HotFreeBooks.com
The Sheik - A Novel
by E. M. Hull
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

Diana's eyes passed over him slowly till they rested on his brown, clean-shaven face, surmounted by crisp, close-cut brown hair. It was the handsomest and cruellest face that she had ever seen. Her gaze was drawn instinctively to his. He was looking at her with fierce burning eyes that swept her until she felt that the boyish clothes that covered her slender limbs were stripped from her, leaving the beautiful white body bare under his passionate stare.

She shrank back, quivering, dragging the lapels of her riding jacket together over her breast with clutching hands, obeying an impulse that she hardly understood.

"Who are you?" she gasped hoarsely.

"I am the Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan."

The name conveyed nothing. She had never heard it before. She had spoken without thinking in French, and in French he replied to her.

"Why have you brought me here?" she asked, fighting down the fear that was growing more terrible every moment.

He repeated her words with a slow smile. "Why have I brought you here? Bon Dieu! Are you not woman enough to know?"

She shrank back further, a wave of colour rushing into her face that receded immediately, leaving her whiter than she had been before. Her eyes fell under the kindling flame in his. "I don't know what you mean," she whispered faintly, with shaking lips.

"I think you do." He laughed softly, and his laugh frightened her more than anything he had said. He came towards her, and although she was swaying on her feet, desperately she tried to evade him, but with a quick movement he caught her in his arms.

Terror, agonising, soul-shaking terror such as she had never imagined, took hold of her. The flaming light of desire burning in his eyes turned her sick and faint. Her body throbbed with the consciousness of a knowledge that appalled her. She understood his purpose with a horror that made each separate nerve in her system shrink against the understanding that had come to her under the consuming fire of his ardent gaze, and in the fierce embrace that was drawing her shaking limbs closer and closer against the man's own pulsating body. She writhed in his arms as he crushed her to him in a sudden access of possessive passion. His head bent slowly down to her, his eyes burned deeper, and, held immovable, she endured the first kiss she had ever received. And the touch of his scorching lips, the clasp of his arms, the close union with his warm, strong body robbed her of all strength, of all power of resistance.

With a great sob her eyes closed wearily, the hot mouth pressed on hers was like a narcotic, drugging her almost into insensibility. Numbly she felt him gather her high up into his arms, his lips still clinging closely, and carry her across the tent through curtains into an adjoining room. He laid her down on soft cushions. "Do not make me wait too long," he whispered, and left her.

And the whispered words sent a shock through her that seemed to wrench her deadened nerves apart, galvanising her into sudden strength. She sprang up with wild, despairing eyes, and hands clenched frantically across her heaving breast; then, with a bitter cry, she dropped on to the floor, her arms flung out across the wide, luxurious bed. It was not true! It was not true! It could not be—this awful thing that had happened to her—not to her, Diana Mayo! It was a dream, a ghastly dream that would pass and free her from this agony. Shuddering, she raised her head. The strange room swam before her eyes. Oh, God! It was not a dream. It was real, it was an actual fact from which there was no escape. She was trapped, powerless, defenceless, and behind the heavy curtains near her was the man waiting to claim what he had taken. Any moment he might come; the thought sent her shivering closer to the ground with limbs that trembled uncontrollably. Her courage, that had faced dangers and even death without flinching, broke down before the horror that awaited her. It was inevitable; there was no help to be expected, no mercy to be hoped for. She had felt the crushing strength against which she was helpless. She would struggle, but it would be useless; she would fight, but it would make no difference. Within the tent she was alone, ready to his hand like a snared animal; without, the place was swarming with the man's followers. There was nowhere she could turn, there was no one she could turn to. The certainty of the accomplishment of what she dreaded crushed her with its surety. All power of action was gone. She could only wait and suffer in the complete moral collapse that overwhelmed her, and that was rendered greater by her peculiar temperament. Her body was aching with the grip of his powerful arms, her mouth was bruised with his savage kisses. She clenched her hands in anguish. "Oh, God!" she sobbed, with scalding tears that scorched her cheeks. "Curse him! Curse him!"

And with the words on her lips he came, silent, noiseless, to her side. With his hands on her shoulders he forced her to her feet. His eyes were fierce, his stern mouth parted in a cruel smile, his deep, slow voice half angry, half impatiently amused. "Must I be valet, as well as lover?"



CHAPTER III

The warm sunshine was flooding the tent when Diana awoke from the deep sleep of exhaustion that had been almost insensibility, awoke to immediate and complete remembrance. One quick, fearful glance around the big room assured her that she was alone. She sat up slowly, her eyes shadowy with pain, looking listlessly at the luxurious appointments of the tent. She looked dry-eyed, she had no tears left. They had all been expended when she had grovelled at his feet imploring the mercy he had not accorded her. She had fought until the unequal struggle had left her exhausted and helpless in his arms, until her whole body was one agonised ache from the brutal hands that forced her to compliance, until her courageous spirit was crushed by the realisation of her own powerlessness, and by the strange fear that the man himself had awakened in her, which had driven her at last moaning to her knees. And the recollection of her abject prayers and weeping supplications filled her with a burning shame. She loathed herself with bitter contempt. Her courage had broken down; even her pride had failed her.

She wound her arms about her knees and hid her face against them. "Coward! Coward!" she whispered fiercely. Why had she not scorned him? Or why had she not suffered all that he had done to her in silence? It would have pleased him less than the frenzied entreaties that had only provoked the soft laugh that made her shiver each time she heard it. She shivered now. "I thought I was brave," she murmured brokenly. "I am only a coward, a craven."

She lifted her head at last and looked around her. The room was a curious mixture of Oriental luxury and European comfort. The lavish sumptuousness of the furnishings suggested subtly an unrestrained indulgence, the whole atmosphere was voluptuous, and Diana shrank from the impression it conveyed without exactly understanding the reason. There was nothing that jarred artistically, the rich hangings all harmonised, there were no glaring incongruities such as she had seen in native palaces in India. And everything on which her eyes rested drove home relentlessly the hideous fact of her position. His things were everywhere. On a low, brass-topped table by the bed was the half-smoked cigarette he had had between his lips when he came to her. The pillow beside her still bore the impress of his head. She looked at it with a growing horror in her eyes until an uncontrollable shuddering seized her and she cowered down, smothering the cry that burst from her in the soft pillows and dragging the silken coverings up around her as if their thin shelter were a protection. She lived again through every moment of the past night until thought was unendurable, until she felt that she would go mad, until at last, worn out, she fell asleep.

It was midday when she awoke again. This time she was not alone. A young Arab girl was sitting on the rug beside her looking at her with soft brown eyes of absorbed interest As Diana sat up she rose to her feet, salaaming, with a timid smile.

"I am Zilah, to wait on Madame," she said shyly in stumbling French, holding out a wrap that Diana recognised with wonder as her own. She looked behind her. Her suit-cases were lying near her, open, partially unpacked. The missing baggage camels had been captured first, then. She was at least to be allowed the use of her own belongings. A gleam of anger shot into her tired eyes and she swung round with a sharp question; but the Arab girl shook her head uncomprehendingly, drawing back with frightened eyes; and to all further questions she remained silent, with down-drooping mouth like a scared child. She was little more. She evidently only half understood what was said to her and could give no answer to what she did understand, and turned away with obvious relief when Diana stopped speaking. She went across the tent and pulled aside a curtain leading into a bathroom that was as big and far better equipped than the one that Diana had had in the Indian tent, and which, up to now, had seemed the last word in comfort and luxury. Though the girl's knowledge of French was limited her hands were deft enough, but her ignorance of the intricacies of a European woman's toilette was very apparent, and constantly provoked in her a girlish giggle that changed hurriedly to a startled gravity when Diana looked at her. Laughter was very far from Diana, but she could not help smiling now and again at her funny mistakes.

The girl, with her big, wondering eyes, her shy, hesitating French and childish curiosity, in some indefinable way gave back to Diana the self-control that had slipped from her. Her pride reasserted itself, rigidly suppressing any sign of feeling or emotion that could be noticed by the gentle, inquisitive eyes fixed on her.

The hot bath that took the soreness out of her limbs brought back the colour to her face and lips. She even tubbed her head, rubbing the glistening curls dry with fierce vigour, striving to rid herself of the contamination that seemed to have saturated her. Yet the robes against which they had been pressed were spotless, and the hands that had held her were fastidiously clean, even to the well-kept nails.

