This eBook edition of "Jimgrim and Allah's Peace (Spy Thriller)" has been formatted to the highest digital standards and adjusted for readability on all devices. James Schuyler Grim, or "Jimgrim" is an American secret agent who had been recruited by the British intelligence services, and stationed in post World War I Jerusalem because of his in-depth knowledge of Arab life. He is forced to match wits and weapons with the French financed conspirators who are out to destabilize Syrian King and have a forged order to massacre the Jews of Jerusalem.
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whose real name, rank and military distinctions,
I promissed never to make public
There is a beautiful belief that journalists may do exactly as they please, and whenever they please. Pleasure with violet eyes was in Chicago. My passport describes me as a journalist. My employer said: “Go to Jerusalem.” I went, that was in 1920.
I had been there a couple of times before the World War, when the Turks were in full control. So I knew about the bedbugs and the stench of the citadel moat; the pre-war price of camels; enough Arabic to misunderstand it when spoken fluently, and enough of the Old Testament and the Koran to guess at Arabian motives, which are important, whereas words are usually such stuff as lies are made of.
El Kudz, as Arabs call Jerusalem, is, from a certain distance, as they also call it, shellabi kabir. Extremely beautiful. Beautiful upon a mountain. El Kudz means The City, and in a certain sense it is that, to unnumbered millions of people. Ludicrous, uproarious, dignified, pious, sinful, naively confidential, secretive, altruistic, realistic. Hoary-ancient and ultra-modern. Very, very proud of its name Jerusalem, which means City of Peace. Full to the brim with the malice of certainly fifty religions, fifty races, and five hundred thousand curious political chicaneries disguised as plans to save our souls from hell and fill some fellow’s purse. The jails are full.
“Look for a man named Grim,” said my employer. “James Schuyler Grim, American, aged thirty-four or so. I’ve heard he knows the ropes.”
The ropes, when I was in Jerusalem before the war, were principally used for hanging people at the Jaffa Gate, after they had been well beaten on the soles of their feet to compel them to tell where their money was hidden. The Turks entirely understood the arts of suppression and extortion, which they defined as government. The British, on the other hand, subject their normal human impulse to be greedy, and their educated craving to be gentlemanly white man’s burden-bearers, to a process of compromise. Perhaps that isn’t government. But it works. They even carry compromise to the point of not hanging even their critics if they can possibly avoid doing it. They had not yet, but they were about to receive a brand-new mandate from a brand-new League of Nations, awkwardly qualified by Mr. Balfour’s post-Armistice promise to the Zionists to give the country to the Jews, and by a war-time promise, in which the French had joined, to create an Arab kingdom for the Arabs.
So there was lots of compromising being done, and hell to pay, with no one paying, except, of course, the guests in the hotels, at New York prices. The Zionist Jews were arriving in droves. The Arabs, who owned most of the land, were threatening to cut all the Jews’ throats as soon as they could first get all their money. Feisal, a descendant of the Prophet, who had fought gloriously against the Turks, was romantically getting ready in Damascus to be crowned King of Syria. The French, who pride themselves on being realistic, were getting ready to go after Feisal with bayonets and poison-gas, as they eventually did.
In Jerusalem the Bolsheviks, astonishingly credulous of “secret” news from Moscow, and skeptical of every one’s opinion but their own, were bolsheviking Marxian Utopia beneath a screen of such arrogant innocence that even the streetcorner police constables suspected them. And Mustapha Kemal, in Anatolia, was rumoured to be preparing a holy war. It was known as a Ghazi in those days. He had not yet scrapped religion. He was contemplating, so said rumour, a genuine old-fashioned moslem jihad, with modern trimmings.
A few enthusiasts astonishingly still laboured for an American mandate. At the Holy Sepulchre a British soldier stood on guard with bayonet and bullets to prevent the priests of rival creeds from murdering one another. The sun shone and so did the stars. General Bols reopened Pontius Pilate’s water-works. The learned monks in convents argued about facts and theories denied by archaeologists. Old-fashioned Jews wailed at the Wailing Wall. Tommy Atkins blasphemously dug corpses of donkeys and dogs from the Citadel moat.
I arrived in the midst of all that, and spent a couple of months trying to make head or tail of it, and wondering, if that was peace, what war is? They say that wherever a man was ever slain in Palestine a flower grows. So one gets a fair idea of the country’s mass-experience without much difficulty. For three months of the year, from end to end, the whole landscape is carpeted with flowers so close together that, except where beasts and men have trodden winding tracks, one can hardly walk without crushing an anemone or wild chrysanthemum. There are more battle-fields in that small land than all Europe can show. There are streams everywhere that historians assert repeatedly “ran blood for days.”
