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On Strike by Albert Payson Terhune

From The Popular Magazine

“Furthermore, howadji,” ventured Najib, who had not spoken for fully half an hour, but had been poring over a sheaf of shipment items scribbled in Arabic, “furthermore, I am yearnful to know who was the unhappy person the wicked general threatened. Or, of a perhaps, it was that poor general himself who was bethreatened by his padishah or by the—”

“What on earth are you babbling about, Najib?” absent-mindedly asked Logan Kirby, as he looked up from a month-old New York paper which had arrived by muleteer that day and which the expatriated American had been reading with pathetic interest.

Now, roused from his perusal by Najib's query, Logan saw that the little Syrian has ceased wrestling with the shipment items and was peering over his employer's shoulder, his beady eyes fixed in keen curiosity on the printed page.

“I enseeched you to tell me, howadji,” said Najib, “who has been threatening that poor general. Or, perchancely, who has been made to cower himself undertheneath of that fierce general's threatenings. See, it is there, howadji. There, in the black line at the left top end of the news. See?”

Following the guidance of Najib's stubby, unwashed finger, Kirby read the indicated headline:

  GENERAL STRIKE THREATENED

“Oh!” he answered, choking back a grin, “I see. There isn't any 'general,' Najib. And he isn't threatened. It means—”

“May the faces of all liars be blackened!” cried Najib in virtuous indignation. “And may the maker of the becurst newspage lie be doubly afflictioned! May his camels die and his wives cast dust upon his bared head! For he has befooled me, by what he has here enprinted. My heart went out with a sweet sorrowfulness for that poor general or for the folk he bethreatened. Whichever it might chance itself to be. And now the news person has made a jest of the truth. But he—”

Kirby's attempt at self-control went to pieces. He guffawed. Najib eyed him sourly; then said in icy reproof:

“It is known to all, howadji, that Sidi-ben-Hassan, the sheikh, was the wisest of men. And did not Sidi-ben-Hassan make known, in his book, that 'Laughter is for women and for hyenas'? Furthermore—”

“I'm sorry I laughed at you, Najib,” returned Kirby, with due penitence, “I don't wonder you got such an idea, from the headline. You see, I have read the story that goes under it. That's how I happen to know what it means. It means that several thousand workmen of several allied trades threatened to go on strike. That will tie up a lot of business, you see; along a lot of lines. It will mean a general tie-up—a—”

From Najib's blank face, the American saw his more or less technical explanation was going wide. Still remorseful at having hurt his factotum's feelings, Kirby laid the paper aside and undertook to simplify the matter.

“It's like this,” said he. “We'll say a gang of men aren't satisfied with the pay or the hours they are getting. They asked for more money or for shorter hours; or for both. If the demand is refused, they stop working. They won't go back to their jobs till they get the cash and the hours they want. That is known as 'going on strike.' When a number of concerns are involved in it, it's sometimes called 'a general strike.' This paper says a general strike is threatened. That means—”

“I apperceive it, howadji!” exclaimed Najib. “I am onward to it, now. I might have known the printed page cannot lie. But, oh, my heart berends itself when I think of the sad fate of those poor folk who do the stroking! Of an assuredly, Allah hath deprived them of wisdom!

“Not necessarily,” argued Kirby, wondering at his henchman's outburst of sympathy for union labourers so many thousand miles away. “They may win, you know; or, at least, get a compromise. And their unions will support them while they are out of work. Of course, they may lose. And then—”

“But when they make refusal to do their work,” urged Najib, “will not the soldiers of the pasha cut them to ribbons with the kourbash and drive them back to their toil? Or if the pasha of that pashalik is a brutesome man, will not he cast those poor fellaheen into the prison and beseize their goods? And I answer, howadji, he will. Wherefore my eyes are tearing, for the men who have so unlucklessly—”

“Hold on!” exhorted Kirby; albeit despairing of opening the mind of a man whose forebears for thousands of years had lived in a land where the corvee—forced labour—was a hallowed institution; and where the money of employers could always enlist the aid of government soldiery to keep the fellaheen at their tasks. “Hold on! That sort of thing is dead and done with. Even in the East. Chinese Gordon stamped out the last of it, in Egypt, years ago. If a man doesn't want to work, he can't be forced to. All his boss can do is to fire him and try to get some one in his place. When a whole factory of men strike—especially if there are any big contract orders to fill in a rush—the employers sometimes find it cheaper to give them what they want than to call in untrained strikebreakers. On the other hand, sometimes, the boss can bring the men to terms. It all depends.”

Yielding to the human joy of imparting instruction to so interested a listener, Kirby launched forth into an elaboration of his theme; trying to expound something of the capital-and-labour situation to his follower; and secretly wondering at the keen zest wherewith his words were listened to.

