Sylvia hesitated. She knew this man for a friend, and she trusted him without knowing why; but she could not speak with freedom to anyone of Guy and his sins.
But again the Irishman saw and closed the breach. His shrewd eyes smiled kindly comprehension. "Ah, but he's a difficult youngster," he said. "Maybe he'll mend his ways as he gets older. We do sometimes, Mrs. Ranger. Anyhow, with all his faults he's got the heart of a gentleman. I've known him do things—decent things—that only a gentleman would have thought of doing. I've punched his head for him before now, but I've always liked young Guy. It's the same with Burke. You can't help liking the fellow."
"I don't think Burke likes him," Sylvia said almost involuntarily.
"Then, begging your pardon, you're wrong," said Kelly. "Burke loves him like a brother. I know that all right. No, he'll never say so. He's not the sort. But it's the truth, all the same. He's about the biggest disappointment in Burke's life. He'd never have left him to sink if he hadn't been afraid the boy would shoot himself if he did anything else."
"Ah!" Sylvia said again, with a sharp catch in her breath. "That was what he was afraid of."
"Sure, that was it," said Kelly cheerfully. "You'll generally find that that good man of yours has a pretty decent reason for everything he does. It isn't often he loses his head—or his temper. He's a fine chap to be friendly with, but a divil to cross."
"Yes. I've heard that before," Sylvia said, with a valiant little smile. "I should prefer to be friendly with him myself."
"Ah, sure and you're right," said Kelly. "But is it yourself that could be anything else? Why, he worships the very ground under your feet. I saw that clear as daylight that time at Brennerstadt."
She felt her heart quicken a little. "How—clever of you!" she said.
He nodded with beaming appreciation of the compliment. "You'll find my conclusions are generally pretty near the mark," he said. "It isn't difficult to know what's in the minds of the people you're fond of. Now is it?"
She stifled a sigh. "I don't know. I'm not very good at thought-reading myself."
He chuckled like a merry child. "Ah, then you come to me, Mrs. Ranger!" he said. "I'll be proud to help ye any time."
"I expect you help most people," she said. "You are everybody's friend."
"I do my best," said Donovan Kelly modestly. "And, faith, a very pleasant occupation it is."
The wind went down somewhat at sunset and Sylvia realized with relief that the worst was over. She sat listening for the return of Burke and Guy while her companion chatted cheerfully of a thousand things which might have interested her at any other time but to which now she gave but fitful attention.
He was in the midst of telling her about the draw for the great diamond at Brennerstadt and how the tickets had been reduced from monkeys to ponies because the monkeys were too shy, when there came the sound for which she waited—a hand upon the window-catch and the swirl of sand blown in by the draught as it opened.
She was up in a moment, guarding the candle and looking out over it with eager, half-dazzled eyes. For an instant her look met Burke's as he stood in the aperture, then swiftly travelled to the man with him. Guy, with a ghastly face that tried to smile, was hanging upon him for support.
Burke shut the window with decision and stood staring at Sylvia's companion.
Kelly at once proceeded with volubility to explain his presence. "Ah, yes, it's meself in the flesh, Burke, and very pleased to see ye. I've taken a holiday to come and do ye a good turn. And Mrs. Ranger has been entertaining me like a prince in your absence. So you've got young Guy with you! What's the matter with the boy?"
"I'm all right," said Guy, and quitted his hold upon Burke as if to demonstrate the fact.
But Burke took him by the arm and led him to a chair. "You sit down!" he commanded briefly. "Hullo, Donovan! Glad to see you! Have you had a drink?"
"Sure, I've had all that mortal man could desire and more to it," declared Kelly.
"Good," said Burke, and turned to Sylvia. "Get out the brandy, will you?"
She hastened to do his bidding. There was a blueness about Guy's lips that frightened her, and she saw that his hands were clenched.
Yet, as Burke bent over him a few moments later, he laughed with something of challenge in, his eyes. "Ripping sport, old chap!" he said, and drank with a feverish eagerness.
Burke's hand was on his shoulder. She could not read his expression, but she was aware of something unusual between them, something that was wholly outside her experience. Then he spoke, his voice very quiet and steady.
"Go slow, man! You've had a bit of a knockout."
Guy looked across at her, and there was triumph in his look. "It's been—sport," he said again. "Ripping sport!" It was so boyishly uttered, and his whole attitude was so reminiscent of the old days, that she felt herself thrill in answer. She moved quickly to him.
"What has been happening? Tell me!" she said.
He laughed again. "My dear girl, we've been fighting the devil in his own element, and we've beat him off the field." He sprang to his feet. "Here, give me another drink, or I shall die! My throat is a bed of live cinders."
Burke intervened. "No—no! Go slow, I tell you! Go slow! Get some tea, Sylvia! Where are those Kaffirs?"
"They haven't been near all day," Sylvia said. "I frightened Rosamond away this morning, and the others must have been afraid of the storm."
"I'll rout 'em out," said Kelly.
"No. You stay here! I'll go." Burke turned to the door, but paused as he opened it and looked back. "Sylvia!" he said.
She went to him. He put his hand through her arm and drew her into the passage. "Don't let Guy have any more to drink!" he said. "Mind, I leave him to you."
He spoke with urgency; she looked at him in surprise.
"Yes, I mean it," he said. "You must prevent him somehow. I can't—nor Kelly either. You probably can—for a time anyhow."
"I'll do my best," she said.
His hand closed upon her. "If you fail, he'll go under, I know the signs. It's up to you to stop him. Go back and see to it!"
He almost pushed her from him with the words, and it came to her that for some reason Guy's welfare was uppermost with him just then. He had never betrayed any anxiety on his account before, and she wondered greatly at his attitude. But it was no time for questioning. Mutely she obeyed him and went back.
She found Guy in the act of filling a glass for Kelly. His own stood empty at his elbow. She went forward quickly, and laid her hand on his shoulder. "Guy, please!" she said,
He looked at her, the bottle in his hand. In his eyes she saw again that dreadful leaping flame which made her think of some starved and desperate animal. "What is it?" he said.
An overwhelming sense of her own futility came upon her. She felt almost like a child standing there, attempting that of which Burke had declared himself to be incapable.
"What is it?" he said again.
She braced herself for conflict. "Please," she said gently. "I want you to wait and have some tea. It won't take long to get." Then, as the fever of his eyes seemed to burn her: "Please, Guy! Please!"
Kelly put aside his own drink untouched. "There's no refusing such a sweet appeal as that," he declared gallantly. "Guy, I move a postponement. Tea first!"
But Guy was as one who heard not. He was staring at Sylvia, and the wild fire in his eyes was leaping higher, ever higher. In that moment he saw her, and her alone. It was as if they two had suddenly met in a place that none other might enter. His words of the morning rushed back upon her—his passionate declaration that life was not long enough for sacrifice—that the future to which she looked was but a mirage which she would never reach.
It all flashed through her brain in a few short seconds, vivid, dazzling, overwhelming, and the memory of Kieff went with it—Kieff and his cold, sinister assertion that she held Guy's destiny between her hands.
Then, very softly, Guy spoke. "To please—you?" he said.
She answered him, but it was scarcely of her own volition. She was as one driven—"Yes—yes!"
He looked at her closely as if to make sure of her meaning. Then, with a quick, reckless movement, he turned and set down the bottle on the table.
"That settles that," he said boyishly. "Go ahead, Kelly! Drink! Don't mind me! I am—brandy-proof."
And Sylvia, throbbing from head to foot, knew she had conquered, knew she had saved him for a time at least from the threatening evil. But there was that within her which shrank from the thought of the victory. She had acted almost under compulsion, yet she felt that she had used a weapon which would ultimately pierce them both.
She scarcely knew what passed during the interval that followed before Burke's return. As in a dream she heard Kelly still talking about the Brennerstadt diamond, and Guy was asking him questions with a keenness of interest that seemed strange to her. She herself was waiting and watching for Burke, dreading his coming, yet in a fashion eager for it. For very curiously she had a feeling that she needed him. For the first time she wanted to lean upon his strength.
But when at length he came, her dread of him was uppermost and she felt she could not meet his look. It was with relief that she saw Guy was still his first thought. He had fetched Joe from the Kaffir huts, and the lamps were filled and lighted. He was carrying one as he entered, and the light flung upwards on his face showed it to her as the face of a strong man.
He set the lamp on the table and went straight to Guy. "Look here!" he said. "I'm going to put you to bed."
Guy, with his arms on the table, looked up at him and laughed. "Oh, rats! I'm all right. Can't you see I'm all right? Well, I must have some tea first anyway. I've been promised tea."
"I'll bring you your tea in bed," Burke said.
But Guy protested. "No, really, old chap. I must sit up a bit longer. I'll be very good. I want to hear all Kelly's news. I believe I shall have to go back to Brennerstadt with him to paint the town red. I'd like to have a shot at that diamond. You never know your luck when the devil's on your side."
"I know yours," said Burke drily. "And it's about as rotten as it can be. You've put too great a strain on it all your life."
Guy laughed again. He was in the wildest spirits. But suddenly in the midst of his mirth he began to cough with a dry, harsh sound like the rending of wood. He pushed his chair back from the table, and bent himself double, seeming to grope upon the floor. It was the most terrible paroxysm that Sylvia had ever witnessed, and she thought it would never end.
Several times he tried to straighten himself, but each effort seemed to renew the anguish that tore him, and in the end he subsided limply against Burke who supported him till at last the convulsive choking ceased.
He was completely exhausted by that time and offered no remonstrance when Burke and Kelly between them bore him to the former's room and laid him on the bed he had occupied for so long. Burke administered brandy again; there was no help for it. And then at Guy's whispered request he left him for a space to recover.
He drew Sylvia out of the room, and Kelly followed. "I'll go back to him later, and help him undress," he said. "But he will probably get on better alone for the present."
"What has been happening?" Sylvia asked him. "Tell me what has been happening!"
A fevered desire to know everything was upon her. She felt she must know.
Burke looked at her as if something in her eagerness struck him as unusual. But he made no comment upon it. He merely with his customary brevity proceeded to enlighten her.
"We went to Vreiboom's, and had a pretty hot time. Kieff was there too, by the way. The fire got a strong hold, and if the wind, had held, we should probably have been driven out of it, and our own land would have gone too. As it was," he paused momentarily, "well, we have Guy to thank that it didn't."
