CB FRY AND THE LEAGUE OF NATIONS
The year is 1898. The place the Congress of the League of Nations, Cairo. The greatest gathering of leaders, princes and kings since the Royal Symposium of Sandwich last May.
I had been asked to attend by my Surrey cricket colleague Prince Ranjitsinhji. Prince, as I call him, posed the delicate matter of me last winter as we batted side by side in the Oval nets.
“CB,” says he.
“Yes,” says I.
“Would you like to attend the Congress of the League of Nations with me.”
“Yes,” says I, before shouting “WATCH THE BALL,” as a delivery from Tyson honed into his most private region (that which you know not off yet P) and shattered it irreversibly.
Two months subsequent and I was in Cairo.
Cairo!! City of thieves, beggars, slaves, vagabonds, mercenaries, pirates, imbeciles, neanderthals, uncultured oafs, sneaky cut-throats, sooty cutpurses, blaggards, viziers, footpads and desolates.
As I leaned out of my window I saw all the sights of the East. The pilgrims walking to mecca, mooselmen bartering in the shadows, the markets cramped with camels and elephants and beyond them the Sphinx, towering in the distance like a shuffling creature laden with gold and other exotic gems. I saw the dust dunes whispering in the wind. I saw the crescent moon newly risen into the sky and heard the yodelling call of the fakir. I saw a wizened brown man climbing up a rope that bent into the sky, as another laid himself upon a bed of nails and promptly screamed in pain.
In among all this hurly burly I almost felt at ease. And then suddenly it hit me. A rock thrown by a street urchin from below had entered the window and struck me a blow on the clavicle. In a state of vengeful anger I rushed to the street ready to slake my ire on this perpetrator. But by the time I reached down, there was no one there. He had disappeared.
I was mad at this trick. But you see this is the foul and pestilent way of the East dear Poesy. One minute she will lull you on the tides of a tranquil sea, the next plunge you into a hotbed of molten anger.
I retired to my chambers once more and comforted myself by smashing the wooden bed into smithereens. A few hours later I had recovered and accompanied Prince to the great congress hall of the fifteenth League of Nations.
O but what a sight it was Poesy! The greatest men of the day in concord. There was Wilhelm II of Schlafenschlaven, Prince of Prussia, Faure the famous pumper of France, Gonzalo of Spain with his frazzled skin, Little Charlemagne and Old Pinky the Bohemian Pumpernickel. There were Americans too, Beaky Jones, their president and Capt Custer, soon to be a great General. Lastly the orientals. Ching Chong Chee and Pee Chung Chang, feudal lords of Wankdon Province.
Behind the great seigneurs stood armies of natives, the hod carriers and food makers. Black African orderlies holding trays of multivarious fruit, moors the colour of nightshade silently manning the atrium, choleric Eskimaux with strange herbs and potions and sooty Hindoos pouring cordials.
Prince was in his element, striding this way and that like the Shah of Shahenshehabad himself. He wore a codpiece of massive girth and had upon his head a towering red turban so large that it seemed it would topple over any second and crush fifteen men in its wash.
I myself bestrode the halls with ease, picking a fruit from the bowl here, taking a drink of foaming sherbet there. How natural ‘twas for me CB Fry to be in this company. Finally in my milieu. With men who were of my ilk. My own standing. Great, wealthy men.
I was just about to place an exotic love apple into my mouth when of a sudden my reverie was shattered. For there peering into a copy of the Times, his two little eyes darting hither and thither, like an otters– it was him. Yes it was that adipose platypus. That foolish, hirsute vole. The bewhiskered buffoon, the very height of pomposity—Grace!
My humeur left me immediately.
“Fry,” he bellowed as he spied me through the folds of the paper, “what on earth are you doing here?”
“Grace,” I replied with some hauter, “I might ask you the same question.”
“As the representative of the Gentlemen of England CC and Marylebone XI I am of course entitled. But I wouldn’t have expected you, unless…ah, oh yes, I see. You come as the servant of that Indian. I see. It all becomes clear.”
“I am no servant Grace. I am here in a consolatory capacity. And it would appease me not to see your face again these days.”
