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- The Sheik - 5/43 -


"I will not."

"I've a thundering good mind to make you."

"You can't. I'm my own mistress. You have no right over me at all. You have no claim on me. You haven't even that of ordinary brotherly affection, for you have never given me any, so you cannot expect it from me. We needn't make any pretence about it, I am not going to argue any more. I will not go back to Biskra."

"If you are afraid of being laughed at----" he sneered; but she took him up swiftly.

"I am not afraid of being laughed at. Only cowards are afraid of that, and I am not a coward."

"Diana, listen to reason!"

"Aubrey! I have said my last word. Nothing will alter my determination to go on this trip. Your arguments do not convince me, who know you. It is your own considerations and not mine that are at the bottom of your remonstrances. You do not deny it, because you can't, because it is true."

They were facing each other across the little table. An angry flush rose in Sir Aubrey's face, and his eyeglass fell with a little sharp tinkle against a waistcoat button.

"You're a damned obstinate little devil!" he said furiously.

She looked at him steadily, her scornful mouth firm as his own. "I am what you have made me," she said slowly. "Why quarrel with the result? You have brought me up to ignore the restrictions attached to my sex; you now round on me and throw them in my face. All my life you have set me an example of selfishness and obstinacy. Can you wonder that I have profited by it? You have made me as hard as yourself, and you now profess surprise at the determination your training has forced upon me. You are illogical. It is your fault, not mine. There was bound to be a clash some day. It has come sooner than I expected, that's all. Up till now my inclinations have gone with yours, but this seems to be the parting of the ways. As I reminded you before, I am my own mistress, and I will submit to no interference with my actions. Please understand that clearly, Aubrey. I don't want to wrangle any more. I will join you in New York as I promised. I am not in the habit of breaking my promises, but my life is my own to deal with, and I will deal with it exactly as I wish and not as any one else wishes. I will do what I choose when and how I choose, and I will _never_ obey any will but my own."

Sir Aubrey's eyes narrowed suddenly. "Then I hope to Heaven that one day you will fall into the hands of a man who will make you obey," he cried wrathfully.

Her scornful mouth curled still more scornfully. "Then Heaven help him!" she retorted scathingly, and turned away to her tent.

But, alone, her anger gave way to amusement. It had been something, after all, to rouse the lazy Aubrey to wrath. She knew exactly the grievance he had been nursing against her during the last few weeks in Biskra. Though he travelled perpetually and often in remote and desolate places, he travelled with the acme of comfort and the minimum of inconveniences. He put himself out for nothing, and the inevitable difficulties that accrued fell on Diana's younger and less blase shoulders. She had always known the uses he put her to and the convenience she was to him. He might have some latent feelings with regard to the inadvisability of her behavior, he might even have some prickings of conscience on the subject of his upbringing of her, but it was thoughts of his own comfort that were troubling him most. That she knew, and the knowledge was not conducive to any kinder feeling towards him. He always had been and always would be supremely selfish. The whole of their life together had been conducted to suit his conveniences and not hers. She knew, too, why her company was particularly desired on his visit to America. It was a hunting trip, but not the kind that they were usually accustomed to: it was a wife and not big game that was taking Sir Aubrey across the ocean on this occasion. It had been in his mind for some time as an inevitable and somewhat unpleasant necessity. Women bored him, and the idea of marriage was distasteful, but a son to succeed him was imperative--a Mayo must be followed by a Mayo. An heir was essential for the big property that the family had held for hundreds of years. No woman had ever attracted him, but of all women he had met American women were less actively irritating to him, and so it was to America that he turned in search of a wife. He proposed to take a house in New York for a few months and later on in Newport, and it was for that that Diana's company was considered indispensable. She would save him endless trouble, as all arrangements could be left in her hands and Stephens'. Having made up his mind to go through with a proceeding that he regarded in the light of a sacrifice on the family altar, his wish was to get it over and done with as soon as possible, and Diana's interference in his plans had exasperated him. It was the first time that their wills had crossed, and she shrugged her shoulders impatiently, with a grimace at the recollection. A little more and it would have degenerated into a vulgar quarrel. She banished Aubrey and his selfishness resolutely from her mind. It was very hot, and she lay very still in the narrow cot, wishing she had not been so rigid in the matter of its width, and wondering if a sudden movement in the night would precipitate her into the bath that stood alongside. She thought regretfully of a punkah, and then smiled derisively at herself.

"Sybarite!" she murmured sleepily. "You need a few discomforts."

