The Top of the World
Ethel M. Dell
Part 3 out of 8
"You can't manage her," said Burke.
"Anyway, you are not to interfere," she returned with spirit.
"That's my department."
He abandoned the discussion. "Well, I leave it to you, partner.
You're not to sit here mending shirts anyhow. I draw the line at
Sylvia's delicate chin became suddenly firm. "I never leave a
thing unfinished," she said. "You will have to ride alone this
"I refuse," said Burke.
She opened her eyes wide. "Really"--she began.
"Yes, really," he said. "Put the thing away! It's a sheer fad to
mend it at all. I don't care what I wear, and I'm sure you don't."
"But I do," she protested. "You must be respectable."
"But I am respectable--whatever I wear," argued Burke. "It's my
His brown hand began to draw the garment in dispute away from her,
but Sylvia held it tight.
Burke, don't--please--be tiresome! Every woman mends her
husband's clothes if there is no one else to do it. I want to do
"You don't like doing it!" he challenged.
"It's my duty," she maintained.
He gave her an odd look. "And do you always do--your duty?"
"I try to," she said.
"Always?" he insisted.
Something in his eyes gave her pause. She wanted to turn her own
aside, but could not. "To--to the best of my ability," she
He looked ironical for an instant, and then abruptly he laughed and
released her work. "Bless your funny little heart!" he said. "Peg
away, if you want to! It looks rather as if you're starting at the
wrong end, but, being a woman, no doubt you will get there
That pierced her. It was Guy--Guy in the flesh--tenderly taunting
her with some feminine weakness. So swift and so sharp was the
pain that she could not hide it. She bent her face over her work
with a quick intake of the breath.
"Why--Sylvia!" he said, bending over her.
She drew away from him. "Don't--please! I--I am foolish.
Don't--take any notice!"
He stood up again, but his hand found her shoulder and rubbed it
comfortingly. "What is it, partner? Tell a fellow!" he urged, his
tone an odd mixture of familiarity and constraint.
She fought with herself, and at last told him. "You--you--you were
so like--Guy--just then."
"Oh, damn Guy!" he said lightly. "I am much more like myself at
all times. Cheer up, partner! Don't cry for the moon!"
She commanded herself and looked up at him with a quivering smile.
"It is rather idiotic, isn't it? And ungrateful too. You are very
good not to lose patience."
"Oh, I am very patient," said Burke with a certain grimness. "But
look here! Must you mend that shirt? I've got another somewhere."
Her smile turned to a laugh. She sprang up with a lithe, impulsive
movement, "Come along then! Let's go! I don't know why you want
to be bothered with me, I'm sure. But I'll come."
She took him by the arm and went with him from the room.
They rode out across Burke's land. The day had been one of burning
heat. Sylvia turned instinctively towards the _kopje_ that always
attracted her. It had an air of aloofness that drew her fancy. "I
must climb that very early some morning," she said, "in time for
"It will mean literal climbing," said Burke. "It's too steep for a
"Oh, I don't mind that," she said. "I have a steady head. But I
want to get round it tonight. I've never been round it yet. What
is there on the other side?"
"_Veldt_," he said.
She made a face. And then _veldt_--and then _veldt_. Plenty of
nice, sandy karoo where all the sand-storms come from! But there
are always the hills beyond. I am going to explore them some day."
"May I come too?" he said.
She smiled at him. "Of course, partner. We will have a castle
right at the top of the world, shall we? There will be mountain
gorges and great torrents, and ferns and rhododendrons everywhere.
And a little further still, a great lake like an inland sea with
sandy shores and very calm water with the blue sky or the stars
always in it."
"And what will the castle be like?" he said.
Sylvia's eyes were on the far hills as they rode. "The castle?"
she said. "Oh, the castle will be of grey granite--the sparkling
sort, very cool inside, with fountains playing everywhere; spacious
rooms of course, and very lofty--always lots of air and no dust."
"Shall I be allowed to smoke a pipe in them?" asked Burke.
"You will do exactly what you like all day long," she told him
"So long as I don't get in your way," he suggested.
She laughed a little. "Oh, we shall be too happy for that.
Besides, you can have a farm or two to look after. There won't be
any dry watercourses there like that," pointing with her whip.
"That is what you call a '_spruit_,' isn't it?"
"You are getting quite learned," he said. "Yes, that is a _spruit_
and that is a _kopje_."
"And that?" She pointed farther on suddenly. "What is that just
above the watercourse? Is it a Kaffir hut?"
"No," said Burke.
He spoke somewhat shortly. The object she indicated was
undoubtedly a hut; to Sylvia's unaccustomed eyes it might have been
a cattle-shed. It was close to the dry watercourse, a little
lonely hovel standing among stones and a straggling growth of
Something impelled Sylvia to check her horse. She glanced at her
companion as if half-afraid. "What is it?" she said. "It--looks
like a hermit's cell. Who lives there?"
"No one at the present moment," said Burke.
His eyes were fixed straight ahead. He spoke curtly, as if against
"But who generally--" began Sylvia, and then she stopped and turned
suddenly white to the lips.
"I--see," she said, in an odd, breathless whisper.
Burke spoke without looking at her. "It's just a cabin. He built
it himself the second year he was out here. He had been living at
the farm, but he wanted to get away from me, wanted to go his own
way without interference. Perhaps I went too far in that line.
After all, it was no business of mine. But I can't stand tamely by
and see a white man deliberately degrading himself to the Kaffir
level. It was as well he went. I should have skinned him sooner
or later if he hadn't. He realized that. So did I. So we agreed
So briefly and baldly Burke stated the case, and every sentence he
uttered was a separate thrust in the heart of the white-faced girl
who sat her horse beside him, quite motionless, with burning eyes
fixed upon the miserable little hovel that had enshrined the idol
she had worshipped for so long.
She lifted her bridle at last without speaking a word and walked
her animal forward through the sparse grass and the stones. Burke
moved beside her, still gazing straight ahead, as if he were alone.
They went down to the cabin, and Sylvia dismounted. The only
window space was filled with wire-netting instead of glass, and
over this on the inside a piece of cloth had been firmly fastened
so that no prying eyes could look in. The door was locked and
padlocked. It was evident that the owner had taken every
precaution against intrusion.
And yet--though he lived in this wretched place at which even a
Kaffir might have looked askance--he had sent her that message
telling her to come to him. This fact more than any other that she
had yet encountered brought home to her the bitter, bitter truth of
his failure. Out of the heart of the wilderness, out of desolation
unspeakable, he had sent that message. And she had answered it--to
find him gone.
The slow hot tears welled up and ran down her face. She was not
even aware of them. Only at last she faced the desolation, in its
entirety, she drank the cup to its dregs. It was here that he had
taken the downward road. It was here that he had buried his
manhood. When she turned away at length, she felt as if she had
been standing by his grave.
Burke waited for her and helped her to mount again in utter
silence. Only as she lifted the bridle again he laid his hand for
a moment on her knee. It was a dumb act of sympathy which she
could not acknowledge lest she should break down utterly. But it
sent a glow of comfort to her hurt and aching heart. He had given
her a comrade's sympathy just when she needed it most.
It was after that ride to Guy's hut that Sylvia began at last to
regard him as connected only with that which was past. It was as
if a chapter in her life had closed when she turned away from that
solitary hut in the wilderness. She said to herself that the man
she had known and loved was dead, and she did not after that
evening suffer her thoughts voluntarily to turn in his direction.
Soberly she took up the burden of life. She gathered up the reins
of government, and assumed the ordering of Burke Ranger's
household. She did not again refer to Guy in his presence, though
there were times when his step, his voice, above all, his whistle,
stabbed her to poignant remembrance.
He also avoided the subject of Guy, treating her with a careless
kindliness that set her wholly at ease with him. She learned more
and more of the working of the farm, and her interest in the young
creatures grew daily. She loved to accompany him on his rides of
inspection in the early mornings showing herself so apt a pupil
that he presently dubbed her his overseer, and even at last
entrusted her occasionally with such errands as only a confidential
overseer could execute.
It was when returning from one of these somewhat late one blazing
morning that she first encountered their nearest British neighbours
from a farm nearly twelve miles distant. It was a considerable
shock to her to find them in possession of the _stoep_ when she
rode up, but the sight of the red-faced Englishman who strode out
to meet her reassured her in a moment.
"How do you do, Mrs. Ranger? We've just come over to pay our
respects," he announced in a big, hearty voice. "You'll hardly
believe it, but we've only recently heard of Burke's marriage.
It's been a nine days' wonder with us, but now I've seen you I
cease to marvel at anything but Burke's amazing luck."
There was something so engagingly naive in this compliment that
Sylvia found it impossible to be formal. She smiled and slipped to
"You are Mr. Merston," she said. "How kind of you to come over! I
am afraid I am alone at present, but Burke is sure to be in soon.
I hope you have had some refreshment."
She gave her horse to a Kaffir boy, and went with her new friend up
the steps of the _stoep_.
