The Lad and the Lion

Chapter Twelve

Edgar Rice Burroughs

EVEN AS Nakhla entered the tent of her father she realized the folly of attempting to convince her people of the truth of her day’s experiences. They would never believe her. So she decided that reference to the lad and the lion had better be left unmade.

Her father and his people were wild with joy at her safe return, and to account for her absence she told of her capture by the marauders and her eventual escape.

El Djebel, her horse, had not yet returned. A party of young tribesmen were scouring the desert for her, but they had gone to the east instead of to the west. They returned late the following morning, and an hour later El Djebel wandered unconcernedly into the camp in search of food and water.

For several days Nakhla found no opportunity to leave camp unattended though she longed to go out into the hills in search of her strange new friends. Her mind was occupied with nothing else than thoughts of the tall and noble youth whose eyes had drunk deep from the depths of her own. She made Ben Saada sick with the torture of her indifference, until, finally, goaded to desperation, he went to her father, demanding the hand of Nakhla in marriage.

Twenty camels offered Ben Saada for the daughter of Sheik Ali-Es-Hadji; but the old sheik told him that he must win Nakhla’s consent first, for Ali-Es-Hadji was already rich, as riches go within the desert, and Nakhla was his only daughter. So Ben Saada went to Nakhla, laying his heart at her feet; but still was the girl obdurate; so that the man, from pleading, fell to threatening, whereat her head went high and she turned her back upon him.

Beneath Ben Saada’s dark skin beat a darker heart. The man thought that he loved the maid, but within the breast of such as Ben Saada could burn no unselfish flame. Really, at the bottom of his passion was only base desire and ambition, for Sheik-Ali-Es-Hadji was without a son; and Ben Saada saw himself as the son-in-law of the old sheik, a sheik himself upon the death of Ali- Es-Hadji.

There was a way to bring the girl to him, and that way Ben Saada swore that he would take the moment that opportunity presented. In the meantime he could wait, and scowling beneath the hood of his burnoose he strode away to his goatskin tent.

For a week the lad, far out in the hills, roamed and hunted by himself; for the lion had answered the call of the lioness, and now only occasionally did he return to the rocky lair upon the hillside. The youth, proud in. his new apparel, strutted about like a peacock; but when it came to hunting he discovered that his finery was much in his way. The dirty white burnoose attracted the attention of his quarry long before he came within striking distance; and it was soon clear to him that he must abandon, temporarily, either his clothing or his food.

Naturally he chose the former alternative. Rolling his garments into a dank and sweaty wad he hid them in the darkest comer of his den. Then he went out to fall upon an unwary antelope as it watered at the brook. The knife he carried, for it’s practical usefulness had been readily apparent to him from the first. He wore it in the Arab’s belt about his naked waist, and found it simplified the matter of feeding upon the flesh of his kill. Heretofore he had tom away great mouthfuls with his strong, white teeth; but now, with the knife, he found it much easier to cut strips from the carcass.

Carrying the dead antelope to the ledge before his lair he feasted to repletion. Then he donned his clothes once more, and lay down to sleep after the manner of wild beasts that have filled their bellies; but he found that sleep would not come. His mind was a riot of thoughts and memories, for he was a man. Had he been a lion, it would have been different.

He saw the beautiful face of the girl he had left outside the tents of her people a few nights before. He had daily hoped that she would come again to his valley. His timidity had kept him from approaching her camp by day, though nearly every night had found him wandering close to the tents of the tribe of Ali-Es-Hadji; but never had he seen the girl, though once, early in the evening, he had thought that he heard her voice.

At last he arose from his rocky bed. He would go out into the edge of the desert and look for her—possibly she would come this day. He moved quickly along the bottom of the canyon, upward toward the pass. At the hilltop he paused to look out across the sands toward the cluster of date palms and the tents of the people of Nakhla. They were but a single tiny splotch of green, far, far away upon the desert; yet at sight of them his heart beat faster and a great joy welled within his breast.

Now he saw something moving between him and the oasis—a little speck of darker sand upon the yellow. Motionless as a statue stood the youth—the training of the carnivore apparent in the narrowed lids and the blazing eyes and in the half crouch of his giant body. Like a shadow he melted behind a nearby bush, so gradual his movement that it could scarce have attracted the eye of one nearby.

