The Sheik (Hull)/Chapter X
The night grew hotter and the atmosphere more oppressive. Wrapped in a thin silk kimono Diana lay very still on the outside of the wide couch in the inner room, propped high with pillows that the shaded light of the little reading-lamp beside her might fall on the book she held, but she was not reading.
It was Raoul's latest book, that he had brought with him, but she could not concentrate her mind on it, and it lay idle on her knee—while her thoughts were far away. It was three months since the night that Saint Hubert had almost given up hope of being able to save the Sheik's life—a night that had been followed by days of suspense that had reduced Diana to a weary-eyed shadow of her former vigorous self, and had left marks on Raoul that would never be effaced. But thanks to his great strength and splendid constitution the Sheik had rallied and after the first few weeks convalescence had been rapid. When the terrible fear that he might die was past it had been a wonderful happiness to wait on him. With the determination to live for the moment, to which she had forced herself, she had banished everything from her mind but the joy of being near him and of being necessary to him. It had been a very silent service, for he would lie for hours with closed eyes without speaking, and something that she could not master kept her tongue-tied in his presence when they were alone. Only once he had referred to the raid. As she bent over him to do some small office his fingers closed feebly round her wrist and his eyes, with a searching apprehension in them, looked into hers for the first time since the night when she had fled from his curses.
"Was it—in time?" he whispered slowly, and as she nodded with crimson cheeks and lowered eyes he turned his head away without another word, but a shudder that he was too weak to control shook him.
But the happiness of ministering to him passed very swiftly. As he grew stronger he managed so that she was rarely alone with him, and he insisted on her riding twice every day, sometimes with Saint Hubert, sometimes with Henri, coolly avowing a preference for his own society or that of Gaston, who was beginning to get about again. Later, too, he was much occupied with headmen who came in from the different camps, and as the days passed she found herself more and more excluded from the intimacy that had been so precious. She was thrown much into the society of Raoul de Saint Hubert. All that they had gone through together had drawn them very closely to each other, and Diana often wondered what her girlhood would have been like if it had been spent under his guardianship instead of that of Sir Aubrey Mayo. The sisterly affection she had never given her own brother she gave to him, and, with the firm hold over himself that he had never again slackened, the Vicomte accepted the role of elder brother which she unconsciously imposed on him.
It was hard work sometimes, and there were days when he dreaded the daily rides, when the strain seemed almost more than he could bear, and he began to make tentative suggestions about resuming his wanderings, but always the Sheik pressed him to stay.
Ahmed Ben Hassan's final recovery was quick, and the camp soon settled down into normal conditions. The reinforcements were gone back to the different camps from which they had been drawn. There was no further need of them. Ibraheim Omair's tribe, with their leader dead, had broken up and scattered far to the south; there was no chief to keep them together and no headman strong enough to draw them round a new chieftain, for Ibraheim had allowed no member of his tribe to attain any degree of wealth or power that might prove him a rival; so they had split up into numerous small bands lacking cohesion. In fulfilling the vow made to his predecessor Ahmed Ben Hassan had cleared the desert of a menace that had hung over it for many years.
The relations between the Sheik and Saint Hubert had gone back to what they had been the night of Raoul's arrival, before his candid criticism had roused the Sheik's temper and fired his jealousy. The recollection of the miserable week that had preceded the raid had been wiped out in all that had followed it. No shadow could ever come between them again since Raoul had voluntarily stood on one side and sacrificed his own chance of happiness for his friend's.
And with the Sheik's complete recovery his attitude towards Diana had reverted to the cold reserve that had chilled her before—a reserve that was as courteous as it was indifferent. He had avoided her as much as had been possible, and the continual presence of Saint Hubert had been a barrier between them. Unostensibly but effectually he had contrived that Raoul should never leave them alone. Though he included her in the general conversation he rarely spoke to her directly, and often she found him looking at her with his fierce eyes filled with an expression that baffled her, and as each time the quick blood rushed into her face his forehead drew together in the heavy frown that was so characteristic. During meals it was Raoul that kept the conversation from lapsing with ready tact and an eloquent flow of words, ranging over many subjects. In the evening the men became immersed in the projection of Saint Hubert's new book, for details of which he was drawing on the Sheik's knowledge, and long after Diana left them she could hear the two voices, both deep and musical, but Raoul's quicker and more emphatic, continuously rising and falling, till at last Raoul would go to his own tent and Gaston would come—noiseless and soft-toned as his master. Ordinarily the Sheik dispensed with him at night, but since his wound, the valet, as soon as he had himself recovered, had always been in attendance. Some nights he lingered talking, and others the Sheik dismissed him in a few minutes with only a curt word or two, and then there would be silence, and Diana would bury her face in her pillow and writhe in her desperate loneliness, sick with longing for the strong arms she had once dreaded and the kisses she had once loathed. He had slept in the outer room since his illness, and tossing feverishly on the soft cushions of the big empty bed in which she lay alone Diana had suffered the greatest humiliation she had yet experienced. He had never loved her, but now he did not even want her. She was useless to him. She was less than nothing to him. He had no need of her. She would lie awake listening wearily to the tiny chimes of the little clock with the bitter sense of her needlessness crushing her. She was humbled to the very dust by his indifference. The hours of loneliness in the room that was redolent with associations of him were filled with memories that tortured her. In her fitful sleep her dreams were agonies from which she awakened with shaking limbs and shuddering breath, and waking, her hand would stretch out groping to him till remembrance came with cruel vividness.
