She turned to Gaston with the intention of asking further of the coming visitor, and, keeping The Dancer as still as she could, sat looking at the valet with great, questioning eyes, fanning her hot face with her hat. Gaston, whose own horse stood like a rock, was frankly mopping his forehead. Dianna decided against any more questions. Gaston would naturally be hopelessly biased, having been born and brought up in the shadow of the family, and after all she would rather judge for herself. One inquiry only she permitted herself: "The family of Saint Hubert, are they of the old or the new noblesse?"
"Of the old, Madame," replied Gaston quickly.
Diana coaxed her nervous mount close beside his steadier companion, and, thrusting his bridle and her hat into Gaston's hands, slipped to the ground and walked away a little distance to the top of a small mound. She sat down on the summit with her back to the horses and her arms clasped round her knees. All that the coming of this strange man meant to her rushed suddenly over her. He was a man, obviously, who moved in the world, her world, since he apparently travelled extensively and his father was wealthy enough to run a racing stable as a hobby and was a member of the dwindling class of ancienne noblesse. It was characteristic of her that she put first what she did. How could she bear to meet one of her own order in the position in which she was? She who had been proud Diana Mayo and now—the mistress of an Arab Sheik? She laid her face on her knees with a shudder. The ordeal before her cut like a knife into her heart. The pride that Ahmed Ben Hassan had not yet killed flamed up and racked her with humiliation and shame, the shame that still seared her soul like a hot iron, so that there were moments she could not bear even the presence of the man who had made her what she was, in spite of the love she bore him, and, pleading fever, prayed to be alone. Not that he ever granted her prayer, for he knew fever when he saw it, but would pull her down beside him with a mocking laugh that still had the power to hurt so much. The thought of what it would be to her to meet his friend had presumably never entered his mind, or if it had it had made no impression and been dismissed as negligible. It was the point of view, she supposed drearily; the standpoint from which he looked at things was fundamentally different from her own—racially and temperamentally they were poles apart. To him she was only the woman held in bondage, a thing of no account. She sat very still for a while with her face hidden, until a discreet cough from Gaston warned her that time was flying. She went back to the horses slowly with white face and compressed lips. There was the usual trouble in mounting, and her strained nerves made her impatient of The Dancer's idiosyncrasies, and she checked him sharply, making him rear dangerously.
"Careful, Madame," cried Gaston warningly.
"For whom—me or Monseigneur's horse?" she retorted bitterly, and ignoring her hat, which Gaston held out to her with reproachful eyes, she spurred the horse viciously, making him break into a headlong gallop. It had got to be gone through, so get it over as soon as possible. And behind her, Gaston, for the first time in all his long service, cursed the master he would cheerfully have died for.
The horse's nerves, like her own, were on edge, and he pulled badly, his smooth satiny neck growing dark and seamed with sweat; Diana needed all her knowledge to control him, and she began to wonder if when they came to the camp she would be able to stop him. She topped an undulation that was some little distance from the tents with misgivings, and wrapped the reins round her hands to prevent them slipping through her fingers. As they neared she saw the Sheik standing outside his tent, with a tall, thin man beside him. She had only a glimpse of dark, unruly hair and a close-cut beard as she shot past, unable to pull up The Dancer. But just beyond the tent, with the reins cutting into her hands, she managed to haul him round and bring him back. A couple of grooms jumped to his head, but, owing to his peculiar tactics, landed short, and he pranced to his own satisfaction and Diana's rage, until the amusement of it passed and he let himself be caught. Diana had done nothing to stop him once she had managed to turn him. If the horse chose to behave like a fool she was not going to be made to look foolish by fighting him when she knew that it was useless. In the hands of the men he sidled and snorted, and, dropping the reins, Diana pulled off her gloves and sat for a moment rubbing her sore hands. Then the Sheik came forward and she slid down. Before looking at him she turned and, catching at The Dancer's head, struck him angrily over the nose with her thick riding-gloves and watched him led away, plunging and protesting, pulling the gloves through her fingers nervously, until Ahmed Ben Hassan's voice made her turn.
"Diane, the Vicomte de Saint Hubert waits to be presented to you."
She drew herself up and the colour that had come into her face drained out of it again. Slowly she glanced up at the man standing before her, and looked straight into the most sympathetic eyes that her own sad, defiant ones had ever seen. Only for a moment, then he bowed with a conventional murmur that was barely audible.
His lack of words gave her courage. "Monsieur," she said coldly in response to his greeting, then turned to the Sheik without looking at him. "The Dancer has behaved abominably. Gaston, my hat, please! Thanks." And vanished into the tent without a further look at any one.
It was late, but she lingered over her bath and changed with slow reluctance into the green dress that the Sheik preferred—a concession that she despised herself for making. She had taken up the jade necklace when he joined her.
He turned her to him roughly, with his hands on her shoulders, and the merciless pressure of his fingers was indication enough without the black scowl on his face that he was angry. "You are not very cordial to my guest."
"Is it required of a slave to be cordial towards her master's friends?" she replied in a stifled voice.
"What is required is obedience to my wishes," he said harshly.
"And is it your wish that I should please this Frenchman?"
"It is my wish."
"If I were a woman of your own race——" she began bitterly, but he interrupted her.
"If you were a woman of my own race there would be no question of it," he said coldly. "You would be for the eyes of no other man than me. But since you are not——" He broke off with an enigmatical jerk of the head.
"Since I am not you are less merciful than if I was," she cried miserably. "I could wish that I was an Arab woman."
"I doubt it," he said grimly. "The life of an Arab woman would hardly be to your taste. We teach our women obedience with a whip."
"Why have you changed so since this morning," she whispered, "when you told me that you trusted no one to climb to my balcony in the hotel but yourself? Are you not an Arab now as then? Have I become of so little value to you that you are not even jealous any more?"
"I can trust my friend, and—I do not propose to share you with him," he said brutally.
She winced as if he had struck her, and hid her face in her hands with a low cry.
His fingers gripped her shoulder cruelly. "You will do as I wish?" The words were a question, but the intonation was a command.
"I have no choice," she murmured faintly.
His hands dropped to his sides and he turned to leave the room, but she caught his arm. "Monseigneur! Have you no pity? Will you not spare me this ordeal?"
He made a gesture of refusal. "You exaggerate," he said impatiently, brushing her hand from his arm.
"If you will be merciful this once——." she pleaded breathlessly, but he cut her short with a fierce oath. "If?" he echoed. "Do you make bargains with me? Have you so much yet to learn?"
She looked at him with a little weary sigh. The changing mood that she had set herself to watch for had come upon him suddenly and found her unprepared. The gentleness of the morning had vanished and he had reverted to the tyrannical, arbitrary despot of two months ago. She knew that it was her own fault. She knew him well enough to know that he was intolerant of any interference with his wishes. She had learned the futility of setting her determination against his. There was one master in his camp, whose orders, however difficult, must be obeyed.
His attention had concentrated on a broken fingernail, and he turned to the dressing-table for a knife. She followed him with her eyes and watched him carefully trimming the nail. She had often, amongst the many things that puzzled her, wondered at the fastidious care he took of his well-manicured hands. The light of the lamp fell full on his face, and there was a dull ache in her heart as she looked at him. He demanded implicit obedience, and only a few hours before she had made up her mind to unreserved submission, and she had broken down at the first test. The proof of her obedience was a hard one, from which she shrank, but it was harder far to see the look of anger she had provoked on the face of the man she loved. For two months of wild happiness it had been absent, the black scowl she had learned to dread had not been directed at her, and the fierce eyes had looked at her with only kindness or amusement shining in their dark depths. Anything could be borne but a continuance of his displeasure. No sacrifice was too great to gain his forgiveness. She could not bear his anger. She longed so desperately for happiness, and she loved him so passionately, so utterly, that she was content to give up everything to his will. If she could only get back the man of the last few weeks, if she had not angered him too far. She was at his feet, tamed thoroughly at last, all her proud, angry self-will swamped in the love that was consuming her with an intensity that was an agony. Love was a bitter pain, a torment that was almost unendurable, a happiness that mocked her with its hollowness, a misery that tortured her with visions of what might have been. She went to him slowly, and he turned to her abruptly.
"Well?" His voice was hard and uncompromising, and the flash of his eyes was like the tiger's in the Indian jungle.
She set her teeth to keep down the old paralysing fear.
