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Desert Love
by Joan Conquest
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"And thou shalt not die before thy time, and thou shalt pass to the gods with thy hand in thy master's, for he shall not leave thee through all thy life, nay not even at the last. And thy name shall ring throughout the land of Egypt, and be engraven upon the walls of time.

"Behold Hathor, behold I say!" and three times the unintelligible words rang through the place as Jill sank back staring open-eyed.

The small white hand had pulled the veil aside from about the face, and head, and body of the fortune-teller, so that for a moment she seemed to stand outlined against the pillar, with flashing eyes, scarlet mouth, and brow encircled with a golden band, from which sprang something round with wings set in precious stones; the glory of her gleaming body shone white as ivory in the gloom, her perfect arms stretched straight downwards with hands turned sharply in so that the finger-tips rested on the rounded thighs.

And then Jill rubbed her eyes and stared, and stared again; for the spot was empty, save for a square of sand with strange signs drawn upon it; neither was there sound of retreating footsteps or swish of drapery.

Jill stumbled to her feet, swaying as she caught at a pillar for support, and then with a violent effort of will walked to a great shaft of sunlight which struck the ground in front of the ruins of the high altar from an opening in the roof.

"Am I mad?" she whispered. "Did I dream that woman—and yet the sand is there!"

A pitiful little smile flickered across the ashen face as she stood motionless and alone in the ruins.

"The temple of love," she cried softly, flinging out her arms, "the temple of love and I am alone. Hahmed beloved, where are you? I feel so—I—I wish you were here to take me in your arms. Hahmed—I want comforting—I do—I'm lonely—I—I'm—oh, oh! God—God have mercy on me—I—we———"

For a moment the transfigured girl stood upright, her face one blaze of wonder in the light of the sun, her eyes wide open and filled with a great surprise and a greater awe.

And then she slowly sank to her knees and bowed her beautiful head to the sand, whilst the echoes took up her words and carried them to the far corners of the vast ruins.

"I am not worthy, my beloved, for this great honour—I am not worthy in that I am not with thee at this moment when thy child stirs within me. I am covered in shame in that I doubted. I am bowed down with shame and yet lifted up to the heavens with joy."

For long minutes thus knelt she alone with her happiness, and then she raised herself whilst a great sob shook her from head to foot.

"Hahmed," she cried as she flung her arms out wide, "Hahmed, wherever thou art I am calling thee. Hahmed, Hahmed!" and fell face downward unconscious upon the sand covered floor.

Noiselessly an Arab stepped from behind a pillar, crossing to the still figure on the ground, and gently he picked her up in his arms, covering her in the folds of his great white cloak.

"Little bird! little bird!" he whispered in the beautiful Arabian tongue, "why willst thou beat thy tender wings against the bars of happiness around thy dwelling? And thou wert frightened—frightened by yon peasant woman. What said she, my dove, to strike thee senseless to the ground?

"Thou art pale, O! my heart's delight, and weigh but as a handful of down upon my arm, and yet must thou learn thy lesson, to the end; and even will I forsake thee, leaving thee guided by the star of happiness to find thy way alone to thy dwelling in the desert. Yea! there will I await thee, O! my beloved—beloved!"

And Hahmed passed swiftly through the hall of shadows, and down the fields of waving corn and sweet scented bean to the banks of the Nile, and there he placed his sweet burden in the arms of the faithful native woman, who tenderly wiped the sand from the golden curls and raised her right hand in fealty to her master as he turned away, neither did she falter in her tale to Mary and Jack when, goaded by anxiety and in spite of the heat, they ran down towards the boat.

"Sunstroke!" said Mary, who had a certificate for first-aid, and speaking with the certain flat determination which even her best friends found most trying at times. "You simply cannot go about in Egypt without a green-lined umbrella. Yes! it's a slight, quite slight attack of sunstroke," she continued, without noticing the radiance of Jill's eyes, "and I will apply this damp handkerchief to your medulla oblongata."



CHAPTER XLIX

Jill sat on the edge of her bed in an hotel at Suez.

That she was absolutely alone in Egypt, and ought not to have been alone, never entered her head once, as she gazed through the open window towards the sea.

