The Top of the World
Ethel M. Dell
Part 6 out of 8
now!" There was actually a sound of tears in Kelly's voice. "I'd
give me right hand," he vowed tremulously, "I'd give me soul--such
as it is--to be out of this job."
"You want a drink," said Kieff.
Kelly sniffed and began a clumsy search for refreshment.
Kieff came forward kindly and helped him. It was he who measured
the drinks finally when they were produced, and even Kelly, who
could stand a good deal, opened his eyes somewhat at the draught he
prepared for himself.
"Dry weather!" remarked Kieff, as he tossed it down. "You're not
going back to Merston's to-night, are you?"
"Must," said Kelly laconically.
"Why not wait till the morning?" suggested Kieff. "I shall be
passing that way myself then. We could go together."
There was a gleam in his black eyes that made Kelly look at him
hard. "And what would you want to be there for?" he demanded
aggressively. "Isn't one bearer of evil tidings enough?"
Kieff smiled. "I wonder if the lady left any message behind," he
suggested. "Possibly she has written a note to explain her own
absence. How long did the good Burke propose to be away?"
"Two or three nights in the first place. But he is coming back
to-morrow." A sudden idea flashed upon Kelly. "Ah, p'raps she's
hoping to be back before he is! Maybe there's more to this than we
understand! I'll not go over. I'll wait and see. She may be back
in the morning, she and young Guy too. They're old friends.
P'raps there's nothing in it but just a jaunt."
Kieff's laugh had a sound like the slipping of a stone in a slimy
cave. "You always had ideas," he remarked. "But they will
scarcely be back from Brennerstadt by the morning. Can't you
devise some means of persuading Burke to extend his visit to the
period originally intended? Then perhaps they might return in
Kelly looked at him sternly. That laugh was abominable in his
ears. "Faith, I'll go now," he said. "And I'll go alone. You've
done your part, and I'll not trouble you at all to help me do mine."
Kieff turned to go. "I always admired your sense of duty,
Donovan," he said. "Let us hope it will bring you out on the right
side,--and your friends the Rangers with you!"
He was gone with the words, silent as a shadow on the wall, and
Kelly was left wondering why he had not seized the bearer of evil
tidings and kicked the horrible laughter out of him.
"Faith, I'll do it when I get to Brennerstadt," he said to himself
vindictively. "But it's friends first, eh, Burke, my lad?--Ah,
Burke, my boy, friends first!"
THE SHARP CORNER
Was it only a few months since last she had looked out over the
barren _veldt_ from the railway at Ritzen? It seemed to Sylvia
like half a lifetime.
In the dark of the early morning she sat in the southward-bound
train on her way to Brennerstadt, and tried to recall her first
impressions. There he had stood under the lamp waiting for
her--the man whom she had taken for Guy. She saw herself springing
to meet him with eager welcome on her lips and swift-growing
misgiving at her heart. How good he had been to her! That thought
came up above the rest, crowding out the memory of her first
terrible dismay. He had surrounded her with a care as chivalrous
as any of the friends of her former life could have displayed. He
had sheltered her from the dreadful loneliness, and from the world
upon the mercy of which she had been so completely thrown. He had
not seemed to bestow, but she realized now how at every turn his
goodness had provided, his strength had shielded. He had not
suffered her to feel the obligation under which she was placed. He
had treated her merely as a comrade in distress. He had given her
freely the very best that a man could offer, and he had done it in
a fashion that had made acceptance easy, almost inevitable.
Her thoughts travelled onwards till they came to her marriage.
Again the memory of the man's unfailing chivalry came before all
else. Again, how good he had been to her! And she had taken full
advantage of his goodness. For the first time she wondered if she
had been justified in so doing. She asked herself if she had
behaved contemptibly. She had not been ready to make a full
surrender, and he had not asked for it. But it seemed to her now
that she had returned his gifts with a niggardliness which must
have made her appear very small-minded. He had been great. He had
subordinated his wishes to her. He had been patient; ah yes,
perhaps too patient! Probably her utter dependence upon him had
made him so.
Slowly her thoughts passed on to the coming of Guy. She realized
that the rapid events that had succeeded his coming had rendered
her impressions of Burke a little blurred. Through all those first
stages of Guy's illness, she could scarcely recall him at all. Her
mind was full of the image of Kieff, subtle, cruel, almost
ghoulish, a man of deep cunning and incomprehensible motives. It
had suited his whim to save Guy. She had often wondered why. She
was certain that no impulse of affection had moved him or was
capable of moving him. No pity, no sympathy, had ever complicated
this man's aims or crippled his achievements. He had a clear,
substantial reason for everything that he did. It had pleased him
to bring Guy back to life, and so he had not scrupled as to the
means he had employed to do so. He had practically forced her into
a position which circumstances had combined to make her retain. He
had probably, she reflected now, urged Guy upon every opportunity
to play the traitor to his best friend. He had established over
him an influence which she felt that it would take her utmost
effort to overthrow. He had even forced him into the quagmire of
crime. For that Guy had done this thing, or would ever have
dreamed of doing it, on his own initiative she did not believe.
And it was that certainty which had sent her from his empty hut on
the sand in pursuit of him, daring all to win him back ere he had
sunk too deep for deliverance. She had ridden to Ritzen by way of
the Vreiboom's farm, half-expecting to find Guy there. But she had
seen only Kieff and Piet Vreiboom. Her face burned still at the
memory of the former's satirical assurance that Guy was but a few
miles ahead of her and she would easily overtake him. He had
translated this speech to Piet Vreiboom who had laughed, laughed
with a sickening significance, at the joke. In her disgust she had
ridden swiftly on without stopping to ascertain if Guy had gone to
Ritzen or had decided to ride the whole forty miles to Brennerstadt.
The lateness of the hour, however, had decided her to make for the
former place since she knew she could get a train there on the
following morning and she could not face the long journey at night
alone on the _veldt_. It had been late when she reached Ritzen,
but she had thankfully found accommodation for the night at the by
no means luxurious hotel in which she had slept on the night of her
arrival so long ago.
Now in the early morning she was ready to start again, having
regretfully left her horse, Diamond, in the hotel-stable to await
If all went well, she counted upon being back, perhaps with Guy
accompanying her, in the early afternoon. And then she would
probably be at Blue Hill Farm again before Burke's return. She
hoped with all her heart to accomplish this. For though it would
be impossible to hide the fact of her journey from him, she did not
want him to suspect the actual reason that had made it so urgent.
Let him think that anxiety for Guy--their mutual charge--had sent
her after him! But never, for Guy's sake, let him imagine the
actual shameful facts of the case! She counted upon Burke's
ignorance as the strongest weapon for Guy's persuasion. Let him
but realize that a way of escape yet remained to him, and she
believed that he would take it. For surely--ah, surely, if she
knew him--he had begun already to repent in burning shame and
He must have ridden all the way to Brennerstadt, for he was not at
Ritzen. Ritzen was not a place to hide in. Would she find him at
Brennerstadt? There were only two hotels there, and Kieff had said
he would stop at one of them. She did not trust Kieff for a
moment, but some inner conviction told her that it was his
intention that she should find Guy. He did not expect her
influence to overcome his. That she fully realized. He was not
afraid of being superseded. Perhaps he wanted to demonstrate to
her her utter weakness. Perhaps he had deeper schemes. She did
not stop to imagine what they were. She shrank from the thought of
them as purity shrinks instinctively from the contemplation of
evil. She believed that, if once she could meet Guy face to face,
she could defeat him. She counted upon that understanding which
had been between them from the beginning and which had drawn them
to each other in spite of all opposition. She counted upon that
part of Guy which Kieff had never known, those hidden qualities
which vice had overgrown like a fungus but which she knew were
still existent under the surface evil. Guy had been generous and
frank in the old days, a lover of fair play, an impetuous follower
of anything that appealed to him as great. She was sure that these
characteristics had been an essential part of his nature. He had
failed through instability, through self-indulgence and weakness of
purpose. But he was not fundamentally wicked. She was sure that
she could appeal to those good impulses within him, and that she
would not appeal in vain. She was sure that the power of good
would still be paramount over him if she held out to him the
helping hand which he so sorely needed. She had the strength
within her--strength that was more than human--and she was certain
of the victory, if only she could find him quickly, quickly!
As she sat there waiting feverishly to start, her whole being was
in a passion of supplication that she might be in time. Even in
her sleep she had prayed that one prayer with a fierce urging that
had rendered actual repose an impossibility. She had never in her
life prayed with so intense a force. It was as if she were staking
the whole of her faith upon that one importunate plea, and though
no answer came to her striving spirit, she told herself that it
could not be in vain. In all her maddening anxiety and impatience
she never for a moment dwelt upon the chance of failure. God could
not suffer her to fail when she had fought so hard. Her very brain
seemed on fire with the urgency of her mission, and again for a
space the thought of Burke was crowded out. He occupied the back
of her mind, but she would not voluntarily turn towards him. That
would come later when her mission was fulfilled, when she could
look him in the face again with no sense of a charge neglected, or
trust betrayed. She must stand straight with Burke, but she must
save Guy first, whatever the effort, whatever the cost. She felt
she had forfeited the right to think of her own happiness till her
negligence--and the terrible consequences thereof--had been
remedied. Perhaps it was in a measure self-blame that inspired her
frantic prayer, the feeling that the responsibility was hers, and
therefore that she was a sharer of the guilt. That was another
plea, less worthy perhaps; but one to which Guy could not refuse to
listen. It could not be his intention to wreck her happiness. He
could not know all that hung upon it. Her happiness! She shivered
suddenly in the chill of the morning air. Could it be that
happiness--the greatest of all--had been actually within her grasp,
and she had let it slip unheeded? Sharply she turned her thoughts
back. No, she must not--must not think of Burke just then.