Five thousand years of bloody terrorism, intermingling of races, piety, plunder, politics and pilgrims, have produced a self-consciousness as concentrated as liquid poison-gas. The laughter is sarcastic, the humour sardonic, and the credulity beyond analysis. For instance, when I got there, I heard the British being accused of “imperialistic savagery” because they had removed the leprous beggars from the streets into a clean place where they could receive medical treatment.
It was difficult to find one line of observation. Whatever anybody told you, was reversed entirely by the next man. The throat-distorting obligation to study Arabic called for rather intimate association with educated Arabs, whose main obsession was fear of the Zionist Jews. The things they said against the Jews turned me pro-Zionist. So I cautiously made the acquaintance of some gentlemen with gold-rimmed spectacles, and the things they said about the Arabs set me to sympathizing with the sons of Ishmael again.
In the midst of that predicament I met Jimgrim—Major James Schuyler Grim, to give him his full title, although hardly any one ever called him by it. After that, bewilderment began to cease as, under his amused, painstaking fingers, thread after thread of the involved gnarl of plots and politics betrayed its course.
However, first I must tell how I met him. There is an American Colony in Jerusalem—a community concern that runs a one-price store, and is even more savagely criticized than the British Administration, as is only natural. The story of what they did in the war is a three-year epic. You can’t be “epic” and not make enemies.
A Chicago Jew assured me they were swine and horse-thieves. But I learned that the Yemen Jews prayed for them—first prayer— every Sabbath of the year, calling down blessings on their heads for charitable service rendered.
One hardly goes all the way to Palestine to meet Americans; but a journalist can’t afford to be wilfully ignorant. A British official assured me they were “good blokes” and an Armenian told me they could skin fleas for their hides and tallow; but the Armenian was wearing a good suit, and eating good food, which he admitted had been given to him by the American Colony. He was bitter with them because they had refused to cash a draft on Mosul, drawn on a bank that had ceased to exist.
It seemed a good idea to call on the American Colony, at their store near the Jaffa Gate, and it turned out to be a very clean spot in a dirty city. I taxed their generosity, and sat for hours on a ten-thousand-dollar pile of Asian rugs behind the store; and, whatever I have missed and lost, or squandered, at least I know their story and can keep it until the proper time.
Of course, you have to allow for point of view, just as the mariner allows for variation and deviation; but when they inferred that most of the constructive good that has come to the Near East in the last fifty years has been American, they spoke with the authority of men who have lived on the spot and watched it happen.
“You see, the Americans who have come here haven’t set up governments. They’ve opened schools and colleges. They’ve poured in education, and taken nothing. Then there are thousands of Arabs, living in hovels because there’s nothing better, who have been to America and brought back memories with them. All that accounts for the desire for an American mandate—which would be a very bad thing, though, because the moment we set up a government we would lose our chance to be disinterested. The country is better off under any other mandate, provided it gives Americans the right to teach without ruling. America’s mission is educational. There’s an American, though, who might seem to prove the contrary. Do you see him?”
There were two Arabs in the room, talking in low tones over by the window. I could imagine the smaller of the two as a peddler of lace and filigree-silver in the States, who had taken out papers for the sake of privilege and returned full of notions to exploit his motherland. But the tall one—never. He was a Bedouin, if ever a son of the desert breathed. If he had visited the States, then he had come back as unchanged as gold out of an acid bath; and as for being born there—
“That little beady-eyed, rat-faced fellow may be an American,” I said. “In fact, of course he is, since you say so. But as for being up to any good—”
“You’re mistaken. You’re looking at the wrong man. Observe the other one.”
I was more than ever sure I was not mistaken. Stately gesture, dignity, complexion, attitude—to say nothing of his Bedouin array and the steadiness with which he kept his dark eyes fixed on the smaller man he was talking to, had laid the stamp of the desert on the taller man from head to heel.
“That tall man is an American officer in the British army. Doesn’t look the part, eh? They say he was the first American to be granted a commission without any pretense of his being a Canadian. They accepted him as an American. It was a case of that or nothing. Lived here for years, and knew the country so well that they felt they had to have him on his own terms.”
You can believe anything in Jerusalem after you have been in the place a week or two, so, seeing who my informant was, I swallowed the fact. But it was a marvel. It seemed even greater when the man strolled out, pausing to salute my host with the solemn politeness that warfare with the desert breeds. You could not imagine that at Ellis Island, or on Broadway—even on the stage. It was too untheatrical to be acting; too individual to be imitation; to unself-conscious to have been acquired. I hazarded a guess.
