The Top of the World
Ethel M. Dell
Part 2 out of 8
She met his look with a brave face. She even smiled--a gallant,
little smile to which he made no response. "Well, now," she said,
"I want you to tell me the quickest way to get to Guy."
He faced her squarely. "I've got to tell you something about him
first," he said.
"Yes?" Her heart was beating very quickly, but she had herself well
in hand. "What is it?"
But he stood mutely considering her. It was as if the power of
speech had suddenly gone from him.
"What is it?" she said again. "Won't you tell me?"
He made a curious gesture. It was almost a movement of flinching.
"You're so young," he said.
"Oh, but I'm not--I'm not!" she assured him. "It's only my face.
I'm quite old really. I've been through a lot."
"You've never seen life yet," he said.
"I have!" she declared with an odd vehemence. "I've learnt lots of
things. Why--do you look like that? I'm not a child."
Her voice quivered a little in spite of her. Why did he look like
that? The compassion in his eyes smote her with a strange pain.
Why--why was he sorry for her?
He saw her rising agitation, and spoke, slowly, choosing his words.
"The fact is, Guy isn't what you take him for--isn't the right man
for you. Nothing on this earth can make him so now, whatever he
may have been once. He's taken the wrong turning, and there's no
She gazed at him with wide eyes. Her lips felt stiff and cold.
"What--what--do you mean, please?" she said.
She saw his hands clench. "I don't want to tell you what I mean,"
he said. "Haven't I said enough?"
She shook her head slowly, with drawn brows. "No--no! I've got to
understand. Do you mean Guy doesn't want me after all? Didn't he
really mean me to come? He--sent a message."
"I know. That's the infernal part of it." Burke Ranger spoke with
suppressed force. "He was blind drunk when he sent it."
"Oh!" She put up her hands to her face for a moment as if to
shield herself from a blow. "He--drinks, does he?"
"He does everything he ought not to do, except steal," said Ranger
bluntly. "I've tried to keep him straight--tried every way. I
can't. It isn't to be done."
Sylvia's hands fell again. "Perhaps," she said slowly, "perhaps I
The man started as if he had been shot. "You!" he said.
She met his look with her wide eyes. "But why not?" she said. "We
love each other."
He turned from her, grinding the floor with his heel. "God help me
to make myself intelligible!" he said.
It was the most forcible prayer she had ever heard. It struck
through to her very soul. She stood motionless, but she felt
crushed and numb.
Ranger walked to the end of the room and then came straight back to
"Look here!" he said. "This is the most damnable thing I've ever
had to do. Let's get it over! He's a rotter and a blackguard.
Can you grasp that? He hasn't lived a clean life all these years
he's been away from you. He went wrong almost at the outset. He's
the sort that always does go wrong. I've done my best for him.
Anyhow, I've kept him going. But I can't make a decent man of him.
No one can. He has lucid intervals, but they get shorter and
shorter. Just at present--" he paused momentarily, then plunged
on--"I told you last night he wasn't ill. That was a lie. He is
down with delirium tremens, and it isn't the first time."
"Ah!" Sylvia said. He had made her understand at last. She stood
for a space staring at him, then with a groping movement she found
and grasped the back of a chair. "Why--why did you lie to me?" she
"I did it for your sake," he answered briefly. "You couldn't have
faced it then."
"I see," she said, and paused to collect herself. "And does
he--does he realize that I am here?" she asked painfully. "Doesn't
he--want to see me?"
"Just now," said Ranger grimly, "he is too busy thinking about his
own troubles to worry about anyone else's. He does know you are
coming. He was raving about it two nights ago. Then came your
wire from Cape Town. That was what brought me here to meet you."
"I see," she said again. "You--you have been very good. It would
have been dreadful if--if I had been stranded here alone."
"I'd have stopped you at Cape Town if I could," he said.
"No, you wouldn't have stopped me," she answered, with a drear
little smile. "I should have had to come on and see Guy in any
case. I shall have to see him now. Where is he?"
Ranger stood close to her. He bent slightly, looking into her
eyes. "You have understood me?" he questioned.
She looked straight back at him; it was no moment for shrinking
avoidance. "Yes," she said,
"And you believe me?" he proceeded.
Her red-brown eyes widened a little. "But of course I believe you."
"And, still you want to see him?" said Burke Ranger.
"I must see him," she answered quietly. "You must realize that.
You would do the same in my place."
"If I did," said Ranger, dropping his voice, "it would be to tell
him to go to hell!" Then, as involuntarily she drew back: "No, I
shouldn't put it like that to you, I know. But what's the point of
your seeing him? It will only make things worse for you."
"I must see him," she said firmly. "Please tell me where he is!"
He looked at her for a moment or two in silence. "He is in his own
shanty on my farm," he said then. "Blue Hill Farm it is called.
You can't go to him there. It's a twenty-mile ride from here."
"Can't I get a horse to take me?" she asked.
"I could take you in my cart," said Burke slowly.
"And will you?" Sylvia said.
"I suppose you will go in any case," he said.
"I must go," she answered steadily.
"I don't see why," he said. "It's a degrading business. It won't
do any good."
Her face quivered. She controlled it swiftly. "Will you take me?"
He frowned. "What is going to happen afterwards? Have you thought
She shook her head. "No. I can't see the future at all. I only
know that I must see Guy, and I can't go back to England."
"Why not?" he said.
She pressed a hand to her throat as if she found speaking a
difficulty. "I have no place there. My father has married again.
I must earn my living here somehow."
He moved abruptly. "You!" he said again. She tried to smile.
"You seem to think I am very helpless. I assure you I am not. I
have managed my father's house for five years. I am quite willing
to learn anything, and I am very strong."
"You are very brave," he said, almost as if he spoke in spite of
himself. "But--you've got to be sensible too. You won't marry
She hesitated. "I must see him. I must judge for myself."
He nodded, still frowning. "Very well,--if you must. But you
won't marry him as a way out of your difficulties? You've got to
promise me that."
"Why?" she said.
He answered her with that sudden force which before had startled
her. "Because I can't stand by and see purity joined to
corruption. Some women will sacrifice anything for sentiment. You
wouldn't do anything so damn' foolish as that."
"No," said Sylvia.
"Then it's a promise?" he said.
She held out her hand to him with her brave little smile. "I
promise you I won't do anything damn' foolish for the sake
of--sentiment. Will that do?"
He gripped her hand for a moment. "Yes. I think it will," he said.
"And thank you for being so good to me," she added.
He dropped her hand, and turned away. "As to that--I please
myself," he said briefly. "Be ready to start in an hour from now!"
That twenty-mile ride in Burke Ranger's high cart, with a pair of
skittish young horses pulling at the reins, was an experience never
to be eradicated from Sylvia's memory. They followed a course
across the veldt that began as a road and after a mile or two
deteriorated into a mere rough track. Up and down many slopes they
travelled, but the far hills never seemed to draw any nearer. Here
and there they passed kopjes stacked against the blazing blue of
the sky. They held a weird attraction for her. They were like the
stark bones of the earth pushing up through the coarse desert
grasses. Their rugged strength and their isolation made her
marvel. The veldt was swept by a burning wind. The clouds of the
night before had left no rain behind.
Sylvia would have liked to ask many things of her companion but his
attention was completely absorbed by the animals he drove. Also
talking was wellnigh impossible during that wild progress, for
though the horses presently sobered down somewhat, the roughness of
the way was such that most of the time her thoughts were
concentrated upon maintaining her seat. She clung to her perch
with both hands, and mutely admired Burke Ranger's firm control and
deftness. He seemed to know by instinct when to expect any sudden
The heat of the sun was intense, notwithstanding the shelter
afforded by the hood of the cart. The air seemed to quiver above
the burning earth. She felt after a time as if her eyes could
endure the glare no longer. The rapid, bumping progress faded into
a sort of fitful unpleasant dream through which the only actual
vivid consciousness that remained to her centred in the man beside
her. She never lost sight of his presence. It dominated all
besides, though he drove almost entirely in silence and never
seemed to look her way.
At the end of what appeared an interminable stretch of time during
which all her sensibilities had gradually merged into one vast
discomfort, Burke spoke at her side.
"We've got a bit of tough going before us. Hang on tight! We'll
have a rest after it."
She opened her eyes and saw before her a steep slant between
massive stones, leading down to a wide channel of running water.
