“This one,” said Eshbaal, pointing to Jezebel, “is mine.”
“Why?” asked Elija, the son of Noah.
“I saw her first,” replied Eshbaal.
“Did you hear what he said?” demanded Jezebel of Lady Barbara.
The English girl nodded apathetically. Her brain was numb with disappointment and the horror of the situation, for in some respects their fate might be worse with these men than with those of South Midian. These were lusty, primitive warriors, not half-witted creatures whose natural passions had been weakened by generations of hereditary disease of nerve and brain.
“He wants me,” said Jezebel. “Is he not beautiful?”
Lady Barbara turned upon the girl almost angrily, and then suddenly she remembered that Jezebel was little more than a child in experience and that she had no conception of the fate that might await her at the hands of the North Midians.
In their narrow religious fanaticism the South Midians denied even the most obvious phases of procreation. The subject was absolutely taboo and so hideous had ages of training and custom made it appear to them that mothers often killed their first born rather than exhibit these badges of sin.
“Poor little Jezebel,” said Lady Barbara.
“What do you mean, Barbara?” asked the girl. “Are you not happy that the beautiful man wants me?”
“Listen, Jezebel,” said Lady Barbara. “You know I am your friend, do you not?”
“My only friend,” replied the girl. “The only person I ever loved.”
“Then believe me when I say that you must kill yourself, as I shall kill myself, if we are unable to escape from these creatures.”
“Why?” demanded Jezebel. “Are they not more beautiful than the South Midians?”
“Forget their fatal beauty,” replied Lady Barbara, “but never forget what I have told you.”
“Now I am afraid,” said Jezebel.
“Thank God for that,” exclaimed the English girl.
The North Midians marched loosely and without discipline. They seemed a garrulous race, and their arguments and speeches were numerous and lengthy. Sometimes so intent did they become on some point at argument, or in listening to a long winded oration by one of their fellows, that they quite forgot their prisoners, who were sometimes amongst them, sometimes in advance and once behind them.
It was what Lady Barbara had been awaiting and what she had to some extent engineered.
“Now!” she whispered. “They are not looking.” She halted and turned back. They were among the trees of the forest where some concealment might be found.
Smith and Jezebel had stopped at Lady Barbara’s direction; and for an instant the three paused, breathless, watching the retreating figures of their captors.
“Now run!” whispered Lady Barbara. “We’ll scatter and meet again at the foot of the cliff.”
Just what prompted Lady Barbara to suggest that they separate Lafayette Smith did not understand. To him it seemed a foolish and unnecessary decision; but as he had a great deal more confidence in Lady Barbara’s judgment in practical matters than in his own he did not voice his doubts, though he accepted her plan with certain mental reservations, which guided his subsequent acts.
The English girl ran in a southeasterly direction, while Jezebel, obeying the commands of her friend, scurried off toward the southwest. Smith, glancing to the rear, discovered no indication that their captors had, as yet, missed them. For a moment he was hesitant as to what course to pursue. The conviction still gripped him that he was the natural protector of both girls, notwithstanding the unfortunate circumstances that had nullified his efforts to function successfully in that role; but he saw that it was going to be still more difficult to protect them both now that they had elected to run in different directions.
However, his decision was soon made, difficult though it was. Jezebel was in her own world; contemplation of her capture by the North Midains had, so far from alarming her, appeared rather to have met with enthusiastic anticipation on her part; she could not be worse off with them than the only other people she knew.
Lady Barbara, on the other hand, was of another world—his own world—and he had heard her say that death would be preferable to captivity among these semi-savages. His duty, therefore, was to follow and protect Lady Barbara; and so he let Jezebel take her way unprotected back toward the cliff, while he pursued the English girl in the direction of Chinnereth.
Lady Barbara Collis ran until she was out of breath. For several minutes she had distinctly heard the sounds of pursuit behind her—the heavy footfalls of a man. Frantic from hopelessness, she drew her pocket knife from a pocket of her jacket and opened the blade as she ran.