"I will do what you want. I will do anything you want, only be kind to me, Ahmed," she whispered unsteadily. She had never called him by his name before; she did not even know that she had done so now, but at the sound of it a curious look crossed his face, and he drew her into his arms with hands that were as gentle as they had been cruel before. She let him lift her face to his, and met his searching gaze bravely. Holding her look with the mesmerism that he could exert when he chose, he read in her face her final surrender, and knew that while it pleased him to keep her he had broken her utterly to his hand. A strange expression grew in his eyes as they travelled slowly over her. She was like a fragile reed in his strong grasp that he could crush without an effort, and yet for four months she had fought him, matching his determination with a courage that had won his admiration even while it had exasperated him. He knew she feared him, he had seen terror leap into her flickering eyes when she had defied him most. Her defiance and her hatred, which had piqued him by contrast with the fawning adulation to which he had been accustomed and which had wearied him infinitely, had provoked in him a fixed resolve to master her. Before he tired of her she must yield her will to him absolutely. And to-night he knew that the last struggle had been made, that she would never oppose him again, that she was clay in his hands to do with as he would. And the knowledge that he had won gave him no feeling of exultation, instead a vague, indefinite sense of irritation swept over him and made him swear softly under his breath. The satisfaction he had expected in his triumph was lacking and the unaccountable dissatisfaction that filled him seemed inexplicable. He did not understand himself, and he looked down at her again with a touch of impatience. She was very lovely, he thought, with a strange new appreciation of the beauty he had appropriated, and very womanly in the soft, clinging green dress. The slim, boyish figure that rode with him had a charm all its own, but it was the woman in her that sent the hot blood racing through his veins and made his heart beat as it was beating now. His eyes lingered a moment on her bright curls, on her dark-fringed, pleading eyes and on her bare neck, startlingly white against the jade green of her gown, then he put her from him.
"Va," he said gently, "depeche-toi."
She looked after him as he went through the curtains with a long, sobbing sigh. She was paying a heavy price for her happiness, but she would have paid a heavier one willingly. Nothing mattered now that he was not angry any more. She knew what her total submission meant: it was an end to all individualism, a complete self-abnegation, an absolute surrender to his wishes, his moods and his temper. And she was content that it should be so, her love was prepared to endure whatever he might put upon her. Nothing that he could do could alter that, and nothing should make her own her love. She had hidden it from him, and she would hide it from him—cost what it might. Though he did not love her he wanted her still; she had read that in his eyes five minutes ago, and she was happy even for that.
She turned to the glass suddenly and wrenched the silk folds off her shoulder. She looked at the marks of his fingers on the delicate skin with a twist of the lips, then shut her eyes with a little gasp and hid her bruised arm hastily, her mouth quivering. But she did not blame him, she had brought it on herself; she knew his mood, and he did not know his own strength.
"If he killed me he could not kill my love," she murmured, with a little pitiful smile.
The men were waiting for her, and with a murmured apology for her lateness she took her place. The Sheik and his guest resumed the conversation that her entrance had interrupted. Diana's thoughts were in confusion. She felt as if she were in some wild, improbable dream. An Arab Sheik, a French explorer, and herself playing the conventional hostess in the midst of lawless unconventionalism. She looked around the tent that had become so familiar, so dear. It seemed different to-night, as if the advent of the stranger had introduced a foreign atmosphere. She had grown so accustomed to the routine that had been imposed upon her that even the Vicomte's servant standing behind his master seemed strange. The man's likeness to his twin brother was striking, the only difference being that while Gaston's face was clean-shaven, Henri's upper lip was hidden by a neat, dark moustache. The service was, as always, perfect, silent and quick.
She glanced at the Sheik covertly. There was a look on his face that she had never seen and a ring in his voice that was different even from the tone she had heard when Gaston had come back on the night of her flight. That had been relief and the affection of a man for a valued servant, this was the deep affection of a man for the one chosen friend, the love passing the love of women. And the jealousy she had felt in the morning welled up uncontrollably. She looked from the Sheik to the man who was absorbing all his attention, but in his pale, clever face, half hidden by the close beard, she saw no trace of the conceited, smirking egotist she had imagined, and his voice, as low as the Sheik's, but more animated, was not the voice of a man unduly elated or conscious of himself. And as she looked her eyes met his. A smile that was extraordinarily sweet and half-sad lit up his face.
"Is it permitted to admire Madame's horsemanship?" he asked, with a little bow.
Diana coloured faintly and twisted the jade necklace round her fingers nervously. "It is nothing," she said, with a shy smile that his sympathetic personality evoked in spite of herself. "With The Dancer it is all foolishness and not vice. One has to hold on very tightly. It would have been humiliating to precipitate myself at the feet of a stranger. Monseigneur would not have approved of the concession to The Dancer's peculiarities. It is an education to ride his horses, Monsieur."
"It is a strain to the nerves to ride beside some of them," replied the Vicomte pointedly.
Diana laughed with pure amusement. The man whose coming she had loathed was making the dreadful ordeal very easy for her. "I sympathise, Monsieur. Was Shaitan very vile?"
"If Monsieur de Saint Hubert is trying to suggest to you that he suffers from nerves, Diane," broke in the Sheik, with a laugh, "disabuse yourself at once. He has none."
Saint Hubert turned to him with a quick smile. "Et toi, Ahmed, eh? Do you remember——?" and he plunged into a flood of reminiscences that lasted until the end of dinner.
The Vicomte had brought with him a pile of newspapers and magazines, and Diana curled up on the divan with an armful, hungry for news, but, somehow, as she dipped into the batch of papers her interest waned. After four months of complete isolation it was difficult to pick up the threads of current events, allusions were incomprehensible, and controversies seemed pointless. The happenings of the world appeared tame beside the great adventure that was carrying her on irresistibly and whose end she could not see and dared not think of. She pushed them aside carelessly and kept only on her knee a magazine that served as a pretext for her silence.
When Gaston brought coffee the Vicomte hailed him with a gay laugh. "Enfin, Gaston, after two years the nectar of the gods again! There is a new machine for you amongst my things, mon ami, providing it has survived Henri's packing."
He brought a cup to Diana and set it on a stool beside her. "Ahmed flatters himself I come to see him, Madame. I do not. I come to drink Gaston's coffee. It has become proverbial, the coffee of Gaston. I propitiate him every time I come with a new apparatus for making it. The last is a marvel of ingenuity. Excuse me, I go to drink it with the reverence it inspires. It is a rite, Madame, not a gastronomic indulgence."
Once more the sympathetic eyes looked straight into hers, and the quick blood rushed into her face as she bent her head again hurriedly over the magazine. She knew instinctively that he was trying to help her, talking nonsense with a tact that ignored her equivocal position. She was grateful to him, but even his chivalry hurt. She watched him under her thick lashes as he went back to the Sheik and sat down beside him, refusing his host's proffered cigarettes with a wry face of disgust and a laughing reference to a "perverted palate," as he searched for his own. The hatred she had been prepared to give him had died away during dinner—only the jealousy remained, and even that had changed from its first intensity to an envy that brought a sob into her throat. She envied him the light that shone in the Arab's dark eyes, she envied him the intonation of the soft slow voice she loved. Her eyes turned to the Sheik. He was leaning back with his hands clasped behind his head, talking with a cigarette between his teeth. His attitude towards his European friend was that of an equal, the haughty, peremptory accent that was noticeable when he spoke to his followers was gone, and a flat contradiction from Saint Hubert provoked only a laugh and a gesture of acceptance.
As they sat talking the contrast between the two men was strongly marked. Beside the Frenchman's thin, spare frame and pale face, which gave him an air of delicacy, the Sheik looked like a magnificent animal in superb condition, and his quiet repose accentuated the Vicomte's quick, nervous manner. Under the screen of her thick lashes Diana watched them unheeded. Their voices rose and fell continuously; they seemed to have a great deal to say to each other, and they talked indiscriminately French and Arabic so that much that they said was incomprehensible to her. She was glad that it should be so, she did not want to know what they were saying. It seemed as if they had forgotten her presence with the accumulated conversation of two years. She was thankful to be left alone, happy for the rare chance of studying the beloved face unnoticed. It was seldom she had the opportunity, for when they were alone she was afraid to look at him much lest her secret should be betrayed in her eyes. But she looked at him now unobserved, with passionate longing. She was so intent that she did not notice Gaston come in until he seemed suddenly to appear from nowhere beside his master. He murmured something softly and the Sheik got up. He turned to Saint Hubert.
"Trouble with one of the horses. Will you come? It may interest you."
They went out together, leaving her alone, and she slipped away to the inner room. In half-an-hour they came back, and for a few minutes longer stayed chatting, then the Vicomte yawned and held out his watch with a laugh. The Sheik went with him to his tent and sat down on the side of his guest's camp-bed. Saint Hubert dismissed the waiting Henri with a nod and started to undress silently. The flow of talk and ready laugh seemed to have deserted him, and he frowned as he wrenched his things off with nervous irritability.
The Sheik watched him for a while, and then took the cigarette out of his mouth with a faint smile. "Eh, bien! Raoul, say it," he said quietly.
Saint Hubert swung round. "You might have spared her," he cried.
"What? Good God, man! Me!"
The Sheik flicked the ash from his cigarette with a gesture of indifference. "Your courier was delayed, he only came this morning. It was too late then to make other arrangements."
