The Sheik (Hull)/Chapter VIII
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.
Diana's muscles relaxed and she sat back easily on the cushions, the little passage of wills had restored her confidence in herself. She moved her hand and it brushed against her jacket, coming away stained and sticky, and she noticed for the first time that all one side and sleeve were soaked with blood. She ripped it off with a shudder and flung it from her, rubbing the red smear from her hands with a kind of horror.
The little tent was intensely hot, and there was a close, pungent smell that was eminently native that she never experienced in the cool airiness and scrupulous cleanliness of Ahmed Ben Hassan's tents. Her sensitive lip curled with disgust, all her innate fastidiousness in revolt. The heat aggravated a burning thirst that was parching her throat. She got up on to her feet slowly, and with infinite caution, to prevent any jar that might start again the throbbing in her head; but the effects of the blow were wearing off, and, though her head continued to ache, it did no more than that, and the sick, giddy feeling had gone completely. She crossed the tent to the side of the Arab woman.
"Give me some water," she said in French, but the woman shook her head without looking up. Diana repeated the request in Arabic, one of the few sentences she knew without stumbling. This time the woman rose up hastily and held out a cup of the coffee she had been making.
Diana hated the sweet, thick stuff, but it would do until she could get the water she wanted, and she put out her hand to take the little cup. But her eyes met the other's fixed on her, and something in their malignant stare made her pause. A sudden suspicion shot through her mind. The coffee was drugged. What beyond the woman's expression made her think so she did not know, but she was sure of it. She put the cup aside impatiently.
"No. Not coffee. Water," she said firmly.
Before she realised what was happening the woman thrust a strong arm round her and forced the cup to her lips. That confirmed Diana's suspicions and rage lent her additional strength. The woman was strong, but Diana was stronger, younger and more active. She dashed the cup to the floor, spilling its contents, and, with an effort, tore the clinging hands from her and sent the woman crashing on to the ground, rolling against the brazier, oversetting it, and scattering brass pots and cups over the rug. The woman scrambled to her knees and beat out the glowing embers, uttering scream after scream in a shrill, piercing voice. And, in answer to her cries, a curtain at the side of the tent, that Diana had not noticed, slid aside and a gigantic Nubian came in. With outstretched hand shaking with rage, pointing at Diana, she burst into voluble abuse, punctuating every few words with the shrieks that had brought the negro.
Diana could understand nothing of what she said, but her expressive gestures told the story of the struggle plainly enough. The Nubian listened with white teeth flashing in a broad grin, and shook his head in response to some request urged with denunciatory fist. He picked up the last remaining embers that had scattered on the rug, rubbing the smouldering patches till they were extinguished, and then turned to leave the room. But Diana called him back. She went a step forward, her head high, and looked him straight in the face.
"Fetch me water!" she said imperiously. He pointed to the coffee that the woman had recommenced to make, her back turned to them, but Diana stamped her foot. "Water! Bring me water!" she said again, more imperiously than before. With a wider grin the negro made a gesture of acquiescence and went out, returning in a few moments with a water-skin.
The thought of its condition made her hesitate for a moment, but only for a moment. Her thirst was too great to allow niceties to interfere with it. She picked up one of the clean coffee-cups that had rolled to her feet, rinsed it several times, and then drank. The water was warm and slightly brackish, but she needed it too much to mind. In spite of being tepid it relieved the dry, suffocating feeling in her throat and refreshed her. The Nubian went away again, leaving the woman still crouching over the brazier.
Diana walked back to the cushions and dropped down on to them gladly. The events of the last few moments had tried her more than she realised, her legs were shaking under her, and she was thankful to sit down. But her courage had risen with a bound; the fact that she was physically stronger than the woman who had been put to guard her, and also that she had gained her point with the burly negro, had a great moral effect on her, further restoring her confidence in herself.