On the further side a similar steep ascent led up again.
"Ritter Spruit," said Ranger. "It's not deep enough to be
dangerous. Hold on! We shall soon be through."
He spoke to the horses and they gathered themselves as if for a
race. They thundered down the incline and were dashing through the
stony watercourse almost before Sylvia, clinging dazed to her seat,
realized what was happening. Her sensations were indescribable.
The water splashed high around them, and every bone in her body
seemed to suffer a separate knock or jar. If Ranger had not
previously impressed her with his level-headedness she would have
thought him mad. But her confidence in him remained unshaken, and
in a very few seconds it proved to be justified. They were through
the spruit and halfway up the further side before she drew breath.
Then she found that they were slackening pace.
She turned to Ranger with kindling eyes. "Oh, you are a
sportsman!" she said. "How I should love to be able to drive like
He smiled without turning his head. "I'm afraid this last is a
man's job. So you are awake now, are you? I was afraid you were
going to tumble out."
She laughed. "The heat makes one drowsy. I shall get used to it."
He was pulling in the horses. "There's some shade round the
corner. We'll rest for an hour or two."
"I shall like that," said Sylvia.
A group of small larch-trees grew among the stones at the top of
the slope, and by these he stopped. Sylvia looked around her with
appreciation as she alighted.
"I am going to like South Africa," she said,
"I wonder!" said Ranger.
He began to unbuckle the traces, and she went round to the other
side and did the same.
"Poor dears, they are hot!" she said.
"Don't you do that!" said Ranger.
She was tugging at the buckle. "Why not? I like doing it. I love
horses, don't you? But I know you do by the way you handle them.
Do you do your own horse-breaking? That's a job you might give me."
"Am I going to find you employment, then?" said Burke.
She laughed a little, bending her flushed face down. "Don't women
do any work out here?"
"Yes. They work jolly hard, some of 'em."
"Are you married?" said Sylvia.
She heaved a sigh.
"Sorry?" he enquired.
She finished her task and looked up. Her frank eyes met his across
the horses' backs. "No. I think I'm rather glad. I don't like
feminine authority at all."
"That means you like your own way," observed Burke.
She nodded. "Yes. But I don't always get it."
"Are you a good loser?" he said.
She hesitated. "I hope I'm a sportsman. I try to be."
He moved to the horses' heads. "Come and hold this animal for me
while I hobble the other!" he said.
She obeyed him readily. There was something of boyish alertness in
her movements that sent a flicker of approval into the man's eyes.
She drew the horse's head to her breast with a crooning sound.
"He is a bit tricky with strangers," observed Burke, as he led the
"Oh, not with me!" said Sylvia, "He knows I love him."
When he returned to relieve her of her charge she was kissing the
forehead between the full soft eyes that looked at her with perfect
"See!" she said. "We are friends already."
"I shall call you The Enchantress," said Burke. "Will you see if
you can find a suitable spot for a picnic now?"
"Yes, but I can't conjure up a meal," said Sylvia.
"I can," he said. "There's a basket under the seat."
"How ripping!" she said. "I think you are the magician."
He smiled. "Rather a poor specimen, I am afraid. You go and
select the spot, and I will bring it along!"
Again she obeyed with cheerful alacrity. Her choice was
unhesitating. A large boulder threw an inviting shade, and she sat
down among the stones and took off her hat.
Her red-gold hair gleamed against the dark background. Burke
Ranger's eyes dwelt upon it as he moved to join her. She looked up
"I love this place. It feels so--good."
He glanced up at the brazen sky. "You wouldn't say so if you
wanted rain as badly as I do," he observed. "We haven't had nearly
enough this season. But I am glad you can enjoy it."
"I like it more and more," said Sylvia. She stretched an arm
towards the wide veldt all about them. "I am simply aching for a
gallop over that--a gallop in the very early morning, and to see
the sun rise from that knoll!"
"That's a _kopje_," said Burke.
Again half-unconsciously his eyes dwelt upon her vivid face. She
seemed to draw his look almost in spite of him. He set down the
basket by her side.
"Am I to unpack?" said Sylvia.
He dropped his eyes. "No. I will. It isn't much of a feed; only
enough to keep us from starvation. Tell me some more about
yourself! Tell me about your people--your home!"
"Have you never heard of me before?" she asked. "Did--Guy--never
speak of me?"
"I knew there was someone." Burke spoke rather unwillingly. "I
don't think he ever actually spoke of you to me. We're not
exactly--kindred spirits, he and I."
"You don't like him," said Sylvia.
"Nor he me," said Burke Ranger.
She looked at him with her candid eyes. "I don't think you are
very tolerant of weakness, are you?" she said gently.
"I don't know," he said non-committally. "Won't you tell me about
The subject of Guy was obviously distasteful to him, yet her whole
life during the past five years had been so closely linked to the
thought of that absent lover of hers that it was impossible to
speak of the one without the other. She told him all without
reservation, feeling in a fashion that it was his right to know.
He listened gravely, without comment, until she ended, when he made
one brief observation. "And so you chose the deep sea!"
"Could I have done anything else?" she said. "Would you have done
"Probably not," he said. "But a man is better equipped to fight
"You think I was very rash?" she questioned.
He smiled. "One doesn't look for caution in a girl. I think your
father deserved a horsewhipping, for letting you go."
"He couldn't prevent me," said Sylvia quickly.
"Pshaw!" said Burke Ranger.
"You're very rude," she protested.
His smile became a laugh. "I could have prevented you," he said.
She flushed. "Indeed you couldn't! I am not a namby-pamby miss. I
go my own way. I----"
She broke off suddenly. Burke's eyes, grey as steel in his
sun-tanned face, were upon her. He looked amused at her vehemence.
"Well?" he said encouragingly. "Finish!"
She laughed in spite of herself. "No, I shan't say any more. I
never argue with the superior male. I just--go my own way, that's
"From which I gather that you are not particularly partial to the
superior male," said Burke.
"I hate the species," said Sylvia with simplicity.
"Except when it kneels at your feet," he suggested, looking
"No, I want to kick it then," she said.
"You seem difficult to please," he observed.
Sylvia looked out across the _veldt_. "I like a man to be just a
jolly comrade," she said. "If he can't be that, I've no use for
"I see," said Burke slowly. "That's to be my _role_, is it?"
She turned to him impulsively with extended hand. "I think you can
fill it if you try."
He took the hand, grasping it strongly. "All right. I'll try," he
"You don't mind?" she said half-wistfully. "You see, it makes such
a difference to feel there's someone like that to turn to in
trouble--someone who won't let you down."
"I shan't let you down," said Burke.
Her fingers closed hard on his. "You're a brick," she said. "Now
let's have some lunch, and then, if you don't mind, I'm going to
"Best thing you can do," said Burke.
They rested for the greater part of the afternoon in the shadow of
their boulder. Sylvia lay with her head on a light rug that he
spread for her, and he sat with his back to the rock and smoked
with eyes fixed straight before him.
Sleep came to the girl very quickly for she was tired, and her
healthy young body was swift to find repose. But the man, watching
beside her, did not even doze. He scarcely varied his position
throughout his vigil, scarcely glanced at the figure nestled in the
long grass so close to him. But his attitude had the alertness of
the man on guard, and his brown face was set in grimly resolute
lines. It gave no indication whatever of that which was passing in
It was drawing towards evening when Sylvia at length stirred,
stretched, and opened her eyes. A momentary bewilderment showed in
them, then with a smile she saw and recognized her companion.
She sat up quickly. "I must have been asleep for ages. Why didn't
you wake me?"
"I didn't want to," he said.
She looked at him. "What have you been doing? Have you been
He raised his shoulders to the first question. To the second he
replied merely, "No."
"Why didn't you smoke?" she asked next.
For an instant he looked half-ashamed, then very briefly, "I don't
live on tobacco," he said.
"How very silly of you!" said Sylvia. "It wouldn't have disturbed
me in the least. I smoke cigarettes myself."
Burke said nothing. After a moment he got to his feet.
"Time to go?" she said.
"Yes. I think we ought to be moving. We have some miles to go
yet. You sit still while I get the horses in!"
But Sylvia was on her feet. "No. I'm coming to help. I like to
do things. Isn't it hot? Do you think there will be a storm?"
He looked up at the sky. "No, not yet. It'll take some time to
break. Are you afraid of storms?"
