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   Chapter 2 No.2

The Lion of Petra By Talbot Mundy Characters: 19266

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


"Trust in God, But Tie Your Camel!"

Do you believe in portents? I do. Whenever in the East the first two statements that a man has made in my presence, and that I have a chance to test, prove accurate, I go ahead and bet on all the rest. I don't mean by that that because a man has told the truth twice he won't lie on the third and fourth occasion; for the East is like the West in that respect, and usually seeks to turn its virtue into capital. But in a land where, as old King Solomon, who knew his crowd, remarked, "All men are liars," you must have some sort of weathervane by which to guide your national optimism, so I settled on that one long ago.

Ali Baba had said there was a bad stink in the camel stables. A natural expert in hyperbole, he had not exaggerated in the least. And he had said that they were good camels; it was true. You did not need to be a camel expert to know those great long-legged Syrian beasts for winners. They looked like the first pick of a whole country-side, as he maintained they were-twenty-five of them in one string, representing an investment at after-war prices of the equivalent of five or six thousand U.S. dollars.

"Who has been looted to pay for these?" asked Grim.

"Allah! You have put an end to our proper business, Jimgrim. What could we do? We took our money and bought these camels, thinking to take a hand in the caravan trade."

Grim looked into the old rogue's eyes and laughed.

"In the land I come from," he said, "a capitalist with your predatory instincts would pay a lawyer by the year to tell him just how far he could safely go!"

"A wakil?" sneered Ali Baba. "The wakils are all scoundrels. May Allah grind their bones! No honest man can have the advantage of such people."

Grim looked the loads over, but there was nothing that any one could teach that gang about desert work. The goat-skin water-bags were newly patched and moist; the gear was all in good shape, none new, but all well-tested; and there was food enough in double sacks for twenty men for a month. Mujrim, Ali Baba's giant oldest son, picked up the loads and turned them over for Grim to examine with about as much apparent effort as if he were tossing pillows.

Presently Grim laughed again, and looked at the line of fifteen other sons and grandsons, all squatting in the shadow of the wall watching us.

"Which is the chief Lothario?" he asked; only he used a much more expressive word than that, because the East is frank where the West deals in innuendo, and vice versa.

"They are all grown men," said Ali Baba. "There's a woman named Ayisha-a Badawi (Bedouin)-who has lately come from El-Maan with a caravan of wheat merchants."

"How did you know that, Jimgrim?"

"I'm told she has been buying things in the suk* that no Badawi could have use for, and has sent to Jerusalem for goods that could not be obtained here. I want to speak with her. Has any of your"-he smiled at the line of placidly contented sons again-"fathers of immorality made her acquaintance by some chance?" [* Bazaar]

Every one of the sixteen sons instantly assumed an expression of far-away meditation. Ali Baba looked shocked.

"I see!" said Grim. "Um-m-m! Well-none of my business. But one of you go fetch her to the governorate. You may tell her she's not in trouble, but an officer wants first-hand information about El-Maan."

"Shall my sons be seen dragging a woman through the streets?" asked Ali Baba.

"Let's hope not. But I don't care to send the police. I don't want to put her to indignity, you understand. Suppose you arrange it for me, eh?"

"Listen, Jimgrim; that woman is a strange one! Men have spoken evil of her, but none can prove it. I have heard it said she has a devil. `Trust in God, but tie your camel!' says the Book.* The wisest among wise men would be he who let that woman alone!"

------

* The Moslems attribute all their favorite proverbs to the

Koran, whether they are in the book or, as in this case, not.

------

"I suppose I'll have to get Captain de Crespigny to arrange it for me."

"Tfu!* There is no need for a man like you to appeal to the governor. Taib. It shall be done. Have no doubt of it."

----- * An exclamation of contempt -----

"All right. Send her up to the governorate-and no delays, mind!

We start tonight at sundown."