The chance would come again. The chance must come again. But she
must not suffer herself to contemplate it now. She had forfeited
Time passed. She thought the train would never start. The long
waiting had become almost a nightmare. She felt she would not be
able to endure it much longer. The night had seemed endless too, a
perpetual dozing and waking that had seemed to multiply the hours.
Now and then she realized that she was very tired; but for the most
part the fever of impatience that possessed her kept the
consciousness of fatigue at bay. If only she could keep moving she
felt that she could face anything.
The day broke over the _veldt_ and the scattered open town, with a
burning splendour like the kindling of a great fire. She watched
the dawn-light spread till the northern hills shone with a
celestial radiance. She leaned from the train to watch it; and as
she watched, the whole world turned golden.
Burke's words flashed back upon her with a force irresistible.
"Let us go to the top of the world by ourselves!" Her eyes filled
with sudden tears, and as she sank down again in her seat the train
began to move. It bore her relentlessly southwards, and the land
of the early morning was left behind.
She reflected later that that journey must have been doomed to
disaster from the very outset. It was begun an hour late, and all
things seemed to conspire to hinder them. After many halts, the
breaking of an engine-piston rendered them helpless, and the heat
of the day found them in a desolate place among _kopjes_ that
seemed to crowd them in, cutting off every current of air, while
the sun blazed mercilessly overhead and the sand-flies ceaselessly
buzzed and tormented. It was the longest day that Sylvia had ever
known, and she thought that the smell of Kaffirs would haunt her
all her life. Of the few white men on the train she knew not one,
and the desolation of despair entered into her.
By the afternoon, when she had hoped to be on her way back, tardy
help arrived, and they crawled into Brennerstadt station, parched
and dusty and half-starved, some three hours later.
Hope revived in her as at length she left the train. Anything was
better than the awful inactivity of that well-nigh interminable
journey. There was yet a chance--a slender one--that by an early
start or possibly travelling by a night train she and Guy might yet
be back at Blue Hill Farm by the following evening in time to meet
Burke on his return.
Yes, the chance was there, and still she could not think that all
this desperate effort of hers could be doomed to failure. If she
could only find Guy quickly--oh, quickly! She almost ran out of
the station in her haste.
She turned her steps instinctively towards the hotel in which she
had stayed for her marriage, It was not far from the station, and
it was the first place that occurred to her. The town was full of
people, men for the most part, men it seemed to her, of all
nationalities and colours. She heard Dutch and broken English all
She went through the crowds, shrinking a little now and then from
any especially coarse type, nervously intent upon avoiding contact
with any. She found the hotel without difficulty, but when she
found it she checked her progress for the first time. For she was
afraid to enter.
The evening was drawing on. She felt the welcome chill of it on
her burning face, and it kept her from yielding to the faintness
that oppressed her. But still she could not enter, till a great,
square-built Boer lounging near the doorway came up to her and
looked into her eyes with an evil leer.
Then she summoned her strength, drew herself up, and passed him
with open disgust.
She had to push her way through a crowd of men idling in the
entrance, and one or two accosted her, but she went by them in
At the little office at the end she found a girl, sandy-haired and
sandy-eyed, who looked up for a moment from a great book in front
of her, and before she could speak, said briskly, "There's no more
accommodation here. The place is full to overflowing. Better try
at the Good Hope over the way."
She had returned to her occupation before the words were well
uttered, but Sylvia stood motionless, a little giddy, leaning
against the woodwork for support.
"I only want to know," she said, after a moment, speaking with an
effort in a voice that sounded oddly muffled even to herself, "if
Mr. Ranger is here."
"Who?" The girl looked up sharply. "Hullo!" she said. "What's the
"If Mr. Ranger--Mr. Ranger--is here," Sylvia repeated through a
curious mist that had gathered unaccountably around her.
The girl got up and came to her. "Yes, he's here, I believe, or
will be presently. He's engaged a room anyhow. I didn't see him
myself. Look here, you'd better come and sit down a minute. I
seem to remember you. You're Mrs. Ranger, aren't you?"
"Yes," said Sylvia.
She was past explanation just then, and that simple affirmative
seemed her only course. She leaned thankfully upon the supporting
arm, fighting blindly to retain her senses.
"Come and sit down!" the girl repeated. "I expect he'll be in
before long. They're all mad about this diamond draw. The whole
town is buzzing with it. The races aren't in it. Sit down and
I'll get you something."
She drew Sylvia into a small inner sanctum and there left her,
sitting exhausted in a wooden armchair. She returned presently
with a tray which she set in front of her, observing practically,
"That's what you're wanting. Have a good feed, and when you've
done you'd better go up and lie down till he comes."
She went back to her office then, closing the door between, and
Sylvia was left to recover as best she might. She forced herself
after a time to eat and drink, reflecting that physical weakness
would utterly unfit her for the task before her. She hoped with
all her heart that Guy would come soon--soon. There was a night
train back to Ritzen. She had ascertained that at the station.
They might catch that. The diamond draw was still two days away.
She prayed that he had not yet staked anything upon it, that when
he came the money might be still in his possession.
She finished her meal and felt considerably revived. For a while
she sat listening to the hubbub of strange voices without, then the
fear that her presence might be forgotten by the busy occupant of
the office moved her to rise and open the intervening door.
The girl was still there. She glanced round with the same alert
expression. "That you, Mrs. Ranger? He hasn't come in yet. But
you go up and wait for him! It's quieter upstairs. I'll tell him
you're here as soon as he comes in."
She did not want to comply, but certainly the little room adjoining
the office was no place for private talk, and she dreaded the idea
of meeting Guy before the curious eyes of strangers. He would be
startled; he would be ashamed! None but herself must see him in
So, without protest, she allowed herself to be conducted upstairs
to the room he had engaged, her friend in the office promising
faithfully not to forget to send him up to her at once.
The room was at the top of the house, a bare apartment but not
uncomfortable. It possessed a large window that looked across the
She sat down beside it and listened to the tramping crowds below.
Her faintness had passed, but she was very tired, overwhelmingly
so. Very soon her senses became dulled to the turmoil. She
suffered herself to relax, certain that the first sound of a step
outside would recall her. And so, as night spread over the town,
she sank into sleep, lying back in the cane-chair like a worn-out
child, her burnished hair vivid against the darkness beyond.
She did not wake at the sound of a step outside, or even at the
opening of the door. It was no sound that aroused her hours later,
but a sudden intense consciousness of expediency, as if she had
come to a sharp comer that it needed all her wits to turn in
safety. She started up with a gasp. "Guy!" she said. And then,
as her dazzled eyes saw more clearly, a low, involuntary
exclamation of dismay. "Ah!"
It was Burke who stood with his back against the closed door,
looking at her, and his face had upon it in those first waking
moments of bewilderment a look that appalled her. For it was to
her as the face of a murderer.
He did not speak in answer to her exclamation, merely stood there
looking at her, almost as if he had never seen her before. His
eyes were keen with a sort of icy fierceness. She thought she had
never before realized the cruelty of his mouth.
It was she who spoke first. The silence seemed so impossible.
"Burke!" she said. "What--is the matter?"
He came forward to her with an abruptness that was like the
breaking of bonds. He stopped in front of her, looking closely
into her face. "What are you doing here?" he said.
In spite of herself she shrank, so terrible was his look. But she
was swift to master her weakness. She stood up to her full height,
facing him. "I have come to find Guy," she said.
He threw a glance around; it was like the sweep of a rapier. "You
are waiting for him--here?"
Again for a moment she was disconcerted. She felt the quick blood
rise to her forehead. "They told me he would come here," she said.
He passed on, almost as if she had not spoken, but his eyes were
mercilessly upon her, marking her confusion. "What do you want
His words were like the snap of a steel rope. They made her flinch
by their very ruthlessness. She had sprung from sleep with
bewildered senses. She was not-prepared to do battle in her own
She hesitated, and immediately his hand closed upon her shoulder.
It seemed to her that she had never known what anger could be like
before this moment. All the force of the man seemed to be gathered
together in one tremendous wave, menacing her.
"Tell me what you want with him!" he said.
She shuddered from head to foot as if she had been struck with a
scourge. "Burke! What do you mean?" she cried out desperately.
"You--you must be mad!"
"Answer me!" he said.
His hold was a grip. The ice in his eyes had turned to flame. Her
heart leapt and quivered within her like a wild thing fighting to
"I--don't know what you mean," she panted. "I have done nothing
wrong. I came after him to--to try and bring him back."
"Then why did you come secretly?" he said,
She shrank from the intolerable inquisition of his eyes. "I wanted
to see him--alone," she said.
"Why?" Again it was like the merciless cut of a scourge. She
caught her breath with a sharp sound that was almost a cry.
"Why?" he reiterated. "Answer me! Answer me!"
She did not answer him. She could not. And in the silence that
followed, it seemed to her that something within her--something
that had been Vitally wounded--struggled and died.
"Look at me!" he said.
She lifted an ashen face. His eyes held hers, and the torture of
his hell encompassed her also.