Her position was an appalling one, but hope was strong within her. The fact that since she had regained consciousness she had seen only the woman and the Nubian seemed to argue that Ibraheim Omair must be absent from his camp; the thought that he might purposely be delaying the moment of inspecting his captive with a view to prolonging her mental torture she put from her as improbable. She did not credit him with so much acumen. And from his absence her courage gained strength. If it could only be prolonged until Ahmed reached her. That the Sheik would come she knew, her faith in him was unbounded. If he only came in time! Hours had passed since the ambuscade had surprised them. It had been early afternoon then. Now the lighted lamp told her it was night. How late she did not know. Her watch had been broken some months before, and she had no means of even guessing the hour, but it must be well on in the evening. By now the absence of herself and Gaston and their escort would be discovered. He would know her peril and he would come to her. Of that she had no doubt. Although he had changed so strangely in the last few days, though the wonderful gentleness of the last two months had merged again into indifference and cruelty, still she never doubted. Even if desire had passed and indifference had become so great that she was no longer necessary to him, still the Oriental jealousy with which he was so deeply imbued would never allow him to let her pass so lightly from his keeping. He might discard her at his own pleasure, but no one would take her from him with impunity. Her woman's intuition had sensed the jealousy that had actuated him during the unhappy days since Saint Hubert had come. An inconsistent jealousy that had been unprovoked and unjustified, but for which she had suffered. She had known last night, when she winced under his sarcastic tongue, and later, when Saint Hubert had left them and his temper had suddenly boiled over, that she was paying for the unaccustomed strain that he was putting on his own feelings. His curses had eaten into her heart, and she had fled from him to stifle the coward instinct that urged her to confess her love and beg his mercy. She had lain awake with shivering apprehension waiting for him, but when, after nearly two hours, he had sauntered in, the usual cigarette between his lips, indifference had taken the place of rage, and he had ignored her, as she had grown used to being ignored. And long after she knew from his even breathing that he was asleep she had lain wide-eyed beside him, grasping at what happiness she could, living for the moment as she had schooled herself to live, trying to be content with just the fact of his nearness. And the indifference of the night had been maintained when he had left her at dawn, his persistent silence pointing the continuance of his displeasure. But he would come, if for no other reason than the same jealousy which held him in its inexorable grip. He would come! He would come! She whispered it over to herself as if merely the sound of the words gave her courage. He would not let anything happen to her. Every moment that Ibraheim Omair stayed away was so much gained, every moment he would be coming nearer. The reversal of the role he played in her life brought a quivering smile to her lips. For the advent of the man who a few weeks before she had loathed for his brutal abduction of herself she now prayed with the desperation of despair. He represented safety, salvation, everything that made life worth living.
A sudden noise and men's voices in the adjoining room sent her to her feet with heaving breast and clenched hands. But the sharp, guttural voice predominating over the other voices killed the wild hope that had sprung up in her by its utter dissimilarity to the soft low tones for which she longed. Ibraheim Omair! He had come first! She set her teeth with a long, shuddering breath, bracing herself to meet what was coming.
The Arab woman turned to look at her again with a sneering smile that was full of significance, but beyond a fleeting glance of disdain Diana paid no attention to her. She stood rigid, one foot beating nervously into the soft rug. She noticed irrelevantly at the moment that both her spurs and the empty holster had been removed whilst she was unconscious, and with the odd detachment that transfers a train of thought from the centre of importance even at a supreme moment, she wondered, with an annoyance that seemed curiously futile, why it had been done.
The voices in the next room continued, until Diana almost prayed for the moment she was waiting for would come; suspense was worse than the ordeal for which she was nerving herself, It came at last. The curtain slid aside again, and the same huge negro she had seen before entered. He came towards her, and her breath hissed in suddenly between her set teeth, but before he reached her the Arab woman intercepted him, blocking his way, and with wild eyes and passionate gestures poured out a stream of low, frenzied words. The Nubian turned on her impatiently and thrust her roughly out of his way, and, coming to Diana, put out his hand as if to grasp her arm, but she stepped back with flashing eyes and a gesture that he obeyed.
Her heart was pounding, but she had herself under control. Only her hands twitched, her long fingers curling and uncurling spasmodically, and she buried them deep in her breeches' pockets to hide them. She walked slowly to the curtain and nodded to the Nubian to draw it aside, and slower still she passed into the other room. Only a little larger than the one she had left, almost as bare, but her mind took in these things uncomprehendingly, for all her attention was focussed on the central figure in the room.
Ibraheim Omair, the robber Sheik, lolling his great bulk on a pile of cushions, a little inlaid stool with coffee beside him, and behind him, standing motionless as if formed of bronze, two other negroes, so like the one that had summoned her that they seemed like statues that had been cast from one mould.
Diana paused for a moment framed in the entrance, then, with head thrown back and swaggering, boyish stride, she moved across the thick rugs leisurely and halted in front of the chief, looking straight at him with haughty, curling lips and insolent, half-closed eyes. The hold she was exercising over herself was tremendous, her body was rigid with the effort, and her hands deep down in her pockets clenched till the nails bit into the palms. Every instinct was rebelling against the calm she forced upon herself. She longed to scream and make a dash for the opening that she guessed was behind her, and to take her chance in the darkness outside. But she knew that such a chance was impossible; if she ever reached the open air she would never be allowed to get more than a few steps from the tent. Her only course lay in the bravado that alone kept her from collapse. She must convey the impression of fearlessness, though cold terror was knocking at her heart. Masked with indifference her veiled eyes were watching the robber chief closely. This was, indeed, the Arab of her imaginings, this gross, unwieldy figure lying among the tawdry cushions, his swollen, ferocious face seamed and lined with every mark of vice, his full, sensual lips parted and showing broken, blackened teeth, his deep-set, bloodshot eyes with a look in them that it took all her resolution to sustain, a look of such bestial evilness that the horror of it bathed her in perspiration. His appearance was slovenly, his robes, originally rich, were stained and tumbled, the fat hands lying spread out on his knees were engrained with dirt, showing even against his dark skin. His heavy face lit up with a gleam of malicious satisfaction as Diana came towards him, his loose mouth broadened in a wicked smile. He leaned forward a little, weighing heavily on the hands that were on his knees, his eyes roving slowly over her till they rested on her face again.
