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Authors: Geoffrey Household

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“Softly, softly, catcha da monkey,” he murmured, and then added, seeing her bewilderment: “That means I really don’t know myself.”

There was charm in his crooked smile, but Armande had long ceased to have pity for mysterious males who wanted to ask questions. Moreover, French Security had never visited her in a lower
manifestation than captain, and a good-looking one at that.

“If you are some sort of policeman,’ she said sharply, “you ought to know.”

“I don’t think I’m any sort of policeman. Just an ordinary egg.”

“And if you want all the details about me, they are in my dossier at the Sureté Générate.”

“I know they are,” he answered. “That’s why I only want to talk to you.”

“But conversation with you is so difficult,” said Armande, relenting. “It’s all bits and pieces. Surely that isn’t the best way to find out what you
want?”

“Well, you know, afterwards, when one thinks about what the other person said, there’s something that sticks in the loaf.”

“Is there?” she asked kindly. “And do you enjoy your work?”

“Yes. I like to deal with people without trying to get money out of them. Have you ever noticed that when you really use the loaf on a stranger in civil life you’re always trying to
make money?”

Armande froze at this vulgarity and its implication.

“I don’t mean you,” he explained. “I meant all of us—all of us.”

“I think you must have been a commercial traveller.”

“Sometimes. And once I roosted in a crook employment agency. Didn’t know it was one till I’d been there a month.”

He laughed ironically.

“So you can run straight now?” she asked.

“Oh, quite straight! The army is like a socialist republic, you know. No temptation to make money.”

“I should have thought you had considerable temptations.”

“But you don’t take ’em. That’s what I mean.”

“I think I see,’ she replied, “though you said just the opposite to what you mean.”

“I usually do.”

“Isn’t it awkward?”

“Not a bit. It has the advantage that damned fools can’t understand what I am talking about.”

“Is that an advantage?” asked Armande, at last interested.

“Yes. For one thing you can classify the fools and the intelligent straight off.”

“But lonely.”

“All alone in one’s own bughouse,” he agreed. “Still, it is one’s own.”

Armande relaxed, and curled herself more gracefully into her chair. Her small head resting on one hand, she watched him with her individual and unconscious intensity of gaze. She was, by this
time, beginning to be a fair judge of security men, though her experience had been wholly of the French. This sergeant, she thought, could surely not be typical of the British service? Where were
the keen eye and the professional leading question? Where indeed was anything at all save a puzzled soul with some originality of expression? He hadn’t the faintest idea how to come to the
point. She felt discomfort and pity as if a blind man were groping to touch her; she wanted to make the interview as easy for him as possible.

“What was it you really wanted to know?” she asked.

“Nothing.”

“But you must have come with some idea?”

“I did. I haven’t got it any longer.”

“May I know what it was?”

“Cats!” he exclaimed, his odd-sized eyes staring at her, as if fixed in a moment of merriment.

“Yes?”

“I was only reminded of them. Intelligence tests. The doc says
curiosity
and you say
cats
, and then he makes a note on your card: ‘Will be fit for brigadier in
later stages of war if beard not too long’.”

“What are you thinking of now?” she asked invitingly.

“You know.”

Casually, abominably, he waved his hand in a gesture that included her room, her bed, herself, as if the disposal of the lot were a mere convenience.

Such coarseness produced, always, a cold anger in Armande. Her normal reaction was to shut up and be conscious of good breeding. She might lose a shade of colour, but indifference,
untouchability, were as obvious to the offender as to her. She was therefore horrified to feel herself blushing.

The sergeant watched her gravely. His attitude was more exasperating than ever. He had the impudence to look protective—the sort of swine, she thought, who fails to make physical contact
and then starts a sort of mental pawing.

“You know, you go all luscious and motherly,” he said, ignoring her embarrassment as if it were of no importance, “and then are surprised at the trouble it causes.”

“I do not!” snapped Armande, angry with herself for answering at all.

“Damn you!”

“Are you mad?”

“No, no,” he explained. “I was only helping. ‘I do not, damn you’, was what you wanted to say.”

“I never thought of it.”

“Then you should have thought of it.”