"Tell me the truth!" he said. "I shall know if you lie. When did
you see him last?"
She shook her head. "A long while ago. Ages ago. Before you left
The memory of his going, his touch, his smile went through her with
the words. She had a sickening sensation as of having been struck
over the heart.
"Where did you spend last night?" he said.
"At Ritzen." Her white lips seemed to speak mechanically. She
herself stood apart as it were, stunned beyond feeling.
"You came here by rail---alone?"
The voice of the inquisitor pierced her numbed sensibilities,
compelling--almost dictating--her answer.
"You had arranged to meet here then?"
Still the scourging continued, and she marvelled at herself, that
she felt so little. But feeling was coming back. She was waiting
for it, dreading it.
She answered without conscious effort. "No--I came after him. He
doesn't know I am here."
"And yet you are posing as his wife?"
She felt that. It cut through her apathy irresistibly. A sharp
tremor went through her. "That," she said rather breathlessly,
"was a mistake."
"It was." said Burke. "The greatest mistake of your life. It is a
pity you took the trouble to lie to me. The truth would have
served you better." He turned from her contemptuously with the
words, setting her free.
For a moment the relief of his going was such that the intention
that lay behind it did not so much as occur to her. Then suddenly
it flashed upon her. He was going in search of Guy.
In an instant her passivity was gone. The necessity for action
drove her forward. With a cry she sprang to the door before him,
and set herself against it. She could not let him go with that
look of the murderer in his eyes.
"Burke!" she gasped. "Burke! What--are you going to do?"
His lips parted a little, and she saw his teeth. "You shall hear
what I have done--afterwards," he said. "Let me pass!"
But she barred his way. Her numbed senses were all awake now and
quivering. The very fact of physical effort seemed to have
restored to her the power to suffer. She stood before him, her
bosom heaving with great sobs that brought no tears or relief of
any sort to the anguish that tore her.
"You--you can't pass," she said. "Not--not--like this! Burke,
listen! I swear to you--I swear----"
"You needn't," he broke in. "A woman's oath, when it is her last
resource, is quite valueless. I will deal with you afterwards.
Let me pass!"
The command was curt as a blow. But still she withstood him,
striving to still her agitation, striving with all her desperate
courage to face him and endure.
"I will not!" she said, and with the words she stood up to her
full, slim height, thwarting him, making her last stand.
His expression changed as he realized her defiance. She was
panting still, but there was no sign of yielding in her attitude.
She was girt for resistance to the utmost.
There fell an awful pause--a silence which only her rapid breathing
disturbed. Her eyes were fixed on his. She must have seen the
change, but she dared it unflinching. There was no turning back
for her now.
The man spoke at last, and his voice was absolutely quiet, dead
level. "You had better let me go," he said.
She made a sharp movement, for there was that in the steel-cold
voice that sent terror to her heart. Was this Burke--the man upon
whose goodness she had leaned ever since she had come to this land
of strangers? Surely she had never met him before that moment!
"Open that door!" he said.
A great tremor went through her. She turned, the instinct to obey
urging her. But in the same instant the thought of Guy--Guy in
mortal danger--flashed across her. She paused for a second, making
a supreme effort, while every impulse fought in mad tumult within
her, crying to her to yield. Then, with a lightning twist of the
hand she turned the key and pulled it from the lock. For an
instant she held it in her hand, then with a half-strangled sound
she thrust it deep into her bosom.
Her eyes shone like flames in her white face as she turned back to
him. "Perhaps you will believe me--now!" she said.
He took a single step forward and caught, her by the wrists.
"Woman!" he said. "Do you know what you are doing?"
The passion that blazed in his look appalled her. Yet some strange
force within her awoke as it were in answer to her need. She flung
fear aside. She had done the only thing possible, and she would
not look back.
"You must believe me--now!" she panted. "You do believe me!"
His hold became a grip, merciless, fierce, tightening upon her like
a dosing trap. "Why should I believe you?" he said, and there was
that in his voice that was harder to bear than his look. "Have I
any special reason for believing you? Have you ever given me one?"
"You know me," she said, with a sinking heart.
He uttered a scoffing sound too bitter to be called a laugh. "Do I
know you? Have I ever been as near to you as this devil who has
made himself notorious with Kaffir women for as long as he has been
She flinched momentarily from the stark cruelty of his words. But
she faced him still, faced him though every instinct of her
womanhood shrank with a dread unspeakable.
"You know me," she said again. "You may not know me very well, but
you know me well enough for that."
It was bravely spoken, but as she ceased to speak she felt her
strength begin to fail her. Her throat worked spasmodically,
convulsively, and a terrible tremor went through her. She saw him
as through a haze that blotted out all beside.
There fell a silence between them--a dreadful, interminable silence
that seemed to stretch into eternities. And through it very
strangely she heard the wild beating of her own heart, like the
hoofs of a galloping horse, that seemed to die away. . . .
She did not know whether she fell, or whether he lifted her, but
when the blinding mist cleared away again, she was lying in the
wicker-chair by the window, and he was walking up and down the room
with the ceaseless motion of a prowling animal. She sat up slowly
and looked at him. She was shivering all over, as if stricken with
At her movement he came and stood before her, but he did not speak.
He seemed to be watching her. Or was he waiting for something?
She could not tell; neither, as he stood there, could she look up
at him to see. Only, after a moment, she leaned forward. She
found and held his hand.
"Burke!" she said.
His fingers closed as if they would crush her own. He did not
utter a word.
She waited for a space, gathering her strength. Then, speaking
almost under her breath, she went on. "I have--something to say to
you. Please will you listen--till I have finished?"
"Go on!" he said.
Her head was bent. She went on tremulously. "You are quite
right--when you say--that you don't know me--that I have given you
no reason--no good reason--to believe in me. I have taken--a great
deal from you. And I have given--nothing in return. I see that
now. That is why you distrust me. I--have only myself to thank."
She paused a moment, but he waited in absolute silence, neither
helping nor hindering.
With a painful effort she continued. "People make
mistaken--sometimes--without knowing it. It comes to them
afterwards--perhaps too late. But--it isn't too late with me,
Burke. I am your partner--your wife. And--I never meant
to--defraud you. All I have--is yours. I--am yours."
She stopped. Her head was bowed against his hand. That dreadful
sobbing threatened to overwhelm her again, but she fought it down.
She waited quivering for his answer.
But for many seconds Burke neither moved nor spoke. The grasp of
his hand was vicelike in its rigidity. She had no key whatever to
what was passing in his mind.
Not till she had mastered herself and was sitting in absolute
stillness, did he stir. Then, very quietly, with a decision that
brooked no resistance, he took her by the chin with his free hand
and turned her face up to his own. He looked deep into her eyes.
His own were no longer ablaze, but a fitful light came and went in
them like the flare of a torch in the desert wind.
"So," he said, and his voice was curiously unsteady also; it
vibrated as if he were not wholly sure of himself, "you have made
your choice--and counted the cost?"
"Yes," she said.
He looked with greater intentness into her eyes, searching without
mercy, as if he would force his way to her very soul. "And for
whose sake this--sacrifice?" he said.
She shrank a little; for there was something intolerable in his
words. Had she really counted the cost? Her eyelids fluttered
under that unsparing look, fluttered and sank. "You will
know--some day," she whispered.
"Ah! Some day!" he said.
Again his voice vibrated. It was as if some door that led to his
innermost being had opened suddenly, releasing a savage, primitive
force which till then he had held restrained.
And in that moment it came to her that the thing she valued most in
life had been rudely torn from her. She saw that new, most
precious gift of hers that had sprung to life in the wilderness and
which she had striven so desperately to shield from harm--that holy
thing which had become dearer to her than life itself--desecrated,
broken, and lying in the dust. And it was Burke who had flung it
there, Burke who now ruthlessly trampled it underfoot.
Her throat worked again painfully for a moment or two; and then
with a great effort of the will she stilled it. This thing was
beyond tears--a cataclysm wrecking the whole structure of
existence. Neither tears nor laughter could ever be hers again.
In silence she took the cup of bitterness, and drank it to the
SAND OF THE DESERT
Donovan Kelly was out of temper. There was no denying it, though
with him such a frame of mind was phenomenal. He leaned moodily
against the door-post at the hotel-entrance, smoking a short pipe
of very strong tobacco, and speaking to no one. He had been there
for some time, and the girl in the office was watching him with
eyes round with curiosity. For he had not even said "Good morning"
to her. She wanted to accost him, but somehow the hunch of his
shoulders was too discouraging even for her. So she contented
herself with waiting developments.
There were plenty of men coming and going, but though several of
them gave him greeting as they passed, Kelly responded to none. He
seemed to be wrapped in a gloomy fog of meditation that cut him off
completely from the outside world. He was alone with himself, and
in that state he obviously intended to remain.
But the girl in the office had her own shrewd suspicions as to the
reason of his waiting there, suspicions which after the lapse of
nearly half an hour she triumphantly saw verified. For presently
through the shifting, ever-changing crowd a square-shouldered man
made his appearance, and without a glance to right or left went
straight to the big Irishman lounging in the doorway, and took him
by the shoulder.
Kelly started round with an instant smile of welcome. "Ah, and is
it yourself at last? I've been waiting a devil of a time for ye,
my son. Is all well?"
