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   Chapter 13 No.13

The Lion of Petra By Talbot Mundy Characters: 13405

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


"There is a Trick to Ruling!"

Don't you hate a story with a moral in it? I do. This is an immoral story. And, remember, I said in the beginning that it had no end, but was no more than an episode in the career of Ali Higg. I would have liked to tell it from his viewpoint setting down what he thought of this unexpected stick thrown in his wheel, omitting most of the bad language for the censor's sake.

His first thought was that Jael had returned from the raid with a hundred and forty men. You could tell that by the light in his eyes, even before he spoke.

"Allah reward you; you come in time! Have Ayisha and that Yussuf thrown over the cliff. Praised be Allah, I shall be obeyed at last!"

It was his worst shock yet when even Jael did not start at once to carry out his order. Instead, she sat down on the rug, so that she and Ali Higg and Grim formed a triangle.

"O Lion of Petra," she said-for it would not have been manners to call him by his right name in front of strangers-"what was written has come to pass, and my foreboding was a true one. If we had let the tribes at El-Maan be, and if you had kept those forty men instead of sending them to raid the Beni Aroun, this could not have happened. Now twenty men have cornered us, while Ibrahim ben Ah eats up provisions to no purpose, sitting idly in the desert."

"Then the El-Maan men were not scattered to the winds?" groaned Ali Higg. "O Allah, may shame devour you as it tortures me! Those dogs will have looted a train and will say that Ali Higg no longer dares interfere! The sun rises, but it sets at evening, since Allah wills; but is my day so short?"

"By no means," answered Grim. "The El-Maan men saw me and believed I was the Lion of Petra. I forbade the looting of the train, and Your Honor's wife Ayisha went to El-Maan to enforce obedience by her presence.

"Later they saw me start for Petra when the train had passed; and now they will learn that Ibrahim ben Ah with seven score men is bivouacking in the desert. The world is round, O Ali Higg, so that where in one place it seems dark in another they say the sun is rising."

"In Allah's name, who art thou?" asked the Lion.

"James Schuyler Grim. Men call me Jimgrim."

"Allah! Wallahi haida fasl!* Not he who fought under Lawrence against the Turks? Wallah! I fought on the other side, but we all feared Lawrence and admired him so that not a man would try to capture him, although Djemal Pasha put a great price on his head. And you were known far and wide as his man! There was a price on your head too-dead or alive-five thousand pounds Turkish-well I remember it. By the beard of the Prophet, you might have come here as a friend, O Jimgrim!"

------ * By Allah, this is a strange happening. ------

Grim laughed.

"I come here as a friend in any case," he answered. "Khajjaltni bima'rufak!* You brought back a woman to poison me!"

------ * You shame me with your friendship! ------

And this is where the immorality comes in. I told a lie, and don't regret it. Nor did Grim regret it; and he backed me up. And Narayan Singh supported both of us.

The lie was my own idea entirely, invented on the spur of the moment; and afterward, when old Ali Baba named me The "Father of Lies" on the strength of it I felt extremely proud, as he intended that I should do. The lie worked.

I said:

"O Ali Higg, men said of you that you are a fierce man, swift in wrath and slow to take advice. And others said that you are sick with burning boils; yet who shall go into the Lion's den and heal him? And Ayisha said to me:

"'Thou art a hakim, yet he will never listen to thee. But he is my lord, and shall I see him linger in agony? Give me a potion that will weaken him. Then in his weakness he will call for help, and thou shalt heal the boils. And afterward that which is written shall come to pass. If in great wrath because I mixed the potion in his drink he shall have me slain, nevertheless the Lion will be whole again; and who am I compared to him?' So said the lady Ayisha."

I know Grim would have given a hundred dollars for leave to laugh then right out in meeting; but he kept a straight face, and he had so contrived to make Jael Higg afraid of him that though she looked scandalized she held her tongue. And Narayan Singh, as I said, supported me.

