The Top of the World
Ethel M. Dell
Part 7 out of 8
stuff in him, ye know, if he'd only let it grow."
She smiled wanly at his optimism. "Oh, do beg him to try!" she
"I'll do me best," promised Kelly. "Anyway, don't you worry! It's
a sheer waste of time and never helped anybody yet."
His cheerful attitude helped her, small as was her hope for Guy's
reformation. Moreover, she knew that Kelly would keep his word.
He would certainly do his best for Guy.
He took his leave of her almost immediately, declaring it was the
busiest day of his life, but assuring her that he would ride over
to Blue Hill Farm to see her on the earliest opportunity with the
greatest pleasure in the world.
She asked him somewhat nervously at parting if the death of Kieff
were likely to hinder their return, but he laughed at the notion.
Why, of course not! Burke hadn't killed the man. Such affairs as
the one she had witnessed the night before were by no means unusual
in Brennerstadt. Besides, it was a clear case of opium poisoning,
and everyone had known that he would die of it sooner or later. It
was the greatest mercy he had, gone, and so she wasn't to worry
about that! No one would have any regrets for Kieff except the
people he had ruined.
And so with wholesome words of reassurance he left her, and she
went to prepare for her journey.
When Burke joined her again, they spoke only of casual things,
avoiding all mention of Guy or Kieff by tacit consent. He was very
considerate for her, making every possible provision for her
comfort, but his manner was aloof, almost forbidding. There was no
intimacy between them, no confidence, no comradeship.
They reached Ritzen in the late afternoon. Burke suggested
spending the night there, but she urged him to continue the
journey. The heat of the day was over; there was no reason for
lingering. So they found their horses, and started on the long
They rode side by side along the dusty track through a barren waste
that made the eyes ache. A heavy stillness hung over the land,
making the loneliness seem more immense. They scarcely spoke at
all, and it came to Sylvia that they were stranger to each other
now than they had been on that day at the very beginning of their
acquaintance when he had first brought her to Blue Hill Farm. She
felt herself to be even more of an alien in this land of cruel
desolation than when first she had set foot in it. It was like a
vast prison, she thought drearily, while the grim, unfriendly
_kopjes_ were the sentinels that guarded her, and the far blue
mountains were a granite wall that none might pass.
The sun was low in the sky when they reached the watercourse. It
was quite dry with white stones that looked like the skeletons of
the ages scattered along its bed.
"Shall we rest for a few minutes?" said Burke. But she shook her
head. "No--no! Not here. It is getting late."
So they crossed the _spruit_ and went on.
The sun went down in an opalescent glow of mauve and pink and pearl
that spread far over the _veldt_, and she felt that the beauty of
it was almost more than she could bear. It hid so much that was
terrible and cruel.
They came at length, when the light was nearly gone, to a branching
track that led to the Merstons' farm.
Burke broke his silence again. "I must go over and see Merston in
She felt the warm colour flood her face. How much had the Merstons
heard? She murmured something in response, but she did not offer
to accompany him.
A deep orange moon came up over the eastern hills and lighted the
last few miles of their journey, casting a strange amber radiance
around them, flinging mysterious shadows about the _kopjes_,
shedding an unearthly splendour upon the endless _veldt_. It
spread like an illimitable ocean in soundless billows out of which
weird rocks stood up--a dream-world of fantastic possibilities, but
petrified into stillness by the spell of its solitudes--a world
that once surely had thrilled with magic and now was dead.
As they rode past the last _kopje_--her _kopje_ that she had never
yet climbed, they seemed to her to enter the innermost loneliness
of all, to reach the very heart of the desert.
They arrived at Blue Hill Farm, and the sound of their horses' feet
brought the Kaffirs buzzing from their huts, but the clatter that
they made did not penetrate that great and desolate silence. The
spell remained untouched.
Burke went with Joe to superintend the rubbing down and feeding of
their animals, and Sylvia entered the place alone. Though it was
exactly the same as when she had left it, she felt as if she were
entering a ruin.
She went to her own room and washed away the dust of the journey.
The packet that Kelly had given her she locked away in her own box.
Burke might enter at any moment, and she did not dare to attempt to
open the strong-box then. She knew the money must be returned and
speedily; she would not rest until she had returned it. But she
could not risk detection at that moment. Her courage was worn down
with physical fatigue. She lacked the nerve.
When Burke came in, he found her bringing in a hastily prepared
supper. He took the tray from her and made her sit down while he
waited upon her. Her weariness was too great to hide, and she
yielded without demur, lacking the strength to do otherwise.
He made her eat and drink though she was almost too tired even for
that, and when the meal was done he would not suffer her to rest in
a chair but led her with a certain grim kindliness to the door of
"Go to bed, child!" he said. "And stay there till you feel better!"
She obeyed him, feeling that she had no choice, yet still too
anxious to sleep. He brought her a glass of hot milk when she was
in bed, remarking that her supper had been a poor one, and she
drank in feverish haste, yearning to be left alone. Then, when he
had gone, she tormented herself by wondering if he had noticed
anything strange in her manner, if he thought that she were going
to be ill and so would perhaps mount guard over her.
A chafing sense of impotence came upon her. It would be terrible
to fail now after all she had undergone. She lay listening,
straining every nerve. He would be sure to smoke his pipe on the
_stoep_ before turning in. That was the opportunity that she must
seize. She dared not leave it till the morrow. He might ask for
the key of the strong-box at any time. But still she did not hear
him moving beyond the closed door, and she wondered if he could
have fallen asleep in the sitting-room. A heavy drowsiness was
beginning to creep over her notwithstanding her uneasiness. She
fought against it with all her strength, but it gained ground in
spite of her. Her brain felt clogged with weariness.
She began to doze, waking with violent starts and listening,
drifting back to slumber ever more deeply, till at last actual
sleep possessed her, and for a space she lay in complete oblivion.
It must have been a full hour later that she became suddenly
conscious again, with every faculty on the alert, and remembered
the task still unfulfilled. It was almost as if a voice--Guy's
voice--had called her, urging her to action.
The room was full of moonlight, and she could see every object in
it as clearly as if it had been day. The precious packet was under
her pillow with the key of the strong-box. She felt for and
grasped them both almost instinctively before she looked round, and
then, on the verge of raising herself, her newly awakened eyes
lighted upon something which sent all the blood in a wild rush to
her heart. A man's figure was kneeling motionless at the foot of
She lay and gazed and gazed, hardly believing her senses, wondering
if the moonlight could have tricked her. He was so still, he might
have been a figure wrought in marble. His face was hidden on his
arms, but there was that in his attitude that sent a stab of wonder
through her. Was it--was it Guy kneeling there in an abandonment
of despair? Had he followed her like a wandering outcast now that
his master Kieff was gone? If so, but no--but no! Surely it was a
dream. Guy was far away. This was but the fantasy of her own
brain. Guy could never have come to her thus. And yet, was it not
Guy's voice that had called her from her sleep?
A great quiver went through her. What if Guy had died in the night
far away in Brennerstadt? What if this were his spirit come to
hold commune with hers. Was she not dearer to him than anyone else
in the world? Would he not surely seek her before he passed on?
Trembling, she raised herself at last and spoke his name. "Guy, is
that you? Dear Guy, speak to me!"
She saw an answering tremor pass through the kneeling figure, but
the face remained hidden. The moonlight lay upon the dark head,
and she thought she saw streaks of white upon it. It was Guy in
the flesh then. It could be none other. A yearning tenderness
thrilled through her. He had come back--in spite of all his
sinning he had come back. And again through the years there came
to her the picture of the boy she had known and loved--ah, how
dearly! in the days of his innocence. It was so vivid that for the
moment it swept all else aside. Oh, if he would but move and show
her once more the sparkling eager face of his youth! She longed
with a passionate intensity for one glimpse, however fleeting, of
that which once had filled her heart with rapture. And in her
longing she herself was swept back for a few blind seconds into the
happy realms of girlhood. She forgot all the bitterness and the
sorrow of this land of strangers. She Stretched out her arms to
the golden-winged Romance that had taught her the ecstasy of first
"Oh, Guy--my own Guy--come to me!" she said.
It moved then, moved suddenly, even convulsively, as a wounded man
might move. He lifted his head, and looked at her.
Her dream passed like the rending of a veil. His eyes pierced her,
but she had to meet them, lacking power to do otherwise.
So for a space they looked at one another in the moonlight, saying
no word, scarcely so much as breathing.
Then, at last he got to his feet with the heavy movements of a
tired man, stood a while longer looking down at her, finally turned
in utter silence and left her.
When Sylvia slept, many hours later, there came again to her for
the third and last time the awful dream of two horsemen who
galloped towards each other upon the same rocky path. She saw
again the shock of collision and the awful hurtling fall. She went
again down into the stony valley and searched for the man who she
knew was dead. She found him in a deep place that no other living
being had ever entered. He lay with his face upturned to the
moonlight, and his eyes wide and glassy gazing upwards. She drew
near, and stooped to close those eyes; but she could not. For they
gazed straight into her own. They pierced her soul with the mute
reproach of a silence that could never be broken again.
She turned and went away through a devastating loneliness. She
knew now which of the two had galloped free and which had fallen,
and she went as one without hope or comfort, wandering through the
waste places of the earth.