The girl in the office did not hear Burke's reply though she craned
far forward to do so. She only saw his shoulders go up slightly,
and the next moment the two men turned and entered the public
Kelly's ill-temper had gone like an early morning fog. He led the
way to a table reserved in a corner, and they sat down.
"I was half afraid ye wouldn't have anything but a kick for Donovan
this morning," he said, with a somewhat rueful smile.
Burke's own brief smile showed for a moment. "I shouldn't start on
you anyway," he said. "You found young Guy?"
Kelly made an expressive gesture. "Oh yes, I found him, him and
his master too. At Hoffstein's of course. Kieff was holding one
of his opium shows, the damn' dirty skunk. I couldn't get the boy
away, but I satisfied myself that he was innocent of this. He
never engaged a room here or had any intention of coming here.
What Kieff's intentions were I didn't enquire. But he had got the
devil's own grip on Guy last night, He could have made him
do--anything." Kelly ended with a few strong expressions which
left no doubt as to the opinion he entertained of Kieff and all his
Burke ate his breakfast in an absorbed silence. Finally he looked
up to enquire, "Have you any idea what has become of Guy this
Kelly shook his head. "Not the shadow of a notion. I shall look
for him presently on the racecourse. He seems to have found some
money to play with, for he told me he had taken two tickets for the
diamond draw, one for himself and one for another. But he was just
mad last night. The very devil had got into him. What will I do
with him if I get him?"
Burke's eyes met his for a moment. "You can do--anything you like
with him," he said.
"Ah, but he saved your life, Burke," said the Irishman pleadingly.
"It's only three days ago."
"I know what he did," said Burke briefly, both before and after
that episode. "He may think himself lucky that I have no further
use for him."
"But aren't you satisfied, Burke?" Kelly leaned forward
impulsively. "I've told you the truth. Aren't you satisfied?"
Burke's face was grim as if hewn out of rock. "Not yet," he said.
"You've told me the truth--what you know of it. But there's more
to it. I've got to know--everything before I'm satisfied."
"Ah, but sure!" protested Kelly. "Women are very queer, you know.
Ye can't tell what moves a woman. Often as not, it's something
quite different from what you'd think."
Burke was silent, continuing his breakfast.
Kelly looked at him with eyes of pathetic persuasion. "I've been
lambastin' meself all night," he burst forth suddenly, "for ever
bringing ye out on such a chase. It was foul work. I see it now.
She'd have come back to ye, Burke lad. She didn't mean any harm.
Sure, she's as pure as the stars."
Burke's grey eyes, keen as the morning light, looked suddenly
straight at him. Almost under his breath, Burke spoke. "Don't
tell me--that!" he said. "Just keep Guy out of my way! That's
Kelly sighed aloud. "And Guy'll go to perdition faster than if the
devil had kicked him. He's on his way already."
"Let him go!" said Burke.
It was his last word on the subject. Having spoken it, he gave his
attention to the meal before him, and concluded it with a
deliberate disregard for Kelly's depressed countenance that an
onlooker might have found somewhat brutal.
"What are you going to do?" asked Kelly meekly, as at length he
pushed back his chair.
Burke's eyes came to him again. He smiled faintly at the woebegone
visage before him. "Cheer up, Donovan!" he said. "You're all
right. You've had a beastly job, but you've done it decently. I'm
going back to my wife now. She breakfasted upstairs. We shall
probably make tracks this evening."
"Ah!" groaned Kelly. "Your wife'll never speak to me again after
this. And I thinking her the most charming woman in the world!"
Burke turned to go, "Don't fret yourself on that account!" he said.
"My wife will treat my friends exactly as she would treat her own."
He spoke with a confidence that aroused Kelly's admiration. "Sure,
you know how to manage a woman, don't ye, Burke, me lad?" he said.
He watched the broad figure till it was out of sight, then got up
and went out into the hot sunshine, intent upon another quest.
Burke went on steadily up the stairs till he reached the top story
where he met a servant carrying a breakfast-tray with the meal
practically untouched upon it. With a brief word Burke took the
tray himself, and went on with the same air of absolute purpose to
the door at the end of the passage.
Here, just for a moment he paused, standing in semi-darkness,
listening. Then he knocked. Sylvia's voice answered him, and he
She was dressed and standing by the window. "Oh, please, Burke!"
she said quickly, at sight of what he carried. "I can't eat
He set down the tray and looked at her. "Why did you get up?" he
Her face was flushed. There was unrest in every line of her. "I
had to get up," she said feverishly. "I can't rest here. It is so
noisy. I want to get out of this horrible place. I can't breathe
"Sit down!" said Burke.
"Oh, don't make me eat anything!" she pleaded. "I really can't. I
am sorry, but really----"
"Sit down!" he said again, and laid a steady hand upon her.
She yielded with obvious reluctance, avoiding his eyes. "I am
quite all right," she said. "Don't bully me, partner!"
Her voice quivered suddenly, and she put her hand to her throat.
Burke was pouring milk into a cap. She watched him, fighting with
"Now," he said, "you can drink this anyway. It's what you're
needing." He gave her the cup, and she took it from him without a
word. He turned away, and stood at the window, waiting.
At the end of a full minute, he spoke. "Has it gone?"
"Yes," she said.
He turned back and looked at her. She met his eyes with an effort.
"I am quite all right," she said again.
"Ready to start back?" he said.
She leaned forward in her chair, her hands clasped very tightly in
front of her. "To-day?" she said in a low voice.
"I thought you wanted to get away," said Burke.
"Yes--yes, I do." Her eyes suddenly fell before his. "I do," she
said again. "But--but--I've got--something--to ask of you--first."
"Well?" said Burke.
Her breath came quickly; her fingers were straining against each
other. "I--don't quite know--how to say it," she said.
Burke stood quite motionless, looking down at her. "Must it be
said?" he asked.
"Yes." She sat for a moment or two, mustering her strength. Then,
with an abrupt effort, she got up and faced him. "Burke, I think I
have a right to your trust," she said.
He looked straight back at her with piercing, relentless eyes. "If
we are going to talk of rights," he said, "I might claim a right to
She drew back a little, involuntarily, but the next moment,
quickly, she went to him and clasped his arm between her hands.
"Please be generous, partner!" she said. "We won't talk of rights,
either of us. You--are not--angry with me now, are you?"
He stiffened somewhat at her touch, but he did not repulse her.
"I'm afraid you won't find me in a very yielding mood," he said.
She held his arm a little more tightly, albeit her hands were
trembling. "Won't you listen to me?" she said, in a voice that
quivered. "Is there--no possibility of--of--coming to an
He drew a slow hard breath. "We have a very long way to go first,"
"I know," she answered, and her voice was quick with pain. "I
know. But--we can't go on--like this. It--just isn't bearable.
If--even if you can't understand me--Burke, won't you--won't you
try at least to give me--the benefit of the doubt?"
It was very winningly spoken, but as she spoke she leaned her head
suddenly against the arm she held and stifled a sob. "For both our
sakes!" she whispered.
But Burke stood, rigid as rock, staring straight before him into
the glaring sunlight. She did not know what was passing in his
mind; that was the trouble of it. But she felt his grim resistance
like a wall of granite, blocking her way. And the brave heart of
her sank in spite of all her courage.
He moved at last, but it was a movement of constraint. He laid his
free hand on her shoulder. "Crying won't help," he said. "I think
we had better be getting back."
And then, for the sake of the old love, she made her supreme
effort. She lifted her face; it was white to the lips, but it bore
no sign of tears. "I can't go," she said, "till--I have seen Guy."
He made a sharp gesture. "Ah!" he said. "I thought that was
"Yes, you knew it! You knew it!" Passionately she uttered the
words. "It's the one thing that's got to be settled between
us--the only thing left that counts. Yes, you mean to refuse. I
know that. But--before you refuse--wait, please wait! I am asking
it quite as much for your sake as for mine."
"And for his," said Burke, with a twist of the lips more bitter
than the words.
But she caught them up unflinching. "Yes, and for his. We've set
out to save him, you and I. And--we are not going to turn back.
Burke, I ask you to help me--I implore you to help me--in this
thing. You didn't refuse before."
"I wish to Heaven I had!" he said, "I might have known how it would
"No--no! And you owe him your life too. Don't forget that! He
saved you. Are you going to let him sink--after that?" She reached
up and held him by the shoulders, imploring him with all her soul.
"You can't do it! Oh, you can't do it!" she said. "It isn't--you."
He looked at her with a certain doggedness. "Not your conception
of me perhaps," he said, and suddenly his arms closed about her
quivering form. "But--am I--the sort of man you have always taken
me to be? Tell me! Am I?"
She turned her face aside, hiding it against his shoulder. "I
know--what you can be," she said faintly.
"Yes." Grimly he answered her. "You've seen the ugly side of me
at last, and it's that that you are up against now." He paused a
moment, then very sombrely he ended. "I might force you to tell me
the whole truth of this business, but I shall not--simply because I
don't want to hear it now. I know very well he's been making love
to you, tempting you. But I am going to put the infernal matter
away, and forget it--as far as possible. We may never reach the
top of the world now, but we'll get out of this vile slough at any
cost. You won't find me hard to live with if you only play the
game,--and put that damned scoundrel out of your mind for good."
