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AN OFFER OF MARRIAGE
The summer is scarcely a good time to visit Egypt, but Monty and his guests had a desire to see even a little of the northern coast of Africa. It was decided, therefore, that after Athens, the "Flitter," should go south. The yacht had met them at Naples after the automobile procession — a kind of triumphal progress, — was disbanded in Florence, and they had taken a hurried survey of Rome. By the middle of July the party was leaving the heat of Egypt and finding it not half bad. New York was not more than a month away as Brewster reckoned time and distance, and there was still too much money in the treasury. As September drew nearer he got into the habit of frequently forgetting Swearengen Jones until it was too late to retrace his steps. He was coming to the "death struggle," as he termed it, and there was something rather terrorizing in the fear that "the million might die hard." And so these last days and nights were glorious ones, if one could have looked at them with unbiased, untroubled eyes. But every member of his party was praying for the day when the "Flitter" would be well into the broad Atlantic and the worst over. At Alexandria Brewster had letters to some Englishmen, and in the few entertainments that he gave succeeded once again, in fairly outdoing Aladdin.
A sheik from the interior was a guest at one of Monty's entertainments. He was a burly, hot-blooded fellow, with a densely-populated harem, and he had been invited more as a curiosity than as one to be honored. As he came aboard the "Flitter," Monty believed the invitation was more than justified. Mohammed was superb, and the women of the party made so much of him that it was small wonder that his head was turned. He fell desperately in love with Peggy Gray on sight, and with all the composure of a potentate who has never been crossed he sent for Brewster the next day and told him to "send her around" and he would marry her. Monty's blood boiled furiously for a minute or two, but he was quick to see the wisdom of treating the proposition diplomatically. He tried to make it plain to the sheik that Miss Gray could not accept the honor he wished to confer upon her, but it was not Mohammed's custom to be denied anything he asked for — especially anything feminine. He complacently announced that he would come aboard that afternoon and talk it over with Peggy.
Brewster looked the swarthy gentleman over with unconcealed disgust in his eyes. The mere thought of this ugly brute so much as touching the hand of little Peggy Gray filled him with horror, and yet there was something laughable in the situation. He could not hide the smile that came with the mind picture of Peggy listening to the avowal of the sheik. The Arab misinterpreted this exhibition of mirth. To him the grin indicated friendship and encouragement. He wanted to give Brewster a ring as a pledge of affection, but the American declined the offering and also refused to carry a bag of jewels to Peggy.
"I'll let the old boy come aboard just to see Peggy look a hole through him," he resolved. "No matter how obnoxious it may be, it isn't every girl who can say an oriental potentate has asked her to marry him. If this camel-herder gets disagreeable we may tumble him into the sea for a change."
With the best grace possible he invited the sheik to come aboard and consult Miss Gray in person. Mohammed was a good bit puzzled over the intimation that it would be necessary for him to plead for anything he had expressed a desire to possess. Brewster confided the news to "Rip" Van Winkle and "Subway" Smith, who had gone ashore with him, and the trio agreed that it would be good sport to let the royal proposal come as a surprise to Peggy. Van Winkle returned to the yacht at once, but his companions stayed ashore to do some shopping. When they approached the "Flitter" later on they observed an unusual commotion on deck.
Mohammed had not tarried long after their departure. He gathered his train together, selected a few costly presents that had been returned from the harem and advanced on the boat without delay. The captain of the "Flitter" stared long and hard at the gaily bedecked launches and then called to his first officer. Together they watched the ceremonious approach. A couple of brown-faced heralds; came aboard first and announced the approach of the mighty chief. Captain Perry went forward to greet the sheik as he came over the side of the ship, but he was brushed aside by the advance guards. Half a hundred swarthy fellows crowded aboard and then came the sheik, the personification of pomp and pride.
"Where is she?" he asked in his native tongue. The passengers were by this time aware of the visitation, and began to straggle on deck, filled with curiosity.