"Of course not!" said Sylvia.
He smiled at her prompt rejoinder. "Not afraid of anything?" he
She smiled back. "Not often anyway. And I hope I don't behave
like a muff even when I am."
"I shouldn't think that very likely," he observed.
They put in the horses, and started again across the veldt. The
burning air that blew over the hot earth was like a blast from a
furnace. Over the far hills the clouds hung low and menacing, A
mighty storm seemed to be brewing somewhere on the further side of
those distant heights.
"It is as if someone had lighted a great fire just out of sight,"
said Sylvia. "Is it often like this?"
"Very often," said Burke.
"How wonderful!" she said.
They drove on rapidly, and as they went, the brooding cloud-curtain
seemed to advance to meet them, spreading ominously across the sky
as if it were indeed the smoke from some immense conflagration.
Sylvia became silent, awed by the spectacle.
All about them the veldt took on a leaden hue. The sun still
shone; but vaguely, as if through smoked glass. The heat seemed to
Sylvia sat rapt. She did not for some time wake to the fact that
Burke was urging the horses, and only when they stretched
themselves out to gallop in response to his curt command did she
rouse from her contemplation to throw him a startled glance. He
was leaning slightly forward, and the look On his face sent a
curious thrill through her. It was the look of a man braced to
utmost effort. His eyes were fixed steadily straight ahead,
marking the road they travelled. His driving was a marvel of skill
and confidence. The girl by his side forgot to watch the storm in
front of them in her admiration of his ability. It was to her the
most amazing exhibition of strength and adroitness combined that
she had ever witnessed. The wild enjoyment of that drive was
fixed in her memory for all time.
At the end of half-an-hour's rapid travelling a great darkness had
begun to envelope them, and obscurity so pall-like that even near
objects were seen as it were through a dark veil.
Burke broke his long silence. "Only two miles more!"
She answered him exultantly. "I could go on for ever!"
They seemed to fly on the wings of the wind those last two miles.
She fancied that they had turned off the track and were racing over
the grass, but the darkness was such that she could discern nothing
with any certainty. At last there came a heavy jolting that flung
her against Burke's shoulder, and on the top of it a frightful
flash and explosion that made her think the earth had rent asunder
under their feet.
Half-stunned and wholly blinded, she covered her face, crouching
down almost against the foot-board of the cart, while the dreadful
echoes rolled away.
Then again came Burke's voice, brief yet amazingly reassuring.
"Get down and run in! It's all right."
She realized that they had come to a standstill, and mechanically
she raised herself to obey him.
As she groped for the step, he grasped her arm. "Get on to the
_stoep_! There's going to be rain. I'll be with you in a second."
She thanked him, and found herself on the ground. A man in front
of her was calling out unintelligibly, and somewhere under cover a
woman's voice was uplifted in shrill tones of dismay. This latter
sound made her think of the chattering of an indignant monkey, so
shrill was it and so incessant.
A dark pile of building stood before her, and she blundered towards
it, not seeing in the least where she was going. The next moment
she kicked against some steps, and sprawled headlong.
Someone--Burke--uttered an oath behind her, and she heard him leap
to the ground. She made a sharp effort to rise, and cried out with
a sudden pain in her right knee that rendered her for an instant
powerless. Then she felt his hands upon her, beneath her. He
lifted her bodily and bore her upwards.
She was still half-dazed when he set her down in a chair. She held
fast to his arm. "Please stay with me just a moment--just a
moment!" she besought him incoherently.
He stayed, very steady and quiet beside her. "Are you hurt?" he
She fought with herself, but could not answer him. A ridiculous
desire to dissolve into tears possessed her. She gripped his arm
with both hands, saying no word.
"Stick to it!" he said.
"I--I'm an awful idiot!" she managed to articulate.
"No, you're not. You're a brave girl," he said. "I was a fool not
to warn you. I forgot you didn't know your way. Did you hurt
yourself when you fell?"
"My knee--a little," she said. "It'll be all right directly." She
released his arm. "Thank you. I'm better now. Oh, what is that?
"Yes, rain," he said.
It began like the rushing of a thousand wings, sweeping
irresistibly down from the hills. It swelled into a pandemonium of
sound that was unlike anything she had ever heard. It was as if
they had suddenly been caught by a seething torrent. Again the
lightning flared, dancing a quivering, zigzag measure across the
verandah in which she sat, and the thunder burst overhead, numbing
By that awful leaping glare Sylvia saw her companion. He was
stooping over her. He spoke; but she could not hear a word he
Then again his arms were about her and he lifted her. She yielded
herself to him with the confidence of a child, and he carried her
into his home while the glancing lightning showed the way.
The noise within the house was less overwhelming. He put her down
on a long chair in almost total darkness, but a few moments later
the lightning glimmered again and showed her vividly the room in
which she lay. It was a man's room, half-office, half-lounge,
extremely bare, and devoid of all ornament with the exception of a
few native weapons on the walls.
The kindling of a lamp confirmed this first impression, but the
presence of the man himself diverted her attention from her
surroundings. He turned from lighting the lamp to survey her. She
thought he looked somewhat stern.
"What about this knee of yours?" he said. "Is it badly damaged?"
"Oh, not badly," she answered. "I'm sure not badly. What a lot of
trouble I am giving you! I am so sorry."
"You needn't be sorry on that account," he said. "I blame myself
alone. Do you mind letting me, see it? I am used to giving
"Oh, I don't think that is necessary," said Sylvia. "I--can quite
easily doctor myself."
"I thought we were to be comrades," he observed bluntly.
She coloured and faintly laughed, "You can see it if you
particularly want to."
"I do." said Burke.
She sat up without further protest, and uncovered the injured knee
for his inspection. "I really don't think anything of a tumble
like that," she said, as he bent to examine it. But the next
moment at his touch she flinched and caught her breath.
"That hurts, does it?" he said. "It's swelling up. I'm going to
get some hot water to bathe it."
He stood up with the words and turned away. Sylvia leaned back
again, feeling rather sick. Certainly the pain was intense.
The rain was still battering on the roof with a sound like the
violent jingling together of tin cans, She listened to it with a
dull wonder. The violence of it would have made a deeper
impression upon her had she been suffering less. But she felt as
one immersed in an evil dream which clogged all her senses save
that of pain.
When Burke returned she was lying with closed eyes, striving hard
to keep herself under control. The clatter of the rain had abated
somewhat, and she heard him speak over his shoulder to someone
behind him. She looked up and saw an old Kaffir woman carrying a
"This is Mary Ann," said Burke, intercepting her glance of
surprise. "A useful old dog except when there is any dope about!
Hope you don't mind niggers."
"I shall get used to them," said Sylvia rather faintly.
"There's nothing formidable about this one," he said, "She can't
help being hideous. She is quite tame."
Sylvia tried to smile. Certainly Mary Ann was hideous, but her
lameness was equally obvious. She evidently stood in considerable
awe of her master, obeying his slightest behest with clumsy
solicitude and eyes that rolled unceasingly in his direction.
Burke kept her in the room while he bathed the injury. He was very
gentle, and Sylvia was soon conscious of relief. When at length he
applied a pad soaked in ointment and proceeded to bandage with a
dexterity that left nothing to be desired, she told him with a
smile that he was as good as a professional.
"One has to learn a little of this sort of thing," he said. "How
does it feel now?"
"Much better," she answered. "I shall have forgotten all about it
"No, you won't," said Burke. "You will rest it for three days at
least. You don't want to get water on the joint."
"Three days!" she echoed in dismay, "I can't--possibly--lie up
He raised his eyes from his bandaging for a moment, and a curious
thrill went through her; it was as if his look pierced her. "The
impossible often happens here," he said briefly.
She expressed a sharp tremor that caught her unawares. "What does
that mean?" she asked, striving to speak lightly.
He replied with his eyes lowered again to his task. "It means
among other things that you can't get back to Ritzen until the
floods go down. Ritter Spruit is a foaming torrent by this time."
"Good heavens!" she exclaimed. "But isn't there--isn't there a
"Forty miles away," said Burke Ranger laconically.
"Good--heavens!" she gasped again.
He finished his bandaging and stood up. "Now I am going to carry
you to bed," he said, "and Mary Ann shall wait on you. You won't
She smiled in answer. "You've taken my breath away, but I shall
get it again directly. I don't think I want to go to bed yet.
