The forty miles from Kroonstad to Lindley were reducing themselves from a geographical fact to a matter of physical and mental anguish. There had been no rain for days, and under the burning sun, the dusty veldt seemed dancing up and down before Weldon's tired, feverish eyes. Now he passed through a stretch of bare and burned-out sand; now he tramped over patches of tall dry grass; now he plodded wearily around a heap of smooth black stones. Brick-red ant-hills higher than his knees dotted themselves over the veldt, their shell-like surface shielding a crowded insect colony within. Ant-bear holes lurked unseen in his pathway, tripping his heedless steps; and an occasional partridge went whirring upward, making him start aside in causeless terror at the unwonted sound. And over it all rested the glaring, shimmering, blinding light, laden with myriad particles of dazzling red-brown dust. Later still, the red-brown color vanished, and he walked for weary leagues over the fire-blackened veldt where the black rocks offered no contrast to the eye, and where the air was heavy with ashes caught up and scattered by the light breeze which heralded the coming night. And it was all so lonely, so hostile, so limitless. But no more lonely and hostile and limitless than the desolate future which stretched away and away before his gaze.
As yet he dared not trust his mind to rest too much upon the past. The future demanded his whole attention. It was a far cry for him from the present up to his limit of threescore years and ten. Still, he would not funk it now. That was the part of a sneak. Now, as always, he would stand by his young resolution to play out the game, to abide by the rules and to take the consequences. Nevertheless, it would be weary work to play out the game to its end, when the end held nothing for him in its keeping. His mind trailed off upon all sorts or vague corollaries scarcely connected with the fact. He recalled it with a jerk.
The Captain was dead. Ethel had loved the Captain. She had told the Captain of her love. As consequence, she could not love himself, Harvard Weldon. But he loved her. He had loved her for thirteen months and twenty-one days. Carefully he reckoned up the time; then, to make sure, he counted it off upon his fingers. Yes, he had loved her ever since that first lunch on the steamer, when she had snubbed him so roundly. He did not know it then. Looking backward, he knew it now. And there had been Cape Town, and Johannesburg, and Cape Town again. He stumbled into the open mouth of an ant-bear's hole and came down with a crash, full upon his wounded shoulder. Strange that his step should be so uncertain! Strange that he should feel so little inclination to swear! As he picked himself up, he wondered vaguely whether his pipe would be refreshing; but his wonder stopped, impotent to lead his dangling hand in the direction of his pocket. Then his mind took up its interrupted story, its record of brief, categorical facts.
He had meant to go home, that winter. Instead, Ethel had fanned the flame of his desire to go back to the front. He had left her, one evening, to pass a sleepless night, and, the next morning, to take himself out to enlist for another six months of service. The six months were nearly ended. Only three weeks remained. And then? Nothing.
The second night found him still far from Lindley. He had plodded on mechanically, stumbling often, but halting never, while his mind went whirling on and on, over and over the same old questions. His lips were feverish, and his eyes burned hotly, so it was almost with a sense of relief that he greeted the swift chill which followed the dropping of the sun. Over his head, the great arch of the sky shaded from east to west through every tint of purple and blue and turquoise and emerald-green, down to the golden band of the afterglow. Then the stars began to dot the purple, their tiny points of light serving only to emphasize its darkness, until the full moon swept up across the heavens, throwing its mystic silver light over all the land and adding tenfold to the empty loneliness of the veldt. Sleep was out of the question. He could only snuggle more closely into his blankets and wait for morning with what grace he could. The stopping of his physical action only increased the swiftness of his swirling thoughts which chased each other round and round in circling eddies about one fixed point. That point was Ethel.
Across the veldt at his left hand, he had watched the chain of blockhouses which lay along the country between Kroonstad and Lindley. Their squat outlines and the shining blue of their corrugated iron roofs had caught his wandering attention, held it, pinned it to other associations with those same blockhouses and, of a sudden, had brought him to a full realization that griefs did not come singly. He had left Johannesburg, to face a future apart from Ethel. He was coming back to Lindley, to face a future bereft of the Captain.
It was full noon, the next day, when the camp came into view. Leaving the convoy to follow in his wake, he headed straight for the rise where he had so often sat with Carew and gossiped of all things under the light of the sun. Then, as the round tents lay under his eyes like rows of dots punched into relief above the surface of the plain, he sank down on the coarse, parched grass and hid his eyes in his shaking hands. Yet even then the pitiless circle of tragic thoughts refused to stop their ceaseless round.
He roused himself at a touch on his arm. Kruger Bobs, at a distance, was eying him with a look of chastened welcome; but Carew stood beside him, one thin, sun-tanned hand on Weldon's shoulder.
"It's all right, old man," he was saying. "Don't try to tell me anything about it. Kruger Bobs saw you coming, and we rode out to meet you. Come in and rest. You look utterly done up."
Half way back to the camp, Carew spoke again; but it was only once.
"I told the fellows you were coming, and that you would be tired. They will keep out of your way, till you have had time to rest up a bit. Paddy is waiting to look out for you; but you needn't worry. He knows when to hold his tongue. If you need anything, or if you care to talk, send him out to look for me. Meanwhile, you need some rest."
"For God's sake, Weldon, how long is this going to last?"
Weldon raised his eyes from the seven-weeks-old Times in his hand, and looked at Carew in surprise.
"What last?" he questioned blankly.
Carew sprang to his feet and began to pace up and down with impatient, nervous steps.
"This. Everything," he said.
Weldon's smile, though it went no deeper than his lips, was half sarcastic, wholly sad.
"Specify," he advised languidly. "My mind can't grasp your generalities."
Carew took a few more turns. Then he came back to Weldon's side.
"It's this way, Harvey," he said slowly, for the moment lapsing into the name by which he had called his friend in their childhood; "since you came back from Johannesburg, you've not been the same man. What has done it?"
Weldon's lips shut with a tightness which curled the corners downward. Then, as he looked into the questioning eyes and anxious face of his companion, his own eyes softened, and he changed his mind in regard to keeping silence.
"It was a hard journey," he said evasively, yet with a kindly accent to the words. "Such days take it out of a man, Carew. I shall brace up in time."
Carew shook his head.
"That is just what you must not do. You have braced too long, as it is. Your wounds were nothing but scratches. They healed up easily enough, and you say, yourself, that they don't trouble you; but you look—"
"Well?" "As if things had ended for you," Carew blurted out desperately.
Slowly, wearily, Weldon lifted his eyes to his friend's face.
"Well, they have," he said, with an intonation of dreary finality.
"Rot!" Carew observed profanely. "Look here, Weldon, you've no business to funk in this fashion. It's not like you, either."
The word stung Weldon. He scrambled to his feet and stood to attention.
"Carew, no other man could say that to me," he said slowly.
Carew maintained his ground.
"No other man cares for you as I do, Harvey. We've been like brothers, and I have been too proud of your record to be willing to sit by, quiet, and see you spoil the last round of the game. There is too much at stake." Weldon raised his brows.
"What is at stake?" he asked coldly.
"Your whole army record. Your manhood. Your—" Carew hesitated; then he nerved himself to speak out plainly; "your love for Miss Dent."
Weldon shut his teeth and drew in his breath between them, while the dark red blood rushed across his face, and then died away, to leave in its place a grayish pallor. He put out his hand, as if to ward off something.
"For God's sake, don't!" he said huskily.
Carew watched him for an instant. Then he stepped forward and linked his arm through that of Weldon.
"There's nothing doing now," he said quietly. "Let's go for a walk. We can talk better, while we're moving, you know."
"But what is the use of talking?" Weldon objected listlessly.
Carew looked into the heavy eyes, the overcast face of his friend. Not once during the past three weeks since Weldon's return from Johannesburg had the cloud lifted.
"You must talk, Weldon," he said firmly. "If you don't talk, you'll go mad. I've watched you, day after day, hoping you would speak of your own free will. I have hated to urge you. It seemed rather beastly to drive you into telling me things that are none of my business. But they are my business, in a sense. There's nobody in all South Africa who can go back farther with you into the past. That alone ought to count for something."
Handsome still, in spite of his dark sunburn and his time-stained khaki, Carew's face was wonderfully attractive, as it looked into that of his friend. Weldon felt the attraction, even while he was wondering why it was so powerless to move him. He liked Carew; since the death of the Captain, no other man was linked more closely with his life. Nevertheless, Carew's words left him cold. All things did leave him cold of late. It was as if, in the fierce conflagration of that one hour in the Johannesburg hospital, the fires of his nature had burned themselves out beyond the possibility of being rekindled. His intellect told him that Carew was in the right of it, that his alternatives were speech or madness; but he faced the alternatives with an absolute indifference. His intellect also told him that, for the past three weeks, Carew's kindness had been unremitting; that his care had served as a buffer between himself and the clumsy tactlessness of their mates; that his sympathy now was leading him to try to storm the barrier of his own reserve; but he met Carew's advances with an icy front which could be thawed neither from outside nor from within. It was not his will to be ungrateful; it was beyond his present power to show the gratitude which he really felt. And Carew, with the supreme insight which marks the friendship of men at times, interpreted Weldon's mood aright and forebode to take offence.
