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The Top of the World
by Ethel M. Dell
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"You'll soon lose your complexion if you go out riding in this heat and dust," said Mrs. Merston.

"Oh, I hope not," Sylvia laughed again. "If I do, I daresay I shan't miss it much. It's rather fun to feel that sort of thing doesn't matter. Ah, here is Burke coming now!" She glanced up at the thudding of his horse's hoofs.

Merston went out again into the blinding sunlight to greet his host, and Sylvia turned to the thin, pinched woman beside her.

"I expect you would like to come inside and take off your hat and wash. It is hot, isn't it? Shall we go in and get respectable?"

She spoke with that winning friendliness of hers that few could resist. Mrs. Merston's lined face softened almost in spite of itself. She got up. But she could not refrain from flinging another acid remark as she did so.

"I really think if Englishmen must live in South Africa, they ought to be content with Boer wives."

"Oh, should you like your husband to have married a Boer wife?" said Sylvia.

Mrs. Merston smiled grimly. "You are evidently still in the fool's paradise stage. Make the most of it! It won't last long. The men out here have other things to think about."

"I should hope so," said Sylvia energetically. "And the women, too, I should think. I should imagine that there is very little time for philandering out here."

Mrs. Merston uttered a bitter laugh as she followed her in. "There is very little time for anything, Mrs. Ranger. It is drudgery from morning till night."

"Oh, I haven't found that yet," said Sylvia.

She had led her visitor into the guest-room which she had occupied since her advent. It was not quite such a bare apartment as it had been on that first night. All her personal belongings were scattered about, and the severely masculine atmosphere had been completely driven forth.

"I'm afraid it isn't very tidy in here," she said. "I generally see to things later. I don't care to turn the Kaffir girl loose among my things."

Mrs. Merston looked around her. "And where does your husband sleep?" she said.

"Across the passage. His room is about the same size as this. They are not very big, are they?"

"You are very lucky to have such a home," said Mrs. Merston. "Ours is nothing but a corrugated iron shed divided into two parts."

"Really?" Sylvia opened her eyes. "That doesn't sound very nice certainly. Haven't you got a verandah even—I beg its pardon, a stoep?"

"We have nothing at all that makes for comfort," declared Mrs. Merston, with bitter emphasis. "We live like pigs in a sty!"

"Good heavens!" said Sylvia. "I shouldn't like that."

"No, you wouldn't. It takes a little getting used to. But you'll go through the mill presently. All we farmers' wives do. You and Burke Ranger won't go on in this Garden of Eden style very long."

Sylvia laughed with a touch of uncertainty. "I suppose it's a mistake to expect too much of life anywhere," she said. "But it's difficult to be miserable when one is really busy, isn't it? Anyhow one can't be bored."

"Are you really happy here?" Mrs. Merston asked point-blank, in the tone of one presenting a challenge.

Sylvia paused for a moment, only a moment, and then she answered, "Yes."

"And you've been married how long? Six weeks?"

"About that," said Sylvia.

Mrs. Merston looked at her, and an almost cruel look came into her pale eyes. "Ah! You wait a little!" she said. "You're young now. You've got all your vitality still in your veins. Wait till this pitiless country begins to get hold of you! Wait till you begin to bear children, and all your strength is drained out of you, and you still have to keep on at the same grinding drudgery till you're ready to drop, and your husband comes in and laughs at you and tells you to buck up, when you haven't an ounce of energy left in you! See how you like the prison-house then! All your young freshness gone and nothing left—nothing left!"

She spoke with such force that Sylvia felt actually shocked. Yet still with that instinctive tact of hers, she sought to smooth the troubled waters. "Oh, have you children?" she said. "How many? Do tell me about them!"

"I have had six," said Mrs. Merston dully. "They are all dead."

She clenched her hands at Sylvia's quick exclamation of pity, but she gave no other sign of emotion.

"They all die in infancy," she said. "It's partly the climate, partly that I am overworked—worn out. He—" with infinite bitterness—"can't see it. Men don't—or won't. You'll find that presently. It's all in front of you. I don't envy you in the least, Mrs. Ranger. I daresay you think there is no one in the world like your husband. Young brides always do. But you'll find out presently. Men are all selfish where their own pleasures are concerned. And Burke Ranger is no exception to the rule. He has a villainous temper, too. Everyone knows that."

"Oh, don't tell me that!" said Sylvia gently. "He and I are partners, you know. Let me put a little eau-de-cologne in that water! It's so refreshing."

Mrs. Merston scarcely noticed the small service. She was too intent upon her work of destruction. "You don't know him—yet," she said. "But anyone you meet can tell you the same. Why, he had a young cousin here—such a nice boy—and he sent him straight to the bad with his harsh treatment,—sjamboked him and turned him out of the house for some slight offence. Yes, no wonder you look scandalized; but I assure you it's true. Guy Ranger was none too steady, I know. But that was absolutely the finishing touch. He was never the same again."

She paused. Sylvia was very white, but her eyes were quite resolute, unfailingly steadfast.

"Please don't tell me any more!" she said. "Whatever Burke did was—was from a good motive. I know that. I know him. And—I don't want to have any unkind feelings towards him."

"You prefer to remain blind?" said Mrs. Merston with her bitter smile,

"Yes—yes," Sylvia said.

"Then you are building your house on the sand," said Mrs. Merston, and turned from her with a shrug. "And great will be the fall thereof."



CHAPTER III

THE BARGAIN

THE visitors did not leave until the sun was well down in the west. To Sylvia it had been an inexplicably tiring day, and when they departed at length she breathed a wholly unconscious sigh of relief.

"Come for a ride!" said Burke.

She shook her head. "No, thank you. I think I will have a rest."

"All right. I'll smoke a pipe on the stoep," he said.

He had been riding round his land with Merston during the greater part of the afternoon, and it did not surprise her that he seemed to think that he also had earned a quiet evening. But curiously his decision provoked in her an urgent desire to ride alone. A pressing need for solitude was upon her. She yearned to get right away by herself.

She went to her room, however, and lay down for a while, trying to take the rest she needed; but when presently she heard the voice of Hans Schafen, his Dutch foreman, talking on the verandah, she arose with a feeling of thankfulness, donned her sun-hat, and slipped out of the bungalow. It was hot for walking, but it was a relief to get away from the house. She knew it was quite possible that Burke would see her go, but she believed he would be too engrossed with business for some time to follow her. It was quite possible he would not wish to do so, but she had a feeling that this was not probable. He generally sought her out in his leisure hours.

Almost instinctively she turned her steps in the direction of the kopje which she had so often desired to climb. It rose steep from the veldt like some lonely tower in the wilderness. Curious-shaped rocks cropped out unexpectedly on its scarred sides and a few prickly pear bushes stood up here and there like weird guardians of the rugged stronghold. Sylvia had an odd feeling that they watched her with unfriendly attention as she approached. Though solitude girt her round, she did not feel herself to be really alone.

It took her some time to reach it, for the ground was rough and sandy under her feet, and it was farther away than it looked. She realized as she drew nearer that to climb to the round summit would be no easy task, but that fact did not daunt her. She felt the need for strenuous exercise just then.

The shadows were lengthening, and the full glare of the sun no longer smote upon her. She began to climb with some energy. But she soon found that she had undertaken a greater task than she had anticipated. The way was steep, and here and there the boulders seemed to block further progress completely. She pressed on with diminishing speed, taking a slanting upward course that presently brought her into the sun again and in view of the little cabin above the stony watercourse that had sheltered Guy for so long.

The sight of it seemed to take all the strength out of her. She sat down on a rock to rest. All day long she had been forcing the picture that Mrs. Merston had painted for her into the background of her thoughts. All day long it had been pressing forward in spite of her. It seemed to be burning her brain, and now she could not ignore it any longer. Sitting there exhausted in mind and body, she had to face it in all its crudeness. She had to meet and somehow to conquer the sickening sensation of revolt that had come upon her.

She sat there for a long time, till the sun sank low in the sky and a wondrous purple glow spread across the veldt. She knew that it was growing late, that Burke would be expecting her for the evening meal, but she could not summon the strength she needed to end her solitary vigil on the kopje. She had a feeling as of waiting for something. Though she was too tired to pray, yet it seemed to her that a message was on its way. She watched the glory in the west with an aching intensity that possessed her to the exclusion of aught beside. Somehow, even in the midst of her weariness and depression, she felt sure that help would come.

The glory began to wane, and a freshness blew across the veldt. Somewhere on the very top of the kopje a bird uttered a twittering note. She turned her face, listening for the answer, and found Burke seated on another boulder not six yards away.

So unexpected was the sight that she caught her breath in astonishment and a sharp instinctive sense of dismay. He was not looking at her, but gazing forth to the distant hills like an eagle from its eyrie. His eyes had the look of seeing many things that were wholly beyond her vision.

She sat in silence, a curious feeling of embarrassment upon her, as if she looked upon something which she was not meant to see and yet could not turn from. His brown face was so intent, almost terribly keen. The lines about the mouth were drawn with ruthless distinctness. It was the face of a hunter, and the iron resolution of it sent an odd quiver that was almost of foreboding through her heart.

And then suddenly he turned his head slightly, as if he felt her look upon him, and like a knife-thrust his eyes came down to hers. She felt the hot colour rush over her face as if she had been caught in some act of trespass. Her confusion consumed her, she could not have said wherefore. She looked swiftly away.

Quietly he left his rock and came to her.