Saint Hubert took a hasty turn up and down the tent and stopped in front of the Sheik with his hands thrust deep in his pockets and his shoulders hunched up about his ears. "It is abominable," he burst out. "You go too far, Ahmed."
The Sheik laughed cynically. "What do you expect of a savage? When an Arab sees a woman that he wants he takes her. I only follow the customs of my people."
Saint Hubert clicked his tongue impatiently. "Your people!—which people?" he asked in a low voice.
The Sheik sprang to his feet with flashing eyes, his hand dropping heavily on Saint Hubert's shoulder.
"Stop, Raoul! Not even from you——!" he cried passionately, and then broke off abruptly, and the anger died out of his face. He sat down again quietly, with a little amused laugh. "Why this sudden access of morality, mon ami? You know me and the life I lead. You have seen women in my camp before now."
Saint Hubert dismissed the remark with a contemptuous wave of the hand. "There is to comparison. You know it as well as I," he said succinctly. He moved over slowly to the camp table, where his toilet things had been laid out, and began removing the links from the cuffs of his shirt. "She is English, surely that is reason enough," he flung over his shoulder.
"You ask me, me to spare a woman because she is English? My good Raoul, you amuse me," replied the Sheik, with an ugly sneer.
"Where did you see her?" asked Saint Hubert curiously.
"In the streets of Biskra, for five minutes, four months ago."
The Vicomte turned quickly. "You love her?" he shot out, with all the suddenness of an American third degree.
The Sheik exhaled a long, thin cloud of blue smoke and watched it eddying towards the top of the tent. "Have I ever loved a woman? And this woman is English," he said in a voice as hard as steel.
"If you loved her you would not care for her nationality."
The Sheik spat the end of his cigarette on to the floor contemptuously. "By Allah! Her cursed race sticks in my throat. But for that——" He shrugged his shoulders impatiently and got up from the bed on which he was sitting.
"Let her go then," said Saint Hubert quickly. "I can take her back to Biskra."
The Sheik turned to him slowly, a sudden flame of fierce jealousy leaping into his eyes. "Has she bewitched you, too? Do you want her for yourself, Raoul?" His voice was as low as ever, but there was a dangerous ring in it.
Saint Hubert flung his hands out in a gesture of despair. "Ahmed! Are you mad? Are you going to quarrel with me after all these years on such a pretext? Bon Dieu! What do you take me for? There has been too much in our lives together ever to let a woman come between us. What is a woman or any one to me where you are concerned? It is for quite a different reason that I ask you, that I beg you to let this girl go."
"Forgive me, Raoul. You know my devilish temper," muttered the Sheik, and for a moment his hand rested on Saint Hubert's arm.
"You have not answered me, Ahmed."
The Sheik turned away. "She is content," he said evasively.
"She has courage," amended the Vicomte significantly.
"As you say, she has courage," agreed the Sheik, without a particle of expression in his voice.
"Bon sang——" quoted Saint Hubert softly.
The Sheik swung round quickly. "How do you know she has good blood in her?"
"It is very evident," replied Saint Hubert drily.
"That is not what you mean. What do you know?"
The Vicomte shrugged his shoulders, and, going to his suit-case, took from it an English illustrated paper, and opening it at the central page handed it to the Sheik silently.
Ahmed Ben Hassan moved closer to the hanging lamp so that the light fell directly on the paper in his hands. There were two large full-length photographs of Diana, one in evening dress and the other as the Vicomte had first seen her, in riding breeches and short jacket, her hat and whip lying at her feet, and the bridle of the horse that was standing beside her over her arm.
Under the photographs was written: "Miss Diana Mayo, whose protracted journey in the desert is causing anxiety to a large circle of friends. Miss Mayo left Biskra under the guidance of a reputable caravan-leader four months ago, with the intention of journeying for four weeks in the desert and returning to Oran. Since the first camp nothing has been heard of Miss Mayo or her caravan. Further anxiety is occasioned by the fact that considerable unrest is reported amongst the tribes in the locality towards which Miss Mayo was travelling. Her brother, Sir Aubrey Mayo, who is detained in America as the result of an accident, is in constant cable communication with the French authorities. Miss Mayo is a well-known sports-woman and has travelled widely."
For a long time the Sheik studied the photographs silently, then with slow deliberation he tore the page out of the paper and rolled it up. "With your permission," he said coolly, and held it over the flame of the little lamp by the bedside. He held it until the burning paper charred to nothing in his hand and then flicked the ashes from his long fingers. "Henri has seen this?"
"Unquestionably. Henri reads all my papers," replied Saint Hubert, with a touch of impatience.
"Then Henri can hold his tongue," said the Sheik nonchalantly, searching in the folds of his waist-cloth for his case and lighting another cigarette with elaborate carelessness.
"What are you going to do?" asked Saint Hubert pointedly.
"I? Nothing! The French authorities have too many affairs on hand and too high an appreciation of Ahmed Ben Hassan's horses to prosecute inquiries in my direction. Besides, they are not responsible. Mademoiselle Mayo was warned of the risks she ran before she left Biskra. She chose to take the risks, et voila!"
"Will nothing make you change your mind?"
"I am not given to changing my mind. You know that. And, besides, why should I? As I told you before, she is content."
Saint Hubert looked him full in the face. "Content! Cowed is the better word, Ahmed."
The Sheik laughed softly. "You flatter me, Raoul. Do not let us speak any more about it. It is an unfortunate contretemps, and I regret that it distresses you," he said lightly; then with a sudden change of manner he laid his hands on the Vicomte's shoulders. "But this can make no difference to our friendship, mon ami; that is too big a thing to break down over a difference of opinion. You are a French nobleman, and I——!" He gave a little bitter laugh. "I am an uncivilised Arab. We cannot see things in the same way."
"You could, but you will not, Ahmed," replied the Vicomte, with an accent of regret. "It is not worthy of you." He paused and then looked up again with a little crooked smile and a shrug of defeat. "Nothing can ever make any difference with us, Ahmed. I can disagree with you, but I can't wipe out the recollection of the last twenty years."
A few minutes later the Sheik left him and went out into the night. He traversed the short distance between the tents slowly, stopping to speak to a sentry, and then pausing outside his own tent to look up at the stars. The Persian hound that always slept across the entrance uncurled himself and got up, thrusting a wet nose into his hand. The Sheik fondled the huge creature absently, stroking the dog's shaggy head mechanically, hardly conscious of what he was doing. A great restlessness that was utterly foreign to his nature had taken possession of him. He had been aware of it growing within him for some time, becoming stronger daily, and now the coming of Raoul de Saint Hubert seemed to have put the crowning touch to a state of mind that he was unable to understand. He had never been given to thinking of himself, or criticising or analysing his passing whims and fancies. All his life he had taken what he wanted; nothing on which he had ever laid eyes of desire had been denied him. His wealth had brought him everything he had ever wished. His passionate temper had been characteristic even when he was a child, but these strange fits of unreasonable irritability were new, and he searched for a cause vainly. His keen eyes looked through the darkness towards the south. Was it the nearness of his hereditary enemy, who had presumed to come closer than he had ever done before to the border of the country that Ahmed Ben Hassan regarded as his own, that was causing this great unrest? He laughed contemptuously. Nothing would give him greater pleasure than coming into actual collision with the man whom he had been trained from boyhood to hate. As long as Ibraheim Omair remained within his own territory Ahmed Ben Hassan held his hand and kept in check his fierce followers, whose eyes were turned longingly towards the debatable land, but once let the robber Sheik step an inch over the border, and it was war, and war until one or both of the chiefs were dead. And if he died who had no son to succeed him; the huge tribe would split up in numerous little families for want of a leader to keep them together, and it would be left to the French Government to take over, if they could, the vast district that he had governed despotically. And at the thought he laughed again. No, it was not Ibraheim Omair who was troubling him. He pushed the hound aside and went into the tent. The divan where Diana had been sitting was strewn with magazines and papers, the imprint of her slender body still showed in the soft, heaped-up cushions, and a tiny, lace-edged handkerchief peeped out under one of them. He picked it up and looked at it curiously, and his forehead contracted slowly in the heavy black scowl. He turned his burning eyes toward the curtains that divided the rooms. Saint Hubert's words rang in his ears. "English!" he muttered with a terrible oath. "And I have made her suffer as I swore any of that damned race should if they fell into my hands. Merciful Allah! Why does it give me so little pleasure?"
Diana came into the living-room one morning about a week after the arrival of the Vicomte de Saint Hubert. She had expected to find the room empty, for the Sheik had risen at dawn and ridden away on one of the distant expeditions that had become so frequent, and she thought his friend had accompanied him, but as she parted the curtains between the two rooms she saw the Frenchman sitting at the little writing-table surrounded by papers and writing quickly, loose sheets of manuscript littering the floor around him. It was the first time that they had chanced to be alone, and she hesitated with a sudden shyness. But Saint Hubert had heard the rustle of the curtain, and he sprang to his feet with the courteous bow that proclaimed his nationality.
