The Lad and the Lion

Chapter Twenty-Four

Edgar Rice Burroughs

MOHAMMED and the other arab, terror-stricken upon their terror-stricken mounts, attempted to escape. The former to lighten the burden upon his horse turned in his saddle and pushed Nakhla to the ground; but it was too late. The girl saw a flash of leaping, white fanged rage spring for the rider. A mighty, taloned paw raked the Arab from the horse’s back; great jaws closed upon his head; and then the lion gave the limp form a vicious shake and dropped it.

The other Arab, a few yards in advance as he had been, was able to make good his escape, for the lions had attacked upon rather level, open ground where the advantage was all upon the side of the fleet horses. Now the lioness was returning at a quick trot toward her mate.

Nakhla looked about her. The lion stood scarce ten feet from her, his yellow eyes fixed full upon her. Behind him the lioness was approaching. A hundred feet to one side Azîz was just rising from the body of Sidi-El-Seghir. He could not reach her ahead of the lions. Would the black-maned one remember her?

The same question rose in the mind of the man, and with great leaps he hastened toward the girl, shouting at the same time to the lions. The lioness had now come to a halt just behind her mate, where she, too, eyeing the girl and growling savagely.

The lion advanced slowly toward Nakhla. The girl stood quietly with extended hand, speaking to the great brute as she had been wont to do when she and Azîz and el adrea had lolled through hot afternoons beneath the shade of some great tree beside the little river in their own beloved canyon.

The huge beast was close before her when he halted and raising his muzzle rubbed it beneath her palm—begging for a caress. It was with a sigh of relief that was almost a sob that the girl dropped to her knees and threw both arms about the savage, black-maned neck. Behind them the lioness growled questioningly, and then Azîz leaped to her side.

It did not take the lioness long to learn that Nakhla was one of them—that she must not be harmed, though, for a while the lion or the man kept always between them.

When Nakhla came to her feet she saw Azîz looking down upon her, with a deep sadness that she never before had seen upon his countenance. She had been minded to thank him for his protection and then turn her back upon him; but there was that in his face that made her forget even the white girl—his wife.

“What is it?” she whispered. “Are you in pain?ódoes the wound upon your head still cause you suffering?”

He looked at her for a moment in dumb misery. The pain in his head was almost intolerable.

“It is not my head that hurts, Nakhla,” he said, and he laid his hand upon his heart — “it is here that the hurt is.”

“I do not understand,” she answered. “I thought that you were very happy—you seemed so when you rode to my father’s douar beside the white girl.”

“How could the brother of el adrea be happy,” he asked, “knowing that Nakhla was wed to another?”

“Nakhla wed to another?” she cried. “What do you mean?”

“Did you not send a messenger out into the desert to tell me that I must come no more to visit you—that you were married to a man of your own tribe?”

Instantly the girl read the truth.

“Ben Saada!” she exclaimed. “None but Ben Saada would have done so vile a thing.”

“It is not true, then?” he cried, his voice trembling.

“It is not true, Azîz,” she answered. “Nakhla is wed to no man.”

The use of the name that she had given him, and that he had not heard upon her lips for so long sent a thrill through him. He came close to her side.

“I know now what ‘Azîz’ means,” he said.

Nakhla flushed, and at the same instant she thought of what Ben Saada had told her—that this man was married to the white girl of the French. She drew quickly away from him.

“Nakhla is not married.” she said, speaking quickly, “but can the brother of el adrea say the same for himself?”

“You know, Nakhla,” he answered simply, “that I am not wed to you, and, so I cannot be wed to any.”

“But the French girl?” she asked, still in doubt.

Azîz laughed.

“She was like a sister to me, who had never had a sister. How could I, having seen Nakhla, love any other upon the face of the earth?”

This last argument seemed to be quite convincing; and Nakhla came close to him, looking up into his face.

Still he did not take her in his arms, though that is precisely what Nakhla wished him to do. In a moment she was piqued. Her eyes flashed and her chin took upon itself the haughty tilt that made her lips seem irresistible.

Azîz was moved, but he could not forget that he was a Nasrâny, a pig, a dog of an unbeliever, everything in fact that was low and despicable in the eyes of Arab or white.

The firing behind them—the guns of the allies against the marauders—had long since ceased; but neither had noted the fact, nor in truth anything other than one another. The moon stood directly above them, and a few paces away the lion and the lioness tore at the flesh of Mohammed’s horse, for the animal had been crippled by the same mighty blow that had swept his rider to death.

“Come,” said Nakhla, coldly. “Back there are my people. I am going to them. The Sheik Ali-Es-Hadji, my father, will repay you for that which you have done in the service of his daughter.”

“Pay!” exclaimed Azîz. “Why should you hurt me more by saying such a thing as that? Is it not enough that so low a one as I dare love all hopelessly such as you, that you must add hurt to my sorrow by suggesting that I could take pay for serving you?”

Nakhla looked straight into the eyes of the lion-man. “I do not know,” she said, “what you mean by saying that you are ‘low.’ Nor can I guess any more what your sentiments may be—I have seen no indications of love. Perhaps the lion-man is not so brave as a lion, after all.” There was a diabolical little smile of mischief upon her lips.

Azîz, dense as most men are in the matter of a maid’s love, awoke at last from his stupid lethargy. Before she could have prevented had she desired to do so he had seized her, and when she found herself crushed to his broad breast her hands stole up about his neck and slowly drew his lips downward upon hers.

It was upon this scene that two men looked—a French Colonel and an Arab Sheik. They had topped a little rise of ground as it broke upon their startled visions, bringing them to a sudden halt within the concealing fringe of bush through which they had been riding.

