"You do not like them? Bon Dieu! None of the other women ever refused them. On the contrary, they could never get enough," he said with a laugh.
Diana looked up with a startled glance, a look of horror dawning in her eyes. "Other women?" she repeated blankly.
"You didn't suppose you were the first, did you?" he asked with brutal candour. "Don't look at me like that. They were not like you, they came to me willingly enough—too willingly. Allah! How they bored me! I tired of them before they tired of me."
She flung her arm across her eyes with a dry sob, straining away from him. She had never thought of that. In the purity of her mind it had never occurred to her. She was only one of many, one of a succession of mistresses, taken and discarded at his whim. She writhed with the shame that filled her. "Oh, you hurt me!" she whispered very low, and then anger killed all other feeling. He had loosened his arm about her and she wrenched herself free and sprang to her feet. "I hate you, do you understand? I hate you! I hate you!"
He lit a cigarette leisurely before answering and moved into a more comfortable position on the divan. "So you have already told me this afternoon," he said at length coolly, "and with reiteration your remark becomes less convincing, ma cherie."
Her anger ebbed away. She was too tired to be angry. She was humiliated and hurt, and the man before her had it in his power to hurt her more, but she was at his mercy and to-night she could not fight. She pushed the hair off her forehead with a heavy sigh and looked at the Sheik's long length stretched out on the couch, the steely strength of his limbs patent even in the indolent attitude in which he was lying, at his brown handsome face, inscrutable as it always was to her, and the feeling of helplessness came back with renewed force and with it the sense of her own pitiful weakness against his force, compelling her to speak. "Have you never felt pity for a thing that was weaker than yourself? Have you never spared anything or any one in all your life? Have you nothing in your nature but cruelty? Are all Arabs hard like you?" she said shakily. "Has love never even made you merciful?"
He glanced up at her with a harsh laugh, and shook his head. "Love? Connais pas! Yes, I do," he added with swift mockery, "I love my horses."
"When you don't kill them," she retorted.
"I am corrected. When I don't kill them."
There was something in his voice that made her reckless, that made her want to hurt him. "If you give no love to the—the women whom you bring here, do you give love to the women of your harem? You have a harem, I suppose, somewhere?" she braved him with curling lip and scornful voice, but as she spoke she knew that she had only hurt herself and her voice faltered.
His hand reached out suddenly and he dragged her down into his arms again with a laugh. "And if I have, are you jealous? What if the nights I spent away from you were passed in my harem—what then?"
"Then may Allah put it into the heart of one of your wives to poison you so that you never come back," she said fiercely.
"Allah! So beautiful and so bloodthirsty," he said in bantering reproof. Then he turned her face up to his, smiling into her angry eyes with amusement. "I have no harem and, thanks be to Allah, no wives, cherie. Does that please you?"
"Why should I care? It is nothing to me," she replied sharply, with a vivid blush.
He held her closer, looking deeply into her eyes, holding them as he could when he liked, in spite of her efforts to turn them away—a mesmerism she could not resist.
"Shall I make you care? Shall I make you love me? I can make women love me when I choose."
She went very white and her eyes flickered. She knew that he was only amusing himself, that he was utterly indifferent to her feelings, that he did not care if she hated or loved him, but it was a new form of torture that was more detestable than anything that had gone before it. It infuriated her that he could even suggest that she could come to care for him, that she could ever look on him as anything but a brutal savage who had committed a hideous outrage, that she could ever have any feeling for him except hatred and loathing. That he should class her with the other women he spoke of revolted her, she felt degraded, soiled as she had never done before, and she had thought that she had felt the utmost humiliation of her position.
The colour rushed back into her face. "I would rather you killed me," she cried passionately.
"So would I," he said drily, "for if you loved me you would bore me and I should have to let you go. While as it is"—he laughed softly—"as it is I do not regret the chance that took me into Biskra that day."
He let her go and got up with a yawn, watching her approvingly as she crossed the tent. The easy swing of her boyish figure and the defiant carriage of her head reminded him of one of his own thoroughbred horses. She was as beautiful and as wild as they were. And as he broke them so would he break her. She was nearly tamed now, but not quite, and by Allah! it should be quite! As he turned his foot struck against the jade necklace lying on the rug where she had thrown it. He picked it up and called her back. She came reluctantly, slowly, with mutinous eyes.
He held out the necklace silently, and silently she stared not at it but at him. Her heart began to beat faster, and the colour slowly left her face. "Take it. I wish it," he said quietly.
"No." It was little more than a gasp.
"You will wear it to please me," he went on in the same soft voice, and the old hateful mockery crept into his eyes, "to please my artistic soul. I have an artistic soul even though I am only an Arab."
"I will not!"
The mockery was wiped out of his eyes in a flash, giving place to the usual ferocity, and his forehead knit in the dreaded heavy scowl. "Diane, obey me!"
She clenched her teeth on her lower lip until a rim of blood stained their whiteness. If he would only shout or bluster like the average angry man she felt that she could brave him longer, but the cold quiet rage that characterised him always was infinitely more sinister, and paralysed her with its silent force. She had never heard him raise his voice in anger or quicken his usual slow, soft tone, but there was an inflection that came into his voice and a look that came into his eyes that was more terrible than any outburst. She had seen his men shrink when, standing near him, she had barely been able to hear what he had said. She had seen a look from him silence a clamorous quarrel that had broken out among his followers too close to his own tent for his pleasure. And that inflection was in his voice and that look was in his eyes now. It was no longer use to resist. The fear of him was an agony. She would have to obey, as in the end he always forced her to obey. She wrenched her eyes away from his compelling stare, her bosom heaving under the soft silk, her chin quivering, and reached out blindly and took it from him. But the sudden chill of it against her bare breast seemed to revive the courage that was not yet dead in her. She flung up her head, the transient colour flaming into her cheeks, and her lips sprang open, but he drew her to him swiftly, and laid his hand over her mouth. "I know, I know," he said coldly. "I am a brute and a beast and a devil. You need not tell me again. It commences to grow tedious." His hand slipped to her shoulder, his fingers gripping the delicate, rounded arm. "How much longer are you going to fight? Would it not be wiser after what you have seen to-day to recognise that I am master?"
"You mean that you will treat me as you treated the colt this afternoon?" she whispered, her eyes drawn back irresistibly to his in spite of all her efforts.
"I mean that you must realise that my will is law."
"And if I do not?" He guessed rather than heard the words.
"Then I will teach you, and I think that you will learn—soon."
She quivered in his hands. It was a threat, but how much of it he meant to be taken literally she did not know. Again every ghastly detail of the afternoon passed with lightning speed through her mind. When he punished he punished mercilessly. To what lengths would he go? The Arab standards were not those of the men amongst whom she had lived. The position of a woman in the desert was a very precarious one. There were times when she forgot altogether that he was an Arab until some chance, as now, drove the hard fact home indisputably. He was an Arab, and as a woman she need expect no mercy at his hands. His hands! She looked down for a second sideways at the fingers gripping her shoulder and she saw them again stained with blood, saw them clenched round the dripping thong. She knew already by bitter experience the iron grip of his lean fingers and the compelling strength of his arms. Her quick imagination leaped ahead. What she had already suffered would be nothing compared with what would be. The remembrance of the stained, huddled figure of the servant he had chastised rose before her. And as she battled with herself, still torn in her passionate desire to make her strong will and courageous spirit triumph over her coward woman's body that shrank instinctively from physical torture, his arm tightened around her and she felt the hard muscles pressing against her shoulders and soft, bare neck, a suggestion of the force lying dormant beside her. She looked up at him slowly.
His expression was unchanged, his forehead was still drawn together in the heavy frown and there was no softening in his eyes. The cruel lines about his mouth were accentuated and the tiger-look in his face was more marked than ever. He was not threatening idly; he meant what he said.
"You had better kill me," she said drearily.
