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    Chapter 52

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    Chapter 52
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    The House in the Hollow

    Joan Carston was sauntering behind her father, and had come opposite to the door in the wall, when it opened and she paused to look into the courtyard. The first view was disappointing, but the smiling black woman who held the door invitingly open pointed, as though it was something worth seeing, and Joan, her curiosity aroused, stepped through the doorway. Instantly the door was slammed behind her, a big, black hand covered her mouth, and she was drawn backward against the gate-woman, who whispered something fiercely in her ear. It was unintelligible, but there was no mistaking the threat.

    Before she realised what had happened, four men, who had appeared from nowhere, closed on her, and a scarf was knotted tightly round her ankles, a great wad of cottonwool was thrust into her face, blinding and stifling her, and she felt herself lifted up from her feet.

    She struggled, kicking furiously, but it was futile to struggle against those odds, and, her terror subsiding, she lay passive on the stone-flagged ground whilst her hands were bound tightly together. Then she was lifted and she sniffed the scent of clean wood. The wool was pulled from her face and another silken scarf bound tightly round her mouth by an expressionless negro, who pulled the edges of the scarf away so that she could breathe. In another minute the lid of the case was fastened on, and she was lifted irregularly into the air. She dared not struggle for fear of throwing the bearers off their balance.

    The air in the box was stifling: she felt she would suffocate and tried to raise the lid with her head, but it had been fastened from the outside. For an eternity she seemed to be swaying dizzily on the shoulders of the bearers, and then there was a little bump, and the box was slid on to a flat surface. What it was she knew, for she could feel the throb and pulsation of the engine beneath her. The car moved on, gathering speed, and evidently the driver was in a hurry, for he did not slow even over the irregular country road. Soon she was aching in every limb and ready to swoon.

    She must have lost consciousness for a while, for she woke suddenly to find herself lying on the side of the road. The trolley and the box had disappeared, and her four captors, whose heads were swathed in scarves, were looking down at her. Presently one stooped and lifted her to her feet, saying something in Arabic which she did not understand. She shook her head to signify her ignorance of the language, and then she saw the waiting mules. Carrying her in his arms, the big negro sat the girl on a mule, and led it down a steep slope at right angles to the road, his companions following.

    Her head was in a whirl, she was feeling dizzy and sick. To add to her torment, her thirst was almost unbearable, but they had not far to go. She saw one of the men, evidently the leader, looking back anxiously, and wondered what he feared. If there was a pursuit she must be rescued, and her heart leapt at the thought. The end of her journey, however, was near at hand. In a hollow was a low-roofed house, surrounded by a high, white wall, through the low gate of which the man led her mule.

    The courtyard was a blaze of autumnal flowers; the inevitable fountain played in the centre. She waited while they closed the gates, and then her attendant signalled her to dismount, and leading the way to the house, knocked at the door. It was opened immediately, and he pushed her into the hall. At first it was so dark that she could see nothing and then there developed from the darkness the figure of a Moorish woman. She was pretty, Joan thought, in spite of the unhealthy pallor of her complexion. Guided by the girl she passed through another door into a long room, the floor of which was covered with shabby rugs, which, with a divan, constituted its furnishing.

    Light was admitted from windows set high up in the wall, and she recognised the place, from the descriptions she had read, as the harem of a Moorish house. No other woman was in the room, and the girl who had conducted her there disappeared almost immediately, closing the door behind her.

    Joan sat down on the edge of the settee and dropped her face in her hands. She must face the danger bravely, she told herself, terrible as that danger was. She had no illusions as to what these two attempts on her liberty signified. The first had failed, but now she realised, as she had suspected all along, that the attack upon the yacht at Suba had been designed for her capture, and was not, as the Captain had asserted and Lord Creith had believed, the haphazard attack of pirates in search of treasure.

    The abduction had been carried out so smoothly that it must have been planned. How did they knew she would pass that door? They must have been waiting for days to carry their plot into execution. And who were "they"?

    Her head ached; she felt at the end of her resources; and then she sprang up as the door opened and a girl came in, bearing a large brass tray containing native bread, fruit, and a large brown carafe of water. With this was a chipped cup.

