"The world is a prison, if it comes to that!" laughed Max.
"For some people. Not for a man like you! Besides, some of the cells in the world's prison are so much more terrible than others. Come with us, and by and by, if we live, we shall reach Egypt. There you'll be free, as Manoeel Valdez will be free outside Algeria and France."
"My colonel's daughter asks me to do this?" Max muttered, half under his breath.
"Yes, because I am his daughter as well as your friend. Do you think he'd like you to go back to Sidi-bel-Abbes under a cloud, with him far away, not able to speak for you? I know as well as if you'd told me that, if they tried you by court-martial at Oran, you wouldn't defend yourself as you would if my father had ordered you to give up the march, instead of asking you to go on a private errand for him with your friend. Because he did an irregular thing and trouble has come of it, don't I know you'd suffer rather than let details be dragged from you which might injure my father's record as an officer?"
"His record is far above being injured."
"Is any officer's? From things I've heard, I'm afraid not! Once I told you that you were one of those men who think too little of themselves and sacrifice themselves for others. I only felt it then. I know it now. I'm so much better acquainted with you, my Soldier! You promised, if you answered my questions, to answer them truly. Would you explain in a court-martial that my father took you off duty, and told you, whatever happened, to look after me?"
"I have already explained in a letter to the deputy commanding officer. Probably the colonel has explained, too—more or less, as much as necessary."
"I don't believe father would have thought it necessary to say much about me. He's old fashioned in his ideas of women and girls. And, you see, he had no reason to dream that anything could go wrong. He supposed that you would arrive on time. How much did you explain in your letter?"
"I said I had been unavoidably delayed in finishing my official errand."
"What would you say if you were court-martialled for losing Manoeel and being five days late yourself?"
"I don't know. It would depend on the questions."
"Would you answer in any way that might do harm to my father, or would you sacrifice yourself again for him and for me?"
"It wouldn't be a sacrifice."
"Do you think you could save yourself from prison?"
"Perhaps not, but I shouldn't care."
"I'd care. It would break my happiness. Father couldn't tell you, as I do, to join us, but I know enough about his interest in you to be sure that in his heart he would wish it, rather than come back to Sidi-bel-Abbes and find you in the Bat d'Aff. I've heard all about that, you see."
Max was silent for a moment, thinking, and Sanda watched his face in the growing light. It was haggard and set for a face so young, but there was still in the eyes, which stared unseeingly across the desert, the warm, generous light that had once convinced her of the man's heroic capacity for self-sacrifice. "He is one who always gives," she thought. And something within her said that Stanton was not of those. He was one born not to give, but to take. Yet how glad every one must be, as she was, to give to him!
Max was greatly surprised and deeply touched by Sanda's care for him at such a time. And he was almost bewildered by the strange answer that had come to his self-questioning. He had felt a passionate reluctance to leave her with Stanton, not only because he himself loved and wanted her, but because her marriage was to be only half a marriage, and because Stanton was what he was. If the man tired of her, if he found her too delicate for the trials she would have to endure, the girl's life in the desert would be terribly hard. Max dared not think what it might be. He had felt that it would tear his heart out to see her going unprotected except by that fanatic, to be swallowed up by the merciless mystery of the desert. But because she had decided to go, and because she thought she had need of no one in the world except Stanton, Max had made up his mind that he must stand by and let her go. Now, suddenly, it was different. She wanted him as well as Stanton. True, it was only because she wished to save him, but she would be grieved if he refused. What if he should accept—that is, if Stanton were of the same mind as Sanda—and let them both suppose that his motive in joining them was to keep out of prison? He knew that his true reason would be other than that if he went. But searching his soul, he saw there no wrong to Stanton's wife. He would not go with that pair of lovers for his own pleasure, and no suffering he could endure, even in the Bat d'Aff, would be equal to seeing Sanda day after day, night after night, when she had given herself to Stanton. All he wanted was to be near her if he were needed. He could never justify himself to Colonel DeLisle or to any one else in the world by telling the truth; but because it was the truth, in his own eyes perhaps he might be justified.
"Have you thought long enough?" Sanda asked. "Can't you decide, and save my happiness?"
Save her happiness!...
"I have decided," Max said. "If Mr. Stanton will let a deserter join his caravan I will go."
SANDA'S WEDDING NIGHT
What arguments the explorer used none save himself and the priest from Touggourt would ever know. But the priest came and married Sanda to Stanton according to the rites of the Catholic Church. In his eyes, as in the eyes of the girl, it was enough; for was she not, in the sight of heaven, a wife?
Stanton professed himself not only glad, but thankful, to have Max as a recruit for his expedition. He agreed with Sanda that it would be Quixotic, in the circumstances, to go back to Sidi-bel-Abbes.
"You'd be a damn fool, my boy," he said emphatically, "to go and offer yourself a lamb for the sacrifice!" It did not occur to him that Max was offering himself on the altar of another temple of sacrifice. He thought the young man was "jolly lucky" to escape from the mess he had tumbled into and get the chance of a glorious adventure with Richard Stanton. It had been a blow and even a humiliation to the explorer that all the Europeans he had asked to accompany him had refused, either on the spot, or after deliberation. He believed in himself and his vision so completely, and had snatched so many successes out of the jaws of disaster, that it was galling not to be believed in by others, in this, the crowning venture of his life. If he could find the Lost Oasis he would be the most famous man in the world, or so he put it to himself; and any European with him would share the glory. It had been almost maddening to combat vainly, for once in his career, the objections and sneers of skeptics.
People had said that if no European, not even a doctor, would join him in his "mad mission," he would be forced to give it up. But he had found a fierce satisfaction in disappointing them and in showing the world that he, unaided, could carry through a project which daunted all who heard of it. He had triumphed over immense obstacles in getting together his caravan, for Arabs and Soudanese had been superstitiously depressed by the fact that the mighty Stanton could persuade no man of his own race to believe in the Lost Oasis. It was only his unique force of character that had made the expedition possible at last; that and his knowledge of medicine, even of "white and black" magic, his mastery of desert dialects, his eloquence in the language of those who hesitated, working them up to his own pitch of enthusiasm by descriptions of what he believed the Lost Oasis to be: a land of milk and honey, with wives and treasure enough for all, even the humblest. Napoleon, the greatest general of the French, had wished to search for the Lost Oasis, marching from Tripolitania to Egypt, but had abandoned the undertaking because of other duties, not because he ceased to believe. The golden flower of the desert had been left for Stanton and his band to pluck. Threats, persuasion, bribes, had collected for him a formidable force. If he had lingered at Touggourt, after getting the necessary men together, no one had dared to suggest in his hearing that it was because a desert dancing-woman was beautiful. He had always had weighty reasons to allege, even to himself: the stores were not satisfactory; the oil provided was not good; camels fell ill and substitutes had to be got; he was obliged to wait for corn to be ground into the African substitute for macaroni; Winchester rifles and ammunition promised for his fighting men did not turn up till long after the date specified in his contract. But now he was off on the great adventure; and, gloriously sure that all credit would be his, he was sincerely glad to have Max as a follower, humble yet congenial.
His meeting with Sanda seemed to Stanton a good omen. Since Ahmara had deserted him in a fury, because of the humiliation put upon her during DeLisle's visit, he had been in a black rage. Days had been lost in searching for her, because she had disappeared. He had dreamed at night of choking the dancer's life out, and shooting the man who had stolen her from him, for he had no doubt of the form her revenge had taken. In the end, he had decided to put her from his mind, persuading himself that he was sick to death of the tigress-woman whom he had thought of carrying with him on the long desert march. Still, he had been sad and thwarted, and the music of the tomtoms and raeitas, instead of tributes to his triumph, had been like voices mocking at his failure. Then Sanda had magically appeared in the desert: fair and sweet as the moon in contrast with the parching sun. He had held out his arms on the impulse and she had fallen into them. Her youth, her white beauty in the blue night, lit a flame in him, and he fanned it greedily. It was good to know that he was young enough still to light another fire so soon on half-cold ashes. He revelled in making himself believe that he loved the girl. He respected and admired himself for it, and he drank in eagerly the story she told him in whispers, at the door of her tent in the night: the story of childish, hopeless hero-worship for her "Sir Knight." He was so confident of her adoring love that jealousy of Max would have seemed absurd, though Max was twenty-six and Stanton twenty years older. If it had occurred to him that Max might be romantically in love with Sanda, the idea would not have displeased him or made him hesitate to take the younger man as a member of his escort. There was a cruel streak running through Stanton's nature which even Sanda dimly realized, though it did not diminish her love. There were moods when he enjoyed seeing pain and inflicting it; and there were stories told of things he had done in such moods: stories told in whispers; tales of whipping black men to death when they had been caught deserting from his caravans; tales of striking down insubordinates and leaving them unconscious to die in the desert. It would have amused Stanton, if the idea had presented itself, to think of a love-sick young man helplessly watching him teach an uninstructed young girl the art of becoming a woman. But the idea did not present itself. He was too deeply absorbed in himself, and in trying to think how infinitely superior was a white dove like Sanda to a creature of the Ahmara type. He wished savagely that Ahmara might hear—when it was too late—of his marriage within a few days after their parting.