From his hiding place he watched that which moved upon the desert. It was approaching. Presently he saw that it was one upon a horse, and when it had reached the first ascent from the desert to the hills the youth leaped from his hiding place and ran swiftly to meet it.

It was Nakhla. At sight of the man running toward her she drew rein, for she did not know yet that it was he; but when she heard the rumbling roar of a lion tumble from his lips she spurred on her trembling mount, pressing upward to meet him.

All the way from her father’s douar she had told herself over and ever again that she but rode today for the pleasure of riding, that she neither expected, nor hoped to meet anyone upon the way, and least of all a white stranger who was more beast than human and who, in addition, was doubtless a Nasrâny—hated of her people—dog of an unbeliever.

Nakhla had worked herself into quite a heat of self righteous indignation that anyone should dare to ascribe to her such an unthinkable motive when she chanced to glance again toward the summit of the hills she was approaching and there saw a man running toward her. At first her heart had stood quite still, until the savage roar of welcome rolling down upon her ears had set it to beating wildly; and then forgetting all but the man before her she spurred El Djebel upward toward him.

At his side she drew rein, timid and afraid now that she was come into his presence. He took her hand and stroked it, for he knew no form of greeting such as men use. For years he had stroked the tawny coat of the lion as the only outward manifestation of affection for his one friend; so it was not strange that he should stroke the cool and shapely hand of Nakhla, his new friend, who awakened within his savage and untutored breast a chaos of pleasurable emotions.

The girl slipped from El Djebel to stand at his side, and looking up into his face she spoke to him; but he only shook his head sadly, for he could not understand.

And then there came to her a sudden determination—she would teach this stranger who sent the blood coursing madly through her veins the language of her people, for she longed to hear him voice the sentiments that his eyes and his stroking hand proclaimed.

She was at a loss as to just how she might commence her task, until it occurred to her that she should like to hear her own name upon his lips. Yes, that should be the first word that he should speak; and so, pointing to herself, she repeated, “Nakhla” several times over.

He understood at once, and, smiling, repeated the word after her. Laughing, the girl clapped her brown hands. He had said it! He had spoken her name, nor had it ever sounded quite the same to her before as it did from the firm lips of this Nasrâny.

Then she pointed to El Djebel, saying in Arabic, “Horse,” and the man repeated, “Horse.” Thus she continued her first lesson, pointing out all the familiar objects about them until he could name each accurately in the language of his tutor. He learned quickly, for his mind was unspoiled, and he had nothing to unlearn.

As they talked, the youth, holding one of her hands, led her back down into his own rocky little canyon, where, beside a spreading palm, they sat together by the brook’s brim looking into each other’s eyes while the man recited his lesson.

Nakhla was very proud of her success as a teacher. It would not be long, at this rate, before the man could talk to her—and tell her what was in his heart. The same thought filled the mind of the youth, so that when the girl paused for a moment he pointed out new objects questioningly, nor did he once confuse the names of any, or make a single error after she had taught him the correct pronunciation.

He prefaced everything with “Nakhla” to attract her attention; and then he would point to the thing the name of which he wished to learn. His mind was fertile and resourceful. He found many ways to learn, since he had commenced, that the girl would never have thought of.

Pointing to his feet he learned how to call them in Arabic, and then rising he walked still pointing to his feet, and she, understanding, taught him the verb, to walk. Then he ran, learning the verb.

He stood, and sat, and lay down. He climbed a tree. He drank from the brook. He did the many, little everyday things that were most familiar to him; and as he learned the nouns and verbs, unconsciously he learned, too, the articles, prepositions and conjunctions, from the constant repetition of them upon Nakhla’s lips as she spoke to him while he was learning.

At last the girl realized that it was growing late, and that she must return to her father’s douar. She made the youth understand, and together they took their way across the hills to the desert. Here she mounted EI Djebel, but the man would not let her ride alone across the wilderness. With a hand upon her stirrup leather he ran beside her, keeping pace with the galloping horse with as little apparent effort as the horse himself, for the lad and the lion had often run great distances in pursuit of their prey, frequently across rough and rugged country, so that this was but child’s play for his mighty muscles.

When they had come as close to the camp as Nakhla dared venture with her strange companion she reined in El Djebel, and leaning down close to the youth whispered her goodbye. He repeated the words after her, though he did not as yet comprehend their import.

However, the new words awakened a new thought in the man’s mind. He had learned the names of many things that day, but there was one as yet who remained nameless. He pointed to the girl, saying, “Nakhla” and then he pointed to himself, questioningly.