    "Do you speak English?" asked Joan.

    The girl shook her head. The prisoner tried in French, with no better result.

    "I can speak Spanish a little," said the Moorish girl, but though Joan recognised the language, her knowledge was too slight to carry on a conversation.

    When she had gone, Joan poured out a cupful of water and drank feverishly. She regarded the food with an air of suspicion, and then resolutely broke the bread and ate a little.

    "Joan Carston," she said, shaking her head, "you're in a very unhappy situation. You have been kidnapped by Moors! That sounds as though you're dreaming, because those things do not happen outside of books. You're not dreaming, Joan Carston. And you may eat the food. I don't suppose they will try to poison you--yet! And if they do, perhaps it will be better for you."

    "I doubt it," said a voice behind her, and she turned with a cry.

    A man had come into the room from the far end, and had been watching her for a long time before he made his presence known.

    "You!" she said.

    Ralph Hamon smiled crookedly.

    "This is an unexpected pleasure," he said.

    The appearance of the man momentarily stunned her, and then there dawned slowly upon her the true meaning of his appearance.

    "So it was you all the time?" she said slowly. "And that was why you sent us on this voyage? You were the other man, on the beach? I ought to have known that. Where is Jim Morlake?"

    She saw his jaw drop.

    "Jim Morlake? What are you talking about? He is in England, I suppose, under arrest for murder, if there is any justice in the country. You probably know that your husband was killed the night before you left, and that Morlake shot him."

    She shook her head, and he was amazed to see her smile.

    "You killed Farringdon," she said. "Captain Welling told me before I left. Not in so many words, but he found your footprints on the garden bed."

    If she wished to frighten him, she had succeeded. That old look she had seen before came into his grey face.

    "You're trying to scare me," he said huskily.

    "Where is Jim Morlake?" she asked again.

    "I don't know, I tell you. Dead, I hope, the damned Yankee crook!"

    "He is not dead, unless you killed him when you found you had him in your hands."

    His blank astonishment was eloquent.

    "In my hands? I don't understand you. When was he in my hands?"

    "He was the sailor you took from the yacht," she said; "the cook."

    "Hell!" breathed Hamon, and took a step backward. "You're fooling me. That wasn't Morlake. It was a sailor--a cook."

    She nodded.

    "It was Mr. Morlake. What did you do to him?"

    "Damn him!" he snarled. "That swine Zafouri took him away----" He stopped and changed his tone. "He is dead," he said. "He was executed by the crew of the dhow----"

    "You're not telling the truth. You told it at first. Mr. Morlake got away!"

    He did not speak. Fingering his quivering lips, he glared at her.

    "Morlake here! He can't be here: it is impossible!" he said. "You've invented that, Joan. I thought he was miles away. And what did Welling say? That is an invention too. What reason had I to shoot that soak?"

    "Captain Welling practically told me that you were the murderer," said the girl with calm malice.

    He took out his handkerchief and wiped his streaming forehead.

    "I'm a murderer, eh?" he said dully. "Well, they can only hang me, whatever I do," and his glance fell upon her. "I was going to tell you something, but you've upset my programme, Joan. It is easy to find out whether Morlake is in Tangier."

    "I didn't say he was in Tangier. I don't know that he is," she said, and for a second his face cleared.

    "He will come to Tangier," he said, frowning again. "He is not likely to lose much time if he knows you're there. Bit keen on him, aren't you? Lovers! I saw him kissing you in the wood. I hope he taught you how. Most of you cold white women haven't learnt the trick."

    He bit his lip, and evidently his mind was elsewhere than in that tawdry room.

    "I'll soon find out if he is in Tangier," he said, and went out the way he had come, through the little door behind the curtain which she had overlooked.

    A few minutes after he had gone, the Moorish girl returned, and led her to a room at the back of the house. A brick bath had been sunk in the floor, and the girl signalled to her to undress. Thrown across the back of a rickety chair, Joan saw some garments which she guessed were the costume of a Moorish woman, and at first she refused, but the girl pointed significantly at the door; and guessing that if she offered any resistance force would be applied, Joan undressed under the watchful eye of the girl and stepped down into the bath.

