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   Chapter 3 No.3

The Lion of Petra By Talbot Mundy Characters: 21164

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


"Ali Higg's Brains Live in a Black Tent!"

I hate to have to admit that there was any virtue in Suliman, or anything other than vice in his new chum Abdullah. The two little devils stole my cigarettes, and deviled me unmercifully about my disguise, making improper jokes, at which Ali Baba and his sons laughed uproariously, and which they recalled at intervals for days afterwards.

But almost immediately after the "lady Ayisha" had left the governorate I was forced to admit that the brats were useful. In their own way they served Grim as a pair of hounds work for a man out hunting rabbits, for they could penetrate places and be welcome where a grown man would be killed-at the very least-for intruding or attempting to intrude. Harems, for instance. And they could be naive and wheedling toward a woman when they chose.

They came in with their tongues hanging out like a pair of pups, and sticky with the awful stuff men sell for candy in the El-Kalil bazaars. Evidently some woman had been pumping them for information, and Grim made them stand in front of him on the carpet.

"Well?"

They both spoke at once. Now and then one paused for breath and then the other, but on the whole it was a neck-and-neck race to tell the tale first.

"There was a woman in the suk who had heard of Jimgrim but never saw him, and she bought us sweets and took us to her house, and she asked us questions about Jimgrim, and we told lies, and she asked us what we were doing in El-Kalil, and we said nothing, and she said wallah! That was very little, and then she asked us all over again about Jimgrim. (Gasp)

"So we said Jimgrim has already gone back to Jerusalem, and she did not believe; but we swore by the beard of the Prophet, so she said what were we going to do now, and we said we would go to the governorate and beg for bread. (Gasp)

"So she said what next, and we said there is a great sheikh here from Arabia, who makes a journey to Petra, and inshallah he will take us with him, and she said why did we want to go to Petra, and we said because our mothers were carried off by the Turks and sold to the Arabs and inshallah we should find them near Petra. (Gasp)"

"So far, good!" said Grim. "That's what she got out of you. Now what did you get out of her?"

"She said wallah! There is Ali Higg at Petra and he grinds the face of the poor and is a great chief and will make us prisoners and sell us for slaves or have us turned into eunuchs, and we said (gasp) that we are msakin* and not afraid of Ali Higg and he may as well have us as anybody, and if it is written that we shall be eunuchs then it is written and who shall change it? (Gasp) [* Poverty-stricken]

"And she said what made us think that the great sheikh will take us to Petra, and we said because he had promised, but he may be a big liar and we don't know yet."

"What kind of woman is she?" Grim asked.

"A big fat woman with a belly like two waterbags one on top of the other, thus!"

"What is her name?"

"She is the wife of Ismail ben Rafiki, the wool-dealer."

"Uh-huh. Yes. Go on."

"So she said we should come back here and find out if the sheikh will really take us and say to the sheikh (gasp) there is a lady in the city who can be of service to him in a certain matter and he should come back with us and we should lead him to the house and she will give us money and the sheikh will understand."

"Good!" pronounced Grim. "Not half bad. Just for that I'll go with you."

He winked at de Crespigny, nodded to me, pulled on a black-and-white striped Bedouin cloak, and went off with them at once. Whereat Narayan Singh came in, looking like another person altogether, although, if anything, bigger than before. He had got out of uniform and was dressed in a medley of Indian and Arab costume that made him look like one of those slaves in the "Arabian Nights" who cut off the heads of women. All he needed was a big curved simitar to fill the bill.

"Henceforth I am the hakim's servant," he said, showing his teeth in an enormous grin. "Only," he added, "since it will be I who instruct the hakim, in secret the sahib must listen to me."

He got out the medicine-chest, and being a Sikh with all of a soldier's opinion of civilians proposed to teach me what the labels on the little bottles stood for. Even he laughed after a minute or two, when he had got himself thoroughly sewed up and called each bottle by its wrong name.

"Ah! What does it matter!" he exclaimed at last. "Sore eyes-broken leg-boils-knife-wound-let it be all one. Give episin salts-always episin. Then, if we are long in one place, so that a sick man comes a second time, swearing grievously because of episin, give croton. That person will not come again, but the fame of the hakim will spread far and wide."

"You'd much better teach me how a hakim sits a camel,"

I suggested.

"All ways, sahib, for the hakim is not seldom a bunnia whose parents bought him education. Softer than wax is the rump of a bunnia and one who reads books. He sits this way until the boils break out, and then that way until the skin chafes. Then presently he lies across the saddle on his belly and either prays or curses, according as his spirit is pious or otherwise. But the camel continues to proceed, since that is its nature."