"That would be to admit my own defeat," he replied coolly. "I do not kill a horse until I have proved beyond all possible doubt that I cannot tame it. With you I have no such proof. I can tame you and I will. But it is for you to choose and to choose to-night if you will obey me willingly or if I must make you. I have been very patient—for me," he added, with an odd smile flitting across his face, "but my patience is exhausted. Choose quickly." Insensibly he drew her closer to him till his arm felt like an inflexible steel band about her, and she thought with a shudder of the coils of a great serpent closing round its victim. She made a final effort to conquer herself, but between her and the broad chest so close to her she seemed to see a horse's head held low in agony, blood and foam dripping from his lacerated mouth, and a horse's flanks heaving piteously, torn with the cruel punishment he had undergone. A sudden nausea came over her, everything seemed to swim before her eyes, and she swayed against the man who was holding her. Her bodily fear overruled her mind. She could not bear any more.
"I will obey you," she whispered heavily.
He took her chin in his fingers and jerked her head up sharply, staring at her intently until she felt he was looking into her very soul. The heavy scowl smoothed away but the fierceness lingered in his eyes. "Good!" he said at length briefly. "You are wise," he added significantly. He tilted her head further back, bending his own down until his lips were nearly touching hers. She shivered involuntarily, an anguished appeal leaping into her eyes. He smiled ironically. "Do you hate them so much, my kisses?"
She swallowed convulsively.
"You are at least candid if you are not complimentary;" and with that he released her and turned away.
She reached the curtain that divided the two rooms, her heart beating wildly, giddy with the strain that she had gone through. She paused a moment and looked back at him, amazed at her own temerity. He had unbuttoned the flap of the tent and was standing in the entrance looking out into the night. The scent of the peculiar tobacco he used drifted to her with the draught from the open door. Her eyes grew puzzled. Would she ever understand him? To-night he had given her a choice instead of simply enforcing his will, he had made her choose to save herself, he had proved his determination and his mastery over her. And with his last words the unexpected gentleness had come into his voice again and the cruel lines about his mouth had relaxed in a smile of amusement. It was the swift transition from ferocity to gentleness that she could never fathom. His complex nature was beyond her understanding. She would not try to understand him; she could never know the depths of his baffling personality. She only knew that for some reason of his own he had spared her, and she feared him more than ever.
Under the awning of the tent Diana was waiting for Gaston and the horses, pulling on her thick riding-gloves nervously. She was wrought up to the utmost pitch of excitement. Ahmed Ben Hassan had been away since the previous day and it was uncertain if he would return that night or the next. He had been vague as to how long he would be absent. There had been a constant coming and going amongst his followers—messengers arriving on exhausted horses at all hours of the day and night, and the Sheik himself had seemed unusually preoccupied. He had not condescended to give any reason for the special activity of his people and she had not asked him.
In the four weeks that had elapsed since she had promised him her obedience she had been very silent. The fear and hatred of him grew daily. She had learned to stifle the wild fits of rage and the angry words that leaped to her lips. She had learned to obey—a reluctant obedience given with compressed lips and defiant eyes, but given, and with a silence that surprised even herself. Day after day she had followed the usual routine, dumb unless he spoke to her; and with his own attention occupied with matters beyond the four walls of his tent he had not noticed or did not trouble to heed her silence. Lately he had left her very much alone; she had ridden with him almost daily until the last week, when he had announced curtly that in the meantime the length of her rides must be curtailed and that Gaston would accompany her. He had not offered any explanation, and she had not sought one. She had chosen to see in it merely another act of tyranny imposed on her by the man whose arbitrary exercise of power over her and whose tacit possession of her galled her continually. And under the sullen submission a wild fury of revolt was raging. She searched feverishly for means of flight, and now the Sheik's absence seemed to have given her the chance she had been waiting for. In the solitude of the previous night she had tossed impatiently from side to side of the big couch, vainly trying to find some means of taking advantage of her comparative freedom to effect her escape. Surely she could find some way of avoiding Gaston's vigilance. Excitement had kept her awake half the night, and in the morning she had had hard work to keep her agitation hidden and to appear as usual. She had even been afraid to order the horses any earlier in her nervous terror lest the valet should suspect there was any reason behind the simple request. After her petit dejeuner she had paced the tent, unable to sit still, dreading lest any moment might bring the return of the Sheik and frustrate her hopes. She looked back into the room with a shudder as her eyes travelled over the luxurious appointments and different objects that had become so curiously familiar in the last two months. The unexpected equipments and the man's own baffling personality would remain in her recollection always as an enigma that she would never be able to solve. So much had been so inexplicable in himself and in his mode of life. She drew a long breath and went out hastily into the sunshine.
The horses were waiting, and Gaston was standing ready to hold her stirrup. She fondled the beautiful grey horse's soft nose and patted his satiny neck with a hand that trembled a little. She loved the horse and to-day he should be the means of saving her. He responded to her caresses, gentling her with slobbering mouth and whinnying softly. With one last look at the big double tent and the rest of the camp behind it she mounted and rode away without another backward glance. She had to exercise a rigid control over herself. She longed to put Silver Star into a hand gallop at once and shake off Gaston, but she was still too near the camp. She must be patient and put a certain number of miles between herself and the possibility of pursuit before she attempted anything. Too early an endeavour would only bring the whole horde in wild chase at her heels. The thought of the promise she had given to the man from whom she was flying came back to her. She had promised obedience, but she had not promised that she would not try to escape, and, if she had, no promise wrung from her by fear was valid in her opinion.
She rode steadily forward at a slow, swinging canter, instinctively saving her horse, plan after plan passing through her brain to be rejected as impracticable. Silver Star fretted continually at the moderate pace, tossing his head and catching at his bit. She took no heed of the time beyond the fact that it was passing quickly, and that if anything was to be done it must be done as soon as possible. But Gaston, riding a few paces behind her, was very much alive to the hour and had looked several times at his watch. He ranged alongside of her now with a murmured apology. "Pardon, Madame. It grows late," and submitted his wrist watch for her inspection.
Diana glanced mechanically at her own wrist and then remembered that she had broken her watch the day before. She pulled up, and tilting her helmet back mopped her hot forehead, and, as she did so, a sharp breeze sprang up, the curious wind that comes and goes so rapidly in the desert. An idea flashed into her mind. It was a poor chance, but it might succeed. She shot a glance at Gaston. He was looking in the opposite direction, and, raising her hand, she fluttered her handkerchief a moment in the breeze and then let it go. The wind carried it some distance away. She gave a little cry and caught at the bridle of the valet's horse.
"Oh, Gaston, my handkerchief!" and pointed to where the morsel of cambric lay white against a rock. With a comical exclamation of dismay he slipped to the ground and started to run across the sand.
She waited until he had got well on his way, sitting tense with shining eyes and thumping heart, then, snatching off her helmet, she brought it down with a resounding smack on the hindquarters of the servant's horse, stampeding it in the direction of the camp, and, wheeling Silver Star, headed for the north, deaf to Gaston's cries.
Wild with excitement and free to go his own pace at last her mount galloped swiftly and the wind whistled past Diana's ears. To the possible fate of the little Frenchman left on foot so far from the encampment she gave no heed. For the moment she did not even think of him, she had no thought for anybody but herself. Her ruse by its very simplicity had succeeded. She was free and she did not care about anything else. She had no plans or ideas what she should do or where she should go beyond the fact that she would keep riding northward. She had vague hopes that she might fall in with friendly Arabs who, for a promised reward, would guide her to civilisation. Most of them could speak a little French, and for the rest her small stock of Arabic must do. She knew that she was mad to attempt to ride across the desert alone, but she did not mind. She was free. She was too excited to think coherently. She laughed and shouted like a mad thing and her madness communicated itself to the grey, who was going at racing speed. Diana knew that he was out of control, that she could not stop him if she tried, but she did not want to try, the faster the better. In time he would tire himself, but until then let him go as he pleased. She was fast putting miles between herself and the camp that had been a prison, between herself and the brute who had dared to do what he had done. At the thought of the Sheik a sick feeling of fear ran through her. If anything should happen? If he should catch her again? She shuddered, and a cry burst from her lips, but she gripped herself at once. She was idiotic, contemptible; it was impossible. It would be hours, perhaps even the next day, before the alarm was given; he would not know in what direction she had gone. She would have miles of start on one of the fleetest of his horses. She tried to put him out of her mind. She had escaped from him and his cruelty, it was a nightmare that was over. The effects would remain with her always, nothing would ever be the same again, but the daily dread, the daily contamination would be gone, the helpless tortured feeling, the shame of submission that had filled her with an acute self-loathing that was as intense as her passionate hatred of the man who had forced her to endure his will. The memory of it would live with her for ever. He had made her a vile thing. Her cheeks scorched with the thought and she shivered at the remembrance of all that she had gone through. She had been down into the depths and she would carry the scars all her life. The girl who had started out so triumphantly from Biskra had become a woman through bitter knowledge and humiliating experience.
