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   Chapter 8 No.8

The Lion of Petra By Talbot Mundy Characters: 20036

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


"He Cools His Wrath in the Moonlight, Communing with Allah!"

Now the desert at full moon is as light as Broadway, and the only shadows are those the camels cast, than which there is nothing more weird in the whole range of phantasmagoria. We looked like a string of glistening ghosts accompanied by goblins of a fourth dimension mocking us, and though you couldn't see the details of men's faces, looking back along the line you could see every movement and distinguish man from man.

About midnight Ayisha made up her mind to enjoy the shibriyah, more, I suspect, for the sake of annoying the Sikh than because she really wanted it. So she ranged alongside, and chiefly because I was curious and chose to be amused, but partly because of my league with Narayan Singh to keep watch on her, I checked my protesting camel and let him drop back into place behind them.

I knew Narayan Singh was awake, for I had seen the glow of his cigarette through the curtains ten minutes before; but he pretended to be asleep, so that she had to get the camels flank to flank and put her hand inside the curtains to awake him. Then he did the obvious thing and seized her hand, and I heard his bass voice answering her shrill protests. I don't know why, but the moonlight that made all things clear seemed also to make words more than usually distinct.

"Ah!" he boomed. "I dreamed of paradise. I awake and find a houri with her hand in mine! Il-hamd'ul-illah!* I Enter, beloved! Why waste the moonlight hours?" [* Thanks be to God!]

"Pig!" she retorted. "Father of bristles! Let my hand go!"

"Nay, lovely one! I awake-I see-I understand; thou art not a houri after all, but that same Ayisha I have loved in secret all these burning days! I, who had resolved that gold and honor were as feathers in the scale against thy kisses, am I blessed as last?"

"Cursed by black ifrits, thou son of an Afghan pig! Let me go, and get out of that shibriyah!"

"Such eyes! Behold, the moon is pale beside them, and the stars mere drops of sweat on the sky's dull cheek! Such loveliness as thine, beloved, needs a warrior to worship it-such a man as I, who would cut the throats of kings for a kind word from thee!"

Don't forget, you fellows who have to call on a girl a dozen Sunday evenings in succession before she will go to the movies or condescend to sit out a dance with you, that east of the fifteenth meridian the situation is reversed, and the man who wasn't swift about his wooing would stand no chance at all. Modesty of approach is reckoned a sure sign of unworthiness, and deference as cowardice that fears to seize an opportunity.

"An Indian lover and a boasting louse are one," she answered; but she laughed as she said it, and her voice had lost the shrill note.

"Hah! Try me!" he retorted, tugging at her hand again, and whether or not she tried really hard to release it she failed. "Boasts should be put to the test, beloved! We of the North have a way of understanding our performance. I would burn and lay waste cities for thy sake! Come!"

Her laugh struck a bell-like note now. There was a hint of pleasure in it, and more than a hint of thoughtfulness. You know those overtones of a bell that go fading away into the infinite, in touch, somehow, with thoughts that haven't reached any of us yet except the man who made the bell.

"Ah! Afghans are all alike!"

Sikhs say that of Afghans too, and Afghans say the same thing of the Sikhs.

"You would say anything for me; but as for cutting throats and laying waste, I myself would be the very first victim. Thy love, I think, would burn up and be ashes faster than the cities I should never see."

"Cities! I will take you to all the cities! You shall have your will of the richest! Covet pearls, and I will burn the feet of jewelers until they beg you to take their costliest! Covet rubies, and I will plunder them from the eyes of temple gods! Covet gold, and I will melt down the throne of a maharajah to make bracelets for your ankles!"

"Wallahi! You speak like a braggart."

"Braggart? I? Nay, I am a lover whose words go lamely. They are but chaff blown along the wind of great accomplishment. With thee to fight for I would dare the very rage of Ali Higg!"

He still held her hand. She waited about a minute before answering.

"Which Ali Higg?" she asked at last.

"Any Ali Higg! All Ali Higgs! As lions go down beneath the feet of elephants so shall the Lion of Petra fail before me!"

"One at a time!" she laughed. "There is one Ali Higg who could command you with a word-another who could order your carcass thrown to the vultures. Words first, since your boastings are all words! I say that, for all your brave words, this Ali Higg who rides ahead of us can make you slay me for a word of praise from him."

