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    Chapter 57

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    Chapter 57
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    At the White House

    "Who are the other women? Are they his wives also?" she asked drily.

    The little Moor shook her head.

    "There is only one wife here," she said, and Joan managed to follow her Spanish without difficulty. "The others are women of attendance. The wife does not live here; she came a little time ago. She has not seen her husband for many years."

    She spoke slowly, repeating her words when Joan failed to grasp the meaning.

    "Thank you," said the girl.

    "Claro?" asked the little Moor, whose name was Zuleika.

    "Perfectly claro," said Joan with a smile.

    Why she should be so extraordinarily cheerful at this, which promised to be the most tragic moment of her life, puzzled her. It might have been the tang of the fresh mountain air that induced the strange exhilaration in her heart; or was it the consciousness that the future could hold no surprises for her, that enabled her to draw a line under her misfortunes and seek for some balance on the credit side of life's ledger? The ceiling reminded her of Jim's room: it was made of thick white plaster, in which Moorish workmen, with their sharp knives, had cut so delicate a tracery that it almost seemed that the ceiling was made of frothing lace.

    European houses must have supplied the furniture and the panelling. The big blue carpet, bordered with arabesques of gold and brown, had been woven in one piece on the looms of Persia. She saw the European touch in the white marble fireplace, with its green pillars and its crouching lions. Ralph Hamon must have had this retreat in his mind all his life, for she detected at a glance the care which had been exercised in choosing every single article in the room.

    Beautiful it was, but a prison! It might be something worse.

    At the far end of the chamber a wide window was covered on the outside by a hand-worked grille of wrought iron. She opened the window and leant out, taking in the beauty of the wide valley. From here she caught the distant sparkle of the sea, and, turning her head, saw that the bulk of Gibraltar was in view.

    She noticed something moving in the valley, and shaded her eyes from the glare of the setting sun. It was the beggar, and he was riding back on the Tangier Road. For one second her poise was disturbed.

    "Joan, Joan," she said breathlessly, "you are not going to weep or faint or do anything equally feminine, are you?" and she shook her head.

    Closing the window, she walked back to the door and turned the silver handle. She did not expect it to open as it did. The hall was empty; the swing doors were not fastened. Apparently she was to be given a certain amount of liberty, and for that at least she was grateful.

    But once she was in the garden, she saw how hopeless any thought of escape must be. The wall about the property was unusually high, even for a Moorish house, and was crowned at the top by spears of broken glass that glittered in the sunlight, as though to remind her that escape that way was futile.

    The gate was equally impossible. There was a little brick lean-to built against the wall, in which the gatekeeper slept and she was reminded (and again she felt that pang of poignant sorrow) of Creith and the empty lodge which Lord Creith could never afford to fill.

    Tired and sickened against her fierce determination to keep all thoughts of home, of father and of someone else out of her mind, she went back to the big room, which was evidently reserved for her, since nobody else came to relieve her solitude.

    News had been brought to Ralph Hamon of the successful ending of the flight, and he rode across the uneven country, a fierce song of triumph in his soul, his eyes glued upon the white house in the hills.

    At last! Joan Carston was his, in every possessive sense. He had had a secret interview with a red-bearded man in Tangier, and now his happiness was complete. Sadi Hafiz, who rode by his side, was in a less cheerful frame of mind. He had seen his cup of joy shattered whilst it was almost at his lips, and Ralph Hamon had found him a sulky and uncompanionable fellow-passenger.

    "We shall get there soon after sunset," said Ralph.

    "Why I go there at all, Heaven knows," said Sadi pettishly. He invariably spoke in English, priding himself, with reason, not only upon his extraordinary knowledge of the language but his acquaintance with the rich classics of that tongue. "You've made a bungling mess of my affairs, Hamon!"

    Ralph Hamon laughed coarsely, not being in the mood to feel angry, even at so unjust an accusation.

    "Who was it came flying into the room and saying that the basha and his soldiers were at the door? Who practically turned her out of the house when he had her safe? Whose plan was it to wake up the detective so that he might be quietened, when it would have been a simple matter, as was proved, to have brought Lydia to your house? I haven't bungled it, Sadi. You must have patience. Lydia is still in Tangier, and will probably remain there for a few days, and it should not be difficult, if I could bring my lady to this place----"

    "If you could bring!" sneered the other. "Inshallah! Who brought her but me, the Shereef Sadi Hafiz?"

    "She is lovely," said the unthinking Hamon with enthusiasm.

