The Sheik (Hull)/Chapter VI
Diana was sitting on the divan in the living-room of the tent lingering over her petit dejeuner, a cup of coffee poised in one hand and her bright head bent over a magazine on her knee. It was a French periodical of fairly recent date, left a few days before by a Dutchman who was touring through the desert, and who had asked a night's hospitality. Diana had not seen him, and it was not until the traveller had been served with dinner in his own tent that the Sheik had sent the usual flowery message conveying what, though wrapped in honeyed words, amounted practically to a command that he should come to drink coffee and let himself be seen. Only native servants had been in attendance, and it was an Arab untinged by any Western influence who had received him, talking only Arabic, which the Dutchman spoke fluently, and placing at his disposal himself, his servants and all his belongings with the perfunctory Oriental insincerity which the traveller knew meant nothing and accepted at its own value, returning to the usual set phrases the customary answers that were expected of him. Once or twice as they talked a woman's subdued voice had reached the Dutchman's ears from behind the thick curtains, but he knew too much to let any expression betray him, and he smiled grimly to himself at the thought of the change that an indiscreet question would bring to the stern face of his grave and impassive host. He was an elderly man with a tender heart, and he wondered speculatively what the girl in the next room would have to pay for her own indiscretion in allowing her voice to be heard. He left the next morning early without seeing the Sheik again, escorted for some little distance by Yusef and a few men.
Diana read eagerly. Anything fresh to read was precious. She looked like a slender boy in the soft riding-shirt and smart-cut breeches, one slim foot in a long brown boot drawn up under her, and the other swinging idly against the side of the divan. She finished her coffee hastily, and, lighting a cigarette, leaned back with a sigh of content over the magazine.
Two months had slipped away since her mad flight, since her dash for freedom that had ended in tragedy for the beautiful Silver Star and so unexpectedly for herself. Weeks of vivid happiness that had been mixed with poignant suffering, for the perfect joy of being with him was marred by the passionate longing for his love. Even her surroundings had taken on a new aspect, her happiness coloured everything. The Eastern luxury of the tent and its appointments no longer seemed theatrical, but the natural setting of the magnificent specimen of manhood who surrounded himself by all the display dear to the heart of the native. How much was for his own pleasure and how much was for the sake of his followers she had never been able to determine. The beauties and attractions of the desert had multiplied a hundred times. The wild tribesmen, with their primitive ways and savagery, had ceased to disgust her, and the free life with its constant exercise and simple routine was becoming indefinitely dear to her. The camp had been moved several times—always towards the south—and each change had been a source of greater interest.
And since the night that he had carried her back in triumph he had been kind to her—kind beyond anything that she had expected. He had never made any reference to her fight or to the death of the horse that he had valued so highly; in that he had been generous. The episode over, he wished no further allusion to it. But there was nothing beyond kindness. The passion that smouldered in his dark eyes often was not the love she craved, it was only the desire that her uncommon type and her utter dissimilarity from all the other women who had passed through his hands had awakened in him. The perpetual remembrance of those other woman brought her a constant burning shame that grew stronger every day, a shame that was only less strong than her ardent love, and a wild jealousy that tortured her with doubts and fears, an ever-present demon of suggestion reminding her of the past when it was not she who lay in his arms, nor her lips that received his kisses. The knowledge that the embraces she panted for had been shared by les autres was an open wound that would not heal. She tried to shut her mind to the past. She knew that she was a fool to expect the abstinence of a monk in the strong, virile desert man. And she was afraid for the future. She wanted him for herself alone, wanted his undivided love, and that he was an Arab with Oriental instincts filled her with continual dread, dread of the real future about which she never dared to think, dread of the passing of his transient desire. She loved him so passionately, so completely, that beyond him was nothing. He was all the world. She gave herself to him gladly, triumphantly, as she would give her life for him if need be. But she had schooled herself to hide her love, to yield apathetically to his caresses, and to conceal the longing that possessed her. She was afraid that the knowledge that she loved him would bring about the disaster she dreaded. The words that he had once used remained continually in her mind: "If you loved me you would bore me, and I should have to let you go." And she hid her love closely in her heart. It was difficult, and it hurt her to hide it from him and to assume indifference. It was difficult to remember that she must make a show of reluctance when she was longing to give unreservedly. She dropped the end of the cigarette hissing into the dregs of the coffee and turned a page, and, as she did so, she looked up suddenly, the magazine dropping unheeded on the floor. Close outside the tent the same low, vibrating baritone was singing the Kashmiri love song that she had heard last the night before she left Biskra. She sat tense, her eyes growing puzzled.
