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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Ah! Afghans are all alike!"

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

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

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

"Wallahi! You speak like a braggart."

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

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

"Which Ali Higg?" she asked at last.

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

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

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

"But I might not want him slain."

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

"But he pleases me!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I!"

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

"Ibrahim ben Ah."

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

"None."

"No use lying. Ali Higg's spy brought word to him that the British are engaged elsewhere. Raid follows promptly, of course. Now, out with it! I don't need you at Petra; Ayisha will serve my purpose there. You've ten seconds before I pull the trigger. Where was this raid headed for?"

"El-Maan." "Why?"

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

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

He handed it to me.

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

"Yes."

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

"Yes."

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

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

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

"Yes."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Mashallah! Mine!"

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

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

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

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

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

"One hundred and forty men," he announced when they were gone. "The Lion of Petra can't have many left."



CHAPTER IX

"I Think We've Got the Lion of Petra on the Hip!"



Grim is one of those fellows who tell you their principles as grudgingly as they let out facts. He would make the poorest sort of propagandist or politician, for he doesn't advertise, and hates long arguments. What he knows he knows is so because it works; and he proceeds to put it to work.

Nor is he much of a teacher. He takes people as he finds them and adapts his plans accordingly. So it is only from observation extended over a considerable period in all sorts of circumstances that I can say I believe his first and underlying principle is to look for the positive, concrete usefulness in any one with whom he is associated, whether friend or enemy. And this I have heard him say several times.

"In secret service you limit yourself if you make plans. The game is to listen and watch. Presently the other fellow always tells his plans or else betrays them."

And he is no such fool as to be caught in the act of listening, or to forewarn his enemy by seeming to wish to listen.

He gave the order to march at once. Some of the men doubled up uncomfortably on the riding-camels, because of the three that had been killed, and the Bishareen fell to me.

I ranged alongside Jael Higg, with Narayan Singh on the other side of her. At that we were off, Grim leading, well in advance, with Ali Baba and six men in attendance.

The moon was a bit behind us by that time, so that I did not have much chance to observe Jael Higg narrowly until she turned her face to speak to me. But she was not long about doing that—say fifteen minutes—nine hundred seconds; suppressed curiosity can work up a pretty high pressure in that time.

"Who is this man who looks like Ali Higg?" she asked me suddenly, and I had a good look at her face; you don't have to answer questions without thinking, just because they are asked by a woman in a friendly tone of voice.

Her nose was Roman and very narrow, and her dark eyes looked straight at you without their pupils converging, which produced a sensation of being seen through. She had splendid teeth; and her mouth, which was humorous, turning upward at the corners when she smiled, had nevertheless a certain suggestion of stealthy strength—perhaps cruelty. Her chin was firm and practical. So were her freckled hands. I decided that the less I said the better.

"He is a sheikh," said I pretty abruptly.

She turned that empty information over in her mind for a minute, and decided to turn her guns on me. Conversation was not easy, for we were swinging along at a great pace, and my camel was a lot smaller than hers.

"And you are an Indian? How is it that you speak English?"

"Many of us speak it. We pass our college examinations in English."

"How do you come to be with that—that sheikh?" she asked next.

"It pleases me to follow him. Inshallah, I may help him in case of sickness."

"You are a hakim?"

I admitted that, although secretly pitying any poor devil who might pin faith to the claim.

"Ali Higg—the real one, who is known as the Lion of Petra—believes in Indian hakims, like all these Arabs who have no use for European doctors. And this big man on my left, who is he?"

"My servant."

"An Afghan?"

"A Pathan."

She turned that over in her mind, too, for several minutes.

"And how does Ayisha come to be with you?" she asked at last.

At that Narayan Singh broke silence, and although he denied it afterward I know that his only motive was to get a little preliminary vengeance on Ayisha for the names she had called him. He maintains that he was "casting a stone, as it were, into a pond to see which way the ripples went."

"Few women will refuse to follow a Pathan when honored by his admiration," he boomed.

I could not see her face then, because she was staring at Narayan Singh.

"Do you realize whose wife you are tampering with?" she asked him.

"Hah! Where I come from a man must guard his women if he hopes to keep them."

"Where you are going to, such a man as you will find his own life hard enough to keep," she retorted.

"Bismillah! I have kept it thus far," said Narayan Singh.

She turned to me again.

"What does the sheikh of yours call himself?"

"Hajji Jimgrim bin Yazid of El-Abdeh."