"You mean, beloved, you could make me slay him for a word of praise from you!" the Sikh lied glibly.

"But I might not want him slain."

"Have him made into a cripple, then-a ruin of a man, for daring to displease you!"

"But he pleases me!"

"Aha! I am jealous! By the beard of the Prophet, Ayisha, beware of my jealousy! I am a man of few words but sudden deeds! Is there a man who stands in my way? May Allah show compassion on him, for he is like to need it!"

He was so fervid in his avowals that he almost convinced me-almost made me believe that his private agreement with me had been a camouflage for his real intentions.

There is precious little of which my friend Narayan Singh isn't capable in the way of romantic soldiering; he ought to have been born two or three hundred years ago as, in fact, according to his reincarnating creed, he was. Perhaps he remembers past lives so vividly that he lives them over again. I wish I could remember a past life or two.

Ayisha was about to answer him when Grim's shrill bosun's whistle that he keeps for emergencies whined from in front, and the sleepy-looking line awoke with a start. Every single rifle down the length of the caravan, including mine, was unslung in a second and the click of the sliding bolts was as businesslike as if we had been a squad on the parade-ground. Narayan Singh, rifle in hand, sprang on to Ayisha's little Bishareen, and she jumped into the shibriyah, like a pair doing stunts at the circus.

So far good. But the rest was amateurish. We milled badly. Grim away in front had halted to let the line close, and we swarmed around him like a herd of steers that smell wolves, and nobody seemed to know which way to look, or what to do next.

I was right in the midst of the mess, with a camel on either side trying to get its teeth into me, and what with Grim's shouting to get the tangle straightened, and our all trying to obey at once, it was some minutes before I got the hang of things. In fact, I think I understood last.

We were already surrounded perfectly on three sides by camel-men who kept out of reasonable rifle-range and stalked us like dark ghosts from the rear. They resembled a drag-net, drawing us in the direction of Petra, and the only unblocked segment of the circle was exactly in front of us. Every time I tried to count them there seemed more than before, and there were certainly over a hundred.

I got one close look at Grim's face, and knew he had made his mind up what to do; but all the men were shouting different advice and it was a question whether he would be able to get control before a disaster happened. I said nothing and did nothing but kept fairly close to him. Narayan Singh found his proper place alongside me, with the halter of Ayisha's camel in his hand; and he said nothing either.

Suddenly Grim reached out and seized old Ali Baba by the shoulder, drawing him close and growling into his ear. I could not catch the words, but he repeated them again and again, and Ali Baba nodded vehemently. Not a shot had been fired yet, for Grim had forbidden it, and the other side showed no disposition to do other than surround us at a safe distance. But I noticed they were reducing their estimate of safety and seemed to be gradually closing in for a concerted rush from all sides at once.

Then two things happened suddenly. Out of the open horizon in front, from between two great mounds that looked like ant-heaps, three figures emerged on camels, apparently all alone and unsupported. The one in the middle on the tallest camel made a signal with a long strip of cloth waved like a semaphore against the moonlight.

Instantly the opposing force began to close in, and Ali Baba proved his mettle. Those sons and grandsons obeyed his order as efficiently as he did Grim's. They made a feint all in a cluster together straight for the widest gap in the circle behind us.

The enemy drew off to a safer distance, whereat Ali Baba wheeled and charged another segment of the circle, widening it again. Still not a shot had been fired by either side.

Around Grim now were Narayan Singh, Ayisha, and myself with our prisoner Yussuf, and Ayisha's four. Grim watched his chance and sent me to bring back four of Ali Baba's men, and by the time I had done that he had lessened the distance perceptibly between himself and the three lone individuals in front. He was leaning low over his camel, peering at the three like a seaman staring from a crow's-nest in a fog.

It was a weird business-a swiftly played chess game, almost noiseless; for wherever Ali Baba charged the enemy drew off, while the rest came closer until they were charged in turn.

"It's obvious we're intended to be made prisoners," Grim said to me at last. "But I think it's obvious we're not going to be."

Nevertheless, I understood nothing of his plan, except that our little group kept drawing closer to the three, one of whom seemed in command of the other side. At the moment I suspected that Grim was one of those officers who are splendid at intelligence work and at playing a lone hand, but less than ordinary in the field; Ali Baba looked like the man of action.