In the daytime, too, she had been much alone, for as soon as the Sheik was strong enough to sit in the saddle the two men had ridden far afield every day, visiting the outlying camps and drawing into Ahmed Ben Hassan's own hands again the affairs that had had to be relegated to the headmen.
At last Raoul had announced that his visit could be protracted no longer and that he must resume his journey to Morocco. He was going up to Oran and from there to Tangier by coasting steamer, collecting at Tangier a caravan for his expedition through Morocco. His decision once made he had speeded every means of getting away with a despatch that had almost suggested flight.
To Diana his going meant the hastening of a crisis that could not be put off much longer. The situation was becoming impossible. She had said good-bye to him the night before. She had never guessed the love she had inspired in him, and she wondered at the sadness in his eyes and his unaccustomed lack of words. He had wanted to say so much and he had said so little. She must never guess and Ahmed must never guess, so he played the game to the end. Only that night after she had left them the voices sounded in the adjoining room for a very short time. And this morning he and Ahmed Ben Hassan had ridden away at daybreak. She had not been asleep; she had heard them go, and almost she wished Raoul back, for with his presence the vague fear that assailed her seemed further away. The camp had seemed very lonely and the day very long.
She had ridden with Gaston, and hurried over her solitary dinner, and since then she had been waiting for the Sheik to come back. In what mood would he come? Since Raoul's announcement of his departure he had been more than usually taciturn and reserved. The book she held slipped at length on to the floor, and she let it he unheeded. The usual stillness of the desert seemed to-night unusually still-sinister even—and the silence was so intense that the sudden squeal of a stallion a little distance away made her start with madly racing heart Earlier in the evening a tom-tom had been going persistently in the men's lines, and later a native pipe had shrilled thinly in monotonous cadence; but she had grown accustomed to these sounds; they were of nightly occurrence and they soothed rather than irritated her, and when they stopped the quiet had become intensified to such a degree that she would have welcomed any sound. To-night her nerves were on edge. She was restless and excited, and her thoughts were chaos.
She was alone again at his mercy. What would his attitude be? Her hands clenched on her knees. At times she lay almost without breathing, straining to hear the faintest sound that would mean his return, and then again lest she should hear what she listened for. She longed for him passionately, and at the same time she was afraid, He had changed so much that there were moments when she had the curious feeling that it was a stranger who was coming back to her, and she both dreaded his coming and yearned for it with a singular combination of emotions. She looked round the room where she had at once suffered so much and been so happy with troubled eyes. She had never been nervous before, but to-night her imagination ran riot. There was electricity in the air which acted on her overstrung nerves. The little shaded lamp threw a circle of light round the bed, but left the rest of the room dim, and the dusky corners seemed full of odd new shadows that came and went illusively. Hangings and objects that were commonly familiar to her took on fantastic shapes that she watched nervously, till at last she brushed her hand across her eyes with a laugh of angry impatience. Was the love that had changed her so completely also making her a coward? Had even her common-sense been lost in the one great emotion that held her? She understood perfectly the change that had taken place in her. She had never had any illusions about herself, and had never attempted to curb the obstinate self-will and haughty pride that had characterized her. She thought of it curiously, her mind going back over the last few months that had changed her whole life. The last mad freak for which she had paid so dearly had been the outcome of an arrogant determination to have her own way in the face of all protests and advice. And with a greater arrogance and a determination stronger than her own Ahmed Ben Hassan had tamed her as he tamed the magnificent horses that he rode. He had been brutal and merciless, using no half measures, forcing her to obedience by sheer strength of will and compelling a complete submission. She thought of how she had feared and hated him with passionate intensity, until the hatred had been swamped by love as passionate and as intense. She did not know why she loved him, she had never been able to analyse the passion that held her so strongly, but she knew deep down in her heart that it went now far past his mere physical beauty and superb animal strength. She loved him blindly with a love that had killed her pride and brought her to his feet humbly obedient. All the love that had lain dormant in her heart for years was given to him. Body and soul she belonged to him. And the change within her was patent in her face, the haughty expression in her eyes had turned to a tender wistfulness, with a curious gleam of expectancy that flickered in them perpetually; the little mutinous mouth had lost the scornful curve. And with the complete change in her expression she was far more beautiful now than she had ever been. But with her love was the fear of him that she had learned during the first hours of her captivity, the physical fear that she had never lost, even during the happy weeks that had preceded the coming of Saint Hubert, and the greater fear that was with her always, and that at times drove her, with wide-stricken eyes, wildly to pace the tent as if to escape the shadow that hung over her—the fear of the time when he should tire of her. The thought racked her, and now, as always, she tried to put it from her, but it continued, persistently haunting her like a grim spectre. Always the same thought tortured her—he had not taken her for love. No higher motive than a passing fancy had stirred him. He had seen her, had wished for her and had taken her, and once in his power it had amused him to break her to his hand. She realised all that. And he had been honest, he had never pretended to love her. Often when the humour took him he could be gentle, as in those last few weeks, but gentleness was not love, and she had never seen the light that she longed for kindle in his eyes. His caresses had been passionate or careless with his mood. She did not know that he loved her. She had not been with him during the long hours of his delirium and she had not heard what Raoul de Saint Hubert had heard. And since his recovery his attitude of aloofness had augmented her fear. There seemed only one construction to put on his silence, and his studied and obvious avoidance of her. The passing fancy had passed. It was as if the fleeting passion he had had for her had been drained from him with the blood that flowed from the terrible wound he had received. He was tired of her and seeking for a means to disembarrass himself of her. Vaguely she felt that she had known this for weeks, but to-night was the first time that she had had courage to be frank with herself. It must be so. Everything pointed to it; the curious expression she had seen in his eyes and his constant heavy frown all confirmed it. She flung her arm across her eyes with a little moan. He was tired of her and the bottom had fallen out of her world. The instinct to fight for his love that had been so strong in her the day that Ibraheim Omair had captured her had died with the death of all her hopes. Her spirit was broken. She knew that her will was helpless against his, and with a fatalism that she had learned in the desert she accepted the inevitable with a crushed feeling of hopelessness.