"These words are true, O Lion of Petra," he boomed out. "I heard the lady Ayisha speak, and it was I who put the little vial in her hands. By the beard of the Prophet I swear the words are true."

But as he is a Sikh, and therefore believes that the prophet of El-Islam was a liar and impostor, with a beard as fit to be dishonored as his fiery creed, perhaps his perjury was scarcely technical. Anyhow, I am not the recording angel. And Grim said, being a more cautious liar than the rest of us:

"Therefore, O Lion of Petra, mercy is due to the lady Ayisha, seeing that the end in view was good, although the means were questionable."

But Jael Higg looked daggers at her lord. She had made up her mind to reduce that establishment by one at least; and Ali Higg, looking in her eyes, read what all polygamous husbands have had to face ever since the day when Abraham was forced to drive out Hagar into the wilderness. So he pronounced one of those Solomon-like judgments that are the secret of a man's rule over men in that land, granting to each contender the whole of what he asked, yet having his own way in the bargain.

"I find she is not worthy of death," he said, "since she played a trick that brought me comfort. Yet I will not endure a woman's tricks, nor condone the offense. I divorce her. Before witnesses I say she is divorced."

It's a simple affair in that land, isn't it?

But there were matters not so simple to attend to, and Grim saw fit to waste no further time.

"I said I come as a friend," he resumed.

"I heard it!" the Lion answered dryly.

"Without boasting, I have saved you from destruction, while delivering your purchases from El-Kalil. And I have done your name no harm, but good on the country-side."

"Allah! How have you saved me from destruction?"

"By preventing that unwise raid on El-Maan."

"Wallahi! Do you think my men could not have accomplished it?"

"Maybe. Do you think the British would be fools enough to let that go unpunished? The El-Maan people would surely have appealed to them. Aeroplanes would have been sent to bomb you out of Petra. Can you fight aeroplanes?"

"The British do not pretend to rule on this side of the Jordan," the Lion retorted.

"No. Do you want them to pretend to?"

"Allah forbid!"

"Then take a friend's advice, O Ali Higg, and keep the peace here

rather than make war."

"That is good advice; but will the British make a treaty with me?"

"No," Grim answered, smiling. "By that they would recognize you as a ruler, which they will not do until they surely know you rule."

"Mashallah! How shall men know that I am a ruler unless I make war and enforce my will?"

"Have I made war on you?" asked Grim. "Have I disarmed you, or killed one man? Yet I enforce my will, as you shall see."

"By a trick! You played a trick on me, or otherwise-"

"There is a trick to ruling," answered Grim.

"By the beard of the Prophet, that is true! But show me a trick that can defeat eight hundred men. The Sheikh of Abu Lissan plans to come against me. Those El-Mann dogs had heard of it, and so had the Beni Aroun; therefore I planned to crush them first before dealing with Abu Lissan. Show me a trick that can defeat the Abu Lissan men, and surely I will call thee friend!"

"Suppose we make a bargain, then," said Grim.

"Taib. I am ready."

"Giving pledges for fulfilment."

"You mean I shall give pledges to the British?"

"Hardly," Grim answered. "If they took a pledge from you that would be like signing a treaty, wouldn't it? I have no authority to sign a treaty. This must be a bargain between me and thee."

"Taib."

"It is known," said Grim, "that you have money on deposit with the Bank of Egypt."

"A lie! A lie!" snapped Ali Higg. "Who said it?"

"Fifty thousand pounds in gold was the exact amount, deposited at six percent, and interest to be compounded every half-year," said Grim. "And because the Koran denounces usury by Moslems, and you are a pious man-and also perhaps because of the risk attached to using your name in the matter-your wife Jael's name was used. Nevertheless, your seal was used at the time as a check on her. Now, at a word from me the British would impound that money, interest and all."

"A murrian on them! But you spoke of being friends?"

"And of a pledge between you and me. In proof that I speak as a friend, though I had your seal I have returned it."

