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"A month! Thirty-one days! Oh, God! Only thirty-one days. It seems a lifetime. Only a month since I left Biskra. A month! A month!"
Diana flung herself on to her face, burying her head deeply into the cushions of the divan, shutting out from her sight the barbaric luxury of her surroundings, shuddering convulsively. She did not cry. The complete breakdown of the first night had never been repeated. Tears of shame and anger had risen in her eyes often, but she would not let them fall. She would not give her captor the satisfaction of knowing that he could make her weep. Her pride was dying hard. Her mind travelled back slowly over the days and nights of anguished revolt, the perpetual clash of will against will, the enforced obedience that had made up this month of horror. A month of experience of such bitterness that she wondered dully how she still had the courage to rebel. For the first time in her life she had had to obey. For the first time in her life she was of no account. For the first time she had been made conscious of the inferiority of her sex. The training of years had broken down under the experience. The hypothetical status in which she had stood with regard to Aubrey and his friends was not tolerated here, where every moment she was made to feel acutely that she was a woman, forced to submit to everything to which her womanhood exposed her, forced to endure everything that he might put upon her a chattel, a slave to do his bidding, to bear his pleasure and his displeasure, shaken to the very foundation of her being with the upheaval of her convictions and the ruthless violence done to her cold, sexless temperament The humiliation of it seared her proud heart. He was pitiless in his arrogance, pitiless in his Oriental disregard of the woman subjugated. He was an Arab, to whom the feelings of a woman were non-existent. He had taken her to please himself and he kept her to please himself, to amuse him in his moments of relaxation.
To Diana before she had come to Africa the life of an Arab Sheik in his native desert had been a very visionary affair. The term sheik itself was elastic. She had been shown Sheiks in Biskra who drove hard bargains to hire out mangy camels and sore-covered donkeys for trips into the interior. Her own faithless caravan-leader had called himself "Sheik." But she had heard also of other and different Sheiks who lived far away across the shimmering sand, powerful chiefs with large followings. who seemed more like the Arabs of her imaginings, and of whose lives she had the haziest idea. When not engaged in killing their neighbours she visualized them drowsing away whole days under the influence of narcotics, lethargic with sensual indulgence. The pictures she had seen had been mostly of fat old men sitting cross-legged in the entrance of their tents, waited on by hordes of retainers, and looking languidly, with an air of utter boredom, at some miserable slave being beaten to death.
She had not been prepared for the ceaseless activity of the man whose prisoner she was. His life was hard, strenuous and occupied. His days were full, partly with the magnificent horses that he bred, and partly with tribal affairs that took him from the camp for hours at a time. Upon one or two occasions he had been away for the whole night and had come back at daybreak with all the evidences of hard riding. Some days she rode with him, but when he had not the time or the inclination, the French valet went with her. A beautiful grey thoroughbred called Silver Star was kept for her use, and sometimes on his back she was able to forget for a little time. So the moments of relaxation were less frequent than they might have been, and it was only in the evenings when Gaston had come and gone for the last time and she was alone with the Sheik that an icy hand seemed to close down over her heart. And, according to his mood, he noticed or ignored her. He demanded implicit obedience to his lightest whim with the unconscious tyranny of one who had always been accustomed to command. He ruled his unruly followers despotically, and it was obvious that while they loved him they feared him equally. She had even seen Yusef, his lieutenant, cringe from the heavy scowl that she had, herself, learned to dread.
"You treat them like dogs," she said to him once. "Are you not afraid that one day they will rise against you and murder you?"
And he had only shrugged his shoulders and laughed, the same low laugh of amusement that never failed to make her shiver.
The only person whose devotion seemed untinged by any conflicting sentiment was the French valet, Gaston.