She shrank at his coming. The pulse in her throat was throbbing as if it would choke her. She wanted to spring up and flee down the hill. But he was too near. She sat very still, her fingers gripping each other about her knees, saying no word.

He reached her and stood looking down at her. "I followed you," he said, "because I knew you would never get to the top alone."

She lifted her face, striving against her strange agitation. "I wasn't thinking of going any further," she said, struggling to speak indifferently. "It—is steeper than I thought."

"It aways is," said Burke.

He sat down beside her, close to her. She made a small, instinctive movement away from him, but he did not seem to notice. He took off his hat and laid it down.

"I'm sorry Mrs. Merston had to be inflicted on you for so long," he said. "I'm afraid she is not exactly cheery company."

"I didn't mind," said Sylvia.

He gave her a faintly whimsical look. "Not utterly fed up with Africa and all her beastly ways?" he questioned.

She shook her head. "I don't think I am so easily swayed as all that."

"You would rather stay here with me than go back home to England?" he said.

Her eyes went down to the lonely hut on the sand. "Why do you ask me that?" she said, in a low voice.

"Because I want to know," said Burke.

Sylvia was silent.

He went on after a moment. "I've a sort of notion that Mrs. Merston is not a person to spread contentment around her under any circumstances. If she lived in a palace at the top of the world she wouldn't be any happier."

Sylvia smiled faintly at the allusion. "I don't think she has very much to make her happy," she said. It's a little hard to judge her under present conditions."

"She's got one of the best for a husband anyway," he maintained.

"Do you think that's everything?" said Sylvia.

"No, I don't," said Burke unexpectedly. "I think he spoils her, which is bad for any woman. It turns her head in the beginning and sours her afterwards."

Sylvia turned at that and regarded him, a faint light of mockery in her eyes. "What a lot you know about women!" she remarked.

He laughed in a way she did not understand. "If I had a wife," he said, "I'd make her happy, but not on those lines."

"I thought you had one," said Sylvia.

He met her eyes with a sudden mastery which made her flinch in spite of herself. "No," he said, "I've only a make-believe at present. Not very satisfying of course; but better than nothing. There is always the hope that she may some day turn into the real thing to comfort me."

His words went into silence. Sylvia's head was bent.

After a moment he leaned a little towards her, and spoke almost in a whisper. "I feel as if I have caught a very rare, shy bird," he said. "I'm trying to teach it to trust me, but it takes a mighty lot of time and patience. Do you think I shall ever succeed, Sylvia? Do you think it will ever come and nestle against my heart?"

Again his words went into silence. The girl's eyes were fixed upon the stretch of sandy veldt below her and that which it held.

Silently the man watched her, his keen eyes very steady, very determined.

She lifted her own at last, and met them with brave directness. "You know, partner," she said, "it isn't very fair of you to ask me such a thing as that. You can't have—everything."

"All right," said Burke, and felt in his pocket for his pipe. "Consider it unsaid!"

His abrupt acceptance of her remonstrance was curiously disconcerting. The mastery of his look had led her to expect something different. She watched him dumbly as he filled his pipe with quiet precision.

Finally, as he looked at her again, she spoke. "I don't want to seem over-critical—ungrateful, but—" her breath came quickly—"though you have been so awfully good to me, I can't help feeling—that you might have done more for Guy, if—if you had been kinder when he went wrong. And—" her eyes filled with sudden tears—"that thought spoils—just everything."

"I see," said Burke, and though his lips were grim his voice was wholly free from harshness. "Mrs. Merston told you all about it, did she?"

Sylvia's colour rose again. She turned slightly from him. "She didn't say much," she said.

There was a pause. Then unexpectedly Burke's hand closed over her two clasped ones. "So I've got to be punished, have I?" he said.

She shook her head, shrinking a little though she suffered his touch. "No. Only—I can't forget it,—that's all."

"Or forgive?" said Burke.

She swallowed her tears with an effort. "No, not that. I'm not vindictive. But—oh, Burke—" she turned to him impulsively,—"I wish—I wish—we could find Guy!"

He stiffened almost as if at a blow. "Why?" he demanded sternly.

For a moment his look awed her, but only for a moment; the longing in her heart was so great as to overwhelm all misgiving. She grasped his arm tightly between her hands.

"If we could only find him—and save him—save him somehow from the horrible pit he seems to have fallen into! We could do it between us—I feel sure we could do it—-if only—if only—we could find him!"

Breathlessly her words rushed out. It seemed as if she had stumbled almost inadvertently upon the solution of the problem that had so tormented her. She marvelled now that she had ever been able to endure inaction with regard to Guy. She was amazed at herself for having been so easily content. It was almost as if in that moment she heard Guy's voice very far away, calling to her for help.

And then, swift as a lightning-flash, striking dismay to her soul, came the consciousness of Burke gazing straight at her with that in his eyes which she could not—dare not—meet.

She gripped his arm a little tighter. She was quivering from head to foot. "We could do it between us," she breathed again. "Wouldn't it be worth it? Oh, wouldn't it be worth it?"

But Burke spoke no word. He sat rigid, looking at her.

A feeling of coldness ran through her—such a feeling as she had experienced on her wedding-day under the skeleton-tree, the chill that comes from the heart of a storm. Slowly she relaxed her hold upon him. Her tears were gone, but she felt choked, unlike herself, curiously impotent.

"Shall we go back?" she said.

She made as if she would rise, but he stayed her with a gesture, and her weakness held her passive.

"So you have forgiven him!" he said.

His tone was curt. He almost flung the words.

She braced herself, instinctively aware of coming strain. But she answered him gently. "You can't be angry with a person when you are desperately sorry for him."

"I see. And you hold me in a great measure responsible for his fall? I am to make good, am I?"

He did not raise his voice, but there was something in it that made her quail. She looked up at him in swift distress.

"No, no! Of course not—of course not! Partner, please don't glare at me like that! What have I done?"

He dropped his eyes abruptly from her startled face, and there followed a silence so intense that she thought he did not even breathe.

Then, in a very low voice: "You've raised Cain," he said.

She shivered. There was something terrible in the atmosphere. Dumbly she waited, feeling that protest would but make matters worse.

He turned himself from her at length, and sat with his chin on his hands, staring out to the fading sunset.

When he spoke finally, the hard note had gone out of his voice. "Do you think it's going to make life any easier to bring that young scoundrel back?"

"I wasn't thinking of that," she said, "It was only—" she hesitated.

"Only?" said Burke, without turning.

With difficulty she answered him. "Only that probably you and I are the only people in the world who could do anything to help him. And so—somehow it seems our job."

Burke digested this in silence. Then: "And what are you going to do with him when you've got him?" he enquired.

Again she hesitated, but only momentarily. "I shall want you to help me, partner," she said appealingly.

He made a slight movement that passed unexplained. "You may find me—rather in the way—before you've done," he said.

"Then you won't help me?" she said, swift disappointment in her voice.

He turned round to her. His face was grim, but it held no anger. "You've asked a pretty hard thing of me," he said. "But—yes, I'll help you."

"You will?" She held out her hand to him. "Oh, partner, thank you—awfully!"

He gripped her hand hard. "On one condition," he said.

"Oh, what?" She started a little and her face whitened.

He squeezed her fingers with merciless force. "Just that you will play a straight game with me," he said briefly.

The colour came back to her face with a rush. "That!" she said. "But of course—of course! I always play a straight game."

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

Her clear eyes met his. "Yes, a bargain. But how shall we ever find him?"

He was silent for a moment, and she felt as if those steel-grey eyes of his were probing for her soul. "That," he said slowly, "will not be a very difficult business."

"You know where he is?" she questioned eagerly.

"Yes. Merston told me to-day."

"Oh, Burke!" The eager kindling of her look made her radiant. "Where is he? What is he doing?"

He still looked at her keenly, but all emotion had gone from his face. "He is tending a bar in a miners' saloon at Brennerstadt."

"Ah!"' She stood up quickly to hide the sudden pain his words had given. "But we can soon get him out. You—you will get him out, partner?"

He got to his feet also. The sun had passed, and only a violet glow remained. He seemed to be watching it as he answered her.

"I will do my best."

"You are good," she said very earnestly. "I wonder if you have the least idea how grateful I feel."

"I can guess," he said in a tone of constraint.

She was standing slightly above him. She placed her hand shyly on his shoulder. "And you won't hate it so very badly?" she urged softly. "It is in a good cause, isn't it?"

"I hope so," he said.

He seemed unaware of her hand upon him. She pressed a little. "Burke!"

"Yes?" He still stood without looking at her.

She spoke nervously. "I—I shan't forget—ever—that I am married. You—you needn't be afraid of—of anything like that."

He turned with an odd gesture. "I thought you were going to forget it—that you had forgotten it—for good."

His voice had a strained, repressed sound. He spoke almost as if he were in pain.

She tried to smile though her heart was beating fast and hard. "Well, I haven't. And—I never shall now. So that's all right, isn't it? Say it's all right!"

There was more of pleading in her voice than she knew. A great tremor went through Burke. He clenched his hands to subdue it.

"Yes; all right, little pal, all right," he said.

His voice sounded strangled; it pierced her oddly. With a sudden impetuous gesture she slid her arm about his neck, and for one lightning moment her lips touched his cheek. The next instant she had sprung free and was leaping downwards from rock to rock like a startled gazelle.

At the foot of the kopje only did she stop and wait. He was close behind her, moving with lithe, elastic strides where she had bounded.

She turned round to him boyishly. "We'll climb to the top one of these days, partner; but I'm not in training yet. Besides,—we're late for supper."

