HotFreeBooks.com
Desert Love
by Joan Conquest
1  2  3  4  5     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

DESERT LOVE



BY

JOAN CONQUEST



Author of "Leonie of the Jungle"



NEW YORK

THE MACAULAY COMPANY



Copyright, 1920

By THE MACAULAY COMPANY



PRINTED IN THE U. S. A.



TO M. F.



CONTENTS

PART I

THE SEED

PART II

THE FLOWER

PART III

THE FRUIT



PART I

THE SEED



DESERT LOVE

CHAPTER I

Jill looked at the East!

At her feet sat huddled groups of women, just bundles of black robes, some with discs about their necks, some with chains or golden crescents upon the forehead, all wearing the burko [yashmak or face veil] covering the entire face with the exception of the eyes, and held in position between the eyebrows by the quaint tube-shaped selva, fastening it to the tarhah, the flowing black veil which nearly touches the ground behind, covers the head, and pulled down to the eyebrows leaves just the beautiful dark eyes to be seen, glancing up timidly—in this case—at the golden-haired, blue-eyed girl above them.

Men of different classes stood around, or squatted on their heels upon the ground, all in flowing robes of different colouring and various stages of cleanliness, some with heads covered in turbans, some with the tarboosh, others with the kahleelyah or head handkerchief, all chattering with the exception of the higher classes and the Bedouins, the latter clothed in white, with the distinctive thong of camel's hair wound about the head covering, arms folded and face passively serene, looking as though they had stepped right out of the Old Testament on to the fly-ridden, sunbaked station of Ismailiah; whilst vendors of cakes, sticky, melting sweets, and small oranges, wandered in and out of the crowd screaming their wares. Shouts of laughter drew Jill's attention to the other side of the station, where, with terms of endearment mixed with blood-curdling threats, a detachment of British soldiers getting ready to start en route for Suez were urging, coaxing, striving to make that most obstinate of animals, the camel, get to its feet some time before midnight.

From them she looked at a group of native dwellings made of sunbaked clay. Small square buildings, looking in the distance like out-houses, with scarcely perceptible windows, and flat roofs given over to poultry. Near them the patient bullock did its monotonous round, drawing the precious water from the well with which to moisten the arid little patch of earth from which the fellah extracts the so very little necessary to him in his life.

A clump of slender palms, like forgotten scaffolding, stood out clear against the intense blue of the sky; the desert, that wonderful magnetic plain, stretched away in mile upon mile of yellow nothingness, until as minute as flies on a yellow floor, growing more distinct at every step, with solemn and exceeding great dignity stalked a string of camels, each animal fastened by a rope to the saddle of the one in front, each apparently unconscious of its seemingly overwhelming burden, as with heads swaying slightly from side to side with that air of disdain which the dame of Belgravia unsuccessfully tries to imitate when essaying to crush the inhabitant of Suburbia by means of long-handled lorgnettes resting on the shiny arch of her aristocratic nose, they responded without fail to the soft musical voice of the Arab seated cross-legged on the leader.

Then her eyes turned to the West.

To the mixed mob which had rushed from the Norddeutscher Lloyd at Suez, leaving the great liner to the wise few, while perspiring and querulous, and altogether unpleasant, they had filled the little train which chuffs its way along the edge of the canal to Ismailiah, and through the dust and fly-laden miles to Cairo, where it turns its burden out to clamour and argue vociferously with the wily dragoman who would take a herd of elephants to "do" the Pyramids in one hour if the backsheesh proved substantial enough.

With absolute loathing she gazed at those with whom she had passed so many weary days on the return journey from Australia.

There were of a certain type of English women not a few, sunburnt, loud of voice, lean of breast and narrow of hip.

Their sisters, wiser and better endowed by nature, had remained on the liner, taking advantage of the empty conditions of the boat to repair the ravage done to complexion and wardrobe by the sizzling, salt-laden wind which had tortured them since Colombo had been left behind.

Two daughters and a mother stood aloofly in the shade thrown by the indescribable waiting-room; the mother still labouring under the delusion that if you can't afford to send your girls properly wardrobed on a visit to relations in India, the next best method of annexing husbands for them is to take them hacking on a long sea voyage. For has it not been known that many a man driven to the verge of madness by the everlasting sight of flying fish, and the as enduring sound of the soft plop of the little bull-board sandbag, has become engaged to "a perfectly im-poss-ible person in the second class, you know," so as to break the deadly monotony of his surroundings.

They did not want to see Cairo or any other part of Egypt, for the East said nothing to them, even a rush view of the Pyramids failing to stir their shallow hearts; but they knew to a shade the effect on their less fortunate friends when in course of time they should murmur, "You remember, dear, the winter we were in Cairo."

Added to these there were raucous Australians, clumsily built guttural Germans, in fact the usual omnium gatherum, unavoidable, alas! on a sea voyage, clothed in short skirts, shirt waists, squash hats, and thick boots as "they were going tramping about the sands," and each, of course, loaded with the inevitable camera which gives dire offence to many an eastern of higher rank, who hates being photographed willy-nilly along with all the other "only a native" habits of the westerner, who with the one word "nigger" describes the Rajah of India, the Sheik of Arabia, the Hottentot and the Christy Minstrel.

Free for one day from the restraining manners of those others who at that very moment were doubtless returning thanks on deck to Allah for his manifold blessings in the shape of some few hours of perfect peace, a few men of different nationalities were either boisterously chaffing the less plain of their companions, or ogling the shrinking Eastern women, crouching on the edge of the platform. Mr. Billings in fact, in unclean canvas shoes and a frantic endeavour to find favour in the bistre enlarged eyes of a certain slim black figure, was executing the very double shuffle which had "brought down" the second class dining saloon honoured for the nonce by the presence of the first class, on the occasion of one of the purgatorial concerts habitual to sea life as known on board a liner.



CHAPTER II

Jill stood by herself!

Personally I consider as infinitely boring those descriptions written at length anent the past lives of the characters, male and female, which go to the building of a novel, so in as few words as possible will try to outline the years which had brought Jill Carden to the dreary task of waiting hand and foot upon the whimsies of a neurotic German woman of great wealth, and still greater disinclination to part with the smallest coin of any realm she might be travelling through.

Jill, an only child and motherless, had led a glorious care-free existence.

Adored by her father and her two friends, Moll, otherwise the Honourable Mary Bingham pronounced Beam, of the neighbouring estate, and Jack, otherwise Sir John Wetherbourne, Baronet, of the next county, big brother to Jill and worshipper at the shrine of Moll. Jill was also loved by all who waited on her, and sought after by not a few on account of her great wealth, and had laughed her way through seventeen years of life, to find herself suddenly minus father and money, with nothing left in fact but an estate mortgaged to the smallest pebble, and a heart-whole proposition from her chum Moll to "just come over the wall" and restart laughing her way as her adopted sister through the bit of life which might stretch from the moment of disaster to such time that she should find a life companion with whom she could settle down and live happily ever after!

But although Jill's head was outwardly covered with great plaits of auburn hair, through which broke riotous, frivolous curls, the inside held a distinctly active and developed brain, which had acquired the habit of thinking deeply upon such subjects as woman, wife and motherhood.

Added to this, which is already quite enough to put out of gear the life of any girl brought up in convention bound England, she had a heart as big as her outrageous longing for, and love of adventure, neither of which bignesses she had so far been able to satisfy.

As I have said this was quite bad enough, but through and above all, her whole rather exceptional being was desirous of love. Not the shape which clothes its diseased body in soiled robes of imitation something at one and elevenpence three farthings per yard, and under ferns in conservatories, in punts up back-waters, in stifling tea-rooms, hotels, theatres and night-clubs, exchanges sly look for sly look and soiled mouth for soiled kisses, in its endeavours to pass itself off as that wonder figure which, radiant of brow and humorous of mouth, deep of breast and profound of thought, stands motionless in high and by-ways with hands outstretched to those futile figures, blindly hurrying past the Love they fondly imagine is to be found in the front row of the chorus, the last row of the cinema, or the unrestrained licence of the country house.

Jill had never flirted and therefore had known no kiss excepting her father's matutinal and nocturnal peck. She looked upon her beautiful body as some jewel to be placed in the hands of the man she loved upon her wedding-night, so it was as unsoiled and as untainted as her mind, although she knew that once she loved she would go down before that mighty force as a tree before a storm. Dull, you will say all this. May be! but mighty refreshing in these days when amourette follows amourette as surely as Monday follows Sunday, the only difference in the stock being the trade mark, which stamps the one with the outline of a perfect limousine, and the other with the front seat on the top of an omnibus; though believe me the Mondays and Sundays differ not at all.