Armande rose.

“Tell your commanding officer,” she said, “that I shall be very pleased to give him any information he wants.”

“We only discuss such matters with the firm’s principals,” murmured Prayle. “Now pack up your little Hoover, and the office boy will see you safely past the
hatstand.”

Armande smiled faintly and politely, and then found that the corners of her mouth were quivering. The smile would not contract.

“I’ve tired you,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

She hesitated, and then answered simply:

“I am very tired. None of you leave me alone.”

“I suppose not. Well,
we
shan’t bother you any more.”

“Oh, come again if it’s your duty,” she said with weary courtesy.

“No need. I told you I hadn’t got my idea any more.”

“Good-bye then.”

“Tr
è
s bien!”
he exclaimed in an execrable French accent.

It was annoying to be patronised, but she did want to know why he had come.

“Tell me,” she said.

“It was just that all your men—no, not fair, that!—all these young men will have it that you belong to the British Secret Service as they call it.”

“I have never said or implied—” she began indignantly.

“I know you didn’t.”

“How do you know?”

“Because I’ve talked to you. You haven’t that kind of vanity. And you aren’t interested in money.”

“And suppose I wanted to get information out of them?” she suggested.

“Then a security sergeant would be a very useful friend. My approach was abrupt of course. And beastly true. Still, if you had been expecting something of the kind … As it was, your
gentle response—seven wise virgins with seven large lamps. Bang, bang! Crash, crash! All on your uncle’s noggin!”

“You are a vulgar beast,” said Armande with a half laugh.

“Yes. It’s a pity.”

“Stop it, then.”

“Stop it? Why should I stop it?” he answered with sudden bitterness. “What else is there?”

When Sergeant Prayle had left, Armande settled her aching head on the pillows and lay still, staring at the ceiling. She was exhausted by Prayle and the military in general. These men all gave
her a sense of being on the defensive, morally and sexually. Yet what on earth had she done? Stayed in Beirut when she should have left. That was all. Loujon thought she was a British agent. Prayle
thought—God knew what he thought! This ridiculous Prayle did not think at all. He jumped from one intuition to another.

Loujon was right. It was certainly time to do something. But what? She had two offers from senior officers at G.H.Q. who wanted personal private secretaries. When she pointed out that she knew
no shorthand and was a two-finger typist, they didn’t seem to think it mattered. Secretaries in Cairo were evidently very personal and private.

Nursing was attractive: intimate, and balanced and gentle. And scarlet and grey suited her—though she suspected that only regular nurses might wear them. She would have liked to give
herself to the care of sick and wounded if only there had been a chance of serious training in the Middle East. She could no doubt be useful washing dishes and sweeping the wards, but such humble
employment was a waste of her education and ability.

John was always asking her why she did not join one of the women’s services. There seemed to be any amount of them at home. In the Middle East they did not exist. Englishwomen, in fact,
were not supposed to be in the fortress at all. The wives and daughters who had managed to avoid evacuation were all passably efficient secretaries, or running indispensable canteens and funds.

Was there, she wondered, any sort of amateur intelligence work that she could do? Everyone assumed that she was fitted for it, though the opinions as to who might employ her apparently varied.
She remembered a hint thrown out by David Nachmias. He had only made a casual remark to the effect that there were interesting jobs around if one looked for them, but Abu Tisein was not
conversational without a purpose.

Although he was known to everyone and to Armande by his Arab nickname, he was a Jew, born and bred in Palestine. Upon his broad and muscular stern, a firm base for operations wherever he set it
down, he sat peacefully in the hotel listening to his excitable wife. When she disappeared, always in a flurry of smart scarves and feminine business, he sat on listening, equally peacefully, to
Moslem and Christian Arabs. His quiet manners, his quality of outward simplicity, appealed to Armande. What David Nachmias was doing in Beirut so soon after the occupation she had no idea. It was
pretty evident that the British approved of him. He was said to be one of the Arab experts of the Jewish Agency, and a mine of information on the politics and personalities of Syria.