It was the Sheik's complete indifference to everything beyond his own will, his Oriental egoism, that stung her most. He treated her supplication, and invectives with a like unconcern. The paroxysms of wild rage that filled her periodically made no impression on him. He accorded them a shrug of ennui or watched her with cold curiosity, his lips parted in a little cruel smile, as if the dissection of her lacerated feelings amused him, until his patience was exhausted, and then, with one of the lithe, quick movements that she could never evade, his hands would grip and hold her and he would look at her. Only that, but in the grasp of his lean, brown fingers and under the stare of his dark, fierce eyes her own would drop, and the frantic words die from her lips. She was physically afraid of him, and she hated him and loathed herself for the fear he inspired. And her fear was legitimate. His strength was abnormal, and behind it was the lawlessness and absolutism that allowed free rein to his savage impulses. He held life and death in his hand.
A few days after he had taken her she had seen him chastise a servant. She did not know what the man's fault had been, but the punishment seemed out of all proportion to anything that could be imagined, and she had watched fascinated with horror, until he had tossed away the murderous whip, and without a second glance at the limp, blood-stained heap that huddled on the ground with suggestive stillness had strolled back unconcerned to the tent. The sight had sickened her and haunted her perpetually. His callousness horrified her even more than his cruelty. She hated him with all the strength of her proud, passionate nature. His personal beauty even was an additional cause of offence. She hated him the more for his handsome face and graceful, muscular body. His only redeeming virtue in her eyes was his total lack of vanity, which she grudgingly admitted. He was as unconscious of himself as was the wild animal with which she compared him.
"He is like a tiger," she murmured deep into the cushions, with a shiver, "a graceful, cruel, merciless beast." She remembered a tiger she had shot the previous winter in India. After hours of weary, cramped waiting in the machan the beautiful creature had slipped noiselessly through the undergrowth and emerged into the clearing. He had advanced midway towards the tree where she was perched and had stopped to listen, and the long, free stride, the haughty poise of the thrown-back head, the cruel curl of the lips and the glint in the ferocious eyes flashing in the moonlight, were identical with the expression and carriage of the man who was her master. Then it had been admiration without fear, and she had hesitated at wantonly destroying so perfect a thing, until the quick pressure of her shikari's fingers on her arm brought her back to facts and reminded her that the "perfect thing" was reported to have eaten a woman the previous week. And now it was fear with a reluctant admiration that she despised herself for according.
A hand on her shoulder made her start up with a cry. Usually her nerves were in better control, but the thick rugs deadened every sound, and she had not expected him so soon. He had been out since dawn and had come in much past his usual time, and had been having a belated siesta in the adjoining room.
Angry with herself she bit her lip and pushed the tumbled hair off her forehead. He dropped on to the divan beside her and lit the inevitable cigarette; he smoked continuously every moment he was not in the saddle. She glanced at him covertly. He was lying with his head thrown back against the cushions, idly blowing smoke-rings and watching them drift towards the open door-way. And as she looked he yawned and turned to her.
"Zilah is careless. Insist that she puts away your boots, and does not leave your clothes lying on the floor. There was a scorpion in the bathroom to-day," he said lazily, stretching out his long legs.
She flushed hotly, as she always did when he made any casual reference to the intimacy of their life. It was his casualness that frightened her, the carelessly implied continuance of a state that scorched her with shame. His attitude invariably suggested a duration of their relations that left her numb with a kind of helpless despair. He was so sure of himself, so sure of his possession of her.
She felt the warm blood pouring over her face now, up to the roots of her bright hair and dyeing her slender neck, and she put her hands up to her head, her fingers thrust through her loose curls, to shield her face from his eyes.
She gave a sigh of relief when Gaston came in bringing a little tray with two filigree-cased cups of coffee.
"I have brought coffee; Madame's tea is finished," he murmured in tones of deepest distress, and with a gesture that conveyed a national calamity.
There had been just enough tea taken on the tour to last a month. It was another pin-prick, another reminder. She set her teeth, moving her head angrily, and found herself looking into a pair of mocking eyes, and, as always, her own dropped.