Jill's ideas on franchise and suffrage, and a "good time" as seen from the standpoint of the average society girl or woman were absolutely nil.

She wanted first of all a master, then a home, and then children, many of them.

Her idea of love was utter submission to the man she should love. Her ideal of happiness his happiness, and although she had no fixed idea of her home, she was positively certain she did not want lodge gates and forelock-pulling peasantry, nor tame deer inside elaborate palings, nor the white-capped nurse stiff with starch trundling a perambulator with a fat, ordinary, rosy heir to the palings, deer, and pullers of locks.

So she sweetly but very definitely said no to a certain millionaire, who had earned his banking account and the thanks of many thousands by his invention of a non-popping champagne cork, and who, adoring the girl, had hastened the very day the news of the smash had spread through the country, like fire on a windy day, to lay his portly self and all that thereunto adhered at her beautiful feet. The disgust of her relatives upon her want of common sense was outspoken; for having overstocked their respective quivers with commonplace female arrows, they quite naturally looked with dismay upon an almost beautiful and quite penniless and homeless girl about whom, after having read the will they referred to as "poor Jill, for whom I suppose we must do something don't you know?" with a quavering inflection at the end of the phrase.

But Jill did not stop on refusing the eligible owner of an unmortgaged estate. No! she set out to look for work off her own bat, and actually found it in that occupation which, far less paid than more, opens up a perfect vista of possible adventures under the guise of a travelling companion.

She spoke French, German, and Italian like natives, which was all to the good. She danced like a Vernon Castle, knew almost as much about fencing as a Saviolo, shot like a George V., and rode like a cowboy, all of which qualifications she erased from her list on the termination of the freezing half-hour of her first interview with her first would-be employer, who, until the enumeration of the above sporting qualifications, had seemed desirous of taking her along with a bronchitic pug to winter in Bath.

Since then she had done Europe and Africa pretty well with never the suspicion of an adventure, and, when you meet her on the station of Ismailiah, where you change for Port Said, she was returning from Australia, with a wardrobe at last beginning to fret about the hem, and shine around the seams, a condition accounted for by the emaciated condition of her purse; a memory of good things and hours worn thin by the constant nerve-wracking routine of capsules, hot drinks, hot water bottles, moods and shawls; and a fully developed rebellion in her whole being against the never-ending vista which stretched far into the future, of other such hours, days, months, yea! even years!

But everything was capped by a still more fully developed decision to brave it out, and out, and out, rather than return to ask the help of those whose hand-clasp had weakened in ratio to the dwindling of the gold in her coffers.



CHAPTER III

And why did she stand by herself?

This is no riddle, the answer being too easy. Men would have answered, "Guessed in once, she was pretty!" And the women would guess in once too, but would keep silent, the pretty ones merely smiling, having sampled the Coventry-sending powers of plain women in the majority on board, and the plain ones from that unwillingness inborn or inherited in every woman to admit good looks, or good anything for that matter, in a member of her own sex.

And she was pretty, with the prettiness of youth allied to genuine red-gold hair, and the bluest of blue eyes, which looked at you in disconcertingly straight manner from between the longest black lashes you ever saw.

She sounds very much like a "Dainty Novel heroine," but I have met her and I know, and she also had a mouth turned up at the corners, and the loveliest teeth, a nose which also turned up, not unduly, and a skin on which lay the merest suspicion of powder like dust on a butterfly's wings, also two jet black grains de beaute, one at the corner of her mouth and the other on top of the left cheek, just under the outside corner of the eye.

Ravissante! Her beauty was nature's own, and she had the loveliest, longest, narrowest feet ever shod and silken hosed by Audet, and as lovely out of the silken hose as in.

But all that, though it pleased the eye, did not really constitute her real charm. It was more the idea of strength, and buoyancy, and the love of humanity she gave out, that attracted young and old, rich and poor, dogs, children, and the sick of soul and body to her.

The type of woman who owns the husband of a roaming disposition and has not got accustomed to the disposition, or the woman eager to acquire a husband of any disposition whatever, liked her not at all, failing to see that she was genuinely uninterested in other people's male belongings.

Those who think to lure men by the mystery of a tobacco cloud permanently around the head, or to stimulate by the sight of a glass which looks like lemonade but isn't, nestling among the everlasting cards and cigarette debris, disliked her intensely, not so much because she did not ally herself with them, as for the fact that she did not range herself against them, having even been heard to remark that the world would be a deadly dull place is everyone enjoyed the same pleasure and the same wickedness. Just three more items to add to the long list against her on this particular voyage.

Firstly, had she not one sizzling Red Sea day appeared with her hair hanging in two great plaits reaching below her knees? Which escapade might have escaped uncensured if accompanied by the whitish eye-lashes, forceful freckles, and pungent aroma usually allied to reddish hair, but as it was, the combination of the red-gold glory with blackest curling lashes, skin like satin, and the faintest trace of Devonshire lavender, created a perfect scandal among those whose locks were either limply curtaining their owner's cheeks or blinding the eye, or cached under some head covering were acquiring a wave which might with luck last out the dinner and bridge hours.

Secondly, although a penniless companion, she allowed no familiarity from the men and no condescension from the women; and thirdly, her shoes gave reason for envy, hatred, malice, and all uncharitableness, being on the day you met her exquisite champagne coloured things, her critics little guessing that the reason she wore them was that she had none thicker, and no money wherewith to buy any.

This last point sounds almost absurd, but those who know will any day back the woman with dainty ankles, pretty feet, the glimpse of white lace and a plain face, against the really beautiful countenance up above the shapeless ankle-calf combine, and the foot that in two days gives a shoe the shape of the bows of a dinghey.

So because of all these reasons, also because all the nice, wise people who loved her having stayed behind, she stood alone, her heart clamouring for life and adventure, which comes to about the same thing, and which she sensed is to be found so much more easily in the East she was leaving behind in the space of a few hours. The rest of her rebelling against the West, the monotonous days on the boat racing her back to England in November, with nothing to do, too much to eat, and the trail of medicine glasses, cushions, gouty, dyspeptic, and neurotic employers lengthening into the drab future.

"Allah! help me!" she whispered, and really meaning it, as she turned to look again at the camels stalking on into the desert, and finding herself instead looking straight into the eyes of an Arab standing behind her.

And here, I hope, endeth the dullest part of the book.



CHAPTER 17

Arabs as a race are tall, most of them having a grave look of nobility, all without exception, inheriting from their forefathers Ishmail or Johtan that air of studied calm, that seldom smiling, never restless attitude, which expresses the height of dignity and gravity. There were many of them in this motley station crowd, also Bedouins, smaller of stature, and the members of the many other tribes which go to populating the great Egyptian desert. But not one of all the men, magnificent though some of them were, could compare with Hahmed the Camel King, who, standing alone and motionless with folded arms, let his eyes rest upon this most fair woman from the West.

Jill was accustomed to being looked at, from the impudent stare of Frenchmen, the open look of admiration, both male and female, of the Italian, to the never-to-be-forgotten look of Berlin that had seemed to undress and leave her naked in the street.

But now under grave scrutiny she felt the colour, which made her even more lovely, rising from chin to brow, and longed to cover her face or to run away and hide, though there was nothing but a wondering respect in the Arab's eyes.

For one moment his eyes met hers, then she slowly lowered the heavy white lids with their fringe of curling lashes, and, turning, stood looking out over the desert, where she no longer saw the stretches of yellow sand, nor the airing of camels stalking away into the distance, nor the mud houses and patient bullocks. No! nothing of all these, but instead, just one man's face, oval, lean-featured, eyes brilliantly black and deep-set under thick eyebrows, an aquiline nose, the lower part of the face covered in a sharp pointed beard, and the thick virile hair by a snow-white kahleelyah, bound by a band to the well-shaped head.

A man was he indeed with a width of shoulder rarely seen in an Arab, standing well over six foot, in spotless white robes sweeping to his feet, a cloak of finest black cloth falling over all in swinging folds, failing, however, to hide that look of tremendous strength which impresses one so in some of the long-limbed, lean, muscular inhabitants of the desert.

Jill walked over to the edge of the platform which, as a rule is only raised a few inches above the rail, and after a few seconds beckoned her employer's special dragoman, who had annexed himself at Cairo and presumably would only be shaken off on deck.

He came immediately, all smiles.