“A red man, then. Carlisle for education. Swallowed again by the first desert he stayed in for more than a week.”
“Wrong. His name is Grim. Sounds like Scandinavian ancestry, on one side. James Schuyler Grim—Dutch, then, on the other; and some English. Ten generations in the States at any rate. He can tell you all about this country. Why not call on him?”
It did not need much intelligence to agree to that suggestion; but the British military take their code with them to the uttermost ends of earth, behind which they wonder why so many folks with different codes, or none, dislike them.
“Write me an introduction,” I said.
“You won’t need one. Just call on him. He lives at a place they call the junior Staff Officers’ Mess—up beyond the Russian Convent and below the Zionist Hospital.”
So I went that evening, finding the way with difficulty because they talk at least eighteen languages in Jerusalem and, with the exception of official residences, no names were posted anywhere. That was not an official residence. It was a sort of communal boarding-house improvised by a dozen or so officers in preference to the bug-laden inconvenience of tents—in a German-owned (therefore enemy property) stone house at the end of an alley, in a garden full of blooming pomegranates.
I sent my card in by a flat-footed old Russian female, who ran down passages and round corners like a wet hen, trying to find a man-servant. The place seemed deserted, but presently she came on her quarry in the back yard, and a very small boy in a tarboosh and knickerbockers carried the card on a tray into a room on the left. Through the open door I could hear one quiet question and a high-pitched disclaimer of all knowledge; then an order, sounding like a grumble, and the small boy returned to the hall to invite me in, in reasonably good English, of which he seemed prouder than I of my Arabic.
So I went into the room on the left, with that Bedouin still in mind. There was only one man in there, who got out of a deep armchair as I entered, marking his place in a book with a Damascus dagger. He did not look much more than middle height, nor more than medium dark complexioned, and he wore a major’s khaki uniform.
“Beg pardon,” I said. “I’ve disturbed the wrong man. I came to call on an American named Major Grim.”
“Must be a mistake, though. The man I’m looking for is taller than you—very dark—looks, walks, speaks and acts like a Bedouin. I saw him this afternoon in Bedouin costume in the American Colony store.”
“Yes, I noticed you. Sit down, won’t you? Yes, I’m he—the Bedouin abayi seems to add to a man’s height. Soap and water account for the rest of it. These cigars are from the States.”
It was hard to believe, even on the strength of his straight statement—he talking undisguised American, and smiling at me, no doubt vastly pleased with my incredulity.
“Are you a case of Jekyll and Hyde?” I asked.
“No. I’m more like both sides of a sandwich with some army mule-meat in the middle. But I won’t be interviewed. I hate it. Besides, it’s against the regulations.”
His voice was not quite so harshly nasal as those of the Middle West, but he had not picked up the ultra-English drawl and clipped-off consonants that so many Americans affect abroad and overdo.
I don’t think a wise crook would have chosen him as a subject for experiments. He had dark eyes with noticeably long lashes; heavy eyebrows; what the army examination-sheets describe as a medium chin; rather large hands with long, straight fingers; and feet such as an athlete stands on, fully big for his size, but well shaped. He was young for a major—somewhere between thirty and thirty-five.
Once he was satisfied that I would not write him up for the newspapers he showed no disinclination to talk, although it was difficult to keep him on the subject of himself, and easy to let him lose you in a maze of tribal history. He seemed to know the ins and outs of every blood-feud from Beersheba to Damascus, and warmed to his subject as you listened.
“You see,” he said, by way of apology when I laughed at a string of names that to me conjured up only confusion, “my beat is all the way from Cairo to Aleppo—both sides of the Jordan. I’m not on the regular strength, but attached to the Intelligence—no, not permanent—don’t know what the future has in store—that probably depends on whether or not the Zionists get full control, and how soon. Meanwhile, I’m my own boss more or less—report direct to the Administrator, and he’s one of those men who allows you lots of scope.”
That was the sort of occasional glimpse he gave of himself, and then switched off into straight statements about the Zionist problem. All his statements were unqualified, and given with the air of knowing all about it right from the beginning.
“There’s nothing here that really matters outside the Zionist-Arab problem. But that’s a big one. People don’t realize it— even on the spot—but it’s a world movement with ramifications everywhere. All the other politics of the Near East hinge on it, even when it doesn’t appear so on the surface. You see, the Jews have international affiliations through banks and commerce. They have blood-relations everywhere. A ripple here may mean there’s a wave in Russia, or London, or New York. I’ve known at least one Arab blood-feud over here that began with a quarrel between a Jew and a Christian in Chicago.”
