The Woman Ayisha - Talbot Mundy - ebook

The Woman Ayisha ebook

Talbot Mundy

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First let’s look at the situation for a moment. We were twenty people: seventeen Arabs, Narayan Singh, I and Thunder. We were in Petra over Jordan, which was a civilian land until Ali Higg, the impostor of Leo Peter, a friend of the Prophet Islam, Lord of Limit Deserts, and Lord Vaters became established there as a thorn on the flank of Palestine. Inaccessible and inaccessible, except for airplanes, once the valley of Moses, leading to it through a twelve-meter gorge, was blocked.

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Contents

CHAPTER I “Ali, I say go with him!”

CHAPTER II “Once before she called herself his wife, on half the provocation.”

CHAPTER III “We’re all set now.”

CHAPTER IV “A cent for your sympathy!”

CHAPTER V “May you deal with your enemies like iron, even as you deal with me.”

CHAPTER VI “I will stick that pig Yussuf when I find him!”

CHAPTER VII “Akbar Ali Higg!”

CHAPTER VIII “Have you heard of Jimgrim?”

CHAPTER IX “Should I stoop to a pig-Pathan, with a prince waiting for me?”

CHAPTER X “Wallah! And you say she has a following of fifty men?”

CHAPTER XI “I see no sin in holding to my given word. Let Allah judge me!”

CHAPTER I. “Ali, I say go with him!”

Consider the situation for a moment first. There were twenty of us–seventeen Arabs, Narayan Singh the Sikh, myself, and Grim. We were in Petra over-Jordan, which was no-man’s land until Ali Higg, self-styled Lion of Petra, friend of the Prophet of Islam, Lord of the Limits of the Desert and Lord of the Waters–Ali Higg the Terrible, swooped into it from Arabia and, with the aid of Jael, his European wife, established himself there as a thorn in the flank of Palestine. You couldn’t choose a better place to be a thorn in. Impregnable without long-range artillery; inaccessible except by aeroplanes, if once the Valley of Moses leading into it through a twelve-foot gap were blocked; furnished with enough half-ruined graves and temples for accommodation purposes; close enough to Palestine for sudden raids, and surrounded by dry desert over which no mandatory power would think of sending an army if that could possibly be helped, Petra is the perfect outlaw’s paradise–a paradise of opal set in savage mountains.

As for ourselves, you could hardly call us an official expedition, nor even exactly authorized, for Grim enjoyed a free hand subject to the definite proviso that he would be promptly disowned by the Palestine authorities if trouble came of it. The British, having heard from the taxpayer, did not want to send an army against Ali Higg, besides which they had no mandate yet for the trans-Jordan country, as Ali Higg and all the Bedouins were well aware.

An American, even though commissioned in the British Army, can get away with things no Britisher would dare attempt because, of course, the authorities would have to stand behind a Britisher, whereas Americans are all born crazy and act without authority, and everybody knows it, and there you are, old top, so what’s the use?

And Grim, by using brains and information, which is a combination nobody can beat, had cornered Ali Higg, as I told in another story. One hundred and forty of Ali’s men under a veteran named Ibrahim ben Ah were resting their camels miles away in an oasis. The remaining forty and odd were camped in another direction. Jael, Ali Higg’s wife, after being made prisoner, had grudgingly agreed to help Grim tame her lord and master; and what with drenching him thoroughly, lancing his boils and catching him at an all-round disadvantage, we had forced him to give a hostage for good behavior in the shape of a deposit of fifty thousand pounds lying in his wife’s name in the Bank of Egypt.

So far, good; but there were complications. In the first place, that document was not worth a plugged piastre until safely under lock and key in Jerusalem, for Ali Higg would surely steal it back if he could. The money had been paid into the bank in gold, mainly half-sovereigns that were earned by Arab troops in the war against the Turks. The man who could squeeze all that money out of fighting Bedouins was unlikely to lose his grip on it, even for the three-year term of the agreement, if force or chicanery should provide him an alternative. If those troops of his should suddenly return, for instance, not only the agreement but our lives would be at stake.

The easiest course would have been to scoot out of Petra and head for Palestine, avoiding that oasis where the “army” waited. But Grim had made a promise which prevented that. In return for Ali Higg’s pledge and in the general interest of peace he had undertaken to deal with a Sheikh at Abu Lissan, farther South, who with eight hundred men proposed to come and “eat up” the terrible Ali and his scant ten score. While on our way southward there would be nothing to prevent Ali Higg from swooping on us treacherously from behind; but in dealing with people who might perhaps break faith there is nothing nearly so important as observing your own promises.

Nor was that all. Our opportunity to visit Petra, give the slip to Ali Higgs’ men, capture his head wife and corner the gentleman himself had come through Ayisha, his second wife, whom Grim had found making purchases in Hebron and who welcomed our escort on her way home across the desert. On the way she had fallen in love with Grim after the desperately swift fashion of the country. Thinking to poison Ali Higg she had given him croton oil, which we provided. It served our purpose famously, but rather naturally maddened the fierce polygamist, who divorced her on the spot. So we had Ayisha on our hands, for we couldn’t decently leave her to take the consequences.

