By GERTRUDE PAGE
Author of “The Edge o’ Beyond,” “The Silent Rancher,” etc.
LONDON: HURST & BLACKETT, LTD.
PATERNOSTER HOUSE, E.C.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
I THE POLICE STATION
II THE MISSION STATION
III TWO HEIRESSES
IV THE RHODESIAN PROJECT
V WILLIAM VAN HERT
VI THE JOURNEY
VII CAREW IS DISTURBED
VIII TWO UNEXPECTED MEETINGS
IX THE BEAR
X A MINING CAMP
XI AN EVENING RIDE
XII THE MISSION STATION
XIII A DECISION THAT FAILED
XIV THE ANCIENT RUINS
XV CAREW RIDES AWAY
XVI “THE SHIP OF FOOLS”
XVII AN EVENING CONVERSATION
XVIII THE CHARTER FLATS
XIX THE CONVENTIONALITIES ONCE MORE
XXI A “HOARDING HUSTLING”
XXII MERYL’S DECISION
XXIII CAREW’S STORY
XXIV A RAIN-WASHED MORNING AND A DISCUSSION
XXV AILSA LEARNS CAREW’S SECRET
XXVI “HOW CAN I GO TO HER!…”
XXVII DIANA BEGINS TO GROW PERPLEXED
XXVIII DIANA’S PERPLEXITIES INCREASE
XXIX A USEFUL BLUNDER
XXX DIANA IS RESTLESS
XXXI THE SOLUTION IS SEALED
XXXII A CHAPTER OF SURPRISES
“Fate lies hid,
But not the deeds that true men dared and did.”
THE POLICE CAMP
The velvety darkness of a southern night, with its sense of rich, luscious, breathing intensity, lay over that romantic spot in Southern Rhodesia where the grey walls of the Zimbabwe ruins, with a sublime, imperturbable indifference, continue to baffle the ingenuity and ravish the curiosity of all who would read their story. Scientists, archæologists, tourists come and go, but the stern old walls, guarded by the sentinel hills, give back no answer to eager questioning, eager delving, eager surmise.
But in the meantime the Valley of Ruins no longer lies alone and unheeded in the sunlight; and no longer do the hills look down upon rich plains left solely to the idle pleasure of a careless black people. The forerunners of to-day’s great civilising army have marched into the valley, and beside the ancient walls there is now a police camp of the British South Africa Police, presided over by two robust young troopers.
In the velvety darkness on the night in question there is a single bright light pouring through the open doorway of a dwelling-hut. Through the enfolding silence breaks the bizarre music of an indifferent gramophone, recklessly mocking the sublime grandeur of the age-old antiquities. Laughter and gay music and devil-may-care colonists awaking echoes that have been more or less silent to civilisation for how many thousand years?
But on this particular evening it is as though some shadow had fallen upon the little camp. Nothing tangible—nothing that changed the general habits or surroundings—but a vague regret and introspective sadness upon the faces of two young men, usually full of careless content. Cecil Stanley, the more refined, a gentleman by birth and education, lounged low in his chair, with his hands behind his head and his feet on the table, and ever and anon his eyes looked with pained regret into the surrounding depths of night. Patrick Moore, with a grave face, cleaned his gun in a deeper silence than usual, proceeding with an occupation that was his joy on many evenings, whether the gun needed cleaning or not, rather as if it eased his mind to have his hands busy.
“I wonder if the Major will come through to-night?” he remarked, as if the silence were growing over-oppressive.
“Sure to,” laconically. “The moon will be up directly, and he can’t be very far away.”
“I suppose he won’t have heard?”
“Not likely to have done. Gad! I feel as if I’d give anything to have had a chance to stand three hours in that queue. It will hit him hard. If it’s bad for us, who have at least known all along, it will be worse for him, hearing it suddenly at this late hour. Those newspapers to-day have made me feel like a kid on his first day at boarding-school. I’d like to cry if I weren’t ashamed to.”
“I liked that professor,” said Moore, changing the subject. “Decent old Johnny, wasn’t he? Jolly nice of him to bring all those papers in case he came across anyone glad of them.”
“Quite a good old bird. That’s a rum theory of his about the corpses in the temple being buried deeper than anyone has yet dug, and hung with valuable ornaments. Wouldn’t it be a jolly lark to dig down for one and have a look at it!…”
He gave a low, half-hearted chuckle over his gruesome suggestion, and lazily getting to his feet, selected another tune for his gramophone.
Moore, busy still with his gun, gave a corresponding chuckle, and remarked:
“Begorra, lad!… if we could get a few out one at a time on moonlight nights, and fill up the blooming holes again, we shouldn’t want any blasted machinery for our gold mine, except a pickaxe and a shovel.”
“We’d want a bit of pluck, though. The ghosts of the corpses might come dancing round to have their say in the matter.”
“We’d chance the ghosties. Shure! if they’ve been hanging round for three or four thousand years, they’d maybe like a new sensation by this time.”
Stanley put on “The Stars and Stripes,” wound up the gramophone, and slid into his lounge chair again.
Moore glanced up as the music started.
“What!… that thing again!… I’m beginning to feel like those old ghosts about it. The same moth-eaten tune for three or four thousand years. I’d like a new sensation.”
“It can’t be much staler than cleaning that old gun.”
“Shure, she’s a daisy.” The Irishman looked tenderly at his treasure. “An’ she just loves me to be fondlin’ her like.”
“If it weren’t for the Major I don’t know what is to prevent us proving the old man’s theory,” said Stanley, evidently harping again on his corpses.
“Him, and the bloomin’ Company! The old gentlemen sittin’ on the Board in London suddenly find that the Yankees have been snaffling a lot of valuable trinkets and things from the ruins while they took forty winks, and then they up and says no one’s to look for anything more at all; not even a boney fidey Rhodesian, sweating in the police camp outside the walls.”
“Still, it would be a rare lark to find a corpse with gold ornaments on it, and say nothing at all.”
“And what should you be doing with the old corpse when you’ve taken the gold?”
“Oh! put him in the soup!” And Stanley slid lower in his chair, with another chuckle.
The gramophone ran down with a horrible grind, but its owner only looked at it dully and took no notice.
“Shall I wind up again?” Moore asked.
“No, let it rip. It sounds all wrong to-night. Everything is all wrong. The whole world gone awry. It’s like being on another planet to be out here in this wilderness at such a time. I don’t believe I’ve ever felt exiled before, but, begad! I do to-night. Let’s turn in. Probably he won’t come now.”
Moore carried his gun into one of the huts and stood it carefully beside his little stretcher-bed. Stanley took the gramophone into another hut, and planked it down somewhat roughly on a table, evidently made by an amateur. Without going outside again, he shouted “Good night,” and after that no sound broke the silence, except sundry mutterings from the Irishman, who had discovered an enormous frog under his bed, and his beloved pointer pup inside the blankets serenely sleeping.
All the next morning Stanley hung about the camp as one who waited, but it was not until three o’clock that Major Carew rode slowly up to the huts. As he dismounted, briefly acknowledging Stanley’s salute, there was a characteristic absence of all superfluous words. The latter waited until the soldier-servant had led away the mule and another boy relieved the officer of his water-bottle, which he always carried himself, and then he looked hard at the thin, brown, resolute face, with an expression in his eyes that made Carew ask shortly:
“Bad news from England. I suppose you haven’t heard?”
“I haven’t heard anything.”
For one pulsing second the two men stood and looked at each other; and to a looker-on it might have appeared that, however laconic and indifferent their attitude, their relationship was not solely that of officer and subordinate. The elder man, in his gruff way, was the friend of the man under him. The younger had acquired a respect that held something deeper than casual liking, and his face showed it now as he hesitated before breaking his news. Then he said, very simply:
“The King is dead.”
A quick, incredulous expression filled Carew’s eyes.
“The King?…” he repeated. “Not … surely not …” He paused, leaving his sentence unfinished.
“Yes. King Edward. After a few days’ illness.”
The man’s mouth grew rigid. He stood like a figure of bronze, staring with unseeing eyes to the far horizon. Stanley drew in his breath a little sharply. Yes, he had been right, the news had hit Carew very hard.
“When?…” came at last, abruptly.
“A fortnight ago. Just after you left. The funeral took place yesterday.”
Carew made no comment. Evidently it was true. Little else mattered. Nearly all through this trek of his round those distant kraals his King had been lying dead, and he had not known it. Such a man as he is not stunned by tidings; but he recedes still further into his shell, if possible. There is no comment, no discussion, just a grim silence sealing a deep pain that cannot express itself.
He stayed a moment longer, while Stanley told him a few details, and then he went away into his hut and shut his door to the sunlight—one of those exiles for whom the news had, as it were, an added sorrow, because during the first shock he had remained in ignorance, and had thus been prevented joining in the loyal homage of grief that had been offered by his countrymen from the four corners of the earth.
It was thus with many of the far-off Empire-builders. They heard so late, so unpreparedly, so suddenly; and in the first shock, an exile which had been a calmly accepted condition, became almost a menace, seemed swiftly to develop a force. The men in the far places felt their aloofness; knew that their souls were beating vainly against prison bars, for the longing to annihilate space and stand beside the beloved dead. That quiet band of men whom we sometimes call “The Pathfinders,” and who go away across the world to bring the wilderness into line; to smooth the rough, link the severed, subdue the untamed, and carry prosperity to the waste places. The men who cope with strange, deadly diseases; who fight fever swamps, and compel them to carry a railroad across their reluctant bosoms, though the swamps in turn exact a heavy toll of human life; who make the paths that the women and children will presently pass over, though no such soul-stirring cry urges their exhausting efforts.
But it is not usual to laud these men, who win their colours at the dull, prosaic work of path-finding, as it is to laud those who encounter shot and shell in the lurid atmosphere of battle, and one feels they do not ask it. Yet now and then they must surely be glad to know that thoughtful women and thoughtful men follow their work and bless them in silence, sending across the world to them a homage of praise that is, perhaps, richer than the plaudits of the crowd. And not to them only, but also to the mothers who bid them go, accepting their hard part of lonely, anxious waiting without complaint.
And if they fall by the wayside, unrecognised, unknown, but having carried the path forward, maybe a mile, maybe a yard, maybe an inch, how great a thing is that compared to the small happenings that of necessity make up most men’s lives!
In the sultry midday heat Carew sat alone in his hut, and certain memories, that for fifteen years he had tried to crush out of his mind, crowded back upon him with overwhelming force in the grip of his sudden sorrow. For that sad event which had plunged a great nation into grief had been to him a personal loss. In the silence and shadow he mourned deeply, not only the idol of his youth and dear object of his heart’s best loyalty, but the memory of a friend.
For long ago, or so it seemed, there had been a moment when a royal hand had clasped his, and a royal voice—the royalty all lost in the friend—had said, “Perhaps you are right. It is best to begin again. But do not imagine your life is over and its aims purposeless. Out there you will find renewing. Some day come back and tell me about it.”
That was fifteen years ago, but he had never gone back. Never sought the second hand-clasp that would have been his. Never unfolded to those interested ears his personal experiences with the pioneer column that led the way to do the path-finding in Rhodesia. In the hush of the afternoon, with his head bowed on his arms, the years between seemed to pass out of mind, and that which once had been to stand alone, awaking within him an infinite regret.
He saw again certain lovely park-lands—the woods and hills and dales—of a rich inheritance that should have been his. He saw himself, the gay guardsman. He saw the dear face of the woman for whom he had chosen to cross that arbitrary will which would brook no disobedience, and sought to intimidate him with disinheritance. Through his mind passed in slurred detail the sordid story which had given him a brother’s hate in return for a quixotic championing of the weak—a hate which proved to have power enough behind it to draw a devastating hand across the promise of his future.
Lastly—and here in the silence it was as though his head sank deeper in its pain—he saw that woman’s dear face, as he had last seen it, lying white upon the heather—dead.
Ah, the memories were terribly alive to-day; not even fifteen years in a new life, with new interests, had done anything but draw a thin curtain of silence over the unforgettable pain. Would anything ever ease it in reality? Had he for a moment believed that it would? Or had he always known, that just as surely as his hand had held the gun which killed her, so to his last breath the tragedy would cast a shadow over the whole of his life?
He might look out upon the world with quiet eyes and firm lips and fearless mien, but the gnawing ache would surely go with him to his grave.
And because of it he knew that he had grown somewhat churlish; that men who did not understand his unsociable ways and extreme reticence looked at him askance. But what of it? How little such things mattered! The tragedy was his and the silence was his, and he had never asked anyone to share either.
Only to-day, for just this one afternoon, fifteen years was as yesterday, and he seemed to realise thoroughly for the first time all that royal hand-clasp had meant, before he went to his voluntary exile in a far wilderness.
But after a time, when it grew cool enough to walk, he came out into the sunshine and started off towards the steep rock pathway that leads to the summit of the Acropolis Hill, following an impulse to seek comfort in the fresh hopefulness of a height, and to lessen the pain in his heart by looking out across a world still living and loving and striving. So he climbed on up the winding pathway, enfolded with mystery and romance concerning the feet that trod it in the far-off centuries, and made his way between the mighty natural boulders out on to the high platform, where eyes, all those long centuries ago, must have looked out even as his, across the lovely land.
Was it as lovely then?… Could it have been less so?…
How the quiet beauty soothed and caressed him! Surely there were moments when the wilderness, tamed at last, like a lovely, wayward mistress become entrancingly docile, fondles the hand, and ravishes the senses of the strong man who conquered it.
Is this one of the rich rewards Life holds in the palm of her hand for the path-finders?… This glorious sense of ownership. This winsome soothing of shy gratitude when the fierce first resistance to conquest is overpast. A man may call England his country because he was born there, and his father before him; but, perhaps, after all, that is a small thing compared to standing upon a high eminence, and looking across a quiet world which is your country because of all you yourself have given to it of hope and faith and steadfast purpose.
In some such spirit soothing came to the quiet man on the top of the Acropolis Hill, whispering to him that, after all, this was his country, and if the beloved dead did indeed seem so far away in fact, in spirit he was perhaps nearer to his Empire-builders than he had ever been before.
He turned his head at last, and his eyes rested upon the circular wall, four hundred feet below, that enclosed the temple ruins. Then for a moment a wave of depression swept over him, blotting out the landscape loveliness. Was it all, then, vanity, this building and striving?… The making of walls and fortifications for another race, centuries afterwards, to look upon with cold wonder and curiosity? Three thousand years ago perhaps another man had stood even there and mourned his king that was dead. And so soon … so soon … he also died, and the massive walls became ruins, and the dynasty, or empire, or era, passed away into oblivion. How soon might a similar fate overtake his own great Empire!… and the beloved King, Edward the Peacemaker, be perhaps but a legend to some strange new race.
And then it was as though the land to which he had given so much rose up to give in her turn the might of hope and renewing. His eyes wandered again to the distant mountains and over the fertile plain lying between, and all the outspread richness called to him that at least there was no ruin here, no hopelessness, no decay.
Progress spoke to him from the rolling plains and from the mysterious kopjes, and his blood warmed to that glad sense of possession—if not in fact, at least in the fancy born of what he had given. For it is when we give, and not when we take, we become the truest possessors, rich owners of so much that neither wealth, nor birth, nor striving can buy.
In the quiet evening hour the stars were just beginning to light their brilliant lamps, and a glow like a rose-flush in the west marked the passage of the departed sun. Carew prepared to make the steep descent. And as he looked out across this country, that seemed so intensely his country, he felt himself heir of all the ages, the strong product of long eons of careful development, too rich in those vague splendours of the human and the divine not to realise the weak futility of musing sadly upon dead dynasties and bygone races.
On the northernmost point, ere the path drops suddenly on its way to the valley, he stood still once more and gazed steadily to the north where England lay.
Then, thinking deep thoughts of love and loyalty of the King who had been his friend, and the friend who had been his King, he gravely gave the salute.
THE MISSION STATION
Although only stationed for a short time at the Zimbabwe camp, Carew had chosen always to conduct his own ménage, and take his meals in solitary state apart from Stanley and Moore. This was in every case typical of the man, who rarely sought company, and was often quiet to taciturnity when he had it. He had not come to the wilderness for adventure, or for the companionship of the men he might find there; he had come because he wanted to forget. Not even to seek renewing and fresh hopes, but only to crowd out of his life the memory of that upheaval and tragedy that, it seemed, had placed a stern hand upon mere joy for evermore. And he believed he would achieve this best with the vigorous, interesting occupation of helping a young country struggle through to fulfilment.
It was not until after the dinner-hour that he again showed himself, and then he came outside his hut, filling his pipe, and stood for a moment beside Stanley and Moore without saying anything.
“Did you have a successful trip, sir?” Stanley asked.
The young trooper watched him a moment, and then added:
“Did you have trouble with M’Basch?”
“He tried to make trouble. He is a dangerous native.”
“And you gave him a lesson?”
“I burnt his kraal.”
“Whew!…” and Stanley gave a low whistle. The man was courageous indeed who dare resort to such a step, now that it was necessary to pamper the natives if one wanted no trouble at headquarters.
Carew took no notice of the significant rejoinder, but his firm mouth, if anything, grew a little firmer.
“I gave him due warning, but he thought I dare not carry out my threat. He was mistaken. Never make a threat that you can’t carry out. It matters more than anything with natives. He will not give trouble again at present.”
“But they may say a good deal at headquarters if he carries his story there!”
“I had to risk that. But he is so entirely in the wrong, and so clearly aware of it, I don’t think he will venture to say anything. I have three cases of diabolical cruelty against him, besides stealing and law-breaking generally.”
Stanley watched him with eyes of admiration. To him the man’s strength was ever a source of delight, now that his unsociable ways were no longer a puzzle.
“We had a scientific man here yesterday to view the ruins,” he continued, as Carew still lingered while he lit his pipe. “He has a remarkable theory for divining corpses by the gold ornaments buried on them. He thinks there are probably several in the temple, deeper than anyone has yet dug.”
Carew did not look very interested. His eyes had still the retrospective, pained expression that had come into them instantly, when he grasped the import of Stanley’s sad tidings.
“Where did he come from?” he asked, half turning away.
“I don’t know. He was only here for a few hours. We gave him some tea, and he left us some interesting papers, if you would care to have them. He seemed rather interested in you!…” and Stanley looked keenly into his face.
“In what way?” Carew pulled hard at his beloved pipe and spoke with studied carelessness.
“Your name cropped up about something, and he wanted to know if you were a Fourtenay-Carew.”
The officer started very slightly, but made no comment, and Stanley added, “He particularly wanted to know if you were a Devonshire man. I said you were.”
“I was a Devonshire man,” Carew corrected; “I am a Rhodesian.”
Then he turned and with a short good night went back into his hut.
The next morning, directly his official work was finished, he started to ride over to the mission station, where some far-off connections of his, William and Ailsa Grenville, found by chance in the wilderness, lived the simple life with a contentment that surprised all who beheld them.
It was the first visit he had been able to pay for some weeks, and almost before he dismounted a woman stepped out from the large rustic building, with its thatched roof, and came towards him with eagerness and sorrow strangely blended in her eyes.
“Ah, how long you have been coming! I have watched for you ever since we heard the sad news. Billy and I so wanted someone from home to talk to.”
“I could not help it. I have been right away into the Ingigi district. How are you?”
He did not give her his hand because the formalities had long been dropped between them, but as he walked beside her to the building his face seemed a shade softer.
“We are both well. We are splendid. But we have felt very cut off these two weeks. England seemed so terribly far away. The evening we heard, Billy and I just sat hand in hand under the stars, dabbing the tears away. Don’t smile, it was the only thing to do, and we longed so to be in London.” As she talked she passed into the cool shade of the hut and busied herself preparing a lemon squash for him, not needing to ask if it were his choice. “We were miserable for days. I’m sure all of you were too.”
“I did not hear until I came back yesterday.”
“Ah … I was afraid so. Of course, that made it worse.”
She brought him the lemon squash and stood leaning against the table beside him while he drank it, with the gladness of seeing him still in her eyes, though they were grave now with sympathy. It was evident their friendship had in it a wide understanding.
She was silent a few moments, and then added simply, “I suppose you knew him personally?”
He did not tell her more, and she did not ask him. There was one subject that no deepening of friendship had ever made it possible to approach, and that was the story of his past. She knew only, from her husband, who was extremely vague on the subject, that he had once held a commission in the Blues, and been, not only a well-known society man, but the heir of a rich old uncle. And then suddenly something had happened, and his brother became the heir, and England had known him no more. Even William Grenville himself was in the dark as to the cause of the lost inheritance, as he had been abroad at the time, and had never had much intercourse with Carew’s branch of the family. He was supposed to be in disgrace himself, because his soul was too honest to allow him to continue in a comfortable country living, after his convictions lost faith in the tenets of the English Church; but if it were so it never troubled him, and he loved his wilderness home dearly. Ailsa had her story also, but she too, it was evident, had found a solution that held satisfaction.
After giving Carew his drink she moved away and picked up some needlework, seating herself near the open door, with sympathy in her face and in her silence.
“We had a splendid service,” she told him. “We did all we possibly could to show our loyalty. But how little it seemed! The far countries hurt at a time like this.”
He assented in silence, looking out over the lovely landscape as if it were a sight his soul loved, and she bent lower over her needlework.
“Tell me about your Ingigi trip, unless you would rather wait for Billy. He will be in directly, and he will want to hear everything.”
He glanced towards her a moment, noting half indifferently that she looked unusually pretty to-day; but he only said a few generalities about his work, with his eyes again on the landscape. Ailsa sewed on, not in the least dismayed. It was good enough to have him there, whether he were communicative or not, and she was glad she chanced to have put on her new, pretty dress from home. For, of course, all women liked to look fair in the eyes of Peter Carew, quite indifferent to the fact that in all probability he scarcely saw them.
But Ailsa Grenville could not have looked other than fair to any man, though to some she looked so much more besides. Her frank grey eyes, full of expression, her low, broad forehead and chestnut hair, were so full of beauty that they seemed to counteract entirely a nose that was a little too small and a mouth a little too large. One felt that nature had intended to make her a beautiful woman, and then changed her mind and allowed a flaw in her beauty, possibly to give her more character and an attraction of a different order. To the lonely men within reach of the mission station she was goddess and angel combined, and knowing it was one of the joys of her uneventful life.
Thus they sat on together in the doorway, speaking quietly of the loss they had chosen to make their own, in an intimate sense perhaps only possible to far-off Empire-builders. And while they talked the missionary himself appeared, and all his face lit up when he saw Carew.
“By Jove! I’m glad to see you,” he exclaimed, tossing his khaki helmet carelessly aside. “We hoped you would come soon. Ailsa was sure you would.”
He sat on the edge of the table, swinging one putteed leg, a fine, athletic, big fellow, with a khaki shirt open at the throat, and sleeves rolled up above his elbows, and a brown attractive face with honest eyes. “How are the others?… Going strong?… We had them all here for our funeral service: the Macaulays, White, Richards, Henley, the three prospectors out Chini way, everyone within reach. And afterwards we gave them a feed. A homely one, with cakes and jam, as Englishy as possible. By gad, Carew! how a loss like this makes you think of home and country; and how we Britishers in the colonies ought to hang together through thick and thin! If we all felt it more, it would be a great thing for the dear old Mother Country. She’ll want her boys in the colonies to stand by her stoutly, if she is to go on holding her own, I’m thinking.”
He got up and strode about the hut, his hands in his pockets and his pipe in his mouth. “Hang it all!… since I came out here to try and do a little useful development among the blacks, I’ve grown more and more to feel that helping the settlers to live clean lives and pull together and care about the Old Country, is every bit as important, in fact far more so, than teaching Christianity to the heathen.”
He stood in the doorway, blocking the view with his immense bulk, a rarely attractive man, with boyish enthusiasm in his eyes, and fearless honesty in his whole aspect, and just that touch of the fanatic which helped him to soar above disappointments and keep his charming wife devoted and content with him out there in the wilderness.
From his post in the doorway he swung round suddenly, and was about to launch upon one of his enthusiastic tirades on the natives or settlers or both, when Ailsa stayed him lightly, declaring that lunch was ready, and they all proceeded to the dining-room hut.
Afterwards they lazed in a wide verandah, commanding one of the loveliest views in Rhodesia, and talked a little of the West Country, because the ache was still with each one to be at home at that sad time.
When Carew, later, prepared to depart homewards, she gave a large plum cake carefully into the hands of his black soldier-servant, telling him, Carew, that it was for The Kid and Patrick, and not to let The Kid overeat himself, and tell him to come over and see her at once.
“He is rather interested in the subject of corpses just now,” Carew said, with something approaching a gleam in his eye, “but I don’t encourage him, because, for two pins, I believe he would dig up the entire temple, if the spirit took him.”
“The scoundrel!…” with an affectionate laugh. “Tell him if he dares to touch one stone of my temple he shall never, never have a cake again.”
“Oh, I only surmise it from the expression in his eyes when he told me, rather wistfully, that some scientific visitor had described to him how the corpses, if found, would certainly be decked with valuable gold ornaments.”
Then he mounted and saluted her gravely as he rode away.
In a Piccadilly mansion, about the same time that Major Carew returned from his long trek, two girls sat in a wide window-seat and looked somewhat disconsolately across the fresh spring green of the park. Both were the daughters of South African millionaires. Both were motherless, and one an orphan. They were also cousins, and the same roof usually was their home.
Two months previously the father of the one and guardian of the other had brought them to England, that they might duly “come out” the ensuing season in London society. Their presentation at Court had taken place in April, followed by a splendid ball at the stately mansion taken for their stay, and both girls had looked eagerly forward to the festivities ahead.
And now, a few weeks later, they found themselves suddenly dressed in black, with nearly all the expected gaieties cancelled, and this overshadowing loss weighing upon their spirits. Added to this the death of first one mother and then the other, followed by a period of ill-health to the guardian and father, had postponed that “coming out” long past the ordinary age for such functions; Diana, the orphan, being now twenty-two, and Meryl two years older.
Meryl was the graver of the two; graver indeed than is at all usual at twenty-four, but with a quiet fund of humour and a romantic dreaminess, and withal a certain elusive quality that made her always interesting, and pleasantly something of a mystery. Diana was a sparkling, practical, outspoken young woman, much adored of young men whom she treated with scant courtesy, and with a great deal of common sense in her pretty head. The girls’ influence upon each other, which was cemented by a very deep affection, was wholly beneficial; for whereas Diana awakened Meryl from too much dreaminess, Meryl’s quiet dignity had a softening effect upon Diana’s too great exuberance of spirits and occasional boyish lack of refinement, which was more the result of a boisterous capacity for enjoyment than inbred.
Meryl, as became the dreamer, had been profoundly touched by the event which had called forth that swift grief; and whereas Diana could not refrain from bemoaning all she must necessarily lose through the season of mourning, Meryl thought chiefly of how they could get away quickly into the country and replace the lost gaieties with quiet delight.
She had already spoken to her father about her wish to leave town, but he had been much occupied of late, and not yet had time thoroughly to discuss the question. And meanwhile she and Diana waited a little disconsolately to see what the days brought forth. Diana was disposed for a trip to Switzerland, or Norway, or even Iceland, but she wanted to go in a party, and not just they two and a chaperon. Meryl was not enthusiastic and it nettled her a little, so that, on the wide window-seat, there was a cloud on her face as she drummed idly with her fingers and watched the traffic go by.
“If you would only say what you do want,” she asserted impatiently, “instead of just mooning about and making no plans whatever.”
But the fact was, Meryl could not quite make up her mind what she did want. In some vague way a kind of upheaval had been taking place in her heart, and left her high and dry upon the rocks of uncertainty and dim dissatisfaction. New thoughts, new questions, new desires had risen in her during that sad month of May, and she felt as one seeking vainly she knew not what. She looked beyond the trees of the Green Park to the far skies with wistful eyes, and asked herself deep questions concerning many things, born of the thoughts that arose in her mind when she stood amid a people mourning tenderly a dearly loved sovereign, and beheld how in hearts all over the world he had won love and admiration, in that, to the best of his endeavour, he had splendidly fulfilled his high trust.
And a high trust was hers. How could she not know it, when she was sole heiress to her father’s millions; and yet, what was she doing, or preparing to do, in fulfilment of that trust? That it was no less so with Diana did not weigh with her. Diana was different. When she was allowed a free hand with her fortune she would buy yachts and houses and diamonds, and scatter it right and left, which was good in its way; but it would never satisfy her, Meryl, the visionary and dreamer, who looked with grave eyes to the far skies, and asked vague questions.
Presently, with an impatient little kick at a footstool, Diana broke the silence. “Do you know what you want? Have you any ideas at all, or are you just a blank?”
Meryl smiled charmingly. “I’m not exactly a blank, but something of a confusion. I confess crowded Swiss hotels do not sound alluring. I like Iceland better, but it seems rather … well … purposeless.”
“And what in the world do you want it to be? Do you want to go a journey to convert heathen, or preach Christian Science, or explore untrodden country? If so, you had better take Aunt Emily and go alone. I’m hoping for a little life and amusement.”
“We always have that. I want something bigger for a change.”
“O, now you’re getting to high altitudes. Meryl, do come down and be rational. I just feel as if I could shake you.” She got up and roamed round the room, then returned to the window-seat and leaned out of the window watching some workmen who were painting the balcony below them. Meryl sat on silently, still seeking some sort of a solution to something she could not name.
“There’s such a good-looking workman,” Diana remarked presently, “I’m sure he’s an artist. I wish he would look up, but he is too shy.”
“Too wise, perhaps. Why are you sure he is an artist?”
“O, well, because he looks like it. He has a Grecian head, and his hair curls adorably, and I’m certain his eyes are blue. He’ll be just underneath the window soon, and if he doesn’t look up then I shall drop something to make him.”
“Come away to lunch and don’t be a goose. The gong sounded quite five minutes ago.”
Diana withdrew her head reluctantly.
“Who wants to eat cutlets when they can watch a Grecian profile!”
“Perhaps you would sooner drop one on his head to make him look up?”
“I would; much sooner. Do you think they’ve brought their lunch with them, or shall we send them some?”
“I expect they’ve got their dinners in red pocket-handkerchiefs, hidden away somewhere at the back.”
“Except my Greek”—with a little smile—”and I’m sure his is in a Liberty silk square.”
They sat down to lunch in the big, oppressive dining-room alone, as their chaperon, Aunt Emily, was laid up with a headache, and Mr. Henry Pym, Meryl’s father, was usually in the City at midday. And after lunch, for the sake of something to do, they ordered the motor and drove out to Ranelagh to see the polo.
Then came dinner, and with it in quiet, unsuspected guise the news that would presently change their lives. Henry Pym, a small, dark man, with the keen eyes and quiet manner that so often go with success, told them that because there would be practically no London season at all that year he had decided to go back to Africa, and he would take a country house for them anywhere they liked and leave them there for the summer with Aunt Emily.