All the so-called lower classes smiled upon Jill, from the coster in Whitechapel to the Kaffir at the Cape. And why? Why, because she smiled when she asked a service.

"Be more dignified!" she would indignantly reply when remonstrated with about the native. "They certainly show a varied degree of blackness in their skin, and have less brains than some of us, but they are human, so I shall continue to smile if I like," and smile she did, and they smiled too and ran to do her bidding.

Not that she indulged in the "our dear black brother" views of those people who, from utter lack of knowledge upon the subject, believe that with the exception of a certain difference in the pigment which embellishes the skin, the lowest type of Hottentot has the same ideals, desires, and outlook on life as the highest born, or, as I think to be more correct, I should say, the cleanest living individual in the Western Hemisphere.

She did not approve of the promiscuous mingling of the white and black as is so often and so unhappily seen in London, where a servant girl maybe, will ecstatically spend her evening out under the protection of some ebony hued product of Africa and, labouring under the delusion that the dusky swain is the direct descendant of Cetewayo, also totally lacking all knowledge of African history, will fondly imagine herself a queen in embryo, instead of which she is merely the means to feed the lustful longing for the white in some Cape boy, who believes he hides the roll of his native walk under an exaggerated skirt to his over-padded coat.

And she equally hated to see the social butterfly smile upon the high-born native of India, angling for his lakhs with the bait of a fair white skin upon which to fasten a string of priceless pearls, gathering her fastidious skirts about her at the sign of any feeling more human than that which she would allow from a respectable bank manager, recoiling disdainfully from a man whose ancestors were mighty in the land, when hers were just beginning to break through the crust of serfdom, as a toad will crack and throw back the caked mud under which it has blissfully slept.

As a preventative to social and racial mishaps she thoroughly endorsed the theory that "East is East and West is West, etc." But in her heart, or rather in her somewhat searching brain, she had often wondered if there could be no exception to the ruling, if half of the East and half of West could never combine to make a perfect whole.

All smiles the dragoman ran forward, saluting her with hands to forehead, mouth, and breast.

"Do you know who that man is?" she asked, indicating with a scarcely perceptible movement of the head the Arab who had not moved a muscle since she had turned away from him to look at his homeland, the desert.

"'Im! My lady!" replied the native, eyes and white teeth flashing as he essayed in his best Anglo-French to please the beautiful foreigner who so graciously spoke to him. "'Im? Oh, 'im! is Hahmed the Camel King. 'Im provide the camels for Government 'Camels Corpse,'" pointing to the Camelry Corps, where perspiring Tommies and a seething mass of brown beasts were literally raising the dust on the other side of the railroad. "'Im," he continued, "is ze great man, from far away over ze Canal from ze greates' and best part of South Arabia. Is rich, oh! rich! Oh! so very rich—riche comme le diable, Madame. Is master of many villages, many peoples, but is 'ow say, my lady—est etrange—and feared. 'Is word is ze law and 'is arm is ze iron and 'e can also shoot ze fly on ze top of Cheops!"

The man paused, literally from want of breath.

"He is evidently a very fine man," said Jill, it must be confessed a little disappointedly, having expected something a little less ordinary in the way of history, "but I can't say I see anything strange about it all!"

The dragoman, slightly downcast by the lack of enthusiasm on the part of his audience, took in a huge quantity of the absolutely stifling air and started afresh.

"Oh! mais, Madame, ze strange zing is zat wiz all 'is rich, all 'is camel, all 'is 'ouse—ah! I forgot zat is 'is Ismailiah 'ouse," pointing a long, brown finger to a huge pink edifice, standing like a huge pink birthday cake under the blazing sun on the edge of the town—"'e 'as no woman—no not an one—not wife—not lady—zere is tales of one wife long ago over zere," pointing vaguely in the direction he imagined South Arabia might be, "but feared, we say and ask nozing—no! ze great Hahmed live alone—not zere———" Once more pointing contemptuously to the pink abode. "Zat but a business 'ouse—ze most beautiful place in one oasis! Ze Flat Oasis! Ah Madame! comme c'est 'belle—I who 'ave been on camel business can tell, ze 'ouse, ze shade, ze water—but no lady, no children, no son, no one—'e go and sleep and live all by self alone—triste, Madame, because 'e is ze great, ze just, but go always alone in ze night to 'is oasis bien aimee and———"

And here the uplifting of an angry guttural voice caused him to turn and run hurriedly towards a figure vehemently signalling with a huge fawn-coloured sun-shade lined with green.

And as he ran the soul of the desert, born of the sun, palms, ennui, flies, the sand, and Allah knows what besides, suddenly sat up in Jill's eyes and laughed, and as she laughed the words "Go always alone in ze night to 'is oasis bien aimee" rang in the girl's ears, as a strange and startling idea flashed across her mind.

For and against the idea ranged her thoughts; upheld one moment by the insistent clamouring of her whole soul for freedom; combated the next by the inherited deference to convention planted by long dead generations in the mind soil of almost every British subject.

Why should she not break away and strike out on her own, if only for a few hours? But would she not be running into positive physical danger if she did so? Still it would only be for a few hours—a swift ride into the desert—a glimpse of a desert home—a break anyhow in the deadly, soul-stifling monotony of her daily round. Yes! but what did she know of the man outside the eulogies of the dragoman, who for all she knew might be leagued with him in nefarious schemes.

And yet, no one cared if she lived or died in soul or body. Marry she would not for years, and years, though of a truth that prospect would become more and more remote as youth vanished and the waters of her wealth remained at low tide. But the most irresistible argument in favour of the mad idea was that so far she had not had one single real adventure.

"Allah!" she whispered, clasping her hands involuntarily. "Where is my path? Show me the way out!"

And even as she unclasped her hands, she heard a faint tinkle of coins in the well-worn little bag hanging from her wrist.

"Allah has heard!" she murmured to herself, as she fished for a coin.

"Heads I speak—tails I go back to England," she continued, placing the silver coin on her thumb nail, flipping it into the air, and catching it on the back of her hand. "Heads. Oh!"

And giving herself no time to think, whilst the soul in her eyes first frowned and then laughed in glee, she turned and crossed the few yards covered by the sand which for centuries blown hither and hither had been waiting to make a carpet for her lovely feet to tread when Allah in his graciousness should show her the path, which would lead her to the way out.



CHAPTER V

Jill had an entrancing speaking voice. She spoke on a low note, and having trained the muscles of the throat to relax or tighten at will, she was able to throw all manner of inflection into the words, and all shades of tone and melody into the chords of the beautiful musical instrument which is so terribly neglected the world over.

So that when she spoke, her words sounded like the chiming of distant bells in the ears of the man, and his heart seemed likely to be engulfed in the golden stream of a voice through which continuously rippled a gentle laughter.

"Monsieur will forgive me for speaking in this abrupt way, but the moments are few in which to make my request. I hear that in the desert is a beautiful oasis, and many beautiful Arabian horses. I have never seen an oasis, for you see I know nothing of Egypt, but I once had an Arab mare. She was wonderful and white. Perhaps Monsieur has some of her brothers or sisters? And just for once I should like to see the desert stars at night, and the desert sun at dawn. Could Monsieur take me to see these things if——" And then the golden voice stopped short, and the girl involuntarily took one step backward.

Those who know the race know that the Arab has a tremendous control over his emotions. He can love and kill in one moment, but until the woman is literally swept off her feet, or the man or woman is dead, in a heap, neither by voice or gesture will he betray the passion consuming him.

The voice, the greatest betrayer of mankind, is especially under control of these exceedingly strong men. No matter what paroxysm of rage, revenge, or desire may be shaking the man to the innermost depth of his being, his voice flows on just as musically, just as softly.

But Jill, being observant, had noticed that although the hands lay folded on the crossed arms, the nails were dug into the palms, and raising her eyes to the sombre face for explanation, had encountered two eyes blazing with a mighty anger.

There are many ways in which to incite the Arab to wrath, but believe me, the way which will most surely lead to sudden murder, or to long bloody feud drawn out over many years, passing from generation to generation, is the way of ridicule.

Let him think that you are laughing at him, and I should advise you to take the nearest camel, train, or boat, or any other means of locomotion to hand, and fly the country.

The country mind you, for hide you ever so craftily, he will find you, even though your hair be white, and your figure bent with the passage of years, and then, only then will he be appeased, when the real or imagined jest at his expense has been lost in the deep colour of your rich red blood.