When the wedding ceremony was over the caravan started on at once, in order to reach, not too late, a certain small oasis on the route where Stanton wished to camp on his marriage night. He described the place glowingly to Max. There was no town there, he said, only a few tents belonging to the chief of a neighbour tribe to Ben Raana's. The men there guarded an artesian well whose water spouted up like a fountain. Though the oasis was small, its palms were unusually beautiful, and the group of tall trees with their spreading branches was like a green temple set in the midst of the desert. Altogether, Stanton remarked, it was an ideal spot for the beginning of a honeymoon. His eyes were more brilliant than ever as he spoke, and Max turned his head away not to see the other man's face, because the look on it made him want to kill Stanton. The martyrdom he knew awaited him had already begun.
Before starting into the unknown Max bought from the leader of his own camel-men some garments which Khadra had washed for her husband at Ben Raana's douar. They were to be ready for his return to Touggourt, and were still as clean as the brackish water of the desert could make them. Dressed as an Arab, Max made a parcel of his uniform with its treasured red stripes of a corporal; and having addressed it for the post, paid the camel-driver to send it off for him from Touggourt to Sidi-bel-Abbes. The unpardonable sin of a deserting Legionnaire is to rob France of the uniform lent him for his soldiering. But returning her property to the Republic, Max sent no letter of regret or apology. He was a deserter, and to excuse himself for deserting would be an insult to the Legion. Nobody except DeLisle could possibly understand, and Max did not mean to offer explanations, even to his colonel. If in his heart Sanda's father could ever secretly pardon a deserter, it must be of his own accord, not because of what that deserter had to say on his own behalf.
Out of the little caravan Max had to discharge, Stanton kept the mehari with the bassourah which Sanda had ridden during the journey from Ben Raana's douar. It was, he said, laughing, a present direct from Providence to his bride, since not without delay could he have provided her with anything so comfortable for travelling. The finely bred camel and many other animals of the escort might fail or die en route, but there were places on the way where others could be got, as well as men to replenish vacancies made by deaths. Stanton was too old an explorer not to have calculated each step of the way, as far as any white man's story or black man's rumour described it. And he talked stoically of the depletion of his ranks. It was only his own failure or death which appeared to be for him incredible.
Stanton rode all day at the head of the caravan, with Sanda, on her mehari, looking down at him, "like the Blessed Damozel" as he had said, between her curtains. Max, on a strong pony which Stanton had bought as an "understudy" for his own horse, kept far in the rear. The desert had been beautiful for him yesterday. It was hideous to-day. He thought it must always be hideous after this. They saw the new moon for the first time that afternoon. Sanda, lost in a dream of happiness, pointed it out to Stanton, but he was vexed because they caught a glimpse of it over the left shoulder. It was a bad sign, he said, and Sanda laughed at him for being superstitious. As if anything could be a bad sign for them on that day!
"Little White Moon," Ourieda and the other Arab women had called her at Djazerta. Stanton said it was just the name for her, when she told him. The girl was perfectly happy now that Max was rescued. She had no regrets, no cares; for, though she dearly loved her father, it would have been long before she saw him again even if she had gone to Sidi-bel-Abbes; and she knew he had hated the necessity for leaving her there without him. She believed it would be a great relief to such a keen soldier as he was not to be burdened with a girl. Often she felt it had been wrong and selfish of her to run away from the aunts and throw herself upon his mercy. Their few weeks together, learning to know and love each other, had been delicious, but the future might have been difficult if she had stayed.
Surely her father would be glad to have her married to his friend, and, even if there were dangers to be feared in the unknown desert, why, Colonel DeLisle was a soldier, and she was a soldier's daughter.
She wrote a letter to her father and gave it to the priest who had married her. Some day it must reach its destination, and there were things in it which would make Colonel DeLisle happy. Sanda believed there would be tender romance for him, as for her, in the thought of the marriage near Touggourt, where his love had come to him from half across the world.
Not a rap did the girl care for the hardships in front of her. She laughed and thought it a great adventure that she had no "trousseau," but only the few clothes which were wearable after her long visit to Djazerta. And if they were never to find the Lost Oasis, or if they themselves were to be lost, she would go forth with the same untroubled heart.
The crescent moon had dropped behind the horizon, like a bracelet in the sea, before they came in sight of the oasis where they were to spend the wedding night; but the sky glittered with encrusting stars that spread a silver background for the tall, dark palms. As the caravan descended into a wide valley between dunes, Max heard Stanton's voice shouting to him. He rode forward to the side of the "Chief," as the explorer was called by his men.
"Like a good chap, gallop ahead with my fellows and see that our tent is set up in the best place," said Stanton in his deep, pleasant voice. "I should like Sanda to find it all ready when she gets there. Have it put where my wife would think it prettiest; you'll know the right place; place you'd choose yourself if it was your honeymoon!"
There was no conscious malice in the words, but they cut like a lash in a raw wound. Max had the impulse to strike his horse with the whip, but he was ashamed of it and stroked the animal's neck instead, as with a word he urged it on.
"I must watch myself if this isn't to turn me into a beast," he thought. "It shan't, or I'll be worse than useless to her. She shan't fall between two brutes."
Stanton had already selected the men who were to pitch his bridal tent, and Max rode ahead with them and their loaded camels. He chose a spot between a miniature palm grove separated from the main oasis and the artesian well, far enough from the gushing water for its bubbling to be heard through canvas walls soothingly, like the music of a fountain.
Fortunately for the comfort of the unprepared-for bride, Stanton was a man who "did himself well" when he could, though he had always been ready to face hardship if necessary. He had not considered it necessary to stint himself when starting on this expedition, although, later on, he would be quite ready to throw luxuries away as encumbrances. There were cushions and thick rugs and fine linen and soft blankets. There was also some folding furniture; and one object which revealed itself among the rugs at first surprised, then unpleasantly enlightened, Max. It was a rather large mirror with a gilded French frame, such as Arab women admire. For himself, Stanton would have had a shaving-glass a foot square, and the gaudy ornament made Max's blood boil. Stanton had certainly brought it for a woman: Ahmara. Before the quarrel, then, he had intended to take her with him! It was only by a chance that he had gathered a fair white lily instead of a desert poppy.
Max would have liked to break the mirror, but, instead, he saw that it was safely hung on one of the tent-hooks and supported by a brightly painted Moorish chest.
As he stepped out of the tent when all was finished and ready for the bride—even to a vase of orange blossoms brought by the priest from Touggourt—the caravan, which had been moving slowly at the last, had not yet arrived. Two elderly Arabs hovered near, however, the men who lived in the oasis to guard the well and the date palms in season. As Max spoke to them in his laboured Arabic he saw in the distance the form of a woman. Standing as she did, in the open ground with no trees between her and the far silver horizon, she was a noble and commanding figure, slender and tall like a daughter of the palms. She was for Max no more than a graceful silhouette, majestically poised, for he could not see her face, or even be sure that the effect of crown and plumes on her high-held head was not a trick of shadow. Indeed it seemed probable that it was a mere illusion, for crowns and waving plumes were worn by desert dancers, and it did not appear likely that a wife or daughter of the well-guardians should be so adorned.
As he exchanged elaborate compliments with the Arabs the woman's figure vanished and he thought no more of it, for Sanda and Stanton were arriving. Max turned away his eyes as Stanton took the bride out of her bassourah and half carried her toward their tent without waiting to thank the man who had placed it. Max busied himself feverishly in superintending the arrangements of the camp, which Stanton had asked him as his "lieutenant" to undertake that night.
The kneeling camels were tethered in long lines. No zareba would be raised, for there would be many a long march before the caravan reached perilous country. Here a fire could be built, for there was no danger in showing smoke and raising a rose-red glow against the silver. The unveiled women, whom Stanton had diplomatically allowed to accompany their husbands, began to cook supper for the men; couscous and coffee and thin, ash-baked bread. It was a long time since Stanton had taken Sanda to the tent under the little grove of palms, but he had given no orders yet for food to be prepared. Max thought it unlikely that he should be asked to eat with them, but if he were invited he intended to refuse. In spite of himself, he could not help glancing now and then toward the tent. The door-flaps had not been let down, but there was no light inside. Turning involuntarily that way, as iron turns to a magnet, at last he saw a man and woman come out of the tent. But the woman was not Sanda!
Max realized this with a shock. He saw both figures for an instant painted in blue-black against the light, khaki-coloured canvas. The woman was very tall, as tall as Stanton, and on her head was something high, like a crown set with plumes. Stanton led her away, walking quickly. They went toward the low, black tents of the guardians of the oasis.
Max stood still with a curious sensation of being dazed after a stunning blow half forgotten. How long he remained without moving he could not have told. His eyes had not followed the two figures very far. They returned to the tent and focussed there in anguish. Some scene there must have been between those three. He was not surprised when, after a short time—or a long time, he did not know which—Sanda appeared. He wondered if his soul had called her, and she was coming in answer to the call.
She hesitated at first, as if not sure where to go. Then catching sight of him at a distance, with the light of the fire ruddy on his face, she began to run. Almost instantly, however, she stopped, paused for a second or two, and it seemed to Max that she swayed a little as if she might fall. He started toward her with great strides; but he had not taken more than three or four when he saw that she was walking slowly but steadily straight toward him. He felt then, with a mysterious but complete certainty, that she wished him to go no farther, but to wait. He stopped, and in a moment she was by his side. She did not speak, but stood with her head drooping. Max could not see her face. After the first eagerly questioning glance he turned his eyes away. She did not wish him to look at her or break the silence. He held his tongue, but he was afraid she might hear the pounding of his heart and his breath coming and going. If she did she would guess that he knew something which, perhaps, she did not mean to let him know. At last, however, he could bear the strain no longer; besides, Stanton might come back. If there were anything he could do for her, if she wanted him to take her away—God! how his blood sang at the thought of it!—there was no more time to waste.