Aunt Emily nodded her head with an approving air. A quiet country house instead of a season’s racketing was quite to her taste, and she felt dear Henry, as ever, was showing the marked common sense for which she humbly worshipped him afar off. Meryl looked at her father inquiringly and with a thoughtful air. Diana remarked, rather disgustedly, “O, uncle, what rot! Why should we be condemned to some dull little hole of an English village, just because there is to be no London season?”
“My dear Diana,” remonstrated the lady who was supposed to fill the post of mother and chaperon to both girls, and was therefore in duty bound to express disapproval of Diana’s English, “you surely do not imagine your uncle admires that unladylike mode of speech!”
“But he understands it,” said the incorrigible, “and that is far more important.”
There was a decided gleam in the millionaire’s eyes as he inquired, “And what do you want to do instead, Di?”
“Oh, yacht, or travel, or go in an aeroplane, or anything. I simply can’t sit down in an English village until further notice.”
Then Meryl spoke:
“Why can’t we go back with you to South Africa, father?”
“Because I’m going to take a trip north. I’m going up to Rhodesia about some mining claims.”
“And couldn’t we go there with you?”
“Not very well. I’m not going to the towns, except for a day or two. I shall have to do a lot of trekking in the wild, outlying parts. You couldn’t manage that.”
“Of course not,” murmured Aunt Emily. “How dreadful that you should have to go, Henry! Why, there are lions and elephants and things, and the natives are savages; surely no mines are worth running such risks?”
“Not quite as bad as all that, Emily, but hardly the place for you and the girls. Would you all like to go to Norway?”
“And fish?…” from Diana, with a sudden light in her eyes.
“You could have a yacht and take a party,” he continued, “and come back when you are all tired of it. I’ll ask Sir Robert to let me have the ‘Skylark,’ because his captain is so reliable. What do you say, Meryl?… Shall you like that?…”
“I wish you could come,” was her rather evasive answer, and she gazed at the table decorations as if pondering something in her mind.
“Well, you can think it over,” said the millionaire quietly, “and if there is something you would like better tell me.” He was peeling a pear in a slow, methodical fashion, and his face quickly seemed to assume the expression of one whose thoughts were already elsewhere; but not before, with a quick, characteristic movement, he had glanced keenly and surreptitiously into Meryl’s face and read her indecision. Something was on her mind. He knew it quite well; and his busy brain, under its mask of complacent thoughtfulness, probed into the question.
Ever since the day of the King’s funeral she had worn that thoughtful air and baffled him a little with her wistful indecision. And though he said nothing, he thought about it in his leisured moments; for dearer than all his wealth and his power and his success was his only child.
That night, trying still to probe the unrest in her heart, Meryl stepped out on to their balcony and looked at the stars. Straight before her, outlined in a misty moonlight that was almost overpowered by the glare of the city’s lights, were the tall towers of Westminster. Down below the traffic passed ceaselessly to and fro. From all sides came the mysterious hum of a great city’s life. And as she leaned listening, and gazing at the far-off stars that seemed such mere pin-pricks above the glare, there came to her a thought of the majestic stars that hung over Africa and the majesty of silence upon the African veldt. And then gradually there stirred in her a warm remembrance of Africa, and of how she had always loved it, and a swift, unaccountable feeling of kinship with all the Britishers scattered far and wide who called some colony “home.”
True, she was English born and English educated; but so also was she South African, for quite half her life had been passed in Johannesburg, and it was there that her actual home existed. And so, by slow imperceptible degrees, out of nowhere and without explanation, crept into her mind the sudden realisation of Africa’s claim upon her. She remembered that it was there her father had amassed his wealth. There had been won for her all the smooth, luxurious ways of her life; and, but a step further, as it were, stood out the answer to her questioning doubts. Whatever trust is yours in the future, whatever life asks of you in return for all she has given, it must be for Africa. Her heart warmed and swelled swiftly, and her eyes glowed in the misty darkness. She felt in her blood that Africa was calling. Africa, so sunny, so gay, so breezy, so lovable, and withal with so great a need of strong women as well as strong men, to help her to win through to the great future that should be hers.
She leaned lower, and it was as though her gaze looked beyond the darkness to some unseen horizon. She saw the veldt with its far blue mountains, that called to men again and again with such resolute calling. Overhead, in her fancy, she saw the luminous Southern Cross. All around were the wide, boundless horizons, the swift, scented winds. In her spirit she was back again in the sun-soaked land, breathing the sun-soaked atmosphere, looking far to the “never, never” country that called from the clear distance.
And it was her Africa,—hers, hers, hers.
What did she want with an English village? What to her was a yachting cruise in Norway? These might be won some day as restful leisure hours in a strenuous life; but without the just winning, what had they to do with her?
Africa needed strong women as well as strong men; and, strong or weak, Africa was calling—calling.
She had come to London for the season because it was what all the other rich men’s daughters did; but was she honestly grieved that their plans had all to be changed? Surely, now she was free, she could find something to do that would fill her hours afterward with gladder remembrance than just a season’s triumphs.
She leaned on in the starlight, chin sunk in hands, thinking, dreaming.
And so presently, still by those imperceptible degrees, through which works the hand of Fate, her thoughts came at last to the dinner-table conversation.
As in a flash, she remembered Rhodesia; and, remembering, it was as though the romance of the land reached out strong arms to enfold her.
Here in very truth was a young country, offering a wide field to all who sought work, adventure, achievement. Her thoughts ran on exultantly. She was rich, she was free, she was young, she was strong; why dawdle and dream among the fiords of Norway? Why scale Swiss mountains? Let that come later, when she had earned a playtime. In the first vigorous years of her youth, let her go out to the sunny land that was her home and give it of her best. Let her go north and see a young country struggling towards fruition, and perhaps win the joy and privilege, generally reserved for men, of helping it forward. All in a moment her decision was made. If she could anyhow win her father’s consent, she would go with him on his trip to Rhodesia.
She stood up, tall and slim, and the subdued light glowed more deeply in her eyes. The eyes of the visionary, who sees great things and dreams great dreams, and, alas! how often, breaks a heart that of its very fineness could only do or die.
Yet better, how much better, to hope and dare and die upon the heights, than linger content in the warm, snug valley of little joys and little sorrows!
And then across her dreams broke the sound of a sleepy voice from the room behind her.
“If you stay out there any longer, Meryl, you will grow wings and fly away. Do be rational enough to come in and go to bed.”
“I thought you were asleep, Di. I’m sure I haven’t been keeping you awake.”
“No, but you are doing so now; and, besides, it’s so imbecile to stand out there and stare at the stars.”
“I’ve been thinking hard, Di.” She came in and sat on the little gilt bedstead, with its dainty hangings, and looked lovingly at the pretty head on the lace-decked pillow.
“That’s nothing new. If you hadn’t been thinking hard it would be worth while mentioning it,” and there was half a pout and half a smile on the winsome mouth.
“But there was more object than usual to-night. Listen. If I persuade father to take me up to Rhodesia with him, will you come too?…”
“O, golly!… to be eaten by lions, and tigers, and savages, and elephants, and things!…”
“Well, there wouldn’t be much apiece if they all had a bite.”
Diana sat up and shook the hair out of her eyes, looking very much like a small imp of ten, instead of a finished young lady of twenty-two. “There’s just a chance they would eat Aunt Emily first,” said she, “and as that is a consummation devoutly to be wished, I think we’ll go….”
They both laughed, but Meryl soon grew serious again. “I’m awfully in earnest, Di. Who cares about Norway when they might go to Rhodesia! You’ll perhaps fall overboard and be eaten by commonplace fishes if you go there.”
“What has given you the notion, Meryl? I thought only miners and farmers went to Rhodesia, except a few tourists to the Victoria Falls. Do you think there is anything to eat there except locusts and wild honey?”
“Let’s go and see. I … I … want to do some Empire work or something. I can’t explain. But we’ve just got into such a maze of petty happenings and petty pleasures, and since the King died …”
“Of course!… you’ve been miles away ever since, dreaming and romancing and imperialising. But it won’t last, and when you’ve landed us all high and dry in some Rhodesian wilderness we shall just hate each other and everything else, and be ready to murder you.”
“Nonsense. We shall explore all round, and study the natives and the animals, and make friends with the settlers; and it will all be just new and big and teeming with interest.”
“Not if you are chewing the mule harness, because you’ve had nothing to eat for days.”
“O yes, even that; why not?… We should love it all when we came safely back.”
“Well, I’ll have the bridle, then. It won’t, perhaps, be quite so greasy.”
“Now you’re disgusting. Just put your head back on the pillow, and register a vow to see me through this craze, if you like to call it so, and I’ll love you for ever. I like to think of it as Empire work. Come and do a little Empire work too.”
“But I don’t want to. I’m bored to tears with the Empire. We hear a great deal too much of it nowadays; that and Standard Bread. I don’t know which is the worst”—making a wry face—”and, besides, if you really want to do Empire work, your plain duty is to marry Dutch Willie and cement the races.”
A cloud flitted for a moment across Meryl’s fair face, which Diana was quick to see, and she snoozled down into her cosy bed with a little chuckle.
“Got you there, my fair Imperialist! Dutch Willie, or let us call him William van Hert, will drop this wild anti-British policy of his like a hot brick, if you will only make up your mind to be Madam van Hert, and bless his hearth with a Dutch doll or two, having good English blood in their veins as well as eighteen-carat Dutch,” and the chuckles grew more and more audible.
But Meryl only got up slowly and moved away to her own little bed.
“Well, I shall ask father to-morrow, and if you won’t come I shall try to make him take me without you. I think he will.”
“O, no he won’t. If you are really quite obdurate, I shall do a little Imperial work also. I shall come along to keep watch and ward, and see that you don’t fail the Empire by losing your heart to some fascinating young Rhodesian settler and forget your own South Africa altogether. Dutch Willie is a lot the nicest Dutchman who ever belonged to that obtuse people, and I foresee it will be my lot to guide you to your high destiny on behalf of the two races.”
Meryl only smiled dreamily, as if she scarcely heard. Swiftly, mysteriously, unaccountably, as is her way, Rhodesia had caught her senses and filled all her horizon for the time being. She nestled down into her own pretty bed, with the unrest already fading from her eyes, and a new gladness in her heart, as of one renewed with a great purpose and comforted with a wide hope.
THE RHODESIAN PROJECT
Aunt Emily represented what Diana was pleased to call “the family skeleton in the flesh.” She was Henry Pym’s only sister, and there had been a time when she shared a pound a week with him in a tiny cottage in Cornwall, while he worked as a miner in order to teach himself all he could about mining. After that she had taken a situation as housekeeper, while he went out to South Africa to make his fortune. Later she had spent a year or two with him, sharing his struggles in the new country, and then he had married, and she was once more left to take care of herself; for at that stage Henry’s finances would barely keep himself and his wife. Three years afterwards, when his genius for finance was bearing fruit, his wife died, and at twenty-seven he found himself a childless widower just becoming prosperous. He again offered his sister a home, but her recollections of Africa were none to draw her back thither, and she chose to continue life in the comfortable situation she had procured as companion to an invalid lady. So Henry devoted himself entirely to the science of money-making, and at thirty-five he was a rich man. He married a second time, choosing for his wife among the gentlest-born Johannesburg could offer, and winning the sweet woman who was Meryl’s mother. About the same time his brother came out from England and joined him, and in fifteen years they were two of Johannesburg’s wealthiest millionaires. A few years later both were widowers, and very shortly afterwards John Pym died, leaving his only daughter and all the wealth that would be hers to his brother’s care. Thus the household became as we have seen it, for Henry, remembering gratefully how his sister had stood by him in his days of struggle, now insisted upon her sharing his luxurious homes and acting as chaperon to the two girls. That she was a little trying he knew perfectly, but his sense of fair play and kinship resolutely turned a deaf ear to the half-spoken pleas of the girls, that he would give her instead a cosy home of her own, and procure a younger and brighter chaperon for them; and she had now become a fixture.
But what irritated Diana so was the fact that had the good lady consulted her own taste, she would infinitely have preferred the cosy, independent home; but just as Henry’s sense of fair play offered her a place in his, so her sense of duty to the two motherless girls made her accept it in spite of her inclination.
“If people would but consult their comfort instead of their duty,” quoth poor Diana, “how much nicer it would be all round! Uncle doesn’t really want her here, and she doesn’t really want to come, and we’d give our heads to be rid of her; but just because Old Man Duty loves to make people supremely uncomfortable, here we all are!” and her expressive gesture made further comment unnecessary.
But, as a matter of fact, she made a very easy and good-natured chaperon, and it was only some of her irritating little ways that troubled them. Without being really deaf, she usually failed to hear any opening speech, and this Diana coped with very summarily. “Aunt Emily,” she would begin. “Eh … eh … eh … eh … ah,” and when Aunt Emily had duly enquired, “What did you say, my dear?” she would speak her sentence for the first time. Or, again, with reference to her propensity to get exceedingly worked up upon a subject of very little general interest, she would say, “The great point is, not to start her off, and not to give her a chance to start herself off. A little perspicacity will soon tell you what subject to nip in the bud, or when to talk as hard and fast as you can about something else.”
“And as for her mournfulness,” declared the matter-of-fact young heiress, “well, that’s genuinely funny. If I’ve got a bit of a hump myself, and I hear Aunt Emily, with a face of heroic resignation, say, ‘I can bear it,’ I begin to feel quite chirpy at once.”
But when the Rhodesian project came seriously under discussion, they were all a good deal surprised to hear Aunt Emily take part in it as one who must inevitably be of the party. Henry Pym was a reserved, undemonstrative man, and when Meryl begged him to let them accompany him on his travels, though he said very little, he was secretly a good deal gratified and pleased. His own early hardships had taught him the inestimable value of learning self-dependence and plucky endurance, and it was not without some regret he viewed a future for the girls entirely of rose leaves. Yet how could it very well be otherwise? When, however, Meryl pleadingly asked him to take them to Rhodesia with him, he perceived that the trip might be beneficial in more ways than one.
“You probably don’t understand,” he told her quietly, “that I am going on a business, prospecting trip. I am going right away from hotels and railways to see mines, and I don’t intend to be bothered with anything elaborate in the way of an outfit. I suppose I shall take a tent, and travel in a travelling ambulance, but certainly nothing out of the way in food or equipment. You would have to do the same, and as you know absolutely nothing in the world about ‘roughing it,’ you probably wouldn’t like it at all.”
“But that is just what we should like,” Meryl urged. “That is one reason why we want to come.”
They were sitting in the smoke-room with him, as was often their habit in the evening, preferring it, as he did, to the stately drawing-room.
Meryl sat on a footstool near him, watching his face anxiously, while Diana, with an open book on her knee, listened from the depths of an enormous arm-chair in which she had curled herself.
“Shouldn’t we ever need to wash?” she asked suddenly, in a sprightly voice that set them all laughing.
“Well, it’s a hot country, you know,” said her uncle, “but it might be more or less optional.”
“Scrumptious!” and Diana snoozled lower into her chair.
“Uncouth,” remarked Aunt Emily, disapprovingly.
“Or do you mean unclean?” enquired the sinner.
“It is quite the maddest idea I ever heard of.” Ignoring her, and growing more and more mournful, the poor lady heaved a deep sigh.
“But need you be bothered with us?” enquired Meryl, diplomatically. “Wouldn’t you rather have a nice quiet summer in England?”
“And let you go alone?… How could I?… Your father will be much engaged with his business, and it would be most unseemly for two girls of your age to be left so much alone. I believe it is a dreadful country, but if you can face it, I think I can find the courage to come with you.”
“Think you can bear it, aunty?…” chirped the voice from the arm-chair, and Meryl frowned in a little aside at the snoozler.
“If they decide to come at all, they would be all right with me out on the veldt,” put in Mr. Pym. “If they are prepared to eat ‘bully beef’ and probably do their own washing-up.”
“How horrible!…” from the arm-chair. “It sounds worse than chewing mule harness.”
“What do you mean, Diana?” her aunt asked, nervously.
“Oh, didn’t you know there was nourishment in mule harness?… It’s simply splendid stuff when you’ve had nothing else for days.”
The poor lady shuddered, and her brother chuckled, but Meryl interposed with, “Don’t listen to her, Aunt Emily. It isn’t likely we shall ever have had nothing for days.”
“I once heard of a man …” began the spinster, putting down her work, and raising her head with the air they all knew so well, denoting a long rigmarole about some exceedingly uninteresting person, and Diana immediately chimed in with, “Shall you wear a knickerbocker suit, aunty, or just a commonplace divided skirt?”
“Neither will be in the least necessary,” was the decided answer. “I have met people from Rhodesia, and they dress quite ordinarily.”
“Oh, that’s when they’re in another country,” insisted the incorrigible. “Up there you simply must wear knickers, or a divided skirt; it’s … it’s … such a high altitude … and so … windy!…”
“Diana, be quiet,” interrupted Meryl, now sitting on the arm of her father’s chair. “If you don’t mind we shall leave you behind.”
“Well, I don’t know that I particularly want to go. It doesn’t sound very inviting except about the washing.”
“I think you had all better take a week to decide in,” said Henry Pym, finally. “I won’t say anything about the yacht at present, and you can change your minds and have it if you like. And if your aunt chooses to stay quietly in England, I’ll take a house for her anywhere she likes, and I’ll look after you both myself. You can take care of each other when I have to be absent for a day.”
“Would you like us to go?” asked Diana, screwing her head round impishly. “Or are we going to be a … a … frightful nuisance?”
“I’d like you to come, if you can make up your minds thoroughly to take the rough and the smooth together, and make the best of it. I think it will be an experience for you, and a wholesome change from too much luxury. But mind”—and his strong, dark face looked very determined—”I want no grumbling and no fretfulness. If you think you’ve any real, genuine pioneer spirit in you, come. If you’re in doubt about it, stay behind, and go to Norway and have your gaiety.”
“I don’t think I’ve very much,” said Diana, “but Meryl has enough for two, I’m sure; and for the rest, I never grumble, and I’m only peevish with very young men. That, of course, I might work off on the niggers.”
“Has Meryl a lot of pioneer spirit?” asked her father, watching her with quiet, affectionate eyes.
“Stacks of it. She wants to become an Empire-builder. I don’t. I’m bored with the Empire. But I don’t mind sampling just one dive into the wilderness, to see how I like primitive conditions. I don’t know what Aunt Emily wants with the wilderness though, unless she has a secret fancy for niggers!…”
“I think that is a little coarse of you, Diana. I have no fancy either for a wilderness or niggers; but if either you or Meryl were ill, or anything happened to you, I should never forgive myself had I remained comfortably at home.”
“Nothing will happen to us, aunty. I think you are rather unwise to think of coming,” said Meryl.
“If you go, I shall come as far as Bulawayo anyhow. Then I shall at least be within reach.”
“Well, think it over for a week,” said Henry Pym again, getting up and moving towards his writing-table. “I don’t like hurried decisions at any time. If you like to come and take pot-luck with me I shall be glad to have your company, but do not let that influence you. Come for your own sakes, and prepared for anything, or remain behind.”
They understood that he wished to be left to do some reading or writing, and after kissing him good night, went upstairs to their room.
But Meryl’s eyes had already a new glow of hopeful anticipation, and it was easy to see she did not intend to waste much time in making up a mind already entirely decided.
Diana found her a little irritating.
“Really, Meryl!” she said, “you look as ridiculously pleased as a cat with kittens. You are quite the most unaccountable creature in the world. What, in the name of fortune, is the good of going to Rhodesia? Frankly, I’d rather stay in England.”
But Meryl only smiled happily, and made no comment.
“Oh, put the light out,” snapped Diana. “I really can’t stand that superior, complacent air of yours any longer.”
For answer the elder girl crossed the room and gave her a hug.
“Don’t be cross, Di. You know you’ll love the atmosphere of adventure when you are fairly started. Anyone can go to Norway.”
“Adventure! Stuff! Heat and flies and sand, that’s all we’re in for; and uncle in a prosaic, ‘I told you so’ mood.”
“We may see lions when we are trekking.”
Diana put her head on one side, like a small, bright-eyed bird. “We can see those in the Zoo, beloved.”
“Well, and you can see Norway on a cinematograph.”
Diana turned away with a low laugh.
“Clean bowled. Good for you, O wise Hypatia! Well, we’ll go to this heathen land and be horribly uncomfortable for a time, and then we’ll come back and make things hum in London as they never hummed before. Where is Jeanne, I wonder? If I’ve got to do my own hair for two solid months I’ll never touch a wisp of it until we go,” and she rang the bell peremptorily.
Later, for a few moments, Meryl again stood out on the balcony, enjoying the June night, and as she looked at the stars she smiled softly. She was going back to Africa, after all—her Africa, and perhaps Life would give her something big to do yet.
And half unconsciously, though with a sense of pleasurable possession, she stood with her eyes to the south.
And away in a distant land, on a high hill, strewn with ruins of an ancient, mysterious race, a man stood with his eyes to the north.
A taciturn, difficult, unaccountable man, who baffled the people that would fain be friendly with him, and chilled any who showed him warmth, and yet was invariably liked and trusted by all who had the perspicacity to see beyond the rigid exterior.
Even to-day, though he was mourning his sovereign, he had shown no softening of grief to those who beheld him. Rather, if anything, he had been more silent, more taciturn, more aloof than ever.
Yet the enfolding night and the quiet stars saw what none others saw. They saw the ache in the steady eyes, the compression as of pain on the resolute lips, the swift, unusual hunger, sternly suppressed, for something that had once been in some old life and was now for ever ended.
WILLIAM VAN HERT
They, that is, the Pyms, stayed in Johannesburg before they started on their travels. Mr. Pym had built for himself a charming house in the Sachsenwald neighbourhood, architectured, of course, by Mr. Herbert Baker, and having a lovely view to far blue hills.
Few people who have never seen Johannesburg have the smallest conception of the charm of its best suburbs, with their wonderful far vistas to a dream country of blue mountains on the horizon. To most it suggests little beyond dump-heaps of white powdered quartz, tall machinery, tall chimneys, with a town of tramways and offices and wealthy people all struggling together for more wealth.
Yet in a few minutes one may leave all this behind, and drive along tree-lined roads and avenues to where, probably amidst swaying firs, a “stately home” of South Africa is picturesquely standing.
Mr. Pym’s house was not of the largest, for he had never been ostentatious of his wealth, and much of it was represented by large tracts of land, where he generously experimented for the benefit of the country. As with several rich South Africans, he had his stud farm and his agricultural farm; and both were kept up to a very high standard, without any particular consideration for profit and loss. But his house in the Sachsenwald neighbourhood had more of charm and comfort in it than display. The rooms were very high and airy and well ventilated, with artistic colour effects which the girls had achieved, and something of an Italian air about it.
Along one side, widening into an embrasure at the middle, where doors from the drawing-room and dining-room stood open to it, ran a broad tessellated terrace; and from the terrace one looked out over a lovely garden, gorgeous with the flaming flowers of South Africa, yet softened by velvety turf such as is seldom seen “over there,” and can only be attained by much consistent care and attention.
It was here the girls loved best to sit: Diana because the prospect was fresh and breezy and wide, and, true to her namesake, she loved the smell of the firs and the earth; Meryl because of those far blue hills which made so fitting a background to the dreamland thoughts that filled her mind; and, moreover, Aunt Emily did not particularly love light and air, so she usually remained in her own sanctum, and Diana was able to enjoy, not one cigarette, but two or three, after each meal without the tiresome accompaniment of a disapproving eye.
They reached Johannesburg in the latter half of July, and those people who had not already fled from the high winds and driving dust were hurriedly preparing to do so. In consequence, few friends were there to welcome them on their return, and their plans proceeded apace. Diana had a smart khaki knickerbocker suit made, and a wonderful broad-brimmed hat with a long feather to go with it. When they laughingly told her she was not journeying to an uncivilised country, and could not possibly wear such a garb in modern Rhodesia, she merely asserted she was going into the wilderness to please them, and in return they must put up with her in any sort of garb she chose. In the end Meryl was persuaded to have a knickerbocker garb also, though she insisted that she would never wear it. Aunt Emily bought yards and yards of green and blue muslin, in which she proposed to tie up her head. “You must have a particularly ugly helmet, and a pair of smoked spectacles, and a butterfly-net as well,” said Diana, “and then you will look as if you belonged to the British Association.”
Her uncle, sitting back silently in his big arm-chair, with the quiet twinkle in his keen eyes, remarked, “And you will look like the principal boy at a pantomime.”
“How heavenly!…” said outspoken Diana, and Aunt Emily raised her hands in horror.
It was on one of the last evenings before their final departure that William van Hert came from a quiet sea-side place above Durban to see them. He was taking a long rest there, after a strenuous parliamentary campaign, and only discovered through a belated newspaper that they had returned from England, and were contemplating a journey north. He immediately took a day’s road journey to the nearest railway and departed for Johannesburg.
Diana saw him arrive, and executed a remarkable spring into the air, finished off with a little kick. “Oh, golly!…” she breathed. “Here’s Dutch Willy come flying to the arms of his ladylove!”
Meryl looked up with swift, questioning eyes.
“Impossible!… He is down at M’genda.”
“A little bird whispered, ‘She, the fair one of many millions, has returned,’ and straightway the thousand white arms of M’genda failed to hold him.”
“Don’t be spiteful, Di. Mr. van Hert cares nothing for anyone’s millions. You know it well.”
“I do; and for that reason he should be kept in a glass case. Still, he cares for a fair Englishwoman who has been—well, kind to him.”
“He is interesting. Was there any special kindness in letting him know that I had the perspicacity to see it?” And they went downstairs together to receive him.
William van Hert was at that time one of the most disliked, one of the most attractive, and one of the most disturbing men in South Africa. Gifted with brains and polish, he was yet, at present, marred by bigotry, narrowness of vision, and an unreasonable antipathy to the advance of English ways and customs. Furthermore, having obtained for himself a considerable following, he was, unfortunately, powerful. When genuine efforts were being made to bury the hatchet over the racial question, this man had more than once dug it up again; but it was not entirely clear at present whether he was actuated by motives of misguided patriotism, or whether, like far greater men, he only wanted to make himself thoroughly heard in the world first, and when that object was satisfactorily attained, he would modify his tendency to rabid policies and prove himself a reliable statesman. In the meantime he was dangerous.
In England there were many who quite seriously believed the racial feud was over. There were others who knew that it was still exceedingly bitter. There were others again who said very little, and perhaps professed to know very little, but in the quietness of their own thoughts pondered deeply and patriotically how a real and sincere union, and not a merely public newspaper one, was to be wrought between two fine races, so that in true harmony they might bring a country of great promise to its day of fulfilment. The men who saw any solution in making both languages compulsory were not men of true insight; neither were those who retrenched Englishmen in one direction, and created new posts for Dutchmen in others. One could but suppose these men were content to be patriots, not in a big sense to the whole country, but in a limited one to their own countrymen. To be patriots of South Africa herself, in her widest sense, seemed too much to ask of them. Yet, because of the fine qualities many of these men possessed, one could but hope that ere long what was good for South Africa would be good for each individual, whether in private life he called himself English or Dutch.
That William van Hert was ever a welcome guest in the Pyms’ household showed that he had many excellent qualities besides his undisputed personal attractiveness to counterbalance his obstinate bigotry. Otherwise Mr. Pym would not have shown him the friendliness he did; for in his quiet way Henry Pym possessed greatness, and everyone throughout the land knew that he was of those resolute, reliable few who would let all their wealth go before they would pander to any government or any party to save it. Meryl talked to him because she perceived there was a rough sincerity in the man underneath his bigotry, and hoped because he was powerful he would presently expand.
Diana alone crossed swords with him, and though perhaps he did not know it, it was no small thing that she thought it worth while.
He stayed to dine with them in a simple, homely manner, and his conversation at the table was sparkling and vivacious. He told them some excellent stories, concluding with one in very broad Dutch that they had great difficulty in following. And then Diana opened fire.
“Such a monstrous, face-distorting language,” she remarked coolly. “I wonder you don’t forbid its use instead of urging it.”
The gleam came quickly to her uncle’s eye, though he appeared to take no heed. It was left to Meryl to frown cautiously, and shake a wise head.
“Don’t frown at me, Meryl,” said the incorrigible. “It’s a hideous tongue, and he knows it, and what’s the good of pretending anything else? I don’t hold with pretence in anything.”
“It is the tongue of my country,” van Hert told her, more amused than annoyed. “Every true patriot loves his mother tongue.”
“O, nonsense!” with a charming insolence. “Meryl and I both have Norse blood in us. If you go far enough back we probably are Norse. But where would be the sense in our professing to love our country by talking her tongue, when it served every reasonable purpose in the world better to talk English? You’re so one idea’d, you Dutch folk, at least some of you,” pointedly. “The language and the Bible and your early-morning coffee!”
They could not help laughing at her, but van Hert indignantly repudiated her charge.
“O well!…” she continued, airily. “You know perfectly well you do make a fetish of the Language Question; and that your back-veldt followers believe the Bible was written in Dutch for the Dutch race alone; and that you start having coffee at daybreak, with relays up to breakfast-time. And you don’t expect your natives or your women to possess such a thing as an individual will. That is a luxury for the strong sex only!… It all means just one thing. Out in the back veldt you are years and years and years, positive, æons, behind the times; and you’d sooner represent a big dam to the progress of the world than yield one little silly, rotten cotton prejudice to help it forward. So there!…” And having delivered herself of this piece of oration Diana got up, pushed her chair back with a jerk, and finished, “I’m going out on the terrace. When I think of your back-veldters, and your back-veldt policy of suppressing all individualism and all advance, I need the company of a few worlds and solar systems to regain my equilibrium. No, don’t expostulate,” as he rose in his eagerness to confront her. “I seldom argue. It is not worth while. I merely ‘express an opinion,’ having the good fortune to belong to a race in which women are permitted such an indulgence,” and she threw a laughing glance back at him from the window before she stepped out.
Meryl watched her with a swift look of deep affection in her eyes, and then glanced at her father. Henry Pym’s face was expressionless, but his eyes seemed to reply to her unspoken question, and tell her that he, too, recognised a little more thoroughly that under the surface flippancy and light raillery there was depth. In the meantime, feeling she had not been quite fair to her opponent, to go off without allowing him to defend himself, he purposely discussed the language question a little more openly than was at all his wont with such prickly subjects, speaking a few quiet truths in a way that even a firebrand like van Hert could not possibly resent. When they joined Diana she was sitting on a table, swinging her feet, and singing a new music-hall ditty.
“Touching that slander of yours,” van Hert began, good-humouredly, for few could ever be seriously annoyed with Diana, “I should like to say …”
“No, I forbid it,” she interrupted. “Arguments bore me. Have you heard that little song before that I was singing? It’s a ripping little ditty. Chain Aunt Emily to the drawing-room sofa and I’ll sing it all through to you; but if she were to hear it she might faint, and that is so tiresome.”
He laughed, and sat on the table beside her, and the rabid sectarian politician, so given to raising storms and creating scenes in that most remarkable of parliaments, the South African Union Assembly, forgot his pet injustices and prejudices, and was quickly the versatile, virile, engaging social man. Meryl sat a little apart, with some dainty crochet-work in her delicate fingers, and though the visitor chatted with Diana, his eyes were almost always upon her.