"So! the white woman of my brother Ahmed Ben Hassan," he said slowly, in villainous French, with a sudden, snarling intonation as he uttered his enemy's name. "Ahmed Ben Hassan! May Allah burn his soul in hell!" he added with relish, and spat contemptuously.
He leaned back on the cushions with a grunt, and drank some coffee noisily.
Diana kept her eyes fixed on him, and under their unwavering stare he seemed to be uneasy, his own inflamed eyes wandering ceaselessly over her, one hand fumbling at the curved hilt of a knife stuck in his belt, and at last he grew exasperated, hitching himself forward once more and beckoning her to come nearer to him. She hesitated, and as she paused uncertainly, there was a flutter of draperies behind her, and the Arab woman from the inner room, evading the negro who stepped forward to stop her, flung herself at the feet of Ibraheim Omair, clinging to his knees with a low wailing cry. In a flash Diana realised the meaning of the hatred that had gleamed in the woman's eyes earlier in the evening. To her she was a rival, whose coming to share the favours of her lord had aroused all the jealousy of the reigning favourite. A wave of disgust mingled with the fear that was torturing her. She jerked her head angrily, fighting against the terror that was growing on her, and for a moment her lashes drooped and hid her eyes. When she looked up again the woman was still crouched at the old Arab's feet, imploring and distraught.
Ibraheim Omair looked down on her curiously, his lips drawn back from his blackened teeth in an evil grin, and then shook her off violently with a swift blow in the mouth, but the woman clung closer, with upturned, desperate face, a thin trickle of blood oozing from her lips, and with a hoarse growl that was like the dull roar of a savage beast the robber chief caught her by the throat and held her for a moment, her frantic, clutching hands powerless against his strong grasp, then slowly drew the long knife from the ample folds of his waist-cloth, and as slowly drove it home into the strangling woman's breast. With savage callousness, before he released his hold of her, he wiped the stained knife carefully on her clothing and replaced it, and then flung the dead body from him. It rolled over on the rug midway between him and Diana.
There was a momentary silence in the room, and Diana became conscious of a muffled, rhythmical beat near her, like the ticking of a great clock, and realised with dull wonder that it was her own heart beating. She seemed turned to stone, petrified with the horror of the last few moments. Her eyes were glued to the still figure on the rug before her with the gaping wound in the breast, from which the blood was welling, staining the dark draperies of the woman's clothes, and creeping slowly down to the rug on which the body lay. She was dazed, and odd thoughts flitted through her mind. It was a pity, she thought stupidly, that the blood should spoil the rug. It was a lovely rug. She wondered what it would have cost in Biskra—less, probably, than it would in London. Then she forgot the rug as her eyes travelled upward to the woman's face. The mouth was open and the streak of blood was drying, but it was the eyes, protruding, agonised, that brought Diana abruptly to herself. She seemed to wake suddenly to the full realisation of what had happened and to her own peril. She felt physically sick for a moment, but she fought it down. Very slowly she raised her head, and, meeting Ibraheim Omair's eyes fixed on her, she looked full at him across the dead woman's body and laughed! It was that or shriek. The curls were clinging drenched on her forehead, and she wondered if her clenched hands would ever unclose. She must make no sign, she must not scream or faint, she must keep her nerve until Ahmed came. Oh, dear God, send him quickly! The laugh wavered hysterically, and she caught her lip between her teeth. She must do something to distract her attention from that awful still shape at her feet. Almost unconsciously she grasped the cigarette case in her pocket and took it out, dragging her eyes from the horrible sight on which they were fixed, and chose and lit a cigarette with slow care, flicking the still-burning match on to the carpet between the feet of the negro who stood near her. He had not moved since he had failed to stop the woman's entrance, and the two stationed behind the pile of cushions had stood motionless, their eyes hardly following the tragedy enacted before them. At a nod from the chief they came now and carried away the body of the woman. One returned in a moment, bringing fresh coffee, and then vanished noiselessly.
Then Ibraheim Omair leaned forward with a horrible leer and beckoned to Diana, patting the cushions beside him. Mastering the loathing that filled her she sat down with all the unconcern she could assume. The proximity of the man nauseated her. He reeked of sweat and grease and ill-kept horses, the pungent stench of the native. Her thoughts went back to the other Arab, of whose habits she had been forced into such an intimate knowledge. Remembering all that she had heard of the desert people she had been surprised at the fastidious care he took of himself, the frequent bathing, the spotless cleanliness of his robes, the fresh wholesomeness that clung about him, the faint, clean smell of shaving-soap mingling with the perfume of the Turkish tobacco that was always associated with him.