"Pale hands I loved beside the Shalimar. Where are you now? Who lies beneath your spell?"
The voice came nearer and he swept in, still singing, and came to her. "Pale hands, pink tipped," he sang, stopping in front of her and catching her fingers in his up to his lips, but she tore them away before he kissed them.
"You do know English?" she cried sharply, her eyes searching his.
He flung himself on the divan beside her with a laugh. "Because I sing an English song?" he replied in French. "La! la! I heard a Spanish boy singing in 'Carmen' once in Paris who did not know a word of French beside the score. He learned it parrot-like, as I learn your English songs," he added, smiling.
She watched him light a cigarette, and her forehead wrinkled thoughtfully. "It was you who sang outside the hotel in Biskra that night?" she asked at last, more statement than question.
"One is mad sometimes, especially when the moon is high," he replied teasingly.
"And was it you who came into my bedroom and put the blank cartridges in my revolver?"
His arm stole round her, drawing her to him, and he lifted her head up so that he could look into her eyes. "Do you think that—I would have allowed anybody else to go to your room at night?—I, an Arab, when I meant you for myself?"
"You were so sure?"
He laughed softly, as if the suggestion that any plan of his could be liable to miscarriage amused him infinitely, and the smouldering passion flamed up in his dark eyes. He strained her to him hungrily, as if her slim body lying against his had awakened the sleeping fires within him. She struggled against the pressure of his arm, averting her head.
"Always cold?" he chided. "Kiss me, little piece of ice."
She longed to, and it almost broke her heart to persevere in her efforts to repulse him. A wild desire seized her to tell him that she loved him, to make an end once and for all of the misery of doubt and fear that was sapping her strength from her, and abide by the issue. But the spark of hope that lived in her heart gave her courage, and she fought down the burning words that sought utterance, forcing indifference into her eyes and a mutinous pout to her lips.
His black brows drew together slowly. "Still disobedient? You said you would obey me. I loathe the English, but I thought their word——"
She interrupted him with a quick gesture, and, turning her face to his, for the first time kissed him voluntarily, brushing his tanned cheek with swift, cold lips.
He laughed disdainfully. "Bon Dieu! Has the hot sun of the desert taught you no better than that? Have you learned so little from me? Has the vile climate of your detestable country frozen you so thoroughly that nothing can melt you? Or is there some man in England who has the power to turn you from a statue to a woman?" he added, with an angry snarl.
She clenched her hands with the pain of his words. "There is no one," she muttered, "but I—I don't feel like that."
"You had better learn," he said thickly. "I am tired of holding an icicle in my arms," and sweeping her completely into his masterful grasp he covered her face with fierce, burning kisses.
And for the first time she surrendered to him wholly, clinging to him passionately, and giving him kiss for kiss with an absolute abandon of all resistance. At last he let her go, panting and breathless, and leaped up, drawing his hand across his eyes.
"You go to my head, Diane," he said, with a laugh that was half anger, and shrugging his shoulders moved across the tent to the chest where the spare arms were kept, and unlocking it took out a revolver and began to clean it.