His tone sounded flat and ineffectual in his own ears as he spoke. The effort to keep it down to calmness made it almost absurd, as it would have been to mention the weather in that tingling instant. He asked simply: "Is there something—something I can do?"
"No," she said. "Nothing, thank you. Nothing any one can do."
The voice was not like the voice of Sanda, which Max had once compared in his mind to the ripple of a brook steeped in sunshine. It was thin and weak, almost like the voice of a little, broken old woman. But, praise heaven, she was young, so very young that she would live this down, and, some day, almost forget. If she would let him take her back to Sidi-bel-Abbes after all! This marriage by a priest without sanction of the law need not stand. She was not a wife yet, but a girl, oh! thank God for that! It was not too late. If only he could say these things to her. But it seemed that he must stand like a block of wood and wait for her to point the way.
"Are you—perhaps you're homesick?" he dared to give her a cue.
"Homesick?" Her voice broke and, instead of being like an old woman's, it was like a little child's. "Yes, that's it, I'm homesick! And—and I think I'm not very well. I want my father, I want him so much!"
The heart of the man who was not her father yearned toward the girl.
"Shall I take you back?" he panted. "We're not far past Touggourt. To-morrow it will be too late, but now—now——"
"Now it's already too late. Oh, Soldier! to have yesterday again!"
He did not ask her what she meant. He did not need to ask.
"It can be yesterday for you," he urged.
"No. Yesterday I was Sanda DeLisle. To-day I'm Sanda Stanton. Nothing can change that."
"If you're unhappy your father can change it. You see, it's only the church that——"
"Only the church!"
"Forgive me. But the law would say——"
"It doesn't matter to me what the law would say. It's the thing what you don't think matters that matters entirely to me. And even if it were so—even if I were—unhappy instead of only homesick, and somehow ill, I wouldn't go back if I could. I've written to my father. And that priest from Touggourt will have told the Amaranthes. Every one knows. It would be a disgrace to——"
"No! Not to you."
"I think it would. And to Richard. I have taken him by storm and almost forced him to marry me. I would die and be left alone in the desert rather than disgrace him in the world's eyes just when he's starting out on the crowning expedition of his life."
"Who put such an idea into your head that you'd taken him by storm, that——"
"Never mind. It is in my head, and it's true. I know it. Soldier, I'm glad, oh, so glad, that you're here! Will you help me?"
"You know I will," Max said, his heart bursting. If he had needed payment for what he had done, he had it in full measure. She was glad he was with her!
"Well, I've told you that I'm ill. It's my head—it aches horribly. I hardly know what I'm doing or saying. I can't be—in that tent to-night!"
"You shall have mine," Max assured her quickly. "It's a good little tent, got for the French doctor Stanton was telling us about, who decided at the last minute not to come."
"Oh, thank you a thousand times. But you?"
"I shall rig up something splendid. They've got more tents than they know what to do with. Several men fell out after Stanton had bought his supplies."
"You are good. Could I go to your tent now?"
"Of course. I'll take you there, and fetch your luggage myself. But you're sure you won't go back while there's time?"
"If you're ill you can't ride on with the caravan."
"I shall be better to-morrow. God will help me, and you will help me, too. I shall be able to go on for a while. Maybe it need not be for long. People die in the desert. I've always thought it a beautiful death. When you promise to marry a person it's for better or worse. And I've never said I was not happy, Soldier! Only a little homesick and tired."
"Come with me to my tent," Max said, realizing that all his persuasions would be in vain. "Come quietly now, and I'll explain to—to Stanton."
"He knows I feel ill," she answered. "I told him. He will understand."
THE ONLY FRIEND
When Stanton returned to his tent and found it empty he went out quickly again and called for St. George.
This was one of the few possibilities of which Max had not thought. He had imagined Stanton remaining sullenly in his tent as if nothing had happened, or searching for Sanda and ordering, perhaps even forcing, her to go back with him. In that eventuality, and that only, Max intended to interfere. One side of his nature, the violent and uncontrolled side, which every real man has in him, wanted to "smash" Stanton; yearned for an excuse perhaps even to kill him and rid Sanda forever of a brute, no matter what the consequences to himself. But the side of him where common sense had taken refuge wished to keep neutral for Sanda's sake, in order to watch over her and protect her through everything. When he heard Stanton's call he was not far from the tent he had lent Sanda. She, and everything of hers which she could need for the night, was already there, but she had not lighted the candle he had given her. The little khaki-coloured tent was an inconspicuous object in sand of the same colour. Making an excuse of settling a dispute between two camels which disturbed the peace, Max had kept near the tent, and intended, unobtrusively, to play sentinel all night.
He answered the "Chief's" call on the instant, braced for any emergency.
"St. George, do you know where my wife is?" Stanton asked.
"She told me she felt ill, and that you wouldn't object to my lending her my tent," answered Max promptly.
"I felt sure she'd go to you," said Stanton, without the signs of anger Max expected. Then still greater was the younger man's surprise when the elder laughed. It was a slightly embarrassed laugh, but not ill-natured. "What else did she tell you?" Stanton wanted to know.
"She told me—nothing else." To save his life, Max could not resist that telltale emphasis which flung a challenge.
Stanton laughed again and thrust his hands deep into his pockets.
"I see you've drawn your own conclusions. Fact is, St. George, I'm in a deuce of a damned scrape, and the only bit of luck is having a sensible chap of my own colour, a friend of both sides, a gentleman and a soldier like you, to talk it out with. You'd like to help, wouldn't you, for the father's sake if not the daughter's?"
"Yes," said Max, after a hair's breadth of hesitation. He was so taken aback by Stanton's attitude that he feared the other man might be drawing him out in some subtle way detrimental to Sanda.
"I was sure you would. Well! I'm going to tell you the facts.
"You're a man of the world, I expect, or you wouldn't have found your way into the Legion. Before I had any idea of marriage I thought of carrying along a—companion, only an Arab dancing-girl, but I'd take my oath there hasn't been a more fascinating creature since Cleopatra. A gorgeous woman! No man on earth—not if he were an emperor or king—but would lose his head over her, if she tried to make him. No treachery to Sanda in the plan. The child didn't enter into my calculations then. It struck me, after I'd asked you to see to my tent, you might spot something—from that mirror."
"I did," Max admitted.
"Oh, well, anyhow, to make a long story short, the girl flew into one of those black rages of the petted dancer men have made a damned fuss over, and she disappeared. Lucky for Sanda! If Ahmara'd been with me I'd have had to see Mademoiselle wend her way to Touggourt with you. But as it was, in all good faith, I let myself go—one of my impulses that carry me along. I attribute most of my success in life to impulses; inspirations I call them. I honestly thought this was one, and that it would make for my happiness. But by jove, St. George, when I took Sanda into my tent an hour ago if there wasn't Ahmara waiting for me!"
He stopped an instant, as if expecting Max to speak, but when only dull silence answered he hurried on.
"She hadn't got the news of my marriage. She wanted to give me a pleasant surprise by forgiving me, and coming out here secretly, ahead of the caravan, to hide in my tent. Her arms were round my neck before I knew what was up—and the smell of 'ambre' that's always in that long hair of hers—God, what hair!—was in my nose. Unfortunately Sanda had been picking up Arabic; so she understood some things Ahmara blurted out before I could stop her. She got on to the fact that there'd been a row—a sort of lover's quarrel—and if it hadn't been for a misunderstanding, Ahmara would have started out with me in her place—practically in her place. No need to tell you more except that Sanda and I had a few words, after she'd refused to see the situation in the right light. I was sure she'd appeal to you. I am glad you thought of offering her your tent. I shall leave her to stew in her own juice to-night, and come slowly to her senses. She's too fond of me not to do that before long."
"When you've sent that woman away to-morrow——" Max began. But Stanton cut him short.
"I shan't send her away to-morrow."
"Sanda had the childish impudence to tell me to-night that nothing could ever make any difference between us after what had passed. Perhaps it was partly my fault, for I lost my head for a minute when she accused me of tricking her into marrying me, or words to that effect. I'm afraid I said she had forced me into it—thrown herself at me—taken me unawares—something of that sort. In a way it's true. Heart caught in the rebound! But I wouldn't have been cad enough to throw it up to her if she hadn't said things so silly that a saint would have been wild. The girl vows she won't live with me as my wife. Well, I shall hold Ahmara as a threat over her head till she sees the error of her ways. It's the one thing to do, as I look at it. Besides, if I try to pack Ahmara back to Touggourt she'll screech like a hen with her head cut off. I won't be made a laughing stock before my men, at the start, before I've shown them what sort of a leader they've got. Ahmara comes from the south. If Sanda decides to behave herself I'll drop the dancer at her own place, en route. Meanwhile, I'll have time for bargaining over her with my wife, and Ahmara can travel with the other women. Several men with their wives have agreed to go only part of the way and get new fellows to join when they leave. That's the only way to shed Ahmara without trouble, as she's landed herself on me. And that's the way I'll take—as I said, if Sanda behaves herself."
"And if—not? I suppose you'll send—Mrs. Stanton back?"
"Damnation, I can't do that, St. George, and you know it. It would mean a duel with her father, and all the world would be down on me just at the time I'm bidding highest for its applause. If Sanda travels with me, whether she lives with me or not, she'll keep her mouth shut. She's that kind of girl. Don't you, as her friend—or anyhow, her father's friend—know her well enough to understand that?"