Late in the morning she awoke and looked out upon a world of
dreadful sunshine,--a parched and barren world that panted in vain
for the healing of rain.
"It is a land of blasted hopes," she told herself drearily.
"Everything in it is doomed."
Sylvia entered the sitting-room that day with the feeling of one
returning after a prolonged absence. She had been almost too tired
to notice her surroundings the previous night upon arrival. Her
limbs felt leaden still, but her brain was alive and throbbing with
a painful intensity.
Mary Ann informed her that the big _baas_ was out on the lands, and
she received the news thankfully. Now was her chance! She took
it, feeling like a traitor.
Once more she went to Burke's room. She opened the strong-box
stealthily, listening intently for every sound. She slipped the
packet of notes inside, and shut it again quickly with a queer
little twist of the heart as she caught sight of the envelope
containing the cigarette which once he had drawn from between her
lips. Then with a start she heard the sound of hoofs outside the
window, and she knew that Burke had returned.
She hurried from the room with the key in her hand, meeting him in
the passage. He had his back to the light, but she thought he
looked very grim. The past weeks had aged and hardened him. She
wondered if they had wrought a similar change in her.
He spoke to her at once, before she had time to formulate a
"Ah, here you are! Will you come in here? I want to speak to you."
She went into the sitting-room with a curious feeling of
fatefulness that outweighed her embarrassment. There was no
intimacy in his speech, and that helped her also. She saw that he
would not touch upon that which had happened in the night.
He gave her a critical look as he entered. "Are you rested? Have
you had breakfast?"
She answered him nervously. "Yes, I am quite all right to-day.
Mary Ann brought me some breakfast in bed."
He nodded, dismissing the matter. "I have been over to see
Merston. He is on his legs again, practically well. But she is
not feeling up to the mark. She wants to know if you will go over.
I told her I thought you would. But don't go if you would rather
"Of course I will go," Sylvia said, "if I can do any good."
And then she looked at him with a sudden curious doubt. Had this
suggestion originated with him. Did he feel, as she felt, that the
present state of affairs was intolerable? Or was he, for her sake
alone, offering her the only sanctuary in his power?
His face told her nothing. She had not the faintest idea as to
whether he wished her to go or stay. But he accepted her decision
"I will take you over in the cart this evening," he said. "I
thought you would probably wish to go. They are more or less
His tone was practical, wholly free from emotion. But the wonder
still lingered in her mind. She spoke after a moment with slight
"You--will be able to manage all right without me?"
"I shall try," said Burke.
There was no perceptible cynicism in his tone, yet she winced a
little, for in some fashion it hurt her. Again she wondered, would
it be a relief to him when she had gone? Ah, that terrible barrier
of silence! If she could but have passed it then! But she lacked
"Very well," she said, and turned away. "I will be ready."
His voice arrested her at the door of her room. "May I have the
key of the strong-box?"
She turned back. Her face was burning. He had taken her unawares.
"I have it here," she said, and gave it to him with a hand that
"Thank you," he said, and put it in his pocket. "I should take it
easy to-day if I were you. You need a rest."
And that was all. He went out again into the blazing sunshine, and
a little later she heard him talking to Schafen as they crossed the
yard to the sheep-pens.
She saw him again at the midday meal, but he ate in haste and
seemed preoccupied, departing again at the earliest moment
possible. Though he did not discuss the matter with her, she knew
that the cruel drought would become a catastrophe if it lasted much
longer. She prepared for departure with a heavy heart.
He came in again to tea, but went to his room to change and only
emerged to swallow a hasty cup before they started. Then, indeed,
just at the last, as she rose to dress for the journey, she
attempted shyly to penetrate the armour in which he had clad
"Are you sure you want me to go?" she said.
He turned towards her, and for a moment her heart stood still.
"Don't you want to go?" he said.
She did not answer the question. Somehow she could not. Neither
could she meet the direct gaze of the keen grey eyes upturned to
"I feel almost as if I am deserting my post," she told him, with a
rather piteous smile.
"Oh, you needn't feel that," he said quietly. "In any case you can
come back whenever you want to. You won't be far away."
Not far away! Were they not poles asunder already--their
partnership dissolved as if it had never been,--their
good-fellowship--their friendship--crumbled to ashes? Her heart
was beating again quickly, unevenly. She knew that the way was
"Well, send for me if you want me at any time!" she said, and
passed on to her room.
There was no need and small opportunity for talk during the drive,
for Burke had his hands full with a pair of young horses who tried
to bolt upon every conceivable occasion that offered, and he had to
keep an iron control upon them throughout the journey.
So at length they came to the Merstons' farm, and with a mingling
of relief and dissatisfaction Sylvia realized that any further
discussion was out of the question.
Merston came out, full of jovial welcome, to meet them, and in a
moment she was glad that she had come. For she saw that he was
genuinely pleased to see her.
"It's most awfully good of you to come," he said, as he helped her
down. "You've been having a strenuous time at Brennerstadt, I'm
told. I wondered if you were going in for Kelly's diamond that he
was so full of the other day. How the fellow did talk to be sure!
He's a walking advertisement. I should think he must have filled
Wilbraham's coffers for him. And you didn't hear who won it?"
It was Burke who answered. "No, we didn't stop for that. We
wanted to get away."
Merston looked at Sylvia. "And you left young Guy behind? It was
very sporting of you to go after him like that. Burke told me
about it. I blame myself that he wasn't on the spot to help. I
hope the journey wasn't very infernal?"
He spoke with so kindly an interest that but for Burke's presence
she would have felt no embarrassment. He evidently thought that
she had acted with commendable courage. She answered him without
difficulty, though she could not restrain a quick flush at his
words. It was thus then that Burke had defended her honour--and
"It wasn't a very nice Journey of course, but I managed it all
right. Mr. Kelly has promised to look after Guy."
"He'll do it then," said Merston reassuringly. "He's a grand chap
is Kelly. A bit on the talkative side of course, but a real good
sort. Come in now! Come and see my wife! Burke, get down! You
must have a drink anyway before you start back."
But Burke shook his head. "Thanks, old chap! I won't wait. I've
things to do, and it's getting late. If you can just get my wife's
baggage out, I'll be off."
The last of the sunset light shone upon him as he sat there.
Looking back at him, Sylvia saw him, brown, muscular, firm as a
rock, and an odd little thrill went through her. There was a
species of rugged magnificence about him that moved her strangely.
The splendid physique of the man had never shown to fuller
advantage. Perhaps the glory of the sunset intensified the
impression, but he seemed to her great.
Merston was dragging forth her belongings. She went to help him.
Burke kept his seat, the reins taut in his hands.
Merston abruptly gripped him by the knee. "Look here, old boy!
You must have a drink! Wait where you are while I fetch it!"
He was gone with the words, and they were left alone. Sylvia bent
over her suit-case, preparing to pick it up. A tumult of strange
emotion had swept over her. She was quivering all over. The
horses were stamping and chafing at their bits. He spoke to them
with a brief command and they stood still.
Then, very suddenly, he spoke to her. "Good-bye!" he said.
She lifted her face. He was smiling faintly, but his smile hurt
her inexplicably. It seemed to veil something that was tragic from
He bent towards her. "Good-bye!" he said again.
She moved swiftly, seized by an impulse she could not pause to
question. It was as if an unknown force compelled her. She
mounted the wheel, and offered him her lips in farewell.
For a moment his arms encircled her with a close and quivering
tension. He kissed her, and in that kiss for the first time she
felt the call of the spirit.
Then she was free, and blindly feeling for the ground. As she
reached it, she heard Merston returning, and without a backward
look she took up her suit-case and turned to enter. There was a
burning sensation as of tears in her throat, but she kept them from
her eyes by sheer determination, and Merston noticed nothing.
"Go straight in!" he said to her with cheery hospitality. "You'll
find my wife inside. She's cooking the supper. She'll be awfully
pleased to see you."
If this were indeed the case, Mrs. Merston certainly concealed any
excess of pleasure very effectually. She greeted her with a
perfunctory smile, and told her it was very good of her to come but
she would soon wish she hadn't. She was looking very worn and
tired, but she assured Sylvia somewhat sardonically that she was
not feeling any worse than usual. The heat and the drought had
been very trying, and her husband's accident had given her more to
do. She had fainted the evening before, and he had been frightened
for once and made a fuss--quite unnecessarily. She was quite
herself again, and she hoped Sylvia would not feel she had been
summoned on false pretences.
Sylvia assured her that she would not, and declared it would do her
good to make herself useful.
"Aren't you that at home?" said Mrs. Merston.
"Well, there are plenty of Kaffirs to do the work. I am not
absolutely necessary to Burke's comfort," Sylvia explained.
"I thought you were," Matilda Merston's pale eyes gave her a shrewd
glance. "He was keen enough to run after you to Brennerstadt," she
remarked. "How did you get on there?"
Sylvia hesitated. "We were only there a couple of nights," she
"So I gathered. Did you find Guy?"
"No. I didn't see him. But Mr. Kelly has promised to look after
"Ah, Donovan is a good sort," said Mrs. Merston. "He'd nursemaid
anyone. So Kieff is dead!"
She said it abruptly, too intent upon the mixing of her cake to
There came the sound of wheel and hoofs outside, and Sylvia paused
to listen before she replied.