She looked at him bewildered. What had he meant? How could she reconcile what he said with the advice that he had given her before? Was he totally inconsistent? Did he, after all, want the satisfaction of knowing that he had made her love him—of flattering himself on the power he exercised over her? Did he care that he was able to torture her heart with a refinement of cruelty that took all and gave nothing? Did he wish her to crawl abjectly to his feet to give him the pleasure of spurning her contemptuously, or was it only that he wanted her senses merely to respond to his ardent, Eastern temperament? Her face grew hot and shamed. She knew the fiery nature that was hidden under his impassive exterior and knew the control he exercised over himself, knew, too, that the strain he put upon himself was liable to be broken with unexpected suddenness. It was an easy thing to rule his wild followers, and she guessed that the relaxation that he looked for in the privacy of his own tent meant more to him than he would ever have admitted, than perhaps he even know. The hatred and defiance with which she had repelled him had provoked and amused him, but it had also at times angered him.
He was very human, and there must have been moments when he wanted a willing mate rather than a rebellious prisoner. She gave a quick sigh as she looked at him. He was so strong, so vigorous, so intensely alive. It was going to be very difficult to anticipate his moods and be subservient to his temper. She sighed again wearily. If she could but make him and keep him happy. She ruffled her loose curls, tugging them with a puzzled frown, a trick that was a survival of her nursery days, when she clutched frantically at her red-gold mop to help her settle any childish difficulty.
She knelt up suddenly on the cushions of the divan. "Why do you hate the English so bitterly, Monseigneur?" She had dropped almost unconsciously into Gaston's mode of address for some time; it was often awkward to give him no name, and she shrank from using his own; and the title fitted him.
He looked up from his work, and, gathering the materials together, brought them over to the divan. "Light me a cigarette, cherie, my hands are busy," he replied irrelevantly.
She complied with a little laugh. "You haven't answered my question."
He polished the gleaming little weapon in his hand for some time without speaking. "Ma petite Diane, your lips are of an adorable redness and your voice is music in my ears, but—I detest questions. They bore me to a point of exasperation," he said at last lightly, and started humming the Kashmiri song again.
She knew him well enough to know that all questions did not bore him, but that she must have touched some point connected with the past of which she was ignorant that affected him, and to prove her knowledge she asked another question. "Why do you sing? You have never sung before."
He looked at her with a smile of amusement at her pertinacity. "Inquisitive one! I sing because I am glad. Because my friend is coming."
"Yes, by Allah! The best friend a man ever had. Raoul de Saint Hubert."
She flashed a look at the bookcase with a jerk of her head, and he nodded. "Coming here?" she queried, and the dismay she felt sounded in her voice.
He frowned in quick annoyance at her tone. "Why not?" he said haughtily.
"No reason," she murmured, sinking down among the cushions again and picking up the magazine from the floor. The advent of a stranger—a European—was a shock, but she felt that the Sheik's eyes were on her and she determined to show no feeling in his presence. "What time will you be ready to ride?" she asked indifferently, with a simulated yawn, flirting over the pages.
"I can't ride with you to-day. I am going to meet Saint Hubert. His courier only came an hour ago. It is two years since I have seen him."
Diana slipped off the couch and went to the open doorway. A detachment of men were already waiting for him, and, close by the tent, Shaitan of the ugly temper was biting and fidgeting in the hands of the grooms. She scowled at the beautiful, wicked creature's flat-laid ears and rolling eyes. She would have backed him fearlessly herself if the Sheik had let her, but she was nervous for him every time he rode the vicious beast. No one but the Sheik could manage him, and though she knew that he had perfect mastery over the horse, she never lost the feeling of nervousness, a sensation the old Diana had never, never experienced, and she wished to-day that it had been any other horse but Shaitan waiting for him.
She went back to him slowly. "It makes my head ache, to stay in all day. May Gaston not ride with me?" she asked diffidently, her eyes anywhere but on his face. He had not allowed her to ride with any one except himself since her attempted escape, and to her tentative suggestions that the rides with the valet might be resumed he had given a prompt refusal. He hesitated now, and she was afraid he was going to refuse again, and she looked up wistfully. "Please, Monseigneur," she whispered humbly.
He looked at her for a moment with his chin squarer than usual. "Are you going to run away again?" he asked bluntly.
Her eyes filled slowly with tears, and she turned her head away to hide them. "No, I am not going to run away again," she said very low.
