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- The Sheik - 6/43 -

had been conscious of before. She was radiantly happy--happy in the sense of her youth and strength, her perfect physical fitness, happy in the capacity of her power of enjoyment, happy with the touch of the keen, nervous horse between her knees, exhilarated with her new authority. She had looked forward so eagerly, and realisation was proving infinitely greater than anticipation. And for a whole month this perfect happiness was to be hers. She thought of her promise to Aubrey with impatience. To give up the joyous freedom of the desert for the commonplace round of American social life seemed preposterous. The thought of the weeks in New York were frankly tedious; Newport would be a little less bad, for there were alleviations. The only hope was that Aubrey would find the wife he was looking for quickly and release her from an obligation that was going to be very wearisome. Aubrey was counting on her, and it would be unsporting to let him down; she would have to keep her promise, but she would be glad when it was over. Aubrey married would settle definitely the possibility of any further disagreements between them. She wondered vaguely what the future Lady Mayo would be like, but she did not expend much pity on her. American girls as a rule were well able to care for themselves. She stroked her horse with a little smile. Aubrey and his possible wife seemed singularly uninteresting beside the vivid interest of the moment. A caravan that had been visible for a long time coming towards them drew nearer, and Diana reined in to watch the long line of slow, lurching camels passing. The great beasts, with their disdainful tread and long, swaying necks, never failed to interest her. It was a large caravan; the bales on the camels' backs looked heavy, and beside the merchants on riding camels and a motley crowd of followers--some on lean little donkeys and others on foot--there was an armed guard of mounted men. It took some time to pass. One of two of the camels carried huddled figures, swathed and shapeless with a multitude of coverings, that Diana knew must be women. The contrast between them and herself was almost ridiculous. It made her feel stifled even to look at them. She wondered what their lives were like, if they ever rebelled against the drudgery and restrictions that were imposed upon them, if they ever longed for the freedom that she was revelling in, or if custom and usage were so strong that they had no thoughts beyond the narrow life they led. The thought of those lives filled her with aversion. The idea of marriage--even in its highest form, based on mutual consideration and mutual forbearance--was repugnant to her. She thought of it with a shiver of absolute repulsion. To Aubrey it was distasteful, but to her cold, reserved temperament it was a thing of horror and disgust. That women could submit to the degrading intimacy and fettered existence of married life filled her with scornful wonder. To be bound irrevocably to the will and pleasure of a man who would have the right to demand obedience in all that constituted marriage and the strength to enforce those claims revolted her. For a Western woman it was bad enough, but for the women of the East, mere slaves of the passions of the men who owned them, unconsidered, disregarded, reduced to the level of animals, the bare idea made her quiver and bring her hand down heavily on her horse's neck. The nervous creature started sharply and she let him go, calling to Mustafa Ali as she cantered past him. He had ridden to meet the caravan and was dismounted, deep in conversation with the chief of the armed guard. With the thoughts that it had provoked the caravan had lost all interest for Diana. She wanted to get away from it, to forget it, and she rode on unmindful of her escort, who, like her guide, had stopped to speak with the traders. Diana's horse was fleet, and it was some time before they caught her up. There was a look of annoyance on Mustafa Ali's face as she turned on hearing them behind her and signed to him to ride beside her.

"Mademoiselle is not interested in the caravan?" he asked curiously.

"No," she replied shortly, and asked for some details connected with her own expedition. The man talked easily and well, in fluent French, and after giving the required information, volunteered anecdotes relating to various well-known people whom he had guided in the desert. Diana watched him interestedly. He seemed a man of about middle age, though it was difficult to guess more than approximately, for the thick, peaked beard that hid both mouth and chin made him look older than he really was. His beard had been his only drawback from Diana's point of view, for she judged men by their mouths. Eyes were untrustworthy evidences of character in an Oriental, for they usually wavered under a European's. Mustafa Ali's were wavering now as she looked at him, and it occurred to her that they had not seemed nearly so shifty in Biskra when she had engaged him. But she attached no importance to the thought, and dismissed it as much less interesting than the great difference displayed in their respective modes of riding. The Arab's exaggeratedly short stirrup would have given her agonies of cramp. She pointed the difference with a laugh of amusement and drew the man on to speak of his horses. The one Diana was riding was an unusually fine beast, and had been one of the greatest points in the guide's favour when he had brought it for her inspection. He was enthusiastic in its praise, but volubly vague as to its antecedents, which left Diana with the conviction that the animal had either been stolen or acquired in some irregular manner and that it would be tactless to pursue further inquiries. After all it was no business of hers. It was enough that her trip was to be conducted on the back of a horse that it was a pleasure to ride and whose vagaries promised to give interest to what otherwise might have been monotonous. Some of the horses that she had seen in Biskra had been the veriest jades.