"Your pardon, Madame. Do I disturb you? Tell me if I am in the way. I am afraid I have been very untidy," he added, laughing apologetically, and looking at the heap of closely-written sheets strewing the rug.
Diana came forward slowly, a faint colour rising in her face. "I thought you had gone with Monseigneur."
"I had some work to do—some notes that I wanted to transcribe before I forgot myself what they meant; I write vilely. I have had a hard week, too, so I begged a day off. I may stay? You are sure I do not disturb you?"
His sympathetic eyes and the deference in his voice brought an unexpected lump into her throat. She signed to him to resume his work and passed out under the awning. Behind the tent the usual camp hubbub filled the air. A knot of Arabs at a little distance were watching one of the rough-riders schooling a young horse, noisily critical and offering advice freely, undeterred by the indifference with which it was received. Others lounged past engaged on the various duties connected with the camp, with the Eastern disregard for time that relegated till to-morrow everything that could possibly be neglected to-day. Near her one of the older men, more rigid in his observances than the generality of Ahmed Ben Hassan's followers, was placidly absorbed in his devotions, prostrating himself and fulfilling his ritual with the sublime lack of self-consciousness of the Mohammedan devotee.
Outside his own tent the valet and Henri were sitting in the sun, Gaston on an upturned bucket, cleaning a rifle, and his brother stretched full length on the ground, idly flapping at the flies with the duster with which he had been polishing the Vicomte's riding-boots. Both men were talking rapidly with frequent little bursts of gay laughter. The Persian hound was lying at their feet. He raised his head as Diana appeared, and, rising, went to her slowly, rearing up against her with a paw on each shoulder, making clumsy efforts to lick her face, and she pushed him down with difficulty, stooping to kiss his shaggy head.
She looked away across the desert beyond the last palms of the oasis. A haze hung round about, shimmering in the heat and blurring the outline of the distant hills. A tiny breeze brought the acrid smell of camels closer to her, and the creaking whine of the tackling over the well sounded not very far away. Diana gave a little sigh. It had all grown so familiar. She seemed to have lived no other life beside this nomad existence. The years that had gone before faded into a kind of dim remembrance, the time when she had travelled ceaselessly round the world with her brother seemed very remote. She had existed then, filling her life with sport, unconscious of the something that was lacking in her nature, and now she was alive at last, and the heart whose existence she had doubted was burning and throbbing with a passion that was consuming her. Her eyes swept lingeringly around the camp with a very tender light in them. Everything she saw was connected with and bound up in the man who was lord of it all. She was very proud of him, proud of his magnificent physical abilities, proud of his hold over his wild turbulent followers, proud with the pride of primeval woman in the dominant man ruling his fellow-men by force and fear.
The old Arab had finished his prayers and rose leisurely from his knees, salaaming with a broad smile. All the tribesmen smiled on her, and would go out of their way to win a nod of recognition from her. She faltered a few words in stumbling Arabic in reply to his long, flowery speech, and with a little laugh beat a hasty retreat into the tent.
She paused beside the Vicomte. "Is it another novel?" she asked shyly, indicating the steadily increasing pile of manuscript.
He turned on his chair, resting his arms on the rail, twirling a fountain pen between his fingers, and smiled at her as she curled up on the divan with Kopec, who had followed her into the tent. "No, Madame, Something more serious this time. It is a history of this very curious tribe of Ahmed's. They are different in so many ways from ordinary Arabs. They have been a race apart for generations. They have beliefs and customs peculiarly their own. You may, for instance, have noticed the singular absence among them of the strict religious practices that hold among other Mohammedans. Ahmed Ben Hassan's tribe worship first and foremost their Sheik, then the famous horses for which they are renowned, and then and then only—Allah."
"Is Monseigneur a Mohammedan?"
Saint Hubert shrugged. "He believes in a God," he said evasively, turning back to his writing.
Diana studied him curiously as he bent over his work. She smiled when she thought of the mental picture she had drawn of Saint Hubert before he came, and contrasted it with the real man under her eyes. During the week that he had been in the camp he had forced her liking and compelled her confidence by the sympathetic charm of his manner. He had carried off a difficult position with a delicacy and savoir-faire that had earned him her gratitude. He had saved her a hundred humiliations with a tact that had been as spontaneous as it had been unobtrusive. And they had the bond between them of the common love they had for this strange leader of a strange tribe. What had been the origin of the friendship between these utterly dissimilar men—a friendship that seemed to go back to the days of their boyhood? The question intrigued her and she pondered over it, lying quietly on the divan, smoothing the hound's huge head resting on her knee.
The Vicomte wrote rapidly for some time and then flung down his pen with an exclamation of relief, gathered up the loose sheets from the floor and, stacking them in an orderly heap on the table, swung round on his chair again. He looked at the girl's slender little figure lying with the unconsciously graceful attitude of a child against the heaped-up cushions, her face bent over the dog's rough, grey head, and he felt an unwonted emotion stirring in him. The quick sympathy that she had aroused from the first moment of seeing her had given place to a deeper feeling that moved him profoundly, and with it a chivalrous desire to protect, a longing to stand between her and the irremediable disaster that loomed inevitably ahead of her.
She felt his concentrated gaze and looked up. "You have done your work?"
"All I can do at the moment. Henri must unravel the rest; he has a passion for hieroglyphics. He is an invaluable person; I could never get on without him. He bullied me when we were boys together—at least that is what I called it. He called it 'amusing Monsieur le Vicomte,' and for the last fifteen years he has tyrannised over me wholeheartedly." He laughed and snapped his fingers at Kopec, who whined and rolled his eyes in his direction, but did not lift his head from Diana's knee.
There was a pause, and Diana continued fondling the hound absently. "I have read your books, Monsieur—all that Monseigneur has here," she said at last, looking up gravely.
He gave a little bow with a few murmured words that she did not catch.
"Your novel interested me," she went on, still stroking the hound, as if the nearness of the great beast helped her.
"As a rule novels bore me, the subjects they deal with have been of no interest to me, but this one gripped me. It is unusual, it is wonderful, but—is it real?" She had spoken dispassionately with the boyish candour that was characteristic, not complimenting an author on a masterpiece, but stating a fact simply, as it appeared to her.
Saint Hubert leaned forward over the back of his chair. "In what way—real?" he asked.
She looked at him squarely. "Do you think there really exists such a man as you have drawn—a man who could be as tender, as unselfish, as faithful as your hero?"
Saint Hubert looked away, and, picking up his pen, stabbed idly at the blotting-pad, drawing meaningless circles and dots, with a slow shrug. The scorn in her voice and the sudden pain in her eyes hurt him.
"Do you know such a man, Monsieur, or is he wholly a creature of your imagination?" she persisted.
He completed a complicated diagram on the sheet of blotting-paper before answering. "I do know a man who, given certain circumstances, has the ability to develop into such a character," he said eventually in a low voice.
She laughed bitterly. "Then you are luckier than I. I am not very old, but during the last five years I have met many men of many nationalities, and I have never known one who in any degree resembles the preux chevalier of your book. The men who have most intimately touched my life have not known the meaning of the word tenderness, and have never had a thought for any one beyond themselves. You have been more fortunate in your acquaintances, Monsieur."
A dull red crept into the Vicomte's face, and he continued looking at the pen in his fingers. "Beautiful women, Madame," he said slowly, "unfortunately provoke in some men all that is basest and vilest in their natures. No man knows to what depths of infamy he may stoop under the stress of a sudden temptation."
"And the woman pays," cried Diana vehemently. "Pays for the beauty God curses her with—the beauty she may hate herself; pays until the beauty fades. How much——" She pulled herself up short, biting her lips. Moved by the sense of the sympathy that had unconsciously been influencing her during the past week and which had shaken the self-suppression that she had imposed upon herself, her tongue had run away with her. She was afraid of the confidence that his manner was almost demanding of her. Her pride restrained her from the compassion that her loneliness had nearly yielded to.
"Excuse me," she said coldly, "my ideas cannot possibly interest you."
"On the contrary, you interest me profoundly," he corrected quickly.
She noticed the slight difference in his words and laughed more bitterly than before. "As what?—a subject for vivisection? Get on your operating coat and bring your instruments without delay. The victim is all ready for you. It will be 'copy' for your next book!"
He had sprung to his feet, and she looked up at him miserably, her hand held out in swift contrition. "Oh, forgive me! I shouldn't have said that. You haven't deserved it. You have been—kind. I am grateful. Forgive me and my rudeness. It must be the heat, it makes one very irritable, don't you think?"