“Are the Zionists as dangerous as the Arabs seem to think?” I asked.
“Yes and no. Depends what you call danger. They’re like an incoming tide. All you can do is accept the fact and ride on top of it, move away in front of it, or go under. The Arabs want to push it back with sword-blades. Can’t be done!”
“Speaking as a mere onlooker, I feel sorry for the Arabs,” I said. “It has been their country for several hundred years. They didn’t even drive the Jews out of it; the Romans attended to that, after the Assyrians and Babylonians had cleaned up nine-tenths of the population. And at that, the Jews were invaders themselves.”
“Sure,” Grim answered. “But you can’t argue with tides. The Arabs are sore, and nobody has any right to blame them. The English betrayed the Arabs—I don’t mean the fellows out here, but the gang at the Foreign Office.”
I glanced at his uniform. That was a strange statement coming from a man who wore it. He understood, and laughed.
“Oh, the men out here all admit it. They’re as sore as the Arabs are themselves.”
“Then you’re on the wrong side, and you know it?” I suggested.
“The meat,” he said, “is in the middle of the sandwich. In a small way you might say I’m a doctor, staying on after a riot to stitch up cuts. The quarrel was none of my making, although I was in it and did what I could to help against the Turks. Like everybody else who knows them, I admire the Turks and hate what they stand for—hate their cruelty. I was with Lawrence across the Jordan—went all the way to Damascus with him—saw the war through to a finish—in case you choose to call it finished.”
Vainly I tried to pin him down to personal reminiscences. He was not interested in his own story.
“The British promised old King Hussein of Mecca that if he’d raise an Arab army to use against the Turks, there should be a united Arab kingdom afterward under a ruler of their own choosing. The kingdom was to include Syria, Arabia and Palestine. The French agreed. Well, the Arabs raised the army; Emir Feisul, King Hussein’s third son, commanded it; Lawrence did so well that he became a legend. The result was, Allenby could concentrate his army on this side of the Jordan and clean up. He made a good job of it. The Arabs were naturally cock-a-hoop.”
I suggested that the Arabs with that great army could have enforced the contract, but he laughed again.
“They were being paid in gold by the British, and had Lawrence to hold them together. The flow of gold stopped, and Lawrence was sent home. Somebody at the Foreign Office had changed his mind. You see, they were all taken by surprise at the speed of Allenby’s campaign. The Zionists saw their chance, and claimed Palestine. No doubt they had money and influence. Perhaps it was Jewish gold that had paid the wages of the Arab army. Anyhow, the French laid claim to Syria. By the time the war was over the Zionists had a hard-and-fast guarantee, the French claim to Syria had been admitted, and there wasn’t any country left except some Arabian desert to let the Arabs have. That’s the situation. Feisul is in Damascus, going through the farce of being proclaimed king, with the French holding the sea-ports and getting ready to oust him. The Zionists are in Jerusalem, working like beavers, and the British are getting ready to pull out as much as possible and leave the Zionists to do their own worrying. Mesopotamia is in a state of more or less anarchy. Egypt is like a hot-box full of explosive—may go off any minute. The Arabs would like to challenge the world to mortal combat, and then fight one another while the rest of the world pays the bill—”
“The French, for instance. Their army is weak at the moment. They’ve neither men nor money—only a hunger to own Syria. They don’t play what the English call ‘on side.’ They play a mean game. The French General Staff figure that if Feisul should attack them now he might beat them. So they’ve conceived the brilliant idea of spreading sedition and every kind of political discontent into Palestine and across the Jordan, so that if the Arabs make an effort they’ll make it simultaneously in both countries. Then the British, being in the same mess with the French, would have to take the French side and make a joint campaign of it.”
“But don’t the British know this?”
“You bet they know it. What’s the Intelligence for? The French are hiring all the Arab newspapers to preach against the British. A child could see it with his eyes shut.”
“Then why in thunder don’t the British have a showdown?”
“That’s where the joker comes in. The French know there’s a sort of diplomatic credo at the London Foreign Office to the general effect that England and France have got to stand together or Europe will go to pieces. The French are realists. They bank on that. They tread on British corns, out here, all they want to, while they toss bouquets, backed by airplanes, across the English Channel.”
“Then the war didn’t end the old diplomacy?”
