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   Chapter 5 No.5

The Lion of Petra By Talbot Mundy Characters: 22097

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


"Let that Mother of Snakes Beware"

The terms that Grim had imposed on Abbas Mahommed were perfectly well understood by every one concerned. The Arab is an individualist of fervid likes and dislikes and the thing that perhaps he hates most of all is to be observed by strangers; he does not like it even from his own people. So there was nothing incomprehensible, but quite the reverse, about that requirement that none from the village should trespass in our direction all that day. And, of course, only a bold robber conscious of his power to enforce them would have dared to insist on such terms. But it was a good thing that Mahommed Abbas did not call the bluff.

As it was, we slept all morning undisturbed, with only four watchers posted, relieved at intervals of one hour. And the only disturbance we suffered was from the lady Ayisha, who insisted that the black-faced prisoner was hers, camel and all, and that he should be taken to Petra for summary execution. She threatened Grim with all sorts of dire reprisals in case he should let the man go.

But setting every other consideration aside the man would have been dangerous company on the journey. He was putting two and two together in his own mind, and was not nearly as frightened as he had been. But in Hebron he could do no harm, for once the Dead Sea should be behind us it would not matter how many people knew of Grim's errand, since we should travel faster than rumor possibly could across the desert.

But if he should get one chance to talk with the lady Ayisha's men, and even cause them to suspect that Grim might be in league in some way with the British authorities, it would be all up with our prospect of deceiving folk in future. There was danger enough as it was that one of Ali Baba's men might make some chance remark that would inform Ayisha or her escort.

Grim decided finally to let the man escape and gave Narayan Singh and me instructions how to do it. But first he satisfied Ayisha by giving loud orders to every one to watch the man, and by telling her that he didn't care what she did with him after we reached Petra. Then, late in the afternoon, when Mujrim had rounded up the camels, a dispute was intentionally started about an old well, and whether a good trail to the southward did not make a circuit past it. The prisoner was asked, and he said he knew the well. Grim called him a father of lies, which he certainly was, and sent him off on the worst of the camels between Narayan Singh and me to prove his words. Ali Baba kept the Bishareen.

He led us a long way out into the desert among lumpy dunes in which the salt lay in strata, and where no sweet-water well could possibly be, or ever could have been. It was pretty obvious that all he wanted was a chance to escape from us, and he began offering bribes the minute we were out of sight of the camp.

The bribes were all in the nature of promises, however. He hadn't a coin or a thing except the clothes he wore, Ali Baba's gang having attended to that thoroughly.

"The wool-merchant-my master-is a rich man," he urged. "Let me go and he will be your friend for ever after."

"We have no need of friends," Narayan Singh answered. "This man and I, being spies in the government service, on the other hand, are men whose friendship is of value. You can serve us in a certain matter."

"Then give me money!" he retorted instantly. "He who serves the government nowadays receives pay."

"The way to receive pay," said I, "is to take this letter to the governor of Hebron, who will then know that a certain man is pretending to be Ali Higg. Thus you will do the government a great service, and may receive the difference in price between the Bishareen camel and that mean brute you ride now."

"We waste time. There is no well out here. Give me the letter!"

He was gone in a minute, headed straight for Hebron, and Narayan Singh and I fired several shots in the air to let Ayisha know what a desperate pursuit we had engaged in. When we rode into camp again, trying to look shamefaced, they had about finished packing up, so Grim had time to call us terrible names for Ayisha's benefit-names that it would not have been safe to apply to any of Ali Baba's men if he had chosen them for the job.

Those thieves would stand for any kind of devilry, and were willing to undertake all risks at Grim's bidding. Jail, fighting, hardship, meant to them no more than temporary inconvenience. But to have asked them to let a prisoner escape, and submit to shameful abuse for it afterward in the presence of a woman and strangers, would have been more than Arab loyalty could stand.

And, mother of me, how that woman Ayisha did revile us! If ever she had doubted we were Indians she was sure of it now. She swept with her tongue the whole three hundred million Indians into one vile horde and de-sexed, disinherited, declassed, and damned the lot of us. Before you think you know anything about abuse, wholesale or retail, you should hear a lady of the desert proclaim displeasure. I wouldn't be surprised to know that the very camels blushed.

It was all Narayan Singh could stand, for Ali Baba and his gang laughed derisively, and no true son of the East can endure to be laughed at.

"Let that mother of snakes beware!" he growled in my ear; and as it turned out in the end, he did not forget the grudge he owed her.