He ignored her pitiful little subterfuge and raised her outstretched, quivering fingers to his lips. "If you will honour me with your friendship," he said, with a touch of the old-world chivalry that was often noticeable in him, "my life is at your service."
But as he spoke his voice changed. The touch of her cold fingers sent a rush of feeling through him that for an instant overpowered him.
She let her hand lie in his, and for a few moments she avoided his eyes and looked down at the rough head in her lap. Then she met his gaze frankly. "Your offer is too rare a thing to put on one side. If you will be my friend, as you are Monseigneur's friend——" she faltered, turning her head away, and her fingers lying in his trembled slightly.
He started and crushed the hand he was holding unknowingly, as the thought was forced on him. Monseigneur's friend! He realized that in the last few moments he had forgotten the Sheik, had forgotten everything, swept off his feet by an intense emotion that staggered him with its unexpectedness, except the loveliness and helplessness of the girl beside him. His head was reeling; his calmness, his loyalty, his earlier feelings of dispassionate pity had given way to an extreme agitation that was rushing him headlong and threatening to overwhelm him. His heart beat furiously and he clenched his teeth, fighting to regain his usual sang-froid. The emotional temperament that Diana had divined from his novel had sprung uppermost with a bound, overthrowing the rigid repression of years. The blood beat in his ears as he strove to master himself, to crush the madness that had come upon him.
He had closed his eyes with the shock of self-revelation, he opened them now and looked down at her hesitatingly, almost fearfully, clasping her hand closer in his and leaning nearer to her, drawn irresistibly by the intoxication of her nearness. He saw her through a mist that cleared gradually, saw that she was ignorant of the emotion she had awakened in him, and, conscious only of his sympathy, had left her hand in his as she would have left it in her brother's. She was bent low over the hound, her face almost touching his big head, and as Saint Hubert looked a glistening tear dropped on Kopec's rough, grey neck. She had forgotten him, forgotten even that he was standing beside her, in the one predominant thought that filled her mind. With an immense effort he got command of himself. Somehow he must conquer this sudden insanity. The loyalty that had hung trembling in the balance reasserted itself and a self-disgust seized him. He had been within an ace of betraying the man who had been for twenty years nearer to him than a brother. She belonged to his friend, and now he had not even the right to question the ethics of the Sheik's possession of her. The calm that he had lost came back to him. The wound would heal though it might always throb, but he was strong enough to hide its existence even from the jealous eyes that had watched him ceaselessly since his outburst on the night of his arrival. He had been conscious of them daily. Even this morning the Sheik had made every effort short of a direct command to induce him to go with him on the expedition that had taken him away so early. Sure of himself now, he lifted her fingers to his lips again reverently with a kind of renunciation in his kiss, and laid her hand down gently. He turned away with a smothered sigh and a little pang at her complete absorption, and, as he did so, Henri came in quickly.
"Monsieur le Vicomte! Will you come? There has been an accident."
With a cry that Saint Hubert never forgot Diana leaped to her feet, her face colourless, and her lips framed the word "Ahmed," though no sound came from them. She was shaking all over, and the Vicomte put his arm round her instinctively. She clung to him, and he knew with a bitter certainty that the support of a table or a chair would have meant no less to her.
"What is it, Henri?" he said sharply, with a slight movement that interposed himself between Diana and his servant.
"One of the men, Monsieur le Vicomte. His gun burst, and his hand is shattered."
Saint Hubert nodded curtly towards the door and turned his attention to Diana. She sank down on the divan and, gathering the hound's head in her arm, buried her face in his neck. "Forgive me," she murmured, her voice muffled in the rough, grey hair. "It is stupid of me, but he is riding that brute Shaitan to-day. I am always nervous. Please go. I will come in a minute."
He went without a word. "I am always nervous." The tales he had heard of Diana Mayo as he passed through Biskra did not include nerves. His face was set as he ran hurriedly across the camp.
Diana sat quite still after he had gone until the nervous shuddering ceased, until Kopec twisted his head free of her arms and licked her face with an uneasy whine. She brushed her hand across her eyes with a gasp of relief, and went out into the bright sunlight with the hound at her heels.
The noisy clamour of excited voices guided her to the scene of the accident, and the surrounding crowd opened to let her pass through. The wounded man was sitting holding up his hand stoically for Saint Hubert's ministrations with a look of mild interest on his face. In response to Diana's smile and cheery word he grinned sheepishly with a roll of his fine eyes. Saint Hubert looked up quickly. "It is not a pleasant sight," he said doubtfully.
"I don't mind. Let me hold that," she said quietly, rolling up her sleeves and taking a crimson-spattered basin from Henri. Saint Hubert flashed another look at her, marvelling at her steady voice and even colour when he thought of the white-faced girl who had clung trembling to him ten minutes earlier. Outside of Ahmed Ben Hassan she still retained the fearless courage that she had always had; it was only when anything touched him nearly that the new Diana, with the coward anxiety of love, rose paramount.
She watched the Vicomte's skilful treatment of the maimed hand with interest. There was a precision in his movement and a deft touch that indicated both knowledge and practise. "You are a doctor?"
"Yes," he said, without looking up from his work, "I studied when I was a young man and passed all the necessary examinations. It is indispensable when one travels as I do. I have found it invaluable."
He took up some dressing that Henri held ready for him, and Diana handed the now unwanted bowl to Gaston. She looked again at the Arab, whose impassive face showed no sign of any feeling. "Does he feel it very much, do you think?" she asked the valet.
He laughed and shrugged his shoulders. "Less than I should, Madame. What is really troubling him is the thought of what Monseigneur will say when he hears that Selim was fool enough to buy a worthless gun from one of the servants of the Dutchman who passed here last week," and he added a few teasing words in Arabic which made Selim look up with a grimace.
Saint Hubert finished adjusting the bandages and stood up, wiping the perspiration from his forehead.
"Will he do all right now?" asked Diana anxiously.
"I think so. The thumb is gone, as you saw, but I think I can save the rest of the hand. I will watch him carefully, but these men of Ahmed's are in such excellent condition that I do not think there will be any trouble."
"I am going to ride," said Diana, turning away. "It is rather late, but there is just time. Will you come?"
It was a temptation and he hesitated, gathering together the instruments he had been using, but prudence prevailed.
"I should like to, but I ought to keep an eye on Selim," he said quietly, snatching at the plausible excuse that offered. He found her later before the big tent as she was ready to start, and waited while she mounted.
"If I am late don't wait for me. Tell Henri to give you your lunch," she called out between The Dancer's idiotic prancings.
He watched her ride away, with Gaston a few paces behind and followed by the escort of six men that the Sheik had lately insisted upon. The continual presence of these six men riding at her heels irked her considerably. The wild, free gallops that she had loved became quite different with the thought of the armed guard behind her. They seemed to hamper her and put a period to her enjoyment. The loneliness of her rides had been to her half their charm; she had grown accustomed to and oblivious of Gaston, but she was acutely conscious of the six pairs of eyes watching her every movement. She did not see the necessity for them. She had never been aware of anything any time when she was riding that seemed to justify the Sheik's order. The oasis was not on a caravan route, and if she ever saw Arabs at any distance from the camp they always proved to be Ahmed Ben Hassan's own men. She had thought of remonstrating with him, but her courage had failed her. His mood, since the coming of Saint Hubert, had been of the coldest—almost repellant. The weeks of happiness that had gone before had developed the intimacy between them almost into a feeling of camaraderie. He had been more humane, more Western, more considerate than he had ever been, and the fear that she had of him had lain quiescent. She could have asked him then. But since the morning of Raoul's arrival, when the unexpected fervour of his embrace had given new birth to the hope that had almost died within her, he had changed completely into a cold reserve that chilled her. His caresses had been careless and infrequent, and his indifference so great that she had wondered miserably if the flame of his passion for her was burning out and if this was the end. And yet throughout his indifference she had been conscious, like Saint Hubert, of the surveillance of constant jealous eyes that watched them both with a fierce scrutiny that was felt rather than actually seen. But the spark of hope that the knowledge of this jealousy still fanned was not great enough to overcome the barrier that his new mood had raised between them. She dared ask no favour of him now. Her heart tightened at the thought of his indifference. It hurt so. This morning he had left her without a word when he had gone out into the early dawn, and she was hungry for the kisses he withheld. She was used to his taciturn fits, but her starved heart ached perpetually for tangible recognition. Love, the capacity for which she had so long denied, had become a force that, predominating everything, held her irresistibly. The accumulated affection that, for want of an outlet, had been stemmed within her, had burst all restraint, and the love that she gave to the man to whom she had surrendered her proud heart was immeasurable—a love of infinite tenderness and complete unselfishness, a love that had made her strangely humble. She had yielded up everything to him, he dominated her wholly. Her imperious will had bent before his greater determination, and his mastery over her had provoked a love that craved for recompense. She only lived for him and for the hope of his love, engulfed in the passion that enthralled her. Her surrender had been no common one. The feminine weakness that she had despised and fought against had triumphed over her unexpectedly without humiliating thoroughness. Sex had supervened to overthrow all her preconceived notions. The womanly instincts that under Aubrey's training had been suppressed and undeveloped had, in contact with the Sheik's vivid masculinity and compelling personality, risen to the surface with startling completeness.