"I can wait," said Burke.

She linked her little finger in his, swinging it carelessly. There was absolute confidence in her action; only her eyes avoided his.

"You're jolly decent to me," she said. "I often wonder why."

"You'll know one day," said Burke very quietly.



CHAPTER IV

THE CAPTURE

A dust-storm had been blowing practically all day, and the mining crowds of Brennerstadt were thirsty to a man. They congregated at every bar with the red sand thick upon them, and cursed the country and the climate with much heartiness and variety.

Burke Ranger was one of the thirstiest when he reached the town after his ride through the desert—a ride upon which he had flatly refused to allow Sylvia to accompany him. He went straight to the hotel where he had stayed for his marriage, and secured a room. Then he went down to the dining-room, where he was instantly greeted by an old friend, Kelly, the Irish manager of a diamond mine in the neighbourhood.

Kelly was the friend of everyone. He knew everyone's affairs and gossiped openly with a childlike frankness that few could resent. Everyone declared he could never keep a secret, yet nearly everyone confided in him. His goodness of heart was known to all, and he was regarded as a general arbitrator among the sometimes restless population of Brennerstadt.

His delight at seeing Burke was obvious; he hailed him with acclamations. "I've been meaning to ride over your way for ages," he declared, his rubicund face shining with geniality as he wrung his friend's hand hard. "I was up-country when you came along last with your bride. Dark horse that you are, Burke! I should as soon have thought of getting married myself, as of seeing you in double harness."

Burke laughed his careless laugh. "You'll come to it yet. No fun in growing old alone in this country."

"And what's the lady like?" pursued Kelly, keen for news as an Irish terrier after a rat. "As fair as Eve and twice as charming?"

"Something that style," agreed Burke. "What are you drinking, old chap? Any ice to be had?"

He conferred with the waiter, but Kelly's curiosity was far from being satisfied. He pounced back upon the subject the moment Burke's attention was free.

"And is she new to this part of the world then? She came out to be married, I take it? And what does she think of it at all?"

"You'll have to come over and see for yourself," said Burke.

"So I will, old feller. I'll come on the first opportunity. I'd love to see the woman who can capture you. Done any shooting lately, or is wedded bliss still too sweet to leave?"

"I've had a few other things as well to think about," said Burke drily,

"And this is your first absence? What will the missis do without you?"

"She'll manage all right. She's very capable. She is helping me with the farm. The life seems to suit her all right, only I shall have to see she doesn't work too hard."

"That you will, my son. This climate's hard on women. Look at poor Bill Merston's wife! When she came out, she was as pretty and as sweet as a little wild rose. And now—well, it gives you the heartache to look at her."

"Does it?" said Burke grimly. "She doesn't affect me that way. If I were in Merston's place,—well, she wouldn't look like that for long."

"Wouldn't she though?" Kelly looked at him with interest. "You always were a goer, old man. And what would your treatment consist of?"

"Discipline," said Burke briefly. "No woman is happy if she despises her husband. If I were in Merston's place, I would see to it that she did not despise me. That's the secret of her trouble. It's poison to a woman to look down on her husband."

"Egad!" laughed Kelly. "But you've studied the subject? Well, here's to the fair lady of your choice! May she fulfil all expectations and be a comfort to you all the days of your life!"

"Thanks!" said Burke. "Now let's hear a bit about yourself! How's the diamond industry?"

"Oh, there's nothing the matter with it just now. We've turned over some fine stones in the last few days. Plenty of rubbish, too, of course. You don't want a first-class speculation, I presume? If you've got a monkey to spare, I can put you on to something rather great."

"Thanks, I haven't," said Burke. "I never have monkeys to spare. But what's the gamble?"

"Oh, it's just a lottery of Wilbraham's. He has a notion for raffling his biggest diamond. The draw won't take place for a few weeks yet; and then only monkeys need apply. It's a valuable stone. I can testify to that. It would be worth a good deal more if it weren't for a flaw that will have to be taken out in the cutting and will reduce it a lot. But even so, it's worth some thousands, worth risking a monkey for, Burke. Think what a splendid present it would be for your wife!"

Burke laughed and shook his head. "She isn't that sort if I know her."

"Bet you you don't know her then," said Kelly, with a grin. "It's a good sporting chance anyway. I don't fancy there will be many candidates, for the stone has an evil name."

Burke looked slightly scornful. "Well, I'm not putting any monkeys into Wilbraham's pocket, so that won't trouble me. Have you seen anything of Guy Ranger lately?"

The question was casually uttered, but it sent a sharp gleam of interest into Kelly's eyes. "Oh, it's him you've come for, is it?" he said. "Well, let me tell you this for your information! He's had enough of Blue Hill Farm for the present."

Burke said nothing, but his grey eyes had a more steely look than usual as he digested the news.

Kelly looked at him curiously. "The boy's a wreck," he said. "Simply gone to pieces; nerves like fiddle-strings. He drinks like hell, but it's my belief he'd die in torment if he didn't."

Still Burke said nothing, and Kelly's curiosity grew.

"You know what he's doing; don't you?" he said. "He's doing a Kaffir's job for Kaffir's pay. It's about the vilest hole this side of perdition, my son. And I'm thinking you won't find it specially easy to dig him out."

Burke's eyes came suddenly straight to the face of the Irishman. He regarded him for a moment or two with a faintly humorous expression; then: "That's just where you can lend me a hand, Donovan," he said. "I'm going to ask you to do that part."

"The deuce you are!" said Kelly. "You're not going to ask much then, my son. Moreover, it's well on the likely side that he'll refuse to budge. Better leave him alone till he's tired of it."

"He's dead sick of it already," said Burke with conviction. "You go to him and tell him you've a decent berth waiting for him. He'll come along fast enough then."

"I doubt it," said Kelly. "I doubt it very much. He's in just the bitter mood to prefer to wallow. He's right under, Burke, and he isn't making any fight. He'll go on now till he's dead."

"He won't!" said Burke shortly. "Where exactly is he? Tell me that!"

"He's barkeeping for that brute Hoffstein, and taking out all his wages in drink. I saw him three days ago. I assure you he's past help. I believe he'd shoot himself if you took any trouble over him. He's in a pretty desperate mood."

"Not he!" said Burke. "I'm going to have him out anyway."

Again Kelly looked at him speculatively. "Well, what's the notion?" he asked after a moment, frankly curious. "You've never worried after him before."

Burke's eyes were grim. "You may be sure of one thing, Donovan," he said, "I'm not out for pleasure this journey."

"I've noted that," observed Kelly.

"I don't want you to help me if you have anything better to do," pursued Burke. "I shall get what I've come for in any case."

"Oh, don't you worry yourself! I'm on," responded Kelly, with his winning, Irish smile. "When do you want to catch your hare? Tonight?"

"Yes; to-night," said Burke soberly. "I'll come down with you to Hoffstein's, and if you can get him out, I'll do the rest."

"Hurrah!" crowed Kelly softly, lifting his glass. "Here's luck to the venture!"

But though Burke drank with him, his face did not relax.

A little later they left the hotel together. A strong wind was still blowing, sprinkling the dust of the desert everywhere. They pushed their way against it, striding with heads down through the swirling darkness of the night.

Hoffstein's bar was in a low quarter of the town and close to the mine-workings. A place of hideous desolation at all times, the whirling sandstorm made of it almost an inferno. They scarcely spoke as they went along, grimly enduring the sand-fiend that stung and blinded but could not bar their progress.

As they came within sight of Hoffstein's tavern, they encountered groups of men coming away, but no one was disposed to loiter on that night of turmoil; no one accosted them as they approached. The place was built of corrugated iron, and they heard the sand whipping against it as they drew near. Kelly paused within a few yards of the entrance. The door was open and the lights of the bar flared forth into the darkness.

"You stop here!" bawled Kelly. "I'll go in and investigate."

There was an iron fence close to them, affording some degree of shelter from the blast. Burke stood back against it, dumbly patient. The other man went on, and in a few seconds his short square figure passed through the lighted doorway.

There followed an interval of waiting that seemed interminable—an interval during which Burke moved not at all, but stood like a statue against the wall, his hat well down over his eyes, his hands clenched at his sides. The voices of men drifted to and fro through the howling night, but none came very near him.

It must have been nearly half-an-hour later that there arose a sudden fierce uproar in the bar, and the silent watcher straightened himself up sharply. The turmoil grew to a babel of voices, and in a few moments two figures, struggling furiously, appeared at the open door. They blundered out, locked together like fighting beasts, and behind them the door crashed to, leaving them in darkness.

Burke moved forward. "Kelly, is that you?"

Kelly's voice, uplifted in lurid anathema, answered him, and in a couple of seconds Kelly himself lurched into him, nearly hurling him backwards. "And is it yourself?" cried the Irishman. "Then help me to hold the damned young scoundrel, for he's fighting like the devils in hell! Here he is! Get hold of him!"

Burke took a silent hard grip upon the figure suddenly thrust at him, and almost immediately the fighting ceased.

"Let me go!" a hoarse voice said.

"Hold him tight!" said Kelly. "I'm going to take a rest. Guy, you young devil, what do you want to murder me for? I've never done you a harm in my life."

The man in Burke's grasp said nothing whatever. He was breathing heavily, but his resistance was over. He stood absolutely passive in the other man's hold.