Her eyes shone like stars, her mouth was a beautiful sign of content, her hands were clasped peacefully on her knee, and she simply radiated happiness.

Mary and Jack, Lady Bingham, Diana Lytham and Sir Timothy and Lady Sarah, had started that morning for England in the great liner which Jill had watched unconcernedly until it disappeared up the canal.

And so for the first time for many weary weeks she was alone, though it must be confessed that the liberty had only been gained by a deliberate perversion of the truth.

Fussed by kind-hearted, though, somewhat scandalised Lady Gruntham, driven to the point of madness by the never-ending stream of wisdom, advice, and plans which from morning till night flowed unceasingly from the store of Mary's book-gleaned knowledge, Jill had cleared up the situation all round by suddenly announcing the imaginative fact that Hahmed was coming to Cairo to fetch her home. Whereupon Mary Bingham had arranged everything to her own entire satisfaction in the twinkling of an eye, told Jack Wetherbourne that she and her mother were leaving for England if he'd like to come too, had worked her maid to death with packing, distributing quite a fair supply of backsheesh, and had bundled her bewildered mother and contented fiance down to Suez, where Jill had seen them off to the accompaniment of a last final flood of advice which was mercifully lost in the scream of the siren, the rasp of machinery, and the manifold sounds which add hilariously, especially in foreign climes, to the pandemonium that reigns to within a second of the cry which invites some of us to descend to terra firma on the occasion of the sailing of a passenger boat.

Jill suddenly came out of a reverie which had painted her cheeks a most exquisite pink, and caused her teeth to show in the faintest smile.

Then she frowned and shook back her mane of hair, as was her habit when perplexed, and spoke softly to the night wind which was blowing straight in at the window from the other side of the canal.

"The oasis is calling me, night wind, calling, calling, and yet I do not know. You who come from the oasis, tell me, is my beloved there, or shall I find my dwelling empty, and my happiness but as a turned-down cup?"

Who can explain what it is that leads the spirit astraying from its material covering?

Are love and longing its sole companions upon the road of shadows? Surely no! for is not revenge, or jealousy, or the near approach of that which is called death as potent to span the stretches of the world; and will not a vision of stark terror blot out the sun at the commonplace hour of noon, and may not the body, squatting on the market pavement, find it a place of rest, even as unto a seat in paradise through the spirit's communion?

The soul's wireless, mental telepathy, the sympathetic chord, and so on, and so on, good honest words to describe that which no one understands, and which caused the girl sitting on a prosaic bed in a prosaic hotel to smile suddenly as she sat so very still.

For her soul had wandered until she stood with her feet in the sand, looking in at a wide-open door through which a beam of violet-orange light struck across the night.

Two men sat motionless within, until one slowly turned his head and looked through the door straight into her eyes.

For one long moment, with unutterable longing he gazed, and then the vision faded just as Jill, saying softly, "Beloved! I come," stretched out her arms, and with a sudden shiver awoke to her surroundings.



PART III

THE FRUIT



CHAPTER L

"Doubtless my beloved sleeps!" thought Hahmed the Arab, as he looked at the watch on his wrist to find it pointing to midnight, and clapped his hands for fresh coffee, then lit another cigarette whilst his guest who, like himself, sat cross-legged on cushions on the floor, inhaled contentedly from a shibuk[1] in a house of rest on the outer edge of a distant oasis.

Weary to death was he of the uninterrupted flow of words which unceasingly streamed from the mouth of the cross-bred man, who was gleefully rubbing the hands of his soul over what he imagined to be the clinching of a remarkable bargain with the Camel King, whereas if he had but known it, his host had merely put a little difficulty in the way so as to lengthen the deal, and thereby kill a few moments of the dreary hours of the dreary time he had passed since had left the woman he loved alone to learn the last words of her lesson.

Turning he called sharply to the servile proprietor of the house, which for the first time was honoured by the presence of its redoubtable landlord.

Salaaming until his tarboosh reached the level of his knees, the inwardly shaking Achmed stood before his two guests.

