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Round the Bend: Pages 311 through 320

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  • Round the Bend: Pages 311 through 320


    ROUND the BEND
    Nevil Shute, 1951

    ```(annotated and with added blue highlights by al-Brunardot)

    CHAPTER TEN

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    sheikhs and people of that sort, some of whom I knew from having met them in the desert or their villages in the course of various flights. There must have been about twenty of them. We waited with them in silence for a quarter of an hour, and then [COLOR="Blue"]we were all led upstairs to the Sheikh's bedchamber.

    This was a big, well-proportioned room, with little furniture in it except the one great bed. The old man lay propped up on this; he was much smaller and frailer than when I had seen him last. Dr. Khaled was at his side. Huddled in a corner were several women, all heavily veiled in black bumps so that nothing was visible of them except their hands. We all grouped ourselves standing in a circle round the bed, and Wazir Hussein went forward and said in Arabic that everything was ready and that everyone was there.

    The old man's voice was worse than ever, and I could only follow about half of what he said. Morrison gave it me in full that evening. First, he said his salaam to the Sister of the Teacher, who was the only woman in the place unveiled. He then gave his salaam to me, and to the various sheikhs assembled in the room, mentioning them all by name, and lastly to Morrison. He seemed tired then, and rested, and the doctor gave him something from a medicine glass to drink, pale pink in colour.

    The old Sheikh revived after a few minutes and began to speak again. He said that his eldest son Fahad would inherit the sheikhdom and would rule in his place after his death, and he would inherit all the incomes of the sheikhdom including the oil royalties. All the old man's personal possessions, including his flocks and his herds and one half of all his monies in the various banks, were to be divided between his wives and his children in accordance with the teaching of the Koran, and in this division was to be reckoned the sums owed by his debtors, but these debtors were not to be pressed to repay more quickly than had been agreed.

    He rested again then for a minute or two, and then he went on. He said that it was fitting when a wealthy man died that he should provide for his family against all possible chance of want. Any money that there might be over should not be spent in idle luxuries, but should be given to further the work of God. He had

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    given much thought to this matter, and had talked about it to the Imam many times. They were agreed that the stranger, Shak Lin el Amin, had done more than anyone in recent years to draw men back to God.In these modern times of machinery and inventions men who served such things, and more men served them every year, were tempted to abandon God, to their own utter destruction. El Amin, brought up to machinery himself and honoured in his calling, had shown them the folly of these ways, and had shown that only by turning back to God can men attain to Heaven. His teaching was a firm rock to which men could cling in a changing world, because it was the teaching of God. It did not seem to him important that El Amin shared his teaching with men of other creeds, with Buddhists and with Hindus and with Sikhs. His teaching was of God, and God knew best.

    He therefore directed that the second half of all his monies in the banks should be given to El Amin absolutely, since it would be used to bring men back to God through all the temptations of the new world of machinery. This was a legacy for a religious purpose in accordance with the fourth Surah, and must not be disputed. He called everybody to witness that he was sane in mind and not subject to the influence of anybody in this bequest, which was made after due consideration for the furtherance of the works of God.

    He was obviously very, very tired after all that. He rested again, and after a time he said, "God go with you," and we all trooped out.

    There was nothing then to stay for, and no more to be learned. We flew back to Bahrein at once, and went down to Morrison's house for a talk about it, Nadezna and I. He said it was a perfectly valid will, and it was quite unlikely that anybody would attempt to upset it. If the Foreign Office should question it, he would have to testify that it was made strictly in accordance with Moslem law.

    I asked him. "How much do you think is involved?"

    "I simply haven't an idea," he said. "I'd only be guessing if I told you a figure. But it's a very large sum of money."

    Nadezna said, "But Connie won't live to use it. It's given for his religious work. And he's a dying man."

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    Morrison bit his lip. "I know," he said. "That's just the hell of it. It's going to pass practically straight into other hands."

    There was nothing to be done about it, and we went on with our work as usual. We heard of Connie from time to time as he ranged through the East, never staying longer than two days in any place. We heard once that he was in Patiala in the north of India, and three weeks later he was at Ratmalana airport at Colombo, and again, he was at Hyderabad, and again, at Chittagong. He went to Chiengmai and to Songkhla in Siam, and down to Singapore where he spent several days.

    It went on like that for about six weeks longer, and still the old Sheikh lingered on in his palace at Baraka. He must have been very tough. But then one day the inevitable happened, and Morrison rang me up to say that the old man had died during the night.

    "What happens now?" I asked.

    He said, "Well, the burial will be today and then there's three days of official mourning usually. I imagine we shall hear something from Wazir Hussein about the end of the week."