"Guy!" said Sylvia quickly.
"Yes. He worked like a nigger—better. He's been among hot ashes and that infernal sand for hours. I couldn't get him out. He did the impossible." A curious tremor sounded in Burke's voice—"The impossible!" he said again.
"Sure, I always said there was grit in the boy," said Kelly. "You'll be making a man of him yet, Burke. You'll have to have a good try after this."
Burke was silent. His eyes, bloodshot but keen, were upon Sylvia's face.
It was some moments before with an effort she lifted her own to meet them. "So Guy is a hero!" she said, with a faint uncertain smile. "I'm glad of that."
"Let's drink to him," said Kelly, "now he isn't here to see! Burke, fill up! Mrs. Ranger!"
"No—no!" Sylvia said. "I am going to get the tea."
Yet she paused beside Burke, as if compelled. "What else did he do?" she said. "You haven't told us all."
"Not quite all," said Burke, and still his eyes searched hers with a probing intentness.
"Don't you want to tell me?" she said.
"Yes, I will tell you," he answered, "if you especially want to hear. He saved my life."
"Hooray!" yelled Kelly, in the voice of one holloaing to hounds.
Sylvia said nothing for a moment. She had turned very pale. When she spoke it was with an effort. "How?"
He answered as if speaking to her alone. "One of Vreiboom's tumble-down old sheds fired while we were trying to clear it. The place collapsed and I got pinned inside. Piet Vreiboom didn't trouble himself, or Kieff, either. He wouldn't—naturally. Guy got me out."
"Ah!" she said. It was scarcely more than an intake of the breath. She could not utter another word, for that imprisoned thing within her seemed to be clawing at her heart, choking her. If Burke had died—if Burke had died! She turned herself quickly from the searching of his eyes, lest he should see—and understand. She could not—dared not—show him her soul just then. The memory of his kiss—that single, fiery kiss that had opened her own eyes—held her back. She went from him in silence. If Burke had died!
It was not often that Sylvia lay awake, but that night her brain was in a turmoil, and for long she courted sleep in vain. For some time after she retired, the murmur of Burke's and Kelly's voices in the adjoining room kept her on the alert, but it was mainly the thoughts that crowded in upon her that would not let her rest. The thought of Guy troubled her most, this and the knowledge that Kieff was in the neighbourhood. She had an almost uncanny dread of this man. He seemed to stand in the path as a menace, an evil influence that she could neither avert nor withstand. Burke had barely mentioned him, yet his words had expressed the thought that had sprung instantly to her mind. He was an enemy to them all, most of all to Guy, and she feared him. She had a feeling that she would sooner or later have to fight him for Guy's soul, and she was sick with apprehension. For the only weapon at her disposal was that weapon she dare not wield.
The long night dragged away. She thought it would never end. When sleep came to her at last it was only to bring dreadful dreams in its train. Burke in danger! Burke imprisoned in a burning hut! Burke at the mercy of Kieff, the merciless!
She wrenched herself free from these nightmares in the very early morning while the stars were still in the sky, and went out on to the stoep to banish the evil illusions from her brain. It was still and cold and desolate. The guest-hut in which Kelly was sleeping was closed. There was no sign of life anywhere. A great longing to go out alone on to the veldt came to her. She felt as if the great solitude must soothe her spirit. And it would be good to realize her wish and to see the day break from that favourite kopje of hers.
She turned to re-enter her room for an extra wrap, and then started at sight of another figure standing at the corner of the bungalow. She thought it was Burke, and her heart gave a wild leap within her, but the next moment as it began to move noiselessly towards her, she recognized Guy.
He came to her on stealthy feet. "Hullo!" he whispered. "Can't you sleep?"
She held out her hand to him. "Guy! You ought to be in bed!"
He made an odd grimace, and bending, carried her hand to his lips. "I couldn't sleep either. I've been tormented with a fiery thirst all night long. What has been keeping you awake? Honestly now!"
He laughed into her eyes, and she was aware that he was trying to draw her nearer to him. There was about him at, that moment a subtle allurement that was hard to resist. Old memories thrilled through her at his touch. For five years she had held herself as belonging to him. Could the spell be broken in as many months?
Yet she did resist him, turning her face away. "I can't tell you," she said, a quiver in her voice. "I had a good deal to think about. Guy, what is—Kieff doing at Piet Vreiboom's?"
Guy frowned. "Heaven knows. He is there for his own amusement, not mine."
"You didn't know he was there?" she said, looking at him again.
His frown deepened. "Yes, I knew. Of course I knew. Why?"
Her heart sank. "I don't like him," she said. "I know he is clever. I know he saved your life. But I never did like him. I—am afraid of him."
"Perhaps you would have rather he hadn't saved my life?" suggested Guy, with a twist of the lips. "It would have simplified matters considerably, wouldn't it?"
"Don't!" she said, and withdrew her hand. "You know how it hurts me—to hear you talk like that."
"Why should it hurt you?" said Guy.
She was silent, and he did not press for an answer. Instead, very softly he whistled the air of a song that he had been wont to sing to her half in jest in the old days.
Love that hath us in the net Can he pass and we forget?
She made a little movement of flinching, but the next moment she turned back to him with absolute steadfastness. "Guy, you and I are friends, aren't we? We never could be anything else."
"Oh, couldn't we?" said Guy.
"No," she maintained resolutely. "Please let us remember that! Please let us build on that!"
He looked at her whimsically. "It's a shaky foundation," he said. "But we'll try. That is, we'll pretend if you like. Who knows? We may succeed."
"Don't put it like that!" she said. "Be a man, Guy! I know you can be. Only yesterday——"
"Yesterday? What happened yesterday?" said Guy. "I never remember the yesterdays."
"I think you do," she said. "You did a big thing yesterday. You saved Burke."
"Oh, that!" He uttered a low laugh. "My dear girl, don't canonize me on that account! I only did it because those swine wanted to see him burn."
She shuddered. "That is not true. You know it is not true. It pleases you to pretend you are callous. But you are not at heart. Burke knows that as well as I do,"
"Oh, damn Burke!" he said airly. "He's no great oracle. I wonder what you'd have said if I had come back without him."
She clenched her hands hard to keep back another shudder. "I can't talk of that—can't think of it even. You don't know—you will never realize—all that Burke has done for me."
"Yes, I do know," Guy said. "But most men would have jumped at the chance to do the same. You take it all too seriously. It was no sacrifice to him. You don't owe him anything. He wouldn't have done it if he hadn't taken a fancy to you. And he didn't do it for nothing either. He's not such a philanthropist as that."
Somehow that hurt her intolerably. She looked at him with a quick flash of anger in her eyes. "Do you want to make me hate you?" she said.
He turned instantly and with a most winning gesture. "No, darling. You couldn't if you tried," he said.
She went back a step, shaking her head. "I am not so sure," she said. "Why do you say these horrible things to me?"
He held out his hand to her. "I'm awfully sorry, dear," he said. "But it is for your good. I want you to see life as it is, not as your dear little imagination is pleased to paint it. You are so dreadfully serious always. Life isn't, you know. It really isn't. It's nothing but a stupid and rather vulgar farce."
She gave him her hand, for she could not deny him; but she gave no sign of yielding with it. "Oh, how I wish you would take it more seriously!" she said.
"Do you?" he said. "But what's the good? Who Is it going to benefit if I do? Not myself. I should hate it. And not you. You are much too virtuous to have any use for me."
"Oh, Guy," she said, "Is it never worth while to play the game?"
His hand tightened upon hers. "Look here!" he said suddenly. "Suppose I did as you wish—suppose I did pull up—play the game, as you call it? Suppose I clawed and grabbed for success Like the rest of the world—and got it. Would you care?"
"I wasn't talking of success," she said. "That's no answer." He swung her hand to and fro with vehement impatience. "Suppose you were free—yes, you've got to suppose it just for a moment—suppose you were free—and suppose I came to you with both hands full, and offered you myself and all I possessed—would you send me empty away? Would you? Would you?"
He spoke with a fevered insistence. His eyes were alight and eager. Just so had he spoken in the long ago when she had given him her girlish heart in full and happy surrender.
There was no surrender in her attitude now, but yet she could not, she could not, relentlessly send him from her. He appealed so strongly, with so intense an earnestness.
"I can't imagine these things, Guy," she said at last. "I only ask you—implore you—to do your best to keep straight. It is worth while, believe me. You will find that it is worth while."
"It might be—with you to make it so," he said. "Without you——"
She shook her head. "No—no! For other, better reasons. We have our duty to do. We must do it. It is the only way to be happy. I am sure of that."
"Have you found it so?" he said. "Are you happy?"
He pressed his advantage instantly. "You are not. You know you are not. Do you think you can deceive me even though you may deceive yourself? We have known each other too long for that. You are not happy, Sylvia. You are afraid of life as it is—of life as it might be. You haven't pluck to take your fate into your own hands and hew out a way for yourself. You're the slave of circumstances and you're afraid to break free." He made as if he would release her, and then suddenly, unexpectedly, caught her hand up to his face. "All the same, you are mine—you are mine!" he told her hotly. "You belonged to me from the beginning, and nothing else counts or ever can count against that. I would have died to get out of your way. I tried to die. But you brought me back. And now, say what you like—say what you like—you are mine! I saw it in your eyes last night, and I defy every law that man ever made to take you from me. I defy the thing you call duty. You love me! You have always loved me! Deny it if you can!"
It was swift, it was almost overwhelming. At another moment it might have swept her off her feet. But a greater force was at work within her, and she stood her ground.
She drew her hand away. "Not like that, Guy," she said. "I love you. Yes, I love you. But only as a friend. You—you don't understand me. How should you? I have grown beyond all your knowledge of me. I was a girl in the old days—when we played at love together." A sharp sob rose in her throat, but she stifled it. "All that is over. I am a woman now. My eyes are open,—and—the romance is all gone."
He stiffened as if he had been struck, but only for a second. The next recklessly he laughed. "That is just your way of putting it," he said. "Love doesn't change—like that. It either goes out, or it remains—for good. It is you who don't understand yourself. You may turn your back on the truth, but you can't alter it. Those who have once been lovers—and lovers such as you and I—can never again be only friends. That, if you like, is the impossible. But—" He paused for a moment, with lifted shoulders, then abruptly turned to go. "Good-bye!" he said.
