She ceased to speak, and the fire went out of her eyes. She drooped in his hold as if all her strength had gone from her.
He turned and put her steadily down into the chair again. He had heard her out without a sign of emotion, and he betrayed none then. He did not speak a word. But his silence said more to her than speech. It was as the beginning of a silence which was to last between them for as long as they lived.
She sank back exhausted with closed eyes. The struggle—that long, fierce battle for Guy's soul—was over. And she had failed. Her prayers had been in vain. All her desperate effort had been fruitless, and nothing seemed to matter any more. She told herself that she would never be able to pray again. Her faith had died in the mortal combat. And there was nothing left to pray for. She was tired to the very soul of her, tired unto death; but she knew she would not die. For death was rest, and there could be no rest for her until the days of her slavery were accomplished. The sand of the desert would henceforth be her portion. The taste of it was in her mouth. The desolation of it encompassed her spirit.
Two scalding tears forced their way through her closed lids and ran down her white cheeks. She did not stir to wipe them away. She hoped he did not see them. They were the only tears she shed.
THE SKELETON TREE
"Ah, Mrs. Burke, and is it yourself that I see again? Sure, and it's a very great pleasure!" Kelly, his face crimson with embarrassment and good-will, took the hand Sylvia offered and held it hard. "A very great pleasure!" he reiterated impressively, before he let it go.
She smiled at him as one smiles at a shy child. "Thank you, Mr. Kelly," she said.
"Ah, but you'll call me Donovan," he said persuasively, "the same as everyone else! So you've come to Brennerstadt after all! And is it the diamond ye're after?"
She shook her head. They were standing on a balcony that led out of the public smoking-room, an awning over their heads and the open street at their feet. It was from the street that he had spied her, and the sight of her piteous, white face with its deeply shadowed eyes had gone straight to his impulsive Irish heart. "No," she said. "We are not bothering about the diamond. I think we shall probably start back to Ritzen to-night."
"Ah now, ye might stay one day longer and try your luck," wheedled the Irishman. "The Fates would be sure to favour ye. Where's himself?"
"I don't know." She spoke very wearily. "He left me here to rest. But it's so dusty—and airless—and noisy."
Kelly gave her a swift, keen look. "Come for a ride!" he said.
"A ride!" She raised her heavy eyes with a momentary eagerness, but it was gone instantly. "He—might not like me to go," she said. "Besides, I haven't a horse."
"That's soon remedied," said Kelly. "I've got a lamb of a horse to carry ye. And he wouldn't care what ye did in my company. He knows me. Leave him a note and come along! He'll understand. It's a good gallop that ye're wanting. Come along and get it!"
Kelly could be quite irresistible when he chose, and he had evidently made up his mind to comfort the girl's forlornness so far as in him lay. She yielded to him with the air of being too indifferent to do otherwise. But Kelly had seen that moment's eagerness, and he built on that.
A quarter of an hour later they met again in the sweltering street, and he complimented her in true Irish fashion upon the rose-flush in her cheeks. He saw that she looked about uneasily as she mounted, but with unusual tact he omitted to comment upon the fact.
The sun was slanting towards the west as they rode away. The streets were crowded, but Kelly knew all the short cuts, and guided her unerringly till they reached the edge of the open veldt.
Then, "Come along!" he cried. "Let's gallop!"
The sand flew out behind them, the parched air rushed by, and the blood quickened in Sylvia's veins. She felt as if she had left an overwhelming burden behind her in the town. The great open spaces drew her with their freedom and their vastness. She went with the flight of a bird. It was like the awakening from a dreadful dream.
They drew rein in the shadow of a tall kopje that rose abruptly from the plain like a guardian of the solitudes. Kelly was laughing with a boy's hearty merriment.
"Faith, but ye can ride!" he cried, with keen appreciation, "Never saw a prettier spectacle in me life. Was it born in the saddle ye were?"
She laughed in answer, but her heart gave a quick throb of pain. It was the first real twinge of homesickness she had known, and for a moment it was almost intolerable. Ah, the fresh-turned earth and the shining furrows, and the sweet spring rain in her face! And the sun of the early morning that shone through a scud of clouds!
"My father and I used to ride to hounds," she said. "We loved it."
"I've done it meself in the old country," said Kelly. "But ye can ride farther here. There's more room before ye reach the horizon."
Sylvia stifled a quick sigh. "Yes, it's a fine country. At least it ought to be. Yet I sometimes feel as if there is something lacking. I don't know quite what it is, but it's the quality that makes one feel at home."
"That'll come," said Kelly, with confidence. "You wait till the spring! That gets into your veins like wine. Ye'll feel the magic of it then. It's life itself."
Sylvia turned her face up to the brazen sky. "I must wait for the spring then," she said, half to herself. And then very suddenly she became aware of the kindly curiosity of her companion's survey and met it with a slight heightening of colour.
There was a brief silence before, in a low voice, she said, "We can't—all of us—afford to wait."
"You can," said Kelly promptly.
She shook her head. "I don't think by the time the spring comes that there will be much left worth having."
"Ah, but ye don't know," said Kelly. "You say that because you can't see all the flowers that are hiding down below. But you might as well believe in 'em all the same, for they're there all right, and they'll come up quick enough when God gives the word."
Sylvia looked around her over the barren land. "Are there flowers here?" she said.
"Millions," said Kelly. "Millions and millions. Why, if you were to come along here in a few weeks' time ye'd be trampling them underfoot they'd be so thick, such flowers as only grow here, on the top of the world."
"The top of the world!" She looked at him as if startled. "Is that what you call—this place?"
He laughed. "Ye don't believe me! Well, wait—wait and see!"
She turned her horse's head, and began to walk round the kopje. Kelly kept pace beside her. He was not quite so talkative as usual, but it was with obvious effort that he restrained himself, for several times words sprang to his eager lips which he swallowed unuttered. He seemed determined that the next choice of a subject should be hers.
And after a few moments he was rewarded. Sylvia spoke.
"Sure, at your service—now and always!" he responded with a warmth that no amount of self-restraint could conceal.
She turned towards him. "You have been very kind to me, and I want—I should like—to tell you something. But it's something very, very private. Will you—will you promise me——"
"Sure and I will!" vowed the Irishman instantly. "I'll swear the solemn oath if it'll make ye any happier."
"No, you needn't do that." She held out her hand to him with a gesture that was girlishly impulsive. "I know I can trust you. And I feel you will understand. It's about—Guy."
"Ah, there now! Didn't I know it?" said Kelly. He held her hand tight for a moment, looking into her eyes, his own brimful of sympathy.
"Yes. You know—all about him." She spoke with some hesitation notwithstanding. "You know—-just as I do—that he isn't—isn't really bad; only—only so hopelessly weak."
There was a little quiver in her voice as she said the words. She looked at him with appeal in her eyes.
"I know," said Kelly.
With a slight effort she went on. "He—Burke—thinks otherwise. And because of that, he won't let me see Guy again. He is very angry with me—I doubt if he will ever really forgive me—for following Guy to this place. But,—Mr. Kelly,—I had a reason—an urgent reason for doing this. I hoped to be back again before he found out; but everything was against me."
"Ah! Didn't I know it?" said Kelly. "It's the way of the world in an emergency. Nothing ever goes right of itself."
She smiled rather wanly. "Life can be—rather cruel," she said. "Something is working against me. I can feel it. I have forfeited all Burke's respect and his confidence at a stroke. He will never trust me again. And Guy—Guy will simply go under."
"No—no!" said Kelly. "Don't you believe it! He'll come round and lead a decent life after this; you'll see. There's nothing whatever to worry about over Guy. No real vice in him!"
It was a kindly lie, stoutly spoken; but it failed to convince. Sylvia shook her head even while, he was speaking.
"You don't know all yet. I haven't told you. But I will tell you—if you will listen. Once when Burke and I were talking of Guy—it was almost the first time—he said that he had done almost everything bad except one thing. He had never robbed him. And somehow I felt that so long as there was that one great exception he would not regard him as utterly beyond redemption. But now—but now—" her voice quivered again—"well, even that can't be said of him now," she said.
"What? He has taken money?" Kelly looked at her in swift dismay. "Ye don't mean that!" he said. And then quickly: "Are ye sure now it wasn't Kieff?"
"Yes." She spoke with dreary conviction. "I am fairly sure Kieff's at the back of it, but—it was Guy who did it, thanks to my carelessness."
"Yours!" Kelly's eyes bulged. "Ye don't mean that!" he said again.
"Yes, it's true." Drearily she answered him. "Burke left the key of the strong-box in my keeping on the day of the sand-storm. I dropped it in the dark. I was hunting for it when you came. Then—I forgot it. Afterwards, you remember, Burke and Guy came in together. He must have found it—somehow—then."
"He did!" said Kelly suddenly. "Faith, he did! Ye remember when he had that attack? He picked up something then—on the floor against his foot. I saw him do it, the fool that I am! He'd got it in his hand when we helped him up, and I never noticed,—never thought. The artful young devil!"
