The House of the Falcon/Chapter 18

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CHAPTER XVIII
THE STONE CHAMBER

For the next few days Edith was very busy with needle and thread. She had Aravang bring her one or two garments of the Sayak women, explaining to Donovan that she needed a pattern for her dress-making.

She would sit by the embrasure of the stone room on an ebony bench, her slippered feet crossed on splendid Persian rug, her loose blue smock stripped back from her forearms. Softly, she hummed under her breath, while the needle flew.

Donovan, now able to walk with a makeshift cane, was frequently absent. He had long talks with the leaders of the Sayaks. Once Edith saw him from the window, passing through the garden with Mahmoud. She returned to her singing and her new dress. Donovan sick had been the object of her care; Donovan convalescent was quite a different proposition.

"By Jove!"

It was the man himself, pipe in hand, leaning against the doorpost, his eyes on her. Not often did he come to the stone chamber during the daytime. He considered the room as Edith's, and he was careful not to intrude unless some occasion warranted it. How was he to know that she missed him: at least, she assured herself, it was the empty house she dreaded. Nothing more.

During the last days Donovan had been more silent than ever. He walked much, sometimes with Edith, in the garden. At such times, he was shy and self-contained. But now, his eyes had lighted up, and a smile softened his clear-cut mouth.

"By Jove, you do seem a medieval matron, with your—ah—tapestry and your hair loose on your shoulders like that. You have no idea how beautiful you are!"

Edith drew a quick, startled breath, and her hands flew to her hair. He watched her coil it dexterously, admiring the play of her slender arms and firm fingers.

How graceful she was, he thought! How childlike in her clear-eyed honesty and friendliness. He appreciated the sterling quality of her pride and fearlessness. Yet it was not for that he loved her.

John Donovan worshiped the slender slippers on Edith's feet. Sight of the woman's fairness wrought in the lonely man a silent longing and, more than this, an all-powerful awe. This was the reason he had been absent from the stone room so much. He was afraid his presence might disturb Edith, perhaps annoy her. He was happiest when they walked in the garden.

Resolutely he tried to keep from thinking of her—something that was as impossible as to keep from breathing—or dwelling on the happiness that her stay in the valley had brought to him. His task was to safeguard her.

To Edith, the long absences of the man and his silence when with her were things that troubled her. Frequently, when he was gone, she spent hours in trying a new adjustment of her Sayak garb, or a fresh manner of dressing her hair. She sang to herself at times. Often she frowned, feeling so much out of Donovan's life and the events that passed in Yakka Arik.

Now a tantalizing smile twitched her lips.

"Have I aged so much? I don't feel at all matronly."

"Oh, I say. The tableau resembled a sketch by Tintoretto or Paul Veronese. Really, you are no more than a child. Twenty-two, at the most——"

"Twenty," corrected Edith, biting off a thread tranquilly. She surveyed the nearly-completed garment with satisfaction. Donovan watched her, drawing at his pipe, which—unknown to him—had gone out.

Covertly Edith stole a glance at the precious mirror that she had adjusted near her bed. A skilled finger poked a straying hair into place. Outwardly she ignored Donovan. Of course.

"You know Veronese, Mr. Donovan? I adore Masaccio. His figures seem really like men and not just splendid counterfeits." A subtle undercurrent of meaning ran through her words. "They are—so honest and—and frank."

"Really?" He was absorbed in the turn of her wrist as she drew the thread through. "Oh, that Masaccio chap has strength, no end. But Veronese is—ah—luxurious."

"Am I, then, an image of luxury?" She laughed. "Behold a poor beggar maid, forced to make her own clothes, and wash them, too. And a prisoner in a pagan castle. Just how much liberty have you and Mahmoud and Company decided to allot me?"

"All you desire, within the barriers and outside the mosque."

"Suppose I go climb the mountains?"

"In those?" His pipe stem indicated the slippers that barely covered the soles of her stockinged feet. "Besides, you would be turned back by the guards in the passes."

"Haven't you the password?"

"There is no password."

A shadow crossed his expressive face. "The Sayak chiefs are in council and within a day or two there may be fighting in the hills. There are rumors that the Vulture is spreading his wings again. Until the—uncertainty is over you are safest here. I want you to trust me, Edith."

It was the first time he had called her that. The gray eyes glanced at him fleetingly, then fell to her work.

"Who is this Vulture, Donovan Khan? A tribal chief?"

"Rather more." He hesitated and Edith thought of the black bird that had passed over the lake.

