erect, slim, lovely girl beside him with immense regret.
"The only thing we can do about it is to make up for lost time, darling."
He stopped, faced her, took both firm, rather square hands in his own. "Merle, you're being a miracle. But it's impossible. I oughtn't to have told you how much I cared."
"Poor dear! You hadn't any choice, really. I did the leap year stunt before you could stop me; and, being a little gent, you simply had to say you loved me, too!"
She rattled away, hardly knowing what she said. "I've got to alter that look in his eyes," she told herself. "I thought it was because of me, conceited little beast that I am. But it isn't—it isn't!
"Gunnar," she tackled him with characteristic impetuosity, "Is your fear of El Shabur the biggest thing in your life? Is it bigger than—than your love for me?"
The grip of his hands tightened. His face bent to hers. His haunted red-rimmed eyes looked into her candid gray ones, that shone with love and kindness and a stedfast unwavering trust that made him want to kiss her dusty shoes. Instead, he dropped her hands, pulled his hat down over his face, walked on with quickened stride toward the distant encampment.
"It's no use... I can't go on with it. I'm in a tangle that no one on earth can straighten out. It's revolting to think of you being caught up in such a beastly mess. I went into this thing because I was a young inquisitive fool! I'd no idea what it involved, no idea at all that there was something behind it stronger... stronger than death! I was blind, I was credulous, I was utterly ignorant; I walked into El Shabur's trap—and the door shut behind me!"
"Gunnar, darling, can't you explain? People don't have to go on serving masters they hate unless—unless——"
"Exactly! Unless they're slaves. Well, I am his slave."
"I don't understand you."
"Thank heaven for it, and don't try! It's because you must never, never understand such things that I wanted you and Dale to go away that night at Sollum."
"If you owe the sheykh your time, can't you buy him off? Surely any contract can be broken."
"Not the one that binds me to him. Listen, Merle, my own! I can't—I daren't say more than this. Think of him as a poison—as something that blackens and burns like vitriol. Will you do what may seem a very childish thing, will you do it to please me?"
"What is it?"
"Tie this across the entrance of your sleeping-tent at night." He held out a little colored plait, four threads of green, white, red, and black, from which a seal depended. "Once more, I daren't explain, but use it. Promise me!"
Taken aback by his tone and manner, she promised. What, she thought, had a bit of colored string to do with all this mystery about him and the sheykh? A fleeting doubt as to his sanity came to her.
"No," he answered the look. "I was never more sane than now—when it's too late. Too late for myself, at least. You—nothing shall happen to you!"
"Won't you talk to Dale? He's such a queer wise old thing, I'm sure he could help if only you'd explain things to him."
"No. Not yet, at any rate. Not until we get to Siwa. I'll explain everything then. Silence is the price I've paid to be with you on this trip."
"But, really Dale is——"
"If you don't want him to die sudden-