The Lad and the Lion

Chapter Sixteen

Edgar Rice Burroughs

FOR SIX WEEKS the youth remained the guest of Colonel Joseph Vivier whose daughter, Marie, he had rescued from the two Arab servants who had attempted to abduct her.

The French officer took a deep interest in the strange story of the young man’s life; but question him as he would he could not get back of the time that Azîz had come to the deck of the strange steamer.

Much of his story seemed too weird and unreal for credence, so that at last the Frenchman came to doubt it all, although he took a liking to the narrator and did what he could to make his stay at the camp pleasant.

Marie also took a lively interest in the stranger, and when she discovered that his only language was broken and imperfect Arabic she set to work to teach him French, as well to read and write as to speak it.

But all this time Azîz was very unhappy. His mind dwelt much upon Nakhla and her cruelty to him. It seemed impossible that she should have chosen another mate, for although no actual words of love had passed between them he realized now that he had considered her his, though he had not sufficient knowledge then of the ways of men to know how to make a declaration of his affection.

Yet had not the stranger told him that Nakhla was married to another? In his unsophistication he had not yet come to realize that most men consider the gift of speech solely as a means of defeating the purposes of truth. He believed the stranger, he who had never yet himself deceived.

Colonel Vivier clothed Azîz in khaki riding clothes, and set him to attending Marie when she rode abroad, as she did daily, into the hills or the desert. In a way he was half servant and half companion. He ate at the same table with the colonel and his daughter, yet their attitude toward him was one of charitable condescension, for was not Vivier a direct descendant of that famous Count de Vivier of the reign of Louis XIV? And this nameless stranger? Who indeed was he?

One day Colonel Vivier set forth with a small escort to ride upon a friendly visit to a neighboring sheik. Marie begged to be allowed to accompany him, and as she usually had her own way the matter was quickly settled to her satisfaction—she and Azîz might come.

The lion-man paid little attention to the direction of their march—he was engrossed in conversation with the vivacious French girl. They had become the best of friends—even the colonel, ordinarily most unobserving, had recently become a little concerned at the growing intimacy of the two.

It was not until the little column had halted before the douar of a native sheik that Azîz realized the identity of their destination—it was the camp of Sheik Ali-Es- Hadji! The lion-man’s heart came suddenly to his throat as the familiar surroundings recalled the happiness that he had lost; but no word escaped him.

With the others he rode close to the desert people, who, half suspicious, had come forward to inspect the visitors. He was sitting on his horse close beside Marie Vivier when his attention was suddenly attracted to the doorway of a nearby tent. Framed in the entrance stood Nakhla, her wide eyes fastened upon his face, one hand upon her rapidly rising and falling bosom.

“What a beautiful girl,” whispered Miss Vivier to her companion.

At the sound of her voice the eyes of the Arab girl turned toward her. Then Azîz called a friendly greeting to her. Again her eyes returned to him, but now they were blazing. She tossed her little chin in the air, and without so much as an acknowledgment of his salutation, turned her back full upon him and went back into the tent.

“Evidently she does not approve of strangers,” said Marie.

Azîz did not answer. In the goat-skin tent before them, unseen, there lay stretched upon a great rug from Persia an unhappy girl, her stifled breathing broken by pitiful sobs.

There was another in the camp of Sheik Ali-Es-Hadji who had recognized Azîz, and when the French rode away after the termination of their friendly visit he went to the tent where Nakhla was, and entering found her still weeping there upon the great rug of many colors.

He called her name, but she did not look up—only motioned him away. Still the man stood—a grim smile of satisfaction upon his cruel lips.

“Come, Nakhla,” he said after a long silence. “Let us be friends. It is not my fault that the white man cleaves to the white woman. It is as it should be; and thee and me, who are children of the desert, should not look beyond the desert’s rim for our mates. Let the white man have his white woman—already, I am told, they are married after the manner of the French—and let me have thee.”

Nakhla sprang to her feet, her eyes blazing.

“I would not have you, Ben Saada,” she cried, “were there no other man upon earth. What care I for the white man? You are a fool, Ben Saada. It is nothing to me that the white man has married. I hate him. Go away and do not annoy me; but remember this—I shall not marry you or any other man. All men are fools and liars.”

