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- The Sheik - 20/43 -
muscles, to have to make no effort of any kind, to feel the soothing rush of the wind against her face, and the swift, easy gallop of The Hawk as he carried them on through the night. Them! With a start of recollection she realised fully whose arm was round her, and whose breast her head was resting on. Her heart beat with sudden violence. What was the matter with her? Why did she not shrink from the pressure of his arm and the contact of his warm, strong body? What had happened to her? Quite suddenly she knew--knew that she loved him, that she had loved him for a long time, even when she thought she hated him and when she had fled from him. She knew now why his face had haunted her in the little oasis at midday--that it was love calling to her subconsciously. All the confusion of mind that had assailed her when they started on the homeward journey, the conflicting thoughts and contrary emotions, were explained. But she knew herself at last and knew the love that filled her, an overwhelming, passionate love that almost frightened her with its immensity and with the sudden hold it had laid upon her. Love had come to her at last who had scorned it so fiercely. The men who had loved her had not had the power to touch her, she had given love to no one, she had thought that she could not love, that she was devoid of all natural affection and that she would never know what love meant. But she knew now--a love of such complete surrender that she had never conceived. Her heart was given for all time to the fierce desert man who was so different from all other men whom she had met, a lawless savage who had taken her to satisfy a passing fancy and who had treated her with merciless cruelty. He was a brute, but she loved him, loved him for his very brutality and superb animal strength. And he was an Arab! A man of different race and colour, a native; Aubrey would indiscriminately class him as a "damned nigger." She did not care. It made no difference. A year ago, a few weeks even, she would have shuddered with repulsion at the bare idea, the thought that a native could even touch her had been revolting, but all that was swept away and was nothing in the face of the love that filled her heart so completely. She did not care if he was an Arab, she did not care what he was, he was the man she loved. She was deliriously, insanely happy. She was lying against his heart, and the clasp of his arm was joy unspeakable. She was utterly content; for the moment all life narrowed down to the immediate surroundings, and she wished childishly that they could ride so for ever through eternity. The night was brilliant. The stars blazed against the inky blackness of the sky, and the light of the full moon was startlingly clear and white. The discordant yelling of a pack of hunting jackals came from a little distance, breaking the perfect stillness. The men were riding in unusual silence, though a low exclamation or the subdued jingle of accoutrements was heard occasionally, once some one fired at a night creature that bounded out from almost under his horse's feet. But the Sheik flung a word of savage command over his shoulder and there were no more shots. Diana stirred slightly, moving her head so that she could see his face showing clearly in the bright moonlight, which threw some features into high relief and left the rest in dark shadow. She looked at him with quickening breath. He was peering intently ahead, his eyes flashing in the cold light, his brows drawn together in the characteristic heavy scowl, and the firm chin, so near her face, was pushed out more doggedly than usual.
He felt her move and glanced down. For a moment she looked straight into his eyes, and then with a low, inarticulate murmur she hid her face against him. He did not speak, but he shifted her weight a little, drawing her closer into the curve of his arm.
It was very late when they reached the camp. Lights flashed up in the big tent and on all sides, and they were surrounded by a crowd of excited tribesmen and servants. In spite of the hard day's work The Hawk started plunging and rearing, his invariable habit on stopping, which nothing could break, and at a word from the Sheik two men leaped to his head while he transferred Diana to Yusef's outstretched arms. She was stiff and giddy, and the young man helped her to the door of the tent, and then vanished again into the throng of men and horses.
Diana sank wearily on to the divan and covered her face with her hands. She was trembling with fatigue and apprehension. What would he do to her? She asked herself the question over and over again, with shaking, soundless lips, praying for courage, nerving herself to meet him. At last she heard his voice and, looking up, saw him standing in the doorway. His back was turned, and he was giving orders to a number of men who stood near him, for she could hear their several voices; and shortly afterwards half-a-dozen small bands of men rode quickly away in different directions. For a few moments he stood talking to Yusef and then came in. At the sight of him Diana shrank back among the soft cushions, but he took no notice of her, and, lighting a cigarette, began walking up and down the tent. She dared not speak to him, the expression on his face was terrible.
Two soft-footed Arab servants brought a hastily prepared supper. It was a ghastly meal. He never spoke or showed in any way that he was conscious of her presence. She had had nothing to eat all day, but the food nearly choked her and she could hardly swallow it, but she forced herself to eat a little. It seemed interminable until the servants finally withdrew, after bringing two little gold-cased cups of native coffee. She gulped it down with difficulty. The Sheik had resumed his restless pacing, smoking cigarette after cigarette in endless succession. The monotonous tramp to and fro worked on Diana's nerves until she winced each time he passed her, and, huddled on the divan, she watched him continually, fascinated, fearful.