"Yes. Kieff is dead."
The sound died away in the distance, and there fell a silence.
Then, "Killed himself, did he?" asked Mrs. Merston.
"I was told so," said Sylvia.
"Don't you believe it?" Mrs. Merston looked across at her suddenly.
"Did someone else have a try first? Did he have a row with Burke?"
There was no evading the questions though she would fain have
avoided the whole subject. In a very low voice Sylvia spoke of the
violent scene she had witnessed.
Mrs. Merston listened with interest, but with no great surprise.
"Burke always was a savage," she commented. "But after all, Kieff
had tried to kill him a day or two before. Guy prevented that, so
Donovan told me. What made Guy go off in such a hurry?"
"I--can't tell you," Sylvia said.
Something in her reply struck Mrs. Merston. She became suddenly
silent, and finished her task without another word.
Later, when she took Sylvia to the guest-room, which was no more
than a corrugated iron lean-to lined with boarding, she
unexpectedly drew the girl to her and kissed her. But still she
did not say a word.
It was a strange friendship that developed between Sylvia and
Matilda Merston during the days that followed; for they had little
in common. The elder woman leaned upon the younger, and, perhaps
in consequence of this, Sylvia's energy seemed inexhaustible. She
amazed Bill Merston by her capacity for work. She lifted the
burden that had pressed so heavily upon her friend, and manfully
mastered every difficulty that arose. She insisted that her
hostess should rest for a set time every day, and the effect of
this unusual relaxation upon Matilda was surprising. Her husband
marvelled at it, and frankly told her she was like another woman.
For, partly from the lessening of the physical strain and partly
from the influence of congenial companionship, the carping
discontent that had so possessed her of late had begun to give way
to a softer and infinitely more gracious frame of mind. The bond
of their womanhood drew the two together, and the intimacy between
them nourished in that desert place though probably in no other
ground would it have taken root.
Work was as an anaesthetic to Sylvia in those days. She was
thankful to occupy her mind and at night to sleep from sheer
weariness. The sense of being useful to someone helped her also.
She gave herself up to work as a respite from the torment of
thought, resolutely refusing to look forward, striving so to become
absorbed in the daily task as to crowd out even memory. She and
Merston were fast friends also, and his wholesome masculine
selfishness did her good. He was like a pleasant, rather spoilt
child, unconventionally affectionate, and by no means difficult to
manage. They called each other by their Christian names before she
had been twenty-four hours at the farm, and chaffed each other with
cheery inconsequence whenever they met. Sylvia sometimes marvelled
at herself for that surface lightheartedness, but somehow it seemed
to be in the atmosphere. Bill Merston's hearty laugh was
irresistible to all but his wife.
It was but a brief respite. She knew it could not last, but its
very transience made her the more ready 10 take advantage of it.
And she was thankful for every day that carried her farther from
that terrible time at Brennerstadt. It had begun to seem more like
an evil dream to her now--a nightmare happening that never could
have taken place in ordinary, normal existence.
Burke did not come over to see them again, nor did he write.
Evidently he was too busy to do either. But one evening Merston
announced his intention of riding over to Blue Hill Farm, and asked
Sylvia if she would like to send a note by him.
"You've got ten minutes to do it in," he gaily told her. "So you'd
better leave all the fond adjectives till the end and put them in
if you have time."
She thanked him carelessly enough for his advice, but when she
reached her own room she found herself confronted with a problem
that baffled her. How was she to write to Burke? What could she
say to him? She felt strangely confounded and unsure of herself.
Eight of the allotted ten minutes had flown before she set pencil
to paper. Then, hurriedly, with trembling fingers, she scribbled a
few sentences. "I hope all is well with you. We are very busy
here. Matilda is better, and I am quite fit and enjoying the work.
Is Mary Ann looking after you properly?" She paused there.
Somehow the thought of Burke with only the Kaffir servants to
minister to him sent an odd little pang through her. She had begun
to accustom him to better things. She wondered if he were
lonely--if he wanted her. Ought she to offer to go back?
Something cried out sharply within her at the thought. Her whole
being shrank as the old nightmare horror swept back upon her.
No--no! She could not face it--not yet. The memory of his
implacability, his ruthlessness, arose like a menacing wave,
shaking her to the soul.
Then, suddenly, the vision changed. She saw him as she had seen
him on that last night, when she had awaked to find him kneeling by
her bed. And again that swift pang went through her. She did not
ask herself again if he wanted her.
The door of her room opened on to the yard. She heard Merston lead
his horse up to the front of the bungalow and stand talking to his
wife who was just inside. She knew that in a moment or two his
cheery shout would come to her, calling for the note.
Hastily she resumed her task. "If there is any mending to be done,
send it back by Bill."
Again she paused. Matilda was laughing at something her husband had
said. It was only lately that she had begun to laugh.
Almost immediately came an answering shout of laughter from
Merston, and then his boyish yell to her.
"Hi, Sylvia! How much longer are you going to keep me waiting for
that precious love-letter?"
She called an answer to him, dashing off final words as she did so.
"I feel I am doing some good here, but if you should specially wish
it, of course I will come back at any time." For a second more she
hesitated, then simply wrote her name.
Folding up the hurried scrawl, she was conscious of a strong sense
of dissatisfaction, but she would not reopen it. There was nothing
more to be said.
She went out with it to Bill Merston, and met his chaff with
"You haven't told him to come and fetch you away, I hope?" Matilda
said, as he rode away.
And she smiled and answered, "No, not unless he specially needs me."
"You don't want to go ?" Matilda asked abruptly.
"Not unless you are tired of me," Sylvia rejoined.
"Don't be silly!" said Matilda briefly.
Half an hour after Merston's departure there came the shambling
trot of another horse, and Piet Vreiboom, slouched like a sack in
the saddle rode up and rolled off at the door.
"Oh, bother the man!" said Matilda, "I shan't ask him in with Bill
The amiable Piet, however, did not wait to be asked. He fastened
up his horse and rolled into the house with his hat on, where he
gave her perfunctory greeting, grinned at Sylvia, and seated
himself in the easiest chair he could find.
Matilda's face of unconcealed disgust nearly provoked Sylvia to
uncontrolled laughter, but she checked herself in time, and went to
get the unwelcome visitor a drink in the hope of speeding his
Piet Vreiboom however was in no hurry, though they assured him
repeatedly that Merston would probably not return for some hours.
He sat squarely in his chair with his little greedy eyes fixed upon
Sylvia, and merely grunted in response to all their efforts.
When he had refreshed himself and lighted his pipe, he began to
search his mind for the few English words at his disposal and to
arrange these in a fashion intelligible to the two very inferior
beings who were listening to him. He told them in laboured
language that he had come from Brennerstadt, that the races were
over and the great Wilbraham diamond was lost and won. Who had won
it? No one knew. Some said it was a lady. He looked again at
Sylvia who turned out the pockets of her overall, and assured him
that she was not the lucky one.
He looked as if he suspected ridicule behind her mirth, and changed
the subject. Guy Ranger had disappeared, and no one knew what had
become of him. Some people thought he was dead, like Kieff. Again
he looked searchingly at Sylvia, but she did not joke over this
information. She began to peel some potatoes as if she had not
heard it. And Piet Vreiboom sat back in his chair and stared at
her, till the hot colour rose and spread over her face and neck,
and then he puffed forth a cloud of vile smoke and laughed.
At that juncture Mrs. Merston came forward with unusual briskness.
"You had better go," she said, with great decision. "There is
going to be a storm."
He began to dispute the point, but meeting most unexpected
lightning in her pale eyes he thought better of it, and after a few
seconds for deliberation and the due assertion of his masculine
superiority, he lumbered to his feet and prepared to depart.
Mrs. Merston followed him firmly to the door, reiterating, her
belief in a coming change. Certainly the sky was overcast, but the
clouds often came up thickly at night and dispersed again without
shedding any rain. There had not been rain for months.
Very grimly Matilda Merston watched the departure of her unwelcome
visitor, enduring the dust that rose from his horse's hoofs with
the patience of inflexible determination. Then, when she had seen
him go and the swirling dust had begun to settle again, she turned
inwards and proceeded to wash the glass that the Boer had used with
an expression of fixed disgust.
Suddenly she spoke. "I shouldn't believe anything that man said on
"Neither should I," said Sylvia quietly. She did not look up from
her task, and Matilda Merston said no more.
There was a brief silence, then Sylvia spoke again. "You are very
good to me," she said.
"My dear!" said Matilda almost sharply.
Sylvia's hands were trembling a little, but she continued to occupy
them. "You must sometimes wonder why Guy is so much to me," she
said. "I think it has been very sweet of you never to ask. But I
feel I should like to tell you about it."
"Of course; if you want to," said Matilda.
"I do want you to know," Sylvia said, with slight effort. "You
have taken me so much on trust. And I never even told you how I
came to meet--and marry--Burke."
"There was no necessity for you to tell me," said Matilda.
"Perhaps not. But you must have thought it rather sudden--rather
strange." Sylvia's fingers moved a little more rapidly. "You see,
I came out here engaged to marry Guy."
"Good gracious!" said Matilda.
Sylvia glanced up momentarily. "We had been engaged for years. We
were engaged before he ever came here. We--loved each other.
