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The Lion of Petra By Talbot Mundy Characters: 25422

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


"Allah Makes All Things Easy!"

This isn't an animal story. No lions live at Petra nowadays, at any rate, no four-legged ones; none could have survived competition with the biped. Unquestionably there were tamer, gentler, less assertive lions there once, real yellow cats with no worse inconveniences for the casual stranger than teeth, claws, and appetites.

The Assyrian kings used to come and hunt near Petra, and brag about it afterward; after you have well discounted the lies they made their sculptors tell on huge stone monoliths when they got back home, they remain a pretty peppery line of potentates. But for imagination, self-esteem, ambition, gall, and picturesque depravity they were children-mere chickens-compared to the modern gentleman whom Grim and I met up with A.D. 1920.

You can't begin at the beginning of a tale like this, because its roots reach too far back into ancient history. If, on the other hand, you elect to start at the end and work backward the predicament confronts you that there wasn't any end, nor any in sight.

As long as the Lion of Petra has a desert all about him and a choice of caves, a camel within reach, and enough health to keep him feeling normal-never mind whose camel it is, nor what power claims to control the desert-there will be trouble for somebody and sport for him.

So, since it can have no end and no beginning, you might define this as an episode-a mere interval between pipes, as it were, in the amusing career of Ali Higg ben Jhebel ben Hashim, self-styled Lion of Petra, Lord of the Wells, Chief of the Chiefs of the Desert, and Beloved of the Prophet of Al-Islam; not forgetting, though, that his career was even supposed to amuse his victims or competitors. The fun is his, the fury other people's.

The beginning as concerns me was when I moved into quarters in Grim's mess in Jerusalem. As a civilian and a foreigner I could not have done that, of course, if it had been a real mess; but Grim, who gets fun out of side-stepping all regulations, had established a sort of semi-military boarding-house for junior officers who were tired of tents, and he was too high up in the Intelligence Department for anybody less than the administrator to interfere with him openly.

He did exactly as he pleased in that and a great many other matters-did things that no British-born officer would have dared do (because they are all crazy about precedent) but what they were all very glad to have Grim do, because he was a bally American, don't you know, and it was dashed convenient and all that. And Grim was a mighty good fellow, even if he did like syrup on his sausages.

The main point was that Grim was efficient. He delivered the goods. He was perfectly willing to quit at any time if they did not like his methods; and they did not want him to quit, because there is nothing on earth more convenient for men in charge of public affairs than to have a good man on their string who can be trusted to break all rules and use horse-sense on suitable occasion.

I had been in the mess about two days, I think, doing nothing except read Grim's books and learn Arabic, when I noticed signs of impending activity. Camel saddles began to be brought out from somewhere behind the scenes, carefully examined, and put away again. Far-sighted men with the desert smell on them, which is more subtly stirring and romantic than all other smells, kept coming in to squat on the rugs in the library and talk with Grim about desert trails, and water, and what tribal feuds were in full swing and which were in abeyance.

Then, about the fourth or fifth day, the best two camel saddles were thrown into a two-wheeled cart and sent off somewhere, along with a tent, camp-beds, canned goods, and all the usual paraphernalia a white man seems to need when he steps out of his cage into the wild.

I was reading when that happened, sitting in the arm-chair facing Grim, suppressing the impulse to ask questions, and trying to appear unaware that anything was going on. But it seemed to me that there was too much provision made for one man, even for a month, and I had hopes. However, Grim is an aggravating cuss when so disposed, and he kept me waiting until the creaking of the departing cart-wheels and the blunt bad language of the man who drove the mules could no longer be heard through the open window.

"Had enough excitement?" he asked me then.

"There's not enough to be had," said I, pretending to continue reading.

"Care to cut loose out of bounds?"

"Try me."

"The desert's no man's paradise this time o' year. Hotter than Billy-be- --, and no cops looking after the traffic. They'll shoot a man for his shoe-leather."

"Any man can have my shoes when I can't use 'em."

"Heard of Petra?"

I nodded as casually as I could. Everybody who has been to Palestine has heard of that place, where an inaccessible city was carved by the ancients out of solid rock, only to be utterly forgotten for centuries until Burkhardt rediscovered it.

"Heard too much. I don't believe a word of it."

