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Six Women by Victoria Cross

Part 4 out of 4

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The black slave was sitting cross-legged just outside the curtain,
and when these slow, long drawn-out words came from the other side
a light gleamed in her shrewd, beady-black eyes. With one claw-like
hand she cautiously drew back a fold of the curtain, and peering in
saw the foremost lady of the harem lying prostrate, her face
pressed to the floor. She made no sound, but dropping the curtain
noiselessly, sidled slowly off down the dark passage leading to the
Selamlik. Ahmed was alone in his apartment when the slave appeared,
sitting on the broad window ledge gazing out from the window which
overlooked his grounds, and beyond them the white minarets and
shining cupolas of the city. He turned at the interruption, but his
face lighted up with pleasure as he recognised the women's
attendant, and he signed to her to approach.

"The Lady Dilama is weeping in her chamber, desiring my lord,"
announced the slave, with much bowing and prostration, but still
with that confidence which showed she knew how welcome the news
would be to her august listener. Ahmed rose, a fire of joy leaping
up suddenly within him.

"It is well," he said, in an even tone. "Let the Lady Dilama come
to me, and for yourself take this," and he dropped beside the
crouching heap of black back and shoulder a small velvet bag. The
slave grabbed it and put it in her breast, muttering a thousand
thanks and blessings, and withdrew.

Once outside, her lean black legs carried her swiftly back to
Dilama's room, where she pushed aside the curtain without ceremony.

"Come!" she said imperiously, "you are Ahmed Ali's chosen one; he
has sent for you. Put off that torn veil, and all that weeping. I
have new robes here for you."

Dilama, who had hurriedly gathered herself up at the slave's entry,
shrank away now into a corner of the room, white as death.

"Has he sent for me?" she asked breathlessly. "Commanded me? Oh,
must I go?"

The slave looked at her strangely. She had no suspicion of Dilama's
secret, and had no idea that her own misrepresentations were as
gross as they were. But she had no wish to be harsh or unkind to
this girl, who would be in a few hours queen of the harem. She was
puzzled. She drew near to Dilama's shrinking form, and peered into
her face.

"Yes, he _commands_," she said; "but is it possible you do not
wish to go to Ahmed? He is a king amongst men, and he loves you.
What better fate could there be than to lie on his breast, in his
arms? Is it not better than the ground to which you were crying
just now? Surely you will reward me well to-morrow?"

Dilama answered nothing. Long shivers were passing through her. It
was decided, then; she could no longer avoid her fate, and already
with that thought the Oriental calm of acceptance came to her.
Besides, where was Murad? She could not tell. Fate had taken him
from her, perhaps--the same Fate that gave her to Ahmed. She was
helpless. She had no choice but to obey. And the words of the
slave, accompanied by those piercing, meaning looks, inflamed her
senses. After that unbearable week of solitude the summons came to
her not all unwelcome, and the supreme thought of Ahmed himself
loomed up suddenly, bringing irresistible joy with it. A flame
passed over her cheeks; she caught the slave's skinny black hand
between her own rose-leaf palms.

"Yes, I will reward you," she murmured. "Dress me beautifully,
decorate me that I may find favour with Ahmed."

The slave laughed meaningly.

"Does the desert traveller burn and sigh after water, and then do
the springs of Damascus not find favour in his eyes?" she asked,
and laughed again as she approached Dilama, and began to undress
her. In a few minutes the whole of the haremlik was in a state of
pleasant excitement. The news of the dressing of the bride spread
into its furthest corners, and the women came to talk and jest, and
the servants fled hither and thither upon errands. Dilama was led
into the large general room, and there bathed from head to foot
with warm rose-water; while the others sat round and chatted
together, and admired her ivory skin, with the wild rose Syrian
bloom upon it, and her masses of gold-tinted chestnut hair. And the
black slave bathed and anointed and dressed her with the utmost
care and great self-importance, and sent the underslaves flying in
all directions, one to gather syringa, and other heavy-scented
blossoms from the garden, and another to fetch the jewels for her
neck; and as the attar of rose bottle was found to be empty, a
slave was sent with flying feet to the bazaar to purchase more; and
Dilama, excited and elated, surrounded by jest and laughter and
smiling faces, felt her youth leap up within her, and rejoice at
coming into its kingdom--love.

