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Pro Patria by Achmed Abdullah

 

MICHAEL CRANE cut through the other's subdued buzz of bland, philosophic similes with a hairy hand, stabbing sideways through the opium-scented shadows, and words, bubbling out with the bitterness of their own utter futility:

"What are you going to do? That's what I would like to know, old man!"

"What are you going to do?" he repeated dully, after a pause.

Even as he said it, he knew that there would be, could be, no answer except the same one which the other, Tzu Po, Amban of Outer Mongolia, who sat facing him--his fabulously obese bulk squeezed into a stilted, tulip wood and marble mosaic chair, his heavy-lidded eyes bilious with too much poppy juice, and his ludicrously small, white silk--stockinged feet twitching nervously--had given him nearly every day these last six weeks or so; ever since Professor Hans Mengel had dropped serenely and sardonically out of the nowhere, atop a shaggy Bactrian camel, and, within a day of his arrival, had struck up an incongruous friendship with the abbots and monks of the Buddhist lamasery that squatted on the hogback, porphyry hill above the flat, drab city of Urga, the capital of Outer Mongolia, with all the distressing weight of ancient thaumaturgical hypocrisy and bigotry. Be it remembered that the spiritual and theological politics of all Buddhist central Asia, from Kamchatka to the burned steppes of the Buriat Cossacks, from the arctic Siberian tundras to the borders of sneering, jealous Tibet, were being shouted by thin-lipped, copper-faced, yellow--capped lama priests behind the bastioned battlements of the old convent and that these spiritual politics were frequently running counter to the dictates and desires of Peking's secular suzerainty, embodied--ironic thought!--by Mandarin Tzu Po.

The same old answer, day after day, accompanied by a shrugging of fat shoulders, a deep, apologetic intake of breath, and a melancholy gesture of pudgy hands so that the ruddy light of the charcoal ball in its openwork brass container danced fitfully on his long, gold-incased fingernails.

"Who am I to know?"--with the fatalistic, slightly supercilious modesty of all Asia.

"Who are you to know?" The American, fretting with impatience, picked up the mock-meek counter-question like a battle gage. "Why, man, you are the high-and-mighty governor of this stinking, disgusting neck o' the woods! You are the honorable amban--entitled to I don't know how many kowtows and how much graft!"

"Indeed, Mr. Crane. And you are the American consul, eh? And"--with low, gliding laughter--"you are also entrusted with the interests of your honorable allies--France, Great Britain, Italy--" "Don't I know it, though? But what can I do? I am as helpless as--"

"As I!" gently interrupted the Chinaman, kneading agilely the brown opium cube against the stem of his tasseled bamboo pipe.

Another pause, broken presently by the American's chafing. "You are supposed to have some power here, and you know just as well as I that this measly German professor--"

"I know nothing!" Tzu Po fidgeted unhappily in his chair. He half closed his bilious eyes like a man in pain. "I wish to know nothing! I insist on knowing nothing!"

"Ostrich!" Crane leaned forward in his chair and emphasized his words with a didactic finger. "You know perfectly well that Mengel is playing a lot of dirty, rotten, underhand politics, that he and the Buddhist monks--"

"Professor Mengel is the leading European authority on early Buddhism. It is natural that he should take an interest in this old lamasery--"

"I know all that, Tzu Po! The chief Lama of Urga is second only to the Dalai Lama of Tibet in holiness. He is a continuous reincarnation of some damned Buddhist saint or other, and Mengel, as you say, does know a lot more about Buddhism than the priests do themselves. But, man, this is war! Not even a single-minded German professor will cross all Russia and half of Asia, these days, simply to swap theological lies with some old yellow-capped priests! I tell you--and I needn't tell you, since you know it yourself--that that Hun is up to some deviltry!"

The Chinaman sighed. "Admitting that you are right," he replied, "there are religious reasons why I can't interfere with the monks and abbots who have befriended him."

"Religious reasons be hanged!" scoffed Michael Crane. "You are a Chinaman and, being a Chinaman, you are about as religious as the devil himself!"

"But these people here whom I--ah--rule"---Tzu Po smiled gently at the implied jest--"they are not Chinese. They are Mongols, Tibetans, Buriats, Turkis, and what not. They are devout Buddhists--"

"Subject races--all of them!"