"Well, go on, instruct the hakim, then. The sahib listens."

"It is well to remember there will be with us, besides those seventeen thieves of this place, who know who we truly are, four sons of the desert and a woman. Now the woman, being woman, and they are all alike, will take note of the hakim and pretend to little sickness for the sake of making talk. Whereas the men, being, as it were, the guardians of the woman, will be seized with pride and jealousy. So that what with the woman's curiosity and the men's watchfulness there will be great need for discretion."

"How would you define discretion?"

"In the case of the woman, insolence. In the case of the men, a good humor-with perhaps some such physic for quarrelsomeness as croton oil administered in their food on suitable occasion. Whenever they get suspicious, sahib, drench their food!

"When the woman makes great eyes and shams complaints, tell her what their cursed Prophet said of women. Never mind whether he said it or not, sahib, for she will not know the truth of it, never having read the book. Only speak evil of all women, and so we shall come to Ali Higg's nest in good repute."

"All right. I'll try not to flirt with the lady. What next?"

"The sahib will be accused of being a Persian, and will be insulted accordingly, for none loves a Persian in this land, Islam having two chief sects, of which the Persians chose to adopt the Shia faith, which is not in favor with the Sunni, who are most numerous and most fanatic. The less the Sunni knows of his religion the more he despises a Shia; and when these people despise they steal, strike, abuse, and act otherwise unseemly."

"But I'm not supposed to be a Persian, am I?"

"No, for you could never act a Persian's part. But they will accuse you of being a Persian because you are an Indian, as I have heard a man called a dago because he was born somewhere south of a certain line. When it has been established that you are no Persian, but an Indian, it must be remembered that there are only two kinds of Indians whom they do not despise, and they are Sikhs and Pathans-Sikhs, because a Sikh can smite three Arabs with one hand, and the Pathan for much the same reason.

"But I must not go as a Sikh because of the religious difficulty; neither may you be a Pathan, because you in no way resemble one, nor do you speak the Pushtu tongue. But I will be a Pathan, because I can speak that language; therefore they will respect me as a man prone to fight readily and well. And knowing that no Pathan would demean himself by being servant to a man of no account, they will more readily respect you, although you are neither Sikh nor yet Pathan but are supposed to be a Punjabi Mussulman. Therefore, sahib, you must take a middle course between peace and pugnacity, pretending on the one hand to restrain my quarrelsomeness, yet on the other depending for safety on my readiness to take offense-as a man who is accustomed to a servant of mettle."

The rest of his lecture was about niceties of behavior, religious observances, and so on. It was a mystery how that man had never been promoted. He seemed to have eyes for everything and a memory for everything that he had ever observed. The Sikh despises the religion of Islam quite as fervently as the follower of the Prophet scorns Sikhism; yet he seemed familiar with every detail of Moslem custom, and knew to what extent geography affected it. The point he seemed to understand best was how to turn the flank of ignorant fanaticism.

"Whenever you make a mistake, sahib, remember this: you are Darwaish, which is a man who is privileged, having set behind him all unimportant matters. So when you are accused of not observing this or that, or of acting with impropriety, confound the Bedouin always by sneering at their ignorance, saying that where you come from men know what is proper. And Jimgrim, having truly made the pilgrimage to Mecca, will confound them likewise, having knowledge, whereas most of these rascals only know by hearsay."

I suppose he lectured me for two hours, until Grim came in looking pleased with himself, followed by the two infants looking much more pleased. You can't mistake the adventurous air of an eight-year-old with money hidden on his person, whatever his nationality may be. De Crespigny followed them in to learn the news.

"Know anything about old Rafiki, the wool-merchant?" Grim asked.

"Steady-going old party," said de Crespigny. "Says his prayers, cheats his customers, keeps the curfew law, and runs a three-wife establishment, I believe, in three parts of town, all according to the Book. Why, have you run foul of him?"

"He has offered me ten thousand piastres to poison Ali Higg"

"Show me the money!" laughed de Crespigny.

"He was hardly as previous as that. His head wife bribed these kids to bring me to the house, and the old boy met me in the wool-store. Said he'd been told I was going to Petra.

"First suggestion he made was that I should take my time on the road and waylay a caravan that's sure to follow. He'd no idea, of course, that the lady Ayisha is to travel with me. His little scheme is to provide her with camels and men on his own account-mean camels and his own men,

who would run away at the first sign of trouble.