She asked Mustafa Ali about the country through which they were passing, but he did not seem to have much information that was really of interest, or what seemed important to him appeared trivial to her, and he constantly brought the conversation back to Biskra, of which she was tired, or to Oran, of which she knew nothing. The arrival at a little oasis where the guide suggested that the midday halt might be made was opportune. Diana swung to the ground, and, tossing down her gloves, gave herself a shake. It was hot work riding in the burning sun and the rest would be delightful. She had a thoroughly healthy appetite, and superintended the laying out of her lunch with interest. It was the last time that it would be as daintily packed. Stephens was an artist with a picnic basket. She was going to miss Stephens. She finished her lunch quickly, and then, with her back propped against a palm tree, a cigarette in her mouth, her arms clasped round her knees, she settled down happily, overlooking the desert. The noontime hush seemed over everything. Not a breath of wind stirred the tops of the palms; a lizard on a rock near her was the only living thing she could see. She glanced over her shoulder. The men, with their big cloaks drawn over their heads, were lying asleep, or at any rate appeared to be so; only Mustafa Ali was on foot, standing at the edge of the oasis, staring fixedly in the direction in which they would ride later.

Diana threw the end of her cigarette at the lizard and laughed at its precipitant flight. She had no desire to follow the example of her escort and sleep. She was much too happy to lose a minute of her enjoyment by wasting it in rest that she did not require. She was perfectly content and satisfied with herself and her outlook. She had not a care or a thought in the world. There was not a thing that she would have changed or altered. Her life had always been happy; she had extracted the last ounce of pleasure out of every moment of it. That her happiness was due to the wealth that had enabled her to indulge in the sports and constant travel that made up the sum total of her desires never occurred to her. That what composed her pleasure in life was possible only because she was rich enough to buy the means of gratifying it did not enter her head. She thought of her wealth no more than of her beauty. The business connected with her coming of age, when the big fortune left to her by her father passed unreservedly into her own hands, was a wearisome necessity that had been got through as expeditiously as possible, with as little attention to detail as the old family lawyer had allowed, and an absence of interest that was evidenced in the careless scrawl she attached to each document that was given her to sign. The mere money in itself was nothing; it was only a means to an end. She had never even realised how much was expended on the continuous and luxurious expeditions that she had made with Sir Aubrey; her own individual tastes were simple, and apart from the expensive equipment that was indispensable for their hunting trips, and which was Aubrey's choosing, not hers, she was not extravagant. The long list of figures that had been so boring during the tedious hours that she had spent with the lawyer, grudging every second of the glorious September morning that she had had to waste in the library when she was longing to be out of doors, had conveyed nothing to her beyond the fact that in future when she wanted anything she would be put to the trouble of writing out an absurd piece of paper herself, instead of leaving the matter in Aubrey's hands, as she had done hitherto.

She had hardly understood and had been much embarrassed by the formal and pedantic congratulations with which the lawyer had concluded his business statement. She was not aware that she was an object of congratulation. It all seemed very stupid and uninteresting. Of real life she knew nothing and of the ordinary ties and attachments of family life less than nothing. Aubrey's cold, loveless training had debarred her from all affection; she had grown up oblivious of it. Love did not exist for her; from even the thought of passion she shrank instinctively with the same fastidiousness as she did from actual physical uncleanliness.

That she had awakened an emotion that she did not understand herself in certain men had been an annoyance that had become more intolerable with repetition. She had hated them and herself impartially, and she had scorned them fiercely. She had never been so gentle and so human with any one as she had been with Jim Arbuthnot, and that only because she was so radiantly happy that night that not even the distasteful reminder that she was a woman whom a man coveted was able to disturb her happiness. But here there was no need to dwell on annoyances or distasteful reminders.

Diana dug her heels into the soft ground with a little wriggle of content; here she would be free from anything that could mar her perfect enjoyment of life as it appeared to her. Here there was nothing to spoil her pleasure. Her head had drooped during her thoughts, and for the last few minutes her eyes had been fixed on the dusty tips of her riding-boots. But she raised them now and looked up with a great content in them. It was the happiest day of her life. She had forgotten the quarrel with Aubrey. She had put from her the chain of ideas suggested by the passing caravan. There was nothing discordant to disturb the perfect harmony of her mind.

A shade beside her made her turn her head. Mustafa Ali salaamed obsequiously. "It is time to start, Mademoiselle."

Diana looked up in surprise and then back over her shoulder at the escort. The men were already mounted. The smile faded from her eyes. Mustafa Ali was guide, but she was head of this expedition; if her guide had not realised this he would have to do so now. She glanced at the watch on her wrist.

"There is plenty of time," she said coolly.

Mustafa Ali salaamed again. "It is a long ride to reach the oasis where we must camp to-night," he insisted hurriedly.

Diana crossed one brown boot over the other, and scooping up some sand in the palm of her hand trickled it through her fingers slowly. "Then we can ride faster," she replied quietly, looking at the shining particles glistening in the sun.

Mustafa Ali made a movement of impatience and persisted doggedly. "Mademoiselle would do well to start."

The Sheik - 6/43

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