"Jimgrim. Jimgrim. Where have I heard that name?"

"The stars have heard it," roared Narayan Singh loud enough for the stars to hear him boast. "He has taken the Lion of Petra's shape. He has taken his name. He has taken his wife. And now he will take his den. Akbar, Jimgrim Ali Higg of Petra!"

Mahommed the poet was riding two or three behind us in the line, and heard that. He took the cue and began his song. In a minute the whole line was roaring the refrain, and it broke like volleys on the night:

"Akbar! Akbar! Jimgrirn Ali Higg!"

Jael Higg laughed. "He has a fool's luck and a lusty band of followers," she said. "It was only because Ayisha called out that he caught me. But a fool's luck is like a breath of wind that passes—"

Suddenly she sat bolt upright and raised her right hand.

"Oh, this night! This madness! Of all the dreams, of all the hallucinations, this is the wildest! I warned Ali Higg! I told him my foreboding, and he laughed!"

She looked down at me again, and studied me for half a minute.

"Tell me," she went on, "is that Sheikh Jimgrim of yours mad, or am I mad?"

"If you ask my opinion, as a hakim," I answered, "you were mad to sit your camel alone, with only two men, within reach of our Jimgrim."

"What does he think he will do with me at Petra?"

"He thinks silently," said I.

Whereat she too was silent for a few minutes, and then broke out into a new tirade of exclamations, but this time in a language of which I knew not one word—perhaps Russian, or Slovak, or Bulgarian. I think she was praying in a sort of wild way to long-neglected saints.

She gave me the impression of being mentally almost unhinged by the sudden anticlimax of helplessness after over-confidence. Yet when she spoke again her voice was calm, and not without a ring of rather gallant humor.

"I suppose he thinks he has stolen the queen bee, and so has the swarm in his power. But the swarm can sting, and will come for the queen bee."

"So they bring their honey with them, who minds that?" Narayan Singh retorted.

He was enjoying himself, acting the part of a bandit's follower with perfect gusto.

"Oh, so it is honey you are after? And you two are Indians—a Pathan and—"

"From Lahore," said I.

"Five thousand pounds would buy your services?"

"Five thousand promises would make us laugh," said the Sikh.

"How much will your sheikh ever pay you? In an hour I will show you a wady down which we three can escape. Agree to that and you shall have five thousand each the same hour that we reach Petra."

"Wallahi! Doubtless!" laughed Narayan Singh. "Five thousand bastinados each from Ali Higg, while the queen bee laughs at us for fools! Nay, lady Jael, you are Jimgrim's prisoner."

"Jimgrim!" she said. "Somewhere I have heard that name."

And she turned it over in her mind again like a taster trying wine, not speaking again for nearly an hour, until we drew abreast of a chaos of irregular great boulders that partly concealed the mouth of a gorge as dark and ugly as the throat of Tophet.

"There is your chance!" she said. "Will you take it? You shall have employment with the Lion of Petra! Come!"

But neither of us answered, and I kept a bright lookout for a pistol she still might have concealed on her; for she had not been searched—there was none who could do that with decency except Ayisha, who was not to be trusted.

I knew Grim would not halt again before morning because the camels would not feed properly until after daylight, even if you put corn in front of them. We were likely in for a forced march on Petra, and he would not choose to halt twice if it could be helped. And I supposed that when we did halt he would look to Narayan Singh and me for information.

Yet Mrs. Ali Higg number one was hardly a person you could expect to answer questions truthfully; and even until the stars began to grow pale in the east ahead of us I possessed my soul in patience.

Then: "Is it money your Sheikh Jimgrim wants?" she asked at last. "Does he hold me to ransom? If so, I will give him a draft on the Bank of Egypt. I have Ali Higg's seal here, and I write all his letters."

I did not answer, but Narayan Singh checked his camel a stride or two to make a signal to me behind her back.

"Hah!" he remarked with an air of triumph. And I took that to mean that in his judgment Jimgrim could find use for Ali Higg's seal.

But of course she heard him, and she took it to mean that she had guessed rightly. She turned to Narayan Singh; and because in that land, as an almost invariable rule, no business with a chief can be accomplished without bribing his minions, she worked off a little spite and offered largesse with the same hand.

"Arrange good terms for me and you shall have Ayisha."

"But I have her," said Narayan Singh with a great laugh.

"Maybe. But you haven't settled yet with Ali Higg. Arrange good terms for my ransom, and I will see that Ali Higg wipes off Ayisha's score."