"Hast thou naught wherewith to entertain thy guests, O! Achmed, or must they perchance pass the hours in counting the flies which flit about the none too clean lamps? Thinkest thou that this house is solely a roof to shade thy head from the sun, or perchance is it a dwelling of comfort for those who pass East and West?"

By this time the oriental's head was bobbing like a mandarin's, whilst in a spasm of terror his mouth opened and shut unceasingly.

"Find thy tongue, O! fool, before I turn thee from the door. Hast thou aught of entertainment, and hast thou other than this mud thou callest coffee? Speak I say!"

With a gulp which served to clench Hahmed's fingers, the wretched Achmed vowed he had music of a kind and dancers of sorts, and that at that moment his first wife was preparing a brew surpassed only by that drunk in the Gardens of Delight by the chosen of Allah, who had passed to their well-earned rest.

"Choose, O! my guest! doubtless they will both be as forlorn as this coffee, for which I crave thy forgiveness—our business is at an end, and some hours stretch unendingly before us."

Ali 'Assan, dying to satisfy his cross-bred inquisitiveness which, with the curiosity of Egypt entire, had been aroused by the strange rumours of some catastrophe happened in his host's household, had not the slightest desire for bed, rather would he have sat up for an entire week of nights, if only be could have got an inkling of the truth; so he plumped for music and dancing whilst his host sat motionless, the light of the hanging lamps throwing strange shadows on the stern, relentless face.

Hahmed the Arab, it is true, sat upon the cushions in the dingy room; you would have certainly touched a human body if you had laid a hand upon his arm, but by an effort of will which left him sitting absolutely motionless with half-closed eyes, he, in spite of the heat, the irritation of his guest's presence, and all that went to make the evening intolerable, had sent his spirit, or soul, or what you will, adrift, searching for his beloved; so unutterable was his longing, so wracked was his heart with love, so utter was his detachment, that neither piping of reed, twanging of stringed instrument or patter of feet could bring him back to his surroundings.

And then under some unexplainable impulse Hahmed turned his head slowly, looking across the shoulder of his guest to the door behind, and his eyes glowed like fires in the darkness of night as in the doorway he saw framed the face of her for whom body and soul craved. The face was pale even unto death, but the red mouth smiled softly, and the golden curls clustered and twisted as they had ever done; the blue eyes were wells of love, in which the Arab's soul sank as he called though his lips moved not, neither was there sound of words in the room.

"Come to me, beloved, beloved! Come to me!"

And the vision faded, and Hahmed's spirit returned to its dwelling as a faint sigh from Ali 'Assan made him remember his duty towards his guest.

The Arab does not indulge in nerves, though Allah only knows how long it will be before he resorts to bromide if he continues to fraternise with the European, but Hahmed, unknown to himself, was suffering from the almost unendurable strain of the past endless empty days.

He was consumed with thirst for his beloved, agonising with hunger for his heart's desire, forcing himself to do business in out-of-the-way places in his land so as to keep his thoughts from the exquisite face of his own woman.

True, he could have stayed in Cairo, and waited for further news of her; true, he could have seized her and carried her forcibly back to his own lands, but the pride of centuries raged within him, and until she came back of her own free will he would neither move hand nor foot to compel her.

Anyway, let us put the following episode down to the months of strain culminating in an intense irritation wrought by the babble of Ali 'Assan's meaningless chatter, and the vileness perhaps of the coffee.

He lifted his eyes and looked at the picture before him.

The room was low, and the lighting bad, the air suffocating, whilst a few particles of sand blown in by the hot wind heralded an approaching storm.

Standing before him with a piece of tawdry gauze about her quite unprepossessing form stood the over aged dancer with a set simper upon her silly vacant face.

"Allah!" ejaculated Hahmed, as he lit a cigarette, whilst Achmed, peeping through the door, suddenly smote his forehead.

Now dancing women were no more to the great man than a troupe of performing collies, but his artistic sense demanded the best, and when it was not forth-coming he felt the same annoyance as you or I would feel if arrayed in purple and fine linen we adorned a box at the opera with our presence, covered with as many diamonds upon it as possible, to find a street singer deputising for a Melba or Caruso.

"Thou dog," he said pleasantly to the cringing man, who tremblingly explained that indeed he had one better—yea, even fair to look upon. "Behold, if thou offerest yet another insult to this mine guest I will have thee and thy woman whipped into the desert and left to die."