Nevertheless, watching his friend closely, Carew had judged the case to be serious. He had felt no surprise at the state of collapse in which Weldon had struggled back into camp. The battle, the half-dressed wounds, the nerve-racking journey, the watching the slow approach of death and the accepting the fact of the loss of a valued friend: all these were enough to wreck the vitality of a man. With an almost womanish tenderness, Carew had brought his friend back to the tent, and made him over to the care of Paddy who gave up all things else, for the sake of his little Canuck. All that afternoon and night, Weldon lay passive, inert, while Paddy bathed him, fed him, poured cool, soft things over his wounds, fed him again, and then sat down beside him with his own stubby hand resting against Weldon's limp fingers. But, the next morning, Weldon rose, buttoned and belted himself with elaborate care. Then, disregarding the implorings of Carew and Paddy, who were terrified at the steady, unseeing look in his gray eyes and at the tense lines about his lips, he went to his captain and demanded his old position of regimental rough rider.
He obtained it. In fact, it was given, not only freely, but with joy. In all the regiment, no one else had been able to subdue such wild mounts as Weldon. In former days, he had stopped at little. Now he stopped at nothing. Horse-sickness, the scourge of South Africa, was in the land; and the underfed, overworked mounts yielded to it with pitiful ease. And, meanwhile, the need for horses was greater than ever. Drive after drive through the country about Kroonstad was bringing in the hostile Boers; but it was also bringing down the horses. The call for new mounts was limitless; limitless, too, the hours and the strength and the skill which Trooper Weldon put forth to the supplying that call. He was utterly untiring; but he was utterly reckless as well. Checked by no risk, sobered by no danger, he rushed into risk and danger as rushes the man whose one wish is to escape from a future of which he is in mortal, agonizing dread.
Carew said little; he watched much, and he meditated more. At first, he hoped all things from the healthy, outdoor life. He watched Weldon's muscles harden, saw his appetite return and welcomed with happy anticipations all the signs of his returning rugged strength. Then, as the time passed by, his anxiety came back upon him in full measure. Long days in the saddle were followed by sleepless nights; the shadow never came out of Weldon's eyes, the alertness never came back into his step. Lean, gaunt as a greyhound, he went about his work with a silent, dogged endurance which took no note of the other life about him. For Trooper Weldon, his profession had dropped to a dull, plodding routine of danger lapping close upon the heels of danger. And still he spoke no word of the sorrow which had brought him to this end.
And Carew, meanwhile, could not fail to note the increasing anxiety with which Alice Mellen wrote of her cousin. From Alice's letters, it appeared that Ethel, totally unnerved by the death of Captain Frazer, had begged so piteously to be released from her hospital work that she had finally been sent home to Cape Town. She had seemed to be far from well, when she had left Johannesburg; nevertheless, she had no sooner reached home than she had plunged into the midst of the whirlpool of social life where she was said to be the gayest of the gay.
Cape Town, that fall, was facing the end of the war and the consequent departure of the swarm of young Englishmen who had made their headquarters there during the past two years. Accordingly, it resolved to make the most of the short time remaining to it; and the early weeks of the year saw the little city neglecting all other things for the sake of making merry with her fast-vanishing heroes. And, in all the round of merry-making, Ethel Dent was in evidence, bright and flashing as the diamonds that blazed on her shoulder, and as soft. Her wit was ceaseless, her energy untiring. Always the middle of a group, she yet always held herself within range of her father's protection. He watched her proudly; yet his pride was sometimes mingled with alarm, as he saw the waxy whiteness of her ears and the dark shadows which lay beneath her eyes. It was plain to him that all was not well with the girl; yet he was wholly at a loss as to the cause of the trouble.
Strange to say, he never once thought of Weldon; neither did his mind linger long upon the Captain. True, Ethel and Captain Frazer had been good friends; but so had Ethel been good friends with many another man. The secret of that last hour of the Captain's life was buried in two hearts. Weldon could not speak of it; Ethel would not. And so, in the eyes of her friends, Ethel's experience had been sorrowful, but scarcely touched with tragedy. The heroic passing of a casual friend is no cause for a lasting change in the nature of a happy-tempered girl.
However, Alice had noted the change and, quite unable to account for it, she had commented upon it to Carew. Her letter, coming that same morning, had quickened his slow-forming resolution to speak. Taken quite by itself, her account of Ethel would have made scant impression upon him. Taken in connection with what he had seen of Weldon, it forced him to draw certain conclusions which, though wrong in detail, were comparatively accurate in their main outlines.
He and Weldon came back from their walk, wrapped in the silence of perfect understanding. Carew had asked few questions; Weldon had made even fewer replies, and those replies had been brief. Ethel's name had scarcely been mentioned between them. Their talk had mainly concerned itself with Captain Frazer, his life, his passing, the void he had left behind him. Only one sentence had related to the scene in the hospital; but its brief, tragic summing up of the situation had been sufficient. Carew had made no answer, save to walk on for a few steps in silence, with his hand resting on the shoulder of his friend.
That night, he wrote to Alice. The letter was long and full of detail. It told what he knew, what he had inferred and what he feared. It begged her, in the name of their own sacred happiness, to help him win the same happiness for these two who, longing to come together, were straying always farther apart; and it ended with the words with which he had begun his talk with Weldon, that noon,—
"For God's sake, how long is this going to last?"
Paddy waved his thumb disrespectfully towards the rear of the column.
"And what can you expect of a man that goes to the wars in a fancy petticoat, let alone a khaki apron to cover up the front of it?" he demanded. "And look at the bare knees of 'em, for all the world like knots in the branches of an oak-tree! They may be trained to believe it's comfortable to walk round in public with their kneepans in plain sight; but no man can ever make me think it's either beautiful to the eye, or respectful in the presence of one's betters."
"But their officers wear the same uniform, Paddy," Weldon objected. "Who are their betters?"
"Myself, little Canuck, and yourself, too," Paddy answered calmly. "The maple and the shamrock, severally and together, can knock the spots out of all the thistles that's growing."
"Until it comes to a fight," Carew suggested, from Paddy's other side. "The Highlanders have made their record, this time."
But Paddy shook his head. "Wait then till the end of the chapter," he predicted. "My turn hasn't come yet. Belike I'll be the hero of them all. I was minding my pots and my kettles, while the Black Watch was slinging lead up on the road into Kimberley. But, faith, if I was one of them, with the choice before me between a glorious death and the having to live in the sound of the bagpipes, I'd mount a Red Cross and take a white flag in my hand and sally forth to be seen and shot by the Boers."
"You don't like the bagpipes, Paddy?"
Paddy's reply was sententious.
"Did you ever hear a pig soliloquizing to himself, just as he crossed the tracks between the wheels of an express train? Well then!"
"Meanwhile," Carew observed thoughtfully; "I wonder why we are out on this trek."
"To escort the little Canuck with his mounts, and to study the surface of the land, to be sure."
Carew's eye swept the barren, desolate expanse about them.
"It is a bit monotonous, though."
"It's monotony that's healthy. You can't make a whole dinner off from red pepper, and you can't make a whole campaign off from smokeless powder. In either case, you get too much heated up, for the show it all makes. Strike hard and eat hot at long intervals and with exceeding unction; and, meanwhile, pause and let it soak in. It's not the hottest fire that gives off the most blazes. And where is that nigger of a Kruger Bobs?"
"In among the wagons with The Nig." "Just for all the world like the deuce of spades! The Black Watch would better adopt the two of 'em for their colors. The Nig is a pretty bit of property; but this is the brute for me." And Paddy bent over in the saddle to stroke the neck of Piggie who snapped back at him testily.
However, in all truth, the little gray broncho deserved all of Paddy's praise. Scarred from muzzle to pastern by errant bullets, limping slightly on one fore leg, she still had borne her master bravely over weary miles of veldt, into many a skirmish and through the kicking, squealing throngs of her kindred which crowded the Lindley kraal. Long since, Weldon had discovered that the thoroughbred Nig was an ornament; but that Piggie was a necessity. Again and yet again, her flying feet and gritty temper had brought him, unscathed, through perilous plights. She read his mind as by instinct; left unguided, she guided herself with exceeding discretion; and, upon more than one occasion, she had endured the nervous strain of feeling a human body dangling limply above the saddle bow, held in place by main strength of her master who, crouching forward beneath the heavy fire, could only indicate the way of safety by the pressure of this heel and then that against her heaving flanks. Surely, if ever honors could be given to a faithful, plucky little broncho, Piggie should have been gazetted for the Distinguished Service Order. Not to the men alone is due all the honor of victory.
But now Piggie, fresh from a prolonged interval of resting in the care of Kruger Bobs, felt that she was out on an excursion of pure pleasure. Behind her trailed a long column of men and mounts and wagons; around her was a knot of horses whom she knew well; and before her stretched away the dry and level veldt, broken at the sky-line by a range of hills that rose sharply in a jagged line which culminated in one peak lifted far above all the others.