"And do you think I shall ever be able to forgive you?" She lifted
her head with an unexpectedness that was almost startling. Her
eyes were alight, burning with a ruddy fire out of the whiteness of
her face. She spoke as she had never spoken before. It was as if
some strange force had entered into and possessed her. "Do you
think I shall ever forget--even if you do? Perhaps I am not enough
to you now to count in that way. You think--perhaps--that a slave
is all you want, and that partnership, comradeship, friendship,
doesn't count. You are willing to sacrifice all that now, and to
sacrifice him with it. But how will it be--afterwards? Will a
slave be any comfort to you when things go wrong--as they surely
will? Will it satisfy you to feel that my body is yours when my
soul is so utterly out of sympathy, out of touch, that I shall be
in spirit a complete stranger to you? Ah yes," her voice rang on a
deep note of conviction that could not be restrained--"you think
you won't care. But you will--you will. A time will come when you
will feel you would gladly give everything you possess to undo what
you are doing to-day. You will be sick at heart, lonely,
disillusioned, suspicious of me and of everybody. You will see the
horrible emptiness of it all, and you will yearn for better things.
But it will be too late then. What once we fling away never comes
again to us. We shall be too far apart by that time, too
hopelessly estranged, ever to be more to each other than what we
are at this moment--master and slave. Through all our lives we
shall never be more than that."
She ceased to speak, and the fire went out of her eyes. She
drooped in his hold as if all her strength had gone from her.
He turned and put her steadily down into the chair again. He had
heard her out without a sign of emotion, and he betrayed none then.
He did not speak a word. But his silence said more to her than
speech. It was as the beginning of a silence which was to last
between them for as long as they lived.
She sank back exhausted with closed eyes. The struggle--that long,
fierce battle for Guy's soul--was over. And she had failed. Her
prayers had been in vain. All her desperate effort had been
fruitless, and nothing seemed to matter any more. She told herself
that she would never be able to pray again. Her faith had died in
the mortal combat. And there was nothing left to pray for. She
was tired to the very soul of her, tired unto death; but she knew
she would not die. For death was rest, and there could be no rest
for her until the days of her slavery were accomplished. The sand
of the desert would henceforth be her portion. The taste of it was
in her mouth. The desolation of it encompassed her spirit.
Two scalding tears forced their way through her closed lids and ran
down her white cheeks. She did not stir to wipe them away. She
hoped he did not see them. They were the only tears she shed.
THE SKELETON TREE
"Ah, Mrs. Burke, and is it yourself that I see again? Sure, and
it's a very great pleasure!" Kelly, his face crimson with
embarrassment and good-will, took the hand Sylvia offered and held
it hard. "A very great pleasure!" he reiterated impressively,
before he let it go.
She smiled at him as one smiles at a shy child. "Thank you, Mr.
Kelly," she said.
"Ah, but you'll call me Donovan," he said persuasively, "the same
as everyone else! So you've come to Brennerstadt after all! And
is it the diamond ye're after?"
She shook her head. They were standing on a balcony that led out
of the public smoking-room, an awning over their heads and the open
street at their feet. It was from the street that he had spied
her, and the sight of her piteous, white face with its deeply
shadowed eyes had gone straight to his impulsive Irish heart.
"No," she said. "We are not bothering about the diamond. I think
we shall probably start back to Ritzen to-night."
"Ah now, ye might stay one day longer and try your luck," wheedled
the Irishman. "The Fates would be sure to favour ye. Where's
"I don't know." She spoke very wearily. "He left me here to rest.
But it's so dusty--and airless--and noisy."
Kelly gave her a swift, keen look. "Come for a ride!" he said.
"A ride!" She raised her heavy eyes with a momentary eagerness, but
it was gone instantly. "He--might not like me to go," she said.
"Besides, I haven't a horse."
"That's soon remedied," said Kelly. "I've got a lamb of a horse to
carry ye. And he wouldn't care what ye did in my company. He
knows me. Leave him a note and come along! He'll understand.
It's a good gallop that ye're wanting. Come along and get it!"
Kelly could be quite irresistible when he chose, and he had
evidently made up his mind to comfort the girl's forlornness so far
as in him lay. She yielded to him with the air of being too
indifferent to do otherwise. But Kelly had seen that moment's
eagerness, and he built on that.
A quarter of an hour later they met again in the sweltering street,
and he complimented her in true Irish fashion upon the rose-flush
in her cheeks. He saw that she looked about uneasily as she
mounted, but with unusual tact he omitted to comment upon the fact.
The sun was slanting towards the west as they rode away. The
streets were crowded, but Kelly knew all the short cuts, and guided
her unerringly till they reached the edge of the open _veldt_.
Then, "Come along!" he cried. "Let's gallop!"
The sand flew out behind them, the parched air rushed by, and the
blood quickened in Sylvia's veins. She felt as if she had left an
overwhelming burden behind her in the town. The great open spaces
drew her with their freedom and their vastness. She went with the
flight of a bird. It was like the awakening from a dreadful dream.
They drew rein in the shadow of a tall _kopje_ that rose abruptly
from the plain like a guardian of the solitudes. Kelly was
laughing with a boy's hearty merriment.
"Faith, but ye can ride!" he cried, with keen appreciation, "Never
saw a prettier spectacle in me life. Was it born in the saddle ye
She laughed in answer, but her heart gave a quick throb of pain.
It was the first real twinge of homesickness she had known, and for
a moment it was almost intolerable. Ah, the fresh-turned earth and
the shining furrows, and the sweet spring rain in her face! And
the sun of the early morning that shone through a scud of clouds!
"My father and I used to ride to hounds," she said. "We loved it."
"I've done it meself in the old country," said Kelly. "But ye can
ride farther here. There's more room before ye reach the horizon."
Sylvia stifled a quick sigh. "Yes, it's a fine country. At least
it ought to be. Yet I sometimes feel as if there is something
lacking. I don't know quite what it is, but it's the quality that
makes one feel at home."
"That'll come," said Kelly, with confidence. "You wait till the
spring! That gets into your veins like wine. Ye'll feel the magic
of it then. It's life itself."
Sylvia turned her face up to the brazen sky. "I must wait for the
spring then," she said, half to herself. And then very suddenly
she became aware of the kindly curiosity of her companion's survey
and met it with a slight heightening of colour.
There was a brief silence before, in a low voice, she said, "We
can't--all of us--afford to wait."
"You can," said Kelly promptly.
She shook her head. "I don't think by the time the spring comes
that there will be much left worth having."
"Ah, but ye don't know," said Kelly. "You say that because you
can't see all the flowers that are hiding down below. But you
might as well believe in 'em all the same, for they're there all
right, and they'll come up quick enough when God gives the word."
Sylvia looked around her over the barren land. "Are there flowers
here?" she said.
"Millions," said Kelly. "Millions and millions. Why, if you were
to come along here in a few weeks' time ye'd be trampling them
underfoot they'd be so thick, such flowers as only grow here, on
the top of the world."
"The top of the world!" She looked at him as if startled. "Is that
what you call--this place?"
He laughed. "Ye don't believe me! Well, wait--wait and see!"
She turned her horse's head, and began to walk round the _kopje_.
Kelly kept pace beside her. He was not quite so talkative as
usual, but it was with obvious effort that he restrained himself,
for several times words sprang to his eager lips which he swallowed
unuttered. He seemed determined that the next choice of a subject
should be hers.
And after a few moments he was rewarded. Sylvia spoke.
"Sure, at your service--now and always!" he responded with a warmth
that no amount of self-restraint could conceal.
She turned towards him. "You have been very kind to me, and I
want--I should like--to tell you something. But it's something
very, very private. Will you--will you promise me----"
"Sure and I will!" vowed the Irishman instantly. "I'll swear the
solemn oath if it'll make ye any happier."
"No, you needn't do that." She held out her hand to him with a
gesture that was girlishly impulsive. "I know I can trust you.
And I feel you will understand. It's about--Guy."
"Ah, there now! Didn't I know it?" said Kelly. He held her hand
tight for a moment, looking into her eyes, his own brimful of
"Yes. You know--all about him." She spoke with some hesitation
notwithstanding. "You know---just as I do--that he isn't--isn't
really bad; only--only so hopelessly weak."
There was a little quiver in her voice as she said the words. She
looked at him with appeal in her eyes.
"I know," said Kelly.
With a slight effort she went on. "He--Burke--thinks otherwise.
And because of that, he won't let me see Guy again. He is very
angry with me--I doubt if he will ever really forgive me--for
following Guy to this place. But,--Mr. Kelly,--I had a reason--an
urgent reason for doing this. I hoped to be back again before he
found out; but everything was against me."
"Ah! Didn't I know it?" said Kelly. "It's the way of the world in
an emergency. Nothing ever goes right of itself."
She smiled rather wanly. "Life can be--rather cruel," she said.
"Something is working against me. I can feel it. I have forfeited
all Burke's respect and his confidence at a stroke. He will never
trust me again. And Guy--Guy will simply go under."
"No--no!" said Kelly. "Don't you believe it! He'll come round and
lead a decent life after this; you'll see. There's nothing
whatever to worry about over Guy. No real vice in him!"
It was a kindly lie, stoutly spoken; but it failed to convince.
Sylvia shook her head even while, he was speaking.
"You don't know all yet. I haven't told you. But I will tell
you--if you will listen. Once when Burke and I were talking of
Guy--it was almost the first time--he said that he had done almost
everything bad except one thing. He had never robbed him. And
somehow I felt that so long as there was that one great exception
he would not regard him as utterly beyond redemption. But now--but
now--" her voice quivered again--"well, even that can't be said of
him now," she said.
