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The Top of the World
by Ethel M. Dell
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"I did it for your sake," he answered briefly. "You couldn't have faced it then."

"I see," she said, and paused to collect herself. "And does he—does he realize that I am here?" she asked painfully. "Doesn't he—want to see me?"

"Just now," said Ranger grimly, "he is too busy thinking about his own troubles to worry about anyone else's. He does know you are coming. He was raving about it two nights ago. Then came your wire from Cape Town. That was what brought me here to meet you."

"I see," she said again. "You—you have been very good. It would have been dreadful if—if I had been stranded here alone."

"I'd have stopped you at Cape Town if I could," he said.

"No, you wouldn't have stopped me," she answered, with a drear little smile. "I should have had to come on and see Guy in any case. I shall have to see him now. Where is he?"

Ranger stood close to her. He bent slightly, looking into her eyes. "You have understood me?" he questioned.

She looked straight back at him; it was no moment for shrinking avoidance. "Yes," she said,

"And you believe me?" he proceeded.

Her red-brown eyes widened a little. "But of course I believe you."

"And, still you want to see him?" said Burke Ranger.

"I must see him," she answered quietly. "You must realize that. You would do the same in my place."

"If I did," said Ranger, dropping his voice, "it would be to tell him to go to hell!" Then, as involuntarily she drew back: "No, I shouldn't put it like that to you, I know. But what's the point of your seeing him? It will only make things worse for you."

"I must see him," she said firmly. "Please tell me where he is!"

He looked at her for a moment or two in silence. "He is in his own shanty on my farm," he said then. "Blue Hill Farm it is called. You can't go to him there. It's a twenty-mile ride from here."

"Can't I get a horse to take me?" she asked.

"I could take you in my cart," said Burke slowly.

"And will you?" Sylvia said.

"I suppose you will go in any case," he said.

"I must go," she answered steadily.

"I don't see why," he said. "It's a degrading business. It won't do any good."

Her face quivered. She controlled it swiftly. "Will you take me?" she said.

He frowned. "What is going to happen afterwards? Have you thought of that?"

She shook her head. "No. I can't see the future at all. I only know that I must see Guy, and I can't go back to England."

"Why not?" he said.

She pressed a hand to her throat as if she found speaking a difficulty. "I have no place there. My father has married again. I must earn my living here somehow."

He moved abruptly. "You!" he said again. She tried to smile. "You seem to think I am very helpless. I assure you I am not. I have managed my father's house for five years. I am quite willing to learn anything, and I am very strong."

"You are very brave," he said, almost as if he spoke in spite of himself. "But—you've got to be sensible too. You won't marry him?"

She hesitated. "I must see him. I must judge for myself."

He nodded, still frowning. "Very well,—if you must. But you won't marry him as a way out of your difficulties? You've got to promise me that."

"Why?" she said.

He answered her with that sudden force which before had startled her. "Because I can't stand by and see purity joined to corruption. Some women will sacrifice anything for sentiment. You wouldn't do anything so damn' foolish as that."

"No," said Sylvia.

"Then it's a promise?" he said.

She held out her hand to him with her brave little smile. "I promise you I won't do anything damn' foolish for the sake of—sentiment. Will that do?"

He gripped her hand for a moment. "Yes. I think it will," he said.

"And thank you for being so good to me," she added.

He dropped her hand, and turned away. "As to that—I please myself," he said briefly. "Be ready to start in an hour from now!"



CHAPTER VIII

THE COMRADE

That twenty-mile ride in Burke Ranger's high cart, with a pair of skittish young horses pulling at the reins, was an experience never to be eradicated from Sylvia's memory. They followed a course across the veldt that began as a road and after a mile or two deteriorated into a mere rough track. Up and down many slopes they travelled, but the far hills never seemed to draw any nearer. Here and there they passed kopjes stacked against the blazing blue of the sky. They held a weird attraction for her. They were like the stark bones of the earth pushing up through the coarse desert grasses. Their rugged strength and their isolation made her marvel. The veldt was swept by a burning wind. The clouds of the night before had left no rain behind.

Sylvia would have liked to ask many things of her companion but his attention was completely absorbed by the animals he drove. Also talking was wellnigh impossible during that wild progress, for though the horses presently sobered down somewhat, the roughness of the way was such that most of the time her thoughts were concentrated upon maintaining her seat. She clung to her perch with both hands, and mutely admired Burke Ranger's firm control and deftness. He seemed to know by instinct when to expect any sudden strain.

The heat of the sun was intense, notwithstanding the shelter afforded by the hood of the cart. The air seemed to quiver above the burning earth. She felt after a time as if her eyes could endure the glare no longer. The rapid, bumping progress faded into a sort of fitful unpleasant dream through which the only actual vivid consciousness that remained to her centred in the man beside her. She never lost sight of his presence. It dominated all besides, though he drove almost entirely in silence and never seemed to look her way.

At the end of what appeared an interminable stretch of time during which all her sensibilities had gradually merged into one vast discomfort, Burke spoke at her side.

"We've got a bit of tough going before us. Hang on tight! We'll have a rest after it."

She opened her eyes and saw before her a steep slant between massive stones, leading down to a wide channel of running water. On the further side a similar steep ascent led up again.

"Ritter Spruit," said Ranger. "It's not deep enough to be dangerous. Hold on! We shall soon be through."

He spoke to the horses and they gathered themselves as if for a race. They thundered down the incline and were dashing through the stony watercourse almost before Sylvia, clinging dazed to her seat, realized what was happening. Her sensations were indescribable. The water splashed high around them, and every bone in her body seemed to suffer a separate knock or jar. If Ranger had not previously impressed her with his level-headedness she would have thought him mad. But her confidence in him remained unshaken, and in a very few seconds it proved to be justified. They were through the spruit and halfway up the further side before she drew breath. Then she found that they were slackening pace.

She turned to Ranger with kindling eyes. "Oh, you are a sportsman!" she said. "How I should love to be able to drive like that!"

He smiled without turning his head. "I'm afraid this last is a man's job. So you are awake now, are you? I was afraid you were going to tumble out."

She laughed. "The heat makes one drowsy. I shall get used to it."

He was pulling in the horses. "There's some shade round the corner. We'll rest for an hour or two."

"I shall like that," said Sylvia.

A group of small larch-trees grew among the stones at the top of the slope, and by these he stopped. Sylvia looked around her with appreciation as she alighted.

"I am going to like South Africa," she said,

"I wonder!" said Ranger.

He began to unbuckle the traces, and she went round to the other side and did the same.

"Poor dears, they are hot!" she said.

"Don't you do that!" said Ranger.

She was tugging at the buckle. "Why not? I like doing it. I love horses, don't you? But I know you do by the way you handle them. Do you do your own horse-breaking? That's a job you might give me."

"Am I going to find you employment, then?" said Burke.

She laughed a little, bending her flushed face down. "Don't women do any work out here?"

"Yes. They work jolly hard, some of 'em."

"Are you married?" said Sylvia.

"No."

She heaved a sigh.

"Sorry?" he enquired.

She finished her task and looked up. Her frank eyes met his across the horses' backs. "No. I think I'm rather glad. I don't like feminine authority at all."

"That means you like your own way," observed Burke.

She nodded. "Yes. But I don't always get it."

"Are you a good loser?" he said.

She hesitated. "I hope I'm a sportsman. I try to be."

He moved to the horses' heads. "Come and hold this animal for me while I hobble the other!" he said.

She obeyed him readily. There was something of boyish alertness in her movements that sent a flicker of approval into the man's eyes. She drew the horse's head to her breast with a crooning sound.

"He is a bit tricky with strangers," observed Burke, as he led the other away.

"Oh, not with me!" said Sylvia, "He knows I love him."

When he returned to relieve her of her charge she was kissing the forehead between the full soft eyes that looked at her with perfect confidence.

"See!" she said. "We are friends already."

"I shall call you The Enchantress," said Burke. "Will you see if you can find a suitable spot for a picnic now?"

"Yes, but I can't conjure up a meal," said Sylvia.

"I can," he said. "There's a basket under the seat."

"How ripping!" she said. "I think you are the magician."

He smiled. "Rather a poor specimen, I am afraid. You go and select the spot, and I will bring it along!"

Again she obeyed with cheerful alacrity. Her choice was unhesitating. A large boulder threw an inviting shade, and she sat down among the stones and took off her hat.

Her red-gold hair gleamed against the dark background. Burke Ranger's eyes dwelt upon it as he moved to join her. She looked up at him.

"I love this place. It feels so—good."

He glanced up at the brazen sky. "You wouldn't say so if you wanted rain as badly as I do," he observed. "We haven't had nearly enough this season. But I am glad you can enjoy it."

"I like it more and more," said Sylvia. She stretched an arm towards the wide veldt all about them. "I am simply aching for a gallop over that—a gallop in the very early morning, and to see the sun rise from that knoll!"

"That's a kopje," said Burke.

Again half-unconsciously his eyes dwelt upon her vivid face. She seemed to draw his look almost in spite of him. He set down the basket by her side.

"Am I to unpack?" said Sylvia.