Whereupon Achmed fled precipitately in the wake of her who had annoyed, and snatching a whip beat her smartly on her plump but ill-formed shoulders, the while he urged the prima ballerina of the establishment to anoint herself and depart right quickly to the pacifying of the great Hahmed, which order, alas, put a totally wrong idea into her Tunisian-Arabian pate.

[1]Long native pipe.



CHAPTER LI

La Belle, a rank cross-breed of Tunisian and French with a dash of Arabian, was the one good part of a bad debt which had overwhelmed Achmed when he had inadvertently over-reached himself.

Her body was passable, lithe, sinewy, with a faint hint of rib and a wonderful bust; her brain was good, intuitive in its non-educated state, and subtle from inheritance; her ambition was superb, it knew no limits, it saw no obstacle.

Born in a kennel in Tunis, she had figuratively and literally fought her way to the upper reaches of the gutter, sleeping in filth, eating it, listening to it, living it; dancing for a meal, selling her strangely seductive body for a piastre or so, settling her quarrels with a knife she carried in her coarse, crisp, henna-dyed hair, with one goal before her slanting orange eyes, that of dancer in chief, prima ballerina, or what you will, in some house of good repute; the explanation of which phrase would overtax my oriental knowledge I fear.

Dance she could, if dancing is the correct term for the subtle portraying of every conceivable vice by every conceivable gesture and posture; and she had felt herself content on the day she had for a good round sum sold herself to take up a dancing position of some importance in the house of him who, unknown to her, had got himself entangled in more than one human money-spider's web.

If her dancing was correct or not, men had begun to foregather in the house, where—if her temper allowed—she would dance o' nights fully clothed or fully unclothed; also her reputation was beginning to be used as a lure to the uninitiated freshly arrived in Cairo, therefore her usually fiendish temper was as hell unloosed when, as part payment of a debt, she found herself willy-nilly strapped to a camel and carted by slow stages to the house of rest whose proprietor was Achmed, and landlord Hahmed, the Camel King.

"Dance I will not, thou descendant of pigs," she stormed at Achmed, who, reducing his fez to a pulp, raved at her as she crouched in a corner with something a-glitter in her hand. "Send in thy wife who ambles like a camel in foal, and whose ankles are thick enough to serve as prop to a falling house."

"Thou fool," hissed the man with sweat pouring down his face, and who through the working of his oriental mind already felt the swish of the whip about his shoulders, and the agony of the desert fly's bite on his flagellated anatomy. "It is Hahmed—the great Hahmed, who orders thee to his presence. It is thy chance, thou fool—it is———"

And his dull eyes brightened, and his sensual month widened in a grin as the girl sprang to her feet and sped to a mirror on the opposite side of the room.

"Dullard," she cried, as she pulled her clothing furiously from her, and stood with nothing but a plain coloured shawl of gauze covered in tinsel twined about her slim waist, "why hast thou wasted precious moments? Why has thou imperilled my chance by infuriating the great man? Out of my way, thou snail."

And as she fled precipitately from the room she caught the man by the throat and flung him against the wall with the ease of muscle trained to the last point.

"Ow!" exclaimed Ali 'Assan at the apparition in the doorway with the flaming henna head and taut brown body, with long, thin, brown arms stretched down stiff as ramrods to the sides, and "Ow!" he said again, as she suddenly moved and again stood still with the gleaming orange eyes fixed on his host, who looked at her for an instant, and looked away again to the far corner, as he indifferently lit a cigarette.

And then La Belle danced for all she was worth, and for all she knew, whilst the guest watched in sensual enjoyment, and the host took not the slightest notice.

Nearer she came, and nearer still, until the pungent odour of the insufferable Eastern perfume of which the body is musk, suddenly struck the nostrils of the man for whom she danced, bringing a slight frown to his face, and causing him to thoughtlessly raise his right hand, which, as perhaps the reader may not know, is an oriental sign of appreciation.

