Peter scarcely looked up from his breakfast.
‘I’m willing, Dick,’ he said. ‘But you mustn’t ask me to be friends with Stumm. 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 but Blenkiron’s electric torch, for Hussin had put out the lantern. Peter got his nose into the things at once, for his intelligence work in the Boer War had made him handy with maps. It didn’t want much telling from me to explain to him the importance of the one I had looted.
‘That news is worth many a million pounds,’ said he, wrinkling his brows, and scratching delicately the tip of his left ear. It was a way he had when he was startled.
‘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 chief Makapan was living. Some said he had died, others that he’d gone over the Portuguese border, but I believed he lived. No native could tell us, and since his kraal was well defended no runner could get through. So it was necessary to send a man.’
Peter lifted up his head and laughed. ‘The man found the chief Makapan. He was very much alive, and made good shooting with a shot-gun. But the man brought the 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 that he 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 are ways of keeping people out.’
‘Will you take this chance?’
‘For certain, Dick. I am getting stiff with doing nothing, and if I sit in houses much longer I shall grow old. A man bet me five pounds on the ship that I could not get through a trench-line, and if there had been a trench-line handy I would have taken him on. I will be very happy, Dick, but I do not say I will succeed. It is new country to me, and I will be hurried, and hurry makes bad stalking.’
I showed him what I thought the likeliest place — in the spurs of the Palantuken mountains. Peter’s way of doing things was all his own. He scraped earth and plaster out of a corner and sat down to make a little model of the landscape on the table, following the contours of the map. He did it extraordinarily neatly, for, like all great hunters, he was as deft as a weaver bird. He puzzled over it for a long time, and conned the map till he must have got it by heart. Then he took his field-glasses — a very good single Zeiss which was part of the spoils from Rasta’s motor-car — and announced that he was going to follow my example and get on to the house-top. Presently his legs disappeared through the trap, and Blenkiron and I were left to our reflections.
Peter must have found something uncommon interesting, for he stayed on the roof the better part of the day. It was a dull job for us, since there was no light, and Blenkiron had not even the consolation of a game of Patience. But for all that he was in good spirits, for he had had no dyspepsia since we left Constantinople, and announced that he believed he was at last getting even with his darned duodenum. As for me I was pretty restless, for I could not imagine what was detaining Sandy. It was clear that our presence must have been kept secret from Hilda von Einem, for she was a pal of Stumm’s, and he must by now have blown the gaff on Peter and me. How long could this secrecy last, 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 once the lady found we were deceiving her she would want it most of all. Our only hope was Sandy, and he gave no sign of his existence. I began to fear that with him, too, things had miscarried.
And yet I wasn’t really depressed, only impatient. I could never again get back to the beastly stagnation of that Constantinople week. The guns kept me cheerful. There was the devil of a bombardment all day, and the thought that our Allies were thundering there half a dozen miles off gave me a perfectly groundless hope. If they burst through the defence Hilda von Einem and her prophet and all our enemies would be overwhelmed in the deluge. And that blessed chance depended very much on old Peter, now brooding like a pigeon on the house-tops.
It was not till the late afternoon that Hussin appeared again. He took no notice of Peter’s absence, but lit a lantern and set it on the table. Then he went to the door and waited. Presently a light step fell on the stairs, and Hussin drew back to let someone enter. He promptly departed and I heard the key 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 tunic clasped at the waist by a broad girdle. A strange green turban adorned his head, and as he pushed it back I saw that his hair had been shaved. He looked like some acolyte — a weary acolyte, for there was no spring in his walk or nerve in his carriage. He dropped numbly on the divan and laid his head in his hands. 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 days I have been living in hell.’
Blenkiron nodded sympathetically. That was how he himself would have described the 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 by any physic. No one has been doctoring my food. But you can’t go through hell without 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 look after 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 and it’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 a man through the nether-pit? She’s a she-devil. Oh, it isn’t madness that’s wrong with her. She’s as sane as you and as cool as Blenkiron. Her life is an infernal 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 not to 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 us what 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 in the garden of the villa. Then came the trouble about his successor . . . The four Ministers would be no party to a swindle. They were honest men, and vowed that their task now was to make a tomb for their master and pray for the rest of their days at his shrine. They were as immovable as a granite hill and she knew it. . . . Then they, too, died.’
‘Murdered?’ I gasped.
‘Murdered . . . all four in one morning. I do not know how, but I helped to bury them. Oh, she had Germans and Kurds to do her foul work, but their hands were clean compared to hers. Pity me, Dick, for I have seen honesty and virtue put to the shambles and have abetted the deed when it was done. It will haunt me to 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 the Kaaba-i-hurriyeh for all Islam. In three days’ time I will reveal myself to my people 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 my throat first.’
‘Cheer up!’ said Blenkiron soothingly. ‘We’ll find some prettier way than that.’
‘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. At the 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 my breath away.