"There's a problem there to be straightened out," said Grim. "It's away and away beyond the British border; too far south for the Damascus government to reach; too far north for the king of Mecca; too far east for us; much too far west for the Mespot outfit. East of the sun and west of the moon you might say. There's a sheikh there by the name of Ali Higg. I'm off to tackle him. Care to come?"

"When do we start?"

"Now, from here. Tonight from Hebron. I'll give you time to make your will, write to your lady-love, and crawl out if you care to. Ali Higg is hot stuff. Suppose we leave it this way: I'll go on to Hebron. You think it over. You can overtake me at Hebron any time before tonight, and if you do, all right; but if second thoughts make you squeamish about crucifixion-they tell me that Ali Higg makes a specialty of that-I'll say you're wise to stay where you are. In any case I start from Hebron tonight. Suit yourself."

Any man in his senses would get squeamish about crucifixion if he sat long enough and thought about it. I hate to feel squeamish almost as much as I hate to sit and think, both being sure-fire ways of getting into trouble. The only safe thing I know is to follow opportunity and leave the man behind to do the worrying. More people die lingering, ghastly deaths in arm-chairs and in bed than anywhere.

So I spoke of squeamishness and second thoughts with all the scorn that a man can use who hasn't yet tasted the enmity of the desert and felt the fear of its loneliness; and Grim, who never wastes time arguing with folk who don't intend to be convinced, laughed and got up.

"You can't come along as a white man."

"Produce the tar and feathers then," said I.

"Have you forgotten your Hindustani?"

"Some of it."

"Think you can remember enough of it to deceive Arabs who never knew any at all?"

"Narayan Singh was flattering me about it the other day."

"I know he was," said Grim. "It was his suggestion we should take you with us."

That illustrates perfectly Grim's way of letting out information in driblets. Evidently he had considered taking me on this trip as long as three days ago. It was equally news to me that the enormous Sikh, Narayan Singh, had any use for me; I had always supposed that he had accepted me on sufferance for Grim's sake, and that in his heart he scorned me as a tenderfoot. You can no more dig beneath the subtlety of Sikh politeness than you can overbear his truculence, and it is only by results that you may know your friend and recognize your enemy.

Narayan Singh came in, and he did not permit any such weakness as a smile to escape him. When great things are being staged it is his peculiar delight to look wooden. Not even his alert brown eyes betrayed excitement. Like most Sikhs, he can stand looking straight in front of him and take in every detail of his surroundings; with his khaki sepoy uniform perfect down to the last crease, and his great black bristly beard groomed until it shone, he might have been ready for a dress parade.

"Is everything ready?" asked Grim.

"No, sahib. Suliman weeps."

"Spank him! What's the matter this time?"

"He has a friend. He demands to take the friend."

"What?" I said. "Is that little -- coming?"

Two men in all Jerusalem, and only two that I knew of, had any kind of use for Suliman, the eight-year-old left-over from the war whom Grim had adopted in a fashion, and used in a way that scandalized the missionaries. He and Narayan Singh took delight in the brat's iniquities, seeing precocious intelligence where other folk denounced hereditary vice. I had a scar on my thumb where the little beast had bitten me on one occasion when I did not dare yell or retaliate, and, along with the majority, I condemned him cordially.

"Who's his friend?" asked Grim.

"Abdullah."

Now Abdullah was worse than Suliman. He had no friends at all, anywhere, that anybody knew of. Possibly nine years old, he had picked up all the evil that a boy can learn behind the lines of a beaten Turkish army officered by Germans-which is almost the absolute of evil-and had added that to natural depravity.

"Let Abdullah come," said Grim. "But beat Suliman first of all for weeping. Don't hit him with your hand, Narayan Singh, for that might hurt his feelings. Use a stick, and give him a grown man's beating."

"Atcha, sahib."

Two minutes later yells like a hungry bobcat's gave notice to whom it might concern that the Sikh was carrying out the letter of his orders. It was good music. Nevertheless, quite a little of the prospect was spoiled for me by the thought of keeping company with those two Jerusalem guttersnipes. I would have remonstrated, only for conviction, born of experience, that passengers shouldn't try to run the ship.

"What shall I pack?" I asked.

"Nothing," Grim answered. "Stick a toothbrush in your pocket.

I've got soap, but you'll have small chance to use it."

"You said I can't go as a white man."

"True. We'll fix you up at Hebron. The Arabs have scads of proverbs," he answered, lighting a cigarette with a gesture peculiar to him at times when he is using words to hide his thoughts. "One of the best is: `Conceal thy tenets, thy treasure, and thy traveling.'