Seldom was Kirby so successful in making Najib follow so long an oration. And he was pleased with his own new-found powers of explaining Occidental customs to an Oriental mind.

Now, Logan Kirby knew the tangled Syrian character and its myriad queer slants, as well as it can be given to a white man to know it. Kirby's father had been a missionary, at Nablous. He himself had been born there, and had spent his boyhood at the mission. That was why—after he had completed his engineering course at Columbia's school of mines and had served an apprenticeship in Colorado and Arizona—the Cabell Smelting Company of New York had sent him out to the Land of Moab, as manager of its new-acquired little antimony mine.

The mine—a mere prospect shaft—was worked by about thirty fellaheen—native labourers—supervised by a native guard of twelve Turkish soldiers. Small as was the plant, it was a rich property and it was piling up dividends for the Cabells. Antimony, in the East, is used in a score of ways—from its employment in the form of kohl, for the darkening of women's eyes, to the chemical by-products, always in demand by Syrian apothecaries.

This was the only antimony mine between Aden and Germany. Its shipments were in constant demand. Its revenues were a big item on the credit side of the Cabell ledger.

Kirby's personal factotum, as well as superintendent of the mine, was this squat little Syrian, Najib, who had once spent two blissfully useless years with an All Nations Show, at Coney Island; and who there had picked up a language which he proudly believed to be English; and which he spoke exclusively when talking with the manager.

Kirby's rare knowledge of the East had enabled the mine to escape ruin a score of times where a manager less conversant with Oriental ways must have blundered into some fatal error in the handling of his men or in dealing with the local authorities.

Remember, please, that in the East it is the seemingly insignificant things which bring disaster to the feringhee, or foreigner. For example, many an American or European has met unavenged death because he did not realize that he was heaping vile affront upon his Bedouin host by eating with his left hand. Many a foreign manager of labour has lost instant and complete control over his fellaheen by deigning to wash his own shirt in the near-by river or for brushing the dirt from his own clothes. Thereby he has proved himself a labourer, instead of a master of men. Many a foreigner has been shot or stabbed for speaking to a native whom he thought afflicted with a fit and who was really engaged in prayer. Many more have lost life or authority by laughing at the wrong time or by glancing—with entire absence of interest, perhaps—at some passing woman.

Yes, Kirby had been invaluable to his employers by virtue of his inborn knowledge of Syrian ways. Yet, now, he was not enough of an Oriental to understand why his lecture on the strike system should thrill his listener.

He did not pause to realize that the idea of strikes was one which carries a true appeal to the Eastern imagination. It has all the elements of revenge, of coercion, and of trapping, of wily give-and-take, and of simple and logical gambling uncertainty, which characterize the most popular of the Arabian Nights yarns and which have made those tales remain as Syrian classics for more than ten centuries.

“It is of an assuredly a pleasing and noble plan,” applauded Najib when Kirby finished the divers ramifications of his discourse. “And I do not misdoubt but what that cruel general betrembled himself inside of his boots when they threatened to strike. If the stroking ones may not be lawfully attackled by the pashalik troops, indeed must the general—”

“I told you there wasn't any general!” interrupted Kirby, jarred that his luminous explanations had still left Najib more or less where it found him, so far as any lucid idea was concerned. “And I've wasted enough time trying to ding the notion of the thing into your thick head. If you've got those shipment items catalogued, go back to the shaft and check off the inventory. The first load ought to be on the way to the coast before sunrise to-morrow. Chase!”

As he picked up the duplicate sets of the list and ran over their items once more, Kirby tried to forget his own silly annoyance at his failure to make the dull little Syrian comprehend a custom that had never reached the Land of Moab.

Presently, in his absorption in his work, the American forgot the whole incident. It was the beginning of a rush period at the mine—the busiest month in its history was just setting in. The Alexandretta-bound shipment of the morrow was but the first of twelve big shipments scheduled for the next twenty-nine days.

The restoration of peace and the shutting out of several Central European rivals had thrown an unprecedented sheaf of rush orders on the Cabell mine. It was such a chance as Kirby had longed for; a chance to show his rivals' customers the quality of the Cabell product and the speed and efficiency wherewith orders could and would be filled by him. If he could but fill these new customers' orders in quicker and more satisfactory fashion than the firms were accustomed to receiving, it might well mean that the new buyers would stick to the Cabells, after the other mines should again be in operation.

It was a big chance, as Kirby had explained at some length to Najib, during the past few weeks. At his behest, the little superintendent had used every known method to get extra work and extra speed out of the fellaheen; and, by judicious baksheesh, had even impressed to the toil several members of the haughty, Turkish guard and certain folk from the nearest hill village.