She wondered numbly what would become of her. It did not seem to matter much. Nothing mattered now that he did not want her any more. The old life was far away, in another world. She could never go back to it. She did not care. It was nothing to her. It was only here in the desert, in Ahmed Ben Hassan's arms, that she had become alive, that she had learned what life really meant, that she had waked both to happiness and sorrow.
The future stretched out blank and menacing before her, but she turned from it with a great sob of despair. It was on him that her thoughts were fixed. How would life be endurable without him? Dully she wondered why she did not hate him for having done to her what he had done, for having made her what she was. But nothing that he could do could kill the love now that he had inspired. And she would never regret. She would always have the memory of the fleeting happiness that had been hers—in after years that memory would be all that she would have to live for. Even in her heart she did not reproach him, there was no bitterness in her misery. She had always known that it would come, though she had fenced with it, shutting it out of her mind resolutely. He had never led her to expect anything else. There was no link to bring them closer together, no bond between them. If she could have had the promise of a child. Alone though she was the sensitive colour flamed into her cheeks, and she hid her face in the pillows with a quivering sob. A child that would be his and hers, a child—a boy with the same passionate dark eyes, the same crisp brown hair, the same graceful body, who would grow up as tall and strong, as brave and fearless as his father. Surely he must love her then. Surely the memory of his own mother's tragic history would make him merciful to the mother of his son. But she had no hope of that mercy. She lay shaking with passionate yearning and the storm of bitter tears that swept over her, hungry for the clasp of his arms, faint with longing. The pent-up misery of weeks that she had crushed down surged over. There was nobody to hear the agonising sobs that shook her from head to foot. She could relax the control that she had put upon herself and which had seemed to be slowly turning her to stone. She could give way to the emotion that, suppressed, had welled up choking in her throat and gripped her forehead like red-hot bands eating into her brain. Tears were not easy to her. She had not wept since that first night when, with the fear of worse than death, she had grovelled at his feet, moaning for mercy. She had not wept during the terrible hours she was in the power of Ibraheim Omair, nor during the days that Raoul de Saint Hubert had fought for his friend's life. But to-night the tears that all her life she had despised would not be denied. Tortured with conflicting emotions, unsatisfied love, fear and uncertainty, utterly unnerved, she gave herself up at last to the feelings she could no longer restrain. Prone on the wide bed, her face buried in the pillows, her hands clutching convulsively at the silken coverings, she wept until she had no more tears, until the anguished, sobs died away into silence and she lay quiet, exhausted.
She wrestled with herself. The weakness that she had given way to must be conquered. She knew that, without any possibility of doubt, his coming would seal her fate—whatever it was to be. She must wait until then. A long, shuddering sigh ran through her. "Ahmed! Ahmed Ben Hassan," she murmured slowly, lingering with wistful tenderness on the words. She pressed her face closer into the cushions, clasping her hands over her head, and for a long time lay very still. The heat was intense and every moment the tent seemed to grow more airless. The room was stifling, and, with a little groan, Diana sat up, pushing the heavy hair oft her damp forehead, and covered her flushed face with her hands. A cicada began its shrill note close by, chirping with maddening persistency. Quite suddenly her mind was filled with thoughts of her own people, the old home in England, the family for whose honour her ancestors had been so proudly jealous. Even Aubrey, lazy and self-indulgent as he was, prized the family honour as he prized nothing else on earth; and now she, proud Diana Mayo, who had the history of her race at her fingers' ends, who had gloried in the long line of upright men and chaste women, had no thankfulness in her heart that in her degradation she had been spared a crowning shame. Beside her love everything dwindled into nothingness. He was her life, he filled her horizon. Honour itself was lost in the absorbing passion of her love. He had stripped it from her and she was content that it should lie at his feet. He had made her nothing, she was his toy, his plaything, waiting to be thrown aside. She shuddered again and looked around the tent that she had shared with him with a bitter smile and sad, hunted eyes…. After her—who? The cruel thought persisted. She was torn with a mad, primitive jealousy, a longing to kill the unknown woman who would inevitably succeed her, a desire that grew until a horror of her own feelings seized her, and she shrank down, clasping her hands over her ears to shut out the insidious voice that seemed actually whispering beside her. The Persian hound in the next room had whined uneasily from time to time, and now he pushed his way past the curtain and stalked across the thick rugs. He nuzzled his shaggy head against her knee, whimpering unhappily, looking up into her face. And when she noticed him he reared up and flung his long body across her lap, thrusting his wet nose into her face. She caught his head in her hands and rubbed her cheek against his rough hair, crooning over him softly. Even the dog was comfort in her loneliness, and they both waited for their master.
