The Lost Trooper - Talbot Mundy - ebook

The Lost Trooper ebook

Talbot Mundy



How can one start a fairy tale in the beginning, when it has so many beginnings, how many people it has in it? I do not see that these critics, who make up literary laws, have done a lot different than closing two thirds of the best fairy tales without letting them say about them. Anyway, as I say it; and as no one should listen, if he does not like it, I’m going to start where I enjoyed what is happening in Berlin. Germany, which I have been visiting for a long time after the Bourgeois War for men who fought for it all to show themselves there without the need for police protection.

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CHAPTER I “Talk about transmuting elements—”

CHAPTER II “Grim’s a bird—you ought to meet Grim.”

CHAPTER III “Protection looks best from a long way off.”

CHAPTER IV “In the name of Him Who never sleeps it is a bargain!”

CHAPTER V “Suppose we stage an accident!”

CHAPTER VI “Yemen—a thousand miles away—that hardly sounds like Jeremy!”

CHAPTER VII “A member of a strangely free and independent, brave and disrespectful sect.”

CHAPTER VIII “Miyan, you are a great magician!”

CHAPTER IX “Ask the camel of Jmil Ras!”

CHAPTER X “You’re a fallen angel, Ramsden!”

CHAPTER XI “Allaho Akbar!”

CHAPTER XII “Ross, Ramsden, and Grim. Grim, Ramsden, and Ross.”


CHAPTER XIV “By Allah, it is too late!”

CHAPTER XV “Ali Baba! Ali Baba!”

CHAPTER I. “Talk about transmuting elements–”

HOW can you begin a tale at the beginning, when it has as many beginnings as there are people in it? I don’t see that these critics who make literary laws have done much else than shut out two-thirds of the best tales by making it impossible to tell them.

At any rate, as I’m telling this one; and as nobody need listen if he doesn’t like, I’m going to begin it where I please, which happens to be in Berlin, Germany, which I visited long enough after the Boer War for men who fought all through it, to show themselves there without having to have police protection.

My business is prospecting, and I hadn’t made my little pile in those days–hadn’t attained, in other words, to that only essential of contentment in this world: the ability as well as the inclination and the right to suit yourself as to what you’ll do next, where you’ll go, and how.

My particular pet delight is independence. But in those days I was trying to get a syndicate of Prussian von’s and zu’s to finance an undertaking in what was then known as German East Africa. Looking back through the smoke of adventurous years I should say now that it would have been about as easy to persuade the U.S. Government to finance a claimant to the throne of France. I cooled my heels, spent money in a very bad hotel, and dare say I should have been insulted finally, if it weren’t for my odd inch or so above six feet and the muscle that carries it upright. Even in those days the Prussians weren’t openly rude to anyone they weren’t sure they could lick.

But I made a profit, for I met an Australian named Jeremy Ross. It was worth a trip half around the world to make that man’s acquaintance.

He was swearing at the methods of the same hotel proprietor and trying to tap the same financial sluices. We had two common grievances, which is sufficient basis for friendship in most circumstances; and, as we both were, comparatively speaking, broke, we walked about together a good deal, seeing what Berliners thought were sights, while the syndicate of von S and zu S considered how to put one over on us–an entirely vain devotion of super-thought on their part, as well as a waste of our time.

Even in those days I had reached the point of tolerating other people’s manners and notions right up to the chalk-line where they trespass on my liberty. But Jeremy Ross hadn’t traveled as much, or met as many weird varieties as I had of the “manners” that “mayketh man.”

Having served through the Boer War as a trooper in the First Australian Horse, he had a profound contempt for, and enmity against all officers who were not Australians risen from the ranks. But he didn’t include all Australian officers in his catalog of the blessed by any means, having, as he put it, “eaten dirt from twenty-five too many of them.”

“Talk about transmuting elements,” said Jeremy. “Turning iron into gold is nothing to it. Take a chap who’s a good mining mate and a decent trooper, with no more use for the airs of officers than you’ve got, put a couple of imitation bronze stars on his shoulder, and you’ve turned him into a cocky ass, who’ll slate you for fatigue if you tell him as much as where he came from and where he’d go if he’d take advice. Officers ought to be elected, that’s what I think; and I can think as good as anyone.”

The sight of a three-inch red collar with gold lace on it to Jeremy was more irritating than a red flag to a black bull. A monocle acted on him as fulminate of mercury does on dynamite. So a jaunt shoulder-to-shoulder with him through the streets of Berlin was hardly a soporific. He took to imitating the swagger of the Prussian officers, with a silver coin stuck in his eye by way of emphasis. And Jeremy Ross is noticeable–a regular “corn-stalk,” still wearing his big felt hat–lean, long-legged, striding like a horseman, none too comfortable on his feet; a handsome fellow, whom the women glanced at twice, which in itself was good ground for a quarrel in the Prussia of those days. So the Prussians had to notice him.