"Very well, I will tell him. He will be delighted, le bon Gaston. He is your very willing slave in spite of the trick you played him. He has a beautiful nature, le pauvre diable. He is not an Arab, eh, little Diane?" The mocking smile was back in his eyes as he turned her face up to his in the usual peremptory way. Then he held out the revolver he had been cleaning with sudden seriousness. "I want you to carry this always now when you ride. Ibraheim Omair is still in the neighbourhood."
She looked at it blankly.
"But——" she stammered.
He knew what was in her mind, and he stooped and kissed her lightly. "I trust you," he said quietly, and went out.
She followed him to the door, the revolver dangling from her hand, and watched him mount and ride away. His horsemanship was superb and her eyes glowed as they followed him. She went back into the tent and slipped the revolver into the holster he had left lying on a stool, and, tucking it and Saint Hubert's novel, which she took from the bookcase, under her arm, went into the bed-room and, calling to Zilah to pull off her riding-boots, threw herself on the bed to laze away the morning, and to try and picture the author from the book he had written.
She hated him in advance; she was jealous of him and of his coming. The Sheik's sudden new tenderness had given rise to a hope she hardly dared allow herself to dwell upon. Might not the power that she had exercised over other men be still extended to him in spite of the months that he had been indifferent to anything except the mere physical attraction she had for him? Was it not possible that out of that attraction might develop something finer and better than the primitive desire she had aroused? Oriental though he was, might he not be capable of a deep and lasting affection? He might have loved her if no outside influence had come to interrupt the routine that had become so intimately a part of his life. Those other episodes to which he had referred so lightly had been a matter of days or weeks, not months, as in her case. He might have cared but for the coming of this Frenchman. She hurled Saint Hubert's book across the room in a fit of girlish rage and buried her head in her arms. He would be odious—a smirking, conceited egotist! She had met several French writers and she visualised him contemptuously. His books were undoubtedly clever. So much the worse; he would be correspondingly inflated. His novel revealed a passionate, emotional temperament that promised to complicate the situation if he should be pleased to cast an eye of favour on her. She writhed at the very thought. And that he was to see her was evident; the Sheik had left no orders to the contrary. It was not to be the case of the Dutch traveller, when the fact that she belonged to an Arab had been brought home to her effectually by Ahmed Ben Hassan's peremptory commands, and she had experienced for the first time the sensation of a woman kept in seclusion.
The emotions of the morning and the disappointment of the intended ride, together with the dismay produced by the unexpected visitor, all combined to agitate her powerfully, and she worked herself up into a fever of self-torture and unhappiness. She ended by falling asleep and slept heavily for some hours. Zilah waked her with a shy hand on her arm and a soft announcement of lunch, and Diana sat up, rubbing her eyes, flushed and drowsy. She stared uncomprehendingly for a moment at the Arab girl, and then waved her away imperiously and buried her head in the pillows again. Lunch, when her heart was breaking!
Mindful of her lord's deputy, who was waiting in the next room, and whom she regarded with awe, Zilah held her ground with a timid insistence until Diana started up wrathfully and bade her go in tones that she had never used before to the little waiting-girl. Zilah fled precipitately, and, thoroughly awakened, Diana swung her heels to the ground and with her elbows on her knees rested her hot head in her hands. She felt giddy, her head ached and her mouth was parched and dry. She got up languidly, and going to the table studied her face in the mirror intently. She frowned at the reflection. She had never been proud of her own beauty; she had lived with it always and it had seemed to her a thing of no consequence, and now that it had failed to arouse the love she wanted in Ahmed Ben Hassan she almost hated it.
"Are you going to have fever or are you merely bad-tempered?" she asked out loud, and the sound of her own voice made her laugh in spite of her heavy heart. She went into the bathroom and soused her head in cold water. When she came back a frightened Zilah was putting a small tray on the brass-topped table by the bed.
"M'seiur Gaston," she stammered, almost crying.
