One day Allerton appeared to be far better. For a week he had wandered much in his mind, and more than once Lucy had suspected that the end was near; but now he was singularly lucid. He wanted to get up, and Lucy felt it would be brutal to balk any wish he had. He asked if he might go out. The day was fine and warm. It was February, and there was a feeling in the air as if the spring were at hand. In sheltered places the snowdrops and the crocuses gave the garden the blitheness of an Italian picture; and you felt that on that multi-coloured floor might fitly trip the delicate angels of Messer Perugino. The rector had an old pony-chaise, in which he was used to visit his parishioners, and in this all three drove out.
'Let us go down to the marshes,' said Allerton.
They drove slowly along the winding road till they came to the broad salt marshes. Beyond glittered the placid sea. There was no wind. Near them a cow looked up from her grazing and lazily whisked her tail. Lucy's heart began to beat more quickly. She felt that her father, too, looked upon that scene as the most typical of his home. Other places had broad acres and fine trees, other places had forest land and purple heather, but there was something in those green flats that made them seem peculiarly their own. She took her father's hand, and silently their eyes looked onwards. A more peaceful look came into Fred Allerton's worn face, and the sigh that broke from him was not altogether of pain. Lucy prayed that it might still remain hidden from him that those fair, broad fields were his no longer.
That night, she had an intuition that death was at hand. Fred Allerton was very silent. Since his release from prison he had spoken barely a dozen sentences a day, and nothing served to wake him from his lethargy. But there was a curious restlessness about him now, and he would not go to bed. He sat in an armchair, and begged them to draw it near the window. The sky was cloudless, and the moon shone brightly. Fred Allerton could see the great old elms that surrounded Hamlyn's Purlieu; and his eyes were fixed steadily upon them. Lucy saw them, too, and she thought sadly of the garden which she had loved so well, and of the dear trees which old masters of the place had tended so lovingly. Her heart filled when she thought of the grey stone house and its happy, spacious rooms.
Suddenly there was a sound, and she looked up quickly. Her father's head had fallen back, and he was breathing with a strange noisiness. She called her friend.
'I think the end has come at last,' she said.
'Would you like me to fetch the doctor?'
'It will be useless.'
The rector looked at the man's wan face, lit dimly by the light of the shaded lamp, and falling on his knees, began to recite the prayers for the dying. A shiver passed through Lucy. In the farmyard a cock crew, and in the distance another cock answered cheerily. Lucy put her hand on the good rector's shoulder.
'It's all over,' she whispered.
She bent down and kissed her father's eyes.
* * *
A week later Lucy took a walk by the seashore. They had buried Fred Allerton three days before among the ancestors whom he had dishonoured. It was a lonely funeral, for Lucy had asked Robert Boulger, her only friend then in England, not to come; and she was the solitary mourner. The coffin was lowered into the grave, and the rector read the sad, beautiful words of the burial service. She could not grieve. Her father was at peace. She could only hope that his errors and his crimes would be soon forgotten; and perhaps those who had known him would remember then that he had been a charming friend, and a clever, sympathetic companion. It was little enough in all conscience that Lucy asked.
On the morrow she was leaving the roof of the hospitable parson. Surmising her wish to walk alone once more through the country which was so dear to her, he had not offered his company. Lucy's heart was full of sadness, but there was a certain peace in it, too; the peace of her father's death had entered into her, and she experienced a new feeling, the feeling of resignation.
Now her mind was set upon the future, and she was filled with hope. She stood by the water's edge, looking upon the sea as three years before, when she was staying at Court Leys, she had looked upon the sea that washed the shores of Kent. Many things had passed since then, and many griefs had fallen upon her; but for all that she was happier than then; since on that distant day—and it seemed ages ago—there had been scarcely a ray of brightness in her life, and now she had a great love which made every burden light.
Low clouds hung upon the sky, and on the horizon the greyness of the heavens mingled with the greyness of the sea. She looked into the distance with longing eyes. Now all her life was set upon that far-off corner of unknown Africa, where Alec and George were doing great deeds. She wondered what was the meaning of the silence which had covered them so long.
'Oh, if I could only see,' she murmured.
She sent her spirit upon that vast journey, trying to pierce the realms of space, but her spirit came back baffled. She could not know what they were at.
* * *
If Lucy's love had been able to bridge the abyss that parted them, if in some miraculous way she had been able to see what actions they did at that time, she would have witnessed a greater tragedy than any which she had yet seen.
The night was stormy and dark. The rain was falling, and the ground in Alec's camp was heavy with mud. The faithful Swahilis whom he had brought from the coast, chattered with cold around their fires; and the sentries shivered at their posts. It was a night that took the spirit out of a man and made all that he longed for seem vain and trifling. In Alec's tent the water was streaming. Great rats ran about boldly. The stout canvas bellied before each gust of wind, and the cordage creaked, so that one might have thought the whole thing would be blown clean away. The tent was unusually crowded, though there was in it nothing but Alec's bed, covered with a mosquito-curtain, a folding table, with a couple of garden chairs, and the cases which contained his more precious belongings. A small tarpaulin on the floor squelched as one walked on it.
On one of the chairs a man sat, asleep, with his face resting on his arms. His gun was on the table in front of him. It was Walker, a young man who had been freshly sent out to take charge of the North East Africa Company's most northerly station, and had joined Alec's expedition a year before, taking the place of an older man who had gone home on leave. He was a funny, fat person with a round face and a comic manner, the most unexpected sort of fellow to find in the wildest of African districts; and he was eminently unsuited for the life he led. He had come into a little money on attaining his majority, and this he had set himself resolutely to squander in every unprofitable way that occurred to him. When his last penny was spent he had been offered a post by a friend of his family's, who happened to be a director of the company, and had accepted it as his only refuge from starvation. Adversity had not been able to affect his happy nature. He was always cheerful no matter what difficulties he was in, and neither regretted the follies of his past nor repined over the hardships which had followed them. Alec had taken a great liking to him. A silent man himself, he found a certain relaxation in people like Dick Lomas and Walker who talked incessantly; and the young man's simplicity, his constant surprise at the difference between Africa and Mayfair, never ceased to divert him.
Presently Adamson came into the tent. He was the Scotch doctor who had already been Alec's companion on two of his expeditions; and there was a firm friendship between them. He was an Edinburgh man, with a slow drawl and a pawky humour, a great big fellow, far and away the largest of any of the whites; and his movements were no less deliberate than his conversation.
'Hulloa, there,' he called out, as he came in.
Walker started to his feet as if he were shot and instinctively seized his gun.
'All right!' laughed the doctor, putting up his hand. 'Don't shoot. It's only me.'
Walker put down the gun and looked at the doctor with a blank face.
'Nerves are a bit groggy, aren't they?'
The fat, cheerful man recovered his wits and gave a short laugh.
'Why the dickens did you wake me up? I was dreaming—dreaming of a high-heeled boot and a neat ankle and the swirl of a white lace petticoat.'
'Were you indeed?' said the doctor, with a slow smile. 'Then it's as well I woke ye up in the middle of it before ye made a fool of yourself. I thought I'd better have a look at your arm.'
'It's one of the most aesthetic sights I know.'
'Your arm?' asked the doctor, drily.
'No,' answered Walker. 'A pretty woman crossing Piccadilly at Swan & Edgar's. You are a savage, my good doctor, and a barbarian; you don't know the care and forethought, the hours of anxious meditation, it has needed to hold up that well-made skirt with the elegant grace that enchants you.'
'I'm afraid you're a very immoral man, Walker,' answered Adamson with his long drawl, smiling.
'Under the present circumstances I have to content myself with condemning the behaviour of the pampered and idle. Just now a camp-bed in a stuffy tent, with mosquitoes buzzing all around me, has allurements greater than those of youth and beauty. And I would not sacrifice my dinner to philander with Helen of Troy herself.'
'You remind me considerably of the fox who said the grapes were sour.'
Walker flung a tin plate at a rat that sat up on its hind legs and looked at him impudently.
'Nonsense. Give me a comfortable bed to sleep in, plenty to eat, tobacco to smoke; and Amaryllis may go hang.'
Dr. Adamson smiled quietly. He found a certain grim humour in the contrast between the difficulties of their situation and Walker's flippant talk.
'Well, let us look at this wound of yours,' he said, getting back to his business. 'Has it been throbbing?'
'Oh, it's not worth bothering about. It'll be as right as rain to-morrow.'
'I'd better dress it all the same.'
Walker took off his coat and rolled up his sleeve. The doctor removed the bandages and looked at the broad flesh wound. He put a fresh dressing on it.
'It looks as healthy as one can expect,' he murmured. 'It's odd what good recoveries men make here when you'd think that everything was against them.'
'You must be pretty well done up, aren't you?' asked Walker, as he watched the doctor neatly cut the lint.