"We shall see about that; we shall see," he answered.

"Yes, yes! You go and see! Go to him now!"

"When we halt," the Sikh answered.

"In an hour it may be too late," she insisted. "If Ali Higg is prowling and should swoop down on you who would bargain then?"

By that time it was light enough to see clearly at close range, and Narayan Singh caught my eye behind her back. I nodded. If there were any likelihood of Ali Higg being on the prowl why should she be in such a hurry to make terms?

Right then Grim called a halt—none too soon for the camels—in a semicircular space protected by a low cliff that might have been a quarry-face two thousand years ago; what might have been a pit was all filled in by drifted sand. But he had his own mat spread on the top of the cliff, whence he could keep an eye on the surrounding country, and gave none of the prisoners a chance to talk to him.

Nobody helped Jael Higg from her camel, for she jumped down like an acrobat and stood staring about her at Ali Baba's gang, and being stared at as they went about the business of off-loading the complaining beasts. I saw Ayisha get out of the shibriyah, face around slowly, and meet Jael's eyes.

Neither woman spoke for a minute, or made any sign, but you could almost see the alternating current of scorn and hate that passed between them. Then Ayisha fell back on insolence and walked past Jael deliberately, with dark eyes flashing and a thin smile on her lips.

"So you are now a Pathan's light o' love?" Jael sneered in Arabic.

At that Ayisha turned again and faced her.

"Who speaks? She whom the Lion could not trust to go to Hebron? Um Kulsum!"*

—————— * Um Kulsum was a lady in Arabic legend whose immoralities have made her name a byword. ——————

Ayisha passed on with a scornful shoulder movement. Narayan Singh grinned with malicious amusement. And I was just in time to catch two of the men again attacking my medicine-chest. Instead of trying to open it they were dragging it along the ground, and they were as pleased with themselves as two small dogs caught burying a boot.

"She has given us money!"

"Who has?"

"The lady Ayisha. We are to bring her this, and she will take poison from it and put it in the other woman's food! So Jimgrim will be rid of her, and all will be well!"

I got Narayan Singh to keep his eye on the chest, and walked up to where Grim was going through the form of Moslem prayer, facing Mecca on his mat on the low hilltop. That was for the benefit of the prisoners, no doubt.

To save time I got down on my knees beside him and went through the same motions, keeping a bright lookout for interruptions and telling him in low tones all that had taken place, repeating conversations word for word as well as I could recall them.

At last we both squatted, facing each other, and he lighted a cigarette; but it was several minutes yet before he answered.

"Wants to make terms in a hurry, eh? And has the Lion's seal with her?" he said at last.

"Well, as old Ali Baba keeps repeating, Allah makes all things easy! It's a little soon to talk yet, but I think we've got the Lion of Petra on the hip!"



CHAPTER X

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I want you to be straightforward and tell me all you know of Ali Higg's circumstances."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"And let French or Italians in."

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

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

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

"Help you!" she exclaimed with horror.

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

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

"Your words are a liar's, but your voice rings true," she said. "I think you're only another of these diplomatists."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She nodded.

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

She nodded again.

"Well, we'll fix it so a hakim can relieve his boils and indigestion. But let you and me understand each other first, Jael. I can be a mean man when I must, but I'll always take a heap of trouble to find a white man's way of accomplishing the same purpose. I can act mean toward you—sheer plug-ugly if you force my hand—but I'd sooner not; and I'd just as lief help you as hinder you, provided you don't upset what I'm seeking to build."

She laughed again, and not so bitterly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She nodded.

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

He shook his head and smiled back at her.

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

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

"I guess not."

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I won't, Jael."

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

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

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

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

Grim shook his head.

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

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

"I think you're a fool," she said, "and you think me a villain. We're strange partners! Very well, let's try."

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

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

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

"How much of that is true about a British force?" she demanded. "Are you trying to trap those men?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grim clapped him on the back.

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

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

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

"Why?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"For whom, then? For Jimgrim?"

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

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

————— * A scandalous piece of blasphemy —————

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

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

"Strong, strong stuff," she insisted. "Stuff that would eat iron. Ali Higg's belly is tough."

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

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

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



CHAPTER XI

"That We Make a Profit from this Venture!"