He never looked at her. From time to time he glanced at the watch on his wrist and each time his face grew blacker. If he would only speak! His silence was worse than anything he could say. What was he going to do? He was capable of doing anything. The suspense was torture. Her hands grew clammy and she wrenched at the soft open collar of her riding-shirt with a feeling of suffocation.
Twice Yusef came to report, and the second time the Sheik came back slowly from the door where he had been speaking to him and stopped in front of Diana, looking at her strangely.
She flung out her hands instinctively, shrinking further back among the cushions, her eyes wavering under his. "What are you going to do to me?" she whispered involuntarily, with dry lips.
He looked at her without answering for a while, as if to prolong the torture she was enduring, and a cruel look crept into his eyes. "That depends on what happens to Gaston," he said at length slowly.
"Gaston?" she repeated stupidly. She had forgotten the valet, in all that had occurred since the morning she had forgotten his very existence.
"Yes--Gaston," he said sternly. "You do not seem to have thought of what might happen to him."
She sat up slowly, a puzzled look coming into her face. "What could happen to him?" she asked wonderingly.
He dragged back the flap of the tent and pointed out into the darkness. "Over there in the south-west, there is an old Sheik whose name is Ibraheim Omair. His tribe and mine have been at feud for generations. Lately I have learned that he has been venturing nearer than he has ever before dared. He hates me. To capture my personal servant would be more luck than he could have hoped for."
He dropped the flap and began walking up and down again. There was a sinister tone in his voice that made Diana suddenly comprehend the little Frenchman's peril. Ahmed Ben Hassan was not the man to be easily alarmed on any one's behalf. That he was anxious about Gaston was apparent, and with her knowledge of him she understood his anxiety argued a very real danger. She had heard tales before she left Biskra, and since then she had been living in an Arab camp, and she knew something of the fiendish cruelty and callous indifference to suffering of the Arabs. Ghastly mental pictures with appalling details crowded now into her mind. She shuddered.
"What would they do to him?" she asked shakily, with a look of horror.
The Sheik paused beside her. He looked at her curiously and the cruelty deepened in his eyes. "Shall I tell you what they would do to him?" he said meaningly, with a terrible smile.
She gave a cry and flung her arms over her head, hiding her face. "Oh, do not! Do not!" she wailed.
He jerked the ash from his cigarette. "Bah!" he said contemptuously. "You are squeamish."
She felt sick with the realisation of what could result to Gaston from her action. She had had no personal feeling with regard to him. On the contrary, she liked him--she had not thought of him, the man, when she had stampeded his horse and left him on foot so far from camp. She had looked upon him only as a jailer, his master's deputy.
The near presence of this hostile Sheik explained many things she had not understood: Gaston's evident desire daring their ride not to go beyond a certain distance, the special activity that had prevailed of late amongst the Sheik's immediate followers, and the speed and silence that had been maintained during the headlong gallop across the desert that evening. She had known all along the Arab's obvious affection for his French servant, and it was confirmed now by the anxiety that he did not take the trouble to conceal--so unlike his usual complete indifference to suffering or danger.
She looked at him thoughtfully. There were still depths that she had not fathomed in his strange character. Would she ever arrive at even a distant understanding of his complex nature? There was a misty yearning in her eyes as they followed his tall figure up and down the tent. His feet made no sound on the thick rugs, and he moved with the long, graceful stride that always reminded her of the walk of a wild animal. Her new-found love longed for expression as she watched him. If she could only tell him! If she had only the right to go to him and in his arms to kiss away the cruel lines from his mouth! But she had not. She must wait until she was called, until he should choose to notice the woman whom he had taken for his pleasure, until the baser part of him had need of her again. He was an Arab, and to him a woman was a slave, and as a slave she must give everything and ask for nothing.
And when he did turn to her again the joy she would feel in his embrace would be an agony for the love that was not there. His careless kisses would scorch her and the strength of his arms would be a mockery. But would he ever turn to her again? If anything happened to Gaston--if what he had suggested became a fact and the servant fell a victim to the blood feud between the two tribes? She knew he would be terribly avenged, and what would her part be? She wondered dully if he would kill her, and how. If the long, brown fingers with their steely strength would choke the life out of her. Her hands went up to her throat mechanically. He stopped near her to light a fresh cigarette, and she was trying to summon up courage to speak to him of Gaston when the covering of the doorway was flung open and Gaston himself stood in the entrance.
"Monseigneur--" he stammered, and with his two hands outstretched, palm uppermost, he made an appealing gesture.
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