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    Chapter 60

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    Chapter 60
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    The Beggar Husband

    Hamon pushed the beggar out after his bride and slammed the gate on him.

    Joan tried to walk, stumbled, recovered again, and then she knew no more. She recovered from her faint, lying under the shadow of a big juniper bush. Her face and neck were wet; a bowl of water was by her side. The old beggar had disappeared, and, raising herself on her elbow, she saw him unhobbling his sorry-looking horse. What should she do? She came unsteadily to her feet and looked round wildly. Escape was impossible.

    And then she saw, far away in the valley, a cloud of dust. A party was approaching, and, straining her eyes, she caught sight of white jellabs and the glint of steel. It was a party of Moors, probably Sadi Hafiz returning--there would be no help there.

    She looked again at her husband. The old man was wrapping his face and head in voluminous scarves, until only his iron-grey beard and the tip of his red hooked nose were visible.

    He saw her and came toward her, leading the horse, and she obeyed his signal without a word, and mounted. Walking ahead he kept his hand on the bridle and she noticed that he took a path that was at right angles to the main road to Tangier. Once or twice he looked back, first at the house and then the swift-moving party of horsemen which were now in view. It was Sadi--Joan recognised the figure riding at the head of the party. And she saw, too, that each man carried a rifle.

    Suddenly the beggar changed direction, moved parallel with the cavalcade, as far as she could guess, for they were now out of sight and mounting the hill toward a point which would bring them clear of the gardens. From the anxious glances he shot backward, she guessed that he was in some fear lest Hamon, in a saner moment, had relented his mad folly. He walked the horse down to the bed of a hill stream and followed its tortuous windings, keeping the horse in the shallow waters. Suddenly she heard a shot, and then another. The sound re-echoed from the hills, and she looked down at the old man anxiously.

    "What was that?" she asked in Spanish.

    He shook his head without looking round.

    Again came a shot, and then she guessed the reason. The shots were to attract the attention of the beggar and to recall him, and he evidently had the same view, for he jerked the reins of the horse and the animal broke into a trot, the beggar running nimbly by his animal's head.

    They came to a little wood of pines and he brought the horse up the steep slope into its cover, and, signalling her to wait, he went back on foot. It was nearly half-an-hour before he returned, and then, holding up his hand, he lifted her from the saddle and she closed her eyes that she might not see his face. After a time he brought her water from the stream, and opening a little bundle, displayed food, but she was too tired to do any more than drink the cold, refreshing liquid. So tired, that, when she lay down upon the rug he spread, she forgot her terrible danger, forgot the trick of fate that had made her the wife of a beggar and fell instantly into a sound and dreamless sleep.

    Ralph Hamon sat, crouched in his bedroom, his nails at his teeth, feeling weak and ill. The mad gust of temper that had driven him to such an act of lunacy had passed, leaving him shaking in every limb. From his window he could see the beggar carrying the girl down the hill, and at the sight he started to his feet with a hoarse cry of rage. That folly could be remedied and quickly.

    There was a man amongst his servants who had been his pensioner for years, an old man, grizzled and grey, and he sent for him.

    "Ahab," he said, "you know the beggar who rides the horse?"

    "Yes, lord."

    "He has taken with him at this moment the lady of my heart. Go bring her back and give the old man this money." He took a handful of notes from his pocket and put them into the eager palm of his servitor. "If he gives you trouble--kill him."

    Ralph went up to his bedroom to watch his emissary go through the gates, and then for the first time he saw the party of mounted men winding their way up the hillside.

    "Sadi," he said under his breath and guessed what that visit signified.

    It was too late to recall his messenger and he ran down to the gates to welcome his some-time agent. Sadi Hafiz threw himself from his horse and his tone and mien were changed. He was no longer the polite and polished product of the mission school. He was the Moorish chieftain, insolent, overbearing, unsmiling.

    "You know why I've come, Hamon," he said, his hands on his hips, his feet apart, his big head thrust forward. "Where is the girl? I want her. I presume you are not married, but, if you are, it makes very little difference."