On our way back we met Narayan Singh returning from the suk with parcels under his arm. That in itself was a sure sign of the lapse of contact with law and order; in Jerusalem he would have had an Arab carry them, because dignity is part of a Sikh's uniform. You realized without a word said that the uniform would be discarded presently. He looked me up and down as the quartermaster eyes a new recruit, and nodded in that exasperating way that makes you feel as if you had been ticketed and numbered. If Grim had not told me that the Sikh had been first to suggest taking me to Petra I would have insulted him painstakingly there and then; but you learn a certain amount of self-restraint, I suppose, before such a man as Narayan Singh ever approves of you for any purpose.

He undid the parcels on the dining-room table in the governorate, and the next half-hour was spent in rigging me up as an ascetic-looking Indian Moslem, with the aid of a white turban wound over a cone-shaped cap, great horn-rimmed spectacles, and the comfortable, baggy garments that the un-modernized hakim wears over narrow cotton pantaloons.

Over it all they put a loose, brown Bedouin cloak of camel-hair such as any man expecting to travel across deserts might invest in, whatever his nationality; it was hotter than Tophet, but, as the Arabs say, what keeps the heat in will also keep it out. It gives you a feeling of carrying your home around with you on your back, the way a snail totes its shell, and there are worse sensations.

"Now consider yourself a while in the mirror, sahib," said Narayan Singh. "When a man knows how he looks he begins to act accordingly."

Have you ever stopped to think how true that is? There was a full-length mirror upstairs in de Crespigny's bedroom, left behind by a German missionary's wife when the Turks and their friends stampeded, and Narayan Singh watched while I posed in front of it. Before many minutes, without any deliberately conscious effort on my part, gesture and attitude were molding themselves to fit the costume, in somewhat the same way, I suppose, that a farm-hand from Montenegro shapes himself into a new American store suit.

"But it is necessary to remember!" warned Narayan Singh. "We should have done this sooner. There should be a photograph to carry with you, because a man forgets his own appearance where there are no mirrors and none others resembling himself. Henceforward, sahib, sleeping or waking, be a hakim! There is a chest of medicines downstairs."

By the time I had got down Grim had already changed into Bedouin dress-stepped simply out of one world into another. All he does is to stain his eyebrows dark, put on the clothes, and cease to resemble anything on earth except a desert-born Arab. I don't know how long he was learning to make the transformation, but no man could learn the trick in twenty years unless he loved the desert and the sinewy men who live in it.

He looked me over again narrowly, and then decided I must return upstairs and shave my head. "The only chance you've got of not being pulled apart between four camels, or pushed over a precipice, is to look like darwaish. Have Narayan Singh stain the back of your neck with henna-not too much of it-just a little-you're from Lahore, you know-a university product."

By the time I had carried out that order I could not even recognize myself without the turban on. "No matter how many mistakes now, Sahib!" grinned the Sikh. "None but a crazy Moslem would travel in this sun with his head shaved. Better put a cloth inside the cap, thus, for greater safety."

The only other thing Grim did to me was to throw away my toothbrush.

"They're suspicious in these parts," he said. "They'd figure it was hog-bristles. You'll have to make shift with a chewed stick, and pick your teeth between times with a dagger the way the rest of us do. Hello! Here she comes. You do the honors, 'Crep; we're in the game from now on."

De Crespigny went to the door and Grim and I squatted cross-legged in the window-seat. I tried to feel like a middle-aged native of the East under the rule of that twenty-six-year-old governor; but it couldn't be done. I don't know yet what the sensations are of, say, a bachelor of arts of Lahore University who has to take orders from a British subaltern. I expect you have to leave off pretending and really be an Indian to find out that; otherwise your liking for the fellow himself offsets reason. No white man could have helped liking young de Crespigny.

He came in after a minute perfectly self-possessed, leading a young woman who took your breath away. I have heard all the usual stories about the desert women being hags, but every one of them was pure fiction to me from that minute. If all the rest were really what men said of them, this one was sufficiently amazing to redeem the lot. De Crespigny addressed her as Princess, and she may have really ranked as one for all I know.

She sat on a chair, rather awkwardly, as if not used to it, and we stared at her like a row of owls, she studying us in return, quite unabashed. The Badawi don't wear veils, and are not in the least ashamed to air their curiosity. She stared uncommonly hard at Grim.