As a result, the first shipment was ready for the muleteers to carry coastward a full week ahead of schedule time. And the contract chanced to be one for which the eager wholesalers at Alexandretta had agreed to pay a bonus for early arrival. The men were even now busy getting a second shipment in shape for transportation by mule train to Tiberias and thence by railway to Damascus.

The work was progressing finely. Kirby thrilled at the thought. And he was just a little ashamed of his own recent impatience at Najib, when he remembered how the superintendent was pushing the relays of consignments along. After all, he mused, it was no reflection on Najib's intelligence that the poor little chap could not grasp the whole involved Occidental strike system in one hasty lecture; and that his simple mind clung to the delusion that there was some fierce general involved in it. In the Arabian Nights was there not always a scheming sultan or a baffled wazir, in every clash with the folk of the land? Was it unnatural that Najib should have substituted for these the mythical general of whom he thought he had seen mention in the news headline?

But, soon after dusk, Kirby had reason to know that his words had not all fallen on barren soil. At close of the working day, Najib had brought the manager the usual diurnal report from the mine. Now, after supper, Kirby, glancing over the report again, found a gap of terse yet complete reports. And occasionally Kirby was obliged to summon his henchman to correct or amend the day's tally sheet.

Wherefore, the list in his hand, the American strolled down from his own knoll-top tent toward Najib's quarters. As Najib was superintendent, and thus technically an official, Kirby could make such domiciliary visits without loss of prestige, instead of summoning the Syrian to his presence by handclap of by messenger, as would have been necessary in dealing with any of the other employees.

Najib's hut lay a hundred yards beyond the hollow where the fellaheen and soldiers were encamped. For Najib, too, had a dignity to uphold. He might no more lodge or break bread with his underlings than might Kirby with him. Yet, at times, preparatory to pattering up the knoll for his wonted evening chat with the American at the latter's campfire, Najib would so far unbend as to pause at the fellaheen's camp for a native discussion of many gestures and much loud talking.

So it was to-night. Just outside the radius of the fellaheen's firelight, Kirby paused. For he heard Najib's shrill voice uplifted in speech. And amusedly he halted and prepared to turn back. He had no wish to break in upon a harangue so interesting as the speaker seemed to find this one.

Najib's voice was pitched far above the tones of normal Eastern conversation;—louder and more excited even than that of a professional story-teller. In Syria it is hard to believe that these professionals are merely telling an oft-heard Arabian Nights narrative; and not indulging in delirium or apoplexy.

Yet at a stray word of Najib's, Kirby checked involuntarily his own retreat; and paused again to look back. There stood Najib, in the center of the firelit circle; hands and head in wild motion. Around him, spell-bound, squatted the ring of his dark-faced and unwashed hearers. The superintendent, being with his own people, was orating in pure Arabic—or, rather, in the colloquial vernacular which is as close to pure Arabic as one can expect to hear, except among the remoter Bedouins.

“Thus it is!” he was declaiming. “Even as I have sought to show you, oh, addle-witted offspring of mangy camels and one-eyed mules! In that far country, when men are dissatisfied with their wage, they take counsel together and they say, one unto the other: 'Lo, we shall labour no more, unless our hire be greater and our toil hours less!' Then go they to their sheikh or whomever he be who hath hired them, and they say to him: 'Oh, favoured of Allah, behold we must have such and such wage and such and such hours of labour!' Then doth their sheikh cast ashes upon his beard and rend his garments. For doth he not know his fate is upon him and that his breath is in his nostrils? Yet will they not listen to his prayers; but at once they make 'strike.'

“Then doth their sheikh betake himself to the pasha with his grievance; beseeching the pasha, with many rich gifts, that he will throw those strike-making labourers into prison and scourge their kinsmen with the kourbash. But the pasha maketh answer, with tears: 'Lo, I am helpless! What saith the law? It saith that a man may make strike at will; and that his employer must pay what is demanded!' Now, this pasha is named 'General.' And his heart is as gall within him that he may not accept the rich gifts offered by the sheikh; and punish the labourers. Yet the law restraineth him. Then the sheikh, perchance, still refuseth the demands of his toilers. And they say to him then: 'If you will not employ us and on the terms we ordain, then shall ye hire none others, for we shall overthrow those whom you set in our places. And perchance we shall destroy your warehouses or barns or shops!' This say they, when they know he hath greatest need of them. Then boweth their master his head upon his breast and saith: 'Be it even as ye will, my hirelings! For I must obey!' And he giveth them, of his substance, whatsoever they may require. And all are glad. And under the new law, even in this land of ours, none may imprison or beat those who will not work. And all may demand and receive what wage they will. And—”

And Kirby waited to hear no more. With a groan of disgust at the orator's imbecility, he went back, up the hill, to his own tent.