“What a question! But I haven’t more than scratched the Near East surface for you yet. There’s Mustapha Kemal in Anatolia, leader of the Turkish Nationalists, no more dead or incapacitated than a possum. He’s playing for his own hand—Kaiser Willy stuff—studying Trotzky and Lenin, and flirting with Feisul’s party on the side. Then there’s a Bolshevist element among the Zionists—got teeth, too. There’s an effort being made from India to intrigue among the Sikh troops employed in Palestine. There’s a very strong party yelling for an American mandate. The Armenians, poor devils, are pulling any string they can get hold of, in the hope that anything at all may happen. The orthodox Jews are against the Zionists; the Arabs are against them both, and furious with one another. There’s a pan-Islam movement on foot, and a pan-Turanian—both different, and opposed. About 75 per cent of the British are as pro-Arab as they dare be, but the rest are strong for the Zionists. And the Administrator’s neutral!—strong for law and order but taking no sides.”
“I’m one of the men who is trying to keep the peace.”
He invited me to stay to dinner. The other members of the mess were trooping in, all his juniors, all obviously fond of him and boisterously irreverent of his rank. Dinner under his chairmanship was a sort of school for repartee. It was utterly unlike the usual British mess dinner. If you shut your eyes for a minute you couldn’t believe that any one present had ever worn a uniform. I learned afterward that there was quite a little competition to get into that mess.
After dinner most of them trooped out again, to dance with Zionist ladies at an institute affair. But he and I stayed, and talked until midnight. Before I left, the key of Palestine and Syria was in my hands.
“You seem interested,” he said, coming with me to the door. “If you don’t mind rough spots now and then, I’ll try to show you a few things at first hand.”
The showmanship began much sooner than I hoped. The following day was Sunday, and I had an invitation to a sort of semi-public tea given by the American Colony after their afternoon religious service.
They received their guests in a huge, well-furnished room on the upper floor of a stone house built around a courtyard filled with flowers. I think they were a little proud of the number of fierce-looking Arabs, who had traveled long distances in order to be present. Ten Arab chieftains in full costume, with fifteen or twenty of their followers, all there at great expense of trouble, time and money, for friends sake, were, after all, something to feel a bit chesty about. Every member of the Colony seemed able to talk Arabic like a native and, as they used to say in the up-state papers, a good time was being had by all. The Near East adores ice-cream, and there was lots of it.
Two of the Arab chiefs were Christians; the rest were not. The peace and war record of the Colony was what had brought them all there. Hardly an Arab in the country was not the Colony’s debtor for disinterested help, direct or indirect, at some time in some way. The American Colony was the one place in the country where a man of any creed could go and be sure that whatever he might say would not be used against him. So they were talking their heads off. Hot air and Arab politics have quite a lot in common. But there was a broad desert-breath about it all. It wasn’t like the little gusty yaps you hear in the city coffee-shops. A lot of the talk was foolish, but it was all magnificent.
There was one sheikh named Mustapha ben Nasir dressed in a blue serge suit and patent-leather boots, with nothing to show his nationality except a striped silk head-dress with the camel-hair band around the forehead. He was a handsome fellow, with a black beard trimmed to a point, and perfect manners, polished no doubt in a dozen countries, but still Eastern in slow, deferential dignity. He could talk good French. I fell in conversation with him.
The frankness with which treason is mooted, admitted and discussed in the Near East is one of the first things that amaze you. They are so open about it that nobody takes them seriously. Apparently it is only when they don’t talk treason openly that the ruling authorities get curious and make arrests. To me, a total stranger, with nothing to recommend me but that for an hour or two that afternoon I was a guest of the American Colony, Mustapha ben Nasir made no bones whatever about the fact that the was being paid by the French to stir up feeling over Jordan against the British.
“I receive a monthly salary,” he boasted. “I am just from Damascus, where the French Liaison-officer paid me and gave me some instructions.”
“Where is your home?” I asked him.
“At El-Kerak, in the mountains of Moab, across the Dead Sea. I start this evening. Will you come with me?”
“Je m’en bien garderai!”
He smiled. “Myself, I am in favor of the British. The French pay my expenses, that is all. What we all want is an independent Arab government—some say kingdom, some say republic. If it is not time for that yet, then we would choose an American mandate. But America has deserted us. Failing America, we prefer the English for the present. Anything except France! We do not want to become a new Algeria.”
“What is the condition now at El-Kerak?”
“Condition? There is none. There is chaos. You see, the British say their authority ceases at the River Jordan and at a line drawn down the middle of the Dead Sea. That leaves us with a choice between two other governments—King Hussein’s government of Mecca, and Feisul’s in Syria. But Hussein’s arm is not long enough to reach us from the South, and Feisul’s is not nearly strong enough to interfere from the North. So there is no government, and each man is keeping the peace with his own sword.”
“You mean; each man on his own account?”