A hint of admiration sounded in his voice. Kelly the simple-minded had ever been an admirer of art.
Sylvia went on very wearily. "The box was kept in a cupboard in the room he was sleeping in. The rest was quite easy. He left the key behind him in the lock. I found it after you and Burke had gone to the Merstons'. I guessed what had happened of course. I went round to his hut, but it was all fastened up as usual. Then I went to Piet Vreiboom's." She shuddered suddenly. "I saw Kieff as well as Vreiboom. They seemed hugely amused at my appearance, and told me Guy was just ahead on the way to Brennerstadt. It was too late to ride the whole way, so I went to Ritzen, hoping to find him there. But I could get no news of him, so I came on by train in the morning. I ought to have got here long ago, but the engine broke down. We were held up for hours, and so I arrived—too late."
The utter dreariness of her speech went straight to Kelly's heart. "Ah, there now—there now!" he said. "If I'd only known I'd have followed and helped ye that night."
"You see, I didn't know you were coming back," she said. "And anyhow I couldn't have waited. I had to start at once. It was—my job." She smiled faintly, a smile that was sadder than tears.
"And do ye know what happened?" said Kelly. "Did Burke tell ye what happened?"
She shook her head. "No. He told me very little. I suppose he concluded that we had run away together."
"Ah no! That wasn't his doing," said Kelly, paused a moment, then plunged valiantly at the truth. "That was mine. I thought so meself—foul swine as ye may very well call me. Kieff told me so—the liar; and I—like a blasted fool—believed it. At least, no, I didn't right at the heart of me, Mrs. Ranger. I knew what ye were, just the same as I know now. But I'd seen ye look into his eyes when ye begged him off the brandy-bottle, and I knew the friendship between ye wasn't just the ordinary style of thing; no more is it. But it was that devil Kieff that threw the mud. I found him waiting that night when I got back. He was waiting for Burke, he said; and his story was that he and Vreiboom had seen the pair of ye eloping. I nearly murdered him at the time. Faith, I wish I had!" ended Kelly pathetically, with tears in his eyes. "It would have stopped a deal of mischief both now and hereafter."
"Never mind!" said Sylvia gently. "You couldn't tell. You hadn't known me more than a few hours."
"It was long enough!" vowed Kelly. "Anyway, Burke ought to have known better. He's known you longer than that."
"He has never known me," she said quietly. "Of course he believed the story."
"He doesn't believe it now," said Kelly quickly.
A little quiver went over her face. "Perhaps not. I don't know what he believes, or what he will believe when he finds the money gone. That is what I want to prevent—if only I can prevent it. It is Guy's only chance. What he did was done wickedly enough, but it was at a time of great excitement, when he was not altogether master of himself. But unless it can be undone, he will go right down—and never come up again. Oh, don't you see—" a sudden throb sounded in her tired voice—"that if once Burke knows of this, Guy's fate is sealed? There is no one else to help him. Besides,—it wasn't all his own doing. It was Kieff's. And away from Kieff, he is so different."
"Ah! But how to get him away from Kieff!" said Kelly. "The fellow's such a damn' blackguard. Once he takes hold, he never lets go till he's got his victim sucked dry."
Sylvia shuddered. "Can't you do anything?" she said.
Kelly looked at her with his honest kindly eyes, "If it were me, Mrs. Ranger," he said, "I should tell me husband the whole truth—and—let him deal with it."
She shook her head instantly. "It would be the end of everything for Guy. Even if Burke let him off, he could never come back to us. It would be as bad as sending him to prison—or even worse."
"Not it!" said Kelly. "You don't trust Burke. It's a pity. He's such a fine chap. But look here, I'll do me best, I'll get hold of young Guy and make him disgorge. How much did the young ruffian take?"
"I don't know. That's the hopeless part of it. That is why I must see him myself."
Kelly pursed his lips for a moment, but the next he smiled upon her, "All right. I'll manage somehow. But you mustn't go to-night. You tell Burke you're too tired. He'll understand."
"Do you know where Guy is?" she said.
"Oh yes, I can put me hand on the young divil if I want him. You leave that to me! I'll do me best all round. Now—suppose we have another trot, and then go back!"
Sylvia turned her horse's head. "I'm—deeply grateful to you, Mr. Kelly," she said.
"Donovan!" insinuated Kelly.
She smiled a little. She seemed almost more piteous to him when she smiled. "Donovan," she said.
"Ah, that's better!" he declared. "That does me good. To be a friend of both of ye is what I want. Burke and you together! Ye're such a fine pair, and just made for each other, faith, made for each other. When I saw you, Mrs. Burke, I didn't wonder that he'd fallen in love at last. I give ye me word, I didn't. And I'll never forget the look on his face when he thought he'd lost ye; never as long as I live. It—it was as if he'd been stabbed to the heart."
Tactless, clumsy, sentimental, he sought to pour balm upon the wounded spirit of this girl with her tragic eyes that should have held only the glad sunshine of youth. It hurt him to see her thus, hurt him unspeakably, and he knew himself powerless to comfort. Yet with that odd womanly tenderness of his, he did his best.
He wondered what she was thinking of as she sat her horse, gazing out over the wide spaces, so wearily and yet so intently. She did not seem to have heard his last remarks, or was that merely the impression she desired to convey? A vague uneasiness took possession of him. He did not like her to look like that.
"Shall we move on?" he said gently.
She pointed suddenly across the veldt. "I want to ride as far as that skeleton tree," she said. "Don't come with me! I shall catch you up if you ride slowly."
"Right!" said Kelly, and watched her lift her bridle and ride away.
He would have done anything to oblige her just then; but his curiosity was whetted to a keen edge. For she rode swiftly, as one who had a definite aim in view. Straight as an arrow across the veldt she went to the skeleton tree with its stripped trunk and stark, outflung arms that seemed the very incarnation of the barrenness around.
Here she checked her animal, and sat for a moment with closed eyes, the evening sunlight pouring over her. Very strangely she was trembling from head to foot, as if in the presence of a vision upon which she dared not look. She had returned as she had always meant to return—but ah, the dreary desert spaces and the cruel roughness of the road! Her husband's words uttered only a few hours before came back upon her as she stood there. "We may never reach the top of the world now," No, they would never reach it. Had anyone ever done so, she wondered drearily? But yet they had been near it once—nearer than many. Did that count for nothing?
It seemed to her that aeons had passed over her since last she had stood beneath that tree. She had been a girl then, ardent and full of courage. Now she was a woman, old and very tired, and there was nothing left in life. It was almost as if she had ceased to live.
But yet she had come back to the starting-point, and here, as if standing beside a grave and reading the inscription to one long dead, she opened her eyes in the last glow of the sunshine to read the words which Burke had cut into the bare wood on the evening of his wedding-day. She remembered how she had waited for him, the tumult of doubt, of misgiving, in her soul, how she had wished he would not linger in that desolate place. Now, out of the midst of a desolation to which this sandy waste was as nothing, she searched with almost a feeling of awe as one about to read a message from the dead.
The bare, bleached trunk of the tree shone strangely in the sinking sun, faintly tinted with rose. The world all around her was changing; slowly, imperceptibly, changing. A tender lilac glow was creeping over the veldt. A curious sensation came upon Sylvia, as if she were moving in a dream, as if she were stepping into a new world and the old had fallen from her. The bitterness had lifted from her spirit. Her heart beat faster. She was a treasure-seeker on the verge of a great discovery. Trembling, she lifted her eyes. . . .
There on the smooth wood, like a scroll upon a marble pillar, were words, rough-hewn but unmistakable—Fide et Amore. . . .
It was as if a voice had spoken in her soul, a dear, insistent voice, bidding her begone. She obeyed, scarcely knowing what she did. Back across the dusty veldt she rode, moving as one in a trance. She joined the Irishman waiting for her, but she looked at him with eyes that saw not.
"Well?" he said, frankly curious. "Did you find anything?"
She started a little, and came out of her dream. "I found what I was looking for," she said.
"What was it?" Kelly was keenly interested; there was no checking him now, he was like a hound on the scent.
She did not resent his questions. That was Kelly's privilege. But neither did she answer him as fully as he could have wished. "I found out," she said slowly, after a moment, "how to get to the top of the world."
"Ah, really now!" said Kelly, opening his eyes to their widest extent. "And are ye going to pack your bag and go?"
She smiled very faintly, looking, straight before her. "No. It's too late now," she said. "I've missed the way. So has Burke."
"But ye'll try again—ye'll try again!" urged Kelly, eager as a child for the happy ending of a fairy-tale.
She shook her head. Her lips were quivering, but still she made them smile. "Not that way. I am afraid it's barred," she said, and with the words she touched her horse with her heel and rode quickly forward towards the town.
Donovan followed her with a rueful countenance. There were times when even he felt discouraged with the world.
"Good evening, Mrs. Ranger!"