They had purposely put out the electric light after their coffee was served, preferring only the lights in the rooms behind them and the splendour of the night before. And in the dimness Meryl’s fair skin gleamed unusually white beside her dusky hair, and the velvety, blue-grey eyes, when she looked up, had caught the dreaming darkness of the heavens. Only now and then she glanced round. Mostly she sat with her eyes on the shadowy darkness and her work in her lap. And the Dutchman, gazing, felt with a sort of fierce reluctance that there were no women in the world for calmness and strength quite like the Englishwomen, nor more delicately, entrancingly fair.
Then, suddenly, Meryl heard her name and looked up.
“Why in the world do you want to go to Rhodesia?” he had said; and Diana answered, “I don’t know that we do want to go; but Meryl has suddenly developed into a violent Imperialist, and we go at her desire.”
“What to do?” and he asked the question a little sharply of the dark eyes now turned to theirs. Quite suddenly and unaccountably he resented their going; resented, at any rate, that she, Meryl, should go. There had been so much “Rhodesia” of late. Everyone seemed bitten with a kind of silly craze for the place. Now it was gold; now it was land; now it was union or no union; now it was annexation and “twenty pieces of silver”; such a lot of fuss about some square miles of wilderness, containing odd outcrops of gold-bearing reef.
“There is nothing worth seeing in Rhodesia, except the Victoria Falls,” he asserted; “and you can run up there and see all you want to and get back in a week!” And still he looked enquiringly at Meryl.
“We want to see the people,” she said, half turning. “The pioneers, who went first to investigate, the settlers who followed, the women who went forward with their husbands into the wilderness.”
He got off the table and came and leaned against a verandah-post beside her with folded arms, looking down. “But that is what you won’t see; how should you? You will only see dusty, upstart towns, with horrible corrugated-iron hotels, where you will swelter in heat and flies and eat abominable tinned stuffs. It is a barren, comfortless land at present, with a possibility of being useful some day. They want money, energy, brains to develop it thoroughly; and they won’t accept them when they are offered, because a few stiff-necked Englishmen happen to be in power. It is absurd to go there at present. You will only get typhoid and malaria, and be excruciatingly uncomfortable.”
“It sounds a pretty rotten sort of place! What do you and your colleagues want it for so badly, anyway?…” asked Diana, throwing her head back and narrowing her eyes as she looked at him with a shrewd questioning air.
He coloured slightly under the sunburn on his cheeks. “We want a United South Africa. Why should one country stand aloof!”
“Meinheer van Hert,” said she, coming down from her table and taking a step forward to confront him, “for any man with your political views to talk about including Rhodesia in the Union solely for the sake of a United South Africa and for her own good, is the veriest cant. There’s gold up there, and perhaps tin; and there’s land for farming, and land for ranching, and hunting grounds, and a big river. In your United South Africa you want your people to be ‘top dog’ always, and as long as Rhodesia stands out there’s a menace in the north. That’s one reason why you want her! Rumour tells us there’s a fine race of men up there, who don’t mean to have any tongue but Cecil Rhodes’s tongue taught in Cecil Rhodes’s country, so it certainly is no place for you! You’ve got to learn more thoroughly what an Englishman means by ‘cricket’ before your overtures will be considered; and we’re all hoping you’ll learn it quickly, because we want to be friends, good friends, just as soon as ever we can.”
He bit his lip and looked angry, but she was already laughing the moment’s tension aside. “You didn’t know I was a politician, did you?… As a matter of fact, I’m not!… I’m sick of the whole bag of tricks, and the Empire that fills Meryl with heaves and swells isn’t half so much to me as winning a tennis tournament or a golf championship. But when you Hollanders are bursting with pride of place and achievement, and offering energy and brains to help Britishers along, I just feel as if you’d got to be told a few home-truths for your good. Now I’m going to liven the meeting with a little operatic music,” and she tripped indoors to the piano. Van Hert shrugged his shoulders expressively, and then stood silently beside Meryl for some moments looking into the night. And as he stood he became conscious of a vague sort of dissatisfaction with himself. It was a sensation he knew only at rare moments, and those moments were chiefly at the Pyms’ house. He admired the two cousins more than any women he knew; he admired Henry Pym; he loved the homyness of their household; and he had to remember that they were English. There must, of course, be many others like them. Were there many like them among his own countrymen? When Diana told him his people had yet to learn more thoroughly what was meant by “cricket” she had hit him hard. He would never have admitted it for one moment, but, nevertheless, when he was at the Pyms’ house he wondered…. Densely, stubbornly patriotic to his own people and his own tongue he might be, but he had travelled enough to recognise certain traits in the English “old public-school boy” which it was good for a country there should be in her young men, and which were not noticeably present in his countrymen of the back veldt.
Then his eyes rested on Meryl, and all his pulses throbbed with her nearness. He had known for many months now that he loved her, yet he had never actually told his love. At first there had been a disinclination to marry an Englishwoman because of the unbending, resolute policy he had identified himself with in the Union Parliament. No one spoke of anti-British and anti-Dutch nowadays. It was impolitic. But whereas certain men genuinely tried to ease the forced situation and meet with fairness and justice upon common ground, others still kept the flag of discord in their hands, though they hid it under the table, so to speak, and only produced it when, as they chose to assert, some pet foible of their countrymen was overruled or some indignity threatened.
And of this section in Parliament van Hert was the leader. If he then married an Englishwoman, not even South African born, would he not be held up to ridicule by his colleagues? And then he would see Meryl again, and all his feelings would merge into one great longing for her; not for her money—she had been right when she said such a charge was unjust, indeed, he almost wished she had been poor—but her quiet dignity and calm strength and the exquisite fairness that held all his senses.
And as he stood beside her now he hated more and more, without knowing why, that she should go to Rhodesia. Whatever he had said to the contrary, he knew that there was a romance about that far land that might fascinate her. He knew that up there there were some of the cream of England’s men. “The second son’s country,” he had heard it called, and that meant very often the well-born, high-bred gentleman who was not afraid to work, who had never been pampered, and was full of the best sportsman’s spirit. The man of all others to attract such a woman as Meryl Pym. The mere thought of it seemed to fill him with a growing alarm, and presently, almost before he knew it, he found himself pouring into her ears the story of his love.
Meryl was startled and taken aback. She had known perhaps that he had a special liking for her; seen it often in his eyes when he gazed at her. But that he should speak now was a little sudden, and she wished Diana had not left them alone. She tried to meet his eyes, but something a little too ardent in them abashed her, and she looked out into the darkness, nervously twisting and untwisting the thread of her work.
He saw that she was taken aback, and tried somewhat to curb the eager intensity that he felt was unnerving her.
“You are going away up there, and I shall be very anxious about you,” he pleaded. “If you would only give me your promise before you go, and let me have the right to follow at once if you are ill or anything, it would make it so much easier.”
She stood up, agitated, still gazing wistfully into the night.
“It is very sudden…. I did not know…. I hardly thought…. Have you … have you … remembered everything?…”
“That you are English and I am Dutch?… What of it, Meryl?… I may call you Meryl, mayn’t I?… Are we not both South Africans?…”
He tried to take her hand and draw her to him, but she shrank away and he did not urge it.
“Have you remembered it long enough?… Thought it out thoroughly?… It all seems somehow so sudden.”
“I have known long that I loved you. Does anything else really matter if you can love me in return?”
“Ah!…” she breathed and stopped short.
She had liked him long. She had always liked him. Away from his politics he was liked by most people. Huguenot blood was in his veins, and it showed itself in a French charm of manner that came to him naturally when he could get away from that bigoted, narrow obstinacy that marred him. She felt he was a man who might be led to many things, though driven to none. Because he attracted her she felt she half loved the Huguenot side of him already. If only the other side did not so insistently repel! Could it perhaps be overruled? Could she love him truly enough to hold his love for ever, and through it lead him to heights he might never even sight without her? Yet her eyes were wistful, gazing out there at the dreaming stars, and her face gleamed whiter and whiter.
This was not the love that whispered to her when she looked to the far blue hills. This was not the consummation the high stars in far infinities told her vaguely might some day bless her life.
And then he pleaded again in low-voiced eagerness, and in distress she turned to him. “I’m so sorry. I can’t bear to think of perhaps making you unhappy. But … but … I’m afraid I don’t love you in the way you want. I hadn’t thought about it.”
“I have been too sudden.” He drew himself up, and his eyes followed hers out to the darkness. And a touch of latent nobility seemed to come out in him; a quiet dignity like her own that appealed to her strongly. “I won’t take your answer to-night. I shall come to you again when you come back. Perhaps then … when you have thought about it …” He broke off abruptly. “May I write to you?… Will you sometimes write to me?… Perhaps I could follow …”
They heard steps and voices coming towards them from the drawing-room where Diana had wearied of her operas, and in sudden haste he caught her hand and raised it to his lips.
“I think I have to thank you for a good deal,” he told her a trifle huskily. “Men of all nations are better for being admitted to the friendship of women like you. If there were anything I could do to serve you?…” and he waited for her to speak.
“Serve South Africa,” she breathed tensely. “I could ask no more of any man.”
His hand tightened upon hers.
“Serve her with me. Together we could do so much.”
He saw her waver.
“Let me tell you when I come back. Yes … together we might do so much….”
“When you come back …” he said, and pressed her hand in understanding.
Then Diana stepped out of the brightness of the drawing-room.
“How can you two stay sleepily there, looking at the stars like two cats, when I am trying to lure you indoors with the latest comic-opera music! Meinheer van Hert, Mister Pym says, will you drink with him?…”
As he had three ladies with him Mr. Pym decided to take a private saloon-car, but no saloon in the world could prevent them being nearly smothered with the dust through Bechuanaland and Matabeleland in August, and while Aunt Emily rent the air with her complainings and sufferings, Diana chose to pass disparaging remarks upon the long-suffering British Empire, which she considered responsible for her journey north. Meryl said nothing, but there was often a wistful expression in her eyes as they sighted a lonely farmstead, or stood in a little wayside station with perhaps one corrugated-iron building, where some white-faced woman looked listlessly at the train. When she tried to voice her sympathy with their loneliness, however, Diana snapped her up a little impatiently.
“My dear Meryl, you will look at things always in the sentimental light. A woman with a husband and child in this freshness and sunshine is at least better off than if she were in a city slum, and her man probably out of work, and her child dying for want of fresh air.”
“But that is not the only alternative!… And in any case to suffer in company is almost always easier than to suffer alone.”
“But they don’t suffer, or, at any rate, they needn’t necessarily. That is where you are so short-sighted. The average woman wants a husband and a child, and I don’t see that it matters much whether she has them in the wilderness or in a city; the main thing is to have them.”
“Well, for my part,” put in Aunt Emily in an aggrieved voice, “if I could only have a man in a cloud of dust I’d sooner never see the species again,” which tickled Diana hugely and caused her to horrify her aunt by adding, “But what an advantage for him never to be able to see what you were doing! One could have such high jinks!…” Then, changing her voice subtly, she enquired, “Is it too much for you, aunty?… I mean the dust and the journey? because there must be such very much worse things ahead, and …”
“That will do, my dear. I can bear it,” and her expression of mournful resignation tickled Diana more than ever. On the day before they reached Bulawayo, however, when hour after hour brought very little but scrub and sand, she and her aunt were very nervy and irritable, and only Meryl, with her dreams and ideals, continued quietly interested. When they reached Bulawayo matters did not improve much, because a sand-storm was blowing and it was almost impossible to go out. Mr. Pym packed them off to the Victoria Falls as soon as possible, and remained behind himself to complete the arrangements for his trip. On the further railway journey the dust was worse than ever, and utterly out of heart with everything Rhodesian, Aunt Emily retired to a suite of rooms at the hotel on their arrival and said she should stay there until the cool of the evening.
So Diana and Meryl stood on Danger Point alone, when they took their first long look at the amazing cataract of waters. Neither spoke for many seconds, and then Diana breathed, “I’m glad Aunt Emily didn’t come. She would have called it ‘lovely’ or ‘sweet.'”
Meryl laid a sympathetic hand on her arm and murmured, “And you?…”
“One couldn’t call it anything. It just is.” And Meryl with her understanding heart pressed her arm in silence.
They walked together through the rain forest, getting drenched with spray and hardly noticing it, until they came to the opening near the Devil’s Cataract at the south end, and sat down to gaze at the splendour and wonder outspread.
Then Diana spoke a little in something of an undertone, half to Meryl, half to the air:
“A god did it. I don’t know which—Jupiter or Pan, or Apollo or Hercules—and when they grew tired of the earth and went off to other planets, they just left it behind as a child might a castle he has built in the sand; and by and by some crabs crawled along and found the castle, and sat down and looked at it because it seemed to them so wonderful; and by and by some humans found the gods’ waterfall, crawled up to it, and sat down and wondered. That’s all there is to do. O, Meryl, I wish I were a goddess and not a worm. The waters are mocking us. Don’t you hear them?… I just feel as if there were something about it all I can’t bear.”
Meryl smiled a little tender smile. To her Diana in all her moods was adorable. In her shy, fierce, tense ones, as now, she was best of all.
“What does it say to you, Meryl?…” the girl went on. “Do you feel as if you hated it and worshipped it both together? Hated its remote magnificence and devilish cruelty, and worshipped it because you couldn’t help yourself, either from fear or wonder? I don’t know which, only I feel … I feel … as if I ought to throw over something I loved as a sacrifice of propitiation. And it goes on just the same—think of it—year after year, century after century, just calmly spilling magnificence on the desert air! I believe I’m frightened, Meryl. Tell me what it all says to you.”
Meryl looked dreamily along the glistening mighty cascades, and then spoke softly:
“I feel I’m in the presence of one of the world’s biggest things, and it is inspiring. You know that sentence of James Lane Allen’s, ‘When one has heard the big things calling, how they call and call, day and night, day and night!…’ Here they call louder, that is my chief feeling. I look at this great natural wonder, and whatever there is in me most akin to it swells upward. I feel I must do great things or die … be great or not at all. And while I feel like this there is a sense of kinship, as if some spirit of the waters understands.”
“Perhaps that is why I am afraid,” breathed Diana. “I don’t care about greatness. I don’t want to be great. It all seems so unreal. I like the sunshine, and flowers, and trees, and birds, and four-footed things. I don’t want to be bothered with my fellow-creatures; they are a nuisance. If they are in difficulties, and can’t find a way out for themselves, they might just as well go under.”
“You heartless little heathen!” affectionately.
The girl brightened suddenly. “Why! it understands, Meryl!… The Spirit of the Waters heard me, and now it is laughing. It is great enough to understand and appreciate the feelings of both of us. Don’t you hear the note of revelling now?… Why!… it’s all revelling. The waters are shrieking with joy. They’ve come tearing down the Zambesi valley for the rapture of plunging over the precipice, and now they are just beside themselves with the excitement and delight of it. O!… they heard me say I don’t care about my fellow-creatures, that they are just a nuisance, and they’re shouting to me, ‘Neither do we … neither do we!… Silly, wide-eyed, open-mouthed humans come and stare at us, and try to describe us, saying we are lovely and wonderful and pretty and such-like, and we just roar at them and their puniness and take our glorious plunge.’ That is what the waters are saying to me now, Meryl. I feel as if I simply must plunge with them. Take me away. I can’t bear any more to-day.” And they went silently back through the lovely plantations to the hotel.
But in the evening, in the moonlight, her mood changed again.
“I feel a little like you to-night, Meryl. The big things do matter, of course. If I’m such a silly little goat I can’t do anything big myself, I guess I’ll help you whenever it’s possible. And, of course, even humans matter a little, though I do like dogs and horses so much better; but there’s something so calm and big and strong about the waters to-night, they are telling me all the time that the big things matter. O, Meryl, it’s so lovely—so lovely—it hurts dreadfully….”
And after a pause: “If it hadn’t been for you I should never have taken the trouble to come and see it. I won’t grouse at the dust any more.”
And later: “I’m glad there’s no sign of a human habitation at hand, and that the wilderness is all round. They had to be splendidly isolated—magnificently alone—the god who did it understood that. One can think of the wide reaches of Africa afterwards, and the gem, like a priceless jewel, set in them. Deep silence, wide horizons, untrodden country on every hand, and this in the midst like a treasure tenderly enfolded.”
After three days they returned to Bulawayo, and found their pilot impatient to be off. He unfolded his plans, and the two girls listened eagerly when he said:
“I am told there is every indication of gold in the Victoria district, and my engineer is anxious I should journey down there and see one or two properties. The railway does not extend beyond Selukwe, so if we go we must take a travelling ambulance and tents and sleep out in them for three or four weeks. I think there is a pretty good hotel in Edwardstown, where you could remain if you like while I travel round, and then we might all journey to Salisbury up the old pioneer route.”
The girls were delighted, but Aunt Emily’s mournful resignation had reached its limit. She informed them, in a voice which implied, no matter how they pleaded with her, she should remain firm, that nothing would induce her to accompany them upon such a journey.
Her brother said quietly, “Just as you like, Emily. I think I can take care of the girls. Will you stay in Bulawayo, or go back to Johannesburg?”
Aunt Emily’s face wore rather a reproachful expression as she replied, “I suppose I had better return to Johannesburg, and then if any of you get ill with malaria or typhoid, you must wire for me and I will come back.”
“You were very good to come so far,” said Meryl gently, seeing the veiled disappointment that they could dispense with her so easily.
“If it is any consolation,” volunteered Diana, “you may be quite sure we are all going to be most horribly uncomfortable for the next month or two. The only illness I anticipate is an utter and complete weariness of life. I don’t know which sounds the most dreadful: being bumped along dusty roads in an ambulance, and sleeping with snakes and toads under a tent; or being stifled in an odious little corrugated-iron hotel, living on poisonous tinned stuffs in a perpetual odour of stale roast nigger. If I am going to endure it for my country, I hope my country will give me the only fitting reward—the Victoria Cross.”
“Perhaps we needn’t stay in the hotel,” said Meryl hopefully. “We can probably camp out. Surely the wonderful old ruins are somewhere near Edwardstown, father? How splendid if we could camp beside them!…”
“Quite near. We will certainly go and see them. They tell me there is a police camp there, and at this time of the year it is quite healthy.”
“But how glorious!…” cried Meryl. “I had no idea you were going in their direction.”
“I meant to if possible,” her father said; and so the trip was decided upon.
Three days later the cavalcade started off from Gwelo with great éclat. Two ambulances: one containing the two girls, a driver, a fore-looper, and a small black boy named Gelungwa, who was everything from ladies’ maid to general adviser; and the other containing Mr. Pym, his engineer, driver, fore-looper, and the engineer’s black cook-boy, who proved himself an invaluable asset.
Each ambulance was drawn by eight mules, and carried its share of the paraphernalia necessary to a long sojourn in the wilderness, and being thoroughly well equipped, they had decided to dispense with any further railway service until they reached Salisbury.
They started from Gwelo, with its wide, tree-lined roads, in the freshness of the morning, and leaving the surrounding bare, uninteresting common quickly behind, dived straightway into a track of Rhodesia that is like a vast, undulating park. The red road wound across a wide, breezy stretch of veldt to wooded hills and valleys, and beyond this was an enchanting vista of dreaming blue kopjes on a far horizon. Even Diana found nothing to grumble at. Like Meryl, her eyes rested often on that dreaming distance, and the unique charm of a journey into the unknown, independent of railways and hotels, held her senses. When two graceful buck sprang up in the grass near them, stood a moment to investigate, and then fled away, leaping and bounding to safety, she drew a deep breath of delight.
“Di, it’s going to be a glorious trip!” Meryl exclaimed in low-voiced ecstasy.
Diana paused before she remarked in answer:
“It seems so natural somehow, to be journeying out to an unknown bourne in this primitive fashion. I wonder if, in another existence, I was one of the wives or handmaidens in Abraham’s caravanserai? Perhaps I was his favourite concubine!… How interesting!… I’m sure I’ve journeyed like this into a far land before.”
“How jolly to have two drivers who don’t understand a word we say, instead of a chauffeur who is all ears and an Aunt Emily who is all prejudices!”
“Still,” said Meryl, “you couldn’t very well have a coachman in England wearing a sky-blue felt hat that was obviously meant for a lady, and with a large blue patch upon brown trousers.”
“He’s just a dear,” was Diana’s laughing comment. “I love his awful solemnity. He’s like a Hindoo idol. And what luck to have a side wind instead of a forward one!”
At twelve they stayed in a welcome piece of shade for their first veldt meal. Lounge-chairs were untied for them to rest in, and an excellent little repast prepared by the cook-boy, while the small black imp waited upon them like a trained butler. Then they dozed through the hot midday hours, continuing their journey to those alluring blue distances after all were rested, until they reached the first night’s camping place and pitched their tents near a rippling river—as Diana described it, “all mixed up with stars, and dreams, and niggers, and kopjes, and mules.”
For a week they journeyed on, each day seeming lovelier than the last, and the dreaming repose of a great content hovered over all of them. There was no need for haste and none was made. There was no pitiless urging of tired mules as in the post-cart; no shouting natives, no hurried pauses for a snatched rest. The mules jogged contentedly along, realising they were in good hands, and always through the midday hours everyone lazed. An early spring had brought many young leaves out, although it was still August, and these were often beautiful shades of red, bronze, orange, scarlet, gold, and emerald-green, beyond or through which blue kopjes took on a yet more dream-like, ethereal air. Sometimes the red road wound along through woods of loveliest colouring, carpeted already with spring flowers. Sometimes it ran out into open spaces where the trees stood back in line, revealing wonderful glimpses of the fascinating land to their eager gaze.
Strange, fantastical, granite kopjes like mighty mausoleums adorned with ilex trees barred their path, and Diana was convinced some of the bones of her ancestors lay buried there, because she felt so weirdly at home with them.
“This is my natural environment,” she informed her uncle and the engineer. “I ought to be dwelling here in state, as the favourite wife of the greatest chief in the land.”
Meryl grew dreamier with every day, though sometimes her eyes were sad as she looked out over the country, as if she already loved it with a love that was akin to pain.
Had he, that great Imperialist, looked at it with those calm eyes of his, and known just that sense of aching love?… When he journeyed out into its enchanting untrodden spaces, accompanied only by some kindred spirit, had the land risen up and enslaved and enfolded him, like some enchantress who bound men’s souls for ever?… Had Rhodesia, in her sunny loveliness, been wife and child to the great man who went lonely to his grave?…
As they drove along and the fascination increased, far outweighing any discomfort of glare and dust and jolting roads, Meryl felt herself engraving the sight and the sound and the freshness of it upon her soul, that she might have hidden pictures to gaze upon with closed eyes when the exigencies of life called her back into the throng.
Her father was mostly silent as was his wont, planning and scheming with a brain that knew little other rest than following its natural bent, yet with that in his silence, and in his watchful eyes that made one feel he too loved the land for itself, as well as for what he could get out of it; and that when occasion came, like Alfred Beit and Cecil Rhodes, he would pay his debt a hundredfold.
So they came at last to the wide, open veldt where Edwardstown was situated, and knew themselves in the district teeming with pioneer memories.
Meryl and Diana descended reluctantly at the hotel, and looked round disparagingly at their little hot bedroom, thinking regretfully of their tent in the wilderness.
“How awful,” said Diana, “if we find ourselves never able to exist in an ordinary house again! We shall have to pitch two tents in Hyde Park. Ugh!… it positively smells of walls and doors and windows; how I hate them!”
“We’ll go on to Zimbabwe to-morrow and camp beside the ruins,” answered Meryl. “How splendid to be going there so soon!”
“Ruins are not much in my line,” quoth the outspoken. “Let’s hope there’ll be a man there as well.”
CAREW IS DISTURBED
The news that the millionaire Henry Pym with his daughter and a niece were journeying to Great Zimbabwe reached the police camp first through a letter from the Administration to Major Carew, requesting him to have the long, disfiguring dry grass burnt, and the surroundings of the temple tidied up a little, and to show every attention to the travellers. When he received the letter it was obvious at once that the information did not give him any pleasure. On the contrary, his expression as nearly approached a frown as he was likely to permit it on receiving orders from headquarters. He had opened the letter standing outside his hut, where it had been handed to him by the native runner, and Stanley was reading a newspaper near, while Moore affectionately handled an antediluvian gun he was thinking of buying from a prospector.
Stanley glanced up, wondering what letters had come, and saw the hovering frown.
“Any news, sir?” he asked frankly, for he was no longer in awe of his silent chief. As a matter of fact, he never had been to any degree. The Kid would have found it difficult to be in awe of anyone, but for a few days Carew had baffled him.
“Henry Pym, you’ve probably heard of him, is likely to arrive here in a few days.”
Stanley opened his eyes a little. “What! the millionaire?… Good biz! We’ll rook him at poker and bridge and shooting, and a few other things. It isn’t right for him to have all that money. It would even things up a little if we could transfer some of it to poor, penniless policemen.”
“He is accompanied by his daughter and a niece,” said Carew in even tones.
“Lord love a holy duck!…” exclaimed the young policeman, and was fairly astonished on to his feet. “Coming here, sir?… Coming here to Zimbabwe?”
“So the letter says. It also adds that they may wish to camp near, and they are to be shown every attention.”
“They shall be …” quoth The Kid, so comically that even Carew’s lips relaxed. “I suppose the letter doesn’t specify the attention?… Christopher Columbus!… Great Scott!… Glory, Glory, Hallelujah!… To think of two millionaires’ daughters all at once in this benighted, thirsty land!… It fairly catches me in the breath,” and he sat down again suddenly as if the news was too much for him.
“By gad, Moore!… do you hear that?… a bloated millionaire and two millionairesses are about to descend upon us from the skies. Talk of manna and blessings coming down from heaven!… Give me millionairesses!…”
The Irishman looked up with a knowing smile. “Shure!” said he, “give me whisky….”
“Begorra, Pat!” laughed The Kid. “If you got the heiress you could swim in whisky.” Then he looked again at Major Carew and observed the suggestion of a frown still on his face while he stood with the letter in his hand.
“Heiresses are seemingly not much in your line, sir?” he suggested humorously. “You … well, you don’t quite look overjoyed!…”
Carew in his quiet way had grown fond of the gay young trooper, and he showed no offence at the attitude of familiarity.
“We shall have to consider a good camping-place for them, and probably give up two huts to the ladies. I gather they may be here in two or three days. Is the grass dry enough to burn to-night?”
The Kid glanced round doubtfully. “Hardly; and the place won’t look well all black.”
“That’s why I thought we had better begin at once. If they are some days the ash will have had time to blow away. Arrange for a gang of boys to be ready at six o’clock, and we will light up and see what we can do.”
In the hut he tossed the letter down on to his table. “Confound it!…” he said under his breath. “Fancy women down here, staring and chattering, and prying! I suppose they will expect the entire police force in the neighbourhood to be at their disposal, and nothing else will matter at all.” His face grew more and more gloomy. “If I had only started to M’rekwas yesterday, I could have been absent a fortnight, and by then they would have departed again.” He stood a moment considering if he could start at once, and decided, as the letter was sent specially to him, he could hardly leave before carrying out his instructions.
Stanley and the other trooper meanwhile made hurried preparations for a great fire. They lit up in the evening, having stationed boys at intervals to keep the flames within bounds, and themselves stood posted with their guns, hoping for a shot at wild pig or cheetah, or possibly a lion or leopard. Carew kept guard at the huts, with a few boys to beat off the flames that encroached to any danger points and watch for flying sparks that might ignite the thatch. It was a wonderful sight, and his eyes were full of appreciation as he watched it. The gathering darkness, the lurid flames lighting up with swift brightness the ancient ruins; the high Acropolis Hill on one side, the low granite-strewn kopjes on the other, and running between the Valley of Ruins, now a vale of fire.
It crossed his mind that it was almost a pity they had not left the burning of the grass until the travellers arrived, that they might see the strange, fantastic sight. But he cogitated that the millionaires he had known hitherto had little appreciation for much beyond money-making, and no doubt they were merely taking a passing glimpse at the ruins; the man on some money-making quest, and the girls just to be able to say they had seen them. His eyes rested on the temple wall, and he felt suddenly absurdly resentful that these rich pleasure-seekers should come even there to gape and stare. He had grown to love the ruins dearly, until that moment he had scarcely known how dearly, and to him it seemed for the moment like showing some treasured personal relics to barbarians.
There were so many other things for the pleasure-seekers. Let them go to the Falls, and Lake Nyassa, and the Himalayas, and those tourist treasures; but why come and chatter inane banalities about his ruins: his treasured, mysterious relic of perhaps the oldest civilisation the world has known?
Of course, he knew perfectly that much controversy had raged round the question, and that one or two learned scientists had definitely stated their belief that the ruins were of comparatively recent date, and deduced more or less convincing proofs in support of their theory; but controversies and carefully worded reports were small things to the man who had dwelt beside the mysterious temples and fortifications, and learnt to love and treasure them. He had his proofs too and his deductions, and such as they were they satisfied him, in the face of all opposition, that the curious remains were indeed of great antiquity, quite probably the ancient Havilah of the Scriptures. To him every nook and every corner had its meaning and its history. In the play of his fancy he had seen the white-robed priests and acolytes in stately procession, amid the old, old walls; heard strains of far-off music when an ancient worship offered its votary of prayer and praise to that mysterious deity whom they believed in; heard perhaps a single lovely voice, or seen a single lovely convert kneel before the Sacred Enclosure. He had seen their strong men and their brave men and their great men marshalling a host of women and children and infirm citizens safely into the fastnesses of the Acropolis Hill, where, with a sufficient supply of food and water, three thousand people might be safely shielded for any length of time. He had seen them stand on the high battlements, and look out across the plain or into the rock-hewn kopjes for the hosts of the enemy. He had seen them, even when besieged upon that mighty hill, assembling together to worship in the temples they had laboriously raised upon the giant granite ledges. Were they fair, those women of that old, old day? Were they brave, were they mighty in stature, those men who evolved and achieved those wonderful defence works? Did they love the fair land that fed them with the love of home and country, or were they but sojourners for a while amid unfriendly, cruel tribes, that needed watchful eyes day and night? Led perhaps by a spirit of adventure, or by persecution elsewhere, or by the lust of gold, yet faithful always to the worship of their race, and building at infinite, incomprehensible pains those temples in the alien land. How they held him; how they fascinated; how they soothed with infinite soothing the bitter sorrow, the gaping, stinging wound that had driven him furiously away, all those years before, from the flesh-pots of a modern Babylon! Had he cared for it all very much then?… He wondered, looking full and deep into his hidden memories. Had the lights and the music, the song and dance, the laughing women and reckless men, the midnight orgies and morning headaches, really given him so much pleasure that he must needs fling it all aside with such bitter anger and harsh regret when the thunderbolt fell and the searching dart stabbed him awake? Outraged, hurt-maddened, he had flung away, as he believed, to outer darkness, and to a joyless, purposeless, colourless life. And he had found?…
Ah!… when he looked at the ancient, mysterious ruins he had grown to love, and around upon a country that was life-hope and life-interest to him, he knew that it was the other life which had been purposeless, and all of one colour, and the self-chosen exile that had given him the things it is good to live and breathe and die for.