    He didn't but I did. The Hudson came to my office a few days later while I was dictating to Nadezna; we packed that up and I went out to meet them. The Wazir had a youngish man with him, richly dressed in Arab clothes and speaking perfect English; this was Fahad the eldest son, the new Sheikh, who had been educated at Shrewsbury and Balliol. He was then a man of about thirty, I should say.

    I ordered coffee for them, but Fahad was of the new school and did not wait till we had sipped our coffee before starting on the business that had brought him to my office.

    "I am sure you know what we are here for, Mr. Cutter," he said. "My father, who died recently, left a bequest to Shak Lin, as of course you know. It is now a matter of implementing his wishes."

    I nodded. "I was very sorry indeed to hear of your father's death," I said. "He was a great man, and a very good one." He bowed, and I went on, "The sister of Shak Lin is in the next room. Do you wish her to come in?"

    He said, "If you please."

    I went and called Nadezna, and she left her typewriter, and

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    the two Arab noblemen got up and bowed to her, unusual in the East. I told her briefly what had happened, and gave her a chair. Then Fahad said,

    "Where is El Amin now, Mr. Cutter?"

    "I don't know exactly," I replied. "He's travelling from aerodrome to aerodrome, staying no more than two days in each place. He has been in Malaya and in Siam, but when we last heard about ten days ago he was making his way back through Burma and East Pakistan to India again. I expect we could find out quite quickly where he is by the radio and air traffic control."

    Wazir Hussein asked, "Does he know that my late master gave a legacy into his care for the work of God?"

    "I haven't told him." I turned to Nadezna. She shook her head, and said, "I thought it better not to."

    "I think that probably he knows nothing about it,"
    I said. "I have told nobody. I don't suppose Captain Morrison talked about it either."

    Fahad said, "It seems probable that he knows nothing about it, then." The coffee came at that point, and he waited till Dunu had put it on the table and gone out, and shut the door behind him. And then he said, "In that case, I should like to go to see him, with Wazir Hussein, to tell him that this thing is done because it was my father's wish, and mine also, that he should have this money to be used for God. Can you provide an aeroplane for us to travel to him in?"

    "Of course," I said. "I can fix up that. How many will there be?"

    He said. "If possible, I think the Sister should be present."

    Nadezna said, "I should be glad to come, Sheikh."

    I said, "Would you like me to come? That's just as you wish. I can send Gujar Singh to pilot the machine, or, if you wish, I'll pilot it myself. Just as you like."

    Fahad said, "If you can spare the time, I should like you to come too, Mr. Cutter. The sum involved is a large one, and it would be well that witnesses to the Majlis of my father should be present. And you are a completely independent witness, which perhaps was why my father asked for you."

    I said, "I can come." And then I said, "How much money is

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    involved in this legacy? I don't want to ask impertinent questions, but if it is a very large sum it may need some thought. Because, as you know, Shak Lin is a sick man."


    Fahad said, "I know that, Mr. Cutter. That has been in our minds, too, but my father's will must first be carried out before we think of anything else. As regards the sum, it seems to be about five hundred and twenty lakhs."

    "Five hundred and twenty lakhs?" I repeated. A lakh of rupees is a hundred thousand rupees. I calculated quickly in my head—fifty-two million rupees. "You mean, about four million pounds?"

    "Probably a little less," said Fahad. "Just under four million pounds, I think."

    It may have been tactless before Moslems, but I said "Christ!" It's always a bit of a shock when the fairy tale comes true, and though I had heard for years that the old Sheikh had an income from the oil royalties that was a good deal more than half a million pounds a year, I had never believed it. I knew, of course, that he was wealthy, but sums such as that are bordering on fantasy and one assumes instinctively that there is gross exaggeration somewhere. However, here it was, and it was true. The old man had just under eight million pounds in his various bank accounts, all in current accounts because of his hatred of usury. And by his will, one half of that sum was now due to Connie.

    Fahad and Hussein were quite phlegmatic about parting with this vast sum, as well they might be, because the half that the family retained was free of any sort of tax or death duty. The income from the oil royalties was so vastly in excess of the requirements of their modest and ascetic way of life that the accumulated savings represented nothing but a burden and a responsibility. The old Sheikh had no idea of using money in the modern way; it was beyond his mental power to visualize the construction of roads, schools, hospitals, or sewage schemes as free gifts to his people; he would have thought that pampering them and leading them away from God into a life of sinful ease. Fahad, of course, had plenty of modern ideas, but he was new to the sheikhdom and had much prejudice to contend with. It would be many years before he could spend even the annual income from the royalties. I really think that they were happy and relieved

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    that the old man had discovered a means of letting down the pressurc in the Treasury for the service of God through El Amin.