Sylvia started at the sound of a cool, detached voice as she re-entered the hotel. Two eyes, black as onyx and as expressionless, looked coldly into hers. A chill shudder ran through her. She glanced instinctively back at Kelly, who came forward instantly in his bulky, protective fashion.
"Hullo, Kieff! What are you doing here? Gambling for the diamond?"
"I?" said Kieff, with a stretching of his thin, colourless lips that was scarcely a smile. "I don't gamble for diamonds, my good Kelly. Well, Mrs. Ranger, I hope you had a pleasant journey here."
"He gambles for souls," was the thought in Sylvia's mind, as with a quick effort she controlled herself and passed on in icy silence. She would never voluntarily speak to Kieff again. He was an open enemy; and she turned from him with the same loathing that she would have shown for a reptile in her path.
His laugh—that horrible, slippery sound—followed her. He said something in Dutch to the man who lounged beside him, and at once another laugh—Piet Vreiboom's—bellowed forth like the blare of a bull. She flinched in spite of herself. Every nerve shrank. Yet the next moment, superbly, she wheeled and faced them. There was something intolerable in that laughter, something that stung her beyond endurance.
"Tell me," she commanded Kelly, "tell me what these—gentlemen—find about me to laugh at!"
Her face was white as death, but her eyes shone red as leaping flame. She was terrible in that moment—terrible as a lioness at bay—and the laughter died. Piet Vreiboom slunk a little back, his low brows working uneasily.
Kelly swallowed an oath in his throat; his hands were clenched. But Kieff, in a voice smooth as oil, made ready, mocking answer.
"Oh, not at you, madam! Heaven forbid! What could any man find to smile at in such a model of virtuous propriety as yourself?"
He was baiting her openly, and she knew it. An awful wave of anger surged through her brain, such anger as had never before possessed her. For the moment she felt sick, as if she had drunk of some overpowering drug. He meant to humiliate her publicly. She realized it in a flash. And she was powerless to prevent it. Whether she went or whether she stayed, he would accomplish his end. Among all the strange faces that stared at her, only Kelly's, worried and perplexed, betrayed the smallest concern upon her account. And he, since her unexpected action, had been obviously at a loss as to how to deal with the situation or with her. Single-handed, he would have faced the pack; but with her at his side he was hopelessly hampered, afraid of blundering and making matters worse.
"Ah, come away!" he muttered to her. "It's not the place for ye at all. They're hogs and swine, the lot of 'em. Don't ye be drawn by the likes of them!"
But she stood her ground, for there was hot blood in Sylvia and a fierce pride that would not tamely suffer outrage. Moreover, she had been wounded cruelly, and the desire for vengeance welled up furiously within her. Now that she stood in the presence of her enemy, the impulse to strike back, however futile the blow, urged her and would not be denied.
She confronted Saul Kieff with tense determination. "You will either repeat—and explain—what you said to your friend regarding me just now," she said, in tones that rang fearlessly, echoing through the crowded place, "or you will admit yourself a contemptible coward for vilely slandering a woman whom you know to be defenceless!"
It was regally spoken. She stood splendidly erect, facing him, withering him from head to foot with the scorching fire of her scorn. A murmur of sympathy went through the rough crowd of men gathered before her. One or two cursed Kieff in a growling undertone. But Kieff himself remained absolutely unmoved. He was smoking a cigarette and he inhaled several deep breaths before he replied to her challenge. Then, with his basilisk eyes fixed immovably upon her, as it were clinging to her, he made his deadly answer: "I will certainly tell you what I said, madam, since you desire it. But the explanation is one which surely only you can give. I said to my friend, 'There goes the wife of the Rangers.' Did I make a mistake?"
"Yes, you damned hound, you did!" The voice that uttered the words came from the door that led into the office. Burke Ranger swung suddenly out upon them, moving with a kind of massive force that carried purpose in every line. Men drew themselves together as he passed them with the instinctive impulse to leave his progress unimpeded; for this man would have forced his way past every obstacle at that moment. He went straight for his objective without a glance to right or left.
Sylvia started back at his coming. That which her enemy could not do was accomplished by her husband by neither word nor look. The regal poise went out of her bearing. She shrank against Kelly as if seeking refuge. For she had seen Burke's eyes, as she had seen them the night before; and they were glittering with the lust for blood. They were the eyes of a murderer.
Straight to Kieff he came, and Kieff waited for him, quite motionless, with thin lips drawn back, showing a snarling gleam of teeth. But just as Burke reached him he moved. His right arm shot forth with a serpentine ferocity, and in a flash the muzzle of a revolver gleamed between them.
"Hands up, if you please, Mr. Ranger!" he said smoothly. "We shall talk better that way."
But for once in his life he had made a miscalculation, and the next instant he realized it. He had reckoned without the blunderer Kelly. For a fierce oath broke from the Irishman at sight of the weapon, and in the same second he beat it down with the stock of his riding-whip with a force that struck it out of Kieff's grasp. It spun along the floor to Sylvia's feet, and she stooped and snatched it up.
Burke did not so much as glance round. He had Kieff by the collar of his coat, and the fate of the revolver was obviously a matter of no importance to him. "Give me that horse-whip of yours, Donovan!" he said,
Kelly complied with the childlike obedience he invariably yielded to Burke. Then he fell back to Sylvia, and very gently took the revolver out of her clenched hand.
She looked at him, her eyes wide, terror-stricken. "He will kill him!" she said, in a voiceless whisper.
"Not a bit of it," said Kelly, and put his arm around her. "These poisonous vermin don't die so easy. Pity they don't."
And then began the most terrible scene that Sylvia had ever looked upon. No one intervened between Burke and his victim. There was even a look of brutal satisfaction upon some of the faces around. Piet Vreiboom openly gloated, as if he were gazing upon a spectacle of rare delight.
And Burke thrashed Kieff, thrashed him with all the weight of his manhood's strength, forced him staggering up and down the open space that had been cleared for that awful reckoning, making a public show of him, displaying him to every man present as a crawling, contemptible thing that not one of them would have owned as friend. It was a ghastly chastisement, made deadly by the hatred that backed it. Kieff writhed this way and that, but he never escaped the swinging blows. They followed him mercilessly,—all the more mercilessly for his struggles. His coat tore out at the seams and was ripped to rags. And still Burke thrashed him, his face grim and terrible and his eyes shot red and gleaming—as the eyes of a murderer.
In the end Kieff stumbled and pitched forward upon his knees, his arms sprawling helplessly out before him. It was characteristic of the man that he had not uttered a sound; only as Burke stayed his hand his breathing came with a whistling noise through the tense silence, as of a wounded animal brought to earth. His face was grey.
Burke held him so for a few seconds, then deliberately dropped the horse-whip and grasped him with both hands, lifting him. Kieff's head was sunk forward. He looked as if he would faint. But inexorably Burke dragged him to his feet and turned him till he stood before Sylvia.
She was leaning against Kelly with her hands over her face. Relentlessly Burke's voice broke the silence.
"Now," he said briefly, "you will apologize to my wife for insulting her."
She uncovered her face and raised it. There was shrinking horror in her look. "Oh, Burke!" she said. "Let him go!"
"You will—apologize," Burke said again very insistently, with pitiless distinctness.
There was a dreadful pause. Kieff's breathing was less laboured, but it was painfully uneven and broken. His lips twitched convulsively. They seemed to be trying to form words, but no words came.
Burke waited, and several seconds dragged away. Then suddenly from the door of the office the girl who had received Sylvia the previous evening emerged.
She carried a glass. "Here you are!" she said curtly. "Give him this!"
There was neither pity nor horror in her look. Her eyes dwelt upon Burke with undisguised admiration.
"You've given him a good dose this time," she remarked. "Serve him right—the dirty hound! Hope it'll be a lesson to the rest of 'em," and she shot a glance at Piet Vreiboom which was more eloquent than words.
She held the glass to Kieff's lips with a contemptuous air, and when he had drunk she emptied the dregs upon the floor and marched back into the office.
"Now," Burke said again, "you will apologize."
And so at last in a voice so low as to be barely audible, Saul Kieff, from whose sneer all women shrank as from the sting of a scorpion, made unreserved apology to the girl he had plotted to ruin. At Burke's behest he withdrew the vile calumny he had launched against her, and he expressed his formal regret for the malice that had prompted it.
When Burke let him go, no one attempted to offer him help. There was probably not a man present from whom he would have accepted it. He slunk away like a wounded beast, staggering, but obviously intent upon escape, and the gathering shadows of the coming night received him.
A murmur as of relief ran round the circle of spectators he left behind, and in a moment, as it were automatically, the general attention was turned upon Sylvia. She was still leaning against Kelly, her death-white face fixed and rigid. Her eyes were closed.
Burke went to her. "Come!" he said. "We will go up."
Her eyes opened. She looked straight at him, seeing none beside. "Was that how you treated Guy?" she said.
He laid an imperative hand upon her. "Come!" he said again.
