Affair in Araby - Talbot Mundy - ebook

Affair in Araby ebook

Talbot Mundy



Hulbert Footner (1879 – 1944) was a Canadian writer of non-fiction and detective fiction. His first published works were travelogues of canoe trips on the Hudson River and in the Northwest Territory along the Peace River, Hay River and Fraser River. He also wrote a series of northwest adventures during the period 1911 through 1920. That is why the novel „Jack Chanty” is based on his canoe adventures in the great northwest. Also, Footner wrote several other adventure books set in the Canadian northwest after he had relocated to Maryland in 1913.

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“I’ll make one to give this Feisul boy a hoist”

Whoever invented chess understood the world’s works as some men know clocks and watches. He recognized a fact and based a game on it, with the result that his game endures. And what he clearly recognized was this: That no king matters much as long as your side is playing a winning game. You can leave your king in his corner then to amuse himself in dignified unimportance. But the minute you begin to lose, your king becomes a source of anxiety.

In what is called real life (which is only a great game, although a mighty good one) it makes no difference what you call your king. Call him Pope if you want to, or President, or Chairman. He grows in importance in proportion as the other side develops the attack. You’ve got to keep your symbol of authority protected or you lose.

Nevertheless, your game is not lost as long as your king can move. That’s why the men who want to hurry up and start a new political era imprison kings and cut their heads off. With no head on his shoulders your king can only move in the direction of the cemetery, which is over the line and doesn’t count.

I love a good fight, and have been told I ought to be ashamed of it. I’ve noticed, though, that the folk who propose to elevate my morals fight just as hard, and less cleanly, with their tongue than some of us do with our fists and sinews. I’m told, too, quite frequently that as an American I ought to be ashamed of fighting for a king. Dear old ladies of both sexes have assured me that it isn’t moral to give aid and comfort to a gallant gentleman–a godless Mohammedan, too; which makes it much worse–who is striving gamely and without malice to keep his given word and save his country.

But if you’ve got all you want, do you know of any better fun than lending a hand while some man you happen to like gets his? I don’t. Of course, some fellows want too much, and it’s bad manners as well as waste of time to inflict your opinion on them. But given a reasonable purpose and a friend who needs your assistance, is there any better sport on earth than risking your own neck to help him put it over?

Walk wide of the man and particularly of the woman, who makes a noise about lining your pocket or improving your condition. An altruist is my friend James Schuyler Grim, but he makes less noise than a panther on a dark night; and I never knew a man less given to persuading you. He has one purpose, but almost never talks about it. It’s a sure bet that if we hadn’t struck up a close friendship, sounding each other out carefully as opportunity occurred, I would have been in the dark about it until this minute.

All the news of Asia from Alexandretta to the Persian Gulf and from Northern Turkestan to South Arabia reaches Grim’s ears sooner or later. He earns his bread and butter knitting all that mess of cross-grained information into one intelligible pattern; after which he interprets it and acts suddenly without advance notices.

Time and again, lone-handed, he has done better than an army corps, by playing chief against chief in a land where the only law is individual interpretation of the Koran.

But it wasn’t until our rescue of Jeremy Ross from near Abu Kem, that I ever heard Grim come out openly and admit that he was working to establish Feisul, third son of the King of Mecca, as king of just as many Arabs as might care to have him over them. That was the cat he had been keeping in a bag for seven years.

Right down to the minute when Grim, Jeremy and I sat down with Ben Saoud the Avenger on a stricken field at Abu Kem, and Grim and Jeremy played their hands so cleverly that the Avenger was made, unwitting guardian of Jeremy’s secret gold-mine, and Feisul’s open and sworn supporter in the bargain, the heart of Grim’s purpose continued to be a mystery even to me; and I have been as intimate with him as any man.

He doles out what he has in mind as grudgingly as any Scot spends the shillings in his purse. But the Scots are generous when they have to be, and so is Grim. There being nothing else for it on that occasion, he spilled the beans, the whole beans, and nothing but the beans. Having admitted us two to his secret, he dilated on it all the way back to Jerusalem, telling us all he knew of Feisul (which would fill a book), and growing almost lyrical at times as he related incidents in proof of his contention that Feisul, lineal descendant of the Prophet Mohammed, is the “whitest” Arab and most gallant leader of his race since Saladin.

Knowing Grim and how carefully suppressed his enthusiasm usually is, I couldn’t help being fired by all he said on that occasion.