She came back into the bedroom to find Zilah on her knees poring over her scanty but diverse wardrobe with bewilderment, fingering the evening dresses with shy hands, and finally submitting tentatively to Diana the tweed skirt that had been packed with her other things for the journey when Oran should be reached. But Diana put it aside, and pointed to the riding clothes she had worn the previous day. In them she felt more able to face what might be before her, the associations connected with them seemed to give her moral strength, in them she would feel herself again—Diana the boy, not the shivering piece of womanhood that had been born with tears and agony last night. She bit her lip as she stamped her foot down into the long boot.

She sent the girl away at last, and noticed that she avoided passing into the adjoining room, but vanished instead through the curtains leading into the bathroom. Did that mean that in the outer room the Arab Sheik was waiting? The thought banished the self-control she had regained and sent her weakly on to the side of the bed with her face hidden in her hands. Was he there? Her questions to the little waiting-girl had only been concerned with the whereabouts of the camp to which she had been brought and also of the fate of the caravan; of the man himself she had not been able to bring herself to speak. The strange fear that he had inspired in her filled her with rage and humiliation. The thought of seeing him again brought a shame that was unspeakable. But she conquered the agitation that threatened to grow beyond restraint, pride helping her again. It was better to face the inevitable of her own free will than be fetched whether she would or not. For she knew now the strength of the man who had abducted her, knew that physically she was helpless against him. She raised her head and listened. It was very silent in the next room. Perhaps she was to be allowed a further respite. She jerked her head impatiently at her own hesitation. "Coward!" she whispered again contemptuously, and flung across the room. But at the curtains she halted for a moment, then with set face drew them aside and went through.

The respite had been granted, the room appeared to be empty. But as she crossed the thick rugs her heart leapt suddenly into her throat, for she became aware of a man standing in the open doorway. His back was turned to her, but in a moment she saw that the short, slim figure in white linen European clothes bore no resemblance to the tall Arab she had expected to see. She thought her footsteps were noiseless, but he turned with a little quick bow. A typical Frenchman with narrow, alert, clean-shaven face, sleek black hair and dark restless eyes. His legs were slightly bowed and he stooped a little; his appearance was that of a jockey with the manners of a well-trained servant. Diana coloured hotly under his glance, but his eyes were lowered instantly.

"Madame is doubtless ready for lunch." He spoke rapidly, but his voice was low and pleasant. His movements were as quick and as quiet as his voice, and in a dream Diana found herself in a few moments before a lunch that was perfectly cooked and daintily served. The man hovered about her solicitously, attending to her wants with dexterous hands and watchful eyes that anticipated every need. She was bewildered, faint from want of food, everything seemed unreal. For the moment she could just sit still and be waited on by the soft-footed, soft-spoken manservant who seemed such a curious adjunct to the household of an Arab chief.

"Monseigneur begs that you will excuse him until this evening. He will return in time for dinner," he murmured as he handed her a cous-cous.

Diana looked up blankly. "Monseigneur?"

"My master. The Sheik."

She flushed scarlet and her face hardened. Hypocritical, Oriental beast who "begged to be excused"! She refused the last dish curtly, and as the servant carried it away she propped her elbows on the table and rested her aching head on her hands. A headache was among the new experiences that had overwhelmed her since the day before. Suffering in any form was new to her, and her hatred of the man who had made her suffer grew with every breath she drew.

The Frenchman came back with coffee and cigarettes. He held a match for her, coaxing the reluctant flame with patience that denoted long experience with inferior sulphur.

"Monseigneur dines at eight. At what hour will Madame have tea?" he asked, as he cleared away and folded up the table.

Diana choked back the sarcastic retort that sprang to her lips. The man's quiet, deferential manner, that refused to see anything extraordinary in her presence in his master's camp, was almost harder to bear than flagrant impertinence would have been. That she could have dealt with; this left her tingling with a feeling of impotence, as if a net were gradually closing round her in whose entangling meshes her vaunted liberty was not only threatened, but which seemed destined even to stifle her very existence. She pulled her racing thoughts up with a jerk. She must not think if she was going to keep any hold over herself at all. She gave him an answer indifferently and turned her back on him. When she looked again he was gone, and she heaved a sigh of relief. She had chafed under his watchful eyes until the feeling of restraint had grown unbearable.

She breathed more freely now that he was gone, flinging up her head and jerking her shoulders back with an angry determination to conquer the fear that made her ashamed. Natural curiosity had been struggling with her other emotions, and she gave way to it now to try and turn the channel of her thoughts from the fixed direction in which they tended, and wandered round the big room. The night before she had taken in nothing of her surroundings, her eyes had been held only by the man who had dominated everything. Here, also, were the same luxurious appointments as in the sleeping-room. She had knowledge enough to appreciate that the rugs and hangings were exquisite, the former were Persian and the latter of a thick black material, heavily embroidered in silver. The main feature of the room was a big black divan heaped with huge cushions covered with dull black silk. Beside the divan, spread over the Persian rugs, were two unusually large black bearskins, the mounted heads converging. At one end of the tent was a small doorway, a little portable writing-table. There were one or two Moorish stools heaped with a motley collection of ivories and gold and silver cigarette cases and knick-knacks, and against the partition that separated the two rooms stood a quaintly carved old wooden chest. Though the furniture was scanty and made the tent seem even more spacious than it really was, the whole room had an air of barbaric splendour. The somber hangings gleaming with thick silver threads seemed to Diana like a studied theatrical effect, a setting against which the Arab's own white robes should contrast more vividly; she remembered the black and silver waistcloth she had seen swathed round him, with curling scornful lip. There was a strain of vanity in all natives, she generalised contemptuously. Doubtless it pleased this native's conceit to carry out the colour scheme of his tent even in his clothes, and pose among the sable cushions of the luxurious divan to the admiration of his retainers. She made a little exclamation of disgust, and turned from the soft seductiveness of the big couch with disdain.

She crossed the tent to the little bookcase and knelt beside it curiously. What did a Francophile-Arab read? Novels, probably, that would harmonise with the atmosphere that she dimly sensed in her surroundings. But it was not novels that filled the bookcase. They were books of sport and travel with several volumes on veterinary surgery. They were all in French, and had all been frequently handled, many of them had pencilled notes in the margins written in Arabic. One shelf was filled entirely with the works of one man, a certain Vicomte Raoul de Saint Hubert. With the exception of one novel, which Diana only glanced at hastily; they were all books of travel. From the few scribbled words in the front of each Diana could see that they had all been sent to the Arab by the author himself—one even was dedicated to "My friend, Ahmed Ben Hassan, Sheik of the Desert." She put the books back with a puzzled frown. She wished, with a feeling that she could not fathom, that they had been rather what she had imagined. The evidence of education and unlooked-for tastes in the man they belonged to troubled her. It was an unexpected glimpse into the personality of the Arab that had captured her was vaguely disquieting, for it suggested possibilities that would not have existed in a raw native, or one only superficially coated with a veneer of civilisation. He seemed to become infinitely more sinister, infinitely more horrible. She looked at her watch with sudden apprehension. The day was wearing away quickly. Soon he would come. Her breath came quick and short and the tears welled up in her eyes.

"I mustn't! I mustn't!" she whispered in a kind of desperation. "If I cry again I shall go mad." She forced them back, and crossing to the big black divan that she had scorned before dropped down among the soft cushions. She was so tired, and her head throbbed persistently.

She was asleep when the servant brought tea, but she started up as he put the tray on a stool beside her.

"It is Madame's own tea. If she will be good enough to say if it is made to her taste," he said anxiously, as if his whole happiness was contained in the tiny teapot at which he was frowning deprecatingly.