Gaston said a few words in Arabic to his master, and the Sheik swallowed the boiling coffee and went out hastily. The valet moved about the tent with his usual deft noiselessness, gathering up cigarette ends and spent matches, and tidying the room with an assiduous orderliness that was peculiarly his own. Diana watched him almost peevishly. Was it the influence of the desert that made all these men cat-like in their movements, or was the servant consciously or unconsciously copying his master? With a sudden fit of childish irritability she longed to smash something, and, with an impetuous hand, sent the little inlaid table with the tray and coffee-cups flying. She was ashamed of the impulse even before the crash came, and looked at Gaston clearing up the debris with anxious eyes. What was the matter with her? The even temper on which she prided herself and the nerves that had been her boast had vanished, gone by the board in the last month. If her nerve failed her utterly what would become of her? What would she do?
Gaston had gone, and she looked around the tent with a hunted expression. There seemed no escape possible from the misery that was almost more than she could bear.
There was a way out that had been in her mind often, and she had searched frequently in the hope that she might find the means. But the Sheik had also thought and had taken precautions. One day it seemed as if her desperate wish might be fulfilled, and she had had only a moment's hesitation as she stretched out her hand to take the revolver that had been left lying on a table, but as her fingers closed on the butt a muscular hand closed over hers. He had come in with his usual silent step and was close to her without her knowing. He had taken the weapon from her quietly, holding her eyes with his own, and had jerked it open, showing the empty magazine. "Do you think that I am quite a fool?" he had asked without a trace of expression in his voice.
And since then she had been under a ceaseless, unobtrusive surveillance that had left her no chance of carrying out her terrible resolve. She buried her face in her hands. "Oh, my God! Is it never going to end? Am I never going to get away from him?"
She sprang to her feet and walked restlessly round the tent, her hands clasped behind her back, her head thrown up, and her lips pressed close together. She panted as if she had been running, and her eyes had a far-away, unseeing look. Gradually she got command of herself again and the nervous excitement died down, leaving her weary and very desolate. The solitude seemed suddenly horrible. Anything would be better than the silent emptiness of the great tent. A noise outside attracted her, and she wandered to the doorway and out under the awning. Near her the Sheik with Gaston and Yusef stood watching a mad, ramping colt that was being held with difficulty by two or three men, who clung to him tenaciously in spite of his efforts to break away, and beyond was a semi-circle of Arabs, some mounted and some on foot, leaving a wide, open space between them and the tent. They were intensely excited, talking and gesticulating, the mounted men riding round the outer ring that they farmed. Diana leaned against one of the lances that supported the awning and watched the scene with growing interest. This camp was many miles to the south of the one to which she had first been brought, and which had been broken up a few days after her capture. The setting was wonderful, the far-off hills dusky in the afternoon light, the clustering palms behind the tents, the crowd of barbaric figures in picturesque, white robes, the horsemen moving continuously up and down, and in the midst of everything the beautiful, wild creature, frenzied by the noise, kicking and biting at the men holding him. After a moment the Sheik held up his hand, and a man detached himself from the chattering crowd and came to him salaaming. The Sheik said a few words, and with another salaam and a gleam of white teeth, the man turned and approached the struggling group in the centre of the ring.