"You are going?" she questioned.
He swung on his heel as if irresolute. "Yes, I am going. I am going back to my cabin, back to my wallowing in the mire. Why not? Is there anyone who cares the toss of a halfpenny what I do?"
"Yes." Breathlessly she answered him; the words seemed to leap from her of their own accord, and surely it was hardly of her own volition that she followed and held his arm, detaining him. "Guy! You know we care. Burke cares. I care. Guy, please, dear, please! It's such a pity. Oh, it's such a pity! Won't you—can't you—fight against it? Won't you even—try? I know you could conquer, if only—if only you would try!" Her eyes were raised to his. She besought him with all the strength of her being. She clung to him as if she would hold him back by sheer physical force from the abyss at his feet. "Oh, Guy, it is worth while!" she pleaded. "Indeed—indeed it is worth while—whatever it costs. Guy,—I beseech—I implore you——"
She broke off, for with a lightning movement he had taken her face between his hands. "You can make it worth while," he said. "I will do it—for you."
He held her passionately close for an instant, but he did not kiss her. She saw the impulse to do so in his eyes, and she saw him beat it fiercely back. That was the only comfort that remained to her when the next moment he sprang away and went so swiftly from her that he was lost to sight almost before she knew that he was gone.
When Kelly awoke that morning, it was some time later, and Burke was entering his hut with a steaming cup of cocoa. The Irishman stretched his large bulk and laughed up at his friend.
"Faith, it's the good host that ye are! I've slept like a top, my son, and never an evil dream. How's the lad this morning? And how's the land?"
"The land's all right so far," Burke said. "I'm just off to help them bring in the animals. The northern dam has failed."
Kelly leaped from his bed. "I'll come. That's just the job for me and St. Peter. Don't bring the missis along though! It's too much for her."
"I know that," Burke said shortly. "I've told her so. She is to take it easy for a bit. The climate is affecting her."
Kelly looked at him with his kindly, curious eyes. "Can't you get things fixed up here and bring her along to Brennerstadt for the races and the diamond gamble? It would do you both good to have a change."
Burke shook his head, "I doubt if she would care for it. And young Guy would want to come too. If he did, he would soon get up to mischief again. He has gone back to his hut this morning, cleared out early. I hope he is to be trusted to behave himself."
"Oh, leave the boy alone!" said Kelly. "He's got some decent feelings of his own, and it doesn't do to mother him too much. Give him his head for a bit! He's far less likely to bolt."
Burke shrugged his shoulders. "I can't hold him if he means to go, I quite admit. But I haven't much faith in his keeping on the straight, and that's a fact. I don't like his going back to the hut, and I'd have prevented it if I'd known. But I slept in the sitting-room last night, and I was dead beat. He cleared out early."
"Didn't anyone see him go?" queried Kelly keenly.
"Yes. My wife." Again Burke's tone was curt, repressive. "She couldn't stop him."
"She made him hold hard with the brandy-bottle last night," said Kelly. "I admired her for it. She's got a way with her, Burke. Sure, the devil himself couldn't have resisted her then."
Burke's faint smile showed for a moment; he said nothing.
"How you must worship her!" went on Kelly, with amiable effusion. "Some fellows have all the luck. Sure, you're never going to let that sweet angel languish here like that poor little Mrs. Merston! You wouldn't now! Come, you wouldn't!"
But Burke passed the matter by. He had pressing affairs on hand, and obviously it was not his intention to discuss his conduct towards his wife even with the worthy Kelly whose blundering goodness so often carried him over difficult ground that few others would have ventured to negotiate.
He left Kelly to dress, and went back to the bungalow where Sylvia was busy with a duster trying to get rid of some of the sand that thickly covered everything. He had scarcely spoken to her that morning except for news Of Guy, but now he drew her aside.
"Look here!" he said. "Don't wear yourself out!"
She gave him a quick look. "Oh, I shan't do that. Work is good for me. Isn't this sand too awful for words?"
She spoke with a determined effort to assume the old careless attitude towards him, but the nervous flush on her cheeks betrayed her.
He put his hand on her shoulder, and wheeled her round somewhat suddenly towards the light. "You didn't sleep last night," he said.
She tried to laugh, but she could not check the hot flush of embarrassment that raced into her pale cheeks under his look. "I couldn't help it," she said. "I was rather wound up yesterday. It—was an exciting day, wasn't it?"
He continued to look at her for several seconds, intently but not sternly. Then very quietly he spoke. "Sylvia, if things go wrong, if the servants upset you, come to me about it! Don't go to Guy!"
She understood the reference in a moment. The flush turned to flaming crimson that mounted in a wave to her forehead. She drew back from him, her head high.
"And if Schafen or any other man comes to you with offensive gossip regarding my behaviour, please kick him as he deserves—next time!" she said. "And then—if you think it necessary—come to me for an explanation!"
She spoke with supreme scorn, every word a challenge. She was more angry in that moment than she could remember that she had ever been before. How dared he hear Schafen's evidence against her, and then coolly take her thus to task?
The memory of his kiss swept back upon her as she spoke, that kiss that had so cruelly wounded her, that kiss that had finally rent the veil away from her quivering heart. She stood before him with clenched hands. If he had attempted to kiss her then, she would have struck him.
But he did not move. He stood, looking at her, looking at her, till at last her wide eyes wavered and sank before his own. He spoke then, an odd inflection in his voice.
"Why are you so angry?"
Her two fists were pressed hard against her sides. She was aware of a weakening of her self-control, and she fought with all her strength to retain it. She could not speak for a second or two, but it was not fear that restrained her.
"Tell me!" he said. "Why are you angry?"
The colour was dying slowly out of her face; a curious chill had followed the sudden flame. "It is your own fault," she said.
"How—my fault?" Burke's voice was wholly free from any sort of emotion; but his question held insistence notwithstanding.
She answered it almost in spite of herself. "For making me hate you."
He made a slight movement as of one who shifts his hold upon some chafing creature to strengthen his grip. "How have I done that?" he said.
She answered him in a quick, breathless rush of words that betrayed her failing strength completely. "By doubting me—by being jealous and showing it—by—by—by insulting me!"
"What?" he said.
She turned from him sharply and walked away, battling with herself. "You know what I mean," she said tremulously. "You know quite well what I mean. You were angry yesterday—angry because Hans Schafen—a servant—had told you something that made you distrust me. And because you were angry, you—you—you insulted me!" She turned round upon him suddenly with eyes of burning accusation. She was fighting, fighting, with all her might, to hide from him that frightened, quivering thing that she herself had recognized but yesterday. If it had been a plague-spot, she could not have guarded it more jealously. Its presence scared her. Her every instinct was to screen it somehow, somehow, from those keen eyes. For he was so horribly strong, so shrewd, so merciless!
He came up to her as she wheeled. He took one of her quivering wrists, and held it, his fingers closely pressed upon the leaping pulse. "Sylvia!" he said, and this time there was an edge to his voice that made her aware that he was putting force upon himself. "I have never insulted you—or distrusted you. Everything was against me yesterday. But when I left you, I gave all I possessed into your keeping. It is in your keeping still. Does that look like distrust?"
She gave, a quick, involuntary start, but he went on, scarcely pausing.
"When a man is going into possible danger, and his wife is thinking of—other things, is he so greatly to blame if he takes the quickest means at his disposal of waking her up?"
"Ah!" she said. Had he not waked her indeed? But yet—but yet—She looked at ham doubtfully.
"Listen!" he said. "We've been going round in a circle lately. It's been like that infernal game we used to play as children. 'Snail,' wasn't it called? Where nobody ever got home and everybody always lost their tempers! Let's get out of it, Sylvia! Let's leave Guy and Schafen to look after things, and go to the top of the world by ourselves! I'll take great care of you. You'll be happy, you know. You'll like it."
He spoke urgently, leaning towards her. There was nothing terrible about him at that moment. All the mastery had gone from his attitude. He was even smiling a little.
Her heart gave a great throb. It was so long, so long, since he had spoken to her thus. And then, like a blasting wind, the memory of Guy's bitter words rushed across her. She seemed again to feel the sand of the desert blowing in her face, sand that was blended with ashes. Was it only a slave that he wanted after all? She hated herself for the thought, but she could not drive it out.
"Don't you like that idea?" he said.
Still she hesitated. "What of Guy?" she said. "We must think of him, Burke. We must."
"I'm thinking of him," he said. "A little responsibility would probably do him good."
"But to leave him—entirely—" She broke off. Someone was knocking at the outer door, and she was thankful for the interruption. Burke turned away, and went to answer. He came back with a note in his hand.
"It's Merston's house-boy," he said. "I've sent him round to the kitchen to get a feed. Something's up there, I am afraid. Let's see what he has to say!"
He opened the letter while he was speaking, and there fell a short silence while he read. Sylvia took up her duster again. Her hands were trembling.
In a moment Burke spoke. "Yes, it's from Merston. The poor chap has had an accident, fallen from his horse and badly wrenched his back. His overseer is away, and he wants to know if I will go over and lend a hand. I must go of course." He turned round to her. "You'll be able to manage for a day or two?"
Her breathing came quickly, nervously. She felt oddly uncertain of herself, as if she had just come through a crisis that had bereft her of all her strength,
"Of course," she said, not looking at him. "Of course."
He stood for a moment or two, watching her. Then he moved to her side.
"I'm leaving you in charge," he said, "But you won't overdo it? Promise me!"
She laughed a little. The thought of his going was a vast relief to her at that moment. She yearned to be alone, to readjust her life somehow before she met him again. She wanted to rebuild her defences. She wanted to be quite sure of herself.
"Oh, I shall take great care of myself," she said. "I'm very good at that."
"I wonder," said Burke, And then he laid his hand upon the flicking duster and stopped her quivering activity. "Are you still—hating me?" he said.
She stood motionless, and still her eyes avoided his. "I'll tell you," she said, "when we meet again."
"Does that mean that I am to go—unforgiven?" he said.
Against her will she looked at him. In spite of her, her lip trembled,
He put his arm round her. "Does it?" he said.
"No," she whispered back.