"I may think I'd know what she'd do," Max flung back at the other. "But God knows what I'd do if you insulted Mademoiselle DeLisle—Mrs. Stanton, I mean—by keeping that woman in the caravan. I believe I'd kill you!"
Stanton stared. "Good Lord!" he exclaimed, in a change of mood, looking suddenly like a great helpless schoolboy arraigned, "I thought I was talking to a friend. I was asking your advice, and you turn on me like a tiger. See here, St. George, if you're going to bite the hand I offer, you'd better be the one to go."
Max was staggered. He had made a false move. He could not go. Now, more than ever, a thousand times more, Sanda needed a friend, and he was the only one within reach. Perhaps he could not always help, but he could at least keep near. Only these unexpected confidences from Stanton could have made him so lose grip upon himself; and it must not happen again.
"I've just given you my advice," Max reminded the other more quietly.
"I can't take it."
"Then don't. We'll leave it at that."
"I ask no better. Do you want to go or stay?"
"I want to stay."
"Very well, then. I need a man like you, and I want you to stay, if you'll mind your own business."
"I will," Max promised fervently.
But as to what his business was, there might be different opinions.
* * * * *
As the long days passed and the caravan toiled on through dunes and alkali deserts and strange, hidden mountainlands, it was hard to keep before his eyes the best way of "minding his own business"—the best way for Sanda. That which was highest in him prayed for peace between her and Stanton. That which was lowest wished for war. And it was war. Not loud, open warfare, but a silent battle never ceasing; and the one hope left in Sanda's heart for her own future was death in the desert. She had determined to go on, and she would go on; but blinding, blessed suns of noon might strike her dead; she might take some malarial fever in the swampy, saltpetre deserts through which the caravan must travel. There were also scorpions and vipers. These things she had heard of as among the minor perils of Stanton's expedition, and there were many more formidable, of course, such as Touaregs and Tibbu brigands. She made Max swear that, if they were attacked, and there were danger for the women, he would shoot her with his own hand. That would not be a bad solution. And there were others. Her father had said that nearly all experts prophesied annihilation for Stanton and his men.
Sanda did not "behave herself." Nothing less than force could have dragged her to Stanton's tent, and the man openly found consolation with Ahmara; at first, perhaps, partly in defiance, but, as time went on, because such love as he had to give was for the "most fascinating creature since Cleopatra." For the men of the caravan there was nothing very startling in this arrangement. The law of their religion and country gave each of them four wives, if he could afford to keep them. Ahmara, darkly beautiful and bejewelled, condescended to travel with the other women of her race, but when the camp was made she moved about proudly, like an eastern queen, and went wherever it was her will to go. Sometimes she passed nearer than was necessary to Sanda's tent, and turning her crowned head on its full round throat let her long eyes dwell on the rival who ignored her existence.
The life she had undertaken would have been impossible for Sanda without Max. If he had not been there, a self-appointed watchdog, Ahmara would certainly have insulted Stanton's white bride, or might even have attempted to kill her. But Ahmara was afraid of Max St. George. She had caught a murderous glint in his eye more than once, and knew that if she crossed a certain dead line which that look defined he would not hesitate to deal with her as with a wildcat.
As for Sanda, if she ever thought that Ahmara might stab her some night when Max was off guard, she told herself that she did not care. She longed for death as the one way out of the cage into which she had foolishly flown, and would have prayed for it, if such a prayer were not to her mind sacrilegious. She was too young to realize that to wish is to pray. Sanda was always hoping that something might happen to put an end to everything for her. She disregarded precautions which others took against sunstroke. If there came up a sandstorm she stole away and faced it while the rest sheltered, longing to be overwhelmed and blotted out of existence. But it seemed extraordinarily difficult to die. And then, there was always Max. Unfailingly he was on the spot to ward off danger, or to save her from the effects of what he called her "carelessness," though he must have guessed the meaning underneath alleged imprudences.
Sanda never confided in Max, yet she was aware that he could not help knowing why she refused to live with Stanton. She could not bear to speak of her humiliation, and Max would have cut his tongue out rather than let slip a word concerning it after his first vain appeal.
As time went on and the caravan advanced on its march across the desert, Stanton ignored the presence of Sanda as she ignored Ahmara's. She ate and slept in her own tent, which had been Max's. He it was who saw that she had good food and filtered water. Wherever fruit could be got, by fair means or foul, there was some for her, whether others had it or not. Max made coffee and tea for Sanda. He tended the camel she rode in order that it might be strong and in good health. When the caravan came into the country of the Touaregs he rode near her day by day, and at night lay as close to her tent as he dared. Sometimes he noticed that Stanton eyed him cynically when he performed unostentatious services for Sanda, but outwardly the only two white men were on civil terms. Stanton even seemed glad of Max's companionship, and discussed routes and prospects with him, asking his advice sometimes; and once, when the explorer was attacked by a Soudanese maddened by the sun and Stanton's brutality, Max struck up the black man's weapon; almost before he knew what he was doing he had saved the life of Sanda's husband.
"Why did I do it?" he asked himself afterward. Yet he knew some strange "kink" in his nature would compel him to do the same thing again under like circumstances.
Stanton, at his best, was an ideal leader of men. Many a forlorn hope he had led and brought to success through sheer self-confidence and belief in his star. But whether the failure of his mad marriage had disturbed his faith in his own persistent luck, or whether Ahmara's influence made for degeneration, in any case, a blight seemed to have fallen on the once great man's mentality. It had been a boast of his that, though he drank freely when "resting on his laurels" in Europe, he was strong enough to "swear off" at any moment. He had accustomed himself to taking tea and water only in blazing African heat; and since the serious illness that followed his sunstroke he had been forbidden to touch alcohol anywhere, in any circumstances. For a time he had been frightened into obedience to doctors' orders; but gradually he had drifted back into old habits; and after his quarrel with Ahmara at Touggourt he found oblivion in much Scotch whisky, his favourite drink.
Perhaps if all had gone well with Stanton, if Ahmara had not come again into his life and lost him Sanda's childlike worship, he might have pulled himself together after the starting of the caravan. But, as it was, there were black thoughts to be chased away, and the simplest receipt for replacing them with bright ones was to fill his head with fumes of whisky.
When Sanda, riding behind her curtains, or shrinking in her tent, heard Stanton cursing the negro porters, and roaring profane abuse at the camels and camel-drivers, she did not know that he was drunk; but the men knew, and, being sober by religion, ceased to respect him. Among themselves, they began to question the wisdom of his orders, and suspect him of treachery toward themselves. Losing faith in the leader, they lost faith in the wonderful hidden oasis he sought, the oasis peopled by rich Egyptians who had vanished into the desert to escape persecution after the Sixth Dynasty. Arabs and negroes said it must be true after all that the "Chief" was mad, and they had been mad to trust themselves to him, or to believe in the mysterious city lost beyond unexplored mountains and shifting dunes which were but shrouds for dead men. He was either deliberately leading them all to death, for the insane pleasure of it, or else he had some plan for making his own fortune by selling his escort as slaves. Men began to desert whenever they came to an attractive stopping-place where there was food and water. They feigned illness, or fled in the night with their camels into the vastness of the desert, their faces turned once more to the west. For soon, if they stayed, they would pass beyond the zone of known oases, into the terrible land of mystery, charted by no man, a land where it was said the sun had dried up all the springs of water. So the caravan dwindled as slowly, painfully it moved toward the east; and even while he hated him, Max was sometimes moved to pity for the harassed leader. Stanton grew haggard as the desert closed in round him and his disaffected followers; but there were days when, instead of sympathizing reluctantly, Max cursed the explorer for a brute, and cursed himself for saving the brute's life. There were days when Stanton shot or whipped a Soudanese for an impudent word, or ordered a forced march because Sanda had sent to beg respite for some wretch struck down with fever whom she was nursing.
As the men lost faith in Stanton and his vision of the Lost Oasis they attached themselves fanatically to the wife of their Chief, the "Little White Moon," who seldom spoke to her husband save to defend one of their number from his fits of anger, and who, with her golden hair and her skin of snow that the fierce sun could not darken, was like the shining angel who walks at the right hand of a good Mohammedan. They saw no wrong in Ahmara's presence; but she was haughty and high-tempered, and took part against them with Stanton. The whisper ran that the dancing-woman had brought bad luck to the expedition for so long as she was with the caravan; whereas, if fortune were to come, it would come through the white girl who nursed the sick and had a smile or a kind word for the humblest porter. This whisper reached Ahmara's ears through the wives of the camel-drivers, and at first she was anxious to keep it from Stanton lest it should prejudice him and put into his head the idea of leaving her at one of the far apart oasis towns where the caravan took supplies. But the more she turned over the thought in her unenlightened mind, the more impossible it seemed to her that Stanton would give her up. Besides, he was very brave, even braver than the great chiefs of her own race, for they feared unseen things and omens, whereas he laughed at their superstition. She used every art of the professional charmer upon Stanton for the next few days, while she asked herself whether to tell what she had learnt, or not to tell, were wiser.
When she was convinced that she had made herself more indispensable than ever, Ahmara put the story into the form that seemed to her very good. She said that nothing which passed in the caravan could escape her, because the life of the leader was her life. She wished to be for him like a lighted candle set at the door of his tent, the flame her spirit, which felt each breath of evil threatening his safety. The men who hated the Chief for his power or because he had punished them hated her also because she was true to him as the blood that beat in his heart.