Mayn't I stay here for a little?"
He looked down at her. "You've got some pluck, haven't you?" he
She flushed. "I hope so--a little."
He touched her shoulder unexpectedly, with a hint of awkwardness.
"I'm afraid I can only offer you--rough hospitality. It's the best
I can do. My guests have all been of the male species till now.
But you will put up with it? You won't be scared anyhow?"
She reached up an impulsive hand and put it into his. "No, I
shan't be scared at all. You make me feel quite safe. I'm
only--more grateful than I can say."
His fingers closed upon hers. "You've nothing to be grateful for.
Let me take you to the guestroom and Mary Ann shall bring you
supper. You'll be more comfortable there. Your baggage is there
She clung to his hand for an instant, caught by an odd feeling of
forlornness. "I will do whatever you wish. But--but--you will let
me see Guy in the morning?"
He stooped to lift her. For a moment his eyes looked straight into
hers. Then: "Wait till the morning comes!" he said quietly.
There was finality in his tone, and she knew that it was no moment
for discussion. With a short sigh she yielded to the inevitable,
and suffered him to carry her away.
She had no further communication with Burke that night. The old
Kaffir woman helped her, brought her a meal on a tray, and waited
upon her until dismissed.
Sylvia had no desire to detain her. She longed for solitude. The
thought of Guy tormented her perpetually. She ached and
yearned--even while she dreaded--to see him. But Burke had decreed
that she must wait till the morning, and she had found already that
what Burke decreed usually came to pass. Besides, she knew that
she was worn out and wholly unfit for any further strain.
Very thankfully she sank down at last upon the bed in the bare
guest-room. Her weariness was such that she thought that she must
sleep, yet for hours she lay wide awake, listening to the rain
streaming down and pondering--pondering the future. Her romance
was ended. She saw that very clearly. Whatever came of her
meeting with Guy, it would not be--it could not be--the
consummation to which she had looked forward so confidently during
the past five years. Guy had failed her. She faced the fact with
all her courage. The Guy she had loved and trusted did not exist
any longer, if he ever had existed. Life had changed for her. The
path she had followed had ended suddenly. She must needs turn back
and seek another. But whither to turn she knew not. It seemed
that there was no place left for her anywhere.
Slowly the long hours dragged away. She thought the night would
never pass. Her knee gave her a good deal of pain, and she
relinquished all hope of sleep. Her thoughts began to circle about
Burke Ranger in a worried, confused fashion. She felt she would
know him better when she had seen Guy. At present the likeness
between them alternately bewildered her or hurt her poignantly.
She could not close her mind to the memory of having taken him for
Guy. He was the sort of man--only less polished--that she had
believed Guy would become. She tried to picture him as he must
have been when younger, but she could see only Guy. And again the
bitter longing, the aching disappointment, tore her soul.
Towards morning she dozed, but physical discomfort and torturing
anxiety went with her unceasingly, depriving her of any real
repose. She was vaguely aware of movements in the house long
before a low knock at the door called her back to full
She started up on her elbows. "Come in! I am awake."
Burke Ranger presented himself. "I was afraid Mary Ann might give
you a shock if she woke you suddenly," he said. "Can I come in?"
"Please do!" she said.
The sight of his tanned face and keen eyes came as a great relief
to her strained and weary senses. She held out a welcoming hand,
dismissing convention as superfluous.
He came to her side and took her hand, but in a moment his fingers
were feeling for her pulse. He looked straight down at her.
"You've had a bad night," he said.
She admitted it, mustering a smile as she did so. "It rained so
hard, I couldn't forget it. Has it left off yet?"
He paid no attention whatever to the question. "What's the
trouble?" he said. "Knee bad?"
"Not very comfortable," she confessed. "It will be better
presently, no doubt."
"I'll dress if again," said Burke, "when you've had some tea. You
had better stay in bed to-day."
"Oh, must I?" she said in dismay.
"Don't you want to?" said Burke.
"No. I hate staying in bed. It makes me so miserable." She spoke
with vehemence. Besides--besides----"
"Yes?" he said.
"I want--to see Guy," she ended, colouring very deeply.
"That's out of the question," said Burke, with quiet decision.
"You certainly won't see him to-day."
"Oh, but I must! I really must!" she pleaded desperately. "My
knee isn't very bad. Have you--have you told him I am here yet?"
"No," said Burke.
"Then won't you? Please won't you?" She was urging him almost
feverishly now. "I can't rest till I have seen him--indeed. I
can't see my way clearly. I can't do anything until--until I have
Burke was frowning. He looked almost savage, But she was not
afraid of him. She could think only of Guy at that moment and of
her urgent need to see him. It was all that mattered. With nerves
stretched and quivering, she waited for his answer.
It did not come immediately. He was still holding her hand in one
of his and feeling her pulse with the other.
"Listen!" he said at length. "There is no need for all this
wearing anxiety. You must make up your mind to rest to-day, or you
will be ill. It won't hurt you--or him either--to wait a few hours
"I shan't be ill!" she assured him earnestly. "I am never ill.
And I want to see him--oh, so much. I must see him. He isn't--he
"No," said Burke.
"Then why mustn't I see him?" she urged. "Why do you look like
that? Are you keeping back something? Has--has something happened
that you don't want me to know? Ah, that is it! I thought so!
Please tell me what it is! It is far better to tell me."
She drew her hand from his and sat up, steadily facing him. She
was breathing quickly, but she had subdued her agitation. Her eyes
met his unflinchingly.
He made an abrupt gesture--as if compelled against his will.
"Well--if you must have it! He has gone."
"Gone!" she repeated. "What--do you mean by that?"
He looked down into her whitening face, and his own grew sterner.
"Just what I say. He cleared out yesterday morning early. No one
knows where he is."
Sylvia's hand unconsciously pressed her heart. It was beating very
violently. She spoke with a great effort. "Perhaps he has gone to
Ritzen--to look for me."
"I think not," said Burke drily.
His tone said more than his words. She made a slight involuntary
movement of shrinking. But in a moment she spoke again with a
pathetic little smile.
"You are very good to me. But I mustn't waste any more of your
time. Please don't worry about me any more! I can quite well
bandage my knee myself."
The grimness passed from his face. "I shall have to see it to
satisfy myself it is going on all right," he said. "But I needn't
bother you now. I'll send Mary Ann in with some tea."
"Thank you," said Sylvia. She was gathering her scattered forces
again after the blow; she spoke with measured firmness. "Now
please don't think about me any more! I am not ill--or going to be.
You may look at my knee this evening--if you are very anxious. But
"Then you will stay in bed?" said Burke.
"Very well; if I must," she conceded.
He turned to go; then abruptly turned back. "And you won't lie and
worry? You've too much pluck for that."
She smiled again--a quivering, difficult smile. "I am not at all
plucky, really. I am only pretending."
He smiled back at her suddenly. "You're a brick! I've never seen
any woman stand up to hard knocks as you do. They generally want
to be carried over the rough places. But you--you stand on your
The genuine approbation of his voice brought the colour back to her
face. His smile too, though it reminded her piercingly of Guy,
sent a glow of comfort to her chilled and trembling heart.
"I want to if I can," she said. "But I've had rather a--knock-out
this time. I shall be all right presently, when I've had time to
pull myself together."
He bent abruptly and laid his hand upon hers.
"Look here!" he said. "Don't worry!"
She lifted clear eyes to his. "No--I won't! There is always a way
out of every difficulty, isn't there?"
"There certainly is out of this one," he said.
"I'll show it you presently--if you'll promise not to be offended."
"Offended!" said Sylvia. "That isn't very likely, is it?"
"I don't know," said Burke. "I hope not. Good-bye!" He
straightened himself, stood a moment looking down at her, then
turned finally and left her.
There was something in the manner of his going that made her wonder.
The entrance of the old Kaffir woman a few minutes later diverted
her thoughts. She found Mary Ann an interesting study, being the
first of her kind that she had viewed at close quarters. She was
very stout and ungainly. She moved with elephantine clumsiness,
but her desire to please was so evident that Sylvia could not
regard her as wholly without charm. Her dog-like amiability
outweighed her hideousness. She found it somewhat difficult to
understand Mary Ann's speech, for it was more like the chattering
of a monkey than human articulation, and being very weary she did
not encourage her to talk.