In the bazaar the slave sped to the perfume-seller, and, swelling
with the importance of his mission, stayed a moment to chatter with
the dealer.

"They are dressing a new bride for my master, and I must hasten
back," he gossiped, lounging on the merchant's little stall. "Ahmed
Ali awaits her in the Selamlik; I must be going. They say her
beauty is wonderful; she is not a Turk, but a Syrian from the
mountains by Beirut. I must hasten: they will be waiting."

"Yes, hasten on your way," returned the perfume-seller. He was a
Turk, dignified and gracious, and of no mind to listen to gossip
from the harem, of which it was little short of scandalous to speak
so publicly. He had other customers in his shop who could hear,
amongst them a black-browed Druze in a green turban, who was
waiting patiently his turn, and who seemed to listen intently to
this most improper gossip. The slave disappeared with flying feet
to catch up his wasted moments, but when the Turk turned to serve
the silent Druze, he, too, had vanished, and some white-turbaned
Arabs pressed forward in his place.

* * * * *

Dilama in her lighted chamber, with her fresh young eyes a little
painted beneath their lids, and heavy gold chains about her soft
young throat, sat looking into the little French mirror of cheap
glass and gilt, and waiting for the attar of rose to be poured on
her shining hair.

At last the boy returned breathless, and the precious stuff was
poured on her hair and hands. Then she stood up radiant and the
women sighed and smiled by turns as she went out, preceded by the
old slave. A long narrow passage, lighted overhead by swinging
coloured lamps, divided the women's from the men's apartments, and
through this they passed noiselessly over the matting-covered
floor. At the end fell heavy curtains, concealing the door and some
steps. Here the slave left the girl, and Dilama went through the
curtains alone. She mounted the steps and passed through the door.
All was quite silent here, and the passage unlighted, except that
through a tiny window high up above her head a streak of moonlight
fell across her way. Dilama paused oppressed, she knew not by what
feeling. Only a short passage and another curtained door divided
her now from Ahmed's presence. Her breath came fast, her pulses
beat nervously, and her feet dragged; slowly and unwillingly she
crept onward, harassed by cold, vague fears. Before the door itself
she trembled, and her soft hands and wrists hardly availed to push
it open. It yielded slowly, and fell to behind her in silence.

The room was full of light; a silver blaze of moonlight illumined
it from end to end. The great windows, over which usually the
curtains were drawn, stood uncovered and wide open to the soft
Damascus air. The scent of roses and jessamine from the great man's
garden stole in with the silver light. The girl paused when just
over the threshold: she was cold and frightened, and her body
shook. Ahmed did not move or speak. He was sitting sideways to one
great window, with his head resting against the high back of the
one European chair that the room possessed. The light was so strong
that the rich, deep blue of the turban was distinctly visible in
it, but his face was in shadow. She could see, however, the noble
throat and pose of the shoulders as he sat waiting. The girl's
heart beat with a little sense of pleasure as she looked. Her feet
crept slowly a little farther into the room. A great tide of
pleasure was really just outside her heart, and would have rushed
in and overwhelmed it in waves of joy had she but opened her
heart's doors to it; but the shadow of Murad was on the bolts and
locks, and she felt afraid. The silence and great silver light in
the room oppressed her. Ahmed had not heard her enter, and had not
stirred nor looked at her. She crept a little closer. The beauty of
the majestic figure called her irresistibly. She drew closer. She
had passed one window now, and was near enough to see the jewels
flash on the slender hand that hung over the chair-arm, and the
glistening light on the embroidered Turkish slippers on his feet.
Shading her brow with one hand, Dilama came forward, fell at those
feet and kissed them. Still there was no movement, no sound. This
was so unlike Ahmed's way of treating his slaves, that the girl,
forgetting her fears, looked up in sheer surprise. Then her heart
seemed to stop suddenly, and then leap with excessive thuds of
horror against her breast. The face above her seemed carved in
stone, pale, bloodless, calm; it was set, as the girl realised in a
moment of terror and agony, in a repose that would never be broken.
The large, dark eyes, still open, gazed past her, sightless,
changeless. Fear, her fear of him, her awe, her oppressed terror
fell from her, giving way to an infinite regret, a sorrow, a sense
of loss that rushed over her, filling every cell, every atom of her
being. She, the unwilling, the reluctant, the slow-coming, the
grudging bride, now stood free. The bridegroom asked of her
nothing, demanded nothing, needed nothing, desired nothing.