    "Why else should I be making this journey?" said Sadi coldly, and something in his tone made Ralph Hamon look round.

    "You may satisfy your curiosity and then you may go," he said curtly, "and bestow your attentions where they are most likely to be acceptable. Let there be no mistake about this, Sadi: this girl is to marry me."

    The shereef shrugged his broad shoulders.

    "Women are as many as beggars," he quoted, and jerked his head to the nondescript figure that was ambling toward them.

    "Alms, in the name of Allah the Compassionate and Merciful!" moaned the beggar, and Ralph looked at him without interest. He had seen such sights too often.

    "A toothless old devil," he said, and in the manner of the East flung him a coin.

    "God grant you happy dreams," whined the mendicant, and urged his horse after him. "Gain joy in heaven and the pleasure of the prophets," he moaned, "by giving me one little house to sleep in to-night, for I am an old man...!"

    Sadi, being what he was, could bear this appeal philosophically. Ralph turned with a smile and glared into the red-rimmed eyes.

    "Get away, you dog!" he roared, but the old man followed on, continuing his supplications in a monotonous whine.

    "Let me sleep in the shadow of your house, O my beautiful bird of paradise! Give me a blanket and a little roof, for the nights are cold and I am a very ancient man."

    "Let him alone," said Sadi. "Why do you argue with beggars, and you so long in Morocco?"

    So they suffered the old man to follow them at a distance, until the door slammed in the long face of his horse, and he went, grumbling and complaining, down the hillside, and later Ralph saw him, his horse hobbled by the leg grazing in the coarse grass, and a blue line of smoke rising from the bushes where the ancient beggar ate his dinner.

    Ralph Hamon had an unpleasant task, and he was not particularly anxious to go to it. He dined with Sadi in a small room off the hall.

    "You're not a very ardent lover," said the Moor. "Have you seen her?"

    "She can wait," replied Hamon.

    "Then I will meet her," said Sadi blandly. And seeing the other's hesitation: "After all, you're not a Mussulman, and I think the young lady might be reassured to meet a Moorish gentleman and to learn that we are not wholly without good breeding."

    "I'll take you in to her later, but I have something else to do," said Ralph shortly.

    The "something else" was to interview a woman whom he had not seen for eight years. As he walked into her room, it seemed impossible that this stout, scowling female was once a Moorish lady of considerable beauty, slim and wholly delectable.

    "So you have come, Hamon?" she said harshly. "All these years I have not heard from you or seen you."

    "Have you been hungry?" asked Hamon coolly. "Have you been without a roof or a bed?"

    "Who is this girl you have brought here?" asked the woman suspiciously.

    "She will soon be my wife," replied Hamon, and the woman leapt up, quivering with anger.

    "Then why did you bring me here?" she stormed. "To make me look a fool before my servants? Why did you not leave me at Mogador? At least I have friends there. Here I am buried alive in the wilderness. And why? That I should be a slave to your new wife? I will not do it, Hamon!"

    Hamon felt sure of himself now.

    "You can go back to Mogador next week. You are here for a purpose of my own."

    She brooded awhile.

    "Does she know?" she asked.

    "I told the girl to tell her, so I suppose she does," said Hamon carelessly.

    He had indeed a very excellent purpose to serve. His Moorish "wife" had been brought post haste to the house in the hills that Joan might see her, and, seeing her, understand. The subtle mind of Ralph Hamon was never better illustrated than in this act of his.

    He went back to Sadi Hafiz.

    "I'm going to see my lady," he said, "and afterwards I will bring you in."

    He tapped at the door of the drawing-room, and as there was no answer, he turned the handle and walked in. Joan was on a music-stool before the grand piano, her hands folded on her lap. All the evening she had been trying to work up an inclination to play, and she had at last brought herself to the piano when Hamon made his appearance.

    "Are you comfortable?" he asked.

    She did not reply. He stood for a while, admiring the straight figure and the calm, imperturbable face. A lesser breed would have shown the hatred and loathing she felt, but not a line of her face changed, and he might have been a servant of Creith who had come at her summons, so unmoved and unemotional was her reception.

    "It is a beautiful place, eh? One of the loveliest in Morocco," he went on. "A girl could be happy here for a year or two. Have you seen Number One?"

    He sat down, uninvited, and lit a cigar.

    "By Number One I presume you mean Mrs. Hamon?"

    He nodded. She had never seen Ralph Hamon look quite so cheerful as he did at that moment. It was as though all the trouble in the world had rolled away from him and left him care-free and buoyant of heart.