Why, with all that brave old man's ability to swing and spur his gang in absolute control, had not the lot of us burst through the circling enemy and made a bolt for it? That was what I should have done.

But suddenly Grim turned and pushed the muzzle of his pistol into Ayisha's face as she leaned out of the shibrayah to watch. It caught her under the jawbone, so that she could not see what his finger was doing, and did not dare try to move away.

"Now shout!" he ordered her. "Tell 'em your name Wallahi! Yell, or I'll kill you."

She let out a bleat like a frightened goat, that might have been audible thirty yards away if there were no other noise.

"Louder! I'll blow your brains out if you disobey!"

So she screamed at the top of her lungs, making her voice carry as all desert people can. And after she had called three times she was answered by a clear, contralto woman's voice.

"Ay-ish-a! O Ay-ish-a!"

"Jael! Jael!" she called back; and at that the rider of the middle camel waved the cloth again.

As fast as they caught sight of it-in tens and twenties-the oncoming riders halted.

But Ali Baba did not stand still. Neither did we. The three lone individuals in front of us began to approach.

"Come on!" said Grim. "Now's our chance!"

And at last I saw his idea. I did not know which to admire more, the man who had thought of it in that sudden crisis, or Ali Baba who had understood so swiftly and carried out his part so well. But there was no time for admiration then.

All together-Ali Baba and his men along one side of a right-angle and we from the other-we swooped on the three. And there were nine or ten shots fired before we closed on them, though none by our side.

My camel went down under me twenty yards before we reached them. Two other camels were killed, and one of Ali Baba's sons was grazed. But in another second we had captured two men and a woman, and it was too late for the spectators to do anything, unless they cared to risk killing their own leader.

I thrust my way on foot through the milling camels, for I wanted to be in at the death, as it were, and I saw Grim take the woman's rifle away. She looked more surprised than any one I have ever seen-more so than a man I once saw shot in the stomach who looked suddenly into the next world and did not like it.

"Shout to 'em, Jael!" he ordered in plain English. "Call 'em off, or I'll kill you! Shout to 'em; d'you hear!"

"Ayisha! What does this mean? Ali? Ali Higg? You here? I don't understand!"

"You'll be dead before you understand if you don't call those men off," Grim answered; and his pistol demonstrated that he meant it, for her men were closing in on us.

So she knelt up on her camel and cried out that Ali Higg was there, bidding them keep their distance.

"But what does this mean, Ali? And you speak English? Since when? Oh, I must be mad! You are not Ali Higg! No! I see now you are not, but . . ."

She turned on Ayisha and spoke in Arabic: "Ayisha, what does this mean? Answer me!"

But Ayisha said nothing. She chose to get back between the curtains of the shibriyah, and I saw Narayan Singh on the far side whispering to her.

"For," as he told me afterward, "the time to persuade a woman you are her friend is when she is afraid or distracted by doubt. At all other times she is like a leopard; but then she is like a lost sheep!"

The silence was at an end now. Every one was shouting; the real Ali Higg's men wanting to know what had happened, and Ali Baba's answering them with threats if they dared disobey and come closer. The effect was exactly as if the figures on a motion-picture screen could be heard calling back and forth.

The two men whom we had captured with the woman Jael were silent, staring hard at Grim as if they saw a vision; and Yussuf, the prisoner we had made at the oasis, tried to talk to them, but they would not listen to him; the drama was too absorbing. Jael herself, inclined to be panicky at first, was recovering self-possession by rapid stages, and grew silent.

She hardly looked like a woman until you came quite close to her, for she was dressed like a man, in the regular Bedouin cloak and head-gear, with a bandolier full of cartridges. But her hair had come unbound, and one long reddish lock of it was over her shoulder.

She had a good-looking, strong face, badly freckled, and was probably about forty years old, although that much was hard guessing in the moonlight; for the rest, she looked like the incarnation of activity-standing still, but only by suppression.

"Now Jael Higg," said Grim, "we'll have no squeamishness about sex. I'm in a tight place, and you'll obey orders or take the consequences. We're going to Petra, the lot of us."

"You! Are coming with me? To Petra?"

"Yes. And we've escort enough. Who commands those men?"

"I!"

"Yes, yes. But who's at the head of them now?"

"Ibrahim ben Ah."