We were off again a good hour before sundown, and Mahommed Abbas sent out a screen of camel-men to follow us for several miles. They fired about twenty shots when we were well out of range, and boasted, as we learned afterward, of having put Ali Higg and a hundred men to rout.

But that did no harm. It reduced the real Ali Higg's prestige for a while all over the countryside; and in these days of League of Nations and mandates and whatnot it is hard enough in all conscience for brave villagers with muskets to find something to make up songs about. De Crespigny knew the truth about it as soon as our "escaped" man got to Hebron.

Before midnight we were well south of the Dead Sea and far beyond the border up to which the British mandate was supposed to be going to extend whenever the League of Nations Council should stop arguing. We were something like two thousand feet below sea-level now; but although the heat all day long under the tents had been almost intolerable, the night air was actually chilly because of the tremendous evaporation. The earth was throwing off the heat it had absorbed all day, and chill drafts crept from the mountaintops to take its place.

And as we crossed the imaginary border in pure, mellow moonlight, with our three bells clanging, you could have told its approximate whereabouts by the change that came over the gang. Even Grim's back, away ahead on the leading camel, assumed a jauntier swing. Old Ali Baba, next ahead of me, began to look ten years younger, and his sons and grandsons started singing-about Lot's wife acceptably enough, for we were near the fabled site of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the Prophet of Islam, who had nothing if not an eye for local color, incorporated that old story in the Koran.

The pillar of salt that used to be called Lot's wife, and that "stood there until this day," when the Old Testament writer penned his narrative, has fallen into the Dead Sea in recent memory. But all that did was to set loose imagination that had hitherto been tied to one landmark, and Ali Baba pointed out to me a dozen upright piles of argillaceous strata glistening in moonlight, every one of which he swore was either Lot's wife or one of her handmaidens.

"Such should be the fate of many other women," he asserted piously. "It would save a great deal of trouble."

The lady Ayisha heard that remark, and the things she said for the next ten minutes about men in general and old Ali Baba in particular were as poisonous as the brimstone that once rained down on Sodom and Gomorrah. She seemed to have no sense of being under obligation for the escort, but rather to think we were all in her debt for the privilege-a circumstance which appeared to me to bode ill for the manners of the gentry we proposed to visit.

Thereafter-I suppose since she considered she had utterly routed and reduced me to submission after the messenger's escape she summoned me to her side, thrusting the shibrayah curtains apart and beckoning with the fingers turned downward, Bedouin fashion. We conversed quite amicably for more than an hour, she mocking my Arabic pronunciation, but asking innumerable questions about India-who my mother was, for instance, and whether my father used to beat her much; what physic was used in India for date-boils; why I had not stayed at home; wasn't I afraid of meeting Ali Higg; and were there such great ones as he in India?

So, as there wasn't one chance in ten million of her knowing anything at all about India, I saw fit to explain that as a cockroach is to Allah so was Ali Higg to dozens of Indian bandits I had known. I told her tales of men's head piled mountains high, and of roads of corpses over which rajahs drove their chariots; of arenas full of tigers into which living prisoners were thrown once a week; and of a sheer cliff more than a mile high, over which women were tossed to alligators.

She took it all in, but doubted demurely at the end of it whether all those princely Indian terrorists added together could, as she put it, "reach to the middle of the thigh of Ali Higg"!

I asked her how she had come to marry the gentleman, and she answered with becoming pride that he had plundered her from the Bagdad caravan; but I think she meant by that a caravan of Bedouin on their way from Bagdad to wherever the grazing and thieving were good. She had a way of her own of enlarging things. Finally she asked me whether I carried good poison in my chest of medicines, and I told her I had some that could reach down to hell and kill the ifrits.

"Wallah!" she answered. "If you two eunuchs hadn't lost that prisoner we could have tested some of it on him!"

After that she dismissed me, I suppose that she might meditate on poison in the moonlight. I rode forward to take counsel with Grim, and some time during the night she got word with one of Ali Baba's younger sons. We had hardly camped an hour after dawn in the red-hot foothills east of the Dead Sea when Narayan Singh caught him rifling my chest, and he had the impudence to ask which were poisons and which not. Narayan Singh threatened an appeal to Grim, and the man apologized; but I saw Ayisha giving him sweetmeats in her tent not long afterward.

She had none of the ordinary Moslem woman's notions of privacy. A whole Bedouin family will live in a black tent ten by twelve, and though she had picked up wondrous ideas of high estate since her infancy, the desert upbringing remained. Her tent was pitched each day in the midst of ours, and she ordered every one about, Grim included, as if we were her husband's purchased slaves. And because it was Grim's

idea to make use of her to gain access to her husband we all put up with it, fetching and carrying without a murmur-that is to say, all except one of us.

