The Top of the World
Ethel M. Dell
Part 5 out of 8
enjoying the Garden of Eden, Mrs. Ranger?"
Sylvia, white and tired after her ride, tried to smile in answer
and failed. "I shall be glad when the winter is over," she said.
Mrs. Merston's colourless eyes narrowed a little, taking her in.
"You don't look so blooming as you did," she remarked. "I hear you
have had Guy Ranger on your hands."
"Yes," Sylvia said, and coloured a little in spite of herself.
"What has been the matter with him?" demanded Mrs. Merston.
Sylvia hesitated, and in a moment the older woman broke into a
"Oh, you needn't trouble to dress it up in polite language. I know
the malady he suffers from. But I wonder Burke would allow you to
have anything to do with it. He has a reputation for being rather
"He is particular," Sylvia said.
Somehow she could not bring herself to tell Mrs. Merston the actual
cause of Guy's illness. She did not want to talk of it. But Mrs.
Merston was difficult to silence.
"Is it true that that scoundrel Kieff has been staying at Blue Hill
Farm?" she asked next, still closely observant of her visitor's
Sylvia looked at her with a touch of animation. "I wonder why
everyone calls him that," she said. "Yes, he has been with us. He
is a doctor, a very clever one. I never liked him very much, but I
often wondered what he had done to be called that."
"Oh, I only know what they say," said Mrs. Merston. "I imagine he
was in a large measure responsible for young Ranger's fall from
virtue in the first place--and that of a good many besides. He's
something of a vampire, so they say. There are plenty of them
about in this charming country."
"How horrible!" murmured Sylvia, with a slight shudder as a vision
of the motionless, onyx eyes which had so often watched her rose in
"You're looking quite worn out," remarked Mrs. Merston. "Why did
you let your husband drag you over here? You had better stay the
night and have a rest."
But Sylvia hastened to decline this invitation with much decision.
"I couldn't possibly do that, thank you. There is so much to be
seen to at home. It is very kind of you, but please don't suggest
it to Burke!"
Mrs. Merston gave her an odd look. "Do you always do as your
husband tells you!" she said. "What a mistake!"
Sylvia blushed very deeply. "I think--one ought," she said in a
"How old-fashioned of you!" said Mrs. Merston. "I don't indulge
mine to that extent. Are you going to Brennerstadt for the races
next month? Or has the oracle decreed that you are to stay behind?"
"I don't know. I didn't know there were any." Sylvia looked out
through the mauve-coloured twilight to where Burke stood talking
with Merston by one of the hideous corrugated iron cattle-sheds.
The Merstons' farm certainly did not compare favourably with
Burke's. She could not actively condemn Mrs. Merston's obvious
distaste for all that life held for her. So far as she could see,
there was not a tree on the place, only the horrible prickly pear
bushes thrusting out their distorted arms as if exulting in their
They had had their tea in front of the bungalow, if it could be
dignified by such a name. It was certainly scarcely more than an
iron shed, and the heat within during the day was, she could well
imagine, almost unbearable. It was time to be starting back, and
she wished Burke would come. Her hostess's scoffing reference to
him made her long to get away. Politeness, however, forbade her
summarily to drop the subject just started.
"Do you go to Brennerstadt for the races?" she asked.
"I?" said Mrs. Merston, and laughed again her caustic, mirthless
laugh. "No! My acquaintance with Brennerstadt is of a less
amusing nature. When I go there, I merely go to be ill, and as
soon as I am partially recovered, I come back--to this." There was
inexpressible bitterness in her voice. "Some day," she said, '"I
shall go there to die. That is all I have to look forward to now."
"Oh, don't!" Sylvia said, with quick feeling. "Don't, please! You
shouldn't feel like that."
Mrs. Merston's face was twisted in a painful smile. She looked
into the girl's face with a kind of cynical pity. "You will come
to it," she said. "Life isn't what it was to you even now. You're
beginning to feel the thorns under the rose-leaves. Of course you
may be lucky. You may bear children, and that will be your
salvation. But if you don't--if you don't----"
"Please!" whispered Sylvia. "Please don't say that to me!"
The words were almost inarticulate. She got up as she uttered them
and moved away. Mrs. Merston looked after her, and very strangely
her face altered. Something of that mother-love in her which had
so long been cheated showed in her lustreless eyes.
"Oh, poor child!" she said. "I am sorry."
It was briefly spoken. She was ever brief in her rare moments of
emotion. But there was a throb of feeling in the words that
reached Sylvia. She turned impulsively back again.
"Thank you," she said, and there were tears in her eyes as she
spoke. "I think perhaps--" her utterance came with an effort "--my
life is--in its way--almost as difficult as yours. That ought to
make us comrades, oughtn't it? If ever there is anything I can do
to help you, please tell me!"
"Let it be a mutual understanding!" said Mrs. Merston, and to
Sylvia's surprise she took and pressed her hand for a moment.
There was more comfort in that simple pressure than Sylvia could
have believed possible. She returned it with that quick warmth of
hers which never failed to respond to kindness, and in that second
the seed of friendship was sown upon fruitful ground.
The moment passed, sped by Mrs. Merston who seemed half-afraid of
her own action.
"You must get your husband to take you to Brennerstadt for the
races," she said. "It would make a change for you. It's a shame
for a girl of your age to be buried in the wilderness."
"I really haven't begun to be dull yet," Sylvia said.
"No, perhaps not. But you'll get nervy and unhappy. You've been
used to society, and it isn't good for you to go without it
entirely. Look at me!" said Mrs. Merston, with her short laugh.
"And take warning!"
The two men were sauntering towards them, and they moved to meet
them. Far down in the east an almost unbelievably huge moon hung
like a brazen shield. The mauve of the sunset had faded to pearl.
"It is rather a beautiful world, isn't it?" Sylvia said a little
"To the favoured few--yes," said Mrs. Merston.
Sylvia gave her a quick glance. "I read somewhere--I don't know if
it's true--that we are all given the ingredients of happiness, but
the mixing is left to ourselves. Perhaps you and I haven't found
the right mixture yet."
"Ah!" said Mrs. Merston. "Perhaps not."
"I'm going to have another try," said Sylvia, with sudden energy.
"I wish you luck," said Mrs. Merston somewhat grimly.
From the day of her visit to the Merstons Sylvia took up her old
life again, and pursued all her old vocations with a vigour that
seemed even more enthusiastic than of yore. Her ministrations to
Guy had ceased to be of an arduous character, or indeed to occupy
much of her time. It was mainly Burke who filled Kieff's place and
looked after Guy generally with a quiet efficiency that never
encouraged any indulgence. They seemed to be good friends, yet
Sylvia often wondered with a dull ache at the heart if this were
any more than seeming. There was so slight a show of intimacy
between them, so little of that camaraderie generally so noticeable
between dwellers in the wilderness. Sometimes she fancied she
caught a mocking light in Guy's eyes when they looked at Burke. He
was always perfectly docile under his management, but was he always
genuine? She could not tell. His recovery amazed her. He seemed
to possess an almost boundless store of vitality. He cast his
weakness from him with careless jesting, laughing down all her
fears. She knew well that he was not so strong as he would have
had her believe, that he fought down his demon of suffering in
solitude, that often he paid heavily for deeds of recklessness.
But the fact remained that he had come back from the gates of
death, and each day she marvelled anew.
She and Burke seldom spoke of him when together. That intangible
reserve that had grown up between them seemed to make it
impossible. She had no longer the faintest idea as to Burke's
opinion of the returned prodigal, whether he still entertained his
previous conviction that Guy was beyond help, or whether he had
begun at length to have any confidence for the future. In a vague
fashion his reticence hurt her, but she could not bring herself to
attempt to break through it. He was a man perpetually watching for
something, and it made her uneasy and doubtful, though for what he
watched she had no notion. For it was upon herself rather than
upon Guy that his attention seemed to be concentrated. His
attitude puzzled her. She felt curiously like a prisoner, though
to neither word, nor look, nor deed could she ascribe the feeling.
She was even at times disposed to put it down to the effect of the
weather upon her physically. It did undoubtedly try her very
severely. Though the exercise that she compelled herself to take
had restored to her the power to sleep, she always felt as weary
when she arose as when she lay down. The heat and the drought
combined to wear her out. Valiantly though she struggled to rally
her flagging energies, the effort became increasingly difficult.
She lived in the depths of a great depression, against which,
strive as she might, she ever strove in vain. She was furious with
herself for her failure, but it pursued her relentlessly. She
found the Kaffir servants more than usually idle and difficult to
deal with, and this added yet further to the burden that weighed
One day, returning from a ride to find Fair Rosamond swabbing the
floor of the _stoep_ with her bath-sponge, she lost her temper
completely and wholly unexpectedly, and cut the girl across her
naked shoulders with her riding-switch. It was done in a moment--a
single, desperate moment of unbearable exasperation. Rosamond
screamed and fled, upsetting her pail inadvertently over her
mistress's feet as she went. And Sylvia, with a burning sense of
shame for her violence, retreated as precipitately to her own room.
She entered by the window, and, not even noticing that the door
into the sitting-room stood ajar, flung herself down by the table
in a convulsion of tears. She hated herself for her action, she
hated Rosamond for having been the cause of it. She hated the
blazing sky and the parched earth, the barren _veldt_, the
imprisoning _kopjes_, the hopeless sense of oppression, of being
always somehow in the wrong. A wild longing to escape was upon
her, to go anywhere--anywhere, so long as she could get right away
from that intolerable weight of misgiving, doubt, dissatisfaction,
foreboding, that hung like a galling chain upon her.
