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   Chapter 10 No.10

The Lion of Petra By Talbot Mundy Characters: 28017

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

"There's No Room for the Two of You!"

Of course, no committee in the world ever yet did more than cloud an issue with argument. It takes one man to lead the way through any set of circumstances, and the only wise course for a committee is to make that man's decision unanimous and back it loyally. But men have their rights, as Grim is always the first to admit.

Ali Baba came and joined us on the cliff-top, and Narayan Singh was not long following suit. The Sikh said nothing, but Ali Baba was conscious of the weight that years should give to his opinion, as well as justly proud of his night's work, and not at all disposed to sit in silence.

"Now the right course, Jimgrim, is to make a great circuit and carry these two women back across the British border," he began at once. "The Lion of Petra will then pay us all large sums of money, without which you will refuse to intercede with the government on his behalf for their return. Thus every one will be satisfied except the Lion, who will be too poor for a long time afterward to have much authority in these parts. Moreover, it will be told for a joke against him, and he will lose in prestige. I am an old man, who knows all about these matters."

"What do you think, Narayan Singh?" Grim asked.

"Sahib, what are we but a flying column? Swiftness and surprise are our two advantages. We should be like a javelin thrown from ambush that seeks out the enemy's heart. If we fail we are but a lost javelin-an officer, a sepoy, a civilian and a handful of thieves-there are plenty more! If we succeed there is a deed done well and cheaply! I never hunted lions, but I have seen a tiger trapped and beaten. Have we not good bait with us?"

There followed a hot argument between Arab and Sikh, each accusing the other of ulterior motives as well as ignorance and cowardice; in fact, they acted like any other committee, growing less and less parliamentary as their views diverged. Ali Baba seemed to consider it relevant to call Narayan Singh a drunkard, and the Sikh considered it his duty in the circumstances to refer to Ali Baba's jail record. In the midst of all that effort to solve the problem at Petra, Grim asked me to go and invite Jael Higg to join us.

In that hard, uncharitable desert daylight she did not impress me very favorably. The lines of her freckled face suggested too much ruthlessness, as though she was positively handsome in a certain way-as long as you observed the whole effect and did not study details-there was a look of cold experience about her brown eyes that chilled you. Of course, she was tired and that made a difference; but I did not find it easy to feel sympathetic, and I thought she was hardly the woman to win a jury's verdict on the strength of personal appeal.

Nevertheless, with all the odds against her, she accomplished that morning what I had never done, or seen done, although many have attempted it and failed. She contrived to tear away Grim's mask and to expose the man's real feelings.

He was always an enigma to me until that interview, at which they squatted facing each other on Grim's mat, with me beside Grim and the Sikh and Ali Baba glaring daggers at each other on either hand. The early sun seemed to edge everybody with a sort of aura, but it also showed every detail of a face and made it next to impossible to hide emotion.

She opened the ball. I imagine she had been doing that most of her life.

"Jimgrim," she said. "Jimgrim. Are you by any chance the American named James Grim, who fought with Lawrence in Allenby's campaign?"

Grim astonished us all by admitting it at once. The name Jimgrim sounds enough like Arabic to pass muster; and we wondered why he should have gone to all that trouble to disguise himself, only to confess his real name when there seemed no need. Even Ali Baba left off cursing the Sikh under his breath.

"I am glad to know that," she said. "It will save my wasting words. No man could ever get your reputation without being ruthless. I won't annoy you by pleading for mercy."

And she looked at once as merciless as she expected him to be.

"Now, Jael Higg," he answered, "let's talk sense."

"You're a rare one, if you can!" she retorted.

"Let's do our best," he said kindly.

She looked very keenly at him for thirty seconds, and seemed to make up her mind that she had no chance against him.

"Very well," she said. "I'll begin by being sensible. How much money do you want?"

It is true that the more you analyze Grim's face the more he does impress you as a keen business man. But there are modifying symptoms. He did not appear to have heard the question.

"I want you to be straightforward and tell me all you know of Ali

Higg's circumstances."