He dropped his eyes. "No. I will. It isn't much of a feed; only enough to keep us from starvation. Tell me some more about yourself! Tell me about your people—your home!"

"Have you never heard of me before?" she asked. "Did—Guy—never speak of me?"

"I knew there was someone." Burke spoke rather unwillingly. "I don't think he ever actually spoke of you to me. We're not exactly—kindred spirits, he and I."

"You don't like him," said Sylvia.

"Nor he me," said Burke Ranger.

She looked at him with her candid eyes. "I don't think you are very tolerant of weakness, are you?" she said gently.

"I don't know," he said non-committally. "Won't you tell me about yourself?"

The subject of Guy was obviously distasteful to him, yet her whole life during the past five years had been so closely linked to the thought of that absent lover of hers that it was impossible to speak of the one without the other. She told him all without reservation, feeling in a fashion that it was his right to know.

He listened gravely, without comment, until she ended, when he made one brief observation. "And so you chose the deep sea!"

"Could I have done anything else?" she said. "Would you have done anything else?"

"Probably not," he said. "But a man is better equipped to fight the undercurrents!"

"You think I was very rash?" she questioned.

He smiled. "One doesn't look for caution in a girl. I think your father deserved a horsewhipping, for letting you go."

"He couldn't prevent me," said Sylvia quickly.

"Pshaw!" said Burke Ranger.

"You're very rude," she protested.

His smile became a laugh. "I could have prevented you," he said.

She flushed. "Indeed you couldn't! I am not a namby-pamby miss. I go my own way. I——"

She broke off suddenly. Burke's eyes, grey as steel in his sun-tanned face, were upon her. He looked amused at her vehemence.

"Well?" he said encouragingly. "Finish!"

She laughed in spite of herself. "No, I shan't say any more. I never argue with the superior male. I just—go my own way, that's all."

"From which I gather that you are not particularly partial to the superior male," said Burke.

"I hate the species," said Sylvia with simplicity.

"Except when it kneels at your feet," he suggested, looking ironical.

"No, I want to kick it then," she said.

"You seem difficult to please," he observed.

Sylvia looked out across the veldt. "I like a man to be just a jolly comrade," she said. "If he can't be that, I've no use for him."

"I see," said Burke slowly. "That's to be my role, is it?"

She turned to him impulsively with extended hand. "I think you can fill it if you try."

He took the hand, grasping it strongly. "All right. I'll try," he said.

"You don't mind?" she said half-wistfully. "You see, it makes such a difference to feel there's someone like that to turn to in trouble—someone who won't let you down."

"I shan't let you down," said Burke.

Her fingers closed hard on his. "You're a brick," she said. "Now let's have some lunch, and then, if you don't mind, I'm going to sleep!"

"Best thing you can do," said Burke.

They rested for the greater part of the afternoon in the shadow of their boulder. Sylvia lay with her head on a light rug that he spread for her, and he sat with his back to the rock and smoked with eyes fixed straight before him.

Sleep came to the girl very quickly for she was tired, and her healthy young body was swift to find repose. But the man, watching beside her, did not even doze. He scarcely varied his position throughout his vigil, scarcely glanced at the figure nestled in the long grass so close to him. But his attitude had the alertness of the man on guard, and his brown face was set in grimly resolute lines. It gave no indication whatever of that which was passing in his mind.



CHAPTER IX

THE ARRIVAL

It was drawing towards evening when Sylvia at length stirred, stretched, and opened her eyes. A momentary bewilderment showed in them, then with a smile she saw and recognized her companion.

She sat up quickly. "I must have been asleep for ages. Why didn't you wake me?"

"I didn't want to," he said.

She looked at him. "What have you been doing? Have you been asleep?"

He raised his shoulders to the first question. To the second he replied merely, "No."

"Why didn't you smoke?" she asked next.

For an instant he looked half-ashamed, then very briefly, "I don't live on tobacco," he said.

"How very silly of you!" said Sylvia. "It wouldn't have disturbed me in the least. I smoke cigarettes myself."

Burke said nothing. After a moment he got to his feet.

"Time to go?" she said.

"Yes. I think we ought to be moving. We have some miles to go yet. You sit still while I get the horses in!"

But Sylvia was on her feet. "No. I'm coming to help. I like to do things. Isn't it hot? Do you think there will be a storm?"

He looked up at the sky. "No, not yet. It'll take some time to break. Are you afraid of storms?"

"Of course not!" said Sylvia.

He smiled at her prompt rejoinder. "Not afraid of anything?" he suggested.

She smiled back. "Not often anyway. And I hope I don't behave like a muff even when I am."

"I shouldn't think that very likely," he observed.

They put in the horses, and started again across the veldt. The burning air that blew over the hot earth was like a blast from a furnace. Over the far hills the clouds hung low and menacing, A mighty storm seemed to be brewing somewhere on the further side of those distant heights.

"It is as if someone had lighted a great fire just out of sight," said Sylvia. "Is it often like this?"

"Very often," said Burke.

"How wonderful!" she said.

They drove on rapidly, and as they went, the brooding cloud-curtain seemed to advance to meet them, spreading ominously across the sky as if it were indeed the smoke from some immense conflagration.

Sylvia became silent, awed by the spectacle.

All about them the veldt took on a leaden hue. The sun still shone; but vaguely, as if through smoked glass. The heat seemed to increase.

Sylvia sat rapt. She did not for some time wake to the fact that Burke was urging the horses, and only when they stretched themselves out to gallop in response to his curt command did she rouse from her contemplation to throw him a startled glance. He was leaning slightly forward, and the look On his face sent a curious thrill through her. It was the look of a man braced to utmost effort. His eyes were fixed steadily straight ahead, marking the road they travelled. His driving was a marvel of skill and confidence. The girl by his side forgot to watch the storm in front of them in her admiration of his ability. It was to her the most amazing exhibition of strength and adroitness combined that she had ever witnessed. The wild enjoyment of that drive was fixed in her memory for all time.

At the end of half-an-hour's rapid travelling a great darkness had begun to envelope them, and obscurity so pall-like that even near objects were seen as it were through a dark veil.

Burke broke his long silence. "Only two miles more!"

She answered him exultantly. "I could go on for ever!"

They seemed to fly on the wings of the wind those last two miles. She fancied that they had turned off the track and were racing over the grass, but the darkness was such that she could discern nothing with any certainty. At last there came a heavy jolting that flung her against Burke's shoulder, and on the top of it a frightful flash and explosion that made her think the earth had rent asunder under their feet.

Half-stunned and wholly blinded, she covered her face, crouching down almost against the foot-board of the cart, while the dreadful echoes rolled away.

Then again came Burke's voice, brief yet amazingly reassuring. "Get down and run in! It's all right."

She realized that they had come to a standstill, and mechanically she raised herself to obey him.

As she groped for the step, he grasped her arm. "Get on to the stoep! There's going to be rain. I'll be with you in a second."

She thanked him, and found herself on the ground. A man in front of her was calling out unintelligibly, and somewhere under cover a woman's voice was uplifted in shrill tones of dismay. This latter sound made her think of the chattering of an indignant monkey, so shrill was it and so incessant.

A dark pile of building stood before her, and she blundered towards it, not seeing in the least where she was going. The next moment she kicked against some steps, and sprawled headlong.

Someone—Burke—uttered an oath behind her, and she heard him leap to the ground. She made a sharp effort to rise, and cried out with a sudden pain in her right knee that rendered her for an instant powerless. Then she felt his hands upon her, beneath her. He lifted her bodily and bore her upwards.

She was still half-dazed when he set her down in a chair. She held fast to his arm. "Please stay with me just a moment—just a moment!" she besought him incoherently.

He stayed, very steady and quiet beside her. "Are you hurt?" he asked her.

She fought with herself, but could not answer him. A ridiculous desire to dissolve into tears possessed her. She gripped his arm with both hands, saying no word.

"Stick to it!" he said.

"I—I'm an awful idiot!" she managed to articulate.

"No, you're not. You're a brave girl," he said. "I was a fool not to warn you. I forgot you didn't know your way. Did you hurt yourself when you fell?"

"My knee—a little," she said. "It'll be all right directly." She released his arm. "Thank you. I'm better now. Oh, what is that? Rain?"

"Yes, rain," he said.

It began like the rushing of a thousand wings, sweeping irresistibly down from the hills. It swelled into a pandemonium of sound that was unlike anything she had ever heard. It was as if they had suddenly been caught by a seething torrent. Again the lightning flared, dancing a quivering, zigzag measure across the verandah in which she sat, and the thunder burst overhead, numbing the senses.

By that awful leaping glare Sylvia saw her companion. He was stooping over her. He spoke; but she could not hear a word he uttered.

Then again his arms were about her and he lifted her. She yielded herself to him with the confidence of a child, and he carried her into his home while the glancing lightning showed the way.

The noise within the house was less overwhelming. He put her down on a long chair in almost total darkness, but a few moments later the lightning glimmered again and showed her vividly the room in which she lay. It was a man's room, half-office, half-lounge, extremely bare, and devoid of all ornament with the exception of a few native weapons on the walls.

The kindling of a lamp confirmed this first impression, but the presence of the man himself diverted her attention from her surroundings. He turned from lighting the lamp to survey her. She thought he looked somewhat stern.