And thinking of it all, with that shy softness which sometimes stole, as it were, stealthily into his strong face in moments of dreaming thought, he remembered with growing regret the advent of the party for which he was bidden to make preparations, and resented it yet more forcibly. Why need they come?… these women … these spoiled, flattered, perhaps vulgar, heiresses. What did they want with ancient rites and wonderful relics of antiquities? What were they doing in Rhodesia at all, flaunting their finery and their possessions before the eyes of the hardy settlers and the plucky women who shared their difficulties and disappointments? In a young, struggling country what place was there for the idly, gracefully rich?
In his goaded fancy he saw their elegant, costly garments, and he heard strident voices exclaiming shrilly at his treasure, perhaps calling it an interesting heap of stones. Was there still time to get away, he wondered? Could a sudden call be arranged?… a sudden need for hasty departure?…
Let The Kid laugh the hours away with them, and take his fill of gay companionship; and let him return when the siege was over, and the soothing and the restfulness and the splendour had come back.
Wondering still, and with the sore regretfulness growing, he looked round to make sure all was safe, and that no further danger need be feared from blowing sparks or creeping flames; and then went gravely into his hut to read.
The next morning he told Stanley that he might be obliged to go east the following day on important business, and leave him to receive the travellers, and remained imperturbably grave and non-seeing when Stanley raised his eyebrows and regarded him with a little amused twinkle of understanding.
But in the afternoon the party quite unexpectedly turned up, and somewhere away in the blue, dreaming kopjes the voice of a following fate laughed softly.
TWO UNEXPECTED MEETINGS
Early in the afternoon Carew rode to the mission station to tell Ailsa Grenville and her husband of the expected visitors, and of how he was likely to depart in the morning for M’rekwas and be away about a fortnight.
Ailsa Grenville smiled at him archly when he told her. “Why do you run away when, for once in a way, you have the chance of a little companionship? It would do you more good to stay.”
“I think not; and besides,” he added, hastily, “I am going on business.”
“A convenient sort of business, I fancy. Why not wait and see them first?”
“Well, I could hardly go away immediately after their arrival, when Mr. Pym probably knows of the letter despatched to me from headquarters. It is far simpler to send a runner back with excuses.”
“But why go at all?” in a persuasive voice.
Carew walked to the door and knocked the ashes out of his pipe against the heel of his boot; and Ailsa knew by his face that, though he did not resent her questioning, he would take no notice of it. And it made her a little sad, for of all the men she knew, next to Billy, her husband, she admired Carew, and she regretted deeply his insistent determination to stand aloof from mankind generally behind the barriers he had built up.
Then Billy himself came in: khaki-clad, vigorous, and gay as ever; and when he heard the news he was less reticent, and exclaimed outright, “But what do you want to go away for? Why, it will be quite a treat for you to have ladies there; and who knows, one of the heiresses may be very charming—charming enough even for your fastidious taste!”
“I prefer the company of the veldt,” was all he said, without relaxing the fixity of his face; “ladies are more in Stanley’s line.”
“The Kid must be awfully pleased,” Ailsa said, smiling. “I’m sure he isn’t going away.”
Carew, lying back in a big chair, was leisurely lighting his pipe, and he did not reply. All his attitude showed only cold indifference, and it would have been difficult to believe that, even in his heart, he had taken the trouble to be resentful. Ailsa, watching, felt a little impatient with him. She wanted to break through the shell in which he chose to hide that self which her instinct told her was so different to his outward seeming. What had become of the gay Londoner, who drove the smartest four-in-hand in the park, and rode the fastest horse to hounds? She longed to write home and ask her people of his story, but bitter things had been said when she elected to go into exile with her husband, and there had been almost no correspondence since. And Billy had been away in South Africa at the time of the crash and heard nothing about it. All he could tell her was that Carew of the Blues had been known as one of the gayest of the gay fifteen years or so ago, and that suddenly he had seemed to vanish off the face of the earth; and that Carew of the B.S.A.P. was the same man, only different, and he must be over forty years of age. So she had to content herself as well as she could, and be glad that, at any rate, while he remained in the Victoria district, they could have his companionship, though he chose to keep his own counsel as to why he was there.
At first she had been rather afraid of him, and felt shy and awkward when he came to see them; but Billy’s attitude of jovial good fellowship, in no way repulsed by the other’s cold reserve, had helped to reassure her, and now they both appeared unconscious of any lack of warmth in their visitor. If he liked to be silent he could, and if he seemed in a taciturn mood they took no notice.
When he called for his horse to return he said good-bye to her before mounting, and spoke of not coming again for a fortnight, and she watched him ride away regretfully. Evidently he did not mean to be sociable, even to the lady travellers, and it was no use hoping anything for him.
In the meantime, the first ambulance, containing Meryl and Diana, arrived at the ruins. Mr. Pym was detained in Edwardstown with his engineer, and might not join them until the next day, but the girls begged him to let them go on, longing to be out in the open again, away from hotels and bungalows.
So a police-boy from the town camp was sent on to escort them, and the Zimbabwe camp notified by runner of their approach. Stanley opened the letter in the absence of his chief, and much to his own delectation, was waiting alone to receive them upon the chosen camping-ground on their arrival. Diana saw him first, and remarked joyfully that he was white.
“Hooroosh!…” said she, “there’s a man as well as ruins.” And a little later, “I’m afraid he’s only a boy, but he looks a nice boy, and there are occasions when the ‘half a loaf’ proverb applies to ‘half a man.'”
Then he helped her out of the ambulance after receiving them with a grave salute, and regretted that, in the absence of Major Carew, there was no one but himself to receive them. He was evidently a trifle shy and embarrassed, stammering a little as he offered his services to superintend the pitching of their camp, with eyes that would wander from the elder cousin to Diana’s small, impish, alluring face.
“Have some tea with us first,” said she. “We’ve already acquired a few Rhodesian vices, such as an unlimited capacity for tea-drinking, and Gelungwa can make quite a decent apology for the beverage which cheers but not inebriates.”
They sat down, and laughed and chatted together until the kettle boiled, and before the tea was finished The Kid had fallen in love with both, and was congratulating himself that Carew had taken that afternoon ride. Then the girls said they would ramble while their tent was pitched, but disagreed as to which direction they would take first. Meryl had left her little guide-book with her father, and wanted to postpone the temple until she had it. Diana said it was too hot to attempt the Acropolis Hill. In the end they separated. Meryl strolled towards the Acropolis and Diana sought the cool shadiness of the temple.
About the same time Carew started his homeward ride, and when he reached the base of the Acropolis Hill he gave his horse to the runner who had gone with him to carry some books for Ailsa Grenville, and climbed a little way into the hill to remark a point of investigation he had been discussing with Grenville; and, quite suddenly, round a sharp piece of masonry, he came upon Meryl Pym. She wore a large, shady hat, and she was standing quite still, gazing across the country. For a moment Carew stood quite still also. It was odd that she had not heard his steps upon the rough footpath, but apparently she was too absorbed to hear anything at all. He was exceedingly relieved and drew aside stealthily, prepared to return quickly the way he had come. But before he started he glanced once more, for something in her quiet pose struck oddly upon his heart. She looked very slim and graceful and girlish in a simple washing frock of some soft grey material, with little Quakerish cuffs and collar, and the big, shady hat tied on with a ribbon. And all in a moment he was transported years before, and there was a Devonshire wood, and a slim lassie, and little Quakerish cuffs and collar, and eyes that watched and waited—watched and waited for him.
No, not even in thought would he dwell again upon what followed. It was a weakness he had fought down. A weakness that even now, given rein, could unman him. The quick light vanished from his eyes, the mouth grew stern again, and he turned to descend.
At the same moment Meryl turned also and came towards his hiding-place. He had just time to step further back and take shelter behind a low, bushy tree, which would hardly reveal his khaki, before she passed. And just in front of him she raised her head and glanced upwards, so that he saw her eyes, and for a moment his pulses seemed to stop beating. If her pose had reminded him of someone it was as nothing compared to her face with that upward glance. The delicate contour, the fine features, the wistful, dreamy, quiet eyes. Were they blue, or were they grey?… How came they with long, dark, curling lashes when her hair was a dusky, light shade, with soft waves and gleams of sunlight? In his hiding-place he stood very still and very rigid. For a moment he might have been part of the rock behind him. Then she passed on up the steep ascent, and he came out and retraced his steps, feeling a little dazed.
Who could she be?… But, of course, the party must have arrived unexpectedly: had not remained in Edwardstown as they intended. And she was one of the heiresses—one of the flaunting, gaping, vulgar, dressed-up young women he had been secretly so resentful over. And, of course, she was none of these. Then suddenly he almost laughed; almost laughed aloud. For she was worse—far, far worse. The gushing, loud-voiced heiress he might have coped with. His frigidity froze most people if he chose; and avoidance was not difficult. But what could he do with Joan—his love, his dead love Joan—looking at him out of this girl’s beautiful eyes, touching him with this girl’s slender hands, speaking to him from this stranger’s lips? It was impossible—impossible; all the careful training of that fifteen years in exile would be undone. His very life would be undermined again. For the moment it seemed incredible, preposterous. He felt stunned by it.
Then his rigid self-control came to his aid, and his face grew stern and hard.
The preposterous thing was that he should let a chance resemblance hit him so; should even admit the possibility of being undone after all his careful self-training. No, a thousand times no; he was not such a weak fool as that. The strength he had won was his still. He had only to go on being resolute and cold and the past would lie down again, and once more go quietly to sleep.
He defied it to overcome him now. By every agonised pang, by every hour of unfathomable bitterness, by every solitary year of self-chosen exile, he insisted that he must prevail. He strode on, scarcely seeing anything about him, and his face grew sterner and sterner. Then he came within sight of the camping-place, and saw the white tent, and Stanley giving directions, while Moore and some black boys unpacked things from the ambulance.
And he thought he would get more complete control of himself before he joined them; take this thing fairly by the throat and throttle it, that he might regain his peace of mind absolutely before the second encounter with the owner of the face and form that seemed for a moment to have made an upheaval in his life. So he turned aside and made for the temple, feeling glad and relieved at the consciousness that the mood was passing, and reassured that, being no more taken by surprise, he would successfully master it. Probably he could still go away on the morrow, and once away, Rhodesia would take him to her heart again. He knew it full well. Every day now the country was giving back to him of what he had given to her; lulling him, soothing him, revivifying him with her freshness and her charm.
But his mind was very occupied still and his vision clouded as he passed into the cool shade of the temple, and he did not see a small, dainty person with an impish face perched high on a broken wall, with her elbows on her knees and her chin in her hands, and a queer, fitful, half-serious, half-bored expression in her dark eyes. Instead, seeing no one and thinking himself alone, he sat down on a low wall quite near to her and stared gloomily at the ground. Diana, not a little amused, surveyed him at her leisure. “What in the world,” she wondered, “was this smart, soldierly looking man, correctly booted and spurred, sitting down there for in the ruins?…”
The great temple at Zimbabwe has never been roofed. The ruins consist of a wonderful outer wall, from twenty-two to thirty-two feet high and in some places fifteen feet thick, of an elongated shape, and within this wall are remnants of other walls which formed separate small enclosures. There is also the sacred enclosure with the conical tower, and leading into it from the north entrance the wonderfully contrived passage, between two high walls, scarcely more than a shoulder’s breadth apart in one place. Amid the ruins trees have grown up, many of them higher than the outer wall, and these shade the glare of the sun, casting cool shadows and networks of sunlight upon the broken walls. And on the afternoon in question here and there were splashes of brilliant scarlet, where a Kaffir Boom tree flowered with a flaunting indifference to the passing of centuries and races.
Diana, with her whimsical, artistic temperament, was fully alive to the fascination and uniqueness of her surroundings, but being a little tired with the drive, she felt for the moment somewhat impatient with ruins generally, and just a shade depressed with a certain air of dead forlornness that hovered all around. Then into the midst of this dream of antiquity strode a stern, fierce-looking, very up-to-date sportsman, who sat, for no conceivable reason, on a broken wall and stared at the ground. For one moment her sense of the ludicrous made her almost laugh aloud. Then, with sudden, upleaping interest, she sat still as a mouse and watched him. Once she half smiled to herself. There was a man, then, as well as a boy! She was not going to be entirely stifled in ruins, after all! She went on with her cogitations, staring hard, her head a little to one side. A real man, too, with a lean, brown face, and a square, determined chin, and a nose quite Roman enough to suit any novelist, and dark hair a little thin on the top and a little grey at the temples. She could not be sure if he were a soldier or not, but evidently he had been riding, for he still carried a hunting-crop; and also, judging by his face and attitude, something was considerably on his mind.
Without the slightest movement she sat on and waited; and that was exceedingly characteristic of Diana. Where another girl would have felt embarrassed and made some sound to relieve the tension, she almost held her breath to retain it. The situation was unique. In a life that offered deplorably little of novelty and adventure she would not for worlds have thrown away such a chance. Meryl, on the other hand, would probably not have felt the tension; she would have quietly walked past him out at the entrance. Diana felt the atmosphere of the footlights and calmly waited.
And, of course, in the end, vaguely conscious of some disturbing, not quite accountable element, Carew looked up straight into her eyes.
Diana looked straight back and tried hard to keep her lips from twitching. She noticed pleasurably that he did not start; that he scarcely even showed surprise. Such a man, she felt, would not. Yet the very fact that for several seconds he remained perfectly still, staring at her, showed that he was quite satisfactorily astounded. Then he stood up, and waited a moment as if he expected her to speak. She thought he might have smiled. The hero on the stage, of course, would smile—divinely—and a blush like a tender dawn would overspread the heroine’s rose-leaf cheeks.
But he did not smile; to be honest, he looked excessively annoyed, and no tender blush of any sort could possibly have shown upon her sunburnt face.
Still, she did not intend to flinch, and if the mischievous smile lurking at the corners of her mouth died away, she still regarded him with a calmness equal to his own, and with the impishness quite emphatically still in her eyes. Then suddenly she felt as if there had been some invisible sword-play between them. Her instinct told her he resented her silent watching, and that his cool, collected front now and his silence were the expression of his resentment. It was not in the least like a fairy story, of course; here was the prince, surly, stony, and bearish, and the princess, red and brown with sunburn, on the point of being caught at a disadvantage. But there Diana’s native wits came to her aid, and she did a clever thing.
“Would you mind helping me down?” she asked, sweetly. “I climbed up here to get a good view of the interior, and when I try to descend the stones slip so, I am nervous. I did not like to disturb you before,” she finished, unabashed and unblushing, but carefully lowering her eyes a moment.
He stepped forward at once and reached his hand up to her, and she saw that his keen eyes were of that intense clear blue seen in so many strong, notable men, but that they looked at her in a cold, aloof manner which made her feel rather small and childish. “Surely,” she thought, “he is not genuinely angry just because I did not tell him I was there?” Aloud she said:
“Thank you,” and placed her hand quite calmly in the strong, inviting brown one upheld to her.
Then, taken with a fit of devilry out of growing exasperation, she added, “I’m not the daughter, I’m the niece.”
“Miss Pym, I presume,” he said, coldly, and bowed to her.
“Miss Diana Pym,” she replied, and slightly inclined her head.
“My name is Carew,” he told her, with bluntness.
“And are you … er … a scientist, evolving a theory about the ruins?”
“I am a policeman.” He said it brusquely, almost rudely, and Diana was taken with a sudden desperate inclination to laugh. All in a moment he reminded her forcibly of the uniformed autocrat holding up one lordly hand to stop the traffic. She moved towards the entrance, keeping her face averted. “The same sort of policeman as Mr. Stanley, I suppose?” she suggested, affably, but he seemed not to hear her, and a covert glance at his face was not reassuring. But the mere fact only spurred her on. If she was silent he might think he had overawed her. Goodness! how appalling! She quickened her step, and tossed her small head a little with a kind of challenging jerk.
“I rather like your ruin,” she said. “It’s quite a nice old heap of stones.”
Once more Carew vouchsafed no reply, but Diana knew perfectly well that his lips tightened slightly, which signified that in some way she had hit him.
So pretending to be perfectly unaware of his non-responsive attitude, she ran airily on:
“Such a mad idea to travel hundreds of miles to see a few old remains of a doubtful edifice, built by Bantus! or is the plural Bantams?… I’m sure when you heard we were coming you wondered if you had better prepare a dwelling for us with padded walls. Now, didn’t you?…” and she looked up archly into his face.
“I understood Mr. Pym had come to this neighbourhood about some gold claims,” in cold, even tones.
“Yes, so he has. But we haven’t; at least Meryl hasn’t. She came to see Rhodesia. I don’t quite know what I’ve come for,” naïvely. “I was just wondering about it sitting on that wall.” And still he refused to be drawn. “You were looking very grave. Were you wondering what you are here for too?”
At that moment they reached a spot where the path divided into two: one fork leading to their tent and the other to the police camp. He stood still. “I believe I was considering the best solution to a native problem that has lately arisen.” He glanced towards their tent. “I see Mr. Stanley is helping to arrange your camp. Please let him know of anything you want. You will find him an excellent guide.” Then, scarcely looking at her, he saluted and walked away.
Diana returned to their tent feeling baffled and interested, half-inclined to be cross and half-inclined to laugh. And almost at the same time from the other direction came Meryl.
“O, it’s wonderful!” Meryl cried softly, with all her face aglow. “I never imagined anything half so fascinating; and I haven’t even seen the temple yet. Mr. Stanley, do stay and dine with us. Our cook-boy is quite good.”
“All except his soup,” put in Diana, “and he is only good at that in the sense of making it out of nothing. Sometimes I think he just boils a bit of the harness, or a corner of the tent-flap, or probably he makes it of rats if he can catch enough.”
Stanley looked at her with all his eyes and accepted the invitation eagerly, saying that he must first go back to the camp to change. Half an hour later he reappeared, looking quite smart in a white duck dress-jacket and a starched collar.
As they sat down to their alfresco meal, taken under the stars, with two lanterns suspended on sticks for lights, Diana suddenly said to him:
“Who is the bear?…”
“The bear?…” doubtfully.
“Yes. The bear who lives down there in the police camp, and rejoices in the name of Carew.”
Stanley, looking much amused, replied, “You must mean the Major; but you haven’t met him, have you?”
“I had the pleasure of being snarled at for about fifteen minutes this afternoon.”
Stanley laughed outright. “But where? He never said that he had seen you.”
“I don’t think he did see me. We merely met. Most of the time he either looked away or looked through me at something beyond. Still, he might have mentioned the meeting. I don’t feel flattered.”
“O, but that is nothing with Carew. He is an awfully silent chap.”
“Silent!… do you call it?… I never felt so … so … suppressed … in my life. I thought he seemed rather inclined to bite me.”
“But where did you meet him, Di?…” asked Meryl, with interest.
“I was sitting on a wall in the temple, and he strode in and sat on another wall and stared at the ground … and I stared at him … and then he looked up and saw me … and afterwards …” she paused.
“Do you mean to say you sat perfectly still in front of him, and let him sit on, thinking himself alone, and then suddenly discover you?…”
“Yes. Why not?”
“Well, it wasn’t very fair on him.”
“Such nonsense, Meryl! That’s just what he seemed to think. Why shouldn’t I have a little romance if I want to? Such a dull, prosaic, commonplace old world as it is, generally speaking! I was having a lovely one. He was a great hunter who had lost his way, and dragged himself into the temple to die….”
“I thought you said he strode in?…”
“Don’t be silly; he wasn’t in the romance then. And I was a lovely, mysterious veiled lady who lived in the wilderness; but my veil happened to be thrown back, and when the dying hunter raised his eyes….” she stopped short.
“That’s where the romance stopped, where he brutally spoilt it, because when he raised his eyes and saw me there he just scowled horribly.”
Stanley and Meryl laughed whole-heartedly, but Meryl told her it served her right because she was unfairly taking him at a disadvantage.
“But I did nothing of the kind. No one was at a disadvantage except myself.”
“I’m sure you weren’t,” Meryl remarked. “You never have been yet.”
“That’s where you are mistaken, my dear. When you are sitting in a lovely romance, gazing at a dreadfully handsome, distinguished-looking man who is the hero prince, and will presently discover you and smile divinely with all his soul in his eyes, and when instead an iron-visaged person looks up at you, and scowls and grows as black as thunder, I defy any woman not to find herself at a disadvantage.”
“Well, how did you get out of it?… What did you do?…”
The alluring twinkle shone suddenly in Diana’s eyes, and her lips twitched mischievously, as she replied:
“Well, I smiled divinely instead, and asked him to help me down from my high wall.”
“O, you are quite incorrigible,” laughed Meryl. “If I had been him I would have left you there to get down the same way you went up. But who is he?…” turning to Stanley. “He sounds rather interesting.”
“He’s a splendid fellow,” The Kid asserted, warmly. “We couldn’t stick him at first, Moore and I, but we soon found he only wants knowing. There’s some history attached to his being out here that no one quite knows; but he is a Fountenay-Carew and used to be in the Blues.”
“But how nice!” quoth Diana. “This is much more interesting than the old ruins. Is he rich and haughty, with lovely estates left to dishonest stewards, and all that?…”
“No very poor, I should imagine; nothing but his pay, anyhow. I believe when he was in the Blues an old uncle gave him a big allowance, but something happened, and he threw the money in the old chap’s face, and the old chap chucked him out.”
“And what happened to cause the quarrel?” asked Diana, all ears. “Why, he is more romantic than my prince!”
“That is what I fancy no one knows. Anyhow, in a country like this, no one asks. It isn’t quite the game, you see; and, anyhow, no one is interested now. He has done a tremendous lot for Rhodesia in one way and another, especially for the police force and natives; and we’re quite proud of him in our way for that, independent of his history.”
“How nice!” and Meryl’s eyes grew very soft. “It is a much finer reward than he would probably ever have gained in the Blues. I hope he thinks so?”
“I don’t suppose he cares either way. Certainly, he doesn’t appear to. He just loves the country, and seems only to want to stay here; but he never speaks even of that. Since he came here a few months ago he has done a lot of investigation work among the ruins privately. He is most awfully attached to them.”
Suddenly Diana asked, “I suppose he is pretty sick about two modern young women presuming to journey here to gaze at his treasure?”
Stanley coloured up, and Diana laughed. “O, don’t bother to deny it. I could feel it in my very bones when we met this afternoon.”
They finished their meal, and the boys moved the table away, so that they could sit round the glowing embers of a small fire, not so much for warmth as for the idea, and they lazed low in their chairs, talking idly and enjoying the cool, fragrant night.
And presently, not à propos of anything in particular, Diana said, quite aloud, “I guess The Bear is growling and scowling away nicely to-night down there in his den. I expect the first time we meet I shall forget and call him Bear Carew instead of Major Carew, and then he’ll shrivel me up with a glance.”
A sound beside them in the shadow made all look up suddenly, and the lamplight fell full upon Carew’s face as he stood near Diana’s chair.
Meryl rose hurriedly, blushing to the roots of her hair, while Stanley, secretly much amused, stood up likewise. Only the culprit remained unperturbed to outward seeming, glancing archly round.
“I’m afraid you overheard what I said … Major Carew…. I’m quite ready to apologise, only …”
“Please, don’t….” For one instant the coldly even voice had a tiny inflection in it, as of humour, though he stifled it immediately, as he turned to Meryl and said, gravely, with a bow, “Miss Pym, I think?… A letter has come for you from Edwardstown by runner. I brought it on in case you might wish to send a reply, and to enquire if you are quite comfortable here for the night.”
Meryl took it from him, thanking him in her low, sweet voice, and with a rather shy, upward glance. And Diana, in the shadow, saw the soldier suddenly flinch and suddenly grow sterner, standing in an attitude of almost unnatural rigidity.
“There is no heed to reply,” Meryl said, after reading her note. “It is only a message from father to say he may be detained until afternoon. Thank you so much for bringing it. Won’t you sit down? Can I offer you anything? I’m afraid there is not much choice. Father does not like luxuries in the wilderness, and we only carry whisky.”
“No, thank you.” The tones were even again now, and he made no movement towards a chair. “Have you everything you need for the night? I hope Mr. Stanley has made himself very useful?”
“He has been splendid. I am only afraid we have tired him out. Won’t you sit down?” and she shyly motioned to a chair.
“Thank you. I’m afraid I must get back. I have some despatches to write. Would you like a police-boy to keep guard here all night? There is nothing whatever to fear, but if it would add to your comfort?…”
“O no, thank you,” warmly. “We are not in the least nervous. I think there are no lions very near,” with a little laugh.
Diana, lying back in her chair, had scarcely taken her eyes off the tall soldier, though she watched him covertly, and without seeming to; and her quick brain perceived dimly that his aloof attitude was partly a mask which had become a habit, and that, however much he suppressed her, there was nothing whatever repellant about his chilly reserve. And then, suddenly, the little mischievous devil possessed her again, and she longed to try her arts upon him, just to see what happened, and to show him she was not seriously in the least afraid of him.
And no sooner had Meryl remarked that there were no lions near them, than she could not for the life of her help murmuring, “No lions, only bears.”
Again there was an instant’s answering gleam in Carew’s eyes, but he only smiled very slightly, and said, “Perhaps a bear’s growl, like a dog’s bark, is worse than his bite.”
It was as though something altogether too much for him was struggling with an inclination to relax just the least bit on Diana’s behalf and insistently conquering. With scarcely a second look at her he drew himself up tautly and said he must be going. Then he saluted gravely, said good night in a voice that included them all, and strode away through the darkness towards the police camp.
For a moment there was silence round the glowing embers.
“It was kind of him to say good night,” said Diana, sarcastically.
“What a fine-looking man!” commented Meryl.
“He is gruffer than usual to-night. Perhaps something has happened to upset him. I think I must be going also,” and Stanley reluctantly rose to follow his chief.
“Of course he is gruffer,” said Diana. “Two tiresome women have dared to journey to Zimbabwe to look at his ruins.”
In the darkness Carew strode on to where a light shone through the doorway of a hut, but his eyes were looking straight before him into the night, and had the expression of one whose thoughts were very far away. It had cost him an effort to go up there with the note, but he had made it purposely, determined to take in hand quickly that vein of weakness which threatened him at sight of Meryl. He would go up and speak to her and break the spell as quickly as possible, regaining his old fortitude. More particularly as he felt he could not now leave on the morrow, just as Mr. Pym was arriving expecting to find him there. Not that there appeared any reason why, just because he happened to be a millionaire, a police officer should be expected to wait on him, but no doubt the Administration had its own reason for showing special attention to a very rich man, and hoped for some benefit to the country thereby.
So he had taken the bull by the horns and strode up to the lamplit camp, where the travellers sat over the glowing embers; and, of course, he had heard Diana’s remark, and smiled grimly to himself, in no way displeased, for it suited him perfectly to be shunned as a bear. And then, keeping an iron control over himself, he had addressed Meryl, and looked straight into her face without flinching. The upward look, for one second, had shaken him, but the iron control held good, and before he left them he had spoken to her and looked at her with perfect calmness. The visit had been quite as he wished it, and for a few seconds, striding into the dark, he congratulated himself upon having so satisfactorily coped with a situation that had threatened to be a little difficult and had disturbed him so in the afternoon. Of course, she wasn’t really like Joan, except in a very general way. Just her height and figure and graceful movements and colouring; and, of course, the upward glance from confiding, thoughtful, blue-grey eyes that had humour lurking in them, and power and possibilities, and were so curiously framed in dark lashes in spite of light hair. In the midst of his self-congratulation he remembered the upward look again, and all in a moment once more it shook him. His gaze went blindly to the stars, and his mind flew back. Ah! how sweet Joan had been; how strong, how true! How she had stood by him through the beginning of the storm, turning the clouds to sunshine, making everything worth while! And then, the swift tragedy, the climax; the awful, awful days and nights that followed. How he had trodden the lonely Devon moors, blindly, passionately seeking a dead weariness of body that would dull his mind! How he had cursed the two men who drove in the final barb, and vowed never to see their faces again!
And then the little note-book he had found, in which Joan had inscribed some of her thoughts from time to time, and copied a few favourite passages from favourite authors! It had come to him like a voice from the dead—Joan’s voice, calling to him to rise above his despair and prove himself still worthy of her. And out there on the moors at sunrise he had vowed that he would. Calmly, coldly, as an austere monk, he had laid down for ever the things that had made his life gay and joyous before, and prepared to turn his back on England and all that it held pertaining to him.
And now there is a distant wilderness and great southern stars, and mysterious, antique ruins, and a man who has grown strong and silent in aloofness, and won a sort of soothing content out of what he has given, seeking no reward.
Not, perhaps, that “renewing” a royal friend had spoken of fifteen years ago, for the contentment was void of hope and fear and joy, but balm upon the passionate, frantic bitterness and despair. But the “renewing” might come even yet, however much he scorned the thought; for forty-two is at the prime of years, and Life has a tender way of her own of healing when she will.
But to-night the memories are bitter, and the reopened wound throbs and burns. Carew strode up to his hut, with only a curt good night to the trooper, and when Stanley arrived back there was no light burning, only darkness and silence.
A MINING CAMP
The following day Carew avoided the camp, after telling Stanley he might devote his time to the ladies if he wished. In the afternoon, however, he saw Mr. Pym and his engineer arrive, and then, presently, the party all went down to the ruins together. About an hour later they re-emerged, and while the two girls went back to the tents, the millionaire strolled towards the police camp. Carew, seizing his opportunity, came out, and went to meet him. He considered himself fortunate in being able to offer the necessary courtesies when the ladies of the party were absent. Mr. Pym hid his surprise at seeing so distinguished-looking an officer at such an out-of-the-way camp, and received his somewhat curt greetings in his own quiet, business-like manner. He thanked him for the attentions he had already rendered, and hoped they were not causing any inconvenience in pitching their tents near the ruins. Carew assured him they were not, and mentioned that Mr. Stanley would be happy to place his time at their service and do anything he could to make their stay agreeable.
Henry Pym, noting the obvious intention of the officer not to place much of his own time at their disposal, looked quietly into the resolute face, and felt his interest growing apace. At the same time, following his lead, he made no attempt to lengthen the interview, which he felt was more or less regarded as an official duty; and with courteous thanks said good night, hoped Major Carew would dine with them one evening, and returned to his tent.
“Well, uncle,” was Diana’s greeting, “what do you make of The Bear?”
“The Bear?…” questioningly.
“The cast-iron soldierman, who condescends to breathe the same air as ordinary mortals down there in the police camp.”
“O, Major Carew!…” with a quick gleam in his eyes. “I thought him rather a fine fellow. Don’t you?” and he smiled at her slyly.
“A fine bear,” quoth Diana, with a little pout. “I prefer a man with a little more flexibility. A little more commonplace flesh and blood, so to speak.”
“I asked him to dinner to-morrow,” her uncle remarked.
“And is he coming?” with ill-concealed interest.