"My wife!" said Merston in his jolly voice.
Sylvia went forward with an eagerness that wilted in spite of her
before she reached its object. Mrs. Merston did not rise to meet
her. She sat prim and upright and waited for her greeting, and
Sylvia knew in a moment before their hands touched each other that
here was no kindred spirit.
"How do you do?" said Mrs. Merston formally.
She was a little woman, possibly ten years Sylvia's senior, with a
face that had once been pink and white and now was the colour of
pale brick all over. Her eyes were pale and seemed to carry a
perpetual grievance. Her nose was straight and very thin, rather
pinched at the nostrils. Her lips were thin and took a bitter
downward curve. Her hair was quite colourless, almost like ashes;
it had evidently once been light gold.
The hand she extended to Sylvia was so thin that she thought she
could feel the bones rubbing together. Her skin was hot and very
"I hope you like this horrible country," she said.
"Oh, come, Matilda!" her husband protested.
"That's not a very cheery greeting for a newcomer!"
She closed her thin lips without reply, and the downward curve
became very unpleasantly apparent.
"I haven't found out all its horrors yet," said Sylvia lightly.
"It's a very thirsty place, I think, anyway just now. Have you had
"We've only just got here," said Merston.
"Oh, I must see to it!" said Sylvia, and hastened within.
"Looks a jolly sort of girl," observed Merston to his wife.
"Wonder how--and when--Burke managed to catch her. He hasn't been
home for ten years and she can't be five-and-twenty."
"She probably did the catching," remarked his wife tersely. "But
she will soon wish she hadn't."
Sylvia returned two minutes later bearing a tray of which Merston
hastened to relieve her.
"We're wondering--my wife and I--how Burke had the good fortune to
get married to you," he said. "You're new to this country, aren't
you? And he hasn't been out of it as long as I have known him."
Sylvia looked up at him in momentary confusion. Then she laughed.
"We picked each other up at Ritzen," she said.
"Ritzen!" he echoed in amazement, "What on earth took you there?"
Then hastily, "I say, I beg your pardon. You must forgive my
impertinence. But you look so awfully like a duchess in your own
right, I couldn't help being surprised."
"Well, have a drink!" said Sylvia lightly. "I'm not a duchess in
my own right or anything else, except Burke's wife. We're running
this farm together on the partner system. I'm junior partner of
course. Burke tells me what to do, and I do it."
"You'll soon lose your complexion if you go out riding in this heat
and dust," said Mrs. Merston.
"Oh, I hope not," Sylvia laughed again. "If I do, I daresay I
shan't miss it much. It's rather fun to feel that sort of thing
doesn't matter. Ah, here is Burke coming now!" She glanced up at
the thudding of his horse's hoofs.
Merston went out again into the blinding sunlight to greet his
host, and Sylvia turned to the thin, pinched woman beside her.
"I expect you would like to come inside and take off your hat and
wash. It is hot, isn't it? Shall we go in and get respectable?"
She spoke with that winning friendliness of hers that few could
resist. Mrs. Merston's lined face softened almost in spite of
itself. She got up. But she could not refrain from flinging
another acid remark as she did so.
"I really think if Englishmen must live in South Africa, they ought
to be content with Boer wives."
"Oh, should you like your husband to have married a Boer wife?"
Mrs. Merston smiled grimly. "You are evidently still in the fool's
paradise stage. Make the most of it! It won't last long. The men
out here have other things to think about."
"I should hope so," said Sylvia energetically. "And the women,
too, I should think. I should imagine that there is very little
time for philandering out here."
Mrs. Merston uttered a bitter laugh as she followed her in. "There
is very little time for anything, Mrs. Ranger. It is drudgery from
morning till night."
"Oh, I haven't found that yet," said Sylvia.
She had led her visitor into the guest-room which she had occupied
since her advent. It was not quite such a bare apartment as it had
been on that first night. All her personal belongings were
scattered about, and the severely masculine atmosphere had been
completely driven forth.
"I'm afraid it isn't very tidy in here," she said. "I generally
see to things later. I don't care to turn the Kaffir girl loose
among my things."
Mrs. Merston looked around her. "And where does your husband
sleep?" she said.
"Across the passage. His room is about the same size as this.
They are not very big, are they?"
"You are very lucky to have such a home," said Mrs. Merston. "Ours
is nothing but a corrugated iron shed divided into two parts."
"Really?" Sylvia opened her eyes. "That doesn't sound very nice
certainly. Haven't you got a verandah even--I beg its pardon, a
"We have nothing at all that makes for comfort," declared Mrs.
Merston, with bitter emphasis. "We live like pigs in a sty!"
"Good heavens!" said Sylvia. "I shouldn't like that."
"No, you wouldn't. It takes a little getting used to. But you'll
go through the mill presently. All we farmers' wives do. You and
Burke Ranger won't go on in this Garden of Eden style very long."
Sylvia laughed with a touch of uncertainty. "I suppose it's a
mistake to expect too much of life anywhere," she said. "But it's
difficult to be miserable when one is really busy, isn't it?
Anyhow one can't be bored."
"Are you really happy here?" Mrs. Merston asked point-blank, in the
tone of one presenting a challenge.
Sylvia paused for a moment, only a moment, and then she answered,
"And you've been married how long? Six weeks?"
"About that," said Sylvia.
Mrs. Merston looked at her, and an almost cruel look came into her
pale eyes. "Ah! You wait a little!" she said. "You're young now.
You've got all your vitality still in your veins. Wait till this
pitiless country begins to get hold of you! Wait till you begin to
bear children, and all your strength is drained out of you, and you
still have to keep on at the same grinding drudgery till you're
ready to drop, and your husband comes in and laughs at you and
tells you to buck up, when you haven't an ounce of energy left in
you! See how you like the prison-house then! All your young
freshness gone and nothing left--nothing left!"
She spoke with such force that Sylvia felt actually shocked. Yet
still with that instinctive tact of hers, she sought to smooth the
troubled waters. "Oh, have you children?" she said. "How many?
Do tell me about them!"
"I have had six," said Mrs. Merston dully. "They are all dead."
She clenched her hands at Sylvia's quick exclamation of pity, but
she gave no other sign of emotion.
"They all die in infancy," she said. "It's partly the climate,
partly that I am overworked--worn out. He--" with infinite
bitterness--"can't see it. Men don't--or won't. You'll find that
presently. It's all in front of you. I don't envy you in the
least, Mrs. Ranger. I daresay you think there is no one in the
world like your husband. Young brides always do. But you'll find
out presently. Men are all selfish where their own pleasures are
concerned. And Burke Ranger is no exception to the rule. He has a
villainous temper, too. Everyone knows that."
"Oh, don't tell me that!" said Sylvia gently. "He and I are
partners, you know. Let me put a little _eau-de-cologne_ in that
water! It's so refreshing."
Mrs. Merston scarcely noticed the small service. She was too
intent upon her work of destruction. "You don't know him--yet,"
she said. "But anyone you meet can tell you the same. Why, he had
a young cousin here--such a nice boy--and he sent him straight to
the bad with his harsh treatment,--_sjamboked_ him and turned him
out of the house for some slight offence. Yes, no wonder you look
scandalized; but I assure you it's true. Guy Ranger was none too
steady, I know. But that was absolutely the finishing touch. He
was never the same again."
She paused. Sylvia was very white, but her eyes were quite
resolute, unfailingly steadfast.
"Please don't tell me any more!" she said. "Whatever Burke did
was--was from a good motive. I know that. I know him. And--I
don't want to have any unkind feelings towards him."
"You prefer to remain blind?" said Mrs. Merston with her bitter
"Yes--yes," Sylvia said.
"Then you are building your house on the sand," said Mrs. Merston,
and turned from her with a shrug. "And great will be the fall
THE visitors did not leave until the sun was well down in the west.
To Sylvia it had been an inexplicably tiring day, and when they
departed at length she breathed a wholly unconscious sigh of relief.
"Come for a ride!" said Burke.
She shook her head. "No, thank you. I think I will have a rest."
"All right. I'll smoke a pipe on the _stoep_," he said.
He had been riding round his land with Merston during the greater
part of the afternoon, and it did not surprise her that he seemed
to think that he also had earned a quiet evening. But curiously
his decision provoked in her an urgent desire to ride alone. A
pressing need for solitude was upon her. She yearned to get right
away by herself.
She went to her room, however, and lay down for a while, trying to
take the rest she needed; but when presently she heard the voice of
Hans Schafen, his Dutch foreman, talking on the verandah, she arose
with a feeling of thankfulness, donned her sun-hat, and slipped out
of the bungalow. It was hot for walking, but it was a relief to
get away from the house. She knew it was quite possible that Burke
would see her go, but she believed he would be too engrossed with
business for some time to follow her. It was quite possible he
would not wish to do so, but she had a feeling that this was not
probable. He generally sought her out in his leisure hours.
Almost instinctively she turned her steps in the direction of the
kopje which she had so often desired to climb. It rose steep from
the _veldt_ like some lonely tower in the wilderness.