'Just about dropping. But I've a devil of a lot more work to do before I turn in.'
'The thing that amuses me is to think that I came to Africa thinking I was going to have a rattling good time, plenty of shooting and practically nothing to do.'
'You couldn't exactly describe it as a picnic, could you?' answered the doctor. 'But I don't suppose any of us knew it would be such a tough job as it's turned out.'
Walker put his disengaged hand on the doctor's arm.
'My friend, if ever I return to my native land I will never be such a crass and blithering idiot as to give way again to a spirit of adventure. I shall look out for something safe and quiet, and end my days as a wine-merchant's tout or an insurance agent.'
'Ah, that's what we all say when we're out here. But when we're once home again, the recollection of the forest and the plains and the roasting sun and the mosquitoes themselves, come haunting us, and before we know what's up we've booked our passage back to this God-forsaken continent.'
The doctor's words were followed by a silence, which was broken by Walker inconsequently.
'Do you ever think of rumpsteaks?' he asked.
The doctor stared at him blankly, and Walker went on, smiling.
'Sometimes, when we're marching under a sun that just about takes the roof of your head off, and we've had the scantiest and most uncomfortable breakfast possible, I have a vision.'
'I would be able to bandage you better if you only gesticulated with one arm,' said Adamson.
'I see the dining-room of my club, and myself seated at a little table by the window looking out on Piccadilly. And there's a spotless table-cloth, and all the accessories are spick and span. An obsequious menial brings me a rumpsteak, grilled to perfection, and so tender that it melts in the mouth. And he puts by my side a plate of crisp fried potatoes. Can't you smell them? And then a liveried flunky brings me a pewter tankard, and into it he pours a bottle, a large bottle, mind you, of foaming ale.'
'You've certainly added considerably to our cheerfulness, my friend,' said Adamson.
Walker gaily shrugged his fat shoulders.
'I've often been driven to appease the pangs of raging hunger with a careless epigram, and by the laborious composition of a limerick I have sought to deceive a most unholy thirst.'
He liked that sentence and made up his mind to remember it for future use. The doctor paused for a moment, and then he looked gravely at Walker.
'Last night I thought that you'd made your last joke, old man; and that I had given my last dose of quinine.'
'We were in rather a tight corner, weren't we?'
'This is the third expedition I've been with MacKenzie, and I assure you I've never been so certain that all was over with us.'
Walker permitted himself a philosophical reflection.
'Funny thing death is, you know! When you think of it beforehand, it makes you squirm in your shoes, but when you've just got it face to face it seems so obvious that you forget to be afraid.'
Indeed it was only by a miracle that any of them was alive, and they had all a curious, light-headed feeling from the narrowness of the escape. They had been fighting, with their backs to the wall, and each one had shown what he was made of. A few hours before things had been so serious that now, in the first moment of relief, they sought refuge instinctively in banter. But Dr. Adamson was a solid man, and he wanted to talk the matter out.
'If the Arabs hadn't hesitated to attack us just those ten minutes, we would have been simply wiped out.'
'MacKenzie was all there, wasn't he?'
Walker had the shyness of his nationality in the exhibition of enthusiasm, and he could only express his admiration for the commander of the party in terms of slang.
'He was, my son,' answered Adamson, drily. 'My own impression is, he thought we were done for.'
'What makes you think that?'
'Well, you see, I know him pretty well. When things are going smoothly and everything's flourishing, he's apt to be a bit irritable. He keeps rather to himself, and he doesn't say much unless you do something he don't approve of.'
'And then, by Jove, he comes down on you like a thousand of bricks,' Walker agreed heartily. He remembered observations which Alec on more than one occasion had made to recall him to a sense of his great insignificance. 'It's not for nothing the natives call him Thunder and Lightning.'
'But when things look black, his spirits go up like one o'clock,' proceeded the doctor. 'And the worse they are the more cheerful he is.'
'I know. When you're starving with hunger, dead tired and soaked to the skin, and wish you could just lie down and die, MacKenzie simply bubbles over with good humour. It's a hateful characteristic. When I'm in a bad temper, I much prefer everyone else to be in a bad temper, too.'
'These last three days he's been positively hilarious. Yesterday he was cracking jokes with the natives.'
'Scotch jokes,' said Walker. 'I daresay they sound funny in an African dialect.'
'I've never seen him more cheerful,' continued the other, sturdily ignoring the gibe. 'By the Lord Harry, said I to myself, the chief thinks we're in a devil of a bad way.'
Walker stood up and stretched himself lazily.
'Thank heavens, it's all over now. We've none of us had any sleep for three days, and when I once get off I don't mean to wake up for a week.'
'I must go and see the rest of my patients. Perkins has got a bad dose of fever this time. He was quite delirious a little while ago.'
'By Jove, I'd almost forgotten.'
People changed in Africa. Walker was inclined to be surprised that he was fairly happy, inclined to make a little jest when it occurred to him; and it had nearly slipped his memory that one of the whites had been killed the day before, while another was lying unconscious with a bullet in his skull. A score of natives were dead, and the rest of them had escaped by the skin of their teeth.
'Poor Richardson,' he said.
'We couldn't spare him,' answered the doctor slowly. 'The fates never choose the right man.'
Walker looked at the brawny doctor, and his placid face was clouded. He knew to what the Scot referred and shrugged his shoulders. But the doctor went on.
'If we had to lose someone it would have been a damned sight better if that young cub Allerton had got the bullet which killed poor Richardson.'
'He wouldn't have been much loss, would he?' said Walker, after a silence.
'MacKenzie has been very patient with him. If I'd been in his shoes I'd have sent him back to the coast when he sacked Macinnery.'
Walker did not answer, and the doctor proceeded to moralise.
'It seems to me that some men have natures so crooked that with every chance in the world to go straight, they can't manage it. The only thing is to let them go to the devil as best they may.'
At that moment Alec MacKenzie came in. He was dripping with rain and threw off his macintosh. His face lit up when he saw Walker and the doctor. Adamson was an old and trusted friend, and he knew that on him he could rely always.
'I've been going the round of the outlying sentries,' he said.
It was unlike him to volunteer even so trivial a piece of information, and Adamson looked up at him.
'All serene?' he asked.
Alec's eyes rested on the doctor as though he were considering something strange about him. The doctor knew him well enough to suspect that something very grave had happened, but also he knew him too well to hazard an inquiry. Presently Alec spoke again.
'I've just seen a native messenger that Mindabi sent me.'
Alec's answer was so curt that it was impossible to question him further. He turned to Walker.
'How's the arm?'
'Oh, that's nothing. It's only a scratch.'
'You'd better not make too light of it. The smallest wound has a way of being troublesome in this country.'
'He'll be all right in a day or two,' said the doctor.
Alec sat down. For a minute he did not speak, but seemed plunged in thought. He passed his fingers through his beard, ragged now and longer than when he was in England.
'How are the others?' he asked suddenly, looking at Adamson.
'I don't think Thompson can last till the morning.'
'I've just been in to see him.'
Thompson was the man who had been shot through the head and had lain unconscious since the day before. He was an old gold-prospector, who had thrown in his lot with the expedition against the slavers.
'Perkins of course will be down for several days longer. And some of the natives are rather badly hurt. Those devils have got explosive bullets.'
'Is there anyone in great danger?'
'No, I don't think so. There are two men who are in a bad way, but I think they'll pull through with rest.'
'I see,' said Alec, laconically.
He stared intently at the table, absently passing his hand across the gun which Walker had left there.
'I say, have you had anything to eat lately?' asked Walker, presently.
Alec shook himself out of his meditation and gave the young man one of his rare, bright smiles. It was plain that he made an effort to be gay.
'Good Lord, I quite forgot; I wonder when the dickens I had some food last. These Arabs have been keeping us so confoundedly busy.'
'I don't believe you've had anything to-day. You must be devilish hungry.'
'Now you mention it, I think I am,' answered Alec, cheerfully. 'And thirsty, by Jove! I wouldn't give my thirst for an elephant tusk.'
'And to think there's nothing but tepid water to drink!' Walker exclaimed with a laugh.
'I'll go and tell the boy to bring you some food,' said the doctor. 'It's a rotten game to play tricks with your digestion like that.'
'Stern man, the doctor, isn't he?' said Alec, with twinkling eyes. 'It won't hurt me once in a way, and I shall enjoy it all the more now.'
But when Adamson went to call the boy, Alec stopped him.
'Don't trouble. The poor devil's half dead with exhaustion. I told him he might sleep till I called him. I don't want much, and I can easily get it myself.'
Alec looked about and presently found a tin of meat and some ship biscuits. During the fighting it had been impossible to go out on the search for game, and there was neither variety nor plenty about their larder. Alec placed the food before him, sat down, and began to eat. Walker looked at him.