His assiduity jarred on Diana's new-found jangling nerves. She recognised that he was sincere in his efforts to please her, but just now they only seemed an added humiliation. She longed to shout "Go away!" like an angry schoolboy, but she managed to give him the information he wanted, and putting cigarettes and matches by her he went out with a little smile of satisfaction. The longing for fresh air and the desire to see what place she had been brought to grew irresistible as the evening came nearer. She went to the open doorway. A big awning stretched before it, supported on lances. She stepped out from under its shade and looked about her wonderingly. It was a big oasis—bigger than any she had seen. In front of the tent there was an open space with a thick belt of palm trees beyond. The rest of the camp lay behind the Chief's tent. The place was alive with men and horses. There were some camels in the distance, but it was the horses that struck Diana principally. They were everywhere, some tethered; some wandering loose, some exercising in the hands of grooms. Mounted Arabs on the outskirts of the oasis crossed her view occasionally. There were groups of men engaged on various duties all around her. Those who went by near her salaamed as they passed, but took no further notice of her. A strange look came into Diana's eyes. This was the desert indeed, the desert as she had never expected to see it, the desert as few could expect to see it. But the cost! She shuddered, then turned at a sudden noise near her. A biting, screaming chestnut fury was coming past close to the tent, taking complete charge of the two men who clung, yelling, to his head. He was stripped, but Diana recognised him at once. The one brief view she had had of his small, vicious head as he shot past her elbow the evening before was written on her brain for all time. He came to a halt opposite Diana, refusing to move, his ears laid close to his head, quivering all over, snatching continually at his grooms, who seemed unable to cope with him. Once he swung up on his hind legs and his cruel teeth flashed almost into the face of one of the men, who was taken off his guard, and who dropped on to the ground, rolling out of the way with a howl that provoked a shout of laughter from a knot of Arabs who had gathered to watch the usual evening eccentricities of the chestnut. The French servant, coming from behind the tent, stopped to speak to the man as he picked himself up and made a grab at the horse's head, and then turned to Diana with his pleasant smile.

"He is rightly named Shaitan, Madame, for he is assuredly possessed of a devil," he said, indicating the chestnut, who, at that moment, with a violent plunge, broke away from the men who were holding him and headed for the edge of the oasis with the Arabs streaming after him. "The mounted men will catch him," he added with a little laugh, in response to Diana's exclamation.

"Is he amusing himself, or is it really vice?" she asked.

"Pure vice, Madame. He has killed three men."

Diana looked at him incredulously, for his tone was casual and his manner did not indicate any undue feeling.

"He ought to be shot," she said indignantly.

The man shrugged. "Monseigneur is fond of him," he said quietly.

And so because Monseigneur was fond of him the vicious animal was surrounded with every care that his master's pleasure might not be interfered with. Evidently the lives of his wretched people were of less value to him than that of a favourite horse. It sounded compatible with the mercilessness she had herself experienced. What she would not have believed yesterday to-day seemed terribly credible. The courage that the relief of his absence brought back was sinking fast, as fast as the red ball glowing in the heavens was sinking down towards the horizon. She turned from her own fearful thoughts to look at some more horses that were being led away to the lines on the other side of the camp.

"The horses are magnificent, but they are bigger than any Arabs I have seen before."

"They are a special breed, Madame," replied the Frenchman. "The tribe has been famous for them for generations. Monseigneur's horses are known through all the Barbary States, and as far as France," he added, with a little accent of pride creeping into his voice.

Diana looked at him speculatively. There was an inflection in his voice each time he mentioned his master that indicated a devotion that she was unable to accredit to the brute for whose treatment she was still suffering. But her thoughts were broken into abruptly.

"There is Monseigneur," said the servant suddenly. He spoke as if she, too, must be glad of his coming. Did the valet imagine for one moment that she was here of her own free will? Or was it all a part of the hypocrisy in which she seemed to be enveloped? She flashed one glance at the horseman riding through the belt of trees that fringed the oasis and an icy perspiration chilled her from head to foot. She shrank back under the awning and into the coolness of the tent, raging against the mastering fear that she could not overcome. But just inside the open doorway she stood firm; even her fear could make her go no further. She would meet him here, not cowering into the inner room like a trembling creature skulking in the furthest corner of its cage. That much pride at least was left.

From the shelter of the tent she watched the troop arrive at the open space before her. The horse the Sheik was riding was jet black, and Diana looked from the beautiful creature's satiny coat to the man's white robes with angry contempt.

"Black and white! Black and white! Mountebank!" she muttered through her clenched teeth. Then as he swung to the ground every thought fell from her but the terror he inspired. She waited, breathless, the swift racing of her heart an actual physical pain.

He lingered, fondling the great black horse, and even after it had been led away he stood looking after it, talking to a tall young Arab who had ridden in with him. At last he turned and came leisurely towards the tent. He paused at the door to speak to the Frenchman, a picturesque, barbaric figure, with flowing robes and great white cloak, the profile of his lean face clean cut against the evening sky, the haughty poise of his head emphasised by the attitude in which he was standing, arrogant, dominating. He moved his hands when he spoke with quick, expressive gestures, but his voice was slow and soft, pitched in a deep musical key, but with all its softness unmistakably authoritative. He pointed with outstretched, steady hand to something beyond her line of vision, and as he turned to enter the tent he laughed softly, and she shivered involuntarily. Then he swept in, and she drew back from him with lowered eyes. She would not look at him; she would not meet his look. His presence was an offence, she was scorched with shame. Every fibre of her being cried out in protest at his proximity. She wished with passionate fierceness that she could die. She shook feverishly and caught her quivering lip between her teeth to keep it still, and the red-gold curls lay wet against her forehead. Her breast heaved stormily with the rapid beating of her heart, but she held herself proudly erect. He crossed the tent with a long noiseless stride.

"I hope that Gaston took care of you properly and gave you everything that you wanted?" he said easily, stooping to a little table to light a cigarette. The coolness of his words and manner were like a dash of cold water. She had been prepared for anything but this calm nonchalance in a situation that was intolerable. His tone conveyed the perfunctory regret of a host for an unavoidable absence. Her fear gave way to rage, her body stiffened, her hands clenched.

"Is it not time that this ended? Haven't you done enough?" she burst out passionately. "Why have you committed this outrage?"

A thin thread of smoke drifted towards her, as if the hand holding the cigarette had moved in her direction in one of the gestures that she had noticed outside, but there was no answer. His silence infuriated her and she grew utterly reckless.

"Do you think that you can keep me here, you fool? That I can vanish into the desert and no notice be taken of my disappearance—that no inquiries will be made?"

"There will be no inquiries," he answered calmly.

She ground the heel of her boot into the soft carpet. "There will be inquiries," she choked furiously. "I am not such a nonentity that nothing will be done when I am missed. The English authorities will make the French Government find out who is responsible, and you will have to pay for what you have done."

He laughed—the little amused laugh that sent the same cold feeling of dread through her that she had felt the day before.

"The French Government has no jurisdiction over me. I am not subject to it. I am an independent chief, my own master. I recognise no government. My tribe obey me and only me."

Her shaking fingers found the handkerchief for which they were groping, and she wiped the moisture that had gathered on the palms of her hands.

"When I am missed——" she began desperately, trying to keep a bold front, but her assurance was leaving her.

"You will not be missed for so long that it will be too late," he replied drily.

"Too late! What do you mean?" she gasped.

"Your own plans will stop any possibility of inquiry for some time to come." He paused, and behind her, Diana heard him strike another match. The banal little incident nearly snapped her nerves that were stretched to breaking-point. She put her hands to her head to try and stop the throbbing in her temples.

"You engaged a caravan in charge of Mustafa Ali," he went on evenly, "to travel in the desert for a month. You set out from Biskra, but your intention was at the end of the time to travel northward to Oran and there dismiss the caravan. From there you were to cross to Marseilles, then to Cherbourg, where you would embark for America to follow your brother, who has already started."

She listened breathlessly with an ever-increasing fear growing in her eyes. The slow, casual voice detailing her itinerary with the quiet certainty of perfect knowledge filled her with a terror that made her want to scream. She swayed a little as she stood, her eyes fixed on the endless strip of desert and gold-flecked sky visible through the opening of the tent, but she saw nothing of the undulating sand, nor the red glory of the setting sun.

"How do you know—all—this?" she whispered with dry lips that trembled.

"I wished to know. It was quite simple." The answer was given carelessly, and again the thin thread of smoke drifted across her face.

Her anger flamed up again. "Is it money that you want? Are you holding me for ransom?" But her scornful voice faltered and died away on the last word, and it did not need his silence to convince her that it was no question of ransom. She had only spoken to try and stifle the inner conviction that grew despite her efforts to crush it. Her hands were locked together tightly, her eyes still staring out unseeing at the wonderful sunset. She felt dazed, hopeless, like a fugitive who has turned into a cul-de-sac, hemmed in on every side; there seemed no way out, no loophole of escape. She wrung her hands convulsively and a great shudder shook her. Then in her despair a faint ray of hope came.