She made a movement as though to evade him, and then suddenly she faltered. Her eyes grew wide and dark. She threw out her hands with a groping gesture as if stricken blind, and fell straight forward.
Burke caught her, held her for a moment; then as she sank in his arms he lifted her, and bore her away.
THE EVIL THING
When Sylvia opened her eyes again she was lying in the chair by the open window where she had waited so long the previous evening. Her first impression was that she was alone, and then with a sudden stabbing sense of fear she realized Burke's presence.
He was standing slightly behind her, so that the air might reach her, but leaning forward, watching her intently. With a gasp she looked up into his eyes.
He put his hand instantly upon her, reassuring her. "All right. It's all right," he said.
Both tone and touch were absolutely gentle, but she shrank from him, shrank and quivered with a nervous repugnance that she was powerless to control. He took his hand away and turned aside.
She spoke then, her voice quick and agitated. "Don't go! Please don't go!"
He came and stood in front of her, and she saw that his face was grim. "What is the matter?" he said. "Surely you don't object to a serpent like that getting his deserts for once!"
She met his look with an effort. "Oh, it's not that—not that!" she said.
"What then? You object to me being the executioner?" He spoke curtly, through lips that had a faintly cynical twist.
She could not answer him; only after a moment she sat up, holding to the arms of the chair. "Forgive me for being foolish!" she said. "I—you gave me—rather a fright, you know. I've never seen you—like that before. I felt—it was a horrible feeling—as if you were a stranger. But—of course—you are you—just the same. You are—really—you."
She faltered over the words, his look was so stern, so forbidding. She seemed to be trying to convince herself against her own judgment.
His eyes met hers relentlessly. "Yes, I am myself—and no one else," he said. "I fancy you have never quite realized me before. Possibly you have deliberately blinded yourself. But you know me now, and it is as well that you should. It is the only way to an ultimate understanding."
She blenched a little in spite of herself. "And you—and you—once—thrashed—Guy," she said, her voice very low, sunk almost to a whisper. "Was it—was it—was it like—that?"
He turned sharply away as if there were something intolerable in the question. He went to the window and stood there in silence. And very oddly at that moment the memory of Kelly's assurance went through her that he had been fond of Guy. She did not believe it, yet just for the moment it influenced her. It gave her strength. She got up, and went to his side.
"Burke," she said tremulously, "promise me—please promise me—that you will never do that again!"
He gave her a brief, piercing glance. "If he keeps out of my way, I shan't run after him," he said.
"No—no! But even if he doesn't—" she clasped her hands hard together—"Burke, even if he doesn't—and even though he has disappointed you—wronged you—oh, have you no pity? Can't you—possibly—forgive?"
He turned abruptly and faced her. "Forgive him for making love to you?" he said. "Is that what you are asking?"
She shivered at the question. "At least you won't—punish him like that—whatever he has done," she said.
He was looking full at her. "You want my promise on that?" he said.
"Yes, oh yes." Very earnestly she made reply though his eyes were as points of steel, keeping her back. "I know you will keep a promise. Please—promise me that!"
"Yes," he said drily. "I keep my promises. He can testify to that. So can you. But if I promise you this, you must make me a promise too."
"What is it?" she said.
"Simply that you will never have anything more to do with him without my knowledge—and consent." He uttered the words with the same pitiless distinctness as had characterized his speech when dictating to Kieff.
She drew sharply. "Oh, but why—why ask such a promise of me when you have only just proved your own belief in me?"
"How have I done that?" he said.
"By taking my part before all those horrible men downstairs." She suppressed a hard shudder. "By—defending my honour."
Burke's face remained immovable. "I was defending my own," he said. "I should have done that—in any case."
She made a little hopeless movement with her hands and dropped them to her sides. "Oh, how hard you are!" she said, "How hard—and how cruel!"
He lifted his shoulders slightly, and turned away in silence. Perhaps there was more of forbearance in that silence than she realized.
He did not ask her where she had been with Kelly or comment upon the fact that she had been out at all. Only after a brief pause he told her that they would not leave till the following day as he had some business to attend to. Then to her relief he left her. At least he had promised that he would not go in search of Guy!
Later in the evening, a small packet was brought to her which she found to contain some money in notes wrapped in a slip of paper on which was scrawled a few words.
"I have done my best with young G., but he is rather out of hand for the present. I enclose the 'loan.' Just put it back, and don't worry any more. Yours, D. K."
She put the packet away with a great relief at her heart. That danger then, had been averted. There yet remained a chance for Guy. He was not—still he was not—quite beyond redemption. If only—ah, if only—she could have gone to Burke with the whole story! But Burke had become a stranger to her. She had begun to wonder if she had ever really known him. His implacability frightened her almost more than his terrible vindictiveness. She felt that she could never again turn to him with confidence.
That silence that lay between them was like an ever-widening gulf severing them ever more and more completely. She believed that they would remain strangers for the rest of their lives. Very curiously, those three words which she had read upon the tree served to strengthen this conviction. They were, indeed, to her as a message from the dead. The man who had written them had ceased to exist. Guy might have written them in the old days, but his likeness to Guy was no more. She saw them both now with a distinctness that was almost cruel—the utter weakness of the one, the merciless strength of the other. And in the bitterness of her soul she marvelled that either of them had ever managed to reach her heart.
That could never be so again, so she told herself. The power to love had been wrested from her. The object of her love had turned into a monstrous demon of jealousy from which now she shrank more and more—though she might never escape. Yes, she had loved them both, and still her compassion lingered pitifully around the thought of Guy. But for Burke she had only a shrinking that almost amounted to aversion. He had slain her love. She even believed she was beginning to hate him.
She dreaded the prospect of another long day spent at Brennerstadt. It was the day of the diamond draw, too. The place would be a seething tumult. She was so unutterably tired. She thought with a weary longing of Blue Hill Farm. At least she would find a measure of peace there, though healing were denied her. This place had become hateful to her, an inferno of vice and destruction. She yearned to leave it.
Something of this yearning she betrayed on the following morning when Burke told her that he was making arrangements to leave by the evening train for Ritzen.
"Can't we go sooner?" she said.
He looked at her as if surprised by the question. "There is a train at midday," he said. "But it is not a good time for travelling."
"Oh, let us take it!" she said feverishly. "Please let us take it! We might get back to the farm by to-night then."
He had sent his horse back to Ritzen the previous day in the care of a man he knew, so that both their animals would be waiting for them.
"Do you want to get back?" said Burke.
"Oh, yes—yes! Anything is better than this." She spoke rapidly, almost passionately. "Let us go! Do let us go!"
"Very well," said Burke. "If you wish it."
He paused at the door of the office a few minutes later, when they descended, to tell the girl there that they were leaving at noon.
She looked up at him sharply as he stood looking in. "Heard the latest?" she asked.
"What is the latest?" questioned Burke.
"That dirty dog you thrashed last night—Kieff; he's dead," she told him briefly. "Killed himself with an overdose of opium, died at Hoffstein's early this morning." She glanced beyond him at Sylvia who stood behind. "And a good job, too," she said vindictively. "He's ruined more people in this town than I'd like to be responsible for—the filthy parasite. He was the curse of the place."
Burke turned with a movement that was very deliberate. He also looked at Sylvia. For a long moment they stood so, in the man's eyes a growing hardness, in the woman's a horror undisguised. Then, with a very curious smile, Burke put his hand through his wife's arm and turned her towards the room where breakfast awaited them.
"Come and have something to eat, partner!" he said, his voice very level and emotionless.
She went with him without a word; but her whole being throbbed and quivered under his touch as if it were torture to her. Stark and hideous, the evil thing reared itself in her path, and there was no turning aside. She saw him, as she had seen him on the night of her arrival, as she had seen him the night after, as she believed that she would always see him for the rest of her life. And the eyes that looked into hers—those eyes that had held her, dominated her, charmed her—were the eyes of a murderer. Go where she would, there could be no escape for her for ever. The evil thing had her enchained.
THE LAND OF BLASTED HOPES
They were still at breakfast when Kelly came dashing in full of the news of the death of Kieff. No one knew whether it had been accidental or intentional, but he spoke—as the girl in the office had spoken—as if a curse had been lifted from the town. And Sylvia sat at the table and listened, feeling as if her heart had been turned to ice. The man had died by his own hand, but she could not shake from her the feeling that she and Burke had been the cause of his death.
She saw Kelly for a few minutes alone when the meal was over, and whispered her thanks to him for what he had done with regard to Guy. He would scarcely listen to her, declaring it had been a pleasure to serve her, that it had been the easiest thing in the world, and that now it was done she must not worry any more.
"But was it really easy?" she questioned.
"Yes—yes! He was glad enough of the chance to give it back. He only acted on impulse, ye see, and Kieff was pushing behind. He'd never have done it but for Kieff. Very likely he'll pull round now and lead a respectable life," said Kelly cheerily. "He's got the stuff in him, ye know, if he'd only let it grow."
She smiled wanly at his optimism. "Oh, do beg him to try!" she said.