'Appetising, isn't it?' he said ironically.
'No wonder you get on so well with the natives. You have all the instincts of the primeval savage. You take food for the gross and bestial purpose of appeasing your hunger, and I don't believe you have the least appreciation for the delicacies of eating as a fine art.'
'The meat's getting rather mouldy,' answered Alec.
He ate notwithstanding with a good appetite. His thoughts went suddenly to Dick who at the hour which corresponded with that which now passed in Africa, was getting ready for one of the pleasant little dinners at the Carlton upon which he prided himself. And then he thought of the noisy bustle of Piccadilly at night, the carriages and 'buses that streamed to and fro, the crowded pavements, the gaiety of the lights.
'I don't know how we're going to feed everyone to-morrow,' said Walker. 'Things will be going pretty bad if we can't get some grain in from somewhere.'
Alec pushed back his plate.
'I wouldn't worry about to-morrow's dinner if I were you,' he said, with a low laugh.
'Why?' asked Walker.
'Because I think it's ten to one that we shall be as dead as doornails before sunrise.'
The two men stared at him silently. Outside, the wind howled grimly, and the rain swept against the side of the tent.
'Is this one of your little jokes, MacKenzie?' said Walker at last.
'You have often observed that I joke with difficulty.'
'But what's wrong now?' asked the doctor quickly.
Alec looked at him and chuckled quietly.
'You'll neither of you sleep in your beds to-night. Another sell for the mosquitoes, isn't it? I propose to break up the camp and start marching in an hour.'
'I say, it's a bit thick after a day like this,' said Walker. 'We're all so done up that we shan't be able to go a mile.'
'You will have had two hours rest.'
Adamson rose heavily to his feet. He meditated for an appreciable time.
'Some of those fellows who are wounded can't possibly be moved,' he said.
'I won't answer for their lives.'
'We must take the risk. Our only chance is to make a bold dash for it, and we can't leave the wounded here.'
'I suppose there's going to be a deuce of a row,' said Walker.
'Your companions seldom have a chance to complain of the monotony of their existence,' said Walker, grimly. 'What are you going to do now?'
'At this moment I'm going to fill my pipe.'
With a whimsical smile, Alec took his pipe from his pocket, knocked it out on his heel, filled and lit it. The doctor and Walker digested the information he had given them. It was Walker who spoke first.
'I gather from the general amiability of your demeanour that we're in rather a tight place.'
'Tighter than any of your patent-leather boots, my friend.'
Walker moved uncomfortably in his chair. He no longer felt sleepy. A cold shiver ran down his spine.
'Have we any chance of getting through?' he asked gravely.
It seemed to him that Alec paused an unconscionable time before he answered.
'There's always a chance,' he said.
'I suppose we're going to do a bit more fighting?'
Walker yawned loudly.
'Well, at all events there's some comfort in that. If I am going to be done out of my night's rest, I should like to take it out of someone.'
Alec looked at him with approval. That was the frame of mind that pleased him. When he spoke again there was in his voice a peculiar charm that perhaps in part accounted for the power he had over his fellows. It inspired an extraordinary belief in him, so that anyone would have followed him cheerfully to certain death. And though his words were few and bald, he was so unaccustomed to take others into his confidence, that when he did so, ever so little, and in that tone, it seemed that he was putting his hearers under a singular obligation.
'If things turn out all right, we shall come near finishing the job, and there won't be much more slave-trading in this part of Africa.'
'And if things don't turn out all right?'
'Why then, I'm afraid the tea tables of Mayfair will be deprived of your scintillating repartee for ever.'
Walker looked down at the ground. Strange thoughts ran through his head, and when he looked up again, with a shrug of the shoulders, there was a queer look in his eyes.
'Well, I've not had a bad time in my life,' he said slowly. 'I've loved a little, and I've worked and played. I've heard some decent music, I've looked at nice pictures, and I've read some thundering fine books. If I can only account for a few more of those damned scoundrels before I die, I shouldn't think I had much to complain of.'
Alec smiled, but did not answer. A silence fell upon them. Walker's words brought to Alec the recollection of what had caused the trouble which now threatened them, and his lips tightened. A dark frown settled between his eyes.
'Well, I suppose I'd better go and get things straight,' said the doctor. 'I'll do what I can with those fellows and trust to Providence that they'll stand the jolting.'
'What about Perkins?' asked Alec.
'Lord knows! I'll try and keep him quiet with choral.'
'You needn't say anything about our striking camp. I don't propose that anyone should know till a quarter of an hour before we start.'
'But that won't give them time.'
'I've trained them often enough to get on the march quickly,' answered Alec, with a curtness that allowed no rejoinder.
The doctor turned to go, and at the same moment George Allerton appeared.
George Allerton had changed since he left England. The flesh had fallen away from his bones, and his face was sallow. He had not stood the climate well. His expression had changed too, for there was a singular querulousness about his mouth, and his eyes were shifty and cunning. He had lost his good looks.
'Can I come in?' he said.
'Yes,' answered Alec, and then turning to the doctor: 'You might stay a moment, will you?'
Adamson stood where he was, with his back to the flap that closed the tent. Alec looked up quickly.
'Didn't Selim tell you I wanted to speak to you?'
'That's why I've come,' answered George.
'You've taken your time about it.'
'I say, could you give me a drink of brandy? I'm awfully done up.'
'There's no brandy left,' answered Alec.
'Hasn't the doctor got some?'
There was a long pause. Adamson and Walker did not know what was the matter; but they saw that there was something serious. They had never seen Alec so cold, and the doctor, who knew him well, saw that he was very angry. Alec lifted his eyes again and looked at George slowly.
'Do you know anything about the death of that Turkana woman?' he asked abruptly.
George did not answer immediately.
'No. How should I?' he said presently.
'Come now, you must know something about it. Last Tuesday you came into camp and said the Turkana were very much excited.'
'Oh, yes, I remember,' answered George, unwillingly
'I'm not very clear about it. The woman had been shot, hadn't she? One of the station boys had been playing the fool with her, and he seems to have shot her.'
'Have you made no attempt to find out which of the station boys it was?'
'I haven't had time,' said George, in a surly way. 'We've all been worked off our legs during the last three days.'
'Do you suspect no one?'
'I don't think so.'
'Think a moment.'
'The only man who might have done it is that big scoundrel we got on the coast, the Swahili beggar with one ear.'
'What makes you think that?'
'He's been making an awful nuisance of himself, and I know he's been running after the women.'
Alec did not take his eyes off George. Walker saw what was coming and looked down at the ground.
'You'll be surprised to hear that when the woman was found she wasn't dead.'
George did not move, but his cheeks became if possible more haggard. He was horribly frightened.
'She didn't die for nearly an hour.'
There was a very short silence. It seemed to George that they must hear the furious beating of his heart.
'Was she able to say anything?'
'She said you'd shot her,'
'What a damned lie!'
'It appears that you were—playing the fool with her. I don't know why you quarrelled. You took out your revolver and fired point blank.'
'It's just like these beastly niggers to tell a stupid lie like that. You wouldn't believe them rather than me, would you? After all, my word's worth more than theirs.'
Alec quietly took from his pocket the case of an exploded cartridge. It could only have fitted a revolver.
'This was found about two yards from the body and was brought to me this evening.'
'I don't know what that proves.'
'You know just as well as I do that none of the natives has a revolver. Beside ourselves only one or two of the servants have them.'
George took his handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his face. His throat was horribly dry, and he could hardly breathe.
'Will you give me your revolver,' said Alec, quietly.
'I haven't got it. I lost it this afternoon when we made that sortie. I didn't tell you as I thought you'd get in a wax about it.'
'I saw you cleaning it less than an hour ago,' said Alec, gravely.
George shrugged his shoulders pettishly.
'Perhaps it's in my tent. I'll go and see.'
'Stop here,' said Alec sharply.
'Look here, I'm not going to be ordered about like a dog. You've got no right to talk to me like that. I came out here of my own free will, and I won't let you treat me like a damned nigger.'
'If you put your hand to your hip-pocket I think you'll find your revolver there.'
'I'm not going to give it you,' said George, his lips white with fear.
'Do you want me to come and take if from you myself?'
The two men stared at one another for a moment. Then George slowly put his hand to his pocket and took out the revolver. But a sudden impulse seized him. He raised it, quickly aimed at Alec, and fired. Walker was standing near him, and seeing the movement, instinctively beat up the boy's hand as pulled the trigger. In a moment the doctor had sprung forward and seizing him round the waist, thrown him backwards. The revolver fell from his hand. Alec had not moved.
'Let me go, damn you!' cried George, his voice shrill with rage.
'You need not hold him,' said Alec.