"Mustafa Ali, or one of the caravan men may have given the alarm already in Biskra—if you have not—murdered them all," she whispered jerkily.

"I have not murdered them all," he rejoined shortly, "but Mustafa Ali will not give any alarm in Biskra."

"Why?" She tried to keep silent, but the question was forced from her, and she waited tense for his answer. Tales of ruthless Arab cruelty surged through her mind. What had been the fate of the unfortunate caravan leader? Her eyes closed and her throat grew dry.

"There was no need for any murder," he continued sarcastically. "When you come to know me better you will realise that I do not leave too much to chance. 'All things are with Allah, blessed be his name.' Good! But it is well to remember that Allah does not always concern himself with the affairs of men, and arrange accordingly. If I had left this affair to chance there might very easily have been, as you suggest, murder done—though we do not call it murder in the desert. It was very simple. Voyons! You paid Mustafa Ali well to guide you in the desert. I paid him better to lead you to me. I paid him well enough to make him content to remove himself from Biskra, where awkward questions might be asked, to another sphere of usefulness where he is not known, and where he can build up for himself a new reputation as a caravan leader."

There was another silence and her hands went groping to her throat. It had been no chance affair then—no accidental meeting that the Arab chief had turned to his own account, but an organised outrage that had been carefully planned from the beginning. From the very outset she had been a dupe. She ground her teeth with rage. Her suave, subservient guide had been leading her the whole time, not in the direction that had been mapped out in Biskra, but towards the man who had bought him to betray his trust. Mustafa Ali's shifting eyes, his desire to hurry her from the oasis where they had rested at mid-day, his tone were all explained. He had acted well. The last touch—the imaginary wound that had toppled him slowly out of his saddle had been a masterpiece, she reflected bitterly. Nothing had been omitted to make the attempt a success. The horse that had been given her to ride was the Sheik's beyond all doubt, trained to his whistle. Even her revolver had been tampered with. She had not missed, as she had thought. She remembered the noise, the fleeting vision she had had in the hotel at Biskra. It had been some one in her room, Mustafa Ali himself, or one of his men, who had stolen in and substituted the blank cartridges. The possibility of Aubrey changing his mind and accompanying her must also have been thought of, for the Sheik had provided against the resistance that would certainly have then been made by the number of followers he had brought with him—a large enough force to frustrate easily any attempted opposition to the attack.

The net that she had felt closing round her earlier in the afternoon seemed wrapped round her now inextricably, drawing tighter and tighter, smothering her. She gasped for breath. The sinking sun seemed suddenly to leap up wildly into the heavens; then she pulled herself together with a tremendous effort. "Why have you done this?" she murmured faintly.

Then for a moment her heart stood still, her eyes dilating. He had come close behind her, and she waited in an agony, until he caught her to him, crushing her against him, forcing her head back on his arm.

"Because I wanted you. Because one day in Biskra, four weeks ago, I saw you for a few moments, long enough to know that I wanted you. And what I want I take. You played into my hands. You arranged a tour in the desert. The rest was easy."

Her eyes were shut, the long dark lashes quivering on her pale cheeks so that she could not see his face, but she felt him draw her closer to him and then his fierce kisses on her mouth. She struggled frantically, but she was helpless, and he laughed softly as he kissed her lips, her hair, her eyes passionately. He stood quite still, but she felt the heavy beating of his heart under her cheek, and understood dimly the passion that she had aroused in him. She had experienced his tremendous strength. She realised from what he had told her that he recognised no law beyond his own wishes, and was prepared to go to any lengths to fulfil them. She knew that her life was in his hands, that he could break her with his lean brown fingers like a toy is broken, and all at once she felt pitifully weak and frightened. She was utterly in his power and at his mercy—the mercy of an Arab who was merciless.

She gave in suddenly, lying quiet in his arms. She had touched the lowest depths of degradation; he could do nothing more to her than he had done. For the moment she could fight no further, she was worn out and utterly weary. A numb feeling of despair came over her and with it a sense of unreality, as if it were a hideous nightmare from which she would wake, for the truth seemed too impossible, the setting too theatrical. The man himself was a mystery. She could not reconcile him and the barbaric display in which he lived with the evidences of refinement and education that the well-worn books in the tent evinced. The fastidious ordering of his appointments puzzled her; it was strange to find in such a place. A dozen incongruities that she had noticed during the day crowded into her recollection until her head reeled. She turned from them wearily; she was too tired to think, too spent in mind and body. And with the despair a kind of indifference stole over her. She had suffered so much that nothing more mattered.

The strong arms around her tightened slowly. "Look at me," he said in the soft slow voice that seemed habitual to him, and which contrasted oddly with the neat, clipping French that he spoke. She shivered and her dark lashes flickered for a moment. "Look at me." His voice was just as slow, just as soft, but into it had crept an inflection that was unmistakable.

Twenty-four hours ago Diana Mayo had not known the meaning of the word fear, and had never in all her life obeyed any one against her inclination, but in twenty-four hours she had lived through years of emotions. For the first time she had pitted her will against a will that was stronger than her own, for the first time she had met an arrogance that was greater and a determination that was firmer than hers. For the first time she had met a man who had failed to bow to her wishes, whom a look had been powerless to transform into a willing slave. In a few hours that had elapsed she had learned fear, a terrible fear that left her sick with apprehension, and she was learning obedience. Obedient now, she forced herself to lift her eyes to his, and the shamed blood surged slowly into her cheeks. His dark, passionate eyes burnt into her like a hot flame. His encircling arms were like bands of fire, scorching her. His touch was torture. Helpless, like a trapped wild thing, she lay against him, panting, trembling, her wide eyes fixed on him, held against their will. Fascinated she could not turn them away, and the image of the brown, handsome face with its flashing eyes, straight, cruel mouth and strong chin seemed searing into her brain. The faint indefinite scent of an uncommon Turkish tobacco clung about him, enveloping her. She had been conscious of the same scent the previous day when he had held her in his arms during the wild ride across the desert.

He smiled down at her suddenly. "Bon Dieu! Do you know how beautiful you are?" he murmured. But the sound of his voice seemed to break a spell that had kept her dumb. She struggled again to free herself.

"Let me go!" she cried piteously, and it was her complete immunity from him that she prayed for, but he chose wilfully to misunderstand her. The passion faded from his eyes, giving place to a gleam of mockery.

"There is plenty of time. Gaston is the most discreet servant. We shall hear him when he comes," he said with a low laugh.

But she persisted with the courage of desperation. "When will you let me go?"

With an exclamation of impatience he put her from him roughly, and going to the divan flung himself down on the cushions, lit another cigarette and picked up a magazine that was lying on an inlaid stool beside him.

She bit her lips to keep back the hysterical sobs that rose in her throat, nerving herself with clenched hands, and followed him. "You must tell me. I must know. When will you let me go?"

He turned a page with deliberation, and flicked the ash from his cigarette before looking up. A heavy scowl gathered on his face, and his eyes swept her from head to foot with a slow scrutiny that made her shrink. "When I am tired of you," he said coldly.

She shuddered violently and turned away with a little moan, stumbling blindly towards the inner room, but as she reached the curtains his voice arrested her. He had thrown aside the magazine and was lying back on the divan, his long limbs stretched out indolently, his hands clasped behind his head.

"You make a very charming boy," he said lightly, with a faint smile, "but it was not a boy that I saw in Biskra. You understand?"

Beyond the curtains she stood a moment, shaking all over, her face hidden in her hands, able to relax a little the hold she was keeping on herself. Yes! She understood, plainly enough. The understanding had already been forced upon her. It was an order from one who was prepared to compel his commands, to make herself more attractive with all that it implied in the eyes of the man who held her in his power and who looked at her as no other man had ever dared to look, with appraising criticism that made her acutely conscious of her sex, that made her feel like a slave exposed for sale in a public market.

She must take off the boyish clothes that somehow seemed to lend her courage and substitute, to gratify the whim of the savage in the next room, the womanly dress that revealed more intimately the slender lines of her figure and intensified the uncommon beauty of her face.