In that moment they were nearer than they had been through all the weeks of Guy's illness, nearer possibly than they had ever been before. It would have been so easy for Sylvia to lean upon that strong encircling arm, so easy that she wondered afterwards how she restrained the impulse to do so. But the moment passed so quickly, sped by the sound of Kelly's feet upon the stoep, and Burke's arm pressed her close and then fell away.
There was neither disappointment nor annoyance on his face as he turned to meet his guest. He was even smiling.
Sylvia recalled that smile afterwards—the memory of it went with her through all the bitter hours that followed.
FOR THE SAKE OF THE OLD LOVE
Kelly accompanied Burke when, after hurried preparation and consultation with Schafen, he finally took the rough road that wound by the kopje on his way to the Merstons' farm. He had not intended to prolong his visit over two days, and he proposed to conclude it now; for his leisure was limited, and he had undertaken to be back in Brennerstadt for the occasion of the diamond draw which he himself had organized, and which was to take place at the end of the week. But at Burke's request, as they rode upon their way, he promised to return to Blue Hill Farm for that night and the next also if Burke could not return sooner. He did not mean to be absent for more than two nights. His own affairs could not be neglected for longer, though he might decide to send Schafen over to help the Merstons if necessary.
"My wife can't look after Guy single-handed," he said. "It's not a woman's job, and I can't risk it. I shall feel easier if you are there."
And Kelly professed himself proud to be of service in any capacity. If Mrs. Burke would put up with him for another night, sure, he'd be delighted to keep her company, and he'd see that the boy behaved himself too, though for his own part he didn't think that there was any vice about him just then.
They did not visit the hut or the sand whither Guy had betaken himself. The sun was getting high, and Burke, with the Kaffir boy who had brought the message running at his stirrup, would not linger on the road.
"He's probably having a rest," he said. "He won't be fit for much else to-day. You'll see him to-night, Donovan?"
And Donovan promised that he would. He was in fact rather proud of the confidence reposed in him. To treat him as a friend in need was the highest compliment that anyone could pay the kind-hearted Irishman. Cheerily he undertook to remain at Blue Hill Farm until Burke's return, always providing that Mrs. Burke didn't get tired of him and turn him out.
"She won't do that," said Burke. "You'll find she will be delighted to see you to-day when you get back. She hasn't been trained for solitude, and I fancy it gets on her nerves."
Perhaps it did. But on that occasion at least Sylvia was thankful to be left alone. She had her house to set in order, and at that very moment she was on her knees in the sitting-room, searching, searching in all directions for the key which she had dropped on the previous day during the dust-storm, before Kelly's arrival. Burke's reference to the matter had recalled it to her mind, and now with shamed self-reproach she sought in every cranny for the only thing of any importance which he had ever entrusted to her care.
She sought in vain. The sand was thick everywhere, but she searched every inch of the floor with her hands, and found nothing. The stifling heat of the day descended upon her as she searched. She felt sick in mind and body, sick with a growing hopelessness which she would not acknowledge. The thing could not be lost. She knew that Burke had slept in the room, and none of the servants had been alone in it since. So the key must be somewhere there, must have been kicked into some corner, or caught in a crack. She had felt so certain of finding it that she had not thought it necessary to tell Burke of her carelessness. But now she began to wish she had told him. Her anxiety was turning to a perfect fever of apprehension. The conviction was beginning to force itself upon her that someone must have found the key.
But who—who? No Kaffir, she was certain. No Kaffir had entered. And Burke had been there all night long. He had slept in the long chair, giving up his bed to the guest. And he had slept late, tired out after the violent exertions of the previous day.
He had slept late! Suddenly, there on her knees in the litter of sand, another thought flashed through her brain, the thought of her own sleeplessness, the thought of the early morning, the thought of Guy.
He had been up early. He generally rested till late in the morning. He too had been sleepless. But he had a remedy for that which she knew he would not scruple to take if he felt the need. His wild excitement of the night before rose up before her. His eager interest in Kelly's talk of the diamond, the strangeness of his attitude that morning. And then, with a lightning suddenness, came the memory of Kieff.
Guy was under Kieff's influence. She was certain of it. And Kieff? She shrank at the bare thought of the man, his subtle force, his callous strength of purpose, his almost uncanny intelligence. Yes, she was afraid of Kieff—she had always been afraid of Kieff.
The midday heat seemed to press upon her like a burning, crushing weight. It seemed to deprive her of the power to think, certainly of the power to reason. For what rational connection could there be between Kieff and the loss of Burke's key? Kieff was several miles away at the farm of Piet Vreiboom. And Guy—where was Guy? She wished he would come back. Surely he would come back soon! She would tell him of her loss, she yearned to tell someone; she would get him to help her in her search. For it could not be lost. It could not be really lost! They would find it somehow—somehow!
It was no actual reasoning but a blind instinct that moved her to get up at length and go to the room that Guy had occupied for so long, the room that was Burke's. It was just as Guy had left it that morning. She noted mechanically the disordered bed. The cupboard in the corner was closed as usual, but the key was in the lock. Burke kept his clothes on the higher shelves. The strong-box stood on the floor with some boots.
Her eyes went straight to it. Some magnetism seemed to be at work, compelling her. And then—she gave a gasp of wonder, and almost fell on to the sandy floor beside the box. The key was in the lock!
Was it all a dream then? Had it never been lost? Had she but imagined Burke's action in confiding it to her? She closed her eyes for a space, for her brain was swimming. The terrible, parching heat seemed to have turned into a wheel—a fiery wheel of torture that revolved behind her eyes, making her wince at every turn. The pain was intense; when she tried to move, it was excruciating. She sank down with her head almost on the iron box and waited in dumb endurance for relief.
A long time passed so, and she fancied later that she must have slept, for she dared not move while that awful pain lasted, and she was scarcely conscious of her surroundings. But it became less acute at last; she found herself sitting up with wide-open eyes, trying to collect her thoughts.
They evaded her for a while, and she dared not employ any very strenuous effort to capture them, lest that unspeakable suffering should return. But gradually—very gradually—the power to reason returned to her. She found herself gazing at the key that had cost her so much; and after a little, impelled by what seemed to be almost a new sense within her, she took it between her quivering fingers and turned it.
It went with an ease that surprised her, for she remembered—her brain was becoming every moment more strangely clear and alert—she remembered that Burke had said only a day or two before that it needed oiling. She opened the box, and with a fateful premonition looked within.
A few papers in a rubber band lay in the bottom of the box, and beside them, carelessly tossed aside, an envelope! There was no money at all.
She took up the envelope, feverishly searching. It contained a cigarette—one of her own—that had been half-smoked. She stared at it for a second or two in wonder, then like a stab came the memory of that night—so long ago—when he had taken the cigarette from between her lips, when he had been on the verge of speech, when she had stood waiting to hear . . . and Guy had come between.
Many seconds later she put the envelope back, and got up. Conviction had come irresistibly upon her; she knew now whose hand had oiled the lock, she knew beyond all doubting who had opened the box, and left it thus.
She was trembling no longer, but steady—firm as a rock. She must find Guy. Wherever he was, she must find him. That money—her own sacred charge—must be returned before she faced Burke again. Guy was mad. She must save him from his madness. This fight for Guy's soul—she had seen it coming. She realized it as a hand to hand fight with Kieff. But she would win. She was bound to win. So she told herself. No power of evil could possibly triumph ultimately, and she knew that deep in his inmost heart Guy acknowledged this. However wild and reckless his words, he did not really expect to see her waver. He might be the slave of evil himself, but he knew that she would never share his slavery. He knew it, and in spite of himself he honoured her. She believed he would always honour her. And this was the weapon on which she counted for his deliverance, this and the old sweet friendship between them that was infinitely more enduring than first love. She believed that her influence over him was greater than Kieff's. Otherwise she had not dared to pit her strength against that of the enemy. Otherwise she had waited to beg the help of Kelly, who always helped everyone.
The thought of Burke she put resolutely from her. Burke should never know, if she could prevent it, how low Guy had fallen. If only she could save Guy from that, she believed she might save him from all. When once his eyes were opened, when once she had beaten down Kieff's ascendancy, the battle would be won. But she must act immediately and with decision. There was not a moment to lose. If Guy were not checked now, at the very outset, there would be no saving him from the abyss. She must find him now, at once. And she must do it alone. There was no alternative to that. Only alone could she hope to influence him.
She stooped and locked the box once more, taking the key. Now that she knew the worst, her weakness was all gone. With the old steady fearlessness she went from the room. The battle was before her, but she knew no misgiving. She would win—she was bound to win—for the sake of the old love and in the strength of the new.
THE BEARER OF EVIL TIDINGS
It was late in the afternoon when Kelly returned to Blue Hill Farm. He had been riding round Merston's lands with Burke during a great part of the day, and he was comfortably tired. He looked forward to spending a congenial evening with his hostess, and he hoped that young Guy would not be of too lively a turn, for he was in a mood for peace.
The first chill of evening was creeping over the veldt as he ambled along the trail past the kopje. As he came within sight of the farm a wave of sentiment swept over him.
"Faith, it's a jolly little homestead!" he said, with a sigh. "Lucky devil—Burke!"
There was no one about, and he took his horse to the stable and gave him a rub-down and feed before catering. Then he made his way into the house from the back,
There was a light in the sitting-room, and he betook himself thither, picturing the homely scene of Sylvia knitting socks for her husband or engaged upon some housewifely task.
He announced himself with his customary, cheery garrulity as he entered.
"Ah, here I am again, Mrs. Burke! And it's good news I've got for ye. Merston's not so badly damaged after all, and your husband is hoping to be back by midday in the morning."
He stopped short. The room was not empty, but the figure that rose up with an easy, sinuous movement to meet him was not the figure he had expected to see.
"Good evening, Kelly!" said Saul Kieff.
"What the devil!" said Kelly.
Kieff smiled in a cold, detached fashion. "I came over to find Mr. Burke Ranger. But I gather he is away from home."
"What have you come for?" said Kelly.
He did not like Kieff though his nature was too kindly to entertain any active antipathy towards anyone. But no absence of intimacy could ever curb his curiosity, and he never missed any information for lack of investigation.
Kieff's motionless black eyes took him in with satirical comprehension. He certainly would never have made a confidant of such a man as Kelly unless it had suited his purpose. He took several moments for consideration before he made reply. "I presume you are aware," he said then, "that Mrs. Ranger has left for Brennerstadt?"