Diana straightened up with interest. The frantic colt was going to be broken. It was already saddled. Several additional men ran forward, and between them the horse was forcibly held for a moment only for a moment, but it was long enough for the man who leaped like a flash on to his back. The others fell away, racing from the reach of the terrible lashing heels. Amazed for the moment at the sudden unaccustomed weight, the colt paused, and then reared straight up, till it seemed to Diana that he must fall backward and crush the man who was clinging to him. But he came down at last, and for a few moments it was almost impossible to follow his spasmodic movements as he strove to rid himself of his rider. The end came quickly. With a twisting heave of his whole body he shot the Arab over his head, who landed with a dull thud and lay still, while the men who had been holding the colt dashed in and secured him before he was aware of his liberty. Diana looked towards the fallen man; a little crowd were gathered around him, and her heart beat faster as she thought that he was dead. Dead so quickly, and only a moment before he had been so full of life and strength. Death meant nothing to these savages, she thought bitterly, as she watched the limp body being carried away by three or four men, who argued violently over their burden. She glanced at the Sheik. He seemed perfectly unconcerned and did not even look in the direction of the man who had fallen. On the contrary, he laughed, and, turning to Yusef, put his hand on his shoulder and nodded towards the colt. Diana gave a gasp. He spared no one. He was going to make the young man take his chance as the rough-rider had taken his. She knew that the lieutenant rode well, as did all Ahmed Ben Hassan's followers, and that his languid manner was only a pose, but he looked so young and boyish, and the risk seemed enormous. She had seen colts broken before many times, but never a colt so madly savage as this one. But to Yusef the chance was evidently welcome. With an answering laugh, he swaggered out into the arena, where the men greeted him with shouts. There was the same procedure as before, and Yusef bounded up lightly into the saddle. This time, instead of rearing, the frightened beast dashed forward in a wild effort to escape, but the mounted men, closing up, headed him into the middle of the ring again, and he went back to his first tactics with a rapidity that was too much for the handsome lad on his back, and in a few moments he was thrown heavily. With a shrill scream the colt turned on him open-mouthed, and Yusef flung up one arm to save his face. But the men reached him in time, dragging the colt from him by main force. He rose to his feet unsteadily and limped to the tents behind. Diana could not see him easily for the throng around him.
Again she looked at the Sheik and ground her teeth. He was stooping to light a cigarette from a match that Gaston was holding, and then they walked together nearer to the colt. The animal was now thoroughly maddened, and it was increasingly difficult to hold him. They went up close to the struggling, yelling grooms, and the next minute Diana saw Gaston sitting firmly in the empty saddle. The little man rode magnificently, and put up a longer fight than the others had done, but at last his turn came, and he went flying over the colt's head. He came down lightly on his hands and knees, and scrambled to his feet in an instant amidst a storm of shouts and laughter. Laughing himself he came back to the Sheik with a shrug of the shoulders and outspread, eloquent hands. They spoke together for a moment, too low for Diana to hear, and then Ahmed Ben Hassan went again into the middle of the ring. Diana's breath came more quickly. She guessed his intention before he reached the colt, and she moved forward from under the awning and joined Gaston, who was wrapping his handkerchief round a torn hand.
"Monseigneur will try?" she asked a little breathlessly.
Gaston looked at her quickly. "Try, Madame?" he repeated in a queer voice. "Yes, he will try."
Again the empty saddle was filled, and a curious hush came over the watching crowd. Diana looked on with bright, hard eyes, her heart beating heavily. She longed passionately that the colt might kill him, and, at the same time, illogically, she wanted to see him master the infuriated animal. The sporting instinct in her acknowledged and responded to the fight that was going on before her eyes. She hated him and she hoped that he might die, but she was forced to admire the wonderful horsemanship that she was watching. The Sheik sat like a rock, and every effort made to unseat him was unsuccessful. The colt plunged wildly, making furious blind dashes backward and forward, stopping dead in the hope of dislodging his rider, twirling round suddenly until it seemed impossible that he could keep his feet. Then he started rearing, straight up, his forelegs beating the air, higher and higher, and then down, to commence again without a moment's breathing-space.
Diana heard Gaston's breath whistle through his teeth. "Look, Madame!" he cried sharply, and Diana saw the Sheik give a quick glance behind him, and, as the colt shot up again, almost perpendicular, with a jerk he pulled him deliberately over backwards, leaping clear with a tremendous effort as the horse crashed to the ground. He was in the saddle again almost before the dazed creature had struggled to its feet. And then began a scene that Diana never forgot. It was the final struggle that was to end in defeat for either man or horse, and the Sheik had decided that it was not to be for the man. It was a punishment of which the untamed animal was never to lose remembrance. The savagery and determination of the man against the mad determination of the horse. It was a hideous exhibition of brute strength and merciless cruelty. Diana was almost sick with horror from the beginning; she longed to turn away, but her eyes clung fascinated to the battle that was going on. The hush that had fallen on the crowd had given way to roars of excitement, and the men pressed forward eagerly, to give back precipitately when the still-fighting animal's heels flashed too near.