She was getting like Mrs. Merston, she told herself passionately.
Already her youth had gone, and all that made life worth living was
going with it. She had made her desperate bid for happiness, and
she had lost. And Burke--Burke was only watching for her hour of
weakness to make himself even more completely her master than he
was already. Had he not only that morning--only that
morning--gruffly ordered her back from a distant cattle-run that
she had desired to inspect? Was he not always asserting his
authority in some fashion over her, crumbling away her resistance
piece by piece till at last he could stride in all-conquering and
take possession? He was always so strong, so horribly strong, so
sure of himself. And though it had pleased him to be generous in
his dealings with her, she had seen far less of that generosity
since Guy's recovery. They were partners no longer, she told
herself bitterly. That farce was ended. Perhaps it was her own
fault. Everything seemed to be her fault nowadays. She had not
played her cards well during Guy's illness. Somehow she had not
felt a free agent. It was Kieff who had played the cards, had
involved her in such difficulties as she had never before
encountered, and then had left her perforce to extricate herself
alone; to extricate herself--or to pay the price. She seemed to
have been struggling against overwhelming odds ever since. She had
fought with all her strength to win back to the old freedom, but
she had failed. And in that dark hour she told herself that
freedom was not for her. She was destined to be a slave for the
rest of her life.
The wild paroxysm of crying could not last. Already she was
beginning to be ashamed of her weakness. And ere long she would
have to face Burke. The thought of that steady, probing look made
her shrink in every fibre. Was there anything that those shrewd
eyes did not see?
What was that? She started at a sound. Surely he had not returned
For a second there was something very like panic at her heart.
Then, bracing herself, she lifted her head, and saw Guy.
He had entered by the sitting-room door and in his slippers she had
not heard him till he was close to her. He was already bending
over her when she realized his presence.
She put up a quick hand. "Oh, Guy!" she said with a gasp.
He caught and held it in swift response. "My own girl!" he said.
"I heard you crying. I was in my room dressing. What's it all
She could not tell him, the anguish was still too near. She bowed
her head and sat in throbbing silence.
"Look here!" said Guy. "Don't!" He stooped lower over her, his
dark face twitching. "Don't!" he said again. "Life isn't worth
it. Life's too short. Be happy, dear! Be happy!"
He spoke a few words softly against her hair. There was entreaty
in their utterance. It was as if he pleaded for his own self.
She made a little movement as if something had pierced her, and in
a moment she found her voice.
"Life is so--difficult," she said, with a sob.
"You take it too hard," he answered rapidly. "You think too much
of--little things. It isn't the way to be happy. What you ought
to do is to grab the big things while you can, and chuck the little
ones into the gutter. Life's nothing but a farce. It isn't meant
to be taken--really seriously. It isn't long enough for sacrifice.
I tell you, it isn't long enough!"
There was something passionate in the reiterated declaration. The
clasp of his hand was feverish. That strange vitality of his that
had made him defy the death he had courted seemed to vibrate within
him like a stretched wire. His attitude was tense with it. And a
curious thrill went through her, as though there were electricity
in his touch.
She could not argue the matter with him though every instinct told
her he was wrong. She was too overwrought to see things with an
impartial eye. She felt too tired greatly to care.
"I feel," she told him drearily, "as if I want to get away from
everything and everybody."
"Oh no, you don't!" he said. "All you want is to get away from
Burke. That's your trouble--and always will be under present
conditions. Do you think I haven't looked on long enough? Why
don't you go away?"
"Go away!" She looked up at him again, startled.
Guy's sunken eyes were shining with a fierce intensity. They urged
her more poignantly than words. "Don't you see what's going to
happen--if you don't?" he said.
That moved her. She sprang up with a sound that was almost a cry,
and stood facing him, her hand hard pressed against her heart.
"Of course I know he's a wonderful chap and all that," Guy went on.
"But you haven't cheated yourself yet into believing that you care
for him, have you? He isn't the sort to attract any woman at first
sight, and I'll wager he has never made love to you. He's far too
busy with his cattle and his crops. What on earth did you marry
him for? Can't you see that he makes a slave of everyone who comes
But she lifted her head proudly at that. "He has never made a
slave of me," she said.
"He will," Guy rejoined relentlessly. "He'll have you under his
heel before many weeks. You know it in your heart. Why did you
marry him, Sylvia? Tell me why you married him!"
The insistence of the question compelled an answer. Yet she
paused, for it was a question she had never asked herself. Why had
she married Burke indeed? Had it been out of sheer expediency? Or
had there been some deeper and more subtle reason? She knew full
well that there was probably not another man in Africa to whom she
would have thus entrusted herself, however urgent the
circumstances. How was it then that she had accepted Burke?
And then, looking into Guy's tense face, the answer came to her,
and she had uttered it almost before she knew. "I married him
because he was so like you."
The moment she had uttered the words she would have recalled them,
for Guy made an abrupt movement and turned so white that she
thought he would faint. His eyes went beyond her with a strained,
glassy look, and for seconds he stood so, as one gone suddenly
Then with a jerk he pulled himself together, and gave her an odd
smile that somehow cut her to the heart.
"That was a straight hit anyway," he said. "And are you going to
stick to him for the same reason?"
She turned her face away with the feeling of one who dreads to look
upon some grievous hurt. "No," she said, in a low voice. "Only
because--I am his wife."
Guy made a short, contemptuous sound. "And for that you're going
to let him ride rough-shod over you--give him the right to control
your every movement? Oh, forgive me, but you good people hold such
ghastly ideas of right and wrong. And what on earth do you gain by
it all? You sacrifice everything to the future, and the future is
all mirage--all mirage. You'll never get there, never as long as
Again that quick note of passion was in his voice, and she tingled
at the sound, for though she knew so well that he was wrong
something that was quick and passionate within her made instinctive
response. She understood him. Had she not always understood him?
She did not answer him. She had given him her answer. And he,
realizing this turned aside to open the window. Yet, for a moment
he stood looking back at her, and all her life she was to remember
the love and the longing of his eyes. It was as if for that second
a veil had been rent aside, and he had shown her his naked soul.
She wondered afterwards if he had really meant her to see. For
immediately, as he went out, he broke into a careless whistle, and
then, an instant later, she heard him fling a greeting to someone
out in the blinding sunshine.
An answer came back from much nearer than she had anticipated. It
was in the guttural tones of Hans Schafen the overseer, and with a
jerk she remembered that the man always sat on the corner of the
_stoep_ to await Burke if he arrived before their return from the
lands. It was his custom to wear rubber soles to his boots, and no
one ever heard him come or go. For some reason this fact had
always prejudiced her against Hans Schafen.
When Burke came in to lunch half an hour later, he found Sylvia
alone in the sitting-room, laying the cloth.
She glanced up somewhat nervously at his entrance. "I've
frightened Rosamond away," she said.
"Little cuss! Good thing too!" he said. She proceeded rapidly
with her occupation.
"I believe there's a sand-storm coming," she said, after a moment.
"Yes, confound it!"' said Burke.
He went to the window and stood gazing out with drawn brows.
With an effort she broke the silence. "What has Schafen to report?
Is all well?"
He wheeled round abruptly and stood looking at her. For a few
seconds he said nothing whatever, then as with a startled sense of
uncertainty she turned towards him he spoke. "Schafen? Yes, he
reported--several things. The dam over by Ritter Spruit is dried
up for one thing. The animals will all have to driven down here.
Then there have been several bad _veldt_-fires over to the north.
It isn't only sand that's coming along. It's cinders too. We've
got to take steps to protect the fodder, or we're done. It's just
the way of this country. A single night may bring ruin."
He spoke with such unwonted bitterness that Sylvia was aroused out
of her own depression. She had never known him take so pessimistic
a view before. With an impulsiveness that was warm and very
womanly, she left her task and went to him.
"Oh, Burke!" she said. "But the worst doesn't happen, does it?
Anyway not often!"
He made an odd sound that was like a laugh choked at birth. "Not
often," he agreed. And then abruptly, straightening himself,
"Suppose it did,--what then?"
"What then?" She looked at him for a moment, still feeling
curiously unsure of her ground. "Well, we'd weather it somehow,
partner," she said, and held out her hand to him with a little
He made no movement to take her hand. Perhaps he had already heard
what a few seconds later reached her own ears,--the sound of Guy's
feet upon the _stoep_ outside the window. But during those seconds
his eyes dwelt upon her, holding her own with a fixed intentness
that somehow made her feel cold. It was an unspeakable relief to
her when he turned them from her, as it were setting her free.
Guy came in with something of his old free swing, and closed the
window behind him. "Better to stew than to eat sand," he remarked.
"I've just heard from one of the Kaffirs that Piet Vreiboom's land
is on fire."
"What?" said Burke sharply.
"It's all right at present," said Guy. "We can bear it with
equanimity. The wind is the other way."
"The wind may change," said Burke.
"That wouldn't be like your luck," remarked Guy, as he seated
They partook of the meal almost in silence. To Sylvia the very air
was laden with foreboding. Everything they ate was finely powered
with sand, but she alone was apparently aware of the fact. The
heat inside the bungalow was intense. Outside a fierce wind had
begun to blow, and the sky was dark.
At the end of a very few minutes Burke arose. Guy sprang instantly
to his feet.
"Are you off? I'm coming!"
"No--no," Burke said shortly. "Stay where you are!"