Kelly gave himself an indignant shake and continued his tirade. "I call all the saints in heaven to witness that as sure as my name is Donovan Kelly so sure is it that I'll be damned to the last most nether millstone before ever I'll undertake to dig a man out of Hoffstein's marble halls again. You'd better watch him, Burke. His skin is about as full as it'll hold."

"We'll get back," said Burke briefly.

He was holding his captive locked in a scientific grip, but there was no violence about him. Only, as he turned, the other turned also, as if compelled. Kelly followed, cursing himself back to amiability.

Back through the raging wind they went, as though pursued by furies. They reached and entered the hotel just as the Kaffir porter was closing for the night. He stared with bulging eyes at Burke and his companion, but Burke walked straight through, looking neither to right nor left.

Only at the foot of the stairs, he paused an instant, glancing back.

"I'll see you in the morning, Donovan," he said. "Thanks for all you've done."

To which Kelly replied, fingering a bump on his forehead with a rueful grin, "All's well that ends well, my son, and sure it's a pleasure to serve you. I flatter myself, moreover, that you wouldn't have done the trick on your own. Hoffstein will stand more from me than from any other living man."

The hint of a smile touched Burke's set lips. "Show me the man that wouldn't!" he said; and turning, marched his unresisting prisoner up the stairs.



CHAPTER V

THE GOOD CAUSE

"Why can't you leave me alone? What do you want with me?"

Half-sullenly, half-aggressively, Guy Ranger flung the questions, standing with lowering brow before his captor. His head was down and his eyes raised with a peculiar, brutish expression. He had the appearance of a wild animal momentarily cowed, but preparing for furious battle. The smouldering of his look was terrible.

Burke Ranger met it with steely self-restraint. "I'll tell you presently," he said.

"You'll tell me now!" Fiercely the younger man made rejoinder. His power of resistance was growing, swiftly swallowing all sense of expediency. "If I choose to wallow in the mire, what the devil is it to you? You didn't send that accursed fool Kelly round for your own pleasure, I'll take my oath. What is it you want me for? Tell me straight!"

His voice rose on the words. His hands were clenched; yet still he wore that half-frightened look as of an animal that will spring when goaded, not before. His hair hung black and unkempt about his burning eyes. His face was drawn and deadly pale.

Burke stood like a rock, confronting him. He blocked the way to the door. "I'll tell you all you want to know in the morning," he said. "You have a wash now and turn in!"

The wild eyes took a fleeting glance round the room, returning instantly, as if fascinated, to Burke's face.

"Why the devil should I? I've got a—sty of my own to go to."

"Yes, I know," said Burke. Yet, he stood his ground, grimly emotionless.

"Then let me go to it!" Guy Ranger straightened himself, breathing heavily. "Get out!" he said. "Or—by heaven—I'll throw you!"

"You can't," said Burke. "So don't be a fool! You know—none better—that that sort of thing doesn't answer with me."

"But what do you want?" The reiterated question had a desperate ring as if, despite its urgency, the speaker dreaded the reply. "You've never bothered to dig me out before. What's the notion? I'm nothing to you. You loathe the sight of me."

Burke made a slight gesture as of repudiation, but he expressed no denial in words. "As to that," he said, "you draw your own conclusions. I can't discuss anything with you now. The point is, you are out of that hell for the present, and I'm going to keep you out."

"You!" There was a note of bitter humour in the word. Guy Ranger threw back his head as he uttered it, and by the action the likeness between them was instantly proclaimed. "That's good!" he scoffed. "You—the man who first showed me the gates of hell—to take upon yourself to pose as deliverer! And for whose benefit, if one might ask? Your own—or mine?"

His ashen face with the light upon it was still boyish despite the stamp of torment that it bore. Through all the furnace of his degradation his youth yet clung to him like an impalpable veil that no suffering could rend or destroy.

Burke suddenly abandoned his attitude of gaoler and took him by the shoulder. "Don't be a fool!" he said again, but he said it gently. "I mean what I say. It's a way I've got. This isn't the time for explanations, but I'm out to help you. Even you will admit that you're pretty badly in need of help."

"Oh, damn that!" Recklessly Guy made answer, chafing visibly under the restraining hold; yet not actually flinging it off. "I know what I'm doing all right. I shall pull up again presently—before the final plunge. I'm not going to attempt it before I'm ready. I've found it doesn't answer."

"You've got to this time," Burke said.

His eyes, grey and indomitable, looked straight into Guy's, and they held him in spite of himself. Guy quivered and stood still.

"You've got to," he reiterated. "Don't tell me you're enjoying yourself barkeeping at Hoffstein's! I've known you too long to swallow it. It just won't go down."

"It's preferable to doing the white nigger on your blasted farm!" flashed back Guy. "Starvation's better than that!"

"Thank you," said Burke. He did not flinch at the straight hit, but his mouth hardened. "I see your point of view of course. Perhaps it's beside the mark to remind you that you might have been a partner if you'd only played a decent game. I wanted a partner badly enough."

An odd spasm crossed Guy's face. "Yes. You didn't let me into that secret, did you, till I'd been weighed in the balances and found wanting? You were too damned cautious to commit yourself. And you've congratulated yourself on your marvellous discretion ever since, I'll lay a wager. You hide-bound, self-righteous prigs always do. Nothing would ever make you see that it's just your beastly discretion that does the mischief,—your infernal, complacent virtue that breeds the vice you so deplore!" He broke into a harsh laugh that ended in a sharp catch of the breath that bent him suddenly double.

Burke's hand went swiftly from his shoulder to his elbow. He led him to a chair. "Sit down!" he said. "You've got beyond yourself. I'm going to get you a drink, and then you'll go to bed."

Guy sat crumpled down in the chair like an empty sack. His head was on his clenched hands. He swayed as if in pain.

Burke stood looking down at him for a moment or two. Then he turned and went away, leaving the door ajar behind him.

When he came back, Guy was on his feet again, prowling uneasily up and down, but he had not crossed the threshold. He gave him that furtive, hunted look again as he entered.

"What dope is that? Not the genuine article I'll wager my soul!"

"It is the genuine article," Burke said. "Drink it, and go to bed!"

But Guy stood before him with his hands at his sides. The smouldering fire in his eyes was leaping higher and higher. "What's the game?" he said. "Is it a damned ruse to get me into your power?"

Burke set down the glass he carried, and turned full upon him. There was that about him that compelled the younger man to meet his look. They stood face to face.

"You are in my power," he said with stern insistence. "I've borne with you because I didn't want to use force. But—I can use force. Don't forget that!"

Guy made a sharp movement—the movement of the trapped creature. Beneath Burke's unsparing regard his eyes fell. In a moment he turned aside, and muttering below his breath he took up the glass on the table. For a second or two he stood staring at it, then lifted it as if to drink, but in an instant changed his purpose and with a snarling laugh swung back and flung glass and contents straight at Burke's grim face.

What followed was of so swift and so deadly a nature as to possess something of the quality of a whirlwind. Almost before the glass lay in shivered fragments on the floor, Guy was on his knees and being forced backwards till his head and shoulders touched the boards. And above him, terrible with awful intention, was Burke's face, gashed open across the chin and dripping blood upon his own.

The fight went out of Guy then like an extinguished flame. With gasping incoherence he begged for mercy.

"You're hurting me infernally! Man, let me up! I've been—I've been—a damn' fool! Didn't know—didn't realize! Burke—for heaven's sake—don't torture me!"

"Be still!" Burke said. "Or I'll murder you!"

His voice was low and furious, his hold without mercy. Yet, after a few seconds he mastered his own violence, realizing that all resistance in the man under him was broken. In a silence that was more appalling than speech he got to his feet, releasing him.

Guy rolled over sideways and lay with his face on his arms, gasping painfully. After a pause, Burke turned from him and went to the washing-stand.

The blood continued to now from the wound while he bathed it. The cut was deep. He managed, however, to staunch it somewhat at length, and then very steadily he turned back.

"Get up!" he said.

Guy made a convulsive movement in response, but he only half-raised himself, sinking back immediately with a hard-drawn groan.

Burke bent over him. "Get up!" he said again. "I'll help you."

He took him under the arms and hoisted him slowly up. Guy blundered to his feet with shuddering effort.

"Now—fire me out!" he said.

But Burke only guided him to the bed. "Sit down!" he said.

Numbly he obeyed. He seemed incapable of doing otherwise. But when, still with that unwavering steadiness of purpose, Burke stooped and began to unfasten the straps of his gaiters, he suddenly cried out as if he had been struck unawares in a vital place.

"No—no—no! I'm damned—I'm damned if you shall! Burke—stop, do you hear? Burke!"

"Be quiet!" Burke said.

But Guy flung himself forward, preventing him. They looked into one another's eyes for a tense interval, then, as the blood began to trickle down his chin again, Burke released himself.

In the same moment, Guy covered his face and burst into agonized sobbing most terrible to hear.

Burke stood up again. Somehow all the hardness had gone out of him though the resolution remained. He put a hand on Guy's shoulder, and gently shook him.

"Don't do it, boy! Don't do it! Pull yourself together for heaven's sake! Drink—do anything—but this! You'll want to shoot yourself afterwards."

But Guy was utterly broken, his self-control beyond recovery. The only response he made was to feel for and blindly grip the hand that held him.

So for a space they remained, while the anguish possessed him and slowly passed. Then, with the quiescence of complete exhaustion, he suffered Burke's ministrations in utter silence.