“Yes. So there is peace. Five—fifteen—thirty throats are cut daily; and if you go down to the Jordan and listen, you will hear the shots being fired from ambush any day.”
“And you invite me to make the trip with you?”
“Oh, that is nothing. In the first place, you are American. Nobody will interfere with an American. They are welcome. In the second place, there is a good reason for bringing you; we all want an American school at El-Kerak.”
“But I am no teacher.”
“But you will be returning to America? It is enough, then, that you look the situation over, and tell what you know on your return. We will provide a building, a proper salary, and guarantee the teacher’s life. We would prefer a woman, but it would be wisest to send a man.”
“How so? The woman might not shoot straight? I’ve some of our Western women do tricks with a gun that would—”
“There would be no need. She would have our word of honour. But every sheikh who has only three wives would want to make her his fourth. A man would be best. Will you come with me?”
“On your single undertaking to protect me? Are you king of all that countryside?”
“If you will come, you shall have an escort, every man of whom will die before he would let you be killed. And if they, and you, should all be killed, their sons and grandsons would avenge you to the third generation of your murderers.”
“That’s undoubtedly handsome, but—”
“Believe me, effendi,” he urged, “many a soul has been consoled in hell-fire by the knowledge that his adversaries would be cut off in their prime by friends who are true to their given word.”
Meaning to back out politely, I assured him I would think the offer over.
“Well and good,” he answered. “You have my promise. Should you decide to come, leave word here with the American Colony. They will get word to me. Then I will send for you, and the escort shall meet you at the Dead Sea.”
I talked it over with two or three members of the Colony, and they assured me the promise could be depended on. One of them added:
“Besides, you ought to see El-Kerak. It’s an old crusader city, rather ruined, but more or less the way the crusaders left it. And that craving of theirs for a school is worth doing something about, if you ever have an opportunity. They say they have too much religion already, and no enlightenment at all. A teacher who knew Arabic would have a first-class time, and would be well paid and protected, if he could keep his hands off politics. Why not talk with Major Grim?”
It was a half-hour’s walk to Grim’s place, but I had the good fortune to catch him in again. He was sitting in the same chair, studying the same book, and this time I saw the title of it— Walter Pater’s Marius the Epicurean—a strange book for a soldier to be reading, and cutting its pages with an inlaid dagger, in a Jerusalem semi-military boarding-house. But he was a man of unexpectedly assorted moods.
He laughed when I told of ben Nasir. He looked serious when I mooted El-Kerak—serious, then interested, them speculative. From where I sat I could watch the changes in his eyes.
“What would the escort amount to?” I asked him.
“And what’s this bunk about Americans being welcome anywhere?”
“Perfectly true. All the way from Aleppo down to Beersheba. Men like Dr. Bliss have made such an impression that an occasional rotter might easily take advantage of it. Americans in this country—so far—stand for altruism without ulterior motive. If we’d accepted the mandate they might have found us out! Meanwhile, an American is safe.”
“Then I think I’ll go to El-Kerak.”
Again his eyes grew speculative. I could not tell whether he was considering me or some problem of his own.
“Speaking unofficially,” he said, “there are two possibilities. You might go without permission—easy enough, provided you don’t talk beforehand. In that case, you’d get there and back; after which, the Administration would label and index you. The remainder of your stay in Palestine would be about as exciting as pushing a perambulator in Prospect Park, Brooklyn. You’d be canned.”
“I’d rather be killed. What’s the alternative?”
“Get permission. I shall be at El-Kerak myself within the next few days. I think it can be arranged.”
“D’you mean I can go with you?” I asked, as eager as a schoolboy for the circus.
“Not on your life! I don’t go as an American.”
Recalling the first time I had seen him, I sat still and tried to look like a person who was not thrilled in the least by seeing secrets from the inside.
“Well,” I said, “I’m in your hands.”
I think he rather liked that. As I came to know him more intimately later on he revealed an iron delight in being trusted. But he did not say another word for several minutes, as if there were maps in his mind that he was conning before reaching a decision. Then he spoke suddenly.
“Are you busy?” he asked. “Then come with me.”
He phoned to some place or other for a staff automobile, and the man was there with it within three minutes. We piled in and drove at totally unholy speed down narrow streets between walls, around blind right-angle turns where Arab policemen stood waving unintelligible signals, and up the Mount of Olives, past the British military grave-yard, to the place they call OETA. The Kaiser had it built to command every view of the countryside and be seen from everywhere, as a monument to his own greatness—the biggest, lordliest, most expensive hospice that his architects could fashion, with pictures in mosaic on the walls and ceilings of the Kaiser and his ancestors in league with the Almighty. But the British had adopted it as Administration Headquarters.