There was so much to think about, and for a while her tired brain
revolved around Guy and all that his departure meant to her. She
tried to take a practical view of the situation, to grapple with
the difficulties that confronted her. Was there the smallest
chance of his return? And even if he returned, what could it mean
to her? Would it help her in any way? It was impossible to evade
the answer to that question. He had failed her finally. She was
stranded in a strange land and only her own efforts could avail her
She wondered if Burke would urge her to return to her father's
house. If so, he would not succeed. She would face any hardship
sooner than that. She was not afraid of work. She would make a
living for herself somehow if she worked in the fields with Kaffir
women. She would be independent or die in the attempt. After all,
she reflected forlornly, it would not matter very much to anyone if
she did die. She stood or fell alone.
Thought became vague at last and finally obscured in the mists of
sleep. She lay still on the narrow bed and slept long and deeply.
It must have been after several hours that her dream came to her.
It arose out of a sea of oblivion--a vision unsummoned, wholly
unexpected. She saw Burke Ranger galloping along the side of a dry
and stony ravine where doubtless water flowed in torrents when the
rain came. He was bending low in the saddle, his dark face set
forward scanning the path ahead. With a breathless interest she
watched him, and the thunder of his horse's hoofs drummed in her
brain. Suddenly, turning her eyes further along the course he
followed, she saw with horror round a bend that which he could not
see. She beheld another horseman galloping down from the opposite
direction. The face of this horseman was turned from her, but she
did not need to see it. She knew, as it is given in dreams to know
beyond all doubting, that it was Guy. She recognized his easy seat
in the saddle, the careless grace of his carriage. He was plunging
straight ahead with never a thought of danger, and though he must
have seen the turn as he approached it, he did not attempt to check
the animal under him. Rather he seemed to be urging it forward.
And ever the thunder of the galloping hoofs filled her brain.
Tensely she watched, in a suspense that racked her whole body. Guy
reached the bend first. There was room for only one upon that
narrow ledge. He went round the curve with the confidence of one
who fully expected a clear path ahead. And then--on the very edge
of the precipice--he caught sight of the horseman galloping towards
him. He reined back. He threw up one hand as his animal staggered
under him, and called a warning. But the thudding of the hoofs
drowned all other sound.
Sylvia's heart stood still as if it could never beat again. Her
look flashed to Burke Ranger. He was galloping still--galloping
hard. One glimpse she had of his face as he drew near, and she
knew that he saw the man ahead of him, for it was set and
terrible--the face of a devil.
The next instant she heard the awful crash of collision. There was
a confusion indescribable, there on the very brink of the ravine.
Then one horse and its rider went hurling headlong down that wall
of stones. The other horseman struck spurs into his animal and
galloped up the narrow path to the head of the ravine without a
She was left transfixed by horror in a growing darkness that seemed
to penetrate to her very soul. Which of the two had galloped free?
Which lay shattered there, very far below her in an abyss that had
already become obscure? She agonized to know, but the darkness hid
all things. At last she tore it aside as if it had been a veil.
She went down, down into that deep place. She stumbled through a
valley of awful desolation till she came to that which she
sought;--a fallen horse, a rider with glassy eyes upturned.
But the hand of Death had wiped out every distinguishing mark. Was
it Guy? Was it Burke? She knew not. She turned from the sight
with dread unspeakable. She went from the accursed spot with the
anguish of utter bewilderment in her soul. She was bereft of all.
She walked alone in a land of strangers.
When Sylvia started awake from that terrible dream it was to hear
the tread of horses' feet outside the house and the sound of men's
voices talking to each other. As she listened, these drew nearer,
and soon she heard footsteps on the _stoep_ outside. It was
drawing towards sunset, and she realized that she had slept for a
She felt refreshed in spite of her dream and very thankful to
regain possession of her waking senses. Her knee too was decidedly
better. She found with relief that with care she could use it.
The smell of tobacco wafted in, and she realized that the two men
were sitting smoking together on the _stoep_. One of them, she
felt sure, was Burke Ranger, though it very soon dawned upon her
that they were conversing in Dutch. She lay for awhile watching
the orange light of evening gleaming through the creeper that
entwined the comer of the _stoep_ outside her window. Then,
growing weary of inaction, she slipped from her bed and began to
Her cabin-trunk had been placed in a corner of the bare room. She
found her key and opened it.
Guy's photograph--the photograph she had cherished for five
years--lay on the top. She saw it with a sudden, sharp pang,
remembering how she had put it in at the last moment and smiled to
think how soon she would behold him in the flesh. The handsome,
boyish face looked straight into hers. Ah, how she had loved him.
A swift tremor went through her. She closed her eyes upon the
smiling face. And suddenly great tears welled up from her heart.
She laid her face down upon the portrait and wept.
The voices on the _stoep_ recalled her. She remembered that she
had a reputation for courage to maintain. She commanded herself
with an effort and finished her dressing. She did not dare to look
at the portrait again, but hid it deep in her trunk.
Mary Ann seemed to have forsaken her, and she was in some
uncertainty as to how to proceed when she was at length ready to
leave her room. She did not want to intrude upon Burke and his
visitor, but a great longing to breathe the air of the _veldt_ was
upon her. She wondered if she could possibly escape unseen.
Finally, she ventured out into the passage, and followed it to an
open door that seemed to lead whither she desired to go. She
fancied that it was out of sight of the two men on the _stoep_, but
as she reached it, she realized her mistake. For there fell a
sudden step close to her, and as she paused irresolute, Burke's
figure blocked the opening. He stood looking at her, pipe in hand.
"So--you are up!" he said.
His voice was quite friendly, yet she was possessed by a strong
feeling that he did not want her there.
She looked back at him in some embarrassment. "I hope you don't
mind," she said. "I was only coming out for a breath of air."
"Why should I mind?" said Burke. "Come and sit on the _stoep_! My
neighbour, Piet Vreiboom, is there, but he is just going."
He spoke the last words with great distinctness, and it occurred to
her that he meant them to be overheard.
She hung back. "Oh, I don't think I will. I can't talk Dutch.
Really I would rather----"
"He understands a little English," said Burke. "But don't be
surprised at anything he says! He isn't very perfect."
He stood against the wall for her to pass him, and she did so with
a feeling that she had no choice. Very reluctantly she moved out
on to the wooden _stoep_, and turned towards the visitor. The
orange of the sunset was behind her, turning her hair to living
gold. It fell full upon the face of the man before her, and she
was conscious of a powerful sense of repugnance. Low-browed,
wide-nosed, and prominent of jaw, with close-set eyes of monkeyish
craft, such was the countenance of Piet Vreiboom. He sat and
stared at her, his hat on his head, his pipe in his mouth.
"How do you do, Mrs. Ranger?" he said.
Sylvia checked her advance, but in a moment Burke Ranger's hand
closed, upon her elbow, quietly impelling her forward.
"Mr. Vreiboom saw you with me at Ritzen yesterday," he said, and
she suddenly remembered the knot of Boer farmers at the hotel-door
and the staring eyes that had abashed her.
She glanced up at Burke, but his face was quite emotionless. Only
something about him--an indefinable something--held her back from
correcting the mistake that Vreiboom had made. She looked at the
seated Boer with a dignity wholly unconscious. "How do you do?"
she said coolly.
He stretched out a hand to her. His smile was familiar. "I hope
you like the farm, Mrs. Ranger," he said.
"She has hardly seen it yet," said Burke.
There was a slight pause before Sylvia gave her hand. This man
filled her with distaste. She resented his manner. She resented
the look in his eyes.
"I have no doubt I shall like it very much," she said, removing her
hand as speedily as possible.
"You like to be--a farmer's wife?" questioned Piet, still freely
She resented this question also, but she had to respond to it. "It
is what I came out for," she said.
"You do not look like a farmer's wife," said Piet.
"Give him a little rope!" said Burke. "He doesn't know much. Sit
down! I'll get him on the move directly."
She sat down not very willingly, and he resumed his talk with
Vreiboom in Dutch, lounging against the wall. Sylvia sat quite
silent, her eyes upon the glowing sky and the far-away hills. In
the foreground was a _kopje_ shaped like a sugar-loaf. She wished
herself upon its summit which was bathed in the sunset light.