    "I am not married," said Hamon, "but she is!"

    "What do you mean?"

    He was not left long in doubt.

    "My lady expressed a preference for a beggar. She said she would rather marry the old man who asked for alms than marry me--her wish has been fulfilled."

    Sadi's eyes were slits.

    "They were married half-an-hour ago and are there." He took in the country with a gesture.

    "You're lying, Hamon," said the other steadily. "That story doesn't deceive me. I shall search your house as Morlake searched mine."

    Hamon said nothing. There were twenty armed men behind Sadi and at a word from their leader he was a dead man.

    "You're at liberty to search the house from harem to kitchen," he said coolly, and the Moor strode past him.

    He could not have had time to make a very complete inspection, for he was back again almost immediately.

    "I've spoken to your servants, who tell me that what you have said is true. Which way did she go?"

    Hamon pointed and the Moor gave an order to his men. One of the horsemen fired in the air. A second and a third shot followed.

    "If that does not bring him back we will go and look for him," said Sadi grimly.

    "So far as I am concerned," Ralph shrugged his shoulders--"you may do as you wish. My interest in the lady has evaporated."

    He was not speaking the truth, but his manner deceived the Moor.

    "You were a fool to let her go," he said more mildly.

    "If I hadn't let her go, you would probably have persuaded me," said Hamon, and Sadi's slow smile confirmed his suspicion.

    A minute later the party was riding down the hill, scattering left and right in an endeavour to pick up the trail of the beggar and his wife. Hamon watched them before he returned to the house, to gather the pieces of his scattered dreams and discover which of the fragments had a solid value.

    From an inside pocket he took a black leather case and, emptying the contents, laid them on the table and examined them one by one. The last of these possessions was an oblong document, covered with fine writing. Hindhead seemed far away--Hindhead and Jim Morlake and the prying Welling, and Creith, with its avenues and meadowlands. He knew the document by heart, but he read it again:

    Believing that Ralph Hamon, who I thought was my friend, designs my death, I wish to explain the circumstances under which I find myself a prisoner in a little house overlooking Hindhead. Acting on the representations and on the advice of Hamon, I went to Morocco to inspect a mine, which I believed to be his property. We returned to London secretly, again on his advice, for he said it would be fatal to his plans if it were known that he was transferring any of his interests in the mine. Having a suspicion that the property, which he stated was his, had in reality nothing whatever to do with his company, I went to Hindhead, determined not to part with my money, until he could assure me that I was mistaken. I took a precaution which I believed and still believe is effective. At Hindhead my suspicions were confirmed and I refused to part with the money. He locked me up in the kitchen under the guardianship of a Moor whom he had brought back from Tangier with him. An attempt has already been made, and I fear the next----

    Here the writing ended abruptly. He rolled up the damning charge and, returning it to his pocket-book with the other contents, slipped it into his inside pocket again. And, as he did so, he recalled Jim Morlake's description. The monkey's hand was in the gourd and he had come to the place where he could not release the fruit.

    In the meantime, one of Sadi's men had picked up the track of footprints, and Sadi and two of the party had reached the edge of the stream.

    "Leave your horses and come on foot," he ordered.

    They followed the course of the stream downward until it was clear to the shereef that they could not have gone in that direction. From thereon, he had a view of the country. Moreover, they passed a particularly shallow stretch with a sandy bottom and there were no marks of hoofs.

    "We will go back," he said, and led the way.

    An hour's walk brought them to a place where the stream ran between high banks, and here the Moor's quick eyes saw the new marks of horse's feet, and he signalled his men to silence. With remarkable agility he ran up the bank and crept forward....

    Joan woke from her sleep to meet the dark eyes of Sadi Hafiz looking down at her.

    "Where is your friend?" asked Sadi, stooping to assist her to her feet.

    She looked round, still dazed with sleep.

    "My friend? You mean Abdul?"

    "So you know his name," said Sadi pleasantly.

    "What do you want with me?" she asked.

    "I am taking you with me to Tangier, to your friends," he said, but she knew he was lying.