"Those who are cowards and find the greatness of thy adventures too great for them, now they have tasted hardship, mutter in secret against thee," Ahmara said. "There are some who mean to band together and refuse to follow thee past the last-known oasis which is marked on thy maps. They say, that from what they have heard, thou art indeed mad to think that a caravan can live in unknown deserts where there is no water. Once they believed in thee so firmly if thou hadst told them thou couldst cause water to spout from dry sand they would have taken thy word for truth. But now the white girl, who is too proud to be thy wife because thy faithful one followed thee into the desert, has bewitched the men. They think she is a marabouta, a saint endowed with magic power, and that her spirit is stronger than thine. They will offer themselves to her man, when we come to the place where the known way ends, if he will promise to lead them straight to Egypt, without wandering across the open desert to seek thy Lost Oasis."
"Her man!" echoed Stanton, the blood suffusing his already bloodshot eyes as in an instant it reddens those of an angry St. Bernard. "What do you mean?"
"Thou knowest without my telling, my Chief. The man whose idol she is. There is but one man—the man who watches over her by day and night, and makes himself her slave."
"You're a fool, Ahmara," Stanton said roughly. "Don't you suppose I've got sense enough to see why you want to put such ideas into my head? You're jealous of my wife. St. George and she are nothing to each other. As for the men, like as not they growl in your hearing because they hope you'll repeat their nonsense to me and give me a fright. That's all there is in it."
"I know thou art a lion and fearest nothing," Ahmara meekly answered. But next day she saw that Stanton watched Max.
On the following night they came to the oasis of which she had spoken. It was called Dardai, and lay between two danger-zones. The first of these—danger from man—was practically passed at Dardai, Stanton calculated, and knew that he had been lucky to bring his caravan through the land of the Touaregs (which he had risked rather than face almost certain death along the shorter, more northern way of Tripolitania) with only a few thefts from marauders and no loss of life by violence. Perhaps the formidable size of the caravan and the arms it carried had been its protection, rather than the repute of its leader; but Stanton took the credit to himself. He told himself that, after all, he had triumphed over difficulties as no other man in his place could have done. It was monstrous and incredible that the spirit of the caravan should have turned against him. He said this over and over, but in his heart he knew that he had lost prestige through faults in his own nature, and because of mistakes he had made ever since the bad beginning. He knew that, although he had brought his followers through the first danger-zone without too many accidents, the second zone, the uncharted zone of Libyan desert which stretched before them now, had ten times more of danger in it than the zone of danger from men. Whisky could not chase away his gloom that night when he had come to camp from the house of the sheikh who had entertained him at dinner in the village, and to whom he had given valuable presents in exchange for help expected. But if the liquor could not cheer him, it made him conscious of his own bulldog tenacity.
"I'll show the ungrateful devils who is master," he thought as he looked out from his tent door to the glow of the fire round which his men had been watching some naked male dancers of Dardai. The dancers had gone, but the watchers had not yet moved. They were talking together more quietly than usual, in groups. Stanton wondered what they were saying; and he stared, frowning, over their heads toward the east, where lay the Libyan desert. They were practically out of the Sahara now.
As he gazed, Ahmara came flitting across a moonlit space of sand that lay like a silver lake between the tent and the rest of the camp.
"Thou art back, O master of my heart, from thy visit to the sheikh," she said. "Did it pass off well?"
"Well enough," Stanton answered mechanically. For the moment he was indifferent to Ahmara, though her strange face was tragically beautiful. In the pale light the figure of Max St. George became suddenly visible to him. It moved out from behind the tents and walked over to the fire. Stanton, on a quick impulse, called out to Max harshly:
"Come here, St. George! I want you; hurry up!"
Ahmara slipped behind Stanton, who took a step forward, and, as he forgot her, she darted into his tent.
It was Max's policy, for Sanda's sake, never to give Stanton a pretext to send him away. He kept his temper under provocations almost intolerable; and now he obeyed the truculent summons.
"What do you want?" he asked stiffly when he had come near enough to speak in an ordinary tone.
"I'll tell you inside my tent," the explorer answered, stalking in first and leaving his guest to follow. Stanton was somewhat surprised to see Ahmara sitting on her feet, her ringed hands on her knees, her crowned head thrown back against the canvas wall; but on the whole, he was not sorry that she was there. She might be useful. He only smiled sarcastically when, at sight of her, Max stopped on the threshold.
"Don't be afraid to come in," Stanton laughed; "the lady won't mind."
"But I do," Max returned, with the curt politeness of tone which irritated Stanton. "I'll stand here if you please."
"All right. My orders won't take long to give. I want you to go to your friend's tent with a message from me."
"My friend's tent?" Max's eyes sent out a spark in the dull yellow light.
"My wife's tent, then, if you think the name's more appropriate. I believe she's likely to favour you as a messenger, and she hasn't gone to bed, for her tent's lit up. Tell her from me, I find it subversive of discipline in this caravan for a woman to set her will up against the leader and live apart from her husband. Entirely for that reason and not because I want anything to do with her, after the way I've been treated, I've made up my mind that she and I must live together like other married people. I wish the change to be made with the knowledge of the whole caravan. Go and tell her to come here; and then give my orders to Mahmoud and Zaid to bring anything over she may need."
If eyes could kill, Stanton would have dropped like a felled ox. But Max would not give him the satisfaction of a blow or even of a word. With a look of disgust such as he might have thrown at a wallowing drunkard in a gutter, St. George turned his back on the explorer and walked away. Before he could escape out of earshot, however, the Chief was bawling instructions to Ahmara.
"Since that fellow is above taking a message, go you, and deliver it," roared Stanton, repeating in Arabic the orders flung at Max. "Her ladyship knows enough of your language to understand. Say to her, if she isn't at my tent door in ten minutes I'll fetch her. She won't like that."
Max had not meant to go near Sanda, but fearing insult for her from the Arab woman, he changed his mind, and put himself between Ahmara and Sanda's tent. As the tall figure in its full white robes came floating toward him in the moonlight, he blocked the way. But the dancer did not try to pass. She paused and whispered sharply: "Thinkest thou I want the girl to go to him? No, I'd kill her sooner. But he is watching. Let me only tell her to beware of him. If she is out of her tent when he searches, what can he do? And by to-morrow night I shall have had time to make him change his mind."
"You shan't speak to Mrs. Stanton if I can help it," said Max. "Besides, I won't trust you near her. You're a she-devil and capable of anything."
"Speak to her at the door thyself, if thou art afraid my breath will wither thy frail flower," Ahmara sneered. "Tell her to escape quickly into the shadows of the oasis, for the master will not care to lose his dignity in hunting her. As for thee, thou canst run to guard her from harm, as thou hast done before when she wandered, and I will carry word to the Chief that the White Moon refuses to shine for him. In ten minutes he will set out to fetch her, according to his word; but when he finds her tent empty he will return to his own with Ahmara, I promise thee, to plan some way of punishment. Shelter thy flower from that also if thou canst, for it may not be to my interest to counsel thee then, as it is now."
Max turned from the dancer without replying, and she hovered near while he spoke at the door of Sanda's tent, within which the light had now gone out.
"Mrs. Stanton!" he called in a low voice. "Mrs. Stanton!"
Sanda did not answer; and he called for the third time, raising his voice slightly, yet not enough for Stanton to hear at his distance.
Still all was silence inside the tent, though it was not five minutes since the light had been extinguished, and Sanda could hardly have fallen asleep. Could she have heard what he and Ahmara were saying? He wondered. It was just possible, for he had stepped close to the tent in barring the dancer away from it. If Sanda had heard hurrying footsteps and voices she might have peeped through the canvas flaps; and having made an aperture, it would have been easy to catch a few words of Ahmara's excited whispers.
"Perhaps she took the hint and has gone," Max thought; and an instant later assured himself that she had done so, for the pegs at the back of the tent had been pulled out of the sand. The bird had flown, but Max feared that it might only be from one danger to another. In spite of the friendly reception given to the caravan at Dardai, a young woman straying from camp into the oasis would not be safe for an instant if seen; and in the desert beyond Sanda might be terrified by jackals or hyenas. Bending down Max saw, among the larger tracks made by himself and the men who had helped him pitch the tent, small footprints in the sand: marks of little shoes which could have been worn by nobody but Sanda. The toes had pressed in deeply, while the heelprints were invisible after the first three or four. As soon as she was out of the tent, Sanda had started to run. She had gone away from the direction of the dying fire, in front of which the men of the caravan still squatted, and had taken the track that led toward the oasis. There was a narrow strip of desert to be crossed, and then a sudden descent over rocks, down to an oued or river-bed, which gave water to the mud village high up on the other side. This was the way the oasis dwellers had taken after a visit of curiosity to the camp; and as the night was bright and not cold, some might still be lingering in the oued, bathing their feet in the little stream of running water among the smooth, round stones. Max followed the footprints, but lost them on the rocks, and would have passed Sanda if a voice had not called him softly.
The girl had found a seat for herself in deep shadow on a small plateau between two jutting masses of sandstone.
"I saw you," she said as he stopped. "I wondered if you would come and look for me."
"Weren't you sure?" he asked. "When I found the tent-pegs up, I knew you'd gone; and I followed the footprints, because it's not safe for you to be out in the night alone."