And as for Jeremy, well–it was like meat and drink to him. You meet men more or less like Jeremy Ross in any of earth’s wild places, although you rarely meet his equal for audacity, irreverence and riotous good-fellowship. He isn’t the only Australian by a long shot who upholds Australia by fist and boast and astounding gallantry, yet stays away from home. You couldn’t fix Jeremy with concrete; he’d find some means of bursting any mould.

He had been too long lost in the heart of Arabia for anything except the thought of Sydney Bluffs and the homesteads that lie beyond to tempt him for the first few days.

“You fellers come with me,” he insisted. “You chuck the Army, Grim, and I’ll show you a country where the cows have to bend their backs to let the sun go down. Ha-ha! Show you women too–red-lipped girls in sunbonnets, that’ll look good after the splay-footed crows you see out here. Tell you what: We’ll pick up the Orient boat at Port Said–no P. and O. for me; I’m a passenger aboard ship, not a horrible example!– and make a wake for the Bull’s Kid. Murder! Won’t the scoff taste good!

“We’ll hit the Bull’s Kid hard for about a week–mix it with the fellers in from way back–you know–dry-blowers, pearlers, spending it easy– handing their money to Bessie behind the bar and restless because she makes it last too long; watch them a while and get in touch with all that’s happening; then flit out of Sydney like bats out of–and hump blue–eh?”

“Something’ll turn up; it always does. I’ve got money in the bank– about, two thousand here in gold dust with me,–and if what you say’s true, Grim, about me still being a trooper, then the Army owes me three years’ back pay, and I’ll have it or go to Buckingham Palace and tear off a piece of the King! We’re capitalists, by Jupiter! Besides, you fellers agreed that if I shut down the mine at Abu Kem you’d join me and we’d be Grim, Ramsden and Ross.”

“I’ll keep the bargain if you hold me to it when the time comes,” Grim answered.

“You bet I’ll hold you to it! Rammy here, and you and I could trade the chosen people off the map between us. We’re a combination. What’s time got to do with it?”

“We’ve got to use your mine,” Grim answered.

“I’m game. But let’s see Australia first.”

“Suppose we fix up your discharge, and you go home,” Grim suggested. “Come back when you’ve had a vacation, and by that time Ramsden and I will have done what’s possible for Feisul. He’s in Damascus now, but the French have got him backed into a corner. No money–not much ammunition–French propaganda undermining the allegiance of his men– time working against him, and nothing to do but wait.”

“What in hell have the French got to do with it?”

“They want Syria. They’ve got the coast towns now. They mean to have Damascus; and if they can catch Feisul and jail him to keep him out of mischief they will.”

“But damn it! Didn’t they promise the Arabs that Feisul should be King of Syria, Palestine, Mesopotamia, and all that?”

“They did. The Allies all promised, France included. But since the Armistice the British have made a present of Palestine to the Jews, and the French have demanded Syria for themselves. The British are pro-Feisul, but the French don’t want him anywhere except dead or in jail. They know they’ve given him and the Arabs a raw deal; and they seem to think the simplest way out is to blacken Feisul’s character and ditch him. If the French once catch him in Damascus he’s done for and the Arab cause is lost.”

“Why lost?” demanded Jeremy. “There are plenty more Arabs.”

“But only one Feisul. He’s the only man who can unite them all.”

“I know a chance for him,” said Jeremy. “Let him come with us three to Australia. There are thousands of fellers there who fought alongside him and don’t care a damn for the French. They’ll raise all the hell there is before they’ll see him ditched.”

“Uh-huh! London’s the place for him,” Grim answered. “The British like him, and they’re ashamed of the way he’s been treated. They’ll give him Mesopotamia. Baghdad’s the old Arab capital, and that’ll do for a beginning; after that it’s up to the Arabs themselves.”

“Well? Where does my gold mine come in?” Jeremy asked.

“Feisul has no money. If it was made clear to him that he could serve the Arabs best by going to London, he’d consider it. The objection would be, though, that he’d have to make terms in advance with hog-financiers, who’d work through the Foreign Office to tie up all the oil and mine and irrigation concessions. If we tell him privately about your gold mine at Abu Kem he can laugh at financiers.”

“All right,” said Jeremy, “I’ll give him the gold mine. Let him erect a modern plant and he’ll have millions!”

“Uh-huh! Keep the mine secret. Let him go to London and arrange about Mespot. Just at present High Finance could find a hundred ways of disputing his title to the mine, but once he’s king with the Arabs all rooting for him things’ll be different. He’ll treat you right when that time comes, don’t worry.”

“Worry? Me?” said Jeremy. “All that worries me is having to see this business through before we can make a wake for Sydney. I’m homesick. But never mind. All right, you fellers, I’ll make one to give this Feisul boy a hoist!”