Diana looked at the tray, arranged with all the dainty neatness dear to the valet's heart, and then at the travelling clock on the table beside it, and realised that it was an hour past her usual lunch-time and that she was extremely hungry, after all. A little piece of paper on the tray caught her eye, and, picking it up, she read in Gaston's clear though minute handwriting, "At what hour does Madame desire to ride?"
The servant clearly had no intention of giving up the programme for the afternoon without a struggle. She smiled as she added a figure to the end of the note, and went to the curtains that divided the rooms. "Gaston!"
She passed the paper silently through the curtains and went back to her lunch. When she sent Zilah away with the empty tray she rescued the Vicomte de Saint Hubert's book from the floor where she had thrown it and tried to read it dispassionately. She turned to the title-page and studied the pencilled scrawl "Souvenir de Raoul" closely. It did not look like the handwriting of a small-minded man, but handwriting was nothing to go by, she argued obstinately. Aubrey, who was the essence of selfishness, wrote beautifully, and had once been told by an expert that his writing denoted a generous love of his fellow-men, which deduction had aroused no enthusiasm in the baronet, and had given his sister over to helpless mirth. She turned the pages, dipping here and there, finally forgetting the author altogether in the book. It was a wonderful story of a man's love and faithfulness, and Diana pushed it aside at last with a very bitter sigh. Things happened so in books. In real life they happened very differently. She looked round the room with pain-filled eyes, at the medley of her own and the Sheik's belongings, her ivory toilet appointments jostling indiscriminately among his brushes and his razors on the dressing-table, and then at the pillow beside her where his head rested every night. She stooped and kissed it with a little quivering breath. "Ahmed. Oh, Monseigneur!" she murmured longingly. Then, with an impatient jerk of the head, she sprang up and dragged on her boots. She pulled a soft felt hat down over her eyes and picked up the revolver the Sheik had given her. She paused a moment, looking at it with an odd smile before buckling it round her slim waist. Gaston's face lit up with genuine pleasure when she came out to the horses. She had felt a momentary embarrassment before she left the tent, thinking of the last time he had ridden with her, but she had known from the moment he came back that night that he bore no malice, and the look on his face and his stammered words to the Sheik had indicated that the fear he felt for her was not for what might have happened in the desert, but for what might yet happen to her at the hands of his master and hers.
The horse that she rode always now was pure white, not so fast as Silver Star and very tricky, called The Dancer, from a nervous habit of dancing on his hind-legs at starting and stopping, like a circus-horse. He was difficult to mount, and edged away shyly as Diana tried to get her foot into the stirrup. But she swung up at last, and by the time The Dancer had finished his display of haute ecole Gaston was mounted. "After riding The Dancer I feel confident to enter for the Concours Hippique," she laughed over her shoulder, and touched the horse with her heel.
She wanted exercise primarily, hard physical exercise that would tire her out and keep her mind occupied and prevent her from thinking, and the horse she rode supplied both needs. He required watching all the time. She let him out to his full pace for his own sake and hers, and the air and the movement banished her headache, and a kind of exhilaration came over her, making her almost happy. After a while she reined in her horse and waved to Gaston to come alongside. "Tell me of this Vicomte de Saint Hubert who is coming. You know him, I suppose, as you have been so long with Monseigneur?"
Gaston smiled. "I knew him before Monseigneur did. I was born on the estate of Monsieur le Comte de Saint Hubert, the father of Monsieur le Vicomte. I and my twin brother Henri. We both went into Monsieur's le Comte's training stables, and then after our time in the Cavalry Henri became valet to Monsieur le Vicomte, and I came to Monseigneur."
Diana took off her hat and rubbed her forehead thoughtfully. Fifteen years ago Ahmed must have been about twenty. Why should an Arab chief of that age, or any age, indulge in such an anomaly as a French valet, or for that matter why should a French valet attach himself to an Arab Sheik and exile himself in the wilds of the desert? Whichever way she turned, the mystery of the man she loved seemed to crop up. She started arguing with herself in a circle—why should the Sheik have a European servant or why should he not, until she gave it up in hopeless confusion.
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?"