There, he drew forth his rickety sea chair and placed it in front of a patch of campfire that twinkled in the open space in front of the tent door. For, up there in the hills, the nights had an edge of chill to them; be the days ever so hot.

Stretching himself out lazily in his long chair, Kirby exhumed from a shirt pocket his disreputable brier pipe, and filled and lighted it. The big white Syrian stars glinted down on him from a black velvet sky. Along the nearer peaks and hollows of the Moab Mountains, the knots of prowling jackals kept up a running chorus of yapping—a discordant chant punctuated now and then by the far-away howl of a hunting wolf; or, by the choking “laugh” of a hyena in the valley below, who thus gave forth the news of some especially delicious bit of carrion discovered among the rocks.

And Kirby was reminded of Najib's quoted dictum that “laughter is for women and for hyenas.” The memory brought back to him his squat henchman's weird jumbling of the strike system. And he smiled in reminiscent mirth.

The Syrian had been his comrade in many a vicissitude And he knew that Najib's fondness for him was as sincere as can be that of any Oriental for a foreigner, an affection based not wholly on self-interest. Kirby enjoyed his evening powwows with superintendent beside the campfire; and the little man's amazing faculty for mangling the English tongue.

He rather missed Najib's presence to-night. But he was not to miss it for long. Just as he was about to knock out his pipe and go to bed, the native came pattering up the slope on excitedly rapid feet; and squatted as usual on the ground beside the American's lounging chair. In Najib's manner there was a scarce-repressed jubilant thrill. His beady eyes shone wildly. Hardly had he seated himself when he broke the custom of momentary grave silence by blurting forth:

“Furthermore, howadji, I am the bearer of gladly tidings which will make you to beshout yourself aloud for joyfulness and leap about and besclaim: 'Pretty fair!' and other words of a grand rapture. For the bird will sing gleesome dirges in your heart!”

“Well?” queried Kirby in no especial excitement. “I'm listening. But if the news is really so wonderful you surely took your time in bringing it. I've been here all evening, while you've stayed below there, trying to increase those fellaheens' stock of ignorance. What's the idea?”

“Oh, I prythee you, do not let my awayness beget your goat, howadji!” pleaded Najib, ever sensitive to any hint of reproof from his master. “It was that which made the grand tidings. If I had not of been where I have been this evening—and doing what I have done—there would not be any tidings at all. I made the tidings myself. Both of them. And I made them for you. Is it that I may now tell them to you, howadji?”

“Go ahead,” adjured Kirby, humouring the wistful eagerness of the man. “What's the news you have for me?”

“It is more than just a 'news,' howadji,” corrected Najib with jealous regard for shades of meaning. “It is a tidings. And it is this: You and my poor self and the fellaheen and even those hell-selected pashalik soldiers—we are all to be rich. Most especially you, howadji. Wealthiness bewaits us all. No longer shall any of us be downward and outward from povertude. No more shall any of us toil early and belatedly. We shall all live in easiness of hours and with much payment. Inshallah! Alhandulillah!” he concluded, his rising excitement for once bursting the carefully nourished bounds of English and overflowing into Arabic expletive.

Noting his own lapse into his native language, he looked sheepishly at Kirby, as though hoping the American had not heard the break. Then, with mounting eagerness, Najib struck the climax of his narrative.

“To speak with a briefness, howadji,” he proclaimed grandiloquently. “We have all stroked ourselfs!”

“You've all done—what?” asked the puzzled Kirby.

“Not we alone, howadji,” amended Najib, “but you also! We would not berich ourselves and leave you outward in the plan. It is you also who are to stroke yourself. And—”

“For the love of Heaven!” exclaimed Kirby in sudden loss of patience. “What are you driving at? What do you mean about 'stroking yourselves'? Say it in Arabic. Then perhaps I can find what you mean.”