"What the devil do you mean by coming aboard in this manner?" demanded the now irate Captain Perry, shoving a couple of retainers out of his path and facing the beaming suitor. An interpreter took a hand at this juncture and the doughty captain finally was made to understand the object of the visit. He laughed in the sheik's face and told the mate to call up a few jackies to drive the "dagoes" off. "Rip" Van Winkle interfered and peace was restored. The cruise had changed "Rip" into a happier and far more radiant creature, so it was only natural that he should have shared the secret with Mary Valentine. He had told the story of the sheik's demand to her as soon as he came aboard, and she had divulged it to Peggy the instant "Rip" was out of sight.
Brewster found the sheik sitting in state on the upper deck impatiently awaiting the appearance of his charmer. He did not know her name, but he had tranquilly commanded "Rip" to produce all of the women on board so that he might select Peggy from among them. Van Winkle and Bragdon, who now was in the secret, were preparing to march the ladies past the ruler when Monty came up.
"Has he seen Peggy?" he asked of Van Winkle.
"Not yet. She is dressing for the occasion."
"Well, wait and see what happens to him when she gets over the first shock," laughed Monty.
Just then the sheik discovered Peggy, who, pretty as a picture, drew near the strange group. To her amazement two slaves rushed forward and obstructed her passage long enough to beat their heads on the deck a few times, after which they arose and tendered two magnificent necklaces. She was prepared for the proposal, but this action disconcerted her; she gasped and looked about in perplexity. Her friends were smiling broadly and the sheik had placed his hands over his palpitating heart.
"Lothario has a pain," whispered "Rip" Van Winkle sympathetically, and Brewster laughed. Peggy did not hesitate an instant after hearing the laugh. She walked straight toward the sheik. Her cheeks were pink and her eyes were flashing dangerously. The persistent brown slaves followed with the jewels, but she ignored them completely. Brave as she intended to be, she could not repress the shudder of repulsion that went over her as she looked full upon this eager Arab.
Graceful and slender she stood before the burly Mohammed, but his ardor was not pooled by the presence of so many witnesses. With a thud he dropped to his knees, wabbling for a moment in the successful effort to maintain a poetic equilibrium. Then he began pouring forth volumes of shattered French, English and Arabic sentiment, accompanied by facial contortions so intense that they were little less than gruesome.
"Oh, joy of the sun supreme, jewel of the only eye, harken to the entreaty of Mohammed." It was more as if he were commanding his troops in battle than pleading for the tender compassion of a lady love. "I am come for you, queen of the sea and earth and sky. My boats are here, my camels there, and Mohammed promises you a palace in the sun-lit hills if you will but let him bask forever in the glory of your smile." All this was uttered in a mixture of tongues so atrocious that "Subway" Smith afterward described it as a salad. The retinue bowed impressively and two or three graceless Americans applauded as vigorously as if they were approving the actions of a well-drilled comic opera chorus. Sailors were hanging in the rigging, on the davits and over the deck house roof.
"Smile for the gentleman, Peggy," commanded Brewster delightedly. "He wants to take a short bask."
"You are very rude, Mr. Brewster," said Peggy turning upon him coldly. Then to the waiting, expectant sheik: "What is the meaning of this eloquence?"
Mohammed looked bewildered for a moment and then turned to the interpreter, who cleared up the mystery surrounding her English. For the next three or four minutes the air was filled with the "Jewels of Africa," "Star," "Sunlight," "Queen," "Heavenly Joy," "Pearl of the Desert," and other things in bad English, worse French, and perfect Arabic. He was making promises that could not be redeemed if he lived a thousand years. In conclusion the gallant sheik drew a long breath, screwed his face into a simpering grin and played his trump card in unmistakable English. It sounded pathetically like "You're a peach."
An indecorous roar went up from the white spectators and a jacky in the rigging. suddenly thinking of home, piped up with a bar or two from "The Star Spangled Banner."
Having accomplished what he considered to be his part of the ceremony the sheik arose and started toward his launch, coolly motioning for her to follow. So far as he was concerned the matter was closed. But Peggy, her heart thumping like a trip-hammer, her eyes full of excitement, implored him to stop for a moment.
"I appreciate this great honor, but I have a request to make," she said clearly. Mohammed paused irresolutely and in some irritation.
"Here's where the heathen gets it among the beads," whispered Monty to Mrs. Dan, and he called out: "Captain Perry, detail half a dozen men to pick up the beads that are about to slip from his majesty's neck."