She went to the dressing table with lagging feet and stared resentfully at the white face and haggard eyes that looked back at her from the mirror. It was like the face of a stranger. Aubrey's words came back to her with an irony that was horrible. To-night she did not dress to please herself. Her face was set, her eyes almost black with rage, but behind the rage there was lurking apprehension. She started at every sound that came from the adjoining room. Her fingers, wet with perspiration, seemed almost unable to fulfil their task. She hated him, she hated herself, she hated her beauty that had brought this horror upon her. She would have rebelled if she had dared, but instinctively she hurried—fear had already driven her so far. But when she was ready she did not move from the table beside which she stood. Fear had forced her to haste, but her still struggling pride would not permit her to obey her fear any further. She raised her eyes to the glass again, glowering angrily at the pale reflection, and the old obstinacy mingled with the new pain that filled them. Must she endure his mocking glance with chalk-like cheeks and eyes like a beaten hound? Had she not even courage enough left to hide the fear that filled her with self-contempt? The wave of anger that went through her rushed the colour into her face and she leaned nearer the glass with a little murmur of satisfaction that stopped abruptly as her fingers gripped the edge of the table, and she continued staring into the mirror not at her own face, but at the white robes that appeared behind her head, blotting out the limited view she had had of the room.

The Sheik was standing behind her. He had come with the peculiar noiseless tread that she had noticed before. He swung her round to look at her and she writhed under his eyes of admiration, straining from him as far as his grip allowed. Holding her with one hand he took her chin in the other and tilted her face up to his with a little smile. "Don't look so frightened. I don't want anything more deadly than some soap and water. Surely even an Arab may be allowed to wash his hands?"

His mocking voice and his taunt of fear stung her, but she would not answer and, with a laugh and a shrug, he lot her go, picking up a razor from the table and lounging into the bathroom.

With crimson cheeks Diana fled into the outer room, His manner could not have been more casual if she had been his wife a dozen years. She waited for him in a tumult of emotions, but with the advent of Gaston and dinner he returned to the attitude of dispassionate, courteous host that he had assumed when he first came in. He was a few minutes late, and apologised gravely as he sat down opposite her. He maintained the attitude throughout dinner, and conscious of the watching manservant Diana made herself reply to his easy conversation.

He talked mainly of the desert and the sport that it offered, as if he had studied her tastes and chosen the topic to please her. He spoke well; what he said was interesting, and showed complete knowledge of the subject, and at any other time Diana would have listened fascinated and absorbed, but now the soft, slow, cultured voice only seemed to add to the incongruity of the situation. The role of willing guest that he was forcing upon her was almost more than she could play, and the necessity of sitting still and responding was taxing her endurance to the utmost. And all the time she was aware acutely of his constant surveillance. Reluctantly her own furtive glance was drawn frequently to his face, and always his dark fierce eyes were watching her with a steadiness that racked her nerves, till she was reminded irresistibly of an exhibition that she had seen in a circus in Vienna, where a lion tamer had concluded an unusually daring performance by dining in the lions' cage, surrounded by savage snarling brutes very different from the sleepy half-drugged creatures ordinarily shown. Interested in the animals, she had gone behind with Aubrey after the performance, and while fondling some tiny lion cubs that had been brought for her to see had chatted with the tamer, a girl little older than herself. She had been somewhat unapproachable until she had realised from Diana's friendly manner that her questions were prompted by real interest and not mere curiosity, and had unbent with surprising swiftness, accepting Diana's proffered cigarettes and taking her to see her special lions, who were boxed for the night. Diana had wandered up and down before the narrow cages, looking at the big brutes still restless from the show, rubbing her cheek on the soft little round head of the cub she was holding in her arms, smiling at its sleepy rasping purr.

"Are you ever afraid?" she had asked suddenly—"not of the ordinary performance, but of that last act, when you dine all alone with them?"

The girl shrugged her shoulders, blowing a little cloud of smoke into the cub's face, and her eyes had met Diana's slowly over his little yellow body. "One does not taste very much," she had said drily.

And it was so with Diana. She had eaten mechanically everything that had been put before her, but she had tasted nothing. She had one thought in her mind that excluded everything else—to hide from the probing eyes that watched her ceaselessly the overmastering fear that augmented every moment. One thing she had noticed during the meal. For her only the servant poured out the light French wine that he had brought. Her eyes wandered to the Sheik's empty glass, and meeting her glance he smiled, with a little inclination.

"Excuse me. I do not drink wine. It is my only virtue," he added, with a sudden gleam leaping into his eyes that drove the blood into her cheeks and her own eyes on to her plate.

She had forgotten that he was an Arab.

The dinner seemed interminable, and yet she wished that it would never end. While the servant was in the room she was safe; the thought of his going sent a cold shudder through her. With the coffee came a huge Persian hound, almost upsetting the Frenchman in the entrance in his frantic endeavour to precede him through the doorway. He flung his long grey body across the Sheik's knees with a whine of pleasure and then turned his head to growl at Diana. But the growl died away quickly, and he lumbered down and came to her side curiously, eyeing her for a moment and then thrusting his big head against her.

The Sheik laughed. "You are honoured. Kopec makes few friends."

She did not answer. The natural reply was almost certain to provoke a retort that she did not desire, so she remained silent, smoothing the hound's rough coat. With her heart turning slowly to lead she lingered over her coffee until there was no further possible pretext for remaining at the table, then rose with a short, sharp sigh.

For some minutes the Sheik had sat silent, his own coffee long since finished. He made no comment when she got up, and went himself to the big divan, followed by the hound, who had gone back to him as soon as he moved.

Diana turned to the little bookcase, snatching at the opportunity it offered for further silence, and took a book at random. She did not know what she was looking at, she did not care. She only prayed fervently that she might be left alone, that the sudden silent fit that had come over him might continue.

Near her Gaston was clearing away the table and as he finished he paused to speak to his master. Diana heard the words "le petit Sheik," but the rest was in Arabic and unintelligible to her. The Sheik frowned with a gesture of annoyance, then nodded, and the servant left the tent.

A few moments after a voice that she had not heard before made her look up.

The young Arab who had ridden in with the Sheik was standing beside the divan. The fierce eyes that were watching her every movement met hers, and his cigarette was waved towards the young man. "My lieutenant, Yusef, a son of the desert with the soul of a flaneur. His body is here with me, but his heart is on the trottoirs of Algiers."

The tall lad laughed and salaamed profoundly, then straightened himself, posing magnificently until a curt word from the Sheik recalled him to his errand and his swagger changed swiftly to a deference of which the significance was not lost on Diana. The Arab might unbend to his people if it so pleased him, but he kept them well in hand. She looked at the lieutenant as he stood before his chief. He was tall and slender as a girl, with an air of languid indolence that was obviously a pose, for it was slipping from him now fast as he talked. His face was strikingly handsome, only saved from effeminacy by a firm chin. He was patently aware of his good looks. But he was also patently in awe of his chief, and the news that he brought was apparently not welcome.

Through her thick lashes Diana watched them intently. The younger man voluble, gesticulating, at times almost cringing. The Sheik silent, except for an occasional word, the heavy scowl back on his face, growing blacker every moment. At last with a shrug of impatience he got up and they went out together, the hound following them. Diana subsided on to the thick rug beside the bookcase. For a moment again she was alone, free of the watching eyes that seemed to be burning into her all the time, free of the hated proximity. She dropped her head on her knees with a little whimper of weariness. For a moment she need not check the tide of misery that rushed over her. She was tired in mind and body, exhausted with the emotion that had shaken her until she knew that no matter what happened in the future the Diana of yesterday was dead, and her new self was strange and unfamiliar. She did not trust it; she feared its capacity for maintaining the struggle she had resolved upon. The old courageous self had never failed her, this new shrinking fearful personality filled her with distrust. Her confidence in herself was gone. Her contempt of herself was unutterable. The strength that remained was not sufficient to conquer the fear that had taken so strong a hold upon her. She could only hope to hide it, to deny him at least that much satisfaction. She had grovelled at his feet once and it had amused him. He had laughed! She would die rather than afford him a similar amusement. She could never wipe out the recollection of her cowardice; he would remember always, and so would she; but she could atone for it if her strength held. And she prayed that it might hold, until a sob broke from her and her hands cramped around her knees. She pushed her hair off her forehead with a heavy sigh, and she looked back over her shoulder at the empty room. It had changed since this morning in the indefinable way a strange room does change after a few hours' association. If she could leave it now and never see it again in all her life no single detail of it would ever be forgotten. Its characteristics had been stamped upon her as familiarly as if the hours passed in it had been years. And yesterday was years ago, when the poor silly fool that had been Diana Mayo had ridden blindly into the trap from which her boasted independence had not been able to save her. She had paid heavily for the determination to ignore the restrictions of her sex laid upon her and the payment was not yet over. Her tired body shrank from the struggle that must recommence so soon. If he would only spare her until this numbing weariness that made her so powerless should lessen. She heard his voice at the door and her icy fingers grasped at the book that had slipped to the ground. The thick rugs deadened the sound of his movements, but she knew instinctively that he had come in and gone back to the divan where he had been sitting before. She knew that he was looking at her. She could feel his eyes fixed on her and she quivered with the consciousness of his stare. She waited, shivering, for him to speak or move. His methods of torture were diverse, she thought with dreary bitterness. Behind the tent in the men's lines a tom-tom was beating, and the irregular rhythm seemed hammering inside her own head. She could have shrieked with the agony of it.

