IN GIVING THIS STORY TO the world I must frankly confess that I do not know whether it is a remarkable record of actual adventure, or a fantastic romance from the pen of someone gifted with a particularly vivid imagination.
Harry Lake and I last parted in 1920 near Sorarogha in Waziristan, on the Indian frontier—I bound for home on leave, he in charge of the picketing troops, whose business it was to ensure the reasonably safe passage of wearied soldiery like me through the knife-edged hills, where the Mahsud snipers made night noisy and day sometimes dangerous.
I have known him on and off for many years. Stationed together before the war, our paths led apart in 1914—he to France with his regiment, I to East Africa with mine—to meet again in a London hospital in late 1915. With him once more in India in 1917, I then lost sight of him for over two years, till January, 1920, brought us together in a rather noisy brawl in Mahsud Waziristan, where the tribesmen were taking exception to our military promenade up their pet valley.
I know his people slightly, more particularly his sister, Ethel Wheeler, to whom he refers in his story, but she does not often favour me with letters. It was somewhat of a surprise, therefore, when in October last year, while a student at the Staff College, Quetta, an English mail brought me a bulky parcel and a letter from her, enclosing one from Lake, in which was the following passage:
I don’t know if you are still doing anything in the author line, but if you are you might amuse yourself editing this record which I have made up from my diary. You are always keen on out-of-the-way places, and in sending this off, on the very shadowy chance of it ever reaching home, it occurred to me that you might like to see it, so I am telling Ethel to pass it on to you. If you care to get it published, you are welcome, the more so since I think the world could do with such a record of simple adventure as an antidote to the kind of stuff appearing when I left civilization.
I opened the parcel that night and dipped into the stained pages. There was a good deal of work on hand, but I’m afraid it got left over, for it was past four in the morning before I turned the last pages with a rather dazed brain, but a firm determination to edit the story. The kind assistance of Miss Douie—sister of a fellow-student—enabled me to get it typed in the little spare time snatched—mostly very late at night—from a strenuous course of instruction; while the local knowledge of Central Asia of Major Blacker—another fellow-student—was of the greatest help in following Lake’s rather hieroglyphic record of his journey to Sakaeland.
Whether red-gold-haired Aryenis and her grave-eyed father, stalwart Henga and his Sake bowmen, Philos and his pretty wife and blue-eyed baby, crippled Paulos, the fiendish Shamans and the murderous brown Sakae are real living people, I cannot pretend to say, any more than I can tell whether pine-fringed Aornos, the snow-peaks of Saghar Mor, or the gloomy Shaman citadel, with its red-hot trapdoor, exist outside Lake’s brain. All I can say is that he has never told me anything but the truth all the years I have known him. Payindah I remember well, while Wrexham I met several times in 1917, and both are very accurately described.
If the story is true, then I cannot say how the letters and the manuscript reached us, save that, from the vernacular inscriptions on the original wrapping which Ethel Wheeler sent me, it has clearly been passed from hand to hand by Indian merchants on the Chinese trade route. Perhaps Lake and his friends found the missing camels, and built up a sufficient store of water at stages across the desert to enable one or two determined men to make a flying journey out and back to hand over their letters to some Indian trader. But he has given no details as to how he proposed to get their letters home.
If Lake’s record is genuine, then I envy him intensely, and hope that it will be many, many years before any explorer, even of the type of genial Sir Aurel Stein, penetrates to Sakaeland, for it and its people seem to me far too pleasing for one to wish them spoilt by the contact of twentieth-century civilization.
If, on the other hand, it is merely an invention of Lake’s to while away monotonous evenings during his explorations in unknown Central Asia, where he certainly is, then I hope that his readers will find it as interesting and realistic as I and others here have done.
1st January, 1923
MOST OF THE BIG THINGS in life hinge on very small beginnings. I wonder if the people who pose as pure materialists ever reflect on that fact when they hold forth on their complete and absolute certainty that there is no guiding hand in men’s affairs or in the conception, creation, and control of that most wonderfully intricate piece of machinery, the universe.