So that when the Arab spoke a light of understanding dawned upon Jill, for, touching his forehead, mouth, and a spot on his raiment just above his heart with his right hand, and murmuring the customary salutation, "May peace be upon you," he paused for a moment, and then continued, "But it pleases Madame to jest with me. She awaits the train to take her to the boat, how therefore could she come into the desert to-night?"

But Jill was absolutely unafraid! Having known no master, she cared not one sou for any son of man, or any untoward position she might find herself in, so opening wide her very beautiful eyes she simply smiled back into the angry ones which looked down upon her from some considerable height, and, with a little shrug of her shoulders, a habit acquired from one of a succession of foreign governesses, she made reply in her turn, and in words which though absolutely common-place served as the golden key with which to unlock the bejewelled, golden casket of this man's love.

In any Western country the situation would have been absurd! An English girl, minus scenery and every accessory due to a book heroine, capable in five brief minutes of smiting the heart of one of Egypt's most renowned men!

Ridiculous!

Perhaps in the lands of fogs and fires, grey skies and east winds, but not in Egypt, where the sun, sky, winds, and memories serve rather to force the growth of the love-plant and hasten the budding of the passion-flower.

Studiously buttoning up the last button which she always left undone on her last pair of suede gloves, smooth as a newly born whippet puppy, and as yet unruffled from the cleaner's manipulations, she spoke with a ripple of laughter which made it impossible to decide if she was speaking seriously or not.

"Madame permits herself to do just as she pleases. If by some unforeseen circumstances she were to miss the train, would she be taken to see the oasis, and the horses, and the stars?"

And let it be understood that, in her utter ignorance of deserts, she imagined the oasis could be reached after a journey of a few hours.

For one moment there was dead silence between these two, the strings of whose lives Fate was inextricably mixing in her fingers, palsied by age, and fretted by the constant tugging and straining of those other threads which, in moments of senile anger or childishness, she gets into such hopeless tangles.

Then as the shriek of an engine whistle shrilled faintly in the distance the man spoke, his voice sinking to that deep note which no other nation attains, resembling in no way the Russian bass, and which in the Arab upon rare occasions alone betrays some emotional upheaval.

"Listen, woman of the West, who even at this moment stands in my shadow, between that faint engine whistle and the grinding of the brakes as the train comes to a standstill, you must make your choice. A few moments ago I saw you toss a silver coin and decide quickly that which had been decided already for you since the beginning of all time.

"Once more you shall cast your die. The table is the sand of Egypt, the dice-cup is your hand, the dice are your life and my life, the stakes our happiness. Decide again and quickly for I hear the rumbling of wheels. Make known your choice, for although we travellers through the desert of life lie down to sleep, and rise again to live, to fight, to hate, and above all to love, in obedience to the will which counteth and heapeth the particles of sand upon this station, yet are we allowed, to voice our desires, being mouth-pieces of Fate. Nay! wait one moment until I make clear the way, so that you may not put down your beautiful feet blindly upon a trackless waste of doubt and mistrust. If you come with me to-night, you come alone. I have no woman in my desert home, excepting one old hunchback slave, a withered bough but faithful. No woman has set foot within the belt of palms surrounding my house, and without the sand stretches! Mile upon mile of pathless sand!

"You will come into the desert alone with me, and the sand will close in upon you and keep you in the desert alone—with me!

"If you come, be at the gate of yonder pink house at nine to-night; if you are not there I shall know that your heart has failed."

But the soul of the desert glinted for one moment in the English girl's eyes.

"There may be no woman there, but there will be a man—a man indeed!" she whispered, as though communing with herself.

And the eyes so soft and blue looked up, and then down, down into the soul of Hahmed the Arab, so deeply indeed that a shiver ran from her brain to her finger-ends, causing her to draw herself together sharply and to turn and walk away.

* * * * * *

So it came about as it was written that she had decided when the brakes grinded, and that after retrieving her employer for the last time, and placing her in a dusty corner of the stifling carriage, she slipped away on the excuse of finding her dressing-case, which she did, taking it with her into a corner of the deserted waiting-room just as the engine announced its immediate departure.

Without a qualm she watched "her crowd" jostle and push their way into the small carriages, and the train, move out, leaving her alone—alone in the desert town, alone with the dweller of that desert.

A wave of exultation rushed through her as she thought of this her great adventure, of this her freedom for at least a short while, and of the unknown quantity she was mixing into her portion of daily bread which, up to this moment, had consisted of the plainest, wholesomest, most uninteresting bun-loaf, not even resembling that extremely dull and unappetising cake named, I believe, Swiss roll, which hides its staleness under the glass case of Life's shop window, lying fly-blown on the plate and heavily and unimaginatively on the digestive powers of those who consume it for the thin layer of jam to be discovered between its wedges of sullen dough. A soul-stifling mess to be found in the drab sideboards of most English households along with its sister made of a pastry so flimsy that it chokes, filled with a cream that is merely froth, the whole hiding its cheapness under an application of highly coloured paint essence, the consuming of which will prove as fatal as the Swiss roll.

So she raised her hands to the grimy ceiling of the dirty waiting-room and whispered to the dust, the buzzing flies, and vivid ray of sunlight,

"Verily, and indeed I have burned my boats behind, or perhaps I should say my liner before me!"



CHAPTER VI

Jill, very fair indeed to look upon, and with seven-and-sixpence in odd money in her bag, stepped out bravely on to the road, scorched by the midday sun, with a curl at the corner of her mouth, a medley of disconnected thoughts in her madcap head, and a feeling of unromantic emptiness somewhere in the vicinity of her white leather waist belt.

A wisp of a boy, clad in very dirty garments, shrilled the equivalent of "Carry your bag, miss," in the Egyptian tongue, calling down the displeasure of Allah upon the foreign woman when she shook her head, and changed the heavy dressing-case to the other hand.

Ismailiah is no place for a beautiful English girl to wander in unchaperoned, especially when out of respect to the slenderness of her purse she gets off the beaten track in search of a cheap restaurant.

Indeed Jill was beginning to feel a little uncomfortable at the way the natives stared and even turned to look after her as she plodded on, so that it was with a feeling of relief that she espied "Cuisine Francaise" written across the window of a fairly clean-looking restaurant in a small street, into which place she turned, to be confronted by a fat, oily individual hailing from the Levant, who looked as though his business was anything but that of the kitchen.

Unsophisticated Jill, however, saw nothing wrong in the person who bowed, and smiled, and rubbed the palms of his hands in a rotary movement; and being taken up in trying to amalgamate the scantiness of her money, the prices on the carte, and the enormity of her hunger, neither did she notice the burning eyes in the handsome, sensual dark face of a middle-aged native fixed upon her hungrily from behind a half-open door, where he had been hurriedly summoned by the man who advertised his skill in "la cuisine Francaise."

To pass away the time Jill lingered over her meal until she was alone in the place save for the waiter, who was aching to get away to smoke a cigarette, and the native who had noiselessly entered and slipped into a seat in the far corner.

Once Jill, inadvertently looking straight into his eyes, and hurriedly looking away, had picked up a paper lying on the chair beside her; glanced at the first page, and dropped it like a hot plate, whilst a wave of scorching red rushed over her neck and face.

"Allah!" she thought, "what an awful place, and what on earth am I to do with two shillings in my pocket, and not a cinema handy!" And feeling the native's eyes still fixed on her, she beckoned to the waiter, paid her bill, and once out in the street turned sharply up the first on the right just as the native and the Levantine came to the restaurant door in time to see the last inch of her disappearing skirt. And yet through all her haste and her annoyance the inner membrane of Jill's mind, that delicate fabric woven of intuition and divination, which gives women the pull on so many occasions, and on certain courses get her past the post lengths ahead of man, whispered to her that it had not failed her earlier in the day, and that if she could but stick out the next few hours she would find a sure reward for her present distress.

But she stopped short and clicked her teeth angrily when she met the native of the restaurant face to face in a narrow street, and turned and walked in the opposite direction as quickly as her dignity would allow.

But after the same thing had happened three times, and that it had suddenly struck her that she was being headed in the direction of a quarter where unveiled women peered from windows with great eyes made larger by the rims of kohl smeared on the lid, and the cheeks rendered dead white with the powder that proves so strangely attractive to the eastern prostitute, she suddenly made up her mind to get herself out of the danger and difficulty. She was utterly lost, and walking at a pace that was almost a run, turned into the street she found nearest.

Not one open door did she see; at least, not one that was not congested with women sitting smoking or eating sticky sweetmeats, or drying their heads plastered in the henna clay which would eventually dye their hair the red favoured of man.