“No. He is going to see two young miners named Macaulay a few miles away, and was regretfully compelled to decline,” and the humorous smile on his face widened, for he knew that Diana would be piqued.
“As if he couldn’t go there any day!” she grumbled. “O, of course, he is perfectly odious.”
Meryl’s eyes met her father’s, and they both laughed, while he remarked, “Never mind; perhaps we can lay a trap for him another time. Evidently he has no particular fancy for ladies’ company.”
“Do you know the Macaulays?” Meryl asked.
“No, but I am going to see them in two or three days on business.”
“And you will take us?…” she pleaded. “I do want so to see all we can of the settlers as well as the country.”
“We will see later,” he said, and made a move to prepare for dinner.
During the next two days he and his engineer made sundry small excursions on business. Their investigation of several outcrops in the Victoria district had convinced them the gold was by no means worked out by that ancient people who had left so many traces of mining operations, and Mr. Pym was prepared to buy up claims and properties. On the fourth day he went to see the Macaulays, and took the girls with him, having procured a mule each for them to ride. Stanley and Carew were also to be of the party; the latter not a little to everyone’s surprise.
All through the four days he had held consistently aloof, personating merely the courteous official upon whom Mr. Pym had a certain claim because of the letter from headquarters. As a matter of fact, he had undertaken a journey of some length on two of the days to outlying kraals; and Diana, hearing of it from Stanley, had laughed a little grimly, and said, “He need not have troubled. We have no wish to speak to him”; and Stanley, not quite clever enough to understand, remarked regretfully, “But you would like him so much if you knew him properly.”
The reason was not very apparent for his accompanying them to the Macaulays’ mine, but Meryl shrewdly suspected her father, who had gone quietly to smoke a pipe in the police camp with him on one or two occasions, had asked him to come more or less as a personal favour. For though Stanley knew the road perfectly he knew very little about the surrounding country itself; and Mr. Pym, with his unerring instinct, had quickly discovered that Carew’s mind was a well of knowledge on most things Rhodesian. So the taciturn soldier joined the cavalcade, though he succeeded in attaching himself to Mr. Pym and riding well on ahead.
The two Macaulays were “small miners,” working on tribute a mine belonging to a block owned by a company in which Henry Pym had large interests. Complaints had come through to his ears concerning the difficult conditions upon which the two young miners, and many others like them, struggled to make a fortune or a livelihood, and he had a fancy to go and see them for himself. The mine was in a hollow, banked round by tall, gloomy kopjes, which seemed to stand like a bodyguard, sternly shutting them off from all sight or sound of the outside world. At the same time, the road to it was delightful. Sometimes they climbed nearly to the top of a kopje, the mules going up stairways of granite as if born to it, and the lovely country lay outspread in a glorious panorama before them.
The party said very little, but their eyes told that the fascination had crept into their hearts already, though they could only appreciate in silence, wondering, perhaps, why they felt this strong attraction for a land that was chiefly kopjes and veldt.
Was it, perhaps, the marvellous, translucent atmosphere, or was it the blue intensity of the dreaming kopjes, ornamented ever and anon by gleaming white battlements of granite, where the sun blazed down on giant boulders, or was it the unfathomable, mysterious, syren-like allurement of the country, that, without effort, without thought, steeped the senses in an irresistible fascination? Why does Rhodesia fascinate? Why does she call men back again and again to her manifold discomforts and unnerving disappointments, to her pests and glare, to her bully beef and unwashed Kaffirs? Who shall say?… Who shall attempt to explain?…
There is no explanation; only the foolish would seek it. The country just gets up and takes hold of one and smiles, and men become enslaved to her. Ever after “the hazy blue of her mountains, the waft of the veldt-born scent,” is like a germ in the blood. The discomforts are forgotten, the disappointments dissolve into air, the noontide glare and choking dust are a mere nothing: libellous creations of some discontented grumbler. And in the midst of the crowd, or in England’s green lanes, or on some far shore, the wanderer is caught in the old mesh suddenly, and all his pulses beat with swift longing at just that heaven-sweet impression: “The hazy blue of her mountains, the waft of the veldt-born scent….”
And she, the syren, lies there in her sunshine and her loveliness; locked in the arms of the deep, luscious, dreaming nights, whispering and murmuring softly under embracing, star-lit heavens; making wild riot when the splendid storms fling after each other across her bosom, while the thunders roll deafeningly amidst her kopjes, and the lightning pierces brilliantly the riotous clouds and makes a glory of the mighty scene. Sulky and colourless when she is waiting impatiently for the delayed rains; resplendent, and with a colouring that is like a Te Deum, when the renewing has come, and all her soul sings aloud in the joy of spring, and all her flowers and trees lend her loveliness past telling, and her hills a yet deeper blueness under yet intenser, rain-washed skies. All this—all her moods and whims and waywardness—going serenely on—splendidly, superbly indifferent to the men who come to tame her and stay to love in silent enslavement; as also to the men who come solely for gain and gold, and go away shrieking their complainings to the four winds. Because, perhaps, the enchantress has not troubled to show them her allurements, and ruffled, discontented minds have discovered only the dust and heat and pests.
But what of it to the syren?… There are others who stay, as many, perhaps, as she wants, and to whom she puts out a shy hand of friendship, and presently soothes and consoles as the strong, silent, storm-tossed man who rode with so soldierly a bearing beside Mr. Pym; suffering no stab of love and longing any more as he looked over her fair bosom, because the shy hand was in his, because there was that subtle sense of understanding in his heart which seemed to tell him that even as he loved Rhodesia, Rhodesia loved him.
And so they came to the Saucy Susan Gold Mine, at least to the ridge of the surrounding kopjes, and looked down to where a cluster of huts like beehives told them humans dwelt down there in the hollow.
“It can’t be a mine,” said Diana. “It’s just a hollow in the hills; the sort of place giants hide in when they play hide-and-seek.”
“But it is,” Stanley assured her. “We shall see a little more as we wind down.”
And presently they came within view of a shaft, and two honest-eyed young Englishmen, both old Charterhouse boys, came forward to greet them.
Meryl shook hands with her face all aglow with interest; and to their humble apologies that they had only huts to invite them into, she said, “But it is so nice of you to invite us at all. You wouldn’t believe how proud I am to come here to see you, and how tremendously interested.”
And Diana, with a droll expression, remarked, “You seem to live rather in the nethermost depths. You must feel as if you were going to heaven literally and figuratively every time you ascend to the outer world.”
The elder brother laughed pleasantly, but the younger, who had a white face and a delicate, refined air, looked at her a little wistfully. Meryl chatted on with the elder, but Diana, with her quick perception, scented a silent, wordless, plucky endurance of adverse conditions in the younger, and gave her attention to him.
Then they went into the dining-room hut, and found a meal spread on a roughly made table, with only two chairs for seats and all the rest packing-cases.
“Who has to sit on a chair?” asked Diana. “I needn’t, need I?…”
“Why, they are quite sound!… Are you afraid of a spill?…” asked Lionel Macaulay, looking amused.
“No, only I can sit on a chair any day of my life. I simply insist upon having a packing-case when such a good opportunity offers.”
So Meryl and her father were duly ensconced in the only two chairs, and Diana mounted gaily on to a tall, thin packing-case, which would certainly have gone over backwards if Colin, the rather sad-eyed brother, had not caught her just as she was overbalancing.
“How clever of you!…” she laughed. “What happens when you two overbalance and don’t happen to be near enough to catch each other?… Does the dinner come in and find you both sprawling on the floor?”
“Well, we’ve had a good deal of practice, you see,” he told her, already cheering visibly. “The tables are turned for us, and we choose a chair when we can get it, for a treat.”
Afterwards she made him show her all his clever contrivances for packing-case furniture, and admired his sackcloth curtain, barrel washhand stand, and made him feel vigorous and hopeful.
Stanley was talking to Meryl, and Lionel Macaulay was showing Mr. Pym, the engineer, and Carew over the mine, so she gossiped away to him all by herself. And she drew from him a little of the bitter disappointments they had encountered in the country. A story of first one mine and then another failing them; of capital slipping away and bills mounting; of the gradual cutting down of comforts and increased austerity of living: a story common enough in all colonies where Life puts men through the mill again and again to prove and harden them. Acting perhaps on the lines:
“It is easy enough to be pleasant
When life moves along like a song,
But the man worth while is the man who can smile
When everything goes dead wrong.”
Life wants a lot of men and women whom she knows are “worth while” in carrying out her great affairs, and that is perhaps why so often “everything goes dead wrong.”
Diana maintained her rôle of gay inconsequence because it pleased her best.
“It all sounds very superior and all that rot, and I’m sure Meryl would call you a hero; but I should swear myself black and blue in your shoes, and that’s about what you do pretty often, I expect.”
His smile grew fresher and more genuine.
“It doesn’t do much good though.”
“O yes it does. Don’t tell me! When things get into a silly stupid mess with me I just shut the door and say every swear word I know until I feel better. That’s one advantage of living in a hollow in the desert. You needn’t even bother to shut the door!… You can shout your ruffled feelings to the kopjes, and I suppose they echo the words back to you. How perfectly splendid! That’s a thing about Rhodesia I hadn’t thought of before. Of course, the echoes are sometimes wonderful; so if you were to shout a few swear words the kopjes would shout them after you; and that’s much better than ‘dreaming stillness’ in my opinion. But why aren’t you and your brother making a fortune? I thought everyone in Rhodesia was making one who had a mine.”
“We don’t get up enough gold. By the time we have paid our royalty and the expenses there is nothing left.”
“Then the royalty must be too big. Who do you pay it to?”
He coloured, and she watched him humorously.
“Has my uncle something to do with your company? O, don’t look uncomfortable. I’ll just talk to him about it. There ought to be occasions when no royalty is taken at all. I’ll tell him so.”
Colin Macaulay laughed into her smiling eyes.
“As it is, there is a charge for everything, even the grass the donkeys eat!…”
“O, monstrous! I never heard of such a thing. I’ll interview the board about it if you like. Tell your donkeys they may eat anything they choose in future, it is not going down in the bill any more!…” and they both laughed gaily.
In a more serious mood, however, she asked him presently, “I suppose it has been rather a disappointment?… This coming out to Rhodesia to make a fortune!”
“Why do you think so?”
“O, well, lots of reasons. You haven’t come within sight of the fortune, for one thing; and you’ve still got packing-case furniture and live in huts. And you eat a lot of bully beef, now don’t you?”
“But that isn’t what you came for?”
“Still”—meditatively—”it’s not a small thing to be in a country where a fortune may be won any day. It is that, of course, which keeps us going. It is better anyhow than a stool and one hundred and fifty pounds a year in England.”
“Are you sure?” And she watched him with keen eyes.
He coloured slightly, but answered with firmness:
“But not better than something else, perhaps?”
He saw that her interest was kindly and genuine, and suddenly drawn to expand he told her simply:
“It’s the isolation that hurts. Day after day, day after day, just this hollow and these kopjes, and never anyone to speak to except each other. We send for the mail once a week, but sometimes very little comes by it; and we get nothing fresh to read except a weekly Rhodesian paper. That is a gold mine to us for just one evening; but for all the rest there is nothing. Lionel is studying French, and I do a little also, but it palls after a time badly.”
“I should think so. It sounds as dry as dead bones.”
They were sitting upon a rocky knoll, and Diana had her hands clasped round her drawn-up knees, presenting a very attractive picture. “I’m not a true Imperialist at heart,” she informed him. “I hate gush and talk and heroics, but between you and me I think an awful lot of you men making your solitary fight in the wilderness. It’s always a lot easier to put up with discomforts when you know your next-door neighbour is jolly uncomfortable too. Of course, most people don’t say so, but that’s because they are conventional, and fondly try to persuade themselves, very unselfish also; but when they are honest they know quite well a misfortune is lightened when several others are in the same box. That’s why, on a wet day, I console myself sitting at the window and watching folks struggling with drenched umbrellas and bedraggled skirts. It’s so good to be safe inside.”
He waited with amused eyes.
“And, of course, the trouble for you is just sitting down here among these monotonous kopjes and being uncomfortable all alone. No one to grumble to—ugh, how I should hate that!—no one to feel superior with; no one to envy you, even if there were anything to envy. It’s a positive grave.”
“You’ve left out one of the worst contingencies. No one to discuss with; no friction of mind and opinions.”
“That comes under the heading of grumbling. When I discuss I almost always grumble about something. It is good for the progress of the world.” And she laughed whimsically. Then, with one of her sudden changes, “How long do you expect to stay on trying to dig up a fortune, and pretending it is worth while when you know you hate it like Old Harry?”
“We shall probably try another mine soon. That is what we want to do; but it cost so much to get our machinery down into this hollow we don’t quite know where to find the money to get it out again. So we just go on hoping we shall strike a good reef soon.”
She remained thoughtful and silent some moments, and then, as if to change the subject, remarked, “Mr. Stanley seems happy enough in his solitary place. He says he used to be in Salisbury, but very much prefers Zimbabwe.”
“Most of the police prefer a quiet place with good shooting; and now that he has Major Carew there so much it must often be interesting.”
“Do you know Major Carew well?” and her quick voice failed to entirely hide her interest.
“As well as perhaps anyone does. He comes to see us fairly often on Sundays.”
“But he is so silent, he can’t be very interesting.”
“He is not always silent.”
“No, sometimes he snarls,” with a little laugh.
“Ah! you don’t know him. Get him to talk to you about the natives; about their habits and legends and customs. There isn’t a man in Rhodesia knows more, and there isn’t one they trust more absolutely. He is down in this district now on their behalf, and before he set foot here they knew all about him. Natives a hundred miles apart communicate that sort of thing to each other. Every kraal here knew perfectly that he was stern and rigid, but absolutely just. If he once says a thing he stands by it, even if he gets into trouble at headquarters, which isn’t so very unusual. Someone out of jealousy or pique or utter inability to understand stern justice, will misrepresent his actions and misreport him for doing his duty. It’s a heart-breaking business for him sometimes; but he never gives in when it is keeping his word one way or the other with natives. He would sooner resign, and they know it; and fortunately they recognise his value and meet him somehow. Of course, he isn’t in the Native Department, properly speaking, but he has done a lot of work with them for some time.”
“And what do you think he is down here for now?”
“I don’t know; but it is some abuse or other that has reached the ears of the administration. This sort of thing happens among the short-sighted, small-minded Native Commissioners. There was a man a short time back who charged his house boys five shillings for everything they broke. At the end of six months they had had no pay at all, and were pretty heavily in debt. He was magistrate as well as commissioner and had them brought before his court, and promptly sentenced them to work six months for nothing.”
“What a shame!” she burst out indignantly.
“Or a Native Commissioner may terrorise a native into selling cattle to him for a mere song by nothing but a look. Of course, they are not allowed to buy cattle really, but if they are married their wives buy them instead sometimes, and then the Commissioner in an outlying district can fairly easily fix the price, if he has made himself a dread to all the kraals round. He can collect taxes, too, not strictly just, to make his accounts look well at headquarters.”
“But I thought Native Commissioners were always gentlemen?”
“They are generally, but they don’t all live up to the usually accepted standard. Some of them seem rather to glory in behaving like bounders and treating the native unjustly. It is bad for the country, but things are improving. Almost all new appointments now are made among public-school boys and Varsity men.”
“And do you think Major Carew is here about some such matters?”
“Yes; but it isn’t given out so, and no one knows just what. But the natives are fortunate to have him on their side. He is not in the least afraid, and he won’t shelter any unjust steward. On the other hand, whatever complaints there are against the natives will be just as honestly examined, and woe betide the kraals that are in the wrong! He is no Exeter Hall sentimentalist, and they must know it pretty well by now.”
“Why do you think he is out here at all? Surely he might have been a general with his K.C.M.G. if he had stayed in the army?”
“I rather fancy Carew would think that a small thing compared to what he has done in Rhodesia. After all, K.C.M.G.’s are pretty cheap nowadays, aren’t they? But it isn’t every man who can know a new country is grateful to him, and who has achieved all he has at a work he loves.”
“Why did he come?” Still Diana strove vainly to hide her interest. “Do you know?”
“Adventure, probably. A good many men from crack regiments came in the early days.”
“There must have been something more.”
“Don’t you know?”
“No.” He looked at her with a little smile. “It isn’t the game to ask questions out here.”
“That is just what Mr. Stanley said, and it is so dull of you both. The man’s a perfect bear. I christened him ‘The Bear’ before I had known him an hour. But why is he? Why should he be? That’s what I want to know.”
“I don’t fancy you will. I doubt if anyone knows. He has never made friends, I think, out here, except with the Grenvilles, and they are some connection.”
“That’s the missionary and his wife, isn’t it? What in the world can a man like that see in a missionary? Of all the soppy, flabby individuals give me the usual specimen who goes out to preach Christianity to the heathen, and generally disgusts them and everyone else.”
“Not this missionary.”
“O, is he an original also?”
“He’s one of the finest men I’ve ever known.”
“Then what in the world is he buried in the wilderness for? I never knew anything so absurd. A fine soldier and administrator, just a policeman; a splendid man, just a missionary. And you and your brother just grubbing about in a God-forsaken mine, apparently for nothing. It is enough to make anyone wild.” And she faced him with that smouldering indignation she rarely allowed to come to the surface.
“But they are both in Rhodesia”—ignoring her kindly inclusion of himself and his brother—”and Rhodesia wants good men.”
“And when she gets them just buries them at her outposts. I haven’t much faith in your Rhodesia. She is a capricious jade. She absorbs a man’s finest qualities and best years and gives him nothing in return.”
“Ask Carew if she gives him nothing. Probably she has given him more than anyone else could give.”
She got up impatiently. “All the more reason why he shouldn’t be such a bear. People who have got what they want out of life ought to be amiable and friendly.”
She turned round, and found herself face to face with Carew himself, looking, if anything grimmer than ever.
“I came to tell you that tea is ready, and the others have already commenced.”
Diana looked straight into his eyes, with a daring, challenging expression. “And you heard me discussing your amiable attributes? I’m sorry, but”—with a swift gleam—”I do discuss something else sometimes.”
“I heard nothing,” he answered, returning her direct gaze, and stood aside for her to pass.
AN EVENING RIDE
As they rode home in the evening Diana, more nettled with Carew’s impassivity than she would have cared to own, contrived to get a little apart from the others with her uncle, and in her frank, engaging way explained to him the rapaciousness of certain mining companies and her own promise on behalf of the donkeys. Mr. Pym regretted that he could not immediately grant her request without consulting his co-directors, but Diana knew perfectly, by the friendly gleam in his eye, that he meant to look into the question; and because he was impressed by the sturdy, plucky fight of the two brothers he would probably do a good deal more for them in the end.
After which she prattled to him gaily, until Stanley was clever enough to distract her attention and remanipulate the party. He had been riding with Carew, and the engineer with Meryl; but on the party being disarranged the engineer joined Mr. Pym to discuss the mining properties they had been visiting, and Carew found himself unavoidably partnered with Meryl, while Stanley and Diana went gaily on ahead. It was the first time, what he was pleased to term “his luck” had deserted him. Heretofore there had been no single tête-à-tête between him and either of the cousins since Diana surprised him in the temple ruins. It was his fixed intention that there should be none. He argued in himself that he had no “small talk” in his vocabulary, and would only reciprocate the boredom he would himself suffer, and rather than either should be inflicted he steered a resolute course which partnered him with a man. In vain Diana, spurred by pique, had once or twice laid a trap for him; and Meryl, with growing interest, had sought to draw him into conversation. With masterly art he had steered clear of both, and continued his serene, impassive way.
But on that homeward ride Fate, for once, got the better of him. Stanley and Diana were cantering gaily ahead along the narrow path, that meant smooth-going for one horse and a stumbling amid small rocks or long, dry grass for the other; while Mr. Pym and his engineer conversed with a solemnity no one could lightly disturb between the two front horsemen and the two back.
At first Carew rode along with his eyes fixed rigidly on the horizon, and, except for its innate strength, an almost expressionless face. Meryl was a little amused. She realised thoroughly that the situation was none of his seeking, and she was in two minds whether to give him expressionless rigidity in return, or purposely tease him with questions. At first she chose silence, and looked around her with eyes of growing tenderness at the kopje-strewn country.
And so, instead of being irritated with the “small talk” he dreaded, Carew found himself left entirely to his own cogitations; while, judging from her rapt expression, she scarcely realised his presence. And then, just because human nature is stronger, after all, than most things, memory, for the sake of a dream-face he would treasure while he had breath, made him look at her covertly with seeing eyes. He noted first that she was a perfect horsewoman—slim and upright and easy, almost like a part of her horse. Both girls rode astride, wearing long holland coats and specially made light top-boots, with large shady sun helmets; and because for a long time he had not seen anything much but slipshod garments among women riders, or exceedingly warm-looking correct home attire, he appreciated their cool smartness.
Unconsciously it took him back to the old buried days, when the Devonshire moors and Devonshire lanes knew no hotter rider than Peter Carew. To the steeplechases, when he was so slim and wiry that, in spite of his height, he had ridden many a horse to victory. To the polo matches, when his matchless horsemanship had scored goal after goal for his regiment of picked riders. She recalled to his mind the stag-hunting in Devon and Somerset, where the first women had ridden astride to the meet, realising mercifully how the steep ascents and descents were eased for their horses, without the tightly girthed side-saddle, and for themselves without the side-seat strain. Almost as if it were a carefully permitted luxury, he saw the wide, wind-swept moors, heard the cheery shouts and the excited hounds, felt his thoroughbred sweeping gloriously along, as if its soul and his soul were both one in feeling the joy and exhilaration of the chase. What glories there were in those wind-swept, sun-bathed mornings in Devon! What joy of life! What lust of manhood! What splendid, whole-hearted young inconsequence! In his heart he smiled a little grimly. Peter Carew of the Blues had been no shunner of women in those days; no taciturn, silent, unappreciative onlooker. Rather he had loved too many, kissed too freely, ridden away too light-heartedly.
Until the blue-grey eyes, so like Meryl’s, looked shyly up, and then in their turn ran away from him. Of course, he had followed blindly like the hot-headed, hard-riding sportsman he was—followed blindly, wooed irresistibly, and won gloriously.
And then …
Over the kopjes, over the vleis, over the veldt a black cloud came down, and suddenly all the picture was blotted out. An expression that was momentarily almost wistful left the fine mouth; the far-away softness left the keen blue eyes, and his face hardened strangely. Then he looked up at Meryl, riding beside him, and saw all the questioning interest in her face.
“I’m afraid you have a very dull companion,” he said; but it was in the voice that Diana usually called his snarl.
Meryl smiled. “I did not for a moment suppose that you would talk.”
She could hardly say that his face relaxed, but at least there was that in it which suggested he liked her answer far better than any conventional politeness.
Suddenly a wholly unlooked-for twinkle lurked somewhere in his eyes.
“Bears don’t usually,” he said.
Meryl laughed. “Diana is too fond of nicknaming her friends and acquaintances; but on the whole I think she has let you off lightly. A bear is a magnificent animal.”
“Not given to much amiability. No Prince Charming, for instance,” and he smiled a little grimly.
“But strong—and—well—dangerous, which is better.”
“You think so?” He looked at her rather curiously.
They rode on in silence, and, for a little way, the road being rough, he reined in his horse to the narrow path behind her. Then, when it grew smoother again, she waited for him to come alongside.
“You haven’t always been in this part of Rhodesia?”
“No; only recently.”
“Long enough to get very attached to it.”
“More or less,” and suddenly his voice hardened a little, as if scenting a discussion and wishful to ward it off.
“I wonder why Rhodesia is so fascinating?” And her eyes roved with love in them from far horizon to far horizon. “I suppose you do not attempt to analyse it? You are content to care unquestioningly.”
“Yes”—with an effort—”after a time, one just cares.”
“And at first?…”
“At first one has to find one’s footing, so to speak. She is somewhat the bewildering, uncomfortable stranger to the new-comer.”
She marvelled that he should say so much, but hid her pleasure lest she should unwittingly change his mood.
“She has never seemed that to me. Something has attracted me from the very first. I came, I saw, I loved.”
“You must remember that you came under exceptional circumstances.”
“I was among the early pioneers.”
“How splendid! I wish I could say the same.”
“It was extremely uncomfortable.”
“But you didn’t mind. I don’t need to be told that. There was so much to make up for it. How good it must be to be a man!”
“Yet the women are the true heroes out here.”
“We get what we came for. Interest, excitement of a kind, freedom….”
“And the women?”
“There is not much for the women, but the plucky ones are often heroines.”
“Only no one tells them so?”
“No one tells them so; therein lies the heroism.”
“I see. They put up a good fight, and no one says, ‘Well done!’ Isn’t it the same with the men?”
“The men get many compensations.”
“Compensations that make it worth while?”
They rode on in silence, both looking ahead to the blue mountain that guards the north of Zimbabwe. The peaceful loveliness soothed his spirit because he loved it, but in her it awakened a vague, swift ache. She felt somehow that he had a right to love the country, because he had made it his and given it of his best; that, for all his presumable poverty in many things, he was yet so rich in what he had achieved, and in what he had won for himself of interest and usefulness. While for her?… She was an alien, a mere tourist, a looker-on; the daughter of a millionaire who came to Rhodesia for wealth, and gave—how little in return!
He might look at the tender outline of the lovely mountain with the glad, restful consciousness of work well done. She could only look at it with that ache of divine discontent: unplumbed, wordless longing. Even the heroism of the settler’s wife was not for her. The women who were plucky enough to put up that good fight, although no one ever said “Well done!” Compared with them, in his eyes she was probably a mere cumberer of the earth; an ornament, intended only to be admired by the leisured classes. The young splendid country had no use for her, no place for her. She was an alien, an interloper; child of a man who came only for gain, and took his gain elsewhere, recognising no claim from a land that was no home to him, only an investment.
Her soul cried out it was no wish of hers that it should be so; but only silent condemnation seemed to echo back to her from the far blue hills.
She glanced at the strong, serene face of her companion, and because somehow he seemed a little less stern and uncompromising to-day she said to him simply, leaning a little to his side:
“I envy you so, the sense that you have won the right to love her. I envy the plucky settlers’ wives who are the mothers of her future. I feel myself so utterly an alien. Has Rhodesia any use for … for such as I?”
He looked at her strangely, and as he looked she saw an expression almost like hungry longing come into his eyes; then as suddenly vanish again, leaving him utterly amazingly stony. He turned his head sharply, and his gaze became fixed and rigid.
“Millionaires’ daughters can usually be pretty useful if they like,” he said almost brutally; and she felt as if he had struck her. In sudden anger and bewilderment she touched her horse with her whip and darted ahead. It was not the words, but the way in which he had said them. What did he mean?… What did he not mean?… She bit her lips to keep back the smarting tears that blinded her eyes. She felt as if she hated him. For a little space he had been so different to the cold, callous soldier, and in quiet response she had spoken from her heart; and in return he had said this cutting thing with cold intent, making her feel that he despised her. Did he see in her only a willing accomplice to her father’s money-making schemes? The one perhaps who spent the gains heartlessly and carelessly elsewhere? Beside those settlers’ wives he had said were heroines, was she but an idle, contemptible, useless heiress? She spurred her horse on, letting her thoughts run away with her, unwilling that he should overtake her until she had got herself well in hand; and Carew followed behind, feeling again that sense of a black, rayless abyss all about him. Why had he looked full and deep into her eyes like that?… Why had he not gazed only upon the mountains that soothed and refreshed him?… The mere discovery that the past he thought to have outlived slept so lightly was a shock to him. Had he not then outlived anything? Had he only put his memories lightly to sleep, and dreamt all the life he had lived since? He was scarcely conscious that he had said anything inconsiderate; he hardly knew what he had said. He only remembered he had looked full and deep into beautiful eyes, and suddenly it was as though his dead love Joan had come back to him.
Presently she slowed down so that he came up to her, and it was noticeable that something in her whole attitude had changed. She was as upright as he now, and her eyes also looked rigidly ahead. He saw the change without understanding it and wondered a little, without troubling to probe.
“Your friends, Mr. and Mrs. Grenville,” she said coldly, “would they care to see us if we called, or would they think it perhaps just vulgar curiosity?”
“They would be delighted; visitors are a very rare treat to them.” He was puzzled a little at her manner, but let it pass. Meryl had it on the tip of her tongue to add, “They don’t mind even millionaires’ daughters?” but her own good taste saved her from a momentary satisfaction that a man of his breeding could only have considered bourgeoise.
“Perhaps Mr. Stanley would take us,” was all she suffered herself; and added, “From his account Mrs. Grenville is evidently one of Rhodesia’s heroines.”
“She is,” he answered so simply that Meryl felt a little nonplussed.
When they reached the camp Diana had already dismounted and gone into their tent, whither Meryl followed her.
“Well,” she said, “how did you get on with The Bear? Did he chore you up over anything?”
Meryl considered a moment before replying. “One moment I thought him the rudest man I have ever met, and the next …” she seemed puzzled how to explain.
“And the next I suppose he didn’t seem a man at all, only a pillar of stone!…”
For answer, she said thoughtfully, “I wonder if something hurt him very badly some time or other?”
“If it did, it doesn’t exempt him from the ordinary amenities of human intercourse. He isn’t the only man who has been hurt.” And Diana kicked off her boots impatiently.
“No,” said Meryl; “but it makes it a little easier to forgive him.”
“Don’t do anything so foolish. You’ll end by thinking him interesting and falling in love with him; which would be too utterly silly when you are as good as engaged to Dutch Willy, and when he, The Bear, would care about as much as my foot,” with which dictum she put her head out through the tent flap, and called to Stanley and Carew, “Hey! Mr. Stanley! don’t go away. Stay and keep us company in my uncle’s absence. I believe he is venturing into The Bear’s den to-night.”
Carew smiled quite frankly for him.
“Can’t I tempt you to come also? I daren’t promise you a decent dinner, but I’ve some fresh Abdullah cigarettes out from home, if you care to come down afterwards.”
Diana was disarmed in spite of herself. “And will you promise to growl very prettily?” with an arch expression.
“I’ll try not to frighten you away too quickly.”
Diana withdrew into the tent.
“O!” she said, “he’s a bear with two faces; and that’s the most difficult to cope with of all.”
THE MISSION STATION
They went to the Grenvilles’ the next day, while Mr. Pym took another of his investigation trips. Stanley acted as escort, and Carew went to Edwardstown on business.
Ailsa Grenville met them with her brightest smile, and ushered them proudly into her cool, picturesque drawing-room hut.
“How charming!” they cried, with genuine delight; and Diana added, “O! why can’t I have a hut in the wilderness?…”
Then the khaki-clad, sportsmanlike missionary strode in, and after the preliminary greetings Diana asked with charming piquancy, “O! are you really and truly a missionary?”
“Really and truly,” he told her gaily, and came over to her side of the hut to sit beside her. “Why do you ask it like that?”
She considered a moment, and then declared impishly, “Because it doesn’t seem possible that a man like you should never say ‘Damn.'”