Of middle height, supple and slender,

with the grace of all outdoors, smiling with a dignity that did not challenge and yet seemed to arm her against impertinence, not very dark, except for her long eyelashes-I have seen Italians and Greeks much darker-she somewhat resembled the American Indian, only that her face was more mobile.

Part of her beauty was sheer art, contrived by the cunning arrangement of the shawl on her head, and kohl on her eyelashes. That young woman knew every trick of deportment down to the outward thrust of a shapely bare foot in an upturned Turkish slipper. Her clothing was linen, not black cotton that Bedouin women usually wear, and much of it was marvelously hand-embroidered; but all the jewelry she wore was a necklace made of gold coins. It gave a finishing touch of opulence that is the crown of finished art.

But it was her eyes that took your breath away, and she was perfectly aware of it; she used them as the desert does all its weapons, frankly and without reluctance, sparing no consideration for the weak-rather looking for weakness to take advantage of it. They were wise-dark, deadly wise-alight with youth, and yet amazingly acquainted with all evil that is older than the world. She was obviously not in the least afraid of us.

"You are from El-Maan?" asked de Crespigny, and she nodded.

"Did you come all this way alone?"

"No woman travels the desert alone."

"Tell me how you got here."

"You know how I got here. I came with a caravan that carried wheat-the wife of the sheikh of the caravan consenting."

She spoke the clean concrete Arabic of the desert, that has a distinct word for everything, and for every phase of everything -another speech altogether from the jargon of the towns.

"Are they friends of yours?"

"Who travels with enemies?"

"Did you know them, I mean, before you came with them?"

"No."

"Then you are not from El-Maan?"

"Who said I was?"

"I thought you did."

"Nay, the words were yours, khawaja." * [* Lit., gentleman-sir]

"Please tell me where you come from."

"From beyond El-Maan."

She made a gesture with one hand and her shoulder that suggested illimitable distances.

"From which place beyond El-Maan?"

She laughed, and you felt she did it not in self-defense, but out of sheer amusement.

"Ask the jackal where his hole is! My people live in tents."

"Well, Princess, tell me, at any rate, what you are doing here in

El-Kalil." [Hebron]

"Ask El-Kalil. The whole suk talks of me. I have made purchases."

"That's what I'm getting at. You've made some unusual purchases, and you've sent to Jerusalem for things that people don't use as a rule in tents out in the desert-silk stockings, for instance, and a phonograph with special records, and soft pillows, and writing-paper, and odds and ends like that. Do you use those things?"

"Why not?"

"Do you use books in French and English?"

She hesitated. It was the first time she had not seemed perfectly at ease.

"Can you even read Arabic?"

She did not answer.

"Then the books, at any rate, are meant for some one else? Tell me who that some one is."

"Allah!" she exploded "May I not buy what I will, if I pay for it?"

But that was a false move. You can't upset the young British officer by storming at him. De Crespigny smiled, and came back at her with his next question suddenly.

"Are not those things for the wife of Ali Higg, and are you not from Petra?"

"If you know so surely whence I come, why do you ask me?"

"Are you a slave?"

"Allah!"

"How many wives has Ali Higg?"

"How should I know?"

"Because I think you are one of his wives. Is that not so?"

"I am Ayisha. I claim Your Honor's protection."

That was no false move. It was so nearly a checkmate that de Crespigny went to the sideboard for the silver box of cigarettes, to offer her one and gain time for thought.

Ever since the days of Ruth, and no doubt long before that, it has been the first law of the desert that man or woman claiming protection can no longer be treated as an enemy. It is possibly the earliest form of freemasonry, and it survives.

Arab history is full of instances of a warrior laying down his life for an enemy who has claimed protection from him. And young de Crespigny was ruler of the most unruly city in the Near East because he understood better than most men how to respect Arab prejudices. Ayisha accepted a cigarette, fitted it into a long amber tube, and watched him.

"Very well," he said at last. "If I protect you you must answer questions. Are you Ali Higg's wife?"

"Have I Your Honor's promise of protection?"

"Yes. Are you Ali Higg's wife?"

"I am his second wife."

"Thought so! And you've been sent to make purchases for number one?"

She nodded.

"How do you propose to convey all these things back to Petra?"

"Surely it is not difficult now that I am promised Your

Honor's protection!"