When I was a boy at school I once borrowed from another boy a dime manual entitled “What to do with a dead policeman.” But that problem, solved, I remember, clumsily, was a very simple one compared to what we had to face. Ayisha was a beautiful young woman, wholly bereft of convention in the Western sense, and totally resolved to win Grim for her own or know the reason why. Our rank and file, excepting Narayan Singh and myself, were all profound polygamists from El-Kalil, thieves by profession and conviction, and inclined to treat Ayisha’s love affair as a prodigious joke; which, of course, it was, but for the infernal danger.

In fact, the whole situation was a joke, if you could only bring yourself to look at it in that way. What else could you call the intention of twenty men (not one an Englishman), cut off from supplies and support, to interfere between the warring tribes of North Arabia and breed peace in the process where none had ever been since history was written?

As I sat with my back against the wall of Ali Higg’s cave overlooking the gorge of the City of Ghosts (as they call Petra) I tried to figure on our chances, but could reach no conclusion. Not that we weren’t a pretty resourceful crew of a sort, and fit to fight, perhaps, three times our number, but the odds seemed overwhelming in that land where, as they say, “in the desert all men are enemies.” There wasn’t one of us who could not mount his camel on the run, with a rifle in one hand, and our camels were the finest beasts that ever swung leg out of Syria. There was nothing about desert work that you could teach Grim or any of our seventeen Arabs. Narayan Singh was a Sikh in a thousand–a bold soldier of the old school, who should have been born a hundred years ago. As for myself, although comparatively new to Arabs and Arabia, I have prospected and hunted big game for a living up and down the length of Africa; and if diplomacy is not my long suit, I can endure, and physical strength has advantages.

But I laughed to myself as I sat there and looked at Grim, wondering at the freak of fortune that had thrown us together. True, I have chosen to spend my life looking for adventure where it grows; but a man likes to pile up a few dollars against old age, and I have generally reckoned up the prospects in advance. There was no money to be made in Grim’s company. It didn’t matter, as it happened, for I have not had more than my share of disappointment and need never starve again as long as the U.S. keeps a Government in being. But middle-aged dogs don’t learn new tricks too easily, and I have known less surprising things than to find myself risking a sunburned neck behind a whole-souled altruist without the remotest possibility of making a profit.

But you couldn’t resist Grim. The man is like a loadstone, if you have the iron of adventure in you. I could take two of him, one in each hand, and shake them as a dog does rats; for though he is tall he is lightly framed, whereas the muscle stands on me in lumps. But when it comes to a call for those qualities that have always seemed to me man’s finest, he can leave me standing still. Mind you, I yield to no man in determination to live so according to the rules, as I understand them, that I can afford to look any man in the eye and tell him to go to hell if I see fit. But that is one thing –comfortable in its way, and good for friendship. Genius is another. Grim has genius, beside a flair for leaving this old battered world a wee mite better than he found it.

I never heard him preach. Intimate friend of mine though he now is, I have hardly ever heard him discuss his principles. But I did hear him tell Jael Higg, by way of convincing her that her only possible course was to help him tame her ambitious lord if she hoped to escape imprisonment and deportation, that his one asset is understanding of Arabs and Arabia: that he is hell-bent, as he put it, on doing his bit in the world: and that his notion of a good big bit is to help Arabia to independence by preventing brigandage and civil war.

He clings to his American citizenship as some men stick to religion. The British made him a major on those terms because they needed him, and he accepted because it seemed the best way to carry on what he had in view. He is punctiliously loyal to the crowd whose uniform he wears occasionally, yet I never knew a man more outspoken to his paymasters whenever he disagrees with them, nor anyone who took more liberties with orders. His one annoying quality is that of keeping his thoughts to himself, hardly ever discussing a plan until it is perfect in his own mind and then telling you, perhaps, not more than half of it; after which he springs the rest on you as a surprise. But if you want to be friends with any man on earth you’ll find there’s something or other to put up with.

We all have our hobbies, even those who imagine they have none and boast of it. Having traveled widely I have had to make mine portable, and the two things that have increasingly obsessed me are the ancient history of whatever land I happen to be in, and the study of men’s faces. I had time to study two now–Grim’s and Ali Higg’s, for they were sitting face to face in the middle of the cave, Grim stooping from the shoulders as he squatted Arab- fashion in exactly the same way that the robber chieftain did.

You would never have guessed that Grim wasn’t an Arab, born in that part of Arabia. Unless in the secret, you would never have believed the two were not blood brothers–possibly even twins. Seen in the comparative gloom of the cave, they resembled a man facing his reflection. Except for the bandages on Ali Higg’s neck they were dressed alike, and the only noticeable difference at the first glance was the color of their eyes: Ali Higg’s were brown and bloodshot; Grim’s were keen and baffling–somewhere in the region of blue-grey. I have looked straight into them and not been able to tell their color.