The pace was less killing now. Silver Star had settled down into the steady tireless gallop for which Ahmed Ben Hassan's horses were famous. The little breeze had died away as quickly as it had sprung up, and it was very hot. Diana looked about her with glowing eyes. Everything seemed different. From the first she had loved the desert, but back of everything and mingled with everything had been the feeling of fear, the continual restraint, the perpetual subservience to the whims of her captor which had dominated everything. But now the whole aspect was changed. She loved the endless, undulating expanse stretching out before her, and as the grey topped each rise her interest grew keener. What might not be behind the next one? For an hour or more the ground rose and fell in monotonous succession, and then the desert grew level again and quite suddenly she could see for miles. About two miles away a few palm trees showed clustering together, and Diana turned in their direction. They probably meant a well, and it was time she rested her horse and herself. It was the tiniest little oasis, and she drew rein and dismounted with fears for the well she had hoped to find. But there was one, very much silted up, and she set to work to clear it as well as she could to procure enough for herself and Silver Star, who was frantically trying to get to the water. It was exhausting work, but she managed to satisfy the grey, and, having unloosed his girths, she flung herself down on the ground in a small patch of shade. She lit a cigarette and lay flat on her back with her helmet over her eyes.
For the first time since she had shaken off Gaston she began to think seriously. What she had done was madness. She had no food for herself or her horse, no water, and Heaven alone knew where the next well might be. She was alone in an uncivilised country among a savage people with no protection of any kind. She might fall in with friendly Arabs or she might not. She might come across an encampment, or she might wander for days and see no one, in which case death from hunger and thirst stared her in the face. What would she do when night came? With a sharp cry she leaped to her feet. What was she to do? She looked all around the little oasis with startled eyes, at the few palm trees and clumps of camel thorn, the broken well and the grey horse still snuffing about its mouth. She felt frightened for the first time; she was alone and about her was unending space, and she felt an atom, insignificant, the least of all things. She looked up into the clear sky and the blue vastness appalled her.
Then the sudden panic to which she had given way subsided and her courage rose with a bound. It was only midday, anything might happen between then and nightfall. Of one thing only she was sure, she did not repent of what she had done. Behind her was Ahmed Ben Hassan and before her was possibly death, and death was preferable. She was quite calm again and lay down in the patch of shade once more with a resolute determination to mind. Time to think of them when they came. For the next hour or two she must rest and escape the intense heat. She rolled over on her face with her head in her arms and tried to sleep, but she was too excited, and soon gave up the attempt. And in any case, she argued with herself, she might sleep too long and lose precious time. She stretched luxuriously on the soft ground, thankful for the shade from the burning sun. The grey, tired of nosing round the well and blowing disdainfully at the thorn bushes, wandered over to her side and nuzzled her gently. She caught at his velvety nose and drew it down beside her face. He was a very affectionate beast and gentler than most of the other horses, and he pressed close up to her, whinnying softly and looking at her with large expressive eyes. "I haven't anything to give you, poor old boy," she said regretfully, kissing his muzzle and then pushing him away from her. She looked up again into the sky, a dark speck sailed overhead, the slow heavy flight of a vulture. In a few hours he might be picking her bones! Merciful Heavens! Why did such thoughts come into her head? Had she nothing left of the courage that had once been second nature? If she let her nerves get the upper hand she might as well make no further effort, but lie down and die at once. With shaking fingers she took another cigarette; smoking would soothe her. Yet she hesitated before she lit it; there were only a few left and her need might still be greater. But with a reckless laugh she snapped the thin case to, and carefully scraped the evil-smelling sulphur match torn from a flat wood strip. She settled herself comfortably again full length. All around her were the innumerable tiny noises of the desert, the hum of countless insect life, the rustling of the sand and the occasional dry crackle of the camel thorns made by the slipping of a twig or the displacing of a branch, sounds that would have been incomprehensible some weeks before. For a few minutes a sand spider attracted her attention and she watched his hurried painstaking operations with wondering interest. Gradually a drowsy feeling stole over her and she realised suddenly that the air was impregnated with the scent of the tobacco that was always associated with the Sheik. It was one of his cigarettes that she was smoking. She had always been powerfully affected by the influence of smell, which induced recollection with her to an extraordinary degree, and now the uncommon penetrating odour of the Arab's cigarettes brought back all that she had been trying to put out of her mind. With a groan she flung it away and buried her face in her arms. The past rose up, and rushed, uncontrolled, through her brain. Incidents crowded into her recollection, memories of headlong gallops across the desert riding beside the man who, while she hated him, compelled her admiration, memories of him schooling the horses that he loved, sitting them like a centaur, memories of him amongst his men, memories more intimately connected with herself, of his varying moods, his swift changes from savage cruelty to amazing gentleness, from brutal intolerance to sudden consideration. There had even been times when he had interested her despite herself, and she had forgotten the relationship in which they stood towards each other in listening to his deep, slow voice, till a word or a gesture brought back the fact vividly. Memories of moments when she had struggled against his caresses, and he had mocked her helplessness with his great strength, when she had lain in his arms panting and exhausted, cold with fear and shrinking from his fierce kisses. She had feared him as she had never believed it possible to fear. His face rose before her clearly with all the expressions she had learned to know and dread. She tried to banish it, striving with all her might to put him from her mind, twisting this way and that, writhing on the soft sand as she struggled with the obsession that held her. She saw him all the time plainly, as though he were there before her. Would he pursue her always, phantom-like? Would the recollection of the handsome brown face haunt her for ever with its fierce eyes and cruel mouth? She buried her head deeper in her arms, but the vision persisted until with a scream she started up with heaving chest and wild eyes, standing rigid, staring towards the south with a desperate fixedness that made her eyeballs ache. The sense of his presence had been terribly real. She dropped on to the ground again with an hysterical laugh, and pushed the thick hair off her forehead wearily. Silver Star laying his muzzle suddenly on her shoulder made her start again violently with heavy, beating heart. A frightened look went across her face. "I'm nervous," she muttered, looking round with a little shiver. "I shall go mad if I stay here much longer." The little oasis that she had hailed so joyfully had become utterly repugnant and she was impatient to get away from it. She climbed eagerly into the saddle, and, with the rapid motion, she regained her calm and her spirits rose quickly.