She was almost aggressively cheerful next morning at breakfast and for the time that they lingered at the oasis after the baggage camels had started. Sir Aubrey was morose and silent, and she exchanged most of her badinage with Stephens, who was superintending the packing of the tiffin basket that would accompany her in charge of the man who had been selected as her personal servant, and who was waiting, with Mustafa Ali and about ten men, to ride with her.

The time for starting came. Stephens was fussing about the horse that Diana was to ride.

"Everything all right, Stephens? Up to your standard? Don't look so glum. I wish you were coming to look after me, but it couldn't be done. Sir Aubrey would be lost without you."

The idea of a tour without Stephens in the background seemed suddenly momentous, and the smile she gave him was more serious than she meant it to be. She went back to her brother, who was pulling his moustache savagely. "I don't think there's any use waiting any longer. You won't want to hurry yourself too much, and you will want to be in Biskra in time for dinner," she said as casually as she could.

He swung towards her. "Diana, it's still not too late to change your mind. For Heaven's sake give up this folly. It's tempting Providence." For the first time there was a genuine ring in his voice, and for a moment Diana wavered, but only for a moment. Then she looked at him with a slow smile.

"Do I fall on your neck and say, 'Take me back, dear Guardian; I will be good,' or do I prostrate myself at your feet and knock my head on your boots, and whine, in the language of the country, 'Hearing is obeying'? Don't be ridiculous, Aubrey. You can't expect me to change my mind at the eleventh hour. It's perfectly safe. Mustafa Ali will take care that everything goes smoothly. He has his reputation in Biskra to think of. You know the character the authorities gave him. He is not likely to throw that away. In any case I can take care of myself, thanks to your training. I don't mind owning to being conceited about my shooting. Even you admit that I am a credit to your teaching."

With a gay little laugh she whipped out the ivory-mounted revolver, and aiming at a low flat rock, some distance away, fired. She was an unusually good revolver shot, but this time she seemed to have missed. There was no mark on the stone. Diana stared at it stupidly, a frown of perplexity creasing her forehead. Then she looked at her brother, and back to the revolver in her hand.

Sir Aubrey swore. "Diana! What a senseless piece of bravado!" he cried angrily.

She took no notice of him. She was still staring at the smooth rock fate. "I don't understand it. How could I miss? It's as big as a house," she murmured thoughtfully, and raised the revolver again.

But Sir Aubrey caught her wrist. "For God's sake don't make a fool of yourself a second time. You have lowered your prestige quite enough already," he said in a low voice, with a glance at the group of watching Arabs.

Diana jerked the little weapon back into its place reluctantly. "I don't understand it," she said again. "It must be the light." She mounted and wheeled her horse alongside of Sir Aubrey's, and held out her hand. "Good-bye, Aubrey. Expect me a month after you arrive. I will cable to you from Cherbourg. Good luck! I shall roll up in time to be best man," she added, laughing, and with a nod to Mustafa Ali she turned her horse's head southwards.

For a long time she rode in silence. The quarrel with Aubrey had left a nasty taste in her mouth. She knew that what she was doing was considered unconventional, but she had been brought up to be unconventional. She had never even thought, when she planned her tour, of possible criticism; it would have made no difference to her if she had thought, and she had been amazed and amused at the sensation that her proposed trip had caused. The publicity to which it had given rise had annoyed her intensely; she had been scornful that people could not occupy themselves with their own affairs and leave her to deal with hers. But that Aubrey should join in the general criticism and present such a complete _volte-face_ to the opinions he had always held was beyond her comprehension. She was angry with him, and contempt was mingled with her anger. It was inconsistent with the whole of his lifelong attitude toward her, and the discovery of his altered ideas left her rather breathless and more than ever determined to adhere to her own deeply-rooted convictions. Aubrey was responsible for them, he had instilled them, and if he chose now to abandon them that was his look-out. For her own part she saw no reason to change principles she had been brought up in. If Aubrey really thought there was danger in this expedition he could have sacrificed himself for once and come with her. As Jim Arbuthnot had said, it was only a month, a negligible length of time, but Aubrey's selfishness would not allow him to make that concession any more than her own obstinacy would allow her to give way. It was too much to expect. And this was the desert! It was the expedition that she had dreamed of and planned for years. She could not give it up. The idea of danger brought a little laugh to her lips. How could anything in the desert hurt her? It had been calling to her always. There was nothing strange about the scene that lay all around her. Her surroundings seemed oddly familiar. The burning sun overhead in the cloudless sky, the shimmering haze rising from the hot, dry ground, the feathery outline of some clustering palm trees in a tiny distant oasis were like remembrances that she watched again with a feeling of gladness that was fuller and deeper than anything that she


The Sheik - 5/43

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