To-day she was almost desperate. His callousness of the morning had wounded her deeply, and a wave of rebellion welled up in her. She would not be thrown aside without making any effort to fight for his love. She would use every art that her beauty and her woman's instinct gave her. Her cheek burned as she thought of the role she was setting herself. She would be no better than "those others" whose remembrance still made her shiver. But she crushed down the repugnant feeling resolutely, flinging up her head with the old haughty gesture and drawing herself straighter in the saddle with compressed lips. She had endured so much already that she could even bear this further outrage to her feelings. At no matter what cost she must make him care for her. Though she loathed the means she would make him love her. But even as she planned the doubt of her ability to succeed crept into her mind, torturing her with insidious recollections.
Ahmed Ben Hassan was no ordinary man to succumb to the fascinations of a woman. She had experienced his obstinacy, and knew the inflexibility of his nature. His determination was a rock against which she had been broken too many times not to know its strength. For a moment she despaired, then courage came to her again, thrusting away the doubts that crowded in upon her and leaving the hope that still lingered in her heart. A faint tremulous smile curved her lips, and she looked up, forcing her thoughts back to the present with an effort.
At the beginning of the ride they had passed several vedettes sitting motionless on their impatient horses. The men had swung their rifles high in the air in salute as she passed, and once or twice Gaston had shouted a question as he galloped after her. But for the last hour they had seen no one. The desert was undulating here, rising and falling in short, sharp declivities that made a wide outlook impossible.
Gaston spurred to Diana's side. "Will Madame please to turn?" he said respectfully. "It is late, and it is not safe riding amongst these slopes. One cannot see what is coming and I am afraid."
"Afraid, Gaston?" she rallied laughingly.
"For you, Madame," he answered gravely.
She reined in The Dancer as she spoke; but it was too late. Even as she turned her horse's head innumerable Arabs seemed to spring up on all sides of them. Before she realised what was happening her escort flashed past and wheeled in behind her, shooting steadily at the horde of men who poured in upon them, and, with a groan, Gaston seized her bridle and urged the horses back in the direction from which they had come. The noise was deafening, the raucous shouting of the Arabs and the continuous sharp crack of the rifles. Bullets began to whizz past her.
Gaston tucked his reins under his knee, and with one hand grasping The Dancer's bridle and his revolver in the other, rode looking back over his shoulder. Diana, too, glanced behind her, and mechanically her fingers closed over the shining little weapon that the Sheik had given her the previous week. She saw with a sudden sickening the six men who had formed her escort beaten back by the superior numbers that enclosed them on every side. Already two were down and the rest were on foot, and, as she watched, they were swallowed up in the mass of men that poured over them, and, at the same time, a party of about twenty horsemen detached themselves from the main body and galloped towards her and Gaston.
She seized his arm. "Can't we do something? Can't we help them? We can't leave them like that," she gasped, wrenching the revolver from the holster at her waist.
"No, no, Madame, it is impossible. It is a hundred to six. You must think of yourself. Go on, Madame. For God's sake, ride on. We may have a chance." He loosed her bridle and dropped behind her, interposing himself between her and the pursuing Arabs. A fierce yelling and a hail of bullets that went wide made Diana turn her head as she crouched low in the saddle. She realised the meaning of Gaston's tactics and checked her horse deliberately.
"I won't go first. You must ride with me," she cried, wincing as a bullet went close by her.
"Mon Dieu! What are you stopping for? Do you think I can face Monseigneur if anything happens to you, Madame?" replied Gaston fiercely. "Do as I tell you. Go on!" Deference was gone in the fear that roughened his voice.
He looked back and his face grew grey. For himself he had no fear, but for the girl beside him he dared not even think. They were Ibraheim Omair's men who had trapped them, and he cursed his folly in allowing Diana to come so far. Yet it had seemed safe enough. The scout's reports had lately proved that the robber Sheik had up to now respected the boundary line between the two territories. This must be a sudden tentative raid which had met with unlooked-for success. The bait would be too tempting to allow of any slackening on the part of the raiders. The white woman, who was Ahmed Ben Hassan's latest toy, and his servant, whom he was known to value so highly, would be a prize that would not be lightly let go. For himself it would be probably torture, certainly death, and for her——! He set his teeth as he looked at her and the perspiration poured down his face. He would kill her himself before it came to that. And as he looked she turned her head, and met his agonised eyes for a moment, smiling bravely. He had refrained up till now from shooting, trying to reserve his ammunition for a last resource, but he saw that he must delay no longer. He fired slowly and steadily, picking his men with careful precision. It was a forlorn hope, but by checking the leaders even for a few moments he might gain time. The accuracy of his aim, that every time proved effectual, might keep back the onrush until they got clear of the undulating country, until they got out into the open where the sounds of the firing might reach some of the outpost sentinels, until they got too near to the Sheik's camp for pursuit to be possible. The bullets pattered continuously round them, but the men who fired them were not Ahmed Ben Hassan's carefully trained marksmen. But still Gaston knew that their position was almost hopeless. Any moment a bullet might reach one of them.
Their pursuers, too, seemed to guess his thoughts and opened out into an irregular, extended line, swerving and manoeuvring continually, making accurate shooting impossible, while they urged their horses to a terrific pace trying to outflank them. Diana was shooting now. The thought of her escort's annihilation and her own and Gaston's peril had overcome the reluctance she had had at first, and she had even a moment to wonder at her coolness. She did not feel afraid, the death of Ahmed's men had made her angry, a fierce revengeful anger that made her see red and filled her with a desire to retaliate in kind. She fired rapidly, emptying her revolver, and she had just reloaded with steady fingers when The Dancer stumbled, recovering himself for a few steps, and then lurched slowly over on to his side, blood pouring from his mouth. Diana sprang clear, and in a moment Gaston was beside her, thrusting her behind him, shielding her with his own body, and firing steadily at the oncoming Arabs.
The same feeling of unreality that she had experienced once before the first day in the Sheik's camp came over her. The intense stillness—for the Arabs had ceased shouting—the hot, dry sand with the shimmering heat haze rising like mist from its whispering surface, the cloudless deep blue sky overhead, the band of menacing horsemen circling nearer and nearer, the dead Dancer, with Gaston's horse standing quietly beside his prostrate companion, and lastly, the man beside her, brave and devoted to the end, all seemed fantastic and unreal. She viewed it dispassionately, as if she were a spectator rather than a participant in the scene. But for a moment only, then the reality of the situation came clearly to her again. Any minute might mean death for one or other or both of them, and with an instinctive movement she pressed closer to Gaston. They were both silent, there seemed nothing to say. The valet's left hand clenched over hers at the involuntary appeal for companionship that she made, and she felt it contract as a bullet gashed his forehead, blinding him for a moment with the blood that dripped into his eyes. He let go her hand to brush his arm across his face, and as he did so the Arabs with suddenly renewed shouting bore down upon them.
Gaston turned sharply and Diana read his purpose in the horror in his eyes. She held up her head with a little nod and the same brave smile on her white lips. "Please," she whispered, "quickly!" A spasm crossed his face, "Turn your head," he muttered desperately. "I cannot do it if you——"
There was a rattle of shots, and with a gasp he crumpled up against her. For a moment it was pandemonium. Standing over Gaston's body she fired her last shot and flung the empty revolver in the face of a man who sprang forward to seize her. She turned with a desperate hope of reaching Gaston's horse, but she was hemmed in, and for a second she stood at bay, hands clenched and teeth set, braving the wild faces that surrounded her, and were closing in upon her, with flashing defiant eyes. Then she was conscious of a crashing blow on her head, the ground heaved up under her feet, everything went black before her eyes, and without a sound she fell senseless.
Late in the afternoon Saint Hubert was still writing in the big tent. Henri had deciphered the notes that had baffled his master in the morning, and the Vicomte had taken advantage of the solitude to do some long-neglected work. He had forgotten the time, forgotten to be surprised at Diana's continued absence, immersed in the interesting subject he was dealing with, and not realising the significance of her delayed return. Ahmed had spoken of the proximity of his hereditary enemy, but Saint Hubert had not grasped how near the robber Sheik had ventured.
He was too engrossed to notice the usual noise in the camp that heralded the Sheik's arrival, and he looked up with a start when Ahmed Ben Hassan swept in. The Sheik's dark eyes glanced sombrely around the tent and without a word he went through into the inner room. In a moment he came hack.
"Where is Diane?"