She wondered if she could destroy herself with this inadequate weapon. She was positive that she could not inifict either fatal or disabling injuries upon her pursuer with it. Yet the thought of self-destruction revolted her. The realization was upon her that she had about reached the limit of her endurance, and that the fatal decision could not be long averted, when her heritage of English fighting blood decided the question for her. There was but one thing it would permit—she must stand and defend herself. She stopped then, suddenly, and wheeled about, the little knife clutched in her right hand—a tigress at bay.
When she saw Lafayette Smith running toward her she collapsed suddenly and sank to the ground, where she sat with her back against the bole of a tree. Lafayette Smith, breathing hard, came and sat down beside her. Neither had any breath for words.
Lady Barbara was the first to regain her power of speech. “I thought I said we would scatter,” she reminded him.
“I couldn’t leave you alone,” he replied.
“But how about Jezebel? You left her alone.”
“I couldn’t go with both of you,” he reminded her, “and you know Jezebel is really at home here. It means much more to you to escape than it means to her.”
She shook her head. “Capture means the same thing to either of us,” she said, “But of the two I am better able to take care of myself than Jezebel—she does not understand the nature of her danger.”
“Nevertheless,” he insisted, “you are the more important. You have relatives and friends who care for you. Poor little Jezebel has only one friend, and that is you, unless I may consider myself a friend, as I should like to do.”
“I imagine we three have the unique distinction of being the closest corporation of friends in the world,” she replied, with a wan smile, “and there doesn’t seem to be anyone who wants to buy in.”
“The Friendless Friends Corporation, Limited,” he suggested.
“Perhaps we’d best hold a directors’ meeting and decide what we should do next to conserve the interests of the stockholders.”
“I move we move,” he said.
“Seconded.” The girl rose to her feet.
“You’re terribly tired, aren’t you?” he asked. “But I suppose the only thing we can do is to get as far away from the territory of the North Midians as possible. It’s almost certain they will try to capture us again as soon as they discover we are missing.”
“If we can only find a place to hide until night,” she said. “Then we can go back to the cliffs under the cover of darkness and search for Jezebel and the place that she and I thought might be scaled.”
“This forest is so open that it doesn’t afford any good hiding places, but at least we can look.”
“Perhaps we shall find a place near the lake,” said Lady Barbara. “We ought to come to it soon.”
They walked on for a considerable distance without talking, each occupied with his own thoughts; and as no sign of pursuit developed their spirits rose.
“Do you know,” he said presently, “that I can’t help but feel that we’re going to get out of this all right in the end?”
“But what a terrible experience! It doesn’t seem possible that such things could have happened to me. I can’t forget Jobab.” It was the first time mention had been made of the tragedy at the southern village.
“You must not give that a thought,” he said. “You did the only thing possible under the circumstances. If you had not done what you did both you and Jezebel would have been recaptured, and you know what that would have meant.”
“But I’ve killed a human being,” she said. There was an awed tone in her voice.
“I killed one, too,” he reminded her, “but I don’t regret it in the least, notwithstanding the fact that I never killed anyone before. If I were not such a terrible marksman I should have killed another today, perhaps several. My regret is that I didn’t.”
“It’s a strange world,” he continued after a moment’s reflective silence. “Now, I always considered myself rather well educated and fitted to meet the emergencies of life; and I suppose I should be, in the quiet environment of a college town; but what an awful failure I have proved to be when jolted out of my narrow little rut. I used to feel sorry for the boys who wasted their time in shooting galleries and in rabbit hunting. Men who boasted of their marksmanship merited only my contempt, yet within the last twentyfour hours I would have traded all my education along other lines for the ability to shoot straight.”
“One should know something of many things to be truly educated,” said the girl, “but I’m afraid you exaggerate the value of marksmanship in determining one’s cultural status.”