"Exactly. We Chinese are like the English. We do not attempt to interfere with the home life, the home laws, the home religions of our subject peoples. And to all Buddhist central Asia the words of the yellow-capped abbot in the convent up there are--"

"Sure. Divine commands. Sort of--oh--direct from the Lord Gautama Buddha's deceased and sanctified bones. That's why I say it's up to you to do something," said Crane, "to assert yourself, to grease your big stick!"

"Big stick?"

"You know what I mean. You've spent years in America. Send to Peking for a company or two of roughneck soldiers. Show these stinking, sniveling, shave-tail priests who is the boss of the ranch. Call their bluff. Pop the Herr Professor into a nice, comfy jail--"

"For what reason?" inquired Tzu Po.

"Because he's up to some deviltry--as I told you--as you know yourself--if you weren't such a confounded Chinese Pharisee!"

"I can prove nothing against him!" Tzu Po filled his lungs with gray, acrid opium smoke. "Can you, my friend?"

"Prove? The devil! You don't have to prove. You can arrest him on suspicion--shoot him out of the country if you want to--"

"It would be against the law."

"Laws are rather in abeyance these days. You have some leeway in wartime."

"China is not at war--yet. China and Germany are still at peace. No, no!" Tzu Po made a gesture of finality. "I can't help you, my friend--except"---he winked elaborately at nothing in particular--"if you should--"

"What?" whispered Michael Crane. "If I should do--what?"

The other was not caught so easily. "If you should do--anything!" he countered. "Yes--if you should do anything at all, I should be deaf and dumb and blind!"

"But what can I do? Gosh! I wish I'd never seen this darned hole in the ground! I don't belong here!"

"Nor do I!" rejoined the other with a melancholy smile.

And then, as always at the end of their daily bickerings, the two men looked at each other, feeling singularly foolish, and impotent and friendly.

II.

THE one an American, lean, angular, long of limb, pink and tan as to complexion, red-haired, gray-eyed, freckled. The other a Pekingese Chinaman, yellow, silky, urbane, smooth, fat, with bluish-black hair and sloe eyes. The one of the West, Western--the other of the East, Eastern!

Yet there was a certain similarity in the fateful pendulum of their careers; the promising beginnings--the drab, flat endings--here, in Urga, at the very back of the beyond.

Michael Crane had been a brilliant young lawyer and politician in his native city, Chicago, with the Supreme Court, the Presidency itself, shining like a Holy Grail in the autumnal distance of his full life. Ward politics came first, of course, slapping people on the back, kissing little grubby babies, gossiping with their women, and--yes!---occasionally a little, sociable nip in some saloon the other side of Dexter Hall.

Yearly his thirst had increased while, proportionately, his earlier promises of great, lasting achievement had decreased. Still, he had not lost all his hold on his favorite ward. The marshaling of that curious phenomenon called public opinion had become second nature to him. His fertile eloquence, chiefly when he was in his cups, had not suffered, nor his readiness to close a tolerant eye when one of his underlings resorted to more primitive, more abysmal methods in convincing Doubting Thomases that his party was the right party when the nation was voting for president several years earlier, he had been able to swing a block of votes into the ballot boxes of the party which came out victorious. And reward had been his.

"Mike Crane has to be taken care of," a certain bigwig in Washington had said. "His ward was rather ticklish, but he turned the trick."

"Sure," another bigwig had replied, "but--you know--well--"

"Yes, yes." The first speaker had left his seat and had walked to a large map of the world that was spread on the wall. He had studied it with a saturnine twinkle in his sharp brown eyes.

"Ever hear of Urga?" he had asked over his shoulder.

"No. What is it? A new soft drink--with a kick--you're going to recommend to Mike Crane? Perhaps a new liquor cure guaranteed to--"

"Cut out the joshing. It seems to be a town in--" Again he had studied the map. "Let me see. Yes, it is the capital of Outer Mongolia, steen million miles from nowhere. Jack," he had continued, lighting a cigar, "I have a hunch that the United States of America needs a consul out yonder. What do you say?"

"I say yes. And I nominate Mike Crane for the job."

"Seconded and carried. Perhaps he won't be able to get whisky in Urga. Anyway, he won't do much harm there!"