Whenever Narayan Singh had to do her bidding his great black beard rumbled with discontent; and as that only amused her she ordered him about more than any one, the others aiding and abetting by inventing things for him to be told to do. But it hardly paid her in the long run.

On the third day, when we camped by an old well that Ali Baba swore was the identical one made by the angel Gabriel to provide water for Hagar and Ishmael-there are twenty or thirty of those identical wells in Palestine alone, to say nothing of Arabia-she began to take a particular fancy to Grim and to treat him with more respect, giving him the title of prince on occasion, and abusing the men for not attending more swiftly to his needs.

Now, whatever the alleged custom of other lands may be-and I refuse to be committed on that point-there is no doubt whatever about the East. There it is the woman who makes the first advances. Grim took to sleeping in a tent with Mujrim and Ali Baba.

Considering the customs of that land-the savage, accepted way in which women swap owners when tribes are at war, and between times when the raids are made on caravan routes-it would be altogether wide of the mark to blame her too severely. Grim is a good-looking fellow, even in the khaki officer's uniform that makes most Christians look alike. Disguised as an Arab he takes the eye of any man, to say nothing of women.

The lines of his face are just deep enough to accent the powerful curve of his nose and chin; and his eyes, with their baffling color, arrest attention. Then he stands, too, in that gear like a scion of an ancient race, firmly, on strong feet, with his head held high and arms motionless-not fidgeting with one or both hands, as white men usually do. The wonder really is that Ayisha did not betray her designs on him sooner.

Narayan Singh grew as nervous as a hen in the presence of snakes, for he foresaw how Grim's star would surely wane from the moment any such woman as Ayisha should establish a claim on him; and he did not quite realize the full extent of Grim's resourcefulness in making the most of a situation. Old Ali Baba's advice, on the other hand, was just what he would have given to any of his sons.

"Let Ali Higg keep his wives within reach if he hopes to call them his! Wallahi! I would laugh to see the Lion of Petra tearing his clothes with rage for such a matter as this!"

And all the gang agreed.

Ayisha began to question Grim openly about his home and belongings. She wanted to know how many wives he had, and he told her none, which made her all the more determined. If he had affected squeamishness she would have despised him, and that would have been the end of her usefulness; for scorn is very close indeed to hate, and hate to spitefulness in the land where she was raised. But he did nothing of the sort. He was as frank as she was, and did his fencing, as you might say, with a club.

"The desert is full of women!" he told her on one occasion when she made more than usually open overtures.

"But not such as I am!"

"A woman's heart lies under her ribs, and who shall read it?" he answered.

"A pig can read some things!" she retorted; for he always managed to keep just clear of the point where frankness might have merged into poetry.

Her own four armed attendants seemed to take the whole affair rather speculatively. She was probably in position to have them crucified on her return to Petra in case they should offer unacceptable advice. And it may be they would have looked favorably on the chance to transfer allegiance from Ali Higg to Grim, who had crucified nobody yet; as Ayisha's servants they would doubtless go with her, should she change owners.

She asked me repeatedly for love potions, to be slipped into Grim's food or into his drink, and was so importunate about it that, after consulting Grim, I gave her some boric powder. The next morning Grim told her that her eyes were like a young gazelle's, so my reputation as a hakim rose several degrees.

"Is he mad?" growled Narayan Singh. "Ah, each man has his weakness! He and I have played with death a dozen times, but I never knew him lose his head. So he is woman-crazed? What next, I wonder!"

The girl had lots of encouragement, for, not counting the younger men, who were hell bent for any kind of mischief, and constantly egged her on, old Ali Baba spent half of each day in the tent expounding to Grim the ethics of such situations; and they were as simple as the code of Moses.

"Love thy neighbor's wife if she will let you. Defeat thy neighbor in all ways whenever possible. On these two hang all amusement and prosperity."

And Grim was much too wise to pretend to Ali Baba any other motive than expedience. It would not have paid to take the old rascal too much into his confidence, because most Arabs overplay their hand; but he did drop a hint or two; and from what he told me I should say it was Ayisha's persistent love-making that provided the first suggestion of a plan in his mind for bringing Ali Higg to terms.

But I'm sure the plan did not really take shape until we reached the sun-baked railway-line that drags its rusty length behind wild hills all the way from Damascus down to Mecca.

