THE LION OF PETRA
by Talbot Mundy
I. "Allah Makes All Things Easy!" II. "Trust in God, But Tie Your Camel!" III. "Ali Higg's Brains Live in a Black Tent!" IV. "Go and Ask the Kites, Then, At Dat Ras!" V. "Let That Mother of Snakes Beware!" VI. "Him and Me—Same Father!" VII. "You Got Cold Feet?" VIII. "He Cools His Wrath in the Moonlight, Communing with Allah!" IX. "I Think We've Got the Lion of Petra on the Hip!" X. "There's No Room for Two of You!" XI. "That We Make a Profit from This Venture?" XII. "Yet I Forgot to Speak of the Twenty Aeroplanes!" XIII. "There is a Trick to Ruling!"
"Allah Makes All Things Easy!"
This isn't an animal story. No lions live at Petra nowadays, at any rate, no four-legged ones; none could have survived competition with the biped. Unquestionably there were tamer, gentler, less assertive lions there once, real yellow cats with no worse inconveniences for the casual stranger than teeth, claws, and appetites.
The Assyrian kings used to come and hunt near Petra, and brag about it afterward; after you have well discounted the lies they made their sculptors tell on huge stone monoliths when they got back home, they remain a pretty peppery line of potentates. But for imagination, self-esteem, ambition, gall, and picturesque depravity they were children—mere chickens—compared to the modern gentleman whom Grim and I met up with A.D. 1920.
You can't begin at the beginning of a tale like this, because its roots reach too far back into ancient history. If, on the other hand, you elect to start at the end and work backward the predicament confronts you that there wasn't any end, nor any in sight.
As long as the Lion of Petra has a desert all about him and a choice of caves, a camel within reach, and enough health to keep him feeling normal—never mind whose camel it is, nor what power claims to control the desert—there will be trouble for somebody and sport for him.
So, since it can have no end and no beginning, you might define this as an episode—a mere interval between pipes, as it were, in the amusing career of Ali Higg ben Jhebel ben Hashim, self-styled Lion of Petra, Lord of the Wells, Chief of the Chiefs of the Desert, and Beloved of the Prophet of Al-Islam; not forgetting, though, that his career was even supposed to amuse his victims or competitors. The fun is his, the fury other people's.
The beginning as concerns me was when I moved into quarters in Grim's mess in Jerusalem. As a civilian and a foreigner I could not have done that, of course, if it had been a real mess; but Grim, who gets fun out of side-stepping all regulations, had established a sort of semi-military boarding-house for junior officers who were tired of tents, and he was too high up in the Intelligence Department for anybody less than the administrator to interfere with him openly.
He did exactly as he pleased in that and a great many other matters—did things that no British-born officer would have dared do (because they are all crazy about precedent) but what they were all very glad to have Grim do, because he was a bally American, don't you know, and it was dashed convenient and all that. And Grim was a mighty good fellow, even if he did like syrup on his sausages.
The main point was that Grim was efficient. He delivered the goods. He was perfectly willing to quit at any time if they did not like his methods; and they did not want him to quit, because there is nothing on earth more convenient for men in charge of public affairs than to have a good man on their string who can be trusted to break all rules and use horse-sense on suitable occasion.
I had been in the mess about two days, I think, doing nothing except read Grim's books and learn Arabic, when I noticed signs of impending activity. Camel saddles began to be brought out from somewhere behind the scenes, carefully examined, and put away again. Far-sighted men with the desert smell on them, which is more subtly stirring and romantic than all other smells, kept coming in to squat on the rugs in the library and talk with Grim about desert trails, and water, and what tribal feuds were in full swing and which were in abeyance.
Then, about the fourth or fifth day, the best two camel saddles were thrown into a two-wheeled cart and sent off somewhere, along with a tent, camp-beds, canned goods, and all the usual paraphernalia a white man seems to need when he steps out of his cage into the wild.
I was reading when that happened, sitting in the arm-chair facing Grim, suppressing the impulse to ask questions, and trying to appear unaware that anything was going on. But it seemed to me that there was too much provision made for one man, even for a month, and I had hopes. However, Grim is an aggravating cuss when so disposed, and he kept me waiting until the creaking of the departing cart-wheels and the blunt bad language of the man who drove the mules could no longer be heard through the open window.
"Had enough excitement?" he asked me then.
"There's not enough to be had," said I, pretending to continue reading.
"Care to cut loose out of bounds?"
"The desert's no man's paradise this time o' year. Hotter than Billy-be- ——, and no cops looking after the traffic. They'll shoot a man for his shoe-leather."
"Any man can have my shoes when I can't use 'em."
"Heard of Petra?"
I nodded as casually as I could. Everybody who has been to Palestine has heard of that place, where an inaccessible city was carved by the ancients out of solid rock, only to be utterly forgotten for centuries until Burkhardt rediscovered it.
"Heard too much. I don't believe a word of it."
"There's a problem there to be straightened out," said Grim. "It's away and away beyond the British border; too far south for the Damascus government to reach; too far north for the king of Mecca; too far east for us; much too far west for the Mespot outfit. East of the sun and west of the moon you might say. There's a sheikh there by the name of Ali Higg. I'm off to tackle him. Care to come?"
"When do we start?"
"Now, from here. Tonight from Hebron. I'll give you time to make your will, write to your lady-love, and crawl out if you care to. Ali Higg is hot stuff. Suppose we leave it this way: I'll go on to Hebron. You think it over. You can overtake me at Hebron any time before tonight, and if you do, all right; but if second thoughts make you squeamish about crucifixion—they tell me that Ali Higg makes a specialty of that—I'll say you're wise to stay where you are. In any case I start from Hebron tonight. Suit yourself."
Any man in his senses would get squeamish about crucifixion if he sat long enough and thought about it. I hate to feel squeamish almost as much as I hate to sit and think, both being sure-fire ways of getting into trouble. The only safe thing I know is to follow opportunity and leave the man behind to do the worrying. More people die lingering, ghastly deaths in arm-chairs and in bed than anywhere.
So I spoke of squeamishness and second thoughts with all the scorn that a man can use who hasn't yet tasted the enmity of the desert and felt the fear of its loneliness; and Grim, who never wastes time arguing with folk who don't intend to be convinced, laughed and got up.
"You can't come along as a white man."
"Produce the tar and feathers then," said I.
"Have you forgotten your Hindustani?"
"Some of it."
"Think you can remember enough of it to deceive Arabs who never knew any at all?"
"Narayan Singh was flattering me about it the other day."
"I know he was," said Grim. "It was his suggestion we should take you with us."
That illustrates perfectly Grim's way of letting out information in driblets. Evidently he had considered taking me on this trip as long as three days ago. It was equally news to me that the enormous Sikh, Narayan Singh, had any use for me; I had always supposed that he had accepted me on sufferance for Grim's sake, and that in his heart he scorned me as a tenderfoot. You can no more dig beneath the subtlety of Sikh politeness than you can overbear his truculence, and it is only by results that you may know your friend and recognize your enemy.