Thus Michael Crane had become United States consul in Urga seven years earlier.

Urga! Outer Mongolia! Central Asia! Quite unimportant! It was all so very far away from Broadway and Fifth Avenue and State Street and the White House, and the salary was not much of a burden on the generous American taxpayer!

Tzu Po's career had been similar. The scion of an excellent burgess family of Peking, he had passed high in the examinations of the literati, and had received the degree of chen-shih, or Eminent Doctor, at the Palace of August and Happy Education, to the west of the Ch'ien Men Gate in the Forbidden City. Afterward, he had passed a no less brilliant examination at Harvard, had been attached as secretary to several Chinese legations and embassies, had tried to stimulate his brain with opium--until, one day, perhaps giving way to an atavistic weakness, he had surrendered, body and soul and ambition, to the curling black smoke.

Still, to him, too, was due a certain measure of gratitude on the part of those in power since. At the time when young China arose in the yellow, stinking slums of Canton and brushed away, with the lusty, impatient fist of Democracy, the gray Bourbon cobwebs of Manchu autocracy, he had been one of the younger leaders, and one of the most fearless, the most constructive.

Like Crane, he had been sent to a sort of honorable exile--to Urga.

"He cannot do much harm there," one mandarin had said.

"Indeed!" another had replied.

Thus, both men had been sent to the same laggard, dronish end of the world.

Thus, both men had promptly been forgotten by their respective, paternal governments--except by the yawning clerks, in Washington or in Peking, who made out the monthly stipend checks.

Had come seven indolent, drowsy, passive years; years which sealed a strange, though not unhappy, friendship between Michael Crane and Tzu Po, the more so since the latter felt a greater cultural kinship and, in consequence, a greater sympathy for the American than for his uncouth racial cousins who peopled Urga and the surrounding country, while Crane--the only white man, since no other country deemed Outer Mongolia important enough to keep there a consular representative--was glad of the company of a man who had a more or less intelligent, but at all events personal, acquaintance with State Street, baseball, dry martinis, and the difference between the Republican and Democratic parties. Nothing, during all this time, had ever happened to disturb the even tenor of the passing, swinging years. Occasionally, of course, there had been a row or a fight between the two opposing parties--red-cap lama priests and yellow cap--who claimed the spiritual suzerainty of northern Buddhism. But the American had been an amused and slightly cynical onlooker, while Tzu Po, though he was the governor, would shut himself up in his palace with a liberal supply of opium cubes and a volume of archaic poetry or two and only leave it when the priests had settled the argument among themselves--after which, he would report to the ministry of the outer provinces in Peking that everything was serene and happy.

Three years earlier, there had been a little more excitement. For the chief lama--a yellow cap, he---had died, and the priests had set about electing another earthly representative, another incarnation of Subhuti, the disciple of the Lord Gautama Buddha, whose soul and spirit are said to migrate into the body of each successive Urga abbot. For centuries, the Lara family, who had been Tibetans originally, had monopolized the saintly dignity, including its divers and rather more worldly emoluments until, to all intents and purposes, it had become almost hereditary. Always the yellow-cap priests, to whom the Lara clan belonged, had been the decisive factor in the mazes of northern Buddhism.

But, that year, due it was said to the intrigues of a Russian Buddhist from the shores of Lake Baikal, who had acted under orders of the czar's government with the intention of undermining the Pekingese prestige in that part of the world, the red--cap lamas had for once put forward and backed a candidate of their own. However, being vastly in the minority, they had been defeated and yellow--cap Tengso Punlup of the Lara clan had been elected chief abbot.

Michael Crane, comparing the sacerdotal election with voting contests as he had seen and handled them in his favorite Chicago ward, had looked on with cynical, slightly nostalgic amusement.

Again Tzu Po had locked himself up in the innermost chamber of his palace.

The election had passed. A number of red caps and yellow caps had had their tough skulls cracked with brass inkstands and massive teakwood prayer wheels. And then there was peace once more, the bottle for Crane, and the amber-colored poppy juice for Tzu Po--until, overnight it seemed, out of the diseased brain of modern Germany rose the crimson monstrosity of lust and cruelty that threatened to drown the world in an avalanche of hissing, darkening blood.

War!