She shook off the feeling of apprehension that had taken hold of her and her nervous fears died away. A reckless feeling, like the excitement of the morning, came over her, and she urged the grey on with coaxing words, and responding to her voice, and hardly feeling her light weight, he raced on untiringly. All around was silence and a solitude that was stupendous. The vast emptiness was awe-inspiring. The afternoon was wearing away; already it was growing cooler. Diana had seen no sign of human life since she had left Gaston hours before and a little feeling of anxiety stirred faintly deep down in her heart. Traces of caravans she passed several times, and from the whitening bones of dead camels she turned her head in aversion—they were too intimately suggestive. She had seen a few jackals, and once a hyena lumbered away clumsily among some rocks as she passed. She had got away from the level desert, and was threading her way in and out of some low hills, which she felt were taking her out of her right course. She was steering by the setting sun, which had turned the sky into a glory of golden crimson, but the intricate turnings amongst the rocky hills were bewildering. The low, narrow defile seemed hemming her in, menacing her on all sides, and she was beginning to despair of finding her way out of the labyrinth, when, on rounding a particularly sharp turn, the rocks fell away suddenly and she rode out into open country. She breathed a sigh of relief and called out cheerily to the grey, but, as she looked ahead, her voice died away, and she reined him in sharply with a quickening heart-beat. Across the desert about a mile away she saw a party of Arabs coming towards her. There were about fifty of them, the leader riding a big, black horse some little distance in front of his followers. In the clear atmosphere they seemed nearer than they were. It was not what she wished. She had hoped for an encampment, where there would be women or a caravan of traders whose constant communication with the towns would make them realise the importance of guiding her to civilisation unharmed. This band of fighting men, for she could see their rifles clearly, and their close and orderly formation was anything but peaceful, filled her with the greatest misgivings. Only the worst might be expected from the wild, lawless tribesmen towards a woman alone amongst them. She had fled from one hideousness to another which would be ten times more horrible. Her face blanched and she set her teeth in desperation. The human beings she had prayed for were now a deadly menace, and she prayed as fervently that they might pass on and not notice her. Perhaps it was not too late, perhaps they had not yet seen her and she might still slip away and hide in the twisting turnings of the defile. She backed Silver Star further into the shadow of the rock, but as she did so she saw that she had been seen. The leader turned in his saddle and raised his hand high above his head, and with a wild shout and a great cloud of dust and sand his men checked their horses, dragging them back on to their haunches, while he galloped towards her alone. And at the same moment an icy hand clutched at Diana's heart and a moan burst from her lips. There was no mistaking him or the big black horse he rode. For a moment she reeled with a sudden faintness, and then with a tremendous effort she pulled herself together, dragging her horse's head round and urged him back along the track which she had just left, and behind her raced Ahmed Ben Hassan, spurring the great, black stallion as he had never done before. With ashy face and wild, hunted eyes Diana crouched forward on the grey's neck, saving him all she could and riding as she had never ridden in her life. Utterly reckless, she urged the horse to his utmost pace, regardless of the rough, dangerous track. Perhaps she could still shake off her pursuer among the tortuous paths of the hills. Nothing mattered but that. Better even an ugly toss and a broken neck than that he should take her again. Panic-stricken she wanted to shriek and clenched her teeth on her lips to keep back the scream that rose in her throat. She dared not look behind, but straight ahead before her, riding with all her skill, hauling the grey round perilous corners and bending lower and lower in the saddle to aid him. In her terror she had forgotten what a little distance the hills stretched from where she had entered them, and blindly she turned into the track by which she had come, leaving the main hills on her right hand and emerging on to the open desert on the south side of the range. There was nothing now but the sheer speed of her horse to save her, and how long could she count on it? Then with a little glimmer of hope she remembered that the Sheik was riding The Hawk, own brother to the grey, and she knew that neither had ever outpaced the other. She had ridden hard all day, but it was probable that Ahmed Ben Hassan had ridden harder; he never spared his horses, and his weight was considerably greater than hers. Would it not be possible for Silver Star, carrying the lighter burden, to outdistance The Hawk? It was a chance. She would take it, but she would never give in. The perspiration was rolling down her face and her breath was coming laboriously. Suddenly, a few minutes after she had left the hills behind, the Sheik's deep voice came clearly across the space between them.
"If you do not stop I will shoot your horse. I give you one minute."
She swayed a little in the saddle, clutching the grey's neck to steady herself and for a moment she closed her eyes, but she did not falter for an instant. She would not stop; nothing on earth should make her stop now. Only, because she knew the man, she kicked her feet clear of the stirrups. He had said he would shoot and he would shoot, and if the grey shied or swerved a hair's breadth she would probably receive the bullet that was meant for him. Better that! Yes, even better that!
Silver Star tore on headlong and the minute seemed a lifetime. Then before even she heard the report he bounded in the air and fell with a crash. Diana was flung far forward and landed on some soft sand. For a moment she was stunned by the fall, then she staggered dizzily to her feet and stumbled back to the prostrate horse. He was lashing out wildly with his heels, making desperate efforts to rise. And as she reached him the black horse dashed up alongside, stopping suddenly, and rearing straight up. The Sheik leaped to the ground and ran towards her. He caught her wrist and flung her out of his way, and she lay where she had fallen, every nerve in her body quivering. She was beaten and with the extinguishing of her last hope all her courage failed her. She gave way to sheer, overwhelming terror, utterly cowed. Every faculty was suspended, swallowed up in the one dominating force, the dread of his voice and the dread of the touch of his hands. She heard a second report and knew that he had put Silver Star out of his misery, and then, in a few seconds, his voice beside her. She got up unsteadily, shrinking from him.
"Why are you here, and where is Gaston?"
In a stifled voice she told him everything. What did it matter? If she tried to be silent he would force her to speak.
He made no comment, and bringing The Hawk nearer tossed her up roughly into the saddle and swung up behind her, the black breaking at once into the usual headlong gallop. She made no kind of resistance, a complete apathy seemed to have come over her. She did not look at the body of Silver Star, she looked at nothing, clinging to the front of the saddle, and staring ahead of her unseeingly. She had dropped her helmet when she fell and she had left it, thankful to be relieved of the pressure on her aching head. Her mental collapse had affected her physically, and it needed a real effort of will-power to enable her to sit up right. Very soon they would join the horsemen, who were waiting for them, and for her pride's sake she must concentrate all her energy to avoid betraying her weakness.
Ahmed Ben Hassan did not go back through the defile, he turned into a little path that Diana had overlooked and which skirted the hills. In about half-an-hour the troop met them, riding slowly from the opposite direction. She did not raise her eyes as they approached, but she heard Yusef's clear tenor voice calling out to the Sheik, who answered shortly as the men fell in behind him. Back over the ground that she had traversed so differently. She knew that it had been madness from the first. She should have known that it could never succeed, that she could never reach civilisation alone. She had been a fool ever to imagine that she could win through. The chance that had thrown her again into the Sheik's power might just as easily have thrown her into the hands of any other Arab. Luck had helped Ahmed Ben Hassan even as she herself had unknowingly played into his hands when he had captured her first. Fate was with him. It was useless to try and struggle against him any more. Her brain was a confused medley of thoughts that she was too tired to unravel, strange, conflicting ideas chasing wildly through her mind. She did not understand them, she did not try. The effort of thinking made her head ache agonisingly. She was conscious of a great unrest, a dull aching in her heart and a terrible depression that was altogether apart from the fear she felt of the Sheik. She gave up trying to think; she was concerned only with trying to keep her balance.
