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THE SHEIK'S STRATEGY
Peggy gave the sheik an entrancing smile, followed by a brief glance at the beaming Miss Valentine, who nodded her head approvingly.
"Won't you give me time to go below and pack my belongings that they may be sent ashore?" she asked naively.
"Thunder!" gasped Monty. "That's no way to turn him down."
"What do you mean, Monty Brewster?" she cried, turning upon him with flashing eyes.
"Why, you're encouraging the old guy," he protested, disappointment in every inflection.
"And what if I am? Isn't it my affair? I think I am right in suspecting that he has asked me to be his wife. Isn't it my privilege to accept him if I wish?"
Brewster's face was a study. He could not believe that she was in earnest, but there was a ghastly feeling that the joke was being turned on him. The rest of the company stared hard at the flushed Peggy and breathlessly awaited developments.
"It won't do to trifle with this chap, Peggy," said Monty, coming quite close to her. "Don't lead him on. He might get nasty if he thinks you're making sport of him."
"You are quite absurd, Monty," she cried, petulantly. "I am not making sport of him."
"Well, then, why don't you tell him to go about his business?"
"I don't see any beads lying around loose," said "Rip" tormentingly. The sheik impatiently said something to the interpreter and that worthy repeated it for Peggy's benefit.
"The Son of the Prophet desires that you be as quick as possible, Queen of the World. He tires of waiting and commands you to come with him at once."
Peggy winced and her eyes shot a brief look of scorn at the scowling sheik. In an instant, however, she was smiling agreeably and was turning toward the steps.
"Holy mackerel! Where are you going, Peggy?" cried Lotless, the first to turn fearful.
"To throw some things into my trunk," she responded airily. "Will you come with me, Mary?"
"Peggy!" cried Brewster angrily. "This has gone far enough."
"You should have spoken sooner, Monty," she said quietly.
"What are you going to do Margaret?" cried Mrs. Dan," her eyes wide with amazement.
"I am going to marry the Son of the Prophet," she replied so decidedly that everyone gasped. A moment later she was surrounded by a group of excited women, and Captain Perry was calling the "jackies" forward in a voice of thunder.
Brewster pushed his way to her side, his face as white as death.
"This isn't a joke, Peggy," he cried. "Go below and I'll get rid of the sheik."
Just then the burly Algerian asserted himself. He did not like the way in which his adored one was being handled by the "white dogs," and with two spearmen he rushed up to Brewster, jabbering angrily.
"Stand back, you idiot, or I'll punch your head off," said Brewster, with sudden emphasis.
It was not until this moment that Peggy realized that there might be a serious side to the little farce she and Mary had decided to play for the punishment of Brewster. Terror suddenly took the place of mirth, and she clung frantically to Monty's arm.
"I was joking, Monty, only joking," she cried. "Oh, what have I done?"
"It's my fault," he exclaimed, "but I'll take care of you, never fear."
"Stand aside!" roared the sheik threateningly.
The situation was ominous. Frightened as they were the women could not flee, but stood as if petrified. Sailors eagerly swarmed to the deck.
"Get off this boat," said Monty, ominously calm, to the interpreter, "or we'll pitch you and your whole mob into the sea."
"Keep cool! Keep cool!" cried "Subway" Smith quickly. He stepped between Brewster and the angry suitor, and that action alone prevented serious trouble. While he parleyed with the sheik Mrs. DeMille hurried Peggy to a safe place below deck, and they were followed by a flock of shivering women. Poor Peggy was almost in tears and the piteous glances she threw at Brewster when he stepped between her and the impetuous sheik, who had started to follow, struck deep into his heart and made him ready to fight to the death for her.
It took nearly an hour to convince the Algerian that Peggy had misunderstood him and that American women were not to be wooed after the African fashion. He finally departed with his entire train, thoroughly dissatisfied and in high dudgeon. At first he threatened to take her by force; then he agreed to give her another day in which to make up her mind to go with him peaceably, and again he concluded that a bird in the hand was worth two in the bush.