    "When I say 'first,'" said Joan carefully, "I of course expose my ignorance of Moorish customs. At any rate, she is the first I have seen."

    "And the last you'll see, Joan," he said with a laugh. "Marriages, they say, are made in heaven. Pleasant alliances can be made in Morocco, but Number One, first, last and all the time, will be Lady Joan Hamon."

    A shadow of a smile came and went.

    "It sounds beastly, doesn't it?" she said frankly.

    She had a trick of irritating him more than any other human being. She could get under his skin and drag on the raw places. For a second his eyes blazed, and then, swallowing his rage, he forced a laugh. Secretly he admired her cool insolence, and would gladly have imitated her if it were possible.

    "It may sound bad, but it is a good enough name for me," he said.

    "Is that a Moorish custom too?" she asked coolly. "That a girl takes the name of the man who abducts her? You must instruct me in the Moorish marriage laws; I'm afraid I'm totally ignorant on the subject."

    He crossed to where she was sitting, pulling his chair with him.

    "Now listen, Joan," he said quietly. "There is to be no Moorish marriage. There is to be an honest-to-God marriage, conducted by a fully ordained minister of the Episcopalian Church, with wedding ring and the usual paraphernalia. I asked you just now, had you seen my Moorish wife, and I guess you have. What do you think of her?"

    Joan did not speak. She was trying to discover what he was aiming at.

    "What do you think of her?" he asked again.

    "I feel extremely sorry for her. She wasn't particularly pleasant to me, but I have every sympathy with her."

    "You have, eh? Fat, isn't she? Pasty-faced and over-fed. They go like that in Morocco. It is the dark of the harem, the absence of liberty and exercise. It is being treated like cattle, locked up in a hothouse atmosphere day and night, and exercised for half-an-hour a day under the eyes of slaves. Why, it is worse than being in prison. That is what it means to be a Moorish wife. Joan, do you want to be a Moorish wife?"

    She met his eyes straightly.

    "I don't want to be any kind of wife to you," she said.

    "Do you want to be a Moorish wife?" he asked her. "Or do you want to be married, and have children who can bear your name and inherit your father's title?"

    She rose abruptly from the stool and walked to the end of the room, her back toward him.

    "We won't go any farther into this question for the moment," said Ralph rising. "I'd like you to meet a very dear friend of mine, Sadi Hafiz, and be civil to him, do you hear, but not too civil."

    Something in his tone made her turn.

    "Why?" she asked.

    "Because he is feeling sore with me just now. He is very keen on Lydia, and Lydia has slipped him. I don't want him to have ideas about you."

    He left her to meditate upon this warning, and went out, to return with the silk-robed Sadi, and a new factor came immediately into play. One glance Joan gave, and she knew that this man was as great a danger as Ralph Hamon. Greater, for if he was as remorseless, he was less susceptible, since he had not that brand of human vanity which made Ralph Hamon so easy to handle. She hated him, with his fat, expressionless face and his dark, unblinking eyes that looked at her through and through, appraising her as though she were cattle. She hated him for the veneer of his civilisation, his polite English, his ready smile.

    Here, then, was the danger: this she recognised instantly.

    Sadi Hafiz did not remain very long--just long enough to create an impression. In Joan's case he would have been surprised if he had read her heart and mind, for he rather flattered himself upon his flair for imposing his personality upon women.

    "What do you think of him?" asked Ralph when he had gone.

    "I haven't thought," she said untruthfully.

    "A good friend and a bad enemy," said Hamon sententiously. "I wish Lydia had had a little more sense. She owes me something."

    Joan thought it was possible that he might owe Lydia something too, but was not in the mood for conversation. Unexpectedly he rose.

    "I'm going now. You'll find your sleeping room, I suppose? Pleasant dreams!"

    She said nothing.

    At the door he turned.

    "A Christian wife has a better time than a Moorish wife. I guess you've noticed that already."

    Still she did not speak.

    "We'll be married in two days," he said, and, with a crooked smile: "Would you like anybody else to come to the wedding?"

    "You dare not," she was taunted into saying. "You dare not produce an English clergyman!"

    "Oh, daren't I?" he said. "I'll not only produce him, but he'll marry us whatever you say, and whatever protests you make. You're going to meet an old friend, Joan."

    "An old friend?" She was for the moment taken aback.

    "An old clerical friend," said Hamon. "The Reverend Mr. Bannockwaite," and with this parting shot he left her, and she heard the key turn in the lock.
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