“Atcha, Jimgrim sahib! Atcha!”

That conversation and Jeremy’s conversion to the big idea took place on the way across the desert to Jerusalem–a journey that took us a week on camel-back–a rowdy, hot journey with the stifling simoom blowing grit into our followers’ throats, who sang and argued alternately nevertheless. For, besides our old Ali Baba and his sixteen sons and grandsons, there were Jeremy’s ten pickups from Arabia’s byways, whom he couldn’t leave behind because they knew the secret of his gold-mine.

Grim’s authority is always at its height on the outbound trail, for then everybody knows that success, and even safety, depends on his swift thinking; on the way home afterward reaction sets in sometimes, because Arabs are made light-headed by success, and it isn’t a simple matter to discipline free men when you have no obvious hold over them.

But that was where Jeremy came in. Jeremy could do tricks, and the Arabs were like children when he performed for them. They would be good if he would make one live chicken into two live ones by pulling it apart. They would pitch the tents without fighting if he would swallow a dozen eggs and produce them presently from under a camel’s tail. If he would turn on his ventriloquism and make a camel say its prayers, they were willing to forgive–for the moment anyhow–even their nearest enemies.

So we became a sort of travelling sideshow, with Jeremy ballyhooing for himself in an amazing flow of colloquial Arabic, and hardly ever repeating the same trick.

All of which was very good for our crowd and convenient at the moment, but hardly so good for Jeremy’s equilibrium. He is one of those handsome, perpetually youthful fellows, whose heads have been a wee mite turned by the sunshine of the world’s warm smile. I don’t mean by that that he isn’t a tophole man, or a thorough-going friend with guts and gumption, who would chance his neck for anyone he likes without a second’s hesitation, for he’s every bit of that. He has horse sense, too, and isn’t fooled by the sort of flattery that women lavish on men who have laughing eyes and a little dark moustache.

But he hasn’t been yet in a predicament that he couldn’t laugh or fight his way out of; he has never yet found a job that he cared to stick at for more than a year or two, and seldom one that could hold him for six months.

He jumps from one thing to another, finding all the world so interesting and amusing, and most folk so ready to make friends with him, that he always feels sure of landing softly somewhere over the horizon.

So by the time we reached Jerusalem friend Jeremy was ripe for almost anything except the plan we had agreed on. Having talked that over pretty steadily most of the way from Abu Kem, it seemed already about as stale and unattractive to him as some of his oldest tricks. And Jerusalem provided plenty of distraction. We hadn’t been in Grim’s quarters half an hour when Jeremy was up to his ears in a dispute that looked like separating us.

Grim, who wears his Arab clothes from preference and never gets into uniform if he can help it, went straight to the telephone to report briefly to headquarters. I took Jeremy upstairs to discard my Indian disguise and hunt out clothes for Jeremy that would fit him, but found none, I being nearly as heavy as Grim and Jeremy together. He had finished clowning in the kit I offered him, and had got back into his Arab things while I was shaving off the black whiskers with which Nature adorns my face whenever I neglect the razor for a few days, when an auto came tooting and roaring down the narrow street, and a moment later three staff officers took the stairs at a run. So far, good; that was unofficial, good-natured, human and entirely decent. The three of them burst through the bed room door, all grins, and took turns pumping with Jeremy’s right arm–glad to see him–proud to know him–pleased to see him looking fit and well, and all that kind of thing. Even men who had fought all through the war had forgotten some of its red tape by that time, and Jeremy not being in uniform they treated him like a fellow human being. And he reciprocated, Australian fashion, free and easy, throwing up his long legs on my bed and yelling for somebody to bring drinks for the crowd, while they showered questions on him.

It wasn’t until Jeremy turned the tables and began to question them that the first cloud showed itself.

“Say, old top,” he demanded of a man who wore the crossed swords of a brigadier. “Grim tells me I’m a trooper. When can I get my discharge?”

The effect was instantaneous. You would have thought they had touched a leper by the way they drew themselves up and changed face.

“Never thought of that. Oh, I say–this is a complication. You mean…?”

“I mean this,” Jeremy answered dryly, because nobody could have helped notice their change of attitude: “I was made prisoner by Arabs and carried off. That’s more than three years ago. The war’s over. Grim tells me all Australians have been sent home and discharged. What about me?”

“Um-m-m! Ah! This will have to be considered. Let’s see; to whom did you surrender?”

“Damn you, I didn’t surrender! I met Grim in the desert, and reported to him for duty.”

“Met Major Grim, eh?”

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