"What about this knee of yours?" he said. "Is it badly damaged?"

"Oh, not badly," she answered. "I'm sure not badly. What a lot of trouble I am giving you! I am so sorry."

"You needn't be sorry on that account," he said. "I blame myself alone. Do you mind letting me, see it? I am used to giving first-aid."

"Oh, I don't think that is necessary," said Sylvia. "I—can quite easily doctor myself."

"I thought we were to be comrades," he observed bluntly.

She coloured and faintly laughed, "You can see it if you particularly want to."

"I do." said Burke.

She sat up without further protest, and uncovered the injured knee for his inspection. "I really don't think anything of a tumble like that," she said, as he bent to examine it. But the next moment at his touch she flinched and caught her breath.

"That hurts, does it?" he said. "It's swelling up. I'm going to get some hot water to bathe it."

He stood up with the words and turned away. Sylvia leaned back again, feeling rather sick. Certainly the pain was intense.

The rain was still battering on the roof with a sound like the violent jingling together of tin cans, She listened to it with a dull wonder. The violence of it would have made a deeper impression upon her had she been suffering less. But she felt as one immersed in an evil dream which clogged all her senses save that of pain.

When Burke returned she was lying with closed eyes, striving hard to keep herself under control. The clatter of the rain had abated somewhat, and she heard him speak over his shoulder to someone behind him. She looked up and saw an old Kaffir woman carrying a basin.

"This is Mary Ann," said Burke, intercepting her glance of surprise. "A useful old dog except when there is any dope about! Hope you don't mind niggers."

"I shall get used to them," said Sylvia rather faintly.

"There's nothing formidable about this one," he said, "She can't help being hideous. She is quite tame."

Sylvia tried to smile. Certainly Mary Ann was hideous, but her lameness was equally obvious. She evidently stood in considerable awe of her master, obeying his slightest behest with clumsy solicitude and eyes that rolled unceasingly in his direction.

Burke kept her in the room while he bathed the injury. He was very gentle, and Sylvia was soon conscious of relief. When at length he applied a pad soaked in ointment and proceeded to bandage with a dexterity that left nothing to be desired, she told him with a smile that he was as good as a professional.

"One has to learn a little of this sort of thing," he said. "How does it feel now?"

"Much better," she answered. "I shall have forgotten all about it by to-morrow."

"No, you won't," said Burke. "You will rest it for three days at least. You don't want to get water on the joint."

"Three days!" she echoed in dismay, "I can't—possibly—lie up here."

He raised his eyes from his bandaging for a moment, and a curious thrill went through her; it was as if his look pierced her. "The impossible often happens here," he said briefly.

She expressed a sharp tremor that caught her unawares. "What does that mean?" she asked, striving to speak lightly.

He replied with his eyes lowered again to his task. "It means among other things that you can't get back to Ritzen until the floods go down. Ritter Spruit is a foaming torrent by this time."

"Good heavens!" she exclaimed. "But isn't there—isn't there a bridge anywhere?"

"Forty miles away," said Burke Ranger laconically.

"Good—heavens!" she gasped again.

He finished his bandaging and stood up. "Now I am going to carry you to bed," he said, "and Mary Ann shall wait on you. You won't be frightened?"

She smiled in answer. "You've taken my breath away, but I shall get it again directly. I don't think I want to go to bed yet. Mayn't I stay here for a little?"

He looked down at her. "You've got some pluck, haven't you?" he said.

She flushed. "I hope so—a little."

He touched her shoulder unexpectedly, with a hint of awkwardness. "I'm afraid I can only offer you—rough hospitality. It's the best I can do. My guests have all been of the male species till now. But you will put up with it? You won't be scared anyhow?"

She reached up an impulsive hand and put it into his. "No, I shan't be scared at all. You make me feel quite safe. I'm only—more grateful than I can say."

His fingers closed upon hers. "You've nothing to be grateful for. Let me take you to the guestroom and Mary Ann shall bring you supper. You'll be more comfortable there. Your baggage is there already."

She clung to his hand for an instant, caught by an odd feeling of forlornness. "I will do whatever you wish. But—but—you will let me see Guy in the morning?"

He stooped to lift her. For a moment his eyes looked straight into hers. Then: "Wait till the morning comes!" he said quietly.

There was finality in his tone, and she knew that it was no moment for discussion. With a short sigh she yielded to the inevitable, and suffered him to carry her away.



CHAPTER X

THE DREAM

She had no further communication with Burke that night. The old Kaffir woman helped her, brought her a meal on a tray, and waited upon her until dismissed.

Sylvia had no desire to detain her. She longed for solitude. The thought of Guy tormented her perpetually. She ached and yearned—even while she dreaded—to see him. But Burke had decreed that she must wait till the morning, and she had found already that what Burke decreed usually came to pass. Besides, she knew that she was worn out and wholly unfit for any further strain.

Very thankfully she sank down at last upon the bed in the bare guest-room. Her weariness was such that she thought that she must sleep, yet for hours she lay wide awake, listening to the rain streaming down and pondering—pondering the future. Her romance was ended. She saw that very clearly. Whatever came of her meeting with Guy, it would not be—it could not be—the consummation to which she had looked forward so confidently during the past five years. Guy had failed her. She faced the fact with all her courage. The Guy she had loved and trusted did not exist any longer, if he ever had existed. Life had changed for her. The path she had followed had ended suddenly. She must needs turn back and seek another. But whither to turn she knew not. It seemed that there was no place left for her anywhere.

Slowly the long hours dragged away. She thought the night would never pass. Her knee gave her a good deal of pain, and she relinquished all hope of sleep. Her thoughts began to circle about Burke Ranger in a worried, confused fashion. She felt she would know him better when she had seen Guy. At present the likeness between them alternately bewildered her or hurt her poignantly. She could not close her mind to the memory of having taken him for Guy. He was the sort of man—only less polished—that she had believed Guy would become. She tried to picture him as he must have been when younger, but she could see only Guy. And again the bitter longing, the aching disappointment, tore her soul.

Towards morning she dozed, but physical discomfort and torturing anxiety went with her unceasingly, depriving her of any real repose. She was vaguely aware of movements in the house long before a low knock at the door called her back to full consciousness.

She started up on her elbows. "Come in! I am awake."

Burke Ranger presented himself. "I was afraid Mary Ann might give you a shock if she woke you suddenly," he said. "Can I come in?"

"Please do!" she said.

The sight of his tanned face and keen eyes came as a great relief to her strained and weary senses. She held out a welcoming hand, dismissing convention as superfluous.

He came to her side and took her hand, but in a moment his fingers were feeling for her pulse. He looked straight down at her. "You've had a bad night," he said.

She admitted it, mustering a smile as she did so. "It rained so hard, I couldn't forget it. Has it left off yet?"

He paid no attention whatever to the question. "What's the trouble?" he said. "Knee bad?"

"Not very comfortable," she confessed. "It will be better presently, no doubt."

"I'll dress if again," said Burke, "when you've had some tea. You had better stay in bed to-day."

"Oh, must I?" she said in dismay.

"Don't you want to?" said Burke.

"No. I hate staying in bed. It makes me so miserable." She spoke with vehemence. Besides—besides——"

"Yes?" he said.

"I want—to see Guy," she ended, colouring very deeply.

"That's out of the question," said Burke, with quiet decision. "You certainly won't see him to-day."

"Oh, but I must! I really must!" she pleaded desperately. "My knee isn't very bad. Have you—have you told him I am here yet?"

"No," said Burke.

"Then won't you? Please won't you?" She was urging him almost feverishly now. "I can't rest till I have seen him—indeed. I can't see my way clearly. I can't do anything until—until I have seen him."

Burke was frowning. He looked almost savage, But she was not afraid of him. She could think only of Guy at that moment and of her urgent need to see him. It was all that mattered. With nerves stretched and quivering, she waited for his answer.

It did not come immediately. He was still holding her hand in one of his and feeling her pulse with the other.

"Listen!" he said at length. "There is no need for all this wearing anxiety. You must make up your mind to rest to-day, or you will be ill. It won't hurt you—or him either—to wait a few hours longer."

"I shan't be ill!" she assured him earnestly. "I am never ill. And I want to see him—oh, so much. I must see him. He isn't—he isn't worse?"

"No," said Burke.

"Then why mustn't I see him?" she urged. "Why do you look like that? Are you keeping back something? Has—has something happened that you don't want me to know? Ah, that is it! I thought so! Please tell me what it is! It is far better to tell me."

She drew her hand from his and sat up, steadily facing him. She was breathing quickly, but she had subdued her agitation. Her eyes met his unflinchingly.

He made an abrupt gesture—as if compelled against his will. "Well—if you must have it! He has gone."

"Gone!" she repeated. "What—do you mean by that?"

He looked down into her whitening face, and his own grew sterner. "Just what I say. He cleared out yesterday morning early. No one knows where he is."

Sylvia's hand unconsciously pressed her heart. It was beating very violently. She spoke with a great effort. "Perhaps he has gone to Ritzen—to look for me."

"I think not," said Burke drily.

His tone said more than his words. She made a slight involuntary movement of shrinking. But in a moment she spoke again with a pathetic little smile.