Curious-shaped rocks cropped out unexpectedly on its scarred sides
and a few prickly pear bushes stood up here and there like weird
guardians of the rugged stronghold. Sylvia had an odd feeling that
they watched her with unfriendly attention as she approached.
Though solitude girt her round, she did not feel herself to be
It took her some time to reach it, for the ground was rough and
sandy under her feet, and it was farther away than it looked. She
realized as she drew nearer that to climb to the round summit would
be no easy task, but that fact did not daunt her. She felt the
need for strenuous exercise just then.
The shadows were lengthening, and the full glare of the sun no
longer smote upon her. She began to climb with some energy. But
she soon found that she had undertaken a greater task than she had
anticipated. The way was steep, and here and there the boulders
seemed to block further progress completely. She pressed on with
diminishing speed, taking a slanting upward course that presently
brought her into the sun again and in view of the little cabin
above the stony watercourse that had sheltered Guy for so long.
The sight of it seemed to take all the strength out of her. She
sat down on a rock to rest. All day long she had been forcing the
picture that Mrs. Merston had painted for her into the background
of her thoughts. All day long it had been pressing forward in
spite of her. It seemed to be burning her brain, and now she could
not ignore it any longer. Sitting there exhausted in mind and
body, she had to face it in all its crudeness. She had to meet and
somehow to conquer the sickening sensation of revolt that had come
She sat there for a long time, till the sun sank low in the sky and
a wondrous purple glow spread across the _veldt_. She knew that it
was growing late, that Burke would be expecting her for the evening
meal, but she could not summon the strength she needed to end her
solitary vigil on the _kopje_. She had a feeling as of waiting for
something. Though she was too tired to pray, yet it seemed to her
that a message was on its way. She watched the glory in the west
with an aching intensity that possessed her to the exclusion of
aught beside. Somehow, even in the midst of her weariness and
depression, she felt sure that help would come.
The glory began to wane, and a freshness blew across the _veldt_.
Somewhere on the very top of the _kopje_ a bird uttered a
twittering note. She turned her face, listening for the answer,
and found Burke seated on another boulder not six yards away.
So unexpected was the sight that she caught her breath in
astonishment and a sharp instinctive sense of dismay. He was not
looking at her, but gazing forth to the distant hills like an eagle
from its eyrie. His eyes had the look of seeing many things that
were wholly beyond her vision.
She sat in silence, a curious feeling of embarrassment upon her, as
if she looked upon something which she was not meant to see and yet
could not turn from. His brown face was so intent, almost terribly
keen. The lines about the mouth were drawn with ruthless
distinctness. It was the face of a hunter, and the iron resolution
of it sent an odd quiver that was almost of foreboding through her
And then suddenly he turned his head slightly, as if he felt her
look upon him, and like a knife-thrust his eyes came down to hers.
She felt the hot colour rush over her face as if she had been
caught in some act of trespass. Her confusion consumed her, she
could not have said wherefore. She looked swiftly away.
Quietly he left his rock and came to her.
She shrank at his coming. The pulse in her throat was throbbing as
if it would choke her. She wanted to spring up and flee down the
hill. But he was too near. She sat very still, her fingers
gripping each other about her knees, saying no word.
He reached her and stood looking down at her. "I followed you," he
said, "because I knew you would never get to the top alone."
She lifted her face, striving against her strange agitation. "I
wasn't thinking of going any further," she said, struggling to
speak indifferently. "It--is steeper than I thought."
"It aways is," said Burke.
He sat down beside her, close to her. She made a small,
instinctive movement away from him, but he did not seem to notice.
He took off his hat and laid it down.
"I'm sorry Mrs. Merston had to be inflicted on you for so long," he
said. "I'm afraid she is not exactly cheery company."
"I didn't mind," said Sylvia.
He gave her a faintly whimsical look. "Not utterly fed up with
Africa and all her beastly ways?" he questioned.
She shook her head. "I don't think I am so easily swayed as all
"You would rather stay here with me than go back home to England?"
Her eyes went down to the lonely hut on the sand. "Why do you ask
me that?" she said, in a low voice.
"Because I want to know," said Burke.
Sylvia was silent.
He went on after a moment. "I've a sort of notion that Mrs.
Merston is not a person to spread contentment around her under any
circumstances. If she lived in a palace at the top of the world
she wouldn't be any happier."
Sylvia smiled faintly at the allusion. "I don't think she has very
much to make her happy," she said. It's a little hard to judge her
under present conditions."
"She's got one of the best for a husband anyway," he maintained.
"Do you think that's everything?" said Sylvia.
"No, I don't," said Burke unexpectedly. "I think he spoils her,
which is bad for any woman. It turns her head in the beginning and
sours her afterwards."
Sylvia turned at that and regarded him, a faint light of mockery in
her eyes. "What a lot you know about women!" she remarked.
He laughed in a way she did not understand. "If I had a wife," he
said, "I'd make her happy, but not on those lines."
"I thought you had one," said Sylvia.
He met her eyes with a sudden mastery which made her flinch in
spite of herself. "No," he said, "I've only a make-believe at
present. Not very satisfying of course; but better than nothing.
There is always the hope that she may some day turn into the real
thing to comfort me."
His words went into silence. Sylvia's head was bent.
After a moment he leaned a little towards her, and spoke almost in
a whisper. "I feel as if I have caught a very rare, shy bird," he
said. "I'm trying to teach it to trust me, but it takes a mighty
lot of time and patience. Do you think I shall ever succeed,
Sylvia? Do you think it will ever come and nestle against my
Again his words went into silence. The girl's eyes were fixed upon
the stretch of sandy _veldt_ below her and that which it held.
Silently the man watched her, his keen eyes very steady, very
She lifted her own at last, and met them with brave directness.
"You know, partner," she said, "it isn't very fair of you to ask me
such a thing as that. You can't have--everything."
"All right," said Burke, and felt in his pocket for his pipe.
"Consider it unsaid!"
His abrupt acceptance of her remonstrance was curiously
disconcerting. The mastery of his look had led her to expect
something different. She watched him dumbly as he filled his pipe
with quiet precision.
Finally, as he looked at her again, she spoke. "I don't want to
seem over-critical--ungrateful, but--" her breath came
quickly--"though you have been so awfully good to me, I can't help
feeling--that you might have done more for Guy, if--if you had been
kinder when he went wrong. And--" her eyes filled with sudden
tears--"that thought spoils--just everything."
"I see," said Burke, and though his lips were grim his voice was
wholly free from harshness. "Mrs. Merston told you all about it,
Sylvia's colour rose again. She turned slightly from him. "She
didn't say much," she said.
There was a pause. Then unexpectedly Burke's hand closed over her
two clasped ones. "So I've got to be punished, have I?" he said.
She shook her head, shrinking a little though she suffered his
touch. "No. Only--I can't forget it,--that's all."
"Or forgive?" said Burke.
She swallowed her tears with an effort. "No, not that. I'm not
vindictive. But--oh, Burke--" she turned to him impulsively,--"I
wish--I wish--we could find Guy!"
He stiffened almost as if at a blow. "Why?" he demanded sternly.
For a moment his look awed her, but only for a moment; the longing
in her heart was so great as to overwhelm all misgiving. She
grasped his arm tightly between her hands.
"If we could only find him--and save him--save him somehow from the
horrible pit he seems to have fallen into! We could do it between
us--I feel sure we could do it---if only--if only--we could find
Breathlessly her words rushed out. It seemed as if she had
stumbled almost inadvertently upon the solution of the problem that
had so tormented her. She marvelled now that she had ever been
able to endure inaction with regard to Guy. She was amazed at
herself for having been so easily content. It was almost as if in
that moment she heard Guy's voice very far away, calling to her for
And then, swift as a lightning-flash, striking dismay to her soul,
came the consciousness of Burke gazing straight at her with that in
his eyes which she could not--dare not--meet.
She gripped his arm a little tighter. She was quivering from head
to foot. "We could do it between us," she breathed again.
"Wouldn't it be worth it? Oh, wouldn't it be worth it?"
But Burke spoke no word. He sat rigid, looking at her.
A feeling of coldness ran through her--such a feeling as she had
experienced on her wedding-day under the skeleton-tree, the chill
that comes from the heart of a storm. Slowly she relaxed her hold
upon him. Her tears were gone, but she felt choked, unlike
herself, curiously impotent.
"Shall we go back?" she said.
She made as if she would rise, but he stayed her with a gesture,
and her weakness held her passive.
"So you have forgiven him!" he said.
His tone was curt. He almost flung the words.
She braced herself, instinctively aware of coming strain. But she
answered him gently. "You can't be angry with a person when you
are desperately sorry for him."
"I see. And you hold me in a great measure responsible for his
fall? I am to make good, am I?"
He did not raise his voice, but there was something in it that made
her quail. She looked up at him in swift distress.
"No, no! Of course not--of course not! Partner, please don't glare
at me like that! What have I done?"