Late that afternoon, before they loaded up the camels, there was another conference between Grim, Jael Higg, Narayan Singh, our prisoner Yussuf, and myself. The ancient hills of Edom were not far away, and we were near enough to Petra to feel nervous. Jael made a pretty good pretense of meeting Grim half-way, and I think she had made up her mind to let him dig his own pit and tumble into it.

Yussuf was aware by that time, if not of Grim's identity, at any rate of the fact that he was an officer in the British pay, and was rather obviously considering which would likely pay him best—to side secretly with Ali Higg or openly with Grim, or both.

Having fought over all that country under Lawrence, and knowing consequently every yard of it, I suppose Grim felt neither thrilled nor mystified; but in case any scientist reads this and wants to know how I felt, "fed up and far from home" about describes it. But there was worse to come!

Grim turned to me at last and smiled in that darned genial way he has when he means to call on your uttermost patience or endurance.

"You see, the difficulty is," he said, "to get to Ali Higg without his getting us first. He has probably got between forty and fifty men in Petra with him, so we daren't invade the place. Yet we've got to hurry, because old Ibrahim ben Ah with that army may get suspicious and send back a messenger on his own account. Now, do you feel willing to beard the Lion in his den?"

"Alone?" I asked.

I never felt less willing to do anything, and dare say my face betrayed it.

"No. Narayan Singh will go too, and, of course, Ayisha."

Ayisha seemed about as safe an ambassador to send as an electric spark to a barrel of powder. I glanced at Narayan Singh and felt ashamed, for his eyes glowed unmistakably. He was enthusiastic.

Well, it seems I draw a color-line after all. I can't fight like a Sikh, or be as good a man in lots of ways; but I'm not going to be outdone by one in daring, while the Sikh is looking.

"All right," I said, "I'll do anything you say."

But I did not have the perfect voice-control I would have liked, and Jael Higg grinned. That naturally settled it.

"Narayan Singh needn't come if he'd rather stay with you," I added, and the Sikh raised his eyebrows.

"Do you dare to make love to Ayisha, sahib?" he grinned.

I began to see the general drift of the plan of campaign, and wondered. Having seen more than a little of the Near East, and knowing how the peace of the whole world depends on preserving that unmelted hotpot of nations from anarchy, I was not impressed by the stability of things in general!

Grim had come out on his hair-raising venture because no army was available to deal with Ali Higg, and he would not have ventured unless powers-that-pretend-to-be were sure that Ali Higg was deadly dangerous. Did the peace of the world, then, depend on the success or otherwise of a Sikh's mock love-making. It did look like it.

Narayan Singh got to his feet with a laugh and a yawn, and went to dance attendance on Ayisha, while Grim reinstructed Yussuf regarding the ease with which the British could impound his Jaffa property; but though I listened to all that, and heard Yussuf's vows of fidelity—heard him promise to reverse his former report and spread rumors in Ali's camp of a British army getting ready to advance—the prospect to me looked gloomier and gloomier.

"You can only die once," Grim laughed after a quick glance at my face, "and we may save a hundred thousand people from the sword."

But I suppose I wasn't cut out to be a willing martyr. It was a case of making a silk purse out of a sow's ear, and though I did go forward on that mad escapade it was fear that drove me—fear of the Sikh's and Grim's contempt, and of my own self-loathing afterward.

Grim and Narayan Singh are made of the real hero stuff. I wonder how many others there are like me, who face the music simply because one or two others have got guts enough to lead us up to it.

We didn't move far that night, for there was no need, and Grim was careful not to go where Ali Baba could not find him. We passed through acres of oleander-scrub into a valley twelve miles wide at its mouth, that narrowed gradually until the high red sandstone cliffs shut out the moonlight. It was like the mouth of hell, and suffocating, for the cliff-sides were giving off the heat they had sucked up through the day.

The surest sign that Ali Higg was either over-confident or seriously engaged elsewhere was that there was no guard in the ravine. Ten men properly placed could have destroyed us. Even the great Alexander of Macedon could not force that gorge, and suffered one of his worst defeats there. The Turks made the same mistake and tried to oust Lawrence in the Great War; but he simply overwhelmed them with a scratch brigade of partly armed Bedouins and women.

Grim called a halt at last where a dozen caves a hundred feet above the bottom of the gorge could be reached by a goat-track leading to a ledge. There was a rift in the side-wall there, making a pitch-dark corner where the camels could lie unseen and grumble to one another—safe enough until daylight, unless they should see ghosts and try to stampede for the open. Grim sent the women and Ayisha's four men up to the caves with only Narayan Singh to watch them, for there was no way of escape, except by that twelve-inch goat-track.