Brewster stood gloomily on the outside of the excited group glowering upon the ugly suitor. Cooler heads had relegated him to this place of security during the diplomatic contest. The sheik's threats of vengeance were direful. He swore by somebody's beard that he would bring ten thousand men to establish his claim by force. His intense desire to fight for her then and there was quelled by Captain Perry's detachment of six lusty sailors, whose big bare fists were shaken vigorously under a few startled noses. It took all the fight out of the sheik and his train. Three retainers fell into the sea while trying to retreat as far as possible from danger.
Mohammed departed with the irate declaration that he would come another day and that the whole world would tremble at his approach. Disgusted with himself and afraid to meet the eyes of the other men, Brewster went below in search of Peggy. He took time to comfort the anxious women who crowded about him and then asked for Miss Gray. She was in her stateroom and would not come forth. When he knocked at the door a dismal, troubled voice from within told him to go away.
"Come out, Peggy; it's all over," he called. "Please go away, Monty," she said.
"What are you doing in there?" There was a long pause, and then came the pitiful little wail: "I am unpacking, please, sir."
That night Brewster entertained on board the yacht, several resident French and English acquaintances being the guests of honor. The story of the day was told by Mrs. Dan DeMille, commissioned especially for the duty. She painted the scene so vividly that the guests laughed with joy over the discomfiture of the sheik. Peggy and Brewster found themselves looking sheepishly at one another now and then in the course of the recital. She purposely had avoided him during the evening, but she had gamely endured the raillery that came from the rest of the party. If she was a bit pale it was not surprising. Now that it was over the whole affair appalled her more than she could have suspected. When several of the guests of the evening soberly announced that Mohammed was a dangerous man and even an object of worry to the government she felt a strange catch in her throat and her now mirthless eyes turned instinctively to Brewster, who, it seemed, was the sheik's special object of aversion.
The next day she and Monty talked it over. The penitence of both was beautiful to behold. Each denied the other the privilege of assuming all the blame and both were so happy that Mohammed was little more than a preposition in their conversation so far as prominence was concerned. But all day long the harbor was full of fisher boats, and at nightfall they still were lolling about, sinister, restless, mysterious like purposeless buzzards. And the dark men on board were taking up no fish, neither were they minding the nets that lay dry and folded in the bottom of their boats.
Far into the night there was revelry on board the "Flitter," more guests having come out from the city. The dark hours before the dawn of day had arrived before they put off for shore, but the fisher boats still were bobbing about in the black waters of the harbor. The lights gradually disappeared from the port-holes of the yacht, and the tired watch was about to be relieved. Monty Brewster and Peggy remained on deck after the guests had gone over the side of the vessel. They were leaning over the rail aft listening to the jovial voices of the visitors as they grew fainter and fainter in the distance. The lights of the town were few, but they could plainly be seen from the offing.
"Are you tired, Peggy?" asked Brewster, with a touch of tenderness. Somehow of late he had often felt a strange desire to take her in his arms, and now it was strong upon him. She was very near, and there was a drooping weariness in her attitude which seemed to demand protection.
"I have a queer feeling that something awful is going to happen to-night, Monty," she answered, trouble in her soft voice.
"You're nervous, that's all," he said, "and you should get to sleep. Good-night." Their hands touched in the darkness, and the thrill that went over him told a truth of which he had been only vaguely conscious. The power of it made him exultant. Yet when he thought of her and her too quiet affection for him it left him despondent.
Something bumped against the side of the ship and a grating sound followed. Then came other gentle thuds combined with the soft swish of water disturbed. Peggy and Brewster were on the point of going below when their attention was caught by these strange sounds.
"What is it?" she asked as they paused irresolutely. He strode to the rail, the girl following close behind. Three sharp little whistles came from above and behind them, but before they had time even to speculate as to their meaning the result was in evidence.
Over the sides of the ship came shadowy forms as if by magic; at their backs panther-like bodies dropped to the deck with stealthy thuds, as if coming from the inky sky above. There was an instant of dreadful calm and then the crisis. A dozen sinewy forms hurled themselves upon Brewster, who, taken completely by surprise, was thrown to the deck in an instant, his attempt to cry out for help being checked by heavy hands. Peggy's scream was cut off as quickly, and paralyzed by terror, she felt herself engulfed in strong arms and smothered into silence. It all happened so quickly that there was no chance to give the alarm, no opportunity to resist.
