The Lad and the Lion

Chapter Eighteen

Edgar Rice Burroughs

TWO THINGS Aziz had learned within the course of a very few minutes—two things that might mean to him all the difference in the world between misery and happiness.

He could scarcely wait to learn the truth. It seemed that Marie would never be done looking at the silly sea—the happy, laughing, dancing sea. A moment before it had been a sad and weeping sea.

But at last the French girl turned back toward the father’s tent. The newcomers were within; so the lion-man begged off when Marie urged him to join them, and bidding the girl good-night hastened to his own tent.

His plans were made. He would ride that night, fast and furious, to the douar of Sheik Ali-Es-Hadji. He would know the truth. Evidently there had been a great mistake—the lone horseman had brought him a lie instead of the truth.

He had buckled on his revolver, and seized his rifle, and was on the point of hurrying down to the picket line to saddle his horse, when it suddenly occurred to him that the horse, the accouterments, the clothes that he wore even, were his only through the courtesy of Colonel Vivier—it would never do to ride away at night without making some sort of explanation to his host and patron.

So instead of going to the picket line he hastened off in the direction of Vivier’s tent, but he never entered it, for at the threshold he heard his own name upon the lips of one within. Such knowledge of the niceties of civilized conduct as one might derive from a lifetime of association with a black-maned lion was Azîz’s. To this, of course, there had been added that which he had been able to absorb from Nakhla and Marie, but at that he did not possess sufficient to deter him from untroubled listening to that which went on beyond the frail canvas wall.

“What do you know of this Azîz person, anyway, Marie?” a woman’s voice was saying. “For aught you or the colonel know he is an escaped convict, hiding in the desert. A forger, maybe; or a murderer, even.”

“Poof! Helen,” came the colonel’s voice. “Look at the man’s eyes—they’re honest to the bottom of them and clean. I tell you Azîz is all right.”

“That he is,” exclaimed Marie.

“Well,” continued the woman’s voice, in that exasperating air of superior finality that brooks no contrary opinion, “well, she is your daughter, of course. Colonel Vivier; but I loved her poor mother, and I feel that it is my duty to do my poor best to preserve Marie from such a misalliance.”

“Misalliance!” gasped Colonel Vivier, coming half to his feet. “Mis-alliance? Mon Dieu! Do you think that Marie intends wedding this fellow!” and he glanced quickly toward his daughter.

Azîz could hear through the canvas wall but through it he could not see what Colonel Vivier saw—a sudden scarlet flush suffuse the face of the French girl.

“It has reached a point,” broke in the woman’s voice, “where the whole regiment is talking about it—and talking about little else.”

“Madam Semeler!” cried Marie, reproachfully, but she got no further.

“Misalliance!” almost shouted Colonel Vivier. “How dare any member of my regiment link the name of their colonel’s daughter with that of an outcast—a waif—an unknown, nameless fellow who is but a grade above a servant in my household! It is outrageous. Do you think for a moment that the daughter of the house of Vivier—a descendant of the famous Count de Vivier—could so degrade herself as to entertain such an idea! We have befriended the poor devil—that is all. We know nothing about him, except that he does not presume upon our friendship,” and he looked meaningly at Madam Semeler. “Has he ever presumed, Marie,” he asked, turning toward his daughter, “to assume toward you anything more than the quasi-menial position he holds?”

Azîz did not linger to hear more. He had heard quite enough. There was no rancor in his heart toward Vivier. Something told him that the man had spoken honestly and that he still was what Azîz had always thought—his best friend; but the lion-man’s eyes had been opened to a new thread in the intricate human fabric called civilized society, to an understanding of his place in that society.

Evidently, regardless of character and deportment, all men were not equal. There seemed to be an indefinable something which made Colonel Vivier one sort of person and Azîz another. Azîz was of a lower order—he was of the “servant” class—he could never hope to associate upon a plane of perfect equality with these superior beings. Of course, he did not understand it at all—all that he knew was something rose up within him in rebellion—but greater even than this was a feeling of bitter humiliation and a poignant hurt that depressed him.

If he was not good enough for Marie Vivier, then most certainly he could never hope to aspire to so radiant a thing as Nakhla. He was moving back toward his tent as these dismal thoughts passed through his mind. Slowly he entered his little canvas home. Slowly and deliberately he removed every article of clothing and equipment that had been furnished him by Colonel Vivier.

At last he stood naked except for his loin cloth and bandoleer. In his belt were the knife and revolver he had taken from the marauder chieftain. In his right hand the rifle that had belonged to the traitorous servant of Marie. He would go away, nor would he take aught that might obligate him in any way to these superior people who considered him so far beneath them.