"You are very good to me. But I mustn't waste any more of your time. Please don't worry about me any more! I can quite well bandage my knee myself."

The grimness passed from his face. "I shall have to see it to satisfy myself it is going on all right," he said. "But I needn't bother you now. I'll send Mary Ann in with some tea."

"Thank you," said Sylvia. She was gathering her scattered forces again after the blow; she spoke with measured firmness. "Now please don't think about me any more! I am not ill—or going to be. You may look at my knee this evening—if you are very anxious. But not before."

"Then you will stay in bed?" said Burke.

"Very well; if I must," she conceded.

He turned to go; then abruptly turned back. "And you won't lie and worry? You've too much pluck for that."

She smiled again—a quivering, difficult smile. "I am not at all plucky, really. I am only pretending."

He smiled back at her suddenly. "You're a brick! I've never seen any woman stand up to hard knocks as you do. They generally want to be carried over the rough places. But you—you stand on your feet."

The genuine approbation of his voice brought the colour back to her face. His smile too, though it reminded her piercingly of Guy, sent a glow of comfort to her chilled and trembling heart.

"I want to if I can," she said. "But I've had rather a—knock-out this time. I shall be all right presently, when I've had time to pull myself together."

He bent abruptly and laid his hand upon hers.

"Look here!" he said. "Don't worry!"

She lifted clear eyes to his. "No—I won't! There is always a way out of every difficulty, isn't there?"

"There certainly is out of this one," he said.

"I'll show it you presently—if you'll promise not to be offended."

"Offended!" said Sylvia. "That isn't very likely, is it?"

"I don't know," said Burke. "I hope not. Good-bye!" He straightened himself, stood a moment looking down at her, then turned finally and left her.

There was something in the manner of his going that made her wonder.

The entrance of the old Kaffir woman a few minutes later diverted her thoughts. She found Mary Ann an interesting study, being the first of her kind that she had viewed at close quarters. She was very stout and ungainly. She moved with elephantine clumsiness, but her desire to please was so evident that Sylvia could not regard her as wholly without charm. Her dog-like amiability outweighed her hideousness. She found it somewhat difficult to understand Mary Ann's speech, for it was more like the chattering of a monkey than human articulation, and being very weary she did not encourage her to talk.

There was so much to think about, and for a while her tired brain revolved around Guy and all that his departure meant to her. She tried to take a practical view of the situation, to grapple with the difficulties that confronted her. Was there the smallest chance of his return? And even if he returned, what could it mean to her? Would it help her in any way? It was impossible to evade the answer to that question. He had failed her finally. She was stranded in a strange land and only her own efforts could avail her now.

She wondered if Burke would urge her to return to her father's house. If so, he would not succeed. She would face any hardship sooner than that. She was not afraid of work. She would make a living for herself somehow if she worked in the fields with Kaffir women. She would be independent or die in the attempt. After all, she reflected forlornly, it would not matter very much to anyone if she did die. She stood or fell alone.

Thought became vague at last and finally obscured in the mists of sleep. She lay still on the narrow bed and slept long and deeply.

It must have been after several hours that her dream came to her. It arose out of a sea of oblivion—a vision unsummoned, wholly unexpected. She saw Burke Ranger galloping along the side of a dry and stony ravine where doubtless water flowed in torrents when the rain came. He was bending low in the saddle, his dark face set forward scanning the path ahead. With a breathless interest she watched him, and the thunder of his horse's hoofs drummed in her brain. Suddenly, turning her eyes further along the course he followed, she saw with horror round a bend that which he could not see. She beheld another horseman galloping down from the opposite direction. The face of this horseman was turned from her, but she did not need to see it. She knew, as it is given in dreams to know beyond all doubting, that it was Guy. She recognized his easy seat in the saddle, the careless grace of his carriage. He was plunging straight ahead with never a thought of danger, and though he must have seen the turn as he approached it, he did not attempt to check the animal under him. Rather he seemed to be urging it forward. And ever the thunder of the galloping hoofs filled her brain.

Tensely she watched, in a suspense that racked her whole body. Guy reached the bend first. There was room for only one upon that narrow ledge. He went round the curve with the confidence of one who fully expected a clear path ahead. And then—on the very edge of the precipice—he caught sight of the horseman galloping towards him. He reined back. He threw up one hand as his animal staggered under him, and called a warning. But the thudding of the hoofs drowned all other sound.

Sylvia's heart stood still as if it could never beat again. Her look flashed to Burke Ranger. He was galloping still—galloping hard. One glimpse she had of his face as he drew near, and she knew that he saw the man ahead of him, for it was set and terrible—the face of a devil.

The next instant she heard the awful crash of collision. There was a confusion indescribable, there on the very brink of the ravine. Then one horse and its rider went hurling headlong down that wall of stones. The other horseman struck spurs into his animal and galloped up the narrow path to the head of the ravine without a backward glance.

She was left transfixed by horror in a growing darkness that seemed to penetrate to her very soul. Which of the two had galloped free? Which lay shattered there, very far below her in an abyss that had already become obscure? She agonized to know, but the darkness hid all things. At last she tore it aside as if it had been a veil. She went down, down into that deep place. She stumbled through a valley of awful desolation till she came to that which she sought;—a fallen horse, a rider with glassy eyes upturned.

But the hand of Death had wiped out every distinguishing mark. Was it Guy? Was it Burke? She knew not. She turned from the sight with dread unspeakable. She went from the accursed spot with the anguish of utter bewilderment in her soul. She was bereft of all. She walked alone in a land of strangers.



CHAPTER XI

THE CROSS-ROADS

When Sylvia started awake from that terrible dream it was to hear the tread of horses' feet outside the house and the sound of men's voices talking to each other. As she listened, these drew nearer, and soon she heard footsteps on the stoep outside. It was drawing towards sunset, and she realized that she had slept for a long time.

She felt refreshed in spite of her dream and very thankful to regain possession of her waking senses. Her knee too was decidedly better. She found with relief that with care she could use it.

The smell of tobacco wafted in, and she realized that the two men were sitting smoking together on the stoep. One of them, she felt sure, was Burke Ranger, though it very soon dawned upon her that they were conversing in Dutch. She lay for awhile watching the orange light of evening gleaming through the creeper that entwined the comer of the stoep outside her window. Then, growing weary of inaction, she slipped from her bed and began to dress.

Her cabin-trunk had been placed in a corner of the bare room. She found her key and opened it.

Guy's photograph—the photograph she had cherished for five years—lay on the top. She saw it with a sudden, sharp pang, remembering how she had put it in at the last moment and smiled to think how soon she would behold him in the flesh. The handsome, boyish face looked straight into hers. Ah, how she had loved him. A swift tremor went through her. She closed her eyes upon the smiling face. And suddenly great tears welled up from her heart. She laid her face down upon the portrait and wept.

The voices on the stoep recalled her. She remembered that she had a reputation for courage to maintain. She commanded herself with an effort and finished her dressing. She did not dare to look at the portrait again, but hid it deep in her trunk.

Mary Ann seemed to have forsaken her, and she was in some uncertainty as to how to proceed when she was at length ready to leave her room. She did not want to intrude upon Burke and his visitor, but a great longing to breathe the air of the veldt was upon her. She wondered if she could possibly escape unseen.

Finally, she ventured out into the passage, and followed it to an open door that seemed to lead whither she desired to go. She fancied that it was out of sight of the two men on the stoep, but as she reached it, she realized her mistake. For there fell a sudden step close to her, and as she paused irresolute, Burke's figure blocked the opening. He stood looking at her, pipe in hand.

"So—you are up!" he said.

His voice was quite friendly, yet she was possessed by a strong feeling that he did not want her there.

She looked back at him in some embarrassment. "I hope you don't mind," she said. "I was only coming out for a breath of air."

"Why should I mind?" said Burke. "Come and sit on the stoep! My neighbour, Piet Vreiboom, is there, but he is just going."

He spoke the last words with great distinctness, and it occurred to her that he meant them to be overheard.

She hung back. "Oh, I don't think I will. I can't talk Dutch. Really I would rather——"

"He understands a little English," said Burke. "But don't be surprised at anything he says! He isn't very perfect."

He stood against the wall for her to pass him, and she did so with a feeling that she had no choice. Very reluctantly she moved out on to the wooden stoep, and turned towards the visitor. The orange of the sunset was behind her, turning her hair to living gold. It fell full upon the face of the man before her, and she was conscious of a powerful sense of repugnance. Low-browed, wide-nosed, and prominent of jaw, with close-set eyes of monkeyish craft, such was the countenance of Piet Vreiboom. He sat and stared at her, his hat on his head, his pipe in his mouth.

"How do you do, Mrs. Ranger?" he said.

Sylvia checked her advance, but in a moment Burke Ranger's hand closed, upon her elbow, quietly impelling her forward.

"Mr. Vreiboom saw you with me at Ritzen yesterday," he said, and she suddenly remembered the knot of Boer farmers at the hotel-door and the staring eyes that had abashed her.

She glanced up at Burke, but his face was quite emotionless. Only something about him—an indefinable something—held her back from correcting the mistake that Vreiboom had made. She looked at the seated Boer with a dignity wholly unconscious. "How do you do?" she said coolly.