It was second nature with them all to perform Alec's commands, and without thinking twice they dropped their hands. George sank cowering into a chair. Walker, bending down, picked up the revolver and gave it to Alec, who silently fitted into an empty chamber the cartridge that had been brought to him.
'You see that it fits,' he said. 'Hadn't you better make a clean breast of it?'
George was utterly cowed. A sob broke from him.
'Yes, I shot her,' he said brokenly. 'She made a row and the devil got into me. I didn't know what I'd done till she screamed and I saw the blood.'
He cursed himself for being such a fool as to throw the cartridge away. His first thought had been to have all the chambers filled.
'Do you remember that two months ago I hanged a man to the nearest tree because he'd murdered one of the natives?'
George sprang up in terror, and he began to tremble.
'You wouldn't do that to me.'
A wild prayer went up in his heart that mercy might be shown him, and then bitter anger seized him because he had ever come out to that country.
'You need not be afraid,' answered Alec coldly. 'In any case I must preserve the native respect for the white man.'
'I was half drunk when I saw the woman. I wasn't responsible for my actions.'
'In any case the result is that the whole tribe has turned against us.'
The chief was Alec's friend, and it was he who had sent him the exploded cartridge. The news came to Alec like a thunderclap, for the Turkana were the best part of his fighting force, and he had always placed the utmost reliance on their fidelity. The chief said that he could not hold in his young men, and not only must Alec cease to count upon them, but they would probably insist on attacking him openly. They had stirred up the neighbouring tribes against him and entered into communication with the Arabs. He had been just at the turning point and on the verge of a great success, but now all that had been done during three years was frustrated. The Arabs had seized the opportunity and suddenly assumed the offensive. The unexpectedness of their attack had nearly proved fatal to Alec's party, and since then they had all had to fight for bare life.
George watched Alec as he stared at the ground.
'I suppose the whole damned thing's my fault,' he muttered.
Alec did not answer directly.
'I think we may take it for certain that the natives will go over to the slavers to-morrow, and then we shall be attacked on all sides. We can't hold out against God knows how many thousands. I've sent Rogers and Deacon to bring in all the Latukas, but heaven knows if they can arrive in time.'
'And if they don't?'
Alec shrugged his shoulders, but did not speak. George's breathing came hurriedly, and a sob rose to his throat.
'What are you going to do to me, Alec?'
MacKenzie walked up and down, thinking of the gravity of their position. In a moment he stopped and looked at Walker.
'I daresay you have some preparations to make,' he said.
Walker got up.
'I'll be off,' he answered, with a slight smile.
He was glad to go, for it made him ashamed to watch the boy's humiliation. His own nature was so honest, his loyalty so unbending, that the sight of viciousness affected him with a physical repulsion, and he turned away from it as he would have done from the sight of some hideous ulcer. The doctor surmised that his presence too was undesired. Murmuring that he had no time to lose if he wanted to get his patients ready for a night march, he followed Walker out of the tent. George breathed more freely when he was alone with Alec.
'I'm sorry I did that silly thing just now,' he said. 'I'm glad I didn't hit you.'
'It doesn't matter at all,' smiled Alec. 'I'd forgotten all about it.'
'I lost my head. I didn't know what I was doing.'
'You need not trouble about that. In Africa even the strongest of us are apt to lose our balance.'
Alec filled his pipe again, and lighting it, blew heavy clouds of smoke into the damp air. His voice was softer when he spoke.
'Did you ever know that before we came away I asked Lucy to marry me?'
George did not answer. He stifled a sob, for the recollection of Lucy, the centre of his love and the mainspring of all that was decent in him, transfixed his heart with pain.
'She asked me to bring you here in the hope that you'd,'—Alec had some difficulty in expressing himself—'do something that would make people forget what happened to your father. She's very proud of her family. She feels that your good name is—besmirched, and she wanted you to give it a new lustre. I think that is the object she has most at heart in the world. It is as great as her love for you. The plan hasn't been much of a success, has it?'
'She ought to have known that I wasn't suited for this sort of life,' answered George, bitterly.
'I saw very soon that you were weak and irresolute, but I thought I could put some backbone into you. I hoped for her sake to make something of you after all. Your intentions seemed good enough, but you never had the strength to carry them out.' Alec had been watching the smoke that rose from his pipe, but now he looked at George. 'I'm sorry if I seem to be preaching at you.'
'Oh, do you think I care what anyone says to me now?'
Alec went on very gravely, but not unkindly.
'Then I found you were drinking. I told you that no man could stand liquor in this country, and you gave me your word of honour that you wouldn't touch it again.'
'Yes, I broke it. I couldn't help myself. The temptation was too strong.'
'When we came to the station at Munias, and I was laid up with fever, you and Macinnery took the opportunity to get into an ugly scrape with some native women. You knew that that was the one thing I would not stand. I have nothing to do with morality—everyone is free in these things to do as he chooses—but I do know that nothing causes more trouble with the natives, and I've made definite rules on the subject. If the culprits are Swahilis I flog them, and if they're whites I send them back to the coast. That's what I ought to have done with you, but it would have broken Lucy's heart.'
'It was Macinnery's fault.'
'It's because I thought Macinnery was chiefly to blame that I sent him back alone. I determined to give you another chance. It struck me that the feeling of authority might have some influence on you, and so, when I had to build a boma to guard the road down to the coast, I put the chief part of the stores in your care and left you in command. I need not remind you what happened there.'
George looked down at the floor sulkily, and in default of excuses, kept silent. He felt a sullen resentment as he remembered Alec's anger. He had never seen him give way before or since to such a furious wrath, and he had seen Alec hold himself with all his strength so that he might not thrash him. Alec remembered too, and his voice once more grew hard and cold.
'I came to the conclusion that it was hopeless. You seemed to me rotten through and through.'
'Like my father before me,' sneered George, with a little laugh.
'I couldn't believe a word you said. You were idle and selfish. Above all you were loathsomely, wantonly cruel. I was aghast when I heard of the fiendish cruelty with which you'd used the wretched men whom I left with you. If I hadn't returned in the nick of time, they'd have killed you and looted all the stores.'
'It would have upset you to lose the stores, wouldn't it?'
'Is that all you've got to say?'
'You always believed their stories rather than mine.'
'It was difficult not to believe when a man showed me his back all torn and bleeding, and said you'd had him flogged because he didn't cook your food to your satisfaction.'
'I did it in a moment of temper. A man's not responsible for what he does when he's got fever.'
'It was too late to send you to the coast then, and I was obliged to take you on. And now the end has come. Your murder of that woman has put us all in deadly peril. Already to your charge lie the deaths of Richardson and Thompson and about twenty natives. We're as near destruction as we can possibly be; and if we're killed, to-morrow the one tribe that has remained friendly will be attacked and their villages burnt. Men, women and children, will be put to the sword or sold into slavery.'
George seemed at last to see the abyss into which he was plunged, and his resentment gave way to despair.
'What are you going to do?'
'We're far away from the coast, and I must take the law into my own hands.'
'You're not going to kill me?' gasped George.
'No,' said Alec scornfully.
Alec sat on the little camp table so that he might be quite near George.
'Are you fond of Lucy?' he asked gently.
George broke into a sob.
'O God, you know I am,' he cried piteously. 'Why do you remind me of her? I've made a rotten mess of everything, and I'm better out of the way. But think of the disgrace of it. It'll kill Lucy. And she was hoping I'd do so much.'
He hid his face in his hands and sobbed broken-heartedly. Alec, strangely touched, put his hand on his shoulder.
'Listen to me,' he said. 'I've sent Deacon and Rogers to bring up as many Latukas as they can. If we can tide over to-morrow we may be able to inflict a crushing blow on the Arabs; but we must seize the ford over the river. The Arabs are holding it and our only chance is to make a sudden attack on them to-night before the natives join them. We shall be enormously outnumbered, but we may do some damage if we take them by surprise, and if we can capture the ford, Rogers and Deacon will be able to get across to us. We've lost Richardson and Thompson. Perkins is down with fever. That reduces the whites to Walker, and the doctor, Condamine, Mason, you and myself. I can trust the Swahilis, but they're the only natives I can trust. Now, I'm going to start marching straight for the ford. The Arabs will come out of their stockade in order to cut us off. In the darkness I mean to slip away with the rest of the white men and the Swahilis, I've found a short cut by which I can take them in the rear. They'll attack just as the ford is reached, and I shall fall upon them. Do you see?'
George nodded, but he did not understand at what Alec was driving. The words reached his ears vaguely, as though they came from a long way off.
'I want one white man to lead the Turkana, and that man will run the greatest possible danger. I'd go myself only the Swahilis won't fight unless I lead them.... Will you take that post?'
The blood rushed to George's head, and he felt his ears singing.
