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Open Features: Unto Them That Hath

John Kilburn's story tells of the the ghastliest of all honeymoons.

When I saw the announcement in the Daily Telegraph, I immediately fell to wondering whether I knew one of the principals. The name was the same, and I knew that Jimmy was a Yorkshireman. What I found it hard to reconcile was the matter of the announcement:

"The engagement is announced between James Anthony Scott, Queens Own Rifles, elder son of Brigadier Sir Anthony Scott, Bt., and Lady Scott, and Jane Elizabeth, only daughter of Dr. Guy Somers and the late Mrs. Somers."

The address was there too, so I resolved to look up my old friend. I was eager to see the lady who could bring about so great a transformation in so hardened a misogynist as I knew James to be. I wish to God I never had ...

I wrote, received a warm reply, and within a week had arrived at Quarry Moor Lodge, the country home of the Scotts. There I found much feverish activity: arrangements for the wedding were far advanced. Since the bride had lost her mother while still a child, and Dr. Somers, although a first-rate surgeon, was quite incapable of organising functions of the sort occasioned by so admirable a match, Lady Scott had insisted that everything be left to her. The bride's father had acquiesced with relief.

Jimmy, too, was delighted by the arrangement. Not only did it mean that they could be married at All Soul's, Harrogate, where his brother Paul was the incumbent, but it also meant that his beloved Jane was - despite tradition and superstition - to be with him for the whole of the week before the wedding.
I saw his point. Jane was a rare beauty. She was also talented, sensitive and very much in love. As I believe is often the case when a set of long-held principles are thrown over, the new attitudes were a complete reversal of the old. Nothing was too much trouble for Jimmy if his darling was involved. It says much for the quality of the lady that she did not take advantage of such reverence and reduce a proud man to servitude.

While the wedding was still a week away, Jimmy turned to me one evening after dinner and said, "I've got a problem John which is right up your street. I want your advice. You've been all over the place on those archaeological jaunts of yours. Where can we go for our honeymoon?"

"Heavens, you've left things a bit late haven't you, old man? Surely everything should be cut and dried by now?"

"Oh, every thing is," he replied. "We're going to Austria. But I want to surprise Janie. We've both been to Austria before. Instead, I want to take her somewhere really exotic. Come on, now, where do you suggest?"

I thought for a moment. There were many places in the world which would meet such simple requirements. I tried to call to mind which of the many spots I had visited could produce the right mixture of beauty and solitude for the couple I now knew so well.

"How far do you want to go? I temporised.

"Doesn't matter" he replied. "In some ways the further the better."

"There's a spot between the Black Sea and the Caspian..." I hazarded, waiting for his reaction.

"Splendid. Let's find it on the map. Come on, bring your coffee into the library."

So saying he left the table with ill-concealed eagerness and led the way down the hall. We entered the library. Jimmy went across to the shelves and produced an atlas. I turned to the page of "Turkey, Syria and Iraq ". There, in the mountains to the east of Lake Urmia, I pointed to the ancient township of Sabinduab.

"Zed Ali, the hereditary chieftain of that area, is a friend of mine. I'll give you a letter of introduction and he will treat you as he would members of his own family. There are many traditional customs in Northern Persia, which seem designed to welcome the weary traveller and pamper the unbidden guest. You will be treated royally."

That was all the information Jimmy needed. To him there was only one queen, and the prospect of regal entertainment for his love in a far and ancient land delighted him. Within the week they were off, and none waved them farewell as they set off for 'Austria' with greater joy than I. For Jimmy had not told his bride of the change of plan. As I recall my feelings upon that happiest of days, I could weep.

No-one heard from them once they had departed. Not so much as a postcard came from the couple. We smiled knowingly. But when the month was up and we still had had no word, the silence assumed an ugly significance. Enquiries were set up - I had revealed Jimmy's secret - but no information was forthcoming. Sir Anthony asked me to return to the Lodge to help him plan what should next be done. I dropped everything and hastened back to Yorkshire.

When I got there Jimmy had returned. He was alone, and his heart was broken. It says much for the man's sterling worth that he bore me no ill-will. The story was short and horrible, although its telling was hesitant and long.

They had arrived by aeroplane at Tehran, taken a train to Tabriz, and had travelled the rest of the way partly by car and partly by mule-drawn cart. Jimmy had sent a letter ahead explaining their presence and had received a reply of eager welcome.

His arrival in Sabinduab, however, had been most inauspicious. Rough, bearded men strode the dusty street, all armed with daggers and long-barrelled rifles. Stalls were burning in the marketplace and - most significant of omens - there was not a child to be seen.