Narayan Singh came in, and he did not permit any such weakness as a smile to escape him. When great things are being staged it is his peculiar delight to look wooden. Not even his alert brown eyes betrayed excitement. Like most Sikhs, he can stand looking straight in front of him and take in every detail of his surroundings; with his khaki sepoy uniform perfect down to the last crease, and his great black bristly beard groomed until it shone, he might have been ready for a dress parade.
"Is everything ready?" asked Grim.
"No, sahib. Suliman weeps."
"Spank him! What's the matter this time?"
"He has a friend. He demands to take the friend."
"What?" I said. "Is that little —— coming?"
Two men in all Jerusalem, and only two that I knew of, had any kind of use for Suliman, the eight-year-old left-over from the war whom Grim had adopted in a fashion, and used in a way that scandalized the missionaries. He and Narayan Singh took delight in the brat's iniquities, seeing precocious intelligence where other folk denounced hereditary vice. I had a scar on my thumb where the little beast had bitten me on one occasion when I did not dare yell or retaliate, and, along with the majority, I condemned him cordially.
"Who's his friend?" asked Grim.
Now Abdullah was worse than Suliman. He had no friends at all, anywhere, that anybody knew of. Possibly nine years old, he had picked up all the evil that a boy can learn behind the lines of a beaten Turkish army officered by Germans—which is almost the absolute of evil—and had added that to natural depravity.
"Let Abdullah come," said Grim. "But beat Suliman first of all for weeping. Don't hit him with your hand, Narayan Singh, for that might hurt his feelings. Use a stick, and give him a grown man's beating."
Two minutes later yells like a hungry bobcat's gave notice to whom it might concern that the Sikh was carrying out the letter of his orders. It was good music. Nevertheless, quite a little of the prospect was spoiled for me by the thought of keeping company with those two Jerusalem guttersnipes. I would have remonstrated, only for conviction, born of experience, that passengers shouldn't try to run the ship.
"What shall I pack?" I asked.
"Nothing," Grim answered. "Stick a toothbrush in your pocket. I've got soap, but you'll have small chance to use it."
"You said I can't go as a white man."
"True. We'll fix you up at Hebron. The Arabs have scads of proverbs," he answered, lighting a cigarette with a gesture peculiar to him at times when he is using words to hide his thoughts. "One of the best is: 'Conceal thy tenets, thy treasure, and thy traveling.'
"The Hebron road is not the road to Petra. We're going to joy-ride in the wrong direction, and leave Jerusalem guessing."
Five minutes later Grim and I were on the back seat of a Ford car, bowling along the Hebron road under the glorious gray walls of Jerusalem; Narayan Singh and the two brats were enjoying our dust in another car behind us. There being no luggage there was nothing to excite passing curiosity, and we were not even envied by the officers condemned to dull routine work in the city.
Grim was all smiles now, as he always is when he can leave the alleged delights of civilization and meet life where he likes it—out of bounds. He was still wearing his major's uniform, which made him look matter-of-fact and almost commonplace—one of a pattern, as they stamp all armies. But have you seen a strong swimmer on his way to the beach—a man who feels himself already in the sea, so that his clothes are no more than a loose shell that he will cast off presently? Don't you know how you see the man stripped already, as he feels himself?
So it was with Grim that morning. Each time I looked away from him and glanced back it was a surprise to see the khaki uniform.
The country, that about a week ago had been carpeted with flowers from end to end, was all bone-dry already, and the naked hills stood sharp and shimmering in heat-haze; one minute you could see the edges of ribbed rock like glittering gray monsters' skeletons, and the next they were gone in the dazzle, or hidden behind a whirling cloud of dust. Up there, three thousand feet above sea-level, there was still some sweetness in the air, but whenever we looked down through a gap in the range toward the Dead Sea Valley we could watch the oven-heat ascending like fumes above a bed of white-hot charcoal.
"Some season for a picnic!" Grim commented, as cheerfully as if we were riding to a wedding. "You've time to crawl out yet. We cross that valley on the first leg, and that's merely a sample!"
But it's easy enough to be driven forward in comfort to a new experience, never mind what past years have taught, nor what imagination can depict; if that were not so no new battles would be fought, and women would refuse to restock the world with trouble's makings. A reasoning animal man may be, but he isn't often guided by his reason, and at that early stage in the proceedings you couldn't have argued me out of them with anything much less persuasive than brute force.
We rolled down the white road into Hebron in a cloud of dust before midday, and de Crespigny, the governor of the district, came out to greet us like old friends; for it was only a matter of weeks since he and we and some others had stood up to death together, and that tie has a way of binding closer than conventional associations do.
But there were other friends who were equally glad to see us. Seventeen men came out from the shadow of the governorate wall, and stood in line to shake hands—and that is a lengthy business, for it is bad manners to be the first to let go of an Arab's hand, so that tact is required as well as patience; but it was well worth while standing in the sun repeating the back-and-forth rigmarole of Arab greeting if that meant that Ali Baba and his sixteen sons and grandsons were to be our companions on the adventure. They followed us at last into the governorate, and sat down on the hall carpet with the air of men who know what fun the future holds.
Narayan Singh stayed out in the hall and looked them over. There is something in the make-up of the Sikh that, while it gives him to understand the strength and weaknesses of almost any alien race, yet constrains him more or less to the policeman's viewpoint. It isn't a moral viewpoint exactly; he doesn't invariably disapprove; but he isn't deceived as to the possibilities, and yields no jot or tittle of the upper hand if he can only once assume it. There was scant love lost between him and old Ali Baba.
"Nharak said,* O ye thieves!" he remarked, looking down into Ali Baba's mild old eyes. [* Greeting!]
Squatting in loose-flowing robes, princely bred, and almost saintly with his beautiful gray beard, the patriarch looked frail enough to be squashed under the Sikh's enormous thumb. But he wasn't much impressed.
"God give thee good sense, Sikh!" was the prompt answer.
"Fear Allah, and eschew infidelity while there is yet time!" boomed a man as big as the Sikh and a third as heavy again—Ali Baba's eldest son, a sunny-tempered rogue, as I knew from past experience.
"Whose husband have you put to shame by fathering those two brats?" asked a third man.
Mahommed that was, Ali Baba's youngest, who had saved Grim's life and mine at El-Kerak.
They all laughed uproariously at that jest, so Mahommed repeated it more pointedly, and the Sikh turned his back to consider the sunshine through the open door and the rising heat within. Suliman and the other little gutter-snipe proceeded to make friends with the whole gang promptly, giving as good as they got in the way of repartee, and nearly starting a riot until Grim called Ali Baba into the dining-room, where de Crespigny was shaking up the second round of warm cocktails in a beer-bottle.