“O come, come Fry,” he retorts. “We must treat each other like civilised Englishmen. I will be lunching in the consulate halls this afternoon should you care to join me.”
“I think not,” I replied curtly. I was about to deliver him an even more cutting thrust of my wit (which that great flaneur of Piccadilly, Fingal O’ Flaherty Wills himself has praised) when my ears were assailed by an infernal screech.
“Awrence!” came the cry.
I looked up to see a black-faced man flying towards me, his white robes billowing behind him like the wings of a gull.
“Awrence, Awrence! ‘Tis you ’tis you, here!!”
“Away with you Jamal,” I screamed, disgusted to my very shoes. “I have no need for manservants.”
“But Awrence tis me. Fawad. Do you not remember me?”
He looked at me through devious, hooded eyes, undoubtedly intoxicated on some Eastern narcotic—baklava, Turkish delight, fondant fancy ‘tis all the same— foul nauseating things unfit for an Englishman. The sight of him sickened me and the rage rose.
“Who are you, you impudent fool?” I cried at him. I could see Grace peering at me.
“I am no manservant Awrence. I am the Fawad of Al Khaleel al Jumeira Sharm el Sheikh, Kasheeef.
“Cover your nose man!”
“No, I am called Kasheef, that is my name. Have you forgotten me so soon?”
Indeed this hooked nose-bonobo was right. I had forgotten him. If I ever knew who he was. Enraged by the man’s contemptible familiarity, the nerve, the sheer unadulterated nerve, I took him by the collar and hauled him firmly over the palace tiles.
With the firm grip I had around his neck, the man started to howl and hurl words into the air.
“No, no ’tis I, ’tis I Kasheef al Fawad. You are mistaken.”
He was chattering like a macaque and just as I prepared to throw him out the door he screeched,
“They want you to be the king, king Awrence!”
“Yes Awrence I speak the truth. By God’s golden eye they want you to be the king!”
I dropped the fakir onto the floor.
“Once more to rule, as once you did. He sent me.”
“Who? What are you jabbering about man.”
“The Emir of Australia!”
I righted the man and looked him in the eye.
“A man of great standing Awrence. He knew of our friendship and sent me to be his emissary. They want to meet you. They want to offer you the kingship!”
“Who, exactly do you think I am?”
“You are Awrence. Our Awrence, of Arabia! You must come with me. You must come to the hotel Dar e Salaam, where the man from Australia awaits you. He told me to bring you this very night!”
I did not dissuade him from this pathetic fallacy, however trite it was. For I wanted to know more Poesy. And I found more. So much, much more.
Part the 2nd
The man called Fawad arrived on his camel at dusk. Of course I refused this hideous mount and walked. It was a warm evening and the air stirred with the scent of jasmine and lavender. With my noble bearing, my silk shirt and my high moustaches what a sight I looked. The very quintessence of nobility.
Indeed my curiosity had been piqued by this strange and jabbering wretch. From what I could gather the men of Australia had sent out a delegation to appoint me as their king. If this were true then it would indeed be an interesting prospect.
We arrived at the hotel in the winking evening light. A warty faced crone greeted us there. When asked where I could find the Emir of Australia she shook her head and shrieked “Australia no eeey.”
Her strange dialect, which I took to be one of the Haloumi tribe, was one of the few that I was not familiar with (and how could I for it was that of a goatherder’s clan). Even though I took her by the shoulders and repeated very slowly “The Emir of Australia” in the finest Queen’s, it was no good for the crone was insensible.
Fawad started jabbering something. I was about to throw him out of the door when I realised that they were communicating. After an age of alphabetical soup, with much finger pointing and head-shaking, the two sand people arrived at an accord and Fawad led me to the hall, a magnificent ante room outside of which stood two negroid slaves carrying broad camel spears.
At a word from Fawad one of them pulled a long golden cord and the doors fell open to reveal a fabulous room. O but what a sight it was Poesy! Not a room, but an entire theatre! A world within, long as the eye could see. It was filled with the finest antiquities, peacock feathers, jewel-encrusted tortoises and leopard hangings on the wall. Fountains poured purpulus into the air and the ground, sprinkling young vespertines which danced and came to life below. Servants stood here and there, some hunched on their haunches others idly playing musical instruments, harps, lyres, the clavichord. So much life in such exotic form!