Missing a train, accepting an invitation, having a dance cut, all may prove the turning point in a life if you take the trouble to trace things back to their beginnings.
Take my own case, as I sit writing here with a glimpse of the twin snow-peaks of Saghar Mor through my open window, rose-red in the last light of the setting sun, above a level haze of lilac. Here am I with all I ever sought of life, all and far more. And yet, but for a chance visit to the Karachi Gymkhana Club some two years ago, I should probably today be smoking a pipe in my old Sussex manor farmhouse, after a day in the stubble, leading a quiet uneventful life, content—in a way—but having savoured only a fraction of what life really holds.
A gymkhana club bar does not sound the ideal starting-point for a life’s romance, for a complete change in all that life may mean, and yet it so happened to me, as doubtless it has happened before and may happen again to others.
I’ve been thinking for some time of writing down the events of the last two years, partly because they sometimes seem so unreal that the only way to bring home their concreteness—if I may coin a word—is to put them down in cold, hard black-and-white, partly because I think they may serve to show others that romance is not yet dead, and that adventure is still to be found for those who will but pluck up heart and seek.
What is that passage of Kipling’s about Truth being an undressed lady at the bottom of a well, and that if you meet her—well, as a gentleman there are only two things to do, one to look away, the other to give her a print dress? So I, being, I hope, a gentleman, choose the latter.
To begin at the very beginning, I must revert to the bar at the gymkhana club which I have mentioned, and, before beginning my tale, I suppose I had better introduce myself as I was when the story started, late in 1920.
My name is Lake, and Harry Lake is what most people call me. My father—God rest his soul—was the owner of a small place in Sussex, which he used to farm and shoot in the intervals of travelling, and which he expected me to take over when he died.
But farming—even with a certain backing of cash—did not appeal to me, and I drifted into the army. Then, much to the annoyance of my father, who wanted me to soldier at home since I would go into the service, I transferred to an Indian regiment. Travel always appealed to me, especially in the less well-known parts of the globe, and India seemed a convenient kicking-off place. One got long leave, which the army at home does not legislate for; and blessed with a little money, I was able to indulge my hobby to the full.
Central Asia became my playground, and, whenever I could get leave, I sped up to Kashmir and thence up one or other of the valleys into the great sleepy spaces that lie behind, the desiccated bone-dry spaces of Ladakh, or among the snow-clad mountains that fringe the north of Lalla Rookh’s country.
Then came the war, and, after frantic panics that I was going to be out of it all, tearful wires to pals at Simla, despairing appeals to every general I had ever met, I found myself in France, and entered upon a series of panics for fear I shouldn’t get away again.
After longer or shorter periods of mud, boredom, and fright, with a spell of hospital inserted, my regiment went on to that benighted back front, East Africa, a spot for which I conceived the most intense loathing, and was glad to find myself back once more in India in late 1917. A spell of dépôt work, and off again to Palestine and later to Cyprus, where, though life was uneventful, I amused myself brushing up the Greek I had learnt travelling during the holidays with my father. I am pretty good at languages, and had kept up my Greek, so that by the time I left Cyprus I spoke it as fluently as ever again.
In 1919 my father’s death led me home to settle up the estate, and then out again, with the firm intention of leaving the army within the year.
A bout of frontier scrapping in the 1920 Waziristan show was my last effort, and then I really made up my mind to go straightaway. I was blessed with ample independent means—ample enough for me anyway; most of my regimental pals were dead, and so in 1920 I sent in my papers.
I had shot most things to be found about Northern India, but had never secured a tiger, and so made up my mind for a visit to the Central Provinces before going home. I wandered down to Karachi en route south to spend a few days there, and that’s where this story really begins.