A flash of triumph swept across the face of the woman, who was absolutely on the wrong tack, as she sidled so near that her bare limbs almost touched the flowing cloak which swept round the man. His mind was full of his exquisite, delicate, tantalising, fastidious wife, his body ached for her, his soul fainted for even a touch of her little hand, so that once again he raised his right hand as though to sweep away some pestilential insect from his path, just one little careless gesture which proved a woman's undoing.

Back bent La Belle, and still farther back until her evil face was on a level with that of the man she was trying to subjugate, and when for an instant his eyes rested on hers, which peered at him from the strange angle of her upside down position, she whispered one little word.

And then a great fury suddenly blazed in Hahmed's eyes, a sudden storm of hate swept across the stern face, as his hand steel strong closed fiercely about the long thin neck.

"Thou daughter of gutter dogs," he whispered, so low that the words were hardly caught by Ali 'Assan, who with fingers twining uncontrollably in his white garment, sat petrified by the suddenly arisen storm. "Thou essence of evil, go back to the devil who spawned thee."

There was a choked gurgling cry as the hand closed tighter, a little click like the closing of a safe door, and the body of the dead woman, was hurled into the middle of the room, whilst Hahmed lit a cigarette and clapped his hands for the presence of Achmed, who, his legs refusing to support his shaking body, crawled in on his hands and knees.

"Carry that carrion out, O! thou trafficker in evil, and throw it to the jackals."

"Master, O! master! May the light of Allah shine upon thee in thy wisdom, may the houris of paradise make thy couch one of delight when thou art gathered to thy forefathers! In all ignorance I sent yon ignoble female to dance before my honoured guest—a great price I paid for her in the market."

"Thou liest," gently replied his master.

Whereupon Achmed gathered good handfuls of dust from the floor and massaged it into his oily hair, whilst Hahmed, rising to his great height, prayed forgiveness from his guest, who was even then thinking what a waste of good material the dead woman represented.

"Let this serve thee as a lesson, thou perverter of Allah's truth," spake Hahmed, in a voice as caressing as that of a woman, "and teach thee to acquire property which does honour to thy house. Camels, a male and female, shall be sent in payment for that for which thou hast not paid one piastre.

"Breed with them so that the milk refreshes the traveller, and the hair spins soft covering for their bed, and fail me not again, for behold when I strike it is as the lightning which blasts the tree."

And the two men stalked silently from the scene of the tragedy, leaving Achmed rubbing his hands in glee, with intervals of removing particles of dust from his eyes and mouth, whilst his virago of a first wife ambled in to ascertain the proceeds of the evening, an account of which caused her to raise dirty hands to heaven and praise Allah, before she ambled out again, contemptuously kicking the dead body en passant, which action nearly upset the equilibrium of her cumbersome body, as she hastened to summon the help necessary to lift and carry to the jackals the body of La Belle who had missed her chance.



CHAPTER LII

The full moon shone down on the scene, which surely had not changed since the wise men of the East—led by a star—came to find a Babe.

The palms swayed slightly in a faint breeze, the sand stretched a restful grey, and there was no sound whatever save the faint ripple of the life-giving stream singing its way through the oasis. Neither was there sign of human life excepting the figure of an Arab standing as if carved in bronze in the black shadow of the palms. Immobile, with arms folded he stood, eyes intent on the road leading to civilisation, watching and waiting, as he had watched and waited through many a night until dawn.

"Allah!" and the words were indistinguishable from the brook's murmuring. "God of all, send her back to me. Behold! with patience I have waited these last long months—and yet would I wait even until death—for thou, O! Allah, in Thy greatness hast allowed me dimly to understand this woman's mind—my woman, my heritage of all time.

"The Eastern night will draw her back, as surely as the moon will make a silvery path for her return; for she has but tried her soft white wings, and I have no fear that she will have sullied them in her flight.

"But this time, this time there shall be no escape."

The long brown hand stretched out as if to seize and hold, the slender fingers closed gently, but with a grip of steel, as though upon the whiteness of some woman's throat.

"When she comes back my wife," continued the voice, as the moon slowly swung up to her throne, blinding in her power the million twinkling eyes that had watched for her coming. "Yet, when she comes it will be for very love of me, her lover, and for love of the night and the scent of the dawn, for the stillness of the dusk, and the longing to lay her pure whiteness at rest within my arms."