Half-an hour later he lay in a dead sleep, motionless as a stone image, while the man who dragged him from his hell rested upon two chairs and grimly reviewed the problem which he had created for himself. There was no denying the fact that young Guy had been a thorn in his side almost ever since his arrival in the country. The pity of it was that he possessed such qualities as should have lifted him far above the crowd. He had courage, he had resource. Upon occasion he was even brilliant. But ever the fatal handicap existed that had pulled him down. He lacked moral strength, the power to resist temptation. As long as he lived, this infirmity of character would dog his steps, would ruin his every enterprise. And Burke, whose stubborn force made him instinctively impatient of such weakness, lay and contemplated the future with bitter foreboding.

There had been a time when he had thought to rectify the evil, to save Guy from himself, to implant in him something of that moral fibre which he so grievously lacked. But he had been forced long since to recognize his own limitations in this respect. Guy was fundamentally wanting in that strength which was so essentially a part of his own character, and he had been compelled at last to admit that no outside influence could supply the want. He had come very reluctantly to realize that no faith could be reposed in him, and when that conviction had taken final hold upon him, Burke had relinquished the struggle in disgust.

Yet, curiously, behind all his disappointment, even contempt, there yet lurked in his soul an odd liking for the young man. Guy was most strangely likable, however deep he sank. Unstable, unreliable, wholly outside the pale as he was, yet there ever hung about him a nameless, indescribable fascination which redeemed him from utter degradation, a charm which very curiously kept him from being classed with the swine. There was a natural gameness about him that men found good. Even at his worst, he was never revolting.

He seemed to Burke a mass of irresponsible inconsistency. He was full of splendid possibilities that invariably withered ere they approached fruition. He had come to regard him as a born failure, and though for Sylvia's sake he had made this final effort, he had small faith in its success. Only she was so hard to resist, that frank-eyed, earnest young partner of his. She was so unutterably dear in all her ways. How could he hear the tremor of her pleading voice and refuse her?

The memory of her came over him like a warm soft wave. He felt again the quick pressure of her arm about his neck, the fleeting sweetness of her kiss. How had he kept himself from catching her to his heart in that moment, and holding her there while he drank his fill of the cup she had so shyly proffered? How had he ever suffered her to flit from him down the rough kopje and turn at the bottom with the old intangible shield uplifted between them?

The blood raced in his veins. He clenched his hands in impotent self-contempt. And yet at the back of his man's soul he knew that by that very forbearance his every natural impulse condemned, he had strengthened his position, he had laid the foundation-stone of a fabric that would endure against storm and tempest. The house that he would build would be an abiding-place—no swiftly raised tent upon the sand. It would take time to build it, infinite care, possibly untold sacrifice. But when built, it would be absolutely solid, proof for all time against every wind that blew. For every stone would be laid with care and made fast with the cement that is indestructible. And it would be founded upon a rock.

So, as at last he drifted into sleep, Guy lying in a deathlike immobility by his side, there came to him the conviction that what he had done had been well done, done in a good cause, and acceptable to the Master Builder at Whose Behest he was vaguely conscious that all great things are achieved.



CHAPTER VI

THE RETURN

When the morning broke upon Blue Hill Farm the sand-storm had blown itself out. With brazen splendour the sun arose to burn the parched earth anew, but Sylvia was before it. With the help of Fair Rosamond and, Joe, the boy, she was preparing a small wooden hut close by for the reception of a guest. He should not go back to that wretched cabin on the sand if she could prevent it. He should be treated with honour. He should be made to feel that to her—and to Burke—his welfare was a matter of importance.

She longed to know how Burke had fared upon his quest. She yearned, even while she dreaded, to see the face which once had been all the world to her. That he had ceased to fill her world was a fact that she frankly admitted to herself just as she realized that she felt no bitterness towards this man who had so miserably failed her. Her whole heart now was set upon drawing him back from the evil paths down which he had strayed. When that was done, when Guy was saved from the awful destruction that menaced him, then there might come time for other thoughts, other interests. Since Burke had acceded to her urgent request so obviously against his will, her feelings had changed towards him. A warmth of gratitude had filled her, It had been so fine of him to yield to her like that.

But somehow she could not suffer her thoughts to dwell upon Burke just then. Always something held her back, restraining her, filling her with a strange throbbing agitation that she herself must check, lest it should overwhelm her. Instinctively, almost with a sense of self-preservation, she turned her mind away from him. And she was too busy—much too busy—to sit and dream.

When the noon-day heat waxed fierce, she had to rest, though it required her utmost strength of will to keep herself quiet, lying listening with straining ears to the endless whirring of countless insects in the silence of the veldt.

It was with unspeakable relief that she arose from this enforced inactivity and, as evening drew on, resumed her work. She was determined that Guy should be comfortable when he came. She knew that it was more than possible that he would not come that day, but she could not leave anything unfinished. It was so important that he should realize his welcome from the very first moment of arrival.

All was finished at last even to her satisfaction. She stood alone in the rough hut that she had turned into as dainty a guest-chamber as her woman's ingenuity could devise, and breathed a sigh of contentment, feeling that she had not worked in vain. Surely he would feel at home here! Surely, even though through his weakness they had had to readjust both their lives, by love and patience a place of healing might be found. It was impossible to analyze her feelings towards him, but she was full of hope. Again she fell to wondering how Burke had fared.

At sunset she went out and saddled the horse he had given her as a wedding-present, Diamond, a powerful animal, black save for a white mark on his head from which he derived his name. She and Diamond were close friends, and in his company her acute restlessness began to subside. She rode him out to the kopje, but she did not go round to view the lonely cabin above the stony watercourse. She did not want to think of past troubles, only to cherish the hope for the future that was springing in her heart.

She was physically tired, but Diamond seemed to understand, and gave her no trouble. For awhile they wandered in the sunset light, she with her face to the sky and the wonderful mauve streamers of cloud that spread towards her from the west. Then, as the light faded, she rode across the open veldt to the rough road by which they must come.

It wound away into the gathering dusk where no lights gleamed, and a strong sense of desolation came to her, as it were, out of the desert and gripped her soul. For the first time she looked forward with foreboding.

None came along the lonely track. She heard no sound of hoofs. She tried to whistle a tune to keep herself cheery, but very soon it failed. The silent immensity of the veldt enveloped her. She had a forlorn feeling of being the only living being in all that vastness, except for a small uneasy spirit out of the great solitudes that wandered to and fro and sometimes fanned her with an icy breath that made her start and shiver.

She turned her horse's head at last. "Come, Diamond, we'll go home."

The word slipped from her unawares, but the moment she had uttered it she remembered, and a warm flush mounted in her cheeks. Was it really home to her—that abode in the wilderness to which Burke Ranger had brought her? Had she come already to regard it as she had once regarded that dear home of her childhood from which she had been so cruelly ousted?

The thought of the old home went through her with a momentary pang. Did her father ever think of her now, she wondered? Was he happy himself? She had written to him after her marriage to Burke, telling him all the circumstances thereof. It had been a difficult letter to write. She had not dwelt overmuch upon Guy's part because she could not bring herself to do so. But she had tried to make the position intelligible to him, and she hoped she had succeeded.

But no answer had come to her. Since leaving England, she had received letters from one or two friends, but not one from her old home. It was as if she had entered another world. Already she had grown so accustomed to it that she felt as if she had known it for years. And she had no desire to return. The thought of the summer gaieties she was foregoing inspired her with no regret. Isolated though she was, she was not unhappy. She had only just begun to realize it, and not yet could she ask herself wherefore.

A distinct chill began to creep round her with the approach of night. She lifted the bridle, and Diamond broke into a trot. Back to Blue Hill Farm they went, leaving the silence and the loneliness behind them as they drew near. Mary Ann was scolding the girl from the open door of the kitchen. Her shrill vituperations banished all retrospection from Sylvia's mind. She found herself laughing as she slipped to the ground and handed the horse over to Joe.

Then she went within, calling to the girl to light the lamps. There was still mending to be done in Burke's wardrobe. She possessed herself of some socks, and went to their sitting-room. Her former restlessness was returning, but she resolutely put it from her, and for more than an hour she worked steadily at her task. Then, the socks finished, she took up a book on cattle-raising and tried to absorb herself in its pages.

She soon realized, however, that this was quite hopeless, and, at last, in desperation she flung on a cloak and went outside. The night was still, the sky a wonderland of stars. She paced to and fro with her face uplifted to the splendour for a long, long time. And still there came no sound of hoofs along the lonely track.

Gradually she awoke to the fact that she was getting very tired. She began to tell herself that she had been too hopeful. They would not come that night.

Her knees were getting shaky, and she went indoors. A cold supper had been spread. She sat down and partook of food, scarcely realizing what she ate. Then, reviving, she rallied herself on her foolishness. Of course they would not come that night. She had expected too much, had worn herself out to no purpose. She summoned her common sense to combat her disappointment, and commanded herself sternly to go to bed before exhaustion overtook her. She had behaved like a positive idiot. It was high time she pulled herself together.

It was certainly growing late. Mary Ann and her satellites had already retired to their own quarters some little distance from the bungalow. She was quite alone in the eerie silence. Obviously, bed was the only place if she did not mean to sit and shiver with sheer nervousness. Stoutly she collected her mental forces and retreated to her room. She was so tired that she knew she would sleep if she could control her imagination.

This she steadfastly set herself to do, with the result that sleep came to her at last, and in her weariness she sank into a deep slumber that, undisturbed by any outside influence, would have lasted throughout the night. She had left a lamp burning in the sitting-room that adjoined her bedroom, and the door between ajar, so that she was not lying in complete darkness. She had done the same the previous night, and had felt no serious qualms. The light scarcely reached her, but it was a comfort to see it at hand when she opened her eyes. It gave her a sense of security, and she slept the more easily because of it.

