back and a fine American accent. I paid him high compliments as a fellow engineer, and translated part of a very technical conversation between him and Blenkiron. Gaudian was in uniform, and I liked the look of his honest face better than ever.

But the great event was the sight of Enver. He was a slim fellow of Rasta’s build, very foppish and precise in his dress, with a smooth oval face like a girl’s, and rather fine straight black eyebrows. He spoke perfect German, and had the best kind of manners, neither pert nor overbearing. He had a pleasant trick, too, of appealing all round the table for confirmation, and so bringing everybody into the talk. Not that he spoke a great deal, but all he said was good sense, and he had a smiling way of saying it. Once or twice he ran counter to Moellendorff, and I could see there was no love lost between these two. I didn’t think I wanted him as a friend — he was too cold-blooded and artificial; and I was pretty certain that I didn’t want those steady black eyes as an enemy. But it was no good denying his quality. The little fellow was all cold courage, like the fine polished blue steel of a sword.

I fancy I was rather a success at that dinner. For one thing I could speak German, and so had a pull on Blenkiron. For another I was in a good temper, and really enjoyed putting my back into my part. They talked very high-flown stuff about what they had done and were going to do, and Enver was great on Gallipoli. I remember he said that he could have destroyed the whole British Army if it hadn’t been for somebody’s cold feet — at which Moellendorff looked daggers. They were so bitter about Britain and all her works that I gathered they were getting pretty panicky, and that made me as jolly as a sandboy. I’m afraid I was not free from bitterness myself on that subject. I said things about my own country that I sometimes wake in the night and sweat to think of.

Gaudian got on to the use of water power in war, and that gave me a chance.

‘In my country,’ I said, ‘when we want to get rid of a mountain we wash it away. There’s nothing on earth that will stand against water. Now, speaking with all respect, gentlemen, and as an absolute novice in the military art, I sometimes ask why this God-given weapon isn’t more used in the present war. I haven’t been to any of the fronts, but I’ve studied them some from maps and the newspapers. Take your German position in Flanders, where you’ve got the high ground. If I were a British general I reckon I would very soon make it no sort of position.’

Moellendorff asked, ‘How?’

‘Why, I’d wash it away. Wash away the fourteen feet of soil down to the stone. There’s a heap of coalpits behind the British front where they could generate power, and I judge there’s ample water supply from the rivers and canals. I’d guarantee to wash you away in twenty-four hours — yes, in spite of all your big guns. It beats me why the British haven’t got on to this notion. They used to have some bright engineers.’

Enver was on the point like a knife, far quicker than Gaudian. He cross-examined me in a way that showed he knew how to approach a technical subject, though he mightn’t have much technical knowledge. He was just giving me a sketch of the flooding in Mesopotamia when an aide-de-camp brought in a chit which fetched him to his feet.

‘I have gossiped long enough,’ he said. ‘My kind host, I must leave you. Gentlemen all, my apologies and farewells.’

Before he left he asked my name and wrote it down. ‘This is an unhealthy city for strangers, Mr Hanau,’ he said in very good English. ‘I have some small power of protecting a friend, and what I have is at your disposal.’ This with the condescension of a king promising his favour to a subject.

The little fellow amused me tremendously, and rather impressed me too. I said so to Gaudian after he had left, but that decent soul didn’t agree.

‘I do not love him,’ he said. ‘We are allies — yes; but friends — no. He is no true son of Islam, which is a noble faith and despises liars and boasters and betrayers of their salt.’

That was the verdict of one honest man on this ruler in Israel. The next night I got another from Blenkiron on a greater than Enver. He had been out alone and had come back pretty late, with his face grey and drawn with pain. The food we ate — not at all bad of its kind — and the cold east wind played havoc with his dyspepsia. I can see him yet, boiling milk on a spirit-lamp, while Peter worked at a Primus stove to get him a hot-water bottle. He was using horrid language about his inside.

‘My God, Major, if I were you with a sound stomach I’d fairly conquer the world. As it is, I’ve got to do my work with half my mind, while the other half is dwelling in my intestines. I’m like the child in the Bible that had a fox gnawing at its vitals.’

He got his milk boiling and began to sip it.

‘I’ve been to see our pretty landlady,’ he said. ‘She sent for me and I hobbled off with a grip full of plans, for she’s mighty set on Mesopotamy.’

‘Anything about Greenmantle?’ I asked eagerly.

‘Why, no, but I have reached one conclusion. I opine that the hapless prophet has no sort of time with that lady. I opine that he will soon wish himself in Paradise. For if Almighty God ever created a female devil it’s Madame von Einem.’

He sipped a little more milk with a grave face.

‘That isn’t my duodenal dyspepsia, Major. It’s the verdict of a ripe experience, for I have a cool and penetrating judgement, even if I’ve a deranged stomach. And I give it as my considered conclusion that that woman’s mad and bad — but principally bad.’

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32