And then he threw his hands heavenwards with a great cry.

"Allah, be praised! Oh Allah, unto thee I give thanks."

And sank upon his knees, touching the sand with his forehead, and rising with hands outstretched strode quickly to the clump of palms near the gate in the wall surrounding Jill's dwelling, to meet three camels stalking upon the road leading from civilisation towards him; one golden-brown with a closed palanquin swaying upon its back, the others dark brown, one laden with great skins, almost empty of water, and bundles of every size and description, the other mounted by the head keeper of camels, who, having brought the animals to their knees, ran to his master and knelt before him with his mouth open as though to speak, and a look of wracking anxiety and indecision upon his usually imperturbable countenance.

But a slight motion of his master's hand sent him hurriedly towards the servants' quarters, where he was received by scores of his own kind simply bursting with curiosity, whilst Hahmed silently held out his hands to help Jill from the palanquin.

She stumbled badly as her feet touched the ground, and bit on a cry as the man's strong hand caught and steadied her as she stood swaying slightly.

"Remove thy veil for I fain would see what winds have blown upon thee!"

The little figure, wrapped in countless yards of the soft purple satin habarah, recoiled a step as the words fell with the hiss of icy water upon red hot steel; a little nervous laugh rising like thin vapour on the strained atmosphere.

"And so the great Hahmed would expose the face of his wife to the driver of camels? Behold, has his pride fallen."

And she continued with the sharp edge of an approaching nerve storm in her voice.

"Methinks it would be better for him to send his fleetest camel to the great city, and bid it wait without the house of the Blue Door, wherein are to be found those who, unveiled and unashamed, will come and dance upon the sand before such men as—yon camel driver!"

A slight sound of tearing silk and the scented veil lay in Hahmed's hands, whilst the great moon threw its rays mercilessly on the little face.

Deep purple rings made the eyes seem twice their size, the nose looked pinched, the mouth slightly twisted, whilst great drops from the damp brow fell upon the silk covering she held heaped up around her.

"Allah!" ejaculated Hahmed, as he looked and looked again. "Methinks the winds have been ill which have blown upon thee. Thou lookest stricken unto death—and I know not how, but thou hast changed inconceivably—thou art shorter. No! I know not what it is, but hearken.

"Thou hast filled my cup of endurance, O! woman, to the brim. Yea! until the drops of bitterness have overflowed and fallen upon the sands, but now thou art come back, rather than let thee go I would drive this dagger through thy heart.

"Fear not that I will pass uncalled the silken hangings of thy chamber, or force upon thee the sweet title of wife which against my wish thou hast so long disdained, but thou art my prisoner. If love could not bind thee to me, then shall care be taken that thou strayest not again from thy home.

"Thy body woman has orders to come to thee only when I command her to do so, though such is her love for thee that she beats her shrivelled body in despair at thy absence, and is like to die for weariness of thy empty chamber. So when thou wilt retire, if perchance the silken ribbon of thy raiment has become knotted, there are no hands but these to the unravelling of the mysteries of thy toilet.

"If thou hast need of me, thou needest but call me, and I will speed to thy bidding, for behold! I will lay across thy portal, as I have lain these many moons since thy nest has been without the bird for whom it was my pleasure to build."

For a moment fell a mighty silence between the two, broken only by the stream which hurried past them on its way to the great green Nile.

Not a frond stirred, neither did the breeze even move the multitudinous folds of Jill's raiment.

From the West the sand swept up to her feet, and as far as eye could see to the East it stretched.

Slowly she turned and looked at the motionless figure under the palms, then silently she held out her hands with a little movement of utter submission, as a sound, twixt a sob and a moan, fell gently on the soft air.

For one long moment they looked across the sand at each other, these two who had been tried to their utmost limit, and then the man was at her feet, with, flimsy veil held in his hands, lower he bent and lower, as his white cloak swept out on each side of the girl like great protecting wings, as catching the hem of her dress he raised it to his forehead, and then rising to fasten the veil before her face, led her by the hand to the door of her dwelling, pulling back the white silk curtain for her to pass.