But--" Words failed her suddenly; she drew a short, hard breath
and was silent.
"He let you down?" said Matilda.
Matilda's face hardened. "That was Burke's doing."
"No--no!" Sylvia found her voice again with an effort. "It isn't
fair to say that. Burke tried to help him,--has tried--many times.
He may have been harsh to him; he may have made mistakes. But I
know he has tried to help him."
"Was that why he married you?" asked Matilda, with a bitter curl of
Sylvia winced. "No. I--don't quite know what made him think of
that. Perhaps--in a way--he felt he ought. I was thrown on his
protection, and he never would believe that I was capable of
fending for myself."
"Very chivalrous!" commented Matilda. "Men are like that."
Sylvia shivered. "Don't--please! He--has been very good to me."
"In his own way," said Matilda.
"No, in every way. I can't tell you how good till--till Guy came
back. He brought him back to please me." Sylvia's voice was low
and distressed. "That was when things began to go wrong," she said.
"There was nothing very magnanimous in that," commented Matilda.
"He wanted you to see poor Guy when he was down. He wanted to give
you a lesson so that you should realize your good luck in being
married to him. He didn't count on the fact that you loved him.
He expected you to be disgusted."
"Oh, don't!" Sylvia said quickly. "Really that isn't fair. That
isn't--Burke. He did it against his judgment. He did it for my
"You don't know much about men, do you?" said Matilda.
"Perhaps not. But I know that much about Burke. I know that he
"Even if he kills his man," suggested Matilda cynically.
"He always plays fair." Sylvia spoke firmly. "But he doesn't know
how to make allowances. He is hard."
"Have you found him so?" said Matilda.
"I?" Sylvia looked across at her.
Their eyes met. There was a certain compulsion in the elder
"Yes, you," she said. "You personally. Has he been cruel to you,
Sylvia? Has he? Ah no, you needn't tell me! I--know." She went
suddenly to her, and put her arm around her.
Sylvia was trembling. "He didn't--understand," she whispered.
"Men never do," said Matilda very bitterly. "Love is beyond them.
They are only capable of passion. I learnt that lesson long ago.
It simplified life considerably, for I left off expecting anything
Sylvia clung to her for a moment. "I think you are wrong," she
said. "I know you are wrong--somehow. But--I can't prove it to
"You're so young," said Matilda compassionately.
"No, no, I am not." Sylvia tried to smile as she disengaged
herself. "I am getting older. I am learning. If--if only I felt
happy about Guy, I believe I should get on much better.
But--but--" the tears rose to her eyes in spite of her--"he haunts
me. I can't rest because of him. I dream about him. I feel torn
in two. For Burke--has given him up. But I--I can't."
"Of course you can't. You wouldn't." Matilda spoke with warmth.
"Don't let Burke deprive you of your friends! Plenty of men
imagine that when you have got a husband, you don't need anyone
else. They little know."
Sylvia's eyes went out across the _veldt_ to a faint, dim line of
blue beyond, and dwelt upon it wistfully. "Don't you think it
depends upon the husband?" she said.
OUT OF THE DEPTHS
That night the thunder rolled among the _kopjes_, and Sylvia lay in
her hut wide-awake and listening. The lightning glanced and
quivered about the distant hills and threw a weird and fitful
radiance about her bed, extinguishing the dim light thrown by her
Bill Merston had brought her back a written message from her
husband, and she lay with it gripped in her hand. For that message
held a cry which had thrown her whole soul into tumult.
"I want you," he had written in a hand that might have been Guy's.
"I can't get on without you. I am coming to-morrow to fetch you
back--if you will come."
If she would come! In those last words she seemed to hear the
appeal of a man's agony. What had he been through before he had
brought himself to write those words? They hurt her unutterably,
piercing her to the soul, when she remembered her own half-hearted
offer to return. Yet she would have given all she had for a few
days' respite. The hot fierce longing that beat in those few words
frightened her by its intensity. It made her think of one of those
overwhelming _veldt_ fires, consuming everything in its path,
leaving behind it the blackness of desolation. Yes, he wanted her
now because she had been denied to him. The flame of his desire
had been fanned to a white heat. She seemed to feel it reaching
out to her, scorching her, even as she lay. And she shrank with a
desperate sense of impotence, feeling her fate to be sealed. For
she knew that she must go to him. She must pass through the
furnace anew. She must endure her fate. Afterwards--it might
be--when it had burnt itself out, some spark of the Divine would be
found kindled among the ashes to give her comfort.
And ever the thought of Guy waited at the back of her mind, Guy who
had failed her so hopelessly, so repeatedly. Was she going to fail
him now? Was she going to place herself so completely out of his
reach that even if he called to her for help she would be powerless
to stretch forth a hand to him? The thought tormented her. It was
the one thing that she felt she could not face, the one point upon
which she and Burke would be for ever at variance. Ah no!
Whatever else she surrendered, she could not yield to him in this.
She could not, she would not, leave Guy to sink while there
remained the smallest chance of saving him.
So she told herself, lying there alone, while the thunder rolled
now near, now far, like a menacing monster wandering hither and
thither in search of prey. Earlier in the night she had tried to
pray, but it had brought her no relief. She had not really prayed
since that terrible journey to Brennerstadt when she had poured out
her whole soul in supplication and had met only failure. She felt
in a fashion cut off, forgotten in this land of strangers. The
very effort to bridge the gulf seemed but to emphasize her utter
impotence. She had come to that barren part of the way where even
the most hopeful traveller sometimes feels that God has forgotten
to be gracious. She had never felt more alone in all her life, and
it was a loneliness that frightened her.
Weirdly the lightning played about her bed. She watched it with
eyes that would not close. She wondered if Burke were watching it
also, and shivered with the thought of the morrow, asking herself
for the first time why she had ever consented to marry him, why she
had not rather shouldered her fate and gone back to her father.
She would have found work in England. He would have helped her if
she had only had the courage to return, the strength to be humble.
Her thoughts lingered tenderly about him. They had been so much to
each other once. Did he ever regret her? Did he ever wish her
A burning lump rose in her throat. She turned her head upon the
pillow, clasping her hands tightly over her eyes. Ah, if she had
but gone back to him! They had loved each other, and somehow love
would have conquered. Did not love always conquer? What were
those words that she had read cut deep in the trunk of a dead tree?
They flashed through her brain more vividly than the glancing
lightning--the key to every closed door--the balm for every
wound--the ladder by which alone the top of the world is reached.
_Fide et Amore_! By Faith and Love!
There came again to her that curious feeling of revelation.
Looking back, she saw the man on horseback hewing those words while
she waited. The words themselves shone in fiery letters across.
her closed eyelids. She asked herself suddenly, with an awed
wonder if perchance her prayer had been answered after all, and she
had suffered the message to pass her by. . . .
There came a crash of thunder nearer and more menacing than any
that had gone before, startling her almost with a sense of doom,
setting every pulse in her body beating. She uncovered her face
and sat up.
Sullenly the echoes rolled away, yet they left behind a strange
impression that possessed her with an uncanny force from which she
could not shake herself free--a feeling that amounted to actual
conviction that some presence lurked without in the storm, alert
and stealthy, waiting for something.
The window was at the side of her bed. She had but to draw aside
the curtain and look out. It was within reach of her hand. But
for many breathless seconds she dared not.
What it was that stood outside she had no idea, but the thought of
Kieff was in her mind--Kieff the vampire who was dead.
She felt herself grow cold all over. She had only to cross the
narrow room and knock on the main wall of the bungalow to summon
Merston. He would come at a moment's notice, she knew. But she
felt powerless to move. Sheer terror bound her limbs.
The thunder slowly ceased, and there followed a brief stillness
through which the beating of her heart clamoured wildly. Yet she
was beginning to tell herself that it was no more than a nightmare
panic that had caught her, when suddenly something knocked softly
upon the closed window beneath which she lay.
She started violently and glanced across the room, measuring the
distance to the further wall on which she herself would have to
knock to summon help.
Then, while instinctively she debated the point, summoning her
strength for the effort, there came another sound close to her--a
low voice speaking her name.
"Sylvia! Sylvia! Wake up and let me in!"
She snatched back the curtain in a second. She knew that voice.
By the shifting gleam of the lightning she saw him, looking in upon
her. Her fear vanished.
Swiftly she sprang to do his bidding. Had she ever failed to
answer any call of his? She drew back the bolts of her door, and
in a moment they were together.
The thunder roared again behind him as he entered, but neither of
them heard it. For he caught her in his arms with a hungry sound,
and as she clung to him nearly fainting with relief, he kissed her,
straining her to him gasping wild words of love.
The touch of those hot, devouring lips awoke her. She had never
felt the slightest fear of Guy before that moment, but the
fierceness of his hold called a sharp warning in her soul. There
was about him an unrestraint, a lawlessness, that turned her relief
into misgiving. She put up a quick hand, checking him.
"Guy--Guy, you are hurting me!"
He relaxed his hold then, looking at her, his head back, the old
boyish triumph shining in his eyes. "Little sweetheart, I'm sorry.
I couldn't help it--just for the moment. The sight of you and the
touch of you together just turned my head. But it's all right.
Don't look so scared! I wouldn't harm a single hair of your
precious little head." He gathered up the long plait of her hair
and kissed it passionately.
