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- The Sheik - 10/43 -


rigidly suppressing any sign of feeling or emotion that could be noticed by the gentle, inquisitive eyes fixed on her.

The hot bath that took the soreness out of her limbs brought back the colour to her face and lips. She even tubbed her head, rubbing the glistening curls dry with fierce vigour, striving to rid herself of the contamination that seemed to have saturated her. Yet the robes against which they had been pressed were spotless, and the hands that had held her were fastidiously clean, even to the well-kept nails.

She came back into the bedroom to find Zilah on her knees poring over her scanty but diverse wardrobe with bewilderment, fingering the evening dresses with shy hands, and finally submitting tentatively to Diana the tweed skirt that had been packed with her other things for the journey when Oran should be reached. But Diana put it aside, and pointed to the riding clothes she had worn the previous day. In them she felt more able to face what might be before her, the associations connected with them seemed to give her moral strength, in them she would feel herself again--Diana the boy, not the shivering piece of womanhood that had been born with tears and agony last night. She bit her lip as she stamped her foot down into the long boot.

She sent the girl away at last, and noticed that she avoided passing into the adjoining room, but vanished instead through the curtains leading into the bathroom. Did that mean that in the outer room the Arab Sheik was waiting? The thought banished the self-control she had regained and sent her weakly on to the side of the bed with her face hidden in her hands. Was he there? Her questions to the little waiting-girl had only been concerned with the whereabouts of the camp to which she had been brought and also of the fate of the caravan; of the man himself she had not been able to bring herself to speak. The strange fear that he had inspired in her filled her with rage and humiliation. The thought of seeing him again brought a shame that was unspeakable. But she conquered the agitation that threatened to grow beyond restraint, pride helping her again. It was better to face the inevitable of her own free will than be fetched whether she would or not. For she knew now the strength of the man who had abducted her, knew that physically she was helpless against him. She raised her head and listened. It was very silent in the next room. Perhaps she was to be allowed a further respite. She jerked her head impatiently at her own hesitation. "Coward!" she whispered again contemptuously, and flung across the room. But at the curtains she halted for a moment, then with set face drew them aside and went through.

The respite had been granted, the room appeared to be empty. But as she crossed the thick rugs her heart leapt suddenly into her throat, for she became aware of a man standing in the open doorway. His back was turned to her, but in a moment she saw that the short, slim figure in white linen European clothes bore no resemblance to the tall Arab she had expected to see. She thought her footsteps were noiseless, but he turned with a little quick bow. A typical Frenchman with narrow, alert, clean-shaven face, sleek black hair and dark restless eyes. His legs were slightly bowed and he stooped a little; his appearance was that of a jockey with the manners of a well-trained servant. Diana coloured hotly under his glance, but his eyes were lowered instantly.

"Madame is doubtless ready for lunch." He spoke rapidly, but his voice was low and pleasant. His movements were as quick and as quiet as his voice, and in a dream Diana found herself in a few moments before a lunch that was perfectly cooked and daintily served. The man hovered about her solicitously, attending to her wants with dexterous hands and watchful eyes that anticipated every need. She was bewildered, faint from want of food, everything seemed unreal. For the moment she could just sit still and be waited on by the soft-footed, soft-spoken manservant who seemed such a curious adjunct to the household of an Arab chief.

"Monseigneur begs that you will excuse him until this evening. He will return in time for dinner," he murmured as he handed her a cous-cous.

Diana looked up blankly. "Monseigneur?"

"My master. The Sheik."

She flushed scarlet and her face hardened. Hypocritical, Oriental beast who "begged to be excused"! She refused the last dish curtly, and as the servant carried it away she propped her elbows on the table and rested her aching head on her hands. A headache was among the new experiences that had overwhelmed her since the day before. Suffering in any form was new to her, and her hatred of the man who had made her suffer grew with every breath she drew.

The Frenchman came back with coffee and cigarettes. He held a match for her, coaxing the reluctant flame with patience that denoted long experience with inferior sulphur.

"Monseigneur dines at eight. At what hour will Madame have tea?" he asked, as he cleared away and folded up the table.

Diana choked back the sarcastic retort that sprang to her lips. The man's quiet, deferential manner, that refused to see anything extraordinary in her presence in his master's camp, was almost harder to bear than flagrant impertinence would have been. That she could have dealt with; this left her tingling with a feeling of impotence, as if a net were gradually closing round her in whose entangling meshes her vaunted liberty was not only threatened, but which seemed destined even to stifle her very existence. She pulled her racing thoughts up with a jerk. She must not think if she was going to keep any hold over herself at all. She gave him an answer indifferently and turned her back on him. When she looked again he was gone, and she heaved a sigh of relief. She had chafed under his watchful eyes until the feeling of restraint had grown unbearable.