"What?" said Kelly.
Kieff did not repeat his question. He merely waited for it to sink in. A faint, subtle smile still hovered about his sallow features. It was obvious that he regarded his news in anything but a tragic light.
"Gone to Brennerstadt!" ejaculated Kelly at length. "But what the devil would she go there for? I was going myself to-morrow. I'd have taken her."
"She probably preferred to choose her own escort," said Kieff.
"What?" said Kelly again. "Man, is it the truth you're giving me?"
"Not much point in lying," said Kieff coldly, "when there is nothing to be gained by it! Mrs. Burke Ranger has gone to Brennerstadt by way of Ritzen, in the company of Guy Ranger. Piet Vreiboom will tell you the same thing if you ask him. He is going to Brennerstadt too to-morrow, and I with him. Perhaps we can travel together. We may overtake the amorous couple if we ride all the way."
Without any apparent movement, his smile intensified at sight of the open consternation on Kelly's red countenance.
"You seem surprised at something," he said.
"I don't believe a damn' word of it," said Kelly bluntly. "You didn't see them."
"I saw them both," said Kieff, still smiling, "Piet Vreiboom saw them also. But the lady seemed to be in a great hurry, so we did not detain them. They are probably at Ritzen by now, if not beyond."
"Oh, damnation!" said Kelly tragically.
Kieff's smile slowly vanished. His eyes took on a stony, remote look as though the matter had ceased to interest him. And while Kelly tramped impotently about the room, he leaned his shoulders against the wall and stared into space.
"I am really rather glad to have met you," he remarked presently. "Can you give me any tip regarding this diamond of Wilbraham's? You know its value to the tenth part of a farthing, I have no doubt."
Kelly paused to glare at him distractedly, "Oh, curse the diamond!" he said, "It's Mrs. Burke I'm thinking of."
Kieff's thin lips curled contemptuously. "A woman!" he said, and snapped his fingers. "A woman who can be bought and sold again—for far less than half its cost! My good Kelly! Are you serious?"
Kelly stamped an indignant foot. "You infernal, cold-blooded Kaffir!" he roared. "I'm human anyway, which is more than you are!"
Kieff's sneer deepened. It was Kelly's privilege always to speak his mind, and no one took offence however extravagantly he expressed himself. "Can't we have a drink?" he suggested, in the indulgent tone of one humouring a fractious child.
"Drink—with you!" fumed Kelly.
Kieff smiled again. "Of course you will drink with me! It's too good an excuse to miss. What is troubling you? Surely there is nothing very unusual in the fact that Mrs. Burke finds herself in need of a little change!"
Kelly groaned aloud. "I've got to go and tell Burke. That's the hell of it. Sure I'd give all the money I can lay hands on to be quit of that job."
"You are over-sensitive," remarked Kieff, showing a gleam of teeth between his colourless lips. "He will think far less of this than of disease in his cattle or crops. They were nothing to each other, nor ever could be. She and Guy Ranger have been lovers all through."
"Ah, faith then, I know better!" broke in Kelly. "He worships her from the crown of her head to the sole of her foot. He'll be fit to kill young Guy for this. By the saints above us, I could almost kill him myself."
"You needn't!" said Kieff with ironical humour. "And Burke needn't either. As for the woman—" he snapped his fingers again—"she'll come back like a homing dove, if he waits a little."
Kelly swore again furiously. "Ah, why did I ever lend myself to digging young Guy out of Hoffstein's? Only a blasted fool could have expected to bring anything but corruption out of that sink of evil. It was Burke's own doing, but I was a fool—I was a three times fool—to give in to him."
"Where is the worthy Burke?" questioned Kieff, "Over at Merston's, doing the good Samaritan; been working like a nigger all day. And now!" There was actually a sound of tears in Kelly's voice. "I'd give me right hand," he vowed tremulously, "I'd give me soul—such as it is—to be out of this job."
"You want a drink," said Kieff.
Kelly sniffed and began a clumsy search for refreshment.
Kieff came forward kindly and helped him. It was he who measured the drinks finally when they were produced, and even Kelly, who could stand a good deal, opened his eyes somewhat at the draught he prepared for himself.
"Dry weather!" remarked Kieff, as he tossed it down. "You're not going back to Merston's to-night, are you?"
"Must," said Kelly laconically.
"Why not wait till the morning?" suggested Kieff. "I shall be passing that way myself then. We could go together."
There was a gleam in his black eyes that made Kelly look at him hard. "And what would you want to be there for?" he demanded aggressively. "Isn't one bearer of evil tidings enough?"
Kieff smiled. "I wonder if the lady left any message behind," he suggested. "Possibly she has written a note to explain her own absence. How long did the good Burke propose to be away?"
"Two or three nights in the first place. But he is coming back to-morrow." A sudden idea flashed upon Kelly. "Ah, p'raps she's hoping to be back before he is! Maybe there's more to this than we understand! I'll not go over. I'll wait and see. She may be back in the morning, she and young Guy too. They're old friends. P'raps there's nothing in it but just a jaunt."
Kieff's laugh had a sound like the slipping of a stone in a slimy cave. "You always had ideas," he remarked. "But they will scarcely be back from Brennerstadt by the morning. Can't you devise some means of persuading Burke to extend his visit to the period originally intended? Then perhaps they might return in time."
Kelly looked at him sternly. That laugh was abominable in his ears. "Faith, I'll go now," he said. "And I'll go alone. You've done your part, and I'll not trouble you at all to help me do mine."
Kieff turned to go. "I always admired your sense of duty, Donovan," he said. "Let us hope it will bring you out on the right side,—and your friends the Rangers with you!"
He was gone with the words, silent as a shadow on the wall, and Kelly was left wondering why he had not seized the bearer of evil tidings and kicked the horrible laughter out of him.
"Faith, I'll do it when I get to Brennerstadt," he said to himself vindictively. "But it's friends first, eh, Burke, my lad?—Ah, Burke, my boy, friends first!"
THE SHARP CORNER
Was it only a few months since last she had looked out over the barren veldt from the railway at Ritzen? It seemed to Sylvia like half a lifetime.
In the dark of the early morning she sat in the southward-bound train on her way to Brennerstadt, and tried to recall her first impressions. There he had stood under the lamp waiting for her—the man whom she had taken for Guy. She saw herself springing to meet him with eager welcome on her lips and swift-growing misgiving at her heart. How good he had been to her! That thought came up above the rest, crowding out the memory of her first terrible dismay. He had surrounded her with a care as chivalrous as any of the friends of her former life could have displayed. He had sheltered her from the dreadful loneliness, and from the world upon the mercy of which she had been so completely thrown. He had not seemed to bestow, but she realized now how at every turn his goodness had provided, his strength had shielded. He had not suffered her to feel the obligation under which she was placed. He had treated her merely as a comrade in distress. He had given her freely the very best that a man could offer, and he had done it in a fashion that had made acceptance easy, almost inevitable.
Her thoughts travelled onwards till they came to her marriage. Again the memory of the man's unfailing chivalry came before all else. Again, how good he had been to her! And she had taken full advantage of his goodness. For the first time she wondered if she had been justified in so doing. She asked herself if she had behaved contemptibly. She had not been ready to make a full surrender, and he had not asked for it. But it seemed to her now that she had returned his gifts with a niggardliness which must have made her appear very small-minded. He had been great. He had subordinated his wishes to her. He had been patient; ah yes, perhaps too patient! Probably her utter dependence upon him had made him so.
Slowly her thoughts passed on to the coming of Guy. She realized that the rapid events that had succeeded his coming had rendered her impressions of Burke a little blurred. Through all those first stages of Guy's illness, she could scarcely recall him at all. Her mind was full of the image of Kieff, subtle, cruel, almost ghoulish, a man of deep cunning and incomprehensible motives. It had suited his whim to save Guy. She had often wondered why. She was certain that no impulse of affection had moved him or was capable of moving him. No pity, no sympathy, had ever complicated this man's aims or crippled his achievements. He had a clear, substantial reason for everything that he did. It had pleased him to bring Guy back to life, and so he had not scrupled as to the means he had employed to do so. He had practically forced her into a position which circumstances had combined to make her retain. He had probably, she reflected now, urged Guy upon every opportunity to play the traitor to his best friend. He had established over him an influence which she felt that it would take her utmost effort to overthrow. He had even forced him into the quagmire of crime. For that Guy had done this thing, or would ever have dreamed of doing it, on his own initiative she did not believe. And it was that certainty which had sent her from his empty hut on the sand in pursuit of him, daring all to win him back ere he had sunk too deep for deliverance. She had ridden to Ritzen by way of the Vreiboom's farm, half-expecting to find Guy there. But she had seen only Kieff and Piet Vreiboom. Her face burned still at the memory of the former's satirical assurance that Guy was but a few miles ahead of her and she would easily overtake him. He had translated this speech to Piet Vreiboom who had laughed, laughed with a sickening significance, at the joke. In her disgust she had ridden swiftly on without stopping to ascertain if Guy had gone to Ritzen or had decided to ride the whole forty miles to Brennerstadt.
The lateness of the hour, however, had decided her to make for the former place since she knew she could get a train there on the following morning and she could not face the long journey at night alone on the veldt. It had been late when she reached Ritzen, but she had thankfully found accommodation for the night at the by no means luxurious hotel in which she had slept on the night of her arrival so long ago.
Now in the early morning she was ready to start again, having regretfully left her horse, Diamond, in the hotel-stable to await her return.
If all went well, she counted upon being back, perhaps with Guy accompanying her, in the early afternoon. And then she would probably be at Blue Hill Farm again before Burke's return. She hoped with all her heart to accomplish this. For though it would be impossible to hide the fact of her journey from him, she did not want him to suspect the actual reason that had made it so urgent. Let him think that anxiety for Guy—their mutual charge—had sent her after him! But never, for Guy's sake, let him imagine the actual shameful facts of the case! She counted upon Burke's ignorance as the strongest weapon for Guy's persuasion. Let him but realize that a way of escape yet remained to him, and she believed that he would take it. For surely—ah, surely, if she knew him—he had begun already to repent in burning shame and self-loathing.