"Yes. I'd expect you to want that. As an American hired by the British to help them exploit this country, that's what you would ask. After you know all about him you can fix the ransom. That right? Well, I won't tell."

"I hoped we were going to talk sense," he answered quietly.

"How can any one talk sense with a man like you? What are you doing in this country? `Horning in' is what they'd call it in America. You've got no business here. It's different in my case. I'm married to Ali Higg. I've thrown in my lot with these people. I've a right to help them to independence. But what right have you got to interfere? Bah! Name your price. I'll pay if I can."

"Well, Jael," he answered with a rather whimsical smile. "I'll try to disillusion you to begin with. Perhaps if you understand me better you'll be reasonable.

"All I know is Arabic and Arabs. I've no other gifts, and I like to be some use in the world. I'm real fond of Arabs. It 'ud tickle me to see them make good. But I can see as far through a stone wall as any blind horse can, and I know-better maybe than you do, Jael-that all they'll get by cutting loose and playing pirates is the worst end of it. I hate to see them lose out, so I use what gifts I've got in their behalf."

"Do you call it helping us to come out against Ali Higg and kidnap his wives?" she retorted. "Ali Higg is a patriot. He's against all foreign control of Arab country, and he's man enough to fight.

"These British and French and Italians promised us an independent Arab country. Where is it? Have you seen any of it? No. And you're helping the British break their promise!

"Ali Higg is doing his best to redeem what Arabs fought for in the war, and I'm his wife. You ask me to betray him? Never!"

"Ali Higg is doing his worst, not his best, Jael."

"He is creating unity among these tribes," she retorted.

"He is practically forcing the British to come out and smash him," said Grim. "Now, see here, Jael, I don't want him smashed. I don't hold with his method, but that's the Arab's business; if being crucified and shot for differences of opinion suits them, why, no doubt Ali Higg's the right man for them. They tell me he delivers the goods. But he can't go starting a new war out here, not while I've any say he can't."

"Who are you that should say or not say?" she demanded.

"Same as Ali Higg, Jael; I'm a human. He's from Arabia, you're from the Balkans, I'm from the U.S. We're all three foreigners, aren't we?"

"Yes. But he and I are foreigners who will drive the British out-"

"And let French or Italians in."

"Ali Higg is a fighter, I tell you! He's an Arab, and he knows how to control Arabs just as the Prophet Mohammed did. He has only begun in a small way, but-"

"But he'll wind up like a small-town sport in the lock-up, the way he's going," said Grim. "Now, see here, Jael, I'm just as set on doing my bit in the world as Ali Higg is. Maybe I'm a mite more tolerant, but there isn't a man or woman living who can shift me off a course once I'm set on it.

"Ali Higg considers the Arabs need a holy war. I'm hell bent for peace. I'm going to stop him. I'm not arguing that point, for it won't bear arguing, and I'm not trying to convert you. But you're in my power, and though I sure would hate to inconvenience a lady, I'm that plumb remorseless I'd separate you from Ali Higg for ever unless you helped me call him off the warpath."

"Help you!" she exclaimed with horror.

"Sure. You've got to! There's no law this side of the border, Jael, that can make me hand you over to authority. There's no mandate out here yet. There never will be one if I can prevent it. I'm here to keep a foreign army from trespassing across the Jordan, it being my crazy notion that Arabs can evolve their own government, if let. You've got to help me keep that foreign army out, or take the consequences."

She laughed at last. It was rather a hard laugh without much mirth in it.

"Your words are a liar's, but your voice rings true," she said.

"I think you're only another of these diplomatists."

"I'm that diplomatic I'm chancing my hide to save other peoples," he answered. "Let's be quite frank, Jael. I'm in danger out here. All I've got with me besides two respectable men are thieves from El-Kalil. That little army of Ali Higg's lies between me and the border, and I'm no kind of a darn-fool optimist when it comes to figuring on Ali Higg's hospitality in Petra. Nor am I kidding myself I can persuade His Dibs by a theological argument or any cheap advice.