Ali Baba chose to presume that the mixture was intended for himself. The instant de Crespigny set the bottle on the table the old rascal tipped the lot into a tumbler and drank it off.
"It is good that the Koran says nothing against such stuff as this," he said, blinking as he set the glass down. "I have never tasted wine," he added righteously.
"Are the camels ready?" asked Grim.
"What sort are they? Mangy old louse-food, I suppose, that had been turned out by the Jews to die?"
"Allah! My sons have scoured Hebron for the best. Never were such camels! They are fit to make the pilgrimage to Mecca."
"I suppose that means that the rent to be charged for each old camel for a month is more than the purchase-price of a really good one?"
"The camels are mine, Jimgrim. I have bought them. Shall there be talk of renting between me and thee?"
"Not yet. After I've seen the beasts. If they're as good as you say I'll pay you at the government rate for them per month."
"Allah forbid! The camels are yours, Jimgrim. For me and mine there will no doubt be a profit from this venture without striking bargains between friends."
Grim smiled at that like a merchant listening to a salesman. It is not often that you can tell the color of his eyes, but on occasions of that sort they look iron-gray and match the bushy eyebrows. He turned to de Crespigny.
"Have you finished the census, 'Crep?"
"Have you got Ali Baba's property all listed?"
"And that of his sons and grandsons?"
"Every bit of it that's taxable."
"Good. You hear that, Ali Baba? Now listen to me, you old rascal. When you complained to me the other day that there was no more thieving left to do in Hebron, I told you you're rich enough to quit, and you admitted it, you remember? You agreed with me that jail isn't a dignified place for a man of your years and experience."
"Taib.* Jail is not good." [* All right]
"But you complained that you couldn't keep your gang out of mischief."
"Truly. They are young. They have talent. Shall they sit still and grow fat like a pasha in the harem?"
"So I said I'd find them some honest employment from time to time."
"That was a good promise. Here already is employment. But you know, Jimgrim, they are used to rich profits in return for running risks. Danger is meat and drink to them."
"They shall have their fill this trip!" said Grim.
"Taib. But the reward should be proportionate."
"Government wages!" Grim answered firmly. The old Arab smiled.
"Under the Turks," he answered, "the officer pocketed the pay, and the men might help themselves."
"D'you take me for a Turk?" asked Grim.
"No, Jimgrim. I know you for a cunning contriver—an upsetter of calculations—but no Turk. Nevertheless, as I understand it, we go against Ali Higg, who calls himself the Lion of Petra. Sheikh Ali Higg has amassed a heap of plunder—hundreds of camels—merchandise taken from the caravans; that should be ours for the lifting. That is honest. That is reasonable."
"Not a bit of it!" said Grim. "Let's get that clear before we start. I know your game. You've got it all fixed up between yourselves to stick with me until Ali Higg is mafish* and then bolt for the skyline with the plunder. Not a bit of use arguing—I know. You shouldn't talk your plans over in coffee-shop corners if you don't want me to hear of them."
————- * Lit., nothing—corresponds to "na-poo" in Army slang. ————-
"Jimgrim, you are the devil!"
"Maybe. But let's understand each other. Your property in Hebron is all listed. We'll call that a pledge for good behavior. You and your men are going to have government rifles served out to you that you'll have to account for afterward. Every rifle missing when we get back, and every scrap of loot you lay your hands on, will be charged double against your Hebron property. On the other hand, if any camels die you shall be reimbursed. Is that clear?"
"Clear? A camel in the dark could understand it! But listen, Jimgrim."
The venerable sire of rogues went and sat crosslegged on the window-seat, evidently meaning to debate the point. If an Arab loves one thing more than a standing argument it is that same thing sitting down.
"We go against Ali Higg. That is no light matter. He will send his men against us, and that is no light matter either. They are heretics without hope of paradise and bent on seeing hell before their time! Surely they will come to loot our camp in the dark. Shall we not defend ourselves?"
But Grim was not disposed to stumble into any traps.
"Does a loaded camel on the level trouble about hills?" he asked.
But Ali Baba waved the question aside as irrelevant.
"They come. We defend ourselves. One, or maybe two, or even more of Ali Higg's scoundrels are slain. Behold a blood-feud! Jimgrim and his friends depart for El-Kudz* or elsewhere; Ali Baba and his sons have a feud on their hands. [* Jerusalem]
"Now a feud, Jimgrim, has its price! It would do my old heart good to see the blood of Ali Higg and his heretics, for it is written that we should smite the heretic and spare not. But we should also despoil him of his goods, or the Prophet will not be pleased with us!"
"That is the talk of a rooster on a dung-hill," Grim answered. "A rooster crows a mile away. Another answers with a challenge, but the camels draw the plow in ten fields between them. That is like a blood-feud between you and Ali Higg. Five days' march from here to Petra and how many deserts and tribes between?"
"So much the easier to keep the loot when we have won it!" answered Ali Baba.
"There's going to be no loot!" said Grim.
"Would you rather have me send back to Jerusalem for regular police?"
"Nay, Jimgrim! That would be the end of you, for those police would bungle everything. You need clever fellows with you if you go to sup with Ali Higg."
"Well? Are you coming?"
"Taib. We are ready. But—"
"On my terms!"
"But the pay is nothing!"
"So is my pay nothing! This man"—he pointed to me—"gets no pay at all. Narayan Singh, the Sikh, gets less pay than a policeman."
"Then what is the profit?"
"For you? The honor of keeping your word. The privilege of making fair return for past immunity. Why aren't you and all your sons in jail this minute? Why did I invite you to come with me on this occasion? Because a man looks for friends where he has given favors! But if you consider you owe the administration nothing for forgiving all past offenses, very well; I'll look for friends elsewhere."
"As for the administration, Jimgrim, may Allah turn its face cold! But you are another matter. We will come with you."
"On my terms?"
You would have thought that settled it, especially as Ali Baba had already stated that he and his gang were prepared for the journey. But the East, that is swift to wrath, is very slow over a bargain, and it is a point of doctrine besides, all the way from Gibraltar to Japan, to keep an American waiting if you hope to get the better of him. Ali Baba settled down for a nice long talk; and you would have thought, to judge by Grim's expression, that he could ask for nothing better.
The old rogue wanted to know among other things who would have the task of cleaning rifles on the journey. It seemed that he was long on sanctity, and not allowed by his religion to touch grease in any shape or form. Grim satisfied him on that point. Narayan Singh should clean the rifles.
But that started him off on a new trail. He tried to see how much more he could impose on the Sikh, and suggested such matters as pitching tents, cooking, gathering firewood, cleaning pots and pans, leading the pack-camels, and a host of other necessary evils.
"I shall issue all needful orders to each man," Grim told him bluntly at last.