"I tell you I'm coming," said Guy, pushing aside his chair.
Burke, already ac the door, paused and looked at him. "Better
not," he said. "You're not up to it--and this infernal sand----"
"Damn the sand!" said Guy, with vehemence. "I'm coming!"
He reached Burke with the words. His hand sought the door. Burke
swallowed the rest of his remonstrance.
"Please yourself!" he said, with a shadowy smile; and then for a
moment his eyes went to Sylvia. "You will stay in this afternoon,"
It was a definite command, and she had no thought of defying it.
But the tone in which it was uttered hurt her.
"I suppose I shall do as I am told," she said, in a low voice.
He let Guy go and returned to her. He bent swiftly down over her
and dropped a small key into her lap. "I leave you in charge of
all that I possess," he said. "Good-bye!"
She looked up at him quickly. "Burke!" she stammered. Burke!
There is no--danger?"
"Probably not of the sort you mean," he answered. And then
suddenly his arms were round her. He held her close and hard. For
a second she felt the strong beat of his heart, and then forgot it
in an overwhelming rush of emotion that so possessed her as almost
to deprive her of her senses. For he kissed her--he kissed
her--and his kiss was as the branding of a hot iron. It seemed to
burn her to the soul.
The next moment she was free; the door closed behind him, and she
was alone. She sank down over the table, quivering all over. Her
pulses were racing, her nerves in a wild tumult. She believed that
the memory of that scorching kiss would tingle upon her lips for
ever. It was as if an electric current had suddenly entered her
inner-most being and now ran riot in every vein. And so wild was
the tumult within her that she knew not whether dread or dismay or
a frantic, surging, leaping thing that seemed to cry aloud for
liberty were first in that mad race. She clasped her hands very
tightly over her face, struggling to master those inner forces that
fought within her. Never in her life had so fierce a conflict torn
her. Soul and body, she seemed to be striving with an adversary
who pierced her at every turn. He had kissed her thus; and in that
unutterable moment he had opened her eyes, confronting her with an
amazing truth from which she could not turn aside. Passion and a
fierce and terrible jealousy had mingled in his kiss, anger also,
and a menacing resentment that seemed to encompass her like a fiery
ring, hedging her round.
But not love! There had been no love in his kiss. It had been an
outrage of love, and it had wounded her to the heart. It had made
her want to hide--to hide--till the first poignancy of the pain
should be past. And yet--and yet--in all her anguish she knew that
the way which Guy had so recklessly suggested was no way of escape
for her. To flee from him was to court disaster--such disaster as
would for ever wreck her chance of happiness. It could but confirm
the evil doubt he harboured and might lead to such a catastrophe as
she would not even contemplate.
But yet some way of escape there must be, and desperately she
sought it, striving in defence of that nameless thing that had
sprung to such wild life within her under the burning pressure of
his lips, that strange and untamed force that she could neither
bind nor subdue, but which to suffer him to behold meant sacrilege
to her shrinking soul--such sacrilege as she believed she could
never face and live.
Gradually the turmoil subsided, but it left her weak, inert,
impotent. The impulse to pray came to her, but the prayer that
went up from her trembling heart was voiceless and wordless. She
had no means of expression in which to cloak her utter need. Only
the stark helplessness of her whole being cried dumbly for
A long time passed. The bungalow was silent and empty. She was
quite alone. She could hear the rising rush of the wind across the
_veldt_, and it sounded to her like a thing hunted and fleeing.
The sand of the desert whipped against the windows, and the gloom
increased. She was not naturally nervous, but a sense of fear
oppressed her. She had that fateful feeling, which sometimes comes
even in the sunshine, of something about to happen, of turning a
sharp corner in the road of life that must change the whole outlook
and trend of existence. She was afraid to look forward. For the
first time life had become terrible to her.
She roused herself to action at last and got up from the table.
Something fell on the ground as she did so. It was the key that
Burke had given into her care. She knew it for the key of his
strong-box in which he kept his money and papers. His journeys to
Brennerstadt were never frequent, and she knew that he usually kept
a considerable sum by him. The box was kept on the floor of the
cupboard in the wall of the room which Guy now occupied. It was
very heavy, so heavy that Burke himself never lifted it, seldom
moved it from its place, but opened and closed it as it stood. She
wondered as she groped for the key why he had given it to her.
That action of his pointed to but one conclusion. He expected to
be going into danger. He would not have parted with it otherwise.
Of that she was certain. He and Guy were both going into danger
then, and she was left in utter solitude to endure her suspense as
best she could.
She searched in vain for the key. It was small and made to fit a
patent lock. The darkness of the room baffled her search, and at
last she abandoned it and went to the pantry for a lamp. The
Kaffirs had gone to their huts. She found the lamp empty and
untrimmed in a corner, with two others in the same condition. The
oil was kept in an outbuilding some distance from the bungalow, and
there was none in hand. She diverted her search to candles, but
these also were hard to find. She spent several minutes there in
the darkness with the wind howling weirdly around like a lost thing
seeking shelter, and the sand beating against the little window
with a persistent rattle that worried her nerves with a strange
Eventually she found an empty candlestick, and after prolonged
search an end of candle. Sand was everywhere. It ground under her
feet, and made gritty everything she touched. Was it fancy that
brought to her the smell of burning, recalling Burke's words? She
found herself shivering violently as she went to her own room for
It was while she was here that there came to her above the roar of
the wind a sudden sound that made her start and listen. Someone
was knocking violently, almost battering, at the door that led into
Her heart gave a wild leap within her. Somehow--she knew not
wherefore--her thoughts went to Kieff. She had a curiously strong
feeling that he was, if not actually at the door, not far away.
Then, even while she stood with caught breath listening, the door
burst open and a blast of wind and sand came hurling into the
house. It banged shut again instantly, and there followed a
tramping of feet as if a herd of cattle had entered. Then there
came a voice.
"Damnation!" it said, with vigour. "Damnation! It's a hell of a
country, and myself was the benighted fool ever to come near it at
all. Whist to it now! Anyone would think the devil himself was
trying for admittance."
Very strangely that voice reassured Sylvia though she had never
heard it before in her life. It did more; it sent such a rush of
relief through her that she nearly laughed aloud.
She groped her way out into the passage, feeling as if a great
weight had been lifted from her. "Come in, whoever you are!" she
said. "It is rather infernal certainly. I'll light a candle in a
moment--as soon as I can find some matches."
She saw a dim, broad figure standing in front of her and heard a
long, soft whistle of dismay.
"I beg your pardon, madam," said the voice that had spoken such
hearty invective a few seconds before. "Sure, I had no idea I was
overheard. And I hope that I'll not have prejudiced you at all
with the violence of me language. But it's in the air of the
country, so to speak. And we all come to it in time. If it's a
match that you're wanting, I've got one in my pocket this minute
which I'll hand over with all the good will in the world if you'll
do me the favour to wait."
Sylvia waited. She knew the sort of face that went with that
voice, and it did not surprise her when the red Irish visage and
sandy brows beamed upon her above the flickering candle. The laugh
she had repressed a moment before rose to her lips. There was
something so comic in this man's appearance just when she had been
strung up for tragedy.
He looked at her with the eyes of a child, smiling good-humouredly
at her mirth. "Sure, you're putting the joke on me," he said.
"They all do it. Where can I have strayed to? Is this a fairy
palace suddenly sprung up in the desert, and you the Queen of No
Man's Land come down from your mountain-top to give me shelter?"
She shook her head, still laughing, "No, I've never been to the
mountain-top. I'm only a farmer's wife."
"A farmer's wife!" He regarded her with quizzical curiosity for a
space. "Is it Burke's bride that you are?" he questioned. "And is
it Burke Ranger's farm that I've blundered into after all?"
"I am Burke Ranger's wife," she told him. "But I left off being a
bride a long time ago. We are all too busy out here to keep up
sentimental nonsense of that sort."
"And isn't it the cynic that ye are entirely?" rejoined the
visitor, broadly grinning. "Sure, it's time I introduced myself to
the lady of the house. I'm Donovan Kelly, late of His Majesty's
Imperial Yeomanry, and at present engaged in the peaceful avocation
of mining for diamonds under the rubbish-heaps of Brennerstadt."
Sylvia held out her hand. There could be no standing upon ceremony
with this man. She hailed him instinctively as a friend. There
are some men in the world whom no woman can regard in any other
"I am very pleased to meet you," she said, with simplicity. "And I
know Burke will be glad too that you have managed to make your way
over here. You haven't chosen a very nice day for your visit.
What a ghastly ride you must have had! What about your horse?"
"Sure, I'd given myself up for lost entirely," laughed Kelly. "And
I said to St. Peter--that's my horse and the best animal bred out
of Ireland--'Pete,' I said to him, 'it's a hell of a country and no
place for ye at all. But if ye put your back into it, Pete, and
get us out of this infernal sandpit, I'll give ye such a draught of
ale as'll make ye dance on your head with delight.' He's got a
taste for the liquor, has Pete. I've put him in a cowshed I found
round the corner, and, faith, he fair laughed to be out of the
blast. He's a very human creature, Mrs. Ranger, with the soul of a
Christian, only a bit saintlier."
"I shall have to make his acquaintance," said Sylvia. "Now come in
and have some refreshment! I am sure you must need it."