The first night there I did what one always does in the East—I went down to the club bar to pass the time of day with any old acquaintances that might be there. I had known Karachi fair to middling well in the old pre-war days, and I thought I was pretty sure to find friends, but, as a matter of fact, the club was rather deserted.
So I lit a cheroot and sat down, feeling rather lonesome, as one does in a place where one has spent many cheery evenings with a crowd of good fellows, most of whom have gone west. I was thinking about going across to the Sind Club when a man entered the bar. I looked twice to make quite sure, and then walked over to him.
“Long time since we shared a flask in the Jordan Valley, John,” said I, tapping him on the shoulder.
He spun round.
“Hulloa, Harry! D—d glad to see you, old bird! What on earth are you doing here? I saw your push only last week, and they said you’d chucked it and gone home. Family acres and all that sort of thing.”
“First part’s true; for the rest, you see me here, large as life, very much at a loose end, and contemplating trying for a tiger in the C.P. before I go home. They tell me England hasn’t quite recovered from the war yet, and when it isn’t coal-striking it’s doing something equally unpleasant, so I thought I’d give it a miss for a few months.”
“Funny thing running into you here; I was just writing to your home address. I’ve been up on a globe trot Kashgar way. I’m demobbed now, too. Good thing to be one’s own master once more.”
Being on his own was a thing that would appeal to John Wrexham, independent by nature. An engineer by trade, swept up in the vortex of the war as an Indian Army reserve officer, I first met him in a particularly offensive trench Givenchy way. I met him frequently after that, always cheery, always busy, beloved of every battalion commander, to whose needs he ministered in the capacity of subaltern of a sapper-and-miner field company.
A brave soul, too, John, of the most heroic, despite his inclination to stoutness. He amassed some very pretty ribbons before the war was out, and a reputation among those who knew him worth more than all the ribbons in the world.
Later I picked him up again in Palestine, commanding a field company this time, in the most professional manner. I remember well our first encounter in Palestine, where I ran into him superintending a working party under close fire. It was such a typical picture of John. Sucking a pipe, methodical, cheerful, and utterly devoid of fear, his helmet on one side of his rather bullet head, his shrewd grey eyes taking in everything, quick and caustic comments for those who weren’t putting their backs into it, a woman’s touch and a woman’s kindly word for anyone who had “taken it,” red knees over blue puttees, ruddy face with the chin puckered over a long white gash picked up in an argument with a Hun near Festubert—very much a man all over is John Wrexham.
“What were you writing about, John? It’s not like you.”
John’s inability to put pen to paper except under direct necessity was as well known as his practical efficiency at every point of his trade, or as his personal courage. In Palestine he was the despair of his C.R.E., a ponderous soul, and a lover of paper.
“Wanted to find out what you were doing. I’ve got a stunt on, and I want company. I’ve got one fellow coming along, but I want another, and I thought you might be at a loose end. Come under the fan and I’ll show you something.”
When we had installed ourselves under the electric fan in two armchairs, he pulled out his pipe, filled it methodically, lit it, and then proceeded. One never hurries John when he has something to say. It’s always worth waiting for.
“Did you ever trek into Kashgar, Harry?” he asked at last.
“No, I never got as far as that. Why?”
“I was up that way last year, and found one or two things rather interesting.”
“What were you doing? I didn’t know you were keen on Central Asia.”
“I am to a certain extent. I had a great-great-uncle who was a bit of a rolling stone. He wandered a bit in those parts, and he left a diary, written rather like I write, but you could follow it in parts. I’ll show it you later on. There’s some quaint stuff in it. But it interested me, and last year when I was demobbed after the Armistice, I toddled up there to have a look-see. I was not keen on going back to my old job in Bengal, and, as I’d saved a bit of cash, I thought I’d take a holiday, which I hadn’t really done since I left school. So I trekked off to Kashgar and then east.”
He fumbled in his pocket, pulled out a worn pocketbook, and extracted something which he passed across.