“It is not to be said in the Arabic, howadji,” returned Najib, wincing at this slur on his English. “For there is not such a thing in the Arabic as to make strike. We make strike. Thus I say it we 'stroke ourselves.' If it is the wrong way for saying it—”

“Strike?” repeated Kirby, perplexed. “What do you mean? Are you still thinking about what I told you to-day? If you are going—”

“I have bethought of it, howadji, ever since,” was the reply. “And it is because of my much bethoughting that I found my splenderous plan. That is my tidings. I bethought it all out with tremense clearness and wiseness. Then I told those others, down yonder. At first they were of a stupidity. For it was so new. But at last I made them understand. And they rejoiced of it. So it is all settled most sweetly. You may not fear that they will not stand by it. As soon as that was made sure I came to you to tell—”

“Najib!” groaned Kirby, his head awhirl. “Will you stop chewing chunks of indigestible language, and tell me what you are jabbering about? What was it you thought over? And what is 'all settled'? What will—”

“The strike, of an assuredly,” explained Najib, as if in pity of his chief's denseness. “To-night we make strike. All of us. That is one tiding. And you, too, make strike with us. That is the other tiding. Making two tidings. We make strike. To-morrow we all sleep late. No work is to be made. And so it shall be, on each dear and nice and happy day, until Cabell Effendi—be his sons an hundred and his wives true!—shall pay us the money we ask and make short our hours of toil. Then—”

Kirby sought to speak. But his breath was gone. He only gobbled. Taking the wordless sound for a token of high approval, Najib hastened on, more glibly, with his program.

“On the to-morrow's morning, howadji,” he said, “we enseech that you will write a sorrowsome letter to Cabell Effendi, in the Broad Street of New York; and say to him that all of us have made strike and that we shall work no more until we have from his hands a writing that our payment shall be two mejidie for every mejidie we have been capturing from his company. Also and likewise that we shall work but half time. And that you, howadji, are to receive even as we; save only that your wage is to be enswollen to three times over than what it is now. And say to him, howadji, that unless he does our wish in this striking we shall slay all others whom he may behire in our place and that we shall dynamitely destroy that nice mine. Remind him, howadji—if perchancely he does not know of such things—that the law is with us. Say, moreoverly, that there be many importanceful shipments and contracts just now. And say he will lose all if he be so bony of head as to refuse us. Furthermore, howadji, tell him, I prythee you, that we—”

A veritable yell from Kirby broke in on the smug instructions. The American had recovered enough of his breath to expend a lungful of it in one profane bellow. In a flash he visualized the whole scene at the fellaheens' quarters—Najib's crazy explanation of the strike system and of the supposed immunity from punishment that would follow sabotage and other violence; the fellaheens' duller brains gradually seizing on the idea until it had become as much a part of their mucilaginous mentality as the Koran itself; and Najib's friendly desire that Kirby might share in the golden benefits of the new scheme.

Yes, the American grasped the whole thing at once; his knowledge of the East foretelling to him its boundless possibilities for mischief and for the ruin of the mine's new prosperity. He fairly strangled with the gust of wrath and impotent amaze which gripped him.

Najib smiled up at him as might a dog that had just performed some pretty new trick, or a child who has brought to its father a gift. But the aspect of Kirby's distorted face there in the dying firelight shocked the Syrian into a grunt of terror. Scrambling to his feet, he sputtered quaveringly.

“Tame yourself, howadji, I enseech you! Why are you not rejoiceful? Will it not mean much money for you; and—”

“You mangy brown rat!” shouted Kirby in fury. “What in blazes have you done? You know, as well as I do, that such an idea will never get out of those fellaheens' skulls, once it's really planted there. They'll believe every word of that wall-eyed rot you've been telling them! And they'll go on a genuine strike on the strength of it. They'll—”

“Of an assuredly, howadji, they will,” assented the bewildered Najib. “I made me very assured of that. Four times I told it all over to them, until even poor Imbarak—whose witfulness hath been beblown out from his brain by the breath of the Most High—until even Imbarak understood. But why it should enrouse you to a lionsome raging I cannot think. I bethought you would be pleasured—”

“Listen to me!” ordered Kirby, fighting hard for self-control and forcing himself to speak with unnatural slowness. “You've done more damage than if you had dynamited the whole mine and then turned a river into the shaft. This kind of news spreads. In a week there won't be a worker east of the Jordan who won't be a strike fan. And these people here will work the idea a step farther. I know them. They'll decide that if one strike is good, two strikes are better. And they will strike every week—loafing between times.”

This prospect brought a grin of pure bliss to Najib's swarthy face. He looked in new admiration upon his farsighted chief. Kirby went on:

“Not that that will concern us. For this present strike will settle the Cabell mine. It means ruin to our business here, and the loss of all your jobs, as well as my own. Why, you idiot, can't you see what you've done? If you don't take that asinine grin off your ugly face, I'll knock it off!” he burst out, his hard-held patience momentarily fraying.

Then, taking new hold on his self-control, Kirby began again to talk. As if addressing a defective child, which, as a matter of fact, he was doing, he expounded the hideous situation.