"And that's a true word," said Kelly, following her into the
sitting-room. "My throat feels as if it were lined with
She rapidly cleared a place for him at the table, and ministered to
his wants. His presence was so large and comforting that her own
doubts and fears had sunk into the background. For a time,
listening to his artless talk, she was scarcely aware of them, and
she was thankful for the diversion. It had been a terrible
He began to make enquiries regarding Burke's absence at length, and
then she told him about the _veldt_-fires, and the menace to the
land. His distress returned somewhat as she did so, and he was
quick to perceive the anxiety she sought to hide.
"Now don't you worry--don't you worry!" he said. "Burke wasn't
made to go under. He's one in a million. He's the sort that'll
win to the very top of the world. And why? Because he's sound."
"Ah!" Sylvia said. Somehow that phrase at such a moment sent an
odd little pang through her. Would Burke indeed win to the top of
the world, she wondered? It seemed so remote to her now--that
palace of dreams which they had planned to share together. Did he
ever think of it now? She wondered--she wondered!
"Don't you worry!" Kelly said again. "There's nothing in life more
futile. Is young Guy still here, by the way? Has he gone out
scotching _veldt_-fires too?"
She started and coloured. How much did he know about Guy? How
much would it be wise to impart?
Perhaps he saw her embarrassment, for he hastened to enlighten her.
"I know all about young Guy. Nobody's enemy but his own. I helped
Burke dig him out of Hoffstein's several weeks back, and a tough
job it was. How has he behaved himself lately? Been on the bust
Sylvia hesitated. She knew this man for a friend, and she trusted
him without knowing why; but she could not speak with freedom to
anyone of Guy and his sins.
But again the Irishman saw and closed the breach. His shrewd eyes
smiled kindly comprehension. "Ah, but he's a difficult youngster,"
he said. "Maybe he'll mend his ways as he gets older. We do
sometimes, Mrs. Ranger. Anyhow, with all his faults he's got the
heart of a gentleman. I've known him do things--decent
things--that only a gentleman would have thought of doing. I've
punched his head for him before now, but I've always liked young
Guy. It's the same with Burke. You can't help liking the fellow."
"I don't think Burke likes him," Sylvia said almost involuntarily.
"Then, begging your pardon, you're wrong," said Kelly. "Burke
loves him like a brother. I know that all right. No, he'll never
say so. He's not the sort. But it's the truth, all the same.
He's about the biggest disappointment in Burke's life. He'd never
have left him to sink if he hadn't been afraid the boy would shoot
himself if he did anything else."
"Ah!" Sylvia said again, with a sharp catch in her breath. "That
was what he was afraid of."
"Sure, that was it," said Kelly cheerfully. "You'll generally find
that that good man of yours has a pretty decent reason for
everything he does. It isn't often he loses his head--or his
temper. He's a fine chap to be friendly with, but a divil to
"Yes. I've heard that before," Sylvia said, with a valiant little
smile. "I should prefer to be friendly with him myself."
"Ah, sure and you're right," said Kelly. "But is it yourself that
could be anything else? Why, he worships the very ground under
your feet. I saw that clear as daylight that time at Brennerstadt."
She felt her heart quicken a little. "How--clever of you!" she
He nodded with beaming appreciation of the compliment. "You'll
find my conclusions are generally pretty near the mark," he said.
"It isn't difficult to know what's in the minds of the people
you're fond of. Now is it?"
She stifled a sigh. "I don't know. I'm not very good at
He chuckled like a merry child. "Ah, then you come to me, Mrs.
Ranger!" he said. "I'll be proud to help ye any time."
"I expect you help most people," she said. "You are everybody's
"I do my best," said Donovan Kelly modestly. "And, faith, a very
pleasant occupation it is."
The wind went down somewhat at sunset and Sylvia realized with
relief that the worst was over. She sat listening for the return
of Burke and Guy while her companion chatted cheerfully of a
thousand things which might have interested her at any other time
but to which now she gave but fitful attention.
He was in the midst of telling her about the draw for the great
diamond at Brennerstadt and how the tickets had been reduced from
monkeys to ponies because the monkeys were too shy, when there came
the sound for which she waited--a hand upon the window-catch and
the swirl of sand blown in by the draught as it opened.
She was up in a moment, guarding the candle and looking out over it
with eager, half-dazzled eyes. For an instant her look met Burke's
as he stood in the aperture, then swiftly travelled to the man with
him. Guy, with a ghastly face that tried to smile, was hanging
upon him for support.
Burke shut the window with decision and stood staring at Sylvia's
Kelly at once proceeded with volubility to explain his presence.
"Ah, yes, it's meself in the flesh, Burke, and very pleased to see
ye. I've taken a holiday to come and do ye a good turn. And Mrs.
Ranger has been entertaining me like a prince in your absence. So
you've got young Guy with you! What's the matter with the boy?"
"I'm all right," said Guy, and quitted his hold upon Burke as if to
demonstrate the fact.
But Burke took him by the arm and led him to a chair. "You sit
down!" he commanded briefly. "Hullo, Donovan! Glad to see you!
Have you had a drink?"
"Sure, I've had all that mortal man could desire and more to it,"
"Good," said Burke, and turned to Sylvia. "Get out the brandy,
She hastened to do his bidding. There was a blueness about Guy's
lips that frightened her, and she saw that his hands were clenched.
Yet, as Burke bent over him a few moments later, he laughed with
something of challenge in, his eyes. "Ripping sport, old chap!" he
said, and drank with a feverish eagerness.
Burke's hand was on his shoulder. She could not read his
expression, but she was aware of something unusual between them,
something that was wholly outside her experience. Then he spoke,
his voice very quiet and steady.
"Go slow, man! You've had a bit of a knockout."
Guy looked across at her, and there was triumph in his look. "It's
been--sport," he said again. "Ripping sport!" It was so boyishly
uttered, and his whole attitude was so reminiscent of the old days,
that she felt herself thrill in answer. She moved quickly to him.
"What has been happening? Tell me!" she said.
He laughed again. "My dear girl, we've been fighting the devil in
his own element, and we've beat him off the field." He sprang to
his feet. "Here, give me another drink, or I shall die! My throat
is a bed of live cinders."
Burke intervened. "No--no! Go slow, I tell you! Go slow! Get
some tea, Sylvia! Where are those Kaffirs?"
"They haven't been near all day," Sylvia said. "I frightened
Rosamond away this morning, and the others must have been afraid of
"I'll rout 'em out," said Kelly.
"No. You stay here! I'll go." Burke turned to the door, but
paused as he opened it and looked back. "Sylvia!" he said.
She went to him. He put his hand through her arm and drew her into
the passage. "Don't let Guy have any more to drink!" he said.
"Mind, I leave him to you."
He spoke with urgency; she looked at him in surprise.
"Yes, I mean it," he said. "You must prevent him somehow. I
can't--nor Kelly either. You probably can--for a time anyhow."
"I'll do my best," she said.
His hand closed upon her. "If you fail, he'll go under, I know the
signs. It's up to you to stop him. Go back and see to it!"
He almost pushed her from him with the words, and it came to her
that for some reason Guy's welfare was uppermost with him just
then. He had never betrayed any anxiety on his account before, and
she wondered greatly at his attitude. But it was no time for
questioning. Mutely she obeyed him and went back.
She found Guy in the act of filling a glass for Kelly. His own
stood empty at his elbow. She went forward quickly, and laid her
hand on his shoulder. "Guy, please!" she said,
He looked at her, the bottle in his hand. In his eyes she saw
again that dreadful leaping flame which made her think of some
starved and desperate animal. "What is it?" he said.
An overwhelming sense of her own futility came upon her. She felt
almost like a child standing there, attempting that of which Burke
had declared himself to be incapable.
"What is it?" he said again.
She braced herself for conflict. "Please," she said gently. "I
want you to wait and have some tea. It won't take long to get."
Then, as the fever of his eyes seemed to burn her: "Please, Guy!
Kelly put aside his own drink untouched. "There's no refusing such
a sweet appeal as that," he declared gallantly. "Guy, I move a
postponement. Tea first!"
But Guy was as one who heard not. He was staring at Sylvia, and
the wild fire in his eyes was leaping higher, ever higher. In that
moment he saw her, and her alone. It was as if they two had
suddenly met in a place that none other might enter. His words of
the morning rushed back upon her--his passionate declaration that
life was not long enough for sacrifice--that the future to which
she looked was but a mirage which she would never reach.
It all flashed through her brain in a few short seconds, vivid,
dazzling, overwhelming, and the memory of Kieff went with it--Kieff
and his cold, sinister assertion that she held Guy's destiny
between her hands.
Then, very softly, Guy spoke. "To please--you?" he said.
She answered him, but it was scarcely of her own volition. She was
as one driven--"Yes--yes!"
He looked at her closely as if to make sure of her meaning. Then,
with a quick, reckless movement, he turned and set down the bottle
on the table.
"That settles that," he said boyishly. "Go ahead, Kelly! Drink!
Don't mind me! I am--brandy-proof."
And Sylvia, throbbing from head to foot, knew she had conquered,
knew she had saved him for a time at least from the threatening
evil. But there was that within her which shrank from the thought
of the victory. She had acted almost under compulsion, yet she
felt that she had used a weapon which would ultimately pierce them
She scarcely knew what passed during the interval that followed
before Burke's return. As in a dream she heard Kelly still talking
about the Brennerstadt diamond, and Guy was asking him questions
with a keenness of interest that seemed strange to her. She
herself was waiting and watching for Burke, dreading his coming,
yet in a fashion eager for it. For very curiously she had a
feeling that she needed him. For the first time she wanted to lean
upon his strength.