"I'll do me best," promised Kelly. "Anyway, don't you worry! It's a sheer waste of time and never helped anybody yet."
His cheerful attitude helped her, small as was her hope for Guy's reformation. Moreover, she knew that Kelly would keep his word. He would certainly do his best for Guy.
He took his leave of her almost immediately, declaring it was the busiest day of his life, but assuring her that he would ride over to Blue Hill Farm to see her on the earliest opportunity with the greatest pleasure in the world.
She asked him somewhat nervously at parting if the death of Kieff were likely to hinder their return, but he laughed at the notion. Why, of course not! Burke hadn't killed the man. Such affairs as the one she had witnessed the night before were by no means unusual in Brennerstadt. Besides, it was a clear case of opium poisoning, and everyone had known that he would die of it sooner or later. It was the greatest mercy he had, gone, and so she wasn't to worry about that! No one would have any regrets for Kieff except the people he had ruined.
And so with wholesome words of reassurance he left her, and she went to prepare for her journey.
When Burke joined her again, they spoke only of casual things, avoiding all mention of Guy or Kieff by tacit consent. He was very considerate for her, making every possible provision for her comfort, but his manner was aloof, almost forbidding. There was no intimacy between them, no confidence, no comradeship.
They reached Ritzen in the late afternoon. Burke suggested spending the night there, but she urged him to continue the journey. The heat of the day was over; there was no reason for lingering. So they found their horses, and started on the long ride home.
They rode side by side along the dusty track through a barren waste that made the eyes ache. A heavy stillness hung over the land, making the loneliness seem more immense. They scarcely spoke at all, and it came to Sylvia that they were stranger to each other now than they had been on that day at the very beginning of their acquaintance when he had first brought her to Blue Hill Farm. She felt herself to be even more of an alien in this land of cruel desolation than when first she had set foot in it. It was like a vast prison, she thought drearily, while the grim, unfriendly kopjes were the sentinels that guarded her, and the far blue mountains were a granite wall that none might pass.
The sun was low in the sky when they reached the watercourse. It was quite dry with white stones that looked like the skeletons of the ages scattered along its bed.
"Shall we rest for a few minutes?" said Burke. But she shook her head. "No—no! Not here. It is getting late."
So they crossed the spruit and went on.
The sun went down in an opalescent glow of mauve and pink and pearl that spread far over the veldt, and she felt that the beauty of it was almost more than she could bear. It hid so much that was terrible and cruel.
They came at length, when the light was nearly gone, to a branching track that led to the Merstons' farm.
Burke broke his silence again. "I must go over and see Merston in the morning."
She felt the warm colour flood her face. How much had the Merstons heard? She murmured something in response, but she did not offer to accompany him.
A deep orange moon came up over the eastern hills and lighted the last few miles of their journey, casting a strange amber radiance around them, flinging mysterious shadows about the kopjes, shedding an unearthly splendour upon the endless veldt. It spread like an illimitable ocean in soundless billows out of which weird rocks stood up—a dream-world of fantastic possibilities, but petrified into stillness by the spell of its solitudes—a world that once surely had thrilled with magic and now was dead.
As they rode past the last kopje—her kopje that she had never yet climbed, they seemed to her to enter the innermost loneliness of all, to reach the very heart of the desert.
They arrived at Blue Hill Farm, and the sound of their horses' feet brought the Kaffirs buzzing from their huts, but the clatter that they made did not penetrate that great and desolate silence. The spell remained untouched.
Burke went with Joe to superintend the rubbing down and feeding of their animals, and Sylvia entered the place alone. Though it was exactly the same as when she had left it, she felt as if she were entering a ruin.
She went to her own room and washed away the dust of the journey. The packet that Kelly had given her she locked away in her own box. Burke might enter at any moment, and she did not dare to attempt to open the strong-box then. She knew the money must be returned and speedily; she would not rest until she had returned it. But she could not risk detection at that moment. Her courage was worn down with physical fatigue. She lacked the nerve.
When Burke came in, he found her bringing in a hastily prepared supper. He took the tray from her and made her sit down while he waited upon her. Her weariness was too great to hide, and she yielded without demur, lacking the strength to do otherwise.
He made her eat and drink though she was almost too tired even for that, and when the meal was done he would not suffer her to rest in a chair but led her with a certain grim kindliness to the door of her room.
"Go to bed, child!" he said. "And stay there till you feel better!"
She obeyed him, feeling that she had no choice, yet still too anxious to sleep. He brought her a glass of hot milk when she was in bed, remarking that her supper had been a poor one, and she drank in feverish haste, yearning to be left alone. Then, when he had gone, she tormented herself by wondering if he had noticed anything strange in her manner, if he thought that she were going to be ill and so would perhaps mount guard over her.
A chafing sense of impotence came upon her. It would be terrible to fail now after all she had undergone. She lay listening, straining every nerve. He would be sure to smoke his pipe on the stoep before turning in. That was the opportunity that she must seize. She dared not leave it till the morrow. He might ask for the key of the strong-box at any time. But still she did not hear him moving beyond the closed door, and she wondered if he could have fallen asleep in the sitting-room. A heavy drowsiness was beginning to creep over her notwithstanding her uneasiness. She fought against it with all her strength, but it gained ground in spite of her. Her brain felt clogged with weariness.
She began to doze, waking with violent starts and listening, drifting back to slumber ever more deeply, till at last actual sleep possessed her, and for a space she lay in complete oblivion.
It must have been a full hour later that she became suddenly conscious again, with every faculty on the alert, and remembered the task still unfulfilled. It was almost as if a voice—Guy's voice—had called her, urging her to action.
The room was full of moonlight, and she could see every object in it as clearly as if it had been day. The precious packet was under her pillow with the key of the strong-box. She felt for and grasped them both almost instinctively before she looked round, and then, on the verge of raising herself, her newly awakened eyes lighted upon something which sent all the blood in a wild rush to her heart. A man's figure was kneeling motionless at the foot of the bed.
She lay and gazed and gazed, hardly believing her senses, wondering if the moonlight could have tricked her. He was so still, he might have been a figure wrought in marble. His face was hidden on his arms, but there was that in his attitude that sent a stab of wonder through her. Was it—was it Guy kneeling there in an abandonment of despair? Had he followed her like a wandering outcast now that his master Kieff was gone? If so, but no—but no! Surely it was a dream. Guy was far away. This was but the fantasy of her own brain. Guy could never have come to her thus. And yet, was it not Guy's voice that had called her from her sleep?
A great quiver went through her. What if Guy had died in the night far away in Brennerstadt? What if this were his spirit come to hold commune with hers. Was she not dearer to him than anyone else in the world? Would he not surely seek her before he passed on?
Trembling, she raised herself at last and spoke his name. "Guy, is that you? Dear Guy, speak to me!"
She saw an answering tremor pass through the kneeling figure, but the face remained hidden. The moonlight lay upon the dark head, and she thought she saw streaks of white upon it. It was Guy in the flesh then. It could be none other. A yearning tenderness thrilled through her. He had come back—in spite of all his sinning he had come back. And again through the years there came to her the picture of the boy she had known and loved—ah, how dearly! in the days of his innocence. It was so vivid that for the moment it swept all else aside. Oh, if he would but move and show her once more the sparkling eager face of his youth! She longed with a passionate intensity for one glimpse, however fleeting, of that which once had filled her heart with rapture. And in her longing she herself was swept back for a few blind seconds into the happy realms of girlhood. She forgot all the bitterness and the sorrow of this land of strangers. She Stretched out her arms to the golden-winged Romance that had taught her the ecstasy of first love.
"Oh, Guy—my own Guy—come to me!" she said.
It moved then, moved suddenly, even convulsively, as a wounded man might move. He lifted his head, and looked at her.
Her dream passed like the rending of a veil. His eyes pierced her, but she had to meet them, lacking power to do otherwise.
So for a space they looked at one another in the moonlight, saying no word, scarcely so much as breathing.
Then, at last he got to his feet with the heavy movements of a tired man, stood a while longer looking down at her, finally turned in utter silence and left her.
When Sylvia slept, many hours later, there came again to her for the third and last time the awful dream of two horsemen who galloped towards each other upon the same rocky path. She saw again the shock of collision and the awful hurtling fall. She went again down into the stony valley and searched for the man who she knew was dead. She found him in a deep place that no other living being had ever entered. He lay with his face upturned to the moonlight, and his eyes wide and glassy gazing upwards. She drew near, and stooped to close those eyes; but she could not. For they gazed straight into her own. They pierced her soul with the mute reproach of a silence that could never be broken again.
She turned and went away through a devastating loneliness. She knew now which of the two had galloped free and which had fallen, and she went as one without hope or comfort, wandering through the waste places of the earth.
Late in the morning she awoke and looked out upon a world of dreadful sunshine,—a parched and barren world that panted in vain for the healing of rain.
"It is a land of blasted hopes," she told herself drearily. "Everything in it is doomed."
