Not a word was said concerning her mission, or Ben Halim's wife, the sister for whom she searched. While they were still at supper, the black servants who had waited upon them went quietly away, but slightly raised the heavy red drapery which formed the partition between that room and another.
The few living relatives he had in Algeria believed him to be dead; and a house which Ben Halim had owned not far from Bou Saada, had passed into the hands of his uncle, Caïd of a desert-village in the district. As to Ben Halim's marriage with an American girl, nobody knew anything.
"But would they have begun to work again, if soldiers were coming?" "Yes, if help were so far off that the Arabs might hope to reach us before it came, and get away in time. Ben Halim's one hope is to make an end of some of us. It was well enough to disguise the whole band as Touaregs, in case they were seen by nomads, or the landlord here should escape, and tell of the attack.
He did not inquire why they wished to have news of Ben Halim, who had once lived in the house for a short time, and had now long been dead. Perhaps he wished to give the Roumis a lesson in discretion; but as their friendliness increased over the dripping sweets, Nevill ventured to ask a crucial question. What had become of Ben Halim's American wife?
The Caïd had no information to give concerning Ben Halim's family. He pressed them to stay, and see all the beauties of the oasis. He would introduce them to the marabout at El Hamel, and in the evening they should see a special dance of the Ouled Naïls. But they made excuses that they must get on, and bade the Caïd good-bye after an hour's talk.
If the marabout lost his temper, not a man in the Zaouïa but would be ready to obey a word or gesture, and short work might be made of Victoria Ray's only champion. However, Stephen counted a good deal on Ben Halim's caution, and on the fact that his presence in the Zaouïa was known outside. He meant to acquaint his host with that fact as a preface to their conversation.
When they reached the place after sunset, the low square of the building was a block of marble set in the dull gold of the desert, carved in dazzling white against a deep-blue evening sky. Like Ben Halim's house, it was roughly fortified, with many loopholes in the walls, for it had been built to serve the uses of less peaceful days than these.
Although made without knowledge of the secret work to which the marabout had vowed himself and all that was his, the young man's threat sounded like a hint so terrible in its meaning that Ben Halim's heart turned suddenly to water. He saw himself exposed, defeated, hand and foot in the enemy's power.
"There's apparently a conspiracy of silence to keep us from finding out anything about Miss Ray's sister as Ben Halim's wife," he said to Nevill when they had left the curiosity-shop. "Also, what has become of Ben Halim." "You'll learn that there's always a conspiracy of silence in Africa, where Arabs are concerned," Nevill answered.
"We're seeing it on our left side, as we go, I hope that doesn't mean we're in for bad luck." "Rot!" said Stephen, promptly. Yet for all his scorn of Nevill's grotesque superstitions, he was not in a confident mood. He did not expect much good from this visit to Ben Halim's old country house.