    We talked about this for a time, and then it became imperative to organize the journey to see Connie. There was a tendency for the party to grow on the Arab side; a cook was necessary to free the Sheikh from worries over eating unclean food, a servant or two were very desirable, and so on. I decided to take the Carrier as being bigger and more suitable than one of the little old Airtrucks, still doing yeoman service, and I warned Gujar Singh that I should want him to come with me on the flight, starting the day after tomorrow.

    I took the Arabs up to the Control office then. Conditions were fairly good, and Alec Scott was in touch with Karachi by radio telephone. We got them to relay an enquiry to Air Traffic Control at Calcutta, and within a quarter of an hour we had our information. The Proctor had left Patna that morning for Benares; it was believed to be going on to Cawnpore, Agra, and Delhi.

    We caught up with them at Agra five days later.

    Agra, of course, is where the Taj Mahal is, the incredibly lovely and enormous tomb erected by a Moslem king to his beloved wife. To us Agra meant something different to that. It has a huge three-runway aerodrome with a long range of hangars and workshops; it is one of the principal bases of the Indian Air Force. There must have been thirty Dakotas parked there when we joined the circuit, and a mass of other aircraft.

    Gujar was chief pilot for the flight and was flying the Carrier in for the landing; as we went round I scanned this mass of aircraft from the co-pilot's window to see if I could see the Proctor. And then I saw it. It was parked on the tarmac between two Dakotas, and there was a great crowd of people round it; looking carefully I could see a figure standing on the wing beside the fuselage. I went quickly through into the cabin and pointed the machine out to Nadezna and the Arabs.

    Then we landed, and taxied round the perimeter track to the Control tower and stopped engines on the tarmac. I knew that Connie and Arjan Singh would have seen and recognized the Carrier as it came in, and they were expecting us because I had got a message to them at Cawnpore. It did not seem to be a very

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    good thing to break in on their religious meeting,
    and so we cleared the necessary formalities regarding the aircraft, and telephoned for rooms at a hotel, and laid on two taxis, and then sat and waited until Connie and Arjan Singh turned up.

    They came about half an hour later, driven by two officers of the Indian Air Force in a jeep, and followed on foot by a great crowd of enlisted men, all Indian, of course. I had not seen Connie for some months, nor had Nadezna, but we were both shocked at the change in him. With our intellects, of course, we had known that there must be a change, but I hadn't visualized it. He was thinner than ever, and obviously weak; when we saw him first, too, he was very tired because he had been speaking for over an hour. He was much paler than I remembered him and he had lost a good deal of his hair, so that he looked ten years older. Sudden movements seemed to hurt him in his chest and abdomen.

    He was very glad to see us all. I think he realized what the presence of the Arabs meant, because after a formal salutation in Arabic he said at once to Fahad, "Is your father, the Sheikh of Khulal, well?"

    The Arab said, "My father is with God."

    I broke in at that point, and insisted that we all go down to the hotel. The taxis were waiting, and I didn't like the look of Connie a bit; to start on a discussion of the legacy standing on the tarmac out in the heat of the sun, with all sorts of people listening, seemed very unwise. So we drove down to the Grand Hotel, and found it a big, spacious building in the grand style, now sliding into shabbiness and neglect since the departure of the British. In the vast place there were only two or three other guests, and we got a row of rooms in a ground floor arcade that opened on to a garden.

    Connie and Arjan Singh shared a room as they were accustomed to do; it was only later that I came to know how much Arjan had done for Connie in those months, how good a nurse this robber baron with his great black beard had been. I got hold of Arjan Singh while Connie was having his bath and had a talk with him in my room. He said that Connie had never been actually ill in the sense that he had been unable to travel or to speak to his religious

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    meetings, but he agreed that it was very near the time when he would have to give it up. He said that he slept very little, but rested a great deal; Arjan encouraged this, and kept him lying on the charpoy for as much as seventeen or eighteen hours in the day, only allowing him up to travel or to visit the aerodromes. He said that recently Connie had suffered a good deal from pains in his bones.

    I asked if they were in money difficulties, if their travelling way of life could be made easier for Connie if they had more money. He said that money would make no difference. They were very seldom allowed to pay for anything; accommodation, taxis or gharries, and food were invariably provided for them free or paid for by the generosity of aircraft operators on the aerodromes. Landing fees were always remitted, wherever they went, except in Malaya which was British territory; apparently the British civil servants didn't view religious travellers in quite the same way as Asiatics. He said that after nearly six months' travelling they had spent no more than about four hundred rupees between them, and they had ample for their needs.