Some say that the very steel of the rails is sacred because it was built to carry pilgrims to the Prophet's tomb. But some say not. And those who lost the carrying trade on account of it, and the tribes that used to lie in wait in mountain-passes for the Damascus caravan in the month of pilgrimage, say distinctly not. Between these two opinions there is a third, that of the gentry who declare it is a curse, to be turned back on the heads of those who use it.

During four nights we climbed unlovely hills, avoiding villages-to the disgust of Ali Baba's gang, who would dearly have loved to pick a quarrel somewhere and loot. They had a thousand excuses for taking another trail, declaring that Grim had lost the way or would lose it; that there was sweeter water elsewhere; or that the hills were not so steep and hard on the camels. But the moon was nearly full by then, and Grim seemed to carry a map of the district in his head.

Whether he went by guesswork, or really knew, we turned up finally a few miles from El-Maan at the exact spot he had aimed for, and pitched camp soon after dawn within fifty yards of the track. There was no water in that place and the gang grumbled badly; but it was not long before the reason of his choice was fairly obvious.

Tracks across the desert have a way of curving from point to point, no more following a straight course than the cow-paths do in other lands. Where there is a rock, or some peculiar conformation of the ground to attract attention, men and beasts will head for it, attracted somewhat after the fashion of a compass-needle by a lodestone or lump of iron.

There was a rock shaped like a flattened egg beyond the track, two or three hundred yards away from us. It stood all alone in a dazzling wilderness that was doubtless green at certain seasons of the year, but now was bone-dry and glittering with flakes of mica. Close beside that ran a track worn by camels and horses, and the shadow of that great rock in a weary land was plainly a halting-place.

Our men wanted to cross over and take advantage of the shade it would give as the sun climbed higher, but Grim refused to let them; whereat Ayisha went into a shrewish rage, and ordered her four men to take up her tent and pitch it over by the rock whether Grim permitted it or not. So they obeyed her, and Grim said nothing.

The rest of us set about cooking breakfast after the morning prayers were over. My prayer-mat was next Narayan Singh's, and it was interesting to hear him curse the Prophet sotto voce while pretending to vie with those robbers in fervid protestations of faith in Islam. But more than the Prophet he cursed Ayisha, praying to his Hindu pantheon to wreak all wrath on her.

It was a diluted pantheon, of course, because he was a Sikh; he wasn't able to call on as many animal-shaped gods with as many arms and teeth as a Bengali could have urged into action; but he did his best with the technical resources at his disposal.

Without pretending to be a judge of other men's creeds, I thought at the time that he made a pretty workman-like hash of that lady's prospects, so far as his particular formula could do it. I jotted down some of his suggestions to the gods for future reference, and purpose to teach them to the U.S. Army mule-skinners next time this country goes to war.

While we were eating breakfast in a circle in front of the tents, all sticking our right hands into a common mess-pan and eating like wolves-you have to be awfully careful not to use your left hand, and unless you eat fast you'll get less than your share-there came five men on camels out of a wady-a shallow valley that lay like a cut throat with red rocks on its edge something over a mile away beyond the egg-shaped rock. They were armed-as everybody is in those parts who hopes to live-and in a hurry.

Ayisha and her people did not see them, because the great rock was in the way, but we left off eating to watch, and Grim went into his tent to use field-glasses without being seen. It is not unheard of for an Arab sheikh to use Zeiss binoculars, but it might make a stranger suspicious.

The five men came on at a gallop, sending up the dust in clouds like a cruiser's smoke-screen. They seemed to take it for granted that we were friends, for we were in full view and far outnumbered them, yet they did not check for an instant, and that in itself was a suspicious circumstance.

They came to a halt ten yards away from Ayisha's tent, and stared at her in silence, realizing, apparently for the first time, that they had come within rifle-shot of strangers. We could see her talking to them, but could not hear what she said. Perhaps that was as well. I think that even Grim with his poker face in perfect working order would have been flustered if he had been given time to think. The surprise, when it came, made him brace himself to meet it; and, once committed, he played with the sky for a limit as usual.

One thing was quite clear: Ayisha had made herself known to them, and they were properly impressed. They dismounted from their camels, and, after bowing to her as respectfully as any lord of the desert decently could do to a woman, they left their beasts kneeling and started all together toward us.

So Grim went out to meet them, even outdoing their measured dignity, striding as if the desert were his heritage. But he went only as far as the railway track, and waited; to have gone a step farther would have made them think themselves his superiors. Ali Baba, Mujrim, Narayan Singh, and I, went out and stood behind him at a properly respectful distance.

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