Greenmantle/Chapter 10

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The Garden-House of Suliman the Red

We reached Rustchuk on January 10th, but by no means landed on that day. Something had gone wrong with the unloading arrangements, or more likely with the railway behind them, and we were kept swinging all day well out in the turbid river. On the top of this Captain Schenk got an ague, and by that evening was a blue and shivering wreck. He had done me well, and I reckoned I would stand by him. So I got his ship's papers, and the manifests of cargo, and undertook to see to the trans-shipment. It wasn't the first time I had tackled that kind of business, and I hadn't much to learn about steam cranes. I told him I was going on to Constantinople and would take Peter with me, and he was agreeable. He would have to wait at Rustchuk to get his return cargo, and could easily inspan a fresh engineer.

I worked about the hardest twenty-four hours of my life getting the stuff ashore. The landing officer was a Bulgarian, quite a competent man if he could have made the railways give him the trucks he needed. There was a collection of hungry German transport officers always putting in their oars, and being infernally insolent to everybody. I took the high and mighty line with them; and, as I had the Bulgarian commandant on my side, after about two hours' blasphemy got them quieted.

But the big trouble came the next morning when I had got nearly all the stuff aboard the trucks.

A young officer in what I took to be a Turkish uniform rode up with an aide-de-camp. I noticed the German guards saluting him, so I judged he was rather a swell. He came up to me and asked me very civilly in German for the way-bills. I gave him them and he looked carefully through them, marking certain items with a blue pencil. Then he coolly handed them to his aide-de-camp and spoke to him in Turkish.

'Look here, I want these back,' I said. 'I can't do without them, and we've no time to waste.'

'Presently,' he said, smiling, and went off.

I said nothing, reflecting that the stuff was for the Turks and they naturally had to have some say in its handling. The loading was practically finished when my gentleman returned. He handed me a neatly typed new set of way-bills. One glance at them showed that some of the big items had been left out.

'Here, this won't do,' I cried. 'Give me back the right set. This thing's no good to me.'

For answer he winked gently, smiled like a dusky seraph, and held out his hand. In it I saw a roll of money.

'For yourself,' he said. 'It is the usual custom.'

It was the first time anyone had ever tried to bribe me, and it made me boil up like a geyser. I saw his game clearly enough. Turkey would pay for the lot to Germany: probably had already paid the bill: but she would pay double for the things not on the way-bills, and pay to this fellow and his friends. This struck me as rather steep even for Oriental methods of doing business.

'Now look here, Sir,' I said, 'I don't stir from this place till I get the correct way-bills. If you won't give me them, I will have every item out of the trucks and make a new list. But a correct list I have, or the stuff stays here till Doomsday.'

He was a slim, foppish fellow, and he looked more puzzled than angry.

'I offer you enough,' he said, again stretching out his hand.

At that I fairly roared. 'If you try to bribe me, you infernal little haberdasher, I'll have you off that horse and chuck you in the river.'

He no longer misunderstood me. He began to curse and threaten, but I cut him short.

'Come along to the commandant, my boy,' I said, and I marched away, tearing up his typewritten sheets as I went and strewing them behind me like a paper chase.

We had a fine old racket in the commandant's office. I said it was my business, as representing the German Government, to see the stuff delivered to the consignee at Constantinople ship-shape and Bristol-fashion. I told him it wasn't my habit to proceed with cooked documents. He couldn't but agree with me, but there was that wrathful Oriental with his face as fixed as a Buddha.

'I am sorry, Rasta Bey,' he said; 'but this man is in the right.' 'I have authority from the Committee to receive the stores,' he said sullenly.

'Those are not my instructions,' was the answer. 'They are consigned to the Artillery commandant at Chataldja, General von Oesterzee.'

The man shrugged his shoulders. 'Very well. I will have a word to say to General von Oesterzee, and many to this fellow who flouts the Committee.' And he strode away like an impudent boy.

The harassed commandant grinned. 'You've offended his Lordship, and he is a bad enemy. All those damned Comitadjis are. You would be well advised not to go on to Constantinople.'

'And have that blighter in the red hat loot the trucks on the road? No, thank you. I am going to see them safe at Chataldja, or whatever they call the artillery depot.'

I said a good deal more, but that is an abbreviated translation of my remarks. My word for 'blighter' was trottel, but I used some other expressions which would have ravished my Young Turk friend to hear. Looking back, it seems pretty ridiculous to have made all this fuss about guns which were going to be used against my own people. But I didn't see that at the time. My professional pride was up in arms, and I couldn't bear to have a hand in a crooked deal.

'Well, I advise you to go armed,' said the commandant. 'You will have a guard for the trucks, of course, and I will pick you good men. They may hold you up all the same. I can't help you once you are past the frontier, but I'll send a wire to Oesterzee and he'll make trouble if anything goes wrong. I still think you would have been wiser to humour Rasta Bey.'

As I was leaving he gave me a telegram. 'Here's a wire for your Captain Schenk.' I slipped the envelope in my pocket and went Out.