She lifted her head for the first time and looked at the magnificent sky. The sun had almost set, going down in a ball of molten fire, and the heavens on either side were a riot of gold and crimson and palest green, shading off into vivid blue that grew blacker and blacker as the glory of the sunset died away. The scattered palm trees and the far-off hills stood out in strong relief. It was a country of marvellous beauty, and Diana's heart gave a sudden throb as she realised that she was going back to it all. She was drooping wearily, unable to sit upright any longer, and once or twice she jolted heavily against the man who rode behind her. His nearness had ceased to revolt her; she thought of it with a dull feeling of wonder. She had even a sense of relief at the thought of the strength so close to her. Her eyes rested on his hands, showing brown and muscular under the folds of his white robes. She knew the power of the long, lean fingers that could, when he liked, be gentle enough. Her eyes filled with sudden tears, but she blinked them back before they fell. She wanted desperately to cry. A wave of terrible loneliness went over her, a feeling of desolation, and a strange, incomprehensible yearning for what she did not know. As the sunset faded and it grew rapidly dusk a chill wind sprang up and she shivered from time to time, drooping more and more with fatigue, at times only half conscious. She had drifted into complete oblivion, when she was awakened with a jerk that threw her back violently against the Sheik, but she was too tired to more than barely understand that they had stopped for something, and that there were palm trees near her. She felt herself lifted down and a cloak wrapped round her, and then she remembered nothing more. She awoke slowly, shaking off a persistent drowsiness by degrees. She was still tired, but the desperate weariness was gone, and she was conscious of a feeling of well-being and security. The cool, night air blew in her face, dissipating her sleepiness. She became aware that night had fallen, and that they were still steadily galloping southward. In a few moments she was wide awake, and found that she was lying across the saddle in front of the Sheik, and that he was holding her in the crook of his arm. Her head was resting just over his heart, and she could feel the regular beat beneath her cheek. Wrapped warmly in the cloak and held securely by his strong arm at first she was content to give way only to the sensation of bodily rest. It was enough for the moment to lie with relaxed muscles, to have to make no effort of any kind, to feel the soothing rush of the wind against her face, and the swift, easy gallop of The Hawk as he carried them on through the night. Them! With a start of recollection she realised fully whose arm was round her, and whose breast her head was resting on. Her heart beat with sudden violence. What was the matter with her? Why did she not shrink from the pressure of his arm and the contact of his warm, strong body? What had happened to her? Quite suddenly she knew—knew that she loved him, that she had loved him for a long time, even when she thought she hated him and when she had fled from him. She knew now why his face had haunted her in the little oasis at midday—that it was love calling to her subconsciously. All the confusion of mind that had assailed her when they started on the homeward journey, the conflicting thoughts and contrary emotions, were explained. But she knew herself at last and knew the love that filled her, an overwhelming, passionate love that almost frightened her with its immensity and with the sudden hold it had laid upon her. Love had come to her at last who had scorned it so fiercely. The men who had loved her had not had the power to touch her, she had given love to no one, she had thought that she could not love, that she was devoid of all natural affection and that she would never know what love meant. But she knew now—a love of such complete surrender that she had never conceived. Her heart was given for all time to the fierce desert man who was so different from all other men whom she had met, a lawless savage who had taken her to satisfy a passing fancy and who had treated her with merciless cruelty. He was a brute, but she loved him, loved him for his very brutality and superb animal strength. And he was an Arab! A man of different race and colour, a native; Aubrey would indiscriminately class him as a "damned nigger." She did not care. It made no difference. A year ago, a few weeks even, she would have shuddered with repulsion at the bare idea, the thought that a native could even touch her had been revolting, but all that was swept away and was nothing in the face of the love that filled her heart so completely. She did not care if he was an Arab, she did not care what he was, he was the man she loved. She was deliriously, insanely happy. She was lying against his heart, and the clasp of his arm was joy unspeakable. She was utterly content; for the moment all life narrowed down to the immediate surroundings, and she wished childishly that they could ride so for ever through eternity. The night was brilliant. The stars blazed against the inky blackness of the sky, and the light of the full moon was startlingly clear and white. The discordant yelling of a pack of hunting jackals came from a little distance, breaking the perfect stillness. The men were riding in unusual silence, though a low exclamation or the subdued jingle of accoutrements was heard occasionally, once some one fired at a night creature that bounded out from almost under his horse's feet. But the Sheik flung a word of savage command over his shoulder and there were no more shots. Diana stirred slightly, moving her head so that she could see his face showing clearly in the bright moonlight, which threw some features into high relief and left the rest in dark shadow. She looked at him with quickening breath. He was peering intently ahead, his eyes flashing in the cold light, his brows drawn together in the characteristic heavy scowl, and the firm chin, so near her face, was pushed out more doggedly than usual.
He felt her move and glanced down. For a moment she looked straight into his eyes, and then with a low, inarticulate murmur she hid her face against him. He did not speak, but he shifted her weight a little, drawing her closer into the curve of his arm.
It was very late when they reached the camp. Lights flashed up in the big tent and on all sides, and they were surrounded by a crowd of excited tribesmen and servants. In spite of the hard day's work The Hawk started plunging and rearing, his invariable habit on stopping, which nothing could break, and at a word from the Sheik two men leaped to his head while he transferred Diana to Yusef's outstretched arms. She was stiff and giddy, and the young man helped her to the door of the tent, and then vanished again into the throng of men and horses.
Diana sank wearily on to the divan and covered her face with her hands. She was trembling with fatigue and apprehension. What would he do to her? She asked herself the question over and over again, with shaking, soundless lips, praying for courage, nerving herself to meet him. At last she heard his voice and, looking up, saw him standing in the doorway. His back was turned, and he was giving orders to a number of men who stood near him, for she could hear their several voices; and shortly afterwards half-a-dozen small bands of men rode quickly away in different directions. For a few moments he stood talking to Yusef and then came in. At the sight of him Diana shrank back among the soft cushions, but he took no notice of her, and, lighting a cigarette, began walking up and down the tent. She dared not speak to him, the expression on his face was terrible.
Two soft-footed Arab servants brought a hastily prepared supper. It was a ghastly meal. He never spoke or showed in any way that he was conscious of her presence. She had had nothing to eat all day, but the food nearly choked her and she could hardly swallow it, but she forced herself to eat a little. It seemed interminable until the servants finally withdrew, after bringing two little gold-cased cups of native coffee. She gulped it down with difficulty. The Sheik had resumed his restless pacing, smoking cigarette after cigarette in endless succession. The monotonous tramp to and fro worked on Diana's nerves until she winced each time he passed her, and, huddled on the divan, she watched him continually, fascinated, fearful.
He never looked at her. From time to time he glanced at the watch on his wrist and each time his face grew blacker. If he would only speak! His silence was worse than anything he could say. What was he going to do? He was capable of doing anything. The suspense was torture. Her hands grew clammy and she wrenched at the soft open collar of her riding-shirt with a feeling of suffocation.
Twice Yusef came to report, and the second time the Sheik came back slowly from the door where he had been speaking to him and stopped in front of Diana, looking at her strangely.
She flung out her hands instinctively, shrinking further back among the cushions, her eyes wavering under his. "What are you going to do to me?" she whispered involuntarily, with dry lips.
He looked at her without answering for a while, as if to prolong the torture she was enduring, and a cruel look crept into his eyes. "That depends on what happens to Gaston," he said at length slowly.
"Gaston?" she repeated stupidly. She had forgotten the valet, in all that had occurred since the morning she had forgotten his very existence.
"Yes—Gaston," he said sternly. "You do not seem to have thought of what might happen to him."
She sat up slowly, a puzzled look coming into her face. "What could happen to him?" she asked wonderingly.
He dragged back the flap of the tent and pointed out into the darkness. "Over there in the south-west, there is an old Sheik whose name is Ibraheim Omair. His tribe and mine have been at feud for generations. Lately I have learned that he has been venturing nearer than he has ever before dared. He hates me. To capture my personal servant would be more luck than he could have hoped for."
He dropped the flap and began walking up and down again. There was a sinister tone in his voice that made Diana suddenly comprehend the little Frenchman's peril. Ahmed Ben Hassan was not the man to be easily alarmed on any one's behalf. That he was anxious about Gaston was apparent, and with her knowledge of him she understood his anxiety argued a very real danger. She had heard tales before she left Biskra, and since then she had been living in an Arab camp, and she knew something of the fiendish cruelty and callous indifference to suffering of the Arabs. Ghastly mental pictures with appalling details crowded now into her mind. She shuddered.
"What would they do to him?" she asked shakily, with a look of horror.
The Sheik paused beside her. He looked at her curiously and the cruelty deepened in his eyes. "Shall I tell you what they would do to him?" he said meaningly, with a terrible smile.
She gave a cry and flung her arms over her head, hiding her face. "Oh, do not! Do not!" she wailed.
He jerked the ash from his cigarette. "Bah!" he said contemptuously. "You are squeamish."
She felt sick with the realisation of what could result to Gaston from her action. She had had no personal feeling with regard to him. On the contrary, she liked him—she had not thought of him, the man, when she had stampeded his horse and left him on foot so far from camp. She had looked upon him only as a jailer, his master's deputy.
The near presence of this hostile Sheik explained many things she had not understood: Gaston's evident desire daring their ride not to go beyond a certain distance, the special activity that had prevailed of late amongst the Sheik's immediate followers, and the speed and silence that had been maintained during the headlong gallop across the desert that evening. She had known all along the Arab's obvious affection for his French servant, and it was confirmed now by the anxiety that he did not take the trouble to conceal—so unlike his usual complete indifference to suffering or danger.