She was wellnigh breathless and wondering for how long she could continue when the man suddenly appeared at the top of the street into which she had just turned, and seeing her salaamed deeply.

Back she twisted like a hunted hare and raced up the street through which she had just passed.

It was empty, but on her left standing ajar was a door painted bright blue.



CHAPTER VII

Without pausing to think she entered, closing it behind her just as the man relentlessly pursuing her passed in ignorance on the other side.

In the middle of the courtyard two Eastern women in the domestic act of disembowelling a kid looked up lazily, and one smiling, pointed to the upper storey of the house, through the small windows of which came the sound of stringed instruments, and seeing that the stranger did not understand, explained her gesture in broken French:

"_Au premiez etase—voz amieze—les anglaiseez."

No idea of any further possible danger entering her head, and at a complete loss to understand, but thankful for her present safety, Jill crossed the court, slipping unromantically on a piece of the animal's entrails which lay about, and entering a low door mounted the stairs.

Through a curtained archway the distinct twang of an American voice came to her as a message of peace, so pushing back the stuff she entered to find herself confronted by ten pairs of eyes of different nationality.

"Come right in," twanged the same voice, "guess you're from the same boat! Cute of you to find your way here all by your lonesome!"

The well-corseted wife of a Can-King, flanked on one side by her thin, leather-skinned, neat daughter, and on the other by the inevitable Italian marquis, whose tailor had evidently been a sartorial futurist, pointed to a cushion on the nobleman's off side, on which perplexed Jill squatted in imitation of the others. The party consisted of the aforementioned trio, two flash-looking English women, who had in tow a certain type of man who is only to be found on board ship, an obese German, a French widow whose weeds grew more from utility than necessity, and a dapper little Frenchman who twinkled his over-manicured fingers for the benefit of a healthy, jolly looking Australian girl sitting uncomfortably on the adjacent cushion. The party's dragoman proffered a cup of coffee and a cigarette. The former was excellent, the latter, after one puff, Jill extinguished on the floor, for she knew tobacco when she smoked it, and guessed at hasheesh without having to look at the slightly brightened eyes of those who sat smoking the same brand around her.

Then she glanced curiously round the room. Long, low, with four tawdry glass and gilt chandeliers hanging from the not over-clean ceiling, cushions spreading all over the floor excepting in the middle where lay an exquisite Persian carpet, long mirrors on all sides, little inlaid tables, and at the far end, built into the wall with steps leading up to it, a bed behind gilt bars, the door in which was fastened by a gilt padlock.

It seemed that their dragoman had brought them to the house so as to add yet more perquisites to his daily remuneration by regaling them with an exhibition of Eastern dancing.

"What kind of dancing?" asked Jill with a slight frown, as the twinkling music suddenly stopped.

"Guess we can't tell you!" replied the American mother, whose corsets were not in exact accord with the cushions upon which she sat, breathing heavily from her upper whaleboned register.

"Nous esperons le mieux," said the Frenchman, winking at the dragoman.

And that moment they were enlightened.

The two English women emitted each a little screech, the American mother caught convulsively at her daughter, who coldly raised her long-handled lorgnettes the more fully to survey the picture before her. The Australian girl sat quiet, as did the Englishman who had been there before; the Italian ejaculated "Per dio," and the Frenchman "Mon Dieu," as the widow, pulling one side of her veil across her face, hid her over-crimson mouth, but in no way impeded her view, whilst Jill looked round hastily for a way of escape, but suddenly remembering the certain peril in the street decided, as she edged as far as possible from the marchese, to sit out the difficulties of the moment.



CHAPTER VIII

To natives, a dressed or undressed dancer is nothing more than a plaything, or something to help pass the hour; he will look at and criticise her with much less enthusiasm than he would a she-camel, and remunerate her or her owner according to the measure of pleasure he has found in her posturing.

But it is difficult, wellnigh impossible, to describe the feeling of the occidental women when three orientals of their own sex, without a vestige of clothing, suddenly one after the other, like ducks, sidled into the room.

They were none of them in their first youth, and the dragoman, after watching their movements, decided once and for all to withdraw his patronage from the house, and sat wondering how much he dared try to extract from his patron's pockets for such an exhibition, while Jill, who felt as though she had been suddenly struck between the eyes, sat hypnotised by the undulating forms before her, until she was overcome by a frantic desire to bury her face in a cushion and to give way to unrestrained hysterical laughter. This same feeling has been known to overcome one in Church when a hen, side-tracking through the open door, takes a constitutional up the aisle on a Sunday morning in the country; also it has been known to seize you in its grip at a levee, when your predecessor's shoe-buckles, not having been properly adjusted, flip up and down like shutters as their owner, in solitary state, stalks up the audience chamber; worse and stronger still is it when your revered bishop uncle, of whom you have great expectations, insists at morning prayers upon those things which have been left undone, when before your earthly eyes gapes the cotton dress of Eliza the cook, whose comfortable dorsal proportions have forbidden the matutinal union of a couple or so of buttons and buttonholes.

Try as she would she could not overcome it, neither could she remove her gaze from the three females who, poor things, were but doing their best to add to the family coffers. Up and down, and round and round they went, the string band twanging an accompaniment, until the gauze scarf of the middle lady catching in the hanging chandelier put an end to their rhythmical swayings, while like hens with a suspended cherry they hopped in turn off the ground in their effort to disentangle their one and only bit of covering.

Everyone sat still until the disentanglement had taken place, upon which event the dancers once more advanced in force, each selecting a special man victim, until Jill, absolutely helpless and afraid of raising native wrath by allowing even a glimmer of a smile to appear, buried her pretty head on the marchese's over-padded shoulder, which action he of course took for a sign of encouragement, responding to it by slipping his arm round the girl's waist, but circumspectly enough so that it should not be seen by the Can-King's relations, while Jill prayed for strength to resist until the end.

The end came in a positive Catherine-wheel exhibition of posturing, and a deathly silence on the part of the audience; the men not daring to make any comment, the women not daring to look at each other, until the widow, suddenly seizing upon the situation, clapped her little hands roguishly, and avowed in a babyish voice that "C'etait bien gentil et original, n'est ce pas," which she didn't think at all really.

Anyway her opinion served as a break, so that on the exit of the dancers in single file, which was ten-fold more trying to the spectators than their entry, with stretching of cramped limbs and stereotyped utterances such as "how very Eastern," "so unexpected," the entire party rose to their feet, the dragoman holding a hurried whispered conversation with the men who each, and successively, and vehemently, shook their heads, leaving the women asking of themselves how on earth they were to continue existing relations with the men during the interminable weeks to Australia.

Jill, feeling almost faint from suppressed emotion and a revival of hunger, stood a little on one side watching them. An Eastern dancing house is a strange place in which to make the final decision of one's life, but in just such a spot she made hers. She knew that she had only to make up the tale of a lost boat, and something would be done for her; in fact she could probably go as lady's maid to the Americans on their tour de monde, having overheard them complaining bitterly of their own French maid who had not been retrieved at Algiers. But her whole soul suddenly rising in mutiny against the stultifying civilisation of the West, she finally made up her mind to stay with the strangers until the hour came when she could slip out of the hotel where they were staying the night, into oriental liberty, and glamour, and unknown possibilities. So she sat next the marchese at dinner, whose love-making was on exactly the same line as his clothes, and having found out from the maid in the ladies' room just how to get to the end of the town in which was situated the Camel King's house, she waited for a desirable opportunity, and slipped out of the hotel on the pretence of looking at the stars, knowing that her unwitting hosts would think she had simply gone to bed.



CHAPTER IX

Jill's memory being of the kind which retains only the pleasant word and act, the disagreeable episode of the afternoon had completely evacuated that cell which in one second can raise us through the bluest ether to the heaven as understood by the prayer-book, or send us diving to the mud flats of the ocean bed to co-habit for a time with wingless and non-temperamental oddities.

Having stopped several times to discover by ear and eye if she was being followed from the hotel, and being satisfied that the sight of her dressing-case had in no wise aroused the hall porter's curiosity, she propped her luggage against the base of a palm tree growing casually in the middle of a small street and proceeded to take her bearings.

"Somehow it seemed quite easy to find when the maid was explaining," she communed to herself as she dug a hatpin afresh into her hat as is the way of woman when at a loss. "How stupid of me to try a short cut, because she distinctly said I was to stick to the main street until I came to two mosques side by side, and then to turn off sharply to the right. Oh! well, I turned off too soon and am lost—and I don't like these little streets—no! not one little bit, but that big red star hangs right over the house so I can but follow it—here goes!"