"He assumes that I'm a gay Lochinvar who'd like nothing better than to carry off the lady. He wants her carried off and ravished as a spite for Ali Higg.

"Well, I didn't exactly fall for that; said I couldn't very well approach Ali Higg afterward, and he admitted that relations in that case might be kind o' strained. So he proposed next that I should meet up with Ali Higg and poison him. He offered to supply the poison-stuff that he said would make him die slowly in agony."

"What's his quarrel with Ali Higg?"

"Seems the old boy had a daughter who was the apple of his eye-or so he said. She was on her way down to Egypt; and I suspect she did not travel by train because she's been bought by some beast of a pasha. They didn't want inquiries by passport people, or any interfering bunk like that.

"Anyhow, Ali Higg is quite a ladies' man, and he happened to be crossing the map with part of his gang of thieves somewhere down Beersheba way. He agreed with the pasha on the point of taste and carried off the girl. So old wool-merchant Rafiki had to refund the purchase-price-not that he admitted that to me, of course.

"I suspect that's where the rub comes. If he hadn't been selling the girl illegally he'd surely have complained to you about the rape in the first instance. As it was he couldn't think of anything except revenge.

"I asked him if he'd take the girl back, and he said no, what should he do with her? What he wants is money, or else the lingering death of Ali Higg; and seeing it's about as easy to get money out of that gentleman as cream cheese out of the moon, he's willing to part with a hundred pounds for either of two things-the rape of Ayisha or the death of Ali Higg. On those terms he vows he'd die contented."

"If he finds out that Ayisha goes with you tonight he'll try to corrupt old Ali Baba or one of his sons," said de Crespigny.

"Yes, and he probably will find it out. But corrupting Ali Baba would take time and a lot of money; and none of his sons dares do a thing without the old man's approval. I feel fairly sure of the gang. Point is, do you know of any other gang that the wool-merchant could hire right now to attack us somewhere on the road?"

"There's none in Hebron that would dare. Plenty outside in the villages."

"The lady Ayisha has probably told that she's going tonight," said Grim. "Old Woolly-wits might not find it out until too late, but I suspect his wives get all the gossip that's going. Then he'll have to work fast, because we shall move fast. What villages does he trade with chiefly?"

"The Beni-Assan and the Beni-Khor."

"Small crowds, both of them. Counting her four fanatics, we'll be four-and-twenty armed men, and tough in the bargain. Is there any outlying sheikh who owes old Rafiki money? Who are his wives, for instance?"

"Now you're on the track," said de Crespigny. "One of his wives-the third, I think-is the daughter of Abbas Mahommed of the Beni-Yussuf tribe. Abbas Mahommed is always in debt to him."

"Where's his place?"

"Down near the lower end of the Dead Sea. Right near where you'll want to pitch your first camp. Abbas Mahommed sells him camel wool and hides, and goes in debt in advance regularly. This spring, for some reason, he delivered very little, and is still heavily in debt to Rafiki."

"How many men has he?"

"Might turn out fifty strong."

"That's where we're due for our first trouble, then," said Grim. "We'll have to put one over on him. I know one way of spoiling friend Rafiki's game; old Woolly-wits'll fall sure. Suppose you go and see him, 'Crep, or send for him, and ask him straight out to provide camels for the lady Ayisha. He'll send his own men along with them, of course, and give them private instructions. Let's see-four men and a woman plus provisions, and he'll probably send five men with them-twelve camels, eh? Who else can raise seven good camels in this place?"

"Easy. I know where to get 'em."

"Good. Hire them then. Tie them in two strings and send them out with two policemen to wait for us ten miles along the road. Be sure they start ahead of us. Soon as we overtake them I'll dismiss Rafiki's men, who'll be nothing but his spies, swap the princess and her four men and their loads on to the fresh beasts, and leave the police to chase Rafiki's experts home again. Will you do that?"

It was getting well along toward sunset, and de Crespigny had to hurry; but one of the advantages of being short-handed as administrator of a district is that you have to keep in intimate personal touch with all essentials, and there was not much that young de Crespigny did not know about getting what he wanted done in quick time. Within half an hour seven pretty good camels were sauntering southward out of Hebron, with a couple of phlegmatic Arab policemen perched on the two leaders, and the noses of the others tied to the empty saddles of the beasts ahead. They were neither as big nor in as good condition as old Ali Baba's wonderful string, but very likely better than any that the wool-merchant would provide, and by that much less likely to reduce our speed after we should make the change.

