The whole journey was a mix-up of things to wonder at—not least of them the matter-of-fact confidence with which the train proceeded along a single track, whose condition left you wondering at each bump whether the next wouldn’t be the journey’s violent end. There were lamps, but no oil for light when evening came. Once, when we bumped over a shaky culvert and a bushel or two of coal-dust fell from the rusty tender, the engineer stopped the train and his assistant went back with a shovel and piece of sacking to gather up the precious stuff.
There was nothing but squalid villages and ruins, goats and an occasional rare camel to be seen through the window—not a tree anywhere, the German General Staff having attended to that job thoroughly. There is honey in the country and it’s plentiful as well as good, because bees are not easy property to raid and make away with; but the milk is from goats, and as for overflowing, I would hate to have to punish the dugs of a score of the brutes to get a jugful for dinner. Syria’s wealth is of the past and the future.
Long before it grew too dark to watch the landscape we were wholly converted to Grim’s argument that Syria was no place for a man of Feisul’s calibre. The Arab owners of the land are plundered to the bone; the men with money are foreigners, whose only care is for a government that will favour this religion and that breed. To set up a kingdom there would be like preaching a new religion in Hester Street; you could hand out text, soup and blankets, but you’d need a whale’s supply of faith to carry on, and the offertories wouldn’t begin to meet expenses.
Until that journey finally convinced me, I had been wondering all the while in the back of my head whether Grim wasn’t intending an impertinence. It hasn’t been my province hitherto to give advice to kings; for one thing, they haven’t asked me for it. If I were asked, I think I’d take the problem pretty seriously and hesitate before suggesting to a man on whom the hope of fifty million people rests that he’d better pull up stakes and eat crow in exile for the present. I’d naturally hate to be a king, but if I were one I don’t think quitting would look good, and I think I’d feel like kicking the fellow who suggested it.
But the view from the train, and Grim’s talk with Hadad put me in a mood in which Syria didn’t seem good enough for a soap-box politician, let alone a man of Feisul’s fame and character. And when at last a few lights in a cluster down the track proclaimed that we were drawing near Damascus, I was ready to advise everybody, Feisul included, to get out in a hurry while a chance remained.
“Bismillah! What a mercy that I met you!”
While the fireman scraped the iron floor for his last two shovelfuls of coal-dust and the train wheezed wearily into the dark station, Grim began to busy himself in mysterious ways. Part of his own costume consisted of a short, curved scimitar attached to an embroidered belt— the sort of thing that Arabs wear for ornament rather than use. He took it off and, groping in the dark, helped Mabel put it on, without a word of explanation.