'I could order you to go, but the job's too dangerous for me to force it on anyone. If you refuse I shall call the others together and ask someone to volunteer.'
George did not answer.
'I won't hide from you that it means almost certain death. But there's no other way of saving ourselves. On the other hand, if you show perfect courage at the moment the Arabs attack and the Turkana find we've given them the slip, you may escape. If you do, I promise you that nothing shall be said of all that has happened here.'
George sprang to his feet, and once more on his lips flashed the old, frank smile.
'All right! I'll do that. And I thank you with all my heart for giving me the chance.'
Alec held out his hand, and he gave a sigh of relief.
'I'm glad you've accepted. Whatever happens you'll have done one brave action in your life.'
George flushed. He wanted to speak, but hesitated.
'I should like to ask you a great favour,' he said at last.
Alec waited for him to go on.
'You won't let Lucy know the mess I've made of things, will you? Let her think I've done all she wanted me to do.'
'Very well,' answered Alec gently.
'Will you give me your word of honour that if I'm killed you won't say anything that will lead anyone to suspect how I came by my death.'
Alec looked at him silently. It flashed across his mind that it might be necessary under certain circumstances to tell the whole truth. George was greatly moved. He seemed to divine the reason of Alec's hesitation.
'I have no right to ask anything of you. Already you've done far more for me than I deserved. But it's for Lucy's sake that I implore you not to give me away.'
Alec, standing entirely still, uttered the words slowly.
'I give you my word of honour that whatever happens and in whatever circumstances I find myself placed, not a word shall escape me that could lead Lucy to suppose that you hadn't been always and in every way upright, brave, and honourable. I will take all the responsibility of your present action.'
'I'm awfully grateful to you.'
Alec moved at last. The strain of their conversation was become almost intolerable. Alec's voice became cheerful and brisk.
'I think there's nothing more to be said. You must be ready to start in half an hour. Here's your revolver.' There was a twinkle in his eyes as he continued: 'Remember that you've discharged one chamber. You'd better put in another cartridge.'
'Yes, I'll do that.'
George nodded and went out. Alec's face at once lost the lightness which it had assumed a moment before. He knew that he had just done something which might separate him from Lucy for ever. His love for her was now the only thing in the world to him, and he had jeopardised it for that worthless boy. He saw that all sorts of interpretations might be put upon his action, and he should have been free to speak the truth. But even if George had not exacted from him the promise of silence, he could never have spoken a word. He loved Lucy far too deeply to cause her such bitter pain. Whatever happened, she must think that George was a brave man, and had died in the performance of his duty. He knew her well enough to be sure that if death were dreadful, it was more tolerable than dishonour. He knew how keenly she had felt her disgrace, how it affected her like a personal uncleanness, and he knew that she had placed all her hopes in George. Her brother was rotten to the core, as rotten as her father. How could he tell her that? He was willing to make any sacrifice rather than allow her to have such knowledge. But if ever she knew that he had sent George to his death she would hate him. And if he lost her love he lost everything. He had thought of that before he answered: Lucy could do without love better than without self-respect.
But he had told George that if he had pluck he might get through. Would he show that last virtue of a blackguard—courage?
It was not till six months later that news of Alec MacKenzie's expedition reached the outer world, and at the same time Lucy received a letter from him in which he told her that her brother was dead. That stormy night had been fatal to the light-hearted Walker and to George Allerton, but success had rewarded Alec's desperate boldness, and a blow had been inflicted on the slavers which subsequent events proved to be crushing. Alec's letter was grave and tender. He knew the extreme grief he must inflict upon Lucy, and he knew that words could not assuage it. It seemed to him that the only consolation he could offer was that the life which was so precious to her had been given for a worthy cause. Now that George had made up in the only way possible for the misfortune his criminal folly had brought upon them, Alec was determined to put out of his mind all that had gone before. It was right that the weakness which had ruined him should be forgotten, and Alec could dwell honestly on the boy's charm of manner, and on his passionate love for his sister.
The months followed one another, the dry season gave place to the wet, and at length Alec was able to say that the result he had striven for was achieved. Success rewarded his long efforts, and it was worth the time, the money, and the lives that it had cost. The slavers were driven out of a territory larger than the United Kingdom, treaties were signed with chiefs who had hitherto been independent, by which they accepted the suzerainty of Great Britain; and only one step remained, that the government should take over the rights of the company which had been given powers to open up the country, and annex the conquered district to the empire. It was to this that MacKenzie now set himself; and he entered into communication with the directors of the company and with the commissioner at Nairobi.
But it seemed as if the fates would snatch from him all enjoyment of the laurels he had won, for on their way towards Nairobi, Alec and Dr. Adamson were attacked by blackwater fever. For weeks Alec lay at the point of death. His fine constitution seemed to break at last, and he himself thought that the end was come. Condamine, one of the company's agents, took command of the party and received Alec's final instructions. Alec lay in his camp bed, with his faithful Swahili boy by his side to brush away the flies, waiting for the end. He would have given much to live till all his designs were accomplished, but that apparently was not to be. There was only one thing that troubled him. Would the government let the splendid gift he offered slip through their fingers? Now was the time to take formal possession of the territories which he had pacified: the prestige of the whites was at its height, and there were no difficulties to be surmounted. He impressed upon Condamine, whom he wished to be appointed sub-commissioner under a chief at Nairobi, the importance of making all this clear to the authorities. The post he suggested would have been pressed upon himself, but he had no taste for official restrictions, and his part of the work was done. So far as this went, his death was of little consequence.
And then he thought of Lucy. He wondered if she would understand what he had done. He could acknowledge now that she had cause to be proud of him. She would be sorry for his death. He did not think that she loved him, he did not expect it; but he was glad to have loved her, and he wished he could have told her how much the thought of her had been to him during these years of difficulty. It was very hard that he might not see her once more in order to thank her for all she had been to him. She had given his life a beauty it could never have had, and for this he was very grateful. But the secret of George's death would die with him; for Walker was dead, and Adamson, the only man left who could throw light upon it, might be relied on to hold his tongue. And Alec, losing strength each day, thought that perhaps it were well if he died.
But Condamine could not bear to see his chief thus perish. For four years that man had led them, and only his companions knew his worth. To his acquaintance he might seem hard and unsympathetic, he might repel by his taciturnity and anger by his sternness; but his comrades knew how eminent were his qualities. It was impossible for anyone to live with him continually without being conquered by his greatness. If his power with the natives was unparalleled, it was because they had taken his measure and found him sterling. And he had bound the whites to him by ties from which they could not escape. He asked no one to do anything which he was not willing to do himself. If any plan of his failed he took the failure upon himself; if it succeeded he attributed the success to those who had carried out his orders. If he demanded courage and endurance from others it was easy, since he showed them the way by his own example to be strong and brave. His honesty, justice, and forbearance made all who came in contact with him ashamed of their own weakness. They knew the unselfishness which considered the comfort of the meanest porter before his own; and his tenderness to those who were ill knew no bounds.
The Swahilis assumed an unaccustomed silence, and the busy, noisy camp was like a death chamber. When Alec's boy told them that his master grew each day weaker, they went about with tears running down their cheeks, and they would have wailed aloud, but that they knew he must not be disturbed. It seemed to Condamine that there was but one chance, and that was to hurry down, with forced marches, to the nearest station. There they would find a medical missionary to look after him and the comforts of civilisation which in the forest they so woefully lacked.
Alec was delirious when they moved him. It was fortunate that he could not be told of Adamson's death, which had taken place three days before. The good, strong Scotchman had succumbed at last to the African climate; and on this, his third journey, having surmounted all the perils that had surrounded him for so long, almost on the threshold of home, he had sunk and died. He was buried at the foot of a great tree, far down so that the jackals might not find him, and Condamine with a shaking voice read over him the burial service from an English prayerbook.
It seemed a miracle that Alec survived the exhaustion of the long tramp. He was jolted along elephant paths that led through dense bush, up stony hills and down again to the beds of dried-up rivers. Each time Condamine looked at the pale, wan man who lay in the litter, it was with a horrible fear that he would be dead. They began marching before sunrise, swiftly, to cover as much distance as was possible before the sun grew hot; they marched again towards sunset when a grateful coolness refreshed the weary patient. They passed through interminable forests, where the majestic trees sheltered under their foliage a wealth of graceful, tender plants: from trunk and branch swung all manner of creepers, which bound the forest giants in fantastic bonds. They forded broad streams, with exquisite care lest the sick man should come to hurt; they tramped through desolate marshes where the ground sunk under their feet. And at last they reached the station. Alec was still alive.