Nakhla laughed, a puzzled expression contracting her finely penciled brows. In her mind he was “The Man,” but that was no name for him. She must find another. For a moment the girl racked her brain for a suitable cognomen. Then as one swept into her mind she flushed and hesitated, scarce daring to voice it aloud.

But the youth was insistent. He kept pointing to himself. Asking with his eyes as clearly as though his lips had spoke for a word whereby he might be called.

At last, leaning from her saddle, Nakhla placed a cool palm upon his forehead with a tenderness that was unmistakably a caress. Close to his ear came her lips, and a sudden flush mantled her cheeks.

“Azîz,” she whispered. “Thou art Nakhla’s Azîz,” and then she was away as fast as El Djebel could bear her.

Enveloped in a little cloud of sand, he saw her disappear within the douar, but not before she had turned to wave him an adieu.

“Azîz!” repeated the youth aloud. “Azîz!” And he thought it a fine name. Had he guessed its meaning he would have liked it no less.

For a long time he stood gazing at the tents of her people. He wondered why it was that he alone of all the other creatures of his kind should have been doomed to solitude. He heard the hum of human voices and an occasional laugh and, after the moon had risen, strains of melody from the primitive musical instruments of the tribe. He tried to discover the sweet notes of Nakhla’s voice among the others, and when he thought that he had succeeded the lure of it drew him closer to the tents, until at last he stood close within their shadow—a silent statue of untutored savagery, whose fallow heart and soul, ready for the seeding of good or evil which contact with humanity must bring, lay wholly in the keeping of a half-savage maid.

As he stood listening without the douar, the talking and the music within gradually diminished until at last silence fell upon the camp, and with the release of his faculties from the enchantment that the hope of hearing her voice had cast upon them, he became aware of the scent of goats and camels, and with it he felt the gnawing of hunger at his belly.

Slowly and cautiously he moved around the tents that he might come close to the barrier that penned the flocks.

At the same moment Nakhla, sleepless from much thinking of her Azīz, came out into the moonlight before her father’s tent. As she stood idly gazing through half-closed eyes, recalling the face and figure of her savage giant, she saw a sudden apparition appear for an instant as it leaped the wall of the corral in among the animals of her tribe.

Instantly she knew who it must be, and running swiftly she came to the gate that let into the enclosure where the herd was kept. Even as she pushed through the gate she heard the frightened bleat of a kid, and then she was within and close before her saw the man of her dreams with his strong fingers about the neck of one of the flock.

He saw her at the instant that she entered, and forgetful of his hunger dropped his prey and came quickly to her side. Gently Nakhla laid her hand upon his arm, and pointing to the kid upon the ground and to the other animals within the enclosure she tried to tell him that he must not harm them. Waving a hand back toward the tents she imitated the position of a man firing a gun, pointing the imaginary weapon at him. He understood this last, but he only laughed and shrugged his shoulders. She saw that he was not one to be influenced by threat of personal danger.

Then she tried a new plan, and indicating herself attempted to make him understand that for her sake he must not tamper with the animals of her people. And this he comprehended, for love is not so blind as some would have us believe. He was very hungry; and for a moment he looked ruefully toward the kid that by now had struggled to its feet and was wobbling back into the herd, but a new force had come into his life—it was no longer to be his belly that dominated all his acts, and thus he took a great stride toward humanness as he turned silently away and with an agile bound cleared the barrier to disappear from Nakhla’s sight.

After he had gone she would have recalled him, for she thought that he was hurt; and then she wondered if he had not really been hungry! The idea filled her with dismay. She had driven her Azîz out into the desert when he had come friendless and hungry in search of food.

Nakhla did not sleep much that night for the self reproach that gnawed at her heart; but she might have saved herself her misery, for the object of her solicitude felt only happiness that he had found a way to please the girl who had come into his lonely life. Never again, he told himself, would he or the lion despoil the flocks of her people.

Across the lonely desert he made his way toward the distant hills where the lair was, and all the long way his heart sang within his breast so loudly that it drowned the demands of hunger. Nor did he again think of eating until he had come almost to the entrance of his den when the reek of blood filled his nostrils; and suddenly in the moonlight upon the ledge he saw a fresh-killed antelope and upon it a strange lioness that arose, growling horribly, at his approach.

The Lad and the Lion - Contents    |     Chapter Thirteen

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