In the very front of the column rode a score or more of the South African Light Horse, with Weldon, for the moment, in command. The man was showing, just then, something of the temper of his mount. It would have been good to leave behind him the slow-moving column and go dashing away alone, far across the level plain. A spirit of restlessness was upon him; Paddy's utterances grew vague in his ears, and he cast longing glances towards the range of hills to the southward, as if eager to explore them and find what secrets, if any, lay within their keeping. Then he reined in his broncho and forced his mind back to Paddy's conversation, still upon the deeds of the kilted heroes of the Black Watch.
"And they do say," he was observing; "that Wauchope was light in his mind—fey, them piping, petticoated Scotchmen calls it—the night before his death. Now that's something that's beyond my thinking. No dead man ever knows he's going to die. Witness the last words of most of 'em! They make up their death-bed speeches, and then they turn thrifty and save up the speeches till next time. Little Canuck dear, what would you say, if you was hit?"
Weldon laughed shortly.
"I should probably say 'Thank God,'" he answered.
Paddy crossed himself.
"And might heaven forgive you then, little one!" he said gravely. "The Lord and the Holy Virgin may send the bullets to kill you, unless it's from the Boers who is guided by the Father of Lies; but it's small thanks in return they will be asking. Take the benefits of Providence with a shout of thanksgiving; but swallow hard and keep a stiff upper lip, when it smacks you over the head with a shillalegh." Then, of a sudden, he bent over in the saddle once more and rested his hand on Weldon's fingers which lay on the broncho's neck. "And, if I mistake not, little one, it is what you have been doing, these late days, so forgive me teaching you a lesson you've already learned by heart."
Two nights before this, Carew's letter to Alice had ended with the outcry,—
"For God's sake, how long is this going to last?"
And now the end was almost in sight. Early the next day, there had come a call for remounts for a column halted on the veldt near Reitz, and Weldon, with a score of others from his squadron, had been sent out with the mounts to join the column for the trek to the southward. As a matter of course, Weldon had asked that the score might include Paddy and Carew; and now, with them at his side, he was at the head of the column which trailed away far towards the southward, twelve hundred poorly mounted men riding in leisurely fashion towards Harrismith and the chance of rounding up an occasional Boer.
Dusk of the second day had brought the hills on the sky-line close to their eyes, and had sharpened the ragged peaks into threatening crests of bare, black rock. Already the hills were but three miles distant, and the hour for halt almost at hand, when scouts came flying back to the column, breathless with haste and with the consciousness of tidings to impart. The colonel received the tidings with outward calm.
"A laager of fifteen hundred Boers? And a mile and a half to the south of us? We must attack." His eyes swept the faces of his men. "Trooper Weldon?"
At the word, Weldon rode forward and saluted.
"That highest hill is the key to the position. It is the one we must hold. Can you and your men ride around to the west of the laager, get that hill and hold it at all costs until I can send reinforcements to you? The reinforcements will start as soon as you reach the top of the hill. Keep out of sight, while you can. Then rush it. You understand?"
Weldon nodded; then, his head erect, his eyes flashing, he saluted for a second time and, with his men at his heels, dashed off into the thickening dusk.
Like foothills beside a mountain range, so the veldt before him was already broken and crumpled into a series of irregular ridges, opening in their midst to form a tiny plain where the Boer laager lay spread out before them. The dusk of the plain was dotted with scattered camp fires; but, beyond the ridges, it lay heavy, and in that heaviness Weldon placed his trust. For two thirds of his whole distance, he could keep below a ridge to the westward of the laager. The final third lay full in view of the enemy, full up the increasing steepness of the mountain side, where, horses failing, it would be necessary to creep by stealth and upon the hands and knees. And, where the shelter ended, there lay before them a short defile between walls of naked rock, and the defile was narrow.
Half the way to the defile was already accomplished when Weldon heard, from the crest of the ridge above him, the double crack of a Mauser rifle, and then the sound of scurrying, unshod feet. He shut his teeth, and his chin rose a bit higher. "A picket! And now the brute has run in to tell tales," he said shortly. "Quick, men, it's a race between us now."
Answering to the touch of the spur, the gray broncho went leaping forward, with Paddy's horse neck and neck at her side. From beyond the ridge, the trio of guns could be heard, barking ceaselessly, while their shells dropped thick into the laager, scarcely eight hundred yards away. And now the defile, short, but narrow, was close at hand.
From the mouth of the tiny pass, a rain of bullets swept down upon them. A horse dropped, shot through the knee; another, hit in the neck, bolted, threw its wounded rider and then, mad with pain, hurled itself straight into the ranks of the enemy. A second shot, almost at arm's length, threw it to the earth; but not until it had done its work. The half-broken Boer ponies, fat from much feeding and totally unaccustomed to this species of missile, swerved at its approach and destroyed the aim of the second volley, which was answered by a fire that sent a full quarter of the twoscore Boers sprawling heavily groundward.
A scant ten minutes sufficed for the rest. Five troopers lay helpless on the dusty soil. Five dead Boers blocked the trail at the entrance of the narrow pass. It was a drawn game; but the end was not yet. From beyond the ridge, Weldon could hear the guns still pounding ceaselessly. He knew that, half a mile in the rear, his colonel was watching for him to come to the crest of the hill; that, in a sense, the whole game was waiting upon his moves. Whirling himself about, he gave a short, sharp order. Scarcely a moment later, he was astonished to see the Boers in the pass giving way before the mad rush of his paltry fifteen men. The narrow pass was his own.
Beyond the pass were more ridges, some parallel with his course, some crossing it. Far to the eastward, he could see a moving spot, black even in the increasing darkness of the night. Leaving Piggie to pick her own way along the rocky ridge, he rose in his stirrups, shaded his eyes with his hands and peered anxiously towards the spot. At last his straining eyes could make out eight Boer horsemen, riding furiously towards the peak which he was in honor bound to hold. And their course was the chord of the arc of his own circle. He dropped back to the saddle where he bent low, yielding his whole body to the flying body of his horse.
The crest was sharp. To the east, its approach was more easy; but on the west it offered a wall of blank, black rock. The fat Boer ponies were still at some distance from the eastern slope, when Weldon flung himself from his panting broncho. Carew protested, as they told off by fours and he was left, the third man, with Paddy's mount, the gray broncho and a huge brown Argentine horse on his hands.
"Sorry, old man!" Weldon said briefly. "It's luck, and dead against you. Still, it may save Miss Mellen a bad half-hour. Look out for Piggie. She deserves it." And, turning, he led the way up the wall of rock, with thirteen men, breathless, grim and eager, scrambling at his heels.
For moments, it seemed to him that Fate was idly tossing the dice to and fro, before allowing herself to make the final, decisive cast. From the farther side of the hill, he heard a sudden terrified snort from one of the Boer ponies, then the thud of feet, as they charged up the approaches of the long slope. From behind him, there arose a groan, as one of the men, missing his foothold in the deepening dusk, crashed back against the loose rocks at the bottom of the hill. Then a shot and a whinnying moan told him that Carew and his three comrades had edged around the base of the hill into range of the enemy above them. The man might be wounded, too, as well as the mount. Seven Boers, and they were thirteen in all. The cast was all for—
A dash of light! A rattle of firing! Three of his men dropped backwards. The other ten looked up to face a second flash from the summit. Only eight heard the answering echoes which came rolling back to them from the encircling hills. Then Paddy's voice came in his ears, low, but as unconcerned as ever.
"Remember the fellow who was rejected on account of his teeth, little Canuck? 'Faith,' he said; 'it's shooting the damned Boers I want to be, not eating them.' But, by the holy Virgin Mary, in another ten minutes we'll be shaking 'em between our teeth."
The next flash but one showed only five men on the steep rocky wall; but those five men were close to the summit. Once on the top, their rifles could come into play. It was maddening to be picked off, like stuffed crows resting on a tree branch; maddening to listen to the low sounds from beneath which told them that some one of their comrades was facing the end of his fight. Then, just as they reached the summit, one of their five dropped, with a bullet shattering the bone of his ankle.
"Go on, boys! You'll get there," he said, as the next in line dashed past him. "The hill is Weldon's. Mind you hold it for him. The devil is in him, and he's bound to win."
On top of the hill, six Boers were huddled in the scant shelter of a few low, scattered rocks tufted with a bunch of brush whose bleached stalks marked the darkness with a pale line of range for their fire. The next volley went astray. It was answered by the crack of Paddy's rifle. Paddy's chuckle followed close on the crack. "I rolled him over like a sausage in the hot fat," he commented, as he took a second aim. "Here goes for another, and may his bed in heaven have a valance to hide his sins!" A second Boer vanished behind the rocks.
Four Boers in shelter, four Britons in the open; and, on the plain beneath, twenty-seven hundred men were waiting to see the outcome of the game.
The tension of the eight men increased. It rendered their aim unsteady. Under its influence, seven men fell to wasting their ammunition. The eighth was Paddy. Firing rarely, his rare bullets told. Now a finger was shattered, now an ear was grazed.