Now the puzzling thing was this: that whereas every line of Grim’s face made for strength, independence, honesty, and all those other qualities that you recognize in a man at the first glance and like immediately, almost identical features made a rogue of Ali Higg. I believe you could have taken a pair of calipers and measured them without finding enough difference to split a hair about. Both were clean-shaven, although Ali Higg’s sparse whiskers had about two days’ growth, which darkened and slightly changed the outline of his face. Both had that kind of chin with the suggestion of a cleft in it that usually goes along with a deep understanding of human nature. Each man’s eyes were large and seated rather deep. Each had a calm forehead, not much wrinkled, and their noses might have been cast from one mold– good, big noses, delicately curved along the bridge, with nostrils of the shape supposed to show good breeding. They were the same height, and I don’t believe either man weighed more than a hundred and forty pounds. I weigh nearly a hundred more than either of them. So does Narayan Singh.

Being dressed as an Indian Moslem from Lahore, with a great brown Bedouin cloak thrown over all, with my head showing shaved under the turban and a week’s growth of nearly black beard sprouting, my disguise was pretty nearly perfect; but I dare bet that if a stranger could have entered that cave suddenly, he would have recognized Grim without hesitation as the man to reckon with: Ali Higg as the villain of the piece: Narayan Singh as a somewhat quarrelsome though loyal subordinate, and me as the looker-on. It’s difficult to see yourself as others might, but I expect that air of more or less detachment is hard to disguise when you have no real stake in a venture, except, of course, your life–something we risk more casually than our money.

Ali Higg watched us with similar curiosity, glancing from one to the other furtively, whereas Grim never shifted his gaze, but eyed the bandit steadily. It is one of the privileges of the East to sit as long as you want to and say nothing; outside on the ledge sat our old friend Ali Baba with his sixteen sons and grandsons overlooking the valley like vultures in a row, and nothing was likely to escape their eagle eyes, well fed though they were, and perhaps sleepy after gorging the bandit’s rice and mutton. We had no need to seem in a hurry, and it was Ali Higg at last who spoke first.

“O Jimgrim, you have promised you will deal with that dog Hassan Saoud of Abu Lissan.”

“True, O Lion of Petra.”

“Then either you made that promise in order to trick me into signing an agreement, or else you are a madman! For how shall you, who have but nineteen men, get the better of Hassan Saoud, who styles himself the Avenger and has at least eight hundred?”

“Did I have the better of you?” Grim asked him.

“Father of ruses, yes! But you must give me back that agreement unless you keep your promise by smiting the Avenger. And how shall you do it?”

“Have I smitten you?” asked Grim.

The robber put some oily seeds into his mouth and chewed the cud on that for several minutes.

“But unless he is destroyed the Avenger will come and make war on me. If he wins, he will slay me and make some of my men prisoners, adding them to the force he has already. Thus you will have a more difficult man to deal with than I have been. Whereas I have only raided into Palestine a dozen times, he will make a holy war and plunder Jerusalem itself. So you must smite him or return me that agreement.”

Grim laughed. “You would better help me then! If I fail you’ll suffer sooner than anyone.”

“Uh-uh!” the robber grunted. “Here in Petra I might defeat him, for the pass is narrow and a woman is the equal of a man.* Out in the open I cannot prevail against his numbers.”

[ * Alluding to the women’s historic custom of throwing down rocks from the cliffs on invaders’ heads. ]

It was Grim’s turn to sit silent. I was growing used to his masked changes of expression and did not doubt he knew what he was going to say; but I believe he turns over a sentence in his mind a dozen times before he uses it, on occasions when most men would seek to make an impression by rhetoric.

“They say I look like you,” he said at last.

“They speak truly. We might have had one mother. Therefore it is unseemly that you should force a written pledge from me! Give me back that paper I signed, and go in peace.”

Grim ignored the suggestion. “Are you known to this Sheikh who calls himself the Avenger?” he asked.

“Walla! Am I known to him? He took the title of Avenger on account of me, when he swore to spill my blood in the dust! In the War I let myself be captured by the British rather than fall into his hands, for in those days I was not yet ready to take the field against him. Am I known to him! Bismillah! It was my knife that made the scar across his cheek! Not only does he know and remember me, but every man of his who sees that scar remembers me!”

“Then the Avenger will think I am you?” suggested Grim.

“Aye, and torture you with crucifixion on a dung-heap among the flies, after you have been well beaten!”

“And my men will be considered your men?” Grim went on.

“Surely, and tortured, too!”

Grim made another long pause, and Ali Higg smirked in the belief that he had found the weak place in Grim’s courage. But he winced when Grim countered calmly.

“So whatever my men and I do will be credited to you?”

“Allah!”

“So that if I fail I shall have added to the wrath of the Avenger?”

“As a man who takes a little stone and adds it to a mountain!”

“You’d better help!” said Grim.

“As God is my witness, I am afraid to go against Ben Saoud the Avenger!” answered Ali Higg. “Besides, what can I do? You have sent away my men –some in this direction, some in that.”

“It was you who sent them away,” Grim retorted. “All I did was to postpone their return. Now I’ll give you one last chance to use your men on a campaign. After this once, peace!”

“Mashallah! What shall I do with peace? How then shall I get new camels?”

“Breed them!”

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