"My district extends half-way to Beersheba and to the eastward as far as the shore of the Dead Sea-no farther," said de Crespigny.

"I can wait. I must wait for the purchases from Jerusalem. Sooner or later there will be a caravan across the desert to El-Maan. I have two servants here to make inquiries for me."

"Yes, and two more who went to Jerusalem. Four men. Tell me this, Princess Ayisha: how came Ali Higg to trust you, alone with four men, on such a long and difficult journey?"

"Is he not my lord?"

"But the men?"

"Is he not also their lord? And he holds their wives and sons in trust at Petra."

"You'll admit it's unusual?"

"Do you find it strange that a woman should be faithful to her lord?"

"But to Ali Higg? He has a name-a reputation! How many wives has he?"

"The Koran permits but four. The others are not wives."

"And you're going back?"

"Inshallah." [If God is willing.]

It was obvious that no alternative would have the least appeal for her.

"Well, your movements have all been known to me. Your men have been watched. The word from Jerusalem is that the two you sent there have made their purchases. I heard over the telephone that they are on their way here. A suggestion has been made to me that you five might be held here as hostages to bring Ali Higg to terms."

She laughed. "He would raid, and make prisoners, ten for one. If an exchange were not made promptly his prisoners would be put to torture, and-"

De Crespigny saw fit to bring the conversation back to its other foot, as it were. Not the whole British Army was in a position just then to impose its will on Ali Higg, so certainly de Crespigny was not; and if you are any kind of real diplomatist, with a career in front of you, you don't talk fight unless you mean it.

"But of course, as you've claimed my protection I couldn't dream of that," he assured her. "Now, is there anything else you want after those men get here from Jerusalem?"

"Nothing else."

"They'll be here in an hour or so. Would you be ready to leave at once for Petra?"

"As soon as I can join a caravan."

"Today? This evening, for instance?"

"Allah provide it!"

"That's settled, then."

He turned toward Grim.

"This is Sheik Hajji,* Jimgrim bin Yazid of El-Abdeh, who has twice made the pilgrimage to Mecca. He is my honored friend. He starts tonight with a caravan toward Petra. You may travel with him and be in safe hands all the way."

----- * One who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca -----

She eyed Grim curiously, startled, it seemed to me. Then her expression changed slowly to excitement, followed by a look of baffling wisdom, as much as to say she knew something and would not tell. I don't think it was his name that startled her; that sounded Arabic enough.

"What business has he at Petra?" she asked.

De Crespigny let Grim answer that conundrum.

"Ya sit Ayisha,"* said Grim, "I carry a letter to Sheikh Ali Higg from some one in Arabia. I will deliver you along with the letter. You may have a place in my caravan-provided you have camels, provisions, and a litter," he added; for the surest way to increase her already alert suspicion would have been to offer to provide everything. [* O lady Ayisha.]

"Let me see the letter!"

Grim produced one instantly-an envelop with a big red seal on it. It was marked across the top in large letters "On His Majesty's Service," but addressed in Arabic to somebody, and as she could not read she was satisfied.

"Ali Higg will hold you answerable for my safety if he has to destroy armies to reach you!" she said simply.

"Ya sit Ayisha," Grim answered solemnly, "may Allah turn my face cold if Sheikh Ali Higg shall have fault to find with me in this matter!"

"How many is in your caravan?" she asked. "Twenty armed men."

She nodded. "I will pay for my place in the caravan, according to the custom-the half now and the other half on arrival."

Without gesture, without moving a muscle of his face, Grim turned down that proposal desert-fashion, that is emphatically, with a reservation.

"Ya sit Ayisha, may Allah do so to me, and more, if I will accept a price for this. Between Ali Higg and me let this thing be."

"Taib," she answered. "My men shall look for camels. I will go with you tonight."

She went away then, leaving a smile behind her that would have coaxed the Sphinx, and rode down-street toward the ancient city on a big gray donkey guarded by two Bedouins armed with swords and spears.

"Did I do all right?" asked de Crespigny.

"Fine!" Grim answered. "You'll be ruling England one of these days, 'Crep. Good job I had that letter to show her, though, wasn't it?"

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