For weeks the tender skill of the medical missionary and the loving kindness of his wife wrestled with death, and at length Alec was out of danger. His convalescence was very slow, and it looked often as though he would never entirely get back his health. But as soon as his mind regained its old activity, he resumed direction of the affairs which were so near his heart; and no sooner was his strength equal to it than he insisted on being moved to Nairobi, where he was in touch with civilisation, and, through the commissioner, could influence a supine government to accept the precious gift he offered. All this took many months, months of anxious waiting, months of bitter disappointment; but at length everything was done: the worthy Condamine was given the appointment that Alec had desired and set out once more for the interior; Great Britain took possession of the broad lands which Alec, by his skill, tact, perseverance and strength, had wrested from barbarism. His work was finished, and he could return to England.
Public attention had been called at last to the greatness of his achievement, to the dangers he had run and the difficulties he had encountered; and before he sailed, he learned that the papers were ringing with his praise. A batch of cablegrams reached him, including one from Dick Lomas and one from Robert Boulger, congratulating him on his success. Two foreign potentates, through their consuls at Mombassa, bestowed decorations upon him; scientific bodies of all countries conferred on him the distinctions which were in their power to give; chambers of commerce passed resolutions expressing their appreciation of his services; publishers telegraphed offers for the book which they surmised he would write; newspaper correspondents came to him for a preliminary account of his travels. Alec smiled grimly when he read that an Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs had referred to him in a debate with honeyed words. No such enthusiasm had been aroused in England since Stanley returned from the journey which he afterwards described in Darkest Africa. When he left Mombassa the residents gave a dinner in his honour, and everyone who had the chance jumped up on his legs and made a speech. In short, after many years during which Alec's endeavours had been coldly regarded, when the government had been inclined to look upon him as a busybody, the tide turned; and he was in process of being made a national hero.
Alec made up his mind to come home the whole way by sea, thinking that the rest of the voyage would give his constitution a chance to get the better of the ills which still troubled him; and at Gibraltar he received a letter from Dick. One had reached him at Suez; but that was mainly occupied with congratulations, and there was a tenderness due to the fear that Alec had hardly yet recovered from his dangerous illness, which made it, though touching to Alec, not so characteristic as the second.
My Dear Alec:
I am delighted that you will return in the nick of time for the London season. You will put the noses of the Christian Scientists out of joint, and the New Theologians will argue no more in the columns of the halfpenny papers. For you are going to be the lion of the season. Comb your mane and have it neatly curled and scented, for we do not like our lions unkempt; and learn how to flap your tail; be sure you cultivate a proper roar because we expect to shiver delightfully in our shoes at the sight of you, and young ladies are already practising how to swoon with awe in your presence. We have come to the conclusion that you are a hero, and I, your humble servant, shine already with reflected glory because for twenty years I have had the privilege of your acquaintance. Duchesses, my dear boy, duchesses with strawberry leaves around their snowy brows, (like the French grocer, I make a point of never believing a duchess is more than thirty,) ask me to tea so that they may hear me prattle of your childhood's happy days, and I have promised to bring you to lunch with them, Tompkinson, whom you once kicked at Eton, has written an article in Blackwood on the beauty of your character; by which I take it that the hardness of your boot has been a lasting, memory to him. All your friends are proud of you, and we go about giving the uninitiated to understand that nothing of all this would have happened except for our encouragement. You will be surprised to learn how many people are anxious to reward you for your services to the empire by asking you to dinner. So far as I am concerned, I am smiling in my sleeve; for I alone know what an exceedingly disagreeable person you are. You are not a hero in the least, but a pig-headed beast who conquers kingdoms to annoy quiet, self-respecting persons like myself who make a point of minding their own business.
Yours ever affectionately, Richard Lomas.
Alec smiled when he read the letter. It had struck him that there would be some attempt on his return to make a figure of him, and he much feared that his arrival in Southampton would be followed by an attack of interviewers. He was coming in a slow German ship, and at that moment a P. and O., homeward bound, put in at Gibraltar. By taking it he could reach England one day earlier and give everyone who came to meet him the slip. Leaving his heavy luggage, he got a steward to pack up the things he used on the journey, and in a couple of hours, after an excursion on shore to the offices of the company, found himself installed on the English boat.
* * *
But when the great ship entered the English Channel, Alec could scarcely bear his impatience. It would have astonished those who thought him unhuman if they had known the tumultuous emotions that rent his soul. His fellow-passengers never suspected that the bronzed, silent man who sought to make no acquaintance, was the explorer with whose name all Europe was ringing; and it never occurred to them that as he stood in the bow of the ship, straining his eyes for the first sight of England, his heart was so full that he would not have dared to speak. Each absence had intensified his love for that sea-girt land, and his eyes filled with tears of longing as he thought that soon now he would see it once more. He loved the murky waters of the English Channel because they bathed its shores, and he loved the strong west wind. The west wind seemed to him the English wind; it was the trusty wind of seafaring men, and he lifted his face to taste its salt buoyancy. He could not think of the white cliffs of England without a deep emotion; and when they passed the English ships, tramps outward bound or stout brigantines driving before the wind with their spreading sails, he saw the three-deckers of Trafalgar and the proud galleons of the Elizabethans. He felt a personal pride in those dead adventurers who were spiritual ancestors of his, and he was proud to be an Englishman because Frobisher and Effingham were English, and Drake and Raleigh and the glorious Nelson.
And then his pride in the great empire which had sprung from that small island, a greater Rome in a greater world, dissolved into love as his wandering thoughts took him to green meadows and rippling streams. Now at last he need no longer keep so tight a rein upon his fancy, but could allow it to wander at will; and he thought of the green hedgerows and the pompous elm trees; he thought of the lovely wayside cottages with their simple flowers and of the winding roads that were so good to walk on. He was breathing the English air now, and his spirit was uplifted. He loved the grey soft mists of low-lying country, and he loved the smell of the heather as he stalked across the moorland. There was no river he knew that equalled the kindly Thames, with the fair trees of its banks and its quiet backwaters, where white swans gently moved amid the waterlilies. His thoughts went to Oxford, with its spires, bathed in a violet haze, and in imagination he sat in the old garden of his college, so carefully tended, so great with memories of the past. And he thought of London. There was a subtle beauty in its hurrying crowds, and there was beauty in the thronged traffic of its river: the streets had that indefinable hue which is the colour of London, and the sky had the gold and the purple of an Italian brocade. Now in Piccadilly Circus, around the fountain sat the women who sold flowers; and the gaiety of their baskets, rich with roses and daffodils and tulips, yellow and red, mingled with the sombre tones of the houses, the dingy gaudiness of 'buses and the sunny greyness of the sky.
At last his thoughts went back to the outward voyage. George Allerton was with him then, and now he was alone. He had received no letter from Lucy since he wrote to tell her that George was dead. He understood her silence. But when he thought of George, his heart was bitter against fate because that young life had been so pitifully wasted. He remembered so well the eagerness with which he had sought to bind George to him, his desire to gain the boy's affection; and he remembered the dismay with which he learned that he was worthless. The frank smile, the open countenance, the engaging eyes, meant nothing; the boy was truthless, crooked of nature, weak. Alec remembered how, refusing to acknowledge the faults that were so plain, he blamed the difficulty of his own nature; and, when it was impossible to overlook them, his earnest efforts to get the better of them. But the effect of Africa was too strong. Alec had seen many men lose their heads under the influence of that climate. The feeling of an authority that seemed so little limited, over a race that was manifestly inferior, the subtle magic of the hot sunshine, the vastness, the remoteness from civilisation, were very apt to throw a man off his balance. The French had coined a name for the distemper and called it folie d'Afrique. Men seemed to go mad from a sense of power, to lose all the restraints which had kept them in the way of righteousness. It needed a strong head or a strong morality to avoid the danger, and George had neither. He succumbed. He lost all sense of shame, and there was no power to hold him. And it was more hopeless because nothing could keep him from drinking. When Macinnery had been dismissed for breaking Alec's most stringent law, things, notwithstanding George's promise of amendment, had only gone from bad to worse. Alec remembered how he had come back to the camp in which he had left George, to find the men mutinous, most of them on the point of deserting, and George drunk. He had flown then into such a rage that he could not control himself. He was ashamed to think of it. He had seized George by the shoulders and shaken him, shaken him as though he were a rat; and it was with difficulty that he prevented himself from thrashing him with his own hands.
And at last had come the final madness and the brutal murder. Alec set his mind to consider once more those hazardous days during which by George's folly they had been on the brink of destruction. George had met his death on that desperate march to the ford, and lacking courage, had died miserably. Alec threw back his head with a curious movement.
'I was right in all I did,' he muttered.
George deserved to die, and he was unworthy to be lamented. And yet, at that moment, when he was approaching the shores which George, too, perhaps, had loved, Alec's heart was softened. He sighed deeply. It was fate. If George had inherited the wealth which he might have counted on, if his father had escaped that cruel end, he might have gone through life happily enough. He would have done no differently from his fellows. With the safeguards about him of a civilised state, his irresolution would have prevented him from going astray; and he would have been a decent country gentleman—selfish, weak, and insignificant perhaps, but not remarkably worse than his fellows—and when he died he might have been mourned by a loving wife and fond children.
