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    Chapter 56

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    Chapter 56
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    The Ride to the Hills

    That night held for Joan Carston an unbelievable experience. For four hours she sat on an ambling mule, passing through a country which she could not see, and the very character of which was a mystery to her. They were following, so far as she could tell, no beaten tracks, and from time to time her feet were caught by thorn-like bushes that clung to the soft white wrap she wore.

    At daybreak she saw that they were in a wild and apparently uninhabited country. The party consisted of six men and the girl who had looked after her at her resting place. One of the men lit a fire and put on a pot of water, whilst another took the mules to a stream which must have been near but which was not visible to her.

    She looked around, trying in vain to recall such physical features of Morocco as she had learnt at school, that would enable her to identify the spot. Blue mountains bordered half the horizon, and far away in the distance she saw an isolated mountain of peculiar shape, which she recognised as the crest of Gibraltar. One of the men found a little bower in the bushes and spread a blanket, signing to her to sleep. But Joan had never felt more wide awake, and though she retired to such privacy as the "bower" offered, it was only to lie and think and think, and then to think again.

    The Moorish girl brought her a large tumblerful of coffee and an oaten cake, and she was glad of this refreshment, for she had had nothing to eat since her lunch on the previous day.

    "Have we far to go?" she asked in halting Spanish.

    The Moorish girl shook her head, but volunteered no information.

    After two hours' rest the cavalcade got in movement again, and it puzzled her why such isolated travellers as they met with did not show any surprise at the appearance of a European woman, until she remembered that she was wearing Moorish dress. If they stared at her at all, it was because she did not veil her face when she passed them.

    The hills were growing nearer, and she saw a little white patch on the slope, without realising that that was their objective. The patch grew to a definite shape as the way began to lead uphill, and she could not but admire the beautiful setting of the house. It looked like a white jewel, and even from that distance she could guess the glory of the gardens laid out on terraces above and below.

    Here the country was undulating, and they were threading their way between the bushes down a gentle slope, when she saw a man sitting on a sorry-looking horse a little distance to their right. The rest of the members of the party paid him no attention, but the Moorish girl, who was now riding by her side, used a word that Joan understood.

    "A mendicant?" she said in surprise, and might have been amused in other circumstances at the spectacle of a beggar on horseback.

    He was an elderly man with a beard in which grey predominated. His face looked as if it had never known soap and water. The tarboosh at the back of his head was old and greasy. He stared at the party as it passed, and the Moorish girl dropped her veil and signed to her companion to follow her example.

    Joan was too interested. She took stock of the man as they passed, noted the ragged jellab that covered his stooping frame, the discoloured shirt that showed at his throat, and thought that she had never seen anything quite so repulsive.

    "Alms!" he bawled when they were level with him. "Alms, in the name of God the Compassionate!"

    One of the party flung him a copper coin and he caught it dexterously in his uncleanly hands.

    "Alms, O my beautiful rose, in the name of the Compassionate and Merciful, pity the poor!"

    His voice sank away to a drone.

    The girl was ready to drop from weariness before they reached the open gates that took them through the gardens to the house. Near at hand, the white house was even more beautiful than it had appeared from the distance. It was nearly new, yet its walls were smothered with begonias.

    "It must be beautiful in the summer," she said in English before she realised that the girl at her side could not understand her.

    Before the door stood a big pillared porch, so much out of architectural harmony that she wondered what freak had induced the owner to add this European finish to a building which, in its graceful, simple lines, was wholly satisfying.

    As she walked into the house, the girl, who seemed to be as much a stranger to the place as she, ran forward to ask a question in a whisper of the women who were curiously regarding the arrival. One of these came forward, a stout woman with a heavy face, disfigured at the moment with a scowl which made her forbidding. She said something in a sharp tone, and when Joan shook her head to signify that she did not understand, she clicked her lips impatiently. Pointing to a door, the Moorish girl, who seemed in awe of the stout lady, opened it and beckoned Joan forward.

    The room was exquisitely furnished and reminded her of an English drawing-room, except that the windows, like those in most of the Moorish houses, were barred. She looked round curiously, and then asked in Spanish:

    "Who is that fat woman?"

    The Moorish girl giggled shrilly.

    "That is the Señora Hamon," she said, and Joan sat down suddenly on the nearest divan and shook with helpless laughter.

    She might become the principal, but she certainly would not be the first wife of Mr. Ralph Hamon!
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