She pushed him down at length, and with her hand on his collar went into the other room. A solitary lamp burned dimly. She crossed to the doorway and pulled aside the flap, and a small, white-clad figure rose up before her.
"Is that you, Gaston?" she asked involuntarily, though she knew that the question was unnecessary, for he always slept across the entrance to the tent when the Sheik was away.
"A votre service, Madame."
For a few minutes she did not speak, and Gaston stood silent beside her. She might have remembered that he was there. He never stirred far beyond the sound of her voice whenever she was alone in the camp. He was always waiting, unobtrusive, quick to carry out her requests, even to anticipate them. With him standing beside her she thought of the time when they had fought side by side—all difference in rank eclipsed in their common danger. The servant had been merged into the man, and a man who had the courage to do what he had attempted when he had faced her at what had seemed the last moment with his revolver clenched in a hand that had not shaken, a man at whose side and by whose hand she would have been proud to die. They were men, these desert dwellers, master and servants alike; men who endured, men who did things, inured to hardships, imbued with magnificent courage, splendid healthy animals. There was nothing effete or decadent about the men with whom Ahmed Ben Hassan surrounded himself.
Diana had always liked Gaston; she had been touched by his unvarying respectful attitude that had never by a single word or look conveyed the impression that he was aware of her real position in his master's camp. He treated her as if she were indeed what from the bottom of her heart she wished she was. He was solicitous without being officious, familiar with no trace of impertinence, He was Diana's first experience of a class of servant that still lingers in France, a survival of pre-Revolution days, who identify themselves entirely with the family they serve, and in Gaston's case this interest in his master had been strengthened by experiences shared and dangers faced which had bound them together with a tie that could never be broken and had raised their relations on to a higher plane than that of mere master and man. Those relations had at first been a source of perpetual wonder to Diana, brought up in the rigid atmosphere of her brother's establishment, where Aubrey's egoism gave no opportunity for anything but conventional service, and in their wanderings, where personal servants had to be often changed. Even Stephens was, in Aubrey's eyes, a mere machine.
Very soon after she had been brought to Ahmed Ben Hassan's camp she had realised that Gaston's devotion to the Sheik had been extended to herself, but since the night of the raid he had frankly worshipped her.
It was very airless even out-of-doors. She peered into the darkness, but there was little light from the tiny crescent moon, and she could see nothing. She moved a few steps forward from under the awning to look up at the brilliant stars twinkling overhead. She had watched them so often from Ahmed Ben Hassan's arms; they had become an integral part of the passionate Oriental nights. He loved them, and when the mood was on him, watched them untiringly, teaching her to recognise them, and telling her countless Arab legends connected with them, sitting under the awning far info the night, till gradually his voice faded away from her ears, and long after she was asleep he would sit on motionless, staring up into the heavens, smoking endless cigarettes. Would it be given to her ever to watch them again sparkling against the blue-blackness of the sky, with the curve of his arm round her and the steady beat of his heart under her cheek? A stab of pain went: through her. Would anything ever be the same again? Everything had changed since the coming of Raoul de Saint Hubert. A weary sigh broke from her lips.
"Madam is tired?" a respectful voice murmured at her ear.
Diana started. She had forgotten the valet. "It is so hot. The tent was stifling," she said evasively.
Gaston's devotion was of a kind that sought practical demonstration. "Madame veut du cafe?" he suggested tentatively. It was his universal panacea, but at the moment it sounded almost grotesque.
Diana felt an hysterical desire to laugh which nearly turned into tears, but she checked herself. "No, it is too late."
"In one little moment I will bring it," Gaston urged persuasively, unwilling to give up his own gratification in serving her.
"No, Gaston. It makes me nervous," she said gently.
Gaston heaved quite a tragic sigh. His own nerves were steel and his capacity for imbibing large quantities of black coffee at any hour of the day or night unlimited.
"Une limonade?" he persisted hopefully.
She let him bring the cool drink more for his pleasure than for her own. "Monseigneur is late," she said slowly, straining her eyes again into the darkness.
"He will come," replied Gaston confidently. "Kopec is restless, he is always so when Monseigneur is coming."
She looked down for a moment thoughtfully at the dim shape of the hound lying at the man's feet, and then with a last upward glance at the bright stars turned back into the tent. All her nervous fears had vanished in speaking to Gaston, who was the embodiment of practical common sense; earlier, when unreasoning terror had taken such a hold on her, she had forgotten that he was within call, faithful and devoted. She picked up the fallen book, and lying down again forced herself to read, but though her eyes followed the lines mechanically she did not sense what she was reading, and all the time her ears were strained to catch the earliest sound of his coming.