So for an hour or more she lay in unbroken slumber; then, like a cloud arising out of her sea of oblivion, there came to her again that dream of two horsemen galloping. It was a terrible dream, all the more terrible because she knew so well what was coming. Only this time, instead of the ledge along the ravine, she saw them clearly outlined against the sky, racing from opposite directions along a knife-edge path that stood up, sharp and jagged, between two precipices.

With caught breath she stood apart and watched in anguished expectation, watched as if held by some unseen force, till there came the inevitable crash, the terrible confusion of figures locked in deadly combat, and then the hurtling fall of a single horseman down that frightful wall of rock. His face gleamed white for an instant, and then was gone. Was it Guy? Was it Burke? She knew not. . . .

It was then that strength returned to her, and she sprang up, crying wildly, every pulse alert and pricking her to action. She fled across the room, instinctively seeking the light, stumbled on the threshold, and fell headlong into the arms of a man who stood just beyond. They closed upon her instantly, supporting her. She lay, gasping hysterically, against his breast.

"Easy! Easy!" he said. "Did I startle you?"

It was Burke's voice, very deep and low. She felt the steady beat of his heart as he held her.

Her senses returned to her and with them an overwhelming embarrassment that made her swiftly withdraw herself from him. He let her go, and she retreated into the darkness behind her.

"What is it, partner?" he said gently. "You've nothing to be afraid of."

There was no reproach in his voice, yet something within reproached her instantly. She put on slippers and dressing-gown and went back to him.

"I've had a stupid dream," she said. "I expect I heard your horse outside. So—you have come back alone!"

"He has gone back to his own cabin," Burke said.

"Burke!" She looked at him with startled, reproachful eyes. Her hair lay in a fiery cloud about her shoulders, and fire burned in her gaze as she faced him.

He made a curious gesture as if he restrained some urging impulse, not speaking for a moment. When his voice came again it sounded cold, with an odd note of defiance. "I've done my best."

She still looked at him searchingly. "Why wouldn't he come here?" she said.

He turned from her with a movement that almost seemed to indicate impatience "He preferred not to. There isn't much accommodation here. Besides, he can very well fend for himself. He's used to it."

"I have been preparing for him all day," Sylvia said. She looked at him anxiously, struck by something unusual in his pose, and noted for the first time a wide strip of plaster on one side of his chin. "Is all well?" she questioned. "How have you hurt your face?"

He did not look at her. "Yes, all's well," he said. "I cut myself—shaving. You go back to bed! I'm going to refresh before I turn in."

Sylvia turned to a cupboard in the room where she had placed some eatables before retiring. She felt chill with foreboding. What was it that Burke was hiding behind that curt manner? She was sure there was something.

"What will Guy do for refreshment?" she said, as she set dishes and plates upon the table.

"He'll have some tinned stuff in that shanty of his," said Burke.

She turned from the table with abrupt resolution. "Have something to eat, partner," she said, "and then tell me all about it!"

She looked for the sudden gleam of his smile, but she looked in vain. He regarded her, indeed, but it was with sombre eyes.

"You go back to bed!" he reiterated. "There is no necessity for you to stay up. You can see him for yourself in the morning."

He would have seated himself at the table with the words, but she laid a quick, appealing hand upon his arm, deterring him. "Burke!" she said. "What is the matter? Please tell me!"

She felt his arm grow rigid under her fingers. And then with a suddenness that electrified her he moved, caught her by the wrists and drew her to him, locking her close.

"You witch!" he said. "You—enchantress! How shall I resist you?"

She uttered a startled gasp; there was no time for more ere his lips met hers in a kiss so burning, so compelling, that it reft from her all power of resistance. One glimpse she had of his eyes, and it was as if she looked into the deep, deep heart of the fire unquenchable.

She wanted to cry out, so terrible was the sight, but his lips sealed her own. She lay helpless in his hold.

Afterwards she realized that she must have been near to fainting, for when at the end of those wild moments of passion he let her go, her knees gave way beneath her and she could not stand. Yet instinctively she gripped her courage with both hands. He had startled her, appalled her even, but there was a fighting strain in Sylvia, and she flung dismay away. She held his arm in a quivering grasp. She smiled a quivering smile. And these were the bravest acts she had ever forced herself to perform.

"You've done it now, partner!" she said shakily. "I'm nearly—squeezed—to death!"

"Sylvia!" he said.

Amazement, contrition, and even a curious dash of awe, were in his voice. He put his arm about her, supporting her.

She leaned against him, panting, her face downcast. "It's—all right," she told him. "I told you you might sometimes, didn't I? Only—you—were a little sudden, and I wasn't prepared. I believe you've been having a rotten time. Sit down now, and have something to eat!"

But he did not move though there was no longer violence in his hold. He spoke deeply, above her bent head. "I can't stand this farce much longer. I'm only human after all, and there is a limit to everything. I can't keep at arm's length for ever. Flesh and blood won't bear it."

She did not lift her head, but stood silent within the circle of his arm. It was as if she waited for something. Then, after a moment or two, she began to rub his sleeve lightly up and down, her hand not very steady.

"You're played out, partner," she said. "Don't let's discuss things to-night! They are sure to look different in the morning."

"And if they don't?" said Burke.

She glanced up at him with again that little quivering smile. "Well, then, we'll talk," she said, "till we come to an understanding."

He put his hand on her shoulder. "Sylvia, don't—play with me!" he said.

His tone was quiet, but it held a warning that brought her eyes to his in a flash. She stood so for a few seconds, facing him, and her breast heaved once or twice as if breathing had become difficult.

At last, "There was no need to say that to me, partner," she said, in a choked voice. "You don't know me—even as well as—as you might—if you—if you took the trouble." She paused a moment, and put her hand to her throat. Her eyes were full of tears. "And now—good night!" she said abruptly.

Her tone was a command. He let her go, and in an instant the door had closed between them. He stood motionless, waiting tensely for the shooting of the bolt; but it did not come. He only heard instead a faint sound of smothered sobbing.

For a space he stood listening, his face drawn into deep lines, his hands hard clenched. Then at length with a bitter gesture he flung himself down at the table.

He was still sitting motionless a quarter of an hour later, the food untouched before him, when the intervening door opened suddenly and silently, and like a swooping bird Sylvia came swiftly behind him and laid her two hands on his shoulders.

"Partner dear, I've been a big idiot. Will you forgive me?" she said.

Her voice was tremulous. It still held a sound of tears. She tried to keep out of his sight as he turned in his chair.

"Don't—don't stare at me!" she said, and slipped coaxing arms that trembled round his neck, locking her hands tightly in front of him. "You hurt me a bit—though I don't think you meant to. And now I've hurt you—quite a lot. I didn't mean it either, partner. So let's cry quits! I've forgiven you. Will you try to forgive me?"

He sat quite still for a few seconds, and in the silence shyly she laid her cheek down against the back of his head. He moved then, and very gently clasped the trembling hands that bound him. But still he did not speak.

"Say it's all right!" she urged softly. "Say you're not cross or—or anything!"

"I'm not," said Burke very firmly.

"And don't—don't ever think I want to play with you!" she pursued, a catch in her voice. "That's not me, partner. I'm sorry I'm so very unsatisfactory. But—anyhow that's not the reason."

"I know the reason," said Burke quietly.

"You don't," she rejoined instantly. "But never mind that now! You don't know anything whatever about me, partner. I can't say I even know myself very intimately just now. I feel as if—as if I've been blindfolded, and I can't see anything at all just yet. So will you try to be patient with me? Will you—will you—go on being a pal to me till the bandage comes off again? I—want a pal—rather badly, partner."

Her pleading voice came muffled against him. She was clinging to him very tightly. He could feel her fingers straining upon each other. He stroked them gently.

"All right, little girl. All right," he said.

His tone must have reassured her, for she slipped round and knelt beside him. "I'd like you to kiss me," she said, and lifted a pale face and tear-bright eyes to his,

He took her head between his hands, and she saw that he was moved. He bent in silence, and would have kissed her brow, but she raised her lips instead. And shyly she returned his kiss.

"You're so—good to me," she said, in a whisper. "Thank you—so much."

He said no word in answer. Mutely he let her go.



CHAPTER VII

THE GUEST

When Sylvia met her husband again, it was as if they had never been parted or any cloud arisen to disturb the old frank comradeship.

They breakfasted at daybreak before riding out over the lands, and their greeting was of the most commonplace description. Later, as they rode together across the barren veldt, Burke told her a little of his finding of Guy at Brennerstadt. He did not dwell upon any details, but by much that he left unsaid Sylvia gathered that the task had not been easy.

"He knows about—me?" she ventured presently, with hesitation.

"Yes," Burke said.

"Was he—surprised?" she asked.

"No. He knew long ago."

She asked no more. It had been difficult enough to ask so much. And she would soon see Guy for herself. She would not admit even to her own secret soul how greatly she was dreading that meeting now that it was so near.

Perhaps Burke divined something of her feeling in the matter, however, for at the end of a prolonged silence he said, "I thought I would fetch him over to lunch,—unless you prefer to ride round that way first."

"Oh, thank you," she said. "That is good of you."

As they reached the bungalow, she turned to him with a sudden question. "Burke, you didn't—really—cut your chin so badly shaving. Did you?"

She met the swift flash of his eyes without trepidation, refusing to be intimidated by the obvious fact that the question was unwelcome.