The slave-girl neither shrieked nor fainted. A great, convulsive
sob tore itself from her trembling body as she rose from her knees
and bent over the sitting figure. Wildly she passed her soft,
shaking fingers across his brow, still warm, and round his throat,
seeking mechanically the wound; then her eyes fell on the gold silk
of his tunic, and just over the left breast she saw a little brown
patch, and on the left side of the chair the silver light gleamed
on a small, dark-red pool. He had been stabbed as he sat there,
waiting for her--stabbed from the back, and the dagger thrust
through to the little brown spot in the front of the tunic. And
through that tiny door his life had gone.

Lying at his feet, Dilama sobbed uncontrollably, rolling her head,
with its wonderful crown of flower-decked hair, and her pink-silk
clad body amongst the rugs on the floor. What was the worth or use
of anything now, silk or bridal attire, or beauty, or flower-decked
hair? Never would any of them now be mirrored in his eyes again.
Never could anything change that awful serenity, that implacable
silence, out of which she felt her own love, her own desire rush
upon her and devour her. Ahmed had been hers and she had shrunk
from him, and now all the blood in her body she would have given
willingly to replace that little scarlet stream that had borne away
his life.

As she lay there, weeping in an agony of despair, a dark shadow
suddenly grew in the window, and fell a black patch in the panel of
white light upon the floor. A lithe figure balanced a moment on the
ledge of the open window, then leapt with the silent elastic bound
of a cat into the room. Dilama sprang from the floor to her knees
with a smothered cry of terror.

"Murad! why have you come here?"

The Druze leant over her and caught her arm fiercely.

"To claim my own. It is not the first visit I have made to-night,
as you see," and as he dragged her up from her knees he indicated
the motionless figure beside them.

"You killed him!" she whispered, gazing up with dilated, terrified

"Who should, if not I? Had he not taken my wife? Come, we must be

With the nail-like grip on her arm, and the low, savage tones in
her ears, and the blazing eyes like a tiger's, inflamed with the
lust of murder above her, the girl felt sick and half-fainting with
fear and misery.

"He did not take me. I was always faithful, Murad. I love you.
I--" she stammered.

"It is well," returned Murad with a grim smile, "and these tears I
suppose are because I was too long absent? It is true I have been
some time: I had much to do, and then I knew I was quite safe, now
I had settled all accounts with him. Come! the caravan is ready;
the camels wait for you."

He dragged her towards the open square, the great square of the
window. Without, the night-flies and the moths danced in the silver
beams, the trees rose motionless and stately in the sultry air, the
gracious hours moved on with all the tranquil splendour of the
Oriental night. The girl threw her eyes over the sitting figure,
unmoved by all the strenuous passions fighting round it. Wildly, in
despairing agony, she stretched out her arms towards it in a vain,
unconscious passionate appeal.

The Druze struck them downwards, and gripping her unresisting body
more tightly, he leapt from the window to the slight wooden
staircase without, and, like a tiger with his prey, crept away
stealthily through the silver silence of the rose garden towards
the desert.

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