At last it came. Only a suggestion at first—a wave of thought caught by her waiting brain, an instinctive intuition, and she started up tense with expectancy, her lips parted, her eyes wide, hardly breathing, listening intently. And when he came it was with unexpected suddenness, for, in the darkness, the little band of horsemen were invisible until they were right on the camp, and the horses' hoofs made no sound. The stir caused by his arrival died away quickly. For a moment there was a confusion of voices, a jingle of accoutrements, one of the horses whinnied, and then in the ensuing silence she heard him come into the tent. Her heart raced suffocatingly. There was a murmur of conversation, the Sheik's low voice and Gaston's quick animated tones answering him, and then the servant hurried out. Acutely conscious of every sound, she waited motionless, her hands gripping the soft mattress until her fingers cramped, breathing in long, painful gasps as she tried to stop the laboured beating of her heart. In spite of the heat a sudden coldness crept over her, and she shivered violently from time to time. Her face was quite white, even her lips were colourless and her eyes, fixed on the curtain which divided the two rooms, glittered feverishly. With her intimate knowledge every movement in the adjoining room was as perceptible as if she had seen it. He was pacing up and down as he had paced on the night when Gaston's fate was hanging in the balance, as he always paced when he was deliberating anything, and the scent of his cigarette filled her room. Once he paused near the communicating curtain and her heart gave a wild leap, but after a moment he moved away. He stopped again at the far end of the tent, and she knew from the faint metallic click that he was loading his revolver. She heard him lay it down on the little writing-table, and then the steady tramping began once more. His restlessness made her uneasy. He had been in the saddle since early dawn. Saint Hubert had advised him to be careful for some weeks yet. It was imprudent not to rest when opportunity offered. He was so careless of himself. She gave a quick, impatient sigh, and the tender light in her eyes deepened into an anxiety that was half maternal. In spite of his renewed strength and his laughing protests at Raoul's warnings, coupled with a physical demonstration on his less muscular friend that had been very conclusive, she could never forget that she had seen him lying helpless as a child, too weak even to raise his hand. Nothing could ever take the remembrance from her, and nothing could ever alter the fact that in his weakness he had been dependent on her. She had been necessary to him then. She had a moment's fierce pleasure in the thought, but it faded as suddenly as it had come. It had been an ephemeral happiness.
At last she heard the divan creak under his weight, but not until Gaston came back bringing his supper. As he ate he spoke, and his first words provoked an exclamation of dismay from the Frenchman, which was hastily smothered with a murmured apology, and then Diana became aware that others had come into the room. He spoke to each in turn, and she recognised Yusef's clear, rather high-pitched voice arguing with the taciturn head camelman, whose surly intonations and behaviour matched the bad-tempered animals to whom he was devoted, until a word from Ahmed Ben Hassan silenced them both. There were two more who received their orders with only a grunt of acquiescence.
Presently they went out, but Yusef lingered, talking volubly, half in Arabic, half in French, but lapsing more and more into the vernacular as he grew excited. Even in the midst of her trouble the thought of him sent a little smile to Diana's lips. She could picture him squatting before the Sheik, scented and immaculate, his fine eyes rolling, his slim hands waving continually, his handsome face alight with boyish enthusiasm and worship. At last he, too, went, and only Gaston remained, busy with the cafetiere that was his latest toy. The aroma of the boiling coffee filled the tent. She could imagine the servant's deft fingers manipulating the fragile glass and silver appliance. She could hear the tinkle of the spoon as he moved the cup, the splash of the coffee as he poured it out, the faint sound of the cup being placed on the inlaid table. Why was Ahmed drinking French coffee when he always complained it kept him awake? At night he was in the habit of taking the native preparation. Surely to-night he had need of sleep. It was the hardest day he had had since his illness. For a few moments longer Gaston moved about the outer room, and from the sound Diana guessed that he was collecting on to a tray the various things that had to be removed. Then his voice, louder than he had spoken before:
"Monseigneur desir d'autre chose?"
The Sheik must have signed in the negative, for there was no audible answer.
"Bon soir, Monseigneur."
"Bon soir, Gaston."
Diana drew a quick breath. While the man was still in the adjoining room the moment for which she was waiting seemed interminable. And now she wished he had not gone. He stood between her and—what? For the first time since the coming of Saint Hubert she was alone with him, really alone. Only a curtain separated them, a curtain that she could not pass. She longed to go to him, but she did not dare. She was pulled between love and fear, and for the moment fear was in the ascendant. She shivered, and a sob rose in her throat as the memory came to her of another night during those two months of happiness, that were fast becoming like a wonderful dream, when he had ridden in late. After Gaston left she had gone to him, flushed and bright-eyed with sleep, and he had pulled her down on to his knee, and made her share the native coffee she detested, laughing boyishly at her face of disgust. And, holding her in his arms with her head on his shoulder, he had told her all the incidents of the day's visit to one of the other camps, and from his men and his horses drifted almost insensibly into details connected with his own plans for the future, which were really the intimate confidences of a husband to a wife who is also a comrade. The mingled pain and pleasure of the thought had made her shiver, and he had started up, declaring that she was cold, and, lifting her till his cheek was resting on hers, carried her back into the other room.
But what she had done then was impossible now. He seemed so utterly strange, so different from the man whom she thought she had grown to understand. She was all at sea. She was desperately tired, her head aching and confused with the terrible problems of the future. She dared not think any more. She only wanted to lie in his arms and sob her heart out against his. She was starving for the touch of his hands, suffering horribly.
She slid down on to her knees, burying her face in the couch.
"Oh, God! Give me his love!" she kept whispering in agonised entreaty, until the recollection of the night, months before, when in the same posture she had prayed that God's curse might fall on him, sent a shudder through her.
"I didn't mean if," she moaned. "Oh, clear God! I didn't mean it. I didn't know…. Take it back. I didn't mean it."
She choked down the sobs that rose, pressing her face closer into the silken coverings.