"Safer than in my tent, if he——" she began breathlessly, then checked herself in haste. She was silent for a minute, looking up at Max, who had come to a stand on the edge of her little platform. Then, for the first time since she had begged him to join the caravan instead of going back to Bel-Abbes, she broke down and cried bitterly.
"What am I to do, Soldier?" she sobbed. "You know—I never told you anything, but—you know how it is with me?"
"I know," said Max.
"I've been always hoping I should die somehow, and—and that would make an end," the girl wept. "Other people have died since we have started: three strong men and a woman, one from a viper's bite and the others with fever. But I can't die! Soldier, you never let me die!"
"I don't mean to!" Max tried to force a ring of cheerfulness into his voice, though black despair filled his heart. "You've got to live for—your father."
"I hope I shall never see him again!" she cried sharply. "He'd know the instant he looked into my eyes that I was unhappy. I couldn't bear it. Oh, Soldier, if only I had let you take me back when you begged to, even as late as that morning—before Father Dupre came out from Touggourt. But it makes things worse to think of that now—of what might have been!"
"Let's think of what will be, when we get through to Egypt," Max encouraged her.
"I don't want to get through. The rest of you, yes, but not I! Soldier, what am I to do if he tries to make—if he won't let me go on living alone?"
"He shall let you," said Max between his teeth.
"You mean that you—but that would be the worst thing of all, if you quarrelled with him about me. You've been so wonderful. Don't you think I've seen?"
Max's heart leaped. What had she seen? His love, or only the acts it prompted?
"Don't be afraid, that's all," he said. His voice shook a little. As her face leaned out of the shadow looking up to him, lily-pale under the moon, he feared her sweetness in the night, feared that it might break down such strength as he had and make him betray his secret. How he would hate himself afterward, if in a mad moment he blurted out his love for this poor child who so needed a faithful friend! In terror of himself he hurried on. "Better let me take you back now," he suggested almost harshly. "You can't stay here all night."
"Why can't I?"
"Because—it's best not. I'll walk with you as far as the camels, and then drop behind—not too far off to be at hand if—anything disturbs you. Did you hear all that woman said to me?"
"About his looking into my tent and then going back to his own—that she'd promise he should go back? Yes, I listened before I ran away. Those were the last words I waited for."
Max was glad she had not overheard the threat of future punishment.
"Well, then, your tent will be safe."
"Safe?" she echoed. "Safe from him—from my hero! What fools girls can be! But perhaps there was never one so foolish as I. It seems aeons since I was that person—that happy, silly person. Well! It doesn't bear thinking of, much less talking about; and I never did talk before, did I? We'll go back, since you say we must. But not to my tent. I'd rather sit by the fire all night, if the men have gone when we get there. After dawn I can rest, as we're not to travel to-morrow."
She held out both hands to be helped up from her low seat, and Max fought down the impulse to crush the slender white creature against his breast. Slowly they walked back over the rocks and through the moon-white sand, until they could see not only the glow of the fire, but the smouldering remnants of palm-trunks. Dark, squatting figures were still silhouetted against the ruddy light, and Sanda paused to consider what she should do. She stopped Max also, with a hand on his arm.
"It's a wonderful picture, or would be if one were happy!" she muttered; and then Max could feel some sudden new emotion thrill through her body. She started, or shivered, and the fingers lying lightly on his coat-sleeve tightened.
"What is it?" he asked, but got no answer. The girl was standing with slightly lifted face, her eyes closed, as if behind the shut lids she saw some vision.
"Sanda!" he breathed. It was the first time he had called her by that name, though always in his thoughts she was Sanda. "You're frightening me!"
"Hush!" she said. "I'm remembering a dream; you and I in the desert together, and you saving me from some danger, I never found out what, because I woke up too soon. Just now it was as if a voice told me this was the place of the dream."
What caused Max to tear his eyes from the rapt, white face of the girl at that instant, and look at the sand, he did not know. But he seemed compelled to look. Something moved, close to Sanda's feet; something thin and long and very flat, like a piece of rope pulled quickly toward her by an unseen hand. Max did not stop to wonder what it was. He swooped on it and seized the viper's neck between his thumb and finger and snapped its spine before it had time to strike Sanda's ankle with its poisoned fang. But not before it had time to strike him.
The keen pin-prick caught him in the ball of the thumb. It did not hurt much, but Max knew it meant death if the poison found a vein; and he did not want to die and leave Sanda alone with Stanton. Flinging the dead viper off, he whipped the knife in his belt from its sheath, and with its sharp blade slit through the skin deep into the flesh. A slight giddiness mounted like the fumes from a stale wine-vat to his head as he cut down to the bone and hacked off a bleeding slice of his right hand, then cauterized the wound with the flame of a match; but he was hardly conscious of the pain in the desperate desire to save a life necessary to Sanda. It was of her he thought then, not of himself at all as an entity wishing to live for its own pleasure or profit; and he was dimly conscious, as the blood spurted from his hand, of hoping that Sanda did not see. He would have told her not to look, but the need to act was too pressing to give time for words. Neither he nor she had uttered a sound since his dash for the viper had shaken her clinging fingers from his arm; and it was only when the poisoned flesh and the burnt match had been flung after the dead snake that Max could glance at the girl.
When he did turn his eyes to her, it was with scared apology. He was afraid he had made her faint if she had seen that sight; luckily, though, blood wasn't quite so horrid by moonlight as by day.
"I'm sorry!" he stammered. But the words died on his lips. She was looking straight at him with a wonderful, transfiguring look. Many fleeting expressions he had seen on that face of his adoration, but never anything like this. He did not dare to think he could read it, and yet—yet——
"Have you given your life for me this time?" she asked, in a strange, deadly quiet tone.
"No, no. I shall be all right now I've got rid of the poison," he answered. "I'll bind my hand up with this handkerchief——"
"I'll bind it," she cut him short; and taking the handkerchief from him she tore it quickly into strips. Then with practised skill she bandaged the wound. "That must do till we get to my tent," she told him. "There I've lint and real bandages that I use for the men when they hurt themselves, and I'll sponge your hand with disinfectant. But, my Soldier, my poor Soldier, how can I bear it if you leave me? You won't, will you?"
"Not if I can possibly help it," said Max.
"How soon can we be sure that you've cut all the poison out?"
"In a few minutes, I think."
"And if you haven't, it's—death?"
"I can't let myself die," Max exclaimed.
"It's for my sake you care like that, I know!" Sanda said. "And I can't let you die—anyhow, without telling you something first. Does the poison, if you've got it in you, kill very quickly?"
"It does, rather," Max admitted, still apologetically, because he could not bear to have Sanda suffer for him. "But it's a painless sort of an end, not a bad one, if it wasn't for—for——"
"For leaving me alone. I understand. And because you may have to—very soon, though I pray not—I shall tell you what I never would have told you except for this. Only, if you get well, you must promise not to speak of it to me—nor even to seem to remember; and truly to forget, if you can."
"I promise," Max said.
"It's this: I know you care for me, Max, and I care for you, too, dearly, dearly. All the love I had ready for Richard flowed away from him, like a river whose course had been changed in a night by a tremendous shock of earthquake. Gradually it turned toward you. You won it. You deserve it. I should be a wretch—I shouldn't be natural if I didn't love you! That's all I had to tell. I couldn't let you go without knowing. And if you do go, I shall follow you soon, because I couldn't live through a day more of my awful life without you."
"Now I know that I can't die!" Max's voice rang out. "If there was poison in my blood, it's killed with the joy of what you've said to me."
"Joy!" Sanda echoed. "There can be no joy for us in loving each other, only sorrow."
"There's joy in love itself," said Max. "Just in knowing."
"Though we're never to speak of it again?"
"Even though we're never to speak of it again."
So they came to Sanda's tent; and Stanton, sitting in his open doorway, saw them arrive together. With great strides he crossed the strip of desert between the two tents, and thrust his red face close to the blanched face of Max. His eyes spoke the ugly thing that was in his mind before his lips could utter it. But Sanda gave him no time for words that would be unforgivable.
"I had gone to the river," she said, with a hint of pride and command in her voice that Max had never heard from her. It forbade doubt and rang clear with courage. "Monsieur St. George was afraid for me, and came to bring me back. On the way he killed a viper that would have bitten me, and was bitten himself. He has cut out the flesh round the wound and cauterized it; and he will live, please God, with care and rest."
Taken aback by the challenging air of one who usually shrank from him, Stanton was silenced. Sanda's words and manner carried conviction; and even before she spoke he had failed in goading himself to believe evil. Drunk, he had for the moment lost all instincts of a gentleman; but, though somehow the impulse to insult Sanda was beaten down, the wish to punish her survived. Max's wound and the fever sure to follow, if he lived, gave Stanton a chance for revenge on both together, which appealed to the cruelty in him. Besides, it offered the brutal opening he wanted to show his authority over the sullenly mutinous men.
"Sorry, but St. George will have to do the best he can without rest," Stanton announced harshly. "We start at four-thirty. It is to be a surprise call."
"But we were to stop till to-morrow and refit!" Sanda protested in horror.
"I've changed my mind. We don't need to refit. In five hours we shall be on the march."
"No!" cried Sanda. "You want to kill my only friend, but you shall not. You know that rest is his one chance, and you'd take it away. I won't have it so. He stays here, and I stay with him."
"Stay and be damned," Stanton bawled.
The men sitting by the distant fire heard the angry roar, and some jumped to their feet, expecting an alarm.