All the way up, behind and in front and on either hand, there were views that millions would give years of their lives to see; and they would get good value for their bargain. Behind us, the sky-line was a panorama of the Holy City, domes, minarets and curved stone roofs rising irregularly above gray battlemented walls. Down on the right was the ghastly valley of Jehoshaphat, treeless, dry, and crowded with white tombs—“dry bones in the valley of death.” To the left were everlasting limestone hills, one of them topped by the ruined reputed tomb of Samuel—all trenched, cross-trenched and war-scarred, but covered now in a Joseph’s coat of flowers, blue, blood-red, yellow and white.
There were lines of camels sauntering majestically along three hill-tops, making time, and the speed of the car we rode in, seem utterly unreal. And as we topped the hill the Dead Sea lay below us, like a polished turquoise set in the yellow gold of the barren Moab Mountains. That view made you gasp. Even Grim, who was used to it, could not turn his eyes away.
We whirled past saluting Sikhs at the pompous Kaiserish entrance gate, and got out on to front steps that brought to mind one of those glittering hotels at German cure-resorts—bad art, bad taste, bad amusements and a big bill.
But inside, in the echoing stone corridors that opened through Gothic windows on a courtyard, in which statues of German super-people stared with blind eyes, there was nothing now but bald military neatness and economy. Hurrying up an uncarpeted stone stairway (Grim seemed to be a speed-demon once his mind was set) we followed a corridor around two sides of the square, past dozens of closed doors bearing department names, to the Administrator’s quarters at the far end. There, on a bare bench in a barren ante-room, Grim left me to cool my heels. He knocked, and entered a door marked “private.”
It was fully half an hour before the door opened again and I was beckoned in. Grim was alone in the room with the Administrator, a rather small, lean, rigidly set up man, with merry fire in his eye, and an instantly obvious gift for being obeyed. He sat at an enormous desk, but would have looked more at ease in a tent, or on horseback. The three long rows of campaign ribbons looked incongruous beside the bunch of flowers that somebody had crammed into a Damascus vase on the desk, with the estimable military notion of making the utmost use of space.
Sir Louis was certainly in an excellent temper. He offered me a chair, and looked at me with a sort of practical good-humour that seemed to say, “Well, here he is; now how shall we handle him?” I was minded to ask outright for what I wanted, but something in his attitude revealed that he knew all that already and would prefer to come at the problem in his own way. It was clear, without a word being said, that he proposed to make some sort of use of me without being so indiscreet as to admit it. He reminded me rather of Julius Cæsar, who was also a little man, considering the probable qualifications of some minor spoke in a prodigious wheel of plans.
“I understand you want to go to El-Kerak?” he said, smiling as if all life were an amusing game.
I admitted the impeachment. Grim was standing, some little way behind me and to one side; I did not turn my head to look at him, for that might have given a false impression that he and I were in league together, but I was somehow aware that with folded arms he was studying me minutely.
“Well,” said Sir Louis, “there’s no objection; only a stipulation: We wouldn’t let an Englishman go, because of the risk—not to him, but to us. Any fool has a right to get killed, but not to obligate his government. All the missionaries were called in from those outlying districts long ago. We don’t want to be held liable for damages for failure to protect. Such things have happened. You see, the idea is, we assume no responsibility for what takes place beyond the Jordan and the Dead Sea. Now, if you’d like to sign a letter waiving any claim against us for protection, that would remove any obstacle to your going. But, if you think that unreasonable, the alternative is safe. You can, stay in Jerusalem. Quite simple.”
That had the merit of frankness. It sounded fair enough. Nevertheless, he was certainly not being perfectly frank. The merriment in his eyes meant something more than mere amusement. It occurred to me that his frankness took the extreme form of not concealing that he had something important in reserve. I rather liked him for it. His attitude seemed to be that if I wanted to take a chance, I might on my own responsibility, but that if my doing so should happen to suit his plans, that was his affair. Grim was still watching me the way a cat watches a mouse.
“I’ll sign such a letter,” said I.
“Good. Here are pen and paper. Let’s have it all in your handwriting. I’ll call a clerk to witness the signature.”
I wrote down the simple statement that I wished to go to El-Kerak for personal reasons, and that I waived all claim against the British Administration for personal protection, whether there or en route. A clerk, who looked as if he could not have been hired to know, or understand, or remember anything without permission, came in answer to the bell. I signed. He witnessed.
Sir Louis put the letter in a drawer, and the clerk went out again.
“How soon will you go?”