He stretched out a hand to her. His smile was familiar. "I hope you like the farm, Mrs. Ranger," he said.

"She has hardly seen it yet," said Burke.

There was a slight pause before Sylvia gave her hand. This man filled her with distaste. She resented his manner. She resented the look in his eyes.

"I have no doubt I shall like it very much," she said, removing her hand as speedily as possible.

"You like to be—a farmer's wife?" questioned Piet, still freely staring.

She resented this question also, but she had to respond to it. "It is what I came out for," she said.

"You do not look like a farmer's wife," said Piet.

Sylvia stiffened.

"Give him a little rope!" said Burke. "He doesn't know much. Sit down! I'll get him on the move directly."

She sat down not very willingly, and he resumed his talk with Vreiboom in Dutch, lounging against the wall. Sylvia sat quite silent, her eyes upon the glowing sky and the far-away hills. In the foreground was a kopje shaped like a sugar-loaf. She wished herself upon its summit which was bathed in the sunset light.

Once or twice she was moved to glance up at the brown face of the man who leaned between herself and the objectionable visitor. His attitude was one of complete ease, and yet something told her that he desired Piet's departure quite as sincerely as she did.

He must have given a fairly broad hint at last, she decided; for Piet moved somewhat abruptly and knocked out the ashes of his pipe on the floor with a noisy energy that made her start. Then he got up and addressed her in his own language. She did not understand in the least what he said, but she gave him a distant smile realizing that he was taking leave of her. She was somewhat surprised to see Burke take him unceremoniously by the shoulder as he stood before her and march him off the stoep. Piet himself laughed as if he had said something witty, and there was that in the laugh that sent the colour naming to her cheeks.

She quivered with impotent indignation as she sat. She wished with all her heart that Burke would kick him down the steps.

The sunset-light faded, and a soft dusk stole up over the wide spaces. A light breeze cooled her hot face, and after the lapse of a few minutes she began to chide herself for her foolishness. Probably the man had not meant to be offensive. She was certain Burke would never permit her to be insulted in his presence. She heard the sound of hoof-beats retreating away into the distance, and, with it, the memory of her dream came back upon her. She felt forlorn and rather frightened. It was only a dream of course; it was only a dream! But she wished that Burke would come back to her. His substantial presence would banish phantoms.

He did not come for some time, but she heard his step at last. And then a strange agitation took her so that she wanted to spring up and avoid him. She did not do so; she forced herself to appear normal. But every nerve tingled as he approached, and she could not keep the quick blood from her face.

He was carrying a tray which he set down on a rough wooden table near her.

"You must be famished," he said.

She had not thought of food, but certainly the sight of it cheered her failing spirits. She smiled at him.

"Are we going to have another picnic?"

He smiled in answer, and she felt oddly relieved, All sense of strain and embarrassment left her. She sat up and helped him spread the feast.

The fare was very simple, but she found it amply satisfying. She partook of Mary Ann's butter with appreciation.

"I can make butter," she told him presently. "And bake bread?" said Burke.

She nodded, laughing. "Yes, and cook joints and mend clothes, too. Who does your mending? Mary Ann?"

"I do my own," said Burke. "I cook, too, when Mary Ann takes leave of absence. But I have a Kaffir house boy, Joe, for the odd jobs. And there's a girl, too, uglier than Mary Ann, a relation of hers—called Rose, short for Fair Rosamond. Haven't you seen Rose yet?"

Sylvia's laugh brought a smile to his face. It was a very infectious laugh. Though she sobered almost instantly, it left a ripple of mirth behind on the surface of their conversation. He carried the tray away again when the meal was over, firmly refusing her offer to wash up.

"Mary Ann can do it in the morning," he said.

"Where is she now?" asked Sylvia.

He sat down beside her, and took out his pipe. "They are over in their own huts. They don't sleep in the house."

"Does no one sleep in the house?" she asked quickly.

"I do," said Burke.

A sudden silence fell. The dusk had deepened into a starlit darkness, but there was a white glow behind the hills that seemed to wax with every instant that passed. Very soon the whole veldt would be flooded with moonlight.

In a very small voice Sylvia spoke at length.

"Mr. Ranger!"

It was the first time she had addressed him by name. He turned directly towards her. "Call me Burke!" he said.

It was almost a command. She faced him as directly as he faced her. "Burke—if you wish it!" she said. "I want to talk things over with you, to thank you for your very great goodness to me, and—and to make plans for the future."

"One moment!" he said. "You have given up all thought of marrying Guy?"

She hesitated. "I suppose so," she said slowly.

"Don't you know your own mind?" he said.

Still she hesitated. "If—if he should come back——"

"He will come back," said Burke.

She started. "He will?"

"Yes, he will." His voice held grim confidence, and somehow it sounded merciless also to her ears. "He'll turn up again some day. He always does. I'm about the only man in South Africa who wouldn't kick him out within six months. He knows that. That's why he'll come back."

"You are—good to him," said Sylvia, her voice very low.

"No, I'm not; not specially. He knows what I think of him anyhow." Burke spoke slowly. "I've done what I could for him, but he's one of my failures. You've got to grasp the fact that he's a rotter. Have you grasped that yet?"

"I'm beginning to," Sylvia said, under her breath.

"Then you can't—possibly—many him," said Burke.

She lowered her eyes before the keenness of his look. She wished the light in the east were not growing so rapidly.

"The question is, What am I going to do?" she said.

Burke was silent for a moment. Then with a slight gesture that might have denoted embarrassment he said, "You don't want to stay here, I suppose?"

She looked up again quickly. "Here—on this farm, do you mean?"

"Yes." He spoke brusquely, but there was a certain eagerness in his attitude as he leaned towards her.

A throb of gratitude went through her. She put out her hand to him very winningly. "What a pity I'm not a boy!" she said, genuine regret in her voice.

He took her hand and kept it. "Is that going to make any difference?" he said.

She looked at him questioningly. It was difficult to read his face in the gloom. "All the difference, I am afraid," she said. "You are very generous—a real good comrade. If I were a boy, there's nothing I'd love better. But, being a woman, I can't live here alone with you, can I? Not even in South Africa!"

"Why not?" he said.

His hand grasped hers firmly; she grasped his in return. "You heard what your Boer friend called me," she said. "He wouldn't understand anything else."

"I told him to call you that," said Burke.

"You—told him!" She gave a great start. His words amazed her.

"Yes." There was a dogged quality in his answer. "I had to protect you somehow. He had seen us together at Ritzen. I said you were my wife."

Sylvia gasped in speechless astonishment.

He went on ruthlessly. "It was the only thing to do. They're not a particularly moral crowd here, and, as you say, they wouldn't understand anything else—decent. Do you object to the idea? Do you object very strongly?"

There was something masterful in the persistence with which he pressed the question. Sylvia had a feeling as of being held down and compelled to drink some strangely paralyzing draught.

She made a slight, half-scared movement and in a moment his hand released hers.

"You do object!" he said.

She clasped her hands tightly together. "Please don't say—or think—that! It is such a sudden idea, and—it's rather a wild one, isn't it?" Her breath came quickly. "If—if I agreed—and let the pretence go on—people would be sure to find out sooner or later. Wouldn't they?"

"I am not suggesting any pretence," he said.

"What do you mean then?" Sylvia said, compelling herself to speak steadily.

"I am asking you to marry me," he said, with equal steadiness.

"Really, do you mean? You are actually in earnest?" Her voice had a sharp quiver in it. She was trembling suddenly. "Please be quite plain with me!" she said. "Remember, I don't know you very well. I have got to get used to the ways out here."

"I am quite in earnest," said Burke. "You know me better than you knew the man you came out here to marry. And you will get used to things more quickly married to me than any other way. At least you will have an assured position. That ought to count with you."

"Of course it would! It does!" she said rather incoherently. "But—you see—I've no one to help me—no one to advise me. I'm on a road I don't know. And I'm so afraid of taking a wrong turning."

"Afraid!" he said. "You!"

She tried to laugh. "You think me a very bold person, don't you? Or you wouldn't have suggested such a thing."

"I think you've got plenty of grit," he said, "but that wasn't what made me suggest it." He paused a moment. "Perhaps it's hardly worth while going on," he said then. "I seem to have gone too far already. Please believe I meant well, that's all!"

"Oh, I know that!" she said.

And then, moved by a curious impulse, she did an extraordinary thing. She leaned forward and laid her clasped hands on his knee.

"I'm going to be—awfully frank with you," she said rather tremulously. You—won't mind?''

He sat motionless for a second. Then very quietly he dropped his pipe back into his pocket and grasped her slender wrists. "Go on!" he said.

Her face was lifted, very earnest and appealing, to his. "You know," she said, "we are not strangers. We haven't been from the very beginning. We started comrades, didn't we?"

"We should have been married by this time, if I hadn't put the brake on," said Burke.

"Yes," Sylvia said. "I know. That is what makes me feel so—intimate with you. But it is different for you. I am a total stranger to you. You have never met me—or anyone like me—before. Have you?"

"And I have never asked anyone to marry me before," said Burke.

