The Seventeen Thieves of El-Kalil - Talbot Mundy - ebook

The Seventeen Thieves of El-Kalil ebook

Talbot Mundy



From the point of view of a serious expert on the events, Jimmarg holds control over the situation to try and prevent bloody fighting in Jerusalem and elsewhere. It involves some trick, which makes some deals that you can not abandon with Ali Baba, the descendant of different generations. Lots of tension, a lot of camels and James Shuiller Thunder coolly do their thing.

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CHAPTER I. “Get the vote an’ everything.”

CHAPTER II. “These are two good boys.”

CHAPTER III. “But we be honest men!”

CHAPTER IV. “I feel like Pontius Pilate!”

CHAPTER V. “The mummery they call the fire-gift.”

CHAPTER VI. “Fortune favors the man who favors fortune.”

CHAPTER VII. “Your friends, Jimgrim, don’t forget it!”

CHAPTER VIII. “Carry on, boys!”

CHAPTER IX “I am Rabbi, not governor!”

CHAPTER X. “We must score the last trick with the deuce of spades!”

CHAPTER XI. “Allahu akbar! La illahah il-allah!”

CHAPTER XII. “Let’s have supper now and drink to them seventeen thieves!”

CHAPTER I. “Get the vote an’ everything.”

STEAM never killed Romance. It stalks abroad under the self-same stars that winked at Sinbad and Aladdin, and the only thing that makes men blind to it is the stupid craze for sitting in judgment on other people instead of having a good time with them.

“He who hates a thief is a thief at heart,” runs the eastern proverb that nevertheless includes in its broad wisdom no brief at all for dishonesty.

If you hated thieves in El-Kalil you would be busy and, like the toad under the harrow, inclined to wonder where the gaps are; you can see the graves of the men who have tried it, in any direction, from any hill-top; and Romance, which knows nothing of any moral issue, comes at last with the liquid moonlight making even whited tombs look sociable. But it is better to be sociable while you live, if only for the sake of having some good yarns to tell the other fellows during pauses in between the rounds of feasting in Valhalla, when you get there. El-Kalil is Hebron of Old Testament fame–the oldest known city in the world apart and aloof in the Judean Hills–dirt delightful and without one trace of respect for anything but tradition, courage and cash.

Yet it was contrary to all tradition that an American citizen should be on his way there with almost unlimited authority to up-end everything, and, after spilling all the beans, to sort out the speckled undesirables. We ran into lots of courage, but it was fear of an uprising and its consequences that set the ball rolling. And as for hard cash, it was lack of it that brought the courage out, providing only two young men and some cigarettes wherewith to hold calm and lawful the most turbulently lawless city in the Near East.

Grim took me along for several reasons but the chief one was that he chose so to do.

Having been commissioned in the British army as an American, he had stuck to more than one national peculiarity, of which that first and the sweetest was doing as he gosh darn pleased as long as he could get away with it. Having made good all along that line, he could get away with almost anything; and by that time, having risked a neck or two together, we were friends.

The second most important reason, I believe, was that he, and the few in authority over him, had discovered that I had no ax to grind. Life isn’t worthwhile to me if I’ve got to worry over other people’s morals or be a propagandist; to my way of looking at it, a man has a hard enough job to keep his own conscience from getting indigestion, while getting all the fun in sight, and there’s no fun whatever in forcing your opinions on other folk. And the other fellow’s job is difficult enough without our offering ignorant advice. Life’s a great game and the measure of our own cussedness is the measure with which we get cussed. Amen.

So I had fitted unofficially into one or two tight places and officialdom was therefore pleased to let down the bars that restrain the general tourist. But there was a third reason: I was utterly unknown in Hebron, and it is the unknown entity that upsets most calculations, like the joker in a pack of cards.

There were likely enough other reasons, but I did not know them. Behold Grim and me on a blossomy May morning, mounted on two Bikaneeri camels left over from the war, swinging along the road to Hebron in gorgeous sunshine at a cushiony, contenting clip.

The camels were less conspicuous in that landscape than the regulation Ford car would have been and you can’t travel fast enough even with gasoline to get ahead of the wind-borne word of mouth that ever since the Deluge has proved nearly as quick, if not quite so truthful always as the telegraph. To make us even less worth comment we wore the Arab costume that fits even a white man into the picture, and is comfortable past belief. Our other clothes were in the saddle-bags.

I know why the Jews want Palestine. I would want it too, if the world weren’t so full of other things I haven’t yet seen and admired. You feel like Abraham, on camel-back up in those hills, only without his responsibilities.

One of Abraham’s direct descendants met us coming the other way, close to where the road winds by the Pools of Solomon. He was in a one-horse carriage of the mid-Victorian era, drawn by an alleged horse of about the same date or vintage. On his head was a Danbury-made Derby hat and he had a horse-shoe stick-pin in his necktie, his thumbs stuck into his suspenders and his feet on the seat in front. But he passed us the time of day in ancient Hebrew, and Grim, who has studied that language for Intelligence Department purposes, stopped to answer him.