"What? He has taken money?" Kelly looked at her in swift dismay.
"Ye don't mean that!" he said. And then quickly: "Are ye sure now
it wasn't Kieff?"
"Yes." She spoke with dreary conviction. "I am fairly sure
Kieff's at the back of it, but--it was Guy who did it, thanks to my
"Yours!" Kelly's eyes bulged. "Ye don't mean that!" he said again.
"Yes, it's true." Drearily she answered him. "Burke left the key
of the strong-box in my keeping on the day of the sand-storm. I
dropped it in the dark. I was hunting for it when you came.
Then--I forgot it. Afterwards, you remember, Burke and Guy came in
together. He must have found it--somehow--then."
"He did!" said Kelly suddenly. "Faith, he did! Ye remember when
he had that attack? He picked up something then--on the floor
against his foot. I saw him do it, the fool that I am! He'd got
it in his hand when we helped him up, and I never noticed,--never
thought. The artful young devil!"
A hint of admiration sounded in his voice. Kelly the simple-minded
had ever been an admirer of art.
Sylvia went on very wearily. "The box was kept in a cupboard in
the room he was sleeping in. The rest was quite easy. He left the
key behind him in the lock. I found it after you and Burke had
gone to the Merstons'. I guessed what had happened of course. I
went round to his hut, but it was all fastened up as usual. Then I
went to Piet Vreiboom's." She shuddered suddenly. "I saw Kieff as
well as Vreiboom. They seemed hugely amused at my appearance, and
told me Guy was just ahead on the way to Brennerstadt. It was too
late to ride the whole way, so I went to Ritzen, hoping to find him
there. But I could get no news of him, so I came on by train in
the morning. I ought to have got here long ago, but the engine
broke down. We were held up for hours, and so I arrived--too late."
The utter dreariness of her speech went straight to Kelly's heart.
"Ah, there now--there now!" he said. "If I'd only known I'd have
followed and helped ye that night."
"You see, I didn't know you were coming back," she said. "And
anyhow I couldn't have waited. I had to start at once. It was--my
job." She smiled faintly, a smile that was sadder than tears.
"And do ye know what happened?" said Kelly. "Did Burke tell ye
She shook her head. "No. He told me very little. I suppose he
concluded that we had run away together."
"Ah no! That wasn't his doing," said Kelly, paused a moment, then
plunged valiantly at the truth. "That was mine. I thought so
meself--foul swine as ye may very well call me. Kieff told me
so--the liar; and I--like a blasted fool--believed it. At least,
no, I didn't right at the heart of me, Mrs. Ranger. I knew what ye
were, just the same as I know now. But I'd seen ye look into his
eyes when ye begged him off the brandy-bottle, and I knew the
friendship between ye wasn't just the ordinary style of thing; no
more is it. But it was that devil Kieff that threw the mud. I
found him waiting that night when I got back. He was waiting for
Burke, he said; and his story was that he and Vreiboom had seen the
pair of ye eloping. I nearly murdered him at the time. Faith, I
wish I had!" ended Kelly pathetically, with tears in his eyes. "It
would have stopped a deal of mischief both now and hereafter."
"Never mind!" said Sylvia gently. "You couldn't tell. You hadn't
known me more than a few hours."
"It was long enough!" vowed Kelly. "Anyway, Burke ought to have
known better. He's known you longer than that."
"He has never known me," she said quietly. "Of course he believed
"He doesn't believe it now," said Kelly quickly.
A little quiver went over her face. "Perhaps not. I don't know
what he believes, or what he will believe when he finds the money
gone. That is what I want to prevent--if only I can prevent it.
It is Guy's only chance. What he did was done wickedly enough, but
it was at a time of great excitement, when he was not altogether
master of himself. But unless it can be undone, he will go right
down--and never come up again. Oh, don't you see--" a sudden throb
sounded in her tired voice--"that if once Burke knows of this,
Guy's fate is sealed? There is no one else to help him.
Besides,--it wasn't all his own doing. It was Kieff's. And away
from Kieff, he is so different."
"Ah! But how to get him away from Kieff!" said Kelly. "The
fellow's such a damn' blackguard. Once he takes hold, he never
lets go till he's got his victim sucked dry."
Sylvia shuddered. "Can't you do anything?" she said.
Kelly looked at her with his honest kindly eyes, "If it were me,
Mrs. Ranger," he said, "I should tell me husband the whole
truth--and--let him deal with it."
She shook her head instantly. "It would be the end of everything
for Guy. Even if Burke let him off, he could never come back to
us. It would be as bad as sending him to prison--or even worse."
"Not it!" said Kelly. "You don't trust Burke. It's a pity. He's
such a fine chap. But look here, I'll do me best, I'll get hold of
young Guy and make him disgorge. How much did the young ruffian
"I don't know. That's the hopeless part of it. That is why I must
see him myself."
Kelly pursed his lips for a moment, but the next he smiled upon
her, "All right. I'll manage somehow. But you mustn't go
to-night. You tell Burke you're too tired. He'll understand."
"Do you know where Guy is?" she said.
"Oh yes, I can put me hand on the young divil if I want him. You
leave that to me! I'll do me best all round. Now--suppose we have
another trot, and then go back!"
Sylvia turned her horse's head. "I'm--deeply grateful to you, Mr.
Kelly," she said.
"Donovan!" insinuated Kelly.
She smiled a little. She seemed almost more piteous to him when
she smiled. "Donovan," she said.
"Ah, that's better!" he declared. "That does me good. To be a
friend of both of ye is what I want. Burke and you together!
Ye're such a fine pair, and just made for each other, faith, made
for each other. When I saw you, Mrs. Burke, I didn't wonder that
he'd fallen in love at last. I give ye me word, I didn't. And
I'll never forget the look on his face when he thought he'd lost
ye; never as long as I live. It--it was as if he'd been stabbed to
Tactless, clumsy, sentimental, he sought to pour balm upon the
wounded spirit of this girl with her tragic eyes that should have
held only the glad sunshine of youth. It hurt him to see her thus,
hurt him unspeakably, and he knew himself powerless to comfort.
Yet with that odd womanly tenderness of his, he did his best.
He wondered what she was thinking of as she sat her horse, gazing
out over the wide spaces, so wearily and yet so intently. She did
not seem to have heard his last remarks, or was that merely the
impression she desired to convey? A vague uneasiness took
possession of him. He did not like her to look like that.
"Shall we move on?" he said gently.
She pointed suddenly across the _veldt_. "I want to ride as far as
that skeleton tree," she said. "Don't come with me! I shall catch
you up if you ride slowly."
"Right!" said Kelly, and watched her lift her bridle and ride away.
He would have done anything to oblige her just then; but his
curiosity was whetted to a keen edge. For she rode swiftly, as one
who had a definite aim in view. Straight as an arrow across the
_veldt_ she went to the skeleton tree with its stripped trunk and
stark, outflung arms that seemed the very incarnation of the
Here she checked her animal, and sat for a moment with closed eyes,
the evening sunlight pouring over her. Very strangely she was
trembling from head to foot, as if in the presence of a vision upon
which she dared not look. She had returned as she had always meant
to return--but ah, the dreary desert spaces and the cruel roughness
of the road! Her husband's words uttered only a few hours before
came back upon her as she stood there. "We may never reach the top
of the world now," No, they would never reach it. Had anyone ever
done so, she wondered drearily? But yet they had been near it
once--nearer than many. Did that count for nothing?
It seemed to her that aeons had passed over her since last she had
stood beneath that tree. She had been a girl then, ardent and full
of courage. Now she was a woman, old and very tired, and there was
nothing left in life. It was almost as if she had ceased to live.
But yet she had come back to the starting-point, and here, as if
standing beside a grave and reading the inscription to one long
dead, she opened her eyes in the last glow of the sunshine to read
the words which Burke had cut into the bare wood on the evening of
his wedding-day. She remembered how she had waited for him, the
tumult of doubt, of misgiving, in her soul, how she had wished he
would not linger in that desolate place. Now, out of the midst of
a desolation to which this sandy waste was as nothing, she searched
with almost a feeling of awe as one about to read a message from
The bare, bleached trunk of the tree shone strangely in the sinking
sun, faintly tinted with rose. The world all around her was
changing; slowly, imperceptibly, changing. A tender lilac glow was
creeping over the _veldt_. A curious sensation came upon Sylvia,
as if she were moving in a dream, as if she were stepping into a
new world and the old had fallen from her. The bitterness had
lifted from her spirit. Her heart beat faster. She was a
treasure-seeker on the verge of a great discovery. Trembling, she
lifted her eyes. . . .
There on the smooth wood, like a scroll upon a marble pillar, were
words, rough-hewn but unmistakable--_Fide et Amore_. . . .
It was as if a voice had spoken in her soul, a dear, insistent
voice, bidding her begone. She obeyed, scarcely knowing what she
did. Back across the dusty _veldt_ she rode, moving as one in a
trance. She joined the Irishman waiting for her, but she looked at
him with eyes that saw not.
"Well?" he said, frankly curious. "Did you find anything?"
She started a little, and came out of her dream. "I found what I
was looking for," she said.
"What was it?" Kelly was keenly interested; there was no checking
him now, he was like a hound on the scent.
She did not resent his questions. That was Kelly's privilege. But
neither did she answer him as fully as he could have wished. "I
found out," she said slowly, after a moment, "how to get to the top
of the world."