War--east, north, south, and west! War of white man and black and red and brown! War on land and on sea! War of might and of brain! War from the smiling fields of France to the miasmic jungles of west Africa!

And even here, in the sluggish, comatose heart of Asia, war was showing its fangs. A few weeks earlier, Professor Hans Mengel, suave, clean shaven, serene, had dropped out of the nowhere, riding a smelly Bactrian camel, speaking the local dialects like a native, well supplied with money, familiar with the intricate labyrinth of Buddhism. And, too, there were the thin-lipped yellow caps in the old lamasery whispering, whispering--and Tengso Punlup, the chief abbot, was on his deathbed--and it was gossiped in the bazaars and the market place that again the red caps would put a candidate of their own into the field and that more than the mere spiritual succession of northern Buddhism would be decided when the old abbot's soul had joined Buddha's greater soul in the fields of the blessed.

Crane knew it.

So did Tzu Po.

But---

"We're helpless, we two," murmured the American, turning and looking from the window.

III.

OUTSIDE, the solitary pollard willow that guarded the amban's palace like a grim sentinel of ill omen, bending under white hummocks, was draped with shimmering, glistening, gauze frost. Snow was everywhere, thudding softly in moist, flaky crystals, hurling fitfully across a sunset of somber, crushed pink that was trying to show its heart of color through the gray, drifting cloud banks, mantling the peacock blue of pagoda roof and the harsh, crass red of Buddhist wayside shrine, etching tiny points of silver on the voluminous, coarse fur coats of the Manchus, Tartars, Tibetans, and occasional Nepalese who were ambling in all directions, their stout legs encased in knee-high felt boots, enormous hats covering them to their quilted, padded shoulders, their faces glimpsing beneath with a ludicrous blue and green sheen, their noses wrinkled like rabbits' against the biting wind that came booming out of the north, their thin, drooping mustaches white-frosted into icicles.

Here and there, yellow-capped priests moved through the crowd, brutally serene in the superstitious awe with which they were regarded, clicking their prayer wheels, talking to each other in gentle, gliding undertones, and smiling, always smiling.

Michael Crane clenched his fists in impotent fury.

The others--the cattle drovers and camel men, the fur and salt traders, the peasants, hunters, trappers, and fishermen--they did not matter. They were just the incoherent, unthinking, inert mass who danced to the piping of the sneering, wrinkled abbot up there behind the bastioned walls of the lamasery.

But, Crane told himself bitterly, these yellow--capped priests were the intellectual aristocracy of this vast land that stretched its religious feelers all over central Asia. They were in the "know," every last one of them. They all belonged to the same mysterious, sinister lodge, understood the same unspoken passwords and furtive high signs--they and the German professor who was lording it in their councils--while he, Michael Crane, United States consul, once a brilliant lawyer and a skillful politician in the city of Chicago, and Tzu Po, who was supposed to be the governor--why---

He rose and stretched himself. "I guess I'll run along home," he said. "So long. See you tomorrow. Drop in for breakfast if the spirit moves you," he added hospitably.

The other did not reply. He had fallen asleep over the sizzling, bubbling opium lamp. A beatific smile wreathed his bland, yellow features, and his breath came evenly.

"You're the sensible lad all right, all right," said Crane. And he slipped into his heavy coat, rammed his fur cap down over his ears, and stepped out into the biting cold night.

He turned in the direction of his house, a short distance away. His "boy" would have made a fire by this time, prepared supper, and set out a bottle and glasses and some of the treasured home papers and magazines which he received with each mail, once every two months, and which he apportioned jealously so that they should last him until the next mail came along.

IV.

AS he walked stiffly aslant against the booming northern wind, he tried to marshal his thoughts, tried to dovetail for himself a picture of what had happened behind the grim, bastioned walls of the lamasery and of what was going to happen, viewing the whole situation instinctively through the spectacles of his former politician's experience.

There were certain outstanding facts: The main one being that Tengso Punlup, the chief abbot, was on his deathbed. Furthermore, that a successor to his saintly honors would have to be chosen, and that the yellow caps, as by ancient traditions, would advance the claims of a member of the Lara family, while it was whispered in the bazaars that again the red caps would contest the election with a candidate of their own.