"I'm not doing much killing; but, faith, I'm warming 'em up a bit," he said, as he halted to cool his rifle. "It's keeping the ball a-rolling, and them busy. Else, belike they'd find Satan filling the idle hands of them with bad deeds. Little Canuck dear, this is hot work for a boy."
Weldon nodded. His hat had been lost in the scramble up the hill, his putties were dragged into heaps of khaki about his knees, the shoulder of his coat was torn by a passing bullet and a scarlet trickle lined his cheek; but his face was alert and eager, his lips parted in a half-smile which brought back to Paddy's mind a dim picture of the boyish trooper he had known and loved at Piquetberg Road. Then another man in khaki dropped at their feet. The lines of Weldon's mouth straightened.
"No go," he said briefly. "We must charge. It's our only chance."
Paddy took one last, hasty shot. Then, gripping his rifle, he turned to Weldon.
"True, little Canuck," he answered loyally. "Go on, and be sure Paddy will follow you to the other edge of the grave!"
He spoke truthfully. The reinforcements came rushing up the eastern slope of the hill, to find their pathway encumbered with bearded men in frock-coats and bandoliers. On top of the crest, surrounded by the wounded and the dying, sat a single man in khaki, the light of victory in his gleaming eyes, and Paddy's lifeless body clasped in his weary arms.
"Yes," Carew said meditatively; "I wish there had been glory enough to go around. As long as there wasn't, though, I am glad it was fated to fall to your share."
Weldon hurled a little black stone at a great black rock.
"Not so much glory, after all."
Carew raised his eyes and apostrophized the dark gray clouds rushing across the paler gray arch of the sky.
"Just listen to the man! What can he be wanting? 'Not so much glory!' And he recommended for a V. C.!"
Weldon shook his head.
"What does it profit a man," he paraphrased; "if he gain the V. C. and lose one of his best friends? Besides, I didn't gain it; it was fated. Paddy was as brave as I, and so were half a dozen more of them. It was only chance that brought me through the bullets."
"Poor Paddy!" Carew's tone was full of thoughtful regret.
"Not poor at all. He had the end we all are wishing for. He died with his boots on, and fighting pluckily for a forlorn hope. We can't mourn a man that we envy."
Half way to the distant sky-line, the horses of the squadron were grazing peacefully over the stubbly grass. The corporal and the third of the troopers appointed to guard them were far away towards the crest of a ridge to the westward, and Carew and Weldon were alone. Carew sat silent for a moment, his eyes on the scattered groups of horses. Then he turned and looked directly at his friend.
"Perhaps," he assented. "I was sorry to be out of the scrimmage. It took all my grit to obey you, old man; but it was an order. Now it is over—"
"Well?" Weldon prompted him.
"Now it is over, I am less sorry than I was. The fact is, the future holds a good deal for us."
"For you, perhaps."
"For you, too. The whole future of a man doesn't go to wreck in an hour. There are other crises later on, and some of them are bound to come out well. Save yourself for those, Weldon. There is no especial use in throwing yourself away."
"I'm not. But, when the order comes, I must obey it," Weldon said gloomily.
"It depends something on the order; but it depends a good sight more on the way you obey it. When a man comes into collision with a bulldog, it's generally wise to grapple with him back of his teeth; else, you may lose a thumb or two. It's the same way with your orders here. Because you don't funk, there is no reason you should flirt with an early death."
"But I don't."
"What about now?"
"What do you mean?"
"That you ought to be in hospital."
Weldon threw back his head and laughed, but mirthlessly.
Without speaking, Carew took out his pipe, filled it and began fumbling in his pocket.
"Have you a match?" he asked.
Weldon nodded, produced the match, lighted it and held it to the extended pipe. Carew's eyes, drooped to the bowl, watched the bit of flame.
"Do you call that a steady hand?" he asked then. "Man, you're ill, I tell you. Your face is hot and your hands are cold, and your nerves are worn to shoestrings, frayed shoestrings at that. If you keep on, you'll be down flatter than you like. You ought to have stopped four weeks ago."
Weldon crossed his arms at the nape of his neck and lay back at his ease on the ground.
"Then what would have become of my V. C.?" he queried, with languid indifference.
"But I thought you claimed not to care for your V. C."
"I don't. My friends may, however." "As a legacy? I think your friends may possibly choose you to the V. C."
"Foolish of them," Weldon commented. "Still, 'If we could choose the time, and choose aright, 'T were best to die, our honor at the height.' I learned that when I was a small boy; but I've only just found out what it means."
With scoffing lips, but eyes full of unspoken love, Carew turned on his friend.
"Don't dodder, Weldon," he counselled him. "That's canting drivvle, made to console the unsuccessful. No man knows when he has reached his high-water mark. Yours may have come on the day you licked Stevie Ballard for gilding the tailless cat; it may not come till you are ninety."
"No." The syllable was quiet, deliberate. Then Weldon roused himself and sat up to speak with sudden energy. "Promise me this, Carew, that while the matter is hanging fire, you won't mention this V. C. business to any one."
Carew stared at him in unmixed surprise.
"What's the matter now?" he asked blankly.
"Nothing, only that I want you to promise."
"Not to a living soul."
"Why? What's the use?"
"No use, but my wish. If it comes off, let it be as a joyous surprise. If it misses fire, as it quite well may, then there'll be no harm done. In either case, it is best to keep still. My own notion is that I'll not get it. As a rule, one doesn't get the V. C. for shinning up the side of a hill, no matter how steep it is."
Carew made no attempt to discuss the chances. Instead, he merely asked,—
"Mayn't I tell Miss Mellen?"
Weldon shook his head. It was exactly to prevent the inevitable consequences of Alice Mellen's knowing the story that he was seeking to extort the promise from Carew. To protect his motive, however, he took a sudden resolution.
"I shall not even tell my mother," he answered, with slow emphasis.
Carew raised his brows.
"Then I suppose that ties my tongue. I am sorry. What's the use of being so confoundedly modest, Weldon?"
"Do you promise?"
"I suppose I must."
"On your honor?"
"On my honor."
Weldon stretched himself out at full length once more.
"So be it. Give me a light. You took my last match," he said as unconcernedly as if they had merely been talking of the weather.
Indeed, the weather might well have been the subject of their talk. The earth was baked until it cracked beneath the parching sun and wind. There had been no rain for weeks; but, to-day, the raw wind sent the lead-colored clouds flying over the sky, and the lead-colored clouds were heavy with rain. All the morning and till mid-afternoon, the column had been camping not far away, while their weary, hungry mounts had been turned out on the veldt to graze. For men and mounts, the halt was needed.
The fight about the laager had been no easy victory. Twelve hundred half-starved Britons are no match for fifteen hundred Boers fat with easy living. Weldon's hold on the crest had decided the game; but the game had not played itself out without wounds for some and utter weariness for all. War mad, yet half-dazed in all other respects, Weldon had watched the reinforcements come swarming up the hill to his relief, had heard their cheers mingling themselves with the sound of his name. Then, listless, but with his arm still about Paddy's shoulders, he had seen the fight move to its destined finish. He came down from the hilltop, feeling that something had taken yet one more turn in the evertightening coil of his brain. For one instant, as they were laying Paddy into the narrow grave scooped out of the veldt, the coil relaxed. Then, as the lumps of earth closed over his plucky, loyal little comrade, it tightened again and pressed on him more closely than ever.
And that was a week ago; and the week between had been one long trek in search of errant Boers. Weldon still rode in the front of the column. He had been ordered into hospital; but, bracing himself, he had looked the doctor steadily between the eyes and had refused to obey. The hospital was not for him—as yet. "By Jove!" Carew was remarking deliberately. "Look at the horses!"
Noses in air, tails lashing and eyes staring wildly, the frightened groups had swept together and were rushing down upon them in one mad stampede. Straight towards the two troopers they came dashing along, swerved slightly and went sweeping past them, wrapped in a thick column of dust which parted, just as the horde rushed by, before the fierce impact of the breaking storm. From zenith to horizon, the leaden sky was marked with wavering lines of golden fire; but the shock of the thunder was outborne by the clash of falling hail. Half a mile away, the tents were riddled by the egg-sized lumps of ice; and, out on the open veldt, Carew threw himself on the earth, face downward, and buried his head in his sheltering arms. But Weldon staggered to his feet. In the thick of the flying troop of horses, he had seen the little gray broncho, and now, before she swept on out of hearing, he turned his back to the gale and gave a high, shrill whistle. It was months, now, since Piggie had learned that call. Again and again she had come trotting up to him, to rub her muzzle against his neck in token that she had heard and understood. There was scant chance that the call would be carried to her by the boisterous wind, scanter chance still that, hearing it now in that mad rout, she would heed. Nevertheless, Weldon took the chance. Obviously stampeded by the enemy, the missing horses would leave the column powerless to repel the attack which was imminent. If Piggie could be recalled, there was still a chance to regain the other mounts. Yet, even while he was weighing all the chances, he smiled to himself as he recalled the ineffectual little whistle that had gone out on the whistling wind. The chance was gone. Like Carew, he would lie down and seek what shelter he could get from the earth and from his own clasping arms.