Saint Hubert got up, puzzled at his tone. He looked at his watch. "She went for a ride this morning. Dieu! I had no idea it was so late."
"This morning!—and not back yet?" repeated the Sheik slowly. "What time this morning?"
"About ten, I think," replied Saint Hubert uneasily. "I'm not sure. I didn't look. There was an accident, and she delayed to watch me tie up one of your foolish children who had been playing with a worthless gun."
The Sheik moved over to the doorway. "She had an escort?" he asked curtly.
Ahmed Ben Hassan's face hardened and the heavy scowl contracted his black brows. Had she all these weeks been tricking him—feigning a content she did not feel, lulling his suspicions to enable her to seize another opportunity to attempt to get away? For a moment his face grew dark, then he put the thought from him. He trusted her. Only a week before she had given him her word, and he knew she would not lie to him. And, besides, the thing was impossible. Gaston would never be caught napping a second time, and there were also the six men who formed her guard. She would never be able to escape the vigilance of seven men. But it was the trust he had in her that weighed most with him. He had never trusted a woman before, but this woman had been different. The others who had come and gone so lightly had not even left a recollection behind them; they had faded into one concrete cause of utter boredom. There had never been any reason to trust or mistrust them, or to care if they came or went. Satiety had come with possession and with it indifference. But the emotion that this girl's uncommon beauty and slender boyishness had aroused in him had not diminished during the months she had been living in his camp. Her varying moods, her antagonism, her fits of furious rage, and, lastly, her unexpected surrender, had kept his interest alive. He had grown accustomed to her. He had come to looking forward with a vague, indefinite pleasure, on returning from his long expeditions, to seeing the dainty little figure curled up among the cushions on the big divan. Her presence seemed to pervade the atmosphere of the whole tent, changing it utterly. She had become necessary to him as he had never believed it possible that a woman could be. And with the change that she had made in his camp there had come a change in himself also.
For the first time a shadow had risen between him and the man whose friendship had meant everything to him since, as a lad of fifteen, he had come under the influence of the young Frenchman, who was three years his senior. He realized that since the night of Raoul's arrival he had been seething with insensate jealousy. He had relied on the Western tendencies that prompted him to carry off the difficult situation, but his ingrained Orientalism had broken through the superficial veneer. He was jealous of every word, every look she gave Saint Hubert. Pride had prevented an open rupture with the Vicomte this morning, but he had ridden away filled with a cold rage that had augmented every hour and finally driven him back earlier than he had intended, riding with a recklessness that had been apparent even to his men. The sight of Raoul sitting alone absorbed in his work had in part allayed his suspicions, and he had gone on into the other room with a feeling of new expectancy that had changed to a sudden chill at its emptiness. The vacant room had brought home to him abruptly all that the girl meant to him. A latent anxiety crept into his eyes.
He went out under the awning and clapped his hands, and a servant answered the summons almost immediately. He gave an order and waited, his hands thrust into the folds of his waist-cloth and his teeth clenched on a cigarette that he had forgotten to light.
Saint Hubert joined him. "What do you think?" he asked, with a touch of diffidence.
"I don't know what to think," replied the Sheik shortly.
"But is there any real danger?"
"There is always danger in the desert, particularly when that devil is abroad." He motioned to the south with an impatient jerk of his head.
Saint Hubert's breath whistled sharply through his teeth. "My God! You don't imagine——"
But the Sheik only shrugged his shoulders and turned to Yusef, who had come up with half-a-dozen men. There was a rapid interchange of questions and answers, some brief orders, and the men hurried away in different directions, while Ahmed Ben Hassan turned again to Saint Hubert.
"They were seen by three of the southern patrols this morning, but of course it was nobody's business to find out if they had come back or not. I will start at once—in about ten minutes. You will come with me? Good! I have sent for reinforcements, who are to follow us if we are not back in twelve hours." His voice was expressionless, and only Raoul de Saint Hubert, who had known him since boyhood, could and did appreciate the significance of a fleeting look that crossed his face as he went back into the tent.
For a moment the Vicomte hesitated, but he knew that not even he was wanted inside that empty tent, and a half-bitter, half-sad feeling that the perfect friendship and confidence that had existed between them for twenty years would never again be the same came to them, the regretful sense of inevitable change, the consciousness of personal relegation. Then fear for Diana drove out every other consideration, and he went to his own quarters with a heavy heart.
When he came back in a few minutes with Henri following him the camp had undergone a transformation. With the promptness of perfect discipline the hundred men who had been chosen to go on the expedition were already waiting, each man standing by his horse, and the Sheik, quiet and impassive as usual, was superintending the distribution of extra ammunition. A groom was walking The Hawk slowly up and down, and Yusef, whose gloomy eyes had been fixed reproachfully on his chief, chafing against the order to remain behind to take command of the reinforcements should they be needed, went to him and took the horse's bridle from him and brought him to the Sheik. Even as he held the stirrup Saint Hubert could see that he was expostulating with an unusual insistence, begging for permission to accompany them. But the Sheik shook his head, and the young man stood sullenly aside to avoid The Hawk's hoofs as he reared impatiently.
Ahmed Ben Hassan motioned Saint Hubert to his side and in silence the cavalcade started at the usual swift gallop. The silence impressed Raoul, who was accustomed to the Arab's usual clamour. It affected his sensitive temperaments, filling him with a sinister foreboding. The silent band of stern-faced horsemen riding in close and orderly formation behind them suggested something more than a mere relief party. The tradition of reckless courage and organised fighting efficiency that had made the tribe known and feared for generations had been always maintained, and under the leadership of the last two holders of the hereditary name to so high a degree that the respect in which it was held was such that no other tribe had ventured to dispute its supremacy, and for many years its serious fighting capacities had not been tested.
Even Ibraheim Omair had inherited a feud that was largely traditional. Only once during the lifetime of the last Ahmed Ben Hassan had he dared to come into open conflict, and the memory of it had lasted until now. Skirmishes there had been and would always be inevitably sufficient to keep the tribesmen in a state of perpetual expectancy, and for this Ahmed Ben Hassan preserved the rigid discipline that prevailed in his tribe, insisting on the high standard that had kept them famous. The life-work that his predecessor had taken over from his father the present Ahmed Ben Hassan had carried on and developed with autocratic perseverance. The inborn love of fighting had been carefully fostered in the tribe, the weapons with which they were armed were of the newest pattern. Raoul knew with perfect certainty that to the picked men following them this hasty expedition meant only one thing—war, the war that they had looked forward to all their lives, precipitated now by an accident that gave to a handful of them the chance that hundreds of their fellow-tribesmen were longing for, a chance that sent them joyfully behind their chief, careless whether the reinforcements that had been sent for arrived in time or not. The smallness of their numbers was a source of pleasure rather than otherwise; if they won through to them would be the glory of victory; if they were annihilated with them would rest the honour of dying with the leader whom they worshipped, for not one of them doubted that Ahmed Ben Hassan would not survive his bodyguard, the flower of his tribe, the carefully chosen men from whose ranks his personal escort was always drawn. With them he would crush his hereditary enemy or with them he would die.
The short twilight had gone and a brilliant moon shone high in the heavens, illuminating the surrounding country with a clear white light. At any other time the beauty of the scene, the glamour of the Eastern night, the head-long gallop in company with this band of fierce fighting men would have stirred Saint Hubert profoundly. His artistic temperament and his own absolute fearlessness and love of adventure would have combined to make the expedition an exciting experience that he would not willingly have foregone. But the reason for it all, the peril of the girl whom he loved so unexpectedly, changed the whole colour of the affair, tinging it with a gravity and a suspense that left a cold fear in his heart. And if to him, what then to the man beside him? The question that Ahmed Ben Hassan had negatived so scornfully a week before had been answered differently in the swift look that had crossed his face this evening. He had not spoken since they started, and Saint Hubert had not felt able to break the silence. They had left the level country and were in amongst the long, successive ranges of undulating ground, the summits standing out silver white in the gleaming moonlight, the hollows filled with dark shadow, like black pools of deep, still water. And at the bottom of one of the slopes the Sheik pulled up suddenly with a low, hissing exclamation. A white shape was lying face downwards, spread-eagled on the sand, almost under The Hawk's feet, and at their approach two lean, slinking forms cantered away into the night. The Sheik and Henri reached the still figure simultaneously and Saint Hubert almost as quickly. He made a hurried examination. The bullet that had stunned Gaston had glanced off, leaving an ugly cut, and others that had hit him at the same time had ploughed through his shoulder, breaking the bone and causing besides wounds that had bled freely. He had staggered more than a mile before he had fainted again from loss of blood. He came to under Saint Hubert's handling, and lifted his heavy eyes to the Sheik, who was kneeling beside him.
"Monseigneur—Madame—Ibraheim Omair," he whispered weakly, and relapsed into unconsciousness.