Diana was shaking all over and her hands were clenching and unclenching as she stared at the man, who seemed a part of the horse he was sitting so closely. Would it never end? She did not care now which killed the other so that it would only stop. The man's endurance seemed mere bravado, She clutched Gaston's arms with a hand that was wringing wet. "It is horrible," she gasped with an accent of loathing.
"It is necessary," he replied quietly.
"Nothing can justify that," she cried passionately.
"Your pardon, Madame. He must learn. He killed a man this morning, threw him, and what you call in English 'savaged' him."
Diana hid her face in her hands. "I can't bear it," she said pitifully.
A few minutes later Gaston clicked his tongue against his teeth. "See, Madame. It is over," he said gently.
She looked up fearfully. The Sheik was standing on the ground beside the colt, who was swaying slowly from side to side with heaving sides and head held low to the earth, dripping blood and foam. And as she looked he tottered and collapsed exhausted. There was a rush from all sides, and Gaston went towards his master, who towered above the crowd around him.
Diana turned away with an exclamation of disgust. It was enough to have seen a display of such brutality; it was too much to stand by while his fellow-savages acclaimed him for his cruelty.
She went slowly back into the tent, shaken with what she had seen, and stood in undecided hesitation beside the divan. The helpless feeling that she so often experienced swept over her with renewed force. There was nowhere that she could get away from him, no privacy, no respite. Day and night she must endure his presence with no hope of escape. She closed her eyes in a sudden agony, and then stiffened at the sound of his voice outside.
He came in laughing, a cigarette dangling from one blood-stained hand, while with the other he wiped the perspiration from his forehead, leaving a dull red smear. She shrank from him, looking at him with blazing eyes. "You are a brute, a beast, a devil! I hate you! "she choked furiously.
For a moment an ugly look crossed his face, and then he laughed again. "Hate me by all means, ma belle, but let your hatred be thorough. I detest mediocrity," he said lightly, as he passed on into the other room.
She sank down on to the couch. She had never felt so desperate, so powerless. She stared straight before her, shivering, as she went over the scene she had just witnessed, her fingers picking nervously at the jade-green silk of her dress. She longed for some power that would deaden her feelings and blunt her capacity for suffering. She looked at Gaston with hard eyes when he came in. He had approved of what the Sheik had done, would have done it himself if he had been able. They were all alike.
"The man who was hurt first," she asked abruptly, with a touch of her old hauteur in her voice, "is he dead?"
"Oh no, Madame. He has concussion but he will be all right. They have hard heads, these Arabs."
Gaston grinned. "Le petit Sheik has a broken collarbone. It is nothing. A few days' holiday to be petted in his harem, et voilà!"
"His harem?" echoed Diana in surprise. "Is he married?"
"Mais oui, Madame. He has two wives."
At Diana's exclamation he shrugged deprecatingly. " It is the custom of the country," he said tolerantly, with the air of conceding a melancholy fact with the best grace possible.
The customs of the country was dangerous ground, and Diana changed the subject hastily. "Where did you learn to ride, Gaston?"
"In a racing-stable at Auteuil, Madame, when I was a boy. Then I was five years in the French cavalry. After that I came to Monseigneur."
"And you have been with him how long?"
"Fifteen years, Madame."
"Fifteen years," she repeated wonderingly. "Fifteen years here, in the desert?"
"Here and elsewhere, Madame," he answered rather more shortly than usual, and with a murmur of excuse left the tent.