Then, because Ali Baba's sons and grandsons were nervous about the "old man their father," and because the one thing that more than all other circumstances combined could ruin our slim chance would be panic, Grim squatted on the sand in the gorge with the men all around him and began to tell stories.

Right there in the very jaws of death, within a mile of the lair of Ali Higg, in possession of two of the tyrant's wives, with an army at our rear that might at that minute be following old Ali Baba into the gorge to cut off our one possible retreat, he told them the old tales that Arabs love, and soothed them as if they were children.

That was the finest glimpse of Grim's real manhood I had experienced yet, although I could not see him for the darkness. You couldn't see any one. It was a voice in the night—strong, reassuring—telling to born thieves stories of the warm humanity of other thieves, whose accomplishments in the way of cool cheek and lawless altruism were hardly more outrageous than the task in front of us.

And he told them so well that even when a chill draft crept along the bottom of the gorge two hours before dawn, taking the place of the hot air that had ascended, and you could feel the shiver that shook the circle of listeners, they only drew closer and leaned forward more intently—almost as if he were a fire at which they warmed themselves.

But heavens! It seemed madness, nevertheless. We had no more pickets out than the enemy had. We were relying utterly on Grim's information that he had extracted from the women and the prisoners, and on his judgment based on that.

No doubt he knew a lot that he had not told us, for that is his infernal way of doing business; but neither that probability, nor his tales that so suited the Arab mind, nor the recollection of earlier predicaments in which his flair for solutions had been infallibly right, soothed my nerves much; and I nearly jumped out of my skin when a series of grunts and stumbling footfalls broke the stillness of the gorge behind us.

It sounded like ten weary camels being cursed by ten angry men, and I supposed at once that Ibrahim ben Ah had sent a detachment to investigate and that this was their advance-guard. Who else would dare to lift his voice in that way in the gorge? You could hear the words presently:

"Ill-bred Somali beast! Born among vermin in a black man's kraal! Allah give thee to the crows! Weary? What of it? What of my back, thou awkward earthquake! Thou plow-beast! A devil sit on thee! A devil drive thee! A devil eat thee!"

Whack! Whack!

"Oh my bones! My old bones!"

Mujrim was the first to recognize the voice. He got up quietly and stood in the gorge; and in another minute a blot of denser blackness that was a camel loomed above him, and he raised his hand to seize the head-rope. But the camel saw him first, and, realizing that the journey was over at last, flung itself to the ground with the abandon of a foundered dog, and lay with its neck stretched out straight and legs all straddled anyhow. Mujrim was just in time to catch his father, who was nearly as tired as the camel. It was pretty obvious at once that Jael's authority had failed badly when it came to exchanging camels.

The sons all surrounded the old man and made a fuss over him, laying him down on a sheepskin coat and chafing his stiff muscles, calling him brave names, rubbing his feet, patting his hands, praising him, while he swore at them each time they touched a sore spot.

They would not even give him a chance to hand over his letter to Grim, until at last he swore so savagely that Mujrim paid attention and took the letter out of the old man's waistcloth. It was in the same envelop in which the other had gone, unsealed, but with the thumb-mark of Ibrahim ben Ah imprinted on its face.

"To think that I, of all people, should fetch and carry for such dogs!" swore Ali Baba. "I asked for a good beast in exchange for mine, and they gave me this crow's meat, and laughed! May Allah change their faces! May the water of that oasis turn their bowels into stone!

"Aye, Jimgrim, they will stay there! They are glad enough to stay there. They are dogs that fear their master's whip. They are so afraid of him that I think if Ali Higg should bid them roast themselves alive the dogs would do it. May they roast a second time in hell for giving me that camel.

"Bah! What kind of sons have I? Are these the sons of my loins that let me parch? Is there no water-bag?"

Grim struck a match in the dark corner where the camels were; but all the envelop contained was a piece of jagged paper torn from the original letter, with Ibrahim ben Ah's thumb-mark done in ink made from gunpowder by way of acknowledgment. It meant, presumably, that instructions would be obeyed, and so far, good; we were not now in danger of trouble from that source.

But Ali Baba found his tongue again, and freed himself from his sons after he had drank about a quart of water.