She picked up her case, and then drew back quickly behind the tree as a white-robed figure slowly crossed the street, turned up another and disappeared.

"Oh! Moll and Jack, what on earth would you think if you knew I was alone in Egypt. Alone! but free! free! at last, quite, quite free!"

And stretching out her arms on each side and giving herself a little shake, Jill laughed ever so softly in pure exuberance of that feeling of freedom, which seems to make an air pocket all about you and in the middle of which you float contentedly, oblivious of the winds raging on the outside.

So glancing up at the red star, and once more picking up her bag, she too crossed the street and disappeared up a narrower one, halting for a moment at the sight of a man standing with bent head in the attitude of prayer and the beads of Allah hanging from the hands crossed upon the breast.

Jilt's intuition was intense, and never once in all her life had it failed her, and though to her all Eastern men seemed exactly alike in the moonlight, yet her inner consciousness began to tap ont a message of warning, and the bristles of her self-protection to rise at the threatenings of danger.

"Bother!" however, was her only comment as, keeping the star ahead, she walked steadily onward.

But she made a silent, strenuous, but unavailing struggle when something white and soft was slipped over her head and a hand placed firmly upon her mouth, as she felt herself lifted in a pair of strong arms and carried some considerable distance until she heard the click of a key, the opening and shutting of a door, and her captor's soft footfall through what seemed to be a deserted house.

She stood perfectly still when planted on her feet, and looked around her when the cloth had been removed from about her head.

White was her face indeed, but a little smile twisted the corner of her mouth as she noted the oriental luxury of the room in which she stood.

Ornate could hardly describe it so offensive was it in its multitudinous hangings, mirrors, lamps, and clutter of stools, tables, divans, and couches, inlaid or plastered with glittering sequins, bits of glass, and coloured imitation jewels.

But scorn simply blazed in the great blue eyes as she looked into those of a man standing in front of the one and only door to the whole apartment.

"You brute!" she said undiplomatically and in French as he moved a few steps nearer and salaamed deeply. "Why, you're the man who followed me from the restaurant to-day! What do you want? Backsheesh? I haven't any so you had better let me go at once unless you want the police after you! You can't treat English women in this off-hand way with impunity, I can assure you. Open the door immediately if you please!"

Poor little Jill, who by involuntarily harking back to the insular belief that the veriest heathen will quake in unison with the British culprit at the mere threat of British law, showed the absolute yarborough she held in this game, the stakes of which she guessed were something more precious than life itself, and in which she held not a single winning card.

"Let not Madame cause herself worry," answered the oriental also in French, as he approached nearer still, his eyes ablaze with passion of sorts as be looked the girl up and down from head to foot. "The police—the law—you are in Egypt, Madame, or I should say Mademoiselle I think. Money! when a man holds heaven itself within his grasp, does he open his hand to grasp a passing cloud?"

"I should advise you to let me go at once," repeated Jill, "if you don't want my friends to raise trouble!"

But her bluff was of no avail as she was soon aware when once more the man salaamed with a world of mockery in the action.

"But Mademoiselle has but now run away from her friends! No?—she has but little—oh! very little money!—yes?—and nowhere to go—it is for that that I have thrown my protection around her!"

Jill thought hard for a moment, wondering how much the man knew of her escapade.

"How do you know? Who told you I had no money? I have a friend as it happens———!"

"Mademoiselle has no friend but me," interrupted the man; "she left them at the hotel when she went to take a walk."

And Jill retreated step by step before him as he came closer still, his voice sinking to a whisper, his hand within an inch of her wrist.

"I will not harm you because you are oh, very beautiful! You are a feast of loveliness and I—I am hungry!"

But still the little smile twisted the corner of Jill's red mouth as she looked unflinchingly into the brown eyes in the depths of which smouldered a something which was not good to look upon.

"I suppose you have stolen my dressing-case too," was her next, somewhat irrelevant remark. "Men of your type I dare say can find a use for everything from women to hair-pins. You black dog, who are you?"

Red murder flared in the room for one moment and then died down, leaving a little smoke cloud of uncertainty in the man's mind.

He was used—oh, very used to the breaking in of women, for was not his name notorious in Northern Egypt and were there not whispers of many young and beautiful who had mysteriously disappeared.

Were not men and women in his pay in every corner of the big cities posing as honest individuals? And was he not in direct communication with them? And had he not a coterie of jackal friends who hunted with him, though of a truth not half so successfully or artistically as he?

And yet this slip of a girl, this pale white blossom, held him at bay, more by her seeming indifference to the fate before her than by any effort of will she made to combat the danger.

Blase to tears of the exquisite women of his own country with their lustrous brown eyes, marvellous languorous figures, and well-trained, inherited ideas on love, the man was violently attracted by the whiteness of this girl allied to her indifferent manner and an intense virility which seemed to envelop her from head to foot.

True, there are natives of a white and surpassing beauty, but which whiteness when compared to the genuine colouring of a very fair Englishwoman has the same effect on the purchaser or temporary owner as would a white sapphire bought in mistake for a diamond.

Very, very beautiful, but somehow giving an impression of masquerade.

"Your so valuable dressing-case is behind those cushions, Mademoiselle, but you shall have things of gold to adorn your apartment, at least for a time. I tire easily even of the most perfect fruit, but I have friends, oh, many who are not so easily wearied!"

The man paused a moment as though awaiting some outburst, but none forthcoming continued the enlightening discourse.

"Who am I?—that will you know shortly. A merry chase you gave me this afternoon, and even baffled me for a time, but surely I have not enjoyed an hour so much for many a day. You are unique, therefore not to be run to earth by a common black dog, otherwise I could have secured you earlier in the day and by now———"

The man's lips, of an almost negroid fullness, curved in a smile, the abomination of which sent a little shudder from Jill's high held head to her steady little feet.

"But I have you now, beautiful maiden, and if you will not bend to my will, I will break you to it, even if I spoil your satin skin and the soles of your small feet by the lash of the whip!"

"So!" said Jill after an interval in which the atmosphere, charged with the electricity of anger, lust, scorn, and all the kindred sisters of evilness, resembled what might be the result of a cross between a spitting cat and a wireless installation. "So! Am I to understand that you have vulgarly kidnapped me—and are holding me not for ransom, but for your evil pleasures and those of your friends?"

"Quite so, Mademoiselle! Your words are as clear as the stream running through a certain oasis which long I coveted, but which fell to my greatest enemy because he had a few more piastres than I—and maybe a little more diplomacy—a man who would kill me if he could but find the excuse, the moral breeder of camels, the fanatic son of Solomon, Hahmed the great, Hahmed the most noble—pah!"

For one brief second Jill's eyes scanned the sensual face in front, but seeing nothing more subtle than an intense hatred therein for the absent man, shrugged her shoulders and then flung up her hand sharply as the man's hand suddenly fastened on her wrist.

"Let go my hand at once," she said as indifferently as though she were asking for a glass of water, but she wrenched herself free and fled behind a divan almost hidden in a bower of growing tropical plants as the man let go at her command to suddenly grip her about the waist.

"I shall scream the place down, and bite, and kick, and scratch, if you touch me again."

For one moment they looked at each other across the pile of silken cushions, the dark shining leaves of the plants throwing up the girl's wonderful colouring, the white petals of a flower falling like snow about her as she stood waiting for the next move in the exceedingly dangerous game in which she was taking part.

The silence was absolutely deathly until the oriental broke it, smiling the while as he might on a rebellious child.

"If you make a noise you will bring women and servants, and perhaps my friends, packing to the door from the most distant corners of the house. They do not know that you are here as I brought you in by a secret door and private way, also no one is allowed to place foot in my own quarter of the house without my permission, with the exception of the guardian of the big door itself, but their curiosity would outweigh their prudence if they heard cries, for their delight is unbounded when trouble reigns between their friend or master and a woman. If you bite and kick and scratch I shall have you overpowered and bound to your great sorrow, and their greater delight. It has been written that you shall be one of those whom I honour with my favour, why then try to fight against that which is ordained?"

Jill answered never a word, contenting herself with keeping a watch on the man's movements, though to the very innermost part of her she longed to fling herself upon him to mutilate or to kill.

"We will have coffee, O! very lovely daughter of the North, and consider this little matter settled even before we were born. Does my suggestion find favour in those eyes which are as the sky at night?"

But for all answer Jill moved round the couch and sat herself down upon the satin cushions, opened her hand-bag, and finding her cigarette case lit a cigarette.