"Come here—Diane."

She started, for a moment hardly recognising the Gallic rendering of her name, and then flushed angrily without answering or moving. It was a very little thing to stir her after all that had been done, but the use of her name flamed the anger that had been almost swamped in fear. The proprietory tone in his voice roused all her inherent obstinacy. She was not his to go at his call. What he wanted he must take—she would never give voluntarily. She sat with her hands gripped tightly in her lap, breathing rapidly, her eyes dark with apprehension.

"Come here," he repeated sharply.

Still she took no notice, but the face that he could not see was growing very white.

"I am not accustomed to having my orders disobeyed," he said at last, very slowly.

"And I am not accustomed to obeying orders," she retorted fiercely, though her lips were trembling.

"You will learn." The sinister accent of his voice almost shattered her remaining courage.

She crouched, gasping, on the ground, the same horrible terror that had come to her last night stealing over her irresistibly, paralysing her. Waiting, listening, agonising, the tom-tom growing louder and louder—or was it only the throbbing in her own head? With a choking cry she leaped to her feet suddenly and fled from him, back till the side of the tent stopped her and she stood, with wide-flung arms, gripping the black and silver hangings until he reached her.

Stooping he disengaged her clinging fingers from the heavy drapery and drew her hands slowly together up to his breast with a little smile. "Come," he whispered, his passionate eyes devouring her.

She fought against the fascination with which they dominated her, resisting him dumbly with tight-locked lips till he held her palpitating in his arms.

"Little fool," he said with a deepening smile. "Better me than my men."

The gibe broke her silence.

"Oh, you brute! You brute!" she wailed, until his kisses silenced her.



CHAPTER IV

"A month! Thirty-one days! Oh, God! Only thirty-one days. It seems a lifetime. Only a month since I left Biskra. A month! A month!"

Diana flung herself on to her face, burying her head deeply into the cushions of the divan, shutting out from her sight the barbaric luxury of her surroundings, shuddering convulsively. She did not cry. The complete breakdown of the first night had never been repeated. Tears of shame and anger had risen in her eyes often, but she would not let them fall. She would not give her captor the satisfaction of knowing that he could make her weep. Her pride was dying hard. Her mind travelled back slowly over the days and nights of anguished revolt, the perpetual clash of will against will, the enforced obedience that had made up this month of horror. A month of experience of such bitterness that she wondered dully how she still had the courage to rebel. For the first time in her life she had had to obey. For the first time in her life she was of no account. For the first time she had been made conscious of the inferiority of her sex. The training of years had broken down under the experience. The hypothetical status in which she had stood with regard to Aubrey and his friends was not tolerated here, where every moment she was made to feel acutely that she was a woman, forced to submit to everything to which her womanhood exposed her, forced to endure everything that he might put upon her—a chattel, a slave to do his bidding, to bear his pleasure and his displeasure, shaken to the very foundation of her being with the upheaval of her convictions and the ruthless violence done to her cold, sexless temperament. The humiliation of it seared her proud heart. He was pitiless in his arrogance, pitiless in his Oriental disregard of the woman subjugated. He was an Arab, to whom the feelings of a woman were non-existent. He had taken her to please himself and he kept her to please himself, to amuse him in his moments of relaxation.

To Diana before she had come to Africa the life of an Arab Sheik in his native desert had been a very visionary affair. The term sheik itself was elastic. She had been shown Sheiks in Biskra who drove hard bargains to hire out mangy camels and sore-covered donkeys for trips into the interior. Her own faithless caravan-leader had called himself "Sheik." But she had heard also of other and different Sheiks who lived far away across the shimmering sand, powerful chiefs with large followings, who seemed more like the Arabs of her imaginings, and of whose lives she had the haziest idea. When not engaged in killing their neighbours she visualized them drowsing away whole days under the influence of narcotics, lethargic with sensual indulgence. The pictures she had seen had been mostly of fat old men sitting cross-legged in the entrance of their tents, waited on by hordes of retainers, and looking languidly, with an air of utter boredom, at some miserable slave being beaten to death.

She had not been prepared for the ceaseless activity of the man whose prisoner she was. His life was hard, strenuous and occupied. His days were full, partly with the magnificent horses that he bred, and partly with tribal affairs that took him from the camp for hours at a time. Upon one or two occasions he had been away for the whole night and had come back at daybreak with all the evidences of hard riding. Some days she rode with him, but when he had not the time or the inclination, the French valet went with her. A beautiful grey thoroughbred called Silver Star was kept for her use, and sometimes on his back she was able to forget for a little time. So the moments of relaxation were less frequent than they might have been, and it was only in the evenings when Gaston had come and gone for the last time and she was alone with the Sheik that an icy hand seemed to close down over her heart. And, according to his mood, he noticed or ignored her. He demanded implicit obedience to his lightest whim with the unconscious tyranny of one who had always been accustomed to command. He ruled his unruly followers despotically, and it was obvious that while they loved him they feared him equally. She had even seen Yusef, his lieutenant, cringe from the heavy scowl that she had, herself, learned to dread.

"You treat them like dogs," she said to him once. "Are you not afraid that one day they will rise against you and murder you?"

And he had only shrugged his shoulders and laughed, the same low laugh of amusement that never failed to make her shiver.

The only person whose devotion seemed untinged by any conflicting sentiment was the French valet, Gaston.

It was the Sheik's complete indifference to everything beyond his own will, his Oriental egoism, that stung her most. He treated her supplications and invectives with a like unconcern. The paroxysms of wild rage that filled her periodically made no impression on him. He accorded them a shrug of ennui or watched her with cold curiosity, his lips parted in a little cruel smile, as if the dissection of her lacerated feelings amused him, until his patience was exhausted, and then, with one of the lithe, quick movements that she could never evade, his hands would grip and hold her and he would look at her. Only that, but in the grasp of his lean, brown fingers and under the stare of his dark, fierce eyes her own would drop, and the frantic words die from her lips. She was physically afraid of him, and she hated him and loathed herself for the fear he inspired. And her fear was legitimate. His strength was abnormal, and behind it was the lawlessness and absolutism that allowed free rein to his savage impulses. He held life and death in his hand.

A few days after he had taken her she had seen him chastise a servant. She did not know what the man's fault had been, but the punishment seemed out of all proportion to anything that could be imagined, and she had watched fascinated with horror, until he had tossed away the murderous whip, and without a second glance at the limp, blood-stained heap that huddled on the ground with suggestive stillness had strolled back unconcerned to the tent. The sight had sickened her and haunted her perpetually. His callousness horrified her even more than his cruelty. She hated him with all the strength of her proud, passionate nature. His personal beauty even was an additional cause of offence. She hated him the more for his handsome face and graceful, muscular body. His only redeeming virtue in her eyes was his total lack of vanity, which she grudgingly admitted. He was as unconscious of himself as was the wild animal with which she compared him.