Brewster felt himself lifted bodily, and then there was the sensation of falling. He struck something forcibly with all his weight and fell back with a crash to the deck. Afterward he found that the effort to throw him overboard had failed only because his assailants in their haste had hurled him against an unseen stanchion. Peggy was borne forward and lowered swiftly into arms that deposited her roughly upon something hard. There was a jerky, rocking motion, the sudden splash of oars, and then she knew no more.
The invaders had planned with a craftiness and patience that deserved success. For hours they had waited, silently, watchfully, and with deadly assurance. How they crept up to the "Flitter" in such numbers and how the more daring came aboard long before the blow was struck, no one ever explained. So quickly and so accurately was the abduction performed that the boats were well clear of the yacht before alarm was given by one of the watch who had been overlooked in the careful assault.
Sleepy sailors rushed on deck with a promptness that was amazing. Very quickly they had found and unbound Brewster, carried a couple of wounded shipmates below and had Captain Perry in his pajamas on deck to take command.
"The searchlight!" cried Brewster frantically. "The devils have stolen Miss Gray."
While swift hands were lowering the boats for the chase others were carrying firearms on deck. The searchlight threw its mighty white arm out over the water before many seconds had passed, and eager eyes were looking for the boats of the pillagers. The Arabs had reckoned without the searchlight. Their fierce exultation died suddenly when the mysterious streak of light shot into the sky and then swept down upon the sea, hunting them out of the darkness like a great and relentless eye.
The "Flitter's" boats were in the water and manned by sturdy oarsmen before the glad cry went up that the robber fleet had been discovered. They were so near the yacht that it was evident the dusky tribesmen were poor oarsmen. In the clear light from the ship's deck they could be seen paddling wildly, their white robes fluttering as though inspired by fear. There were four boats, all of them crowded to the gunwales.
"Keep the light on them, captain," shouted Monty from below. "Try to pick out the boat that has Miss Gray on board. Pull away, boys! This means a hundred dollars to every one of you — yes, a thousand if we have to fight for her!"
"Kill every damned one of them, Mr. Brewster," roared the captain, who had retired behind a boat when he became aware of the presence of women on deck.
Three boats shot away from the side of the yacht, Brewster and Joe Bragdon in the first, both armed with rifles.
"Let's take a shot at 'em," cried a sailor who stood the stern with his finger on a trigger.
"Don't do that! We don't know what boat holds Peggy," commanded Brewster. "Keep cool, boys, and be ready to scrap if we have to." He was half mad with fear and anxiety, and he was determined to exterminate the bands of robbers if harm came to the girl in their power.
"She's in the second boat," came the cry from the yacht, and the searchlight was kept on that particular object almost to the exclusion of the others. But Captain Perry saw the wisdom of keeping all of them clearly located in order to prevent trickery.
Brewster's brawny sailor boys came up like greyhounds, cheering as they dashed among the boats of the fugitives. Three or four shots were fired into the air by the zealous American lads, and there were loud cries from the Arabs as they veered off panic-stricken. Monty's boat was now in the path of light and not far behind the one which held Peggy. He was standing in the bow.
"Take care of the others!" he called back to his followers. "We'll go after the leaders."
The response from behind was a cheer, a half dozen shots and some of the most joyous profanity that ever fell from the lips of American sailors, mingled with shrieks from the boats they were to "take care of."
"Stop!" Brewster shouted to the Arabs. "Stop, or we'll kill every one of you!" His boat was not more than fifty feet from the other.
Suddenly a tall, white-robed figure arose in the middle of the Egyptian craft, and a moment later the pursuers saw Peggy's form passed up to him. She was instantly clasped by one of his long arms, and the other was lifted high above her. A gleaming knife was held in the upraised hand.
"Fire on us if you dare!" came in French from the tall Arab. "Dog of an American, she shall die if you come near her!"