At the very end of the room was a golden divan shrouded in a thin drape of silk upon which there lay a supine shape, munching grapes.
I drew closer and saw a small, reedy thing. In good humour I approached and offered a firm English salute.
“CB Fry at your service. Sah!”
“Ah Mr Awrence you have arrived!” it said in a barely audible drawl. “Good. Goooood. We are very glad you could make it.”
It was a man. He had swarthy, sun-tinkled skin, like an African manatee, black hooded-eyes and a round face at once Asiatic and European. He proffered me a lazy wink from his prone position, as if hardly able to draw strength to sit up.
“I am Egalabalus. And you are?”
“I am CB Fry.”
“Ah of course. Mr. Awrence. Yes you come to answer our invitation. Good, goooood. We are grateful Mr Awrence. Pipo, wine!”
Egalabalus clapped his hands and a manboy slave, the colour of wine himself, brought a carafe over. Now you know I am not one for the evils of drink Poesy so I refused, however Egalabalus was having none of it.
“Come my frieeeend. You must drinkkkk. For we all drink in our country. And if you are to be one of us you must put it to your lips and driiiink.”
Under this duress I broke the vow of a lifetime and imbibed. Bagalagabus continued,
“You answer us in our great time of need for we have gone masterless for too long. The country is in a ruin, the men run wild, the goats run free and the women simply run. It is not gooooood. My people are disunited and divided. Moreover they are disgruntled. They need a figurehead. A man of action. And so dear ‘Awerence we ask you to save us as you have done with the peoples of Fawad. We ask you to come to our country and be our Zod!”
“To be your God you say?”
“No Awrence, there is no such thing. We want you to be our Zod. The ruler of our lands. Our prime potentate. The divine incarnate. We want you to reign with a mighty hand, to sit and prevail over the peoples with a cruel benevolence. We wish for you to be our king. The king of Albania!”
He nodded his assent and I felt a thrill coarse down my aristocratic body. Yes Poesy I was chosen. But wait. Did I hear this oration correct.Good God, Albania? The poorest country in the world? I was nincompooped. I looked at Fawad askance. I would later hand him such a beating that he would remember it for the rest of his life. But, for now, I must be calm.
“You will come and reign in my land. With all the things our lands have of offer. The mountain of Dingo. The river of Dango. The city of Dongo. You will be served goatsmilk every day. And the women. You can take them all. That woman in this hotel! She is one of our countrywomen! Have her Awrence. For is she not a beauty? Have her, she is yours! It will all be yours. You will start immediately that you have passed the challenges.”
“What? What challenges?”
“Yes, but of course ‘Awry. You must pass the five hideous labours of Zog before you can become Zod. You must defeat the other challenger to the throne. For we have two candidates for the position. You and a man of much nobility from the Irish royal family of Donegoon.”
“The Irish royal family?”
“His name is Mr Seamus O’ Seamus, owner of the petroleum lands of Galway. A great white man like yourself. Not like my country where they are all brown, like goats! Yes dear ‘Awrence, win the throne and become the Emir of Albania! What say you?”
The wine hung heavy about my lips and I was unsure on my feet. But then it dawned on me. I must accept the position. I would undertake the challenge and I would prevail. And how could I not. For am I not CB Fry?
“Yes. In the name of Queen Victoria and the Royal consort I accept!”
Begabalus clapped his hands in glee and jumped off the divan.
“Good. Goooood. The procession of labours will begin at 1pm tomorrow. I will be here to crown the new King. One man shall prevail. It is destiny! Grape?”
I awoke in the best of humeurs. I’d slept like never before and after feasting on a break fast of kippers and quails followed by a soup of beefy gruel, I felt ready.
A rickshaw arrived to drive me to the appointed place, le bain douche de Cairo, a hammam sauna in the middle of the city. The driver was a small monkey-faced man whom I called Toby. He spoke the whole way down, though for one so small his speech was not offensive.
