Passage to Mekka

E. Hoffman Price

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Short Stories, May 10, 1945

The Long Nosed Dutchman They Did Not Consider Their Friend—but He Was the Enemy of Their Enemies

 

RAHIM came running from the rice terraces which overlooked the Sumatran village of Kota Alim. “The Inspector,” the boy gasped, “he broke from the stockade last night, the Japs didn't miss him till late this afternoon, the soldiers are looking in every kampong, they'll shoot anyone who hides them, and they pay a hundred guilders to anyone who catches them.”

“Them?” asked Yakub, sharply eyeing his son.

“Aywah! Inspector Hydrick and another Dutchman.”

The news began spreading even before Rahim had told the end of it. Already, the volcanic peaks cast their long shadows across the bay, and after a few minutes of dusk, blackness masked the village. Except for the cordon of troops watching the trails into the mountains which commanded Lampong Bay, the Japanese search had ended for the day, but in Kota Alim, the natives' hunt was just beginning,

As for Yakub, he took no part. He sat in his house, thinking about it, and of Inspector Hydrick's chances, and the odds in favor of the Dutchman blundering into Kota Alim, whose people he had so rigidly ruled. This might be the hand of Allah.

Presently, Rahim came in to tell his father, “Someone hides in the straw stack, a dog sniffs at it.”

Yakub quit chewing his cud of betel. He listened to the ransacking of sheds and the beating of bamboo clumps. “If he escaped last night,” Yakub said, more to himself than to the wide-eyed boy, “he may have been hiding here all day. Who else knows?”

“I was alone when I saw.”

Alimah had come to the front. Yakub studied his wife's face for a moment, but could not read her thought. “What say you, sitti?”

“The long-nosed Dutchman is not our friend, but he is the enemy of our enemies.”

“He is a danger to our people.” “Oh. So you'd sell him for a hundred guilders?”

“I take refuge with Allah! But it's easier for Hydrick to go back to live in a cage than for some of us not to live at all. Rahim, go tell the elders, let them look.”

“That was wise,” Alimah said, when Rahim had left, “but does your wisdom make you happy? We should help him. Allah loves the generous.” Alimah seated herself on the floor beside him. “And you are going on a pilgrimage to Mekka. Those dog-loving Japs promised to let the pilgrims go in a steamer and now you'll have to sneak out in a tiny prahu, you may never get across the water! Now, Hydrick, he was a hard man, but he never lied to us. Did he?”

Yakub chewed both grudge and betel nut.

ALIMAH persisted, “I know our villagers shouldn't blame you because Suzuki teaches the boys heathen manners and makes little Japs of them, only they do blame you, and the power is with Allah! But don't take your grudge out on Hydrick. Look, Yakub, when you come back from the pilgrimage, you won't be mayor, but you'll be a haji, you'll be the only pilgrim for miles around—give Hydrick a chance.”

Yakub spat. “Dutch or Jap, what difference?”

But when he had come to hope that it was all a false alarm, and that he would not have to choose between helping the Inspector, or turning him over to the Japs, there was the sound of men moving with needless caution. Then a shapeless dark cluster of villagers crowded into the dim light of the peanut oil lamp, and Yakub saw among them two tall strangers in ragged and mud-caked dungarees. One was Hydrick, gaunt and sallow, half starved for months, and freshly clawed by thorns.

This was the enemy, the infidel who saw no difference between manslaughter and the violation of a law as trivial as the one prohibiting cockfighting except on holidays. Hydrick held his head high, and at its usual truculent angle, just as he had when, after meeting the invaders, he had returned under guard, to face the derision of Yakub and the villagers he had once arrested. His mouth, broad and tight, was stubborn as ever; it still matched the set of his long jaw.

He said, “You found us, so I'm sure they would have when they came to look.”

The other, shorter than Hydrick, and dark, and thin-faced, said to Yakub, “We can go to the hills instead of being caught here. That will keep you out of trouble.”

The villagers said, “You are still mayor, Yakub, do with these men as you please, that is adat, that is fitting.”

Hydrick understood, and smiled. “That is adat. So tie our hands and turn us over, and take the reward, and everything is even.”