The hail, falling thickly, shut down about the troop of horses and took them from his sight. If his eyes could have followed them, he would have seen one little gray head toss itself upward from the heart of the throng, one sturdy little gray back move more and more slowly, turn slightly, then weave its patient way in and out between its frightened companions until, free from the press of the crowd, it stood alone on the hail-lashed plain. Ten minutes later, Weldon felt a soft, wet muzzle poking its way between his tight-locked arms. The rest was simple. It amounted to riding back to the column to give warning of the enemy who rode close in the rear, to summoning Kruger Bobs and The Nig, and then, without stopping for a saddle, to go galloping away to the sky-line to round up the stampeded herd. The first dash of hail over, the rain fell fast upon them; but, above its roar, they could hear the steady firing of the pom pom behind them and the crackle of musketry mingled with the heavier fire.
Four o'clock had brought the stampede and the storm. Seven o'clock brought Weldon and Kruger Bobs, drenched to the skin, back into a demoralized camp. Nine o'clock found Weldon still in the saddle, his teeth chattering, his brown cheeks ablaze and his eyes hot with fever, while he waited for the pitching of his tattered tent. Then, even before its soggy, torn folds were stretched and pegged into position, he turned and rode off in search of a doctor.
"Sorry," he said briefly; "but I think I've a touch of fever. Can you put me to bed somewhere?"
The next morning, he greeted Kruger Bobs by the name of a girl cousin who had died, ten years before.
For two weeks, the fever held Weldon in its grip. For two weeks, he was prostrate, first with the halting column, then at the base hospital at Kroonstad. The fever was never very high, nor was it intermittent. It merely hung about him and ate away his strength. For the time being, he was content to lie quiet and stare up at the electric lights scattered through the tent and wonder about Ethel. Now and then some sight in the hospital set him to thinking about the Captain, wondering if he were happy in his new life of rest and peace, he who had so often been in the thick of the fiercest fight. Or he thought of Paddy, brave, merry little Irishman who, fighting like an angry wolf, had died with a joke still hanging on his lips. Then his mind went back again to Ethel.
In vain they urged him to sleep; in vain they gave him bromides. The body was at rest; but the wheels of the brain whirred as busily as ever, and as logically. No hint of delirium mingled with his thought processes. It might have saved something if there had.
Then, one day, Weldon sat up for an hour. The next day, he was put into his clothes and, three days later, supported on the strong arm of Kruger Bobs, he crawled into a hospital train bound for Cape Town. It was an order, and he obeyed. Nevertheless, he shrank from the very mention of Cape Town. It had been the core of his universe; but now the core had gone bad. But his time of service had expired. Red tape demanded that he receive the papers for his discharge from the Cape Town citadel. That done, he would take the first outgoing steamer for London. Afterwards, he would leave his life in the hands of Fate. He took no note of the fact that Fate might step into the game earlier than he then foresaw.
For full seven hundred miles, the train lumbered on to the southward. It was tedious, exhausting; yet Weldon found a certain interest in the jar of the rolling wheels to which he fitted the measure of his whirring thoughts. As long as the rhythm of the wheels lasted, his thoughts slowed down to meet their time. When the train halted, his thoughts dashed off again; but they resumed their slower course as soon as the wheels began once more. He took no note of the country about him, as they passed from veldt to karroo, from karroo to the coast plateau, and from the coast plateau down across the Cape Flats, sparsely covered with pipe grass and acacias. Then, as Table Mountain and the Devil's Peak lifted themselves on his right hand, he knew that Cape Town was near, and he braced himself to go through what was before him.
Kruger Bobs eyed him anxiously.
"Boss sick," he announced for the dozenth time, as the train drew in at the Adderley Street station. "Boss berry sick mans. Boss go hotel soon."
But Weldon shook his head. Even now, rest had scant space in his plans, least of all, rest in Cape Town.
"I can do it," he asserted resolutely. "Steady me till I get started, Kruger Bobs. Then I shall astonish you by my agility."
"Boss go hotel," Kruger Bobs muttered in low-voiced mutiny. "Boss too sick to trek."
"No fear. Did you ever know me to give out, when there was something still to be done, Kruger Bobs?"
"What Boss do?"
"My discharge. My banker. My passage home."
The arm of Kruger Bobs tightened about the bony figure of his master, but the pressure of his strong arm was only gentle and reassuring, and the great, white-ringed eyes glittered wet. This was not the boy master to whom Kruger Bobs had sworn allegiance. This was an older man, and weak withal. But the weaker grew the master, the stronger grew the loyal, loving allegiance of the man.
After the wide, deserted stretches of open veldt, the roar of Adderley Street seemed to Weldon like the maddening tumult of Piccadilly. The noise stunned him; the hurrying crowd filled him with terror. Even inside the cab, he still clung to the arm of the faithful Kruger Bobs. Still clinging to that faithful arm, he came out from the citadel, no longer Trooper Weldon, but Mr. Harvard Weldon once more, honorably discharged from the South African Light Horse. Kruger Bobs was invisible behind the spreading limits of his smile; but Weldon had scarcely heeded the words which had been addressed to him. All at once, like a watch about to run down, the wheels of his brain were moving slowly and ever more slowly. His whole resolution now centered in keeping them in motion long enough to go to his banker and to the office of the steamship company. Once on the steamer and sliding out across Table Bay, he could leave the rest to the ship's doctor and to Fate.
Even in the multitude of strangers who had passed through Cape Town, in those latter months, he was remembered at the bank and greeted with a word of congratulation on his record in the field. At the word, a man beside him, hearing, turned to look, looked again, and then held out his hand. It was the father of Ethel Dent.
That night, the Dents dined alone. Over the roast, Mr. Dent looked up suddenly.
"Whom do you think I saw, to-day, Ethel?"
"Who now?" she asked, smiling. "You can't expect me to guess, when you are constantly running up against the most impossible people." "Not this time. It was quite possible; but it gave me a shock. It was Mr. Weldon."
The smile died from her lips. Nevertheless, she asked, with a forced lightness,—
"What shocked you?"
"His looks. He was ghastly, thin to a shadow and burning up with fever. I was in the bank, and I heard some one speak his name; but I had to look at him for a second time, before I could recognize him. The man is a wreck. He looked sixty years old, as he went crawling off, on the arm of his Kaffir boy. I'm sorry. I always liked Weldon."
A bit of bread lay by Ethel's plate. For an instant, her finger tips vanished inside its yielding surface. Then she looked up.
"Too bad! He was a good fellow," she said quietly. Then she lifted her hand to her throat. "Dear me! Have I lost my diamond pin?" she added hastily. "I was sure I put it on. Please excuse me, while I see if I left it in my room." And she ran swiftly out of the room.
Mrs. Dent broke the pause.
"Where was Mr. Weldon going?"
"To his hotel. I came out, just as they drove away, and I heard the boy give the order to the driver."
"Which hotel was it?"
"I—Really, I don't remember. He used to go to the Grand."
"He seemed ill?"
"He seemed—" For an instant, Mr. Dent held the word in suspension. Then he let it drop with a slow quietness which added tenfold to its weight—"dead."
His wife's gentle eyes clouded.
"I am sorry. I liked the boy. He was good to me."
"I had thought Ethel liked him, too," her husband added a little inconsequently.
"So she did in a way. But there have been so many others." The mother sighed slightly. In her young days, there had been but one. Now, remembering that one and watching him in the present, she found it hard to comprehend Ethel's free-handed distribution of social favors among so great a throng of admirers. There had always been many; now, since her recent return from Johannesburg, the many had become a multitude, and each of the multitude could show proof of her liking. But Mrs. Dent recurred to the fact of Weldon's illness.
"Poor boy! Fancy being really ill, so far from home and in a hotel!" she added slowly.
"It is one of the risks of a soldier," her husband reminded her.
"Yes, and the soldiers fought for us. Where would your mines have been without them?" she suggested in return. "I really wish you would telephone to the hotel and find out something more definite about him."
Her husband looked covetously at the entree, just appearing in sight.
"Now?" he asked.
She ignored the mockery of his tone.
"Yes, please," she assented quietly. "It will only take you a minute."
It took him ten. When he came back into the room, his hat was in his hand.
"I think I will go over to the Grand for a minute," he explained. "I don't quite like what I hear."
"What did you hear?"
In the dim upper hallway, a girlish figure leaned far over the railing and strained her ears for the reply. Then, noiselessly, the door of her room shut again behind her.
"They tell me," Mr. Dent was saying; "that Weldon is there, unconscious in his room. The boy brought him into the house in his arms, and they have sent for Dr. Wright. It is a bad case of enteric, mixed with some trouble with the brain. He appears to be suffering from nervous shock, they say, increased by a long strain of anxiety."
Half an hour later, he was called from Weldon's room to speak to his wife at the telephone.