‘She made me her accomplice,’ he went on. ‘I should have killed her on the graves of those innocent men. But instead I did all she asked and joined in her game . . . She was very candid, you know . . . She cares no more than Enver for the faith of Islam. She can laugh at it. But she has her own dreams, and they consume her as a saint is consumed by his devotion. She has told me them, and if the day in the garden was hell, the days since have been the innermost fires of Tophet. I think — it is horrible to say it — that she has got some kind of crazy liking for me. When we have reclaimed the East I am to be by her side when she rides on her milk-white horse into Jerusalem . . . And there have been moments — only moments, I swear to God — when I have been fired myself by her madness . . . ’
Sandy’s figure seemed to shrink and his voice grew shrill and wild. It was too much for Blenkiron. He indulged in a torrent of blasphemy such as I believe had never before passed his lips.
‘I’m blessed if I’ll listen to this God-darned stuff. It isn’t delicate. You get 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 much as 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 scare him by any ordinary terror. But let his old conscience get cross-eyed, let him find himself in some situation which in his eyes involved his honour, and he might 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 — an unwilling response. And then came bitter and morbid repentance, and the last desperation.
It was no time to mince matters. ‘Sandy, you old fool,’ I cried, ‘be thankful you 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 outfit now, and for all your confounded prophetic manners, you’ve got to take your orders from me. You aren’t going to reveal yourself to your people, and still less are you going to cut your throat. Greenmantle will avenge the murder of his ministers, and make that bedlamite woman sorry she was born. We’re going to get clear away, and inside of a week we’ll be having tea with the Grand Duke Nicholas.’
I wasn’t bluffing. Puzzled as I was about ways and means I had still the blind belief that we should win out. And as I spoke two legs dangled through the trap 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 night Hussin took us for a walk over the roofs of Erzerum, and by the blessing of Providence 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 the Russians get that fort, Kara Gubek, they’ve turned the main position. And it can be got; Stumm knows it can; for these two adjacent hills are not held . . . It looks 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 someone tells them. Therefore, by hook or by crook, we’ve got to get that information through to them.’
Sandy’s interest in ordinary things was beginning to flicker up again. He studied the map and began to measure distances.
‘Peter’s going to have a try for it. He thinks there’s a sporting chance of his getting through the lines. If he does — if he gets this map to the Grand Duke’s staff — then Stumm’s goose is cooked. In three days the Cossacks will be 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 think the chances against success are about five to one.’
‘Two to one,’ said Peter modestly. ‘Not worse than that. I don’t think you’re fair to me, Dick, my old friend.’
I looked at that lean, tight figure and the gentle, resolute face, and I changed my mind. ‘I’m hanged if I think there are any odds,’ I said. ‘With anybody else it would want a miracle, but with Peter I believe the chances are level.’
‘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 a million 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 too soon, 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 and me. We’ve got to blow the whole Greenmantle business so high that the bits of it will never come to earth again . . . First, tell me how many of your fellows will 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 me as Greenmantle’s successor. But they have their suspicions about what happened at the villa, and they’ve no love for the woman . . . They’d follow me through hell 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 are round it in a broad half-moon. That means that all the west, south-west, and north-west is open and undefended by trench lines. There are flanks far away to the north and south in the hills which can be turned, and once we get round a flank there’s nothing between us and our friends . . . I’ve figured out our road,’ and I traced it on the map. ‘If we can make that big circuit to the west and get over that pass unobserved we’re bound to strike a Russian column the next day. It’ll be a rough road, but I fancy we’ve all ridden as bad in our time. But one thing we must have, and that’s horses. Can we and your six ruffians slip off in the darkness on the best beasts in this township? If you can manage that, we’ll do the trick.’
Sandy sat down and pondered. Thank heaven, he was thinking now of action and not of his own conscience.
‘It must be done,’ he said at last, ‘but it won’t be easy. Hussin’s a great fellow, but as you know well, Dick, horses right up at the battle-front are not 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 to give Hussin time . . . I wish to heaven it could be tonight.’ He was silent again for a bit, and then he said: ‘I believe the best time would be the third night, 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 cold sepulchre; 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 after tomorrow.’
The key turned in the door and Hussin stole in like a shade. It was the signal for Sandy to leave.
‘You fellows have given me a new lease of life,’ he said. ‘I’ve got a plan now, 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 man I’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 we were not rich in properties. His get-up, with his thick fur-collared greatcoat, 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 anybody the chance of seeing him, and he was more concerned to fit in with the landscape. So he stripped off the greatcoat and pulled a grey sweater of mine over his jacket, and put on his head a woollen helmet of the same colour. He had no need of the map for he had long since got his route by heart, and what was once fixed in that mind stuck like wax; but I made him take Stumm’s plan and paper, hidden below his shirt. The big difficulty, I saw, would be getting to the Russians without getting shot, assuming he passed the Turkish trenches. He could only hope that he would strike someone with a smattering of English or German. Twice he ascended to the roof and came back cheerful, for there was promise of wild weather.
Hussin brought in our supper, and Peter made up a parcel of food. Blenkiron and 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 to bed. It was too much for Blenkiron. With large tears rolling down his face he announced that, if we all came through, he was going to fit him into the softest berth that money could buy. I don’t think he was understood, for old Peter’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, and suddenly I felt utterly lonely and desperately sad. The guns were beginning to roar again in the east, and in the intervals came the whistle of the rising storm.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50