"But I've reasoned it out this way-if Ali Higg sends Ayisha to El-Kalil rather than trust you to do your shopping, that's because he sets a value on you. Since he sends you out in charge of a raid on El-Maan I guess he sets a high value on you. That's as good as saying you've got influence. Believe me, Jael, you'll use that influence to suit my plans or we're not going to be friends!"

"Friends?" she said, and stared at him.

"Sure. Why not? Look at the men I've got with me; they're all my friends. I'm right proud to say it. I might have hanged most of them once, but I never knew it do much good to a man to hang him; so we get acquainted, and one way and another we contrive to keep on good terms.

"See my point? Nobody'd hang you if I scooted back over the border with you, Jael. There isn't a law that would cover your case. But they'd deport you, and you'd be an outcast with tabs kept on you, and I've seen your sort come to a bad end. I never liked to see it. I never saw anybody gain by it. I'd sooner see you winning every one's respect by sticking to Ali Higg and schooling him to play safe."

Her pale face actually blushed under the freckles. She had not lived in America for nothing. As the wife of a polygamist she knew exactly what he meant about winning respect. Her sort enjoys to be patronized by reformers and social uplifters about as much as an eagle likes a cage.

"You talk well," she said, "but you must be a fool at bottom, or you wouldn't suggest friendship with me. Can you imagine me not pushing you into Ali Higg's clutches at the first chance?"

"Sure I can, or I wouldn't waste time talking. You've got more sense than that, Jael. You might trick me. It has been done. Ali Higg might scupper me and the crowd-he mighty likely would. But that 'ud be the end of Ali Higg's prospects, for as sure as my name's Grim the British would smash him to avenge me, and you know it! If they didn't get you they'd get him, and you'd become the property of the first petty chief who could lay his hands on you. So let's talk like two sensible people."

"You'll find me sensible," she answered. "I shall just do nothing-tell you nothing."

"You've told too much already to be able to stop now, Jael," he answered, smiling. "I'm sure you won't put me to the necessity of searching you; you've too much pride for that. So suppose you pass me Ali Higg's seal-the one you sign all his letters with. No, don't try to hide it in the sand; put it here."

He held his hand out, and she bit her lip in mortification. It was too bad that she had made that slip of boasting to Narayan Singh and me about the seal, but there was nothing else for it now and she gave it to him-a gold thing as big as a silver half-dollar, marvelously engraved.

"That settles the financial end of it," said Grim. "We can impound all that money in the Bank of Egypt-although I'm free to admit I wouldn't take such a seal away from a friend of mine."

"Give it back, then," she answered with a bitter little laugh. "I see I'll have to be your friend."

He smiled-wonderfully gently. There wasn't the least offense in it, although there wasn't any credulity either.

"I always aim to prove myself a man's friend-or a woman's," he said, "before expecting to be trusted out of sight. I dare say that's your code too?"

"If ever Ali Higg catches you with that seal-"

"He won't catch me, Jael; he won't catch me. But you shall have it back, and the money shan't be touched, if you play straight."

She shrugged her shoulders petulantly, admitting defeat but resenting it. There came a time, months later, when she understood Grim's peculiar altruism and respected it, but she was a long way just then from admiring him.

"You force me," she said. "Name your terms."

"Well, then, suppose we speak of Ali Higg to begin with. Is his temper uneven? Is there any way to catch him in a specially good humor?"

"He's the most even-tempered man I know," she laughed. "He's always in a rage."

"So much the easier for us," Grim answered. "That kind always make mistakes. He must have counted on your brains exclusively to keep him on top; and now your brains are in my pocket, so to speak. How's his health? Boils? Indigestion?"

She nodded.

"Ah! Most angry men have indigestion. Dislikes European doctors, I dare say? Thought so; most fanatical Moslems do that. But an Indian hakim? Now, many an Indian hakim knows how to relieve indigestion-in between the bouts of rage. D'you suppose he'd entertain a hakim?"

She nodded again.