"Yes," he answered her. "It is as bad as I heard, as bad as it can be. You think so? Are you strong enough? Sure? Hold the wire, then, till I ask the doctor." The interval was short; and he went on again, "The doctor says he can be moved now, but not later. It may be a matter of weeks. How soon can you be ready? Very well. Will you be sure to save yourself all you can? In an hour, then. And the doctor will have a nurse waiting there? And can you put the boy into some corner? He would be frantic, if we tried to leave him behind. Very well. Yes." And the telephone rang off.
It was midnight before the Dent household was fully reconstructed. Upstairs in the great eastern front room, a white-capped nurse was bending above the unconscious man in the bed; downstairs in the kitchen, the tears of Kruger Bobs were mingling with the cold roast beef on the table before him. The doctor had just gone away, and in the room underneath the sickroom, Mr. Dent and his wife were quietly laying plans to meet the needs of the changed routine which had fallen upon their home. He looked up, as Ethel came slowly into the room.
"By the way, Ethel, I forgot to ask you before; but did you find your pin?"
She looked at him wonderingly. Her face was pale and drawn; but her eyes were shining like the gems she had professed to miss.
"What pin do you mean?" she asked blankly.
"Don't wait any longer, Carew. Really, it's not worth while."
"Too late for us to part company now," Carew answered serenely.
"I know. You've stood by me like a good fellow; but it will be some time yet before I can sail. And you know you are in a hurry to get away."
"Don't be too sure of that," Carew advised him. "All my good things aren't at one end of the world."
Weldon's lips curled into the ghost of his old smile.
"Then take one of them along with you," he suggested.
Elbows on knees and chin on fists joined knuckle to knuckle, Carew turned and smiled blandly down at the face on the pillow.
"Weldon, for a man who has been off his head for a month, you do have singularly wise ideas. But do you suppose she'd go?"
"Miss Mellen, of course. It's a question of ages. Young Mahomet is easier to move than the everlasting hills."
"Meaning your mother? She would thank you." "She will thank me, when she sees Alice," Carew responded hopefully. "But, honor bright, do you suppose Miss Mellen would go back with me?"
"I thought she promised."
"Yes, but now," Carew persisted, with the eagerness of a boy. "Right off, next month."
"There's only one way to tell; ask her," Weldon answered. "If she is the girl I think she is, she will say yes."
"You do like her; don't you, Weldon?" The eagerness was still in his tone.
"Intensely," Weldon replied quietly. "I have seen few women I have liked as well."
"What larks we'll be having, this time next year, talking it all over together," Carew said, in a sudden, thoughtful burst of prophecy. "By the time we get home, we shall forget the blood and the dog-biscuit, and only remember the skittles and beer. If only—"
"What?" Weldon looked up at him without flinching.
Carew did flinch, however.
"Nothing," he said hastily. "One is never quite content, you know."
Weldon drew a deep, slow breath.
"No," he echoed. "One is never quite content."
Carew crossed his legs, as he settled back in his chair.
"Mayhap. Some of us ought to be, though."
"Yes. You're a lucky fellow, Carew."
"So are you. The trouble is, one never knows when he is well off."
"But we all know when we aren't," Weldon replied succinctly.
Carew's glance was expressive, as it roved about the luxurious room, with the bed drawn up near the window which looked out, between the branches of an ancient oak tree, on the blue waters of Table Bay and on the fringe of shipping by the Docks far to the eastward. Faintly from the room below came the sound of a piano and of a hushed girlish voice singing softly to itself.
"It all depends on one's point of view," Carew said, after an interval. "I am living in a seven-by-nine room in a hotel, and Miss Mellen is seventy-two miles and three quarters away. Weldon, you are a lucky dog, if you did but know it."
Weldon shut his teeth for a moment. Then he said quietly,—
"Carew, it is five weeks that I have been in this house. Mr. Dent and dear little Mother Dent have been angel-good to me. Miss Dent—" He hesitated.
"Has been an archangel?" Carew supplemented calmly.
"Has never once come into my sight."
Deliberately, forcefully, the next words dropped from Carew's tongue. "The—devil—she—hasn't!"
Then Weldon waited for Carew to speak; but Carew merely sat and stared at his friend in speechless stupefaction.
"Oh, Lord!" he blurted out at last. "Then you haven't made it up?"
"There was nothing to make up," Weldon said drearily.
Again Carew's elbows came down on his knees with a bump.
"There was, too!" he contradicted, with an explosiveness which irresistibly reminded Weldon of their kindergarten days.
"What makes you think so?"
"I don't think. I know."
"How do you know?" Weldon asked listlessly.
"Alice Mellen told me," Carew replied conclusively.
"Told you what?"
"That Cooee Dent is in love with you."
From his superior knowledge, Weldon stared disdainfully up at him.
"Then there is one thing that Alice Mellen doesn't know."
"She does, then. She told me about it, when you went off on your feed, up at Lindley," Carew explained hurriedly. "I was worried about you, and she was worried about Miss Dent, and we compared notes. You hadn't said a word of any kind; we could only guess at things, so we wrote to each other about it. She told me then about Miss Dent's dashing up to Johannesburg after Vlaakfontein."
"She went to see her cousin."
"She also went to see you."
Carew's emphatic pause was broken by the coming of the nurse, who bent over the bed, raising her brows inquiringly, as she laid two fingers on Weldon's wrist. Carew took the obvious hint.
"I hope I've not stopped too long," he said, as he rose. "It has been good to see Mr. Weldon. May I come again?"
The nurse was a true woman. Therefore she smiled back into his happy, handsome face.
"I think you may," she answered. "Mr. Weldon is tired now, but you evidently have done him good."
Carew meditated aloud, as he went away down the walk.
"Out of every five women, three are cats," he observed tranquilly to himself. "I've cornered the fourth. It remains to be seen whether Weldon is cornered by the fifth, or only the third. Hasn't been to see him! Little beast! But I'll bet any amount of gold money that she has done endless messing for him on the sly."
Carew's words showed that it is usually not the man in love with a woman who is the shrewdest judge of the hidden recesses of that woman's nature. The fact was, Ethel had slaved unceasingly, but unseen, for the patient above stairs. See him she would not. Day after day, she invented fresh excuses to ward off her mother's suggestions of a call on the invalid; but also, day by day, she invented fresh delicacies to tempt the appetite dulled by months of army biscuit and bully beef. And, meanwhile, she was waiting.
Rather to her surprise, no message came down to her from the invalid's room. She had supposed as a matter of course that Weldon would intuitively recognize the source of the dainties which reached him anonymously. Man-fashion, however, he could see no reason that his beef tea and his wine jelly should be the work of different hands. He devoured them both, and reflected thankfully upon the skill of the Kaffir cook. Mr. Dent had been scrupulously literal in carrying out the commands laid upon him by his daughter. He had left in Weldon's mind no doubt whatsoever about the truth of his statement that Mrs. Dent alone had been responsible for the invalid's present quarters. Weldon had lavished thanks upon Mrs. Dent, and she had received them without demur, as her own lawful property. Even now, he was at a loss whether his recovery was more owing to Mrs. Dent or to the nurse. Each had given to him a large share of her vitality.
From a distance, he could follow Ethel's doings, could assure himself that his presence was no apparent check upon her happiness. Now it was the muffled whirr of the bell, followed by low voices from the room beneath. Now it was the roll of the carriage, bearing her away to dine or to dance, and leaving Weldon to lie and count the minutes until she returned. Now it was her light footstep on the stairs, or, but this was only at long intervals, her hushed voice in the hallway outside his door. At first, he used to lie and hold his breath, while he waited for her to open the door of his room. By degrees, however, he ceased to expect her. And, as the expectation died away, he chafed increasingly at the slowness of his recovery. Anything to get out of that house! She treated him as he would have scorned to treat an invalid dog who had taken refuge in his stable.
All this came slowly. For two endless weeks, Weldon lay unconscious. For two more endless weeks, he raved in delirium. Happily, his nurse was a discreet woman. She discouraged the visits of Mrs. Dent and her husband, offered the excuse that strange faces excited the invalid, and only admitted them during his brief intervals of sleep. Meanwhile, she used all her professional principles to keep herself from trying to solve the problem before her eyes. Upstairs was a man sick unto death, a man who raved ceaselessly of the daughter of the house. Downstairs, the daughter of the house was going her accustomed way, with never a question in regard to the man above. What had happened? How, if anything had happened, how did he chance to be in that home, with Mrs. Dent as his devoted and anxious slave? Resolutely, she fell to studying her temperature charts. Her specialty was fever, not heart disease.
A week after the tide had turned, Carew had been allowed to spend a short half-hour with the invalid. The next day, by advice of the nurse, Mr. Dent telephoned to him to come again. Something, whether in his personality or in his talk, had been of tonic power over Weldon. It seemed wise to repeat the experiment.
Carew came on the heels of his own voice through the telephone; and his face was smiling broadly, as he went leaping up the stairs. After all, it had not been in vain, his quixotic lingering in Cape Town for a weary month after receiving his discharge. Weldon and he had been good friends through thick and thin; it would have been beastly to leave him. And now, after all these useless weeks, he could at least do something to lighten the convalescence. Moreover, Carew's pocket held three letters, received that very noon; one of grudging approval from his son-sick mother, one of chaotic, but heartfelt thanks from Mrs. Weldon, and the third one an affirmative answer to a telegram he had sent to Alice Mellen, only the night before. He went into Weldon's room, looking, as he felt, the embodiment of happiness and health.