She laid a trembling hand against his shoulder. "Guy, please! You
mustn't. I had to let you in. But not--not for this."
He uttered a low laugh that seemed to hold a note of triumph. But
he let her go.
"Of course you had to let me in! Were you asleep? Did I frighten
"You startled me just at first. I think the thunder had set me on
edge, for I wasn't asleep. It's such a--savage sort of night,
Sylvia glanced forth again over the low _veldt_ where the
flickering lightning leaped from cloud to cloud.
"Not so bad," said Guy. "It will serve our turn all right. Do you
know what I have come for?"
She looked back at him quickly. There was no mistaking the
exultation in his low voice. It amazed her, and again she was
stabbed by that sense of insecurity.
"I thought you had come to--explain things," she made answer. "And
"To say--what?" He took her by the shoulders; his dark eyes
flashed a laughing challenge into hers. "You're not in earnest!"
She backed away from him. "But I am, Guy. I am." Her voice
sounded strained even to herself, for she was strangely discomfited
by his attitude. She had expected a broken man kneeling at her
feet in an agony of contrition. His overweening confidence
confounded her. "Have you no sense of right and wrong left?" she
He kept his hands upon her. "None whatever," he told her
recklessly. "The only thing in life that counts is you--just you.
Because we love each other, the whole world is ours for the taking.
No, listen, darling! I'm not talking rot. Do you remember the
last time we were together? How I swore I would conquer--for your
sake? Well,--I've done it. I have conquered. Now that that devil
Kieff is dead, there is no reason why I shouldn't keep straight
always. And so I have come to you--for my crown."
His voice sank. He stooped towards her.
But she drew back sharply. "Guy, don't forget--don't forget--I am
married to Burke!" she said, speaking quickly, breathlessly.
His hands tightened upon her. "I am going to forget," he told her
fiercely. "And so are you. You have no love for him. Your
marriage is nothing but an empty bond."
"No--no!" Painfully she broke in upon him. "My marriage is--more
than that. I am his wife--and the keeper of his honour. I am
going back to him--to-morrow."
"You are not! You are not!" Hotly he contradicted her. "By
to-morrow we shall be far away. Listen, Sylvia! I haven't told
you all. I am rich. My luck has turned. You'll hardly believe
it, but it's true. It was I who won the Wilbraham diamond. We've
kept it secret, because I didn't want to be dogged by parasites.
I've thought of you all through. And now--and now--" his voice
vibrated again on that note of triumph--"I've come to take you
away. Mine at last!"
He would have drawn her to him, but she resisted him. She pushed
him from her. For the first time in her life she looked at him
with condemnation in her eyes.
"Is this--true?" Her voice held a throb of anger.
He stared at her, his triumph slowly giving place to a half-formed
doubt. "Of course it's true. I couldn't invent anything so
stupendous as that."
She looked back at him mercilessly. "If it is true, how did you
find the money for the gamble?"
The doubt on his face deepened to something that was almost shame.
"Oh, that!" he said. "I--borrowed that."
"You borrowed it!" She repeated the words without pity. "You
borrowed it from Burke's strong-box. Didn't you?"
The question was keen as the cut of a whip. It demanded an answer.
Almost involuntarily, the answer came.
"Well--yes! But---I hoped to pay it back. I'm going to pay it
"Now!" she said, and almost laughed. Was it for this that she had
staked everything--everything she had--and lost? There was bitter
scorn in her next words. "You can pay it back to Donovan Kelly,"
she said. "He has replaced it on your behalf."
"What do you mean?" His hands were clenched. Behind his cloak of
shame a fire was kindling. The glancing lightning seemed reflected
in his eyes.
But Sylvia knew no fear, only an overwhelming contempt. "I mean,"
she said, "that to save you--to leave you a chance of getting back
to solid ground--Donovan and I deceived Burke. He supplied the
money, and I put it back."
"Great Jove!" said Guy. He was looking at her oddly, almost
speculatively. "But Donovan never had any money to spare!" he
said. "He sends it all home to his old mother."
"He gave it to me nevertheless." Sylvia's voice had a scathing
note. "And--he pretended that it had come from you--that you had
"Very subtle of him!" said Guy. He considered the point for a
moment or two, then swept it aside. "Well, I'll settle up with
him. It'll be all right. I always pay my debts--sooner or later.
So that's all right, isn't it? Say it's all right!"
He spoke imperiously, meeting her scorn with a dominating
self-assurance. There followed a few moments that were tense with
a mental conflict such as Sylvia had never deemed possible between
them. Then in a very low voice she made answer.
"No. It is not all right. Nothing can ever make it so again.
Please say good-bye--and go!"
He made a furious movement, and caught her suddenly and violently
by the wrists. His eyes shone like the eyes of a starving animal.
Before she had time to resist him, her hands were gripped behind
her and she was fast locked in his arms.
He spoke, his face close to hers, his hot breath seeming to consume
her, his words a mere whisper through lips that almost moved upon
"Do you think I'm going--now? Do you think you can send me away
with a word like that--fling me off like an old glove--you who have
belonged to me all these years? No, don't speak! You'd better not
speak! If you dare to deny your love for me now, I believe I shall
kill you! If you had been any other woman, I wouldn't have stopped
to argue. But--you are you. And--I--love you so."
His voice broke unexpectedly upon the words. For a moment--one
sickening, awful moment--his lips were pressed upon hers, seeming
to draw all the breath--the very life itself--out of her quivering
body. Then there came a terrible sound--a rending sound like the
tearing of dry wood--and the dreadful constriction of his hold was
gone. She burst from it, gasping for air and freedom with the
agonized relief of one who has barely escaped suffocation. She
sprang for the door though her knees were doubling under her. She
reached it, and threw it wide. Then she looked back. . . .
He was huddled against the wall, his head in his hands, writhing as
if in the grip of some fiendish torturer. Broken sounds escaped
him--sounds he fought frantically to repress. He seemed to be
choking; and in a second her memory flashed back to that anguish
she had witnessed weeks before when first she had seen Kieff's
remedy and implored him to use it.
For seconds she stood, a helpless witness, too horrified to move.
Then, her physical strength reviving, pity stirred within her,
striving against what had been a sick and fearful loathing.
Gradually her vision cleared. The evil shadow lifted from her
brain. She saw him as he was--a man in desperate need of help.
She flung her repugnance from her, though it dung to her, dragging
upon her as she moved like a tangible thing. She closed the door
and went slowly back into the room, mastering her horror, fighting
it at every step. She readied the struggling, convulsed figure,
laid her hands upon it,--and her repulsion was gone.
"Sit down!" she said. "Sit down and let me help you!"
Blindly he surrendered to her guiding. She led him to the bed, and
he sank upon it. She opened his shirt at the throat. She brought
He could not drink at first, but after repeated effort he succeeded
in swallowing a little. Then at length in a hoarse whisper,
scarcely intelligible, he asked for the remedy which he always
She felt in his pockets and found it, all ready for use. The
lightning had begun to die down, and the light within the room was
dim. She turned the lamp higher, moving it so that its ray fell
upon Guy. And in that moment she saw Death in his face. . . .
She felt as if a quiet and very steady Hand had been laid upon her,
checking all agitation. Calmly she bent over the bared arm he
thrust forth to her. Unflinchingly she ran the needle into the
white flesh, noting with a detached sort of pity his emaciation.
He put his other arm about her like a frightened, dinging child.
"Stay with me! Don't leave me!" he muttered.
"All right," she made gentle answer. "Don't be afraid!"
He leaned against her, shuddering violently, his dark head bowed,
his spasmodic breathing painful to hear. She waited beside him for
the relief that seemed so slow in coming. Kieff's remedy did not
act so quickly now.
Gradually at last the distress began to lessen. She felt the
tension of his crouched body relax, the anguished breathing become
less laboured. He still clung to her, and her hand was on his head
though she did not remember putting it there. The dull echoes of
the thunder reverberated far away among the distant hills. The
night was passing.
Out of a deep silence there came Guy's voice. "I want--" he said
She bent over him. Her arm went round his shoulders. Somehow she
felt as if the furnace of suffering through which he had come had
purged away all that was evil. His weakness cried aloud to her;
the rest was forgotten.
He turned his face up to her; and though the stamp of his agony was
still upon it, the eyes were pure and free from all taint of
"What do you want?" she asked him softly.
"I've been--horrible to you, Sylvia," he said, speaking rather
jerkily. "Sometimes I get a devil inside me--and I don't know what
I'm doing. I believe it's Kieff. I never knew what hell meant
till I met him. He taught me practically everything I know in that
line. He was like an awful rotting disease. He ruined everyone he
came near. Everything he touched went bad." He paused a moment.
Then, with a sudden boyishness, "There, it's done with, darling,"
he said. "Will you forget it all--and let me start afresh? I've
had such damnable luck always."
His eyes pleaded with her, yet they held confidence also. He knew
that she would not refuse.
And because of that which the lamplight had revealed to her, Sylvia
bent after a moment and kissed him on the forehead. She knew as
she did it that the devil, that had menaced her had been driven
So for a space they remained in a union of the spirit that was
curiously unlike anything that had ever before existed between
them. Then Guy's arm began to slip away from her. There came from
him a deep sigh.