"He is like a tiger," she murmured deep into the cushions, with a shiver, "a graceful, cruel, merciless beast." She remembered a tiger she had shot the previous winter in India. After hours of weary, cramped waiting in the machan the beautiful creature had slipped noiselessly through the undergrowth and emerged into the clearing. He had advanced midway towards the tree where she was perched and had stopped to listen, and the long, free stride, the haughty poise of the thrown-back head, the cruel curl of the lips and the glint in the ferocious eyes flashing in the moonlight, were identical with the expression and carriage of the man who was her master. Then it had been admiration without fear, and she had hesitated at wantonly destroying so perfect a thing, until the quick pressure of her shikari's fingers on her arm brought her back to facts and reminded her that the "perfect thing" was reported to have eaten a woman the previous week. And now it was fear with a reluctant admiration that she despised herself for according.

A hand on her shoulder made her start up with a cry. Usually her nerves were in better control, but the thick rugs deadened every sound, and she had not expected him so soon. He had been out since dawn and had come in much past his usual time, and had been having a belated siesta in the adjoining room.

Angry with herself she bit her lip and pushed the tumbled hair off her forehead. He dropped on to the divan beside her and lit the inevitable cigarette; he smoked continuously every moment he was not in the saddle. She glanced at him covertly. He was lying with his head thrown back against the cushions, idly blowing smoke-rings and watching them drift towards the open door-way. And as she looked he yawned and turned to her.

"Zilah is careless. Insist that she puts away your boots, and does not leave your clothes lying on the floor. There was a scorpion in the bathroom to-day," he said lazily, stretching out his long legs.

She flushed hotly, as she always did when he made any casual reference to the intimacy of their life. It was his casualness that frightened her, the carelessly implied continuance of a state that scorched her with shame. His attitude invariably suggested a duration of their relations that left her numb with a kind of helpless despair. He was so sure of himself, so sure of his possession of her.

She felt the warm blood pouring over her face now, up to the roots of her bright hair and dyeing her slender neck, and she put her hands up to her head, her fingers thrust through her loose curls, to shield her face from his eyes.

She gave a sigh of relief when Gaston came in bringing a little tray with two filigree-cased cups of coffee.

"I have brought coffee; Madame's tea is finished," he murmured in tones of deepest distress, and with a gesture that conveyed a national calamity.

There had been just enough tea taken on the tour to last a month. It was another pin-prick, another reminder. She set her teeth, moving her head angrily, and found herself looking into a pair of mocking eyes, and, as always, her own dropped.

Gaston said a few words in Arabic to his master, and the Sheik swallowed the boiling coffee and went out hastily. The valet moved about the tent with his usual deft noiselessness, gathering up cigarette ends and spent matches, and tidying the room with an assiduous orderliness that was peculiarly his own. Diana watched him almost peevishly. Was it the influence of the desert that made all these men cat-like in their movements, or was the servant consciously or unconsciously copying his master? With a sudden fit of childish irritability she longed to smash something, and, with an impetuous hand, sent the little inlaid table with the tray and coffee-cups flying. She was ashamed of the impulse even before the crash came, and looked at Gaston clearing up the debris with anxious eyes. What was the matter with her? The even temper on which she prided herself and the nerves that had been her boast had vanished, gone by the board in the last month. If her nerve failed her utterly what would become of her? What would she do?

Gaston had gone, and she looked around the tent with a hunted expression. There seemed no escape possible from the misery that was almost more than she could bear.

There was a way out that had been in her mind often, and she had searched frequently in the hope that she might find the means. But the Sheik had also thought and had taken precautions. One day it seemed as if her desperate wish might be fulfilled, and she had had only a moment's hesitation as she stretched out her hand to take the revolver that had been left lying on a table, but as her fingers closed on the butt a muscular hand closed over hers. He had come in with his usual silent step and was close to her without her knowing. He had taken the weapon from her quietly, holding her eyes with his own, and had jerked it open, showing the empty magazine. "Do you think that I am quite a fool?" he had asked without a trace of expression in his voice.

And since then she had been under a ceaseless, unobtrusive surveillance that had left her no chance of carrying out her terrible resolve. She buried her face in her hands. "Oh, my God! Is it never going to end? Am I never going to get away from him?"

She sprang to her feet and walked restlessly round the tent, her hands clasped behind her back, her head thrown up, and her lips pressed close together. She panted as if she had been running, and her eyes had a far-away, unseeing look. Gradually she got command of herself again and the nervous excitement died down, leaving her weary and very desolate. The solitude seemed suddenly horrible. Anything would be better than the silent emptiness of the great tent. A noise outside attracted her, and she wandered to the doorway and out under the awning. Near her the Sheik with Gaston and Yusef stood watching a mad, ramping colt that was being held with difficulty by two or three men, who clung to him tenaciously in spite of his efforts to break away, and beyond was a semi-circle of Arabs, some mounted and some on foot, leaving a wide, open space between them and the tent. They were intensely excited, talking and gesticulating, the mounted men riding round the outer ring that they formed. Diana leaned against one of the lances that supported the awning and watched the scene with growing interest. This camp was many miles to the south of the one to which she had first been brought, and which had been broken up a few days after her capture. The setting was wonderful, the far-off hills dusky in the afternoon light, the clustering palms behind the tents, the crowd of barbaric figures in picturesque, white robes, the horsemen moving continuously up and down, and in the midst of everything the beautiful, wild creature, frenzied by the noise, kicking and biting at the men holding him. After a moment the Sheik held up his hand, and a man detached himself from the chattering crowd and came to him salaaming. The Sheik said a few words, and with another salaam and a gleam of white teeth, the man turned and approached the struggling group in the centre of the ring.

Diana straightened up with interest. The frantic colt was going to be broken. It was already saddled. Several additional men ran forward, and between them the horse was forcibly held for a moment—only for a moment, but it was long enough for the man who leaped like a flash on to his back. The others fell away, racing from the reach of the terrible lashing heels. Amazed for the moment at the sudden unaccustomed weight, the colt paused, and then reared straight up, till it seemed to Diana that he must fall backward and crush the man who was clinging to him. But he came down at last, and for a few moments it was almost impossible to follow his spasmodic movements as he strove to rid himself of his rider. The end came quickly. With a twisting heave of his whole body he shot the Arab over his head, who landed with a dull thud and lay still, while the men who had been holding the colt dashed in and secured him before he was aware of his liberty. Diana looked towards the fallen man; a little crowd were gathered around him, and her heart beat faster as she thought that he was dead. Dead so quickly, and only a moment before he had been so full of life and strength. Death meant nothing to these savages, she thought bitterly, as she watched the limp body being carried away by three or four men, who argued violently over their burden. She glanced at the Sheik. He seemed perfectly unconcerned and did not even look in the direction of the man who had fallen. On the contrary, he laughed, and, turning to Yusef, put his hand en his shoulder and nodded towards the colt. Diana gave a gasp. He spared no one. He was going to make the young man take his chance as the rough-rider had taken his. She knew that the lieutenant rode well, as did all Ahmed Ben Hassan's followers, and that his languid manner was only a pose, but he looked so young and boyish, and the risk seemed enormous. She had seen colts broken before many times, but never a colt so madly savage as this one. But to Yusef the chance was evidently welcome. With an answering laugh, he swaggered out into the arena, where the men greeted him with shouts. There was the same procedure as before, and Yusef bounded up lightly into the saddle. This time, instead of rearing, the frightened beast dashed forward in a wild effort to escape, but the mounted men, closing up, headed him into the middle of the ring again, and he went back to his first tactics with a rapidity that was too much for the handsome lad on his back, and in a few moments he was thrown heavily. With a shrill scream the colt turned on him open-mouthed, and Yusef flung up one arm to save his face. But the men reached him in time, dragging the colt from him by main force. He rose to his feet unsteadily and limped to the tents behind. Diana could not see him easily for the throng around him.

Again she looked at the Sheik and ground her teeth. He was stooping to light a cigarette from a match that Gaston was holding, and then they walked together nearer to the colt. The animal was now thoroughly maddened, and it was increasingly difficult to hold him. They went up close to the struggling, yelling grooms, and the next minute Diana saw Gaston sitting firmly in the empty saddle. The little man rode magnificently, and put up a longer fight than the others had done, but at last his turn came, and he went flying over the colt's head. He came down lightly on his hands and knees, and scrambled to his feet in an instant amidst a storm of shouts and laughter. Laughing himself he came back to the Sheik with a shrug of the shoulders and outspread, eloquent hands. They spoke together for a moment, too low for Diana to hear, and then Ahmed Ben Hassan went again into the middle of the ring. Diana's breath came more quickly. She guessed his intention before he reached the colt, and she moved forward from under the awning and joined Gaston, who was wrapping his handkerchief round a torn hand.