He must have ridden all the way to Brennerstadt, for he was not at Ritzen. Ritzen was not a place to hide in. Would she find him at Brennerstadt? There were only two hotels there, and Kieff had said he would stop at one of them. She did not trust Kieff for a moment, but some inner conviction told her that it was his intention that she should find Guy. He did not expect her influence to overcome his. That she fully realized. He was not afraid of being superseded. Perhaps he wanted to demonstrate to her her utter weakness. Perhaps he had deeper schemes. She did not stop to imagine what they were. She shrank from the thought of them as purity shrinks instinctively from the contemplation of evil. She believed that, if once she could meet Guy face to face, she could defeat him. She counted upon that understanding which had been between them from the beginning and which had drawn them to each other in spite of all opposition. She counted upon that part of Guy which Kieff had never known, those hidden qualities which vice had overgrown like a fungus but which she knew were still existent under the surface evil. Guy had been generous and frank in the old days, a lover of fair play, an impetuous follower of anything that appealed to him as great. She was sure that these characteristics had been an essential part of his nature. He had failed through instability, through self-indulgence and weakness of purpose. But he was not fundamentally wicked. She was sure that she could appeal to those good impulses within him, and that she would not appeal in vain. She was sure that the power of good would still be paramount over him if she held out to him the helping hand which he so sorely needed. She had the strength within her—strength that was more than human—and she was certain of the victory, if only she could find him quickly, quickly!
As she sat there waiting feverishly to start, her whole being was in a passion of supplication that she might be in time. Even in her sleep she had prayed that one prayer with a fierce urging that had rendered actual repose an impossibility. She had never in her life prayed with so intense a force. It was as if she were staking the whole of her faith upon that one importunate plea, and though no answer came to her striving spirit, she told herself that it could not be in vain. In all her maddening anxiety and impatience she never for a moment dwelt upon the chance of failure. God could not suffer her to fail when she had fought so hard. Her very brain seemed on fire with the urgency of her mission, and again for a space the thought of Burke was crowded out. He occupied the back of her mind, but she would not voluntarily turn towards him. That would come later when her mission was fulfilled, when she could look him in the face again with no sense of a charge neglected, or trust betrayed. She must stand straight with Burke, but she must save Guy first, whatever the effort, whatever the cost. She felt she had forfeited the right to think of her own happiness till her negligence—and the terrible consequences thereof—had been remedied. Perhaps it was in a measure self-blame that inspired her frantic prayer, the feeling that the responsibility was hers, and therefore that she was a sharer of the guilt. That was another plea, less worthy perhaps; but one to which Guy could not refuse to listen. It could not be his intention to wreck her happiness. He could not know all that hung upon it. Her happiness! She shivered suddenly in the chill of the morning air. Could it be that happiness—the greatest of all—had been actually within her grasp, and she had let it slip unheeded? Sharply she turned her thoughts back. No, she must not—must not think of Burke just then.
The chance would come again. The chance must come again. But she must not suffer herself to contemplate it now. She had forfeited the right.
Time passed. She thought the train would never start. The long waiting had become almost a nightmare. She felt she would not be able to endure it much longer. The night had seemed endless too, a perpetual dozing and waking that had seemed to multiply the hours. Now and then she realized that she was very tired; but for the most part the fever of impatience that possessed her kept the consciousness of fatigue at bay. If only she could keep moving she felt that she could face anything.
The day broke over the veldt and the scattered open town, with a burning splendour like the kindling of a great fire. She watched the dawn-light spread till the northern hills shone with a celestial radiance. She leaned from the train to watch it; and as she watched, the whole world turned golden.
Burke's words flashed back upon her with a force irresistible. "Let us go to the top of the world by ourselves!" Her eyes filled with sudden tears, and as she sank down again in her seat the train began to move. It bore her relentlessly southwards, and the land of the early morning was left behind.
She reflected later that that journey must have been doomed to disaster from the very outset. It was begun an hour late, and all things seemed to conspire to hinder them. After many halts, the breaking of an engine-piston rendered them helpless, and the heat of the day found them in a desolate place among kopjes that seemed to crowd them in, cutting off every current of air, while the sun blazed mercilessly overhead and the sand-flies ceaselessly buzzed and tormented. It was the longest day that Sylvia had ever known, and she thought that the smell of Kaffirs would haunt her all her life. Of the few white men on the train she knew not one, and the desolation of despair entered into her.
By the afternoon, when she had hoped to be on her way back, tardy help arrived, and they crawled into Brennerstadt station, parched and dusty and half-starved, some three hours later.
Hope revived in her as at length she left the train. Anything was better than the awful inactivity of that well-nigh interminable journey. There was yet a chance—a slender one—that by an early start or possibly travelling by a night train she and Guy might yet be back at Blue Hill Farm by the following evening in time to meet Burke on his return.
Yes, the chance was there, and still she could not think that all this desperate effort of hers could be doomed to failure. If she could only find Guy quickly—oh, quickly! She almost ran out of the station in her haste.
She turned her steps instinctively towards the hotel in which she had stayed for her marriage, It was not far from the station, and it was the first place that occurred to her. The town was full of people, men for the most part, men it seemed to her, of all nationalities and colours. She heard Dutch and broken English all around her.
She went through the crowds, shrinking a little now and then from any especially coarse type, nervously intent upon avoiding contact with any. She found the hotel without difficulty, but when she found it she checked her progress for the first time. For she was afraid to enter.
The evening was drawing on. She felt the welcome chill of it on her burning face, and it kept her from yielding to the faintness that oppressed her. But still she could not enter, till a great, square-built Boer lounging near the doorway came up to her and looked into her eyes with an evil leer.
Then she summoned her strength, drew herself up, and passed him with open disgust.
She had to push her way through a crowd of men idling in the entrance, and one or two accosted her, but she went by them in stony unresponsiveness.
At the little office at the end she found a girl, sandy-haired and sandy-eyed, who looked up for a moment from a great book in front of her, and before she could speak, said briskly, "There's no more accommodation here. The place is full to overflowing. Better try at the Good Hope over the way."
She had returned to her occupation before the words were well uttered, but Sylvia stood motionless, a little giddy, leaning against the woodwork for support.
"I only want to know," she said, after a moment, speaking with an effort in a voice that sounded oddly muffled even to herself, "if Mr. Ranger is here."
"Who?" The girl looked up sharply. "Hullo!" she said. "What's the matter?"
"If Mr. Ranger—Mr. Ranger—is here," Sylvia repeated through a curious mist that had gathered unaccountably around her.
The girl got up and came to her. "Yes, he's here, I believe, or will be presently. He's engaged a room anyhow. I didn't see him myself. Look here, you'd better come and sit down a minute. I seem to remember you. You're Mrs. Ranger, aren't you?"
"Yes," said Sylvia.
She was past explanation just then, and that simple affirmative seemed her only course. She leaned thankfully upon the supporting arm, fighting blindly to retain her senses.
"Come and sit down!" the girl repeated. "I expect he'll be in before long. They're all mad about this diamond draw. The whole town is buzzing with it. The races aren't in it. Sit down and I'll get you something."
She drew Sylvia into a small inner sanctum and there left her, sitting exhausted in a wooden armchair. She returned presently with a tray which she set in front of her, observing practically, "That's what you're wanting. Have a good feed, and when you've done you'd better go up and lie down till he comes."
She went back to her office then, closing the door between, and Sylvia was left to recover as best she might. She forced herself after a time to eat and drink, reflecting that physical weakness would utterly unfit her for the task before her. She hoped with all her heart that Guy would come soon—soon. There was a night train back to Ritzen. She had ascertained that at the station. They might catch that. The diamond draw was still two days away. She prayed that he had not yet staked anything upon it, that when he came the money might be still in his possession.
She finished her meal and felt considerably revived. For a while she sat listening to the hubbub of strange voices without, then the fear that her presence might be forgotten by the busy occupant of the office moved her to rise and open the intervening door.
The girl was still there. She glanced round with the same alert expression. "That you, Mrs. Ranger? He hasn't come in yet. But you go up and wait for him! It's quieter upstairs. I'll tell him you're here as soon as he comes in."
She did not want to comply, but certainly the little room adjoining the office was no place for private talk, and she dreaded the idea of meeting Guy before the curious eyes of strangers. He would be startled; he would be ashamed! None but herself must see him in that moment.
So, without protest, she allowed herself to be conducted upstairs to the room he had engaged, her friend in the office promising faithfully not to forget to send him up to her at once.
The room was at the top of the house, a bare apartment but not uncomfortable. It possessed a large window that looked across the wide street.
She sat down beside it and listened to the tramping crowds below.
Her faintness had passed, but she was very tired, overwhelmingly so. Very soon her senses became dulled to the turmoil. She suffered herself to relax, certain that the first sound of a step outside would recall her. And so, as night spread over the town, she sank into sleep, lying back in the cane-chair like a worn-out child, her burnished hair vivid against the darkness beyond.
She did not wake at the sound of a step outside, or even at the opening of the door. It was no sound that aroused her hours later, but a sudden intense consciousness of expediency, as if she had come to a sharp comer that it needed all her wits to turn in safety. She started up with a gasp. "Guy!" she said. And then, as her dazzled eyes saw more clearly, a low, involuntary exclamation of dismay. "Ah!"
It was Burke who stood with his back against the closed door, looking at her, and his face had upon it in those first waking moments of bewilderment a look that appalled her. For it was to her as the face of a murderer.
He did not speak in answer to her exclamation, merely stood there looking at her, almost as if he had never seen her before. His eyes were keen with a sort of icy fierceness. She thought she had never before realized the cruelty of his mouth.
It was she who spoke first. The silence seemed so impossible. "Burke!" she said. "What—is the matter?"
He came forward to her with an abruptness that was like the breaking of bonds. He stopped in front of her, looking closely into her face. "What are you doing here?" he said.
In spite of herself she shrank, so terrible was his look. But she was swift to master her weakness. She stood up to her full height, facing him. "I have come to find Guy," she said.
He threw a glance around; it was like the sweep of a rapier. "You are waiting for him—here?"
Again for a moment she was disconcerted. She felt the quick blood rise to her forehead. "They told me he would come here," she said.
He passed on, almost as if she had not spoken, but his eyes were mercilessly upon her, marking her confusion. "What do you want with him?"