But when at length he came, her dread of him was uppermost and she
felt she could not meet his look. It was with relief that she saw
Guy was still his first thought. He had fetched Joe from the
Kaffir huts, and the lamps were filled and lighted. He was
carrying one as he entered, and the light flung upwards on his face
showed it to her as the face of a strong man.
He set the lamp on the table and went straight to Guy. "Look
here!" he said. "I'm going to put you to bed."
Guy, with his arms on the table, looked up at him and laughed.
"Oh, rats! I'm all right. Can't you see I'm all right? Well, I
must have some tea first anyway. I've been promised tea."
"I'll bring you your tea in bed," Burke said.
But Guy protested. "No, really, old chap. I must sit up a bit
longer. I'll be very good. I want to hear all Kelly's news. I
believe I shall have to go back to Brennerstadt with him to paint
the town red. I'd like to have a shot at that diamond. You never
know your luck when the devil's on your side."
"I know yours," said Burke drily. "And it's about as rotten as it
can be. You've put too great a strain on it all your life."
Guy laughed again. He was in the wildest spirits. But suddenly in
the midst of his mirth he began to cough with a dry, harsh sound
like the rending of wood. He pushed his chair back from the table,
and bent himself double, seeming to grope upon the floor. It was
the most terrible paroxysm that Sylvia had ever witnessed, and she
thought it would never end.
Several times he tried to straighten himself, but each effort
seemed to renew the anguish that tore him, and in the end he
subsided limply against Burke who supported him till at last the
convulsive choking ceased.
He was completely exhausted by that time and offered no
remonstrance when Burke and Kelly between them bore him to the
former's room and laid him on the bed he had occupied for so long.
Burke administered brandy again; there was no help for it. And
then at Guy's whispered request he left him for a space to recover.
He drew Sylvia out of the room, and Kelly followed. "I'll go back
to him later, and help him undress," he said. "But he will
probably get on better alone for the present."
"What has been happening?" Sylvia asked him. "Tell me what has
A fevered desire to know everything was upon her. She felt she
Burke looked at her as if something in her eagerness struck him as
unusual. But he made no comment upon it. He merely with his
customary brevity proceeded to enlighten her.
"We went to Vreiboom's, and had a pretty hot time. Kieff was there
too, by the way. The fire got a strong hold, and if the wind, had
held, we should probably have been driven out of it, and our own
land would have gone too. As it was," he paused momentarily,
"well, we have Guy to thank that it didn't."
"Guy!" said Sylvia quickly.
"Yes. He worked like a nigger--better. He's been among hot ashes
and that infernal sand for hours. I couldn't get him out. He did
the impossible." A curious tremor sounded in Burke's voice--"The
impossible!" he said again.
"Sure, I always said there was grit in the boy," said Kelly.
"You'll be making a man of him yet, Burke. You'll have to have a
good try after this."
Burke was silent. His eyes, bloodshot but keen, were upon Sylvia's
It was some moments before with an effort she lifted her own to
meet them. "So Guy is a hero!" she said, with a faint uncertain
smile. "I'm glad of that."
"Let's drink to him," said Kelly, "now he isn't here to see!
Burke, fill up! Mrs. Ranger!"
"No--no!" Sylvia said. "I am going to get the tea."
Yet she paused beside Burke, as if compelled. "What else did he
do?" she said. "You haven't told us all."
"Not quite all," said Burke, and still his eyes searched hers with
a probing intentness.
"Don't you want to tell me?" she said.
"Yes, I will tell you," he answered, "if you especially want to
hear. He saved my life."
"Hooray!" yelled Kelly, in the voice of one holloaing to hounds.
Sylvia said nothing for a moment. She had turned very pale. When
she spoke it was with an effort. "How?"
He answered as if speaking to her alone. "One of Vreiboom's
tumble-down old sheds fired while we were trying to clear it. The
place collapsed and I got pinned inside. Piet Vreiboom didn't
trouble himself, or Kieff, either. He wouldn't--naturally. Guy
got me out."
"Ah!" she said. It was scarcely more than an intake of the breath.
She could not utter another word, for that imprisoned thing within
her seemed to be clawing at her heart, choking her. If Burke had
died--if Burke had died! She turned herself quickly from the
searching of his eyes, lest he should see--and understand. She
could not--dared not--show him her soul just then. The memory of
his kiss--that single, fiery kiss that had opened her own
eyes--held her back. She went from him in silence. If Burke had
It was not often that Sylvia lay awake, but that night her brain
was in a turmoil, and for long she courted sleep in vain. For some
time after she retired, the murmur of Burke's and Kelly's voices in
the adjoining room kept her on the alert, but it was mainly the
thoughts that crowded in upon her that would not let her rest. The
thought of Guy troubled her most, this and the knowledge that Kieff
was in the neighbourhood. She had an almost uncanny dread of this
man. He seemed to stand in the path as a menace, an evil influence
that she could neither avert nor withstand. Burke had barely
mentioned him, yet his words had expressed the thought that had
sprung instantly to her mind. He was an enemy to them all, most of
all to Guy, and she feared him. She had a feeling that she would
sooner or later have to fight him for Guy's soul, and she was sick
with apprehension. For the only weapon at her disposal was that
weapon she dare not wield.
The long night dragged away. She thought it would never end. When
sleep came to her at last it was only to bring dreadful dreams in
its train. Burke in danger! Burke imprisoned in a burning hut!
Burke at the mercy of Kieff, the merciless!
She wrenched herself free from these nightmares in the very early
morning while the stars were still in the sky, and went out on to
the _stoep_ to banish the evil illusions from her brain. It was
still and cold and desolate. The guest-hut in which Kelly was
sleeping was closed. There was no sign of life anywhere. A great
longing to go out alone on to the _veldt_ came to her. She felt as
if the great solitude must soothe her spirit. And it would be good
to realize her wish and to see the day break from that favourite
_kopje_ of hers.
She turned to re-enter her room for an extra wrap, and then started
at sight of another figure standing at the corner of the bungalow.
She thought it was Burke, and her heart gave a wild leap within
her, but the next moment as it began to move noiselessly towards
her, she recognized Guy.
He came to her on stealthy feet. "Hullo!" he whispered. "Can't
She held out her hand to him. "Guy! You ought to be in bed!"
He made an odd grimace, and bending, carried her hand to his lips.
"I couldn't sleep either. I've been tormented with a fiery thirst
all night long. What has been keeping you awake? Honestly now!"
He laughed into her eyes, and she was aware that he was trying to
draw her nearer to him. There was about him at, that moment a
subtle allurement that was hard to resist. Old memories thrilled
through her at his touch. For five years she had held herself as
belonging to him. Could the spell be broken in as many months?
Yet she did resist him, turning her face away. "I can't tell you,"
she said, a quiver in her voice. "I had a good deal to think
about. Guy, what is--Kieff doing at Piet Vreiboom's?"
Guy frowned. "Heaven knows. He is there for his own amusement,
"You didn't know he was there?" she said, looking at him again.
His frown deepened. "Yes, I knew. Of course I knew. Why?"
Her heart sank. "I don't like him," she said. "I know he is
clever. I know he saved your life. But I never did like him.
I--am afraid of him."
"Perhaps you would have rather he hadn't saved my life?" suggested
Guy, with a twist of the lips. "It would have simplified matters
considerably, wouldn't it?"
"Don't!" she said, and withdrew her hand. "You know how it hurts
me--to hear you talk like that."
"Why should it hurt you?" said Guy.
She was silent, and he did not press for an answer. Instead, very
softly he whistled the air of a song that he had been wont to sing
to her half in jest in the old days.
Love that hath us in the net
Can he pass and we forget?
She made a little movement of flinching, but the next moment she
turned back to him with absolute steadfastness. "Guy, you and I
are friends, aren't we? We never could be anything else."
"Oh, couldn't we?" said Guy.
"No," she maintained resolutely. "Please let us remember that!
Please let us build on that!"
He looked at her whimsically. "It's a shaky foundation," he said.
"But we'll try. That is, we'll pretend if you like. Who knows?
We may succeed."
"Don't put it like that!" she said. "Be a man, Guy! I know you
can be. Only yesterday----"
"Yesterday? What happened yesterday?" said Guy. "I never remember
"I think you do," she said. "You did a big thing yesterday. You
"Oh, that!" He uttered a low laugh. "My dear girl, don't canonize
me on that account! I only did it because those swine wanted to see
She shuddered. "That is not true. You know it is not true. It
pleases you to pretend you are callous. But you are not at heart.
Burke knows that as well as I do,"
"Oh, damn Burke!" he said airly. "He's no great oracle. I wonder
what you'd have said if I had come back without him."
She clenched her hands hard to keep back another shudder. "I can't
talk of that--can't think of it even. You don't know--you will
never realize--all that Burke has done for me."
"Yes, I do know," Guy said. "But most men would have jumped at the
chance to do the same. You take it all too seriously. It was no
sacrifice to him. You don't owe him anything. He wouldn't have
done it if he hadn't taken a fancy to you. And he didn't do it for
nothing either. He's not such a philanthropist as that."
Somehow that hurt her intolerably. She looked at him with a quick
flash of anger in her eyes. "Do you want to make me hate you?" she
He turned instantly and with a most winning gesture. "No, darling.
You couldn't if you tried," he said.
She went back a step, shaking her head. "I am not so sure," she
said. "Why do you say these horrible things to me?"
He held out his hand to her. "I'm awfully sorry, dear," he said.