"Well, we'll fix it so a hakim can relieve his boils and indigestion. But let you and me understand each other f

irst, Jael. I can be a mean man when I must, but I'll always take a heap of trouble to find a white man's way of accomplishing the same purpose. I can act mean toward you-sheer plug-ugly if you force my hand-but I'd sooner not; and I'd just as lief help you as hinder you, provided you don't upset what I'm seeking to build."

She laughed again, and not so bitterly.

"You're on the wrong side of the wall to build much," she answered. "You should come over into our camp. You're so like Ali Higg in certain lights and in some of your gestures, and so unlike him in other things, that if you came across the Jordan for good I think you could show us something."

Her eyes said far more than her lips did. She was studying him from a new angle-a thoughtful, speculative angle that vaguely excited her.

"What I mean is just this," he said; "that you and I had better decide to be real friends, and not half-open enemies, each looking for a chance to spoil the other's game. There are men in this camp who'll tell you that I keep my word. I'm willing to pledge it not to hurt you or Ali Higg, provided you pledge yours to be equally friendly and to help me in taming Ali Higg so's he'll be useful and not just an ordinary trouble-maker."

"Would you accept my word?" she asked him-ready to consider him fool or liar, according to how he answered.

"I'll accept it, Jael. Sure. For you'll have to give it, and it's all you've got to trade with. And I'll watch you just about twice as carefully as examiners watch the bank directors of New York State.

"Knowing you're watched, like them you're going to be too proud to cheat; and after you've found how it pays to play straight with me you're going almost to enjoy being watched for the sake of the advertisement."

Her face did not soften in the least; but it changed expression, like a woman buyer's who has decided to make a purchase but has not done bargaining.

"I think I'm going to like you," she said. "Of course, you're a liar, like all men, but you've a finer touch than most."

At that point Ali Baba made his first contribution to the argument. The old man did not know much English, but there are certain words-such as liar, cheat, swine, thief, and the list of oaths-that find their way like water to the common level and are known from Spitzbergen to the Horn.

"He is no liar!" he exclaimed in Arabic. "A cunning man with the brain of three, who can use the truth for his own ends! A keeper of secrets! An upsetter of plans! But he is no liar, and I will not hear him called one by a woman! Peace, thou fool! It is written that a woman's tongue is worse than water dripping through a roof!"

It is manners in that country to sit silent while an old man speaks, and even Jael Higg did not offer to rebuke him for the interruption. When he had quite finished Grim took up the argument again.

"Now let's know where we stand. Are you and I to be friends, Jael?"

She nodded.

"I'm no half-way adventurer. I'll make your fortune," she said, "if you'll come the whole way with me, and stay this side of Jordan."

He shook his head and smiled back at her.

"You've your work cut out to keep Ali Higg off the rocks, Jael."

"There's no room for two of you," she answered darkly.

"I guess not."

She looked hard at me, and back from me to Grim. I don't know yet whether she was setting a trap for us or really in earnest about what she said next. Grim thinks she was drawing a bow at a venture.

"Is this the hakim? One of the two respectable persons you have with you? Hm! Respectability is a mask-often a safe mask, often an offensive one, always a lie. All really dangerous criminals are respectable people.

"And a hakim, eh? An Indian physician? I have heard of Indian physicians being poisoners-although, of course, they're respectable people and give the poison by mistake! Now if he should go to Ali Higg and poison him, while pretending to cure boils and indigestion-"

"But he won't," said Grim, "so why suppose?"

"Of course he won't, unless you tell him to!" she snapped.

"I dare say he's as much in your power as I am. But suppose you tell him to-"

"I won't, Jael."

"Now don't you be a fool, James Grim! You can't deceive me into thinking you're above such things. That haughty attitude is British, not American; you've been defiled by contact with them. Come out into the open like an unhypocritical American. Talk business.

"I've tried to make a man of Ali Higg, but he's only an animal after all. The best I can ever do with him will be failure compared to what I could make of you, James Grim. You look enough like him to make it possible to substitute you with care. Go ahead and send your hakim."

