THEN followed a moment of the most painful silence that I ever endured. It was broken by Ayesha, who addressed herself to Leo.
`Nay, now my lord and guest,' she said in her softest tones, which yet had the ring of steel about them, `look not so bashful. Surely the sight was a pretty one--the leopard and the lion!'
`Oh, hang it all!' said Leo in English.
`And thou, Ustane,' she went on, `surely I should have passed thee by had not the light fallen on the white across thy hair,' and she pointed to the bright edge of the rising moon which was now appearing above the horizon. `Well! well! the dance is done--see, the tapers have burnt down, and all things end in silence and in ashes. So thou thoughtest it a fit time for love, Ustane, my servant--and I, dreaming not that I could be disobeyed, thought thee already far away.'
`Play not with me,' moaned the wretched woman; `slay me, and let there be an end.'
`Nay, why? It is not well to go so swift from the hot lips of love down to the cold mouth of the grave,' and she made a motion to the mutes, who instantly stepped up and caught the girl by either arm. With an oath Leo sprang upon the nearest, and hurled him to the ground, and then stood over him with his face set, and his fist ready.
Again Ayesha laughed. `It was well thrown, my guest; thou hast a strong arm for one who so late was sick. But now out of thy courtesy I pray thee let that man live and do my bidding. He shall not harm the girl; the night air grows chill, and I would welcome her in mine own place. Surely she whom thou dost favour shall be favoured of me also.'
I took Leo by the arm, and pulled him from the prostrate mute, and he, half bewildered, obeyed the pressure. Then we all set out for the cave across the plateau, where a pile of white human ashes was all that remained of the fire that had lit the dancing, for the dancers had vanished.
In due course we gained Ayesha's boudoir--all too soon it seemed to me, having a sad presage of what was to come lying heavy on my heart.
Ayesha seated herself upon her cushions, and, having dismissed Job and Billali, by signs bade the mutes tend the lamps and retire, all save one girl, who was her favourite personal attendant. We three remained standing, the unfortunate Ustane a little to the left of the rest of us.
`Now, oh Holly,' Ayesha began, `how came it that thou who didst hear my words bidding this evil-doer'-- and she pointed to Ustane--`to go from hence--thou at whose prayer I did weakly spare her life--how came it, I say, that thou wast a sharer in what I saw to-night? Answer, and for thine own sake, I say, speak all the truth, for I am not minded to hear lies upon this matter!'
`It was by accident, oh Queen,' I answered. `I knew naught of it.'
`I do believe thee, oh Holly,' she answered coldly, `and well it is for thee that I do--then does the whole guilt rest upon her.'
`I do not find any guilt therein,' broke in Leo. `She is not another man's wife, and it appears that she has married me according to the custom of this awful place, so who is the worse? Any way, madam,' he went on, `whatever she has done I have done too, so if she is to be punished let me be punished also; and I tell thee,' he went on, working himself up into a fury, `that if thou biddest one of those deaf and dumb villains to touch her again I will tear him to pieces!' And he looked as though he meant it.
Ayesha listened in icy silence, and made no remark. When he had finished, however, she addressed Ustane.
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