"By Allah! but you are wonderful, you English girl. I do not understand you. I have had women here screaming, fighting, fainting, begging for mercy upon their knees. Pah! they sickened me, but you—well! I will go and order the coffee, not wishing to bring a slave into your presence, and give orders also, Mademoiselle, that no matter what noise may be heard I must on no account be disturbed! And death by knife, or whip, or water, is the ordinary punishment for those who disobey!"

Jill blew a smoke ring through another and smiled.

"It's no good ordering coffee because I shan't drink it!"

"You will drink it," was the sharp reply.

"Will you take a bet?" was the ready answer.

For a moment the man who was becoming more and more amazed stared in silence and then laughed softly as the absurdity of the situation struck him.

"Certainly I will, for do not we orientals love a seeming hazard? So although I take an unfair advantage of you I will lay this emerald ring engraven with my name against one kiss from your red mouth that within the half of one hour you will have drunk the coffee."

And taking the ring from his finger as he spoke he laid it upon a small table beside Jill.



CHAPTER X

She was sitting with her hands crossed on her lap when he returned, carrying a small tray bearing two cups filled with coffee.

"You have been a very long time," she remarked casually.

"An especially delicious coffee had to be prepared for Mademoiselle, and strict orders given that we were not to be disturbed until I give the signal. Also that this quarter of the house, which is mine, is to be cleared absolutely of all inhabitants. Therefore shall we be at peace even until this time to-morrow if I make no sign. Also to emphasise my orders, I ordered that a certain person be bastinadoed. She sickens me with her outpourings of love, and was loitering about this door seeking doubtlessly to enter. When she does she will most certainly not enter upon her feet if my orders have been strictly carried out."

And even as he spoke a distant piercing scream, followed by another, and yet another, rent the air, causing Jill's mouth to shut like a steel trap, and her eyes to blaze like fires.

"That is what happens when I am disobeyed, Mademoiselle! Here is your coffee, drink it!"

The tone was brutal, and Jill meekly put out her hand to take the little porcelain and silver trifle the man was bringing to her, laying it beside the emerald ring upon the table as he turned to fetch his own cup.

"Drop that!"

Jill had not raised her voice, but a certain unmistakable quality in it caused the man to wheel sharply.

He stared in blank amazement for a fleeting second, and then, still carefully holding the cup, backed hastily and sideways out of the direct range of a very small but very useful-looking revolver in Jill's right hand.

There was a curious lifelessness in the whole situation, and a quite distressing lack of drama until the oriental smiled contemptuously.

"Do not think to frighten me with that plaything, because I am totally unafraid. We hear of the Englishwomen who shoot and ride like men, but—well! we hear so many tales of Europe. Put up your little toy, Mademoiselle, and remember in future that no one with any respect for his life ever gives me an order!"

With an indifference that was not in the least assumed, he raised the cup he was still holding.

There was a crashing report in the luxurious room, a tinkling of broken china, and a wisp of smoke between a smiling girl and a very surprised man.

"Don't be a fool, and do as you're told if you have any respect for your life," said Jill tersely, as she moved her hand slightly so that her aim was on a dead level with a big button ornamenting an inch or so of satin on the middle left of the man's undervest.

He stood like an image carved out of consternation, whilst streaks of rage seemed to flash across his livid face. Be it confessed, he was not in the least afraid, but no word in the Egyptian or any other tongue could be found to express the depths of humiliation in which he stood neck deep.

"Now, drink this coffee!" said Jill pleasantly, pointing with her left hand to the cup she had placed on the little table.

"Never!"

Jill smiled icily.

"I thought as much. You scoundrel! So it is drugged, and I, having drunk it, would have lain unconscious at your mercy. God! to think that such brutes as you are allowed to live."

The man was watching the girl's every movement, ready to spring like a cat from the area steps upon the unsuspecting sparrow in the road, but neither her eyes nor her hand moved as she continued speaking very gently.

"Listen! I should have killed you myself to-night, feeling myself justified, so that other wretched girls should escape the fate you had prepared for me—you, lower than the beasts of the field; but I am not going to do it, as happily I know of one more powerful than I who will enjoy it thoroughly. Think of what I say when you see his messenger with your ring upon his finger, to-morrow or next month or next year perhaps—and when your time comes, watch the procession of betrayed and tortured girls as they pass before you to catch your soul in their slim hands as it leaves your body. Now! drink that coffee!"

But the man stood stock still, and Jill frowned, for she was not a paragon of patience at any time, and the obstinacy of the man fretted her already jagged nerves.

"Very well," she said, "I give you one more chance. If you refuse again I shall put a bullet straight through your head just between the eyebrows, as I shall now put one through that brooch kind of thing in your turban."

There was another deafening report, and the turban flew from the oriental's head just as a paper-bag will fly before a March wind.

"Go and pick that turban up and put it on your head. Hurry now, or we shall have the police or someone coming to inquire about the shooting gallery."

The eyes of the boa-constrictor in the Zoo were gems of humanity in comparison with those of the negroid-Egyptian's as he turned to obey, and then stopped mulishly until a third little reminder chipped splinters from the marble at his heel, whereupon he stooped and recovered his headgear, minus the brooch, but plus a neat little hole fore and aft.

"Now come and drink the coffee! It won't be very nice as it is almost cold. And remember in future if you are allowed to live, which I very much doubt, that such supreme indifference as mine could only possibly be the outcome of an absolute sense of perfect security."

Jill patted the silly-looking little ivory and silver thing she held.

"You mongrel!" she continued sweetly, "I was simply playing with you until the right moment—the coffee moment which I knew must happen—should arrive in which to give you a lesson. Why! when I saw your eyes in the restaurant I took my little friend from my pocket and made sure he was in order. I may look a fool, and I may act in a manner still more foolish, but I am not exactly what you would call a born fool! Now drink that, I am late already! And don't spill a single drop or I'll shoot you on the spot!"

There was nothing for it but to obey, though the brute took the only revenge he could in pouring out a torrent of language beyond description, until Jill suddenly rose and levelled her revolver at his head, which seemed to send the sickly contents post-haste down his throat, after which Jill ordered him to stretch himself comfortably upon the flower-screened divan.

He did so smiling stupidly, the drug having begun to take effect; and the big eyes closed and opened and closed again, and the mouth relaxed as a gentle snore told Jill that as far as the present danger was concerned she was safe.

She stood for a second looking idly down upon one of the world's greatest criminals, and then at the thought of the dangers which might still be awaiting her on the other side of the door, unloaded her revolver and slipped a fully loaded clip into her little friend.

Then picking up the emerald ring from the table, and her dressing-case from behind the cushions, she crept gently across the room, and gently—oh! so very gently, opened the door which yielded noiselessly to her touch, and stepped into a deserted hall only to recoil violently from something at her feet.

Across the threshold lay a girl.

The agonised eyes in the beautiful dark face gazed up in terror at Jill, whilst a little hand searched weakly for a jewelled plaything of a dagger at her waist.

"Oh! Poverina!" said Jill, as she knelt to raise the little head, and then stared in horror at the girl's shoulders and the hem of her satin trousers.

Some expert hand had flicked the delicate flesh off the back in a criss-cross pattern; what was left of the feet lay in a pool of blood, the deep red of which stretched across the hall far into the distance, showing the path along which the child, left by her torturers for dead, had dragged herself.

"Poor little, little thing!" whispered Jill, as she made to raise the body in her arms. But the dusky head shook feebly, and a dainty henna-tipped finger pointed to a window across the hall, and Jill, feeling herself pushed away ever so slightly, rose as three words were whispered over and over again:

"Vite—allez—mort—vite—allez—mort!"

And understanding that there was nothing more to be done she bent and kissed the child upon the cheek and turned away, looking back as she opened the window which gave on to a balcony about ten feet above the level of the deserted street, and even as she looked, saw the door of the room she had just left being pushed back inch by inch as the dying girl, strengthened by love and agony, dragged herself slowly into the room in which lay the man she worshipped asleep.



CHAPTER XI

Ten o'clock!—half-past!—eleven!

The usual noises of a night in an Egyptian town were at their height.

The distant and never-ceasing shuffling of slippered or naked feet on stone, or sand, made a dull accompaniment to the sharper notes of men's voices crying their wares of sticky sweetmeat or fruit, and the barking and growling of innumerable dogs.

Muffled ejaculations could be heard, little gurgles of laughter, which in Egypt, thanks be to Allah, do not degenerate into giggles, the swish of a whip in the shadow, followed by a woman's cry, and through all, above all, unfinished catches of music.