She bent low over him, looking into his face. His eyes were
closed, but his lips moved, murmuring words which she guessed
rather than heard.
"Let me rest--just for a little! I shall be all right--afterwards."
She laid him back very gently upon the pillow, and lifted his feet
on to the bed. He thanked her almost inaudibly, and relaxed every
muscle like a tired child. She turned the lamp from him and moved
She dressed in the dimness. Guy did not stir again. He lay
shrouded in the peace of utter repose. She had watched those deep
slumbers too often to fear any sudden awakening.
A few minutes later she went to the door, and softly opened it.
The sullen clouds were lifting; the night had gone. Very far away
a faint orange light spread like the reflected glow from a mighty
furnace somewhere behind those hills of mystery. The _veldt_ lay
wide and dumb like a vast and soundless sea.
She stood awed, as one who had risen out of the depths and scarcely
yet believed in any deliverance. But the horror had passed from
her like an evil dream. She stood in the first light of the
dawning and waited in a great stillness for the coming of the day.
Joe, the Kaffir boy, bestirred himself to the sound of Mary Ann's
shrill rating. The hour was still early, but the big _baas_ was in
a hurry and wanted his boots. Joe hastened to polish them to the
tune of Mary Ann's repeated assurance that he would be wanting his
whip next, while Fair Rosamond laid the table with a nervous speed
that caused her to trip against every chair she passed. When Burke
made his appearance, the whole bungalow was as seething with
excitement as if it had been peopled by a horde of Kaffirs instead
of only three.
He was scarcely aware of them in his desire to be gone, merely
throwing an order here and there as he partook of a hasty
breakfast, and then striding forth to their vast relief to mount
into the Cape cart with its two skittish horses that awaited him
beyond the _stoep_.
He departed in a cloud of dust, for still the rain did not fall,
and immediately, like the casting of a spell, the peace of a great
somnolence descended upon the bungalow. The Kaffirs strolled back
to their huts to resume their interrupted slumbers.
The dust slowly settled upon all things, and all was quiet.
Down the rough track Burke jolted. The horses were fresh, and he
did not seek to check them. All night long he had been picturing
that swift journey and the goal that awaited him, and he was in a
fever to accomplish it. Their highest speed was not swift enough
Through the heavy clouds behind him there came the first break of
the sunshine transforming the _veldt_. It acted like a goad upon
him. He wanted to start back before the sun rose high. The track
that led to Bill Merston's farm was even rougher than his own, but
it did not daunt him. He suffered the horses to take their own
pace, and they travelled superbly. They had scarcely slackened
during the whole ten-mile journey.
He smiled faintly to himself as he sighted the hideous iron
building that was Bill Merston's dwelling-place. He wondered how
Sylvia appreciated this form of life in the wilderness. He slowed
down the animals to a walk as he neared it, peering about for some
sign of its inhabitants. The clouds had scattered, and the son was
shining brilliantly behind him. He reflected that Merston was
probably out on the lands. His wife would be superintending the
preparation of breakfast. And Sylvia----
Something jerked suddenly within him, and a pulse awoke to a
furious beating in his throat. Sylvia was emerging at that very
moment from the doorway of the humble guest-chamber. The sun was
in her eyes, blinding her, and she did not see him. Yet she paused
a moment on the threshold.
Burke dragged in his horses and sat watching her across the yard.
She looked pale and unspeakably weary in the searching morning
light. For a second or two she stood so, then, slightly turning,
she spoke into the room behind her ere she closed the door:
"Stay here while I fetch you something to eat! Then you shall go
as soon as you like."
Clearly her voice came to him, and in it was that throb of
tenderness which he had heard once before when she had offered him
her dreaming face to kiss with the name of another man upon her
lips. He sat quite motionless as one transfixed while she drew the
door after her and stepped forth into the sunshine. And still she
did not see him for the glory of the morning.
She went quickly round to the back of the bungalow and disappeared
from his sight.
Two minutes later Burke Ranger strode across the yard with that in
his face which made it more terrible than the face of a savage
beast. He reached the closed door, opened it, and stepped within.
His movements were swift and wholly without stealth, but they did
not make much sound. The man inside the room did not hear
He was seated on the edge of the bed adjusting the strap of one of
his gaiters. Burke stood and watched him unobserved till he lifted
his head. Then with a curt, "Now!" he turned and bolted the door
"Hullo!" said Guy, and got to his feet.
They stood face to face, alike yet unlike, men of the same breed,
bearing the same ineradicable stamp, yet poles asunder.
The silence between them was as the appalling pause between the
lightning and the thunder-clap. All the savagery of which the
human heart is capable was pent within its brief bounds. Then
Burke spoke through lips that were white and strangely twisted:
"Have you anything at all to say for yourself?"
Guy threw a single glance around. "Not here," he said. "And not
now. I'll meet you. Where shall I meet you?"
"Why not here--and now?" Burke's hands were at his sides, hard
clenched, as if it took all his strength to keep them there. His
eyes never stirred from Guy's face. They had the fixed and cruel
look of a hawk about to pounce upon its prey and rend it to atoms.
But there was no fear about Guy, neither fear nor shame. Whatever
his sins had been, he had never flinched from the consequences.
He answered without an instant's faltering: "Because we shall be
interrupted. We don't want a pack of women howling round. Also,
there are no weapons. You haven't even a _sjambok_." His eyes
gleamed suddenly. "And there isn't space enough to use it if you
"I don't need even a _sjambok_," Burke said, "to kill a rat like
"No. And I shan't die so hard as a rat either. All the same," Guy
spoke with quiet determination, "you can't do it here. Damn it,
man! Are you afraid I shall run away?"
"No!" The answer came like a blow. "But I can't wait, you
accursed blackguard! I've waited too long already."
"No, you haven't!" Guy straightened himself sharply, braced for
violence, for Burke was close to him and there was something of the
quality of a coiled spring in his attitude, a spring that a touch
would release. "Wait a minute, Burke! Do you hear? Wait a
minute? I'm everything you choose to call me. I'm a traitor, a
thief, and a blackguard. But I'm another thing as well." His
voice broke oddly and he continued in a lower key, rapidly, as if
he feared his strength might not last. "I'm a failure. I haven't
done this thing I tried to do. I never shall do it now.
Because--your wife--is incorruptible. Her loyalty is greater than
Again there sounded that curious catch in his voice as if a
remorseless hand were tightening upon his throat. But he fought
against it with a fierce persistence. He faced Burke with livid,
"God knows," he said in a passionate whisper, "whether she loves
you. But she will be true to you--as long as you live!"
His words went into silence--a silence so tense that it seemed as
if it must end in furious action--as if a hurtling blow and a
crashing, headlong fall could be the only outcome.
But neither came. After several rigid seconds Burke spoke, his
voice dead level, without a hint of emotion.
"You expect me to believe that, do you?"
Guy made a sharp movement that had in it more of surprise than
protest. His throat worked spasmodically for a moment or two ere
he forced it to utterance.
"Don't you think," he said then, in a half-strangled undertone,
"that it would be a million times easier for me to let you
"Why?" said Burke briefly.
"Because--" savagely Guy flung back the answer--"I would rather be
murdered for what I've done than despised for what I've failed to
"I see," Burke said. "Then why not let me believe the obvious
without further argument?"
There was contempt in his voice, but it was a bitter self-contempt
in which the man before him had no share. He had entered that room
with murder in his heart. The lust was still there, but he knew
now that it would go unsatisfied. He had been stopped, by what
means he scarcely realized.
But Guy knew; and though it would have been infinitely easier, as
he had said, to have endured that first mad fury than to have
stayed it with a confession of failure, for some reason he forced
himself to follow the path of humiliation that he had chosen.
"Because what you call the obvious chances also to be the
impossible," he said. "I'm not such a devil as to want to ruin her
for the fun of the thing. I tell you she's straight--as straight
as I am crooked. And you've got to believe in her--whether you
want to or not. That--if you like--is the obvious." He broke off,
breathing hard, yet in a fashion oddly triumphant, as if in
vindicating the girl he had somehow vindicated himself also.
Burke looked at him fixedly for a few seconds longer. Then,
abruptly, as if the words were hard to utter, he spoke; "I believe
Guy relaxed with what was almost a movement of exhaustion, but in a
moment he braced himself again. "You shall have your satisfaction
all the same," he said. "I owe you that. Where shall I meet you?"
Burke made a curt gesture as if dismissing a matter of but minor
importance, and turned to go.
But in an instant, as if stung into action, Guy was before him. He
gripped him by the shoulder. "Man! Don't give me any of your
damned generosity!" He ground out the words between his teeth.
"Name a place! Do you hear? Name a place and time!"
Burke stopped dead. His face was enigmatical as he looked at Guy.
There was a remote gleam in his stern eyes that was neither of
anger nor scorn. He stood for several seconds in silence, till the
hand that clutched his shoulder gripped and feverishly shook it.
Then deliberately and with authority bespoke: "I'll meet you in my
own time. You can go back to your old quarters and--wait for me
Guy's hand fell from him. He stood for a moment as if irresolute,
then he moved aside. "All right. I shall go there to-day," he
And in silence Burke unbolted the door and went out.