"That Ibrahim ben Ah was puzzled," he said. "Allah! But the fool asked questions; and by the Prophet's beard I lied in answer to him! Ho! What a string of lies! Who was I but a sheikh from El-Kalil bringing word to Ali Higg of the movements of a British force! In what way did I become the friend of Ali Higg? Was I not always his friend! Was it not I who fed him when he first escaped from Egypt! Ho-ho-ho! Have I not been working for a year to gather men for him in El-Kalil! Have I not made purchases in El-Kalil and El-Kudz for his wife Ayisha! Il hamdulillah! My tongue was ready! May the lies rot the belly of the fool who ate them!

"But that was not all. He wanted to know other things—as, for instance, whether the other force of forty men is still at large, and if so who shall protect the women in Petra.

"'For,' quoth he, 'by Allah, there are men in the neighborhood who have felt our Ali's heel, and who would not scruple to wreak vengeance if his back were altogether turned. Convey him my respectful homage, and bid him look to his rear,' said Ibrahim ben Ah."

At that Grim called to Narayan Singh, who came down the goat-track like a landslide. You mustn't whistle your man in those parts, or the Arabs will say the devil has defiled your mouth.

"Ask Jael Higg to come here."

"A word first, Jimgrim sahib! While I watched, those women talked. Jael, the older one, offered Ayisha forgiveness if she would obey henceforth; but Ayisha gave her only hard words, saying that in a day or so it will be seen whose cock crows loudest. So Jael called to two of the men who have been with Ayisha all this time, and they squatted in the mouth of her cave. As it was very dark I crept quite close and listened. She bade them watch their chance and run to Ali Higg.

"'If he is ill and angry, never mind,' she said. 'If he beats you, never mind. He will reward you afterward. Bid him, as he values life,' she said, 'call in those forty men whom he would send to punish the Beni Aroun people. Tell him I am a prisoner, but those forty are enough to turn the tables until Ibrahim ben Ah can come. A camel must leave in a hurry for Ibrahim ben Ah at the oasis, and bring him and all the men back to straighten this affair.'

"She promised them money and promotion for success, and sure death for failure!"

"Good!" said Grim, turning to me. "You see? It always pays to stage a close-up in a game like this. We've caught our friend Ali Higg between soup and fish."

"Get in quick, then, and kidnap him," I urged.

"Man alive," he answered, "we've no kind of right to do that. Bring her down," he told Narayan Singh, "and then have Mujrim tie those four men of Ayisha's so they've no chance to escape."

Jael Higg came down in a livid passion—altogether too near home to enjoy taking secondhand orders from an Indian in the dark. She was still less amused when she discovered that Grim knew her little scheme.

"Well, Jael," he said, "you weren't quite frank with me after all, were you? Which will you do now—stay in that hole up there with a double guard, or come into Petra with us and behave yourself?"

For, I should say, a whole minute, she did not answer. You could not tell in the dark, but I think she was fighting back tears, and too proud to betray it.

"I'm your prisoner," she hissed at last. "Do what you like, and take the consequences."

"I'll put you to no indignity, Jael, if you'll play fair."

"My God! What? Are you mad, or am I? What are you going to do with Ali Higg?"

"Make friends with him."

"You swear that?"

"Sure."

She was silent for another minute.

"Very well," she said at last. "I'll do my best."

"Accepted," answered Grim. "Now—bring down Ayisha—fetch out the camels—mount—and forward all!"

We went forward just as dawn was breaking, and I believe every man Jack of us except Grim had his heart in his teeth. Grim was likely too busy conning over the plan in his head to feel afraid, that being, as far as I could ever tell, the one lone advantage of being leader, just as the capacity to drive out fear by steady thinking is as good a reason as exists for placing a man in command.

Nobody knows how old Petra is, but it was a thriving city when Abraham left Ur of the Chaldees, and for a full five thousand years it has had but that one entrance, through a gorge that narrows finally until only one loaded camel at a time can pass. Army after army down the centuries have tried to storm the place, and failed, so that even the invincible Alexander and the Romans had to fall back on the arts of friendship to obtain the key. We, the last invaders, came as friends, if only Grim could persuade the tyrant to believe it.

The sun rose over the city just as we reached the narrowest part of the gut, Grim leading, and its first rays showed that we were using the bed of a watercourse for a road. Exactly in front of us, glimpsed through a twelve-foot gap between cliffs six hundred feet high, was a sight worth going twice that distance, running twice that risk, to see—a rose-red temple front, carved out of the solid valley wall and glistening in the opalescent hues of morning.