CHAPTER LIII

A very ecstasy of love radiated upon the Arab's face as he stood behind Jill, who in amazement stopped dead on the threshold.

Beautiful her many rooms had been, but none to compare with the snow-white beauty of this. Great white Persian rugs with faint tracings worked in gold and silver lay upon the white marble of the floor; white cushions, with little corner gold and silver tassels, lay piled upon a great divan raised a foot on ivory feet above the floor, and half hidden behind white damask curtains hanging from a finely wrought arch carved out of creamy stretches of ivory held together with gold and silver clasps of rare workmanship.

Stools of ivory, and one great perfect chair, made of innumerable tusks with each tip blunted by a ball of crystal, shone in the dim light cast by the hanging lamps, which drew countless rays from the four fountains playing in the four corners. Bibelots, jewelled boxes, rare books in rare age-dulled covers, things of use and things of luxury lay in every corner, and yet so big was the room that it gave Jill an infinitely refreshing feeling of space as she walked slowly through to another one, leading out from the far side, where crystal and ivory gleamed from low tables, and full length mirrors reflected the water in the Roman bath over which hung flowering plants scenting the air from the great gold and white cups, whilst two snow-white doves cooed to each other in a silver cage at the approach of the coming dawn.

"So would I have it for my—ah——!" Hahmed stopped suddenly, as with a little cry the girl falling forward clutched frantically at his fine white clothing, tearing it in many places under her weight.

"Woman—wife, art thou stricken with fear of him who loves thee—Allah! That I should have lived to see thy face distorted in anguish in my presence. I spoke in anger, O! my heart, but my wrath waxeth faint within me in thy beloved presence," and speaking soft words of love he raised her in his arms, causing the voluminous mantle which she held so closely about her to slip from her shoulders to the ground.

Speechless she stood before him with her hands before her face, and speechless stood Hahmed, as, holding her at arm's length, he gazed upon his woman, gazed until a great tremor suddenly shook him.

For behold he saw that the glory of womanhood had descended upon her, and that her hour was nigh.

"Allah!" he whispered, as he gently drew her into his arms. "Thou art with child, O! my beloved. Why was I not stricken blind for this my senseless folly? Why was I not stricken dumb for those my words of wrath spoken to thee, thou tree bearing the fruit of love? Oh! glory be to Allah in this most wonderful thing."

He picked her up, and carrying her into the first room, laid her upon the divan and knelt beside her with her hand against his mouth whilst she whispered to him the great, the everlastingly wonderful and new tidings of the coming of her babe.

"Oh, dearest of men and most little understanding. Truly it is that within me I hold thy great gift. How was it thou didst not guess when I no longer raced thee across the sands upon my horse, or sprang to the ground to greet thee on my return.

"And even when my moods changed even as changeth the colour of the sands, even then, dear heart, thou didst not guess; and I in my foolish woman's way was contrary, and could not even then be sure that my happiness lay here in the desert. And so I left thee, to try thee and myself, and not until I could no longer see thee, and have speech with thee, did I——— Hahmed! Ah, beloved! Nay, 'tis nothing—it can be nothing—because two moons have yet to rise and wane before—ah, and yet—maybe—maybe the journey, although not tedious, has brought about my happiness before its time. Beloved, I———"

With eyes alight, with a great pride and face aglow with tenderness, Hahmed bent and kissed the little agonised face.

"I go one instant, Queen of Women, to bid thy body woman come, she, praise be to Allah, being well versed in the mighty miracle of birth.

"She will tend thee with the tenderness of a mother, and the skill of the greatest doctor in the land.

"Fret not, beloved, I am gone but for one moment."

Jill lay silent, and then smiled sweetly as out of the shadows ran a little hunchback figure who stood without word, for a moment gazing with love-laden eyes at the white woman, then kneeling suddenly, kissed the cushion upon which rested the girl's dainty feet.

For half an hour Jill submitted to the adoring little woman's ministrations, who made water to splash, and scented the air with aromatic perfume, and spread white loose gowns and softest linens before her mistress for her choice.

"Leave me, Ameena, now," whispered Jill, and she was alone with the golden glory of her hair falling about her, as she pressed her hands against her mouth, until uncontrollably and insistently her cry for her master tore the air.