Jael Higg confirmed that by displaying it in the hollow of her hand.

"You can't possibly prevent a message from me reaching British territory," Grim went on. "A letter is written already, and you don't know which man has it. You are not my prisoner. I intend to leave you free and unharmed. It is possible you might attack me when I go, and kill me and some of my men; but the rest would escape. And then would come aeroplanes, and you would never see that money in the Bank of Egypt."

The Lion blinked away steadily, looking so absurdly like Grim in some respects, and so utterly unlike him in character nevertheless, that it looked like plus opposing minus, or a strong man tempted by his baser self.

"Therefore," continued Grim, "if you will promise me to raid no more villages I will undertake to deal with the Sheikh of Abu Lissan. But as a pledge, Jael and you must sign and seal a letter to the Bank of Egypt stipulating that the fifty thousand pounds shall not be withdrawn for three years. As long as you keep your promise that money of yours shall be safe, with no questions asked as to how you came by it; for I shall not say a word about it to the British Government, making only a sealed report, which shall be locked away and never opened unless you break the bargain."

"And at the end of three years?"

"Who knows?" Grim answered. "The years are on the lap of Allah. By then we may all be dead, or you may be king, or may be weary of politics-who knows?"

"And if I refuse?"

"Aeroplanes!"

"But how shall I believe you?"

"Do I not pledge my life?" Grim answered. "I have said that I will go to Abu Lissan."

"Allah! Why don't you send the aeroplanes to Abu Lissan? Blot the dogs out! Destroy them! Why not?"

"Would it not be easier to send them here?" asked Grim. "This is only part way. You, who found it easier to crush the smaller first, tell me why the aeroplanes should not come first to Petra!"

"Wallahi! I wish I had aeroplanes!"

"But you haven't. Choose now: Will you make that bargain with me, or shall I go straight back from here to Palestine and make my report to the administrator? Never doubt that I can get back; I know where your men are, and I know the desert trails as well as you do. You and your few men that you have here and the women might attack us in the Wady Musa,* but I would prevent that by taking you and Jael with me until we reached the open."

----- * The name of the valley that leads into Petra -----

"You talk boldly," the Lion sneered. "If you think you can take us with you that far then why not to Jerusalem? The words of a boaster are a mask of doubt. Hah! Take us to Jerusalem! Why not?"

"Because then," Grim answered, "there would be ten-score cutthroats at large without a leader who can hold them. One Lion can keep a bargain, but ten score jackals would ruin a country-side."

Ali Higg turned that over in his mind for five full minutes, like a chess player refusing to admit that he is mated. But there wasn't a move left to him, and Jael went closer on her knees to whisper advice in his ear.

"I agree," he said at last. "As Allah is my witness, I agree. Let us be friends, O Jimgrim!"

Grim shook hands with him and offered him a cigarette, while Ali

Baba's men outside the cave sent up a great shout of victory.

Then to Ali Higg's inexpressible delight Mahommed started to sing

the Akbar song, and they all roared the chorus:

"Akbar! Akbar! Akbar Ali Higg!"

The song put everybody in good temper, so that when Jael wrote out a letter to the bank at Grim's dictation Ali Higg affixed the seal to it without a murmur and ordered food supplied at once to all Grim's men; and we had a feast up there on the ledge outside the cave-in sight of the very spot where Amaziah, King of Israel, once hurled ten thousand of his enemies into the gorge below-that, in some respects, was the most enjoyable I ever shared.

But Grim was not the man to spoil success by lingering in what might yet turn into a trap. He who sups with the devil should not sit long at the feast; and I warned you this was a story without an end to it.

There is the lady Ayisha, and what became of her, and the account of when and in what way the Lion kept his bargain. Well, have you heard of those tale-tellers in the East, who sit under a village tree with the menfolk all around them? They work up to the climax, and then pause, and pass the begging-bowl for whatever the tale is worth. I fear those masters of inducement would mock me as a tyro for having already told too much before the pause!

The End

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