There was silence in the next room except for the striking of a match that came with monotonous regularity. And always the peculiar scent of his tobacco drifting in through the heavy curtains, forcing a hundred recollections with the association of its perfume. Why didn't he come to her? Did he know how he was torturing her? Was he so utterly indifferent that he did not care what she suffered? Did he even think of her, to wonder if she suffered or not? The fear of the future rushed on her again with overwhelming force. The uncertainty was killing her. She raised her head and looked at the travelling clock beside the reading-lamp. It was an hour since Gaston had left him. Another hour of waiting would drive her mad. She must know what he was going to do. She could bear anything but this suspense. She had reached the limit of her endurance. She struggled to her feet, drawing the thin wrap closer around her. But even then she stood irresolute, dreading the fulfilling of her fears; she had not the courage voluntarily to precipitate her fate. She clung to her fool's paradise. Her eyes were fixed on the clock, watching the hands drag slowly round the dial. A quarter of an hour crept past. It seemed the quarter of a lifetime, and Diana brushed her hand across her eyes to clear away the dazzling reflection of the staring white china face with its long black minute hand. No sound of any kind came now from the other room. The silence was driving her frantic. She was desperate; she must know, nothing could be worse than the agony she was enduring.
She set her teeth and, crossing the room, slipped noiselessly between the curtains. Then she shrank back suddenly with her hands over her mouth. He was leaning forward on the divan, his elbows on his knees, his face hidden in his hands. And it was as a stranger that he had come back to her, divested of the flowing robes that had seemed essentially a part of him; an unfamiliar figure in silk shirt, riding breeches and high brown boots, still dust-covered from the long ride. A thin tweed coat lay in a heap on the carpet—he must have flung it off after Gaston went, for the valet, with his innate tidiness, would never have left it lying on the floor.
She looked at him hungrily, her eyes ranging slowly over the long length of him and lingering on his bent head. The light from the hanging lamp shone on his thick brown hair burnishing it like bronze. She was shaking with a sudden new shyness, but love gave her courage and she went to him, her bare feet noiseless on the rugs.
"Ahmed!" she whispered.
He lifted his head slowly and looked at her, and the sight of his face sent her on to her knees beside him, her hands clutching the breast of his soft shirt.
"Ahmed! What is it?… You are hurt—your wound——?" she cried, her voice sharp with anxiety.
He caught her groping hands, and rising, pulled her gently to her feet, his fingers clenched round hers, looking down at her strangely. Then he turned from her without a word, and wrenching open the flap of the tent, flung it back and stood in the open doorway staring out into the right. He looked oddly slender and tall silhouetted against the darkness. A gleam of perplexity crept into her frightened eyes, and one hand went up to her throat.
"What is it?" she whispered again breathlessly.
"It is that we start for Oran to-morrow," he replied. His voice sounded dull and curiously unlike, and with a little start Diana realised that he was speaking in English. Her eyes closed and she swayed dizzily.
"You are sending me away?" she gasped slowly.
There was a pause before he answered.
The curt monosyllable lashed her like a whip. She reeled under it, panting and wild-eyed. "Why?"
He did not answer and the colour flamed suddenly into her face. She went closer to him, her breast heaving, trying to speak, but her throat was parched and her lips shaking so that no words would come.
"It is because you are tired of me?" she muttered at last hoarsely, "—as you told me you would tire, as you tired of—those other women?" Her voice died away with an accent of horror in it.
Again he did not answer, but he winced, and his hands that were hanging at his sides clenched slowly.
Diana flung one arm across her face to shut him out from her sight. Her heart was breaking, and she longed with a feeling of sick misery to crawl to his feet, but a remnant of pride kept her back.
He spoke at length in the same level, toneless voice. "I will take you to the first desert station outside of Oran, where you can join the train. For your own sake I must not be seen with you in Oran, as I am known there. If you should by any chance be recognised or your identity should leak out, you can say that for reasons of your own you extended your trip, that your messages miscarried, anything that occurs to you. But it is not at all likely to happen. There are many travellers passing through Oran. Gaston can do all business and make all arrangements for you. He will take you to Marseilles, and if you need him he will go with you to Paris, Cherbourg, or London—whichever you wish. As you know, you can trust him absolutely. When you do not need him any longer, he will come back to me. I—I will not trouble you any more. You need never be afraid that I will come into your life again. You can forget these months in the desert and the uncivilised Arab who crossed your path. To keep out of your way is the only amends I can make."
She flung up her head. Quick, suspicious jealousy and love and pride contending nearly choked her. "Why don't you speak the truth?" she cried wildly. "Why don't you say what you really mean?—that you have no further use for me, that it amused you to take me and torture me to satisfy your whim, but the whim is passed. It does not amuse you any longer. You are tired of me and so you get rid of me with all precautions. Do you think the truth can hurt me? Nothing that you can do can hurt me now. You made me the vile thing I am for your pleasure, and now for your pleasure you throw me on one side…. How many times a year does Gaston take your discarded mistresses back to France?" Her voice broke into a terrible laugh.
He swung round swiftly and flung his arms about her, crushing her to him savagely, forgetting his strength, his eyes blazing. "God! Do you think it is easy to let you go, that you are taunting me like this? Do you think I haven't suffered, that I'm not suffering now? Don't you know that it is tearing my heart out by the roots to send you away? My life will be hell without you. Do you think I haven't realised what an infinitely damned brute I've been? I didn't love you when I took you, I only wanted you to satisfy the beast in me. And I was glad that you were English that I could make you suffer as an Englishman made my mother suffer, I so loathed the whole race. I have been mad all my life, I think—up till now. I thought I didn't care until the night I heard that Ibraheim Omair had got you, and then I knew that if anything happened to you the light of my life was out, and that I would only wait to kill Ibraheim before I killed myself."