Once or twice she was moved to glance up at the brown face of the
man who leaned between herself and the objectionable visitor. His
attitude was one of complete ease, and yet something told her that
he desired Piet's departure quite as sincerely as she did.
He must have given a fairly broad hint at last, she decided; for
Piet moved somewhat abruptly and knocked out the ashes of his pipe
on the floor with a noisy energy that made her start. Then he got
up and addressed her in his own language. She did not understand
in the least what he said, but she gave him a distant smile
realizing that he was taking leave of her. She was somewhat
surprised to see Burke take him unceremoniously by the shoulder as
he stood before her and march him off the stoep. Piet himself
laughed as if he had said something witty, and there was that in
the laugh that sent the colour naming to her cheeks.
She quivered with impotent indignation as she sat. She wished with
all her heart that Burke would kick him down the steps.
The sunset-light faded, and a soft dusk stole up over the wide
spaces. A light breeze cooled her hot face, and after the lapse of
a few minutes she began to chide herself for her foolishness.
Probably the man had not meant to be offensive. She was certain
Burke would never permit her to be insulted in his presence. She
heard the sound of hoof-beats retreating away into the distance,
and, with it, the memory of her dream came back upon her. She felt
forlorn and rather frightened. It was only a dream of course; it
was only a dream! But she wished that Burke would come back to
her. His substantial presence would banish phantoms.
He did not come for some time, but she heard his step at last. And
then a strange agitation took her so that she wanted to spring up
and avoid him. She did not do so; she forced herself to appear
normal. But every nerve tingled as he approached, and she could
not keep the quick blood from her face.
He was carrying a tray which he set down on a rough wooden table
"You must be famished," he said.
She had not thought of food, but certainly the sight of it cheered
her failing spirits. She smiled at him.
"Are we going to have another picnic?"
He smiled in answer, and she felt oddly relieved, All sense of
strain and embarrassment left her. She sat up and helped him
spread the feast.
The fare was very simple, but she found it amply satisfying. She
partook of Mary Ann's butter with appreciation.
"I can make butter," she told him presently. "And bake bread?"
She nodded, laughing. "Yes, and cook joints and mend clothes, too.
Who does your mending? Mary Ann?"
"I do my own," said Burke. "I cook, too, when Mary Ann takes leave
of absence. But I have a Kaffir house boy, Joe, for the odd jobs.
And there's a girl, too, uglier than Mary Ann, a relation of
hers--called Rose, short for Fair Rosamond. Haven't you seen Rose
Sylvia's laugh brought a smile to his face. It was a very
infectious laugh. Though she sobered almost instantly, it left a
ripple of mirth behind on the surface of their conversation. He
carried the tray away again when the meal was over, firmly refusing
her offer to wash up.
"Mary Ann can do it in the morning," he said.
"Where is she now?" asked Sylvia.
He sat down beside her, and took out his pipe. "They are over in
their own huts. They don't sleep in the house."
"Does no one sleep in the house?" she asked quickly.
"I do," said Burke.
A sudden silence fell. The dusk had deepened into a starlit
darkness, but there was a white glow behind the hills that seemed
to wax with every instant that passed. Very soon the whole _veldt_
would be flooded with moonlight.
In a very small voice Sylvia spoke at length.
It was the first time she had addressed him by name. He turned
directly towards her. "Call me Burke!" he said.
It was almost a command. She faced him as directly as he faced
her. "Burke--if you wish it!" she said. "I want to talk things
over with you, to thank you for your very great goodness to me,
and--and to make plans for the future."
"One moment!" he said. "You have given up all thought of marrying
She hesitated. "I suppose so," she said slowly.
"Don't you know your own mind?" he said.
Still she hesitated. "If--if he should come back----"
"He will come back," said Burke.
She started. "He will?"
"Yes, he will." His voice held grim confidence, and somehow it
sounded merciless also to her ears. "He'll turn up again some day.
He always does. I'm about the only man in South Africa who
wouldn't kick him out within six months. He knows that. That's
why he'll come back."
"You are--good to him," said Sylvia, her voice very low.
"No, I'm not; not specially. He knows what I think of him anyhow."
Burke spoke slowly. "I've done what I could for him, but he's one
of my failures. You've got to grasp the fact that he's a rotter.
Have you grasped that yet?"
"I'm beginning to," Sylvia said, under her breath.
"Then you can't--possibly--many him," said Burke.
She lowered her eyes before the keenness of his look. She wished
the light in the east were not growing so rapidly.
"The question is, What am I going to do?" she said.
Burke was silent for a moment. Then with a slight gesture that
might have denoted embarrassment he said, "You don't want to stay
here, I suppose?"
She looked up again quickly. "Here--on this farm, do you mean?"
"Yes." He spoke brusquely, but there was a certain eagerness in
his attitude as he leaned towards her.
A throb of gratitude went through her. She put out her hand to him
very winningly. "What a pity I'm not a boy!" she said, genuine
regret in her voice.
He took her hand and kept it. "Is that going to make any
difference?" he said.
She looked at him questioningly. It was difficult to read his face
in the gloom. "All the difference, I am afraid," she said. "You
are very generous--a real good comrade. If I were a boy, there's
nothing I'd love better. But, being a woman, I can't live here
alone with you, can I? Not even in South Africa!"
"Why not?" he said.
His hand grasped hers firmly; she grasped his in return. "You
heard what your Boer friend called me," she said. "He wouldn't
understand anything else."
"I told him to call you that," said Burke.
"You--told him!" She gave a great start. His words amazed her.
"Yes." There was a dogged quality in his answer. "I had to
protect you somehow. He had seen us together at Ritzen. I said
you were my wife."
Sylvia gasped in speechless astonishment.
He went on ruthlessly. "It was the only thing to do. They're not
a particularly moral crowd here, and, as you say, they wouldn't
understand anything else--decent. Do you object to the idea? Do
you object very strongly?"
There was something masterful in the persistence with which he
pressed the question. Sylvia had a feeling as of being held down
and compelled to drink some strangely paralyzing draught.
She made a slight, half-scared movement and in a moment his hand
"You do object!" he said.
She clasped her hands tightly together. "Please don't say--or
think--that! It is such a sudden idea, and--it's rather a wild
one, isn't it?" Her breath came quickly. "If--if I agreed--and
let the pretence go on--people would be sure to find out sooner or
later. Wouldn't they?"
"I am not suggesting any pretence," he said.
"What do you mean then?" Sylvia said, compelling herself to speak
"I am asking you to marry me," he said, with equal steadiness.
"Really, do you mean? You are actually in earnest?" Her voice had
a sharp quiver in it. She was trembling suddenly. "Please be
quite plain with me!" she said. "Remember, I don't know you very
well. I have got to get used to the ways out here."
"I am quite in earnest," said Burke. "You know me better than you
knew the man you came out here to marry. And you will get used to
things more quickly married to me than any other way. At least you
will have an assured position. That ought to count with you."
"Of course it would! It does!" she said rather incoherently.
"But--you see--I've no one to help me--no one to advise me. I'm on
a road I don't know. And I'm so afraid of taking a wrong turning."
"Afraid!" he said. "You!"
She tried to laugh. "You think me a very bold person, don't you?
Or you wouldn't have suggested such a thing."
"I think you've got plenty of grit," he said, "but that wasn't what
made me suggest it." He paused a moment. "Perhaps it's hardly
worth while going on," he said then. "I seem to have gone too far
already. Please believe I meant well, that's all!"
"Oh, I know that!" she said.
And then, moved by a curious impulse, she did an extraordinary
thing. She leaned forward and laid her clasped hands on his knee.
"I'm going to be--awfully frank with you," she said rather
tremulously. You--won't mind?''
He sat motionless for a second. Then very quietly he dropped his
pipe back into his pocket and grasped her slender wrists. "Go on!"
Her face was lifted, very earnest and appealing, to his. "You
know," she said, "we are not strangers. We haven't been from the
very beginning. We started comrades, didn't we?"
"We should have been married by this time, if I hadn't put the
brake on," said Burke.
"Yes," Sylvia said. "I know. That is what makes me feel
so--intimate with you. But it is different for you. I am a total
stranger to you. You have never met me--or anyone like me--before.
"And I have never asked anyone to marry me before," said Burke.
The wrists he held grew suddenly rigid. "You have asked me out
of--out of pity--and the goodness of your heart?" she whispered.