He explained the disloyalty to the Cabells of such a move as Najib had planned. He pointed out the pride he and Najib had taken in the new business they had secured for the home office; and the fact that this new business had brought an increase of pay to them both as well as to the fellaheen. He showed how great a triumph for the mine was this vast increase of business; and the stark necessity of impressing the new customers by the promptitude and uniform excellence of all shipments. He pointed out the utter collapse to this and to all the rest of the mine's connections which a strike would entail. Najib listened unmoved.

Hopeless of hammering American ethics into the brain of an Oriental, Kirby set off at a new angle. He explained the loss of prestige and position which he himself would suffer. He would be discharged—probably by cable—for allowing the mine's bourgeoning prosperity to go to pieces in such fashion. Another and less lenient and understanding manager would be sent out to take his place. A manager whose first official act would probably be the discharging of Najib as the cause of the whole trouble.

Najib listened to this with a new interest, but with no great conviction.

Even Kirby's declaration that the ridiculous strike be a failure, and that the government would assuredly punish any damage done to the Cabell property, did not serve to impress him. Najib was a Syrian. An idea once firm-rooted in his mind, was loathe to let itself be torn thence by mere words. Kirby waxed desperate.

“You have wrecked this whole thing!” he stormed. “You got an idiotically wrong slant on what I told you about strikes to-day; and you have ruined us all. Even if you should go down there to the quarters this minute and tell the men that you were mistaken and that the strike is off—you know they wouldn't believe you. And you know they would go straight ahead with the thing. That's the Oriental of it. They'd refuse to go on working. And our shipments wouldn't be delivered. None of the ore for the next shipments would be mined. The men would just hang about, peacefully waiting for the double pay and the half time that you've promised them.”

“Of an assuredly, that is true, howadji,” conceded Najib. “They would—”

“They will!” corrected Kirby with grim hopelessness.

“But soon Cabell Effendi will reply to your letter,” went on Najib. “And then the double paying—”

“To my letter!” mocked the raging Kirby.

Then he paused, a sudden inspiration smiting him.

“Najib,” he continued after a minute of concentrated thought, “you have sense enough to know one thing: You have sense enough to know you people can't get that extra pay till I write to Mr. Cabell and demand it for you. There's not another one of you who can write English. There's no one here but yourself who can speak or understand it or make shift to spell out a few English words in print And Mr. Cabell doesn't know a word of Arabic—let alone the Arabic script. And your own two years at Coney Island must have shown you that no New Yorkers would know how to read an Arabic letter to him. Now I swear to you, by every Christian and Moslem oath, that I shan't write such a letter! So how are you going to get word to him that you people are on strike and that you won't do another lick of work till you get double pay and half time? How are you going to do that?”

Najib's solid face went blank. Here at last was an argument that struck home. He had known Kirby for years, long enough to know that the American was most emphatically a man of his word. If Kirby swore he would not act as the men's intermediary with the company, then decisively Kirby would keep his oath. And Najib realized the futility of getting any one else to write such a letter in any language which the Cabell Smelting Company's home office would decipher.

He peered up at Kirby with disconsolate astonishment. Quick to take advantage of the change, the manager hurried on:

“Now, the men are on strike. That's understood. Well what are you and they going to do about it? When the draft for the monthly pay roll comes to the bank, at Jerusalem as usual, I shall refuse to indorse it. I give you my oath on that, too. I am not going to distribute the company's cash among a bunch of strikers. Without my signature, the bank won't cash the draft. You know that. Well, how are you going to live, all of you, on nothing a month? When the present stock of provisions gives out I'm not going to order them renewed. And the provision people in Jerusalem won't honour any one's order for them but mine. This is the only concern in Syria to-day that pays within forty per cent, of the wages you chaps are getting. With no pay and no food you're due to find your strike rather costly. For when the mine shuts down I'm going back to America. There'll be nothing to keep me here. I'll be ruined, in any case. You people will find yourself without money or provisions. And if you go elsewhere for work it will be at a pay that is only a little more than half what you are getting now. Your lookout isn't cheery, my striking friend!”

He made as though to go into his tent. After a brief pause of horror, Najib pattered hurriedly and beseechingly in his wake.

“Howadji!” pleaded the Syrian shakily. “Howadji! You would not, in the untamefulness of your mad, desertion us like that? Not me, at anyhow? Not me, who have loved you as Daoud the Emir loved Jonathan of old! You would not forsook me, to starve myself! Aie! Ohe!

“Shut up that ungodly racket!” snapped Kirby, entering his tent and lighting his lamp, as the first piercing notes of the traditional mourner chant exploded through the unhappy Najib's wide-flung jaws. “Shut up! You'll start every hyena and jackal in the mountains to howling! It's bad enough as it is without adding a native concert to the rest of the mess.”

“But, howadji!” pleaded Najib.