The wrists he held grew suddenly rigid. "You have asked me out of—out of pity—and the goodness of your heart?" she whispered.

"Quite wrong," said Burke. "I want a capable woman to take care of me—when Mary Ann goes on the bust."

"Please don't make me laugh!" begged Sylvia rather shakily. "I haven't done yet. I'm going to ask you an awful thing next. You'll tell me the truth, won't you?"

"I'll tell you before you ask," he said. "I can be several kinds of beast, but not the kind you are afraid of. I am not a faddist, but I am moral. I like it best."

The curt, distinct words were too absolute to admit of any doubt. Sylvia breathed a short, hard sigh.

"I wonder," she said, "if it would be very wrong to marry a person you only like."

"Marriage is a risk—in any case," said Burke. "But if you're not blindly in love, you can at least see where you are going."

"I can't," she said rather piteously.

"You're afraid of me," he said.

"No, not really—not really. It's almost as big a risk for you as for me. You haven't bothered about—my morals, have you?" Her faint laugh had in it a sound of tears.

The hands that held her wrists closed with a steady pressure. "I haven't," said Burke with simplicity.

"Thank you," she said. "You've been very kind to me. Really I am not afraid of you."

"Sure?" said Burke.

"Only I still wish I were a boy," she said. "You and I could be just pals then."

"And why not now?" he said.

"Is it possible?" she asked.

"I should say so. Why not?"

She freed her hands suddenly and laid them upon his arms. "If I marry you, will you treat me just as a pal?"

"I will," said Burke.

She was still trembling a little. "You won't interfere with my—liberty?"

"Not unless you abuse it," he said.

She laughed again faintly. "I won't do that. I'll be a model of discretion. You may not think it, but I am—very discreet."

"I am sure of it," said Burke.

"No, you're not. You're not in the least sure of anything where I am concerned. You've only known me—two days."

He laughed a little. "It doesn't matter how long it has taken. I know you."

She laughed with him, and sat up, "What must you have thought of me when I told you you hadn't shaved?"

He took out his pipe again. "If you'd been a boy, I should probably have boxed your ears," he said. "By the way, why did you get up when I told you to stay in bed?"

"Because I knew best what was good for me," said Sylvia. "Have you got such a thing as a cigarette?"

He got up. "Yes, in my room. Wait while I fetch them!"

"Oh, don't go on purpose!" she said. "I daresay I shouldn't like your kind, thanks all the same."

He went nevertheless, and she leaned back with her face to the hills and waited. The moon was just topping the great summits. She watched it with a curious feeling of weakness. It had not been a particularly agitating interview, but she knew that she had just passed a cross-roads, in her life.

She had taken a road utterly unknown to her and though she had taken it of her own accord, she did not feel that the choice had really been hers. Somehow her faculties were numbed, were paralyzed. She could not feel the immense importance of what she had done, or realize that she had finally, of her own action, severed her life from Guy's. He had become such a part of herself that she could not all at once divest herself of that waiting feeling, that confident looking forward to a future with him. And yet, strangely, her memory of him had receded into distance, become dim and remote. In Burke's presence she could not recall him at all. The two personalities, dissimilar though she knew them to be, seemed in some curious fashion to have become merged into one. She could not understand her own feelings, but she was conscious of relief that the die was cast. Whatever lay before her, she was sure of one thing. Burke Ranger would be her safeguard against any evil that might arise and menace her. His protection was of the solid quality that would never fail her. She felt firm ground beneath her feet at last.

At the sound of his returning step, she turned with the moonlight on her face and smiled up at him with complete confidence.



CHAPTER XII

THE STALE

Whenever in after days Sylvia looked back upon her marriage, it seemed to be wrapped in a species of hazy dream like the early mists on that far-off range of hills.

They did not go again to Ritzen, but to a town of greater importance further down the line, a ride of nearly forty miles across the veldt. It was a busy town in the neighbourhood of some mines, and its teeming life brought back again to her that sense of aloneness in a land of strangers that had so oppressed her in the beginning. It drove her to seek Burke's society whenever possible. He was the shield between her and desolation, and in his presence her misgivings always faded into the background. He knew some of the English people at Brennerstadt, but she dreaded meeting them, and entreated him not to introduce anyone to her until they were married.

"People are all so curious. I can't face it," she said. "Mine is rather a curious story, too. It will only set them talking, and I do so hate gossip."

He smiled a little and conceded the point. And so she was still a stranger to everyone on the day she laid her hand in Burke's and swore to be faithful to him. The marriage was a civil one. That also robbed it of all sense of reality for her. The ceremony left her cold. It did not touch so much as the outer tissues of her most vital sensibilities. She even felt somewhat impatient of the formalities observed, and very decidedly glad when they were over.

"Now let's go for a ride and forget it all!" she said. "We'll have a picnic on the veldt."

They had their picnic, but the heat was so great as to rob it of much enjoyment. Sylvia was charmed by a distant view of a herd of springbok, and her eyes shone momentarily when Burke said that they would have to do some shooting together. But almost immediately she shook her head.

"No, they are too pretty to kill. I love the hunt, but I hate the kill. Besides, I shall be too busy. If I am going to be your partner, one of us will have to do some work."

He laughed at that. "When do you want to begin?"

"Very soon," she said energetically. "Tomorrow if you like. I don't think much of Brennerstadt, do you? It's such a barren sort of place." He looked at her. "I believe you'll hate the winter on the farm."

"No, I shan't. I shan't hate anything. I'm not so silly as to expect paradise all the time."

"Is this paradise?" said Burke.

She glanced at him quickly. "No, I didn't say that. But I am enjoying it. And," she flushed slightly, "I am very grateful to you for making that possible."

"You've nothing to be grateful to me for," he said.

"Only I can't help it," said Sylvia.

Burke's eyes were scanning the far stretch of veldt towards the sinking sun, with a piercing intentness. She wondered what he was looking for.

There fell a silence between them, and a vague feeling of uneasiness began to grow up within her. His brown face was granite-like in its immobility, but it was exceedingly grim.

Something stirred within her at last, impelling her to action. She got up.

"Do you see that blasted tree right away over there with horrid twisted arms that look as if they are trying to clutch at something?"

His eyes came up to hers on the instant. "What of it?" he said.

She laughed down at him. "Let's mount! I'll race you to it."

He leapt to his feet like, a boy. "What's the betting?"

"Anything you like!" she threw back gaily. "Whoever gets there first can fix the stakes."

He laughed aloud, and the sound of his laugh made her catch her breath with a sharp, involuntary start. She ran to her mount feeling as if Guy were behind her, and with an odd perversity she would not look round to disillusion herself.

During the fevered minutes that followed, the illusion possessed her strongly, so strongly that she almost forgot the vital importance of being first. It was the thudding hoofs of his companion that made her animal gallop rather than any urging of hers. But once started, with the air swirling past her and the excitement of rapid motion setting her veins on fire, the spirit of the race caught her again, and she went like the wind.

The blasted tree stood on a slope nearly a mile away. The ground was hard, and the grass seemed to crackle under the galloping hoofs. The horse she rode carried her with superb ease. He was the finest animal she had ever ridden, and from the first she believed the race was hers.

On she went through the orange glow of evening. It was like a swift entrancing dream. And the years fell away from her as if they had never been, and she and Guy were racing over the slopes of her father's park, as they had raced in the old sweet days of youth and early love. She heard him urging his horse behind her, and remembered how splendid he always looked in the saddle.

The distance dwindled. The stark arms of the naked tree seemed to be stretching out to receive her. But he was drawing nearer also. She could hear the thunder of his animal's hoofs close behind. She bent low in the saddle, gasping encouragement to her own.

There came a shout beside her—a yell of triumph such as Guy had often uttered. He passed her and drew ahead. That fired her. She saw victory being wrested from her.

She cried back at him "You—bounder!" and urged her horse to fresh effort.

The ground sped away beneath her. The heat-haze seemed to spin around. Her eyes were fixed upon their goal, her whole being was concentrated upon reaching it. In the end it was as if the ruined tree shot towards her. The race was over. A great giddiness came upon her. She reeled in the saddle.

And then a hand caught her; or was it one of those outstretched skeleton arms? For a moment she hung powerless; then she was drawn close—close—to a man's breast, and felt the leap and throb of a man's heart against her own.

Breathless and palpitating, she lifted her face. His eyes looked deeply into hers, eyes that glowed like molten steel, and in an instant her illusion was swept away. It seemed to her that for the first time she looked upon Burke Ranger as he was, and her whole being recoiled in sudden wild dismay from what she saw.

"Ah! Let me go!" she said.

He held her still, but his hold slackened. "I won the race," he said.

"Yes, but—but it was only a game," she gasped back incoherently. "You—you can't—you won't——"

"Kiss you?" he said. "Not if you forbid it." That calmed her very strangely. His tone was so quiet; it revived her courage. She uttered a faint laugh. "Is that the stake? I can't refuse to pay—a debt of honour."

"Thank you," he said, and she saw a curious smile gleam for a moment on his face. "That means you are prepared to take me like a nasty pill, doesn't it? I like your pluck. It's the best thing about you. But I won't put it to the test this time."