"The Hebron road is not the road to Petra. We're going to joy-ride in the wrong direction, and leave Jerusalem guessing."

Five minutes later Grim and I were on the back seat of a Ford car, bowling along the Hebron road under the glorious gray walls of Jerusalem; Narayan Singh and the two brats were enjoying our dust in another car behind us. There being no luggage there was nothing to excite passing curiosity, and we were not even envied by the officers condemned to dull routine work in the city.

Grim was all smiles now, as he always is when he can leave the alleged delights of civilization and meet life where he likes it-out of bounds. He was still wearing his major's uniform, which made him look matter-of-fact and almost commonplace-one of a pattern, as they stamp all armies. But have you seen a strong swimmer on his way to the beach-a man who feels himself already in the sea, so that his clothes are no more than a loose shell that he will cast off presently? Don't you know how you see the man stripped already, as he feels himself?

So it was with Grim that morning. Each time I looked away from him and glanced back it was a surprise to see the khaki uniform.

The country, that about a week ago had been carpeted with flowers from end to end, was all bone-dry already, and the naked hills stood sharp and shimmering in heat-haze; one minute you could see the edges of ribbed rock like glittering gray monsters' skeletons, and the next they were gone in the dazzle, or hidden behind a whirling cloud of dust. Up there, three thousand feet above sea-level, there was still some sweetness in the air, but whenever we looked down through a gap in the range toward the Dead Sea Valley we could watch the oven-heat ascending like fumes above a bed of white-hot charcoal.

"Some season for a picnic!" Grim commented, as cheerfully as if we were riding to a wedding. "You've time to crawl out yet. We cross that valley on the first leg, and that's merely a sample!"

But it's easy enough to be driven forward in comfort to a new experience, never mind what past years have taught, nor what imagination can depict; if that were not so no new battles would be fought, and women would refuse to restock the world with trouble's makings. A reasoning animal man may be, but he isn't often guided by his reason, and at that early stage

in the proceedings you couldn't have argued me out of them with anything much less persuasive than brute force.

We rolled down the white road into Hebron in a cloud of dust before midday, and de Crespigny, the governor of the district, came out to greet us like old friends; for it was only a matter of weeks since he and we and some others had stood up to death together, and that tie has a way of binding closer than conventional associations do.

But there were other friends who were equally glad to see us. Seventeen men came out from the shadow of the governorate wall, and stood in line to shake hands-and that is a lengthy business, for it is bad manners to be the first to let go of an Arab's hand, so that tact is required as well as patience; but it was well worth while standing in the sun repeating the back-and-forth rigmarole of Arab greeting if that meant that Ali Baba and his sixteen sons and grandsons were to be our companions on the adventure. They followed us at last into the governorate, and sat down on the hall carpet with the air of men who know what fun the future holds.

Narayan Singh stayed out in the hall and looked them over. There is something in the make-up of the Sikh that, while it gives him to understand the strength and weaknesses of almost any alien race, yet constrains him more or less to the policeman's viewpoint. It isn't a moral viewpoint exactly; he doesn't invariably disapprove; but he isn't deceived as to the possibilities, and yields no jot or tittle of the upper hand if he can only once assume it. There was scant love lost between him and old Ali Baba.

"Nharak said,* O ye thieves!" he remarked, looking down into Ali Baba's mild old eyes. [* Greeting!]

Squatting in loose-flowing robes, princely bred, and almost saintly with his beautiful gray beard, the patriarch looked frail enough to be squashed under the Sikh's enormous thumb. But he wasn't much impressed.

"God give thee good sense, Sikh!" was the prompt answer.

"Fear Allah, and eschew infidelity while there is yet time!" boomed a man as big as the Sikh and a third as heavy again-Ali Baba's eldest son, a sunny-tempered rogue, as I knew from past experience.

"Whose husband have you put to shame by fathering those two brats?" asked a third man.

Mahommed that was, Ali Baba's youngest, who had saved Grim's life and mine at El-Kerak.

They all laughed uproariously at that jest, so Mahommed repeated it more pointedly, and the Sikh turned his back to consider the sunshine through the open door and the rising heat within. Suliman and the other little gutter-snipe proceeded to make friends with the whole gang promptly, giving as good as they got in the way of repartee, and nearly starting a riot until Grim called Ali Baba into the dining-room, where de Crespigny was shaking up the second round of warm cocktails in a beer-bottle.