"Did you?" she repeated with insistence. He uttered a brief laugh. "All right, I didn't. And that's all there is to it."

"Thank you, partner," she returned with spirit, and changed the subject. But her heart had given a little throb of dismay within her. Full well she knew the reason of his reticence.

They parted before the stoep, he leading her animal away, she going within to attend to the many duties of her household.

She filled her thoughts with these resolutely during the morning, but in spite of this it was the longest morning she had ever known.

She was at length restlessly superintending the laying of lunch when Joe hurried in with the news that a baas was waiting on the stoep round the corner to see her. The news startled her. She had heard no sounds of arrival, nor had Burke returned. For a few moments she was conscious of a longing to escape that was almost beyond her, control, then with a sharp effort she commanded herself and went out.

Turning the corner of the bungalow, she came upon him very suddenly, standing upright against one of the pillar-supports, awaiting her. He was alone, and a little throb of thankfulness went through her that this was so. She knew in that moment that she could not have borne to meet him for the first time in Burke's presence.

She was trembling as she went forward, but the instant their hands met her agitation fell away from her, for she suddenly realized that he was trembling also.

No conventional words came to her lips. How could she ever be conventional with Guy? And it was Guy—Guy in the flesh—who stood before her, so little altered in appearance from the Guy she had known five years before that the thought flashed through her mind that he looked only as if he had come through a sharp illness. She had expected far worse, though she realized now what Burke had meant when he had said that whatever resemblance had once existed between them, they were now no longer alike. He had not developed as she had expected. In Burke, she seemed to see the promise of Guy's youth. But Guy himself had not fulfilled that promise. He had degenerated. He had proved himself a failure. And yet he did not look coarsened or hardened by vice. He only looked, to her pitiful, inexperienced eyes, as if he had been ravaged by some sickness, as if he had suffered intensely and were doomed to suffer as long as he lived.

That was the first impression she received of him, and it was that that made her clasp his hand in both her own and hold it fast.

"Oh, Guy!" she said. "How ill you look!"

His fingers closed hard upon hers. He did not attempt to meet her earnest gaze. "So you got married to Burke!" he said, ignoring her exclamation. "It was the best thing you could do. He may not be exactly showy, but he's respectable. I wonder you want to speak to me after the way I let you down."

The words were cool, almost casual; yet his hand still held hers in a quivering grasp. There was something in that grasp that seemed to plead for understanding. He flashed her a swift look from eyes that burned with a fitful, feverish fire out of deep hollows. How well she remembered his eyes! But they had never before looked at her thus. With every moment that passed she realized that the change in him was greater than that first glance had revealed.

"Of course I want to speak to you!" she said gently. "I forgave you long ago—as, I hope, you have forgiven me."

"I!" he said. "My dear girl, be serious!"

Somehow his tone pierced her. There was an oddly husky quality in his voice that seemed to veil emotion. The tears sprang to her eyes before she was aware.

"Whatever happens then, we are friends," she said. "Remember that always, won't you? It—it will hurt me very much if you don't."

"Bless your heart!" said Guy, and smiled a twisted smile. "You were always generous, weren't you? Too generous sometimes. What did you want to rake me out of my own particular little comer of hell for? Was it a mistaken idea of kindness or merely curiosity? I wasn't anyhow doing you any harm there."

His words, accompanied by that painful smile, went straight to her heart. "Ah, don't—don't!" she said. "Did you think I could forget you so easily, or be any thing but wretched while you were there?"

He looked at her again, this time intently, "What can you be made of, Sylvia?" he said. "Do you mean to say you found it easy to forgive me?"

She dashed the tears from her eyes. "I don't remember that I was ever—angry with you," she said. "Somehow I realized—from the very first—that—that—it was just—bad luck."

"You amaze me!" he said.

She smiled at him. "Do I? I don't quite see why. Is it so amazing that one should want to pass on and make the best of things? That is how I feel now. It seems so long ago, Guy,—like another existence almost. It is too far away to count."

"Are you talking of the old days?" he broke in, in a voice that grated. "Or of the time a few weeks ago when you got here to find yourself stranded?"

She made a little gesture of protest. "It wasn't for long. I don't want to think of it. But it might have been much worse. Burke was—is still—so good to me."

"Is he?" said Guy. He was looking at her curiously, and instinctively she turned away, avoiding his eyes.

"Come and have some lunch!" she said. "He ought to be in directly."

"He is in," said Guy. "He went round to the stable."

It was another instance of Burke's goodness that he had not been present at their meeting. She turned to lead the way within with a warm feeling at her heart. It was solely due to this consideration of his that she had not suffered the most miserable embarrassment. Somehow she felt that she could not possibly have endured that first encounter in his presence. But now that it was over, now that she had made acquaintance with this new Guy—this stranger with Guy's face, Guy's voice, but not Guy's laugh or any of the sparkling vitality that had been his—she felt she wanted him. She needed his help. For surely now he knew Guy better than she did!

It was with relief that she heard his step, entering from the back of the house. He came in, whistling carelessly, and she glanced instinctively at Guy. That sound had always made her think of him. Had he forgotten how to whistle also, she wondered?

She expected awkwardness, constraint; but Burke surprised her by his ease of manner. Above all, she noticed that he was by no means kind to Guy. He treated him with a curt friendliness from which all trace of patronage was wholly absent. His attitude was rather that of brother than host, she reflected. And its effect upon Guy was of an oddly bracing nature. The semi-defiant air dropped from him. Though still subdued, his manner showed no embarrassment. He even, as time passed, became in a sardonic fashion almost jocose.

In company with Burke, he drank lager-beer, and he betrayed not the smallest desire to drink too much. Furtively she watched him throughout the meal, trying to adjust her impressions, trying to realize him as the lover to whom she had been faithful for so long, the lover who had written those always tender, though quite uncommunicative letters, the lover, who had cabled her his welcome, and then had so completely and so cruelly failed her.

Her ideas of him were a whirl of conflicting notions which utterly bewildered her. Of one thing only did she become very swiftly and surely convinced, and that was that in failing her he had saved her from a catastrophe which must have eclipsed her whole life. Whatever he was, whatever her feelings for him, she recognized that this man was not the mate her girlish dreams had so fondly pictured. Probably she would have realized this in any case from the moment of their meeting, but circumstances might have compelled her to join her life to his. And then———

Her look passed from him to Burke, and instinctively she breathed a sigh of thankfulness. He had saved her from much already, and his rock-like strength stood perpetually between her and evil. For the first time she was consciously glad that she had entrusted herself to him.

At the end of luncheon she realized with surprise that there had not been an awkward moment. They went out on to the stoep to smoke cigarettes when it was over, and drink the coffee which she went to prepare. It was when she was coming out with this that she first heard Guy's cough—a most terrible, rending sound that filled her with dismay. Stepping out on to the stoep with her tray, she saw him bent over the back of a chair, convulsed with coughing, and stood still in alarm. She had never before witnessed so painful a struggle. It was as if he fought some demon whose clutch threatened to strangle him.

Burke came to her and took the tray from her hands. "He'll be better directly," he said. "It was the cigarette."

With almost superhuman effort, Guy succeeded in forcing back the monster that seemed to be choking him, but for several minutes thereafter he hung over the chair with his face hidden, fighting for breath.

Burke motioned to Sylvia to sit down, but she would not. She stood by Guy's side, and at length as he grew calmer, laid a gentle hand upon his arm.

"Come and sit down, Guy. Would you like some water?"

He shook his head. "No—no! Give me—that damned cigarette!"

"Don't you be a fool!" said Burke, but he said it kindly. "Sit down and be quiet for a bit!"

He came up behind Guy, and took him by the shoulders. Sylvia saw with surprise the young man yield without demur, and suffer himself to be put into the chair where with an ashen face he lay for a space as if afraid to move.

Burke drew her aside. "Don't be scared!" he said, "It's nothing new. He'll come round directly."

Guy came round, sat slowly up, and reached a shaking hand towards the table on which lay his scarcely lighted cigarette.

"Oh, don't!" Sylvia said quickly. "See, I have just brought out some coffee. Won't you have some?"

Burke settled the matter by picking up the cigarette and tossing it away.

Guy gave him a queer look from eyes that seemed to bum like red coals, but he said nothing whatever. He took the coffee Sylvia held out to him and drank it as if parched with thirst.

Then he turned to her. "Sorry to have made such an exhibition of myself. It's all this infernal sand. Yes, I'll have some more, please. It does me good. Then I'll get back to my own den and have a sleep."

"You can sleep here," Burke said unexpectedly. "No one will disturb you. Sylvia never sits here in the afternoon."

Again Sylvia saw that strange look in Guy's eyes, a swift intent glance and then the instant falling of the lids.

"You're very—kind," said Guy. "But I think I'll get back to my own quarters all the same."

Impulsively Sylvia intervened. "Oh, Guy, please,—don't go back to that horrible little shanty on the sand! I got a room all ready for you yesterday—if you will only use it."

He turned to her. For a second his look was upon her also, and it seemed to her in that moment that she and Burke had united cruelly to bait some desperate animal. It sent such a shock through her that she shrank in spite of herself.

And then for the first time she heard Guy laugh, and it was a sound more dreadful than his cough had been, a catching, painful sound that was more like a cry—the hunger-cry of a prowling beast of the desert.

He got up as he uttered it, and stretched his arms above his head. She saw that his hands were clenched.