Schenk was pretty sick, so I left a note for him. At one o'clock I got the train started, with a couple of German Landwehr in each truck and Peter and I in a horse-box. Presently I remembered Schenk's telegram, which still reposed in my pocket. I took it out and opened it, meaning to wire it from the first station we stopped at. But I changed my mind when I read it. It was from some official at Regensburg, asking him to put under arrest and send back by the first boat a man called Brandt, who was believed to have come aboard at Absthafen on the 30th of December.

I whistled and showed it to Peter. The sooner we were at Constantinople the better, and I prayed we would get there before the fellow who sent this wire repeated it and got the commandant to send on the message and have us held up at Chataldja. For my back had fairly got stiffened about these munitions, and I was going to take any risk to see them safely delivered to their proper owner. Peter couldn't understand me at all. He still hankered after a grand destruction of the lot somewhere down the railway. But then, this wasn't the line of Peter's profession, and his pride was not at stake. We had a mortally slow journey. It was bad enough in Bulgaria, but when we crossed the frontier at a place called Mustafa Pasha we struck the real supineness of the East. Happily I found a German officer there who had some notion of hustling, and, after all, it was his interest to get the stuff moved. It was the morning of the 16th, after Peter and I had been living like pigs on black bread and condemned tin stuff, that we came in sight of a blue sea on our right hand and knew we couldn't be very far from the end.

It was jolly near the end in another sense. We stopped at a station and were stretching our legs on the platform when I saw a familiar figure approaching. It was Rasta, with half a dozen Turkish gendarmes.

I called Peter, and we clambered into the truck next our horse-box. I had been half expecting some move like this and had made a plan.

The Turk swaggered up and addressed us. 'You can get back to Rustchuk,' he said. 'I take over from you here. Hand me the papers.'

'Is this Chataldja?' I asked innocently.

'It is the end of your affair,' he said haughtily. 'Quick, or it will be the worse for you.'

'Now, look here, my son,' I said; 'you're a kid and know nothing. I hand over to General von Oesterzee and to no one else.'

'You are in Turkey,' he cried, 'and will obey the Turkish Government.'

'I'll obey the Government right enough,' I said; 'but if you're the Government I could make a better one with a bib and a rattle.'

He said something to his men, who unslung their rifles.

'Please don't begin shooting,' I said. 'There are twelve armed guards in this train who will take their orders from me. Besides, I and my friend can shoot a bit.'

'Fool!' he cried, getting very angry. 'I can order up a regiment in five minutes.'

'Maybe you can,' I said; 'but observe the situation. I am sitting on enough toluol to blow up this countryside. If you dare to come aboard I will shoot you. If you call in your regiment I will tell you what I'll do. I'll fire this stuff, and I reckon they'll be picking up the bits of you and your regiment off the Gallipoli Peninsula.'

He had put up a bluff—a poor one—and I had called it. He saw I meant what I said, and became silken.

'Good-bye, Sir,' he said. 'You have had a fair chance and rejected it. We shall meet again soon, and you will be sorry for your insolence.'

He strutted away and it was all I could do to keep from running after him. I wanted to lay him over my knee and spank him.

We got safely to Chataldja, and were received by von Oesterzee like long-lost brothers. He was the regular gunner-officer, not thinking about anything except his guns and shells. I had to wait about three hours while he was checking the stuff with the invoices, and then he gave me a receipt which I still possess. I told him about Rasta, and he agreed that I had done right. It didn't make him as mad as I expected, because, you see, he got his stuff safe in any case. It was only that the wretched Turks had to pay twice for the lot of it.

He gave Peter and me luncheon, and was altogether very civil and inclined to talk about the war. I would have liked to hear what he had to say, for it would have been something to get the inside view of Germany's Eastern campaign, but I did not dare to wait. Any moment there might arrive an incriminating wire from Rustchuk. Finally he lent us a car to take us the few miles to the city.

So it came about that at five past three on the 16th day of January, with only the clothes we stood up in, Peter and I entered Constantinople.

I was in considerable spirits, for I had got the final lap successfully over, and I was looking forward madly to meeting my friends; but, all the same, the first sight was a mighty disappointment. I don't quite know what I had expected—a sort of fairyland Eastern city, all white marble and blue water, and stately Turks in surplices, and veiled houris, and roses and nightingales, and some sort of string band discoursing sweet music. I had forgotten that winter is pretty much the same everywhere. It was a drizzling day, with a south-east wind blowing, and the streets were long troughs of mud. The first part I struck looked like a dingy colonial suburb—wooden houses and corrugated iron roofs, and endless dirty, sallow children. There was a cemetery, I remember, with Turks' caps stuck at the head of each grave. Then we got into narrow steep streets which descended to a kind of big canal. I saw what I took to be mosques and minarets, and they were about as impressive as factory chimneys. By and by we crossed a bridge, and paid a penny for the privilege. If I had known it was the famous Golden Horn I would have looked at it with more interest, but I saw nothing save a lot of moth-eaten barges and some queer little boats like gondolas. Then we came into busier streets, where ramshackle cabs drawn by lean horses spluttered through the mud. I saw one old fellow who looked like my notion of a Turk, but most of the population had the appearance of London old-clothes men. All but the soldiers, Turk and German, who seemed well-set-up fellows.