He dropped his eyes abruptly from her startled face, and there
followed a silence so intense that she thought he did not even
Then, in a very low voice: "You've raised Cain," he said.
She shivered. There was something terrible in the atmosphere.
Dumbly she waited, feeling that protest would but make matters
He turned himself from her at length, and sat with his chin on his
hands, staring out to the fading sunset.
When he spoke finally, the hard note had gone out of his voice.
"Do you think it's going to make life any easier to bring that
young scoundrel back?"
"I wasn't thinking of that," she said, "It was only--" she
"Only?" said Burke, without turning.
With difficulty she answered him. "Only that probably you and I
are the only people in the world who could do anything to help him.
And so--somehow it seems our job."
Burke digested this in silence. Then: "And what are you going to
do with him when you've got him?" he enquired.
Again she hesitated, but only momentarily. "I shall want you to
help me, partner," she said appealingly.
He made a slight movement that passed unexplained. "You may find
me--rather in the way--before you've done," he said.
"Then you won't help me?" she said, swift disappointment in her
He turned round to her. His face was grim, but it held no anger.
"You've asked a pretty hard thing of me," he said. "But--yes, I'll
"You will?" She held out her hand to him. "Oh, partner, thank
He gripped her hand hard. "On one condition," he said.
"Oh, what?" She started a little and her face whitened.
He squeezed her fingers with merciless force. "Just that you will
play a straight game with me," he said briefly.
The colour came back to her face with a rush. "That!" she said.
"But of course--of course! I always play a straight game."
"Then it's a bargain?" he said.
Her clear eyes met his. "Yes, a bargain. But how shall we ever
He was silent for a moment, and she felt as if those steel-grey
eyes of his were probing for her soul. "That," he said slowly,
"will not be a very difficult business."
"You know where he is?" she questioned eagerly.
"Yes. Merston told me to-day."
"Oh, Burke!" The eager kindling of her look made her radiant.
"Where is he? What is he doing?"
He still looked at her keenly, but all emotion had gone from his
face. "He is tending a bar in a miners' saloon at Brennerstadt."
"Ah!"' She stood up quickly to hide the sudden pain his words had
given. "But we can soon get him out. You--you will get him out,
He got to his feet also. The sun had passed, and only a violet
glow remained. He seemed to be watching it as he answered her.
"I will do my best."
"You are good," she said very earnestly. "I wonder if you have the
least idea how grateful I feel."
"I can guess," he said in a tone of constraint.
She was standing slightly above him. She placed her hand shyly on
his shoulder. "And you won't hate it so very badly?" she urged
softly. "It is in a good cause, isn't it?"
"I hope so," he said.
He seemed unaware of her hand upon him. She pressed a little.
"Yes?" He still stood without looking at her.
She spoke nervously. "I--I shan't forget--ever--that I am married.
You--you needn't be afraid of--of anything like that."
He turned with an odd gesture. "I thought you were going to forget
it--that you had forgotten it--for good."
His voice had a strained, repressed sound. He spoke almost as if
he were in pain.
She tried to smile though her heart was beating fast and hard.
"Well, I haven't. And--I never shall now. So that's all right,
isn't it? Say it's all right!"
There was more of pleading in her voice than she knew. A great
tremor went through Burke. He clenched his hands to subdue it.
"Yes; all right, little pal, all right," he said.
His voice sounded strangled; it pierced her oddly. With a sudden
impetuous gesture she slid her arm about his neck, and for one
lightning moment her lips touched his cheek. The next instant she
had sprung free and was leaping downwards from rock to rock like a
At the foot of the _kopje_ only did she stop and wait. He was
close behind her, moving with lithe, elastic strides where she had
She turned round to him boyishly. "We'll climb to the top one of
these days, partner; but I'm not in training yet. Besides,--we're
late for supper."
"I can wait," said Burke.
She linked her little finger in his, swinging it carelessly. There
was absolute confidence in her action; only her eyes avoided his.
"You're jolly decent to me," she said. "I often wonder why."
"You'll know one day," said Burke very quietly.
A dust-storm had been blowing practically all day, and the mining
crowds of Brennerstadt were thirsty to a man. They congregated at
every bar with the red sand thick upon them, and cursed the country
and the climate with much heartiness and variety.
Burke Ranger was one of the thirstiest when he reached the town
after his ride through the desert--a ride upon which he had flatly
refused to allow Sylvia to accompany him. He went straight to the
hotel where he had stayed for his marriage, and secured a room.
Then he went down to the dining-room, where he was instantly
greeted by an old friend, Kelly, the Irish manager of a diamond
mine in the neighbourhood.
Kelly was the friend of everyone. He knew everyone's affairs and
gossiped openly with a childlike frankness that few could resent.
Everyone declared he could never keep a secret, yet nearly everyone
confided in him. His goodness of heart was known to all, and he
was regarded as a general arbitrator among the sometimes restless
population of Brennerstadt.
His delight at seeing Burke was obvious; he hailed him with
acclamations. "I've been meaning to ride over your way for ages,"
he declared, his rubicund face shining with geniality as he wrung
his friend's hand hard. "I was up-country when you came along last
with your bride. Dark horse that you are, Burke! I should as soon
have thought of getting married myself, as of seeing you in double
Burke laughed his careless laugh. "You'll come to it yet. No fun
in growing old alone in this country."
"And what's the lady like?" pursued Kelly, keen for news as an
Irish terrier after a rat. "As fair as Eve and twice as charming?"
"Something that style," agreed Burke. "What are you drinking, old
chap? Any ice to be had?"
He conferred with the waiter, but Kelly's curiosity was far from
being satisfied. He pounced back upon the subject the moment
Burke's attention was free.
"And is she new to this part of the world then? She came out to be
married, I take it? And what does she think of it at all?"
"You'll have to come over and see for yourself," said Burke.
"So I will, old feller. I'll come on the first opportunity. I'd
love to see the woman who can capture you. Done any shooting
lately, or is wedded bliss still too sweet to leave?"
"I've had a few other things as well to think about," said Burke
"And this is your first absence? What will the missis do without
"She'll manage all right. She's very capable. She is helping me
with the farm. The life seems to suit her all right, only I shall
have to see she doesn't work too hard."
"That you will, my son. This climate's hard on women. Look at
poor Bill Merston's wife! When she came out, she was as pretty and
as sweet as a little wild rose. And now--well, it gives you the
heartache to look at her."
"Does it?" said Burke grimly. "She doesn't affect me that way. If
I were in Merston's place,--well, she wouldn't look like that for
"Wouldn't she though?" Kelly looked at him with interest. "You
always were a goer, old man. And what would your treatment consist
"Discipline," said Burke briefly. "No woman is happy if she
despises her husband. If I were in Merston's place, I would see to
it that she did not despise me. That's the secret of her trouble.
It's poison to a woman to look down on her husband."
"Egad!" laughed Kelly. "But you've studied the subject? Well,
here's to the fair lady of your choice! May she fulfil all
expectations and be a comfort to you all the days of your life!"
"Thanks!" said Burke. "Now let's hear a bit about yourself! How's
the diamond industry?"
"Oh, there's nothing the matter with it just now. We've turned
over some fine stones in the last few days. Plenty of rubbish,
too, of course. You don't want a first-class speculation, I
presume? If you've got a monkey to spare, I can put you on to
something rather great."
"Thanks, I haven't," said Burke. "I never have monkeys to spare.
But what's the gamble?"
"Oh, it's just a lottery of Wilbraham's. He has a notion for
raffling his biggest diamond. The draw won't take place for a few
weeks yet; and then only monkeys need apply. It's a valuable
stone. I can testify to that. It would be worth a good deal more
if it weren't for a flaw that will have to be taken out in the
cutting and will reduce it a lot. But even so, it's worth some
thousands, worth risking a monkey for, Burke. Think what a
splendid present it would be for your wife!"
Burke laughed and shook his head. "She isn't that sort if I know
"Bet you you don't know her then," said Kelly, with a grin. "It's
a good sporting chance anyway. I don't fancy there will be many
candidates, for the stone has an evil name."
Burke looked slightly scornful. "Well, I'm not putting any monkeys
into Wilbraham's pocket, so that won't trouble me. Have you seen
anything of Guy Ranger lately?"
The question was casually uttered, but it sent a sharp gleam of
interest into Kelly's eyes. "Oh, it's him you've come for, is it?"
he said. "Well, let me tell you this for your information! He's
had enough of Blue Hill Farm for the present."
Burke said nothing, but his grey eyes had a more steely look than
usual as he digested the news.
Kelly looked at him curiously. "The boy's a wreck," he said.
"Simply gone to pieces; nerves like fiddle-strings. He drinks like
hell, but it's my belief he'd die in torment if he didn't."
Still Burke said nothing, and Kelly's curiosity grew.
"You know what he's doing; don't you?" he said. "He's doing a
Kaffir's job for Kaffir's pay. It's about the vilest hole this
side of perdition, my son. And I'm thinking you won't find it
specially easy to dig him out."