"And what is to be done to Ali Higg?"
"That remains to be seen."
"He is a devil with a cold face."
"So I'm told."
"He has more than a hundred armed men."
"I heard twice that number."
"And we shall be twenty?"
"Oh, well, Allah makes all things easy!"
But that was not the last word. There was still a custom of the country to be met and overcome.
"Are the camels watered?" Grim asked.
"Packs all ready?"
"All tied up-everything."
"You're all ready to start, then?"
"Inshallah bukra." * [* Tomorrow, if God is willing.]
"Tomorrow won't help me," said Grim. "We start tonight, at sundown. I'll go with you and look the camels over now."
"But, Jimgrim, that is impossible. My son Mahommed's second wife is sick—"
"Leave him behind, then, to look after her."
"He will not consent to be left! Two of the camels are not paid for. The man comes in the morning for his money."
"Leave the money here for him with Captain de Crespigny. We start tonight."
"But what if the camels are not satisfactory?"
"I shall see about other ones at once in that case. There'll be time if we look them over now. We start tonight."
"I was thinking about some mules to carry an extra load or two."
"No. Don't want mules. Too hot for them. Besides, there's no time for changing the loads over. We start tonight."
"Tomorrow will be a better moon, Jimgrim."
"We want a full moon when we get to Petra. We start tonight. Come along; show me the camels."
"It is hot now. There is a bad stink in the stables. Better see them when it gets cooler."
"I'm going now. Are you coming with me?"
"Taib. I will show them to you. They are good ones. They will make you proud. Better give them another night's rest, though, Jimgrim."
"Come along. Let's look at them."
"One has a little girth-gall that—"
"Ali Baba, you old rogue, we start tonight!" said Grim.
"Trust in God, But Tie Your Camel!"
Do you believe in portents? I do. Whenever in the East the first two statements that a man has made in my presence, and that I have a chance to test, prove accurate, I go ahead and bet on all the rest. I don't mean by that that because a man has told the truth twice he won't lie on the third and fourth occasion; for the East is like the West in that respect, and usually seeks to turn its virtue into capital. But in a land where, as old King Solomon, who knew his crowd, remarked, "All men are liars," you must have some sort of weathervane by which to guide your national optimism, so I settled on that one long ago.
Ali Baba had said there was a bad stink in the camel stables. A natural expert in hyperbole, he had not exaggerated in the least. And he had said that they were good camels; it was true. You did not need to be a camel expert to know those great long-legged Syrian beasts for winners. They looked like the first pick of a whole country-side, as he maintained they were—twenty-five of them in one string, representing an investment at after-war prices of the equivalent of five or six thousand U.S. dollars.
"Who has been looted to pay for these?" asked Grim.
"Allah! You have put an end to our proper business, Jimgrim. What could we do? We took our money and bought these camels, thinking to take a hand in the caravan trade."
Grim looked into the old rogue's eyes and laughed.
"In the land I come from," he said, "a capitalist with your predatory instincts would pay a lawyer by the year to tell him just how far he could safely go!"
"A wakil?" sneered Ali Baba. "The wakils are all scoundrels. May Allah grind their bones! No honest man can have the advantage of such people."
Grim looked the loads over, but there was nothing that any one could teach that gang about desert work. The goat-skin water-bags were newly patched and moist; the gear was all in good shape, none new, but all well-tested; and there was food enough in double sacks for twenty men for a month. Mujrim, Ali Baba's giant oldest son, picked up the loads and turned them over for Grim to examine with about as much apparent effort as if he were tossing pillows.
Presently Grim laughed again, and looked at the line of fifteen other sons and grandsons, all squatting in the shadow of the wall watching us.
"Which is the chief Lothario?" he asked; only he used a much more expressive word than that, because the East is frank where the West deals in innuendo, and vice versa.
"They are all grown men," said Ali Baba. "There's a woman named Ayisha—a Badawi (Bedouin)—who has lately come from El-Maan with a caravan of wheat merchants."
"How did you know that, Jimgrim?"
"I'm told she has been buying things in the suk* that no Badawi could have use for, and has sent to Jerusalem for goods that could not be obtained here. I want to speak with her. Has any of your"—he smiled at the line of placidly contented sons again—"fathers of immorality made her acquaintance by some chance?" [* Bazaar]
Every one of the sixteen sons instantly assumed an expression of far-away meditation. Ali Baba looked shocked.
"I see!" said Grim. "Um-m-m! Well—none of my business. But one of you go fetch her to the governorate. You may tell her she's not in trouble, but an officer wants first-hand information about El-Maan."
"Shall my sons be seen dragging a woman through the streets?" asked Ali Baba.
"Let's hope not. But I don't care to send the police. I don't want to put her to indignity, you understand. Suppose you arrange it for me, eh?"
"Listen, Jimgrim; that woman is a strange one! Men have spoken evil of her, but none can prove it. I have heard it said she has a devil. 'Trust in God, but tie your camel!' says the Book.* The wisest among wise men would be he who let that woman alone!"
—————— * The Moslems attribute all their favorite proverbs to the Koran, whether they are in the book or, as in this case, not. ——————
"I suppose I'll have to get Captain de Crespigny to arrange it for me."
"Tfu!* There is no need for a man like you to appeal to the governor. Taib. It shall be done. Have no doubt of it."
————— * An exclamation of contempt —————
"All right. Send her up to the governorate—and no delays, mind! We start tonight at sundown."
On our way back we met Narayan Singh returning from the suk with parcels under his arm. That in itself was a sure sign of the lapse of contact with law and order; in Jerusalem he would have had an Arab carry them, because dignity is part of a Sikh's uniform. You realized without a word said that the uniform would be discarded presently. He looked me up and down as the quartermaster eyes a new recruit, and nodded in that exasperating way that makes you feel as if you had been ticketed and numbered. If Grim had not told me that the Sikh had been first to suggest taking me to Petra I would have insulted him painstakingly there and then; but you learn a certain amount of self-restraint, I suppose, before such a man as Narayan Singh ever approves of you for any purpose.
He undid the parcels on the dining-room table in the governorate, and the next half-hour was spent in rigging me up as an ascetic-looking Indian Moslem, with the aid of a white turban wound over a cone-shaped cap, great horn-rimmed spectacles, and the comfortable, baggy garments that the un-modernized hakim wears over narrow cotton pantaloons.
Over it all they put a loose, brown Bedouin cloak of camel-hair such as any man expecting to travel across deserts might invest in, whatever his nationality; it was hotter than Tophet, but, as the Arabs say, what keeps the heat in will also keep it out. It gives you a feeling of carrying your home around with you on your back, the way a snail totes its shell, and there are worse sensations.
"Now consider yourself a while in the mirror, sahib," said Narayan Singh. "When a man knows how he looks he begins to act accordingly."