Grim smiled with perfect good humor, but a blind man could not have mistaken his refusal.

"Oh, you're all hypocrites, you men-Americans, English, French-you're all alike; glad to see a man die, if he's a nuisance, but afraid to admit you'd a hand in it. But you needn't fear. You can send your hakim uninstructed. He's an Indian, isn't he? Well, Ali Higg is sure to insult him to the very marrow of his bones, and you can safely leave Indian revengefulness to do the rest."

Grim shook his head.

"He'd be too afraid he might meet me some day. He knows I'd not stand for it. No, Jael; I invited you to talk sense. You've got to make shift with Ali Higg `as is'. If you don't like it say so now and I'll tell off three or four of my thieves to escort you over the border into British territory while I play this game without you.

"What you've got to understand first and last is that I'm dead set on clipping Ali Higg's claws. I don't care a row of imitation pewter shucks about any man's ambition, or any woman's past. My job in the world is to do what I'm able to do, and I'm going to prevent war in this land if I get killed doing it and have to ruin you in the bargain! Now, are we set?"

"I think you're a fool," she said, "and you think me a villain.

We're strange partners! Very well, let's try."

Promptly he handed her an envelop, sheet of paper, and his fountain-pen.

"Write first, then, to Ibrahim ben Ah. He knows your hand, I suppose? Tell him there is news of a British force coming over the border, and that he must stay at that oasis in readiness to attack after Ali Higg has taken steps to draw the British in the right direction.

"Say he may have to stay there a week or ten days, and that he is to enforce the death penalty on any of his men who dares try to leave the oasis. Tell him that secrecy as to his present whereabouts is the all-important point. For that reason strangers may be made prisoner and held until further orders. The messenger who bears this is to be sent back with an answer immediately."

"How much of that is true about a British force?" she demanded.

"Are you trying to trap those men?"

"None of it's true. No, they're safe. You write, and I'll sign it with your seal."

She hesitated, but I don't know whether from caution or from a genuine dislike to deceive her husband's loyal henchman. But there was no way of getting out of it except by blunt refusal, involving the threatened escort into British territory and deportation. So she wrote, and Grim sealed the letter: He handed it to Ali Baba.

"Select the most trustworthy of your sons, O King of Thieves, give him the fastest camel, and let him ride with that to the oasis. Bid him ride hard and overtake us with the answer."

"Do you think my sons have wings?" asked Ali Baba.

"Not unless devils are winged!" laughed Grim. "It is a simple matter-just there and back again."

"Not so simple, Jimgrim! It is written that in the desert all men are enemies. What if he should meet a dozen men?"

"The letter will be his pass. He must take a chance returning."

"Wallahi! A letter? A pass into Jehannum possibly! By Allah, Jimgrim, a man needs more than a letter in these parts. He needs brains-age-influence-experience. Nay! If any is to take that letter, let me do it. I am old, and they hesitate to kill an old man. I am wise in the desert ways, not rash. And if they do kill me, then it is only an old man's body bloating in the sun.

"Besides, I am cunning and can give wise answers, whereas those sons of mine might take offense at an insult, or recognize a blood enemy at the wrong moment. Nay, it is I who must take that letter."

Grim clapped him on the back.

"Good, my father; you shall go. Take one son with you to look after your comforts."

He turned that suggestion over in his mind for several minutes, but shook his head finally.

"I go alone. They would ask me why two men bring one letter. Moreover, they might send the one back with an answer, retaining the other as hostage; for it is the way of the devil to put suspicion in men's minds. Two men would double their doubt, just as two stones weigh the twice of one. And I will not take the best camel, but the worst one."


"Write me a second letter. Have the woman write it, and you affix the seal. Give order that they are to provide a swift, fresh camel in exchange for my weary beast. I shall make a great fuss about the beast they provide, rejecting this and that one, thus causing them to believe in me, since men without proper authority do not act thus, but are content with anything so be they can only escape unharmed."