Sylvia entered the sitting-room that day with the feeling of one returning after a prolonged absence. She had been almost too tired to notice her surroundings the previous night upon arrival. Her limbs felt leaden still, but her brain was alive and throbbing with a painful intensity.
Mary Ann informed her that the big baas was out on the lands, and she received the news thankfully. Now was her chance! She took it, feeling like a traitor.
Once more she went to Burke's room. She opened the strong-box stealthily, listening intently for every sound. She slipped the packet of notes inside, and shut it again quickly with a queer little twist of the heart as she caught sight of the envelope containing the cigarette which once he had drawn from between her lips. Then with a start she heard the sound of hoofs outside the window, and she knew that Burke had returned.
She hurried from the room with the key in her hand, meeting him in the passage. He had his back to the light, but she thought he looked very grim. The past weeks had aged and hardened him. She wondered if they had wrought a similar change in her.
He spoke to her at once, before she had time to formulate a greeting.
"Ah, here you are! Will you come in here? I want to speak to you."
She went into the sitting-room with a curious feeling of fatefulness that outweighed her embarrassment. There was no intimacy in his speech, and that helped her also. She saw that he would not touch upon that which had happened in the night.
He gave her a critical look as he entered. "Are you rested? Have you had breakfast?"
She answered him nervously. "Yes, I am quite all right to-day. Mary Ann brought me some breakfast in bed."
He nodded, dismissing the matter. "I have been over to see Merston. He is on his legs again, practically well. But she is not feeling up to the mark. She wants to know if you will go over. I told her I thought you would. But don't go if you would rather not!"
"Of course I will go," Sylvia said, "if I can do any good."
And then she looked at him with a sudden curious doubt. Had this suggestion originated with him. Did he feel, as she felt, that the present state of affairs was intolerable? Or was he, for her sake alone, offering her the only sanctuary in his power?
His face told her nothing. She had not the faintest idea as to whether he wished her to go or stay. But he accepted her decision at once.
"I will take you over in the cart this evening," he said. "I thought you would probably wish to go. They are more or less expecting you."
His tone was practical, wholly free from emotion. But the wonder still lingered in her mind. She spoke after a moment with slight hesitation.
"You—will be able to manage all right without me?"
"I shall try," said Burke.
There was no perceptible cynicism in his tone, yet she winced a little, for in some fashion it hurt her. Again she wondered, would it be a relief to him when she had gone? Ah, that terrible barrier of silence! If she could but have passed it then! But she lacked the strength.
"Very well," she said, and turned away. "I will be ready."
His voice arrested her at the door of her room. "May I have the key of the strong-box?"
She turned back. Her face was burning. He had taken her unawares.
"I have it here," she said, and gave it to him with a hand that shook uncontrollably.
"Thank you," he said, and put it in his pocket. "I should take it easy to-day if I were you. You need a rest."
And that was all. He went out again into the blazing sunshine, and a little later she heard him talking to Schafen as they crossed the yard to the sheep-pens.
She saw him again at the midday meal, but he ate in haste and seemed preoccupied, departing again at the earliest moment possible. Though he did not discuss the matter with her, she knew that the cruel drought would become a catastrophe if it lasted much longer. She prepared for departure with a heavy heart.
He came in again to tea, but went to his room to change and only emerged to swallow a hasty cup before they started. Then, indeed, just at the last, as she rose to dress for the journey, she attempted shyly to penetrate the armour in which he had clad himself.
"Are you sure you want me to go?" she said.
He turned towards her, and for a moment her heart stood still. "Don't you want to go?" he said.
She did not answer the question. Somehow she could not. Neither could she meet the direct gaze of the keen grey eyes upturned to hers.
"I feel almost as if I am deserting my post," she told him, with a rather piteous smile.
"Oh, you needn't feel that," he said quietly. "In any case you can come back whenever you want to. You won't be far away."
Not far away! Were they not poles asunder already—their partnership dissolved as if it had never been,—their good-fellowship—their friendship—crumbled to ashes? Her heart was beating again quickly, unevenly. She knew that the way was barred.
"Well, send for me if you want me at any time!" she said, and passed on to her room.
There was no need and small opportunity for talk during the drive, for Burke had his hands full with a pair of young horses who tried to bolt upon every conceivable occasion that offered, and he had to keep an iron control upon them throughout the journey.
So at length they came to the Merstons' farm, and with a mingling of relief and dissatisfaction Sylvia realized that any further discussion was out of the question.
Merston came out, full of jovial welcome, to meet them, and in a moment she was glad that she had come. For she saw that he was genuinely pleased to see her.
"It's most awfully good of you to come," he said, as he helped her down. "You've been having a strenuous time at Brennerstadt, I'm told. I wondered if you were going in for Kelly's diamond that he was so full of the other day. How the fellow did talk to be sure! He's a walking advertisement. I should think he must have filled Wilbraham's coffers for him. And you didn't hear who won it?"
It was Burke who answered. "No, we didn't stop for that. We wanted to get away."
Merston looked at Sylvia. "And you left young Guy behind? It was very sporting of you to go after him like that. Burke told me about it. I blame myself that he wasn't on the spot to help. I hope the journey wasn't very infernal?"
He spoke with so kindly an interest that but for Burke's presence she would have felt no embarrassment. He evidently thought that she had acted with commendable courage. She answered him without difficulty, though she could not restrain a quick flush at his words. It was thus then that Burke had defended her honour—and his own!
"It wasn't a very nice Journey of course, but I managed it all right. Mr. Kelly has promised to look after Guy."
"He'll do it then," said Merston reassuringly. "He's a grand chap is Kelly. A bit on the talkative side of course, but a real good sort. Come in now! Come and see my wife! Burke, get down! You must have a drink anyway before you start back."
But Burke shook his head. "Thanks, old chap! I won't wait. I've things to do, and it's getting late. If you can just get my wife's baggage out, I'll be off."
The last of the sunset light shone upon him as he sat there. Looking back at him, Sylvia saw him, brown, muscular, firm as a rock, and an odd little thrill went through her. There was a species of rugged magnificence about him that moved her strangely. The splendid physique of the man had never shown to fuller advantage. Perhaps the glory of the sunset intensified the impression, but he seemed to her great.
Merston was dragging forth her belongings. She went to help him. Burke kept his seat, the reins taut in his hands.
Merston abruptly gripped him by the knee. "Look here, old boy! You must have a drink! Wait where you are while I fetch it!"
He was gone with the words, and they were left alone. Sylvia bent over her suit-case, preparing to pick it up. A tumult of strange emotion had swept over her. She was quivering all over. The horses were stamping and chafing at their bits. He spoke to them with a brief command and they stood still.
Then, very suddenly, he spoke to her. "Good-bye!" he said.
She lifted her face. He was smiling faintly, but his smile hurt her inexplicably. It seemed to veil something that was tragic from her eyes.
He bent towards her. "Good-bye!" he said again.
She moved swiftly, seized by an impulse she could not pause to question. It was as if an unknown force compelled her. She mounted the wheel, and offered him her lips in farewell.
For a moment his arms encircled her with a close and quivering tension. He kissed her, and in that kiss for the first time she felt the call of the spirit.
Then she was free, and blindly feeling for the ground. As she reached it, she heard Merston returning, and without a backward look she took up her suit-case and turned to enter. There was a burning sensation as of tears in her throat, but she kept them from her eyes by sheer determination, and Merston noticed nothing.
"Go straight in!" he said to her with cheery hospitality. "You'll find my wife inside. She's cooking the supper. She'll be awfully pleased to see you."
If this were indeed the case, Mrs. Merston certainly concealed any excess of pleasure very effectually. She greeted her with a perfunctory smile, and told her it was very good of her to come but she would soon wish she hadn't. She was looking very worn and tired, but she assured Sylvia somewhat sardonically that she was not feeling any worse than usual. The heat and the drought had been very trying, and her husband's accident had given her more to do. She had fainted the evening before, and he had been frightened for once and made a fuss—quite unnecessarily. She was quite herself again, and she hoped Sylvia would not feel she had been summoned on false pretences.
Sylvia assured her that she would not, and declared it would do her good to make herself useful.
"Aren't you that at home?" said Mrs. Merston.
"Well, there are plenty of Kaffirs to do the work. I am not absolutely necessary to Burke's comfort," Sylvia explained.
"I thought you were," Matilda Merston's pale eyes gave her a shrewd glance. "He was keen enough to run after you to Brennerstadt," she remarked. "How did you get on there?"
Sylvia hesitated. "We were only there a couple of nights," she said vaguely.
"So I gathered. Did you find Guy?"
"No. I didn't see him. But Mr. Kelly has promised to look after him."
"Ah, Donovan is a good sort," said Mrs. Merston. "He'd nursemaid anyone. So Kieff is dead!"
She said it abruptly, too intent upon the mixing of her cake to look up.
There came the sound of wheel and hoofs outside, and Sylvia paused to listen before she replied.
"Yes. Kieff is dead."