Have you ever stopped to think how true that is? There was a full-length mirror upstairs in de Crespigny's bedroom, left behind by a German missionary's wife when the Turks and their friends stampeded, and Narayan Singh watched while I posed in front of it. Before many minutes, without any deliberately conscious effort on my part, gesture and attitude were molding themselves to fit the costume, in somewhat the same way, I suppose, that a farm-hand from Montenegro shapes himself into a new American store suit.
"But it is necessary to remember!" warned Narayan Singh. "We should have done this sooner. There should be a photograph to carry with you, because a man forgets his own appearance where there are no mirrors and none others resembling himself. Henceforward, sahib, sleeping or waking, be a hakim! There is a chest of medicines downstairs."
By the time I had got down Grim had already changed into Bedouin dress—stepped simply out of one world into another. All he does is to stain his eyebrows dark, put on the clothes, and cease to resemble anything on earth except a desert-born Arab. I don't know how long he was learning to make the transformation, but no man could learn the trick in twenty years unless he loved the desert and the sinewy men who live in it.
He looked me over again narrowly, and then decided I must return upstairs and shave my head. "The only chance you've got of not being pulled apart between four camels, or pushed over a precipice, is to look like darwaish. Have Narayan Singh stain the back of your neck with henna—not too much of it—just a little—you're from Lahore, you know—a university product."
By the time I had carried out that order I could not even recognize myself without the turban on. "No matter how many mistakes now, Sahib!" grinned the Sikh. "None but a crazy Moslem would travel in this sun with his head shaved. Better put a cloth inside the cap, thus, for greater safety."
The only other thing Grim did to me was to throw away my toothbrush.
"They're suspicious in these parts," he said. "They'd figure it was hog-bristles. You'll have to make shift with a chewed stick, and pick your teeth between times with a dagger the way the rest of us do. Hello! Here she comes. You do the honors, 'Crep; we're in the game from now on."
De Crespigny went to the door and Grim and I squatted cross-legged in the window-seat. I tried to feel like a middle-aged native of the East under the rule of that twenty-six-year-old governor; but it couldn't be done. I don't know yet what the sensations are of, say, a bachelor of arts of Lahore University who has to take orders from a British subaltern. I expect you have to leave off pretending and really be an Indian to find out that; otherwise your liking for the fellow himself offsets reason. No white man could have helped liking young de Crespigny.
He came in after a minute perfectly self-possessed, leading a young woman who took your breath away. I have heard all the usual stories about the desert women being hags, but every one of them was pure fiction to me from that minute. If all the rest were really what men said of them, this one was sufficiently amazing to redeem the lot. De Crespigny addressed her as Princess, and she may have really ranked as one for all I know.
She sat on a chair, rather awkwardly, as if not used to it, and we stared at her like a row of owls, she studying us in return, quite unabashed. The Badawi don't wear veils, and are not in the least ashamed to air their curiosity. She stared uncommonly hard at Grim.
Of middle height, supple and slender, with the grace of all outdoors, smiling with a dignity that did not challenge and yet seemed to arm her against impertinence, not very dark, except for her long eyelashes—I have seen Italians and Greeks much darker—she somewhat resembled the American Indian, only that her face was more mobile.
Part of her beauty was sheer art, contrived by the cunning arrangement of the shawl on her head, and kohl on her eyelashes. That young woman knew every trick of deportment down to the outward thrust of a shapely bare foot in an upturned Turkish slipper. Her clothing was linen, not black cotton that Bedouin women usually wear, and much of it was marvelously hand-embroidered; but all the jewelry she wore was a necklace made of gold coins. It gave a finishing touch of opulence that is the crown of finished art.
But it was her eyes that took your breath away, and she was perfectly aware of it; she used them as the desert does all its weapons, frankly and without reluctance, sparing no consideration for the weak—rather looking for weakness to take advantage of it. They were wise—dark, deadly wise—alight with youth, and yet amazingly acquainted with all evil that is older than the world. She was obviously not in the least afraid of us.
"You are from El-Maan?" asked de Crespigny, and she nodded.
"Did you come all this way alone?"
"No woman travels the desert alone."
"Tell me how you got here."
"You know how I got here. I came with a caravan that carried wheat—the wife of the sheikh of the caravan consenting."
She spoke the clean concrete Arabic of the desert, that has a distinct word for everything, and for every phase of everything —another speech altogether from the jargon of the towns.
"Are they friends of yours?"
"Who travels with enemies?"
"Did you know them, I mean, before you came with them?"
"Then you are not from El-Maan?"
"Who said I was?"
"I thought you did."
"Nay, the words were yours, khawaja." * [* Lit., gentleman-sir]
"Please tell me where you come from."
"From beyond El-Maan."
She made a gesture with one hand and her shoulder that suggested illimitable distances.
"From which place beyond El-Maan?"
She laughed, and you felt she did it not in self-defense, but out of sheer amusement.
"Ask the jackal where his hole is! My people live in tents."
"Well, Princess, tell me, at any rate, what you are doing here in El-Kalil." [Hebron]
"Ask El-Kalil. The whole suk talks of me. I have made purchases."
"That's what I'm getting at. You've made some unusual purchases, and you've sent to Jerusalem for things that people don't use as a rule in tents out in the desert—silk stockings, for instance, and a phonograph with special records, and soft pillows, and writing-paper, and odds and ends like that. Do you use those things?"
"Do you use books in French and English?"
She hesitated. It was the first time she had not seemed perfectly at ease.
"Can you even read Arabic?"
She did not answer.
"Then the books, at any rate, are meant for some one else? Tell me who that some one is."
"Allah!" she exploded "May I not buy what I will, if I pay for it?"
But that was a false move. You can't upset the young British officer by storming at him. De Crespigny smiled, and came back at her with his next question suddenly.
"Are not those things for the wife of Ali Higg, and are you not from Petra?"
"If you know so surely whence I come, why do you ask me?"
"Are you a slave?"
"How many wives has Ali Higg?"
"How should I know?"
"Because I think you are one of his wives. Is that not so?"
"I am Ayisha. I claim Your Honor's protection."
That was no false move. It was so nearly a checkmate that de Crespigny went to the sideboard for the silver box of cigarettes, to offer her one and gain time for thought.
Ever since the days of Ruth, and no doubt long before that, it has been the first law of the desert that man or woman claiming protection can no longer be treated as an enemy. It is possibly the earliest form of freemasonry, and it survives.
Arab history is full of instances of a warrior laying down his life for an enemy who has claimed protection from him. And young de Crespigny was ruler of the most unruly city in the Near East because he understood better than most men how to respect Arab prejudices. Ayisha accepted a cigarette, fitted it into a long amber tube, and watched him.
"Very well," he said at last. "If I protect you you must answer questions. Are you Ali Higg's wife?"
"Have I Your Honor's promise of protection?"