The contrast was hideous.
She refused the coffee he offered her with a shake of her head, paying no attention to his growl of protest, not even understanding it, for he spoke in Arabic. As she laid down the end of her cigarette with almost the feeling of letting go a sheet anchor—for it had at least kept her lips from trembling—his fat hand closed about her wrist and he jerked her towards him.
"How many rifles did the Frenchman bring to that son of darkness?" he said harshly.
She turned her head, surprised at the question, and met his bloodshot eyes fixed on hers, half-menacing, half-admiring, and looked away again hastily. "I do not know."
His fingers tightened on her wrist. "How many men had Ahmed Ben Hassan in the camp in which he kept you?"
"I do not know."
"I do not know! I do not know!" he echoed with a sudden savage laugh. "You will know when I have done with you." He crushed her wrist until she winced with pain, and turned her head away further that she might not see his face. Question after question relating to the Sheik and his tribe followed in rapid succession, but to all of them Diana remained silent, with averted head and compressed lips. He should not learn anything from her that might injure the man she loved, though he tortured her, though her life paid the price of her silence, as it probably would. She shivered involuntarily. "Shall I tell you what they would do to him?" She could hear the Sheik's voice plainly as on the night when she had asked him what Gaston's fate would be at the hands of Ibraheim Omair. She could hear the horrible meaning he had put into the words, she could see the terrible smile that had accompanied them. Her breath came faster, but her courage still held. She clung desperately to the hope that was sustaining her. Ahmed must come in time. She forced down the torturing doubts that whispered that he might never find her, that he might come too late, that when he came she might be beyond a man's desire.
Ibraheim Omair ceased his questioning. "Later you will speak," he said significantly, and drank more coffee. And his words revived the agonising thoughts she had crushed down. Her vivid imagination conjured up the same ghastly mental pictures that had appalled her when she had applied them to Gaston, but now it was herself who was the central figure in all the horrors she imagined, until the shuddering she tried to suppress shook her from head to foot, and she clenched her teeth to stop them chattering.
Ibraheim Omair kept his hold upon her, and presently, with a horrible loathing, she felt his hand passing over her arm, her neck, and down the soft curves of her slim young body, then with a muttered ejaculation he forced her to face him.
"What are you listening for? You think that Ahmed Ben Hassan will come? Little fool! He has forgotten you already. There are plenty more white women in Algiers and Oran that he can buy with his gold and his devil face. The loves of Ahmed Ben Hassan are as the stars in number. They come and go like the swift wind in the desert, a hot breath—and it's finished. He will not come, and if he does, he will not find you, for in an hour we shall be gone."
Diana writhed in his grasp. The hateful words in the guttural voice, pronounced in vile French, the leering, vicious face with the light of admiration growing in the bloodshot eyes, were all a ghastly nightmare. With a sudden desperate wrench she freed herself and fled across the tent—panic-stricken at last. But in her blind rush she tripped, and with a swiftness that seemed incompatible with his unwieldiness Ibraheim Omair followed her and caught her in his arms. Struggling he carried her to the divan. For a moment he paused, and instinctively Diana lay still, reserving her strength for the final struggle.
"One hour, my little gazelle, one hour——" he said hoarsely, and bent his face to hers.
With a cry Diana flung her head aside and strained away from him, fighting with the strength of madness. She fought like a boy with a swift thought of gratitude for Aubrey's training, and twisting and writhing she managed to slip through his grasp until her feet rested on the ground. But his grip on her never relaxed; he dragged her back to him, resisting fiercely, ripping the thin shirt from her shoulders, baring her white, heaving bosom. Gasping, she struggled, until, little by little, his arms closed round her again. She braced her hands against his chest, fending him from her till she felt the muscles in her arms must crack, but the crushing force of his whole weight was bearing her steadily backwards, and downwards on to the soft cushions beside them. His hot breath was on her face, the sickening reek of his clothes was in her nostrils. She felt her resistance growing weaker, her heart was labouring, beating with wild bounds that suffocated her, the strength was going from her arms, only a moment more and her force would be exhausted. Her brain was growing numbed, as it had been when the man who held her had murdered the woman before her eyes. If he would only kill her now. Death would be easy compared with this. The faint hope that still lingered was almost extinguished. Ahmed had not come, and in her agony the thought of him was a further torture. The sneering words of Ibraheim Omair had not shaken her faith. He would come, but he would come too late. He would never know now that she loved him. Oh, God! How she loved him! Ahmed! Ahmed! And with the soundless cry the last remnant of her strength went all at once, and she fell weakly against the chief. He forced her to her knees, and, with his hand twined brutally in her curls, thrust her head back. There was a mad light in his eyes and a foam on his lips as he dragged the knife from his waistbelt and laid the keen edge against her throat. She did not flinch, and after a moment he dropped it with a horrible laugh.