There was the subsidiary fact that these latter were in the majority, either British subjects from Little Tibet, Kashmere, and the Shan states, or from southern Tibet and those independent Himalaya principalities, like Nepal and Bhopal, the inhabitants of which were under British protection and overlordship. And Michael Crane knew, from the perusal of certain papers which he received, notably from the North China Gazette of Shanghai, that in the present world war these people had been uncompromisingly loyal. It was, therefore, to be assumed, by logical juxtaposition, that the others, the yellow caps, who were in the majority, favored the cause of the Central Powers as much as they thought about such a remote matter at all.

And right here, the mysterious, suave, immaculate figure of Herr Professor Hans Mengel came into the focus.

He was a favorite with the yellow caps. He stood high in their councils. He would doubtless play a big role during the coming election, as soon as Tengso Punlup had died. Though a European, a white man, he was acknowledged to be the leading authority on northern Buddhism and, as such, looked up to by the lama priests.

But--mused Michael Crane--given the fact that the yellow caps were in the majority, that one of the Lara clan was practically certain to be chosen chief abbot, why had the Berlin government, which Mengel doubtless represented, gone to the trouble of sending him here, to Urga?

Just to make assurance doubly sure?

Or was it perhaps---

Perhaps--what?

He shook his head. His thoughts became confused, muddled. He only knew that for some vague reason, which he could not quite decipher, it was important for the cause of America and her allies, whom he represented, that the yellow caps should be defeated at the coming election to Subhuti's saintly succession.

Back in his old Chicago ward, he would have known how to handle the situation. At least, he might have made an attempt. There he knew the ropes that controlled the political machine of the ward, and they were simple enough; eloquence of tongue and, occasionally, the passive gift of seeing nothing and hearing nothing when a too--enthusiastic underling relied on clenched fist or even blackjack to lend force to his patriotic arguments.

As to eloquence, he had lived here a number of years and had learned just about enough Mongol to ask for food and drink and carry on an ordinary conversation. But right there his knowledge stopped. He knew nothing of those finer nuances and twists of language which make for power, and less of the theological undercurrents of northern Buddhism, while, on the other hand, Professor Hans Mengel spoke the local dialects like a native and was an authority in the mazes of their fantastic religion.

As to the other argument, that of brawny fist and significantly poised blackjack?

Tzu Po, the governor, had said something of the kind.

"If you should do anything at all," he had said with an elaborate wink, "I should be deaf and dumb and blind!"

But--had he meant that?

Michael Crane shook his head.

Of course, there were certain other tricks which he had learned in his earlier Chicago career, though he denied ever having used them, preferring to claim that he had become familiar with them through having watched and investigated the political tactics of the other great national party. There was for instance a clever and rather humorous method of stuffing the ballot boxes.

Ballot boxes! Here--in Outer Mongolia!

He laughed aloud at the thought, and then again, hopelessly, helplessly, despondently, he told himself that there was nothing, nothing he could do.

His lips relaxed into a melancholy smile. There was a precious bottle of French brandy he had received from Hongkong a few weeks earlier---

V.

HE could see the lighted windows of his low, warm stone house twinkling invitingly through the gathering night, and he pushed on, as fast as he could, through the crowds of priests, yellow caps and red caps, that were becoming denser with every step. They were all hurrying up the steep, slippery incline that led to the lamasery, and he knew what their hurry portended.

The chief abbot was on his deathbed, and it was the ancient rule of their faith that his successor should be chosen within half an hour of his death. For, since his spirit, which was the spirit of Subhuti, the Disciple of the Lord Gautama Buddha, migrated into the body of each successive chief abbot, it was not fitting that this same spirit should be homeless for a longer period than could be helped. Doubtless, the whisper had gone forth that Tengso Punlup might die almost any minute, and so they were hurrying, hurrying.

"Like vultures after carrion," the unpleasant simile came to Michael Crane as he pushed on.

Then, quite suddenly, the whirling limbs separated, the mass pushed on more hurriedly, more hectically than before, as, from the square tower that flanked the lamasery, a tremendous blending of sounds drifted down, a savage clash of cymbals and gongs, a hollow beating of drums, and the sobbing, intolerable, long-drawn wailing of human voices. "The abbot is dead! Tengso Punlup is dead! The spirit of Subhuti is clamoring for a home!" a gigantic yellow-capped priest chanted in a gurgling fervor of excitement.