"Quite wrong," said Burke. "I want a capable woman to take care of
me--when Mary Ann goes on the bust."
"Please don't make me laugh!" begged Sylvia rather shakily. "I
haven't done yet. I'm going to ask you an awful thing next.
You'll tell me the truth, won't you?"
"I'll tell you before you ask," he said. "I can be several kinds
of beast, but not the kind you are afraid of. I am not a faddist,
but I am moral. I like it best."
The curt, distinct words were too absolute to admit of any doubt.
Sylvia breathed a short, hard sigh.
"I wonder," she said, "if it would be very wrong to marry a person
you only like."
"Marriage is a risk--in any case," said Burke. "But if you're not
blindly in love, you can at least see where you are going."
"I can't," she said rather piteously.
"You're afraid of me," he said.
"No, not really--not really. It's almost as big a risk for you as
for me. You haven't bothered about--my morals, have you?" Her
faint laugh had in it a sound of tears.
The hands that held her wrists closed with a steady pressure. "I
haven't," said Burke with simplicity.
"Thank you," she said. "You've been very kind to me. Really I am
not afraid of you."
"Sure?" said Burke.
"Only I still wish I were a boy," she said. "You and I could be
just pals then."
"And why not now?" he said.
"Is it possible?" she asked.
"I should say so. Why not?"
She freed her hands suddenly and laid them upon his arms. "If I
marry you, will you treat me just as a pal?"
"I will," said Burke.
She was still trembling a little. "You won't interfere with
"Not unless you abuse it," he said.
She laughed again faintly. "I won't do that. I'll be a model of
discretion. You may not think it, but I am--very discreet."
"I am sure of it," said Burke.
"No, you're not. You're not in the least sure of anything where I
am concerned. You've only known me--two days."
He laughed a little. "It doesn't matter how long it has taken. I
She laughed with him, and sat up, "What must you have thought of me
when I told you you hadn't shaved?"
He took out his pipe again. "If you'd been a boy, I should
probably have boxed your ears," he said. "By the way, why did you
get up when I told you to stay in bed?"
"Because I knew best what was good for me," said Sylvia. "Have you
got such a thing as a cigarette?"
He got up. "Yes, in my room. Wait while I fetch them!"
"Oh, don't go on purpose!" she said. "I daresay I shouldn't like
your kind, thanks all the same."
He went nevertheless, and she leaned back with her face to the
hills and waited. The moon was just topping the great summits.
She watched it with a curious feeling of weakness. It had not been
a particularly agitating interview, but she knew that she had just
passed a cross-roads, in her life.
She had taken a road utterly unknown to her and though she had
taken it of her own accord, she did not feel that the choice had
really been hers. Somehow her faculties were numbed, were
paralyzed. She could not feel the immense importance of what she
had done, or realize that she had finally, of her own action,
severed her life from Guy's. He had become such a part of herself
that she could not all at once divest herself of that waiting
feeling, that confident looking forward to a future with him. And
yet, strangely, her memory of him had receded into distance, become
dim and remote. In Burke's presence she could not recall him at
all. The two personalities, dissimilar though she knew them to be,
seemed in some curious fashion to have become merged into one. She
could not understand her own feelings, but she was conscious of
relief that the die was cast. Whatever lay before her, she was
sure of one thing. Burke Ranger would be her safeguard against any
evil that might arise and menace her. His protection was of the
solid quality that would never fail her. She felt firm ground
beneath her feet at last.
At the sound of his returning step, she turned with the moonlight
on her face and smiled up at him with complete confidence.
Whenever in after days Sylvia looked back upon her marriage, it
seemed to be wrapped in a species of hazy dream like the early
mists on that far-off range of hills.
They did not go again to Ritzen, but to a town of greater
importance further down the line, a ride of nearly forty miles
across the _veldt_. It was a busy town in the neighbourhood of
some mines, and its teeming life brought back again to her that
sense of aloneness in a land of strangers that had so oppressed her
in the beginning. It drove her to seek Burke's society whenever
possible. He was the shield between her and desolation, and in his
presence her misgivings always faded into the background. He knew
some of the English people at Brennerstadt, but she dreaded meeting
them, and entreated him not to introduce anyone to her until they
"People are all so curious. I can't face it," she said. "Mine is
rather a curious story, too. It will only set them talking, and I
do so hate gossip."
He smiled a little and conceded the point. And so she was still a
stranger to everyone on the day she laid her hand in Burke's and
swore to be faithful to him. The marriage was a civil one. That
also robbed it of all sense of reality for her. The ceremony left
her cold. It did not touch so much as the outer tissues of her
most vital sensibilities. She even felt somewhat impatient of the
formalities observed, and very decidedly glad when they were over.
"Now let's go for a ride and forget it all!" she said. "We'll have
a picnic on the _veldt_."
They had their picnic, but the heat was so great as to rob it of
much enjoyment. Sylvia was charmed by a distant view of a herd of
springbok, and her eyes shone momentarily when Burke said that they
would have to do some shooting together. But almost immediately
she shook her head.
"No, they are too pretty to kill. I love the hunt, but I hate the
kill. Besides, I shall be too busy. If I am going to be your
partner, one of us will have to do some work."
He laughed at that. "When do you want to begin?"
"Very soon," she said energetically. "Tomorrow if you like. I
don't think much of Brennerstadt, do you? It's such a barren sort
of place." He looked at her. "I believe you'll hate the winter on
"No, I shan't. I shan't hate anything. I'm not so silly as to
expect paradise all the time."
"Is this paradise?" said Burke.
She glanced at him quickly. "No, I didn't say that. But I am
enjoying it. And," she flushed slightly, "I am very grateful to
you for making that possible."
"You've nothing to be grateful to me for," he said.
"Only I can't help it," said Sylvia.
Burke's eyes were scanning the far stretch of _veldt_ towards the
sinking sun, with a piercing intentness. She wondered what he was
There fell a silence between them, and a vague feeling of
uneasiness began to grow up within her. His brown face was
granite-like in its immobility, but it was exceedingly grim.
Something stirred within her at last, impelling her to action. She
"Do you see that blasted tree right away over there with horrid
twisted arms that look as if they are trying to clutch at
His eyes came up to hers on the instant. "What of it?" he said.
She laughed down at him. "Let's mount! I'll race you to it."
He leapt to his feet like, a boy. "What's the betting?"
"Anything you like!" she threw back gaily. "Whoever gets there
first can fix the stakes."
He laughed aloud, and the sound of his laugh made her catch her
breath with a sharp, involuntary start. She ran to her mount
feeling as if Guy were behind her, and with an odd perversity she
would not look round to disillusion herself.
During the fevered minutes that followed, the illusion possessed
her strongly, so strongly that she almost forgot the vital
importance of being first. It was the thudding hoofs of his
companion that made her animal gallop rather than any urging of
hers. But once started, with the air swirling past her and the
excitement of rapid motion setting her veins on fire, the spirit of
the race caught her again, and she went like the wind.
The blasted tree stood on a slope nearly a mile away. The ground
was hard, and the grass seemed to crackle under the galloping
hoofs. The horse she rode carried her with superb ease. He was
the finest animal she had ever ridden, and from the first she
believed the race was hers.
On she went through the orange glow of evening. It was like a
swift entrancing dream. And the years fell away from her as if
they had never been, and she and Guy were racing over the slopes of
her father's park, as they had raced in the old sweet days of youth
and early love. She heard him urging his horse behind her, and
remembered how splendid he always looked in the saddle.
The distance dwindled. The stark arms of the naked tree seemed to
be stretching out to receive her. But he was drawing nearer also.
She could hear the thunder of his animal's hoofs close behind. She
bent low in the saddle, gasping encouragement to her own.
There came a shout beside her--a yell of triumph such as Guy had
often uttered. He passed her and drew ahead. That fired her. She
saw victory being wrested from her.
She cried back at him "You--bounder!" and urged her horse to fresh
The ground sped away beneath her. The heat-haze seemed to spin
around. Her eyes were fixed upon their goal, her whole being was
concentrated upon reaching it. In the end it was as if the ruined
tree shot towards her. The race was over. A great giddiness came
upon her. She reeled in the saddle.
And then a hand caught her; or was it one of those outstretched
skeleton arms? For a moment she hung powerless; then she was drawn
close--close--to a man's breast, and felt the leap and throb of a
man's heart against her own.