"Yes. Are you Ali Higg's wife?"
"I am his second wife."
"Thought so! And you've been sent to make purchases for number one?"
"How do you propose to convey all these things back to Petra?"
"Surely it is not difficult now that I am promised Your Honor's protection!"
"My district extends half-way to Beersheba and to the eastward as far as the shore of the Dead Sea—no farther," said de Crespigny.
"I can wait. I must wait for the purchases from Jerusalem. Sooner or later there will be a caravan across the desert to El-Maan. I have two servants here to make inquiries for me."
"Yes, and two more who went to Jerusalem. Four men. Tell me this, Princess Ayisha: how came Ali Higg to trust you, alone with four men, on such a long and difficult journey?"
"Is he not my lord?"
"But the men?"
"Is he not also their lord? And he holds their wives and sons in trust at Petra."
"You'll admit it's unusual?"
"Do you find it strange that a woman should be faithful to her lord?"
"But to Ali Higg? He has a name—a reputation! How many wives has he?"
"The Koran permits but four. The others are not wives."
"And you're going back?"
"Inshallah." [If God is willing.]
It was obvious that no alternative would have the least appeal for her.
"Well, your movements have all been known to me. Your men have been watched. The word from Jerusalem is that the two you sent there have made their purchases. I heard over the telephone that they are on their way here. A suggestion has been made to me that you five might be held here as hostages to bring Ali Higg to terms."
She laughed. "He would raid, and make prisoners, ten for one. If an exchange were not made promptly his prisoners would be put to torture, and—"
De Crespigny saw fit to bring the conversation back to its other foot, as it were. Not the whole British Army was in a position just then to impose its will on Ali Higg, so certainly de Crespigny was not; and if you are any kind of real diplomatist, with a career in front of you, you don't talk fight unless you mean it.
"But of course, as you've claimed my protection I couldn't dream of that," he assured her. "Now, is there anything else you want after those men get here from Jerusalem?"
"They'll be here in an hour or so. Would you be ready to leave at once for Petra?"
"As soon as I can join a caravan."
"Today? This evening, for instance?"
"Allah provide it!"
"That's settled, then."
He turned toward Grim.
"This is Sheik Hajji,* Jimgrim bin Yazid of El-Abdeh, who has twice made the pilgrimage to Mecca. He is my honored friend. He starts tonight with a caravan toward Petra. You may travel with him and be in safe hands all the way."
————— * One who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca —————
She eyed Grim curiously, startled, it seemed to me. Then her expression changed slowly to excitement, followed by a look of baffling wisdom, as much as to say she knew something and would not tell. I don't think it was his name that startled her; that sounded Arabic enough.
"What business has he at Petra?" she asked.
De Crespigny let Grim answer that conundrum.
"Ya sit Ayisha,"* said Grim, "I carry a letter to Sheikh Ali Higg from some one in Arabia. I will deliver you along with the letter. You may have a place in my caravan—provided you have camels, provisions, and a litter," he added; for the surest way to increase her already alert suspicion would have been to offer to provide everything. [* O lady Ayisha.]
"Let me see the letter!"
Grim produced one instantly—an envelop with a big red seal on it. It was marked across the top in large letters "On His Majesty's Service," but addressed in Arabic to somebody, and as she could not read she was satisfied.
"Ali Higg will hold you answerable for my safety if he has to destroy armies to reach you!" she said simply.
"Ya sit Ayisha," Grim answered solemnly, "may Allah turn my face cold if Sheikh Ali Higg shall have fault to find with me in this matter!"
"How many is in your caravan?" she asked. "Twenty armed men."
She nodded. "I will pay for my place in the caravan, according to the custom—the half now and the other half on arrival."
Without gesture, without moving a muscle of his face, Grim turned down that proposal desert-fashion, that is emphatically, with a reservation.
"Ya sit Ayisha, may Allah do so to me, and more, if I will accept a price for this. Between Ali Higg and me let this thing be."
"Taib," she answered. "My men shall look for camels. I will go with you tonight."
She went away then, leaving a smile behind her that would have coaxed the Sphinx, and rode down-street toward the ancient city on a big gray donkey guarded by two Bedouins armed with swords and spears.
"Did I do all right?" asked de Crespigny.
"Fine!" Grim answered. "You'll be ruling England one of these days, 'Crep. Good job I had that letter to show her, though, wasn't it?"
"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.
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."
"Go and Ask the Kites, then, At Dat Rasi"
So far everything worked out strictly according to plan. We had hardly finished a hurried meal when the lady Ayisha and her men arrived on mean baggage camels provided by old Rafiki; and they were not in the least pleased with their mounts, for a baggage camel is as different from a beast trained to carry a rider as an up-to-date limousine is from a Chinese one-wheel barrow. Perched on top of the lady Ayisha's beast was a thing they call a shibrayah—a sort of tent with a top like an umbrella, resting on the loads slung to the camel's flanks. From inside that she was busy abusing everybody.
There was only one good camel with her outfit—a small, blooded looking Bishareen, a shade or two lighter in color than the rest, ridden by a wiry, mean rascal with a very black face. He seemed anxious not to assert himself, for he kept his mount well away in the shadows, and moved off when any one approached him.
It was growing pitch-dark. Grim counted noses and gave the order to be off. Two or three men mounted, and that brought all the kneeling camels to their feet. One of Ali Baba's sons caught the beast assigned to me, brought him round to the gate, and began nakhing him to make him kneel again. But I know one or two things about Arabs and their ways of assessing humanity. Knowledge is for use.
"Do you mistake me for a cripple?" I asked, and instead of continuing to nakh in the camel language he pulled the beast's head down.
The trick is simple enough. You put your foot on the hollow of the camel's neck and swing into the saddle as he raises his head again. Men used to the desert despise you if you have to make your mount kneel in order to get on his back, pretty much as horsemen of other lands despise the tender foot who can't rope and saddle his own pony. There's no excuse for that, of course; it stands to reason that lots of first-class men can't mount a camel standing, never having done it; but, according to desert lore, whoever has to make his camel kneel is a person of no account.
So I started off with at least one minus mark not notched against me. There was also an enormous feeling of relief, because I heard those two brats blubbering at being left behind.
And oh, what a start that was before the moon-rise, with the great soft-footed beasts like shadows stringing one behind another into line through the streets of a city as old as Abraham! Utter silence, except for three camel bells with different notes. Instant, utter severance from all the new world, with its wheels that get you nowhere and conventions that have no meaning except organized whimsy.
Peace under the stars, wholly aloof and apart from the problem that had sent us forth. And the feel under you of league-welcoming resilience, whatever the camels might say by way of objection. And they said a very great deal gutturally, as camels always do, yielding their prodigious power to our use with an incomprehensible mixture of grouchiness and inability to do less than their best.