“In Egypt food is considered a delicacy,” said Toby, his two little feet scurrying forth through the narrow alleys. “Our national dish tis called kikriki dump dump! It is made of dung beetles and asses milk. Ooh Mr Fry you must taste this!”
“Would I were an innocent heathen like you Toby perhaps I would. But tell me, what of the great kings? What of the men who ruled over this impoverished state?”
“Ahhh! Yes. Yes Mr CB sir, we Egyptians are very proud of our rulers. Many a Pharaoh and kings have reigned here. You have no doubt heard of the great dynasty of the Tuts! Tut the first. Tut the second. Tut the third. Tut the fourth. Tut the fifth. Tut the erm….”
“Tut the sixth?”
“Oh so you know themmm Mr CB? Indeed Sir the Tuts: warriors, architects, lovers and erecters.”
“What’s that you say man?”
“Erections Sir erections! Look the pyramids! They erected them. The cold-hearted Sphinx! A Tut erection. The tower of Cock-man-Ra. Erected by Tut the fourth. They erected them all! They erected them and then they died. And after they buried there within their erections. With all their wealth!”
I noticed a dim haze appear in tiny Toby’s visage. His eyes became like two leering moons.
“Ah,” he continued, “silver like you have never seen. Rubies, amethysts and ambergris. But the most greatest of them, Tutankhamun, the boy king! Borne by Cleopatra, fathered by Caesar, grandfathered by Jimborobaman the goatherder! Husband to Tutankhawomun. Father to Tutankhasun. And yet…..and yet….”
I noticed another shudder coarse through Toby’s round gelatinous face.
“Oh but the currrse. I can speak no more.”
After five seconds we continued to chit-chat until at 1pm we arrived at the appointed place, the bain douche le Cairo. As I was leaving I got into a quarrel with young Toby over the fare, but it was settled in the proper English way.
“But where did Tutankahamun die?” I said as he was hobbling off with his broken rickshaw.
“Nobody knows Sireeeee. It is forbidden to speak of this!”
And with that, he was gone. Inside the bains, Egalabalus was awaiting munching on a bunch of grapes.
“Awreennceee. You are ere,” he cried, shifting a half centimetre on his divan. “Gooood. The great challenges must begin precisely on time.”
He pulled on a cord hanging from the ceiling that was connected to a bucket suspended in the air which upended and dropped a cascade of boiling water down onto his sullen slave Pipo, who’d been hiding in the shadows.
Pipo!” exclaimed Egalabalus, “Bring out the challenger. Do it now!”
The boy held aloft a tiny bugle to his lips and blew it with all his might. It produced no more than a peep, but the sound was enough to disturb the peace of the hammam. There among the dim vapours I saw a shape suddenly come to life.
“O God what is this?” I thought. The very carnality made me shudder. Out of the fog emerged a mountainous simian form. Huge towering jowels. A great white paunch. And that beard. I would recognise it anywhere. Yes Poesy! There, stood like the very spirit of turpitude, wearing nothing more than a small towel was W G Grace!
“Grace,” I cried.
“Oh begom an begorrah. Seamus ‘O Seamus of the Amarald Ayle. Pleased ta mayte yer.”
“This is Mr Seamus O Seamus of the Gallway monarchy of Ireland,” said Egalabalus. “And this is Awrence, the conquerer of Arabia.”
Never have I experienced a greater mix of beffudlement and wrath as then. The nerve of the man Poesy. He a charlatan, pretending to be an Irishman.
“But, what, man….”
“Mr… errr Lawrence is it?! Ef Arabia ye say?”
Egalabalus lay there in a state of inviolable ignorance.
“Yes he is I.”
“An so yar my mysterious challenger,” said Grace with a uncanny look in his eye. “Well good luck to youse, may de best man win.”
I shunned his hand, and readied my mind. Yesl Poesy, my destiny had been struck! Through all the quirks of fate, the meandering turns of life I had arrived here. To face my greatest enemy. To beat him. To become king. To destroy Grace!
“Good,” screamed Egalabalus in a state of nervous suspension. “Let us begin! Pipo!”