He made as if he would release her, but with an odd impulse she checked him. Somehow it was unbearable to be humoured like that. She looked him straight in the eyes.

"We are pals, aren't we?" she said.

The smile still lingered on Burke's face; it had an enigmatical quality that disquieted her, she could not have said wherefore. "It's rather an ambiguous term, isn't it?" he said.

"No, it isn't," she assured him, promptly and Very earnestly. "It means that we are friends, but we are not in love and we are not going to pretend we are. At least," she flushed suddenly under his look, "that is what it means to me."

"I see," said Burke. "And what would happen if we fell in love with each other?"

Her eyes sank in spite of her. "I don't think we need consider that," she said.

"Why not?" said Burke.

"I could never be in love with anyone again," she said, her voice very low.

"Quite sure?" said Burke.

Something in his tone made her look up sharply. His eyes were intently and critically upon her, but the glow had gone out of them. They told her nothing.

"Do you think we need discuss this subject?" she asked him uneasily.

"Not if you prefer to shirk it," he said. She flushed a little. "But I don't shirk. I'm not that sort."

"No," he said. "I don't think you are. You may be frightened, but you won't run away."

"But I'm not frightened," she asserted boldly, looking him squarely in the face. "We are friends, you and I. And—we are going to trust each other. Being married isn't going to make any difference to us. It was just a matter of convenience and—we are going to forget it."

She paused. Burke's face had not altered. He was looking back at her with perfectly steady eyes.

"Very simple in theory," he said. "Won't you finish?"

"That's all," she said lightly. "Except—if you really want to kiss me now and then—you can do so. Only don't be silly about it!"

Burke's quick movement of surprise told her that this was unexpected. The two horses had recovered their wind and begun to nibble at one another. He checked them with a growling rebuke. Then very quietly he placed Sylvia's bridle in her hand, and put her from him.

"Thank you," he said again. "But you mustn't be too generous at the outset. I might begin to expect too much. And that would be—silly of me, wouldn't it?"

There was no bitterness in voice or action, but there was unmistakable irony. A curious sense of coldness came upon her, as if out of the heart a distant storm-cloud an icy breath had reached her.

She looked at him rather piteously. "You are not angry?" she said.

He leaned back in the saddle to knock a blood-sucking fly off his horse's flank. Then he straightened himself and laughed.

"No, not in the least," he said.

She knew that he spoke the truth, yet her heart misgave her. There was something baffling, something almost sinister to her, in the very carelessness of his attitude. She turned her horse's head and walked soberly away.

He did not immediately follow her, and after a few moments she glanced back for him. He had dismounted and was scratching something on the trunk of the blasted tree with a knife. The withered arms stretched out above his head. They looked weirdly human in the sunset glow. She wished he would not linger in that eerie place.

She waited for him, and he came at length, riding with his head up and a strange gleam of triumph in his eyes.

"What were you doing?" she asked him, as he joined her.

He met her look with a directness oddly disconcerting. "I was commemorating the occasion, he said.

"What do you mean?" she said.

"Never mind now!" said Burke, and took out his pipe.

The light still lingered in his eyes, firing her to something deeper than curiosity. She turned her horse abruptly.

"I am going back to see for myself."

But in the same moment his hand came out, grasping her bridle. "I shouldn't do that," he said. "It isn't worth it. Wait till we come again!"

"The tree may be gone by then," she objected.

"In that case you won't have missed much," he rejoined. "Don't go now!"

He had his way though she yielded against her will. They turned their animals towards Brennerstadt, and rode back together over, the sun-scorched veldt.



PART II

CHAPTER I

COMRADES

Some degree of normality seemed to come back into Sylvia's life with her return to Blue Hill Farm. She found plenty to do there, and she rapidly became accustomed to her surroundings.

It would have been a monotonous and even dreary existence but for the fact that she rode with Burke almost every evening, and sometimes in the early morning also, and thus saw a good deal of the working of the farm. Her keen interest in horses made a strong bond of sympathy between them. She loved them all. The mares and their foals were a perpetual joy to her, and she begged hard to be allowed to try her powers at breaking in some of the young animals. Burke, however, would not hear of this. He was very kind to her, unfailingly considerate in his treatment of her, but by some means he made her aware that his orders were to be respected. The Kaffir servants were swift to do his bidding, though she did not find them so eager to fulfil their duties when he was not at hand.

She laughingly commented upon this one day to Burke, and he amazed her by pointing to the riding-whip she chanced to be holding at the time.

"You'll find that's the only medicine for that kind of thing," he said. "Give 'em a taste of that and they'll respect you!"

She decided he must be joking, but only a few days later he quite undeceived her on that point by dragging Joe, the house boy, into the yard and chastising him with a sjambok for some neglected duty.

Joe howled lustily, and Sylvia yearned to fly to the rescue, but there was something so judicial about Burke's administration of punishment that she did not venture to intervene.

When he came in a little later, she was sitting in their living-room nervously stitching at the sleeve of a shirt that he had managed to tear on some barbed wire. He had his pipe in his hand, and there was an air of grim satisfaction about him that seemed to denote a consciousness of something well done.

Sylvia set her mouth hard and stitched rapidly, trying to forget Joe's piercing yells of a few minutes before. Burke went to the window and stood there, pensively filling his pipe.

Suddenly, as if something in her silence struck him, he turned and looked at her. She felt his eyes upon her though she did not raise her own.

After a moment or two he came to her. "What are you doing there?" he said.

It was the first piece of work she had done for him. She glanced up. "Mending your shirt," she told him briefly.

He laid his hand abruptly upon it. "What are you doing that for? I don't want you to mend my things."

"Oh, don't be silly, Burke!" she said. "You can't go in tatters. Please don't hinder me! I want to get it done."

She spoke with a touch of sharpness, not feeling very kindly disposed towards him at the moment. She was still somewhat agitated, and she wished with all her heart that he would go and leave her alone.

She almost said as much in the next, breath as he did not remove his hand. "Why don't you go and shoot something? There's plenty of time before supper."

"What's the matter?" said Burke.

"Nothing," she returned, trying to remove her work from his grasp.

"Nothing!" he echoed. "Then why am I told not to be silly, not to hinder you, and to go and shoot something?"

Sylvia sat up in her chair, and faced him. "If you must have it—I think you've been—rather brutal," she said, lifting her clear eyes to his. "No doubt you had plenty of excuse, but that doesn't really justify you. At least—I don't think so."

He met her look in his usual direct fashion. Those eagle eyes of his sent a little tremor through her. There was a caged fierceness about them that strangely stirred her.

He spoke after the briefest pause with absolute gentleness. "All right, little pal! It's decent of you to put it like that. You're quite wrong, but that's a detail. You'll change your views when you've been in the country a little longer. Now forget it, and come for a ride!"

It was disarmingly kind, and Sylvia softened in spite of herself. She put her hand on his arm. "Burke, you won't do it again?" she said.

He smiled a little. "It won't be necessary for some time to come. If you did the same to Fair Rosamond now and then you would marvellously improve her. Idle little cuss!"

"I never shall," said Sylvia with emphasis.

He heaved a sigh. "Then I shall have to kick her out I suppose. I can see she is wearing your temper to a fine edge."

She bit her lip for a second, and then laughed. "Oh, go away, do? You're very horrid. Rose may be trying sometimes, but I can put up with her."

"You can't manage her," said Burke.

"Anyway, you are not to interfere," she returned with spirit. "That's my department."

He abandoned the discussion. "Well, I leave it to you, partner. You're not to sit here mending shirts anyhow. I draw the line at that."

Sylvia's delicate chin became suddenly firm. "I never leave a thing unfinished," she said. "You will have to ride alone this evening."

"I refuse," said Burke.

She opened her eyes wide. "Really"—she began.

"Yes, really," he said. "Put the thing away! It's a sheer fad to mend it at all. I don't care what I wear, and I'm sure you don't."

"But I do," she protested. "You must be respectable."

"But I am respectable—whatever I wear," argued Burke. "It's my main characteristic."

His brown hand began to draw the garment in dispute away from her, but Sylvia held it tight.

Burke, don't—please—be tiresome! Every woman mends her husband's clothes if there is no one else to do it. I want to do it. There!"

"You don't like doing it!" he challenged.

"It's my duty," she maintained.

He gave her an odd look. "And do you always do—your duty?"

"I try to," she said.

"Always?" he insisted.

Something in his eyes gave her pause. She wanted to turn her own aside, but could not. "To—to the best of my ability," she stammered.

He looked ironical for an instant, and then abruptly he laughed and released her work. "Bless your funny little heart!" he said. "Peg away, if you want to! It looks rather as if you're starting at the wrong end, but, being a woman, no doubt you will get there eventually."

That pierced her. It was Guy—Guy in the flesh—tenderly taunting her with some feminine weakness. So swift and so sharp was the pain that she could not hide it. She bent her face over her work with a quick intake of the breath.

"Why—Sylvia!" he said, bending over her.

She drew away from him. "Don't—please! I—I am foolish. Don't—take any notice!"

He stood up again, but his hand found her shoulder and rubbed it comfortingly. "What is it, partner? Tell a fellow!" he urged, his tone an odd mixture of familiarity and constraint.