Burke's eyes came suddenly straight to the face of the Irishman.
He regarded him for a moment or two with a faintly humorous
expression; then: "That's just where you can lend me a hand,
Donovan," he said. "I'm going to ask you to do that part."
"The deuce you are!" said Kelly. "You're not going to ask much
then, my son. Moreover, it's well on the likely side that he'll
refuse to budge. Better leave him alone till he's tired of it."
"He's dead sick of it already," said Burke with conviction. "You
go to him and tell him you've a decent berth waiting for him.
He'll come along fast enough then."
"I doubt it," said Kelly. "I doubt it very much. He's in just the
bitter mood to prefer to wallow. He's right under, Burke, and he
isn't making any fight. He'll go on now till he's dead."
"He won't!" said Burke shortly. "Where exactly is he? Tell me
"He's barkeeping for that brute Hoffstein, and taking out all his
wages in drink. I saw him three days ago. I assure you he's past
help. I believe he'd shoot himself if you took any trouble over
him. He's in a pretty desperate mood."
"Not he!" said Burke. "I'm going to have him out anyway."
Again Kelly looked at him speculatively. "Well, what's the
notion?" he asked after a moment, frankly curious. "You've never
worried after him before."
Burke's eyes were grim. "You may be sure of one thing, Donovan,"
he said, "I'm not out for pleasure this journey."
"I've noted that," observed Kelly.
"I don't want you to help me if you have anything better to do,"
pursued Burke. "I shall get what I've come for in any case."
"Oh, don't you worry yourself! I'm on," responded Kelly, with his
winning, Irish smile. "When do you want to catch your hare?
"Yes; to-night," said Burke soberly. "I'll come down with you to
Hoffstein's, and if you can get him out, I'll do the rest."
"Hurrah!" crowed Kelly softly, lifting his glass. "Here's luck to
But though Burke drank with him, his face did not relax.
A little later they left the hotel together. A strong wind was
still blowing, sprinkling the dust of the desert everywhere. They
pushed their way against it, striding with heads down through the
swirling darkness of the night.
Hoffstein's bar was in a low quarter of the town and close to the
mine-workings. A place of hideous desolation at all times, the
whirling sandstorm made of it almost an inferno. They scarcely
spoke as they went along, grimly enduring the sand-fiend that stung
and blinded but could not bar their progress.
As they came within sight of Hoffstein's tavern, they encountered
groups of men coming away, but no one was disposed to loiter on
that night of turmoil; no one accosted them as they approached.
The place was built of corrugated iron, and they heard the sand
whipping against it as they drew near. Kelly paused within a few
yards of the entrance. The door was open and the lights of the bar
flared forth into the darkness.
"You stop here!" bawled Kelly. "I'll go in and investigate."
There was an iron fence close to them, affording some degree of
shelter from the blast. Burke stood back against it, dumbly
patient. The other man went on, and in a few seconds his short
square figure passed through the lighted doorway.
There followed an interval of waiting that seemed interminable--an
interval during which Burke moved not at all, but stood like a
statue against the wall, his hat well down over his eyes, his hands
clenched at his sides. The voices of men drifted to and fro
through the howling night, but none came very near him.
It must have been nearly half-an-hour later that there arose a
sudden fierce uproar in the bar, and the silent watcher
straightened himself up sharply. The turmoil grew to a babel of
voices, and in a few moments two figures, struggling furiously,
appeared at the open door. They blundered out, locked together
like fighting beasts, and behind them the door crashed to, leaving
them in darkness.
Burke moved forward. "Kelly, is that you?"
Kelly's voice, uplifted in lurid anathema, answered him, and in a
couple of seconds Kelly himself lurched into him, nearly hurling
him backwards. "And is it yourself?" cried the Irishman. "Then
help me to hold the damned young scoundrel, for he's fighting like
the devils in hell! Here he is! Get hold of him!"
Burke took a silent hard grip upon the figure suddenly thrust at
him, and almost immediately the fighting ceased.
"Let me go!" a hoarse voice said.
"Hold him tight!" said Kelly. "I'm going to take a rest. Guy, you
young devil, what do you want to murder me for? I've never done
you a harm in my life."
The man in Burke's grasp said nothing whatever. He was breathing
heavily, but his resistance was over. He stood absolutely passive
in the other man's hold.
Kelly gave himself an indignant shake and continued his tirade. "I
call all the saints in heaven to witness that as sure as my name is
Donovan Kelly so sure is it that I'll be damned to the last most
nether millstone before ever I'll undertake to dig a man out of
Hoffstein's marble halls again. You'd better watch him, Burke.
His skin is about as full as it'll hold."
"We'll get back," said Burke briefly.
He was holding his captive locked in a scientific grip, but there
was no violence about him. Only, as he turned, the other turned
also, as if compelled. Kelly followed, cursing himself back to
Back through the raging wind they went, as though pursued by
furies. They reached and entered the hotel just as the Kaffir
porter was closing for the night. He stared with bulging eyes at
Burke and his companion, but Burke walked straight through, looking
neither to right nor left.
Only at the foot of the stairs, he paused an instant, glancing back.
"I'll see you in the morning, Donovan," he said. "Thanks for all
To which Kelly replied, fingering a bump on his forehead with a
rueful grin, "All's well that ends well, my son, and sure it's a
pleasure to serve you. I flatter myself, moreover, that you
wouldn't have done the trick on your own. Hoffstein will stand
more from me than from any other living man."
The hint of a smile touched Burke's set lips. "Show me the man
that wouldn't!" he said; and turning, marched his unresisting
prisoner up the stairs.
THE GOOD CAUSE
"Why can't you leave me alone? What do you want with me?"
Half-sullenly, half-aggressively, Guy Ranger flung the questions,
standing with lowering brow before his captor. His head was down
and his eyes raised with a peculiar, brutish expression. He had
the appearance of a wild animal momentarily cowed, but preparing
for furious battle. The smouldering of his look was terrible.
Burke Ranger met it with steely self-restraint. "I'll tell you
presently," he said.
"You'll tell me now!" Fiercely the younger man made rejoinder.
His power of resistance was growing, swiftly swallowing all sense
of expediency. "If I choose to wallow in the mire, what the devil
is it to you? You didn't send that accursed fool Kelly round for
your own pleasure, I'll take my oath. What is it you want me for?
Tell me straight!"
His voice rose on the words. His hands were clenched; yet still he
wore that half-frightened look as of an animal that will spring
when goaded, not before. His hair hung black and unkempt about his
burning eyes. His face was drawn and deadly pale.
Burke stood like a rock, confronting him. He blocked the way to
the door. "I'll tell you all you want to know in the morning," he
said. "You have a wash now and turn in!"
The wild eyes took a fleeting glance round the room, returning
instantly, as if fascinated, to Burke's face.
"Why the devil should I? I've got a--sty of my own to go to."
"Yes, I know," said Burke. Yet, he stood his ground, grimly
"Then let me go to it!" Guy Ranger straightened himself, breathing
heavily. "Get out!" he said. "Or--by heaven--I'll throw you!"
"You can't," said Burke. "So don't be a fool! You know--none
better--that that sort of thing doesn't answer with me."
"But what do you want?" The reiterated question had a desperate
ring as if, despite its urgency, the speaker dreaded the reply.
"You've never bothered to dig me out before. What's the notion?
I'm nothing to you. You loathe the sight of me."
Burke made a slight gesture as of repudiation, but he expressed no
denial in words. "As to that," he said, "you draw your own
conclusions. I can't discuss anything with you now. The point is,
you are out of that hell for the present, and I'm going to keep you
"You!" There was a note of bitter humour in the word. Guy Ranger
threw back his head as he uttered it, and by the action the
likeness between them was instantly proclaimed. "That's good!" he
scoffed. "You--the man who first showed me the gates of hell--to
take upon yourself to pose as deliverer! And for whose benefit, if
one might ask? Your own--or mine?"
His ashen face with the light upon it was still boyish despite the
stamp of torment that it bore. Through all the furnace of his
degradation his youth yet clung to him like an impalpable veil that
no suffering could rend or destroy.
Burke suddenly abandoned his attitude of gaoler and took him by the
shoulder. "Don't be a fool!" he said again, but he said it gently.
"I mean what I say. It's a way I've got. This isn't the time for
explanations, but I'm out to help you. Even you will admit that
you're pretty badly in need of help."
"Oh, damn that!" Recklessly Guy made answer, chafing visibly under
the restraining hold; yet not actually flinging it off. "I know
what I'm doing all right. I shall pull up again presently--before
the final plunge. I'm not going to attempt it before I'm ready.
I've found it doesn't answer."
"You've got to this time," Burke said.
His eyes, grey and indomitable, looked straight into Guy's, and
they held him in spite of himself. Guy quivered and stood still.
"You've got to," he reiterated. "Don't tell me you're enjoying
yourself barkeeping at Hoffstein's! I've known you too long to
swallow it. It just won't go down."
"It's preferable to doing the white nigger on your blasted farm!"
flashed back Guy. "Starvation's better than that!"