He hailed Weldon from the threshold. Tidings like his could wait during no interchange of mere conventional greetings. Weldon heard him to the end, congratulated him, demanded the repetition of all the details. Then, when Carew's excitement had quite spent itself, Weldon drew a letter from underneath his pillow.
"It came, this morning," he added laconically.
Carew seized the letter and ran his eye down the page. Then his face lighted.
"Nunc dimittis!" he said piously. "It's sure to be yours! Have you told Miss Dent?"
"I've not seen Miss Dent."
Carew's face fell.
"Not yet? But you will. And then you will tell her?"
Weldon's lips straightened into a thin line. He shook his head.
"But she ought to know."
"It is her right."
"Why?" Weldon asked again.
"Because—it is. It might make some difference in—"
Weldon stopped him abruptly.
"It could make no difference, Carew. In facing the main question, such things as that don't count. Even if they did, though," he rose on his elbow and faced his friend steadily; "even if they did, I would never consent to try to bribe a girl into loving me, by telling her I had won the V. C. It will be time enough for Miss Dent to hear of it, when it is given."
"But you will be in England then," Carew objected practically.
Weldon lay down again and drew the sheet upward till its shadow lay across his lips.
"What matter?" he answered slowly. "And, besides, Miss Dent isn't the girl to be won in any such way as that. Hers is a love to be given, not bought."
Half an hour later, Carew met Ethel on the stairs. As he halted to speak to her, he was shocked at the look in her face. The lips were smiling; but the eyes were the eyes of a hunted animal.
"So long since we have met!" he said, as he took her hand. "And so much has happened."
"Yes. I have been hoping to congratulate you," she answered.
"It was a stunning letter you wrote me," he said boyishly. "I suppose we are cousins now."
Then there came a little pause. Before either of them quite realized it, the pause had lengthened until it was hard to break.
"I have been up to see the invalid," he blurted out at last.
"How is he?" the girl inquired courteously.
"Better." Then a sudden note of resentment crept into Carew's honest voice. "He is counting the days now before he can be moved. He says your mother has been wonderfully good to him."
The girl stood aside to let Carew pass her by.
"She is good to everybody," she assented quietly. "I hope Mr. Weldon won't think of going away until he can be moved with perfect safety. It is really no trouble to have him here, and the nurse is very capable."
And Carew bowed in agreement. Once outside the door, however, he freed his mind, tersely and with vigor.
"Damn the nurse!" he said to the oak tree, as he passed it.
"There's a true Heart in the West World, that is beating still for me, Ever praying in the twilight once again my face to see. Oh, the World is good and gladsome, with its Love both East and West, But there's ever one love only that is still the First and Best."
The low voice died away. A moment later, Ethel Dent pushed open one of the long windows of the drawing-room and stepped out on the veranda. The flower-boxes were filled with limp stalks, chilled by the frost of the previous night; but the sun lay warm over the wide, white steps, over the lawn and over the bay beyond. She stood for a moment, staring thoughtfully out across the bay; then she moved on to the western end of the veranda, looked up at Table Mountain with its cloth of cloud, and then dropped down into one of the chairs which still remained in the sunny corner.
That corner held many memories for her. She had sought it now unconsciously; yet, once there, she lingered, although for weeks past she had been seeking to banish those memories from her life. Why keep them? They belonged to a chapter that was dead and gone. Better to seal its pages and never break the seal. Better never to reread what had been written there. If she had been mistaken in giving her love where it was not desired, not only should the world never be aware of the fact; but she herself would ignore the existence of that mistake. She had loved Weldon with all the energy of her headstrong, girlish nature. She had supposed that he had loved her in return. Instead of that, he had gone away and left her without a word, just when her need for him was the greatest. No man in his senses could have seen the agony of that last hour she had spent with Captain Frazer, and failed to understand the pitiful, appealing look she had cast upon him. Unable to escape the agony, she had given this tacit call to Weldon to share it with her, to understand, and to forgive. She had been sure she could trust him; but it was evident that she had trusted him in vain. In the hour of her supremest need, he had gone away and left her alone. No man who cared for her could have forsaken her in such a crisis as that. Her lips curved into a hard little smile, as she sat rocking to and fro in the sunshine, and, going back over a past which she had rarely allowed herself to reopen.
And afterwards? Afterwards Fate had been all against her. It had been easy to escape from her engagement at Johannesburg, comparatively easy to shut the past experience into the inner places of her mind, to close her lips with the show of a smile, and to plunge into a whirl of social life which should leave her no time for quiet thought. So long as she kept her secret to herself, it mattered nothing to the girl that it was eating pitilessly at her vitality, that it was ever hard and harder for her to keep up her ceaseless round of gayety.
And then, all at once, their home life had been invaded by the man who was never absent from her thoughts. In a sense, she was glad of the invasion. It proved to her, more surely than any words could have done, that she had kept her secret well and beyond suspicion. Had her mother gained any inkling of the true state of the case, Harvard Weldon would never have been brought away from the room at the Grand. For so much surety, Ethel Dent could rejoice with a thankful heart. Nevertheless, as the days passed by, Weldon's presence in the house increased the strain tenfold. Night after night, Ethel had crept noiselessly from her room across the hallway and crouched outside his door, listening for any sounds from within which might tell her that all was well with the man whom she would not see. Day after day, she forced her life to run along in its usual grooves, going out of the house with a laugh on her lips and, in her heart, the sickening dread of the tidings which might greet her upon her return. Again and again, as she passed the door left open during the nurse's temporary absence from the room, she put forth all her strength to keep herself from stealing in, to look just once on the unconscious face of the man who had made her whole life. But she held herself in check, and never once yielded to the temptation. Well she might hold herself in check. She realized only too keenly that, once face to face with Weldon, she would have to do over again all the weary work of those weeks of self-repression.
Then the stupor had given place to delirium; and, even in her room and behind her closed door, she could hear the low, muttering voice. After that, she crouched no more outside his room. It would have been impossible for her to say just what it was that she dreaded to hear. Nevertheless, she closed her ears as resolutely as she closed her door; but, when she met the nurse on the stairs, she hurried onward with her face turned away and her cheeks ablaze.
And then in its turn the delirium had ended. From that time forward, Ethel went out more constantly than ever. When she was in the house, she started and grew red or pale at every unexpected step. Now, at any hour, there might come a summons for her to go to the invalid's room. She went over in detail every possible reply she could make to every possible word which Weldon might say. She held herself ready for any emergency. But the days dragged away, and no emergency had come.
And then, as it had chanced, she had been away from home, when Weldon had finally left the house. It had been the fulfilment of an old promise which had taken her to spend two days with a friend in Newlands. She had had no notion that the time for Weldon's going away was at hand. Neither, on the other hand, had Weldon any idea that Ethel was absent from home. He had merely taken advantage of the first day when the doctor had ceased to oppose his removal. It had been to him a cruel disappointment that Mrs. Dent had stood alone on the steps to watch his departure.
That was three weeks before. Ethel had supposed that Weldon would sail for home at once. He had supposed so, too, until all at once he had found it impossible to turn his back upon Cape Town and all it held. Deep down in his heart was the memory of Carew's words, assuring him of the reason of Ethel's sudden journey to Johannesburg after the fight at Vlaakfontein. The episode was now far away in the past. It might chance, however, that something of the old mood might linger in her mind. Carew had felt sure of her love for him. Perhaps she had loved him once, before the Captain had won the first place in her heart. Perhaps—He had grown dizzy and had grasped the edge of the pillow to steady himself, the first time the idea had dawned upon him—Perhaps, now that the Captain had gone beyond the reach of human love, he might win her to care for himself once more. The chance appeared to him to be wellnigh impossible; yet, while it lingered in his mind, he could not force himself to go away from Cape Town.
The worst of his convalescence was ended, before he was allowed to leave the Dents' home. He strained every nerve to hasten his full recovery. The path of Ethel Dent was not parallel to the course of any semi-invalid. If he were to meet her at all, it must be as a man in full health. By degrees, the color came back to his face, his lean figure lost something of its lankness, his tread grew firmer and more alert. But the old shadow still lingered in his eyes; the strained lines about his lips did not relax. Weldon's mental healing kept no pace with his physical one.
By degrees, too, his table littered itself with cards of invitation. As yet, he felt himself too weak for any but the most informal functions; and Carew, always at his elbow, assured him from his own experience that informality, just then, was an unknown word in the social vocabulary of Cape Town. Carew, bidden on all sides, was dividing his time between his convalescent friend and the gayeties of early winter. He dined and danced almost without ceasing; and, in the intervals of his dining and dancing, he told over to Weldon all the details of his social career. And these details largely concerned themselves with Ethel Dent: how she looked, what she wore, what she said, with whom she danced and with whom she sat it out. And, as he listened, Weldon made up his mind that, for him, the time for resting at home was ended. It was better, easier to go to see for himself than it was to sit at home and imagine things, or to hear about them, after they had happened. There was to be a reception at the Citadel, next week. He would begin with that.