She looked at him thoughtfully. There were still depths that she had not fathomed in his strange character. Would she ever arrive at even a distant understanding of his complex nature? There was a misty yearning in her eyes as they followed his tall figure up and down the tent. His feet made no sound on the thick rugs, and he moved with the long, graceful stride that always reminded her of the walk of a wild animal. Her new-found love longed for expression as she watched him. If she could only tell him! If she had only the right to go to him and in his arms to kiss away the cruel lines from his mouth! But she had not. She must wait until she was called, until he should choose to notice the woman whom he had taken for his pleasure, until the baser part of him had need of her again. He was an Arab, and to him a woman was a slave, and as a slave she must give everything and ask for nothing.
And when he did turn to her again the joy she would feel in his embrace would be an agony for the love that was not there. His careless kisses would scorch her and the strength of his arms would be a mockery. But would he ever turn to her again? If anything happened to Gaston—if what he had suggested became a fact and the servant fell a victim to the blood feud between the two tribes? She knew he would be terribly avenged, and what would her part be? She wondered dully if he would kill her, and how. If the long, brown fingers with their steely strength would choke the life out of her. Her hands went up to her throat mechanically. He stopped near her to light a fresh cigarette, and she was trying to summon up courage to speak to him of Gaston when the covering of the doorway was flung open and Gaston himself stood in the entrance.
"Monseigneur—" he stammered, and with his two hands outstretched, palm uppermost, he made an appealing gesture.
The Sheik's hand shot out and gripped the man's shoulder. "Gaston! Enfin, mon ami!" he said slowly, but there was a ring in his low voice that Diana had never heard before.
For a moment the two men stared at each other, and then Ahmed Ben Hassan gave a little laugh of great relief. "Praise be to Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate," he murmured.
"To his name praise!" rejoined Gaston softly, then his eyes roved around the tent towards Diana, and there was no resentment in them, but only anxiety.
"Madame is——" he hesitated, but the Sheik cut him short.
"Madame is quite safe," he said dryly, and pushed him gently towards the door with a few words in rapid Arabic. He stood some time after Gaston had gone to his own quarters looking out into the night, and when he came in, lingered unusually over closing the flap. Diana stood hesitating. She was worn out and her long riding-boots felt like lead. She was afraid to go and afraid to stay. He seemed purposely ignoring her. The relief of Gaston's return was enormous, but she had still to reckon with him for her attempted flight. That he said no word about it at the moment meant nothing; she knew him too well for that. And there was Silver Star, the finest of all his magnificent horses—she had yet to pay for his death. The strain that she had gone through since the morning was tremendous, she could not bear much more. His silence aggravated her breaking nerves until she felt that her nerves would go. He had moved over to the writing-table and was tearing the wrapping off a box of cartridges preparatory to refilling the magazine of his revolver. The little operation seemed to take centuries. She started at each separate click. She gripped her hands and passed her tongue over her dry lips. If he would not speak she must, she could endure it no longer.
"I am sorry about Silver Star," she faltered, and even to herself her voice sounded hoarse and strange. He did not answer, but only shrugged his shoulders as he dropped the last cartridge into its place.
The gesture and his uncompromising attitude exasperated her. "You had better have shot me," she said bitterly.
"Perhaps. You would have been easier replaced. There are plenty of women, but Silver Star was almost unique," he retorted quickly, and she winced at the cold brutality of his tone.
A little sad smile curved her lips. "Yet you shot your horse to get me back," she said in a barely audible voice.
He flung round with an oath. "You little fool! Do you know so little of me yet? Do you think that I will let anything stand between me and what I want? Do you think that by running away from me you will make me want you less? By Allah! I would have found you if you had got as far as France. What I have I keep, until I tire of it—and I have not tired of you yet." He jerked her to him, staring down at her passionately, and for a moment his face was the face of a devil. "How shall I punish you?" He felt the shudder he expected go through her and laughed as she shrank in his arms and hid her face. He forced her head up with merciless fingers. "What do you hate most?—my kisses?" and with another mocking laugh he crushed his mouth to hers in a long suffocating embrace.
Then he let her go suddenly, and, blind and dizzy, she reeled from him and staggered. He caught her as she swayed and swept her into his arms. Her head fell back against his shoulder and his face changed at the sight of her quivering features. He carried her into the adjoining room and laid her on the couch, his hands lingering as he drew them from her. For a moment he stood looking down with smouldering eyes on the slight, boyish figure lying on the bed, the ferocity dying out of his face. "Take care you do not wake the devil in me again, ma belle," he said sombrely.
Alone Diana turned her face into the pillows with a moan of anguish. Back in the desert a few hours ago, under the shining stars, when the truth had first come to her, she had thought that she was happy, but she knew now that without his love she would never be happy. She had tasted the bitterness of his loveless kisses and she knew that a worse bitterness was to come, and she writhed at the thought of what her life with him would be.
"I love him! I love him! And I want his love more than anything in Heaven and earth."
Diana was sitting on the divan in the living-room of the tent lingering over her petit dejeuner, a cup of coffee poised in one hand and her bright head bent over a magazine on her knee. It was a French periodical of fairly recent date, left a few days before by a Dutchman who was touring through the desert, and who had asked a night's hospitality. Diana had not seen him, and it was not until the traveller had been served with dinner in his own tent that the Sheik had sent the usual flowery message conveying what, though wrapped in honeyed words, amounted practically to a command that he should come to drink coffee and let himself be seen. Only native servants had been in attendance, and it was an Arab untinged by any Western influence who had received him, talking only Arabic, which the Dutchman spoke fluently, and placing at his disposal himself, his servants and all his belongings with the perfunctory Oriental insincerity which the traveller knew meant nothing and accepted at its own value, returning to the usual set phrases the customary answers that were expected of him. Once or twice as they talked a woman's subdued voice had reached the Dutchman's ears from behind the thick curtains, but he knew too much to let any expression betray him, and he smiled grimly to himself at the thought of the change that an indiscreet question would bring to the stern face of his grave and impassive host. He was an elderly man with a tender heart, and he wondered speculatively what the girl in the next room would have to pay for her own indiscretion in allowing her voice to be heard. He left the next morning early without seeing the Sheik again, escorted for some little distance by Yusef and a few men.
Diana read eagerly. Anything fresh to read was precious. She looked like a slender boy in the soft riding-shirt and smart-cut breeches, one slim foot in a long brown boot drawn up under her, and the other swinging idly against the side of the divan. She finished her coffee hastily, and, lighting a cigarette, leaned back with a sigh of content over the magazine.
Two months had slipped away since her mad flight, since her dash for freedom that had ended in tragedy for the beautiful Silver Star and so unexpectedly for herself. Weeks of vivid happiness that had been mixed with poignant suffering, for the perfect joy of being with him was marred by the passionate longing for his love. Even her surroundings had taken on a new aspect, her happiness coloured everything. The Eastern luxury of the tent and its appointments no longer seemed theatrical, but the natural setting of the magnificent specimen of manhood who surrounded himself by all the display dear to the heart of the native. How much was for his own pleasure and how much was for the sake of his followers she had never been able to determine. The beauties and attractions of the desert had multiplied a hundred times. The wild tribesmen, with their primitive ways and savagery, had ceased to disgust her, and the free life with its constant exercise and simple routine was becoming indefinitely dear to her. The camp had been moved several times—always towards the south—and each change had been a source of greater interest.
And since the night that he had carried her back in triumph he had been kind to her—kind beyond anything that she had expected. He had never made any reference to her fight or to the death of the horse that he had valued so highly; in that he had been generous. The episode over, he wished no further allusion to it. But there was nothing beyond kindness. The passion that smouldered in his dark eyes often was not the love she craved, it was only the desire that her uncommon type and her utter dissimilarity from all the other women who had passed through his hands had awakened in him. The perpetual remembrance of those other woman brought her a constant burning shame that grew stronger every day, a shame that was only less strong than her ardent love, and a wild jealousy that tortured her with doubts and fears, an ever-present demon of suggestion reminding her of the past when it was not she who lay in his arms, nor her lips that received his kisses. The knowledge that the embraces she panted for had been shared by les autres was an open wound that would not heal. She tried to shut her mind to the past. She knew that she was a fool to expect the abstinence of a monk in the strong, virile desert man. And she was afraid for the future. She wanted him for herself alone, wanted his undivided love, and that he was an Arab with Oriental instincts filled her with continual dread, dread of the real future about which she never dared to think, dread of the passing of his transient desire. She loved him so passionately, so completely, that beyond him was nothing. He was all the world. She gave herself to him gladly, triumphantly, as she would give her life for him if need be. But she had schooled herself to hide her love, to yield apathetically to his caresses, and to conceal the longing that possessed her. She was afraid that the knowledge that she loved him would bring about the disaster she dreaded. The words that he had once used remained continually in her mind: "If you loved me you would bore me, and I should have to let you go." And she hid her love closely in her heart. It was difficult, and it hurt her to hide it from him and to assume indifference. It was difficult to remember that she must make a show of reluctance when she was longing to give unreservedly. She dropped the end of the cigarette hissing into the dregs of the coffee and turned a page, and, as she did so, she looked up suddenly, the magazine dropping unheeded on the floor. Close outside the tent the same low, vibrating baritone was singing the Kashmiri love song that she had heard last the night before she left Biskra. She sat tense, her eyes growing puzzled.