Breathless and palpitating, she lifted her face. His eyes looked
deeply into hers, eyes that glowed like molten steel, and in an
instant her illusion was swept away. It seemed to her that for the
first time she looked upon Burke Ranger as he was, and her whole
being recoiled in sudden wild dismay from what she saw.
"Ah! Let me go!" she said.
He held her still, but his hold slackened. "I won the race," he
"Yes, but--but it was only a game," she gasped back incoherently.
"You--you can't--you won't----"
"Kiss you?" he said. "Not if you forbid it." That calmed her very
strangely. His tone was so quiet; it revived her courage. She
uttered a faint laugh. "Is that the stake? I can't refuse to
pay--a debt of honour."
"Thank you," he said, and she saw a curious smile gleam for a
moment on his face. "That means you are prepared to take me like a
nasty pill, doesn't it? I like your pluck. It's the best thing
about you. But I won't put it to the test this time."
He made as if he would release her, but with an odd impulse she
checked him. Somehow it was unbearable to be humoured like that.
She looked him straight in the eyes.
"We are pals, aren't we?" she said.
The smile still lingered on Burke's face; it had an enigmatical
quality that disquieted her, she could not have said wherefore.
"It's rather an ambiguous term, isn't it?" he said.
"No, it isn't," she assured him, promptly and Very earnestly. "It
means that we are friends, but we are not in love and we are not
going to pretend we are. At least," she flushed suddenly under his
look, "that is what it means to me."
"I see," said Burke. "And what would happen if we fell in love
with each other?"
Her eyes sank in spite of her. "I don't think we need consider
that," she said.
"Why not?" said Burke.
"I could never be in love with anyone again," she said, her voice
"Quite sure?" said Burke.
Something in his tone made her look up sharply. His eyes were
intently and critically upon her, but the glow had gone out of
them. They told her nothing.
"Do you think we need discuss this subject?" she asked him uneasily.
"Not if you prefer to shirk it," he said. She flushed a little.
"But I don't shirk. I'm not that sort."
"No," he said. "I don't think you are. You may be frightened, but
you won't run away."
"But I'm not frightened," she asserted boldly, looking him squarely
in the face. "We are friends, you and I. And--we are going to
trust each other. Being married isn't going to make any difference
to us. It was just a matter of convenience and--we are going to
She paused. Burke's face had not altered. He was looking back at
her with perfectly steady eyes.
"Very simple in theory," he said. "Won't you finish?"
"That's all," she said lightly. "Except--if you really want to
kiss me now and then--you can do so. Only don't be silly about it!"
Burke's quick movement of surprise told her that this was
unexpected. The two horses had recovered their wind and begun to
nibble at one another. He checked them with a growling rebuke.
Then very quietly he placed Sylvia's bridle in her hand, and put
her from him.
"Thank you," he said again. "But you mustn't be too generous at
the outset. I might begin to expect too much. And that would
be--silly of me, wouldn't it?"
There was no bitterness in voice or action, but there was
unmistakable irony. A curious sense of coldness came upon her, as
if out of the heart a distant storm-cloud an icy breath had reached
She looked at him rather piteously. "You are not angry?" she said.
He leaned back in the saddle to knock a blood-sucking fly off his
horse's flank. Then he straightened himself and laughed.
"No, not in the least," he said.
She knew that he spoke the truth, yet her heart misgave her. There
was something baffling, something almost sinister to her, in the
very carelessness of his attitude. She turned her horse's head and
walked soberly away.
He did not immediately follow her, and after a few moments she
glanced back for him. He had dismounted and was scratching
something on the trunk of the blasted tree with a knife. The
withered arms stretched out above his head. They looked weirdly
human in the sunset glow. She wished he would not linger in that
She waited for him, and he came at length, riding with his head up
and a strange gleam of triumph in his eyes.
"What were you doing?" she asked him, as he joined her.
He met her look with a directness oddly disconcerting. "I was
commemorating the occasion, he said.
"What do you mean?" she said.
"Never mind now!" said Burke, and took out his pipe.
The light still lingered in his eyes, firing her to something
deeper than curiosity. She turned her horse abruptly.
"I am going back to see for myself."
But in the same moment his hand came out, grasping her bridle. "I
shouldn't do that," he said. "It isn't worth it. Wait till we
"The tree may be gone by then," she objected.
"In that case you won't have missed much," he rejoined. "Don't go
He had his way though she yielded against her will. They turned
their animals towards Brennerstadt, and rode back together over,
the sun-scorched _veldt_.
Some degree of normality seemed to come back into Sylvia's life
with her return to Blue Hill Farm. She found plenty to do there,
and she rapidly became accustomed to her surroundings.
It would have been a monotonous and even dreary existence but for
the fact that she rode with Burke almost every evening, and
sometimes in the early morning also, and thus saw a good deal of
the working of the farm. Her keen interest in horses made a strong
bond of sympathy between them. She loved them all. The mares and
their foals were a perpetual joy to her, and she begged hard to be
allowed to try her powers at breaking in some of the young animals.
Burke, however, would not hear of this. He was very kind to her,
unfailingly considerate in his treatment of her, but by some means
he made her aware that his orders were to be respected. The Kaffir
servants were swift to do his bidding, though she did not find them
so eager to fulfil their duties when he was not at hand.
She laughingly commented upon this one day to Burke, and he amazed
her by pointing to the riding-whip she chanced to be holding at the
"You'll find that's the only medicine for that kind of thing," he
said. "Give 'em a taste of that and they'll respect you!"
She decided he must be joking, but only a few days later he quite
undeceived her on that point by dragging Joe, the house boy, into
the yard and chastising him with a _sjambok_ for some neglected
Joe howled lustily, and Sylvia yearned to fly to the rescue, but
there was something so judicial about Burke's administration of
punishment that she did not venture to intervene.
When he came in a little later, she was sitting in their
living-room nervously stitching at the sleeve of a shirt that he
had managed to tear on some barbed wire. He had his pipe in his
hand, and there was an air of grim satisfaction about him that
seemed to denote a consciousness of something well done.
Sylvia set her mouth hard and stitched rapidly, trying to forget
Joe's piercing yells of a few minutes before. Burke went to the
window and stood there, pensively filling his pipe.
Suddenly, as if something in her silence struck him, he turned and
looked at her. She felt his eyes upon her though she did not raise
After a moment or two he came to her. "What are you doing there?"
It was the first piece of work she had done for him. She glanced
up. "Mending your shirt," she told him briefly.
He laid his hand abruptly upon it. "What are you doing that for?
I don't want you to mend my things."
"Oh, don't be silly, Burke!" she said. "You can't go in tatters.
Please don't hinder me! I want to get it done."
She spoke with a touch of sharpness, not feeling very kindly
disposed towards him at the moment. She was still somewhat
agitated, and she wished with all her heart that he would go and
leave her alone.
She almost said as much in the next, breath as he did not remove
his hand. "Why don't you go and shoot something? There's plenty
of time before supper."
"What's the matter?" said Burke.
"Nothing," she returned, trying to remove her work from his grasp.
"Nothing!" he echoed. "Then why am I told not to be silly, not to
hinder you, and to go and shoot something?"
Sylvia sat up in her chair, and faced him. "If you must have it--I
think you've been--rather brutal," she said, lifting her clear eyes
to his. "No doubt you had plenty of excuse, but that doesn't
really justify you. At least--I don't think so."
He met her look in his usual direct fashion. Those eagle eyes of
his sent a little tremor through her. There was a caged fierceness
about them that strangely stirred her.
He spoke after the briefest pause with absolute gentleness. "All
right, little pal! It's decent of you to put it like that. You're
quite wrong, but that's a detail. You'll change your views when
you've been in the country a little longer. Now forget it, and
come for a ride!"
It was disarmingly kind, and Sylvia softened in spite of herself.
She put her hand on his arm. "Burke, you won't do it again?" she
He smiled a little. "It won't be necessary for some time to come.
If you did the same to Fair Rosamond now and then you would
marvellously improve her. Idle little cuss!"
"I never shall," said Sylvia with emphasis.
He heaved a sigh. "Then I shall have to kick her out I suppose. I
can see she is wearing your temper to a fine edge."
She bit her lip for a second, and then laughed. "Oh, go away, do?
You're very horrid. Rose may be trying sometimes, but I can put up
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