"No, afterwards," he said, and picked her up unresistingly. He flung her on the cushions and for one awful moment she felt his hands on her. Then from outside came a sudden uproar and the sharp crack of rifles. Then in a lull in the firing the Sheik's powerful voice: "Diane! Diane!"
His voice and the knowledge of his nearness gave her new strength. She leaped up in spite of Ibraheim Omair's gripping hands. "Ahmed!" she screamed once, then the chief's hand dashed against her mouth, but, frantic, she caught it in her teeth, biting it to the bone, and as he wrenched it away, shrieked again, "Ahmed! Ahmed!"
But it seemed impossible that her voice could be heard above the demoniacal noise outside the tent, and she could not call again, for, with a snarl of rage, the chief caught her by the throat as he had caught the Arab woman. And like the Arab woman her hands tore at his gripping fingers vainly. Choking, stifling with the agony in her throat, her lungs seemed bursting, the blood was beating in her ears like the deafening roar of waves, and the room was darkening with the film that was creeping over her eyes. Her hands fell powerless to her sides and her knees gave way limply. He was holding her upright only by the clutch on her throat. The drumming in her ears grew louder, the tent was fading away into blackness. Dimly, with no kind of emotion, she realised that he was squeezing the life out of her and she heard his voice coming, as it were, from a great distance: "You will not languish long in Hawiyat without your lover. I will send him quickly to you."
She was almost unconscious, but she heard the sneering voice break suddenly and the deadly pressure on her throat relaxed as the chief's hands rapidly transferred their grip to her aching shoulders, swinging her away from him and in front of him. To lift her head was agony, and the effort brought back the black mist that had lessened with the slackening of Ibraheim Omair's fingers round her neck, but it cleared again sufficiently for her to see, through a blurring haze, the outline of the tall figure that was facing her, standing by the ripped-back doorway.
There was a pause, a silence that contrasted oddly with the tumult outside, and Diana wondered numbly why the Sheik did nothing, why he did not use the revolver that was clenched in his hand Then slowly she understood that he dared not fire, that the chief was holding her, a living shield, before him, sheltering himself behind the only thing that would deter Ahmed Ben Hassan's unerring shots. Cautiously Ibraheim Omair moved backward, still holding her before him, hoping to gain the inner room. But in the shock of his enemy's sudden appearance he miscalculated the position of the divan and stumbled against it, losing his balance for only a moment, but long enough to give the man whose revolver covered him the chance he wanted. With the cold ring of steel pressing against his forehead the robber chief's hands dropped from Diana, and she slid weak and trembling on to the rug, clasping her pulsating throat, moaning with the effort that it was to breathe.
For a moment the two men looked into each other's eyes and the knowledge of death leaped into Ibraheim Omair's. With the fatalism of his creed he made no resistance, as, with a slow, terrible smile, the Sheik's left hand reached out and fastened on his throat. It would be quicker to shoot, but as Diana had suffered so should her torturer die. All the savagery in his nature rose uppermost. Beside the pitiful, gasping little figure on the rug at his feet there was the memory of six mutilated bodies, his faithful followers, men of his own age who had grown to manhood with him, picked men of his personal bodyguard who had been intimately connected with him all his life, and who had served him with devotion and unwavering obedience. They and others who had from time to time fallen victims to Ibraheim Omair's hatred of his more powerful enemy. The man who was responsible for their deaths was in his power at last, the man whose existence was a menace and whose life was an offence, of whose subtleties he had been trained from a boy to beware by the elder Ahmed Ben Hassan, who had bequeathed to him the tribal hatred of the race of whom Ibraheim Omair was head, and whose dying words had been the wish that his successor might himself exterminate the hereditary enemy. But far beyond the feelings inspired by tribal hatred or the remembrance of the vow made five years ago beside the old Sheik's deathbed, or even the death of his own followers, was the desire to kill, with his bare hands, the man who had tortured the woman he loved. The knowledge of her peril, that had driven him headlong through the night to her aid, the sight of her helpless, agonised, in the robber chief's hands, had filled him with a madness that only the fierce joy of killing would cure. Before he could listen to the clamouring of the new love in his heart, before he could gather up into his arms the beloved little body that he was yearning for, he had to destroy the man whose murders were countless and who had at last fallen into his hands.