“Taman!” growled Kirby, summarily speaking the age-hallowed Arabic word for the ending of all interviews.

“But I shall be beruinated, howadji!” tearfully insisted Najib.

Covertly the American watched his henchman while pretending to make ready for bed. If he had fully and permanently scared Najib into a conviction that the strike would spell ruin for the Syrian himself, then the little man's brain might possibly be jarred into one of its rare intervals of uncanny craftiness; and Najib might hit upon some way of persuading the fellaheen that the strike was off.

This was Kirby's sole hope. And he knew it. Unless the fellaheen could be so convinced, it meant the strike would continue until it should break the mine as well as the mine's manager. Kirby knew of no way to persuade the men. The same arguments which had crushed Najib would mean nothing to them. All their brains could master at one time, without the aid of some uprooting shock, was that henceforth they were to get double pay and half labour.

A calm fatalism of hopelessness, bred perhaps of his long residence in the homeland of fatalism began to creep over Kirby. In one hour his golden ambitions for the mine and for himself had been smashed. At best he saw no hope of getting the obsessed mine crew to work soon enough to save his present contracts. He would be lucky if, on non-receipt of their demanded increase, they did not follow Najib's muddled preachments to the point of sabotage.

The more he thought of it, the less possible did it seem to Kirby that Najib could undo the damage he had so blithely done. Ordering the blubbering little fellow out of the tent and refusing to speak or listen further, Kirby went to bed.

Oddly enough, he slept. There was nothing to worry about. When a man's job or fortune are imperilled sleep vanishes. But after the catastrophe what sense is there in lying awake? Depression and nervous fatigue threw Kirby into a troubled slumber. Only once in the night was he roused.

Perhaps two hours before dawn he started up at sound of a humble scratching at the open door flap of his tent. On the threshold cowered Najib.

“Furthermore, howadji,” came the Syrian's woe-begone voice through the gloom, “could I borrow me a book if I shall use it with much carefulness?”

Too drowsy to heed the absurdity of such a plea at such an hour, Kirby grumbled a surly assent, and dozed again as he heard Najib rumbling, in the dark, among the shelves of the packing-box bookcase in a far corner of the tent. Here were stored nearly a hundred old volumes which had once been a part of the missionary library belonging to Kirby's father at Nablous. A few years earlier, at the moving of the mission, the dead missionary's scanty library had been shipped across country to his son.

Kirby awoke at greyest daylight. Through force of habit he woke at this hour; in spite of the workless day which he knew confronted him. It was his custom to get up and take his bath in the rain cistern at this time, and to finish dressing just as the men piled out for the morning's work.

Yet now the first sounds that smote his ears as he opened his eyes were the rhythmic creak of the mine windlass and equally rhythmic, if less tuneful, chant of the men who were working it;

“All-ah sa-eed!—Ne-bi sa-eed! Ohe! Sa-eed! Sa-eed! Sa-EED!”

In the distance, dying away, he heard the plodding hoofs of a string of pack mules. From the direction of the mine came the hoodlum racket which betokens, in Syria, the efforts of a number of honest labourers to perform their daily tasks in an efficient and orderly way.

Kirby, in sleepy amaze, looked at his watch in the dim dawn light. He saw it was still a full half hour before the men were due to begin work. And by the sounds he judged that the day's labour was evidently well under way. Yes, and to-day there was to have been no work done!

Kirby jumped out of bed and strode dazedly to his tent door. At the mine below him his fellaheen were as busy as so many dirty and gaudy bees. Even the lordly lazy Turkish soldiers were lending a hand at windlass and crane. Over the nick of the pass, leading toward Jerusalem, the last animal of a mule train was vanishing. Najib, who had as usual escorted the departing shipment of ore to the opening in the pass, was trotting back toward camp.

At sight of Kirby in the tent door the little superintendent veered from his course toward the mine and increased his pace to a run as he bore down upon the American. Najib's swart face was aglow. But his eyes were those of a man who has neglected to sleep. His cheeks still bore flecks of the dust he had thrown on his head when Kirby had explained the wreck of his scheme and of his future. There, in all likelihood, the dust smears would remain until the next rain should wash them off. But, beyond these tokens of recent mental strife, Najib's visage shone like a full moon that is streaked by dun dust clouds.

“Furthermore, howadji!” he hailed his chief as soon as he was within earshot, “the shipment for Alexandretta is on its wayward—over than an hour earlier than it was due to bestart itself. And those poor hell-selected fellaheen are betoiling themselfs grand. Have I done well, oh, howadji?”

“Najib!” stammered Kirby, still dazed.