Diana leaned back against the cushions with a little sigh. Gaston need not have been afraid that she was trying to learn his master's secrets from him. She had not fallen as low as that. The mystery of the man whose path had crossed hers so terribly seemed to augment instead of lessen as the time went on. What was the power in him that compelled the devotion of his wild followers and the little French ex-cavalryman? She knit her forehead in perplexity and was still puzzling over it when he came back. Immaculate and well-groomed he was very different from the dishevelled, bloodstained savage of half-an-hour before. She shot a nervous glance at him, remembering her outburst, but he was not angry. He looked grave, but his gravity seemed centred in himself as he passed his lean fingers tenderly over his smooth chin. She had seen Aubrey do similarly hundreds of times. Occidental or Oriental, men seemed very alike. She waited for him to speak and waited vainly. One of the taciturn fits to which she had grown accustomed had come over him hours sometimes in which he simply ignored her altogether. The evening meal was silent. He spoke once to Gaston, but he spoke in Arabic, and the servant replied only with a nod of compliance. And after Gaston was gone he did not speak for a long time, but sat on the divan, apparently absorbed in his thoughts.
Restless, Diana moved about the tent, listlessly examining objects that she knew by heart, and flirting over the pages of the French magazines she had read a dozen times. Usually she was thankful for his silent moods. To-night with a woman's perversity she wanted him to speak. She was unstrung, and the utter silence oppressed her. She glanced over her shoulder at him once or twice, but his back looked unapproachable. Yet when he called her, with a swift revulsion of feeling, she wished he had kept silent. She went to him slowly. She was too unnerved to-night to struggle against him. What would be the use? she thought wearily; it would only end in defeat as it always did. He pulled her down on the divan beside him, and before she realised what he was doing slipped a long jade necklace over her head. For a moment she looked stupidly at the wonderful thing, almost unique in the purity of its colour and the marvellous carving on the uniform square pieces of which it was composed, and then with a low cry she tore it off and flung it on the ground.
"How dare you?" she gasped.
"You don't like it?" he asked in his low, unruffled voice, his eyebrows raised in real or assumed surprise. "Yet it matches your dress," and lightly his long fingers touched the folds of green silk swathed across the youthful curve of her breast. He glanced at an open box filled with shimmering stones on a low stool beside him.
"Pearls are too cold and diamonds too banal for you," he said slowly. "You should wear nothing but jade. It is the colour of the evening sky against the sunset of your hair."
He had never spoken like that to her before, or used that tone of voice. His methods had been more fierce than tender. She glanced up swiftly at his face, but it baffled her. There was no love in his eyes or even desire, nothing but an unusual gentleness. "Perhaps you would prefer the diamonds and the pearls," he went on, pointing disdainfully at the box.
"No, no. I hate them! I hate them all! I will not wear your jewels. You have no right to think that I am that kind of woman," she cried hysterically.
"You do not like them? Bon Dieu! None of the other women ever refused them. On the contrary, they could never get enough," he said with a laugh.
Diana looked up with a startled glance, a look of horror dawning in her eyes. "Other women?" she repeated blankly.
"You didn't suppose you were the first, did you?" he asked with brutal candour. "Don't look at me like that. They were not like you, they came to me willingly enough too willingly. Allah! How they bored me! I tired of them before they tired of me."
She flung her arm across her eyes with a dry sob; straining away from him. She had never thought of that. In the purity of her mind it had never occurred to her. She was only one of many, one of a succession of mistresses, taken and discarded at his whim. She writhed with the shame that filled her. "Oh, you hurt me!" she whispered very low, and then anger killed all other feeling. He had loosened his arm about her and she wrenched herself free and sprang to her feet. "I hate you, do you understand? I hate you! I hate you!"
He lit a cigarette leisurely before answering and moved into a more comfortable position on the divan. "So you have already told me this afternoon," he said at length coolly, "and with reiteration your remark becomes less convincing, ma chèrie."
Her anger ebbed away. She was too tired to be angry. She was humiliated and hurt, and the man before her had it in his power to hurt her more, but she was at his mercy and to-night she could not fight. She pushed the hair off her forehead with a heavy sigh and looked at the Sheik's long length stretched out on the couch, the steely strength of his limbs patent even in the indolent attitude in which he was lying, at his brown handsome face, inscrutable as it always was to her, and the feeling of helplessness came back with renewed force and with it the sense of her own pitiful weakness against his force, compelling her to speak. "Have you never felt pity for a thing that was weaker than yourself? Have you never spared anything or any one in all your life? Have you nothing in your nature but cruelty? Are all Arabs hard like you?" she said shakily. "Has love never even made you merciful?"