The smile on his face deepened and his fingers tightened slowly on their hold. But with the strangling clasp of Ahmed Ben Hassan's hands upon him the love of life waked again in Ibraheim Omair and he struggled fiercely. Crouched on the floor Diana watched the two big figures swaying in mortal combat with wide, fearful eyes, her hands still holding her aching throat. Ibraheim Omair wrestled for his life, conscious of his own strength, but conscious also of the greater strength that was opposed to him. The Sheik let go the hold upon his throat and with both arms locked about him manoeuvred to get the position he required, back to the divan. Then, with a wrestler's trick, he swept Ibraheim's feet from under him and sent his huge body sprawling on to the cushions, his knee on his enemy's chest, his hands on his throat. With all his weight crushing into the chief's breast, with the terrible smile always on his lips, he choked him slowly to death, till the dying man's body arched and writhed in his last agony, till the blood burst from his nose and mouth, pouring over the hands that held him like a vice.
Diana's eyes never left the Sheik's face, she felt the old paralysing fear of him rushing over her, irresistibly drowning for the moment even the love she had for him. She had seen him in cruel, even savage moods, but nothing that had ever approached the look of horrible pleasure that was on his face now. It was a revelation of the real man with the thin layer of civilisation stripped from him, leaving only the primitive savage drunk with the lust of blood. And she was afraid, with a shuddering horror, of the merciless, crimson-stained hands that would touch her, of the smiling, cruel mouth that would be pressed on hers, and of the murderous light shining in his fierce eyes. But for the dying wretch expiating his crimes so hideously she felt no pity, he was beyond all sympathy. She had seen him murder wantonly, and she knew what her own fate would have been if Ahmed Ben Hassan had not come. And the retribution was swift. The Sheik was being more merciful to him than the robber chief had been to many, a few moments of agony instead of hours of lingering torture.
The noise outside the tent was growing louder as the fighting rolled back in its direction, and once or twice a bullet ripped through the hangings. One that came closer than the others made Diana turn her head and she saw what Ahmed Ben Hassan, absorbed in the fulfilment of his horrible task, had not even thought of—the three big negroes and a dozen Arabs who had stolen in silently from the inner room. For once, in the intoxication of the moment, the Sheik was careless and caught off his guard. Agony leaped into her eyes. The fear of him was wiped out in the fear for him. She tried to warn him, but no sound would come from her throbbing throat, and she crawled nearer to him and touched him. He dropped the dead chief back into the tumbled cushions and looked up swiftly, and at the same moment Ibraheim Omair's men made a rush. Without a word he thrust her behind the divan and turned to meet them. Before his revolver they gave way for a moment, but the burly Nubians behind swept the Arabs forward. Three times he fired and one of the negroes and two Arabs fell, but the rest hurled themselves on him, and Diana saw him surrounded. His strength was abnormal, and for some minutes the struggling mass of men strained and heaved about him. Diana was on her feet, swaying giddily, powerless to help him, cold with dread. Then above the clamour that was raging inside and out she heard Saint Hubert's voice shouting, and with a shriek that seemed to rip her tortured throat she called to him. The Sheik, too, heard, and with a desperate effort for a moment won clear, but one of the Nubians was behind him, and, as Saint Hubert and a crowd of the Sheik's own men poured in through the opening, he brought down a heavy club with crashing force on Ahmed Ben Hassan's head, and as he fell another drove a broad knife deep into his back. For a few minutes more the tramping feet surged backward and forward over the Sheik's prostrate body. Diana tried to get to him, faint and stumbling, flung here and there by the fighting, struggling men, until a strong hand caught her and drew her aside. She strained against the detaining arm, but it was one of Ahmed's men, and she gave in as a growing faintness came over her. Mistily she saw Saint Hubert clear a way to his friend's side, and then she fainted, but only for a few moments. Saint Hubert was still on his knees beside the Sheik when she opened her eyes, and the tent was quite quiet, filled with tribesmen waiting in stoical silence. The camp of Ibraheim Omair had been wiped out, but Ahmed Ben Hassan's men looked only at the unconscious figure of their leader.
Saint Hubert glanced up hastily as Diana came to his side. "You are all right?" he asked anxiously, but she did not answer. What did it matter about her?
"Is he going to die?" she said huskily, for speaking still hurt horribly.
"I don't know—but we must get away from here. I need more appliances than I have with me, and we are too few to stay and risk a possible attack if there are others of Ibraheim Omair's men in the neighbourhood."
Diana looked down on the wounded man fearfully. "But the ride—the jolting," she gasped.
"It has got to be risked," replied Saint Hubert abruptly.
Of the long, terrible journey back to Ahmed Ben Hassan's camp Diana never remembered very much. It was an agony of dread and apprehension, of momentary waiting for some word or exclamation from the powerful Arab who was holding him, or from Saint Hubert, who was riding beside him, that would mean his death, and of momentary respites from fear and faint glimmerings of hope as the minutes dragged past and the word she was dreading did not come. Once a sudden halt seemed to stop her heart beating, but it was only to give a moment's rest to the Arab whose strength was taxed to the uttermost with the Sheik's inert weight, but who refused to surrender his privilege to any other. Moments of semi-unconsciousness, when she swayed against the arm of the watchful tribesman riding beside her, and his muttered ejaculation of "Allah! Allah!" sent a whispered supplication to her own lips to the God they both worshipped so differently. He must not die. God would not be so cruel.