Peter had paddled along at my side like a faithful dog, not saying a word, but clearly not approving of this wet and dirty metropolis.

'Do you know that we are being followed, Cornelis?' he said suddenly, 'ever since we came into this evil-smelling dorp.'

Peter was infallible in a thing like that. The news scared me badly, for I feared that the telegram had come to Chataldja. Then I thought it couldn't be that, for if von Oesterzee had wanted me he wouldn't have taken the trouble to stalk me. It was more likely my friend Rasta.

I found the ferry of Ratchik by asking a soldier and a German sailor there told me where the Kurdish Bazaar was. He pointed up a steep street which ran past a high block of warehouses with every window broken. Sandy had said the left-hand side coming down, so it must be the right-hand side going up. We plunged into it, and it was the filthiest place of all. The wind whistled up it and stirred the garbage. It seemed densely inhabited, for at all the doors there were groups of people squatting, with their heads covered, though scarcely a window showed in the blank walls.

The street corkscrewed endlessly. Sometimes it seemed to stop; then it found a hole in the opposing masonry and edged its way in. Often it was almost pitch dark; then would come a greyish twilight where it opened out to the width of a decent lane. To find a house in that murk was no easy job, and by the time we had gone a quarter of a mile I began to fear we had missed it. It was no good asking any of the crowd we met. They didn't look as if they understood any civilized tongue.

At last we stumbled on it—a tumble-down coffee house, with A. Kuprasso above the door in queer amateur lettering. There was a lamp burning inside, and two or three men smoking at small wooden tables.

We ordered coffee, thick black stuff like treacle, which Peter anathematized. A negro brought it, and I told him in German I wanted to speak to Mr Kuprasso. He paid no attention, so I shouted louder at him, and the noise brought a man out of the back parts.

He was a fat, oldish fellow with a long nose, very like the Greek traders you see on the Zanzibar coast. I beckoned to him and he waddled forward, smiling oilily. Then I asked him what he would take, and he replied, in very halting German, that he would have a sirop.

'You are Mr Kuprasso,' I said. 'I wanted to show this place to my friend. He has heard of your garden-house and the fun there.'

'The Signor is mistaken. I have no garden-house.'

'Rot,' I said; 'I've been here before, my boy. I recall your shanty at the back and many merry nights there. What was it you called it? Oh, I remember—the Garden-House of Suliman the Red.'

He put his finger to his lip and looked incredibly sly. 'The Signor remembers that. But that was in the old happy days before war came. The place is long since shut. The people here are too poor to dance and sing.'

'All the same I would like to have another look at it,' I said, and I slipped an English sovereign into his hand.

He glanced at it in surprise and his manner changed. 'The Signor is a Prince, and I will do his will.' He clapped his hands and the negro appeared, and at his nod took his place behind a little side-counter.

'Follow me,' he said, and led us through a long, noisome passage, which was pitch dark and very unevenly paved. Then he unlocked a door and with a swirl the wind caught it and blew it back on us.

We were looking into a mean little yard, with on one side a high curving wall, evidently of great age, with bushes growing in the cracks of it. Some scraggy myrtles stood in broken pots, and nettles flourished in a corner. At one end was a wooden building like a dissenting chapel, but painted a dingy scarlet. Its windows and skylights were black with dirt, and its door, tied up with rope, flapped in the wind.

'Behold the Pavilion,' Kuprasso said proudly.

'That is the old place,' I observed with feeling. 'What times I've seen there! Tell me, Mr Kuprasso, do you ever open it now?'

He put his thick lips to my ear.

'If the Signor will be silent I will tell him. It is sometimes open—not often. Men must amuse themselves even in war. Some of the German officers come here for their pleasure, and but last week we had the ballet of Mademoiselle Cici. The police approve—but not often, for this is no time for too much gaiety. I will tell you a secret. Tomorrow afternoon there will be dancing—wonderful dancing! Only a few of my patrons know. Who, think you, will be here?'

He bent his head closer and said in a whisper—

'The Compagnie des Heures Roses.'

'Oh, indeed,' I said with a proper tone of respect, though I hadn't a notion what he meant.

'Will the Signor wish to come?'

'Sure,' I said. 'Both of us. We're all for the rosy hours.'

'Then the fourth hour after midday. Walk straight through the cafe and one will be there to unlock the door. You are new-comers here? Take the advice of Angelo Kuprasso and avoid the streets after nightfall. Stamboul is no safe place nowadays for quiet men.'

I asked him to name a hotel, and he rattled off a list from which I chose one that sounded modest and in keeping with our get-up. It was not far off, only a hundred yards to the right at the top of the hill.

When we left his door the night had begun to drop. We hadn't gone twenty yards before Peter drew very near to me and kept turning his head like a hunted stag.

'We are being followed close, Cornelis,' he said calmly.

Another ten yards and we were at a cross-roads, where a little place faced a biggish mosque. I could see in the waning light a crowd of people who seemed to be moving towards us. I heard a high-pitched voice cry out a jabber of excited words, and it seemed to me that I had heard the voice before.