The wine dark boy tootled his horn once more.
“By God’s Golden eye let our challenges begin.”
Poesy the hour had come. Seamus O Sea, I mean Grace stood there in his tiny little towel smirking at me. This mass had haunted m throughout my life. But for him I would have become the England cricket captain. But now I would beat him and be king. Twas decreed.
“So the first challenge,” announced Pipo.
Egalabalus had a dark wooden box drawn out from within and placed before us. He spoke in barely a whisper.
“Gentlemen. The cigarette is our finest luxury. To be King of the Albans you must smoke than any other man alive. Please begin.”
My stratagem was to put the cigarettes into my mouth all at once and then create a small vacuum in my throat through which I would be able to jettison the smoke upwards and out through my ears and eyes.
I was able to fit in 53 ciggers at once and puffed away like one of Stephenson’s locomotives. They had never seen anything like it and to a man they applauded me in astounded amazement.
But I’d not reckoned with Grace. He comfortably put 245 cigarettes into his mouth and not only did he smoke them with ease, but he actually enjoyed it!
“That is victory to Seamus.”
“Oh begom an begorrah why thankin ye gladly.”
I admitted defeat and the score was one to nothing in his favour.
Next Egalabalus had a gigantic barrel brought out before us.
“And now gentlemen. The second test. Drinking of our wine. We will favour he who drinks the most.”
Grace drank fifteen quarts of wine at once drinking and urinating. I, of course, needed not to do this, being possessed of the strongest bladder in the world. Unfortunately when I came to tasting the wine it was such foul stuff that I might only bring myself to drink a few quarts before I had to stop and retch violently into the steam bucket.
Thus this challenge was won by Grace. I will admit Poesy my heart was beating a trifle faster than it should. Grace meanwhile wore the smug expression that I had seen so often on his face. Egalabalus suddenly arose from his divan and screamed:
“And now for feats of athletic prowess. First, the jumping of the Tiber. Jump the raging torrent and claim victory! Pipo!”
The wine dark slave led us around the back of the Hammam where there trickled a small stream. Well of course you know that no man in Christendom can beat me at the jump. And so it proved. Not only did I beat the man into oblivion with my forwards jump (setting a new world record in the process), but I also entertained the fellows with several instances of my backwards mantel jumps, which threw the crowded masses into a frenzy.
Egalabalus clapped loudly at this entertainment. And then was announced the test of valour and strength—the slaying of the ass. They brought a mule into the arena. In truth the fellow had quite a charming face and an affectionate way about him. Indeed he tried to rub his face against me quite tenderly such that I almost lost the will to battle it.
Try as I may, with buffets and blows to the head and flanks Dobbin would only become more placid, and he continued with his contented mastication. Eventually I decided t’would be best for me to cease. Grace, however, was no better. Indeed his wrestling technique served only to excite the beast who thought it all a game and rose up on his haunches to climb over the back of Grace, like a man embracing his spouse. We all laughed heartily at this and the challenge was called a draw.
As dusk dawned in that fateful place so we began the final challenge—the herding of the goats. Our task was to drive Egalabalus’s goats through a small gate into a pen. And we had to do this challenge in no more than one hundred steps.
It was Grace’s turn first. The bumbling, blundering oaf could barely herd one goat into the pen such was the ineptitude of his footwork, the heavy leadeness of his step. He spent 60 paces just in trying to avoid the manifold goats droppings which lay scattered throughout the maidan. I realised now that all these years of plenty on the pitch had been a lie! Surely he had been playing French cricket! In the end of it he stood there defeated, out of breath as the goats silently bumped their horns into his haunches.
Now t’was my turn. I had to win this Poesy. For God and for country. For the Fry family name. The goats seeing me rise scattered hither and thither. Some ran up trees, while others cowered in ditches. I used my nimble footwork to assail them. Brevity was my soul. One, two-two, one two-two, back, side quick quick. At the same time as moving I issued a murmuring herding call from my lips, such as I had seen from the shepherds in the Northern countries of England (Yorkshire I believe they are called): weiweiweimmmwhawhaweiwei. The goats started to collect into a single file and move to the gate. In they went. 20 steps, 40 steps, 60 steps, more than half in, 72 steps, three-quarters, 95…oh I was nearly there two more to get. 99 steps. But oh there was another goat. It was up the tree Poesy! The crowd looked on awed. Grace sat there smirking with delight.