His words were like the snap of a steel rope. They made her flinch by their very ruthlessness. She had sprung from sleep with bewildered senses. She was not-prepared to do battle in her own defence.
She hesitated, and immediately his hand closed upon her shoulder. It seemed to her that she had never known what anger could be like before this moment. All the force of the man seemed to be gathered together in one tremendous wave, menacing her.
"Tell me what you want with him!" he said.
She shuddered from head to foot as if she had been struck with a scourge. "Burke! What do you mean?" she cried out desperately. "You—you must be mad!"
"Answer me!" he said.
His hold was a grip. The ice in his eyes had turned to flame. Her heart leapt and quivered within her like a wild thing fighting to escape.
"I—don't know what you mean," she panted. "I have done nothing wrong. I came after him to—to try and bring him back."
"Then why did you come secretly?" he said,
She shrank from the intolerable inquisition of his eyes. "I wanted to see him—alone," she said.
"Why?" Again it was like the merciless cut of a scourge. She caught her breath with a sharp sound that was almost a cry.
"Why?" he reiterated. "Answer me! Answer me!"
She did not answer him. She could not. And in the silence that followed, it seemed to her that something within her—something that had been Vitally wounded—struggled and died.
"Look at me!" he said.
She lifted an ashen face. His eyes held hers, and the torture of his hell encompassed her also.
"Tell me the truth!" he said. "I shall know if you lie. When did you see him last?"
She shook her head. "A long while ago. Ages ago. Before you left the farm."
The memory of his going, his touch, his smile went through her with the words. She had a sickening sensation as of having been struck over the heart.
"Where did you spend last night?" he said.
"At Ritzen." Her white lips seemed to speak mechanically. She herself stood apart as it were, stunned beyond feeling.
"You came here by rail—-alone?"
The voice of the inquisitor pierced her numbed sensibilities, compelling—almost dictating—her answer.
"You had arranged to meet here then?"
Still the scourging continued, and she marvelled at herself, that she felt so little. But feeling was coming back. She was waiting for it, dreading it.
She answered without conscious effort. "No—I came after him. He doesn't know I am here."
"And yet you are posing as his wife?"
She felt that. It cut through her apathy irresistibly. A sharp tremor went through her. "That," she said rather breathlessly, "was a mistake."
"It was." said Burke. "The greatest mistake of your life. It is a pity you took the trouble to lie to me. The truth would have served you better." He turned from her contemptuously with the words, setting her free.
For a moment the relief of his going was such that the intention that lay behind it did not so much as occur to her. Then suddenly it flashed upon her. He was going in search of Guy.
In an instant her passivity was gone. The necessity for action drove her forward. With a cry she sprang to the door before him, and set herself against it. She could not let him go with that look of the murderer in his eyes.
"Burke!" she gasped. "Burke! What—are you going to do?"
His lips parted a little, and she saw his teeth. "You shall hear what I have done—afterwards," he said. "Let me pass!"
But she barred his way. Her numbed senses were all awake now and quivering. The very fact of physical effort seemed to have restored to her the power to suffer. She stood before him, her bosom heaving with great sobs that brought no tears or relief of any sort to the anguish that tore her.
"You—you can't pass," she said. "Not—not—like this! Burke, listen! I swear to you—I swear——"
"You needn't," he broke in. "A woman's oath, when it is her last resource, is quite valueless. I will deal with you afterwards. Let me pass!"
The command was curt as a blow. But still she withstood him, striving to still her agitation, striving with all her desperate courage to face him and endure.
"I will not!" she said, and with the words she stood up to her full, slim height, thwarting him, making her last stand.
His expression changed as he realized her defiance. She was panting still, but there was no sign of yielding in her attitude. She was girt for resistance to the utmost.
There fell an awful pause—a silence which only her rapid breathing disturbed. Her eyes were fixed on his. She must have seen the change, but she dared it unflinching. There was no turning back for her now.
The man spoke at last, and his voice was absolutely quiet, dead level. "You had better let me go," he said.
She made a sharp movement, for there was that in the steel-cold voice that sent terror to her heart. Was this Burke—the man upon whose goodness she had leaned ever since she had come to this land of strangers? Surely she had never met him before that moment!
"Open that door!" he said.
A great tremor went through her. She turned, the instinct to obey urging her. But in the same instant the thought of Guy—Guy in mortal danger—flashed across her. She paused for a second, making a supreme effort, while every impulse fought in mad tumult within her, crying to her to yield. Then, with a lightning twist of the hand she turned the key and pulled it from the lock. For an instant she held it in her hand, then with a half-strangled sound she thrust it deep into her bosom.
Her eyes shone like flames in her white face as she turned back to him. "Perhaps you will believe me—now!" she said.
He took a single step forward and caught, her by the wrists. "Woman!" he said. "Do you know what you are doing?"
The passion that blazed in his look appalled her. Yet some strange force within her awoke as it were in answer to her need. She flung fear aside. She had done the only thing possible, and she would not look back.
"You must believe me—now!" she panted. "You do believe me!"
His hold became a grip, merciless, fierce, tightening upon her like a dosing trap. "Why should I believe you?" he said, and there was that in his voice that was harder to bear than his look. "Have I any special reason for believing you? Have you ever given me one?"
"You know me," she said, with a sinking heart.
He uttered a scoffing sound too bitter to be called a laugh. "Do I know you? Have I ever been as near to you as this devil who has made himself notorious with Kaffir women for as long as he has been out here?"
She flinched momentarily from the stark cruelty of his words. But she faced him still, faced him though every instinct of her womanhood shrank with a dread unspeakable.
"You know me," she said again. "You may not know me very well, but you know me well enough for that."
It was bravely spoken, but as she ceased to speak she felt her strength begin to fail her. Her throat worked spasmodically, convulsively, and a terrible tremor went through her. She saw him as through a haze that blotted out all beside.
There fell a silence between them—a dreadful, interminable silence that seemed to stretch into eternities. And through it very strangely she heard the wild beating of her own heart, like the hoofs of a galloping horse, that seemed to die away. . . .
She did not know whether she fell, or whether he lifted her, but when the blinding mist cleared away again, she was lying in the wicker-chair by the window, and he was walking up and down the room with the ceaseless motion of a prowling animal. She sat up slowly and looked at him. She was shivering all over, as if stricken with cold.
At her movement he came and stood before her, but he did not speak. He seemed to be watching her. Or was he waiting for something?
She could not tell; neither, as he stood there, could she look up at him to see. Only, after a moment, she leaned forward. She found and held his hand.
"Burke!" she said.
His fingers closed as if they would crush her own. He did not utter a word.
She waited for a space, gathering her strength. Then, speaking almost under her breath, she went on. "I have—something to say to you. Please will you listen—till I have finished?"
"Go on!" he said.
Her head was bent. She went on tremulously. "You are quite right—when you say—that you don't know me—that I have given you no reason—no good reason—to believe in me. I have taken—a great deal from you. And I have given—nothing in return. I see that now. That is why you distrust me. I—have only myself to thank."
She paused a moment, but he waited in absolute silence, neither helping nor hindering.
With a painful effort she continued. "People make mistaken—sometimes—without knowing it. It comes to them afterwards—perhaps too late. But—it isn't too late with me, Burke. I am your partner—your wife. And—I never meant to—defraud you. All I have—is yours. I—am yours."
She stopped. Her head was bowed against his hand. That dreadful sobbing threatened to overwhelm her again, but she fought it down. She waited quivering for his answer.
But for many seconds Burke neither moved nor spoke. The grasp of his hand was vicelike in its rigidity. She had no key whatever to what was passing in his mind.
Not till she had mastered herself and was sitting in absolute stillness, did he stir. Then, very quietly, with a decision that brooked no resistance, he took her by the chin with his free hand and turned her face up to his own. He looked deep into her eyes. His own were no longer ablaze, but a fitful light came and went in them like the flare of a torch in the desert wind.
"So," he said, and his voice was curiously unsteady also; it vibrated as if he were not wholly sure of himself, "you have made your choice—and counted the cost?"
"Yes," she said.
He looked with greater intentness into her eyes, searching without mercy, as if he would force his way to her very soul. "And for whose sake this—sacrifice?" he said.
She shrank a little; for there was something intolerable in his words. Had she really counted the cost? Her eyelids fluttered under that unsparing look, fluttered and sank. "You will know—some day," she whispered.
"Ah! Some day!" he said.
Again his voice vibrated. It was as if some door that led to his innermost being had opened suddenly, releasing a savage, primitive force which till then he had held restrained.
And in that moment it came to her that the thing she valued most in life had been rudely torn from her. She saw that new, most precious gift of hers that had sprung to life in the wilderness and which she had striven so desperately to shield from harm—that holy thing which had become dearer to her than life itself—desecrated, broken, and lying in the dust. And it was Burke who had flung it there, Burke who now ruthlessly trampled it underfoot.
Her throat worked again painfully for a moment or two; and then with a great effort of the will she stilled it. This thing was beyond tears—a cataclysm wrecking the whole structure of existence. Neither tears nor laughter could ever be hers again. In silence she took the cup of bitterness, and drank it to the dregs.
SAND OF THE DESERT
Donovan Kelly was out of temper. There was no denying it, though with him such a frame of mind was phenomenal. He leaned moodily against the door-post at the hotel-entrance, smoking a short pipe of very strong tobacco, and speaking to no one. He had been there for some time, and the girl in the office was watching him with eyes round with curiosity. For he had not even said "Good morning" to her. She wanted to accost him, but somehow the hunch of his shoulders was too discouraging even for her. So she contented herself with waiting developments.
There were plenty of men coming and going, but though several of them gave him greeting as they passed, Kelly responded to none. He seemed to be wrapped in a gloomy fog of meditation that cut him off completely from the outside world. He was alone with himself, and in that state he obviously intended to remain.
But the girl in the office had her own shrewd suspicions as to the reason of his waiting there, suspicions which after the lapse of nearly half an hour she triumphantly saw verified. For presently through the shifting, ever-changing crowd a square-shouldered man made his appearance, and without a glance to right or left went straight to the big Irishman lounging in the doorway, and took him by the shoulder.
Kelly started round with an instant smile of welcome. "Ah, and is it yourself at last? I've been waiting a devil of a time for ye, my son. Is all well?"