"Pale hands I loved beside the Shalimar. Where are you now? Who lies beneath your spell?"
The voice came nearer and he swept in, still singing, and came to her. "Pale hands, pink tipped," he sang, stopping in front of her and catching her fingers in his up to his lips, but she tore them away before he kissed them.
"You do know English?" she cried sharply, her eyes searching his.
He flung himself on the divan beside her with a laugh. "Because I sing an English song?" he replied in French. "La! la! I heard a Spanish boy singing in 'Carmen' once in Paris who did not know a word of French beside the score. He learned it parrot-like, as I learn your English songs," he added, smiling.
She watched him light a cigarette, and her forehead wrinkled thoughtfully. "It was you who sang outside the hotel in Biskra that night?" she asked at last, more statement than question.
"One is mad sometimes, especially when the moon is high," he replied teasingly.
"And was it you who came into my bedroom and put the blank cartridges in my revolver?"
His arm stole round her, drawing her to him, and he lifted her head up so that he could look into her eyes. "Do you think that—I would have allowed anybody else to go to your room at night?—I, an Arab, when I meant you for myself?"
"You were so sure?"
He laughed softly, as if the suggestion that any plan of his could be liable to miscarriage amused him infinitely, and the smouldering passion flamed up in his dark eyes. He strained her to him hungrily, as if her slim body lying against his had awakened the sleeping fires within him. She struggled against the pressure of his arm, averting her head.
"Always cold?" he chided. "Kiss me, little piece of ice."
She longed to, and it almost broke her heart to persevere in her efforts to repulse him. A wild desire seized her to tell him that she loved him, to make an end once and for all of the misery of doubt and fear that was sapping her strength from her, and abide by the issue. But the spark of hope that lived in her heart gave her courage, and she fought down the burning words that sought utterance, forcing indifference into her eyes and a mutinous pout to her lips.
His black brows drew together slowly. "Still disobedient? You said you would obey me. I loathe the English, but I thought their word——"
She interrupted him with a quick gesture, and, turning her face to his, for the first time kissed him voluntarily, brushing his tanned cheek with swift, cold lips.
He laughed disdainfully. "Bon Dieu! Has the hot sun of the desert taught you no better than that? Have you learned so little from me? Has the vile climate of your detestable country frozen you so thoroughly that nothing can melt you? Or is there some man in England who has the power to turn you from a statue to a woman?" he added, with an angry snarl.
She clenched her hands with the pain of his words. "There is no one," she muttered, "but I—I don't feel like that."
"You had better learn," he said thickly. "I am tired of holding an icicle in my arms," and sweeping her completely into his masterful grasp he covered her face with fierce, burning kisses.
And for the first time she surrendered to him wholly, clinging to him passionately, and giving him kiss for kiss with an absolute abandon of all resistance. At last he let her go, panting and breathless, and leaped up, drawing his hand across his eyes.
"You go to my head, Diane," he said, with a laugh that was half anger, and shrugging his shoulders moved across the tent to the chest where the spare arms were kept, and unlocking it took out a revolver and began to clean it.
She looked at him bewildered. What had he meant? How could she reconcile what he said with the advice that he had given her before? Was he totally inconsistent? Did he, after all, want the satisfaction of knowing that he had made her love him—of flattering himself on the power he exercised over her? Did he care that he was able to torture her heart with a refinement of cruelty that took all and gave nothing? Did he wish her to crawl abjectly to his feet to give him the pleasure of spurning her contemptuously, or was it only that he wanted her senses merely to respond to his ardent, Eastern temperament? Her face grew hot and shamed. She knew the fiery nature that was hidden under his impassive exterior and knew the control he exercised over himself, knew, too, that the strain he put upon himself was liable to be broken with unexpected suddenness. It was an easy thing to rule his wild followers, and she guessed that the relaxation that he looked for in the privacy of his own tent meant more to him than he would ever have admitted, than perhaps he even know. The hatred and defiance with which she had repelled him had provoked and amused him, but it had also at times angered him.
He was very human, and there must have been moments when he wanted a willing mate rather than a rebellious prisoner. She gave a quick sigh as she looked at him. He was so strong, so vigorous, so intensely alive. It was going to be very difficult to anticipate his moods and be subservient to his temper. She sighed again wearily. If she could but make him and keep him happy. She ruffled her loose curls, tugging them with a puzzled frown, a trick that was a survival of her nursery days, when she clutched frantically at her red-gold mop to help her settle any childish difficulty.
She knelt up suddenly on the cushions of the divan. "Why do you hate the English so bitterly, Monseigneur?" She had dropped almost unconsciously into Gaston's mode of address for some time; it was often awkward to give him no name, and she shrank from using his own; and the title fitted him.
He looked up from his work, and, gathering the materials together, brought them over to the divan. "Light me a cigarette, cherie, my hands are busy," he replied irrelevantly.
She complied with a little laugh. "You haven't answered my question."
He polished the gleaming little weapon in his hand for some time without speaking. "Ma petite Diane, your lips are of an adorable redness and your voice is music in my ears, but—I detest questions. They bore me to a point of exasperation," he said at last lightly, and started humming the Kashmiri song again.
She knew him well enough to know that all questions did not bore him, but that she must have touched some point connected with the past of which she was ignorant that affected him, and to prove her knowledge she asked another question. "Why do you sing? You have never sung before."
He looked at her with a smile of amusement at her pertinacity. "Inquisitive one! I sing because I am glad. Because my friend is coming."
"Yes, by Allah! The best friend a man ever had. Raoul de Saint Hubert."
She flashed a look at the bookcase with a jerk of her head, and he nodded. "Coming here?" she queried, and the dismay she felt sounded in her voice.
He frowned in quick annoyance at her tone. "Why not?" he said haughtily.
"No reason," she murmured, sinking down among the cushions again and picking up the magazine from the floor. The advent of a stranger—a European—was a shock, but she felt that the Sheik's eyes were on her and she determined to show no feeling in his presence. "What time will you be ready to ride?" she asked indifferently, with a simulated yawn, flirting over the pages.
"I can't ride with you to-day. I am going to meet Saint Hubert. His courier only came an hour ago. It is two years since I have seen him."
Diana slipped off the couch and went to the open doorway. A detachment of men were already waiting for him, and, close by the tent, Shaitan of the ugly temper was biting and fidgeting in the hands of the grooms. She scowled at the beautiful, wicked creature's flat-laid ears and rolling eyes. She would have backed him fearlessly herself if the Sheik had let her, but she was nervous for him every time he rode the vicious beast. No one but the Sheik could manage him, and though she knew that he had perfect mastery over the horse, she never lost the feeling of nervousness, a sensation the old Diana had never, never experienced, and she wished to-day that it had been any other horse but Shaitan waiting for him.
She went back to him slowly. "It makes my head ache, to stay in all day. May Gaston not ride with me?" she asked diffidently, her eyes anywhere but on his face. He had not allowed her to ride with any one except himself since her attempted escape, and to her tentative suggestions that the rides with the valet might be resumed he had given a prompt refusal. He hesitated now, and she was afraid he was going to refuse again, and she looked up wistfully. "Please, Monseigneur," she whispered humbly.