“Well, there’s cooking,” he admitted. “A person who cannot cook is not well educated. I had hoped one day to be an authority on geology; but with all I know of the subject, which of course isn’t so much at that, I would probably starve to death in a land overrunning with game, because I can neither shoot nor cook.”
Lady Barbara laughed. “Don’t develop an inferiority complex at this stage,” she cried. “We need every ounce of self-assurance that we can muster. I think you are top hole. You may not be much of a marksman—that I’ll have to admit, and perhaps you cannot cook; but you’ve one thing that covers a multitude of shortcomings in a man—you are brave.”
It was Lafayette Smith’s turn to laugh. “That’s mighty nice of you,” he said. “I’d rather you thought that of me than anything else in the world; and I’d rather you thought it than any one else, because it would mean so much to you now; but it isn’t true. I was scared stiff in that village last night and when those fellows came at us today, and that’s the truth.”
“Which only the more definitely justifies my statement,” she replied.
“I don’t understand.”
“Cultured and intelligent people are more ready to realize and appreciate the dangers of a critical situation than are ignorant, unimaginative types. So, when such a person stands his ground determinedly in the face of danger, or voluntarily walks into a dangerous situation from a sense of duty, as you did last night, it evidences a much higher quality of courage than that possessed by the ignorant, physical lout who hasn’t brains enough to visualize the contingencies that may result from his action.”
“Be careful,” he warned her, “or you’ll make me believe all that—then I’ll be unbearably egotistical. But please don’t try to convince me that my inability to cook is a hallmark of virtue.”
“I—listen! What was that?” she halted and turned her eyes toward the rear.
“They have found us,” said Lafayette Smith. “Go on—go as fast as you can! I’ll try to delay them.”
“No,” she replied, “there is no use. I’ll remain with you, whatever happens.”
“Please!” he begged. “Why should I face them if you won’t take advantage of it.”
“It wouldn’t do any good,” she said. “They’d only get me later, and your sacrifice would be useless. We might as well give ourselves up in the hope that we can persuade them to free us later, or, perhaps, find the opportunity to escape after dark.”
“You had better run,” he said, “because I am going to fight. I am not going to let them take you without raising a hand in your defense. If you get away now, perhaps I can get away later. We can meet at the foot of the cliffs—but don’t wait for me if you can find a way out. Now, do as I tell you!” His tone was peremptory—commanding.
Obediently she continued on toward Chinnereth, but presently she stopped and turned. Three men were approaching Smith. Suddenly one of the three swung his club and hurled it at the American, at the same instant dashing forward with his fellows.
The club fell short of its mark, dropping at Smith’s feet. She saw him stoop and seize it, and then she saw another detachment of the Midians coming through the woods in the wake of the first three.
Smith’s antagonists were upon him as he straightened up with the club in his hand, and he swung it heavily upon the skull of the man who had hurled it at him and who had rushed forward in advance of his fellows with hands outstretched to seize the stranger.
Like a felled ox the man dropped; and then Lady Barbara saw Smith carry the unequal battle to the enemy as, swinging the club above his head, he rushed forward to meet them.
So unexpected was his attack that the men halted and turned to elude him, but one was too slow and the girl heard the fellow’s skull crush beneath the heavy blow of the bludgeon.
Then the reinforcements, advancing at a run, surrounded and overwhelmed their lone antagonist, and Smith went down beneath them.
Lady Barbara could not bring herself to desert the man who had thus bravely, however hopelessly, sought to defend her; and when the North Midians had disarmed and secured Smith they saw her standing where she had stood during the brief engagement.
“I couldn’t run away and leave you,” she explained to Smith, as the two were being escorted toward the village of the North Midians. “I thought they were going to kill you, and I couldn’t help you—Oh, it was awful. I couldn’t leave you then, could I?”
He looked at her for a moment. “No,” he answered. “You couldn’t.”