He glanced up at her with a harsh laugh, and shook his head. "Love? Connais pas! Yes, I do," he added with swift mockery, "I love my horses."
"When you don't kill them," she retorted.
"I am corrected. When I don't kill them."
There was something in his voice that made her reckless, that made her want to hurt him. "If you give no love to the the women whom you bring here, do you give love to the women of your harem? You have a harem, I suppose, somewhere?" she braved him with curling lip and scornful voice, but as she spoke she knew that she had only hurt herself and her voice faltered.
His hand reached out suddenly and he dragged her down into his arms again with a laugh. "And if I have, are you jealous? What if the nights I spent away from you were passed in my harem what then?"
"Then may Allah put it into the heart of one of your wives to poison you so that you never come back," she said fiercely.
"Allah! So beautiful and so bloodthirsty," he said in bantering reproof. Then he turned her face up to his, smiling into her angry eyes with amusement. "I have no harem and, thanks be to Allah, no wives, chèrie. Does that please you?"
"Why should I care? It is nothing to me," she replied sharply, with a vivid blush.
He held her closer, looking deeply into her eyes, holding them as he could when he liked, in spite of her efforts to turn them away a mesmerism she could not resist.
"Shall I make you care? Shall I make you love me? I can make women love me when I choose."
She went very white and her eyes flickered. She knew that he was only amusing himself, that he was utterly indifferent to her feelings, that he did not care if she hated or loved him, but it was a new form of torture that was more detestable than anything that had gone before it. It infuriated her that he could even suggest that she could come to care for him, that she could ever look on him as anything but a brutal savage who had committed a hideous outrage, that she could ever have any feeling for him except hatred and loathing. That he should class her with the other women he spoke of revolted her, she felt degraded, soiled as she had never done before, and she had thought that she had felt the utmost humiliation of her position.
The colour rushed back into her face. "I would rather you killed me," she cried passionately.
"So would I," he said drily, "for if you loved me you would bore me and I should have to let you go. While as it is" he laughed softly "as it is I do not regret the chance that took me into Biskra that day."
He let her go and got up with a yawn, watching her reprovingly as she crossed the tent. The easy swing of her boyish figure and the defiant carriage of her head reminded him of one of his own thoroughbred horses. She was as beautiful and as wild as they were. And as he broke them so would he break her. She was nearly tamed now, but not quite, and by Allah! it should be quite! As he turned his foot struck against the jade necklace lying on the rug where she had thrown it. He picked it up and called her back. She came reluctantly, slowly, with mutinous eyes.
He held out the necklace silently, and silently she stared not at it but at him. Her heart began to beat faster, and the colour slowly left her face. "Take it. I wish it," he said quietly.
"No." It was little more than a gasp.
"You will wear it to please me," he went on in the same soft voice, and the old hateful mockery crept into his eyes, "to please my artistic soul. I have are artistic soul even though I am only an Arab."
"I will not!"
The mockery was wiped out of his eyes in a flash, giving place to the usual ferocity, and his forehead knit in the dreaded heavy scowl. "Diane, obey me!"
She clenched her teeth on her lower lip
until a rim of blood stained their whiteness. If he
would only shout or bluster like the average angry man
she felt that she could brave him longer, but the cold
quiet rage that characterised him always was
infinitely more sinister, and paralysed her with its
silent force. She had never heard him raise his voice
in anger or quicken his usual slow, soft tone, but
there was an inflection that came into his voice and a
look that came into his eyes that was more terrible
than any outburst. She had seen his men shrink when,
standing near him, she had barely been able to hear
what he had said. She had seen a look from him silence
a clamorous quarrel that had broken out among his
followers too close to his own tent for his pleasure.
And that inflection was in his voice and that look was
in his eyes now. It was no longer
"You mean that you will treat me as you treated the colt this afternoon?" she whispered, her eyes drawn back irresistibly to his in spite of all her efforts.