But no I would not give up. I gathered all my strength and crouched into a ball. With one gigantic thrust I launched myself into the air and onto the very top of the tree appearing directly infront of the goat which shrieked loudly in terror and leapt off straight into the pen.
Huzzah! I had done it! I CB Fry had won!!!!!!!
Grace lay there in the dust gurgling like a disbelieving infant. Egalabalus clapped his hands with delight.
“Awrence! You are won. You are King of the Albans! Come, come the ceremony of king. We must not stop now”
I shot Grace a victor’s glance and kicked a goat dropping in his direction as they led me into the main hall. There I was sat on a throne all bedecked with feathers of pigeons and peahens. Many men came up to offer me tribute. Then Egalabalus announced:
“Thus we have a chosen you Awrence of Arabia to be our king. Take this topax crown and this wooden sceptre for they are thine own. And now all we require is the tribute of 200,000 pounds and the documents shall be signed.”
“Eh,” I cried. “What is this? 200,000 pounds? Whose tribute is this?”
“Yesss Awrence. We need your Majesty to share with us just a meagre portion of his private fortune thus we can live fruitfully, and restore the bounty to our ragged peoples. Of course you were aware of this, no?”
“By God you are mad man!!”
But more to the point I was mad. Mad with rage. I threw off the topax crown and broke the sceptre into smithereens. For I would not share my fortune with anyone! I swept Egalabalus off his divan and threw him onto the floor. Then I took Pipo and raised him unto the dais and placed the crown upon his head.
“Now my good man. I anoint you the King of the Albans. Take this nincompoop outside and shoot him!”
There was a rousing cheer from the gathered masses and on that tidal wave of approvals I CB Fry, strode out of those grounds with my head in the air. I, the man who would be king!
Just as I stepped onto the street it hit me. A missile thrown from the alley across had whistled in the air and struck me on the tibula. Well Poesy. I was mad. But this time I wasn’t going to let the perpetrator escape. There in the shadows he stood– a small tiny thing, like a monkey. Yes, by all that is infernal on this great earth, ’twas Toby!
Toby scurried away on his tiny little feet, dragging the rickshaw behind. I shot out an oath and set off in pursuit. Of course he had the advantage knowing the lay of the land. But my rage was such that I would not let him escape.
Two long hours I ran, bearing hard upon that native cur. Two long hours Toby scurried, turning this way and that, nipping and sliding through the greasy oriental alleyways.
“I see you Toby. You will not escape!!” I shouted. And yet he ran.
Eventually we reached a small sack bottom. His route was blocked by walls on three sides. His rickshaw had fallen apart and I saw my chance. Racing up to him I grabbed his collar and threw him into the wall which collapsed into a pile of bricks on his head. Just as I was about to advance on him and hand him more of vengeance than he had ever known I noticed a golden, glinting thing amongst the rubble. It was a plate Poesy. A golden plate.
I dragged Toby onto his feet and screamed “C’mon man look sharp. Help me clear out these ruins!”
We both began to dig out the dirt and the sand. By and by we uncovered a staircase which led into a dingy vault in the ground.
“Toby, a match.”
Toby handed me a light which I struck on his bristly scalp. Well Poesy even I was taken with surprise. For there, uncovered in glory, was a room full of glinting treasures, like heaven’s own trove.
“‘Tis the tomb of Tutankhamun!” cried Toby as he threw himself in a mound of coins. “Look the Gold, Mr Fry. We are rich!”
“Indeed Toby, indeed,” I said surveying the scene. “Take this gold coin and buy a new rickshaw. I have spent all I wish to here. We must leave now.”
“But Mr Fry the…”
But I preferred to leave this for another man. For I had seen all I wished of Egypt. You see Poesy this is the true trickery of the orient. Bejewelled and yet….nugatory. As the poet quoth neither lustre nor lucre do I love. For my heart is England.