"Monseigneur will try?" she asked a little breathlessly.

Gaston looked at her quickly. "Try, Madame?" he repeated in a queer voice. "Yes, he will try."

Again the empty saddle was filled, and a curious hush came over the watching crowd. Diana looked on with bright, hard eyes, her heart beating heavily. She longed passionately that the colt might kill him, and, at the same time, illogically, she wanted to see him master the infuriated animal. The sporting instinct in her acknowledged and responded to the fight that was going on before her eyes. She hated him and she hoped that he might die, but she was forced to admire the wonderful horsemanship that she was watching. The Sheik sat like a rock, and every effort made to unseat him was unsuccessful. The colt plunged wildly, making furious blind dashes backward and forward, stopping dead in the hope of dislodging his rider, twirling round suddenly until it seemed impossible that he could keep his feet. Then he started rearing, straight up, his forelegs beating the air, higher and higher, and then down, to commence again without a moment's breathing-space.

Diana heard Gaston's breath whistle through his teeth. "Look, Madame!" he cried sharply, and Diana saw the Sheik give a quick glance behind him, and, as the colt shot up again, almost perpendicular, with a jerk he pulled him deliberately over backwards, leaping clear with a tremendous effort as the horse crashed to the ground. He was in the saddle again almost before the dazed creature had struggled to its feet. And then began a scene that Diana never forgot. It was the final struggle that was to end in defeat for either man or horse, and the Sheik had decided that it was not to be for the man. It was a punishment of which the untamed animal was never to lose remembrance. The savagery and determination of the man against the mad determination of the horse. It was a hideous exhibition of brute strength and merciless cruelty. Diana was almost sick with horror from the beginning; she longed to turn away, but her eyes clung fascinated to the battle that was going on. The hush that had fallen on the crowd had given way to roars of excitement, and the men pressed forward eagerly, to give back precipitately when the still-fighting animal's heels flashed too near.

Diana was shaking all over and her hands were clenching and unclenching as she stared at the man, who seemed a part of the horse he was sitting so closely. Would it never end? She did not care now which killed the other so that it would only stop. The man's endurance seemed mere bravado. She clutched Gaston's arms with a hand that was wringing wet. "It is horrible," she gasped with an accent of loathing.

"It is necessary," he replied quietly.

"Nothing can justify that," she cried passionately.

"Your pardon, Madame. He must learn. He killed a man this morning, threw him, and what you call in English 'savaged' him."

Diana hid her face in her hands. "I can't bear it," she said pitifully.

A few minutes later Gaston clicked his tongue against his teeth. "See, Madame. It is over," he said gently.

She looked up fearfully. The Sheik was standing on the ground beside the colt, who was swaying slowly from side to side with heaving sides and head held low to the earth, dripping blood and foam. And as she looked he tottered and collapsed exhausted. There was a rush from all sides, and Gaston went towards his master, who towered above the crowd around him.

Diana turned away with an exclamation of disgust. It was enough to have seen a display of such brutality; it was too much to stand by while his fellow-savages acclaimed him for his cruelty.

She went slowly back into the tent, shaken with what she had seen, and stood in undecided hesitation beside the divan. The helpless feeling that she so often experienced swept over her with renewed force. There was nowhere that she could get away from him, no privacy, no respite. Day and night she must endure his presence with no hope of escape. She closed her eyes in a sudden agony, and then stiffened at the sound of his voice outside.

He came in laughing, a cigarette dangling from one blood-stained hand, while with the other he wiped the perspiration from his forehead, leaving a dull red smear. She shrank from him, looking at him with blazing eyes. "You are a brute, a beast, a devil! I hate you!" she choked furiously.

For a moment an ugly look crossed his face, and then he laughed again. "Hate me by all means, ma belle, but let your hatred be thorough. I detest mediocrity," he said lightly, as he passed on into the other room.

She sank down on to the couch. She had never felt so desperate, so powerless. She stared straight before her, shivering, as she went over the scene she had just witnessed, her fingers picking nervously at the jade-green silk of her dress. She longed for some power that would deaden her feelings and blunt her capacity for suffering. She looked at Gaston with hard eyes when he came in. He had approved of what the Sheik had done, would have done it himself if he had been able. They were all alike.

"The man who was hurt first," she asked abruptly, with a touch of her old hauteur in her voice, "is he dead?"

"Oh no, Madame. He has concussion but he will be all right. They have hard heads, these Arabs."

"And Yusef?"

Gaston grinned. "Le petit Sheik has a broken collar-bone. It is nothing. A few days' holiday to be petted in his harem, et voila!"

"His harem?" echoed Diana in surprise. "Is he married?"

"Mais oui, Madame. He has two wives."

At Diana's exclamation he shrugged deprecatingly. "Que voulez-vous? It is the custom of the country," he said tolerantly, with the air of conceding a melancholy fact with the best grace possible.

The customs of the country was dangerous ground, and Diana changed the subject hastily. "Where did you learn to ride, Gaston?"

"In a racing-stable at Auteuil, Madame, when I was a boy. Then I was five years in the French cavalry. After that I came to Monseigneur."

"And you have been with him—how long?"

"Fifteen years, Madame."

"Fifteen years," she repeated wonderingly. "Fifteen years here, in the desert?"

"Here and elsewhere, Madame," he answered rather more shortly than usual, and with a murmur of excuse left the tent.

Diana leaned back against the cushions with a little sigh. Gaston need not have been afraid that she was trying to learn his master's secrets from him. She had not fallen as low as that. The mystery of the man whose path had crossed hers so terribly seemed to augment instead of lessen as the time went on. What was the power in him that compelled the devotion of his wild followers and the little French ex-cavalryman? She knit her forehead in perplexity and was still puzzling over it when he came back. Immaculate and well-groomed he was very different from the dishevelled, bloodstained savage of half-an-hour before. She shot a nervous glance at him, remembering her outburst, but he was not angry. He looked grave, but his gravity seemed centred in himself as he passed his lean fingers tenderly over his smooth chin. She had seen Aubrey do similarly hundreds of times. Occidental or Oriental, men seemed very alike. She waited for him to speak and waited vainly. One of the taciturn fits to which she had grown accustomed had come over him—hours sometimes in which he simply ignored her altogether. The evening meal was silent. He spoke once to Gaston, but he spoke in Arabic, and the servant replied only with a nod of compliance. And after Gaston was gone he did not speak for a long time, but sat on the divan, apparently absorbed in his thoughts.

Restless, Diana moved about the tent, listlessly examining objects that she knew by heart, and flirting over the pages of the French magazines she had read a dozen times. Usually she was thankful for his silent moods. To-night with a woman's perversity she wanted him to speak. She was unstrung, and the utter silence oppressed her. She glanced over her shoulder at him once or twice, but his back looked unapproachable. Yet when he called her, with a swift revulsion of feeling, she wished he had kept silent. She went to him slowly. She was too unnerved to-night to struggle against him. What would be the use? she thought wearily; it would only end in defeat as it always did. He pulled her down on the divan beside him, and before she realised what he was doing slipped a long jade necklace over her head. For a moment she looked stupidly at the wonderful thing, almost unique in the purity of its colour and the marvellous carving on the uniform square pieces of which it was composed, and then with a low cry she tore it off and flung it on the ground.

"How dare you?" she gasped.

"You don't like it?" he asked in his low, unruffled voice, his eyebrows raised in real or assumed surprise. "Yet it matches your dress," and lightly his long fingers touched the folds of green silk swathed across the youthful curve of her breast. He glanced at an open box filled with shimmering stones on a low stool beside him.

"Pearls are too cold and diamonds too banal for you," he said slowly. "You should wear nothing but jade. It is the colour of the evening sky against the sunset of your hair."

He had never spoken like that to her before, or used that tone of voice. His methods had been more fierce than tender. She glanced up swiftly at his face, but it baffled her. There was no love in his eyes or even desire, nothing but an unusual gentleness. "Perhaps you would prefer the diamonds and the pearls," he went on, pointing disdainfully at the box.

"No, no. I hate them! I hate them all! I will not wear your jewels. You have no right to think that I am that kind of woman," she cried hysterically.

Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6     Next Part
Home - Random Browse