Their welcome at the palace of Zed Ali, though, could not be faulted. Obsequious servants led them to their rooms, which were large, spacious apartments, luxuriously furnished in the manner of the east. There they bathed, changed and rested. They were still dozing when their host came to welcome them.

I'm sorry not to have met you immediately you arrived" he said. His English was excellent, with only a trace of accent. "I am delighted to meet you. Any friend of Zed Ali is a friend of mine."

"You are not, then, the chieftain?" asked Jimmy.

"Yes, indeed" the tall potentate replied. "Ali has been - superseded." There was a hint of menace in the slight pause before the last word, but, as Jimmy afterwards confessed, they thought little of it at the time. Mand Ahmed, as their host was called, was amiable enough, and the internal politics of the state were no concern of theirs.

Nor did anything occur to make them think otherwise. Just as I had promised, they were treated royally. Many of the generous customs of the area were invoked to make them welcome. They were especially well treated in the matter of gifts. As Ahmed explained, it was the duty of the host in his country to bestow a present on his guests each day. As their stay progressed, moreover, so the gifts increased in value. He told them ancient tales of guests who had overstayed their welcome and had ruined their unfortunate host in his determination to observe the custom (though there were other tales which told of the host's resolve to be invited back at the first opportunity). Jimmy remembered laughing and explaining that they would ensure that they did not stay too long.

The custom had, apparently, many extensions. It was applied to the repayment of a great favour, such as the saving of a life. It was used, too, as an expression of faith in the prevailing government, so that the elected ministers received each year from the people a greater gift than the last. As Ahmed wryly explained, so simple a custom ensured that an unpopular regime did not stay in office overlong!

So they stayed in the Palace of the chieftain, enjoying a dream honeymoon in the mountain fastness of northern Persia. Until the day, three days before they were due to return home, when Jimmy's world came to an end.

The day before, they had been walking in the hills above the town when they had come across three men, apparently robbing a fourth. Jimmy, enraged at the inequality of the fray, had leaped to the man's rescue and had laid about him with his stick. To his horror, as the three had sprang up and ran, one of them slipped at the edge of the track, lost his footing and fell, screaming, into the abyss below. There was plainly little that could be done for him, but Jimmy, after helping the robbers' injured victim to a nearby hut, where the occupants promised to look after him, returned to the palace and told Mand Ahmed, with great regret, what had happened.

The sheik appeared unconcerned. The man had, it seemed, earned his just reward in the eyes of his ruler.

"Do not concern yourself further. I will no doubt receive a report shortly, and, if the man's dependants are in need, I shall see that they are looked after."

Jimmy thanked him then, still shaken, retired to his room. There, sorrowfully, he and his wife, rather subdued by the unhappy event, so near the end of what had been for them an earthly paradise, ate a light meal and went early to bed.

When Jimmy awoke next morning he was alone. He thought little of this, however, and, after bathing and dressing, went down to the Sheik's eating apartment, where they were wont to breakfast. But Jane was not there - Ahmed sat in solitude. Nor did he welcome Jimmy with the felicitous phrases which he normally used to greet him. Instead he motioned him to his place and began to speak.

"I am not pleased with you, Englishman" he said. The words were delivered so harshly, and were so much at variance with his usual courtly speech that Jimmy looked up, amazed.

"The man you murdered yesterday was Fahzel, my trusted lieutenant in many campaigns. Were you one of my countrymen, I would have you and your woman tortured and put to death for your ingratitude. But I have decided to spare you."

He paused, while Jimmy waited, aghast.

"But you shall not go unpunished. Eat, and then open your gift."

Jimmy was bewildered. He could understand the Sheik's grief if the robber had truly been a fellow-soldier of many battles together. But surely he understood? It had been an accident. And, anyway, the man had been surprised in the middle of a cowardly and illegal attack on another. Unable to eat, he listlessly undid the wrapping of the small packet which lay before him. He was aware of Ahmed's eyes, watching him closely.

The next moment, with a scream of anguish, Jimmy launched himself at his tormentor. But the chieftain was ready for him and before Jimmy's hands could close about his throat he was overwhelmed by the palace guards.

"You could die a thousand deaths for that," observed the sheik. "But I think my way is better. You have two more days after this, have you not? You shall be confined to this room, and your sleeping apartment above. You shall breakfast with me here each day. When your stay is due to end, you will leave my palace and my country under escort, and, of course, you will take your gifts with you. That is my final decision."

As the Sheik spoke, Jimmy's eyes were drawn once more with horror to the small box on the table. In it lay a finger, wearing a wedding-ring. And there were still two more days to go ...

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