The girl in the office did not hear Burke's reply though she craned far forward to do so. She only saw his shoulders go up slightly, and the next moment the two men turned and entered the public dining-room together.
Kelly's ill-temper had gone like an early morning fog. He led the way to a table reserved in a corner, and they sat down.
"I was half afraid ye wouldn't have anything but a kick for Donovan this morning," he said, with a somewhat rueful smile.
Burke's own brief smile showed for a moment. "I shouldn't start on you anyway," he said. "You found young Guy?"
Kelly made an expressive gesture. "Oh yes, I found him, him and his master too. At Hoffstein's of course. Kieff was holding one of his opium shows, the damn' dirty skunk. I couldn't get the boy away, but I satisfied myself that he was innocent of this. He never engaged a room here or had any intention of coming here. What Kieff's intentions were I didn't enquire. But he had got the devil's own grip on Guy last night, He could have made him do—anything." Kelly ended with a few strong expressions which left no doubt as to the opinion he entertained of Kieff and all his works.
Burke ate his breakfast in an absorbed silence. Finally he looked up to enquire, "Have you any idea what has become of Guy this morning?"
Kelly shook his head. "Not the shadow of a notion. I shall look for him presently on the racecourse. He seems to have found some money to play with, for he told me he had taken two tickets for the diamond draw, one for himself and one for another. But he was just mad last night. The very devil had got into him. What will I do with him if I get him?"
Burke's eyes met his for a moment. "You can do—anything you like with him," he said.
"Ah, but he saved your life, Burke," said the Irishman pleadingly. "It's only three days ago."
"I know what he did," said Burke briefly, both before and after that episode. "He may think himself lucky that I have no further use for him."
"But aren't you satisfied, Burke?" Kelly leaned forward impulsively. "I've told you the truth. Aren't you satisfied?"
Burke's face was grim as if hewn out of rock. "Not yet," he said. "You've told me the truth—what you know of it. But there's more to it. I've got to know—everything before I'm satisfied."
"Ah, but sure!" protested Kelly. "Women are very queer, you know. Ye can't tell what moves a woman. Often as not, it's something quite different from what you'd think."
Burke was silent, continuing his breakfast.
Kelly looked at him with eyes of pathetic persuasion. "I've been lambastin' meself all night," he burst forth suddenly, "for ever bringing ye out on such a chase. It was foul work. I see it now. She'd have come back to ye, Burke lad. She didn't mean any harm. Sure, she's as pure as the stars."
Burke's grey eyes, keen as the morning light, looked suddenly straight at him. Almost under his breath, Burke spoke. "Don't tell me—that!" he said. "Just keep Guy out of my way! That's all."
Kelly sighed aloud. "And Guy'll go to perdition faster than if the devil had kicked him. He's on his way already."
"Let him go!" said Burke.
It was his last word on the subject. Having spoken it, he gave his attention to the meal before him, and concluded it with a deliberate disregard for Kelly's depressed countenance that an onlooker might have found somewhat brutal.
"What are you going to do?" asked Kelly meekly, as at length he pushed back his chair.
Burke's eyes came to him again. He smiled faintly at the woebegone visage before him. "Cheer up, Donovan!" he said. "You're all right. You've had a beastly job, but you've done it decently. I'm going back to my wife now. She breakfasted upstairs. We shall probably make tracks this evening."
"Ah!" groaned Kelly. "Your wife'll never speak to me again after this. And I thinking her the most charming woman in the world!"
Burke turned to go, "Don't fret yourself on that account!" he said. "My wife will treat my friends exactly as she would treat her own."
He spoke with a confidence that aroused Kelly's admiration. "Sure, you know how to manage a woman, don't ye, Burke, me lad?" he said.
He watched the broad figure till it was out of sight, then got up and went out into the hot sunshine, intent upon another quest.
Burke went on steadily up the stairs till he reached the top story where he met a servant carrying a breakfast-tray with the meal practically untouched upon it. With a brief word Burke took the tray himself, and went on with the same air of absolute purpose to the door at the end of the passage.
Here, just for a moment he paused, standing in semi-darkness, listening. Then he knocked. Sylvia's voice answered him, and he entered.
She was dressed and standing by the window. "Oh, please, Burke!" she said quickly, at sight of what he carried. "I can't eat anything more."
He set down the tray and looked at her. "Why did you get up?" he said.
Her face was flushed. There was unrest in every line of her. "I had to get up," she said feverishly. "I can't rest here. It is so noisy. I want to get out of this horrible place. I can't breathe here. Besides—besides——"
"Sit down!" said Burke.
"Oh, don't make me eat anything!" she pleaded. "I really can't. I am sorry, but really——"
"Sit down!" he said again, and laid a steady hand upon her.
She yielded with obvious reluctance, avoiding his eyes. "I am quite all right," she said. "Don't bully me, partner!"
Her voice quivered suddenly, and she put her hand to her throat. Burke was pouring milk into a cap. She watched him, fighting with herself.
"Now," he said, "you can drink this anyway. It's what you're needing." He gave her the cup, and she took it from him without a word. He turned away, and stood at the window, waiting.
At the end of a full minute, he spoke. "Has it gone?"
"Yes," she said.
He turned back and looked at her. She met his eyes with an effort.
"I am quite all right," she said again.
"Ready to start back?" he said.
She leaned forward in her chair, her hands clasped very tightly in front of her. "To-day?" she said in a low voice.
"I thought you wanted to get away," said Burke.
"Yes—yes, I do." Her eyes suddenly fell before his. "I do," she said again. "But—but—I've got—something—to ask of you—first."
"Well?" said Burke.
Her breath came quickly; her fingers were straining against each other. "I—don't quite know—how to say it," she said.
Burke stood quite motionless, looking down at her. "Must it be said?" he asked.
"Yes." She sat for a moment or two, mustering her strength. Then, with an abrupt effort, she got up and faced him. "Burke, I think I have a right to your trust," she said.
He looked straight back at her with piercing, relentless eyes. "If we are going to talk of rights," he said, "I might claim a right to your confidence."
She drew back a little, involuntarily, but the next moment, quickly, she went to him and clasped his arm between her hands. "Please be generous, partner!" she said. "We won't talk of rights, either of us. You—are not—angry with me now, are you?"
He stiffened somewhat at her touch, but he did not repulse her. "I'm afraid you won't find me in a very yielding mood," he said.
She held his arm a little more tightly, albeit her hands were trembling. "Won't you listen to me?" she said, in a voice that quivered. "Is there—no possibility of—of—coming to an understanding?"
He drew a slow hard breath. "We have a very long way to go first," he said.
"I know," she answered, and her voice was quick with pain. "I know. But—we can't go on—like this. It—just isn't bearable. If—even if you can't understand me—Burke, won't you—won't you try at least to give me—the benefit of the doubt?"
It was very winningly spoken, but as she spoke she leaned her head suddenly against the arm she held and stifled a sob. "For both our sakes!" she whispered.
But Burke stood, rigid as rock, staring straight before him into the glaring sunlight. She did not know what was passing in his mind; that was the trouble of it. But she felt his grim resistance like a wall of granite, blocking her way. And the brave heart of her sank in spite of all her courage.
He moved at last, but it was a movement of constraint. He laid his free hand on her shoulder. "Crying won't help," he said. "I think we had better be getting back."
And then, for the sake of the old love, she made her supreme effort. She lifted her face; it was white to the lips, but it bore no sign of tears. "I can't go," she said, "till—I have seen Guy."
He made a sharp gesture. "Ah!" he said. "I thought that was coming."
"Yes, you knew it! You knew it!" Passionately she uttered the words. "It's the one thing that's got to be settled between us—the only thing left that counts. Yes, you mean to refuse. I know that. But—before you refuse—wait, please wait! I am asking it quite as much for your sake as for mine."
"And for his," said Burke, with a twist of the lips more bitter than the words.
But she caught them up unflinching. "Yes, and for his. We've set out to save him, you and I. And—we are not going to turn back. Burke, I ask you to help me—I implore you to help me—in this thing. You didn't refuse before."
"I wish to Heaven I had!" he said, "I might have known how it would end!"
"No—no! And you owe him your life too. Don't forget that! He saved you. Are you going to let him sink—after that?" She reached up and held him by the shoulders, imploring him with all her soul. "You can't do it! Oh, you can't do it!" she said. "It isn't—you."
He looked at her with a certain doggedness. "Not your conception of me perhaps," he said, and suddenly his arms closed about her quivering form. "But—am I—the sort of man you have always taken me to be? Tell me! Am I?"
She turned her face aside, hiding it against his shoulder. "I know—what you can be," she said faintly.
"Yes." Grimly he answered her. "You've seen the ugly side of me at last, and it's that that you are up against now." He paused a moment, then very sombrely he ended. "I might force you to tell me the whole truth of this business, but I shall not—simply because I don't want to hear it now. I know very well he's been making love to you, tempting you. But I am going to put the infernal matter away, and forget it—as far as possible. We may never reach the top of the world now, but we'll get out of this vile slough at any cost. You won't find me hard to live with if you only play the game,—and put that damned scoundrel out of your mind for good."
"And do you think I shall ever be able to forgive you?" She lifted her head with an unexpectedness that was almost startling. Her eyes were alight, burning with a ruddy fire out of the whiteness of her face. She spoke as she had never spoken before. It was as if some strange force had entered into and possessed her. "Do you think I shall ever forget—even if you do? Perhaps I am not enough to you now to count in that way. You think—perhaps—that a slave is all you want, and that partnership, comradeship, friendship, doesn't count. You are willing to sacrifice all that now, and to sacrifice him with it. But how will it be—afterwards? Will a slave be any comfort to you when things go wrong—as they surely will? Will it satisfy you to feel that my body is yours when my soul is so utterly out of sympathy, out of touch, that I shall be in spirit a complete stranger to you? Ah yes," her voice rang on a deep note of conviction that could not be restrained—"you think you won't care. But you will—you will. A time will come when you will feel you would gladly give everything you possess to undo what you are doing to-day. You will be sick at heart, lonely, disillusioned, suspicious of me and of everybody. You will see the horrible emptiness of it all, and you will yearn for better things. But it will be too late then. What once we fling away never comes again to us. We shall be too far apart by that time, too hopelessly estranged, ever to be more to each other than what we are at this moment—master and slave. Through all our lives we shall never be more than that."