From time to time Saint Hubert spoke to her, and the quiet courage of his voice steadied her breaking nerves. As they passed the scene of the ambuscade he told her of Gaston. It was there that the first band of waiting men met them, warned already of their coming by a couple of Arabs whom the Vicomte had sent on in advance with the news.
The dawn was breaking when they reached the camp. Diana had a glimpse of rows of unusually silent men grouped beside the tent, but all her mind was concentrated on the long, limp figure that was being carefully lifted down from the sweating horse. They carried him into the tent and laid him on the divan, beside which Henri had already put out all the implements that his master would need.
While Saint Hubert, with difficulty, cleared the tent of the Sheik's men Diana stood beside the divan and looked at him. He was soaked in blood that had burst through the temporary bandages, and his whole body bore evidence of the terrible struggle that had gone before the blow that had felled him. One blood-covered hand hung down almost touching the rug. Diana lifted it in her own, and the touch of the nerveless fingers sent a sob into her throat. She caught her lip between her teeth to stop it trembling as she laid his hand down on the cushions. Saint Hubert came to her, rolling up his shirt-sleeves significantly.
"Diane, you have been through enough," he said gently. "Go and rest while I do what I can for Ahmed. I will come and tell you as soon as I am finished."
She looked up fiercely. "It's no good telling me to go away, because I won't. I must help you. I can help you. I shall go mad if you don't let me do something. See! My hands are quite steady." She held them out as she spoke, and Saint Hubert gave in without opposition.
The weakness that had sent her trembling into his arms the day before had been the fear of danger to the man she loved, but in the face of actual need the courage that was so much a part of her nature did not fail her. He made no more remonstrances, but set about his work quickly. And all through the horrible time that followed she did not falter. Her face was deadly pale, and dark lines showed below her eyes, but her hands did not shake, and her voice was low and even. She suffered horribly. The terrible wound that the Nubian's knife had made was like a wound in her own heart. She winced as if the hurt had been her own when Saint Hubert's gentle, dexterous fingers touched the Sheik's bruised head. And when it was over and Raoul had turned aside to wash his hands, she slipped on to her knees beside him. Would he live? The courage that had kept her up so far had not extended to asking Saint Hubert again, and a few muttered words from Henri, to which the Vicomte had responded with only a shrug, had killed the words that were hovering on her lips. She looked at him with anguished eyes.
Only a few hours before he had come to her in all the magnificence of his strength. She looked at the long limbs lying now so still, so terribly, suggestively still, and her lips trembled again, but her pain-filled eyes were dry. She could not cry, only her throat ached and throbbed perpetually. She leaned over him whispering his name, and a sudden hunger came to her to touch him, to convince herself that he was not dead. She glanced back over her shoulder at Saint Hubert, but he had gone to the open doorway to speak to Yusef, and was standing out under the awning. She bent lower over the unconscious man; his lips were parted slightly, and the usual sternness of his mouth was relaxed.
"Ahmed, oh, my dear!" she whispered unsteadily, and kissed him with lips that quivered against the stillness of his. Then for a moment she dropped her bright head beside the bandaged one on the pillow, but when the Vicomte came back she was kneeling where he had left her, her hands clasped over one of the Sheik's and her face hidden against the cushions.
Saint Hubert put his hand on her shoulder. "Diane, you are torturing yourself unnecessarily. We cannot know for some time how it will go with him. Try and get some sleep for a few hours. You can do no good by staying here. Henri and I will watch. I will call you if there is any change, my word of honour."
She shook her head without looking up. "I can't go. I couldn't sleep."
Saint Hubert did not press it. "Very well," he said quietly, "but if you are going to stay you must take off your riding-boots and put on something more comfortable than those clothes."
She realised the sense of what he was saying, and obeyed him without a word. She even had to admit to herself a certain sensation of relief after she had bathed her aching head and throat, and substituted a thin, silk wrap for the torn, stained riding-suit.
Henri was pouring out coffee when she came back, and Saint Hubert turned to her with a cup in his outstretched hand. "Please take it. It will do you good," he said, with a little smile that was not reflected in his anxious eyes.
She took it unheeding, and, swallowing it hastily, went to the side of the divan again. She slid down on to the rug where she had knelt before. The Sheik was lying as she had left him. For a few moments she looked at him, then drowsily her eyes closed and her head fell forward on the cushions, and with a half-sad smile of satisfaction Saint Hubert gathered her up into his arms.