His arms were like a vice hurting her, but they felt like heaven, and she clung to him speechless, her heart throbbing wildly. He looked down long and deeply into her eyes, and the light in his—the light that she had longed for—made her tremble. His brown head bent lower and lower, and his lips had almost touched her when he drew back, and the love in his eyes faded into misery.
"I mustn't kiss you," he said huskily, as he put her from him gently. "I don't think I should have the courage to let you go if I did. I didn't mean to touch you."
He turned from her with a little gesture of weariness.
Fear fled back into her eyes. "I don't want to go," she whispered faintly.
He paused by the writing-table and took up the revolver he had loaded earlier, breaking it absently, spinning the magazine between his finger and thumb, and replaced it before answering.
"You don't understand. There is no other way," he said dully.
"If you really loved me you would not let me go," she cried, with a miserable sob.
"If I loved you?" he echoed, with a hard laugh. "If I loved you! It is because I love you so much that I am able to do it. If I loved you a little less I would let you stay and take your chance."
She flung out her hands appealingly. "I want to stay, Ahmed! I love you!" she panted, desperate—for she knew his obstinate determination, and she saw her chance of happiness slipping away.
He did not move or look at her, and his brows drew together in the dreaded heavy frown. "You don't know what you are saying. You don't know what it would mean," he replied in a voice from which he had forced all expression. "If you married me you would have to live always here in the desert. I cannot leave my people, and I am—too much of an Arab to let you go alone. It would be no life for you. You think you love me now, though God knows how you can after what I have done to you, but a time would come when you would find that your love for me did not compensate for your life here. And marriage with me is unthinkable. You know what I am and what I have been. You know that I am not fit to live with, not fit to be near any decent woman. You know what sort of a damnable life I have led; the memory of it would always come between us—you would never forget, you would never trust me. And if you could, of your charity, both forgive and forget, you know that I am not easy to live with. You know my devilish temper—it has not spared you in the past, it might not spare you in the future. Do you think that I could bear to see you year after year growing to hate me more? You think that I am cruel now, but I am thinking what is best for you afterwards. Some day you will think of me a little kindly because I had the strength to let you go. You are so young, your life is only just beginning. You are strong enough to put the memory of these last months out of your mind—to forget the past and live only for the future. No one need ever know. There can be no fear for your—reputation. Things are forgotten in the silence of the desert. Mustafa Ali is many hundreds of miles away, but not so far that he would dare to talk. My own men need not be considered, they speak or are silent as I wish. There is only Raoul, and there is no question of him. He has not spared me his opinion. You must go back to your own country, to your own people, to your own life, in which I have no place or part, and soon all this will seem only like an ugly dream."
The sweat was standing out on his forehead and his hands were clenched with the effort he was making, but her head was buried in her hands, and she did not see the torture in his face, she only heard his soft, low voice inexorably decreeing her fate and shutting her out from happiness in quiet almost indifferent tones.
She shuddered convulsively. "Ahmed! I go!" she wailed.
He looked up sharply, his face livid, and tore her hands from her face. "Good God! You don't mean—I haven't—You aren't——" he gasped hoarsely, looking down at her with a great fear in his eyes.
She guessed what he meant and the color rushed into her face. The temptation to lie to him and let the consequences rest with the future was almost more than she could resist. One little word and she would be in his arms … but afterwards——? It was the fear of the afterwards that kept her silent. The colour slowly drained from her face and she shook her head mutely.
He let go her wrists with a quick sigh of relief and wiped the perspiration from his face. Then he laid his hand on her shoulder and pushed her gently towards the inner room. For a moment she resisted, her wide, desperate eyes searching his, but he would not meet her look, and his mouth was set in the hard straight line she knew so well, and with a cry she flung herself on his breast, her face hidden against him, her hands clinging round his neck. "Ahmed! Ahmed! You are killing me. I cannot live without you. I love you and I want you—only you. I am not afraid of the loneliness of the desert, it is the loneliness of the world outside the shelter of your arms that I am afraid of. I am not afraid of what you are or what you have been. I am not afraid of what you might do to me. I never lived until you taught me what life was, here in the desert. I can't go back to the old life, Ahmed. Have pity on me. Don't shut me out from my only chance of happiness, don't send me away. I know you love me—I know! I know! And because I know I am not ashamed to beg you to be merciful. I haven't any shame or pride left. Ahmed! Speak to me! I can't bear your silence…. Oh! You are cruel, cruel!"
A spasm crossed his face, but his mouth set firmer and he disengaged her clinging hands with relentless fingers. "I have never been anything else," he said bitterly, "but I am willing that you should think me a brute now rather than you should live to curse the day you ever saw me. I still think that your greater chance of happiness lies away from me rather than with me, and for your ultimate happiness I am content to sacrifice everything."
He dropped her hands and turned abruptly, going back to the doorway, looking out into the darkness. "It is very late. We must start early. Go and lie down," he said gently, but it was an order in spite of the gentleness of his voice.