She breathed more freely now that he was gone, flinging up her head and jerking her shoulders back with an angry determination to conquer the fear that made her ashamed. Natural curiosity had been struggling with her other emotions, and she gave way to it now to try and turn the channel of her thoughts from the fixed direction in which they tended, and wandered round the big room. The night before she had taken in nothing of her surroundings, her eyes had been held only by the man who had dominated everything. Here, also, were the same luxurious appointments as in the sleeping-room. She had knowledge enough to appreciate that the rugs and hangings were exquisite, the former were Persian and the latter of a thick black material, heavily embroidered in silver. The main feature of the room was a big black divan heaped with huge cushions covered with dull black silk. Beside the divan, spread over the Persian rugs, were two unusually large black bearskins, the mounted heads converging. At one end of the tent was a small doorway, a little portable writing-table. There were one or two Moorish stools heaped with a motley collection of ivories and gold and silver cigarette cases and knick-knacks, and against the partition that separated the two rooms stood a quaintly carved old wooden chest. Though the furniture was scanty and made the tent seem even more spacious than it really was, the whole room had an air of barbaric splendour. The somber hangings gleaming with thick silver threads seemed to Diana like a studied theatrical effect, a setting against which the Arab's own white robes should contrast more vividly; she remembered the black and silver waistcloth she had seen swathed round him, with curling scornful lip. There was a strain of vanity in all natives, she generalised contemptuously. Doubtless it pleased this native's conceit to carry out the colour scheme of his tent even in his clothes, and pose among the sable cushions of the luxurious divan to the admiration of his retainers. She made a little exclamation of disgust, and turned from the soft seductiveness of the big couch with disdain.

She crossed the tent to the little bookcase and knelt beside it curiously. What did a Francophile-Arab read? Novels, probably, that would harmonise with the atmosphere that she dimly sensed in her surroundings. But it was not novels that filled the bookcase. They were books of sport and travel with several volumes on veterinary surgery. They were all in French, and had all been frequently handled, many of them had pencilled notes in the margins written in Arabic. One shelf was filled entirely with the works of one man, a certain Vicomte Raoul de Saint Hubert. With the exception of one novel, which Diana only glanced at hastily; they were all books of travel. From the few scribbled words in the front of each Diana could see that they had all been sent to the Arab by the author himself--one even was dedicated to "My friend, Ahmed Ben Hassan, Sheik of the Desert." She put the books back with a puzzled frown. She wished, with a feeling that she could not fathom, that they had been rather what she had imagined. The evidence of education and unlooked-for tastes in the man they belonged to troubled her. It was an unexpected glimpse into the personality of the Arab that had captured her was vaguely disquieting, for it suggested possibilities that would not have existed in a raw native, or one only superficially coated with a veneer of civilisation. He seemed to become infinitely more sinister, infinitely more horrible. She looked at her watch with sudden apprehension. The day was wearing away quickly. Soon he would come. Her breath came quick and short and the tears welled up in her eyes.

"I mustn't! I mustn't!" she whispered in a kind of desperation. "If I cry again I shall go mad." She forced them back, and crossing to the big black divan that she had scorned before dropped down among the soft cushions. She was so tired, and her head throbbed persistently.

She was asleep when the servant brought tea, but she started up as he put the tray on a stool beside her.

"It is Madame's own tea. If she will be good enough to say if it is made to her taste," he said anxiously, as if his whole happiness was contained in the tiny teapot at which he was frowning deprecatingly.

His assiduity jarred on Diana's new-found jangling nerves. She recognised that he was sincere in his efforts to please her, but just now they only seemed an added humiliation. She longed to shout "Go away!" like an angry schoolboy, but she managed to give him the information he wanted, and putting cigarettes and matches by her he went out with a little smile of satisfaction. The longing for fresh air and the desire to see what place she had been brought to grew irresistible as the evening came nearer. She went to the open doorway. A big awning stretched before it, supported on lances. She stepped out from under its shade and looked about her wonderingly. It was a big oasis--bigger than any she had seen. In front of the tent there was an open space with a thick belt of palm trees beyond. The rest of the camp lay behind the Chief's tent. The place was alive with men and horses. There were some camels in the distance, but it was the horses that struck Diana principally. They were everywhere, some tethered; some wandering loose, some exercising in the hands of grooms. Mounted Arabs on the outskirts of the oasis crossed her view occasionally. There were groups of men engaged on various duties all around her. Those who went by near her salaamed as they passed, but took no further notice of her. A strange look came into Diana's eyes. This was the desert indeed, the desert as she had never expected to see it, the desert as few could expect to see it. But the cost! She shuddered, then turned at a sudden noise near her. A biting, screaming chestnut fury was coming past close to the tent, taking complete charge of the two men who clung, yelling, to his head. He was stripped, but Diana recognised him at once. The one brief view she had had of his small, vicious head as he shot past her elbow the evening before was written on her brain for all time. He came


The Sheik - 10/43

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