    When she came out and was enveloped in the warm towel that the girl had put for her, she saw that her clothes had been moved.

    "You want me to wear these?" she asked in lame Spanish.

    "Si, señorita," said the Moorish girl, and Joan dressed herself slowly.

    The costume was curiously unlike any she had seen (and had worn) at amateur theatricals. There was no tinsel, no glitter of sequins ... her first feeling was one of comfort. Only one article of her old attire she was allowed to retain--her stockings. Fortunately, she had not far to walk, for she had lost her shoe, and though the stocking sole was brown with the dust of the Fez Road, it was not worn through. When she had finished, the girl led her back to the room where she had first been imprisoned, and left her there.

    It was growing dark when Ralph Hamon returned to her.

    "Your unofficial fiancé is in trouble with the Moorish authorities," he said, "but he asked for it! A man with his knowledge of the country should have thought twice before attempting to raid the women's apartments of a Moorish noble. You will be interested to learn that he was the gentleman who trailed you this afternoon."

    "Anything you tell me about him interests me," she said, and his scowl rewarded her.

    "I think you'd better get into a new frame of mind, Joan, and readjust your values," he said. "Big changes are coming into your life and into mine."

    He seated himself beside her on the settee and she edged away from him, and finally rose.

    "I'm going to enjoy the existence that I've always wanted," he said. "The dolce far niente of Morocco is a real thing: in Italy it is a phrase."

    "You don't imagine that you are beyond the reach of the law?" she asked.

    "The law!" he scoffed. "There is no law in the hills, but the law of the rifle and the chieftain who happens to be reigning in that particular district. Don't you realise that there is a man in this country called Raisuli, who has been the law in his own province for twenty years? My dear Joan," he said blandly, "no country is going to war in order to save you from a little inconvenience. I am probably rendering you a very great service," he went on. "You are going to know life--the life that is worth the living."

    "In what capacity?" she asked, looking at him gravely.

    "As my wife," he replied. "There will be some difficulty about marrying for a year or two, but Moorish marriages are arranged much more easily. You shall learn Arabic: I will be your teacher, and we will read the poems of Hafiz together. You will look back pityingly upon the old Joan Carston, and wonder what attractions she found in life that were comparable with the happiness----"

    "You talk quite well," she interrupted him. "Nobody would guess that a man of your age, and with your curious face, would ever speak of poetry."

    She looked down at him, her hands clasped behind her, an obvious interest in her eyes.

    "You are a remarkable man," she said emphatically. "I don't know how many murders you have committed, but you have certainly committed one; and probably the whole of your fortune is founded upon some horrible crime of that description. It doesn't seem possible, does it, that we have that type of person living in the twentieth century? And yet there must be--oh, a whole lot of people who have committed undetected murders for their own profit."

    He was speechless with fear and rage. This, to him, was the tremendous fact--that she was presenting him as he was, and as now, for the first time, he knew he was. For a man may lie to himself and screen his own actions from himself; so veil his motives, and the sordidness of those motives, that, when they are faithfully described, he stands aghast at the revelation.

    "I am not a murderer," he croaked, his face working convulsively, "I'm not a murderer, do you hear? I--I am many things, but I'm not a murderer."

    "Who killed Ferdie Farringdon?" she asked quietly, and he screwed up his eyes with an expression of pain.

    "I don't know--I did, perhaps. I didn't mean to kill him ... I meant to--I don't know what I meant. I thought I'd get Morlake. I drove my machine to within three miles of the village and came the rest of the journey on foot."

    He covered his eyes with his arm as though shutting out some horrible sight.

    "Damn you, how dare you say these things?" he nearly sobbed in his rage. "I'll make you so interested in yourself that you won't talk about me, Joan, understand that!"

    He was about to say something else, but changed his mind, and, turning, walked quickly out of the room. She did not see him again that night, but just as she was dozing on the divan, she heard the door open and sitting up, saw the Moorish girl carrying a long blue cloak over her arm. Without a word she put it about Joan's shoulders, and she knew that the second stage of her journey had begun.

    Whither would it lead? In her faith that it would lead to Jim Morlake, she went out, impatient to resume the journey.
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