“Ever see anything like this?” he queried.
I examined the object closely. A silver coin, new-looking, but rough at the edges. On one side was a mass of Greek lettering. On the obverse was a man’s head, rather clear-cut.
I turned it over again. The names on the coin were unfamiliar, and the head was unlike any coin I knew.
“What country is it, John? It’s Greek, though the lettering is quaint, but whose is the head? It’s not from Greece. Is it one of the funny little new States that the Peace Conference of the war to end war has started to ensure war going on?”
Wrexham looked at me despondently.
“You handle a pen quickly, Harry, but you’re slow sometimes at deductions. Yes, it’s Greek; but it’s a long time since any one wrote Greek quite like that, and I think that the country it came from never heard of the Great War of 1914-18.”
“Antique, is it?” I looked at it again. “It looks fairly new-make. Is it a copy? Central Asia’s full of old Greek relics, I know. Have they started an antique mint in Kashgar in the hope of a tourist boom after the war? Where did you come by it?”
“Well, it’s a long story, but, if you’re doing nothing tonight, come over to my hotel and dine and I’ll tell you. By itself the coin isn’t much, but I’ve got two other exhibits which fit in. What is it ‘Sapper’ says? ‘Once is nothing, twice is coincidence, three times is a moral certainty.’ I think I’ve got a moral cert.”
And not another word would he say on the matter then, shifting the conversation to France and Palestine, old scraps, old friends, all the miscellany of memories that make up the wandering soldier’s life.
I slipped home and changed, and then to his hotel, where I found him awaiting me in the lounge with a tall, clean-shaven, fair-haired, blue-eyed man who seemed to carry a smack of the sea about him, though somehow I did not set him down as a sailor.
“You’ve not met Forsyth, have you, Harry?” said Wrexham. “This is Lake, Alec; you’ve heard me speak of him often enough.”
As we shook hands while Wrexham busied himself attracting a servant for short drinks, I took stock of Forsyth. Taller than me by at least three inches—and I stand five feet ten in my socks and broad with it, he looked the epitome of fitness. His skin was clear and smooth as a girl’s, yet tanned to a ruddy brick colour that spoke of days of open air, clean fresh winds, and hot sunshine.
I couldn’t quite place him, but somehow he conveyed an idea of big open spaces, and all the breadth of clean mental outlook that sometimes goes therewith.
Wrexham handed us out sherries, and marshalled us into a cool corner.
“Three wanderers well met, I think. Here’s to us.” He turned to me.
“Forsyth knows, perhaps, more Greek than you, Harry. He describes himself as a doctor, and tags weird letters after his name. But his real amusement in life is studying ethnology and anthropology and things like that.”
“I’ve always been keen on ethnology, especially that of Eastern Europe, as a hobby; and after finishing my medical studies, I spent some months pottering about Greece on my own. It’s a fascinating mixture of people down in the Balkan Peninsula to anyone keen on studying different races. Also, I was one of those freaks with a leaning to Greek, even at school, before I came over to England.”
“One of our Empire liaison links from Canada,” continued Wrexham, “ex-R.N.A.S., sometimes amateur of ethnology, specially Greek; anything more, Alec?”
“You forget the ex-R.A.F., which landed me in this country to renew the threads of your acquaintanceship from Palestine days.”
“True, O king, a somewhat murky past. But now, like me, you’ve cut adrift once more.”
“And here I am to listen to a cock-and-bull story of yours tied up with old or new coins and a ragged diary, with which baits you propose to lug me many hundred miles into the back of beyond, instead of going back and looking for a decent job to earn an honest living. You have a persuasive manner, John. I suppose Lake is another babe in your hands?”
“He will be, I hope, before we’ve done with him. However, what about food? Then we can go up to my quarters and get down to the real stuff. Finished your drinks?”