“And here is that most sweet book of great worthiness and wit, which I borrowed me of you in the night, howadji,” pursued Najib, taking from the soiled folds of his abieh a large old volume, bound in stout leather, after the manner of religious or scientific books of a half-century ago. On the brown back a scratched gold lettering proclaimed the gruesome title:

“Martyrs of Ancient and Modern Error.”

Well did Kirby know the tome. Hundreds of times, as a child, had he sat on the stone floor of his father's cell-like mission study at Nablous, and had pored in shuddering fascination over its highly coloured illustrations. The book was a compilation—chiefly in the form of multichrome pictures with accompanying borders of text—of all the grisly scenes of martyrdom which the publishers had been able to scrape together from such classics as “Fox's Book of Martyrs” and the like. Twice this past year he had surprised Najib scanning the gruesome pages in frank delight.

“I betook the book to their campfire, howadji, and I smote upon my breast and I bewept me and I wailed aloud and I would not make comfort. Till at last they all awoken and they came out of their huts and they reviled at me for disturbing them as they slept themselfs so happily. Then I spake much to them. And all the time I teared with my eyes and moaned aloudly.

“But,” put in Kirby, “I don't see what this—”

“In a presently you shall, howadji. Yesterday I begot your goat. To-day I shall make you to frisk with peacefulness of heart. Those fellaheen cannot read. They are not of an education, as I am. And they know my wiseness in reading. For over than a trillion times I have told them. And they believe. Pictures also they believe. Just as men of an education believe the printed word; knowing full well it could not be printed if it were not Allah's own truth. Well, these folk believe a picture, if it be in a book. So I showed them pictures. And I read the law which was beneath the pictures. They heard me read. And they saw the pictures with their own eyesight. So what could they do but believe? And they did. Behold, howadji!”

Opening the volume with respectful care, Najib thumbed the yellowing pages. Presently he paused at a picture which represented in glaring detail a stricken battlefield strewn with dead and dying Orientals of vivid costume. In the middle distance a regiment of prisoners was being slaughtered in a singularly bloodthirsty fashion. The caption, above the cut, read:

“Destruction of Sennacherib's Assyrian Hosts, by the People of Israel.”

“While yet they gazed joyingly on this noble picture,” remarked Najib, “I read to them the words of the law about it. I read aloudly, thus: 'This shall be the way of punishing all folk who make strike hereafter this date.' Then,” continued Najib, “I showed to them another pretty and splendid picture. See!”

“Martyrdom of John Rogers, His Wife and Their Nine Children.”

“And,” proclaimed Najib, “of this sweet portrait I read thus the law: 'So shall the wifes and the offsprungs of all strike-makers be put to death; and those wicked strike-makers themselfs along with them.' By the time I had shown them six or fifteen of such pictures and read them the law for each of them, those miserable fellaheen and guards were beweeping themselfs harder and louder and sadder than I had seemed to. Why, howadji, it was with a difficultness that I kept them from running away and enhiding themselfs in the mountains, lest the soldiers of the pasha come upon them at once and punish them for trying to make strike! But I said I would intercede with you to make you merciful of heart toward them, to spare them and not to tell the law what they had so sinsomely planned to do I said I would do this, for mine own sake as well as for theirs, and that I knew I could wake you to pity. But I said it would perchancely soften your heart toward them, if all should work harder to atone themselfs for the sin they had beplotted. Wherefore, howadji, they would consent to sleep no more; but they ran henceforthly and at once to the mine. They have been onto the job ever since. And, howadji, they are jobbing harder than ever I have seen men bejob themselfs. Am I forgiven, howadji?” he finished timidly.

“Forgiven!” yelled Kirby, when he could speak. “Why, you eternal little liar, you're a genius! My hat is off to you! This ought to be worth a fifty-mejidie bonus. And—”

“Instead of the bonus, howadji,” ventured Najib, scared at his own audacity, yet seeking to take full advantage of this moment of expansiveness, “could I have this pleasing book as a baksheesh gift?”

“Take it!” vouchsafed Kirby. “The thing gives me bad dreams. Take it!”

“May the houris make soft your bed in the Paradise of the Prophet!” jabbered Najib, in a frenzy of gratitude, as he hugged the treasured gift to his breast. “And—and, howadji, there be more pictures I did not show. They will be of a nice convenience, if ever again it be needsome to make a new law for the mine.”

“But—”

“Oh, happy and pretty decent hour!” chortled the little man, petting his beloved volume as if it were a loved child and executing a shuffling and improvised step-dance of unalloyed rapture. “This book has been donationed to me because I was brave enough to request for it while yet your heart was warm at me, howadji. It is even as your sainted feringhee proverb says: 'Never put off till to-morrow the—the—man who may be done, to-day!'“