He carried her into the bedroom, hesitating beside the couch before he put her down. Surely one moment out of a lifetime might be granted to him. He would never have the torturing happiness of holding her in his arms again, would never again clasp her against the heart that was crying out for her with the same mad passion that had swept over him yesterday. He looked down longingly on the pale face lying against his arm, and his features contracted at the sight of the cruel marks marring the whiteness of her delicate throat. The love that all his life he had longed for, that he had sought vainly through many countries, had come to him at last, and it had come too late. The helpless loveliness lying in his arms was not for him. It was Ahmed whom she loved, Ahmed who had waked to such a tardy recognition of the priceless gift that she had given him, Ahmed whom he must wrest from the grim spectre that was hovering near him lest the light that shone in her violet eyes should go out in the blackness of despair. And yet as he looked at her with eyes filled with hopeless misery a demon of suggestion whispered within him, tempting him. He knew his friend as no one else did. What chance of happiness had any woman with a man like Ahmed Ben Hassan, at the mercy of his savage nature and passionate changeable moods? What reason to suppose that the love that had flamed up so suddenly at the thought that he had lost her would survive the knowledge of repossession? To him, all his life, a thing desired had upon possession become valueless. With the fulfilment of acquisition had come always disinterest. The pleasure of pursuit faded with ownership. Would this hapless girl who had poured out such a wealth of love at the feet of the man who had treated her brutally fare any better at his hands? Her chance was slight, if any. Ahmed in the full power of his strength again would be the man he had always been, implacable, cruel, merciless. Saint Hubert's own longing, his passionate, Gallic temperament, were driving him as they had driven him the day before. The longing to save her from misery was acute, that, and his own love, prompted by the urging of the desire within him. Then he trembled, and a great fear of himself came over him. Ahmed was his friend. Who was he that he should judge him? He could at least be honest with himself, he could own the truth. He coveted what was not his, and masked his envy with a hypocrisy that now appeared contemptible. The clasp of his arms around her seemed suddenly a profanation, and he laid her down very gently on the low couch, drawing the thin coverlet over her, and went back slowly to the other room.
He sent Henri away and sat down beside the divan to watch with a feeling of weariness that was not bodily. The great tent was very still, a pregnant silence seemed to hang in the air, a brooding hush that strained Saint Hubert's already overstrained nerves. He had need of all his calm, and he gripped himself resolutely. For a time Ahmed Ben Hassan lay motionless, and then, as the day crept on and the early rays of the warm sun filled the tent, he moved uneasily, and began to mutter feverishly in confused Arabic and French. At first the words that came were almost unintelligible, pouring out with rapid indistinctness, then by degrees his voice slowed, and hesitating, interrupted sentences came clearly from his lips. And beside him, with his face buried in his hands, Raoul de Saint Hubert thanked God fervently that he had saved Diana the added torture of listening to the revelations of the past four months.
The first words were in Arabic, then the slow, soft voice lapsed into French, pure as the Vicomte's own.
"Two hours south of the oasis with the three broken palm trees by the well…. Lie still, you little fool, it is useless to struggle. You cannot get away, I shall not let you go…. Why have I brought you here? You ask me why? Mon Dieu! Are you not woman enough to know? No! I will not spare you. Give me what I want willingly and I will be kind to you, but fight me, and by Allah! you shall pay the cost!… I know you hate me, you have told me so already. Shall I make you love me?… Still disobedient? When will you learn that I am master?… I have not tired of you yet, you lovely little wild thing, garcon manque…. You say she is cowed; I say she is content—content to give me everything I ask of her…. For four months she has fought me. Why does it give me no pleasure to have broken her at last? Why do I want her still? She is English and I have made her pay for my hatred of her cursed race. I have tortured her to keep my vow, and still I want her…. Diane, Diane, how beautiful you are!… What devil makes me hate Raoul after twenty years? Last night she only spoke to him, and when he went I cursed her till I saw the terror in her eyes. She fears me. Why should I care if she loves him…. I knew she was not asleep when I went to her. I felt her quivering beside me…. I wanted to kill Raoul when he would not come with me, but for that I would have gone back to her…. Allah! how long the day has been…. Has it been long to her? Will she smile or tremble when I come?… Where is Diane?… Diane, Diane, how could I know how much you meant to me? How could I know that I should love you?… Diane, Diane, my sunshine. The tent is cold and dark without you…. Ibraheim Omair! That devil and Diane! Oh, Allah! Grant me time to get to her…. How the jackals are howling…. See, Raoul, there are the tents…. Diane, where are you?… Grand Dieu! He has been torturing her!… You knew that I would come, ma bien aimee, only a few moments while I kill him, then I can hold you in my arms. Dieu! If you knew how much I loved you…. Diane, Diane, it is all black. I cannot see you, Diane, Diane…."
And hour after hour with weary hopelessness the tired voice went on—"Diane, Diane…."