Ali Baba chose to presume that the mixture was intended for himself. The instant de Crespigny set the bottle on the table the old rascal tipped the lot into a tumbler and drank it off.

"It is good that the Koran says nothing against such stuff as this," he said, blinking as he set the glass down. "I have never tasted wine," he added righteously.

"Are the camels ready?" asked Grim.

"Surely."

"What sort are they? Mangy old louse-food, I suppose, that had been turned out by the Jews to die?"

"Allah! My sons have scoured Hebron for the best. Never were such camels! They are fit to make the pilgrimage to Mecca."

"I suppose that means that the rent to be charged for each old camel for a month is more than the purchase-price of a really good one?"

"The camels are mine, Jimgrim. I have bought them. Shall there be talk of renting between me and thee?"

"Not yet. After I've seen the beasts. If they're as good as you say I'll pay you at the government rate for them per month."

"Allah forbid! The camels are yours, Jimgrim. For me and mine there will no doubt be a profit from this venture without striking bargains between friends."

Grim smiled at that like a merchant listening to a salesman. It is not often that you can tell the color of his eyes, but on occasions of that sort they look iron-gray and match the bushy eyebrows. He turned to de Crespigny.

"Have you finished the census, 'Crep?"

"Pretty nearly."

"Have you got Ali Baba's property all listed?"

"Yes."

"And that of his sons and grandsons?"

"Every bit of it that's taxable."

"Good. You hear that, Ali Baba? Now listen to me, you old rascal. When you complained to me the other day that there was no more thieving left to do in Hebron, I told you you're rich enough to quit, and you admitted it, you remember? You agreed with me that jail isn't a dignified place for a man of your years and experience."

"Taib.* Jail is not good." [* All right]

"But you complained that you couldn't keep your gang out of mischief."

"Truly. They are young. They have talent. Shall they sit still and grow fat like a pasha in the harem?"

"So I said I'd find them some honest employment from time to time."

"That was a good promise. Here already is employment. But you know, Jimgrim, they are used to rich profits in return for running risks. Danger is meat and drink to them."

"They shall have their fill this trip!" said Grim.

"Taib. But the reward should be proportionate."

"Government wages!" Grim answered firmly. The old Arab smiled.

"Under the Turks," he answered, "the officer pocketed the pay, and the men might help themselves."

"D'you take me for a Turk?" asked Grim.

"No, Jimgrim. I know you for a cunning contriver-an upsetter of calculations-but no Turk. Nevertheless, as I understand it, we go against Ali Higg, who calls himself the Lion of Petra. Sheikh Ali Higg has amassed a heap of plunder-hundreds of camels-merchandise taken from the caravans; that should be ours for the lifting. That is honest. That is reasonable."

"Not a bit of it!" said Grim. "Let's get that clear before we start. I know your game. You've got it all fixed up between yourselves to stick with me until Ali Higg is mafish* and then bolt for the skyline with the plunder. Not a bit of use arguing-I know. You shouldn't talk your plans over in coffee-shop corners if you don't want me to hear of them."

----- * Lit., nothing-corresponds to "na-poo" in Army slang. -----

"Jimgrim, you are the devil!"

"Maybe. But let's understand each other. Your property in Hebron is all listed. We'll call that a pledge for good behavior. You and your men are going to have government rifles served out to you that you'll have to account for afterward. Every rifle missing when we get back, and every scrap of loot you lay your hands on, will be charged double against your Hebron property. On the other hand, if any camels die you shall be reimbursed. Is that clear?"

"Clear? A camel in the dark could understand it! But listen, Jimgrim."

The venerable sire of rogues went and sat crosslegged on the window-seat, evidently meaning to debate the point. If an Arab loves one thing more than a standing argument it is that same thing sitting down.

"We go against Ali Higg. That is no light matter. He will send his men against us, and that is no light matter either. They are heretics without hope of paradise and bent on seeing hell before their time! Surely they will come to loot our camp in the dark. Shall we not defend ourselves?"

But Grim was not disposed to stumble into any traps.

"Does a loaded camel on the level trouble about hills?" he asked.

But Ali Baba waved the question aside as irrelevant.

