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- The Sheik - 30/43 -


"I don't know what to think," replied the Sheik shortly.

"But is there any real danger?"

"There is always danger in the desert, particularly when that devil is abroad." He motioned to the south with an impatient jerk of his head.

Saint Hubert's breath whistled sharply through his teeth. "My God! You don't imagine----"

But the Sheik only shrugged his shoulders and turned to Yusef, who had come up with half-a-dozen men. There was a rapid interchange of questions and answers, some brief orders, and the men hurried away in different directions, while Ahmed Ben Hassan turned again to Saint Hubert.

"They were seen by three of the southern patrols this morning, but of course it was nobody's business to find out if they had come back or not. I will start at once--in about ten minutes. You will come with me? Good! I have sent for reinforcements, who are to follow us if we are not back in twelve hours." His voice was expressionless, and only Raoul de Saint Hubert, who had known him since boyhood, could and did appreciate the significance of a fleeting look that crossed his face as he went back into the tent.

For a moment the Vicomte hesitated, but he knew that not even he was wanted inside that empty tent, and a half-bitter, half-sad feeling that the perfect friendship and confidence that had existed between them for twenty years would never again be the same came to them, the regretful sense of inevitable change, the consciousness of personal relegation. Then fear for Diana drove out every other consideration, and he went to his own quarters with a heavy heart.

When he came back in a few minutes with Henri following him the camp had undergone a transformation. With the promptness of perfect discipline the hundred men who had been chosen to go on the expedition were already waiting, each man standing by his horse, and the Sheik, quiet and impassive as usual, was superintending the distribution of extra ammunition. A groom was walking The Hawk slowly up and down, and Yusef, whose gloomy eyes had been fixed reproachfully on his chief, chafing against the order to remain behind to take command of the reinforcements should they be needed, went to him and took the horse's bridle from him and brought him to the Sheik. Even as he held the stirrup Saint Hubert could see that he was expostulating with an unusual insistence, begging for permission to accompany them. But the Sheik shook his head, and the young man stood sullenly aside to avoid The Hawk's hoofs as he reared impatiently.

Ahmed Ben Hassan motioned Saint Hubert to his side and in silence the cavalcade started at the usual swift gallop. The silence impressed Raoul, who was accustomed to the Arab's usual clamour. It affected his sensitive temperaments, filling him with a sinister foreboding. The silent band of stern-faced horsemen riding in close and orderly formation behind them suggested something more than a mere relief party. The tradition of reckless courage and organised fighting efficiency that had made the tribe known and feared for generations had been always maintained, and under the leadership of the last two holders of the hereditary name to so high a degree that the respect in which it was held was such that no other tribe had ventured to dispute its supremacy, and for many years its serious fighting capacities had not been tested.

Even Ibraheim Omair had inherited a feud that was largely traditional. Only once during the lifetime of the last Ahmed Ben Hassan had he dared to come into open conflict, and the memory of it had lasted until now. Skirmishes there had been and would always be inevitably sufficient to keep the tribesmen in a state of perpetual expectancy, and for this Ahmed Ben Hassan preserved the rigid discipline that prevailed in his tribe, insisting on the high standard that had kept them famous. The life-work that his predecessor had taken over from his father the present Ahmed Ben Hassan had carried on and developed with autocratic perseverance. The inborn love of fighting had been carefully fostered in the tribe, the weapons with which they were armed were of the newest pattern. Raoul knew with perfect certainty that to the picked men following them this hasty expedition meant only one thing--war, the war that they had looked forward to all their lives, precipitated now by an accident that gave to a handful of them the chance that hundreds of their fellow-tribesmen were longing for, a chance that sent them joyfully behind their chief, careless whether the reinforcements that had been sent for arrived in time or not. The smallness of their numbers was a source of pleasure rather than otherwise; if they won through to them would be the glory of victory; if they were annihilated with them would rest the honour of dying with the leader whom they worshipped, for not one of them doubted that Ahmed Ben Hassan would not survive his bodyguard, the flower of his tribe, the carefully chosen men from whose ranks his personal escort was always drawn. With them he would crush his hereditary enemy or with them he would die.