She fought with herself, and at last told him. "You—you—you were so like—Guy—just then."

"Oh, damn Guy!" he said lightly. "I am much more like myself at all times. Cheer up, partner! Don't cry for the moon!"

She commanded herself and looked up at him with a quivering smile. "It is rather idiotic, isn't it? And ungrateful too. You are very good not to lose patience."

"Oh, I am very patient," said Burke with a certain grimness. "But look here! Must you mend that shirt? I've got another somewhere."

Her smile turned to a laugh. She sprang up with a lithe, impulsive movement, "Come along then! Let's go! I don't know why you want to be bothered with me, I'm sure. But I'll come."

She took him by the arm and went with him from the room.

They rode out across Burke's land. The day had been one of burning heat. Sylvia turned instinctively towards the kopje that always attracted her. It had an air of aloofness that drew her fancy. "I must climb that very early some morning," she said, "in time for the sunrise."

"It will mean literal climbing," said Burke. "It's too steep for a horse."

"Oh, I don't mind that," she said. "I have a steady head. But I want to get round it tonight. I've never been round it yet. What is there on the other side?"

"Veldt," he said.

She made a face. And then veldt—and then veldt. Plenty of nice, sandy karoo where all the sand-storms come from! But there are always the hills beyond. I am going to explore them some day."

"May I come too?" he said.

She smiled at him. "Of course, partner. We will have a castle right at the top of the world, shall we? There will be mountain gorges and great torrents, and ferns and rhododendrons everywhere. And a little further still, a great lake like an inland sea with sandy shores and very calm water with the blue sky or the stars always in it."

"And what will the castle be like?" he said.

Sylvia's eyes were on the far hills as they rode. "The castle?" she said. "Oh, the castle will be of grey granite—the sparkling sort, very cool inside, with fountains playing everywhere; spacious rooms of course, and very lofty—always lots of air and no dust."

"Shall I be allowed to smoke a pipe in them?" asked Burke.

"You will do exactly what you like all day long," she told him generously.

"So long as I don't get in your way," he suggested.

She laughed a little. "Oh, we shall be too happy for that. Besides, you can have a farm or two to look after. There won't be any dry watercourses there like that," pointing with her whip. "That is what you call a 'spruit,' isn't it?"

"You are getting quite learned," he said. "Yes, that is a spruit and that is a kopje."

"And that?" She pointed farther on suddenly. "What is that just above the watercourse? Is it a Kaffir hut?"

"No," said Burke.

He spoke somewhat shortly. The object she indicated was undoubtedly a hut; to Sylvia's unaccustomed eyes it might have been a cattle-shed. It was close to the dry watercourse, a little lonely hovel standing among stones and a straggling growth of coarse grass.

Something impelled Sylvia to check her horse. She glanced at her companion as if half-afraid. "What is it?" she said. "It—looks like a hermit's cell. Who lives there?"

"No one at the present moment," said Burke.

His eyes were fixed straight ahead. He spoke curtly, as if against his will.

"But who generally—" began Sylvia, and then she stopped and turned suddenly white to the lips.

"I—see," she said, in an odd, breathless whisper.

Burke spoke without looking at her. "It's just a cabin. He built it himself the second year he was out here. He had been living at the farm, but he wanted to get away from me, wanted to go his own way without interference. Perhaps I went too far in that line. After all, it was no business of mine. But I can't stand tamely by and see a white man deliberately degrading himself to the Kaffir level. It was as well he went. I should have skinned him sooner or later if he hadn't. He realized that. So did I. So we agreed to part."

So briefly and baldly Burke stated the case, and every sentence he uttered was a separate thrust in the heart of the white-faced girl who sat her horse beside him, quite motionless, with burning eyes fixed upon the miserable little hovel that had enshrined the idol she had worshipped for so long.

She lifted her bridle at last without speaking a word and walked her animal forward through the sparse grass and the stones. Burke moved beside her, still gazing straight ahead, as if he were alone.

They went down to the cabin, and Sylvia dismounted. The only window space was filled with wire-netting instead of glass, and over this on the inside a piece of cloth had been firmly fastened so that no prying eyes could look in. The door was locked and padlocked. It was evident that the owner had taken every precaution against intrusion.

And yet—though he lived in this wretched place at which even a Kaffir might have looked askance—he had sent her that message telling her to come to him. This fact more than any other that she had yet encountered brought home to her the bitter, bitter truth of his failure. Out of the heart of the wilderness, out of desolation unspeakable, he had sent that message. And she had answered it—to find him gone.

The slow hot tears welled up and ran down her face. She was not even aware of them. Only at last she faced the desolation, in its entirety, she drank the cup to its dregs. It was here that he had taken the downward road. It was here that he had buried his manhood. When she turned away at length, she felt as if she had been standing by his grave.

Burke waited for her and helped her to mount again in utter silence. Only as she lifted the bridle again he laid his hand for a moment on her knee. It was a dumb act of sympathy which she could not acknowledge lest she should break down utterly. But it sent a glow of comfort to her hurt and aching heart. He had given her a comrade's sympathy just when she needed it most.



CHAPTER II

THE VISITORS

It was after that ride to Guy's hut that Sylvia began at last to regard him as connected only with that which was past. It was as if a chapter in her life had closed when she turned away from that solitary hut in the wilderness. She said to herself that the man she had known and loved was dead, and she did not after that evening suffer her thoughts voluntarily to turn in his direction. Soberly she took up the burden of life. She gathered up the reins of government, and assumed the ordering of Burke Ranger's household. She did not again refer to Guy in his presence, though there were times when his step, his voice, above all, his whistle, stabbed her to poignant remembrance.

He also avoided the subject of Guy, treating her with a careless kindliness that set her wholly at ease with him. She learned more and more of the working of the farm, and her interest in the young creatures grew daily. She loved to accompany him on his rides of inspection in the early mornings showing herself so apt a pupil that he presently dubbed her his overseer, and even at last entrusted her occasionally with such errands as only a confidential overseer could execute.

It was when returning from one of these somewhat late one blazing morning that she first encountered their nearest British neighbours from a farm nearly twelve miles distant. It was a considerable shock to her to find them in possession of the stoep when she rode up, but the sight of the red-faced Englishman who strode out to meet her reassured her in a moment.

"How do you do, Mrs. Ranger? We've just come over to pay our respects," he announced in a big, hearty voice. "You'll hardly believe it, but we've only recently heard of Burke's marriage. It's been a nine days' wonder with us, but now I've seen you I cease to marvel at anything but Burke's amazing luck."

There was something so engagingly naive in this compliment that Sylvia found it impossible to be formal. She smiled and slipped to the ground.

"You are Mr. Merston," she said. "How kind of you to come over! I am afraid I am alone at present, but Burke is sure to be in soon. I hope you have had some refreshment."

She gave her horse to a Kaffir boy, and went with her new friend up the steps of the stoep.

"My wife!" said Merston in his jolly voice.

Sylvia went forward with an eagerness that wilted in spite of her before she reached its object. Mrs. Merston did not rise to meet her. She sat prim and upright and waited for her greeting, and Sylvia knew in a moment before their hands touched each other that here was no kindred spirit.

"How do you do?" said Mrs. Merston formally.

She was a little woman, possibly ten years Sylvia's senior, with a face that had once been pink and white and now was the colour of pale brick all over. Her eyes were pale and seemed to carry a perpetual grievance. Her nose was straight and very thin, rather pinched at the nostrils. Her lips were thin and took a bitter downward curve. Her hair was quite colourless, almost like ashes; it had evidently once been light gold.

The hand she extended to Sylvia was so thin that she thought she could feel the bones rubbing together. Her skin was hot and very dry.

"I hope you like this horrible country," she said.

"Oh, come, Matilda!" her husband protested.

"That's not a very cheery greeting for a newcomer!"

She closed her thin lips without reply, and the downward curve became very unpleasantly apparent.

"I haven't found out all its horrors yet," said Sylvia lightly. "It's a very thirsty place, I think, anyway just now. Have you had anything?"

"We've only just got here," said Merston.

"Oh, I must see to it!" said Sylvia, and hastened within.

"Looks a jolly sort of girl," observed Merston to his wife. "Wonder how—and when—Burke managed to catch her. He hasn't been home for ten years and she can't be five-and-twenty."

"She probably did the catching," remarked his wife tersely. "But she will soon wish she hadn't."

Sylvia returned two minutes later bearing a tray of which Merston hastened to relieve her.

"We're wondering—my wife and I—how Burke had the good fortune to get married to you," he said. "You're new to this country, aren't you? And he hasn't been out of it as long as I have known him."

Sylvia looked up at him in momentary confusion. Then she laughed.

"We picked each other up at Ritzen," she said.

"Ritzen!" he echoed in amazement, "What on earth took you there?" Then hastily, "I say, I beg your pardon. You must forgive my impertinence. But you look so awfully like a duchess in your own right, I couldn't help being surprised."

"Well, have a drink!" said Sylvia lightly. "I'm not a duchess in my own right or anything else, except Burke's wife. We're running this farm together on the partner system. I'm junior partner of course. Burke tells me what to do, and I do it."

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