He laughed outright. “Well, I’m not going to tell tales out of school; but if you’d only got one pair of brown boots in the world and one pair of brown gaiters, and the boy tried to clean them with blacklead and paraffin oil!…”
Diana moved nearer to him, with her prettiest and most ingratiating air. “O, tell me some more!… Tell me lots more.”
“I don’t think that is half so bad as the boy washing the saucepans and the teacups all in the same water together,” put in Mrs. Grenville.
“How perfectly delicious of him!” cried Diana. “What else did he do?”
“You ought to have been here this morning when our stores came out from Edwardstown,” the missionary told her. “The boy carries them on his head, you know; and there was a tin of golden syrup …”
“Yes … yes … and it leaked!…” gleefully.
“Trickled all down his head and neck; you never saw such a sticky mess! And as soon as the other boys discovered …”
“Did they duck his head in a bucket?…”
“O, dear no!… licked him!…”
Diana fairly howled with delight; and then Stanley came in, after seeing that the horses were properly watered and fed, and was immediately accosted by Grenville with, “Hullo, Kid! you’re quite a deserter! What have you been doing all the week?”
“Do you call him Kid?” Diana asked. “What a capital name for him!”
“He has been ‘The Kid’ almost ever since he came to this district.”
“It pays,” remarked Stanley jocularly; “they give me sugar.”
“And he lives with The Bear; how comical! Instead of the lion lying down with the lamb, in Rhodesia you have The Kid feeding with The Bear.”
“Who is The Bear?” Ailsa Grenville asked, from the packing-case cupboard, where she was reaching down cups and saucers.
“Need you ask?” queried Diana. “Doesn’t Major Carew ever growl when he is here?”
Ailsa looked much amused. “Not exactly,” she said; “but I admit sometimes he rolls himself up into a ball, so to speak, and relapses into a sort of winter sleep.”
“I hope you prod him,” said Diana.
“Billy wouldn’t let me,” glancing affectionately at her husband. “There is only one Major Carew for him.”
“Still, it might do him good. We prodded him last night, didn’t we?” addressing Stanley. “We went right into his den, and gave him a good baiting, while we smoked his new Abdullah cigarettes,” and she smiled gleefully at the remembrance of the stern soldier, in an astonishingly sociable mood for him, humorously parrying her chaff. “You know,” she ran on, “he simply hated our coming. I almost wonder he didn’t dig impassable trenches across the road, or fortify himself in the Acropolis Hill. Anyone might have thought we were the bears, and he the woman.”
“I expect he was afraid of your charms,” said Grenville smilingly. “We wilderness-dwellers have none of the townsmen’s armour to withstand fair women.”
“Well, growling and scowling are very fair substitutes,” quoth Diana; “and, besides, he didn’t even trouble to observe if we had charms. As far as he decently could he looked the other way altogether.”
While she chatted on, delighting the missionary and his wife with her gaiety, Meryl sat in a low chair, and gazed through the doorway out over the smiling country, much as Carew usually did.
“It must be very wonderful,” she said at last, aroused by a sympathetic question from Ailsa Grenville, “to live day after day with such a scene as that in one’s doorway.”
“Yes,” Ailsa told her. “The wonder never grows less, nor the mystery, nor the beauty. Major Carew, when he is here, loves just to sit and look at it; and so do I.”
Diana, with the two men, had strolled outside; and Ailsa and Meryl sat alone in the cool interior.
Meryl sat very still, with her hands lightly clasped on her knees, and her eyes always—always—to the lovely prospect that was like a mighty ocean in which the waves were blue, mystical kopjes; and over which the first clouds, that heralded the approach of the rainy season, shed entrancing lights and shadows. Ailsa sat a little behind, and her eyes roved back from the view that had grown into her being and become part of her life to the face of the young heiress. She noted at once its instinctive charm; the charm of a woman blessed with most of the traits that hold and bind men for ever. Strength was there without masterfulness; sweetness that would never cloy; a dreamy elusiveness that meant a closed book it would be a joy to study chapter by chapter; and some of the chapters would surprise with their lightness and mirth, while others would surprise with their depth of sympathetic understanding, and yet others would bewilder alluringly with their whimsical, irresistible uncertainty. She knew that society papers sometimes spoke of the well-known millionaire’s daughter as beautiful, but to her it seemed the word was hardly the right one. Meryl’s face had in it something too strong and too distinctive for actual beauty; and yet Ailsa thought of all the lovely women she had ever seen none were quite so attractive. And because she was a tender-hearted woman, the thought crossed her mind to wonder if perhaps, out of the dark shadow that she knew hung ever over Peter Carew’s life, there might yet be a way of escape; a gracious healing, and a final joy. Could two such humans meet and not love? Could anything truly separate them if once the love were born?
She mused a moment or two happily, sublimely ignorant of all the forces that warred between; of what caused the shadow; of the power of a dead face; of the pride of a resolute man; of that attractive Huguenot Dutchman biding his time down south.
At last Meryl broke the silence. As she sat gazing through the open doorway her mind had lingered unconsciously over that last sentence. “Major Carew, when he is here, loves just to sit and look at it,” and in her fancy she saw the silent, watching form of the grim soldier-policeman.
“He is an interesting man,” she said simply. “I think I understood he was some connection of yours?”
“You mean Major Carew? Yes; he is a distant sort of cousin, but we are two entirely different branches of the family, and had drifted widely apart until we three met out here. Yet it was not surprising we should meet like this. The Carews were always wanderers and adventurers, like Drake and Frobisher and the other fine old pirates. A humdrum career in the Blues would hardly have continued to satisfy Major Carew, any more than the conventions and hide-bound prejudices of the Established Church could hold my husband.”
“Yet, if you will forgive my seeming rudeness, both of them apparently took a decided step downwards from the social point of view.”
“That would not trouble either of them for a moment. They sought Freedom, and found it.”
“Yet it meant, in a sense, what some people call being buried alive.”
“Ah, those people do not understand. That is how I took it at first. Shall I tell you a little, or will it bore you?”
“Please tell me. I think it is kind of you to trust me so soon with your confidence.”
Ailsa smiled. “One always knows. Anyone with insight would trust you instinctively. But there isn’t much to tell. Only that when I married my husband he held a living in Shropshire, with a sure promise of quick promotion; and then Doubt crept in which he could not overthrow, and after a long struggle he gave it up because his conscience would not let him be a hypocrite.”
“But he is still a Church missionary, is he not?”
“In a sense; but he is not paid by any society, and works on his own lines entirely. He had a little money of his own, and I have also, and out here it is ample. But at first I was very bitter with him, and let myself be influenced by my people who were still more bitter, and I would not join him. I went back home and lived the old life of my girlhood. He never uttered one word of reproach, although he was just breaking his heart for me, and—for which I bless him every day of my life—he wrote every mail telling me about the country and his work. At first I scarcely read the letters, and often did not reply; but he wrote on patiently and waited. And at last my mood changed. The endless tea-parties began to pall, and the insipidity of my home life. Week after week, week after week, the same round of social gatherings; the same people, the same conversations, the same everlasting tea, buns, and gossip. In each parish around, so many, many unmarried women, so many empty, monotonous lives. I think the condition of England’s country villages is becoming almost a tragedy; all the men seem to have gone away to a bigger and wider world, and all the women to have been left behind to feed on emptiness. There are the clergyman’s daughters, the doctor’s daughters, the solicitor’s daughters, and perhaps a few retired veterans and their daughters; all struggling through the same old empty round; while the men go out to conquer the earth.” She paused a moment, but seeing Meryl’s rapt attention, went on uninterruptedly, “And one day I awoke to the fact that I had a special right to one of the finest men who had gone out to do his share, and a special place at his side. To cut a long story short, I won through the frantic opposition of my family, cut myself adrift, and came out here to see for myself what Billy was doing that gave him a satisfaction he had never found in his peaceful easy living; in spite of the hunger I had always known was wearing out his soul for me.” She looked out across the country dreamily, before she finished. “I shall never forget when I first saw this,” motioning to the sunny prospect. “We arrived here in the dusk, owing to a breakdown, and so I had a long night’s rest before Billy first showed it to me. I must tell you I was already tremendously impressed, on the quiet, with my brown, stalwart, khaki-clad husband in place of the decorous, black-coated parson I had parted with; and although the journey had been very exhausting, for I had to travel in the post-cart, my interest in him and the country had never abated. Then he opened the door wide about sunrise, and said casually, ‘Sit up and look at my view, Ailsa.’ I sat up, and for a moment I could not speak at all. Do you know, Miss Pym, the country looked positively hung with diamonds that wonderful morning. I shall never forget it. Just outside the door, forming a sort of framework to the scene beyond, was some tall, dry grass, thin and straggly enough to let the light through. And where at the top it spread into graceful, hanging, feathery seed-ears, it was hung with large dewdrops, reflecting all the colours of the rainbow. Behind them was the bluest of early-morning skies. Beyond them, what you see here, a far dream-country of untold loveliness. I said, ‘O, Billy! have you lived beside this all these months?’ And then I began to cry, because I didn’t know what else to do, and I was so glad that I had come.”
A fleeting shadow of sadness seemed to cross Meryl’s face. “I envy you,” she said in a low voice. “You can stay on with the man you love, and see it every day. I must go back to the tea-parties.”
“Most people pity me.”
“I dare say; and they envy me,” with a little forlorn smile.
“You have much power, and power is good,” softly.
“Have I?… How, why, where?… What shall I do with all this money my father makes? I wonder what I could do to take from my heart this feeling that I am an alien and an intruder in this lovely country, among you people who are quietly making history? If your husband wants money for his mission, I could get him a cheque for a thousand pounds from my father, I know; but what is that compared to giving one’s life as you do, and growing right into the heart of the country, and feeling just that it is yours because of what you have given? I know that is how Major Carew feels also. One can see it in his rapt gaze. He does not care for very much else in the world. But we, my father and I, we just take riches out, and give nothing but cheques which we never even miss.” She got up and moved to the doorway, controlling with an effort her sudden, unexpected show of emotion. “The others have been looking at your fowls and cattle,” she said, “and now they are coming back. I hope Mr. Grenville will show us over the mission station.”
“He will be delighted,” Ailsa answered, following her lead with quick understanding; “and another day you must come and sit in my doorway again.”
“I should love to;” and she stepped out into the sunlight to join the gay trio Diana was still the life of.
Then Mr. Grenville took them into his workshops and his little mission hall, and showed them how he taught the boys carpentering and blacksmithing, and reading and writing and farming; making good, useful labourers of them with even greater zeal than that with which he made them Christians. Diana, the outspoken, could not resist a surprised comment.
“I thought people who had been abroad always ran down missionaries, and scoffed at missionary work?”
“They do very often,” Grenville replied, with frankness, “and not without reason. A great many missionaries are naturally not very suitable men. It is almost impossible to pick and choose.”
“There are some,” put in Stanley disgustedly, “who just confirm all the blacks they can, without bothering about how much they understand, and then make communicants of them so that they can send good figures home to their society for the missionary magazines. They don’t teach them anything useful at all, and they do a roaring trade with the garments sent out by pious ladies’ work guilds; as if the natives weren’t better in their own natural state than they are ever likely to be dressed up in clothes and fuddled with doctrines.”
Mr. Grenville, standing very upright and looking every inch a man, said simply, “It isn’t entirely their fault always. The home folk like the figures; they imagine they stand for progress, and they know nothing about the conditions. Many missionaries are very fine men, and they would do even better work if left a little more to their own initiative, and not cursed with this atmosphere of competition in figures. It isn’t fair to damn the whole flock because a few of the sheep are black.”
“And don’t you ever feel you are wasting your talents?” Meryl asked him a little shyly.
He threw his head back and squared his shoulders with a characteristic movement. “It is better than the hypocrisy and feebleness of the condition of affairs at home; and I am very fond of the natives. They are most lovable, when one once gets their confidence and understands them. And the freedom is good, and the primitive conditions. The getting right down to the bedrock of nature, so to speak, without too much highly developed civilisation. Yes, it is a good life for a man. Sometime I should like to show you the mission farm. We’ve made tremendous strides lately.”
“And you?…” Diana turned with a winsome air to Ailsa Grenville. “Do you find the natives lovable, and the primitive conditions?… And are you proud of the mission farm?… Or doesn’t it all sometimes make you just long to scream?… It would me!…”
Ailsa smiled into her eyes. “One grows adaptable very quickly. I confess I am very happy here. Certainly there are times when one feels rather as if one had dropped off the world into space, but it doesn’t take long to struggle through it. But then, of course, it is well to remember that Billy and I are rather an exceptional couple; quite absurdly, idiotically satisfied with each other’s company. If it were not so our lives would be purgatory. The tragedies of these far countries are for the husbands and wives isolated from all other companionship, and having perhaps nothing in common with each other. There are few conditions worse than isolation under those circumstances. It breaks the woman’s spirit and sours the man and brings shipwreck, where a little other congenial companionship might have brought them through in safety.”
They were interrupted by the sound of voices outside, and found that Mr. Pym and his engineer, having encountered Major Carew returning from Edwardstown, had persuaded him to show them the way to the mission. Mr. and Mrs. Grenville greeted them with eager warmth, and, the afternoon sun having sunk behind some trees, tea was spread outside the huts, so that they could drink it while admiring the view. Carew, though silent as ever, was less rigid, and Meryl saw how insistently his eyes strayed back to the blue vista of kopjes. She wondered what he thought of all day long, in his continuous silences, and behind the quiet, forceful eyes. It was noticeable that Diana seemed to have outgrown both her awe and chagrin towards him; and though at first he proved very unbending, she eventually won something like a repartee out of him. Ailsa watched them quietly from the background, and waited hopefully, but in vain, to see his eyes stray to Meryl. Indeed, he seemed almost to shun her, and she noted it with regret. Was it possible that already his preference was given to Diana, with her light raillery and ready laugh? Diana so pretty, so attractive, so original, and yet to Ailsa’s thinking, so far less reliable and restful than Meryl. In the end, by a clever little manœuvre, she brought Carew and Meryl together.
“You are almost outvied, Major Carew,” she told him lightly. “Miss Pym likes my view already, as much, if not more, than you. I told her you loved to sit and look at it, and that is exactly what she likes to do.”
Meryl smiled, but made no comment. Mere admiration seemed superfluous, and Carew was grateful that she spared him raptures. So they sat quite still, and instead of any constraint between them because of the silence, there was a vague sense of restfulness and understanding. Meryl spoke first, and then she made no allusion to his love of the spot.
“I think you were right,” she said simply. “Mrs. Grenville must be one of Rhodesia’s heroines.”
“How do you specially mean it?”
“I mean it, because one knows there must be times when the isolation is almost unendurable, and when she must long for many of the things of her old life, however much she declares otherwise.”
“Yes, I think there are. She evidently had many friends, and she has almost lost them all. It is difficult to keep up friendships by post.”
Then Ailsa herself joined them.
“Has Major Carew been with you into the temple, yet?” she asked Meryl. “He is better than any guide-book for information.”
Meryl coloured faintly, but looked a little amused. He had so persistently withstood every friendly hint or invitation to accompany them among the ruins.
“He has been very much occupied ever since we came,” she said, glancing towards him.
Carew looked quite unconcerned, and merely assented, which made Ailsa rather want to shake him. “But it ought to be part of your business,” she told him, “to interest visitors in our wonderful old ruin.”
“I can hardly imagine anyone needing any incentive to that from me,” he said.
Meryl glanced at him humorously. Some new phase she had detected in him, since Diana persisted in what she called “baiting” him, made her more ready to overlook his bearishness and less quick to feel repulsed.
“Will you take me if I promise not to ask any silly questions?” she asked, with a smile.
He looked up, and for a brief moment the past seemed to lie still as one that is dead. His keen, direct eyes looked straight into hers, and he said simply, “I should like to take you.”
Meryl felt her cheeks glow a little with sudden, swift, indefinable pleasure, and almost at the same moment Diana broke in upon them.
“Do you know, Major Carew, your singularly appropriate nickname has been subjected to a little embroidery?… You are now called, after the Cœur de Lion, ‘The Bear with two faces.'” All in a moment he stiffened and the shadow loomed; and while Meryl wondered Diana ran on unheedingly, “If I say to you when we meet, ‘Which face is it to-day?’ you will know that I mean, is it your day of lordly graciousness, or is it the cast-iron, beware-of-the-bull frown day?”
“I think you are excessively rude, Diana,” Meryl said, though she smiled with the rest.
Carew smiled too, but he rose from his seat and moved away on some small pretence.
And as he went, Meryl, watching with eyes that were daily gaining clearer sight, saw that the shadow was as of some deep, unfathomable pain.
She too got up and moved a little away from the rest, gazing with grave, tender eyes across the kopjes, lying how bathed in a faint ethereal flush of rose and gold.
“He had not always two faces,” she said in her heart. “Something hurt him badly once, and ever since he has taken refuge behind the iron mask.”
“Rhodesia,” her heart whispered, almost without her consciousness, “cannot you with your fairness reward him for his work by soothing away the memory so that the refuge is no longer needed?…”
A little later, as they all prepared to ride home, she saw how resolutely he took his place with the engineer, and hastened on ahead, quenching even Diana by the stoniness of his mien.
A DECISION THAT FAILED
As Carew sat outside his hut that evening smoking a solitary pipe, two thoughts seemed to fill his mind. The one that he had told Meryl he would be pleased to visit the temple ruins with her; the other the warning unconsciously conveyed in Diana’s raillery, reminding him that he was in danger of straying from the rigid pathway he had chosen of unsociable aloofness, and therefore in a measure, perchance, inviting trouble.
But of course he need not go. A polite message by Stanley, or a call as he rode past perhaps, already starting on some convenient engagement. Yet as he sat on he knew it was not entirely his wish to resort to either subterfuge. Why, after all, should he not go with her just once, and no doubt Diana also, and tell them a little about the mysterious walls?
He pulled hard at his pipe, staring into the darkness. Why not go and get it over, instead of troubling to send an excuse? Surely that were the simpler plan? One moment he thought he would, and the next he found himself shrinking unaccountably, warned again by Diana’s chaff. He knew quite well she was right. He was a man, or a bear if she preferred it, with two faces; but the trouble was that she should so thoroughly have grasped the fact. He had only intended to show one face, the uninviting, frigid one; and yet unconsciously she had won from him more than one glimpse of the other.
And if he unbent so far as to act as their escort to the ruins, he was yielding still further to an atmosphere of friendliness he had forsworn.
He turned in at last, still in indecision, but the next morning he said he would not go.
So Meryl waited a little forlornly through the morning hours. It was unusually cool for Zimbabwe, the hot sun being hidden by grey clouds, and she knew no question of heat could possibly be detaining him. She had hoped he would call for her about eleven and then come back to lunch; but the morning wore on, and no tall figure in khaki strode out from the clearing where the police camp stood.
Neither did the afternoon bring any word or sign, until Stanley arrived for a cup of tea and to ask them to stroll up to the store with him at the head of the valley. Diana agreed readily, having found the hours somewhat tedious; but Meryl felt tired and headachy, and chose to remain behind. Once, as casually as she could, she asked if Carew had gone anywhere for the day.
“No, he’s grinding away at his report for the Native Commission, and as solemn as a judge. I don’t think he has spoken two words all day.”
“Is there some special haste then?”
“O no; it is just his mood. He gets a sort of black day sometimes, when he barely answers if you speak to him, and looks like a bronze figure. Then he grinds away at something or other as if his life depended on it, and Moore and I have to just shut up.”
When they had gone away up the valley Meryl sat on alone in the shade, thinking deeply. Evidently he had some reason of his own for not following up his promise, and she need not any longer expect him. He did not want to take her, and probably was vexed that he had said that he would. It did not seem very polite, but she hardly looked at it in that way. Somehow, with this stern-featured soldier-policeman, the ordinary amenities of conventional intercourse seemed to have little weight. If he regretted his words and did not want to go, she liked him better for calmly remaining away, than coming against his wish, because he felt he ought. Another man would have done that, any man, in fact; only Peter Carew, and a few like him, would calmly change his mind and remain aloof without saying anything.
Yet how keenly she was disappointed. It was quite idle to pretend otherwise to herself, and with a strength like his she calmly faced the fact. When she went to bed the previous night she had lain awake thinking of the morrow, hugging to her consciousness with shy gladness that he was on the point of unbending at last and showing a little friendliness. In a few days now they would be journeying on, and she had begun to expect he would remain unbending to the last, and let them go away, perhaps never to meet again, with nothing beyond the official courtesy and the occasional sparring with Diana. And then had come this sudden hope, and she had been strangely glad. One might live a lifetime and not again meet a man quite like him. Even if their intercourse were to be of the merest afterwards, still it was better than nothing, better than a final end to all friendship when they journeyed on again, leaving him and the ruins behind.
And now had come this swift disappointment. He must have regretted his move instantly, and made up his mind to be more rigid than ever.
She hardly troubled to ask why. Doubtless he had his own reasons, and whatever they were, they were nothing petty or small. Her eyes strayed a little longingly to the police camp, and she watched the door of his hut from her chair securely hidden behind some low bushes.
Was he still grinding at his report, she wondered, looking like a bronze figure? The simile pleased her, and she smiled. Yes, bronze was the right word to use, for his face and hands and arms were tanned almost to the colour of his khaki with exposure, so that he sometimes looked all of a piece, except for the close-clipped dark moustache and keen, intense blue eyes.
Then as she looked she saw some movement in the camp. A boy appeared, apparently in answer to a call, and stood a moment receiving directions. Then the tall figure itself appeared, stood a moment to give an order, and strode down towards the little gate. She sat up, and her breath came a little unevenly. Was he really coming at last? Had he, after all, been seriously delayed?
No; outside the gate, without one glance towards the tents on the hill-side, he turned to the left and disappeared in the direction of the Acropolis Hill.
So there was nothing further to hope for. He would never come now. It was the end.
She got up, feeling suddenly a new tiredness, and wishing vaguely that they were leaving on the morrow. Perhaps it would be possible to persuade her father to do so without exciting much comment. Diana was already a little bored with their camping-place and ready to be off, and she … without daring to probe too deeply, Meryl felt, for the sake of her own peace of mind, it would be wiser to go quietly away from a presence so likely to disturb her peace.
Yes, she would ask her father to plan a move as soon as he came in, and in the meantime she must do something herself to pass the next hour more helpfully than sitting alone in the shade.
The greyness had rolled away now, and the evening grown exceptionally lovely, with clear skies overhead and great banks of pearly tinted clouds on the horizons. Where should she go? Only two ways lay open. Either she must follow Diana and Stanley up the valley, or she must stroll down to the temple alone. The third route lay to the Acropolis Hill, and that was formidably closed by the presence of the man who should have been her companion. Finally she decided on the temple, and tying on the large grey hat that blended so charmingly with her eyes and the soft tints of her skin, she walked along the little footpath skirting the police-camp vegetable-garden to the western entrance.
Inside the temple walls all was very peaceful and still, while the sunshine made a network of gold through the leafy trees upon the antique masonry. Yet as she looked around upon the empty desolation her heart grew sad with a nameless sorrow; that old, old ache, and old, old tiredness, for the utter futility of work and of striving, that sometimes seems to fill the human heart, when in a depressed mood it looks upon the ruins of something that has once had strength and greatness. Meryl carried in her hand a little pocket edition of Omar, but she did not open the leaves nor read the lines. In a vague way it was enough to have it with her; it was like having in her hand the hand of a friend who understood. For of all poets the world has known, perhaps none have so perfectly voiced the cry of the human heart when it questions the why and the wherefore and the worthwhileness of its own mysterious existence. So she sat very still in the ancient temple, and pondered the old questions that live from age to age—unanswered.
And because Sorrow seemed for the moment to have her in his keeping, all her thoughts were tinged with sadness. She looked around upon the broken walls, and it seemed to be brought home to her with sudden force, how little time was given to each one to play his part before he must make room for another.
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To fly, and Lo! the Bird is on the Wing.
And because there was that element of greatness in her, which was also in her father, she thought less of the “worthwhileness” of doing than of the poorness of not doing. His talents were given to money-making, because it was the thing he had a genius for; but she knew that in a measure he fulfilled his trust, and besides subscribing generously to charities, helped many a “lame dog” over his stile in secret. But what had this to do with the trust that was hers? She who did not even bear the heat and burden of the day in making the money?… She who had but to spend it.
In the ruined temple she sat on—thinking, thinking.
How the spot fascinated her!
In this far Rhodesia, how strange that she, the product of the most modern and presumably enlightened age, should linger there amidst these broken walls, and feel strange kinship and fascination about those old people in that remote age; should stretch a hand out to them, as it were, across the centuries, with this feeling that their thoughts had been even as her thoughts, and that the passing of the ages could never eradicate the essential likeness of one people to another in those old eternal questions of whence and why and wherefore.
And they, the maidens of that day, had loved the man who was big and strong and true, even as the maidens of to-day; the man who achieved; who was ever fearless to do and dare; who gave his service to the world quietly, unostentatiously, indifferent to praise or reward. And what was the use of it all: the love, the heartache, the silent admiration…. The maidens were dust now, and all the strength and the heroism of the strong men could not give them one age longer to do and dare ere they too made room for others.
Yet always—always—deep-rooted in the heart and mind of humanity, was this ineradicable belief in the simple act of doing; this half-contempt of the lives content to flutter their little way in aimless self-seeking. The spirit that took men through the terrible solitudes of untrodden places, that urged them across uncharted seas, that carried them fearlessly aloft to conquer the air—not for gain, not for notoriety, not for praise, but just that simple splendid need to be doing. How it appealed to her, how it enthralled her senses, how it made her ache with a great overwhelming desire to discover quickly what “doing” in a big sense there might be for her!
Of course he, the stern soldier-policeman, was of the fearless band. In his quiet way he was “doing” with the foremost, though it might be a work that would never bring him anything in this world but enough pay just to live upon. But that was beside the point. The band to which he belonged did not linger in the shallows, counting the cost, counting the gain; they plunged straightway into the deep waters, and struggled to some mysterious, perhaps fugitive, goal ahead, finding their reward in the struggle itself and the difficult headway won.
O, what did it matter about afterwards, if one had put up a good fight and dared the deep waters? How much better to be overwhelmed there, than to fritter away a butterfly life in the shallows! How splendid to win through and stand on the far bank with the quiet band of strong workers, even though no one knew aught of the struggle, instead of being lauded to the skies by the playing butterflies!
Only, what could she do; ah, what?
A wave of hopelessness seemed to seize upon her, and back across her mind like a lash cut the dictum of the strong, rigid man, “A millionaire’s daughter can generally be pretty useful if she likes.”
Of course, signing cheques, cheques, cheques—a mere machine—and never to get in touch with the deep need, the inarticulate sorrow of the world that her soul ached to comfort. It would seem that even to him, the figure of bronze, it was what she should seek as her métier. She almost wondered if somewhere in his heart he had a faint contempt for her, because she was a millionaire’s daughter: a product of the new régime; someone who could not be permitted to stand in the same light as the women of his ancient, illustrious name; who had no part with the proud, patrician ladies of his great family.
She rose to her feet suddenly, feeling unaccountably hurt by the thought, and her eyes roved half unconsciously, and fixed themselves upon the spot where the scarlet petals of the Kaffir boom showed blood-red against the ancient northern wall. The ache in her heart coloured all her mind for the moment, shutting out the glad sunshine with its golden evening glow resting tenderly upon the granite blocks, showing her only the splashes of scarlet like blood upon the ancient walls. Was it the altar of sacrifice? Did the Kaffir boom shed its great red flowers for ever, like drops of blood upon the altar of the world’s pain?
The sound of a step upon broken stones roused her suddenly; a man’s firm tread close beside her. She looked round slowly as it stood still, and with the ache and the question lingering in her face, found herself looking into blue eyes of a disconcerting directness—the eyes of the soldier-policeman.
“I saw you from the Acropolis Hill,” he said, “and so I came.”
No word of why he had not come sooner; no explanation of his presence on the Acropolis Hill when she had a right to expect him with her; no preliminaries at all, no self-conscious excuses, no apparent realisation that he had behaved a little oddly; only the simple, direct announcement, “I saw you, so I came.”
Yet there was something more—a vague intangible something, that made the directness of his eyes disconcerting in a way it had not been before. Meryl felt a pink flush stealing over her face, and turned her head away to hide it.
“I wonder what you were thinking about just then?” he said, with the slightest softening. “I awoke you from a very deep reverie.”
She raised her eyes, and they fell again upon the scarlet flowers. Something born of her own deep understanding told her, give this man straightness for straightness always if you would stand well with him; no begging the question, no subterfuge.
“I was thinking,” she answered simply, “that those scarlet petals of the Kaffir boom, falling on these ancient walls, suggest great blood drops offered, upon the altar of the world’s pain throughout the ages.”
“Ah!…” The exclamation escaped him quickly, unheedingly—sharp, short, abrupt. It was as though she had struck him suddenly in a vulnerable place. It told her, as perhaps nothing else could have done, she had gauged rightly when she remarked to Diana that sometime something had hurt him very much.
For a moment there was a tense, pulsing silence, and then he turned aside towards the sacred enclosure which stood behind them. Meryl turned also, and ventured as she did so to glance into his face. It was stern again now, but she knew for a brief moment as he made the exclamation it had not been so, and for a reason she did not seek to fathom her heart was strangely glad.
THE ANCIENT RUINS
When Carew had started up into the Acropolis Hill an hour previously, he had not had the faintest intention of fulfilling his engagement and going in search of Meryl. On the contrary, he had gone there to avoid her.
All day long, as Stanley described, he had been grinding away at his native report in a gruff, determined silence: a silence even gruffer and more determined than usual. Because of his thoughts the previous evening and of his decision in the morning, he had finally made up his mind not to visit the temple with Meryl Pym, and not to run any further risk of slipping unconsciously into the friendly attitude he was so anxious to avoid. When Stanley set out towards the tents, he mentioned casually that he was going up the valley to the store, which is also a most attractive and comfortable hostel for Zimbabwe visitors, and should ask the two girls to go with him. A little later, glancing in the valley direction, Carew saw the khaki figure for a moment going up the pathway, and the flutter of a light dress, or possibly two, just ahead. He took it for granted that Meryl and Diana had both accompanied Stanley, and that his escort was no longer expected. He told himself he was glad, and decided to go into the Acropolis Hill, about that point of interest still unravelled between himself and Grenville, and so avoid any chance encounter.
But when he found himself among the ruined fortifications, he became conscious of a flagging interest wholly unlooked for. Something seemed to have gone out of him, or out of the ancient stones, and he knew himself in some vague way not in tune. He gazed at the amazing walls, erected upon granite boulders two hundred to two hundred and fifty feet above the valley, and the marvel in him that never seemed to die was, at any rate, less arresting than it had ever been before.