 

IN THE faces of his people Yakub could see that once more, Allah loved him. He drew a deep breath. “Inspector, I sail for Mekka in a prahu, and Dawad, you remember, you jailed him for fighting? He goes with me. If he still knows how to navigate by the stars, and if the sea does not hate us, it will be well. And if you are not afraid, then go with us.”

“The Japs, or else the Indian Ocean in an open boat?”

“Aywah! Let God and the sea judge between us.”

The Dutchman said to his companion, “It won't be fun, Van, but I'm for it.” The other nodded, and Hydrick went on, “Where's the boat?”

Yakub grinned wickedly. “Until the soldiers have searched everything and passed on, we can't get to the bay. So tonight I must hide you, and perhaps uncomfortably.”

In the morning, Mr. Suzuki, the school teacher, arrived with the search party. “I am sure Honorable Mayor will volunteer to take responsibility of cooperation,” the bland little man murmured.

All of which told Yakub that Suzuki had not forgiven him for his outburst against having the local schoolboys bow to a statue in honor of Japanese soldiers fallen in the “liberation” of Sumatra.

“Try the roofs,” Yakub suggested, and then prayed that the wily Japs would not look in the opposite direction.

The soldiers swarmed up bamboo ladders, to bayonet the heavy thatch, while others went indoors; and as he watched the search, moving from house to house, Yakub felt Suzuki's eyes, alert for any sign of worry.

And Yakub had cause for concern, since the captain of the search party, taking half the detachment, was covering another quarter of the rambling village. There wasn't a chance in a thousand that they'd stumble across the Dutchmen, yet time and again, a yell, a harsh command in the language he could not understand, all but caught Yakub off guard; for one apprehensive glance could betray him.

They forked and fairly winnowed a straw heap. They set villagers to emptying a granary. As long as all were busy, it was not so bad; the danger would come when all but a few points had been covered, giving idle soldiers a chance to blunder into what they had not been able to find.

“Watch the dogs, Suzuki-san,” Yakub advised.

He spent uneasy minutes wondering if there had been any mockery in the smiling answer, “Too many stranger, dog-sniffing meaningless.”

One of the buffaloes lying in the shade opened his eyes, and grumbled. The surly beast objected to the noise, and to the presence of strangers. He shook his head and got up. The increasing heat reminded him of the comforts of the wallows. Already, several of his fellows were submerged.

The search had taken far longer than Yakub had expected. The brute's uneasiness was becoming dangerous. Everything depended on his choice of pools. Suzuki was asking, after the manner of the Thought Police, “Yakub-san, what are you thinking of? What sentiments on Greater East Asia?”

The buffalo took a few more paces, and toward the fatal pool. To drive him away would arouse suspicion. To let him go—but there was nothing Yakub could do but pray for himself, his people, and Hydrick. Tension made his senses so acute that, behind him, he plainly heard Alimah whisper to their son.

And then Rahim, laughing and yelling, ran forward to his playmates loitering in the street. “Let's have a parade, like in Palembang! I'll ride, and you be soldiers.”

He mounted the buffalo, prodded him with a stick. The brute grumbled, but obeyed, and the game was on. “The Junior Order of Enlightenment,” Yakub said to Suzuki, “maybe it is better than I thought.”

He knew that the Jap had not understood what had happened.

THAT night, the fugitives came from hiding. They had been lying in the muddy water of a wallow, submerged except for their faces, which had been camouflaged by buffalo skulls over which hide had been stretched to mask the bones.

Half an hour later, Yakub and Dawad made sail. They had scarcely said, “Bismillahi!” when Yakub learned that the chances of survival were better than he had hoped; Hydrick, opening a waterproof tobacco pouch, showed him maps torn from a school atlas, a small compass, and a watch. “These will make navigation easier,” the inspector said. “But that buffalo wallow took the place of the danger you thought we'd face at sea. That game I'd not counted on when we came to your kampong.”

“Mashallah! You came on purpose, not lost in the dark?”

“Best of all places. Because you and I had met so often, we'd understand each other better. You'd never prayed for me, but I knew you'd help the enemy of your enemy.”

“By Allah! That is what Sitti Alimah said!”

“I'd not be surprised. You see, she helped us hide in that straw stack, the night we escaped. Smart lady you have, Yakub.”