"Ah, really now!" said Kelly, opening his eyes to their widest
extent. "And are ye going to pack your bag and go?"
She smiled very faintly, looking, straight before her. "No. It's
too late now," she said. "I've missed the way. So has Burke."
"But ye'll try again--ye'll try again!" urged Kelly, eager as a
child for the happy ending of a fairy-tale.
She shook her head. Her lips were quivering, but still she made
them smile. "Not that way. I am afraid it's barred," she said,
and with the words she touched her horse with her heel and rode
quickly forward towards the town.
Donovan followed her with a rueful countenance. There were times
when even he felt discouraged with the world.
"Good evening, Mrs. Ranger!"
Sylvia started at the sound of a cool, detached voice as she
re-entered the hotel. Two eyes, black as onyx and as
expressionless, looked coldly into hers. A chill shudder ran
through her. She glanced instinctively back at Kelly, who came
forward instantly in his bulky, protective fashion.
"Hullo, Kieff! What are you doing here? Gambling for the diamond?"
"I?" said Kieff, with a stretching of his thin, colourless lips
that was scarcely a smile. "I don't gamble for diamonds, my good
Kelly. Well, Mrs. Ranger, I hope you had a pleasant journey here."
"He gambles for souls," was the thought in Sylvia's mind, as with a
quick effort she controlled herself and passed on in icy silence.
She would never voluntarily speak to Kieff again. He was an open
enemy; and she turned from him with the same loathing that she
would have shown for a reptile in her path.
His laugh--that horrible, slippery sound--followed her. He said
something in Dutch to the man who lounged beside him, and at once
another laugh--Piet Vreiboom's--bellowed forth like the blare of a
bull. She flinched in spite of herself. Every nerve shrank. Yet
the next moment, superbly, she wheeled and faced them. There was
something intolerable in that laughter, something that stung her
"Tell me," she commanded Kelly, "tell me what
these--gentlemen--find about me to laugh at!"
Her face was white as death, but her eyes shone red as leaping
flame. She was terrible in that moment--terrible as a lioness at
bay--and the laughter died. Piet Vreiboom slunk a little back, his
low brows working uneasily.
Kelly swallowed an oath in his throat; his hands were clenched.
But Kieff, in a voice smooth as oil, made ready, mocking answer.
"Oh, not at you, madam! Heaven forbid! What could any man find to
smile at in such a model of virtuous propriety as yourself?"
He was baiting her openly, and she knew it. An awful wave of anger
surged through her brain, such anger as had never before possessed
her. For the moment she felt sick, as if she had drunk of some
overpowering drug. He meant to humiliate her publicly. She
realized it in a flash. And she was powerless to prevent it.
Whether she went or whether she stayed, he would accomplish his
end. Among all the strange faces that stared at her, only Kelly's,
worried and perplexed, betrayed the smallest concern upon her
account. And he, since her unexpected action, had been obviously
at a loss as to how to deal with the situation or with her.
Single-handed, he would have faced the pack; but with her at his
side he was hopelessly hampered, afraid of blundering and making
"Ah, come away!" he muttered to her. "It's not the place for ye at
all. They're hogs and swine, the lot of 'em. Don't ye be drawn by
the likes of them!"
But she stood her ground, for there was hot blood in Sylvia and a
fierce pride that would not tamely suffer outrage. Moreover, she
had been wounded cruelly, and the desire for vengeance welled up
furiously within her. Now that she stood in the presence of her
enemy, the impulse to strike back, however futile the blow, urged
her and would not be denied.
She confronted Saul Kieff with tense determination. "You will
either repeat--and explain--what you said to your friend regarding
me just now," she said, in tones that rang fearlessly, echoing
through the crowded place, "or you will admit yourself a
contemptible coward for vilely slandering a woman whom you know to
It was regally spoken. She stood splendidly erect, facing him,
withering him from head to foot with the scorching fire of her
scorn. A murmur of sympathy went through the rough crowd of men
gathered before her. One or two cursed Kieff in a growling
undertone. But Kieff himself remained absolutely unmoved. He was
smoking a cigarette and he inhaled several deep breaths before he
replied to her challenge. Then, with his basilisk eyes fixed
immovably upon her, as it were clinging to her, he made his deadly
answer: "I will certainly tell you what I said, madam, since you
desire it. But the explanation is one which surely only you can
give. I said to my friend, 'There goes the wife of the Rangers.'
Did I make a mistake?"
"Yes, you damned hound, you did!" The voice that uttered the words
came from the door that led into the office. Burke Ranger swung
suddenly out upon them, moving with a kind of massive force that
carried purpose in every line. Men drew themselves together as he
passed them with the instinctive impulse to leave his progress
unimpeded; for this man would have forced his way past every
obstacle at that moment. He went straight for his objective
without a glance to right or left.
Sylvia started back at his coming. That which her enemy could not
do was accomplished by her husband by neither word nor look. The
regal poise went out of her bearing. She shrank against Kelly as
if seeking refuge. For she had seen Burke's eyes, as she had seen
them the night before; and they were glittering with the lust for
blood. They were the eyes of a murderer.
Straight to Kieff he came, and Kieff waited for him, quite
motionless, with thin lips drawn back, showing a snarling gleam of
teeth. But just as Burke reached him he moved. His right arm shot
forth with a serpentine ferocity, and in a flash the muzzle of a
revolver gleamed between them.
"Hands up, if you please, Mr. Ranger!" he said smoothly. "We shall
talk better that way."
But for once in his life he had made a miscalculation, and the next
instant he realized it. He had reckoned without the blunderer
Kelly. For a fierce oath broke from the Irishman at sight of the
weapon, and in the same second he beat it down with the stock of
his riding-whip with a force that struck it out of Kieff's grasp.
It spun along the floor to Sylvia's feet, and she stooped and
snatched it up.
Burke did not so much as glance round. He had Kieff by the collar
of his coat, and the fate of the revolver was obviously a matter of
no importance to him. "Give me that horse-whip of yours, Donovan!"
Kelly complied with the childlike obedience he invariably yielded
to Burke. Then he fell back to Sylvia, and very gently took the
revolver out of her clenched hand.
She looked at him, her eyes wide, terror-stricken. "He will kill
him!" she said, in a voiceless whisper.
"Not a bit of it," said Kelly, and put his arm around her. "These
poisonous vermin don't die so easy. Pity they don't."
And then began the most terrible scene that Sylvia had ever looked
upon. No one intervened between Burke and his victim. There was
even a look of brutal satisfaction upon some of the faces around.
Piet Vreiboom openly gloated, as if he were gazing upon a spectacle
of rare delight.
And Burke thrashed Kieff, thrashed him with all the weight of his
manhood's strength, forced him staggering up and down the open
space that had been cleared for that awful reckoning, making a
public show of him, displaying him to every man present as a
crawling, contemptible thing that not one of them would have owned
as friend. It was a ghastly chastisement, made deadly by the
hatred that backed it. Kieff writhed this way and that, but he
never escaped the swinging blows. They followed him
mercilessly,--all the more mercilessly for his struggles. His coat
tore out at the seams and was ripped to rags. And still Burke
thrashed him, his face grim and terrible and his eyes shot red and
gleaming--as the eyes of a murderer.
In the end Kieff stumbled and pitched forward upon his knees, his
arms sprawling helplessly out before him. It was characteristic of
the man that he had not uttered a sound; only as Burke stayed his
hand his breathing came with a whistling noise through the tense
silence, as of a wounded animal brought to earth. His face was
Burke held him so for a few seconds, then deliberately dropped the
horse-whip and grasped him with both hands, lifting him. Kieff's
head was sunk forward. He looked as if he would faint. But
inexorably Burke dragged him to his feet and turned him till he
stood before Sylvia.
She was leaning against Kelly with her hands over her face.
Relentlessly Burke's voice broke the silence.
"Now," he said briefly, "you will apologize to my wife for
She uncovered her face and raised it. There was shrinking horror
in her look. "Oh, Burke!" she said. "Let him go!"
"You will--apologize," Burke said again very insistently, with
There was a dreadful pause. Kieff's breathing was less laboured,
but it was painfully uneven and broken. His lips twitched
convulsively. They seemed to be trying to form words, but no words
Burke waited, and several seconds dragged away. Then suddenly from
the door of the office the girl who had received Sylvia the
previous evening emerged.
She carried a glass. "Here you are!" she said curtly. "Give him
There was neither pity nor horror in her look. Her eyes dwelt upon
Burke with undisguised admiration.
"You've given him a good dose this time," she remarked. "Serve him
right--the dirty hound! Hope it'll be a lesson to the rest of
'em," and she shot a glance at Piet Vreiboom which was more
eloquent than words.
She held the glass to Kieff's lips with a contemptuous air, and
when he had drunk she emptied the dregs upon the floor and marched
back into the office.
"Now," Burke said again, "you will apologize."
And so at last in a voice so low as to be barely audible, Saul
Kieff, from whose sneer all women shrank as from the sting of a
scorpion, made unreserved apology to the girl he had plotted to
ruin. At Burke's behest he withdrew the vile calumny he had
launched against her, and he expressed his formal regret for the
malice that had prompted it.
When Burke let him go, no one attempted to offer him help. There
was probably not a man present from whom he would have accepted it.