Now he lay on the borders of an African swamp, unsepulchred, unwept; and Alec had to face Lucy, with the story in his heart that he had sworn on his honour not to tell.
Alec's first visit was to Lucy. No one knew that he had arrived, and after changing his clothes at the rooms in Pall Mall that he had taken for the summer, he walked to Charles Street. His heart leaped as he strolled up the hill of St. James Street, bright by a fortunate chance with the sunshine of a summer day; and he rejoiced in the gaiety of the well-dressed youths who sauntered down, bound for one or other of the clubs, taking off their hats with a rapid smile of recognition to charming women who sat in victorias or in electric cars. There was an air of opulence in the broad street, of a civilisation refined without brutality, which was very grateful to his eyes accustomed for so long to the wilderness of Africa.
The gods were favourable to his wishes that day, for Lucy was at home; she sat in the drawing-room, by the window, reading a novel. At her side were masses of flowers, and his first glimpse of her was against a great bowl of roses. The servant announced his name, and she sprang up with a cry. She flushed with excitement, and then the blood fled from her cheeks, and she became extraordinarily pale. Alec noticed that she was whiter and thinner than when last he had seen her; but she was more beautiful.
'I didn't expect you so soon,' she faltered.
And then unaccountably tears came to her eyes. Falling back into her chair, she hid her face. Her heart began to beat painfully.
'You must forgive me,' she said, trying to smile. 'I can't help being very silly.'
For days Lucy had lived in an agony of terror, fearing this meeting, and now it had come upon her unexpectedly. More than four years had passed since last they had seen one another, and they had been years of anxiety and distress. She was certain that she had changed, and looking with pitiful dread in the glass, she told herself that she was pale and dull. She was nearly thirty. There were lines about her eyes, and her mouth had a bitter droop. She had no mercy on herself. She would not minimise the ravages of time, and with a brutal frankness insisted on seeing herself as she might be in ten years, when an increasing leanness, emphasising the lines and increasing the prominence of her features, made her still more haggard. She was seized with utter dismay. He might have ceased to love her. His life had been so full, occupied with strenuous adventures, while hers had been used up in waiting, only in waiting. It was natural enough that the strength of her passion should only have increased, but it was natural too that his should have vanished before a more urgent preoccupation. And what had she to offer him now? She turned away from the glass because her tears blurred the image it presented; and if she looked forward to the first meeting with vehement eagerness, it was also with sickening dread.
And now she was so troubled that she could not adopt the attitude of civil friendliness which she had intended in order to show him that she made no claim upon him. She wanted to seem quite collected so that her behaviour should not lead him to think her heart at all affected, but she could only watch his eyes hungrily. She braced herself to restrain a wail of sorrow if she saw his disillusionment. He talked in order to give time for her to master her agitation.
'I was afraid there would be interviewers and boring people generally to meet me if I came by the boat by which I was expected, so I got into another, and I've arrived a day before my time.'
She was calmer now, and though she did not speak, she looked at him with strained attention, hanging on his words.
He was very bronzed, thin after his recent illness, but he looked well and strong. His manner had the noble self-confidence which had delighted her of old, and he spoke with the quiet deliberation she loved. Now and then a faint inflection betrayed his Scottish birth.
'I felt that I owed my first visit to you. Can you ever forgive me that I have not brought George home to you?'
Lucy gave a sudden gasp. And with bitter self-reproach she realised that in the cruel joy of seeing Alec once more she had forgotten her brother. She was ashamed. It was but eighteen months since he had died, but twelve since the cruel news had reached her, and now, at this moment of all others, she was so absorbed in her love that no other feeling could enter her heart.
She looked down at her dress. Its half-mourning still betokened that she had lost one who was very dear to her, but the black and white was a mockery. She remembered in a flash the stunning grief which Alec's letter had brought her. It seemed at first that there must be a mistake and that her tears were but part of a hateful dream. It was too monstrously unjust that the fates should have hit upon George. She had already suffered too much. And George was so young. It was very hard that a mere boy should be robbed of the precious jewel which is life. And when she realised that it was really true, her grief knew no bounds. All that she had hoped was come to nought, and now she could only despair. She bitterly regretted that she had ever allowed the boy to go on that fatal expedition, and she blamed herself because it was she who had arranged it. He must have died accusing her of his death. Her father was dead, and George was dead, and she was alone. Now she had only Alec; and then, like some poor stricken beast, her heart went out to him, crying for love, crying for protection. All her strength, the strength on which she had prided herself, was gone; and she felt utterly weak and utterly helpless. And her heart yearned for Alec, and the love which had hitherto been like a strong enduring light, now was a consuming fire.
But Alec's words brought the recollection of George back to her reproachful heart, and she saw the boy as she was always pleased to remember him, in his flannels, the open shirt displaying his fine white neck, with the Panama hat that suited him so well; and she saw again his pleasant blue eyes and his engaging smile. He was a picture of honest English manhood. There was a sob in her throat, and her voice trembled when she spoke.
'I told you that if he died a brave man's death I could ask no more.'
She spoke in so low a tone that Alec could scarcely hear, but his pulse throbbed with pride at her courage. She went on, almost in a whisper.
'I suppose it was predestined that our family should come to an end in this way. I'm thankful that George so died that his ancestors need have felt no shame for him.'
'You are very brave.'
She shook her head slowly.
'No, it's not courage; it's despair. Sometimes, when I think what his father was, I'm thankful that George is dead. For at least his end was heroic. He died in a noble cause, in the performance of his duty. Life would have been too hard for him to allow me to regret his end.'
Alec watched her. He foresaw the words that she would say, and he waited for them.
'I want to thank you for all you did for him,' she said, steadying her voice.
'You need not do that,' he answered, gravely.
She was silent for a moment. Then she raised her eyes and looked at him steadily. Her voice now had regained its usual calmness.
'I want you to tell me that he did all I could have wished him to do.'
To Alec it seemed that she must notice the delay of his answer. He had not expected that the question would be put to him so abruptly. He had no moral scruples about telling a deliberate lie, but it affected him with a physical distaste. It sickened him like nauseous water.
'Yes, I think he did.'
'It's my only consolation that in the short time there was given to him, he did nothing that was small or mean, and that in everything he was honourable, upright, and just dealing.'
'Yes, he was all that.'
'And in his death?'
It seemed to Alec that something caught at his throat. The ordeal was more terrible than he expected.
'In his death he was without fear.'
Lucy drew a deep breath of relief.
'Oh, thank God! Thank God! You don't know how much it means to me to hear all that from your own lips. I feel that in a manner his courage, above all his death, have redeemed my father's fault. It shows that we're not rotten to the core, and it gives me back my self-respect. I feel I can look the world in the face once more. I'm infinitely grateful to George. He's repaid me ten thousand times for all my love, and my care, and my anxiety.'
'I'm very glad that it is not only grief I have brought you. I was afraid you would hate me.'
Lucy blushed, and there was a new light in her eyes. It seemed that on a sudden she had cast away the load of her unhappiness.
'No, I could never do that.'
At that moment they heard the sound of a carriage stopping at the door.
'There's Aunt Alice,' said Lucy. 'She's been lunching out.'
'Then let me go,' said Alec. 'You must forgive me, but I feel that I want to see no one else to-day.'
He rose, and she gave him her hand. He held it firmly.
'You haven't changed?'
'Don't,' she cried.
She looked away, for once more the tears were coming to her eyes. She tried to laugh.
'I'm frightfully weak and emotional now. You'll utterly despise me.'
'I want to see you again very soon,' he said.
The words of Ruth came to her mind: Why have I found grace in thine eyes, that thou shouldst take knowledge of me, and her heart was very full. She smiled in her old charming way.
When he was gone she drew a long breath. It seemed that a new joy was come into her life, and on a sudden she felt a keen pleasure in all the beauty of the world. She turned to the great bowl of flowers which stood on a table by the chair in which she had been sitting, and burying her face in them, voluptuously inhaled their fragrance. She knew that he loved her still.
The fickle English weather for once belied its reputation, and the whole month of May was warm and fine. It seemed that the springtime brought back Lucy's youth to her; and, surrendering herself with all her heart to her new happiness, she took a girlish pleasure in the gaieties of the season. Alec had said nothing yet, but she was assured of his love, and she gave herself up to him with all the tender strength of her nature. She was a little overwhelmed at the importance which he seemed to have acquired, but she was very proud as well. The great ones of the earth were eager to do him honour. Papers were full of his praise. And it delighted her because he came to her for protection from lionising friends. She began to go out much more; and with Alec, Dick Lomas, and Mrs. Crowley, went much to the opera and often to the play. They had charming little dinner parties at the Carlton and amusing suppers at the Savoy. Alec did not speak much on these occasions. It pleased him to sit by and listen, with a placid face but smiling eyes, to the nonsense that Dick Lomas and the pretty American talked incessantly. And Lucy watched him. Every day she found something new to interest her in the strong, sunburned face; and sometimes their eyes met: then they smiled quietly. They were very happy.