"I mean that you must realise that my will is law."
"And if I do not?" He guessed rather than heard the words.
"Then I will teach you, and I think that you will learn soon."
She quivered in his hands. It was a threat, but how much of it he meant to be taken literally she did not know. Again every ghastly detail of the afternoon passed with lightning speed through her mind. When he punished he punished mercilessly. To what lengths would he go? The Arab standards were not those of the men amongst whom she had lived. The position of a woman in the desert was a very precarious one. There were times when she forgot altogether that he was an Arab until some chance, as now, drove the hard fact home indisputably. He was an Arab, and as a woman she need expect no mercy at his hands. His hands! She looked down for a second sideways at the fingers gripping her shoulder and she saw them again stained with blood, saw them clenched round the dripping thong. She knew already by bitter experience the iron grip of his lean fingers and the compelling strength of his arms. Her quick imagination leaped ahead. What she had already suffered would be nothing compared with what would be. The remembrance of the stained, huddled figure of the servant he had chastised rose before her. And as she battled with herself, still torn in her passionate desire to make her strong will and courageous spirit triumph over her coward woman's body that shrank instinctively from physical torture, his arm tightened around her and she felt the hard muscles pressing against her shoulders and soft, bare neck, a suggestion of the force lying dormant beside her. She looked up at him slowly.
His expression was unchanged, his forehead was still drawn together in the heavy frown and there was no softening in his eyes. The cruel lines about his mouth were accentuated and the tiger-look in his face was more marked than ever. He was not threatening idly; he meant what he said.
"You had better kill me," she said drearily.
"That would be to admit my own defeat," he replied coolly. "I do not kill a horse until I have proved beyond all possible doubt that I cannot tame it. With you I have no such proof. I can tame you and I will. But it is for you to choose and to choose to-night if you will obey me willingly or if I must make you. I have been very patient for me," he added, with an odd smile flitting across his face, "but my patience is exhausted. Choose quickly." Insensibly he drew her closer to him till his arm felt like an inflexible steel band about her, and she thought with a shudder of the coils of a great serpent closing round its victim. She made a final effort to conquer herself, but between her and the broad chest so close to her she seemed to see a horse's head held low in agony, blood and foam dripping from his lacerated mouth, and a horse's flanks heaving piteously, torn with the cruel punishment he had undergone. A sudden nausea came over her, everything seemed to swim before her eyes, and she swayed against the man who was holding her. Her bodily fear overruled her mind. She could not bear any more.
"I will obey you," she whispered heavily.
He took her chin in his fingers and jerked her head up sharply, staring at her intently until she felt he was looking unto her very soul. The heavy scowl smoothed away but the fierceness lingered in his eyes. "Good!" he said at length briefly. "You are wise," he added significantly. He tilted her head further back, bending his own down until his lips were nearly touching hers. She shivered involuntarily, an anguished appeal leaping into her eyes. He smiled ironically. "Do you hate them so much, my kisses?"
She swallowed convulsively.
"You are at least candid if you are not complimentary;" and with that he released her and turned away.
She reached the curtain that divided the two rooms, her heart beating wildly, giddy with the strain that she had gone through. She paused a moment and looked back at him, amazed at her own temerity. He had unbuttoned the flap of the tent and was standing in the entrance looking out into the night. The scent of the peculiar tobacco he used drifted to her with the draught from the open door. Her eyes grew puzzled. Would she ever understand him? To-night he had given her a choice instead of simply enforcing his will, he had made her choose to save herself, he had proved his determination and his mastery over her. And with his last words the unexpected gentleness had come into his voice again and the cruel lines about his mouth had relaxed in a smile of amusement. It was the swift transition from ferocity to gentleness that she could never fathom. His complex nature was beyond her understanding. She would not try to understand him; she could never know the depths of his baffling personality. She only knew that for some reason of his own he had spared her, and she feared him more than ever.
(End of this chapter.)
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