All kinds of humans, including tourists, writers, European officials and desert dilettanti, have affixed every kind of adjective to Egypt's music.

Ethereal, melancholy, wailing, plaintive, nebulous, and pathetic are but a few. Why—why try to tie a label to something which slips from the fingers even as they close about it? Why try to describe that which cannot be described? There is, or was, a certain line which in the heat of an Egyptian noon, or the stillness of an Egyptian night, when the first notes of a human voice, or stringed instrument, or rudely cut pipe-reed reach the ears, would creep out of some memory cell.

One loved the vagueness of those words:

"Out of the nowhere, into here!"

Loved the infinite space they opened up with their aloofness and indefiniteness, until, alas! they took concrete shape when chosen as title to the picture of a robust, Royal Academy, Fed-on-Virol looking babe, which doubtless, when trying to grab some passing Olympian butterfly, fell off the lap of the Gods into a sitting position upon Mother Earth.

Also, one thinks of that mist wraith which on a cloudless day stretched across some mountain's breast, lies lightly upon the air, with diaphanous ends coming out of and going into nothingness; for in just such manner does the music fall across an Egyptian day or night.

These catches of music have no end, and no beginning; they rise, linger a moment, and are gone, leaving behind them an indescribable loneliness of soul, and a longing to stretch one's hand back down the centuries to pluck their meaning from the past.

Under the sand, the granite, the marble, buried deep in the pyramids or merely covered by the earth of shallow graves, there must surely be many instruments of music wrought in gold or silver, studded in jewels, or cut out of humble wood; many strings still unbroken, and near them many whitened bones of dusky hands which, for all we know, at odd moments of day or night set those strings a-thrumming, or lift the reed pipes to ghostly lips.

Who knows but that the British Museum at night, rid at last of those who gape at Egypt's dishonoured dead, may not be filled with snatches of music from throat or hand of those unfortunates, priest, priestess, fair woman and honoured man, dug out and laid upon a slab of grass for the education of the revellers of a wet Bank Holiday, or those others from Northern climes, who bid their snuffling, sticky progeny to "coom oop, lad, an' look at t' stuffed un!"

And on this night of which I write, music was caught up, and carried hither and hither upon the breeze which clittered the leaves of the palms, and softly moved the flowing robes of Hahmed the Arab, who, perfectly motionless, stood in the ink-black shadow cast by the bougainvillaea, which trailed its purple masses over the walls of the house, shining faintly pink under the silver moon.

At the man's feet lay three camels, superb beasts. One red brown and one-humped, packed with a seemingly huge load which in reality it hardly felt, and two Bactrian or two-humped, pacing dromedaries of Dhalul, one of deepest black and therefore most rare, with black saddle cloth embroidered in silver, the third of a light golden colour, decked out in cloth of softest silk patterned with glistening jewels, and shimmering crystal specks, cushions padding the saddle-seat, to which hung stirrups of silver.

About this beast's neck, outstretched upon the sand, lay a garland of flowers, upon the ground by its side lay an Eastern rug of purple shade, covered inches deep in flowers of every kind.

There was no grumbling or snarling, they knew their master and lay still, until, with a slight grunt, one raised its head and looked towards the East, as the man with a muttered "Allah" slowly moved towards the gate.

Putting his hands to his lips and forehead and murmuring, "Peace be upon you!" he took Jill's dressing-case from her.

* * * * * *

"I'm sorry to be so late," she said in a voice devoid of anything in the way of tone or inflection, "and I had to bring my dressing-case, it would be so tiresome to be stranded in the desert with no looking-glass or face cream, wouldn't it?"

"It would be terrible!" was the answer, as though a dearth in dates was in discussion.

And then Jill sat down upon a convenient block of marble, and searching in her cheap bag for one of those Russian cigarette cases of wood, which had the advantage of being inexpensive and distinctive compared to those of gold, silver, or silver gilt, which jingle so irritatingly against the universal gold, silver, or silver gilt bag, took out a cigarette, lit it, and began to make conversation.

It is very difficult to describe the girl's frame of mind at this moment when she stood upon the verge of great happenings, or in fact of any moment when danger, possible or certain, confronted her.

She was perfectly calm, in fact a little dull, with a heart which physically neither slowed nor hastened.

Yet it was not the fearlessness of blissful ignorance, or the aggravating recklessness of the foolhardy.

Three times she had been in actual danger of death: once when her horse bolted, making straight for the cliffs a short way ahead; another time when the receding tide had caught her, pulling her slowly out to sea, and never a boat in sight; and again when taking a pre-breakfast stroll on the Col di Tenda, she had encountered a fugitive of the law desperately making for the frontier, who, half crazed with fear, sleeplessness, and hunger, literally at the point of an exceedingly sharp knife had demanded money, or bracelet, in fact anything which could be transformed into a mattress, and coffee, polenta, cigarette or succulent frittata.

After each of the preceding incidents she had tried to analyse her utter want of feeling, her inability to recognise danger, her almost placid confidence in an ultimate happy ending.

"It doesn't seem to be me, Dads," she had once explained, or tried to explain, to her father, who, in the depths of an armchair and the Sporting News, had no more idea of what she was talking about than the man in the moon. "I seem to be standing outside myself looking at myself. A sort of something seems to come right down, shutting the danger right away from me. I know I'm in it and have to get out of it, but though I pulled Arabia for all I knew, and swam for all I was worth to reach Rock Point, and bluffed that poor devil out of taking Mumsie's bracelet, I kind of did it mechanically, not with any intention of putting things right, for I knew I was not going to die that time, because I'm sure that I shall know when I've got to die . . . understand, Dads?"

To which Dads had replied:

"Quite so, my dear, quite so! Personally I don't see how it could be otherwise. I agree with every word you say!" patting his red setter's head, which in the firelight he fondly believed to be his daughter's.



CHAPTER XII

And so it was now as she sat under the African moon, whilst little rings and puffs of smoke helped to irritate the insects ensconced in the leaves of the creeper. She seemed to be standing on the other side of a wall, watching the outcome of the tossing of a silver coin.

"I've had a perfectly awful day," she announced with a ripple of genuine amusement in her voice as she proceeded quite unconcernedly to recount the doings of the last few hours.

"So naturally I was followed from the restaurant," she went on after a moment's pause, "and my bag was so heavy, and I was absolutely lost, and only just managed to give the man the slip by hiding behind a half-open door, painted bright blue of all colours."

"Allah!" murmured Hahmed. "An English girl hiding in a house with a blue door!"

"But," she went on, having for some unknown reason omitted the dance episode from her narrative, "that wasn't the worst part"—and continued, quite unconcernedly, to give a detailed account of the night's happenings. Whilst she was speaking the Arab moved nearer until he stood over her, there was neither shadow nor frown upon the fine face, or movement of lip or hand, but the air seemed to throb with the intensity of the white-hot rage within him.

"By Allah!" he said quite gently, as he took the emerald ring Jill held out. "I do not need this, for behold for many years I have known of the doings of this thing of whom you speak. And yet so great has been his cunning, that until to-night I have never been able to lay hands upon him in his guilt. But to-morrow will dawn a brighter day for Egypt, in that she will be rid of one of her greatest evils. And were you not afraid?"

Jill smiled up into the eyes fixed with love, plus worship, plus reverence, upon her. "I? Oh! no! Why should I be when I am supposed to be one of the finest shots in Europe? Are you going to kill him?"

"He will be dead ere the sun rises, and I beg you to forgive me if I leave you for a while, for I must go to give orders as to his death."

Jill's thoughts can be most aptly described as tumultuous, but her smile was a festival of youth as she watched the Arab, in whom she had put her trust, walk up the long avenue, stop, and clap his hands.

She could hear no word of the orders given to the servant, who ran from out a clump of trees to kneel at his master's feet, but she guessed that it was the engraven emerald ring which passed from one to the other to be hidden in the servant's turban; and she felt a wave of absolute satisfaction sweep through her whole being at the thought of the man's death before the dawn.

At which sensation she mentally shook herself, feeling that the young tree of her experience, unrestrainedly shooting out in all directions within the space of a few hours, would require the sharp edge of the pruning knife if it was to be kept to the merest outline of the shape common to the ordinary life she had led up to now.

"It is well! He dies before the dawn!" announced the Arab prosaically, as he came towards this woman who, on the edge of a new life which might, for all she knew, bring ruin, despair, or even death in its wake, could so tranquilly talk of the risks she had already encountered in the course of the first few steps she had taken upon the path she had chosen to follow.

1  2  3  4  5     Next Part
Home - Random Browse