The short twilight had gone and a brilliant moon shone high in the heavens, illuminating the surrounding country with a clear white light. At any other time the beauty of the scene, the glamour of the Eastern night, the head-long gallop in company with this band of fierce fighting men would have stirred Saint Hubert profoundly. His artistic temperament and his own absolute fearlessness and love of adventure would have combined to make the expedition an exciting experience that he would not willingly have foregone. But the reason for it all, the peril of the girl whom he loved so unexpectedly, changed the whole colour of the affair, tinging it with a gravity and a suspense that left a cold fear in his heart. And if to him, what then to the man beside him? The question that Ahmed Ben Hassan had negatived so scornfully a week before had been answered differently in the swift look that had crossed his face this evening. He had not spoken since they started, and Saint Hubert had not felt able to break the silence. They had left the level country and were in amongst the long, successive ranges of undulating ground, the summits standing out silver white in the gleaming moonlight, the hollows filled with dark shadow, like black pools of deep, still water. And at the bottom of one of the slopes the Sheik pulled up suddenly with a low, hissing exclamation. A white shape was lying face downwards, spread-eagled on the sand, almost under The Hawk's feet, and at their approach two lean, slinking forms cantered away into the night. The Sheik and Henri reached the still figure simultaneously and Saint Hubert almost as quickly. He made a hurried examination. The bullet that had stunned Gaston had glanced off, leaving an ugly cut, and others that had hit him at the same time had ploughed through his shoulder, breaking the bone and causing besides wounds that had bled freely. He had staggered more than a mile before he had fainted again from loss of blood. He came to under Saint Hubert's handling, and lifted his heavy eyes to the Sheik, who was kneeling beside him.

"Monseigneur--Madame--Ibraheim Omair," he whispered weakly, and relapsed into unconsciousness.

For a moment the Sheik's eyes met Raoul's across his body, and then Ahmed Ben Hassan rose to his feet. "Be as quick as you can," he said, and went back to his horse. He leaned against The Hawk, his fingers mechanically searching for and lighting a cigarette, his eyes fixed unseeingly on the group around Gaston. The valet's broken words had confirmed the fear that he had striven to crush since he discovered Diana's absence.

He had only seen Ibraheim Omair once when, ten years before, he had gone with the elder Ahmed Ben Hassan to a meeting of the more powerful chiefs at Algiers, arranged under the auspices of the French Government, to confer on a complicated boundary question that had threatened an upheaval amongst the tribes which the nominal protectors of the country were afraid would be prejudicial to their own prestige, as it would have been beyond their power to quell. He had chafed at having to meet his hereditary enemy on equal terms, and only the restraining influence of the old Sheik, who exacted an unquestioning obedience that extended even to his heir, had prevented a catastrophe that might have nullified the meeting and caused infinitely more complications than the original boundary dispute. But the memory of the robber Sheik remained with him always, and the recollection of his bloated, vicious face and gross, unwieldy body rose clearly before him now.

Ibraheim Omair and the slender daintiness that he had prized so lightly. Diane! His teeth met through the cigarette in his mouth. His senseless jealousy and the rage provoked by Raoul's outspoken criticism had recoiled on the innocent cause. She, not Saint Hubert, had felt the brunt of his anger. In the innate cruelty of his nature it had given him a subtle pleasure to watch the bewilderment, alternating with flickering fear, that had come back into the deep blue eyes that for two months had looked into his with frank confidence. He had made her acutely conscious of his displeasure. Only last night, when his lack of consideration and his unwonted irritability had made her wince several times during the evening and after Saint Hubert had gone to his own tent, he, had looked up to find her eyes fixed on him with an expression that, in his dangerous mood, had excited all the brutality of which he was capable, and had filled him with a desire to torture her. The dumb reproach in her eyes had exasperated him, rousing the fiendish temper that had been hardly kept in check all the previous week. And yet, when he held her helpless in his arms, quivering and shrinking from the embrace that was no caress, but merely the medium of his anger, and the reproach in her wavering eyes changed to mute entreaty, the pleasure he had anticipated in her fear had failed him as it had before, and had irritated him further. The wild beating of her heart, the sobbing intake of her breath, the knowledge of his power over her, gave him no gratification, and he had flung her from him cursing her savagely, till she had fled into the other room with her hands over her ears to shut out the sound of his slow, deliberate voice. And this morning he had left her without a sign of any kind, no word or gesture that might have effaced the memory of the previous night. He had not meant to, he had intended to go back to her before he finally rode away, but Saint Hubert's refusal to accompany him had killed the softer feelings that prompted him, and his rage had flamed up again.

And now? The longing to hold her in his arms, to kiss the tears from her eyes and the colour into her pale lips, was almost unbearable. He would give his life to keep even a shadow from her path, and she was in the hands of Ibraheim Omair! The thought and all that it implied was torture, but no sign escaped him of the hell he was enduring. The unavoidable delay seemed interminable, and he swung into the saddle, hoping that the waiting would seem less with The Hawk's restless, nervous body gripped between his knees, for though the horse would stand quietly with his master beside him, he fretted continually at waiting once the Sheik was mounted, and the necessity for soothing him was preferable to complete inaction.

Saint Hubert rose to his feet at last, and, leaving behind Henri and two Arabs, who were detailed to take the wounded man back to the camp, the swift gallop southward was resumed. On, over the rising and falling ground along which Gaston had stumbled, blind and faint with loss of blood and the pain of his wounds, past the dead body of The Dancer, ghostly white in the moonlight, lying a little apart from the semicircle of Arabs that proved the efficiency of Gaston's shooting where Diana and he had made their last stand. The Sheik made no sign


The Sheik - 30/43

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