He slunk away like a wounded beast, staggering, but obviously
intent upon escape, and the gathering shadows of the coming night
A murmur as of relief ran round the circle of spectators he left
behind, and in a moment, as it were automatically, the general
attention was turned upon Sylvia. She was still leaning against
Kelly, her death-white face fixed and rigid. Her eyes were closed.
Burke went to her. "Come!" he said. "We will go up."
Her eyes opened. She looked straight at him, seeing none beside.
"Was that how you treated Guy?" she said.
He laid an imperative hand upon her. "Come!" he said again.
She made a movement as though to evade him, and then suddenly she
faltered. Her eyes grew wide and dark. She threw out her hands
with a groping gesture as if stricken blind, and fell straight
Burke caught her, held her for a moment; then as she sank in his
arms he lifted her, and bore her away.
THE EVIL THING
When Sylvia opened her eyes again she was lying in the chair by the
open window where she had waited so long the previous evening. Her
first impression was that she was alone, and then with a sudden
stabbing sense of fear she realized Burke's presence.
He was standing slightly behind her, so that the air might reach
her, but leaning forward, watching her intently. With a gasp she
looked up into his eyes.
He put his hand instantly upon her, reassuring her. "All right.
It's all right," he said.
Both tone and touch were absolutely gentle, but she shrank from
him, shrank and quivered with a nervous repugnance that she was
powerless to control. He took his hand away and turned aside.
She spoke then, her voice quick and agitated. "Don't go! Please
He came and stood in front of her, and she saw that his face was
grim. "What is the matter?" he said. "Surely you don't object to
a serpent like that getting his deserts for once!"
She met his look with an effort. "Oh, it's not that--not that!"
"What then? You object to me being the executioner?" He spoke
curtly, through lips that had a faintly cynical twist.
She could not answer him; only after a moment she sat up, holding
to the arms of the chair. "Forgive me for being foolish!" she
said. "I--you gave me--rather a fright, you know. I've never seen
you--like that before. I felt--it was a horrible feeling--as if
you were a stranger. But--of course--you are you--just the same.
She faltered over the words, his look was so stern, so forbidding.
She seemed to be trying to convince herself against her own
His eyes met hers relentlessly. "Yes, I am myself--and no one
else," he said. "I fancy you have never quite realized me before.
Possibly you have deliberately blinded yourself. But you know me
now, and it is as well that you should. It is the only way to an
She blenched a little in spite of herself. "And you--and
you--once--thrashed--Guy," she said, her voice very low, sunk
almost to a whisper. "Was it--was it--was it like--that?"
He turned sharply away as if there were something intolerable in
the question. He went to the window and stood there in silence.
And very oddly at that moment the memory of Kelly's assurance went
through her that he had been fond of Guy. She did not believe it,
yet just for the moment it influenced her. It gave her strength.
She got up, and went to his side.
"Burke," she said tremulously, "promise me--please promise me--that
you will never do that again!"
He gave her a brief, piercing glance. "If he keeps out of my way,
I shan't run after him," he said.
"No--no! But even if he doesn't--" she clasped her hands hard
together--"Burke, even if he doesn't--and even though he has
disappointed you--wronged you--oh, have you no pity? Can't
He turned abruptly and faced her. "Forgive him for making love to
you?" he said. "Is that what you are asking?"
She shivered at the question. "At least you won't--punish him like
that--whatever he has done," she said.
He was looking full at her. "You want my promise on that?" he said.
"Yes, oh yes." Very earnestly she made reply though his eyes were
as points of steel, keeping her back. "I know you will keep a
promise. Please--promise me that!"
"Yes," he said drily. "I keep my promises. He can testify to
that. So can you. But if I promise you this, you must make me a
"What is it?" she said.
"Simply that you will never have anything more to do with him
without my knowledge--and consent." He uttered the words with the
same pitiless distinctness as had characterized his speech when
dictating to Kieff.
She drew sharply. "Oh, but why--why ask such a promise of me when
you have only just proved your own belief in me?"
"How have I done that?" he said.
"By taking my part before all those horrible men downstairs." She
suppressed a hard shudder. "By--defending my honour."
Burke's face remained immovable. "I was defending my own," he
said. "I should have done that--in any case."
She made a little hopeless movement with her hands and dropped them
to her sides. "Oh, how hard you are!" she said, "How hard--and how
He lifted his shoulders slightly, and turned away in silence.
Perhaps there was more of forbearance in that silence than she
He did not ask her where she had been with Kelly or comment upon
the fact that she had been out at all. Only after a brief pause he
told her that they would not leave till the following day as he had
some business to attend to. Then to her relief he left her. At
least he had promised that he would not go in search of Guy!
Later in the evening, a small packet was brought to her which she
found to contain some money in notes wrapped in a slip of paper on
which was scrawled a few words.
"I have done my best with young G., but he is rather out of hand
for the present. I enclose the 'loan.' Just put it back, and
don't worry any more. Yours, D. K."
She put the packet away with a great relief at her heart. That
danger then, had been averted. There yet remained a chance for
Guy. He was not--still he was not--quite beyond redemption. If
only--ah, if only--she could have gone to Burke with the whole
story! But Burke had become a stranger to her. She had begun to
wonder if she had ever really known him. His implacability
frightened her almost more than his terrible vindictiveness. She
felt that she could never again turn to him with confidence.
That silence that lay between them was like an ever-widening gulf
severing them ever more and more completely. She believed that
they would remain strangers for the rest of their lives. Very
curiously, those three words which she had read upon the tree
served to strengthen this conviction. They were, indeed, to her as
a message from the dead. The man who had written them had ceased
to exist. Guy might have written them in the old days, but his
likeness to Guy was no more. She saw them both now with a
distinctness that was almost cruel--the utter weakness of the one,
the merciless strength of the other. And in the bitterness of her
soul she marvelled that either of them had ever managed to reach
That could never be so again, so she told herself. The power to
love had been wrested from her. The object of her love had turned
into a monstrous demon of jealousy from which now she shrank more
and more--though she might never escape. Yes, she had loved them
both, and still her compassion lingered pitifully around the
thought of Guy. But for Burke she had only a shrinking that almost
amounted to aversion. He had slain her love. She even believed
she was beginning to hate him.
She dreaded the prospect of another long day spent at Brennerstadt.
It was the day of the diamond draw, too. The place would be a
seething tumult. She was so unutterably tired. She thought with a
weary longing of Blue Hill Farm. At least she would find a measure
of peace there, though healing were denied her. This place had
become hateful to her, an inferno of vice and destruction. She
yearned to leave it.
Something of this yearning she betrayed on the following morning
when Burke told her that he was making arrangements to leave by the
evening train for Ritzen.
"Can't we go sooner?" she said.
He looked at her as if surprised by the question. "There is a
train at midday," he said. "But it is not a good time for
"Oh, let us take it!" she said feverishly. "Please let us take it!
We might get back to the farm by to-night then."
He had sent his horse back to Ritzen the previous day in the care
of a man he knew, so that both their animals would be waiting for
"Do you want to get back?" said Burke.
"Oh, yes--yes! Anything is better than this." She spoke rapidly,
almost passionately. "Let us go! Do let us go!"
"Very well," said Burke. "If you wish it."
He paused at the door of the office a few minutes later, when they
descended, to tell the girl there that they were leaving at noon.
She looked up at him sharply as he stood looking in. "Heard the
latest?" she asked.
"What is the latest?" questioned Burke.
"That dirty dog you thrashed last night--Kieff; he's dead," she
told him briefly. "Killed himself with an overdose of opium, died
at Hoffstein's early this morning." She glanced beyond him at
Sylvia who stood behind. "And a good job, too," she said
vindictively. "He's ruined more people in this town than I'd like
to be responsible for--the filthy parasite. He was the curse of
Burke turned with a movement that was very deliberate. He also
looked at Sylvia. For a long moment they stood so, in the man's
eyes a growing hardness, in the woman's a horror undisguised.
Then, with a very curious smile, Burke put his hand through his
wife's arm and turned her towards the room where breakfast awaited
"Come and have something to eat, partner!" he said, his voice very
level and emotionless.
She went with him without a word; but her whole being throbbed and
quivered under his touch as if it were torture to her. Stark and
hideous, the evil thing reared itself in her path, and there was no
turning aside. She saw him, as she had seen him on the night of
her arrival, as she had seen him the night after, as she believed
that she would always see him for the rest of her life. And the
eyes that looked into hers--those eyes that had held her, dominated
her, charmed her--were the eyes of a murderer. Go where she would,
there could be no escape for her for ever. The evil thing had her
THE LAND OF BLASTED HOPES
They were still at breakfast when Kelly came dashing in full of the
news of the death of Kieff. No one knew whether it had been
accidental or intentional, but he spoke--as the girl in the office
had spoken--as if a curse had been lifted from the town. And
Sylvia sat at the table and listened, feeling as if her heart had
been turned to ice. The man had died by his own hand, but she
could not shake from her the feeling that she and Burke had been
the cause of his death.
She saw Kelly for a few minutes alone when the meal was over, and
whispered her thanks to him for what he had done with regard to
Guy. He would scarcely listen to her, declaring it had been a
pleasure to serve her, that it had been the easiest thing in the
world, and that now it was done she must not worry any more.
"But was it really easy?" she questioned.
"Yes--yes! He was glad enough of the chance to give it back. He
only acted on impulse, ye see, and Kieff was pushing behind. He'd
never have done it but for Kieff. Very likely he'll pull round now
and lead a respectable life," said Kelly cheerily. "He's got the
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