"Aravang says you are a falcon."

"I wish I had wings."

"But falcons are horrid, destructive things."

"Sometimes they kill what is fitting." John Donovan fell into one of his frequent moods of introspection. "Certain things have no right to live. Destiny, in its course of life, adjusts that. Now, a vulture, flying over that sheepfold across the lake, should be killed."

A new thought startled her. "Donovan Khan, will you be in this feud—in danger?"

He paused to light his pipe, and then spoke casually. "Danger? Well, you have no cause to worry, Edith. And after all this bother is over and I have made good my promise to the Sayaks, I will ask your release from Yakka Arik and learn what kismet has in store."

She started. Monsey had used that word. Donovan went on amiably:

"I'm awfully grateful to fate that you came instead of—another." He frowned swiftly. "God knows, I don't mean that. I wouldn't have you here——"

"So you don't like me, after all!" Edith laughed whimsically. "I was just thinking, Donovan Khan, that my aunt would envy me. Behold, personally conducted, I have visited and seen the sights and people of Central Asia. Hotel accommodation was provided me free of charge. I have toured what the guide-books call the roof of the world, and in conveyances that poor Aunt Kate never dreamed of."

So infectious were her high spirits the man laughed with her. Their eyes met and held. Each had a message for the other. Edith's laugh ceased. She looked away and as she did so, he saw that she had flushed.

In this one moment the two castaways were brought together. They had read understanding in each other's eyes. And this was the time when the girl needed the comfort of the man's confidence.

It was the last moment of pleasant camaraderie. Neither one could know of the shadow that was closing in upon Yakka Arik, or the events that were to be set in motion by Edith's own willfulness. Nor did they realize how great would be their need of each other.

Womanlike, Edith hastened to speak of other matters.

"You are as bad as ever, Donovan Khan. You have changed the subject altogether, with ruthless damage to my curiosity. Now, how did you come to know who I was when I first told you my name?"

"That is not my story, Edith. But after I undertook this thing for the Sayaks——" he broke off. "After I started on this venture, I stopped at one of our advanced posts, an English station, for supplies and weapons. There I spent the night with a fine old chap. He was practically alone at the station. We fell to talking. First about the service, you know, and then about ourselves. He seemed to be lonely."

Donovan paused, with his habitual reluctance to explain anything about himself.

"This man was a friend of your mother. He had been often in your United States, and visited her home. Said the hospitality he received was a kind of landmark in his life. He—loved your mother and asked her to marry him. But he didn't win out. Another man, you know. It was a fair field and a good fight, he said."

Edith was intensely interested.

She understood now why Fraser-Carnie had befriended her, knowing that the old officer cherished the memory of her mother. It was clear that he and the adventurer—so she thought of her companion—had met at Gilghit.

"So Major Fraser-Carnie was your friend, too," she mused, and then added impulsively, "I feel sure he and my father will trace me to Kashgar, in time, and then they will come here——"

"Not without a guide from the Sayaks themselves. From the tower itself, down the ravine, Yakka Arik can't be seen. And then there are the guards."

Edith was immersed in her new thought.

"But you say that Iskander is master of the armed guards and that you have equal rank with him. Donovan Khan, surely this man in the temple who has authority, as you say, even over Mahmoud and Iskander, must be peacefully inclined—if he is really a priest. Can't you ask him to make peace with the person you call the Vulture and to send word to Major Fraser-Carnie?"

"No, Edith. I have never tried to see the hadji of the mosque." Donovan did not want to explain that, in her present situation, any attempt to get the girl out of Yakka Arik must fail; and he knew that she would not understand the impossibility of checking the feud of the Sayaks against the man he had called the Vulture.

In the annals of the Moslem tribes of Central Asia there is a wrong that calls for vengeance, calls for what is termed in their own language the "pursuit of blood." It is a wrong that is handed down from father to son, and to grandson; a wrong that stains the honor of a man—and they hold personal honor very high—until it is wiped out.

And Donovan, in making good the task that had brought him from India, had paid a price. He had given his pledge to the Sayaks to aid them in striking down the Vulture and his mates. This had kept him an outcast for the last years and once, at Kashgar, had nearly resulted in his death.

Thus Donovan had widened the slight breach between him and the girl, without knowing it. How was he to understand her swift impulses and her yearning to be trusted?

Perhaps if she had not loved John Donovan she would not have sacrificed him and herself to the anger of the Sayaks.