"Stay and be damned, and may the vultures pick the flesh off your lover's bones, while the sheikh takes you to his harem. He's welcome to you," Stanton finished.
Before the words were out Max leaped at the Chief's throat. All the advantage of youth was his, against the other's bulk; but as he sprang Ahmara bounded on him from behind, winding her arms around his body and throwing on him all her weight. It made him stagger, and, snatching up the heavy campstool on which he had been sitting, Stanton struck Max with it on the head. Weakened already by the anguish in the torn nerves of his hand (most painful centre for a wound in all the body), Max fell like a log, and lay unconscious while Ahmara wriggled herself free.
"He asked for that, and now he's got it," said Stanton, panting. "Serve him right, and nobody will blame me if he's dead. But he isn't, no fear! Fellows like him belong to the leopard tribe, and have as many lives as a cat. Good girl, Ahmara, many thanks."
And without another glance toward Max, beside whom Sanda was on her knees, Stanton threw the campstool into the tent and yelled to the men by the fire. He called the names of two who were his special servants, but most of the band followed, knowing from the roar of rage and the one sharp cry in a woman's voice that something important had happened.
Stanton was glad when he saw the dark crowd troop toward him, though in his first flush of excitement he had not thought to summon every one.
"Come on, all of you!" he shouted. "Now halt! You see the man lying there—at my feet, where he belongs. He was my trusted lieutenant, but he took too much upon himself. I knocked him down for insubordination. He doesn't go farther with the caravan. And we start in five hours. Zaid and Mahmoud, put this carrion out of my sight. I've shown you all what happens when black or white men disobey my orders."
No one came forward. From her knees beside Max Sanda rose up slim and straight and stood facing the Arabs and negroes.
"Men," she cried to them, "I've done my best for you. I've defended you, when I could, from injustice. When you have been sick with fevers or with wounds I have nursed you. Now my father's friend, and my friend, who to-night has saved my life, lies wounded. If you leave him, you leave me, too, for I stay as his nurse. What do you decide?"
Stanton was on her in two strides. Seizing her arm he twisted it with a savage wrench and flung her tottering behind him. The pain forced a cry from the girl, and Ahmara laughed. That was more than the men could stand, for to them Sanda was always the White Angel, Ahmara the Black; and over there by the fire they had discussed a deputation to Stanton, announcing that, since starting, they had heard too much evil of the haunted Libyan desert to dare venture across its waterless wastes. The spirit of mutiny was in them, having smouldered and flashed up, smouldered and flamed again at Stanton's cruelty. This was too much! The spark was fired. A Senegalese whom Sanda had cured of a scorpion bite—a black giant to whom Max had lent his camel when Stanton would have left him in the desert—leaped like a tiger on the Chief. Steel flashed under the moon, and Stanton fell back without a groan, striking the hard sand and staining it red.
For an instant there was silence. Then burst forth a wild shout of hate and joy....
OUT OF THE DREAM, A PLAN
Stanton was dead, hacked in pieces by the men he had cursed and beaten. Ahmara had fled to Dardai to live as she could by her beauty; and the murderers, taking with them, in a rage of haste and terror, camels, water, and provisions, had disappeared. The caravan of the great explorer had vanished like a mirage; and the Lost Oasis lay hidden forever from despoiling eyes and hands in the uncharted Libyan desert.
At dawn Sanda sat beside Max in his tent, where two of the few men who remained had carried him. Through the hideous hours he had lain as one dead. But light, touching his eyelids, waked him with a shuddering start.
"You!" he whispered. "Safe! I've had horrible dreams."
"Only dreams," she soothed him.
"How pale you are!" He stared at her, still half dazed.
"Perhaps it's the light."
"No, it's not the light. I remember now.... What happened after he—I——"
"I'll tell you when you're stronger."
"I'm strong enough for anything. Only a little odd in my head."
"And your poor wounded hand? I bathed it and bandaged it again, and you never knew."
"Queer! I thought if I were dead I should have known if you touched me!" He spoke more to himself than to Sanda, and she did not answer. His eyelids drooped, and presently he slept again. Hours later, when he woke, she was still there. It seemed to the girl that the world had fallen to pieces, leaving only her and this man in the ruins. All around them lay the vast desert. To go back whence they had come was impossible. To go on seemed equally impossible. There was nowhere to go. But they were together. She knew that nothing could part them now, not life, and even less death, yet she could see no future. Everything had come to a standstill, and their souls might as well be out of their bodies. It would be so much simpler!
She gave Max tea that she had made; and when she had looked at his hand and bandaged it again, she told him all that had happened. How the Senegalese, whose brother Stanton had shot for pilfering, a month ago, had stabbed Stanton in the breast, and fifty others in blood-madness had rushed to finish his work. How Ahmara had run shrieking to the village, and the men, still in madness, had stolen the camels and gone off into the desert; not the murderers only, but their friends who saw that it was well to disappear, that it might never be known who were the men that saw Richard Stanton die.
Two months and more ago, when the caravan left Touggourt, there were over a hundred men who marched with it. Between that time and reaching Dardai thirty had deserted, and a few had died. Now all had flown except a dozen of the oldest and most responsible who refused to be carried away by their comrades' vague fear of reprisals. Just these twelve were left with fifteen camels and a small store of arms and provisions. There was money also, untouched in Stanton's tent, and some bales of European rugs, clocks, and musical boxes, which the explorer had brought as gifts for native rulers. The question pressed: what was to be done? Sanda could find no answer; but Max had two. They might turn back and go the way they had come. Or they might go on, not trying to cross the Libyan desert in the direction of Assouan, as Stanton had hoped to do, but skirting southward by a longer route where the desert was charted and oases existed. After a journey of seventy or eighty days they might hope to find their way through Kordofan to Omdurman, and then across the Nile to civilized Khartoum. It was this idea that the leading mutineers, frightened by tales of the terrible Libyan desert, had meant to suggest to Stanton; and if he refused their intention had been to desert. The murder, Max felt sure, had not been premeditated; but he did not believe that it was regretted.
"I will not go back to Touggourt," Sanda said, when he had described to her the two plans.
"Why? Because you are thinking of me?" he asked.
"Partly that. But it would be as bad for me as for you, now, if you were to be arrested as a deserter. And besides," Sanda went on hurriedly, determined to show him it was for her sake more than his that she objected, "I've suffered so much I couldn't go again along that Via Dolorosa. I want to get away from the very thought of it. New scenes will be better. How many miles must we journey to Omdurman and Khartoum?"
"Nearly a thousand," Max confessed.
"More than we've come with our great caravan! It's not possible."
"It must be possible!" said Max. "We'll make it possible."
"Surely such a thing has never been done!"
"Maybe not, but we'll do it. I feel now that I have the strength of a hundred men in myself."
"You haven't even the strength of one. We must stay here till you are stronger." Yet she shivered and grew cold at the thought of staying on, even with Max, close to the grave the men had dug for Stanton in the sand.
"I shall be better travelling," Max urged. He would not tell Sanda, but he felt it unsafe to stay long near Dardai with so few men. The sheikh had been hospitable to Stanton, but things were different now. Ahmara would tell about the money and the boxes and bales full of presents. The temptation virtuously to punish those who were left, for the fate of the explorer, would be too great, and the excuse too good.
"We shall have to get off after the heat of the day," Max insisted. "I've lain here long enough, for, you see, I must be leader now for you. I must talk to the men and tell them what we've decided."
"How little we are in this great desert, to talk of 'deciding,'" the girl exclaimed. "It is the desert that will decide. But—you will be with me always ... as in my dream!"
"And mine," Max added.
Then followed day upon day of the desert dream. Some days were evil and some were good, but none could ever be forgotten. The man and the girl whose dreams had come true never spoke of the future, though waking or sleeping the thought was seldom out of their minds.
"I can't give her up now, whatever happens," Max said to himself sometimes. Yet he did not see how he should be able, in justice to the girl, to keep her. In British territory he would be safe from arrest as a deserter from the Legion. But the very thought of himself as a deserter was torture from which he could never escape. He regretted nothing. What he had done he would do again if he had it to do, even in ignorance of the reward—her love. But he remembered how he had tried to puzzle out some other way for Valdez, and how impossible it would have seemed then, that he should ever follow Manoeel's example. He loved Colonel DeLisle and he had loved the Legion with all its tragedies, and been proud of his place in it. He looked upon himself as a man disgraced, and did not see how he should ever be able to make a position in the world worthy to be shared by Sanda. Besides, it would be disastrous for Colonel DeLisle, as an official, if his daughter should marry a deserter. That was one of the things that "would not do." Yet Sanda loved the deserter, and fate had bound them together. The spirit of the desert was making them one. Max did not know that out of Sanda's dreams had been born a plan.
THE PLAY OF CROSS PURPOSES
When Max St. George, with seven emaciated Arabs and five dilapidated camels, crawled into Omdurman, bringing Richard Stanton's young widow, their arrival made a sensation for all Egypt. Later, in Khartoum, when the history of the murder and the subsequent march of nine hundred miles came out, it became a sensation for Europe and America.