The sentries knew him for a favored friend of their colonel; so he might easily have passed them clothed in khaki, but whether or not they would permit him to go forth in his nakedness he did not know, for their suspicions might be aroused, in which event they would report the matter to their commandant before they allowed him to pass.

Azîz did not care to be subjected to anything of the sort. He was free. No one could detain him. He could come and go as he saw fit. And so it was that a wild beast, silent and stealthy as the lion that had trained him, passed out of the camp of the French soldiers so close to a sentry that the fellow might have touched it with his bayonet had he known of its presence.

Straight back toward his savage lair he trotted through the dark and moonless night; but as he went, he thought; and the more he thought the more impossible it seemed to him that he could live without Nakhla. Human companionship had grown to mean a great deal more to him than he could possibly imagine, and the personification of humanity was to him the wondrous daughter of Sheik Ali-Es-Hadji. Nor had the lion-man’s perspicacity been one whit at fault in its estimate of the bronze maid of the desert. Far above the average of her sisters, was Nakhla—not only in personal beauty, but in virtue, goodness, character and intelligence as well. A girl in a thousand, was she—yes, in ten thousand, in whom race or complexion might bear no slightest place in the estimate that was her due. Nakhla of the Sahara was a daughter of the races.

And something of all this found lodgment that night in the mind of Azîz, so that the lure of this perfect maid carried him past the lair of his savage mates—on and upward through the Stygian blackness of the canyon toward the pass that leads eastward out into the Sahara.

Thoughtless of self, the man forged ahead. The two great bodies lying in the brush close beside the watering place above the den went all unnoticed. The savage, flaming eyes caught no answering spark from the introspective orbs of the lion-man. Azîz was too deeply engrossed in what was transpiring within his own handsome head to note the sudden movement of two soft-footed creatures close behind him as he passed through the ford to the opposite side of the river where the traveling was better.

But he was suddenly brought to consciousness of things less remote by the hurtling of two giant bodies against him, bodies that hurled him forward upon his face beneath their great weight. However far his thoughts may have been wandering they returned with lightning-like rapidity to the comprehension that two lions were upon him.

If they were not his lions here was an end of him and all his troubles; and if they were his lions he could not but recall that it had been some time since they had seen him; and the chance obtruded itself upon his consciousness that even though they proved to be his lions they might not remember him, for he had learned of late that the minds and memories of beasts may not be gauged by human standards.

But even in the instant that these thoughts passed through his mind, and while he struggled beneath the giant bodies above him, he heard the purring of one of the beasts in his ear and then felt the rough tongue upon his cheek.

With a laugh of relief he put his arms about the neck of the lion and drawing the great head close down to his pressed his face against the savage, wrinkled jowl of his first friend.

So great was the joy of the beasts in seeing him again that it was some time before he could gain his feet, as they kept pouncing upon him with the playfulness of kittens; but at last he stood erect, an arm about the neck of each of the huge cats.

For a while he remained there, stroking and caressing them; but his mind was settled upon his immediate future, and so with a final hug for each he left them, trotting on across the hills and out into the desert.

It was dawn when he came to the douar of Sheik Ali-Es-Hadji. Already the breakfast fires were burning, and burnoosed Arabs were moving hither and thither about the encampment. Unhesitatingly Azîz approached the tents. At sight of him several of the warriors ran forward, their weapons ready; but as he called to them in their own tongue, asking for Nakhla, they drew about him curiously, for never had they seen so strange a figure as this almost naked white giant.

The commotion brought Ali-Es-Hadji from his tent, and when he learned that this stranger had come in search of his daughter he strode forward to interview him, his face stem and forbidding.

At sight of him he knew that it was the lion-man, and on the instant, recalling Ben Saada’s prophesies, he became suspicious. His keen glance took in the youth from head to foot. He noted the superb physique, the strong cut face, the clear eyes, the dignity of the man’s carriage. Despite himself Ali-Es-Hadji was impressed.

“Who are you?” he asked, “and what brings you to my tent?”

“I am—” the youth hesitated to give the name that Nakhla had called him —“I am the brother of el adrea; and I have come to have speech with Nakhla, the daughter of Sheik Ali-Es-Hadji.”

“What would you of the daughter of Ali-Es-Hadji?” asked the sheik. “I am he—what would you of my daughter?”

“I would learn if she be married to another,” replied Azîz, “for I would have her for myself.”

Ali-Es-Hadji’s face went black with anger.

“You!” he cried. “You, dog of a Nasrâny—naked white beggar—you have the temerity to aspire to the daughter of a great sheik? You—a worthless vagabond without a following—without even a burnoose to your back. Where, pig, would you find the twenty camels with which to pay me for my daughter’s hand, even if she would have such vermin as you?”