He marshalled us into the dining-room, and once again the conversation slid west and north in the old grooves of war, till we finally adjourned to his room, and stretched ourselves on long chairs in the veranda. When his servant had deposited sodas, glasses, and whiskey and departed, Wrexham went to a metal despatch-case, and produced from it a small wooden box carefully tied up, which he placed mysteriously on the table.
Then, filling his ancient pipe, he spread himself in a long chair and commenced.
“First of all, I’m going to tell you about my trip beyond Yarkand last year. When you’ve swallowed that, I’ll show you a thing or two.
“After my company left Palestine in January, ’19, and came back to India, I got myself demobbed and pondered what I should do. Home lacked attraction, I’d been away so long. There was I with a certain amount of dibs, no calls, my own master, up in Pindi at the end of the Kashmir road with the hot weather coming on, and all the earth in front of me.
“I’ve always wanted to travel up that way, and this seemed the absolute chance. If I went home or back to my old job in Bengal, I might not get another opportunity for years; my old firm in Bengal were good, but sticky in the matter of leave. So I packed my kit, dumped what I didn’t want, motored to Srinagar, and took the road for Yarkand.
“I stuck to the main road practically all the way, steady, easy marches. And as I went I read everything I could find on the country. Most of my kit was books, I think, but by the time I hit Yarkand I had a working knowledge of Kashgaria at other people’s expense.
“I moved fairly light, but I lugged the books along and also a few survey instruments. You remember that in Palestine I used to play about with survey toys.
“I stopped a bit at Yarkand to study local conditions, and work up the smattering of Turki that I’d been assimilating on the road up with the aid of a prehistoric textbook.
“From there I pushed on to Aksu, and hence towards Hami, always keeping to the main road. There’s nothing to talk about during that part of the show. But when I got Hami-way, I put aside the printed books and restudied my great-great-uncle’s diary.” He stopped and pulled meditatively at his pipe.
“What was the great-great-uncle doing up there, John?” I asked.
“He was a bit of a rolling stone, rather like me, I fancy. He started with a commission in the East India Company’s army, got tired of it, went north, and joined the Sikh army. Then he dropped that and took to wandering. Went up into Kashmir. Thence he conceived the idea of following the old trade route into China. His library apparently consisted of Marco Polo.
“Three years later he turned up again in Ferozepur, where my great-grandfather, his brother, was commanding a regiment, and announced his intention of fitting out and going off again to Central Asia. But before he could start again he went out with cholera. However, before he died he gave my great-grandfather a diary and a bundle of old papers, and said that, if ever any other member of the family got the wanderlust, the papers were to be given to him.
“My great-grandfather, who was married, had no particular desire to travel, and, I fancy, after reading through the stuff, he locked it up and dismissed the whole lot as a traveller’s yarn, due to overmuch Marco Polo combined with fever.
“My grandfather and my father were stay-at-homes, and I’m the first of the family to come back here. I brought with me the old papers and the diary that was with them more as idle curiosities—happened to notice them when I was on leave before coming back from France to Mespot in 1916.
“Having nothing much to do, I read them through on board ship, and after that I read them fairly often, until I know bits, I think, by heart.
“A lot of them are mere scrappy notes about his journeys, rough drawings of places and types, and it’s only after he struck east from Urumchi that the real interest comes into the diary. Pass me over that box, will you?”
Forsyth reached the box across to Wrexham, who undid it, and took out a small shabby leather-covered notebook.
“I’m going to read you something,” he said, “that will tell you why I went north. As I said before, once is nothing, twice is a coincidence, three times is a moral cert. This is the ‘once’; part of the ‘twice’ you’ve both seen in the shape of that coin; the ‘three times’ I’ve got here, and will show you presently.”
He put the box on the table by him, opened the notebook—stained yellowish paper and crabbed writing in faded brown ink—and began to read aloud.
He read for a quarter of an hour, and at the end of that time both Forsyth and I had let our pipes go out, and were hanging on his words.