Immediately, the cry was taken up:

"The abbot is dead--dead!"--in a mad refrain, an echoing monstrous chorus, high-pitched, quivering, swelling and decreasing in turns, dying away in thin, quavery, ludicrous tremolos, again bursting forth in thick, palpable fervency:

"Tengso Punlup is dead--dead! The spirit of Subhuti is clamoring for a home!"

And they pushed on, on, ever more of them pouring out of the little squat stone houses, from the streets and alleys, the low-roofed bazaars and the market place, regardless of the bitter cold, of the snow that thudded down moist-hissing into the flickering torches, of elbow and fist and foot, and occasionally, pricking dagger point. Only one thing mattered to them. They must reach the council hall of the lamasery as quickly as possible before the half-hour during which the spirit of Subhuti was permitted to roam in the outer ether was over, and muster there a sufficient number of priests to decide who should be the next chief abbot--yellow cap or red cap.

And the case of the latter was hopeless.

True, Crane noticed that so far they were in the majority. For they were mostly mountaineers from the Himalayas and the Shan states, fleet of foot, active and strong of arm, lean, agile, hard-bitten, while their enemies, who lived on the fat of this fertile northern land, rich in wheat and maize and cattle, were more sluggish and moved more slowly, more ponderously. But in another minute or two the yellow caps would outnumber the red caps five to one.

For a moment, the mad thought came to him to put himself squarely beneath this gate, to defend it against the yellow caps as a picked regiment, fighting a critical rearguard action, might defend a bridgehead.

Almost immediately, he gave up the idea. They would be up and at him like an avalanche. They would brush him aside like so much chaff. He would not be able to stay their progress for more than the fraction of a minute.

No!

It was hopeless, and he turned to go back to his comfortable, warm house, the open fire, the magazines and newspapers, and the brandy bottle when, twenty yards or so down the street, the brass--studded portals of one of the temples were flung wide and out stepped Professor Hans Mengel at the head of a procession of hundreds of yellow caps, his lean, highbred features sharply outlined in the flickering light of the torches.

Hard and ultra-efficient he seemed; sure of himself, his destiny, his country; serenely sure of success and achievement and triumph.

Michael Crane stifled a sob. He saw himself as he had been once: a young lawyer and politician of brilliant promises; and as he was today, in the autumn of his life: a drone, a failure, a drunkard.

Entrusted with the interests of America and her allies in this remote, half-forgotten corner of the world, utterly alone, convinced in his own heart that the election of a yellow-cap abbot would mean another German victory, he found himself helpless--and the thought, the knowledge was as bitter as gall.

On they came, the professor at the head. They were less than a dozen yards away from the marble gate through which they had to pass by ancient, unbreakable rule. Another minute, and they would be well up toward the lamasery. Five more minutes, and they would crowd the council hall, outnumbering the red caps who, somehow--and Crane never knew how--stood for the interests of America and her allies.

And he was helpless, helpless, and a great, choking rage rose in his throat.

VI.

THEN, with utter suddenness, a thought came to him. He laughed loudly, triumphantly, so that the German professor, now five or six yards away, looked up, astonished, slightly sneering.

"Drunk again, Mister American Consul?" he asked, his voice stabbing clear above the shuffling of feet and the murmuring voices of the priests.

But Michael Crane did not reply.

Quickly, he looked over his shoulder. He saw that the red caps were still in the majority--the red caps--who, somehow, were the friends of America and of her allies. Then he stepped squarely beneath the marble gate through which all priests who wished to go to the lamasery had to pass. He drew his revolver and, even as Professor Mengel, who understood too late, jumped forward, he pulled the trigger and shot himself through the heart.

At the very last moment, he had remembered the ancient Buddhist law that the body of a suicide means pollution unspeakable, that a priest may neither touch it nor step over it, and that the spot where the deed has been done must be made clean with many and lengthy ceremonies before priest or worshiper may set foot on or across it.

And so he died there--for his country---

"Pro Patria--for his country!"

That's what Tzu Po said, recollecting his Harvard Latinities, three days later, when a red-cap priest, a friend of America and her allies, was ceremoniously installed as chief abbot of Outer Mongolia amid the booming of the gongs and the braying of the conches.

 
 
 

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