Rumours had run ahead of the little party, from Kordofan, birthland of the terrible Mahdi; but the whole story was patched together from disjointed bits only, when the caravan arrived in civilization. Very little was got out of the fever-stricken, haggard young man who (according to Mrs. Stanton) was the hero of the great adventure, impossible to have been carried through for a single day without him. It was Sanda who told the tale, told it voluntarily, even eagerly, to every one who questioned her. She could not give Max St. George—that mysterious young man who apparently had no country and no past—enough praise to satisfy her gratitude. There had been terrible sandstorms in which they would have given themselves up for lost if it had not been for his energy and courage. Once they had strayed a long way off their track and nearly starved and died of thirst before they could find an oasis they had aimed for and renew exhausted supplies. But Max St. George's spirit had never flagged even after the mosquito-ridden swamp where he had caught a touch of malarial fever. Through his presence of mind and military skill the party had been saved from extinction in a surprise attack by a band of desert marauders twice their number. Every night he had protected the little camp by forming round it a hollow square of camels and baggage, and keeping a sentinel posted, generally himself. It was through these precautions they had been able to withstand the surprise and drive the robbers off with the loss only of a few men and some of the camels. They had fought and conquered the enemy under a flag of the Legion, a miniature copy given by Colonel DeLisle to his daughter. There had not been one desertion from their ranks, except by death, and all was owing—Sanda said—to the spirit Max St. George had infused into his followers. He insisted that the latter were the only heroes, if any, and the Arabs from far-off Touggourt enjoyed such fame as they had associated with the delights of a paradise reserved for warriors. But of himself Max St. George would not talk; and people said to each other, "Who is this young fellow who was the only white man with Stanton? He seems at home in every language. Where did he come from?"
Nobody could tell. Not a soul knew what his past had been. But as for his future, it seemed not unlikely that it might be limited on this earth; for having finished his mission, and taken Mrs. Stanton as far as Cairo on her way back to Algeria, he succumbed to the fever he had resisted ferociously while his services were needed. When there was nothing to do he relaxed a little and the flame in his blood burned unchecked.
Mrs. Stanton's exhibition of gratitude, however, was admirable in the eyes of the world focussed upon her. If Richard Stanton had not been a magnificent man, celebrated for his successes with women, and having the added attraction of fame as an explorer, people might have suggested that the widow's remaining in Cairo to nurse St. George was not entirely disinterested. But as it was, nobody said disagreeable things about the beautiful, pale young creature, and the haggard skeleton of a man who had pioneered her safely through the Sahara and Libyan deserts.
It was as much because of her beauty, which gave a glamour of almost classic romance to the wild business, as because of Stanton's reputation and the amazing madness of his last venture, that newspapers all over the civilized world gave columns to the story. Somehow, snapshots of Max St. George, as well as several of Sanda, had been snatched by enterprising journalists before St. George fell ill in Cairo. These were telegraphed for and bought by newspapers of England, Spain, Italy, France, America, Algeria, and even Germany, which had not loved Stanton. The next thing that happened was the report in Algerian papers that Max St. George, "le jeune homme de mystere," was a missing soldier of the Legion, who had deserted from an important mission to join Stanton's caravan. Sensation everywhere! Paragraphs reminding the public of a curious fact: that young Mrs. Stanton was the daughter of the colonel of the Legion. Strange if she had not known from the first that the recruit to her husband's expedition was a deserter from her father's regiment. And what a situation for the colonel himself! His daughter protected during a long desert journey of incalculable peril by a man whom it would be her father's duty to have arrested and court-martialled if he were on French soil.
Journalists argued the delicate question, whether, in the circumstances, it would be possible for Colonel DeLisle to do anything officially toward obtaining a pardon for St. George—whose name probably was not St. George, since no man wore anything so obvious as his own name in the Foreign Legion. Retired officers wrote letters to the papers and pointed out that for DeLisle to work in St. George's favour, simply because accident had enabled the deserter to aid a member of his colonel's family, would be inadmissible. If St. George were the right sort of man and soldier he would not expect or wish it. As a matter of fact, he did neither; but then, at the time, he was in a physical state which precluded conscious wishes and expectations. He did not know or care what happened; though sometimes, in intervals of seeing marvellous mirages of the Lost Oasis, and fighting robbers, or prescribing for sick camels, he appeared vaguely to recognize the face of his nurse; not the professional, but the amateur. "Sanda, Sanda!" he would mutter, or cry out aloud; but as fortunately no one knew that Mrs. Stanton, nee Corisande DeLisle, was called "Sanda" by those who loved her, the doctor and the professional nurse supposed he was babbling about the sand of the desert. He had certainly had a distressing amount of it!
Max would have been immensely interested if he could have known at this time of three persons in different parts of the world who were working for him in different ways. There was Manoeel Valdez in Rome, where he had arrived with Ourieda by way of Tunis and Sicily, instead of getting to Spain according to his earlier plan. Manoeel, singing with magnificent success in grand opera, proclaimed himself Juan Garcia, a fellow-deserter with St. George, in order to gild St. George's escapade with glory. Not only did he talk to every one, and permit his fascinating Spanish-Arab bride to talk, but he let himself be interviewed by newspapers. Perhaps all this was a good advertisement in a way; but he was making a succes fou, and did not need advertisement. Genuinely and sincerely he was baring his heart and bringing his wife into the garish limelight because of his passionate gratitude to Max St. George.
The interview was copied everywhere, and Sanda read it in Cairo, learning for the first time not only many generous acts of St. George of which she had never heard, but gathering details of Ourieda's escape with Valdez, at which till then she had merely been able to guess. The entire plot of Manoeel's love drama, from the first grim scene of stunning the prospective bridegroom on the way to his unwilling bride, to the escape from the douar in the quiet hours when Tahar was supposed to be left alone with the "Agha's Rose," on to the hiding at Djazerta, and stealing away in disguise with a caravan while the hunt took another direction, all had played itself out according to his plan. Valdez attributed the whole success to St. George's help, advice, and gifts of money, down to the last franc in his possession. And now Manoeel began to pay the debt he owed, by calling on the world's sympathy for the deserter, who might not set foot on French soil without being arrested. Thus the singer's golden voice was raised for Max in Italy. In Algeria old "Four Eyes" was working for him like the demon that he looked; having returned with his colonel and comrades to Sidi-bel-Abbes after the long march and a satisfactory fight with the "Deliverer," he soon received news of the lost one. With roars of derision he refused to believe in the little "corporal's" voluntary desertion, and from the first moment began to agitate. What! punish a hero for his heroism? That, in Four Eyes' vilely profane opinion, expressed with elaborate expletives in the Legion's own choicest vernacular, was what it would amount to if St. George were branded "deserter." Precisely why Max had joined Stanton's caravan instead of returning to Sidi-bel-Abbes, perhaps a few days late, Four Eyes was not certain; but there was no one better instructed than he in pretending to know things he merely conjectured. He had seen Ahmara, the dancer, and had told Max the scandal connecting her with the explorer. "What more natural than that a soldier of the Legion should, for his colonel's sake, sacrifice his whole career to protect the daughter from such a husband as Stanton? No doubt the boy knew that Stanton meant to take Ahmara with him, and had left everything to stand between the girl and such a pair."
In his own picturesque and lurid language Four Eyes presented these conjectures of his as if they were facts; and to do him justice he believed in them. Also, he took pains to rake up every old tale of cruelty, vanity, or lust that had been told in the past about Richard Stanton, and embroider them. Beside the satyr figure which he flaunted like a dummy Guy Fawkes, Max St. George shone a pure young martyr. Never had old Four Eyes enjoyed such popularity among the townfolk of Sidi-bel-Abbes as in these days, and he had the satisfaction of seeing veiled allusions to his anecdotes in newspapers when he could afford to buy or was able to steal them. On the strength of his triumph he got up among his fellow Legionnaires a petition for the pardon and reinstatement of Corporal St. George. Not a man refused to sign, for even those who might have hesitated would not have done so long under the basilisk stare of the ex-champion of boxing.
"Sign, or I'll smash you to a jelly," was his remark to one recruit who had not heard enough of St. George or Four Eyes to dash his name on paper the instant he saw a pen.
While the petition was growing Colonel DeLisle (who gave no sign that he had heard of it) obtained ten days' leave, the first he had asked for in many years, and took ship for Algiers to Alexandria to see his daughter. But that did not discourage Four Eyes; on the contrary, "The Old Man doesn't want to be in it, see?" said Pelle. "It ain't for him, in the circus, to do the trick; it's for us, ses enfants! And damn all four of my eyes, we'll do it, if we have to mutiny as our comrades once did before us, when they made big history in the Legion."
The third person who, unasked, took an active interest in Max St. George's affairs was, of all people on earth, the last whom he or any one else would have expected to meddle with them. This was Billie Brookton, married to her Chicago millionaire, and trying, tooth and nail, with the aid of his money, to break into the inner fastnesses of New York and Newport's Four Hundred. It was all because of a certain resistance to her efforts that suddenly, out of revenge and not through love, she took up Max's cause. The powder train was—unwittingly—laid months before by Josephine Doran-Reeves, as she preferred to call herself after her marriage with the son of the Dorans' lawyer. Neither she nor Grant—who had taken the name of Doran-Reeves also—liked to think or talk of the man who had disappeared. On consideration, the Reeveses, father and son, had decided not to make public the story of Josephine's birth which Max had given to them. They feared that his great sacrifice would create too much sympathy for Max and rouse indignation against Josephine and her husband for accepting it, allowing the martyr to disappear, penniless, into space. At first they said nothing at all about him, merely giving out that Josephine Doran was a distant relative who had been brought to the Doran house on Rose's death; but all sorts of inconvenient questions began to be asked about Max Doran, into whose house and fortune the strange-looking, half-beautiful, half-terrible, red-haired girl had suddenly, inexplicably stepped.