The Forever Engine – Snippet 38
“Perhaps, although against the bandits there were two of us, and Jeanne had both the revolver and carbine, so really we were quite adequately armed.”
“Your friend Jeanne sounds like . . .” I started but then I stopped, remembering a famous engraving of a woman with a revolver and carbine facing eight Persian bandits. A surge of excitement went through me.
“I have fourteen balls at your disposal; go find six more friends,” I said.
Gabrielle laughed and shook her head.
“Jeanne never said that, but they put it on the picture anyway. They did not put me in the picture, I suppose because I was simply a helpless woman.”
“But Jeanne Dieulafoy was — is a woman as well. My God, Gabi, you were on the Dieulafoy expedition to Susiana?”
I sat down on the chair next to her, partly because I felt a bit light-headed.
“Yes, it was my first real adventure. And yes, Jeanne is a woman, but no one would consider her helpless or defenseless. You have heard of the expedition?”
“Heard of it? I’m an ancient historian. My specialty, other than Roman coinage, is Achaemenid Persia. Jeanne Dieulafoy’s photographs of the inscriptions and architecture at Susa are still one of our key resources. Hell, half the books on the Persian Army have her photograph of the Frieze of the Immortals on the cover. Most of those buildings and artifacts were gone by my time, either destroyed or badly degraded by the elements, so all we have is her photographs. Anyone serious about Achaemenid Persia owns a portfolio of her work.”
“It would please her very much to hear that. You should meet her when . . .” She stopped, and the excitement left her face. “Oh, you cannot. After this, you will be gone.”
We unloaded at the waterfront in lashing rain and then trudged the two hundred yards through scattered warehouses and sheds to the city gates, which were closed and secured. It took another fifteen minutes of shouting and finally a couple shots from my Webley to rouse someone, then another ten minutes before they got someone who spoke Turkish. The garrison was nominally Turkish, but this was Bosnia. Bosnian, along with all the other Slavic languages, was not part of my repertoire.
We got an angry Turkish officer next, shouting at us through the postern window to go away and come back in the morning. It was well after midnight, and he’d probably been sound asleep.
“Tell this scoundrel to open the gate at once, unless he wants my fist in his nose,” Gordon ordered.
“Captain Gordon of the British Army sends his respects to the garrison commander,” I translated. “The commandant has been told of our coming and will be anxious to see us. We are on an important mission for the Sublime Porte.”
The Sublime Porte, the grand gate at Topkapi Palace in Istanbul where the sultan’s vizier traditionally greeted representatives of foreign governments, had come to mean the Turkish foreign ministry. The Turkish officer hesitated.
“Look for yourself,” I added. “Do we look like a band of wandering gypsies? These are soldiers on a secret mission. We are going to fight the Serbs, with Allah’s blessing and your commander’s help.”
I took a chance mentioning the Serbs, but it sealed the deal. The officer stuck his head out a bit and looked the company over, then nodded and withdrew. We heard a barked order and in a few seconds heard the heavy beam withdrawn from the gate. Then it opened onto a courtyard.
My first view of Višegràd was not very impressive, but it’s hard for any town to wow you in the middle of a thunderstorm. The courtyard was no more than thirty yards square, lined with a couple small one-story brick buildings. Lightning flashed, and I saw the suggestion of taller buildings beyond them.
“We need accommodations for our party for the night, somewhere out of the weather,” I told the officer.
“My commander will decide that.”
“What is your name, Effendi?” I asked.
“Lieutenant Kadir Malak.”
“Lieutenant Malak, I ask you to think for a moment. Your commandant is asleep. He will wish to rouse himself and prepare a reception for us, but will be embarrassed to make us wait while he does so. May I suggest you send a runner to him now, and that you see to our billeting, giving him time to prepare for us without embarrassment?”
Malak nodded thoughtfully, even as I was speaking, then sent one of the small group of soldiers milling around running into the heart of the town.
“I know of a stable near here where you may stay. You have silver to pay the proprietor?”
* * *
An hour later, Gordon and I entered the office of the commandant, a middle-aged officer, slender in the face and limbs but large in the belly. He rose and smiled in greeting as Lieutenant Malak escorted us in. I saw a clutter of telegrams on his desk and suspected he had been catching up on his orders as to how to handle us. There was also a pen and ink, writing paper, sealing wax, and two folded and sealed letters, the wax seals on them probably still warm.
“Gentlemen, peace be upon you,” he said in Turkish.
“And upon you,” I answered in Turkmen. “May I present Captain Gordon of Her Most Britannic Majesty’s Service.”
“Staff Major Cevik, at your disposal. Please be seated. I have ordered refreshments. Please.”
I translated the introduction, and we all sat in straight-backed chairs, Gordon and I in front of his desk, Malak against the wall.
“Forgive me,” I said, “if my Turkish is poor. I speak Turkmen.”
“Ah, yes, it sounded unusual. Your accent, it is up-country, we would say, but understandable.”
“Your rank — Erkan-ı Harb Binbaşısı — it caused me a moment’s pause. Do I address you as pasha or bey?”
A major was normally addressed as Effendi, the lowest of the three forms of respectful address, but I wasn’t sure for a “staff major.” Throwing in the possibility of pasha was pure flattery. I can kiss ass when the situation calls for it.
“Bey. Only very exalted men — generals and governors, are pashas.”
One servant brought in a silver ice bucket with a bottle of champagne and another brought a tray with three glasses. I had expected coffee, not alcohol. The servant popped the cork and began pouring. Cevik Bey must have seen my look and laughed again.
“You are surprised to see me serve champagne? I am a good Moslem, I assure you. I follow all the teachings of the prophet. But also I love champagne. So I thought long about it. I prayed for guidance, and this is the thought Allah sent to me: champagne did not exist in Mohammed’s time, so he cannot have said it was a sin to drink it. You agree?”
In answer I raised my glass in a toast.
“To our joint endeavor,” I said, first in Turkmen then English.
Then we got down to business. Gordon laid out our plan: hire boats and travel twenty-five miles up the Lim River to the border village of Uvats. The Lim flowed into the Drina about seven miles upstream from Višegràd. Depending on the speed of the boats, and how fast the rivers were flowing after all this rain, we could make the trip in a long day or a long morning. From Uvats we would have to travel overland. The large Serbian town of Priboj straddled the Lim River just across the border, and Gabrielle had told us Serbian batteries commanded the river, so we’d have to go overland from there. Kokin Brod was only a dozen miles southeast of Priboj, but it was through mountainous countryside.
Cevik Bey frowned through the description, but more in thought than irritation, I thought.