In the afternoon she went down to the terrace of the hotel, sure of finding the Nachmiases. The crowded tables along the balustrade formed a semicircle between the sea and a dance floor. A band
played hopefully, but it was too soon after the hour of the beauty parlour for the women of Beirut to risk their complexions in the sticky heat. An Australian officer and a nurse, snatching a
moment of civilisation after months of disciplined discomfort, were laughing gaily and dancing stiffly, alone on the floor, completely indifferent to the flashy foreigners who watched.

Abu Tisein had chosen a table as far as possible from the band. He was moodily drinking coffee, while his wife’s plump hands fussed over the tea, the slices of lemon, the cakes and ice
cream. It was hard to guess their nationality or religion. Madame, tightly corseted in body and soul, outwardly expensive, was French to eye and ear. Abu Tisein, with his short hawk nose, clipped
moustache and powerful head, looked like a bored and prosperous Spanish manufacturer.

When their eyes met, Madame bowed and gave Armande a signal of round white fingers which the former
jeune fille bien
é
lev
é
e
recognised
as a masterpiece. It combined the geniality proper to a place of public amusement with all the etiquette of the upper bourgeoisie, and elected Armande as the only lone woman in the hotel who might
unquestionably and without further invitation join Mme. Nachmias at her table.

Armande went over to them, and was almost immediately served by a rushed waiter with a gin fizz. Tea was inadequate to deal with her odd combination of light-heartedness and a headache. She
approved of David Nachmias. He never appeared to give an order, and he never howled for the maître d’hôtel. While you were engaged with Madame or looking at the sea or criticizing
the Assyrian curls of Lebanese women, miniature gestures of thumb and forefinger played between Nachmias and the nearest waiter, and what you wanted appeared.

“How do you manage it?” she asked Abu Tisein.

She had never waited less than a quarter of an hour for a drink when sitting with anyone else.

“I am a Turk,” he said solidly. “I understand them.”


Mais, ch
é
ri!”
screeched Madame. “He is mad, my husband! He is no more a Turk than I am.”

“But everyone knows you were educated in France, my dear,” replied Abu Tisein with lazy irony—whether true or not, Madame took good care that it should be known. “Whereas
I am a child of the Ottoman Empire.”

Armande was affectionately amused by Mme. Nachmias’s excellent imitation of a Parisian lady who had been dragged to the Middle East against her will and only longed to return to Europe; it
might even have deceived her if she had not heard Madame deal with an offending chambermaid in a screaming flow of invective which left no doubt that Arabic was her mother tongue. Abu
Tisein’s wide Palestinian culture did not appeal at all to his wife. It smelled too much of humble origins.

“The Lebanese,” Armande remarked, “say that they preferred the Turks to the French.”

“Just because those were the good old times. All the world looks back to the days before 1914. Myself, I prefer Palestine and the Lebanon as they now are. But I admit I was content under
the Turks.”

“You were also younger,” Madame reminded him sharply.

“Yes, but it is not only that. In those days we were left in peace. So long as my people are left to multiply in peace, I do not care who governs—Turks or English or
Arabs.”

“David!” Madame protested. “One would think you passed your life in chewing melon seeds or smoking a nargileh!”

“I like to do both,” murmured Abu Tisein.

“He is impossible, Mme. Herne! Do not believe a word he says! Everyone knows that the Jewish Agency could not exist a moment without my husband. And to say that he would not mind being
ruled by Arabs! That, David, when you saw what the Arabs did in Safad!”

She tore the white, spotted scarf from her head with a sweep of the arm that expressed tragic exasperation, and fanned herself impatiently.

“Dear Mme. Herne, it was horrible! I, I who am speaking to you, I was nearly violated!”

“But you were not,” said Abu Tisein peaceably, “for one recognised you in time. No, Mme Herne, do not misunderstand me. As things are, we must trust the Arabs to the Jews,
rather than the Jews to the Arabs. We are excitable, I admit, but we do not cut women and children into little pieces. I am a Jew and I live and work for Jewish Palestine—but I permit myself
to regret the days when my country was not full of Poles and Germans, and the Arabs were more friendly. Like a good civil servant in England, I do what I am told but I do not always approve of
it.”

BOOK: Arabesque
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