Here, on an isolated hill, rising to a height of three hundred and fifty feet, were fortifications which in their ingenuity, massive character, and persistent repetition at every point of vantage had astonished the highest experts of modern military engineering. Rampart walls, traverses, screen-walls, intricate entrances, narrow and labyrinthine passages, sunken thoroughfares, banquettes, parapets, and other devices of a people thoroughly conversant with military engineering and defence, and not one word, not one line, not one clue as to the identity of the builders nor the object of their colossal labours; labours which one felt could only have been achieved through the compulsory service of many slaves, for thousands of tons of granite blocks had been transported up the precipitous kopje to a height of no less than two hundred feet, which a careful examination of the rocks on the hill proves must mostly have been quarried from granite about twelve miles distant. And all this in spite of the fact that Nature alone had made the hill already impregnable, it being inaccessible on three sides and very difficult of ascent on the fourth. It is one of Rhodesia’s mysteries, and one also of its fascinations; those mysteries and fascinations which so far have effectually baffled all efforts to find the clue and read the closed book. Who was it came for gold in those old, old days? Who was it built the line of forts to Solfala on the coast to guard the route along which the gold was undoubtedly carried, and of which remains may still be seen at regular intervals the whole distance? Where was the gold taken to from Solfala, and by whom?
And no less strange perhaps is the absence of all clue to the burial-ground of this stalwart race; for only a stalwart people could have built those temple walls and those amazing fortifications. Where then are the bones of their dead? Strange and incomprehensible as it may seem, no excavations have yet unearthed human bones, or brought to light any spot that might be supposed to have been a burial-ground.
To Peter Carew the mystery and the fascination had become such an ever-present companion in his thoughts, that it was not surprising a moment should come when he stood among the ramparts and found their interest for the time being crowded out. The surprising thing was the source of that crowding out. For it was not even the lengthy report for the Native Commission to which he was giving such infinite thought and pains that filled his mind; neither was it anything to do with the police force he had grown to care for as truly as his old regiment; nor any far-reaching, visionary dream for the welfare of the country. Chiefly it was a pair of grave blue-grey eyes, with a gleam in them as their owner said, “Will you take me if I promise not to ask any silly questions?” And he had said “Yes.” Yet now he was here on the Acropolis Hill alone.
He stared moodily at the broken walls and pondered within himself. Why had he not taken her? Or why, since he had chosen not to do so, could he not put the whole remembrance from his mind? Nay, why did he half begin to wish that he had not let himself be overruled by his own counsel of prudence? They would be going so soon now, and it might be long before he would again be given an opportunity to speak with any woman of Meryl’s charm, or look into any face so full of attraction. And yet that was just what he wished; was actually the chief reason for his unsociable resolutions. His own inconsistency puzzled and worried him, and his eyes as he looked steadily to the horizon had a lurking cloud in them.
Then quite suddenly and unexpectedly he had turned his gaze to the temple walls lying far below, and seen the figure seated idly on fallen masonry, lost in thought.
Then she had not gone with Stanley and Diana? She had remained behind alone, nettled perhaps by his bearishness, and choosing to be independent, and still take her stroll to the temple without him.
But it was not the thought of her possible censure that spurred him unexpectedly to a new decision. He had accustomed himself to be indifferent to that in most people. It was a perfectly simple and direct desire to join her. And because at heart he was a perfectly simple and direct man, he suddenly left off cogitating and started down the hill. Perhaps until that moment he had not truly known which way his desire lay. Perhaps in the first discovery he had purposely not chosen to give himself time to weigh and probe. Anyhow, he hesitated no more, until he stood at her side and looked into her eyes with that direct gaze that Meryl so unexpectedly found disconcerting. But the sensation passed rapidly, and in its place came a quiet content. Whether he had avoided her all day or not, at least he came now entirely of his own initiative, and for the time it was enough. She was too honest to pretend anything herself, and possessed too fine a nature to cover what might have held embarrassment by a coquettish taunt or feigned pique.
“I had given you up,” she said; “it seemed probable that you had spoken unthinkingly when you said you would come.”
“I have been working all day at my report,” he replied simply.
He seemed a little different somehow, and besides, he had come entirely of his own free will. She remembered it, and put away all sense of restraint, fought down and conquered the self-consciousness that sometimes seemed to grip her when he was taciturn and aloof.
He had placed one foot on a low wall, and leaned back against a tree in a natural, unrestrained attitude, and quite naturally she seated herself on the wall before him.
“You found it very engrossing?”
“It is interesting work.”
“Has it any special object, or just a general one?”
“A little of both. We want to benefit the natives as a whole and improve their conditions; and we want also to make some changes in the native administration of the country.”
“And you are fond of the natives? For you at least they are worth while?”
“To any particular end?”
His face grew grave and thoughtful, but the hardening stayed away still—the hardening that so often came when either she or Diana, sought to draw him. Only apparently to men would he speak of his work and his beliefs.
“It is difficult to say. Probably nothing but time will show us the true solution of the problem of the black and the white race living together in one country. But meanwhile the black man is eminently worth while. With firm and just treatment he is capable of great development.”
He raised his eyes and looked out into the distance. “If only we could ensure it for him everywhere! Native commissioners and their clerks and the magistrates, all men of fine fibre, who honestly care about the natives under them and the welfare of the country. So much could be done if … if …” He smiled a little grimly. “We are so apt to expect the impossible,” he finished. “How should numbers of men of fine fibre ever reach Rhodesia at all? In so many cases we must just take what we can get.”
“But the standard will improve as the country grows?”
“O yes; it is improving steadily. All the signs are hopeful, if we can but light upon what is truly the best method of administering the native laws, and get good men to carry the work out.”
And still the heavenly sense of unrestrained mental kinship lingered. Happy, yet fearful, Meryl ventured a word of appreciation.
“It must make you glad to feel you are doing such a useful work for a young country. It seems as if … as if … it is just what a man might ask to be doing.”
He drew himself up with a slightly taut movement, and she divined he did not wish for any personal praise; yet, because a tinge of red showed under the bronze, she was glad she had seized the opportunity to offer a tribute that might at some odd moment heal a passing sense of uselessness and appreciation.
She stood up also, and they moved slowly round the ruins together, while he explained to her much that he had read and gathered and surmised in his leisure hours, not only about the temple itself, but about all the ancient remains and the mysterious people who had dwelt there long ago. Told as he told it, the listener could only find it enthralling, for the man’s heart was in his subject; and where another might have rhapsodised or sentimentalised, he only stated certain remarkable facts, and gave her the simple reasons for and against certain deductions, that she might decide her own view for herself.
“But you?…” she questioned at last. “In spite of the scientific men who have scoffed, and their followers who have thrown cold water upon all enthusiastic belief in the antiquity of the ruins, you are quite satisfied that they are really of a very great age, are you not?”
“Can you tell me why chiefly?” She smiled a little. “I believe it absolutely myself, but I am afraid it is partly a sentimental belief. Already I love them, and it makes me jealous for them. I feel I cannot bear anyone to throw doubt upon their antiquity.”
“It is not easy to explain in a few words, without a great many facts and a lot of detail, but I can tell you one or two salient points. For one thing, Zimbabwe was evidently connected with a gold industry on a very large scale. Mr. Telford Edwards, a well-known and able mining engineer in Rhodesia, measured up, about fourteen years ago, the length, breadth, and depth of most of the then known old workings in Rhodesia, and calculated the cubic contents of what had been taken out. And taking the assay value in each old working to be per ton the same as it is in the reef in each case now, he estimated that at the present value of gold more than one hundred million pounds’ worth had been taken out. Even two hundred years ago gold was worth very much more than it is now; so that it is inconceivable that such an amount had been produced within the last two thousand years without any mention of it anywhere. Such a production of gold would have upset the markets of the world.”
“Yes,” she said eagerly as he paused; “please go on.”
He did so, but without withdrawing his gaze from the distance. “Another point is that the workings are so widely dispersed and so numerous, requiring such an enormous amount of time and labour, that it seems only reasonable to believe that the gold-mining went on for many hundreds of years, probably before the age of writing at all. I am not prepared to agree offhand that Zimbabwe is probably the ancient Havilah of the Scriptures, but I see no very good reason why it should not be. On the other hand, the ancient workings and fortifications and temples may have been the work of Phœnicians or Mongols several thousand years ago. Certainly against Mr. McIver’s theory, that the Temple was the work of Bantus a few hundred years ago, I think we may put the fact that an admirable drainage system has been unearthed;—drainage systems of any kind being more or less unknown to black races of a low order. In the meantime, we can but await fresh clues, which may put us upon the track of proofs, and hope that the day is not very far distant when much of the mystery will be cleared.”
“O, I hope so,” she said; “and thank you so much for telling me all that you have. I shall think of it often when I am back in ‘the cities of the plain,'” and she smiled a little wistfully.
He did not answer, and she wondered what deep thoughts at the back of his brain made him always so grave. She felt instinctively he had not always worn this serious, preoccupied air, and her heart grew tender anew at the thought of that “something” which had hurt him long ago.
Had he ever told anyone? she wondered. Would he ever tell anyone?… or would he go quietly on through his life, self-contained, self-dependent, aloof? Well, it was good to have met him and known him; a simple, strong soul going quietly about its appointed service is always good to have known. Perhaps the recollection of the meeting later would help her to do likewise, and in the maze of her life learn at least to do the simple, strong thing at the moment.
They were moving towards the western entrance now, and she wondered if he would accompany her back to the tents, and perhaps stay a little, as Stanley did evening after evening. But just as they approached the opening voices were heard, and a moment later Diana and Stanley stood in the wide aperture. Diana’s winsome face was lit with whimsical mischievousness, but it fell somewhat when she beheld Carew.
“O goodness!” she remarked comically. “Who would have thought of finding you here?”
Stanley and Meryl laughed at her apparent discomfiture, and even Carew relaxed as he replied, “You don’t seem entirely pleased.”
“Well, no, I’m not; but if you are just leaving it doesn’t matter.”
“I think I shall stay; I scent some vandalism.”
“O well,” airily, “if you will have it, we were just coming to dig for corpses;” and she tossed her head with an independent air.
“It is strictly forbidden to dig for anything on pain of various dire penalties,” Carew told her.
“I know it is, and that is just exactly why it interferes with my plans to find you here.”
“I see. And what about Mr. Stanley, who is also a representative of the Government that made the laws?”
“Mr. Stanley is only a trooper, and I am Diana Pym. It is not his place to interfere with my actions. It would only be mine to shield him if he was persuaded to help me and got into trouble.”
“And what in the world do you want with a corpse, Di?” asked Meryl.
“Why gold, of course! Mr. Stanley has been telling me a perfectly thrilling theory about corpses with a lot of antique gold ornaments on them being buried in the ruins; and he knows where one or two are, because a gold-diviner showed him with his divining-rod, and he marked the places in case he wanted to remember later; and to-day is when he did want to remember later, and he’s just strolled round with me to point out the spots; and if that isn’t a long enough sentence for you, you must add some more yourself,” drawing a long breath.
The Kid, enjoying himself hugely, hastened to add for Carew’s benefit, “It’s only just a joke. Miss Pym wanted me to show her where our visitor of the other day said he had divined gold.”
“It’s not a joke at all,” declared Diana defiantly. “It’s the key to the whole mystery. While all you scientific folks are arguing this, that, and the other, I want to look and see. Besides, if there are antique gold ornaments, perhaps a few thousand years old, I want some. I’m not specially in love with your old broken walls, but I’m ready to be in love with your jewellery, worn a few thousand years ago.”
“You Philistine!” exclaimed Meryl. “If you can’t appreciate the ruins, you certainly ought not to be allowed to possess a single treasure taken from them.”
“O rot!… What’s the use of decayed old walls anyway? You and Major Carew can have the heaps of stones. We don’t want to rob you of so much as a pebble. But we do badly want to dig down and look for a corpse.”
“And when did you propose to begin?” asked Carew.
“Well, I suppose a moonlight night would be best, when you’re rolled up in your den or else when you’ve gone off to a distant kraal.”
“You would see a ghost in about half an hour,” from Meryl, “and fly for your life.”
“O, are there ghosts?” looking suddenly dubious. “Did your diviner divine any ghosts while he was about it?…” turning to Stanley. “You never told me that. Of course, I shouldn’t much like to be handling a corpse, and feel its ghost put a cold, clammy hand on my shoulder. What a horrible idea! Do you think there are any?”
“There might be;” and The Kid’s eyes twinkled. “Of course, I supposed you would imagine we ran risks of that sort.”
“Ugh!…” with a cold shudder. “I believe I can see one now. It must have overheard me saying I coveted those gold ornaments. Come away quickly. I want … I want … now don’t look shocked, Meryl; I want a whisky and soda!…”
They followed her out from the gathering gloom of the walls into the quick-coming darkness, and as she and Stanley pressed on ahead, Carew and Meryl could only follow. As they did so they spoke little. It was as though some bond of sympathy between them had slipped into being of itself outside their consciousness altogether, and with a blessed sense of quiet understanding neither attempted to make conversation; and neither questioned as yet whence came this unsought bond, this link forged as by a power outside themselves. The time for probing was near, but it lingered yet a little.
As they approached the tents and joined the other two waiting to make their adieux, Diana’s voice again broke in upon their quiet, dispelling its curious sense of unreality.
“It wasn’t you I was afraid of, Major Carew,” she called lightly. “Baboons and owls and bears I dare tackle any day; but a ghost three thousand years old!… ugh!… I give it up!… You will not need to add to that precious native report another one, concerning the daring theft of a corpse from the ancient ruins of Zimbabwe by a well-known young lady from Johannesburg.”
He smiled into her laughing eyes in a manner that surprised her, and made his face extraordinarily attractive in a way she had not yet seen it.
“And what would have happened to Stanley, do you suppose?… I’m afraid the police force might have considered it necessary to dispense with his services.”
“O, that wouldn’t have mattered in Rhodesia in the least! He’d have opened a butcher’s shop, or come on with us as our butler, or gone and dug a hole in a kopje and called it gold-mining. No one would have thought any the worse of him, and I’d have felt indebted to him for life. We’d both have had a run for our money, anyhow!…” and she laughed gaily as she turned away.
But in their tent, alone together, she suddenly made the epigrammatic remark, “Dangerous, very dangerous indeed; like most bears. Mind you don’t get badly clawed, Meryl!…” and then with her usual lightness ran off into another subject.
CAREW RIDES AWAY
With the coming of the dark, velvety southern night, resplendent with brilliant southern stars, it would seem the time for probing was at hand. By the tents on the hill-side Mr. Pym, the engineer, Meryl, and Diana sat outside in the starlight, rather a silent party, listening to the intermittent sound of tom-toms coming from some kraal near by.
Then Mr. Pym alluded somewhat suddenly to their departure, and Meryl made the discovery that it was a topic she had been dreading all the evening. Diana, on the other hand, seemed relieved.
“I have one more journey to make,” he told them, “and then I propose to start at once for Enkeldorn and Salisbury. Unfortunately, I am afraid this journey will take two and possibly three days.”
“Then take us with you,” said Diana at once.
“It is an unhealthy district or I would. I do not think it would harm you, but I am afraid for Meryl.” There was a slight pause, then he added, “As we returned to-day we stayed for a cup of tea at the mission station with Mr. and Mrs. Grenville. I happened to mention my journey, and Mrs. Grenville said she would be delighted if you would both go and spend the two or three days with her.”
“But I want to come with you,” Diana cried; and leaning towards him added confidently, “Uncle, you will have to take me; don’t make a fuss.”
“Why shall I have to take you?” with amusement in his small, keen eyes.
“Because I have made up my mind to go,” was the prompt rejoinder; and he gave an amused chuckle.
“And what do you say, Meryl? Will you spend two or three days with Mrs. Grenville?”
“I should like to, if Di really wants to go; otherwise we could quite well have remained on here, couldn’t we?” There was a note of anxiety in her voice that she was unable to entirely hide. Only three more days, and they to be spent several miles away!
“I do not particularly want to leave you here as long as that. I would rather you visited Mrs. Grenville, and I think it would be an interesting change. She invited you both.”
“It was very kind of her,” said Diana, “but I am quite decided about wanting to go with you. I suppose we could both come?”
“I think I would as soon go to Mrs. Grenville”; and Meryl sat very still, gazing at a distant star.
“What do you think?” said Mr. Pym to his engineer. “Will it be all right for my niece to accompany us?”
“Why, yes, certainly, if she takes quinine regularly. It is a beautiful neighbourhood. She can either ride her mule or be carried in a machila.”
Diana clapped her hands, feeling her point was won easily, and then added, “Couldn’t we take Mr. Stanley with us? He would so love the shooting, and he is such good company.”
“As I came past to-night I called in and asked both him and Major Carew. Stanley accepted at once.”
There was a slight movement where Meryl sat, but she did not speak; and her father, almost as if with intent, kept his eyes turned away.
“What did Major Carew say?” asked Diana.
“He was uncertain. He thought he might be obliged to go to Edwardstown on business, and he left the question open.”
Diana laughed. “He wanted to make quite certain sure that there were to be no ladies in the party.”
“I don’t know why he should suppose there were likely to be.”
“Possibly not, but he is a cautious man. Anyhow, when you tell him I am going he will make ready to start to Edwardstown on business.”
So they sat on under the stars, each busy with thoughts. Henry Pym’s were a trifle anxious. So little ever escaped his clear eyes that it was not in the least surprising he had seen whither Meryl’s mind was trending, almost before she knew of it herself. And much as he admired Major Carew, he feared, with the clear sight of a great love, that indefinable something that stood as a barrier between the man and his outlook upon certain phases of life. Whatever it was, his studied avoidance of social intercourse, and his turning his back so resolutely upon England and all his people there, suggested to the astute man of the world that he had taken out of his life’s plan all thought of marriage, and was not very likely to turn from his purpose. Hence the shadow of anxiety in the father’s eyes, for his deep knowledge of Meryl told him further that she would neither love lightly nor forget easily.
And still the girl herself sat on and made no sign. The joy of the evening hour was still too new. Under the stars at present she asked nothing better than to live through it again and again in her memory. For whereas a woman is often fearful to anticipate a joy for dread of a disappointment, afterwards, when the realisation is sure and sweet and all her own, she will draw delight from it for many a silent hour in quiet contentment.
And down at the police camp the two troopers and the officer sat likewise under the stars. Stanley was very full of his trip, for Carew had readily given him the two or three days’ leave; and in the direction whither they journeyed were roan and sable and water-buck and probably lions to rejoice the heart of a game young British South African policeman with a bloodthirsty desire to kill. Moore, in his quaint, Irish way, chaffed him a good deal, as was his wont; for though one had received his education at the Bedford Grammar School and was a clergyman’s son, and the other at a board-school and was the son of a small innkeeper, in the Rhodesia police force all troopers are equals, and there is a frank camaraderie which is very creditable to its members. Carew himself showed very little difference, and in the same spirit the homely Moore had received a cup of tea from Diana’s dainty hands, poured out for him by Meryl.
Only, as they twitted each other in slow, easy tones, neither of them attempted to include Carew, who sat a little apart in the darkness smoking his beloved pipe; and when they rose to turn in, he merely acknowledged their pleasant “Good night, sir,” with a short “Good night” in reply, and made no movement himself. Even when the lights at the hill-side tents went out he still sat on, alone with the night and the stars. Later, because he knew he should not sleep, he started off up the valley towards the store, feeling a need for action.
And all the time, under the covering darkness, his face seemed to grow graver and graver. He was too wise not to know when danger threatened, and too direct not to face it squarely at once. And the danger that seemed to threaten him now was the likelihood that if he saw much of Meryl Pym he would grow to love her, and perhaps she would reciprocate his love, and for them both there would be only a great pain. That it could by any possibility be anything else did not enter his cogitations. According to his own ideas he could not marry, and least of all could he marry the only child of a millionaire. And it seemed to him further that if he cut off all intercourse at once the danger would be averted. He was quite satisfied in his own mind that the evident attraction had not had time to sink very far down. In two or three days she would go away again and he would go on with his work, and it would all be the same as if they had never met. Manifestly the chief consideration now was to avoid any further friendliness whatever, except the merest courtesy which had obtained at the beginning. If possible, he decided it would be better not to meet any more at all. When a man is strong in one thing, he is usually strong in others; and the quiet strength that had enabled him to break away from an old life of leisure and ease and excitement, and build up another life for himself on entirely different lines in a new country, helped him now quietly to make his decision and try to take the simple, direct course, out of a threatening danger.
And yet it was not entirely easy; the simple, direct way very seldom is. Byways are apt to have softer grass for the feet, deeper shade from the sun, smoother banks to rest upon. The direct, straightforward way often goes on mercilessly up the steep hill, having sharp flints in its pathway, cold winds, dry dust, untempered glare. But the man who dares it with steady eyes usually arrives first at the goal, tempered metal ringing true, while he who dallies in the pleasant byways may find his armour has grown rusty and his powers lax.
As he walked quietly back to the police camp Peter Carew looked straight before him to the dim horizon, and in his eyes there was an expression that few, if any, had ever been permitted to behold. For the hidden sorrow that was his was his alone, and he had never sought nor asked the sympathy of a fellow-creature. In the starlight he looked back into the eyes of his dead love, and it was between him and her only the sorrow might be shared. As he had loved her memory all these years, he would love her still, though in the great loneliness of his heart he might be drawn to that one other woman who so strangely resembled her and so deeply attracted him.
But Meryl was not for him, the penniless policeman, and he knew it.
The hour spent together in the temple ruins had been too sweet, too dangerously sweet, and therefore he would run no further risk. He would not go with Mr. Pym, because that might forge a link of friendship it would be difficult to break; and he would not remain at the camp, because that might involve considerable intercourse if Meryl and Diana stayed behind at the hill-side home alone. He would instead retire to Segundi on the pretext of meeting the Resident Commissioner expected there, and stay until the millionaire’s party had departed from Zimbabwe for good. It would be as well to start early, he could easily manage it; and if he saw no prospect of saying good-bye to Mr. Pym in person, he would write him a short note giving some sort of explanation.
So it happened the next morning, before anyone at the hill-side camp was dressed, a Black Watch boy presented a note to Mr. Pym’s boy, and a little distance off on the road Major Carew waited on his horse for a message.
And in his tent, still in a sleeping-suit, Mr. Pym read the note, and looked hard for a moment at the sunshine beyond the open flap, as if seeking out there to read, not what was said in the little letter, but what was not said.
Then he stood up, slipped on some shoes, and went outside into the fragrant morning air. Directly he saw Carew on his horse, he took the little path through the scrub and rocks and went towards him. Carew alighted, and came a short distance along the path.
Mr. Pym spoke first. The other had already done his speaking in the note.
“This is very sudden. I hoped you would have accompanied us to Susi.” He looked up hard into the soldier’s bronzed face, though without seeming to do so. To any other man the steadiness of Carew’s eyes might have been disconcerting.
“I hardly expected to be able to. Mr. Jardine was almost certain to be at Segundi one day this week, and I knew I should have to meet him.”
“How long will you be away?”
“Possibly a week.”
Henry Pym was a little taken aback, but he did not show it. The cool brain that had manufactured the income of a millionaire was fully alert now, not so much because he did not wish to be taken unawares, but because Carew interested him beyond most men, and he wanted to try and grasp the working of his mind.
“Then we may not see you again before we start for Salisbury?”
“Possibly not. Will you kindly say good-bye to the ladies for me, should I be prevented doing so in person?”
“They will be disappointed not to see you.”
“I am sorry also.” A little smile of grim humour played suddenly about his lips. “You must tell your niece The Bear sent her a farewell growl, and he hopes she will find more amiable Rhodesians at her future camping-places.”
“I think she is not one to care much about the average type of amiable cavalier. She will miss The Bear’s growl a good deal. But we shall see you again shortly, I hope,” he hastened to add. “Any time if you care to come to Johannesburg we shall be delighted if you will visit us at Hill Court.”
“Thank you. If I come that way, I shall remember.”
Then he held out his hand. Mr. Pym grasped it with unwonted warmth.
“Good-bye, sir,” said the soldier simply.
“Good-bye, Carew; I have been glad to meet you,” answered the millionaire. And then as the horseman rode away without one backward look, he walked slowly along the little path to the tents.
At breakfast he broke the news quite simply, but once more he did not look at Meryl. He told them Major Carew had been called away to Segundi, and would not return before they had departed north.
“Gone?…” echoed Diana blankly. “Do you mean he has gone already and without saying good-bye?”
He felt Meryl’s eyes upon him with a strained expression, and he turned lightly to Diana to give her time to grasp the news.
“Yes; but he left you a message. He passed before you were up, and I went out to speak to him. He asked me to make his farewells to both of you, and particularly to tell you that The Bear sent you a growl, and he hopes you will find more amiable Rhodesians at your other camping-places.”
But Diana was in no mood for light messages; rather unaccountably, she received it with impatience.
“O, he is simply odious!” she exclaimed. “I have no patience with him. Why can’t he behave like an ordinary man just once in a way? Going off at sunrise, and never stopping to say good-bye! It is downright rudeness, and there is no reason why he should conclude he can be as rude as he likes with impunity. You don’t seem to mind his bearishness, Meryl? but I hope you have spirit enough to resent his casual departure.”
Meryl was rather pale, but she managed to reply lightly, “I can’t see why you seem so surprised. He is only acting as he has done all along. It is his affair, whether he keeps it up to the last, or suddenly changes altogether and becomes the polite, conventional society man. Personally, it would have surprised me far more to see the change.”
“O, you’re just shielding him,” with impatient disdain; “I suppose because he happens to be rather good to look at. But I call it rude; just plain, unvarnished rudeness to go off like that for some trumped-up reason and never say good-bye to you and me. I hope I shall meet more amiable Rhodesians elsewhere, and I should like to have a chance to tell him so.” Then she rattled off into another subject, leaving neither Meryl nor her uncle any necessity to help the conversation, for which, in their secret hearts, they were deeply grateful.
And perhaps Diana’s clever little head made an effort which had no appearance of an effort; for like the two brothers who had been respectively her father and her uncle, very little transpiring in her immediate circle ever escaped her notice.
“THE SHIP OF FOOLS”
Meryl had not been long with the Grenvilles before Ailsa’s sympathetic nature divined that some shadow seemed to be brooding upon the girl’s spirit. She was so pensive and silent, with sad eyes turned often to some far horizon full of wistful thought. And then perhaps suddenly she would make an effort and be unusually gay, but the gaiety was not spontaneous nor the laughter frank.
In truth, it had been a weary two days and nights for Meryl, since the early morning when her father and Diana, with the engineer and Stanley, rode away, after escorting her to the Mission Station and leaving her there to await their return. It was as though the very abruptness of Carew’s departure had crystallised all her wavering, uncertain thoughts, and told her bluntly what he was to her. Before she had been half dreaming; now she knew.
And it seemed to her that she knew also, beyond any questioning, that he had no feeling whatever for her beyond the merest friendliness; and since they would probably never meet again, she must, if possible, conquer her own foolish heart, and resolutely withdraw the love she had given unasked. It seemed to her, at any rate, the strongest thing to do, and while she made the effort she would turn a smiling face to the world and let no one suspect. If she failed—well, that would still be her own affair and no one need know. So she rallied herself often and talked gaily, encouraging an interest in all Mr. Grenville’s plans and hopes that she did not always feel. What she liked best was to sit silently before the large sitting-room hut, with her hands on her knees, gazing at the wonderful prospect, while Ailsa sewed beside her and talked quietly. Ailsa who knew him so well, and loved him so well, and appeared to be the only woman friend he possessed. Ailsa also who loved this far country so well, the country he had adopted for his own land, and seemed quite content, as he, to give the best years of her life, in her small measure, to its welfare.
Meryl thought much of the lives of these three quiet workers in the wilderness, and mused a little sadly upon what seemed but gilded pleasure-seeking emptiness to which she would presently go back.
It was in one of these thoughtful moods she asked Ailsa with plain directness how she thought a millionaire might best benefit Rhodesia, supposing he were willing to make an effort in that direction. Having asked, she added with a light touch, “I imagine you are hardly ready yet for libraries and public parks and orphanages?”
“No,” Ailsa answered; “but we want settlers badly. Think what it would mean to the country if just one rich man or company, instead of acquiring large tracts of land and holding it until the price mounts to a high figure, were to make a genuine effort to get a white population upon it as quickly as possible, even though it meant small or no profits. It is too much to expect from any company naturally, but there are individuals holding up their land, and therefore holding back the country, who might show a more generous spirit. I could name a well-known man who owns immense tracts, one of them two hundred thousand acres not far from a town, and there it lies in idleness, awaiting a land boom. Not long ago it was given out through the newspapers that he had a great scheme in hand for getting settlers, but nothing has come of it yet, and no one has much hope that it ever will.”
“I wonder if my father owns land here? Do you happen to know?”
“I think he does.”
“And it is lying idle?” divining that her companion knew more than she implied.
“As far as any outsider knows, it is.”
“I see.” Meryl got up and moved down the rustic verandah, standing a moment at the far end and looking across the country with grave eyes. Then she came back. “Has anyone ever thought of a Rhodes Scholarship, that might take the form of grants of land and be won by competition, I wonder? Would a scheme like that work, do you think?”
“I have often thought that it would. Besides bringing the settler, it would more or less ensure a desirable one, if he had to prove himself a useful, hard-working youth of good sound education. But, of course, it would mean a big outlay. A man might inaugurate such a scheme to be carried out by his will, but he would hardly be likely to do it in his lifetime.”
“Still, I suppose something of the kind might prove workable if the owner of the land were content to forego a large profit, and let settlers have farms or plots on exceptional terms, if they could prove themselves capable, useful men?”
“Yes, that is very much what we want. The owner of the land a patriot, keeping an eye on the scheme himself, and helping it forward for love of the country, not holding it back and keeping it idle for the sake of his own already well-filled pocket.”
“I will sound my father about his possessions,” the girl said simply, looking to the far blue hills.
Ailsa watched her a moment covertly, and then asked with a little wonder in her voice, “The country seems to have taken hold of you very quickly. You speak as one who already loves it.”
“I love all South Africa. I have always been happier out here than in England. In some way it seems more thoroughly my own land.”
“Why is that, do you think?”
“I hardly know, unless it is the remembrance that all we have we owe to Africa. I believe my father was penniless when he came out here.”
“It has been the same with many, but they do not remember. It is more usual to come here for gain, and go away to spend it in more luxurious countries.”
“Perhaps, but it has never seemed to me to be fair. My father is not like that. He loves Africa as I do, but he is a very hard-working man, and perhaps some things do not occur to him. I think he is up here now to see the country, as well as acquire fresh mining properties, and all the time he seems so busy and preoccupied, he is probably thinking out development schemes of general benefit.”
“I hope so,” and Ailsa spoke very earnestly. “Your father is a fine man; one has only to talk to him to perceive that quickly, and it would be a good day for Rhodesia if he began to take a genuinely practical interest in her welfare. I know he has talked much of it to Major Carew, and no one could tell him more of our hopes and needs.”
They were silent a few moments, and then Ailsa added with a touch of emotion, “You know, when one thinks of the service some men give so quietly and unquestioningly to the far-off lands, it seems, after all, but a small thing for rich men who have benefited by them to give of their riches. Yet how few ever do! There are more men ready to risk their lives than to put their hands in their pockets. But then that is just perhaps because they are fools, and fools never make any money to give; have nothing, in fact, except their lives to offer.”