"But it is for your good. I want you to see life as it is, not as
your dear little imagination is pleased to paint it. You are so
dreadfully serious always. Life isn't, you know. It really isn't.
It's nothing but a stupid and rather vulgar farce."
She gave him her hand, for she could not deny him; but she gave no
sign of yielding with it. "Oh, how I wish you would take it more
seriously!" she said.
"Do you?" he said. "But what's the good? Who Is it going to
benefit if I do? Not myself. I should hate it. And not you. You
are much too virtuous to have any use for me."
"Oh, Guy," she said, "Is it never worth while to play the game?"
His hand tightened upon hers. "Look here!" he said suddenly.
"Suppose I did as you wish--suppose I did pull up--play the game,
as you call it? Suppose I clawed and grabbed for success Like the
rest of the world--and got it. Would you care?"
"I wasn't talking of success," she said. "That's no answer." He
swung her hand to and fro with vehement impatience. "Suppose you
were free--yes, you've got to suppose it just for a moment--suppose
you were free--and suppose I came to you with both hands full, and
offered you myself and all I possessed--would you send me empty
away? Would you? Would you?"
He spoke with a fevered insistence. His eyes were alight and
eager. Just so had he spoken in the long ago when she had given
him her girlish heart in full and happy surrender.
There was no surrender in her attitude now, but yet she could not,
she could not, relentlessly send him from her. He appealed so
strongly, with so intense an earnestness.
"I can't imagine these things, Guy," she said at last. "I only ask
you--implore you--to do your best to keep straight. It is worth
while, believe me. You will find that it is worth while."
"It might be--with you to make it so," he said. "Without you----"
She shook her head. "No--no! For other, better reasons. We have
our duty to do. We must do it. It is the only way to be happy. I
am sure of that."
"Have you found it so?" he said. "Are you happy?"
He pressed his advantage instantly. "You are not. You know you
are not. Do you think you can deceive me even though you may
deceive yourself? We have known each other too long for that. You
are not happy, Sylvia. You are afraid of life as it is--of life as
it might be. You haven't pluck to take your fate into your own
hands and hew out a way for yourself. You're the slave of
circumstances and you're afraid to break free." He made as if he
would release her, and then suddenly, unexpectedly, caught her hand
up to his face. "All the same, you are mine--you are mine!" he
told her hotly. "You belonged to me from the beginning, and
nothing else counts or ever can count against that. I would have
died to get out of your way. I tried to die. But you brought me
back. And now, say what you like--say what you like--you are mine!
I saw it in your eyes last night, and I defy every law that man
ever made to take you from me. I defy the thing you call duty.
You love me! You have always loved me! Deny it if you can!"
It was swift, it was almost overwhelming. At another moment it
might have swept her off her feet. But a greater force was at work
within her, and she stood her ground.
She drew her hand away. "Not like that, Guy," she said. "I love
you. Yes, I love you. But only as a friend. You--you don't
understand me. How should you? I have grown beyond all your
knowledge of me. I was a girl in the old days--when we played at
love together." A sharp sob rose in her throat, but she stifled
it. "All that is over. I am a woman now. My eyes are
open,--and--the romance is all gone."
He stiffened as if he had been struck, but only for a second. The
next recklessly he laughed. "That is just your way of putting it,"
he said. "Love doesn't change--like that. It either goes out, or
it remains--for good. It is you who don't understand yourself.
You may turn your back on the truth, but you can't alter it. Those
who have once been lovers--and lovers such as you and I--can never
again be only friends. That, if you like, is the impossible.
But--" He paused for a moment, with lifted shoulders, then
abruptly turned to go. "Good-bye!" he said.
"You are going?" she questioned.
He swung on his heel as if irresolute. "Yes, I am going. I am
going back to my cabin, back to my wallowing in the mire. Why not?
Is there anyone who cares the toss of a halfpenny what I do?"
"Yes." Breathlessly she answered him; the words seemed to leap
from her of their own accord, and surely it was hardly of her own
volition that she followed and held his arm, detaining him. "Guy!
You know we care. Burke cares. I care. Guy, please, dear,
please! It's such a pity. Oh, it's such a pity! Won't you--can't
you--fight against it? Won't you even--try? I know you could
conquer, if only--if only you would try!" Her eyes were raised to
his. She besought him with all the strength of her being. She
clung to him as if she would hold him back by sheer physical force
from the abyss at his feet. "Oh, Guy, it is worth while!" she
pleaded. "Indeed--indeed it is worth while--whatever it costs.
Guy,--I beseech--I implore you----"
She broke off, for with a lightning movement he had taken her face
between his hands. "You can make it worth while," he said. "I
will do it--for you."
He held her passionately close for an instant, but he did not kiss
her. She saw the impulse to do so in his eyes, and she saw him
beat it fiercely back. That was the only comfort that remained to
her when the next moment he sprang away and went so swiftly from
her that he was lost to sight almost before she knew that he was
When Kelly awoke that morning, it was some time later, and Burke
was entering his hut with a steaming cup of cocoa. The Irishman
stretched his large bulk and laughed up at his friend.
"Faith, it's the good host that ye are! I've slept like a top, my
son, and never an evil dream. How's the lad this morning? And
how's the land?"
"The land's all right so far," Burke said. "I'm just off to help
them bring in the animals. The northern dam has failed."
Kelly leaped from his bed. "I'll come. That's just the job for me
and St. Peter. Don't bring the missis along though! It's too much
"I know that," Burke said shortly. "I've told her so. She is to
take it easy for a bit. The climate is affecting her."
Kelly looked at him with his kindly, curious eyes. "Can't you get
things fixed up here and bring her along to Brennerstadt for the
races and the diamond gamble? It would do you both good to have a
Burke shook his head, "I doubt if she would care for it. And young
Guy would want to come too. If he did, he would soon get up to
mischief again. He has gone back to his hut this morning, cleared
out early. I hope he is to be trusted to behave himself."
"Oh, leave the boy alone!" said Kelly. "He's got some decent
feelings of his own, and it doesn't do to mother him too much.
Give him his head for a bit! He's far less likely to bolt."
Burke shrugged his shoulders. "I can't hold him if he means to go,
I quite admit. But I haven't much faith in his keeping on the
straight, and that's a fact. I don't like his going back to the
hut, and I'd have prevented it if I'd known. But I slept in the
sitting-room last night, and I was dead beat. He cleared out
"Didn't anyone see him go?" queried Kelly keenly.
"Yes. My wife." Again Burke's tone was curt, repressive. "She
couldn't stop him."
"She made him hold hard with the brandy-bottle last night," said
Kelly. "I admired her for it. She's got a way with her, Burke.
Sure, the devil himself couldn't have resisted her then."
Burke's faint smile showed for a moment; he said nothing.
"How you must worship her!" went on Kelly, with amiable effusion.
"Some fellows have all the luck. Sure, you're never going to let
that sweet angel languish here like that poor little Mrs. Merston!
You wouldn't now! Come, you wouldn't!"
But Burke passed the matter by. He had pressing affairs on hand,
and obviously it was not his intention to discuss his conduct
towards his wife even with the worthy Kelly whose blundering
goodness so often carried him over difficult ground that few others
would have ventured to negotiate.
He left Kelly to dress, and went back to the bungalow where Sylvia
was busy with a duster trying to get rid of some of the sand that
thickly covered everything. He had scarcely spoken to her that
morning except for news Of Guy, but now he drew her aside.
"Look here!" he said. "Don't wear yourself out!"
She gave him a quick look. "Oh, I shan't do that. Work is good
for me. Isn't this sand too awful for words?"
She spoke with a determined effort to assume the old careless
attitude towards him, but the nervous flush on her cheeks betrayed
He put his hand on her shoulder, and wheeled her round somewhat
suddenly towards the light. "You didn't sleep last night," he said.
She tried to laugh, but she could not check the hot flush of
embarrassment that raced into her pale cheeks under his look. "I
couldn't help it," she said. "I was rather wound up yesterday.
It--was an exciting day, wasn't it?"
He continued to look at her for several seconds, intently but not
sternly. Then very quietly he spoke. "Sylvia, if things go wrong,
if the servants upset you, come to me about it! Don't go to Guy!"
She understood the reference in a moment. The flush turned to
flaming crimson that mounted in a wave to her forehead. She drew
back from him, her head high.
"And if Schafen or any other man comes to you with offensive gossip
regarding my behaviour, please kick him as he deserves--next time!"
she said. "And then--if you think it necessary--come to me for an
She spoke with supreme scorn, every word a challenge. She was more
angry in that moment than she could remember that she had ever been
before. How dared he hear Schafen's evidence against her, and then
coolly take her thus to task?
The memory of his kiss swept back upon her as she spoke, that kiss
that had so cruelly wounded her, that kiss that had finally rent
the veil away from her quivering heart. She stood before him with
clenched hands. If he had attempted to kiss her then, she would
have struck him.
But he did not move. He stood, looking at her, looking at her,
till at last her wide eyes wavered and sank before his own. He
spoke then, an odd inflection in his voice.
"Why are you so angry?"
Her two fists were pressed hard against her sides. She was aware
of a weakening of her self-control, and she fought with all her
strength to retain it. She could not speak for a second or two,
but it was not fear that restrained her.
"Tell me!" he said. "Why are you angry?"
The colour was dying slowly out of her face; a curious chill had
followed the sudden flame. "It is your own fault," she said.
"How--my fault?" Burke's voice was wholly free from any sort of
emotion; but his question held insistence notwithstanding.