For a moment the Sheik's eyes met Raoul's across his body, and then Ahmed Ben Hassan rose to his feet. "Be as quick as you can," he said, and went back to his horse. He leaned against The Hawk, his fingers mechanically searching for and lighting a cigarette, his eyes fixed unseeingly on the group around Gaston. The valet's broken words had confirmed the fear that he had striven to crush since he discovered Diana's absence.
He had only seen Ibraheim Omair once when, ten years before, he had gone with the elder Ahmed Ben Hassan to a meeting of the more powerful chiefs at Algiers, arranged under the auspices of the French Government, to confer on a complicated boundary question that had threatened an upheaval amongst the tribes which the nominal protectors of the country were afraid would be prejudicial to their own prestige, as it would have been beyond their power to quell. He had chafed at having to meet his hereditary enemy on equal terms, and only the restraining influence of the old Sheik, who exacted an unquestioning obedience that extended even to his heir, had prevented a catastrophe that might have nullified the meeting and caused infinitely more complications than the original boundary dispute. But the memory of the robber Sheik remained with him always, and the recollection of his bloated, vicious face and gross, unwieldy body rose clearly before him now.
Ibraheim Omair and the slender daintiness that he had prized so lightly. Diane! His teeth met through the cigarette in his mouth. His senseless jealousy and the rage provoked by Raoul's outspoken criticism had recoiled on the innocent cause. She, not Saint Hubert, had felt the brunt of his anger. In the innate cruelty of his nature it had given him a subtle pleasure to watch the bewilderment, alternating with flickering fear, that had come back into the deep blue eyes that for two months had looked into his with frank confidence. He had made her acutely conscious of his displeasure. Only last night, when his lack of consideration and his unwonted irritability had made her wince several times during the evening and after Saint Hubert had gone to his own tent, he, had looked up to find her eyes fixed on him with an expression that, in his dangerous mood, had excited all the brutality of which he was capable, and had filled him with a desire to torture her. The dumb reproach in her eyes had exasperated him, rousing the fiendish temper that had been hardly kept in check all the previous week. And yet, when he held her helpless in his arms, quivering and shrinking from the embrace that was no caress, but merely the medium of his anger, and the reproach in her wavering eyes changed to mute entreaty, the pleasure he had anticipated in her fear had failed him as it had before, and had irritated him further. The wild beating of her heart, the sobbing intake of her breath, the knowledge of his power over her, gave him no gratification, and he had flung her from him cursing her savagely, till she had fled into the other room with her hands over her ears to shut out the sound of his slow, deliberate voice. And this morning he had left her without a sign of any kind, no word or gesture that might have effaced the memory of the previous night. He had not meant to, he had intended to go back to her before he finally rode away, but Saint Hubert's refusal to accompany him had killed the softer feelings that prompted him, and his rage had flamed up again.
And now? The longing to hold her in his arms, to kiss the tears from her eyes and the colour into her pale lips, was almost unbearable. He would give his life to keep even a shadow from her path, and she was in the hands of Ibraheim Omair! The thought and all that it implied was torture, but no sign escaped him of the hell he was enduring. The unavoidable delay seemed interminable, and he swung into the saddle, hoping that the waiting would seem less with The Hawk's restless, nervous body gripped between his knees, for though the horse would stand quietly with his master beside him, he fretted continually at waiting once the Sheik was mounted, and the necessity for soothing him was preferable to complete inaction.
Saint Hubert rose to his feet at last, and, leaving behind Henri and two Arabs, who were detailed to take the wounded man back to the camp, the swift gallop southward was resumed. On, over the rising and falling ground along which Gaston had stumbled, blind and faint with loss of blood and the pain of his wounds, past the dead body of The Dancer, ghostly white in the moonlight, lying a little apart from the semicircle of Arabs that proved the efficiency of Gaston's shooting where Diana and he had made their last stand. The Sheik made no sign and did not check the headlong gallop, but continued on, The Hawk taking the fallen bodies that lay in his path in his stride, with only a quiver of repugnance and a snort of disgust. Still on, past the huddled bundles of tumbled draperies that marked the way significantly, avoiding them where the moonlight illuminated brightly, and riding over them in the deep hollows, where once Raoul's horse stumbled badly and nearly fell, recovering himself with a wild scramble, and the Vicomte heard the dead man's skull crack under the horse's slipping hoof.
The distant howling of jackals came closer and closer until, topping one long rise and descending into a hollow that was long enough and wide enough to be fully lit by the moon, they came to the place where the ambush had been laid. Instinctively Ahmed Ben Hassan knew that amongst the jostling heaps of corpses and dead horses lay the bodies of his own men. Perhaps amongst the still forms from which the jackals, whose hideous yelling they had heard, had slunk away, there might be one left with life enough to give some news. One of his own men who would speak willingly, or one of Ibraheim Omair's who would be made to speak. His lips curled back from his white teeth in a grin of pure cruelty.
The silence that had prevailed amongst his men broke suddenly as they searched quickly among the dead. The Sheik waited impassively, silent amidst the muttered imprecations and threats of vengeance of his followers as they laid beside him the six remains of what had been Diana's escort, slashed and mutilated almost beyond recognition. But it was he who noticed that the last terrible figure stirred slightly as it was laid down, and it was into his face, grown suddenly strangely gentle, that the dying Arab looked with fast-filming eyes. The man smiled, the happy smile of a child that had obtained an unexpected reward, and raised his hand painfully in salute, then pointed mutely to the south.
The Sheik caught his follower's nerveless fingers as they fell in his own strong grasp, and with a last effort the Arab drew his chief's hand to his forehead and fell back dead.
Slowly and painfully, through waves of deadly nausea and with the surging of deep waters in her ears, Diana struggled back to consciousness. The agony in her head was excruciating, and her limbs felt cramped and bruised. Recollection was dulled in bodily pain, and, at first, thought was merged in physical suffering. But gradually the fog cleared from her brain and memory supervened hesitatingly. She remembered fragmentary incidents of what had gone before the oblivion from which she had just emerged. Gaston, and the horror and resolution in his eyes, the convulsive working of his mouth as he faced her at the last moment. Her own dread—not of the death that was imminent, but lest the mercy it offered should be snatched from her. Then before the valet could effect his supreme devotion had come the hail of bullets, and he had fallen against her, the blood that poured from his wounds saturating her linen coat, and rolled over across her feet. She remembered vaguely the wild figures hemming her in, but nothing more.
Her eyes were still shut; a leaden weight seemed fixed on them, and the effort to open them was beyond her strength. "Gaston," she whispered feebly, and stretched out her hand. But instead of his body or the dry hot sand her fingers had expected to encounter they closed over soft cushions, and with the shock she sat up with a jerk, her eyes staring wide, but, sick and faint, she fell back again, her arm flung across her face, shielding the light that pierced like daggers through her throbbing eye-balls. For a while she lay still, fighting against the weakness that overpowered her, and by degrees the horrible nausea passed and the agony in her head abated, leaving only a dull ache. The desire to know where she was and what had happened made her forget her bruised body. She moved her arm slightly from before her eyes so that she could see, and looked cautiously from under thick lashes, screened by the sleeve of her coat. She was lying on a pile of cushions in one corner of a small-tented apartment which was otherwise bare, except for the rug that covered the floor. In the opposite corner of the tent an Arab woman crouched over a little brazier, and the smell of native coffee was heavy in the air. She closed her eyes again with a shudder. The attempted devotion of Gaston had been useless. This must be the camp of the robber Sheik, Ibraheim Omair.
She lay still, pressing closely down amongst the cushions, and clenching the sleeve of her jacket between her teeth to stifle the groan that rose to her lips. A lump came into her throat as she thought of Gaston. In those last moments all inequality of rank had been swept away in their common peril—they had been only a white man and a white woman together in their extremity. She remembered how, when she had pressed close to him, his hand had sought and gripped hers, conveying courage and sympathy. All that he could do he had done, he had shielded her body with his own, it must have been over his lifeless body that they had taken her. He had proved his faithfulness, sacrificing his life for his master's play-thing. Gaston was in all probability dead, but she was alive, and she must husband her strength for her own needs. She forced the threatening emotion down, and, with an effort, controlled the violent shivering in her limbs, and sat up slowly, looking at the Arab woman, who, hearing her move, turned to gaze at her. Instantly Diana realised that there was no help or compassion to be expected from her. She was a handsome woman, who must have been pretty as a girl, but there was no sign of softness in her sullen face and vindictive eyes. Instinctively Diana felt that the glowing menace of the woman's expression was inspired by personal hatred, and that her presence in the lent was objectionable to her. And the feeling gave a necessary spur to the courage that was fast coming back to her. She stared with all the haughtiness she could summon to her aid; she had learned her own power among the natives of India the previous year, and here in the desert there was only one Arab whose eyes did not fall beneath hers, and presently with a muttered word the woman turned back to her coffee-making.