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- The Sheik - 40/43 -
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
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