At the end of half-a-dozen sentences it was obvious that Grim knew more of the language than the other did. The revival of dead speech takes time, and there are not so many in the country yet who can use the old tongue fluently although Zionists usually begin a conversation with it for propaganda purposes.

“Talk English,” Grim suggested.

“What? You know English? Where d’you learn it?”

“In the States. Where else?”

“What? You lived in the States? What did you come back here for? Lots of room in the States for you fellers–good money–good living–get the vote an’ everything. Where’s your home now? Hebron?”

Grim nodded. The Jew pulled out a cigar.

“Well, I’ve just come from telling ‘em in Hebron that they all ought to emigrate to the U.S.A.”

“Would they listen?”

“Good listeners. They listened so good, they got my watch and chain while I was talkin’, an’ they’d have had my pocket-book if I hadn’t locked it up in Jerusalem before I came away. Smoke cigars? Try this one. Say: if you come across a gold watch an’ chain with the initials A.C. done on it in a monogram across the back, just send word to Aaron Cohen at the New Hotel Jerusalem, and there’ll be a good reward for you. I went an’ complained at the Governorate, but that schoolboy they’ve made governor can’t do nothing about it. Take it from me, he’s got no brains and no police-force. I’ll buy the watch back and you tell ‘em so–a good reward to whoever brings it, and no questions asked. Better have this cigar, hadn’t you?”

But you don’t smoke cigars on camel-back, at least not if you want to avoid being taken for a foreigner.

“Was the watch valuable?” Grim asked him.

“Would I worry about it if it was a cheap one? If it was a nine- carat case d’you think I’d have called the young governor all the names I did, and risk my life in the suk [Bazaar] afterwards against his orders, arguin’ with a lot o’ knifers? Eighteen-carat– twenty-two jewels–breguet spring–say: get me that watch back an’ I’ll give you twenty U.S. dollars for yourself!”

“Don’t want ‘em,” said Grim, smiling down placidly from the superior height of the camel.

“What–you don’t want dollars? Quit your kiddin’! There’s nobody in this land don’t want dollars.”

“How badly d’you want that watch?”

“Oh, all right–twenty-five, then: but that’s the limit.”

“Dollars won’t do. I know you for a good scout, Aaron Cohen, or I’d let you lose your watch for abusing young de Crespigny. That boy’s got his hands full. How’d you like to be Governor of Hebron?”

“Not bloody likely! I’d sooner be King of the Irish! He’s not a bad feller at that, only too thick with Arabs. He gave me a drink after I’d done criticizing. But say: what do you know about me?”

“And your emigration business? Nearly as much as you do!”

“Who are you, anyway?”

“My name is Grim.”

“What? Him they call Jimgrim? Pardon me! Somehow I thought you didn’t talk like an Arab. Well, you’re the very man I’m looking for. I want my watch back, Major Grim. I’ve got no money in my pocket or I’d give it to you, but there’s fifty dollars you can use however you please, and I’ll pay it on your say-so–no questions asked. Could anything be fairer than that?”

“D’you want it badly enough to turn back?”

“What–to that nest o’ thieves? To Hebron? To El-Kalil? Um-m-m! I got no money for one thing.”

“I’ll lend you whatever you need.”

“Your risk! If they skin it from me, it’s your money!”

“All right.”

“You must have some mighty strong reason for wanting me back in Hebron!”

“I have. You’ll be all right for a day or two. There’s a hotel.”

“Yey–I been there. The bugs in it have red-hot bear-traps on their feet and the food ain’t fit for niggers!”

“Well, d’you want the watch?”

“You’ll get it for me?”

“Yes, if you turn back.”

“Uh! If you were English I wouldn’t trust you; I’d say you were kiddin’ yourself or kiddin’ me. Go on, I’ll take a chance.”

“See you at the hotel then.”

Grim and I rode on and in five minutes hardly the dust of Cohen’s carriage was visible behind us.

We rode side by side, but it is not easy to talk from camel-back, although the beasts’ feet make hardly any noise; I’ve a notion that the habitual reticence of the desert-folk is partly due to enforced silence for long periods on the march, when the swing and sway of the camels and the cloth over the rider’s mouth make conversation next to impossible. Grim’s information came in snatches.

“Good fellow, Cohen. Clever devil. Zionist. Thinks he can provide land here for Jews by encouraging Arabs to emigrate. Money behind him. Settle ‘em on land in Arkansas and Tennessee. Kind fellow. Hot-air merchant. Good at bottom. Shrewd. Strange mixture of physical fear and impudent courage.”

“What makes you so sure you can recover the watch?”

“Experience of Hebron. I was governor there once.”

*     *


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