She answered it almost in spite of herself. "For making me hate
He made a slight movement as of one who shifts his hold upon some
chafing creature to strengthen his grip. "How have I done that?"
She answered him in a quick, breathless rush of words that betrayed
her failing strength completely. "By doubting me--by being jealous
and showing it--by--by--by insulting me!"
"What?" he said.
She turned from him sharply and walked away, battling with herself.
"You know what I mean," she said tremulously. "You know quite well
what I mean. You were angry yesterday--angry because Hans
Schafen--a servant--had told you something that made you distrust
me. And because you were angry, you--you--you insulted me!" She
turned round upon him suddenly with eyes of burning accusation.
She was fighting, fighting, with all her might, to hide from him
that frightened, quivering thing that she herself had recognized
but yesterday. If it had been a plague-spot, she could not have
guarded it more jealously. Its presence scared her. Her every
instinct was to screen it somehow, somehow, from those keen eyes.
For he was so horribly strong, so shrewd, so merciless!
He came up to her as she wheeled. He took one of her quivering
wrists, and held it, his fingers closely pressed upon the leaping
pulse. "Sylvia!" he said, and this time there was an edge to his
voice that made her aware that he was putting force upon himself.
"I have never insulted you--or distrusted you. Everything was
against me yesterday. But when I left you, I gave all I possessed
into your keeping. It is in your keeping still. Does that look
She gave, a quick, involuntary start, but he went on, scarcely
"When a man is going into possible danger, and his wife is thinking
of--other things, is he so greatly to blame if he takes the
quickest means at his disposal of waking her up?"
"Ah!" she said. Had he not waked her indeed? But yet--but
yet--She looked at ham doubtfully.
"Listen!" he said. "We've been going round in a circle lately.
It's been like that infernal game we used to play as children.
'Snail,' wasn't it called? Where nobody ever got home and
everybody always lost their tempers! Let's get out of it, Sylvia!
Let's leave Guy and Schafen to look after things, and go to the top
of the world by ourselves! I'll take great care of you. You'll be
happy, you know. You'll like it."
He spoke urgently, leaning towards her. There was nothing terrible
about him at that moment. All the mastery had gone from his
attitude. He was even smiling a little.
Her heart gave a great throb. It was so long, so long, since he
had spoken to her thus. And then, like a blasting wind, the memory
of Guy's bitter words rushed across her. She seemed again to feel
the sand of the desert blowing in her face, sand that was blended
with ashes. Was it only a slave that he wanted after all? She
hated herself for the thought, but she could not drive it out.
"Don't you like that idea?" he said.
Still she hesitated. "What of Guy?" she said. "We must think of
him, Burke. We must."
"I'm thinking of him," he said. "A little responsibility would
probably do him good."
"But to leave him--entirely--" She broke off. Someone was
knocking at the outer door, and she was thankful for the
interruption. Burke turned away, and went to answer. He came back
with a note in his hand.
"It's Merston's house-boy," he said. "I've sent him round to the
kitchen to get a feed. Something's up there, I am afraid. Let's
see what he has to say!"
He opened the letter while he was speaking, and there fell a short
silence while he read. Sylvia took up her duster again. Her hands
In a moment Burke spoke. "Yes, it's from Merston. The poor chap
has had an accident, fallen from his horse and badly wrenched his
back. His overseer is away, and he wants to know if I will go over
and lend a hand. I must go of course." He turned round to her.
"You'll be able to manage for a day or two?"
Her breathing came quickly, nervously. She felt oddly uncertain of
herself, as if she had just come through a crisis that had bereft
her of all her strength,
"Of course," she said, not looking at him. "Of course."
He stood for a moment or two, watching her. Then he moved to her
"I'm leaving you in charge," he said, "But you won't overdo it?
She laughed a little. The thought of his going was a vast relief
to her at that moment. She yearned to be alone, to readjust her
life somehow before she met him again. She wanted to rebuild her
defences. She wanted to be quite sure of herself.
"Oh, I shall take great care of myself," she said. "I'm very good
"I wonder," said Burke, And then he laid his hand upon the flicking
duster and stopped her quivering activity. "Are you still--hating
me?" he said.
She stood motionless, and still her eyes avoided his. "I'll tell
you," she said, "when we meet again."
"Does that mean that I am to go--unforgiven?" he said.
Against her will she looked at him. In spite of her, her lip
He put his arm round her. "Does it?" he said.
"No," she whispered back.
In that moment they were nearer than they had been through all the
weeks of Guy's illness, nearer possibly than they had ever been
before. It would have been so easy for Sylvia to lean upon that
strong encircling arm, so easy that she wondered afterwards how she
restrained the impulse to do so. But the moment passed so quickly,
sped by the sound of Kelly's feet upon the _stoep_, and Burke's arm
pressed her close and then fell away.
There was neither disappointment nor annoyance on his face as he
turned to meet his guest. He was even smiling.
Sylvia recalled that smile afterwards--the memory of it went with
her through all the bitter hours that followed.
FOR THE SAKE OF THE OLD LOVE
Kelly accompanied Burke when, after hurried preparation and
consultation with Schafen, he finally took the rough road that
wound by the _kopje_ on his way to the Merstons' farm. He had not
intended to prolong his visit over two days, and he proposed to
conclude it now; for his leisure was limited, and he had undertaken
to be back in Brennerstadt for the occasion of the diamond draw
which he himself had organized, and which was to take place at the
end of the week. But at Burke's request, as they rode upon their
way, he promised to return to Blue Hill Farm for that night and the
next also if Burke could not return sooner. He did not mean to be
absent for more than two nights. His own affairs could not be
neglected for longer, though he might decide to send Schafen over
to help the Merstons if necessary.
"My wife can't look after Guy single-handed," he said. "It's not a
woman's job, and I can't risk it. I shall feel easier if you are
And Kelly professed himself proud to be of service in any capacity.
If Mrs. Burke would put up with him for another night, sure, he'd
be delighted to keep her company, and he'd see that the boy behaved
himself too, though for his own part he didn't think that there was
any vice about him just then.
They did not visit the hut or the sand whither Guy had betaken
himself. The sun was getting high, and Burke, with the Kaffir boy
who had brought the message running at his stirrup, would not
linger on the road.
"He's probably having a rest," he said. "He won't be fit for much
else to-day. You'll see him to-night, Donovan?"
And Donovan promised that he would. He was in fact rather proud of
the confidence reposed in him. To treat him as a friend in need
was the highest compliment that anyone could pay the kind-hearted
Irishman. Cheerily he undertook to remain at Blue Hill Farm until
Burke's return, always providing that Mrs. Burke didn't get tired
of him and turn him out.
"She won't do that," said Burke. "You'll find she will be
delighted to see you to-day when you get back. She hasn't been
trained for solitude, and I fancy it gets on her nerves."
Perhaps it did. But on that occasion at least Sylvia was thankful
to be left alone. She had her house to set in order, and at that
very moment she was on her knees in the sitting-room, searching,
searching in all directions for the key which she had dropped on
the previous day during the dust-storm, before Kelly's arrival.
Burke's reference to the matter had recalled it to her mind, and
now with shamed self-reproach she sought in every cranny for the
only thing of any importance which he had ever entrusted to her
She sought in vain. The sand was thick everywhere, but she
searched every inch of the floor with her hands, and found nothing.
The stifling heat of the day descended upon her as she searched.
She felt sick in mind and body, sick with a growing hopelessness
which she would not acknowledge. The thing could not be lost. She
knew that Burke had slept in the room, and none of the servants had
been alone in it since. So the key must be somewhere there, must
have been kicked into some corner, or caught in a crack. She had
felt so certain of finding it that she had not thought it necessary
to tell Burke of her carelessness. But now she began to wish she
had told him. Her anxiety was turning to a perfect fever of
apprehension. The conviction was beginning to force itself upon
her that someone must have found the key.
But who--who? No Kaffir, she was certain. No Kaffir had entered.
And Burke had been there all night long. He had slept in the long
chair, giving up his bed to the guest. And he had slept late,
tired out after the violent exertions of the previous day.
He had slept late! Suddenly, there on her knees in the litter of
sand, another thought flashed through her brain, the thought of her
own sleeplessness, the thought of the early morning, the thought of
He had been up early. He generally rested till late in the
morning. He too had been sleepless. But he had a remedy for that
which she knew he would not scruple to take if he felt the need.
His wild excitement of the night before rose up before her. His
eager interest in Kelly's talk of the diamond, the strangeness of
his attitude that morning. And then, with a lightning suddenness,
came the memory of Kieff.
Guy was under Kieff's influence. She was certain of it. And
Kieff? She shrank at the bare thought of the man, his subtle
force, his callous strength of purpose, his almost uncanny
intelligence. Yes, she was afraid of Kieff--she had always been
afraid of Kieff.
The midday heat seemed to press upon her like a burning, crushing
weight. It seemed to deprive her of the power to think, certainly
of the power to reason. For what rational connection could there
be between Kieff and the loss of Burke's key? Kieff was several
miles away at the farm of Piet Vreiboom. And Guy--where was Guy?
She wished he would come back. Surely he would come back soon!
She would tell him of her loss, she yearned to tell someone; she
would get him to help her in her search. For it could not be lost.
It could not be really lost! They would find it somehow--somehow!