Grim rode in advance. His was the first camel bell that jangled with a mellow note somewhere in the darkness around the turn of a narrow street, or in a tunnel, where house joined house overhead. The lady Ayisha's was the second bell, three beasts ahead of me; she being the guest of honor as it were, or, rather, the prize passenger, it was important to know her whereabouts at any given moment. And last of all came old Ali Baba with the third bell announcing that all were present and correct. He and his men sat their camels with a stately pride more than half due to the rifles and bandoliers that had been served out.
That black-faced fellow on the little Bishareen did not trouble himself about position in the line as long as we wound through the city streets. He was next in front of me, and I saw him exchange signals with a fat man in a house door, who may have been Rafiki the wool-merchant. Narayan Singh was next behind me, and I looked back to make sure that he had seen the signal too.
But when we passed out of the city at the south end and began to swing along a white road at a clip that was plenty fast enough for the baggage beasts, the man in front of me urged his beast forward, thrusting others out of the way and getting thoroughly well cursed for it, until he rode next behind Grim.
Seeing that, Narayan Singh rode after him, flogging furiously, and got well cursed too. But nothing else in particular happened for several miles until we began to descend between huge hills of limestone and, just as the moon rose, came on the reserve camels waiting for us in the charge of two policemen in a hollow.
Then there began to be happenings. First there was shrill delight from Ayisha and a chorus of approval from her four men at the prospect of changing to reasonably decent mounts. Then a tumult of indignation from the wool-merchant's crowd—blunt refusal by them to consent to any change at all—threats—abuse—arguments—the roaring of camels who object on principle to everything, whatever it is, even to a chance to rest, because it hurts their backs to stand still loaded and over it all presently Grim's voice issuing orders in a tone he had when things go wrong.
Strange that they don't choose leaders more often for their voices! It's the most obvious thing in the world that a man with a silver tongue, as they call it, can swing and sway any crowd. If that man knows his own mind and has a plan worth spending effort on he can trumpet cohesion out of tumult and win against men with twenty times his brains. I don't doubt Peter the Hermit had a voice like a bellbuoy in a tide-rip. Grim pitched his above the babel so that every word fell sharp, clear, and manly. They began to obey him there and then.
But he could not attend to everything at once, and while he oversaw the changing of pack-saddles, and gave orders to the policemen to ride back on the camels behind Rafiki's men and see them safely into the city, that black-faced fellow on the Bishareen edged away, and in a moment was off at full gallop headed southwards. Narayan Singh was the first to see him go, but it was half a minute before he could get near Grim and call his attention to it.
Grim ordered three of Ali Baba's men in pursuit at once.
"Shall we shoot? Shall we slay?" asked one of them.
"No, no. He hasn't committed any crime yet. Catch him and bring him back."
"Crime? What is crime out here? We can kill him. But overtake him on that beast? Wallah!"
They wasted another minute arguing for leave to shoot, and by the time they were off the deserter had a long start; but they rode with a will when they did go.
If anything on earth looks more absurd than a ridden camel galloping away in the moonlight, with his neck stretched out in front of him and his four ungainly legs in the air all together, it is three more camels doing the same thing. They looked like a giant's washing blown off the line flapping before a high wind, and made hardly more noise. The whack-whack-whack of sticks on the beasts' rumps was as distinct as pistol-shots, but you hardly heard the galloping footfall.
Grim went on about his business, for changing loads in the dark is a job that needs attention, unless you choose to have a good beast lose heart before morning and lie down in the middle of the road. A camel in pain from a badly cinched girth will endure it without argument for just so long; after which he quits, and not all the whacking or persuading in the world will get him up again.
At the end of twenty minutes we were under way once more. Peace closed down on us, and we swayed along under the stars in majestic silence. There have been better nights since, I think; but until then that was the most glorious experience of a lifetime.
It is my peculiar delight to read and relive ancient history, and of all history books the Old Testament is vastly the most absorbing—far and away the most accurate. There is a school of fools who set themselves up to scoff at its facts, but every new discovery only confirms the old record; and here were we sauntering through the night on camels over hills where the fathers of history fought for the first beginnings of each man's right to do his own thinking in his own way.
After a while Ali Baba gave his camel bell to his oldest son Mujrim, and forced his beast up beside mine, seeming to think silence might ruin the nerve of such a raw hand as myself. Or perhaps it was pride of race and country that impelled him. Even the meanest Arab thrills with emotion when he contemplates his ancient heritage, just as he rages at the prospect of seeing the Jews return to it, and Ali Baba, though a prince of thieves, was surely not a man without a heart.
But the trouble with Arab as distinguished from Jewish history is that too little of it was written down, and too much of it invented to prove a theory—much like the stuff they put between the covers of school history books—so Ali Baba's lecture, although gorgeous fiction in its way, hardly enriched knowledge. Not that he was free from the latterday craving for accuracy whenever it might serve to bolster up the rest of the fabric.
"Yonder," he said, for instance, pointing toward the sky-line with a dramatic sweep of his arm, "they say that Adam and Eve are buried. But they lie!"
And having denounced that lie, he expected me to believe everything else he told me.
According to him every rock we passed had its history of jinn and spirits as well as battles, and he knew where the tomb was of every national saint and hero, every one of whom had apparently died within a radius of twenty miles. Some of them had died in two or three different places as far as I could make out from his account of them.
And what Abraham had not done on those hillsides in the way of miracles and war would not be worth writing in a book; whatever cannot be otherwise explained is set down to the Ancestor, the Arabs ranking Abraham next after Mohammed, because the patriarch built the Kaaba, or Mosque, at Mecca, that Mohammed centuries later on adopted for his new religion.
But even Ali Baba grew tired of acting historian at last, and once more silence settled down, broken only by the bells and the camels' gurgling, until about midnight we overhauled the three men who had been sent in chase of the fellow on the Bishareen. They had lost him, and were angry; for what should a man do except be angry in such a circumstance, unless he is willing to accept blame?
"You should have let us shoot, Jimgrim! Once I got close enough to have cut his beast's legs with my sword! You think this is like the city, where a policeman holds up a hand and men halt? Hah! Wallah! It was he who drew sword, and behold my camel's nose where he slashed at it! One finger's breadth closer and I would have had a sick beast on my hands—but he proved a blundering pig with his weapon and only made that scratch after all.
"However, it is your fault, Jimgrim! You have made us to be laughed at by that father of dunghills! His beast was the faster, and he got away, and vanished in the shadows."
So there we halted and held a conference, letting the camels kneel and rest for half an hour, while each man said his say in turn.
"That man is Rafiki's messenger," said Grim. "He is on his way to Abbas Mahommed, Sheikh of the Beni Yussuf, who owes Rafiki money. I think Rafiki is offering to forgo the debt if Abbas Mahommed will lie in wait for us and carry off this woman."