Azîz’ level gaze never left the face of the old Arab: If his heart was tom with misery and his breast with indignation and with rage, his face showed naught of the emotions which rioted beneath his smooth bronzed hide. Last night he had learned in what low esteem the men of his own race held him. Now he had discovered that the wild desert Arab looked down upon him as an inferior being. Indeed was he an outcast and a pariah. Did Nakhla also consider him as dirt beneath her feet? Was he to her also but as camel dung?

“Let me speak with Nakhla,” he persisted. “If Nakhla says that I am a pig and a dog I will go away.”

Ali-Es-Hadji was about to refuse the request, and Azîz seeing his decision in the expression of his face sought to forestall it.

“Since Nakhla told me that it was wrong,” he said, “to tamper with her father’s flocks, neither I nor my lions have come down to the douar of Ali-Es-Hadji; but if I go away, leaving my lions here, who will there be to prevent them coming nightly to your corral? Or if you refuse my request why should I not then be your enemy, bringing my two great beasts often among your herds and your people? Even now the lioness is big with cubs, and in a year there may be four or five lions where now there are but three. Would you be happy in the knowledge that five lions were constantly seeking to slay you and your people and your cattle? Would it not be better to be friends with the brother of el adrea? Even though Nakhla tells me that she no longer likes me, I will be no enemy to her people; but if you refuse to let me speak with her I shall know that you are my enemy indeed. “

Now Ali-Es-Hadji, though a brave man, contemplated with horror the suggestion that five lions might be brought to prey upon him. He had it in his mind that the young man might be easily killed before he could leave the douar, but that would not preserve him from the depredations of the lions. His only hope lay in placating the lion-man, and with this thought in view he determined to see Nakhla first and require her to send her savage mend away in peace, but permanently.

“Wait here,” he said to Azîz. “I will fetch my daughter.”

Then he entered the tent that was reserved for Nakhla in the rear of his own. A moment later he reappeared—an expression of apprehension on his face. He turned to several of the women who stood upon the edge of the curious crowd that was eyeing the lion-man.

“Where is Nakhla?” he asked. “Who has seen my daughter this morning?”

The women looked from one to another, each signifying her ignorance of the whereabouts of the chief’s daughter by a shake of the head. Ali-Es-Hadji commanded several of the younger women to search for her. Presently they returned to say that Nakhla was not within the douar and that El Djebel, her horse, was gone likewise.

At this moment the figure of a horseman could be seen galloping swiftly toward the douar from across the desert. Streaming in the wind behind him waved the graceful folds of his burnoose above the rising and falling back of his white mount. The two seemed alive with tidings—the gait of the horse, the attitude of the man proclaimed that they were bearers of important information, perhaps, they thought, concerning Nakhla. Ali-Es-Hadji and his people stood silently awaiting their coming, as though something told them that the two brought word from the missing Nakhla. Beside Ali-Es-Hadji stood Azîz, the lion-man, awaiting in silence the coming of the messenger.

There was a rush of feet as the Arab galloped at full speed among the tents and in a final cloud of flying sand and dust threw his horse to its haunches at the very feet of the sheik.

It was Brebisch, friend and confederate of Ben Saada. He did not dismount. His attitude was of one who in his own hearts doubts the welcome that awaits him. Beneath his burnoose one hand grasped his long pistol. Brebisch was prepared for any eventuality.

“Ali-Es-Hadji,” he cried, and his tone was almost defiant, “I bring you the greetings of Ben Saada and word that your daughter is well in his keeping. Ben Saada will wed her if you send him assurance of your friendship, and he will return and live beneath your tent; but if you will not promise Ben Saada your protection then he bids me tell you that he will keep your daughter anyway—but that he will not wed her.”

Brebisch was silent, evidently awaiting Ali-Es-Hadji’s reply. The face of the sheik was a study in fear and rage and sorrow well controlled. Only his long, strong fingers opened and closed convulsively as though already they could feel the throat of the seducer of his daughter in their grip. His old eyes blazed with the fire of his unconquered forebears as he replied to the messenger from Ben Saada.

“Tell Ben Saada,” he said slowly, “that Ali-Es-Hadji does not treat with renegades and traitors. I shall come and get him, and if he has harmed my daughter he shall die, staked out upon the desert to fill the bellies of the jackal and the vulture with his putrid meat. That is the only answer that Ali-Es-Hadji has to send to Ben Saada. Begone!”

Brebisch made no reply, but wheeling his horse galloped out into the desert in the direction from which he had come. For a long time old Ali-Es-Hadji remained in thought, his eyes bent upon the ground. Then he turned toward Azîz, but Azîz was not there. Instead, far out upon the desert, a savage beast trotted doggedly along the spoor of a flying horseman.

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