The sound died away in the distance, and there fell a silence.
Then, "Killed himself, did he?" asked Mrs. Merston.
"I was told so," said Sylvia.
"Don't you believe it?" Mrs. Merston looked across at her suddenly. "Did someone else have a try first? Did he have a row with Burke?"
There was no evading the questions though she would fain have avoided the whole subject. In a very low voice Sylvia spoke of the violent scene she had witnessed.
Mrs. Merston listened with interest, but with no great surprise. "Burke always was a savage," she commented. "But after all, Kieff had tried to kill him a day or two before. Guy prevented that, so Donovan told me. What made Guy go off in such a hurry?"
"I—can't tell you," Sylvia said.
Something in her reply struck Mrs. Merston. She became suddenly silent, and finished her task without another word.
Later, when she took Sylvia to the guest-room, which was no more than a corrugated iron lean-to lined with boarding, she unexpectedly drew the girl to her and kissed her. But still she did not say a word.
It was a strange friendship that developed between Sylvia and Matilda Merston during the days that followed; for they had little in common. The elder woman leaned upon the younger, and, perhaps in consequence of this, Sylvia's energy seemed inexhaustible. She amazed Bill Merston by her capacity for work. She lifted the burden that had pressed so heavily upon her friend, and manfully mastered every difficulty that arose. She insisted that her hostess should rest for a set time every day, and the effect of this unusual relaxation upon Matilda was surprising. Her husband marvelled at it, and frankly told her she was like another woman. For, partly from the lessening of the physical strain and partly from the influence of congenial companionship, the carping discontent that had so possessed her of late had begun to give way to a softer and infinitely more gracious frame of mind. The bond of their womanhood drew the two together, and the intimacy between them nourished in that desert place though probably in no other ground would it have taken root.
Work was as an anaesthetic to Sylvia in those days. She was thankful to occupy her mind and at night to sleep from sheer weariness. The sense of being useful to someone helped her also. She gave herself up to work as a respite from the torment of thought, resolutely refusing to look forward, striving so to become absorbed in the daily task as to crowd out even memory. She and Merston were fast friends also, and his wholesome masculine selfishness did her good. He was like a pleasant, rather spoilt child, unconventionally affectionate, and by no means difficult to manage. They called each other by their Christian names before she had been twenty-four hours at the farm, and chaffed each other with cheery inconsequence whenever they met. Sylvia sometimes marvelled at herself for that surface lightheartedness, but somehow it seemed to be in the atmosphere. Bill Merston's hearty laugh was irresistible to all but his wife.
It was but a brief respite. She knew it could not last, but its very transience made her the more ready 10 take advantage of it. And she was thankful for every day that carried her farther from that terrible time at Brennerstadt. It had begun to seem more like an evil dream to her now—a nightmare happening that never could have taken place in ordinary, normal existence.
Burke did not come over to see them again, nor did he write. Evidently he was too busy to do either. But one evening Merston announced his intention of riding over to Blue Hill Farm, and asked Sylvia if she would like to send a note by him.
"You've got ten minutes to do it in," he gaily told her. "So you'd better leave all the fond adjectives till the end and put them in if you have time."
She thanked him carelessly enough for his advice, but when she reached her own room she found herself confronted with a problem that baffled her. How was she to write to Burke? What could she say to him? She felt strangely confounded and unsure of herself.
Eight of the allotted ten minutes had flown before she set pencil to paper. Then, hurriedly, with trembling fingers, she scribbled a few sentences. "I hope all is well with you. We are very busy here. Matilda is better, and I am quite fit and enjoying the work. Is Mary Ann looking after you properly?" She paused there. Somehow the thought of Burke with only the Kaffir servants to minister to him sent an odd little pang through her. She had begun to accustom him to better things. She wondered if he were lonely—if he wanted her. Ought she to offer to go back?
Something cried out sharply within her at the thought. Her whole being shrank as the old nightmare horror swept back upon her. No—no! She could not face it—not yet. The memory of his implacability, his ruthlessness, arose like a menacing wave, shaking her to the soul.
Then, suddenly, the vision changed. She saw him as she had seen him on that last night, when she had awaked to find him kneeling by her bed. And again that swift pang went through her. She did not ask herself again if he wanted her.
The door of her room opened on to the yard. She heard Merston lead his horse up to the front of the bungalow and stand talking to his wife who was just inside. She knew that in a moment or two his cheery shout would come to her, calling for the note.
Hastily she resumed her task. "If there is any mending to be done, send it back by Bill."
Again she paused. Matilda was laughing at something her husband had said. It was only lately that she had begun to laugh.
Almost immediately came an answering shout of laughter from Merston, and then his boyish yell to her.
"Hi, Sylvia! How much longer are you going to keep me waiting for that precious love-letter?"
She called an answer to him, dashing off final words as she did so. "I feel I am doing some good here, but if you should specially wish it, of course I will come back at any time." For a second more she hesitated, then simply wrote her name.
Folding up the hurried scrawl, she was conscious of a strong sense of dissatisfaction, but she would not reopen it. There was nothing more to be said.
She went out with it to Bill Merston, and met his chaff with careless laughter.
"You haven't told him to come and fetch you away, I hope?" Matilda said, as he rode away.
And she smiled and answered, "No, not unless he specially needs me."
"You don't want to go ?" Matilda asked abruptly.
"Not unless you are tired of me," Sylvia rejoined.
"Don't be silly!" said Matilda briefly.
Half an hour after Merston's departure there came the shambling trot of another horse, and Piet Vreiboom, slouched like a sack in the saddle rode up and rolled off at the door.
"Oh, bother the man!" said Matilda, "I shan't ask him in with Bill away."
The amiable Piet, however, did not wait to be asked. He fastened up his horse and rolled into the house with his hat on, where he gave her perfunctory greeting, grinned at Sylvia, and seated himself in the easiest chair he could find.
Matilda's face of unconcealed disgust nearly provoked Sylvia to uncontrolled laughter, but she checked herself in time, and went to get the unwelcome visitor a drink in the hope of speeding his departure.
Piet Vreiboom however was in no hurry, though they assured him repeatedly that Merston would probably not return for some hours. He sat squarely in his chair with his little greedy eyes fixed upon Sylvia, and merely grunted in response to all their efforts.
When he had refreshed himself and lighted his pipe, he began to search his mind for the few English words at his disposal and to arrange these in a fashion intelligible to the two very inferior beings who were listening to him. He told them in laboured language that he had come from Brennerstadt, that the races were over and the great Wilbraham diamond was lost and won. Who had won it? No one knew. Some said it was a lady. He looked again at Sylvia who turned out the pockets of her overall, and assured him that she was not the lucky one.
He looked as if he suspected ridicule behind her mirth, and changed the subject. Guy Ranger had disappeared, and no one knew what had become of him. Some people thought he was dead, like Kieff. Again he looked searchingly at Sylvia, but she did not joke over this information. She began to peel some potatoes as if she had not heard it. And Piet Vreiboom sat back in his chair and stared at her, till the hot colour rose and spread over her face and neck, and then he puffed forth a cloud of vile smoke and laughed.
At that juncture Mrs. Merston came forward with unusual briskness. "You had better go," she said, with great decision. "There is going to be a storm."
He began to dispute the point, but meeting most unexpected lightning in her pale eyes he thought better of it, and after a few seconds for deliberation and the due assertion of his masculine superiority, he lumbered to his feet and prepared to depart.
Mrs. Merston followed him firmly to the door, reiterating, her belief in a coming change. Certainly the sky was overcast, but the clouds often came up thickly at night and dispersed again without shedding any rain. There had not been rain for months.
Very grimly Matilda Merston watched the departure of her unwelcome visitor, enduring the dust that rose from his horse's hoofs with the patience of inflexible determination. Then, when she had seen him go and the swirling dust had begun to settle again, she turned inwards and proceeded to wash the glass that the Boer had used with an expression of fixed disgust.
Suddenly she spoke. "I shouldn't believe anything that man said on oath."
"Neither should I," said Sylvia quietly. She did not look up from her task, and Matilda Merston said no more.
There was a brief silence, then Sylvia spoke again. "You are very good to me," she said.
"My dear!" said Matilda almost sharply.
Sylvia's hands were trembling a little, but she continued to occupy them. "You must sometimes wonder why Guy is so much to me," she said. "I think it has been very sweet of you never to ask. But I feel I should like to tell you about it."
"Of course; if you want to," said Matilda.
"I do want you to know," Sylvia said, with slight effort. "You have taken me so much on trust. And I never even told you how I came to meet—and marry—Burke."
"There was no necessity for you to tell me," said Matilda.
"Perhaps not. But you must have thought it rather sudden—rather strange." Sylvia's fingers moved a little more rapidly. "You see, I came out here engaged to marry Guy."
"Good gracious!" said Matilda.
Sylvia glanced up momentarily. "We had been engaged for years. We were engaged before he ever came here. We—loved each other. But—" Words failed her suddenly; she drew a short, hard breath and was silent.