    I asked him when it would be convenient for Connie to meet the Arabs, and he said that after dinner would be the best time; he said that Connie ate very little now, but that his evening meal was the best of the day, usually curry and rice and some fruit. After that he was alert and at his best, and Arjan suggested that the Arabs might come along at about eight o'clock or so to Connie's room, and we could all talk there. In that way it would be possible for him to recline on the bed if he felt like it.

    I went and told Wazir Hussein this proposal, and then I went to tell Nadezna, but she was in with Connie. I dined alone in the hotel dining room that night because the Arabs ate privately in their own rooms food prepared by their own cook. After dinner we all met in Connie's room.

    There weren't enough chairs, so we sent the hotel boys to get some more, and presently we were all sitting in a row on hard, upright cane chairs in the bedroom, while Connie sat upon the bed, the mosquito net turned back over his head.

    Wazir Hussein told the story to begin with. He said that his late master, the Sheikh Abd el Kadir, had been greatly troubled in

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    his mind in his last years about the disposal of his money. After much thought he had decided that one half of his cash savings should be given to God, and they were then puzzled as to how this was to be done. Baraka was a small town that had a very good mosque already, and his master felt that if great sums of money were spent in the district the people of the country would become debauched. They decided that the money must be spent outside Baraka, and at one time they had played with the idea of spending two or three million pounds upon the erection of a vast new mosque in Bahrein. Then Shak Lin had appeared, the new Teacher whose ideas were refreshing and bringing up to date the old tenets of Islam without in any way destroying their original purity. His master had become convinced that this new teaching would spread through the Asiatic world and bring men back to God, and that if the spiritual power of El Amin were supported by the more material power of a great legacy to be devoted to religious purposes, then the new Teaching would be placed upon a firm foundation to the greater glory of God. Before the full Majlis, with some other witnesses, he had therefore left one half of his cash savings to El Amin absolutely, and this cash amounted to about five hundred and twenty lakhs of rupees.

    Fahad, the new sheikh, spoke then. He said that his father had made this decision after talking to him privately, and that he had agreed that this legacy was a fitting and a proper use for the money. He was entirely in agreement with his father's wishes, and he awaited a lead as to the disposal of the money.

    I said a very few words then. I said that the late Sheikh had invited me to be present at the Majlis, which was a most unusual honour for an Englishman. Captain Morrison had been there, too. The old man was undoubtedly in full possession of all his faculties, and I had no doubt that this legacy was the result of prolonged and careful thought upon his part. Captain Morrison had told me afterwards that in his view the legacy was valid and completely legal, and that if any question were raised, he would advise the British Foreign Office so.

    Connie said then, "I am very conscious of the honour that my old friend, the Sheikh Abd el Kadir, has paid me. Let me think for a few minutes."

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    He sat silent on the bed before us, his eyes on the floor. Then he got up and went to the door, and pushed aside the netted frame, and went out into the garden. There was a moon, and as we sat there in the bedroom we could see him through the netted door walking up and down upon the lawn in the moonlight. We sat there talking in low tones about unimportant things; I would have liked to smoke, but in that company of religious non-smokers that was hardly possible. There was a bowl of grapes upon the table, and we ate a few of these.

    He must have been away for nearly an hour. At last he came in from the garden and sat down upon the bed again. He was calm and thoughtful when he spoke.

    "My teaching has no need of temples," he said. "My temples are the fitters' shop, the tool room, and the hangar on the aerodrome. Nor do I need priests for what I teach, because each man who finds God in his daily work by working in a shop with other men, he is a priest for me."

    He paused. "The Sheikh of Khulal was my friend," he said. "In the last years it has been one of the great pleasures of my life to visit him and talk to him about the ways of God with man, because he was kind and thoughtful, and compassionate to humble men, and wise beyond all belief. I knew that he intended this legacy; he told me when I visited him four months ago for the last time. I did not worry him in his last days by refusing his great kindness, even though I knew that it must be refused. If I did wrong in that, I ask your pardon."

    Fahad cleared his throat. "It was not for temples or for priests alone that my father intended this money," he said. "I think he meant it for a pension fund in part, that men who turn to God in daily work and yet fall into ill health or distress should be assisted by this money to regain their powers, or to die in peace. Also, he thought that men who followed your way of teaching should be helped to travel to far countries, where by their lives and work they would draw other men to God by their example."

    Connie smiled a little. "Men who follow my teaching become good workmen," he said, "because good work and right thinking are as one. Such men need no money to help them travel, for if such a one should wish to leave his country and work, say, in Hong
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