She shrank back trembling, with piteous, stricken face and eyes filled with a great despair. She knew him and she knew it was the end. Nothing would break his resolution. She looked at him with quivering lips through a mist of tears, looked at him with a desperate fixedness that sought to memorise indelibly his beloved image in her heart. The dear head so proudly poised on the broad shoulders, the long strong limbs, the slender, graceful body. He was all good to look upon. A man of men. Monseigneur! Monseigneur! Mon maitre et seigneur. No! It would never be that any more. A rush of tears blinded her and she stepped back uncertainly and stumbled against the little writing-table. She caught at it behind her to steady herself, and her fingers touched the revolver he had laid down. The contact of the cold metal sent a chill that seemed to strike her heart. She stood rigid, with startled eyes fixed on the motionless figure in the doorway—one hand gripping the weapon tightly and the other clutching the silken wrap across her breast. Her mind raced forward feverishly, there were only a few hours left before the morning, before the bitter moment when she must leave behind her for ever the surroundings that had become so dear, that had been her home as the old castle in England had never been. She thought of the long journey northward, the agonised protraction of her misery riding beside him, the nightly camps when she would lie alone in the little travelling tent, and then the final parting at the wayside station, when she would have to watch him wheel at the head of his men and ride out of her life, and she would strain her eyes through the dust and sand to catch the last glimpse of the upright figure on the spirited black horse. It would be The Hawk, she thought suddenly. He had ridden Shaitan to-day, and he always used one or other of the two for long journeys. It was The Hawk he had ridden the day she had made her bid for freedom and who had carried the double burden on the return journey when she had found her happiness. The contrast between that ride, when she had lain content in the curve of his strong arm, and the ride that she would take the next day was poignant. She closed her teeth on her trembling lip, her fingers tightened on the stock of the revolver, and a wild light came into her sad eyes. She could never go through with it. To what end would be the hideous torture? What was life without him?—Nothing and less than nothing. She could never give herself to another man. She was necessary to no one. Aubrey had no real need of her; his selfishness wrapped him around with a complacency that abundantly satisfied him. One day, for the sake of the family he would marry—perhaps was already married if he had been able to find a woman in America who would accept his egoism along with his old name and possessions. Her life was her own to deal with. Nobody would be injured by its termination. Aubrey, indeed, would benefit considerably. And he——? His figure was blurred through the tears that filled her eyes.
Slowly she lifted the weapon clear of the table with steady fingers and brought her hand stealthily from behind her. She looked at it for a moment dispassionately. She was not afraid. She was conscious only of an overwhelming weariness, a longing for rest that should still the gnawing pain in her breast and the throbbing in her head…. A flash and it would be over, and all her sorrow would melt away…. But would it? A doubting fear of the hereafter rushed over her. What if suffering lived beyond the border-line? But the fear went as suddenly as it had come, for with it came remembrance that in that shadowy world she would find one who would understand—her own father, who had shot himself, mad with heartbroken despair, when her mother died in giving her birth.
She lifted the revolver to her temple resolutely.
There had been no sound to betray what was passing behind him, but the extra sense, the consciousness of imminent danger that was strong in the desert-bred man, sprang into active force within the Sheik. He turned like a flash and leaped across the space that separated them, catching her hand as she pressed the trigger, and the bullet sped harmlessly an inch above her head. With his face gone suddenly ghastly he wrenched the weapon from her and flung it far into the night.
For a moment they stared into each other's eyes in silence, then, with a moan, she slipped from his grasp and fell at his feet in an agony of terrible weeping. With a low exclamation he stooped and swept her up into his arms, holding her slender, shaking figure with tender strength, pressing her head against him, his cheek on her red-gold curls.
"My God! child, don't cry so. I can bear anything but that," he cried brokenly.
But the terrible sobs went on, and fearfully he caught her closer, straining her to him convulsively, raining kisses on her shining hair. "Diane, Diane," he whispered imploringly, falling back into the soft French that seemed so much more natural. "Mon amour, ma bien-aimee. Ne pleures pas, je t'en prie. Je t'aime, je t'adore. Tu resteras pres de moi, tout a moi."
She seemed only half-conscious, unable to check the emotion that, unloosed, overwhelmed her. She lay inert against him, racked with the long shuddering sobs that shook her. His firm mouth quivered as he looked down at his work. Gathering her up to his heart he carried her to the divan, and the weight of her soft slim body sent the blood racing madly through his veins. He laid her down, and dropped on his knees beside her, his arm wrapped round her, whispering words of passionate love.
Gradually the terrible shuddering passed and the gasping sobs died away, and she lay still, so still and white that he was afraid. He tried to rise to fetch some restorative, but at the first movement she clung to him, pressing closer to him. "I don't want anything but you," she murmured almost inaudibly.
His arm tightened round her and he turned her face up to his. Her eyes were closed and the wet lashes lay black against her pale cheek. His lips touched them pitifully.
"Diane, will you never look at me again?" His voice was almost humble.
Her eyes quivered a moment and them opened slowly, looking up into his with a still-lingering fear in them. "You won't send me away?" she whispered pleadingly, like a terrified child.
A hard sob broke from him and he kissed her trembling lips fiercely. "Never!" he said sternly. "I will never let you go now. My God! If you knew how I wanted you. If you knew what it cost me to send you away. Pray God I keep you happy. You know the worst of me, poor child—you will have a devil for a husband."
The colour stole back slowly into her face and a little tremulous smile curved her lips. She slid her arm up and round his neck, drawing his head down. "I am not afraid," she murmured slowly. "I am not afraid of anything with your arms round me, my desert lover. Ahmed! Monseigneur!"