So the second letter was written; and in the rising, scorching heat old Ali Baba set off, mounted on the meanest of the baggage beasts, whose hump was getting galled, so that he wasn't likely to be of much use to us within a day or so.

Then we all got under the shelter of the low tents to give the other camels a rest and wait for evening, and I think Jael Higg slept, but I don't know, for we gave her a tent to herself; she refused point blank to share one with Ayisha.

And Ayisha, I know, did not sleep. She came in the noon glare to the tent I occupied with Narayan Singh and entered without ceremony, slipping through the low opening with the silent ease that comes naturally to the Badawi. She squatted down in front of us, and I awoke the Sikh, who was snoring a chorus from Wagner's "Niebelungen Ring."

For a moment I thought he was going to resume the night's flirtation, but there was something in the quiet manner of her and the serious expression of her face that he recognized as quickly as I did. All her imperious attitude was gone. She did not look exactly pleading, nor yet cunning; perhaps it was a blend of both that gave her the soft charm she had come deliberately armed with.

Of this one thing I am absolutely sure; whatever that young woman did was calculated and deliberate; and the more she seemed to act on impulse the more she had really studied out her move.

Narayan Singh checked a word half-way, and we waited for her to speak first. Her eyes sought mine, and then the medicine-chest. Then she looked back at me, and I made a gesture inviting her to speak.

"You told me," she said at last, "that you have poison in that box that would reach down to hell and slay the ifrits. Give me some of it."

"Ya sit Ayisha. I need it all for the ifrits," I answered.

"I will make no trouble for you," she said; and for a moment I suspected she meant to kill herself.

"You are young and beautiful," I told her. "The world holds plenty of good for you yet."

At that she flashed her white teeth and her eyes blazed.

"Truly! Allah puts a good omen into your mouth, miyan!* Yet little comes to the woman who neglects to plan for it. Give me the poison. I will pay."

------- * Miyan: the rather contemptuous form of address that Arabs use toward Indian Moslems. -------

I was about to refuse abruptly, being rather old-maidish about some things and not always ready with a smile for what I don't approve; but Narayan Singh interrupted in time to prevent the unforgivable offense of preaching my own code of morals uninvited.

"Tell us who is to be poisoned," he demanded.

"That is none of your business," she answered calmly.

"But the poison is our business," said the Sikh. "We make terms. If the person to be poisoned is an enemy of ours, well and good; you shall have it and we shall be gainers. But Allah forbid that we should hasten the death of a friend! Is it for Jael Higg?"

"No, for I see that to poison her would be to incur the enmity of Jimgrim. Already he takes counsel with her; did he and she not lay their heads together in your presence after morning prayers?"

"For whom, then? For Jimgrim?"

"God forbid! Shall I woo a dead man? Nay! You say you will give me the poison if I tell? You swear it? Then it is for the Lion of Petra. Thus I shall win the love of Jimgrim. And Jael, being without a man, will run away to Egypt, where her money is."

"Bismillah!" swore the Sikh. "I see no reason why I should not get an angry husband out of the way so simply! But remember, Ayisha, you must slay me in turn if you hope to have Jimgrim for husband. By my beard and the Prophet's feet* it is I who will have you to wife, if I have to burn kingdoms first!"

----- * A scandalous piece of blasphemy -----

"Give me the poison first, and we shall see," she laughed.

"Very well; leave us for a while, Ayisha. I will persuade this master of mine, who has a vein of caution, since he lacks the zeal of love. I will bring you the stuff when he and I have talked it over."

"Strong, strong stuff," she insisted. "Stuff that would eat iron.

Ali Higg's belly is tough."

"It shall come out through his flesh like flame," the Sikh promised.

As soon as she had gone, and he had watched her out of earshot, he turned to me with a gruff laugh.

"Now, sahib, make her up a potion of some harmless powder for me to carry to her tent while you go and tell our Jimgrim what has passed. Give her physic that will purge the Lion of Petra without doing worse than make his belly burn. Stay; give croton in a bottle; that is best."

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