Not even Burkhardt, who was the first civilized man to see the place in a thousand years, described that temple properly; because you can't. It is huge—majestic—silent—empty—aglow with all the prism colors in the morning sun. And it seems to think.

It takes you so by surprise when you first see it that in face of that embodied mystery of ancient days your brain won't work, and you want to sit spellbound. But Grim had done our thinking for us, so that we were not the only ones surprised. Such was the confidence of safety that those huge walls and the narrow entrance to the place inspire that Ali Higg had set only four men to keep the gate; and they slept with their weapons beside them, never believing that strangers would dare essay that ghost-haunted ravine by night.

They were pounced on and tied almost before their eyes were open; and, catching sight of Jael Higg first, and getting only a glimpse of Grim, they rather naturally thought their chief had caught them napping; so they neither cried out nor made any attempt to defend themselves; and presently, when they discovered their mistake, the fear of being crucified for having slept on duty kept them dumb.

Grim led the way straight to that amazing temple, and we invaded it, camels and all, off-loading the camels inside in a hurry and then driving them out again to lie down in the wide porch between the columns and the temple wall. The porch was so vast that even all our string of camels did not crowd it.

The main part of the interior was a perfect cube of forty feet, all hand-hewn from the cliff, and there were numerous rooms leading out of it that had once been occupied by the priests of Isis, but "the lion and the lizard" had lived in them since their day. We put the prisoners, including Ayisha's four men, in one room under guard.

That much was hardly accomplished when the spirit of our seventeen thieves reacted to their surroundings, and all the advantage of our secret arrival was suddenly undone. Half of them had gone outside to tie the camels, under Ali Baba's watchful eye; and it was he, as a matter of fact, who started it. From inside we heard a regular din of battle commencing—loud shouts and irregular rifle-fire—and I followed Grim out in a hurry.

There was no enemy in sight. Old Ali Baba was busy reloading his rifle fifty paces away in front of the temple door, facing us with his sons, in a semicircle around him, and they were shooting at something over our heads. Grim laughed rather bitterly.

"My mistake," he said. "I ought to have thought of that."

So I went out to see.

Surmounting the temple front, at least a hundred feet above the pavement and perfectly inaccessible, was a beautifully carved stone urn surmounting a battered image of some god or goddess. It was in shadow, because the cliff wall, from which the temple had been carved, overhung it; so it was peculiarly difficult to hit, even at that range; but they were all firing away at it as if Ali Higg and all his men were hidden behind the thing. There was no particular need to stop them, for they had made noise enough already to awake the very slumbering bones of Petra. Ali Baba advised me to shoot too, and I asked him why.

"To burst the thing."

"But why?"

"That we make a profit from this venture."

"How?"

He paused to reload once more. He had already fired away about fifteen cartridges.

"Allah! The very dogs of El-Kalil have heard of Pharaoh's treasure."

"I am neither a dog," said I, "nor an inhabitant of El-Kalil, for which Allah for his thoughtfulness be praised! Tell me what you and the dogs know."

"This place was the treasury of Pharaoh, King of Egypt, a bad king and an unbeliever, whom may Allah curse! In that urn are his gold and rubies. If we can crack it they will come tumbling down and we shall all be rich."

"Mashallah! You believe that? Why haven't Ali Higg and his men cracked it, then?"

"Shu halalk?* I have told you Pharaoh was an evil king. He was in league with devils and bewitched the place. The devils guard it. May Allah twist their tails! Look—see! We shoot, but the bullets miss the mark each time!"

———— * What chatter is this? ————

"Perhaps you haven't prayed enough to exorcize the devils?" I suggested, and he dropped the butt of his rifle on the ground to consider the proposition.

"Out of the mouth of an unbeliever has come wisdom before now," he said. "There may be truth in that."

And he called all his sons and grandsons there and then to spread their mats and pray toward Mecca, performing the prescribed ablutions first with water from one of the goatskin bags.

Well, there wasn't any further use in trying to keep our movements secret. Grim beckoned me to where he stood beside Narayan Singh, with Ayisha looking mischievous in the gloom behind them, and issued final instructions.

"Present my compliments and these gifts to Ali Higg—I'm busy at prayer, remember—and say how greatly honored we feel to have escorted his wife across the desert. If he asks where her four men are, tell him I'll bring them later. Be sure and make me out a great sheikh, and say I heard he is sick, so sent my hakim in advance to give him relief; then do your best for him, if he'll let you—after Ayisha has done her worst," he added in a whisper. "Don't forget you're a darwaish. The more you jaw religion the better the old rascal will like you. See you soon. So long!"