"They come. We defend ourselves. One, or maybe two, or even more of Ali Higg's scoundrels are slain. Behold a blood-feud! Jimgrim and his friends depart for El-Kudz* or elsewhere; Ali Baba and his sons have a feud on their hands. [* Jerusalem]

"Now a feud, Jimgrim, has its price! It would do my old heart good to see the blood of Ali Higg and his heretics, for it is written that we should smite the heretic and spare not. But we should also despoil him of his goods, or the Prophet will not be pleased with us!"

"That is the talk of a rooster on a dung-hill," Grim answered. "A rooster crows a mile away. Another answers with a challenge, but the camels draw the plow in ten fields between them. That is like a blood-feud between you and Ali Higg. Five days' march from here to Petra and how many deserts and tribes between?"

"So much the easier to keep the loot when we have won it!" answered Ali Baba.

"There's going to be no loot!" said Grim.

"Allah!"

"Would you rather have me send back to Jerusalem for regular police?"

"Nay, Jimgrim! That would be the end of you, for those police would bungle everything. You need clever fellows with you if you go to sup with Ali Higg."

"Well? Are you coming?"

"Taib. We are ready. But-"

"On my terms!"

"But the pay is nothing!"

"So is my pay nothing! This man"-he pointed to me-"gets no pay at all. Narayan Singh, the Sikh, gets less pay than a policeman."

"Then what is the profit?"

"For you? The honor of keeping your word. The privilege of making fair return for past immunity. Why aren't you and all your sons in jail this minute? Why did I invite you to come with me on this occasion? Because a man looks for friends where he has given favors! But if you consider you owe the administration nothing for forgiving all past offenses, very well; I'll look for friends elsewhere."

"As for the administration, Jimgrim, may Allah turn its face cold! But you are another matter. We will come with you."

"On my terms?"

"Taib."

You would have thought that settled it, especially as Ali Baba had already stated that he and his gang were prepared for the journey. But the East, that is swift to wrath, is very slow over a bargain, and it is a point of doctrine besides, all the way from Gibraltar to Japan, to keep an American waiting if you hope to get the better of him. Ali Baba settled down for a nice long talk; and you would have thought, to judge by Grim's expression, that he could ask for nothing better.

The old rogue wanted to know among other things who would have the task of cleaning rifles on the journey. It seemed that he was long on sanctity, and not allowed by his religion to touch grease in any shape or form. Grim satisfied him on that point. Narayan Singh should clean the rifles.

But that started him off on a new trail. He tried to see how much more he could impose on the Sikh, and suggested such matters as pitching tents, cooking, gathering firewood, cleaning pots and pans, leading the pack-camels, and a host of other necessary evils.

"I shall issue all needful orders to each man," Grim told him bluntly at last.

"And what is to be done to Ali Higg?"

"That remains to be seen."

"He is a devil with a cold face."

"So I'm told."

"He has more than a hundred armed men."

"I heard twice that number."

"And we shall be twenty?"

"Twenty."

"Oh, well, Allah makes all things easy!"

But that was not the last word. There was still a custom of the country to be met and overcome.

"Are the camels watered?" Grim asked.

"Surely."

"Packs all ready?"

"All tied up-everything."

"You're all ready to start, then?"

"Inshallah bukra." * [* Tomorrow, if God is willing.]

"Tomorrow won't help me," said Grim. "We start tonight, at sundown. I'll go with you and look the camels over now."

"But, Jimgrim, that is impossible. My son Mahommed's second wife is sick-"

"Leave him behind, then, to look after her."

"He will not consent to be left! Two of the camels are not paid for. The man comes in the morning for his money."

"Leave the money here for him with Captain de Crespigny. We start tonight."

"But what if the camels are not satisfactory?"

"I shall see about other ones at once in that case. There'll be time if we look them over now. We start tonight."

"I was thinking about some mules to carry an extra load or two."

"No. Don't want mules. Too hot for them. Besides, there's no time for changing the loads over. We start tonight."

"Tomorrow will be a better moon, Jimgrim."

"We want a full moon when we get to Petra. We start tonight. Come along; show me the camels."

"It is hot now. There is a bad stink in the stables. Better see them when it gets cooler."

"I'm going now. Are you coming with me?"

"Taib. I will show them to you. They are good ones. They will make you proud. Better give them another night's rest, though, Jimgrim."

"Come along. Let's look at them."

"One has a little girth-gall that-"

"Ali Baba, you old rogue, we start tonight!" said Grim.

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