"Thank you," said Burke. He did not flinch at the straight hit,
but his mouth hardened. "I see your point of view of course.
Perhaps it's beside the mark to remind you that you might have been
a partner if you'd only played a decent game. I wanted a partner
An odd spasm crossed Guy's face. "Yes. You didn't let me into
that secret, did you, till I'd been weighed in the balances and
found wanting? You were too damned cautious to commit yourself.
And you've congratulated yourself on your marvellous discretion
ever since, I'll lay a wager. You hide-bound, self-righteous prigs
always do. Nothing would ever make you see that it's just your
beastly discretion that does the mischief,--your infernal,
complacent virtue that breeds the vice you so deplore!" He broke
into a harsh laugh that ended in a sharp catch of the breath that
bent him suddenly double.
Burke's hand went swiftly from his shoulder to his elbow. He led
him to a chair. "Sit down!" he said. "You've got beyond yourself.
I'm going to get you a drink, and then you'll go to bed."
Guy sat crumpled down in the chair like an empty sack. His head
was on his clenched hands. He swayed as if in pain.
Burke stood looking down at him for a moment or two. Then he
turned and went away, leaving the door ajar behind him.
When he came back, Guy was on his feet again, prowling uneasily up
and down, but he had not crossed the threshold. He gave him that
furtive, hunted look again as he entered.
"What dope is that? Not the genuine article I'll wager my soul!"
"It is the genuine article," Burke said. "Drink it, and go to bed!"
But Guy stood before him with his hands at his sides. The
smouldering fire in his eyes was leaping higher and higher.
"What's the game?" he said. "Is it a damned ruse to get me into
Burke set down the glass he carried, and turned full upon him.
There was that about him that compelled the younger man to meet his
look. They stood face to face.
"You are in my power," he said with stern insistence. "I've borne
with you because I didn't want to use force. But--I can use force.
Don't forget that!"
Guy made a sharp movement--the movement of the trapped creature.
Beneath Burke's unsparing regard his eyes fell. In a moment he
turned aside, and muttering below his breath he took up the glass
on the table. For a second or two he stood staring at it, then
lifted it as if to drink, but in an instant changed his purpose and
with a snarling laugh swung back and flung glass and contents
straight at Burke's grim face.
What followed was of so swift and so deadly a nature as to possess
something of the quality of a whirlwind. Almost before the glass
lay in shivered fragments on the floor, Guy was on his knees and
being forced backwards till his head and shoulders touched the
boards. And above him, terrible with awful intention, was Burke's
face, gashed open across the chin and dripping blood upon his own.
The fight went out of Guy then like an extinguished flame. With
gasping incoherence he begged for mercy.
"You're hurting me infernally! Man, let me up! I've been--I've
been--a damn' fool! Didn't know--didn't realize! Burke--for
heaven's sake--don't torture me!"
"Be still!" Burke said. "Or I'll murder you!"
His voice was low and furious, his hold without mercy. Yet, after
a few seconds he mastered his own violence, realizing that all
resistance in the man under him was broken. In a silence that was
more appalling than speech he got to his feet, releasing him.
Guy rolled over sideways and lay with his face on his arms, gasping
painfully. After a pause, Burke turned from him and went to the
The blood continued to now from the wound while he bathed it. The
cut was deep. He managed, however, to staunch it somewhat at
length, and then very steadily he turned back.
"Get up!" he said.
Guy made a convulsive movement in response, but he only half-raised
himself, sinking back immediately with a hard-drawn groan.
Burke bent over him. "Get up!" he said again. "I'll help you."
He took him under the arms and hoisted him slowly up. Guy
blundered to his feet with shuddering effort.
"Now--fire me out!" he said.
But Burke only guided him to the bed. "Sit down!" he said.
Numbly he obeyed. He seemed incapable of doing otherwise. But
when, still with that unwavering steadiness of purpose, Burke
stooped and began to unfasten the straps of his gaiters, he
suddenly cried out as if he had been struck unawares in a vital
"No--no--no! I'm damned--I'm damned if you shall! Burke--stop, do
you hear? Burke!"
"Be quiet!" Burke said.
But Guy flung himself forward, preventing him. They looked into
one another's eyes for a tense interval, then, as the blood began
to trickle down his chin again, Burke released himself.
In the same moment, Guy covered his face and burst into agonized
sobbing most terrible to hear.
Burke stood up again. Somehow all the hardness had gone out of him
though the resolution remained. He put a hand on Guy's shoulder,
and gently shook him.
"Don't do it, boy! Don't do it! Pull yourself together for
heaven's sake! Drink--do anything--but this! You'll want to shoot
But Guy was utterly broken, his self-control beyond recovery. The
only response he made was to feel for and blindly grip the hand
that held him.
So for a space they remained, while the anguish possessed him and
slowly passed. Then, with the quiescence of complete exhaustion,
he suffered Burke's ministrations in utter silence.
Half-an hour later he lay in a dead sleep, motionless as a stone
image, while the man who dragged him from his hell rested upon two
chairs and grimly reviewed the problem which he had created for
himself. There was no denying the fact that young Guy had been a
thorn in his side almost ever since his arrival in the country.
The pity of it was that he possessed such qualities as should have
lifted him far above the crowd. He had courage, he had resource.
Upon occasion he was even brilliant. But ever the fatal handicap
existed that had pulled him down. He lacked moral strength, the
power to resist temptation. As long as he lived, this infirmity of
character would dog his steps, would ruin his every enterprise.
And Burke, whose stubborn force made him instinctively impatient of
such weakness, lay and contemplated the future with bitter
There had been a time when he had thought to rectify the evil, to
save Guy from himself, to implant in him something of that moral
fibre which he so grievously lacked. But he had been forced long
since to recognize his own limitations in this respect. Guy was
fundamentally wanting in that strength which was so essentially a
part of his own character, and he had been compelled at last to
admit that no outside influence could supply the want. He had come
very reluctantly to realize that no faith could be reposed in him,
and when that conviction had taken final hold upon him, Burke had
relinquished the struggle in disgust.
Yet, curiously, behind all his disappointment, even contempt, there
yet lurked in his soul an odd liking for the young man. Guy was
most strangely likable, however deep he sank. Unstable,
unreliable, wholly outside the pale as he was, yet there ever hung
about him a nameless, indescribable fascination which redeemed him
from utter degradation, a charm which very curiously kept him from
being classed with the swine. There was a natural gameness about
him that men found good. Even at his worst, he was never revolting.
He seemed to Burke a mass of irresponsible inconsistency. He was
full of splendid possibilities that invariably withered ere they
approached fruition. He had come to regard him as a born failure,
and though for Sylvia's sake he had made this final effort, he had
small faith in its success. Only she was so hard to resist, that
frank-eyed, earnest young partner of his. She was so unutterably
dear in all her ways. How could he hear the tremor of her pleading
voice and refuse her?
The memory of her came over him like a warm soft wave. He felt
again the quick pressure of her arm about his neck, the fleeting
sweetness of her kiss. How had he kept himself from catching her
to his heart in that moment, and holding her there while he drank
his fill of the cup she had so shyly proffered? How had he ever
suffered her to flit from him down the rough _kopje_ and turn at
the bottom with the old intangible shield uplifted between them?
The blood raced in his veins. He clenched his hands in impotent
self-contempt. And yet at the back of his man's soul he knew that
by that very forbearance his every natural impulse condemned, he
had strengthened his position, he had laid the foundation-stone of
a fabric that would endure against storm and tempest. The house
that he would build would be an abiding-place--no swiftly raised
tent upon the sand. It would take time to build it, infinite care,
possibly untold sacrifice. But when built, it would be absolutely
solid, proof for all time against every wind that blew. For every
stone would be laid with care and made fast with the cement that is
indestructible. And it would be founded upon a rock.
So, as at last he drifted into sleep, Guy lying in a deathlike
immobility by his side, there came to him the conviction that what
he had done had been well done, done in a good cause, and
acceptable to the Master Builder at Whose Behest he was vaguely
conscious that all great things are achieved.
When the morning broke upon Blue Hill Farm the sand-storm had blown
itself out. With brazen splendour the sun arose to burn the
parched earth anew, but Sylvia was before it. With the help of
Fair Rosamond and, Joe, the boy, she was preparing a small wooden
hut close by for the reception of a guest. He should not go back
to that wretched cabin on the sand if she could prevent it. He
should be treated with honour. He should be made to feel that to
her--and to Burke--his welfare was a matter of importance.
She longed to know how Burke had fared upon his quest. She
yearned, even while she dreaded, to see the face which once had
been all the world to her. That he had ceased to fill her world
was a fact that she frankly admitted to herself just as she
realized that she felt no bitterness towards this man who had so
miserably failed her. Her whole heart now was set upon drawing him
back from the evil paths down which he had strayed. When that was
done, when Guy was saved from the awful destruction that menaced
him, then there might come time for other thoughts, other
interests. Since Burke had acceded to her urgent request so
obviously against his will, her feelings had changed towards him.