When Burke presented himself at the door of the main bungalow he
found it half-open. The whirr of a sewing-machine came forth to
him, but it paused in answer to his knock, and Mrs. Merston's voice
bade him enter.
He went in to find her seated at a plain wooden table with grey
flannel spread around her, her hand poised on the wheel of her
machine, which she drove round vigorously as he entered. Her light
eyes surveyed him in momentary surprise, and then fell straight
upon her work. A slightly deeper colour suffused her face.
"You've come early," she said.
"Good morning!" said Burke.
She nodded without speaking, absorbed in her work.
He came to a stand on the opposite side of the table, watching her.
He was quite well aware that Matilda Merston did not like him. She
had never scrupled to let him know it. The whirr of the machine
rose between them. She was working fast and furiously.
He waited with absolute patience till she flung him a word. "Sit
He seated himself facing her.
Faster and faster spun the wheel. Matilda's thin lips were
compressed. Tiny beads appeared on her forehead. She was
breathing quickly. Suddenly there was a check, a sharp snap. She
uttered an impatient sound and stopped, looking across at her
visitor with undisguised hostility in her eyes.
"I didn't do it," said Burke.
She got up, not deigning a reply. "I suppose you'd like a drink,"
she said. "Bill is out on the lands."
His eyes comprehended her with a species of grim amusement. "No.
I won't have anything, thanks. I have come for my wife. Can you
tell me where she is ?"
"You're very early," Matilda remarked again.
He leaned his arms upon the table, looking up at her. "Yes. I
know. Isn't she up?"
She returned his look with obvious disfavour. And yet Burke Ranger
was no despicable figure of manhood sitting there. He was broad,
well-knit, well-developed, clean of feature, with eyes of piercing
He met her frown with a faint smile. "Well?" he said.
"Yes. Of course she is up." Grudgingly Matilda made answer.
Somehow she resented the clean-limbed health of these men who made
their living in the wilderness. There was something almost
aggressive about it. Abruptly she braced herself to give utterance
to her thoughts. "Why can't you leave her here a little longer?
She doesn't want to go back."
"I think she must tell me that herself," Burke said.
He betrayed no discomfiture. She had never seen him discomfited.
That was part of her grievance against him.
"She won't do that," she said curtly. "She has old-fashioned ideas
about duty. But it doesn't make her like it any the better."
"It wouldn't," said Burke. A gleam that was in no way connected
with his smile shone for a moment in his steady eyes, but it passed
immediately. He continued to contemplate the faded woman before
him very gravely, without animosity. "You have got rather fond of
Sylvia, haven't you?" he said.
Matilda made an odd gesture that had in it something of vehemence.
"I am very sorry for her," she said bluntly.
"Yes?" said Burke.
"Yes." She repeated the word uncompromisingly, and closed her lips.
"You're not going to tell me why?" he suggested.
Her pale eyes grew suddenly hard and intensely bright. "Yes. I
should like to tell you," she said.
He got up with a quiet movement. "Well, why?" he said.
Her eyes flashed fire. "Because," she spoke very quickly, scarcely
pausing for breath, "you have turned her from a happy girl into a
miserable woman. I knew it would come. I saw it coming, I
knew--long before she did--that she had married the wrong man. And
I knew what she would suffer when she found out. She tried hard
not to find out; she did her best to blind herself. But she had to
face it at last. You forced her to open her eyes. And now--she
knows the truth. She will do her duty, because you are her husband
and there is no escape. But it will be bondage to her as long as
she lives. You have taken all the youth and the joy out of her
There was a fierce ring of passion in the words. For once Matilda
Merston glowed with life. There was even something superb in her
reckless denunciation of the man before her.
He heard it without stirring a muscle, his eyes fixed unwaveringly
upon her, grim and cold as steel. When she ceased to speak, he
still stood motionless, almost as if he were waiting for something.
She also waited, girt for battle, eager for the fray. But he
showed no sign of anger, and gradually her enthusiasm began to
wane. She bent, panting a little and began to smooth out a piece
of the grey flannel with nervous exactitude.
Then Burke spoke. "So you think I am not the right man for her."
"I am quite sure of that," said Matilda without looking up.
"That means," Burke spoke slowly, with deliberate insistence, "that
you know she loves another man better."
Matilda was silent.
He bent forward a little, looking straight into her downcast face.
"Mrs. Merston," he said, "you are a woman; you ought to know. Do
you believe--honestly--that she would have been any happier married
to that other man?"
She looked at him then in answer to his unspoken desire. He had
refused to do battle with her. That was her first thought, and she
was conscious of a momentary sense of triumph. Then--for she was a
woman--her heart stirred oddly within her, and her triumph was
gone. She met his quiet eyes with a sudden sharp misgiving. What
had she done?
"Please answer me!" Burke said.
And, in a low voice, reluctantly, she made answer. "I am afraid I
"You know the man?" he said.
She nodded. "I believe--in time--she might have been his
salvation. Everybody thought he was beyond redemption. I know
that. But she--had faith. And they loved each other. That makes
all the difference."
"Ah!" he said.
For the first time he looked away from her, looked out through the
open door over the _veldt_ to that far-distant line of hills that
bounded their world. His brown face was set in stern, unwavering
Furtively Matilda watched him, still with that uneasy feeling at
her heart. There was something enigmatical to her about this man's
hard endurance, but she did not resent it any longer. It awed her.
Several seconds passed ere abruptly he turned and spoke. "I am
going back. Will you tell Sylvia? Say I can manage all right
without her if she is--happier here!" The barely perceptible pause
before the word made Matilda avert her eyes instinctively though
his face never varied. "I wish her to do exactly as she likes.
He held out his hand to her suddenly, and she was amazed by the
warmth of his grasp. She murmured something incoherent about
hoping she had not been very unpleasant. It was the humblest
moment she had ever known.
He smiled in reply--that faint, baffling smile. "Oh, not in the
least. I am grateful to you for telling me the truth. I am sure
you didn't enjoy it."
No, to her own surprise, she had not enjoyed it. She even watched
him go with regret. There was that about Burke Ranger at the
moment which made her wonder if possibly the harsh conception she
had formed of him were wholly justified.
As for Burke, he went straight out to his horses, looking neither
to right nor left, untied the reins, and drove forth again into the
_veldt_ with the dust of the desert rising all around him.
Hans Schafen met his master on the boundary of Blue Hill Farm with
a drawn face. Things were going from bad to worse. The drought
was killing the animals like flies. If the rain did not come soon,
there would be none left. He made his report to Burke with a
precision that did not hide his despair. Matters had never before
looked so serious. The dearth of water had begun to spell disaster.
Burke listened with scarcely a comment. Blue Hill Farm was on
rising ground, and there had always been this danger in view. But
till this season it had never materialized to any alarming extent.
His position had often enough been precarious, but his losses had
never been overwhelming. The failure of the dam at Ritter Spruit
had been a catastrophe more far reaching than at the time he had
realized. It had crippled the resources of the farm, and flung him
upon the chances of the weather. He was faced with ruin.
He heard Schafen out with no sign of consternation, and when he had
ended he drove on to the farm and stabled his horses himself with
his usual care. Then he went into his empty bungalow. . .
Slowly the long hours wore away. The sun rose in its strength,
shining through a thick haze that was like the smoke from a
furnace. The atmosphere grew close and suffocating. An intense
stillness reigned without, broken occasionally by the despairing
bleating of thirst-stricken sheep. The haze increased, seeming to
press downwards upon the parched earth. The noonday was dark with
At the hour of luncheon there came a slight stir in the bungalow.
Mary Ann thrust her amazing visage round the door and rolled her
eyes in frightened wonder at what she saw. The big _baas_ was
lying across the table, a prone, stricken figure, with his head
upon his arms.
For a few seconds she stood in open-mouthed dismay, thinking him
dead; for she had never seen him thus in life. Then she saw his
shoulders heave convulsively, and promptly she turned and fled.
Again the bungalow was empty and still, the hours dragged on
unheeded. Lower and lower pressed the threatening clouds. But the
man who sat alone in the darkening room was blind to all outward
things. He did not feel the pitiless, storm-laden heat of the day.
He was consumed by the agony of his soul.
It was evening before the end came suddenly; a dancing flash that
lighted the heavens from east to west and, crashing upon it, an
explosion that seemed to rend the earth. It was a cataclysm of
sound, drowning the faculties, stunning the senses, brimming up the
void with awful tumult.
A great start ran through the man's bowed figure. He sat up dazed,
stiffly opening his clenched hands. The world without seemed to be
running with fire. The storm shrieked over the _veldt_. It was
Stiffly he straightened his cramped muscles. His heart was
thumping in heavy, uneven strokes, obstructing his breathing. He
fought for a few seconds to fill his lungs. The atmosphere was
dense with sand. It came swirling in upon him, suffocating him.
He stood up, and was astounded to feel his own weakness against
that terrific onslaught. Grimly he forced his way to the open
window. The _veldt_ was alight with lurid, leaping flame. The
far-off hills stood up like ramparts in the amazing glare, stabbed
here and there with molten swords of an unendurable brightness. He
had seen many a raging storm before, but never a storm like this.
The sand blinded him and he dragged the window shut, using all his
strength. It beat upon the glass with baffled fury. The thunder
rolled and echoed overhead like the chariot-wheels of God, shaking
the world. The clouds above the lightning were black as night.