So Narayan Singh and I, followed by Ayisha and two of Ali Baba's sons, left that ancient temple bearing the medicine-chest as well as presents, and I hope the others did not feel as scared as I did.



CHAPTER XII

"Yet I Forgot to Speak of the Twenty Aeroplanes!"



You can expect anything, of course, of Arabs. People who will pitch black cotton tents in the scorching sun, and live in them in preference to gorgeous cool stone temples because of the devils and ghosts that they believe to haunt those habitable splendors, will believe anything at all except the truth, and act in any way except reasonably. So I tried to believe it was all right to be unreasonable too.

You would think, wouldn't you, that a man who had set himself up to be the holy terror of a country-side and put his heel on the necks of all the tribes for miles around, would have made use at least of the caves and tombs to strengthen his position. There were thousands of them all among those opal-colored cliffs, to say nothing of ruined buildings; yet not one was occupied. Ayisha had told most of the truth when she said in El-Kalil that her people lived in tents.

We walked down the paved street of a city between oleander bushes that had forced themselves up between the cracks, toward an enormous open amphitheater hewn by the Romans out of a hillside, with countless tiers of ruined stone seats rising one above the other like giant steps.

In the center of that the tents were pitched, and the only building in use was a great half-open cave on another hillside, in which Ayisha told us Ali Higg himself lived, overlooking the entire camp and directing its destinies.

On the top of the mountain in front of us was the tomb of Aaron, Moses' brother. On another mountain farther off stood a great crusader castle all in ruins; and to left and right were endless remains of civilization that throve when the British were living in mud-and-wattle huts. The dry climate had preserved it all; but there was water enough; it only needed the labor of a thousand men to remake a city of it.

We avoided the amphitheater with its hundreds of tents pitched inside and all about it, because Ayisha said the women would come running out to greet her, and she did not desire that any more than we did. So we turned to the right, and started up a flight of steps nearly a mile long that led to an ancient place of sacrifice; two hundred yards up that the track turned off that led to Ali Higg's cavern.

It was there, where the broken steps and sidetrack met, that the first men came hurrying to meet us and blocked our way—four of them, active as goats, and looking fierce enough to scare away twice their number. But they recognized Ayisha, and stood aside at once to let us pass, showing her considerable gruff respect and asking a string of questions, which she countered with platitudes. They did not follow us, but stayed on guard at the corner, as if the meeting between Ali Higg and his wife were something to keep from prying eyes.

So the far-famed Ali Higg was alone in his great cave when we reached it, sitting near the entrance propped on skins and cushions with a perfect armory of weapons on the floor beside him. The interior was hung with fine Bokhara embroideries, and every inch of the floor was covered with rugs.

There was another cave opening into that in which he sat; and it, too, was richly decorated; but the sound of women's voices that we heard came from a third cave around the corner of the cliff wall, not connected. Ali Higg was apparently in no mood for female company—or any other kind.

In the shadow of the overhanging rock he looked so like Grim it was laughable. He was a caricature of our man, with all the refinement and humor subtly changed into irritable anger. He looked as if he would scream if you touched him, and no wonder; for the back of the poor fellow's neck, half hidden by the folds of his head-cloth, was a perfect mess of boils that made every movement of his head an agony.

His eyes were darker than Grim's, and blazed as surely no white man's ever did; and his likeness to Grim was lessened by the fact that he had not been shaved for a day or two, and the sparse black hair coarsened the outline of his chin and jaw. In spite of his illness he had not laid aside the bandolier that crossed his breast, nor the two daggers tucked into his waist-cloth. And he laid his hand on a modern British Army rifle the minute he caught sight of us.

Narayan Singh and I both bowed and, after greeting him with the proper sonorous blessing, stood aside to let Ayisha approach. We should have demeaned ourselves in his eyes, and hers as well, if we had walked behind her. He nodded to us curtly, and almost smiled at her; but that one wry twist of his lips was his nearest approach to pleasantry that morning.

She knelt and kissed his hands and feet, waiting to speak until she was spoken to; and he did not speak to her at all, but signed to her with a tap on the head and a gesture to take her place on the rug behind him. Then at a motion from me Ali Baba's two sons brought forward the presents and the medicine-chest, setting them down before him in the cave-mouth.

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