He looked at her for a moment with his chin squarer than usual. "Are you going to run away again?" he asked bluntly.
Her eyes filled slowly with tears, and she turned her head away to hide them. "No, I am not going to run away again," she said very low.
"Very well, I will tell him. He will be delighted, le bon Gaston. He is your very willing slave in spite of the trick you played him. He has a beautiful nature, le pauvre diable. He is not an Arab, eh, little Diane?" The mocking smile was back in his eyes as he turned her face up to his in the usual peremptory way. Then he held out the revolver he had been cleaning with sudden seriousness. "I want you to carry this always now when you ride. Ibraheim Omair is still in the neighbourhood."
She looked at it blankly.
"But——" she stammered.
He knew what was in her mind, and he stooped and kissed her lightly. "I trust you," he said quietly, and went out.
She followed him to the door, the revolver dangling from her hand, and watched him mount and ride away. His horsemanship was superb and her eyes glowed as they followed him. She went back into the tent and slipped the revolver into the holster he had left lying on a stool, and, tucking it and Saint Hubert's novel, which she took from the bookcase, under her arm, went into the bed-room and, calling to Zilah to pull off her riding-boots, threw herself on the bed to laze away the morning, and to try and picture the author from the book he had written.
She hated him in advance; she was jealous of him and of his coming. The Sheik's sudden new tenderness had given rise to a hope she hardly dared allow herself to dwell upon. Might not the power that she had exercised over other men be still extended to him in spite of the months that he had been indifferent to anything except the mere physical attraction she had for him? Was it not possible that out of that attraction might develop something finer and better than the primitive desire she had aroused? Oriental though he was, might he not be capable of a deep and lasting affection? He might have loved her if no outside influence had come to interrupt the routine that had become so intimately a part of his life. Those other episodes to which he had referred so lightly had been a matter of days or weeks, not months, as in her case. He might have cared but for the coming of this Frenchman. She hurled Saint Hubert's book across the room in a fit of girlish rage and buried her head in her arms. He would be odious—a smirking, conceited egotist! She had met several French writers and she visualised him contemptuously. His books were undoubtedly clever. So much the worse; he would be correspondingly inflated. His novel revealed a passionate, emotional temperament that promised to complicate the situation if he should be pleased to cast an eye of favour on her. She writhed at the very thought. And that he was to see her was evident; the Sheik had left no orders to the contrary. It was not to be the case of the Dutch traveller, when the fact that she belonged to an Arab had been brought home to her effectually by Ahmed Ben Hassan's peremptory commands, and she had experienced for the first time the sensation of a woman kept in seclusion.
The emotions of the morning and the disappointment of the intended ride, together with the dismay produced by the unexpected visitor, all combined to agitate her powerfully, and she worked herself up into a fever of self-torture and unhappiness. She ended by falling asleep and slept heavily for some hours. Zilah waked her with a shy hand on her arm and a soft announcement of lunch, and Diana sat up, rubbing her eyes, flushed and drowsy. She stared uncomprehendingly for a moment at the Arab girl, and then waved her away imperiously and buried her head in the pillows again. Lunch, when her heart was breaking!
Mindful of her lord's deputy, who was waiting in the next room, and whom she regarded with awe, Zilah held her ground with a timid insistence until Diana started up wrathfully and bade her go in tones that she had never used before to the little waiting-girl. Zilah fled precipitately, and, thoroughly awakened, Diana swung her heels to the ground and with her elbows on her knees rested her hot head in her hands. She felt giddy, her head ached and her mouth was parched and dry. She got up languidly, and going to the table studied her face in the mirror intently. She frowned at the reflection. She had never been proud of her own beauty; she had lived with it always and it had seemed to her a thing of no consequence, and now that it had failed to arouse the love she wanted in Ahmed Ben Hassan she almost hated it.
"Are you going to have fever or are you merely bad-tempered?" she asked out loud, and the sound of her own voice made her laugh in spite of her heavy heart. She went into the bathroom and soused her head in cold water. When she came back a frightened Zilah was putting a small tray on the brass-topped table by the bed.
"M'seiur Gaston," she stammered, almost crying.
Diana looked at the tray, arranged with all the dainty neatness dear to the valet's heart, and then at the travelling clock on the table beside it, and realised that it was an hour past her usual lunch-time and that she was extremely hungry, after all. A little piece of paper on the tray caught her eye, and, picking it up, she read in Gaston's clear though minute handwriting, "At what hour does Madame desire to ride?"
The servant clearly had no intention of giving up the programme for the afternoon without a struggle. She smiled as she added a figure to the end of the note, and went to the curtains that divided the rooms. "Gaston!"
She passed the paper silently through the curtains and went back to her lunch. When she sent Zilah away with the empty tray she rescued the Vicomte de Saint Hubert's book from the floor where she had thrown it and tried to read it dispassionately. She turned to the title-page and studied the pencilled scrawl "Souvenir de Raoul" closely. It did not look like the handwriting of a small-minded man, but handwriting was nothing to go by, she argued obstinately. Aubrey, who was the essence of selfishness, wrote beautifully, and had once been told by an expert that his writing denoted a generous love of his fellow-men, which deduction had aroused no enthusiasm in the baronet, and had given his sister over to helpless mirth. She turned the pages, dipping here and there, finally forgetting the author altogether in the book. It was a wonderful story of a man's love and faithfulness, and Diana pushed it aside at last with a very bitter sigh. Things happened so in books. In real life they happened very differently. She looked round the room with pain-filled eyes, at the medley of her own and the Sheik's belongings, her ivory toilet appointments jostling indiscriminately among his brushes and his razors on the dressing-table, and then at the pillow beside her where his head rested every night. She stooped and kissed it with a little quivering breath. "Ahmed. Oh, Monseigneur!" she murmured longingly. Then, with an impatient jerk of the head, she sprang up and dragged on her boots. She pulled a soft felt hat down over her eyes and picked up the revolver the Sheik had given her. She paused a moment, looking at it with an odd smile before buckling it round her slim waist. Gaston's face lit up with genuine pleasure when she came out to the horses. She had felt a momentary embarrassment before she left the tent, thinking of the last time he had ridden with her, but she had known from the moment he came back that night that he bore no malice, and the look on his face and his stammered words to the Sheik had indicated that the fear he felt for her was not for what might have happened in the desert, but for what might yet happen to her at the hands of his master and hers.
The horse that she rode always now was pure white, not so fast as Silver Star and very tricky, called The Dancer, from a nervous habit of dancing on his hind-legs at starting and stopping, like a circus-horse. He was difficult to mount, and edged away shyly as Diana tried to get her foot into the stirrup. But she swung up at last, and by the time The Dancer had finished his display of haute ecole Gaston was mounted. "After riding The Dancer I feel confident to enter for the Concours Hippique," she laughed over her shoulder, and touched the horse with her heel.
She wanted exercise primarily, hard physical exercise that would tire her out and keep her mind occupied and prevent her from thinking, and the horse she rode supplied both needs. He required watching all the time. She let him out to his full pace for his own sake and hers, and the air and the movement banished her headache, and a kind of exhilaration came over her, making her almost happy. After a while she reined in her horse and waved to Gaston to come alongside. "Tell me of this Vicomte de Saint Hubert who is coming. You know him, I suppose, as you have been so long with Monseigneur?"
Gaston smiled. "I knew him before Monseigneur did. I was born on the estate of Monsieur le Comte de Saint Hubert, the father of Monsieur le Vicomte. I and my twin brother Henri. We both went into Monsieur's le Comte's training stables, and then after our time in the Cavalry Henri became valet to Monsieur le Vicomte, and I came to Monseigneur."
Diana took off her hat and rubbed her forehead thoughtfully. Fifteen years ago Ahmed must have been about twenty. Why should an Arab chief of that age, or any age, indulge in such an anomaly as a French valet, or for that matter why should a French valet attach himself to an Arab Sheik and exile himself in the wilds of the desert? Whichever way she turned, the mystery of the man she loved seemed to crop up. She started arguing with herself in a circle—why should the Sheik have a European servant or why should he not, until she gave it up in hopeless confusion.