I told about the promised escort, and that a day or two would be needed to get word to ben Nasir. I forgot that ben Nasir would not start before moonrise. It appeared that Sir Louis knew more than he cared to admit.
“Can’t we get word to ben Nasir for him, Grim?”
Grim nodded. So did Sir Louis:
“Good. There’ll be no need, then, for you to take any one into confidence,” he said, turning to me again. “As a rule it isn’t well to talk about these things, because people get wrong ideas. There are others in Jerusalem who would like permission to go to El-Kerak.”
“I’ll tell nobody.”
He nodded again. He was still considering things in the back of his mind, while those intelligent, bright eyes smiled so disarmingly.
“How do you propose to reach the Dead Sea?” he asked. “Ben Nasir’s escort will probably meet you on the shore on this side.”
“Oh, hire some sort of conveyance, I suppose.”
“Couldn’t we lend him one of our cars, Grim?”
Grim nodded again.
“We’ll do that. Grim, can you get word to ben Nasir so that when the escort is ready he may send a messenger straight to the hotel with the information? D’you get my meaning?”
“Sure,” said Grim, “nobody else need know then.”
“Very well,” said Sir Louis. He rose from his chair to intimate that the precise moment had arrived when I might leave without indiscretion. It was not until I was outside the door that I realized that my permission was simply verbal, and that the only document that had changed hands had been signed by me. Grim followed me into the ante-room after a minute.
“Hadn’t I better go back and ask for something in writing from him?” I suggested.
“You wouldn’t get it. Anyhow, you’re dealing with a gentleman. You needn’t worry. I was afraid once or twice you might be going to ask him questions. He’d have canned you if you had. Why didn’t you?”
I was not going to help Grim dissect my mental processes.
“There’s a delightful air of mystery,” I said, “I’d hate to spoil it!”
“Come up on the tower,” he said. “There’s just time before sunset. If you’ve good eyes, I’ll show you El-Kerak.”
It is an enormous tower. The wireless apparatus connected with it can talk with Paris and Calcutta. From the top you feel as if you were seeing “all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time.” There are no other buildings to cut off the view or tamper with perspective. The Dead Sea was growing dark. The Moab Hills beyond it looked lonely and savage in silhouette.
“Down there on your left is Jericho,” said Grim. “That winding creek beyond it is the Jordan. As far eastward as that there’s some peace. Beyond that, there is hardly a rock that isn’t used for ambush regularly. Let your eye travel along the top of the hills—nearly as far as the end of the Dead Sea. Now—d’you see where a touch of sunlight glints on something? That’s the top of the castle-wall of El-Kerak. Judge what strategists those old crusaders were. That site commands the ancient high road from Egypt. They could sit up there and take toll to their hearts’ content. The Turks quartered troops in the castle and did the same thing. But the Turks overdid it, like everything else. They ruined the trade. No road there nowadays that amounts to anything.”
“It looks about ten miles away.”
“More than eighty.”
The sun went down behind us while we watched, and here and there the little scattered lights came out among the silent hills in proof that there were humans who thought of them in terms of home.
Venus and Mars shone forth, yellow and red jewels; then the moon, rising like a stage effect, too big, too strongly lighted to seem real, peering inch by inch above the hills and ushering in silence. We could hear one muezzin in Jerusalem wailing that God is God.
“That over yonder is savage country,” Grim remarked. “I think maybe you’ll like it. Time to go now.”
He said nothing more until we were scooting downhill in the car in the midst of a cloud of dust.
“You won’t see me again,” he said then, “until you get to El-Kerak. There are just one or two points to bear in mind. D’you care if I lecture?”
“I wish you would.”
“When the messenger comes from ben Nasir, go to the Governorate, just outside the Damascus Gate, phone OETA, say who you are, and ask for the car. Travel light. The less you take with you, the less temptation there’ll be to steal and that much less danger for your escort. I always take nothing, and get shaved by a murderer at the nearest village. If you wash too much, or change your shirt too often, they suspect you of putting on airs. Can’t travel too light. Use the car as far as Jericho, or thereabouts, and send it back when the messenger says he’s through with it. After that, do whatever the leader of the escort tells you, and you’ll be all right.”
“How do I cross the Dead Sea?”
“That’s ben Nasir’s business. There’s another point I’ll ask you to bear in mind. When you see me at El-Kerak, be sure not to make the slightest sign of recognition, unless and until you get word from me. Act as if you’d never seen me in your life before.”
I felt like an arch-conspirator, and there is no other sensation half so thrilling. The flattery of being let in, as it were, through a secret door was like strong wine.
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