Still, somehow or other I contrived to keep him out of actual difficulties, even when he refused to give up his chair at a restaurant table in order that a party of Uhlan officers might have the corner of the beer-garden to themselves. I daresay the size of the two of us, added to our obvious unity of determination, had something to do with the officers’ haughty retirement from the scene; but the proprietor wouldn’t serve us after that, and Jeremy’s wrath boiled over. He reached the conclusion that all Prussian arrogance was bluff, and when we strode out together after half-an-hour I knew that trouble was inevitable. But I liked him finely, and stood by.

It came even quicker than I expected. We were walking up a street that leads into Unter den Linden, remarking the free figure and neat ankles of an American girl going the same way about twenty yards in front of us. The sight started Jeremy to bragging about the female loveliness of New South Wales.

“None like ’em! None like ’em anywhere. A man couldn’t be a polygamist in New South. One of our girls is worth a hundred from anywhere else in the world, and do your own picking. I’m going home again. A man’s a fool to leave Australia.”

The girl ahead of us was a tourist obviously. She was carrying parcels in both arms and had a camera slung over her shoulder by a strap. She was unused to Berlin, for she tried to take the wall of a monocled, high collared von in cavalry uniform who came clinking his saber and spurs down-street. I suppose nobody but the traffic cop in her home city had ever challenged her right of way before.

Well, the Prussian behaved according to type. He bore what he had been taught to think was dignity in mind, shouldered her out into the middle of the side-walk, knocking both parcels from her hands; and then he smirked at her with a view to starting flirtation. According to the code, she ought to have felt flattered by his attention; but being merely an American, uneducated in such matters, and seeing he made no attempt to spoil his corset by stooping to pick up the parcels, she looked about for a man. She seemed bewildered–hardly indignant at first–I think she was too much taken by surprize for that. The Prussian probably mistook her blush for a symptom of admiration for himself, for he murmured something and tried to take her arm.

She shook herself free of him at almost exactly the same second that Jeremy’s fist took the Prussian in the jaw, sending him crupper over neck into the gutter. And it proved entirely characteristic of Jeremy that he ignored the Prussian forthwith, picked up the lady’s parcels, and began a flirtation in his own way, on his own account. You’d have thought, if there had been time to think, that no such incident as spoiling a Prussian’s dignity had ever taken place in his young life.

The Prussian didn’t do much thinking. He was automatic. He scrambled to his feet, livid and bristling with all the rage he felt entitled to, and drew his saber. He didn’t shout, or even swear. He had seen Jeremy and me together, and it was all one to him which of us had struck him. He came for the nearest of us, which happened to be me. And I didn’t do much thinking either.

A man with a long saber is at a disadvantage at close quarters against any one with strength enough to use his hands as nature intended. I don’t like bloodshed, particularly mine, so I took his toy away from him and broke it. I have been told since that that is considered a horrible indignity to put on a military person, and if I had realized as much at the time I dare say I wouldn’t have broken the thing. I could have thrown it across the street, for instance. However, the harm was done.

Most of the mere civilians in sight proved their meanness by scattering for cover–didn’t want to be called as witnesses, most likely. The only non-military gent who took an interest in the proceedings was a cabman, who drove past, turned and drove back again, willing to be anybody’s friend at so much per. I gave the Prussian the two pieces of his sword, supposing he would enjoy making himself scarce at once, and signaled to the cabman to come and get him. But there were lots of things I didn’t know in those days.

Jeremy was still talking to the girl–Miss Eliot I remember her name was. Honestly, I believe he had almost forgotten the whole incident. When the Prussian beckoned and a policeman came running with drawn sword, Jeremy didn’t realize in the least that he was the goal–or rather, that the nearest jail was goal, and we three meant for footballs.

Several officers passed across the street half a block away, and our friend with the broken sword shouted to them. I knew enough German to get the gist of his remarks, and enough of politics to be aware that jail is no place from which to address your embassy, if you hope for satisfactory results. Besides, five more officers were straining their corset laces badly in a hurry to help their man; even with Jeremy to aid me, I couldn’t take all their swords away. It was time now to act first and think afterwards.

The policeman was loud-mouthed and importunate. He ordered us, Miss Eliot included, to march to the jail in front of him, and seemed to expect us to do it. I’m told we broke no less than nine laws by refusing to obey him; he brandished his sword in my face, but did not strike, and I believe the ass thought I was trying to help him when I seized Jeremy by the neck and shook him, to make him see sense. He wanted to stay there and fight all Berlin. I caught the eye of the cabman, who drew up as close to us as he dared on the far side of the street. It did not take any persuading to get Miss Eliot into the cab, but I had to use violence on Jeremy, who has never since quite forgiven me for spoiling what he swears would have been a gorgeous victory. He went into the cab backwards, using bad words freely.