One resolution led to the next. Only two days after he had determined upon the reception, he ordered Kruger Bobs to saddle the gray broncho and to attend him upon The Nig. Then, when the noon sun lay warm over the city, he mounted and, with Kruger Bobs behind him, he rode slowly down Adderley Street to the water front, and turned eastward to the home of the Dents.
The wide veranda and the great white pillars seemed like home to him, in all truth. That house had been the scene of some of his best hours, as of his worst ones, and his heart pounded madly against his ribs as he caught sight of its familiar outlines. Then he drew in his breath sharply and bore down hard in his stirrups, while his face went white to the lips. From the western end of the veranda a girlish figure had risen, halted for a moment with the sun beating full upon her vivid hair; then, heedless of the distant riders, it had turned and disappeared within the doorway.
The maid's face brightened, as she met Weldon at the door. "But Mrs. Dent is not at home," she said, with honest regret in her voice. "She has gone out of town."
Weldon controlled his own voice as best he might.
"And Miss Dent?" he asked.
However, the maid had just broken the Baden-Powell tea-cup. Its fragments were still upon the floor, and she had no mind, just then, to face her young mistress.
"Miss Dent is not at home," she answered, with glib mendacity. And then she wondered why it was that Weldon's pallor turned from white to gray, as he went away down the steps.
Nevertheless, he fulfilled his resolution of going to the reception at the Citadel. For one reason, he had given his word to Carew. Moreover, he felt that, for the honor of his manhood, he must accept his fate like a man. Four months before that time, Ethel Dent had stabbed him almost to the death. Now, with delicate precision, she had struck him full across the face. The touch had hurt him far more than the deeper wound had done; but, at least, she should never be aware of it. To his mind, she had forfeited all right to the knowledge.
He dressed with careful precision. More than once he was forced to sit down for a moment; more than once his fingers refused to do his bidding and his hands dropped inertly at his side. However, Carew found him waiting, hat in hand, and together they drove away to the Citadel.
Already, when they reached the door, the reception was nearing its highest tide. The rooms were bright with uniforms and with trailing gowns, gay with the hum of voices; and the lilt of a waltz came softly to them from across the distance. As they halted on the threshold, Weldon lifted his eyes and suddenly found them resting full upon Ethel Dent. The girl was quite at the farther end of the long room, the central figure of a little throng, and wholly unconscious of their presence. Her back was towards Weldon. He could only see the sweep of her shimmering gown, the heavy coils of yellow hair and the curve of one rounding cheek; yet, even in that partial view, he felt himself astounded at her vitality. It flashed until it dazzled him, and the dazzle hurt. He bowed to the governor and turned away into another room, striving, as he went, to account for the sudden depression which had fallen upon him. He had not expected to find Ethel Dent moping alone in a corner; neither had he looked for a radiant alertness such as he had never seen in her before. During the long weeks of his illness, his mental picture of her had been colored by the sadness of their last meeting. Now the picture was torn aside and a new one thrust into its place, and the new one seemed garish to his weary nerves.
"Weldon! Have you risen from the grave?"
He turned sharply, to find himself face to face with the captain of his former troop.
"Merely from hospital," he answered. "I have been lying up for repairs."
The other man nodded.
"I know; and thereby adding to the glamour which surrounds a man elect for the V. C. Are you all right again?"
Weldon's voice hardened to match the strain he was putting upon his control.
"Absolutely. I am sailing for home, next week."
"And taking a farewell view of the place, before you go? Then come to meet the prettiest girl in Cape Town."
For an instant, Weldon hesitated. Then, reassured by the direction taken by his guide, he followed, while the strains of the waltz came ever more distinctly to his ears. His companion craned his neck to reconnoitre.
"She is dancing now; but she will be through in a moment. There," he added, as the music rose to a crashing finale; "that is over, and, by George, here she is! Miss Dent, may I introduce another war-worn veteran, Mr. Weldon?"
The shock came so suddenly that neither of them had an opportunity to prepare to resist it. It was Weldon who spoke first, however, and his voice was level, for he was generous enough to take none of the advantage which so plainly was all upon his side.
"Miss Dent and I are old acquaintances," he said quietly.
Fortunately the captain was garrulous.
"Another proof of the smallness of the world," he said jovially. "In time, I shall learn the futility of introductions. One is always pointing out next-door neighbors to each other's notice. By the way, Weldon, didn't you know Frazer rather well? I used to meet him at your house so often, Miss Dent."
Ethel's fingers shut upon the sticks of her fan.
"Yes," she assented. "Captain Frazer was one of our best friends."
All at once, the face of the young captain grew grave.
"I remember now," he said quite slowly. "But his loss was a sorrow to us all. His place can never be entirely filled."
There came a momentary pause. Then, as the captain's broad shoulders vanished in the heart of the crowd, Weldon turned and looked Ethel squarely between the eyes.
"Believe me, Miss Dent," he said simply; "this is none of my doing."
She made no pretence of misunderstanding him. Instead of that, her quiet voice was full of bitterness, as she gave brief answer,—
"Quite obviously, Mr. Weldon."
"Thank you for doing me that justice," he said, after an instant when their meeting eyes flashed like meeting blades of steel. "Stuart had no notion that he was making a mess of things."
She faced him a little proudly.
"I am unable to see what mess he can have made, Mr. Weldon. It is always a pleasure to meet an old acquaintance."
Few things could have hurt him more than the icy conventionality of her words. All the gentler side of his nature was crying out for mercy; but he smothered its cries and faced her bravely, praying the while for some one to come to them and end the scene. The Ethel Dent he had known in the old days had been a woman of flesh and blood; this was a statue of marble, polished and beautiful, but cold withal. He could only seek to meet her with equal coldness, then make his escape to nurse his wounds unseen. Nevertheless, in spite of his resolutions to the contrary, a sudden heat crept into his answering words,
"But I thought you had annulled the acquaintance."
She looked up at him in mute surprise. Then, mustering her pride, she forced herself to smile.
"I?" she answered lightly. "Oh, no, I am only too proud to count a V. C. among my friends."
He waited until the last word had dropped from her lips, waited until the silence had dropped over the last word. Then he faced her yet once again. This time, there was determination in his eyes, determination and a great, indomitable love.
"Ethel," he said imperiously; "for God's sake, stop fencing with me, and have it out. Remember it is now, or never."
The color mounted swiftly across her face, then faded, and even to her own ears her laugh failed to ring true.
"I am sorry; but I fear it is impossible. Here comes Colonel Andersen for his dance."
Weldon faced about.
"Colonel Andersen, Miss Dent is longing for an ice," he said, with a sudden masterful quietness. "May I take a convalescent's privilege and ask you to bring it to her?" Then he turned back to Ethel. "Come," he bade her.
"Where?" she protested; but she yielded to his stronger will and followed him across the floor towards a deserted corner of the room.
"Anywhere, where we can talk for a moment," he answered her, with the same dominant quietness. Then, while they halted beside an open window, he bent forward and laid his hand upon hers, as it rested upon the sill. "Ethel," he added; "I am going home, next week. I may never see South Africa again. Before I go—"
Quietly she withdrew her hand. "Before you go, you will come to say good by to my mother, I hope," she said, with a steadiness which gave no hint of the tears behind her lowered lids.
Impatiently he brushed her words aside.
"That is for you to say. First of all, I must know one thing."
Her nerve was failing fast; but she still held to her resolve that he should gain no hint of her weakness. She drew back a step, as if his vehemence terrified her, yet she dared not raise her eyes to his. It was all she could do to hold her voice in subjection.
"And what is that?" she asked.
He waited for an instant, before he answered her question. Her next words might contain all, or nothing. His lips shut to a narrow line; then he straightened his shoulders.
"Ethel," he said rapidly; "I have been in a good many fights; I've found that it hurts more to be mangled than it does to be killed. Speak out, then, and end this thing once for all. Was it final, what you said to the Captain, that day?"
She bit her lip; but her voice would not come, and she could only give a little, dreary nod. Weldon watched her steadily for a moment; then he turned to go away.
For another moment, Ethel stared after him, heedless now of the drops that were sliding down her cheeks. Then, of a sudden, she found her voice. "Wait!" she said, as she stepped forward with a swift gesture which was wholly imploring, wholly feminine. "It may have been final; but finality is not always truth."
He halted at her words.
"And you mean?"
"I mean," she answered him; "I mean that then, and now, and always, I loved one man, and he—" she caught her breath; then she lifted her head proudly; "was you. The rest was all a mistake; but I did what I thought was best."
Weldon bowed his head.
"No matter now," he answered.
Then, taking her hand, he led her back to the open window where they stood together long, while, in the room beyond, an anxious colonel threaded his way to and fro in the crowd, impatiently hunting the partner in whose memory he had ceased to exist.