Suddenly far across the blazing _veldt_ he saw a sight that
tightened every muscle, sending a wild thrill through every nerve.
It came from the hills, a black, swift-moving pillar, seeming to
trail just above the ground, travelling straight forward through
the storm. Over rocks and past _kopjes_ it travelled, propelled by
a force unseen, and ever as it drew nearer it loomed more black and
He watched it with a grim elation, drawn irresistibly by its
immensity, its awfulness. Straight towards him it came, and the
lightning was dulled by its nearness and the thunder hushed. He
heard a swishing, whistling sound like the shriek of a shell, and
instinctively he gathered himself together for the last great shock
which no human power could withstand, the shattering asunder of
soul and body, the swift amazing release of the spirit.
Involuntarily he shut his eyes as the thing drew near; but he did
not shrink, nor was there terror in his heart.
"Thank God I shall die like a man!" he said through his set teeth.
And then--while he waited tense and ready for the great revelation,
while all that was mortal in him throbbed with anguished
expectation--the monster of destruction swerved as if drawn by a
giant hand and passed him by.
He opened his eyes upon a flicker of lightning and saw it whirling
onwards, growing ever in volume, towards the _kopje_ which Sylvia
had never conquered. The blackness of the sky above was appalling.
It hung so near, pressing earthwards through that mighty spout.
With bated breath he watched till the _kopje_ was blotted from his
sight, and the demons of the storm came shrieking back. Then
suddenly there came a crash that shook the world and made the
senses reel. He heard the rush and swish of water, water
torrential that fell in a streaming mass, and as his understanding
came staggering back he knew that the first, most menacing danger
was past. The cloud had burst upon the _kopje_.
The thunder was drowned in the rush of the rain. It descended in a
vast sheet through which the lightning leapt and quivered. The
light of day was wholly gone.
The bungalow rocked on its foundations; the wrath of the tempest
beat around it as if it would sweep it away. The noise of the
falling rain was terrific. He wondered if the place would stand.
Gradually the first wild fury spent itself, and though the storm
continued the sky seemed to lift somewhat, to recede as if the
swollen clouds were being drawn upwards again. In the glimmering
lightning the _veldt_ shone like a sea. The water must be deep in
the hollows, and he hoped none of the sheep had been caught. The
fact that the farm was on rising ground, though it had been exposed
to the full force of the storm, had been its salvation. He thought
of the Kaffir huts, and dismissed the idea of any serious danger
there. The stables, too, were safe for the same reason. It was
only on the lower ground beyond the _kopje_ that the flood could be
formidable. He thought of the watercourse, dry for so many weeks,
now without doubt a seething torrent. He thought with a sudden
leap of memory of the hut on the sand above. . . .
"I shall go there to-day." How long was it since he had heard
those words? Had they indeed been uttered only that morning? Or
did they belong to an entirely different period of his life? He
felt as if many empty and bitter years had passed over him since
they had been spoken. Was it indeed but that morning that the
boy's eyes with their fierce appeal had looked into his--and he had
given him that stern command to await his coming?
His hand went up to the fastening of the window. He knew Guy.
There was a strain of honour in his nature which nothing could ever
change. He would keep that sort of appointment or die in the
attempt. If he still lived--if that frightful cloudburst had not
overwhelmed him--he was there waiting above the raging torrent.
The rain beat with a deafening rattle upon the roof of the _stoep_.
It was falling perfectly straight now as if a million taps were
running. And another memory flashed upon Burke as he stepped
forth,--the memory of a girl who had clung to him in just such
another downpour and begged him not to leave her. He heard the
accents of her voice, felt again the slender youthfulness of her
frame. He flung his arms wide with an anguished gesture.
Another voice, keen-edged and ruthless, was cutting its way through
his soul, lacerating him, agonizing him. "And they loved each
other. That made all the difference." Ah, God, the bitter
difference that it made!
He went down the steps up which he had lifted her on that first day
of her coming, and floundered into water that was half way to his
knees. The rain rushed down upon him, beating upon his uncovered
head. He was drenched to the skin in five seconds.
The lightning flashes were less frequent now, and the darkness in
between less intense. He splashed his way cautiously round the
bungalow to the stable.
A frightened whinnying greeted him. He heard the animals stamping
in the sodden straw, but the water was not so deep here. It
scarcely covered their hocks.
He spoke reassuringly to them as he made his way to Diamond,
Sylvia's mount. Diamond had always been a favourite with him since
the day she had laid her face against his nose, refusing to doubt
him. By faith and love! By faith and love!
He saddled the horse more by feeling than sight, and led him out.
The rain was still beating furiously down, but Diamond did not
flinch with his master's hand upon him. He stood firm while Burke
swung himself up. Then, with the lightning still flashing athwart
the gloom and the thunder rolling in broken echoes all around them,
they went down the track past the _kopje_ to find the hut on the
The sound of water, splashing, welling, overflowing, was
everywhere. It was difficult to keep the track, but Diamond trod
warily. He knew the _veldt_ by heart. Passing the _kopje_, the
rush of the water was like the spouting of a thousand springs. It
gurgled and raced over its scarred sides. The prickly pear bushes
hung flattened over the rocks. By the fitful gleam of the
lightning Burke saw these things. The storm was passing, though
the rain still beat down mercilessly. It would probably rain for
many hours; but a faint vague light far down on the unseen horizon
told of a rising moon. It would not be completely dark again.
They splashed their way past the _kopje_, and immediately a loud
roaring filled his ears. As he had guessed the dry watercourse had
become a foaming torrent. Again a sharp anxiety assailed him. He
spoke to Diamond, and they turned off the track.
The animal was nervous. He started and quivered at the
unaccustomed sound. But in a moment or two he responded to Burke's
insistence, and went down the sloping ground that led to the
Burke guided him with an unerring hand, holding him up firmly, for
the way was difficult and uneven. A vivid flash of lightning gave
him his direction, and by it he saw a marvellous picture. The
spruit had become a wide, dashing river. The swirl and rush of the
current sounded like a sea at high tide. The flood spread like an
estuary over the _veldt_ on the farther side, and he saw that the
bank nearest to him was brimming.
The picture was gone in a moment, but it was registered indelibly
upon his brain. And the hut--Guy's hut--was scarcely more than
twenty yards from that swirling river which was rising with every
"He can't be there," he said aloud. But yet he knew that he could
not turn back till he had satisfied himself on this point. So,
with a word of encouragement to Diamond, he splashed onwards.
Again the lightning flared torchlike through the gloom, but the
thunder of the torrent drowned the thunder overhead. He was
nearing the hut now, and found that in places the rain had so
beaten down the sandy surface of the ground that it sank and
yielded like a quagmire. He knew that it was only a matter of
minutes--possibly seconds--before the crumbling bank above the
stream gave way.
He was close to the hut now, though still he assured himself that
the place was empty. The roar of the water was deafening, seeming
to numb the senses. He never knew afterwards whether a light
suddenly kindled as he drew near behind the canvas that screened
the hut-window, or if it had been there all along and the leaping
elusive lightning had blinded him to it. But the light was there
before him as he reached the place, and in a moment the knowledge
flashed upon him beyond all questioning that he had not come upon a
He knew also with that menacing roar below him and the streaming
rain around that there was not a moment to be lost. He swung
himself from Diamond's back and secured the bridle to a projecting
piece of wood at the back of the hut. Then, floundering and
slipping at every step, he made his way round to the door.
He groped for some seconds before he found it. It was closed and
he knew that there was no handle on the outside. He battered upon
it with his fist, shouting Guy's name.
There came no answer to his summons, but the sound of the water
seemed to swell in volume, filling the night. It drove him to a
fierce impatience. If he had not seen the light he would scarcely
have taken the risk. None but a fool would have remained in such a
death-trap. But the presence of the light forced him on. He could
not leave without satisfying himself. He set his shoulder against
the closed door and flung the full weight of his body into one
stupendous effort to force an entrance.
The wood cracked and splintered with the shock. He felt himself
pitching forward and grabbed at the post to save himself. The door
swung back upon its hinges, and he burst into the hut headlong.
The flame of a candle glimmered in his eyes, momentarily dazzling
him. Then he heard a cry. A figure sprang towards him--a woman's
figure with outstretched arms waving him back! Was he dreaming?
Was he mad? It was Sylvia's face, white and agonized, that
confronted him--Sylvia's voice, but so strained that he hardly
recognized it, broken and beseeching, imploring him for mercy.
"Oh, Burke--for God's sake--don't kill him! Don't kill him! I
will kill myself--I swear--if you do."
He caught the outflung hands, gripping them hard, assuring himself
that this thing was no illusion. He looked into her eyes of wild
She attempted no, further entreaty, but she flung herself against
him, impeding him, holding him back. Over her shoulder he looked
for Guy; and found him.
He was sitting crouched on a low trestle-bed at the further end of
the hut with his head in his hands. Burke turned to the girl who
stood palpitating, pressed against him, still seeking with all her
strength to oppose his advance.
Her wide eyes met his. They were filled with a desperate fear.
"He is ill," she said.
The roar of the rising water filled the place. The ground under
their feet seemed to be shaking.
Burke looked down at the woman he held, and a deadly sensation
arose and possessed him. For the moment he felt sick with an
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