Ben Saada had hoped that the sight of the stranger with a white girl would prove a strong argument in favor of his suit. He had lied to Azîz to get rid of him, and now fate had played directly into his hands to convince Nakhla that the white man loved another; so now that he saw that the girl was no more reconciled to him than before it threw him into a rage. He went out of the tent scowling darkly and muttering incoherently to himself. The sheik was approaching the tent as Ben Saada emerged. The latter stopped him.

“Ali-Es-Hadji,” he said, “the time has come when I must have Nakhla. She is still rebellious. Is it right that the daughter should rule the sire? You are master, Ali-Es-Hadji, and twenty camels is the return I would give to have Nakhla for my wife.”

“She will not have you, Ben Saada,” replied the old sheik.

“She will have me,” answered Ben Saada, “or a white man will take her as his plaything. Are you blind, Ali-Es-Hadji, that you did not see with what eyes she looked upon the white man who rode beside the Frenchman’s daughter today? I found her weeping in your tent because of jealousy. And do you think that the white man will not take advantage of her mad love at the first opportunity? It was to see her that they came today. Unless you give me your daughter in marriage, they will come back and steal her away; unless it happens that she goes of her own volition to the arms of the white man. And do you know, Ali-Es-Hadji, who this white stranger is? No, even you do not guess. I, who have seen Nakhla meet him in the desert, know the truth. He is the naked beast-man who came with el adrea to rob your flocks. I know, for I saw Nakhla with him one night within the corral.”

At that instant both men turned to see Nakhla standing in the doorway of the tent looking at them. There was an expression of contempt upon her face as she looked at Ben Saada. Ali-Es-Hadji, her father, turned toward her.

“You have heard?” he asked.

“I have heard,” she answered.

“Does Ben Saada speak the truth?” asked the sheik.

“What he says about my meeting the lion-man is the truth,” replied Nakhla; “but that they will come and steal me, or that I will go to the white man is a lie, and you, Ali-Es-Hadji, my father, know that it is a lie. Ben Saada is a dog. He wishes to marry me that some day he may be sheik. I shall not mate with him—first will I kill myself.”

“You shall marry only whom you please, my daughter,” said Ali-Es-Hadji. “I have spoken; and you, Ben Saada, have heard. Let this end the matter,” and he turned and entered his tent with Nakhla.

Ben Saada was furious. Plans for revenge surged through his brain, and at last a great and wicked determination found lodgement there. He went to a half dozen of his cronies—wicked, vicious fellows of the younger warriors. They mounted their fleet horses and rode out into the desert that they might talk without danger of being overheard.

Late that night they returned, and while three crept within the corral with the animals the balance held the horses close without. Presently one who had gone within returned with a saddled horse, and turning it over to one of those who had remained outside he returned.

Then upon the night air there rose, low and ominous, the growl of a lion. It came from the corral. Nakhla heard it. Her heart stopped beating. Trembling she came to her feet and crept to the door of her tent. The camp was asleep. There was no moon. In the darkness she crept toward the corral, but only after a bitter storm of contending emotions had raged within her. Her first impulse had been to hasten out in answer to the call, and then had come a sudden burst of mad jealousy that had held her back.

Before her memory rose vividly the picture of the fair skinned girl and the man in khaki whom she had seen laughing and talking with her—as easily and familiarly as ever he had talked with Nakhla. And the clothes! The white man’s garmenture seemed to Nakhla to have brought a strange metamorphosis in the lion-man—they had transferred him to another sphere, a sphere beyond her reach, to which she might not possibly hope to attain.

But notwithstanding her jealousy and her hopelessness, love conquered in the end, drawing her to the corral, from which again had arisen the low lion-like growl in which however was the palpable note of imitation which led her to assume that it was Azîz calling her.

Scarce had she entered the enclosure than a man seized her from either side, quickly binding a scarf about her mouth that she might not scream aloud. She struggled, but her resistance was futile. Her captors half carried half dragged her to the opposite side of the corral, lifted her over the wall, and a moment later swung her to the back of her own El Djebel.

Still in silence they leaped to the backs of their own horses. There was the soft sound of galloping hoofs upon sand, and the little party had vanished into the desert darkness beneath the moonless sky.

.     .     .     .     .

It was a sad and silent Azîz who rode back to the camp of the French at the side of Marie Vivier. The girl, ignorant of the cause of his preoccupation, rattled on gaily, first upon one subject, then another until finally she hit upon the one subject of all others that was closest to the man’s heart and yet the one which, of all others, he would rather not have spoken.