It was no actual reasoning but a blind instinct that moved her to
get up at length and go to the room that Guy had occupied for so
long, the room that was Burke's. It was just as Guy had left it
that morning. She noted mechanically the disordered bed. The
cupboard in the corner was closed as usual, but the key was in the
lock. Burke kept his clothes on the higher shelves. The
strong-box stood on the floor with some boots.
Her eyes went straight to it. Some magnetism seemed to be at work,
compelling her. And then--she gave a gasp of wonder, and almost
fell on to the sandy floor beside the box. The key was in the lock!
Was it all a dream then? Had it never been lost? Had she but
imagined Burke's action in confiding it to her? She closed her
eyes for a space, for her brain was swimming. The terrible,
parching heat seemed to have turned into a wheel--a fiery wheel of
torture that revolved behind her eyes, making her wince at every
turn. The pain was intense; when she tried to move, it was
excruciating. She sank down with her head almost on the iron box
and waited in dumb endurance for relief.
A long time passed so, and she fancied later that she must have
slept, for she dared not move while that awful pain lasted, and she
was scarcely conscious of her surroundings. But it became less
acute at last; she found herself sitting up with wide-open eyes,
trying to collect her thoughts.
They evaded her for a while, and she dared not employ any very
strenuous effort to capture them, lest that unspeakable suffering
should return. But gradually--very gradually--the power to reason
returned to her. She found herself gazing at the key that had cost
her so much; and after a little, impelled by what seemed to be
almost a new sense within her, she took it between her quivering
fingers and turned it.
It went with an ease that surprised her, for she remembered--her
brain was becoming every moment more strangely clear and alert--she
remembered that Burke had said only a day or two before that it
needed oiling. She opened the box, and with a fateful premonition
A few papers in a rubber band lay in the bottom of the box, and
beside them, carelessly tossed aside, an envelope! There was no
money at all.
She took up the envelope, feverishly searching. It contained a
cigarette--one of her own--that had been half-smoked. She stared
at it for a second or two in wonder, then like a stab came the
memory of that night--so long ago--when he had taken the cigarette
from between her lips, when he had been on the verge of speech,
when she had stood waiting to hear . . . and Guy had come between.
Many seconds later she put the envelope back, and got up.
Conviction had come irresistibly upon her; she knew now whose hand
had oiled the lock, she knew beyond all doubting who had opened the
box, and left it thus.
She was trembling no longer, but steady--firm as a rock. She must
find Guy. Wherever he was, she must find him. That money--her own
sacred charge--must be returned before she faced Burke again. Guy
was mad. She must save him from his madness. This fight for Guy's
soul--she had seen it coming. She realized it as a hand to hand
fight with Kieff. But she would win. She was bound to win. So
she told herself. No power of evil could possibly triumph
ultimately, and she knew that deep in his inmost heart Guy
acknowledged this. However wild and reckless his words, he did not
really expect to see her waver. He might be the slave of evil
himself, but he knew that she would never share his slavery. He
knew it, and in spite of himself he honoured her. She believed he
would always honour her. And this was the weapon on which she
counted for his deliverance, this and the old sweet friendship
between them that was infinitely more enduring than first love.
She believed that her influence over him was greater than Kieff's.
Otherwise she had not dared to pit her strength against that of the
enemy. Otherwise she had waited to beg the help of Kelly, who
always helped everyone.
The thought of Burke she put resolutely from her. Burke should
never know, if she could prevent it, how low Guy had fallen. If
only she could save Guy from that, she believed she might save him
from all. When once his eyes were opened, when once she had beaten
down Kieff's ascendancy, the battle would be won. But she must act
immediately and with decision. There was not a moment to lose. If
Guy were not checked now, at the very outset, there would be no
saving him from the abyss. She must find him now, at once. And
she must do it alone. There was no alternative to that. Only
alone could she hope to influence him.
She stooped and locked the box once more, taking the key. Now that
she knew the worst, her weakness was all gone. With the old steady
fearlessness she went from the room. The battle was before her,
but she knew no misgiving. She would win--she was bound to
win--for the sake of the old love and in the strength of the new.
THE BEARER OF EVIL TIDINGS
It was late in the afternoon when Kelly returned to Blue Hill Farm.
He had been riding round Merston's lands with Burke during a great
part of the day, and he was comfortably tired. He looked forward
to spending a congenial evening with his hostess, and he hoped that
young Guy would not be of too lively a turn, for he was in a mood
The first chill of evening was creeping over the _veldt_ as he
ambled along the trail past the _kopje_. As he came within sight
of the farm a wave of sentiment swept over him.
"Faith, it's a jolly little homestead!" he said, with a sigh.
There was no one about, and he took his horse to the stable and
gave him a rub-down and feed before catering. Then he made his way
into the house from the back,
There was a light in the sitting-room, and he betook himself
thither, picturing the homely scene of Sylvia knitting socks for
her husband or engaged upon some housewifely task.
He announced himself with his customary, cheery garrulity as he
"Ah, here I am again, Mrs. Burke! And it's good news I've got for
ye. Merston's not so badly damaged after all, and your husband is
hoping to be back by midday in the morning."
He stopped short. The room was not empty, but the figure that rose
up with an easy, sinuous movement to meet him was not the figure he
had expected to see.
"Good evening, Kelly!" said Saul Kieff.
"What the devil!" said Kelly.
Kieff smiled in a cold, detached fashion. "I came over to find Mr.
Burke Ranger. But I gather he is away from home."
"What have you come for?" said Kelly.
He did not like Kieff though his nature was too kindly to entertain
any active antipathy towards anyone. But no absence of intimacy
could ever curb his curiosity, and he never missed any information
for lack of investigation.
Kieff's motionless black eyes took him in with satirical
comprehension. He certainly would never have made a confidant of
such a man as Kelly unless it had suited his purpose. He took
several moments for consideration before he made reply. "I presume
you are aware," he said then, "that Mrs. Ranger has left for
"What?" said Kelly.
Kieff did not repeat his question. He merely waited for it to sink
in. A faint, subtle smile still hovered about his sallow features.
It was obvious that he regarded his news in anything but a tragic
"Gone to Brennerstadt!" ejaculated Kelly at length. "But what the
devil would she go there for? I was going myself to-morrow. I'd
have taken her."
"She probably preferred to choose her own escort," said Kieff.
"What?" said Kelly again. "Man, is it the truth you're giving me?"
"Not much point in lying," said Kieff coldly, "when there is
nothing to be gained by it! Mrs. Burke Ranger has gone to
Brennerstadt by way of Ritzen, in the company of Guy Ranger. Piet
Vreiboom will tell you the same thing if you ask him. He is going
to Brennerstadt too to-morrow, and I with him. Perhaps we can
travel together. We may overtake the amorous couple if we ride all
Without any apparent movement, his smile intensified at sight of
the open consternation on Kelly's red countenance.
"You seem surprised at something," he said.
"I don't believe a damn' word of it," said Kelly bluntly. "You
didn't see them."
"I saw them both," said Kieff, still smiling, "Piet Vreiboom saw
them also. But the lady seemed to be in a great hurry, so we did
not detain them. They are probably at Ritzen by now, if not
"Oh, damnation!" said Kelly tragically.
Kieff's smile slowly vanished. His eyes took on a stony, remote
look as though the matter had ceased to interest him. And while
Kelly tramped impotently about the room, he leaned his shoulders
against the wall and stared into space.
"I am really rather glad to have met you," he remarked presently.
"Can you give me any tip regarding this diamond of Wilbraham's?
You know its value to the tenth part of a farthing, I have no
Kelly paused to glare at him distractedly, "Oh, curse the diamond!"
he said, "It's Mrs. Burke I'm thinking of."
Kieff's thin lips curled contemptuously. "A woman!" he said, and
snapped his fingers. "A woman who can be bought and sold
again--for far less than half its cost! My good Kelly! Are you
Kelly stamped an indignant foot. "You infernal, cold-blooded
Kaffir!" he roared. "I'm human anyway, which is more than you are!"
Kieff's sneer deepened. It was Kelly's privilege always to speak
his mind, and no one took offence however extravagantly he
expressed himself. "Can't we have a drink?" he suggested, in the
indulgent tone of one humouring a fractious child.
"Drink--with you!" fumed Kelly.
Kieff smiled again. "Of course you will drink with me! It's too
good an excuse to miss. What is troubling you? Surely there is
nothing very unusual in the fact that Mrs. Burke finds herself in
need of a little change!"
Kelly groaned aloud. "I've got to go and tell Burke. That's the
hell of it. Sure I'd give all the money I can lay hands on to be
quit of that job."
"You are over-sensitive," remarked Kieff, showing a gleam of teeth
between his colourless lips. "He will think far less of this than
of disease in his cattle or crops. They were nothing to each
other, nor ever could be. She and Guy Ranger have been lovers all
"Ah, faith then, I know better!" broke in Kelly. "He worships her
from the crown of her head to the sole of her foot. He'll be fit
to kill young Guy for this. By the saints above us, I could almost
kill him myself."
"You needn't!" said Kieff with ironical humour. "And Burke needn't
either. As for the woman--" he snapped his fingers again--"she'll
come back like a homing dove, if he waits a little."
Kelly swore again furiously. "Ah, why did I ever lend myself to
digging young Guy out of Hoffstein's? Only a blasted fool could
have expected to bring anything but corruption out of that sink of
evil. It was Burke's own doing, but I was a fool--I was a three
times fool--to give in to him."
"Where is the worthy Burke?" questioned Kieff, "Over at Merston's,
doing the good Samaritan; been working like a nigger all day. And
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