“Allah!” exclaimed the Arab. “Look!” “Mon dieu!” ejaculated Colonel Vivier. “See those great lions feeding behind them—it is incredible.” “The lion-man—and my daughter,” whispered Ali-Es-Hadji, half to himself.

.     .     .     .     .

“And you really love me?” Azîz was asking. “You do not think that I am a pig or a dog or any of the other things that men call me?”

“I love you,” whispered the girl. “You are Azîz, Nakhla’s Azîz.”

And again he crushed her close to him, covering her face with kisses. Sheik Ali-Es-Hadji saw and groaned.

“The dog!” he muttered.

Colonel Vivier looked at him in surprise—he had forgotten that only a few nights before he had been thrown into a rage at the suggestion that his own daughter might love this outcast—this brother of the beasts.

Ali-Es-Hadji could endure it no longer. With a cry he spurred his horse into the open, crying aloud to the man and the maid.

“Pig!” he shrieked, “take your vile hands off my daughter. Nakhla, come hither at once!”

But for answer there came the savage roar of a great lion, as the black-maned one leaped from his kill toward the advancing horseman.

Ali-Es-Hadji had forgotten the beasts in the moment of his rage, but now as he saw the fierce creature charging upon him he wheeled his horse and raced off in the opposite direction. Azîz at the same time leaped after the lion, crying to him to come back; and then the four stood together, the lion and the man with their mates, watching the intruders.

Again Ali-Es-Hadji rode within speaking distance, but this time his tone was less warlike. There was a note of pleading in it. . “Oh, Nakhla, my daughter,” he cried. “Come back to me, my child. Do not leave your old father, who loves you, to die in loneliness of a broken heart.”

It was Azîz who answered.

“Ali-Es-Hadji,” he said, “I shall wed your daughter; and we shall come and dwell in your douar, if you will, that you may have her near you. I have no anger against the father of Nakhla.”

“Come,” said Ali-Es-Hadji—“it shall be as you have said.”

With the lions snarling savagely at either side of them, Nakhla and Azîz walked forward to meet the girl’s father. His terrified mount snorted and reared. It was impossible to bring him close to the wild beasts. Neither could Colonel Vivier approach without dismounting; and as there was none to hold their frightened horses the two men were compelled to ride on in advance of the four, for Azîz would not send his companions away.

Thus the strange party came to the camp of the soldiers and the Arabs, and very near they were to starting a stampede as the lions passed the picket line. Straight into the center of the camp they walked, while the French and the sons of the desert looked on in wide-eyed consternation. Azîz held his two beasts under perfect control, aside from a little savage roaring and growls of warning.

As the party halted before Vivier’s tent, a sudden sharp pain shot through the lion-man’s aching head. With a low moan, he threw his hands above him and sank to the ground, unconscious. Nakhla was on her knees beside him in an instant; and the two lions turned questioningly toward his prostrate form, sniffing about him and brushing his cheek with their rough tongues.

For a few minutes they hovered restlessly about, growling viciously at the circle of men who dared not approach closer, though they paid no attention to the girl in whose lap their master’s head was pillowed. The beasts were evidently suspicious and ill at ease. Again the male sniffed inquiringly at the supine body of the man. Then his muzzle brushed the cheek of the girl as with a low moan he turned away and strode majestically from the side of the man he evidently thought to be dead.

Behind him, stealthy and sinuous, moved his great mate. Before them the ranks of the watchers opened with marvelous rapidity, until a broad line was formed through which moved the king and queen out into the night toward their wild realm. For a long time their cries could be heard, diminishing in the distance.

Immediately that they had departed, Colonel Vivier did what he could for Azîz. Toward morning the lion-man fell into a natural slumber, and then at last relief came to the suffering Nakhla, for she hoped that he would awaken well once more.

The clatter of the preparation for breaking camp aroused him. As he opened his eyes he saw Nakhla, sitting beside him looking down into his face. Behind her were Colonel Vivier and Sheik Ali-Es-Hadji.

Azîz came slowly to his feet. He saw those about him, but beyond them he saw a wondrous vision. His head no longer hurt. His brain had never been more clear.

He saw a stateroom in a rolling ship. He saw a grey, old man burst in—his grizzled, upturned mustache bristling and warlike as his indomitable eagle eyes. He heard his words as distinctly as though no long years had intervened since they were spoken: “Quick, your Highness! Come on deck—there is no time to bother about clothes.”

And beyond the ship, far, far away, he saw a stately pile of ancient masonry, set in a great park of linden trees and ash and oak. There were broad, formal gardens and great expanses of level sward. There were gleaming marble fountains throwing their shimmering waters into the warm sunlight. There were men in uniform standing guard—tall, splendid fellows. And there was a little boy who walked beside a sad-faced man, and when they passed the soldiers snapped their burnished pieces smartly in salute.

The Frenchman and the Arab and the girl stood watching the expression of the man’s face. They knew that some great change had been wrought within him; but what, they could not guess.

At last he turned his eyes upon them. He saw the desert sheik and the descendant of the famous Count de Vivier of the reign of Louis XIV, and he smiled.

Nakhla took a step toward him. His eyes met hers. No longer was he a dog or a pig. Now he knew precisely what he was and what awaited his coming upon another continent if he chose to come.

For a long moment he gazed into the eyes of the girl, and then he raised her slim, brown hand to his lips.

“We shall be very happy in the douar of Sheik Ali-Es-Hadji, our father,” he said.

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