"Call out for Ibrahim ben Ah to come here to speak with Ali Higg, and watch that he comes alone," Grim ordered, and two or three of Ali Baba's men went off to obey. "Now, Jael, you do the talking. Understand me, though; this pistol has a way of going off quite suddenly when the trigger is pressed. Answer: What village were you intending to raid?"

"None."

"No use lying. Ali Higg's spy brought word to him that the

British are engaged elsewhere. Raid follows promptly, of course.

Now, out with it! I don't need you at Petra; Ayisha will serve my

purpose there. You've ten seconds before I pull the trigger.

Where was this raid headed for?"

"El-Maan." "Why?"

"That place has become too independent. The tribes meet there and plan raids on their own account."

"Uh-huh. That sounds fairly credible. Now, observe-I pass my pistol to this Indian."

He handed it to me.

"He will shoot you dead if you make one false move. You will tell Ibrahim ben Ah to take all his men at once to that next oasis on the way to El-Maan, and to wait there for yourself and Ali Higg, to wait as long as three days if necessary. Say you will join them there and lead the raid. You understand me?"

"Yes."

"You understand that you will die immediately if you disobey?"

"Yes."

"He will ask what the shooting meant just now. You will answer that there was a mistake owing to the darkness, and that Ali Higg is in a great rage, and he had better make himself scarce. If he asks others questions, curse him and tell him to be off.

"And one last warning, Jael Higg! Obey me exactly, and you shall see your husband in Petra. Disobey by as much as a word or a sign and you're dead. Do we understand each other?"

"You really mean it? You will go to Petra?"

"Yes."

"I have seen fools, and men in love, and gamblers, but you are the greatest madman of them all," she answered. "Very well, I will speak to him as you say."

Grim mounted his camel and rode to the top of a ridge of sand about twenty yards away, where he halted and sat motionless. If he really looked so much like Ali Higg, as seemed to be the case, no one at that distance could have doubted his identity. I hauled off two or three paces, so as not to betray the fact that I was to be Jael's executioner in a certain contingency, and the long sleeve of my cloak concealed the pistol.

As I am setting down the facts exactly as they happened I may as well record here that I laughed. She thought I laughed at her in cold-blooded delight at the prospect of murder, and I think that tightened her resolution not to give me the least excuse.

But I was not feeling in the least cold-blooded. I was laughing at myself, who might be forced to shoot a woman after all.

Perhaps Grim gave the job to me because he knew I would not shoot her in any case. I don't know. Nor do I myself know now whether I would have shot her; sometimes I think yes, sometimes no. My guess is that I would have failed to do it, and that Narayan Singh, who was standing by and heard every word that passed, would have wiped my eye, as the saying is.

Then Ibrahim ben Ah came striding into our midst like an old-time shepherd with a modern rifle in place of crook, looking neither to the right nor the left of him, but fixing his eyes on the man he thought was Ali Higg on the camel beyond us. He seemed surprised when Jael Higg stopped him, and told him to take all his men at once to that oasis, where he was to wait, if necessary, three days.

"I was told to speak with the Lion himself," he objected. "Ya sit Jael,* there is wrath for those who disobey him!" [* O lady Jael.]

"Go, taste his wrath then!" she retorted. "There was shooting because of a mistake in the darkness. Good camels were killed. He is more enraged than at the loss of twenty men. He would have it the blame is yours-"

"Mashallah! Mine!"

"But I persuaded him. He cools his wrath in the moonlight, communing with Allah. Better go, Ibrahim, before his mood changes again."

"But how came he to be here ahead of us? We left him in

Petra. How-"

"How old beards love to wag! Fool! Go ask him then! I call these men to witness I have given the order that he told me to give to you. I wash my hands!"

She began to make the gesture of washing hands, but thought better of it, for I might have mistaken that for a signal. Old Ibrahim ben Ah looked straight into her eyes, read resolution there, and bowed like a courtier to a queen. Then he turned on his heel, strode back to his camel, mounted, and returned to his men without another word to any one. Yet I dare bet that he had counted us, and knew we were all strangers, and dare say his thoughts would fill a good long chapter of a book.

Grim continued to sit his camel motionless until the raiders under Ibrahim ben Ah had formed into four long lines and ridden away westward, towing enough baggage-animals behind them for a week or two's supplies.

"One hundred and forty men," he announced when they were gone.

"The Lion of Petra can't have many left."

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