* * *
One evening Dick asked the others to sup with him; and since Alec had a public dinner to attend, and Lucy was going to the play with Lady Kelsey, he took Julia Crowley to the opera. To make an even number he invited Robert Boulger to join them at the Savoy. After brushing his hair with the scrupulous thought his thinning locks compelled, Dick waited in the vestibule for Mrs. Crowley. Presently she came, looking very pretty in a gown of flowered brocade which made her vaguely resemble a shepherdess in an old French picture. With her diamond necklace and a tiara in her dark hair, she looked like a dainty princess playing fantastically at the simple life.
'I think people are too stupid,' she broke out, as she joined Dick. 'I've just met a woman who said to me: "Oh, I hear you're going to America. Do go and call on my sister. She'll be so glad to see you." "I shall be delighted," I said, "but where does your sister live?" "Jonesville, Ohio," "Good heavens," I said, "I live in New York, and what should I be doing in Jonesville, Ohio?"'
'Keep perfectly calm,' said Dick.
'I shall not keep calm,' she answered. 'I hate to be obviously thought next door to a red Indian by a woman who's slab-sided and round-shouldered. And I'm sure she has dirty petticoats.'
'English women do.'
'What a monstrous libel!' cried Dick.
At that moment they saw Lady Kelsey come in with Lucy, and a moment later Alec and Robert Boulger joined them. They went in to supper and sat down.
'I hate Amelia,' said Mrs. Crowley emphatically, as she laid her long white gloves by the side of her.
'I deplore the prejudice with which you regard a very jolly sort of a girl,' answered Dick.
'Amelia has everything that I thoroughly object to in a woman. She has no figure, and her legs are much too long, and she doesn't wear corsets. In the daytime she has a weakness for picture hats, and she can't say boo to a goose.'
'Who is Amelia?' asked Boulger.
'Amelia is Mr. Lomas' affianced wife,' answered the lady, with a provoking glance at him.
'I didn't know you were going to be married, Dick,' said Lady Kelsey, inclined to be a little hurt because nothing had been said to her of this.
'I'm not,' he answered. 'And I've never set eyes on Amelia yet. She is an imaginary character that Mrs. Crowley has invented as the sort of woman whom I would marry.'
'I know Amelia,' Mrs. Crowley went on. 'She wears quantities of false hair, and she'll adore you. She's so meek and so quiet, and she thinks you such a marvel. But don't ask me to be nice to Amelia.'
'My dear lady, Amelia wouldn't approve of you. She'd think you much too outspoken, and she wouldn't like your American accent. You must never forget that Amelia is the granddaughter of a baronet.'
'I shall hold her up to Fleming as an awful warning of the woman whom I won't let him marry at any price. "If you marry a woman like that, Fleming," I shall say to him, "I shan't leave you a penny. It shall all go the University of Pennsylvania."'
'If ever it is my good fortune to meet Fleming, I shall have great pleasure in kicking him hard,' said Dick. 'I think he's a most objectionable little beast.'
'How can you be so absurd? Why, my dear Mr. Lomas, Fleming could take you up in one hand and throw you over a ten-foot wall.'
'Fleming must be a sportsman,' said Bobbie, who did not in the least know whom they were talking about.
'He is,' answered Mrs. Crowley. 'He's been used to the saddle since he was three years old, and I've never seen the fence that would make him lift a hair. And he's the best swimmer at Harvard, and he's a wonderful shot—I wish you could see him shoot, Mr. MacKenzie—and he's a dear.'
'Fleming's a prig,' said Dick.
'I'm afraid you're too old for Fleming,' said Mrs. Crowley, looking at Lucy. 'If it weren't for that, I'd make him marry you.'
'Is Fleming your brother, Mrs. Crowley?' asked Lady Kelsey.
'No, Fleming's my son.'
'But you haven't got a son,' retorted the elder lady, much mystified.
'No, I know I haven't; but Fleming would have been my son if I'd had one.'
'You mustn't mind them, Aunt Alice,' smiled Lucy gaily. 'They argue by the hour about Amelia and Fleming, and neither of them exists; but sometimes they go into such details and grow so excited that I really begin to believe in them myself.'
But Mrs. Crowley, though she appeared a light-hearted and thoughtless little person, had much common sense; and when their party was ended and she was giving Dick a lift in her carriage, she showed that, notwithstanding her incessant chatter, her eyes throughout the evening had been well occupied.
'Did you owe Bobbie a grudge that you asked him to supper?' she asked suddenly.
'Good heavens, no. Why?'
'I hope Fleming won't be such a donkey as you are when he's your age.'
'I'm sure Amelia will be much more polite than you to the amiable, middle-aged gentleman who has the good fortune to be her husband.'
'You might have noticed that the poor boy was eating his heart out with jealousy and mortification, and Lucy was too much absorbed in Alec to pay the very smallest attention to him.'
'What are you talking about?'
Mrs. Crowley gave him a glance of amused disdain.
'Haven't you noticed that Lucy is desperately in love with Mr. MacKenzie, and it doesn't move her in the least that poor Bobbie has fetched and carried for her for ten years, done everything she deigned to ask, and been generally nice and devoted and charming?'
'You amaze me,' said Dick. 'It never struck me that Lucy was the kind of girl to fall in love with anyone. Poor thing. I'm so sorry.'
'Because Alec wouldn't dream of marrying. He's not that sort of man.'
'Nonsense. Every man is a marrying man if a woman really makes up her mind to it.'
'Don't say that. You terrify me.'
'You need not be in the least alarmed,' answered Mrs. Crowley, coolly, 'because I shall refuse you.'
'It's very kind of you to reassure me,' he answered, smiling. 'But all the same I don't think I'll risk a proposal.'
'My dear friend, your only safety is in immediate flight.'
'It must be obvious to the meanest intelligence that you've been on the verge of proposing to me for the last four years.'
'Nothing will induce me to be false to Amelia.'
'I don't believe that Amelia really loves you.'
'I never said she did; but I'm sure she's quite willing to marry me.'
'I think that's detestably vain.'
'Not at all. However old, ugly, and generally undesirable a man is, he'll find a heap of charming girls who are willing to marry him. Marriage is still the only decent means of livelihood for a really nice woman.'
'Don't let's talk about Amelia; let's talk about me,' said Mrs. Crowley.
'I don't think you're half so interesting.'
'Then you'd better take Amelia to the play to-morrow night instead of me.'
'I'm afraid she's already engaged.'
'Nothing will induce me to play second fiddle to Amelia.'
'I've taken the seats and ordered an exquisite dinner at the Carlton.'
'What have you ordered?'
Mrs. Crowley made a little face.
She shrugged her shoulders.
'With an orange salad?'
'I don't positively dislike that.'
'And I've ordered a souffle with an ice in the middle of it.'
'I shan't come.'
'You're not being really nice to me.'
'I shouldn't have thought you kept very well abreast of dramatic art if you insist on marrying everyone who takes you to a theatre,' he said.
'I was very nicely brought up,' she answered demurely, as the carriage stopped at Dick's door.
She gave him a ravishing smile as he took leave of her. She knew that he was quite prepared to marry her, and she had come to the conclusion that she was willing to have him. Neither much wished to hurry the affair, and each was determined that he would only yield to save the other from a fancied desperation. Their love-making was pursued with a light heart.
* * *
At Whitsuntide the friends separated. Alec went up to Scotland to see his house and proposed afterwards to spend a week in Lancashire. He had always taken a keen interest in the colliery which brought him so large an income, and he wanted to examine into certain matters that required his attention. Mrs. Crowley went to Blackstable, where she still had Court Leys, and Dick, in order to satisfy himself that he was not really a day older, set out for Paris. But they all arranged to meet again on the day, immediately after the holidays, which Lady Kelsey, having persuaded Lucy definitely to renounce her life of comparative retirement, had fixed for a dance. It was the first ball she had given for many years, and she meant it to be brilliant. Lady Kelsey had an amiable weakness for good society, and Alec's presence would add lustre to the occasion. Meanwhile she went with Lucy to her little place on the river, and did not return till two days before the party. They were spent in a turmoil of agitation. Lady Kelsey passed sleepless nights, fearing at one moment that not a soul would appear, and at another that people would come in such numbers that there would not be enough for them to eat. The day arrived.