"Oh, don't overdo it, I say!" he begged. "Hospitality is all very well, but it can be carried too far. Ask Burke if it can't! Besides, two's company and three's the deuce. So I'll be going—and many thanks!"

He was gone with the words, snatching his hat from a chair where he had thrown it, and departing into the glare of the desert with never a backward glance.

Sylvia turned swiftly to her husband, and found his eyes upon her.

"With a gasping cry she caught his arm. Oh, can't you go after him? Can't you bring him back?"

He freed the arm to put it round her, with the gesture of one who comforts a hurt child. "My dear, it's no good," he said. "Let him go!"

"But, Burke—" she cried. "Oh, Burke——"

"I know," he made answer, still soothing her. "But it can't be done—anyhow at present. You'll drive him away if you attempt it. I know. I've done it. Leave him alone till the devil has gone out of him! He'll come back then—and be decent—for a time."

His meaning was unmistakable. The force of what he said drove in upon her irresistibly. She burst into tears, hiding her face against his shoulder in her distress.

"But how dreadful! Oh, how dreadful! He is killing himself. I think—the Guy—I knew—is dead already."

"No, he isn't," Burke said, and he held her with sudden closeness as he said it. "He isn't—and that's the hell of it. But you can't save him. No one can."

She lifted her face sharply. There was something intolerable in the words. With the tears upon her cheeks she challenged them.

"He can be saved! He must be saved! I'll do it somehow—somehow!"

"You may try," Burke said, as he suffered her to release herself. "You won't succeed."

She forced a difficult smile with quivering lips. "You don't know me. Where there's a will, there's a way. And I shall find it somehow."

He looked grim for an instant, then smiled an answering smile. "Don't perish in the attempt!" he said. "That do-or-die look of yours is rather ominous. Don't forget you're my partner! I can't spare you, you know."

She uttered a shaky laugh. "Of course you can't. Blue Hill Farm would go to pieces without me, wouldn't it? I've often thought I'm quite indispensable."

"You are to me," said Burke briefly; and ere the quick colour had sprung to her face, he also had gone his way.



CHAPTER VIII

THE INTERRUPTION

Sylvia meant to ride round to Guy's hut in search of him that evening, but when the time came something held her back.

Burke's words, "You'll drive him away," recurred to her again and again, and with them came a dread of intruding that finally prevailed against her original intention. He must not think for a moment that she desired to spy upon him, even though that dreadful craving in his eyes haunted her perpetually, urging her to action. It seemed inevitable that for a time at least he must fight his devil alone, and with all her strength she prayed that he might overcome.

In the end she rode out with Burke, covering a considerable distance, and returning tired in body but refreshed in mind.

They had supper together as usual, but when it was over he surprised her by taking up his hat again.

"You are going out?" she said.

"I'm going to have a smoke with Guy," he said. "You have a game of Patience, and then go to bed!"

She looked at him uncertainly. "I'll come with you," she said.

He was filling his pipe preparatory to departure. "You do as I say!" he said.

She tried to laugh though she saw his face was grim. "You're getting rather despotic, partner. I shall have to nip that in the bud. I'm not going to stay at home and play Patience all by myself. There!"

He raised his eyes abruptly from his task, and suddenly her heart was beating fast and hard. "All right," he said. "We'll stay at home together."

His tone was brief, but it thrilled her. She was afraid to speak for a moment or two lest he should see her strange agitation. Then, as he still looked at her, "Oh no, partner," she said lightly. "That wouldn't be the same thing at all. I am much too fond of my own company to object to solitude. I only thought I would like to come, too. I love the veldt at night."

"Do you?" he said. "I wonder what has taught you to do that."

He went on with the filling of his pipe as he spoke, and she was conscious of quick relief. His words did not seem to ask for an answer, and she made none.

"When are you going to take me to Ritzen?" she asked instead.

"To Ritzen!" He glanced up again in surprise. "Do you want to go to Ritzen?"

"Or Brennerstadt," she said, "Whichever is the best shopping centre."

"Oh!" He began to smile. "You want to shop, do you? What do you want to buy?"

She looked at him severely. "Nothing for myself, I am glad to say."

"What! Something for me?" His smile gave him that look—that boyish look—which once she had loved so dearly upon Guy's face. She felt as if something were pulling at her heart. She ignored it resolutely.

"You will have to buy it for yourself," she told him sternly. "I've got nothing to buy it with. It's something you ought to have got long ago—if you had any sense of decency."

"What on earth is it?" Burke dropped his pipe into his pocket and gave her his full attention.

Sylvia, with a cigarette between her lips, got up to find the matches. She lighted it very deliberately under his watching eyes, then held out the match to him. "Light up, and I'll tell you."

He took the slender wrist, blew out the match, and held her, facing him.

"Sylvia," he said. "I ought to have gone into the money question with you before. But all I have is yours. You know that, don't you?"

She laughed at him through the smoke. "I know where you keep it anyhow, partner," she said. "But I shan't take any—so you needn't be afraid."

"Afraid!" he said, still holding her. "But you are to take it. Understand? It's my wish."

She blew the smoke at him, delicately, through pursed lips. "Good my lord, I don't want it. Couldn't spend it if I had it. So now!"

"Then what is it I am to buy?" he said.

Lightly she answered him. "Oh, you will only do the paying part. I shall do the choosing—and the bargaining, if necessary."

"Well, what is it?" Still he held her, and there was something of insistence, something of possession, in his hold.

Possibly she had never before seemed more desirable to him—or more elusive. For she was beginning to realize and to wield her power. Again she took a whiff from her cigarette, and wafted it at him through laughing lips.

"I want some wool—good wool—and a lot of it, to knit some socks—for you. Your present things are disgraceful."

His look changed a little. His eyes shone through the veil of smoke she threw between them, "I can buy ready-made socks. I'm not going to let you make them—or mend them."

Sylvia's red lips expressed scorn. "Ready-made rubbish! No, sir. With your permission I prefer to make. Then perhaps I shall have less mending to do."

He was drawing her to him and she did not actively resist, though there was no surrender in her attitude.

"And why won't you have any money?" he said. "We are partners."

She laughed lightly. "And you give me board and lodging. I am not worth more."

He looked her in the eyes. "Are you afraid to take too much—lest I should want too much in return?"

She did not answer. She was trembling a little in his hold, but her eyes met his fearlessly.

He put up a hand and took the cigarette very gently from her lips. "Sylvia, I'm going to tell you something—if you'll listen."

He paused a moment. She was suddenly throbbing from head to foot.

"What is it?" she whispered.

He snuffed out the cigarette with his fingers and put it in his pocket. Then he bent to her, his hand upon her shoulder.

His lips were open to speak, and her silence waited for the words, when like the sudden rending of the heavens there came an awful sound close to them, so close that is shook the windows in their frames and even seemed to shake the earth under their feet.

Sylvia started back with a cry, her hands over her face. "Oh, what—what—what is that?"

Burke was at the window in a second. He wrenched it open, and as he did so there came the shock of a thudding fall. A man's figure, huddled up like an empty sack lay across the threshold. It sank inwards with the opening of the window, and Guy's face white as death, with staring, senseless eyes, lay upturned to the lamplight.

Something jingled on the floor as his inert form collapsed, and a smoking revolver dropped at Burke's feet.

He picked it up sharply, uncocked it and laid it on the table. Then he stooped over the prostrate body. The limbs were twitching spasmodically, but the movement was wholly involuntary. The deathlike face testified to that. And through the grey flannel shirt above the heart a dark stain spread and spread.

"He is dead!" gasped Sylvia at Burke's shoulder.

"No," Burke said.

He opened the shirt with the words and exposed the wound beneath. Sylvia shrank at the sight of the welling blood, but Burke's voice steadied her.

"Get some handkerchiefs and towels," he said, "and make a wad! We must stop this somehow."

His quietness gave her strength. Swiftly she moved to do his bidding.

Returning, she found that he had stretched the silent figure full length upon the floor. The convulsive movements had wholly ceased. Guy lay like a dead man.

She knelt beside Burke. "Tell me what to do and I'll do it! I'll do—anything!"

"All right," he said. "Get some cold water!"

She brought it, and he soaked some handkerchiefs and covered the wound.

"I think we shall stop it," he said. "Help me to get this thing under his shoulders! I shall have to tie him up tight. I'll lift him while you get it underneath."

She was perfectly steady as she followed his instructions, and even though in the process her hands were stained with Guy's blood, she did not shrink again. It was no easy task, but Burke's skill and strength of muscle accomplished it at last. Across Guy's body he looked at her with a certain grim triumph.

"Well played, partner! That's the first move. Are you all right?"

She saw by his eyes that her face betrayed the horror at her heart. She tried to smile at him, but her lips felt stiff and cold. Her look went back to the ashen face on the floor.

"What—what must be done next?" she said.

"He will have to stay as he is till we can get a doctor," Burke answered. "The bleeding has stopped for the present, but—" He broke off.

"Child, how sick you look!" he said. "Here, come and wash! There's nothing more to be done now."

She got up, feeling her knees bend beneath her but controlling them with rigid effort. "I—am all right," she said. "You—you think he isn't dead?"

Burke's hand closed upon her elbow. "He's not dead,—no! He may die of course, but I don't fancy he will at present,—not while he lies like that."

He was drawing her out of the room, but she resisted him suddenly. "I can't go. I can't leave him—while he lives. Burke, don't, please, bother about me! Are you—are you going to fetch a doctor?"

"Yes," said Burke.

She looked at him, her eyes wide and piteous. "Then please go now—go quickly! I—will stay with him till you come back."

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