"He let you down?" said Matilda.
Matilda's face hardened. "That was Burke's doing."
"No—no!" Sylvia found her voice again with an effort. "It isn't fair to say that. Burke tried to help him,—has tried—many times. He may have been harsh to him; he may have made mistakes. But I know he has tried to help him."
"Was that why he married you?" asked Matilda, with a bitter curl of the lip.
Sylvia winced. "No. I—don't quite know what made him think of that. Perhaps—in a way—he felt he ought. I was thrown on his protection, and he never would believe that I was capable of fending for myself."
"Very chivalrous!" commented Matilda. "Men are like that."
Sylvia shivered. "Don't—please! He—has been very good to me."
"In his own way," said Matilda.
"No, in every way. I can't tell you how good till—till Guy came back. He brought him back to please me." Sylvia's voice was low and distressed. "That was when things began to go wrong," she said.
"There was nothing very magnanimous in that," commented Matilda. "He wanted you to see poor Guy when he was down. He wanted to give you a lesson so that you should realize your good luck in being married to him. He didn't count on the fact that you loved him. He expected you to be disgusted."
"Oh, don't!" Sylvia said quickly. "Really that isn't fair. That isn't—Burke. He did it against his judgment. He did it for my sake."
"You don't know much about men, do you?" said Matilda.
"Perhaps not. But I know that much about Burke. I know that he plays fair."
"Even if he kills his man," suggested Matilda cynically.
"He always plays fair." Sylvia spoke firmly. "But he doesn't know how to make allowances. He is hard."
"Have you found him so?" said Matilda.
"I?" Sylvia looked across at her.
Their eyes met. There was a certain compulsion in the elder woman's look.
"Yes, you," she said. "You personally. Has he been cruel to you, Sylvia? Has he? Ah no, you needn't tell me! I—know." She went suddenly to her, and put her arm around her.
Sylvia was trembling. "He didn't—understand," she whispered.
"Men never do," said Matilda very bitterly. "Love is beyond them. They are only capable of passion. I learnt that lesson long ago. It simplified life considerably, for I left off expecting anything else."
Sylvia clung to her for a moment. "I think you are wrong," she said. "I know you are wrong—somehow. But—I can't prove it to you."
"You're so young," said Matilda compassionately.
"No, no, I am not." Sylvia tried to smile as she disengaged herself. "I am getting older. I am learning. If—if only I felt happy about Guy, I believe I should get on much better. But—but—" the tears rose to her eyes in spite of her—"he haunts me. I can't rest because of him. I dream about him. I feel torn in two. For Burke—has given him up. But I—I can't."
"Of course you can't. You wouldn't." Matilda spoke with warmth. "Don't let Burke deprive you of your friends! Plenty of men imagine that when you have got a husband, you don't need anyone else. They little know."
Sylvia's eyes went out across the veldt to a faint, dim line of blue beyond, and dwelt upon it wistfully. "Don't you think it depends upon the husband?" she said.
OUT OF THE DEPTHS
That night the thunder rolled among the kopjes, and Sylvia lay in her hut wide-awake and listening. The lightning glanced and quivered about the distant hills and threw a weird and fitful radiance about her bed, extinguishing the dim light thrown by her night-lamp.
Bill Merston had brought her back a written message from her husband, and she lay with it gripped in her hand. For that message held a cry which had thrown her whole soul into tumult.
"I want you," he had written in a hand that might have been Guy's. "I can't get on without you. I am coming to-morrow to fetch you back—if you will come."
If she would come! In those last words she seemed to hear the appeal of a man's agony. What had he been through before he had brought himself to write those words? They hurt her unutterably, piercing her to the soul, when she remembered her own half-hearted offer to return. Yet she would have given all she had for a few days' respite. The hot fierce longing that beat in those few words frightened her by its intensity. It made her think of one of those overwhelming veldt fires, consuming everything in its path, leaving behind it the blackness of desolation. Yes, he wanted her now because she had been denied to him. The flame of his desire had been fanned to a white heat. She seemed to feel it reaching out to her, scorching her, even as she lay. And she shrank with a desperate sense of impotence, feeling her fate to be sealed. For she knew that she must go to him. She must pass through the furnace anew. She must endure her fate. Afterwards—it might be—when it had burnt itself out, some spark of the Divine would be found kindled among the ashes to give her comfort.
And ever the thought of Guy waited at the back of her mind, Guy who had failed her so hopelessly, so repeatedly. Was she going to fail him now? Was she going to place herself so completely out of his reach that even if he called to her for help she would be powerless to stretch forth a hand to him? The thought tormented her. It was the one thing that she felt she could not face, the one point upon which she and Burke would be for ever at variance. Ah no! Whatever else she surrendered, she could not yield to him in this. She could not, she would not, leave Guy to sink while there remained the smallest chance of saving him.
So she told herself, lying there alone, while the thunder rolled now near, now far, like a menacing monster wandering hither and thither in search of prey. Earlier in the night she had tried to pray, but it had brought her no relief. She had not really prayed since that terrible journey to Brennerstadt when she had poured out her whole soul in supplication and had met only failure. She felt in a fashion cut off, forgotten in this land of strangers. The very effort to bridge the gulf seemed but to emphasize her utter impotence. She had come to that barren part of the way where even the most hopeful traveller sometimes feels that God has forgotten to be gracious. She had never felt more alone in all her life, and it was a loneliness that frightened her.
Weirdly the lightning played about her bed. She watched it with eyes that would not close. She wondered if Burke were watching it also, and shivered with the thought of the morrow, asking herself for the first time why she had ever consented to marry him, why she had not rather shouldered her fate and gone back to her father. She would have found work in England. He would have helped her if she had only had the courage to return, the strength to be humble. Her thoughts lingered tenderly about him. They had been so much to each other once. Did he ever regret her? Did he ever wish her back?
A burning lump rose in her throat. She turned her head upon the pillow, clasping her hands tightly over her eyes. Ah, if she had but gone back to him! They had loved each other, and somehow love would have conquered. Did not love always conquer? What were those words that she had read cut deep in the trunk of a dead tree? They flashed through her brain more vividly than the glancing lightning—the key to every closed door—the balm for every wound—the ladder by which alone the top of the world is reached. Fide et Amore! By Faith and Love!
There came again to her that curious feeling of revelation. Looking back, she saw the man on horseback hewing those words while she waited. The words themselves shone in fiery letters across. her closed eyelids. She asked herself suddenly, with an awed wonder if perchance her prayer had been answered after all, and she had suffered the message to pass her by. . . .
There came a crash of thunder nearer and more menacing than any that had gone before, startling her almost with a sense of doom, setting every pulse in her body beating. She uncovered her face and sat up.
Sullenly the echoes rolled away, yet they left behind a strange impression that possessed her with an uncanny force from which she could not shake herself free—a feeling that amounted to actual conviction that some presence lurked without in the storm, alert and stealthy, waiting for something.
The window was at the side of her bed. She had but to draw aside the curtain and look out. It was within reach of her hand. But for many breathless seconds she dared not.
What it was that stood outside she had no idea, but the thought of Kieff was in her mind—Kieff the vampire who was dead.
She felt herself grow cold all over. She had only to cross the narrow room and knock on the main wall of the bungalow to summon Merston. He would come at a moment's notice, she knew. But she felt powerless to move. Sheer terror bound her limbs.
The thunder slowly ceased, and there followed a brief stillness through which the beating of her heart clamoured wildly. Yet she was beginning to tell herself that it was no more than a nightmare panic that had caught her, when suddenly something knocked softly upon the closed window beneath which she lay.
She started violently and glanced across the room, measuring the distance to the further wall on which she herself would have to knock to summon help.
Then, while instinctively she debated the point, summoning her strength for the effort, there came another sound close to her—a low voice speaking her name.
"Sylvia! Sylvia! Wake up and let me in!"
She snatched back the curtain in a second. She knew that voice. By the shifting gleam of the lightning she saw him, looking in upon her. Her fear vanished.
Swiftly she sprang to do his bidding. Had she ever failed to answer any call of his? She drew back the bolts of her door, and in a moment they were together.
The thunder roared again behind him as he entered, but neither of them heard it. For he caught her in his arms with a hungry sound, and as she clung to him nearly fainting with relief, he kissed her, straining her to him gasping wild words of love.
The touch of those hot, devouring lips awoke her. She had never felt the slightest fear of Guy before that moment, but the fierceness of his hold called a sharp warning in her soul. There was about him an unrestraint, a lawlessness, that turned her relief into misgiving. She put up a quick hand, checking him.
"Guy—Guy, you are hurting me!"
He relaxed his hold then, looking at her, his head back, the old boyish triumph shining in his eyes. "Little sweetheart, I'm sorry. I couldn't help it—just for the moment. The sight of you and the touch of you together just turned my head. But it's all right. Don't look so scared! I wouldn't harm a single hair of your precious little head." He gathered up the long plait of her hair and kissed it passionately.