That sort of thing was evidently not unknown in Berlin, for the cabman needed no instructions. He whipped the pretty good horse to a gallop, and turned two corners before speaking. Then, slowing down to a trot as he turned a third corner, he leaned back to drive his bargain. He said he supposed that the gnädige Herrschaften had the British Embassy in mind.

But Jeremy and I were as one man in denouncing that suggestion. “The whole British Empire isn’t worth a damn to a chap in trouble,” laughed Jeremy. “They’d simply hand us over to the Square-heads. Maybe yes, if we had coronets embroidered on our underwear, but the socks I stole from a duke in the Boer War made the squadron jealous on the trooper going home, so I auctioned ’em off to the crew and as like as not they’re in Hongkong or Yokohama. No, we can’t pose as dukes. Let’s try your embassy.”

He chuckled while he talked, as if we had all played hookey from school and were having a gorgeous time. The cabman demanded a thousand marks, which I suppose was about the tariff in the circumstances; but Jeremy knew German pretty well, and offered to gamble with him–two hundred marks or nothing. He hadn’t a trace of fear of consequences, and proved it by getting out to walk when the cabman turned obstinate; whereat a settlement was soon reached; we agreed on a hundred and fifty marks as the fare, and reached the United States Embassy streets ahead of the news.

The ambassador was out of town, as luck would have it; he might have been diffident, especially as one of us was an Australian. But there was a secretary there, whose aunt or somebody came from Miss Eliot’s home-town, and what with the girl’s influence, and Jeremy’s chuckles, we had him convinced before the military telephoned. They had drawn the British Embassy blank by that time as well as all the leading hotels, and were growing furious.

I don’t know the full extent of the lies that that good secretary told, and I certainly won’t tell his name, for he did his duty and deserves a curtain. But I heard him say over the phone that we were all three intimate friends of Colonel Roosevelt; and when a red-necked colonel without corsets came to demand our surrender on about a hundred criminal counts, the secretary received him alone in a small room and contrived to satisfy him somehow. The long and the short of it was that Miss Eliot was permitted to continue her journey to Switzerland, which she subsequently did, leaving Jeremy disconsolate for fifteen minutes and the story to progress without her. I have never seen her since, although I have been told that she described me when she got home as a “great, dark lunatic, who might have got her into jail if it hadn’t been for the handsome Mr. Jeremy Ross.” But she never saw him again either, so no harm was done.

Jeremy and I were ordered to leave Germany that night, under embassy escort as far as the frontier–for which we had to pay. We didn’t mind that much, since business with the von’s and zu’s looked stagnant. We were also forbidden to return for twelve months, and forbidden even after that lapse of time without a special police permit. But as neither of us ever wanted to go back, that hardly mattered.

We had supper at the embassy, and Jeremy passed the time with conjuring tricks and ventriloquism, giving a performance with hardly any paraphernalia that would have passed muster on any stage in the world. He could do stunts with billiard balls, and make a Japanese mask talk in a way that brought to mind those ever-green romances about Indian fakirs. In fact, I don’t think it would have surprized anybody much when it was time for us to start for the train, if he had performed the fabled trick of throwing up a rope into the air, climbing up it out of sight, and pulling the rope after him.

The only thing that could surprize you about Jeremy Ross after you had known him for an hour or two would be to see him gloomy or depressed, or at a loss for some unusual way of passing time.

All the way to the Dutch frontier he kept the embassy escort and the train crew amused with sleight-of-hand tricks, banter, and ventriloquism. Perhaps his best stunt was making a fat man, who had a corner seat in our compartment say outrageous things about the Kaiser in his sleep. When he tired of that he spilled a flow of reminiscences that could not have been lies, because no man could have invented all that much.

He seemed to have worked at every trade there is, and to have forgotten nothing. Youngest son of a well-to-do ranch-owner, he had rebelled at the station routine and set out to make his own fortune at the age of fourteen. When I met him in Berlin he was twenty-three or four, and though the fortune hadn’t taken shape yet he seemed to have enough to get along with and was certainly well equipped with experience.

*     *


WHEN we left the train in Holland the conductor, the ticketman and several passengers, including the fat one who had been made to say things in his sleep, insisted on shaking hands. It was a miserable little junction station, but that did not disturb Jeremy; as soon as the farewells were over and we had seen the embassy fellow into the return train for Berlin he took my arm and proposed that we should set out at once to explore Holland. But I demurred. I couldn’t afford in those days to wander at large–or thought I couldn’t, which comes to about the same thing.

“Something’ll turn up. It always does,” he prophesied. “Dutch money’s all right; you can spend it. It’s round and it rolls. Let’s get some.”

But I hadn’t yet learned the difference between being timorous and being cautious. I quoted the old jingle that has somehow lasted down the years as a label for the Meinheers–

“In matters of commerce the fault of the Dutch Lies in giving too little and asking too much.”

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