A warmth of gratitude had filled her, It had been so fine of him to
yield to her like that.
But somehow she could not suffer her thoughts to dwell upon Burke
just then. Always something held her back, restraining her,
filling her with a strange throbbing agitation that she herself
must check, lest it should overwhelm her. Instinctively, almost
with a sense of self-preservation, she turned her mind away from
him. And she was too busy--much too busy--to sit and dream.
When the noon-day heat waxed fierce, she had to rest, though it
required her utmost strength of will to keep herself quiet, lying
listening with straining ears to the endless whirring of countless
insects in the silence of the _veldt_.
It was with unspeakable relief that she arose from this enforced
inactivity and, as evening drew on, resumed her work. She was
determined that Guy should be comfortable when he came. She knew
that it was more than possible that he would not come that day, but
she could not leave anything unfinished. It was so important that
he should realize his welcome from the very first moment of arrival.
All was finished at last even to her satisfaction. She stood alone
in the rough hut that she had turned into as dainty a guest-chamber
as her woman's ingenuity could devise, and breathed a sigh of
contentment, feeling that she had not worked in vain. Surely he
would feel at home here! Surely, even though through his weakness
they had had to readjust both their lives, by love and patience a
place of healing might be found. It was impossible to analyze her
feelings towards him, but she was full of hope. Again she fell to
wondering how Burke had fared.
At sunset she went out and saddled the horse he had given her as a
wedding-present, Diamond, a powerful animal, black save for a white
mark on his head from which he derived his name. She and Diamond
were close friends, and in his company her acute restlessness began
to subside. She rode him out to the _kopje_, but she did not go
round to view the lonely cabin above the stony watercourse. She
did not want to think of past troubles, only to cherish the hope
for the future that was springing in her heart.
She was physically tired, but Diamond seemed to understand, and
gave her no trouble. For awhile they wandered in the sunset light,
she with her face to the sky and the wonderful mauve streamers of
cloud that spread towards her from the west. Then, as the light
faded, she rode across the open _veldt_ to the rough road by which
they must come.
It wound away into the gathering dusk where no lights gleamed, and
a strong sense of desolation came to her, as it were, out of the
desert and gripped her soul. For the first time she looked forward
None came along the lonely track. She heard no sound of hoofs.
She tried to whistle a tune to keep herself cheery, but very soon
it failed. The silent immensity of the _veldt_ enveloped her. She
had a forlorn feeling of being the only living being in all that
vastness, except for a small uneasy spirit out of the great
solitudes that wandered to and fro and sometimes fanned her with an
icy breath that made her start and shiver.
She turned her horse's head at last. "Come, Diamond, we'll go
The word slipped from her unawares, but the moment she had uttered
it she remembered, and a warm flush mounted in her cheeks. Was it
really home to her--that abode in the wilderness to which Burke
Ranger had brought her? Had she come already to regard it as she
had once regarded that dear home of her childhood from which she
had been so cruelly ousted?
The thought of the old home went through her with a momentary pang.
Did her father ever think of her now, she wondered? Was he happy
himself? She had written to him after her marriage to Burke,
telling him all the circumstances thereof. It had been a difficult
letter to write. She had not dwelt overmuch upon Guy's part
because she could not bring herself to do so. But she had tried to
make the position intelligible to him, and she hoped she had
But no answer had come to her. Since leaving England, she had
received letters from one or two friends, but not one from her old
home. It was as if she had entered another world. Already she had
grown so accustomed to it that she felt as if she had known it for
years. And she had no desire to return. The thought of the summer
gaieties she was foregoing inspired her with no regret. Isolated
though she was, she was not unhappy. She had only just begun to
realize it, and not yet could she ask herself wherefore.
A distinct chill began to creep round her with the approach of
night. She lifted the bridle, and Diamond broke into a trot. Back
to Blue Hill Farm they went, leaving the silence and the loneliness
behind them as they drew near. Mary Ann was scolding the girl from
the open door of the kitchen. Her shrill vituperations banished
all retrospection from Sylvia's mind. She found herself laughing
as she slipped to the ground and handed the horse over to Joe.
Then she went within, calling to the girl to light the lamps.
There was still mending to be done in Burke's wardrobe. She
possessed herself of some socks, and went to their sitting-room.
Her former restlessness was returning, but she resolutely put it
from her, and for more than an hour she worked steadily at her
task. Then, the socks finished, she took up a book on
cattle-raising and tried to absorb herself in its pages.
She soon realized, however, that this was quite hopeless, and, at
last, in desperation she flung on a cloak and went outside. The
night was still, the sky a wonderland of stars. She paced to and
fro with her face uplifted to the splendour for a long, long time.
And still there came no sound of hoofs along the lonely track.
Gradually she awoke to the fact that she was getting very tired.
She began to tell herself that she had been too hopeful. They
would not come that night.
Her knees were getting shaky, and she went indoors. A cold supper
had been spread. She sat down and partook of food, scarcely
realizing what she ate. Then, reviving, she rallied herself on her
foolishness. Of course they would not come that night. She had
expected too much, had worn herself out to no purpose. She
summoned her common sense to combat her disappointment, and
commanded herself sternly to go to bed before exhaustion overtook
her. She had behaved like a positive idiot. It was high time she
pulled herself together.
It was certainly growing late. Mary Ann and her satellites had
already retired to their own quarters some little distance from the
bungalow. She was quite alone in the eerie silence. Obviously,
bed was the only place if she did not mean to sit and shiver with
sheer nervousness. Stoutly she collected her mental forces and
retreated to her room. She was so tired that she knew she would
sleep if she could control her imagination.
This she steadfastly set herself to do, with the result that sleep
came to her at last, and in her weariness she sank into a deep
slumber that, undisturbed by any outside influence, would have
lasted throughout the night. She had left a lamp burning in the
sitting-room that adjoined her bedroom, and the door between ajar,
so that she was not lying in complete darkness. She had done the
same the previous night, and had felt no serious qualms. The light
scarcely reached her, but it was a comfort to see it at hand when
she opened her eyes. It gave her a sense of security, and she
slept the more easily because of it.
So for an hour or more she lay in unbroken slumber; then, like a
cloud arising out of her sea of oblivion, there came to her again
that dream of two horsemen galloping. It was a terrible dream, all
the more terrible because she knew so well what was coming. Only
this time, instead of the ledge along the ravine, she saw them
clearly outlined against the sky, racing from opposite directions
along a knife-edge path that stood up, sharp and jagged, between
With caught breath she stood apart and watched in anguished
expectation, watched as if held by some unseen force, till there
came the inevitable crash, the terrible confusion of figures locked
in deadly combat, and then the hurtling fall of a single horseman
down that frightful wall of rock. His face gleamed white for an
instant, and then was gone. Was it Guy? Was it Burke? She knew
not. . . .
It was then that strength returned to her, and she sprang up,
crying wildly, every pulse alert and pricking her to action. She
fled across the room, instinctively seeking the light, stumbled on
the threshold, and fell headlong into the arms of a man who stood
just beyond. They closed upon her instantly, supporting her. She
lay, gasping hysterically, against his breast.
"Easy! Easy!" he said. "Did I startle you?"
It was Burke's voice, very deep and low. She felt the steady beat
of his heart as he held her.
Her senses returned to her and with them an overwhelming
embarrassment that made her swiftly withdraw herself from him. He
let her go, and she retreated into the darkness behind her.
"What is it, partner?" he said gently. "You've nothing to be
There was no reproach in his voice, yet something within reproached
her instantly. She put on slippers and dressing-gown and went back
"I've had a stupid dream," she said. "I expect I heard your horse
outside. So--you have come back alone!"
"He has gone back to his own cabin," Burke said.
"Burke!" She looked at him with startled, reproachful eyes. Her
hair lay in a fiery cloud about her shoulders, and fire burned in
her gaze as she faced him.
He made a curious gesture as if he restrained some urging impulse,
not speaking for a moment. When his voice came again it sounded
cold, with an odd note of defiance. "I've done my best."
She still looked at him searchingly. "Why wouldn't he come here?"
He turned from her with a movement that almost seemed to indicate
impatience "He preferred not to. There isn't much accommodation
here. Besides, he can very well fend for himself. He's used to
"I have been preparing for him all day," Sylvia said. She looked
at him anxiously, struck by something unusual in his pose, and
noted for the first time a wide strip of plaster on one side of his
chin. "Is all well?" she questioned. "How have you hurt your
He did not look at her. "Yes, all's well," he said. "I cut
myself--shaving. You go back to bed! I'm going to refresh before
I turn in."
Sylvia turned to a cupboard in the room where she had placed some
eatables before retiring. She felt chill with foreboding. What
was it that Burke was hiding behind that curt manner? She was sure
there was something.
"What will Guy do for refreshment?" she said, as she set dishes and
plates upon the table.
"He'll have some tinned stuff in that shanty of his," said Burke.