“I cannot,” said Marie, “forget the beautiful face of the girl in the tent door, or the strange, half frightened expression with which she discovered us. I imagine that it was the natural fear and timidity of the half wild desert born for strangers of another race.”

Azîz did not reply. They were almost to the encampment now—in a few minutes he would be free to go to his own tent and grieve in solitude after the manner of the beasts from which he had derived the ethics of his existence.

As they rode into the cantonment of the troops two strange officers and two white women rose from before the colonel’s tent, the men saluting and the women waving a smiling greeting to the commandant.

Colonel Vivier turned his command over to his major and trotted forward to greet the newcomers—they were two of the officers and their wives who had been on leave when the regiment left Algiers and had just rejoined after a visit in Paris.

It was Azîz custom to accompany Marie to her father’s tent, where, after she had dismounted, he took her horse and led it to the picket line, turning it over there to a trooper. Now as he dismounted and assisted the girl to the ground he saw the eyes of the strangers upon him, and Marie seeing their questioning looks hastened to introduce him.

As soon as possible he withdrew with the horses; and after he had gone many were the questions that were asked about him, for his remarkable physique, which not even the clothing of civilization could entirely hide, and his handsome face had awakened the curiosity of the two women.

One of them, a Madam Semeler, seemed rather shocked at the idea of the apparent familiarity between the stranger and the colonel’s daughter; and as she was the wife of Vivier’s senior captain and a woman who had taken it upon herself to assume toward Marie the responsibilities of her dead mother, she lost no time in making it quite plain that she disapproved of the friendly relations that had sprung up between the friendless outcast and the colonel’s family.

She did not say much before Marie, but at the first opportunity she drew Vivier to one side and poured her fears into his ear. At first the colonel laughed at her; but finally, backed by information that she had evidently gained from officers who had been in camp when they arrived and before the colonel and his detachment had returned from his visit to Sheik Ali-Es-Hadji, she succeeded in arousing the good man’s doubts, at least as to the propriety of his daughter’s continued unchaperoned association with the lion-man.

Azîz and Marie, ignorant of the gossip the meddling woman had initiated, had strolled down to the beach after the evening meal, where they stood watching the surf and admiring the graceful play of the porpoises as they rose slowly and majestically above the surface.

For some time neither had spoken, when, quite irrelevantly, Marie returned to the subject which their return to camp earlier in the day had interrupted.

“I was just thinking,” she said, “how strange it is that so beautiful a girl as the one we saw at Ali-Es-Hadji’s this morning should not be married—these Arab girls are usually bethrothed at a very early age, and one of her beauty cannot fail having many admirers.”

“How do you know she is not married?” asked Azîz.

“Her eyebrows are not connected,” replied Marie, “and among all the tribes with whose customs I am familiar the connecting of the eyebrows by a straight line is a certain indication of wifehood.”

Azîz thought for a long time after this. He was trying to reconcile this information with the word that the Arab horseman had brought to him out upon the desert that day that his life had been turned from a song into a dirge.

Marie, too, was musing. She had accidentally overheard some of Madam Semeler’s conversation with the wife of another officer, and with sudden awakened loyalty toward Azîz she had determined to discover all that she might which could prove that he was the gentleman she, in her generous heart, felt him to be. If she could but find some clue to his identity! She did not for a moment mistrust him or the strange story that he had told, though her father had always been rather skeptical, attributing the tale to some mental defect superinduced by the dangers and suffering to which the youth must have been exposed during his lonely life among the beasts.

“Azîz,” she said at last, “have you no recollection of any other name than that which you now bear?”

“None,” he replied.

“Who gave you that name?” she continued. “It must have been your mother, for none but a mother would have bestowed it upon you—unless,” and she smiled, “you have had a sweetheart. And if your mother gave it to you, you must remember her or you would not remember the name. Tell me, can’t you recall your mother or your father?”

“Why could my name have been given me only by my mother—or my sweetheart?” asked the lion-man, and his heart beat strong within his breast as he awaited her reply.

“Can it be that you don’t know its meaning?” asked Marie.

“I don’t know,” he replied, “that it means any more than any other name—it merely is useful to distinguish me from others. Has it any special meaning, then?”

Marie laughed. “And you really don’t know the meaning of Azîz?” she asked

“No, I don’t,” replied the youth. “Tell me—what does it signify?”

“In Arabic, Azîz,” explained Marie, “your name means ‘beloved’.”

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