"You see how easy it is," said Grim, "for a rascal like Ali Higg to upset a whole country-side. Here we are getting the crime of Palestine running in grooves, as it were, so's to regulate it first and then reduce it to reasonable proportions, and all that beast needs do is steal a woman and start civil war."

But I did not see that the wool-merchant's private plans for vengeance amounted to civil war, and said so.

"Hah! Wait and see!" said Grim. "Woolly-wits goes after vengeance. Somebody gets killed. That means a blood-feud. All the relatives of the slain man-whether it's Ali Higg or one of his retainers doesn't matter-take up arms; and all the relatives of Woolly-wits do ditto. For each man killed in the war that follows the other side is out for the equivalent in life or goods. Village after village gets drawn in.

"Suppose that sheikh at the south end of the Dead Sea who's in debt to Woolly-wits jumps at the chance to loot our caravan and bag the lady, we'll be lucky if one or two of our men don't get scuppered. That means a blood-feud between that village and all old Ali Baba's clan.

"But that isn't nearly all, nor nearly the worst of it. Ali Higg learns next that the Dead Sea outfit have tried to waylay his wife; so he takes the warpath. And instead of that making a three-cornered fight of it, it might mean an offensive alliance between Ali Higg and Ali Baba's gang.

"Civil war would be a very mild name for that. There'd be brains brought to bear on it. The administration might have to spend twenty or thirty thousand pounds and jail a lot of estimable Arabs. The thing to do is to stop that kind of thing before it happens."

"By corraling Ali Higg, I suppose?" said I.

"Can't very well do that. He's a free man. Of course he's got no right to cross our border and steal women, but, on the other hand, he's made himself boss of a district that no other government pretends to control.

"If we can catch him our side of the line he's our meat; but that's reciprocal; if he can catch us on his side there's no law to prevent his doing what he likes with us. We've got to use our heads with Master Ali Higg."

I think that was the first time it really dawned on me that this venture was going to be dangerous. Even so, the calmness with which Grim considered leaving law and all the means of its enforcement behind and crossing deserts with a gang of known thieves for accomplices took most of the edge off it.

You simply couldn't feel scared when that fellow smiled and exposed the risks in detail, even with dark coming on and the sound of camels being made to kneel outside the window. For Ali Baba had become convinced at last that Grim really intended to start that night, and, making a virtue of necessity, was better than punctual. The camels were groaning and swearing, as they always do at the prospect of a night's work.

"As I see it, any tribe out there has as much right to elect Ali Higg leader as you and I have to elect a president," said Grim. "I don't suppose they did elect him, but they'll claim they did. The point is, he's got himself elected somehow. We've no veto. I don't hold with murder; it sets a bad example and turns loose a horde of individual trouble-makers who were under something like control before. It might be easy to have him murdered; you see how easy old Woolly-wits thought it might be. Murder has always been the solution of politics in the Old World right down to date; and look where they're at in consequence!"

"You must have some idea to go on," I suggested.

"What's your plan?"

"They say I look a bit like Ali Higg."

"But what then? Haven't you a plan-nothing you mean to try first?"

"Oh yes. Chercher la femme."

"So there's a woman in it?"

"You bet! Ali Higg's no born statesman. His brains live in a black tent, and he keeps 'em encouraged with French and English books bought in Jerusalem-silk stockings-gramophones-all kinds of things."

"What is she-a Turk? I've heard some of them are educated nowadays."

"No. And she never was a Turk. She was born in Bulgaria of Greco-Russo-Bulgar parents, educated at Roberts College and Columbia University, New York, married to a drummer in the shredded-codfish business, divorced-on what grounds I don't know-divorced him, though, I believe came out here as war worker-teacher in refugee camps in Egypt-made the acquaintance of Ali Higg when he was prisoner of war down there-he was fighting for the Turks at one time-and helped him to escape.

"I've never set eyes on her, but they say she's a rare good-looker and has more brains in her little finger than most men keep under their hats. I'm told she has designs on the throne of Mesopotamia."

"Mespot? I thought the League of Nations was going to let the

Arabs choose their own king."

"Sure. And as soon as she sees that Ali Higg's pretensions don't amount to a row of shucks I wouldn't give ten piastres for that gentleman's lease of life! Borgia had nothing on her, they tell me."

"So we're out to play chess with a white woman. Why didn't you tell me this before?"

"What's your hurry?" asked Grim. "If you find out too much all at once you'll lose your bearings. I'll introduce you to the lady if we ever reach Petra right side up. Now let's eat, and get a move on. A full belly for a long march! Come."

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