She turned from the table with abrupt resolution. "Have something
to eat, partner," she said, "and then tell me all about it!"
She looked for the sudden gleam of his smile, but she looked in
vain. He regarded her, indeed, but it was with sombre eyes.
"You go back to bed!" he reiterated. "There is no necessity for
you to stay up. You can see him for yourself in the morning."
He would have seated himself at the table with the words, but she
laid a quick, appealing hand upon his arm, deterring him. "Burke!"
she said. "What is the matter? Please tell me!"
She felt his arm grow rigid under her fingers. And then with a
suddenness that electrified her he moved, caught her by the wrists
and drew her to him, locking her close.
"You witch!" he said. "You--enchantress! How shall I resist you?"
She uttered a startled gasp; there was no time for more ere his
lips met hers in a kiss so burning, so compelling, that it reft
from her all power of resistance. One glimpse she had of his eyes,
and it was as if she looked into the deep, deep heart of the fire
She wanted to cry out, so terrible was the sight, but his lips
sealed her own. She lay helpless in his hold.
Afterwards she realized that she must have been near to fainting,
for when at the end of those wild moments of passion he let her go,
her knees gave way beneath her and she could not stand. Yet
instinctively she gripped her courage with both hands. He had
startled her, appalled her even, but there was a fighting strain in
Sylvia, and she flung dismay away. She held his arm in a quivering
grasp. She smiled a quivering smile. And these were the bravest
acts she had ever forced herself to perform.
"You've done it now, partner!" she said shakily. "I'm
"Sylvia!" he said.
Amazement, contrition, and even a curious dash of awe, were in his
voice. He put his arm about her, supporting her.
She leaned against him, panting, her face downcast. "It's--all
right," she told him. "I told you you might sometimes, didn't I?
Only--you--were a little sudden, and I wasn't prepared. I believe
you've been having a rotten time. Sit down now, and have something
But he did not move though there was no longer violence in his
hold. He spoke deeply, above her bent head. "I can't stand this
farce much longer. I'm only human after all, and there is a limit
to everything. I can't keep at arm's length for ever. Flesh and
blood won't bear it."
She did not lift her head, but stood silent within the circle of
his arm. It was as if she waited for something. Then, after a
moment or two, she began to rub his sleeve lightly up and down, her
hand not very steady.
"You're played out, partner," she said. "Don't let's discuss
things to-night! They are sure to look different in the morning."
"And if they don't?" said Burke.
She glanced up at him with again that little quivering smile.
"Well, then, we'll talk," she said, "till we come to an
He put his hand on her shoulder. "Sylvia, don't--play with me!" he
His tone was quiet, but it held a warning that brought her eyes to
his in a flash. She stood so for a few seconds, facing him, and
her breast heaved once or twice as if breathing had become
At last, "There was no need to say that to me, partner," she said,
in a choked voice. "You don't know me--even as well as--as you
might--if you--if you took the trouble." She paused a moment, and
put her hand to her throat. Her eyes were full of tears. "And
now--good night!" she said abruptly.
Her tone was a command. He let her go, and in an instant the door
had closed between them. He stood motionless, waiting tensely for
the shooting of the bolt; but it did not come. He only heard
instead a faint sound of smothered sobbing.
For a space he stood listening, his face drawn into deep lines, his
hands hard clenched. Then at length with a bitter gesture he
flung himself down at the table.
He was still sitting motionless a quarter of an hour later, the
food untouched before him, when the intervening door opened
suddenly and silently, and like a swooping bird Sylvia came swiftly
behind him and laid her two hands on his shoulders.
"Partner dear, I've been a big idiot. Will you forgive me?" she
Her voice was tremulous. It still held a sound of tears. She
tried to keep out of his sight as he turned in his chair.
"Don't--don't stare at me!" she said, and slipped coaxing arms that
trembled round his neck, locking her hands tightly in front of him.
"You hurt me a bit--though I don't think you meant to. And now
I've hurt you--quite a lot. I didn't mean it either, partner. So
let's cry quits! I've forgiven you. Will you try to forgive me?"
He sat quite still for a few seconds, and in the silence shyly she
laid her cheek down against the back of his head. He moved then,
and very gently clasped the trembling hands that bound him. But
still he did not speak.
"Say it's all right!" she urged softly. "Say you're not cross
"I'm not," said Burke very firmly.
"And don't--don't ever think I want to play with you!" she pursued,
a catch in her voice. "That's not me, partner. I'm sorry I'm so
very unsatisfactory. But--anyhow that's not the reason."
"I know the reason," said Burke quietly.
"You don't," she rejoined instantly. "But never mind that now!
You don't know anything whatever about me, partner. I can't say I
even know myself very intimately just now. I feel as if--as if
I've been blindfolded, and I can't see anything at all just yet.
So will you try to be patient with me? Will you--will you--go on
being a pal to me till the bandage comes off again? I--want a
pal--rather badly, partner."
Her pleading voice came muffled against him. She was clinging to
him very tightly. He could feel her fingers straining upon each
other. He stroked them gently.
"All right, little girl. All right," he said.
His tone must have reassured her, for she slipped round and knelt
beside him. "I'd like you to kiss me," she said, and lifted a pale
face and tear-bright eyes to his,
He took her head between his hands, and she saw that he was moved.
He bent in silence, and would have kissed her brow, but she raised
her lips instead. And shyly she returned his kiss.
"You're so--good to me," she said, in a whisper. "Thank you--so
He said no word in answer. Mutely he let her go.
When Sylvia met her husband again, it was as if they had never been
parted or any cloud arisen to disturb the old frank comradeship.
They breakfasted at daybreak before riding out over the lands, and
their greeting was of the most commonplace description. Later, as
they rode together across the barren _veldt_, Burke told her a
little of his finding of Guy at Brennerstadt. He did not dwell
upon any details, but by much that he left unsaid Sylvia gathered
that the task had not been easy.
"He knows about--me?" she ventured presently, with hesitation.
"Yes," Burke said.
"Was he--surprised?" she asked.
"No. He knew long ago."
She asked no more. It had been difficult enough to ask so much.
And she would soon see Guy for herself. She would not admit even
to her own secret soul how greatly she was dreading that meeting
now that it was so near.
Perhaps Burke divined something of her feeling in the matter,
however, for at the end of a prolonged silence he said, "I thought
I would fetch him over to lunch,--unless you prefer to ride round
that way first."
"Oh, thank you," she said. "That is good of you."
As they reached the bungalow, she turned to him with a sudden
question. "Burke, you didn't--really--cut your chin so badly
shaving. Did you?"
She met the swift flash of his eyes without trepidation, refusing
to be intimidated by the obvious fact that the question was
"Did you?" she repeated with insistence. He uttered a brief laugh.
"All right, I didn't. And that's all there is to it."
"Thank you, partner," she returned with spirit, and changed the
subject. But her heart had given a little throb of dismay within
her. Full well she knew the reason of his reticence.
They parted before the _stoep_, he leading her animal away, she
going within to attend to the many duties of her household.
She filled her thoughts with these resolutely during the morning,
but in spite of this it was the longest morning she had ever known.
She was at length restlessly superintending the laying of lunch
when Joe hurried in with the news that a _baas_ was waiting on the
_stoep_ round the corner to see her. The news startled her. She
had heard no sounds of arrival, nor had Burke returned. For a few
moments she was conscious of a longing to escape that was almost
beyond her, control, then with a sharp effort she commanded herself
and went out.
Turning the corner of the bungalow, she came upon him very
suddenly, standing upright against one of the pillar-supports,
awaiting her. He was alone, and a little throb of thankfulness
went through her that this was so. She knew in that moment that
she could not have borne to meet him for the first time in Burke's
She was trembling as she went forward, but the instant their hands
met her agitation fell away from her, for she suddenly realized
that he was trembling also.
No conventional words came to her lips. How could she ever be
conventional with Guy? And it was Guy--Guy in the flesh--who stood
before her, so little altered in appearance from the Guy she had
known five years before that the thought flashed through her mind
that he looked only as if he had come through a sharp illness. She
had expected far worse, though she realized now what Burke had
meant when he had said that whatever resemblance had once existed
between them, they were now no longer alike. He had not developed
as she had expected. In Burke, she seemed to see the promise of
Guy's youth. But Guy himself had not fulfilled that promise. He
had degenerated. He had proved himself a failure. And yet he did
not look coarsened or hardened by vice. He only looked, to her
pitiful, inexperienced eyes, as if he had been ravaged by some
sickness, as if he had suffered intensely and were doomed to suffer
as long as he lived.
That was the first impression she received of him, and it was that
that made her clasp his hand in both her own and hold it fast.
"Oh, Guy!" she said. "How ill you look!"
His fingers closed hard upon hers. He did not attempt to meet her
earnest gaze. "So you got married to Burke!" he said, ignoring her
exclamation. "It was the best thing you could do. He may not be
exactly showy, but he's respectable. I wonder you want to speak to
me after the way I let you down."
The words were cool, almost casual; yet his hand still held hers in
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