"Hahmed! Ah, Hahmed! Come to me!"

And he was beside her.

The Arab had faced death more than once, had witnessed things unmoved which had served to freeze the very blood of others; but never had he heard such a cry as this which cleft the shadows in the room.

Great drops of sweat shone upon his forehead as he stooped above the couch, his strong white teeth biting into his under lip.

Swiftly he crossed the room, pulling back the silken curtain which served as a door, leaving an opening through which the dying moon struck a mighty silver spear.

And as swiftly he passed out into the gardens scented with sweet flowers, a little gate in the wall swinging back at his touch, through which he sped on and on to the great plains of his beloved desert.

It was the hour before the dawn, and turning in the direction of Mecca he prayed, and the prayer finished, advanced yet another twenty yards and, divesting himself of his cloak, laid it upon the ground, and then turning, sped back to his woman who honoured him before all men.

A little breeze heralding the coming dawn blew the silken curtains gently to and fro as the man knelt beside the low divan.

"Hahmed! the hour strikes—I am afraid—I—oh! Hahmed, I cannot see thy face, beloved."

Two little white hands sought and grasped the strong ones held out to help, for through the faint voice had crept a note of fear.

But even though the little teeth had bit until red drops of blood had spilled from her mouth on to the white cushion, the great eyes smiled up into the man's tortured face as he bent closer to the golden head.

"Harken! Woman of women, thou who bringest honour unto me, in this thou shalt please thyself, for art thou not in this moment a very queen, and I but a slave at thy feet.

"Behold is it the custom of my tribe, dwellers of the desert, children of the sand, that the woman give birth to her first-born upon the very sand of this mighty desert.

"Not upon couch and silken cloth does the first-born draw its breath, but upon the sand with the desert wind upon his little head.

"I have no command for thee, beloved, because thou art of the West, where different customs rule, and I—I mind not—for my love for thee is above all custom, and all manner and fashioning of mankind! Choose then and I am satisfied!"

Once again two little hands shone dimly as they were raised, searching blindly.

"Take me into thy arms, beloved, and carry me to the desert sand, for behold, thy will is my will and my ways are henceforth thy ways! But hasten! for the moment is at hand. Hold me in thy strength for I faint!"

Tenderly the great man stooped and gathered the girl to his breast. Swiftly he crossed the threshold, and passing through the gate gently laid her down upon his mantle, stretched upon the ground.

* * * * * *

The wind of dawn blew the stars out one by one, the great plains of sand changed from purple to steel, to grey, to yellow.

The palms whispered gently together, the water sang on its swift way to the river, a faint movement everywhere heralded the coming of the day.

Motionless, Hahmed knelt beside Jill, whose snow-white face, half-ridden in the folds of cloth, looked like some faint spring flower in a world of shadows.

And then, as the woman whose unbound hair rippled in golden streams about the Arab's feet, put out her hands to grasp her master's robe, a long-drawn cry which spoke of pain and joy, death and ecstasy and Life, crept over the sands, rising, rising to the very heavens, to sink back in faintest moan to her who in that moment had fulfilled the miracle of Love.

A hush fell upon the earth, a mighty stillness upon those two.

And then!

A little sound, soft as a bird's call at dawn, broke the silence of the sands!

And at the little sound the man sprang upright, with hands and blazing eyes upraised to heaven.

And as he stood towering over the motionless woman at his feet, the sound of rejoicing was great in the land; for over the yellow sand, tearing apart the last dim shadows of the night, up struck the sun's first golden shaft, and as it spread, piling gold upon red, and red upon gold, across the great plains and up to the very highest of high heaven thundered the Mohammedan's tumultuous, triumphant hymn of praise.

"La Allah, illa Allah! Muhammed rasul Allah!"



THE END



[Transcriber's note: The word "Amourers" in Chapter XXXIII should probably be "Armourers" (weapon makers).]

[Transcriber's note: In the "La Allah" line above, two characters are supported only in Unicode. They are the second "a" in "Allah" and the "a" in "illa", both of which should be a-macron (U+0101), and the "u" in "rasul", which should be u-macron (U+016B).]

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