    Looking round, she saw no sign of the beggar. His horse still grazed beneath a tree, but the old man had disappeared. Sadi sent one of his people to bring in the animal, and helped her to mount.

    "I was terribly worried," he said in his excellent English, "when our friend Hamon told me the stupid thing he had done. There are times when Hamon is crazy and I am very angry with him. You like Morocco, Lady Joan?"

    "Not very much," she said, and he chuckled.

    "I don't suppose you do." He looked up at her admiringly. "How well the Moorish costume suits you! It might have been designed for your adornment."

    A trick he had of using pretentious words that would at any other time have amused her. He walked by her side, one of his riflemen leading the horse, and after a while they came to a place where they had taken the stream. The remainder of his party were waiting for him, sitting on the bank, and at a signal they mounted.

    "Perhaps it is as well I did not meet your husband," said Sadi ominously. "I trust he has not given you any trouble?"

    She was not in the mood for conversation and she answered curtly enough and he seemed amused. No time was lost. She was lifted from the beggar's horse to a beautiful roan that had evidently been brought specially for her and she could not help reflecting on the certainty that, even if Ralph had married her, she would still have ridden on that horse before the day was through. Sadi Hafiz had come to take her back with him to his little house in the hollow, married or unmarried.

    He rode by her side most of the day, talking pleasantly of people and things, and she was surprised at the wideness and catholicity of his knowledge.

    "I was agent for Hamon in Tangier, and I suppose you have an idea that I was a sort of superior servant," he said. "But it suited me to act for him. He is a man without scruple or gratitude."

    That was a sentiment which she thought came ill from Sadi Hafiz.

    Before sunset they halted and made a camp. In spite of the coldness of the night, the men prepared to sleep in the open, wrapped in their woollen cloaks, but for the girl a tent was taken from the pack-horse and pitched in the most sheltered position Sadi could find.

    "We will rest here until midnight," he said. "I must reach my destination before daybreak."

    She lay wide awake, listening to the talk and watching the shadow of the smoking fires that the sunset threw on the thin walls of the tent, and then the talk gradually died down. There was no sound but an occasional whinny from a horse. She looked at the watch on her wrist, the one article of jewellery she had retained. It was nine o'clock. She had three hours left in which she could make her escape.

    She drew aside the curtain of the little tent and, looking out, saw a dark figure--a sentry, she guessed. Escape was impossible that way. She tried to lift the curtain at the back of the tent, but it was pegged down tightly. Working her hand through under the curtain she groped around for the peg and presently found it. It took all her power to loosen it, but after a while, with a supreme effort, she pulled it from the earth and, exerting all her strength, she lifted the curtain a little farther and got her head beneath, and, by dint of perseverance, wriggled clear.

    Ahead of her were impenetrable thorn bushes. She crept round the outside of the tent, conscious that her white dress would be detected if the sentry turned his head. And then she found an opening in the undergrowth and wriggled through. At the sound of cracking twigs the sentry turned and shouted something in Arabic. And now, desperate, the girl rose to her feet and ran. She could hardly see a yard before her; once she ran into a dwarf tree and fell momentarily stunned, but was on her feet again immediately. The moon was just rising and showed her a sparsely wooded stretch of plain; but it also revealed her to her pursuers.

    The camp was now in an uproar. She heard shouts and the bellowing voice of Sadi Hafiz, and the clatter of horses' hoofs. It was Sadi himself who was coming after her. She knew it was he without seeing him, and, terrified, she increased her speed. But she could not hope to outpace the horse. Nearer and nearer he came, and then with a thunder of hoofs the horseman swept past her and turned.

    "Oh no, my little rose!" he said exultantly. "That is not the way to happiness!"

    He reached over and caught at her cloak and, swinging himself from the saddle, he caught her in his arms.

    "This night I live!" he cried hoarsely.

    "This night you die!"

    He turned in a flash to confront the aged beggar and dropped his hand to the folds of his jellab.

    Joan Carston stood, rooted to the spot, staring at the newcomer. She looked at the hideous face of Abdul Azim, but it was the voice of Jim Morlake that had spoken!
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