He did not ask for suggestions. There was no need. Every one of those cloaked and muffled rascals had a notion of his own on the spur of the moment, and was eager to get it adopted.
"Allah!" said Ali Baba. "Let us fight, then, with Abbas Mahommed, and plunder his harem instead! It is simple. We come on his village before dawn when those sons of Egyptian mothers* are asleep. We set fire to the thatch, and thereafter act as seems fit, slaying some and letting others escape!"
—————- * To call any one an Egyptian is an Arab's notion of a perfect insult. —————-
"Wallah! Let us ride straight through the village, set a light to it, and run," suggested Mujrim. "There isn't a woman in that place I would burden a camel with."
"Nevertheless, we should take some women to keep as hostages against the time when a blood-feud begins."
"And surely we shall carry off some camels."
"Aye! They have a horse or two as well. Abbas Mahommed trades with El-Kerak, and only last month acquired a fine brown mare that caught my eye."
"What are fifty men! We can fight twice fifty of such spawn as the Beni Yussuf."
"Wallah! They ran when the police paid them a visit. Ran from the police!"
"Yes, and were afraid to kill the Jew who sued Abbas Mahommed in the court for arrears of interest. They are cowards who dare not take their sheikh's part in a dispute."
"Better wait until dawn, and then ride by their village and defy them."
But the lady Ayisha had the most astonishing suggestion. She came out from under the curtains of the shibrayah and sat against her camel's rump to face the circle of armed men and instruct them.
"Taib!" she said scornfully. "Let this Abbas Mahommed come and take me. I have a knife for his belly in any event. You go on to Ali Higg and say his wife is in the hands of that scum. Ali Higg can cross the desert in three days, and by the evening of the fourth day there will be no village left, nor a man to call Abbas Mahommed by his name. If I haven't killed him already Abbas Mahommed will be carried off to Petra with the women, who shall watch what is done to him before they are apportioned with the other loot. That is simplest. Let Abbas Mahommed lift me if he dares!"
She was clearly a young woman not averse to experiences, as well as confident of her lord's good will. But Grim had the peace of the border in mind; and the gang were not at all disposed to stand by meekly while Abbas Mahommed paid a debt so easily to a mere wool-merchant.
"I am an old man," said Ali Baba, "and must die soon. May He Who never sleeps* slay me before I see my sons afraid to fight Abbas Mahommed and all his host!" [* A synonym for Allah]
"Let's talk like wise men and not fools," proposed Grim at last, and since he had let them have their say first they heard him in silence now. "The difficulty is that Abbas Mahommed's village lies at the corner of the Dead Sea. We must turn that corner. If we pass between him and the sea he has us between land and water. If we journey too far south to avoid him we lose at least a day and tire our camels out. A forced march now would mean that we must feed the camels corn, and we have none too much of it with us; whereas tomorrow the grazing will be passable, and farther on, where the grazing is poor, we shall need the corn."
"Wallah! The man knows."
"Inshalla, let there be a fight then!"
"Wait!" counseled Ali Baba. "I know this Jimgrim. There will be a deception and a ruse, but no fight. Listen to him. Wait and see!"
"I think we will travel to the southward," said Grim, "and halt at dawn out of sight of Abbas Mahommed's village. There let the camels graze. But I, and a few of us, will take the lady Ayisha's camel with the shibriyah, and draw near to the village. That black-faced rogue of Rafiki's will point us out to them, for he will recognize the shibriyah.
"Then when they come to seize the lady Ayisha they will find no woman in the litter. So they will believe that Rafiki's messenger has told lies that are blacker than his face, and will beat him and let us go."
"But if they do not let you go? They are ruffians, you know, Jimgrim."
"Then I shall find another way."
"And how will you account for being so few men, when Rafiki's messenger will have said we are at least a score?"
"Will that not be further proof that the man is a liar?"
"If I did not know you of old I would say that is a fool's plan," remarked Ali Baba, and his sons grunted agreement. "But you have a devil of resourcefulness. Taib! Let us try this plan and see what comes of it."
So we started off again to a running comment of contemptuous disapproval from the lady Ayisha, who seemed to think that no plan could be a good one unless it entailed murder. The farther we headed eastward, the nearer we came to the pale beyond which her lord and master's word was summary law, the more openly she advocated drastic remedies for everything, and the less she was inclined to take no for an answer.
However, her monologue was wasted on the moon, for no one argued with her. Grim led the way-off the highroad now, and down dark defiles that set the camels moaning, while their riders yelled alternately to Allah and apostrophized their beasts in the monosyllabic camel language. Camels hate downhill work, especially when loaded, and fall unless told not to in a speech they understand, in that respect strangely like children.
You had to look out in the dark, too, for the teeth of the camel behind, because they don't love the folk who drive them headlong into gorges full of ghosts, and one man's thigh or elbow makes as easy biting as the next.
Camels are no man's pets, and there is no explaining them. The fools will graze contentedly with shrapnel and high explosives bursting all about them, but go into a panic at the sight of a piece of paper in broad daylight. And when they think they see ghosts in the dark they act like the Gadarene swine, only making more noise about it.
I wouldn't have been the lady Ayisha going down some of those dark places for all the wealth of ancient Bagdad. Her shibrayah pitched and rolled like a small boat in a big sea, and whenever a rock leaned out over the narrow trail, or a scraggy old thorn branch swung, it was by a combination of luck and good carpentry that she was saved from being pitched down under the following camel's feet. Whoever made that shibrayah could have built the Ark.
But we came down through one last terrific gorge on to a level plain, where the camel-thorn grew in clumps and the heat radiating from the hills was like the breath from an oven door behind us. There the animals went best foot forward, as if they smelled the dawn and hoped to meet it sooner by hurrying. We had quite a job to keep back for the loaded beasts, and three or four men, instead of one, brought up the rear to prevent straggling.
Then, about an hour before dawn, in a hollow between sparsely vegetated sand-dunes, Grim ordered camp pitched, and in very few minutes there was a row of little cotton tents erected, with a small fire in front of each.
Most of the camels were turned out at once to graze off the unappetizing-looking thorns, sparse and dusty, that peppered the field of view like scabs on a yellow skin. There was no fear of their wandering too far, for if the camel ever was wild, as many maintain that he never was, that was so long ago that the whole species has forgotten it, and he wouldn't know what to do without his owner somewhere near.
He has to be used at night, because he will not eat at night; on the other hand, he refuses to sleep in the daytime; so there is a limit to what you can do with a camel, in spite of his endurance, and once in so many days he has to be given a twenty-four hour rest so that he may catch up on both food and sleep.
But on the dry plains such as where we were then they give less trouble than anywhere. For though they soon go sick on good corn, which a horse must have, they thrive and grow fat on desert gleanings; and whereas sweet water will make their bellies ache oftener than not, the brackish, dirty stuff from wells by the Dead Sea shore is nectar to them.