She smiled with a little twist to her lips, playing fitfully with a thread in her fingers. Evidently it was a subject that moved her deeply. “Of course, you know the verse from ‘The Ship of Fools’:
‘We are those fools who could not rest
In the dull earth we left behind,
And burned with passion for the West,
And drank strange frenzy from its wind.
The world where wise men live at ease
Fades from our unregretful eyes,
And blind, across uncharted seas,
We stagger on our enterprise.’
“Those are the men who appeal to me; the men to whom gain is the secondary consideration; who come blindly out just as much to give as to take. My husband is one, Major Carew is another, Stanley under Carew’s influence will become a third. Think of them all, all over the world; guarding the frontiers, making the paths, exploring the danger-zones!
“Think of the little band now gone into the sleeping-sickness belt to investigate the disease, and try to learn how best to cope with it! How little reward will they get! how little acclaim! But that is just a side issue. They did not go for reward. Disaster shook a threatening hand at a splendid young country, and instantly some from The Ship of Fools were ready to risk their lives in going to the rescue. God bless them for it, and bring them safely back! But in any case one knows they will be content, if but the work is carried forward and the new pathways rendered safe.
“Those types of men are the heroes of to-day, because the spread of the Empire, and the welfare and progress of the colonies, grows every year a more important factor to England; yet many a good football player, and many a popular actor, will win an honoured name, while the man who died at the outposts in some dangerous investigation work will pass away unknown and unheard of. But they do not mind, that is the splendid thing. They are just fools, fools, fools
‘Who burned with passion for the West,
And drank strange frenzy from its wind.
* * * * *
And blind, across uncharted seas,
They stagger to their enterprise.’
“How many threw up everything at home and came out in the time of the Boer War! Think of the men who carried the railways across Canada and America, fighting for the pathway, step by step! Think of them in the awful climate of West Africa, laughing and playing and singing one evening and dead the next! Think of them struggling up here in the early days, and undaunted by the horrors of the Matabele rebellions, going steadily on with their railways, making their homes! Think of them in India! Ah! what The Ship of Fools has achieved in India is beyond telling. Only one doesn’t feel it in the same way at home. One has to come out oneself, and see the path-finders at their work, to realise all it means. It does one good just to hear them grumble. How shall I explain? It makes you understand that they are the sort of heroes who hate to be thought heroic; so they grouse and swear and grumble; and talk about a God-forsaken country and a God-forsaken existence, and wonder what in the name of all that is wonderful they are here for. And perhaps they go off home vowing never to return; until the ‘strange frenzy’ catches them again, and back comes the dear Ship of Fools, with every berth taken and the stoutest grumblers hurrying to be the first ashore. Fools or heroes, it is much the same. I think I have read somewhere that a man couldn’t be a hero unless he were also a fool.”
Meryl got up, and moved behind her companion’s chair that she might not see the glisten in her eyes, for the longing for that one Fool-Hero who had brought such sudden desolation in her heart. Placing her hands on the back of it, she leaned over her affectionately and said, “It doesn’t carry men only, that ship of yours: some of the fools are women. O, I know, I know; you are one of the chief among them and I envy you.” In a whisper, “God knows, I envy you.”
Ailsa reached a hand back and laid it over the girl’s. “It is very sweet of you to say so, but I mayn’t accept it. Seeing I have a husband like Billy, I should be a very real fool in the most literal sense if I stayed away. No, the women-heroes in this land are those who face it with a careless, selfish husband, or perhaps in a home having no love, and who win through their little day and make no plaint. God help them!”
“And you mustn’t envy me,” she added after a moment, “for presently, you will be doing far more than I can ever hope to do. Because it is in your heart it will find a way, and then your money will give you a great power and influence. Be hopeful, you sweet child,” with a little playful pat. “Your eyes are over-sad for twenty-four, and sometimes when you smile it goes no further than your lips.”
Meryl brushed her hand quickly across her eyes, and tried to laugh with an attempt at lightness.
“O yes, I will. When I get back home I’ll sign cheques, and more cheques, it is so easy for me. And I’ll persuade father to plan out a scheme to bring settlers on the land; land scholarships for public-school boys, or something of that sort; and I’ll try and comfort myself with the thought that in this way he is giving back for what he has received. I think I’ll take a stroll now it is cooler. The others will no doubt come back to-morrow, and this may be my last evening in this part of the world. I know you want to worry your cook-boy and your head about the dinner, so I’ll just go a little way alone.”
“Very well,” Ailsa answered cheerily, guessing that she wished to take the stroll in solitude; but as she moved away towards her kitchen she said to herself, “Poor little girl! you will comfort yourself you are helping your father to fulfil his trusts, and at the back of it all quietly, silently, you will be breaking your heart for a man of iron who unbends to none.”
And along the rocky pathway, that was a short cut to Edwardstown and led along a low ledge of kopjes commanding a lovely view of the valley which lay between the Mission Station and Zimbabwe’s lofty northern mountain, Meryl walked slowly, with a sense of desolation she could neither gauge nor dispel; and over and over through her mind as she looked to the far kopjes passed the lines of England’s strong woman-poet, Emily Brontë:
“What have those lonely mountains worth revealing?
More glory and more grief than I can tell:
The earth that wakes one human heart to feeling
Can centre both the worlds of Heaven and Hell.”
What have those lonely mountains worth revealing? was the dumb, inarticulate cry in her heart. Ah! what?… what?… And it seemed as if all the loneliness in the world were brooding over the blue kopje and over the spot where the ancient ruins lay, and creeping into her heart and her life for ever.
Would he ever come again, that grim soldier-policeman, who just once or twice had shown her a glimpse of the strong man’s heart behind the barrier, and the strong man’s everlasting charm?… Or was it indeed all finished for ever? Just an episode that came and went and had no sequel, except in that brooding sense of a great loneliness upon the distant hills and upon the path of her life. She told herself again that it must be so; that evidently the momentary softness had been only passing moods; that she counted for nothing at all to him, not even a friend it was worth while saying “good-bye” to.
With the deep sadness still in her face she turned, because a step was approaching round a tall boulder beside her. And a moment later she was looking full and deep into Peter Carew’s eyes.
“You?…” she said. “You? …” as if she could not believe her own eyes.
He said nothing. Suddenly speech seemed to have gone from him, but an expression in his face that was new to her quickened her pulses with a strange glad quickening.
After a moment he spoke, and it was as though his whole expression and figure stiffened.
“I did not expect to find you here,” he said. “I was told you had gone with your father.”
“Not I; Diana only.” And her eyes fell, and a faint colour dyed her cheeks.
There was a moment’s awkward pause: she remembering his unceremonious departure, wondering at his unceremonious return; he nonplussed at the trick Fate had played him, bringing him again, in spite of his decision, into the sphere of her beauty and her quiet charm.
“I was going to the Grenvilles’,” he told her at last.
And suddenly a tiny smile played about the corners of Meryl’s mouth. “I thought you could not possibly return from Segundi for a week?”
She looked away as she said it, so she could not see the swift contraction of his face and the swift gleam in his eyes. For one moment, of all things in heaven and earth, he felt suddenly that he wanted to take her in his arms and kiss her—roughly perhaps; yes, roughly and masterfully, for daring to aim her little shaft at him. Instead he replied gravely, “I had to come, because Mr. Jardine wanted Grenville’s opinion on a particular native question, and it was a difficult matter to explain in a letter.”
“Then I mustn’t hinder you.” And she stood aside. “Of course you are thinking of starting back to-night and are in a great hurry?”
And then for once the man’s armour failed him. “No, I am not going back to-night, and I am not in any special hurry. If you were going on to the top of the kopje, may I come with you?”
AN EVENING CONVERSATION
As they climbed slowly up the zigzag path, neither of them troubled to make conversation. All in a moment it had come back—mysteriously, unaccountably—the sense of understanding, the quiet kinship of minds—for her, the sudden utter content at his nearness. While he was there beside her, by his own seeking, what did the future matter?—the future might wait. It is generally so with women. In the “afterwards,” the deepest pain is usually theirs, because it is not given them to break away and drown the ache and the longing in action and change; but in the present, if he, the loved, is with her, she can forget so much in that blessed sense of nearness. The man’s ache, perhaps, spreads more uniformly over both presence and absence, for in each, for him, there is the very human craving to possess.
So they reached the summit, and stood a moment gazing at the prospect outspread. A sunset in a novel has become too banal for repetition; it seems, indeed, almost the last word in literary mediocrity; and yet at the evening hour in Rhodesia, in September, when the rains are nearly due, and great masses of cloud begin to gather on the horizon, there is again and again a pageant of wonder and colouring to steep man’s senses afresh at every renewal, as if it was the first time of beholding. Nothing banal, nothing mediocre in the actual phenomenon—just a riot of colouring, a riot of splendour, a riot of revelation. It is not a glory in the west spreading a little way overhead. It is an all around, north, south, east, and west, colouring beyond all telling—something aloof, overpowering, incomprehensible, with the remote majestic splendour of the Rockies, or the Sahara, or the Victoria Falls.
Neither Carew nor Meryl spoke. They were of those who know that the highest appreciation of all is in silence. But to herself Meryl whispered:
“Lord, Thy glory fills the heavens.”
At last he turned and glanced at the little book in her hand.
“You read Omar?”
“Yes. And you?”
“I like Adam Lindsay Gordon better. Omar is apt to undermine a strong purpose. Gordon inspires one.”
“Doesn’t Omar help one to see things as they are, and dare to be strong in spite of it, while Gordon avoids many essentials, and writes chiefly of how we would have things be?”
“But surely the inspiration is the chief thing. The man who inspires is better than the man who reveals, and in revealing unnerves.” She was silent, and he added, “I suppose it is the difference between the æsthetic and the practical, and so they appeal to the æsthetic or the practical side of man.”
She wondered if it were possible such as he should have an æsthetic side, and presently said:
“You are all practical, I should imagine.”
He glanced at her half humorously. “I wonder why you say that?”
“I don’t know, except that one does not usually associate æstheticism and strength.” Another man might have asked her if she was satisfied he was strong, but Carew only looked to the horizon. He was asking it of himself instead.
And he asked it, because he was leaning there beside her, alone on the kopje top. Suddenly yielding to an impulse he did not seek to analyse, he said quietly, “I have never been a great reader of poetry, but long ago I was engaged to be married, to some one who cared very much for it. Omar was one of her favourites, and sixteen years ago he was very little known compared with to-day.”
Meryl felt the colour ebbing from her face, and averted her eyes. Without any telling, she knew that this woman he had loved sixteen years ago was the cause of that mysterious shadow on his life to-day. When she felt she had complete control of her voice, she asked, “And you were never able to be married?”
“She died.” There was a pause, before he added, “You remind me of her more than anyone I have ever known.” And for both their sakes he finished, “That is one reason why I have been glad to talk to you one day, and found it perhaps too painful the next.”
Meryl felt suddenly as if an icy hand had closed on her heart. His meaning to her was so obvious. But she managed to say naturally, “I am afraid it has been a great sorrow to you. Was she ill for long?”
“She died suddenly. There was a tragedy. Afterwards I came out here.”
“And you have never been back?”
“No, I have never been back.”
“But you will go?”
“I think not. When I came away it was like closing a book and writing ‘Finis.’ I do not want to reopen the book for many reasons.”
“But your people?” she ventured, longing to hear more, yet fearful of staying his unexpected confidence.
“I have no people,” and his voice was suddenly stern.
“But your home?…” bravely; “your country?…”
“My home is here. My country is here. I am a Rhodesian.”
Still with her face averted, she looked to the far kopjes lost in thought. She seemed to be realising slowly all that his words meant; feeling throughout her consciousness the utter exclusion of herself from any plan of life he might formulate. It was as she had seen before. His work, the country were everything to him—would continue to be everything. Any unusual softness he had shown to her, any unexpected pleasure in her company, was just for the sake of a certain memory he held very precious, for the sake of what the book contained, upon which he had written “Finis.”
Of course, she might have known. What should such a man as he be drawn to except in friendly intercourse in a girl as young and simple and undeveloped as herself? What a madness it had been, what a foolishness! and yet how it hurt, how it hurt!
With a sudden blind sense of ineradicable pain, she breathed over to herself one verse of the “Immortal Persian” that is not contained in many editions:
“Better, oh better, cancel from the scroll
Of universe one luckless human soul,
Than drop by drop enlarge the flood that rolls
Hoarser with anguish as the ages roll.”
What pain there had evidently been for him! What pain for her now—and to what end….
“Tis all a chequer-board of nights and days
Where Destiny with men for pieces plays;
Hither and thither moves, and mates and slays,
And one by one back and closet lays.”
She stood up suddenly and brushed her hands across her eyes. This was a weakness, and she knew it. He must not know, he must not guess.
But he saw enough to cause him to say suddenly, with quick concern, “You are not well. Something is troubling you.”
“O no,” and she gave a little laugh that he could not but know was forced. “I’ve been rather bothered with a headache to-day. Shall we go back?” She had been carrying the large grey hat slung over her arm, but now she tied it on, pulling it down over her face, so that he could see nothing but the small, firm chin and sensitive mobile mouth. And neither could she see that, under or through the rigidity, his face wore now a troubled aspect, and his eyes looked to the horizon seeing nothing. Why had he come back? he was asking. Why was he hovering in the grip of it again, that strong need of the human, however resolute, for sympathy, for companionship, for understanding? For now, as they stood together alone on the kopje, all the ache of the last sixteen years seemed to be merged into one great longing for her. And then in his heart he laughed harshly. He, the British South African policeman, not even a regular soldier; and she, the only child, and sole heiress, of a millionaire father who adored her. He, with his tragedy in the background, that he could not speak of, in his forty-third year. She young, beautiful, fresh, with all the world at her feet. Ah, of course, he had been a fool to run any risk of another encounter; and he was sore with the fate that had led him thither in ignorance.
And Meryl, walking a little stumblingly over the rough pathway, was glad of the big shady hat that hid her eyes and gave her time to pull herself together. Of course, that other woman he had loved sixteen years ago had been one of his own people—one of those whom the great Fourtenay family of Devon regarded as an equal. Whereas she was just Meryl Pym, and though many needy peers chose rich wives from across the sea, anyone might know Peter Carew was not of these, and would sooner shun such riches than seek them.
So they walked back, mostly in silence, only no longer the silence of quiet, contented understanding, but rather a silence which she showed no inclination to break, and he felt baffled, and worried, and anxious. And at dinner, though Meryl made one of her spasmodic efforts and contrived to be gay, he remained somewhat preoccupied and taciturn. And Ailsa looked from one to the other secretly, and wondered what had been said before they reached the Mission Station; and felt again that womanlike desire to shake the man for the very resoluteness she most admired in him.
When she said good night to Meryl she could not refrain, from just one little delve into the perplexing situation. “If you and Major Carew met at six o’clock and did not get back until seven, you must have had quite a long chat together. Such a new thing for him! I don’t think even I, his trusted friend, can boast of such an incident.”
“We just stayed to watch the sunset,” and Meryl turned away on some slight pretext. “He certainly was a little more communicative than usual. Did you know he was once engaged to someone who died?”
“No,” in slow surprise, “I had never heard of it. But then, he never speaks of himself, and I did not know his branch of the family at all. We lived near London about that time, and seldom went into Devonshire. Still, I wonder Billy did not know. Probably he heard it, and took no notice. That would be so like Billy. He was perhaps scheming some new move for his boys, as he used to call his parishioners.”
“Perhaps he would rather I had not mentioned it,” Meryl said.
“It will be safe with me, dear. I shall only speak of it to Billy. How terrible it must have been! It is Impossible not to feel it has shadowed all his life. And for her!—he must have been a very striking, attractive man in those days. One hears rumours without attaching much interest to them at the time, but looking back now, I remember my father alluding once or twice to the two brothers as if they were very well-known men. But that would be when I was but a schoolgirl, and soon afterwards I went abroad for a year with an aunt.” She lingered a moment longer. “I am glad he told you. It was nice of him. And he tells so little. It was a great compliment. Good night, dearie. Sleep well.”
Meryl sat on the little bed, in the round wattle and daub hut, and pressed her fingers against her eyes to still their throbbing. Then she looked round at her surroundings, and a little wry smile twisted her lips. A rough floor of ant-heap composition and cow-dung hardened to cement, with some native reed matting laid down; a small stretcher bed; a packing-case for a washhand-stand, and enamel ware. Another packing-case for a dressing-table, and a little cheap glass nailed to the wall. Walls of baked mud, which had fallen in places, laying bare the wattle stems, and a door made from packing-cases which fitted badly, and was fastened only by a string and a nail. For ceiling long, thin wattle stems converging upwards, and outside a thatch of dried grass. And against this in her mind she placed the Johannesburg bedroom, with its costly appointments, its beautiful windows opening to a wide, flower-decked verandah, which commanded a lovely view of distant hills; its lavish display of wealth and luxury. And she smiled that little wry smile, because for the sake of just one man, a mere soldier-policeman, this room might have been a paradise, and the other a grave. In truth she had learnt much from her sojourn in the wilderness—much beyond the life and aspect of a far country.
Then she crept to bed feeling tired and disheartened, but finding a little comfort in the thought that she would see him in the morning.
But at sunrise Carew aroused Grenville and said good-bye, and rode away before breakfast.
THE CHARTER FLATS
Later in the day the party arrived back from Susi, and in the cool of the afternoon a last good-bye was said to the mission station, and they all returned to the Zimbabwe camp for their last night.
It had been casually mentioned that Carew had paid a flying visit the previous evening and gone again early that morning, but very little was said about the circumstance. Stanley was already beginning to look and feel disconsolate over the approaching exodus, and Diana was very full of the fact that she had shot a duyker. “I didn’t really aim at him, you know,” she told Grenville naïvely; “I just held up the gun and pulled the trigger. I couldn’t believe my own eyes when I saw the buck lying dead. All the same I did shoot him, and I’ve got his horns, and they will occupy the place of honour when I get back in my own private sanctum. I shall not tell the Jo’burg folk about not aiming; why should I? If I describe the buck going at full speed, and how I bowled him over with one shot, it won’t be any more of a lie, if as much, as most of you colonists tell when you get home to civilisation.”
“Certainly not,” agreed Grenville gravely; “but why not make it a lion while you are about it, or even a rhinoceros?”
The Kid began to giggle. “And let it be just charging you,” he suggested joyfully. “And first you must take a snapshot of it charging, and then you must fire into its mouth and blow its brains out.”
“And you might have its horns polished and mounted and its tail stuffed,” added Grenville.
“Silly idiots,” scornfully. “You’re both jealous. If you could have seen the things The Kid missed!”
“The Kid generally misses,” chimed in Ailsa cheerfully. “He gets so excited, he quivers all over, and the wild beast, or whatever it is, just lollops away, throwing a grin over his shoulder at him.”
“If you don’t mind,” threatened Stanley, “I’ll give away your hippo story.”
“It has increased,” said Ailsa’s big, schoolboy husband, chuckling to himself.
“Impossible!…” ejaculated The Kid. “Surely it had already reached the limit of human ingenuity?”
They both spluttered, and Ailsa threw a newspaper at them, but Diana demanded to be told the story.
“O, it’s only about a hippo in the Zambesi, above the Victoria Falls,” began Stanley; “a perfectly harmless hippo really, but it had the impudence to look at the canoe in which Mrs. Grenville was travelling back to the hotel in the dusk.”
“I thought it bumped the canoe up and down on its back,” said the missionary, still chuckling.
“That came later”; and Stanley addressed himself gravely to Diana. “But at one time the story really did stop at the hippo chasing them on to an island and off it again, and opening and shutting its mouth at them.”
“If you had been there you would have been terrified, and had hysterics or something,” Ailsa flung at him.
“I certainly should at the later period of the story,” he assured her.
“When it played catch-ball with them?” suggested the missionary. “Threw them all into the air and caught them again in the canoe.”
“That wasn’t so bad, since it did catch them,” said Stanley. “My horror would have been when it climbed the tree after them!…”
“That is the part that has increased,” put in the schoolboy husband, beginning to shake again. “It now jumps after them from one tree to another,” and then they both spluttered insanely, and Diana joined in because it was so infectious, and Ailsa called them all ridiculous children who ought to be given a sweetie and tucked up in bed.
A little later the cavalcade got under way, and Grenville and his wife stood waving to them somewhat sorrowfully from their wilderness home.
“They are dear people,” Ailsa said; and added, “O, Billy, if Major Carew would but come out of his shell and love Meryl!… I am sure she cares for him … and she is so sweet … and he—O, he is just like a figure of stone.”
Grenville pinched her ear affectionately. “Little matchmaker! No one by taking thought can add one cubit to his stature; and no one by just wishing it, I am inclined to think, can influence the little god Cupid whither he will aim his arrow. Perhaps, perhaps not; that is all there is to say ever.”
The next morning after a very early breakfast, the travellers started on their way to Enkeldorn en route for Salisbury. And at the top of the valley, whither they walked to save the mules, both girls stood and turned for a long last look at the grey walls of the ancient temple, lying in a soft haze of morning mists. It seemed to Meryl it had never held a deeper fascination, a stronger allurement. Just those old, old walls, and the soft enfolding mists which must have enfolded them even so for perhaps three thousand years. The red of sunrise was still in the sky, for Mr. Pym was an early starter, and it tinged the mist with a soft flush where the sun’s rays had not yet lit a clearer light.
“It was good to come,” said Diana simply. “I have to thank you for it.”
But Meryl only smiled in response. She had nothing to say. She felt she was leaving behind with the ruins the best memory her life would ever hold. Then they climbed into the ambulance waiting for them, said “good-bye” charmingly to the lonely dwellers at the store and hotel, with whom they had had some pleasant chats, drinking tea and admiring the lovely view from their delightful huts, and went clattering away down the road, their faces turned to the north.
And in the valley they left behind there was desolation.
Carew arrived back at his quarters, grim and taciturn, in the evening, to find Stanley looking a veritable image of disconsolate hopelessness in spite of Moore’s persistent droll badinage.
“O, what did they want to come for,” he groaned, “if they had to go away again?”
“Faith!…” said the astute Irishman. “Did ye ask either of them to share your little wooden hut?…”
But The Kid paid no attention. As Carew stood a moment beside him, filling a pipe, with a cold, expressionless face, the youngster glanced up with a momentary gleam, and remarked, “Eh, sir? But women are the devil, aren’t they?”
Carew said nothing; but with a low chuckle Moore ejaculated, “Come, give the divil a chance; we find him very accommodating sometimes in auld Erin.”
Stanley got up and stretched himself. “Days and weeks of desolation now,” he moaned; “and we were so happy and content before. Moore, old chap”—giving that harmless individual a smack on the back that nearly knocked him over—”yours was the wise choice when we spoke of gifts from heaven. I said, ‘Give me millionairesses,’ and you, with the wisdom of the ages, said, ‘Give me whisky.’ I’ll take a little now and hope for the best.”
And still Carew said nothing. The pipe was filled and he slowly lit it. Then unexpectedly he tapped it with light significance. “This is the best friend of all,” he said, and went away into his hut.
Stanley glanced after him a moment with a curious expression. “Gad!…” he murmured. “Was our bronze image a bit hit too? He looks fierce enough and stern enough to be resenting a dent.”
In the meantime the travellers reached the Charter Flats, and decided to camp there for the night. They had travelled for some time along the sandy tracts, enjoying the sense of space all around and the wide horizons, and both Mr. Pym and the girls were loth to hurry away. It is customary to dread these wide sandy tracts, and either hurry across them or avoid them; but to these city-dwellers their vast calm held a deep allurement; for though only scrub and sand stretched from horizon to horizon, with occasional little strips of stunted trees, the clear southern atmosphere lent a lovely effect of light and shade and colour. Many large patches here and there were blackened with veldt fires, but these in the distance formed delicate shadings that enhanced the charm of a strip of yellow sand or young green grass or purple-shadowed wilderness. It was like a world that contained only a colour scheme; no dwellings, no humans, no landmarks, no hills and valleys, no roads: just delicate shadings and haze as far as the eye could see, with no clear line between earth and heaven. They might have been looking over the edge of the world into a delicately tinted space, so boundless it seemed, so unfathomable, so remote. They pitched their camp on a little rising ground, near a slow meandering stream that crept lazily across the miniature desert. And when the dusk came down the effect was more unusual still, for the flats are on high ground, and the heavens seem to stoop down all round, hanging a dark curtain, decorated with brilliant stars, on every side. Across all the world no sign of human life, no sound; only vast emptiness everywhere—above, around, below; and for companions, worlds and suns and solar systems.
It is a scene in which a man may seem to get very close to his God; not a remote, incomprehensible Deity, dwelling vaguely beyond the stars, but a Presence that is in the breathing silence and the velvety deeps at hand. And a man may meet himself there also; not the aping, grinning, chattering mask of a personality custom more or less compels him to wear in the crowd, but the hidden, mysterious being, conscious of a soul beyond his ken, that in such quiet hours desires eternally some goal, some good, afar off. The indestructible, incomprehensible, infinite hunger, that lies as a germ in every human heart and is man’s best attribute, in that it raises him for ever incontestably above the beasts that perish, and stands serene and steadfast as the Rock of Ages, the one barrier past which the materialists and the scientists cannot go: the divine spark within the human, which no theory can account for and no learning of sage or cynic obliterate.
The travellers sat round a glowing fire, for the night air was keen and cold; and much that is inevitably disturbing in the friction of daily being and daily doing seemed to fall away from them and cease to exist for that one wonderful night. And the next day, when the small black attendant brought their early tea and opened wide the tent-flap to a brilliant morning, yet another picture awaited them. This time it was a world decked with enormous diamonds. Tall, sparse grasses leant over and whispered to each other outside the tent, and every ear and every seed was hung with a lovely brilliant dewdrop. Out beyond was that same vague, remote, fathomless horizon, painted now with wonderful rose tints, where the rising sun caught the lingering mists and merged the dark streaks of blackened veldt into the general scheme with a softness of shading beyond all description. Meryl lay still, gazing with her soul in her eyes, but after a time Diana sat up.
“It makes me ache almost like the Victoria Falls did. I wonder why God painted such lovely scenes where no one ever came, or scarcely ever, to see them?”
She was silent a moment, then ran on again, “We fight and sweat and struggle for diamonds, and God hangs them on the dry grass, in the wilderness. Meryl, I wonder if we shall ever see anything quite like this again? And they told us to avoid the Charter Flats!… I suppose God feels about it something as we do. He knows most people like Brighton parades and Durban sea-fronts, so He lets them arrange their own sights; and for Himself, in far wonderful places, He paints scene pictures, and plants lovely gardens, and fills them with birds and flowers and sunshine, and splashes down upon the world, in some remote corner, a glorious colour scheme, just for his own delight.”
Meryl raised herself on her elbow, with a little tender smile. “And I suppose He said to Himself, ‘I will let Diana and Meryl Pym see one of my secret, treasured places’?”
“Yes, exactly. And though I don’t hold with saying grace before meals, because, since God made us, it seems the least He can do to enable us to obtain food to keep us alive, I will say a grace this morning to Him for letting me see His colour scheme on the Charter Flats at sunset and sunrise.”
A little later they had a fragrant breakfast of liver from a buck the engineer had shot about daybreak; and that is a delicacy known only to those who fare forth across the veldt, and have a bright wood fire burning in readiness for the spoils of the hunt directly they are brought in.
Then they started away again across the flats, once more moving in a vague world of soft shadings, with only the long sandy road stretching away into space behind them and before. And sometimes, before the sun mounted too high, they found themselves moving across a space of gold and bronze, where grass that had not been burnt shone like amber in the morning glory; and again presently a space of loveliest emerald-green, where the grass had been burnt early and the new blades were already sending up joyous blades into the sunlight. And sometimes a Kaffir-boom tree added a splash of brilliant scarlet, painted upon a canvas of soft, hazy shadings; and sometimes the veldt showed them a little piece of her flower-carpet—the carpet that was to spread broadcast presently—of delicate-tinted lovely flowers in reckless profusion upon a ground of rich terra-cotta soil.
Neither girl talked. It was not a scene to talk in. It did not call for raptures and exclamations; only for dreaming and absorbing. It seemed as if it might have been the spot where God rested upon the seventh day, so utter and absolute and complete was the sense of detachment from all the exigencies of being and doing.
Two verses of a poem by Arthur Symons repeated themselves in pleasant rhythm in Meryl’s mind:—
“I leave the lonely city street,
The awful silence of the crowd;
The rhythm of the roads I beat.
My blood leaps up, I shout aloud,
My heart keeps measure with my feet.
“A bird sings something in my ear,
The wind sings in my blood a song
‘Tis good at times for a man to hear;
The road winds onward white and long,
And the best of earth is here!”
THE CONVENTIONALITIES ONCE MORE
Later in the day they reached Enkeldorn and once more pitched their tent beside the police camp; but the place is not inviting, and they were glad to leave early the following morning; for Enkeldorn is the centre round which many Dutch people congregate to farm small farms, in what it must be confessed is often the most slovenly and lazy fashion conceivable. And some of them speak quite openly of how they hate the English, and look forward to a day when they will be strong enough to turn them out of the country.
But before that day can come, before union with a South Africa in which there is Dutch predominance, it is to be hoped England will send out more and yet more strong, vigorous young settlers, to put brains and heart and energy into the virgin soil, waiting only for the craftsman’s hand; and so ensure for ever, in union or out of it, an unswerving predominance of Cecil Rhodes’s countrymen: holding his high aims and hopes and splendid Imperialism in Cecil Rhodes’s land.
Two days later the party arrived in Salisbury, and not a little to their regret, the fashionable garments that had travelled thither by train to await their arrival had to be duly unpacked and worn. Diana glanced at herself disconsolately the first afternoon, dressed in an elegant summer frock, awaiting tea in a drawing-room, and one or two lady callers known to Mr. Pym who were likely shortly to arrive. Meryl, seeming lovelier than ever, though perhaps a trifle frailer, as if some sadness in her mind weighed upon her waking and sleeping hours, stood at the window, looking over the pretty, well-kept town.
“Why are we here? This is not the wilderness,” Diana said grumblingly; “this is suburban mediocrity. It was not fair to bring me all this way from home, to have to dress up and look pleasant, and talk banalities to people I have never seen before and probably shall never see again.”
“You are so inconsistent, Di,” Meryl said, with a little affectionate laugh. “When we arrived at Zimbabwe you said you did not want only old ruins, you wanted a man. Judging by the number of cyclists in flannels, carrying tennis racquets or golf clubs, who have passed this window in the last half-hour, you will find more men, ready no doubt to hang upon your lightest smile, than you will know what to do with.”
“I don’t want them,” with an impish pettiness. “I hate young men in flannels. I hate houses. I hate afternoon frocks. I hate clean hands. I hate having to be polite. I want The Kid, giggling insanely at his own silly jokes. I want The Bear’s den and The Bear inside it. I want to have grubby hands and old shoes and a red face, and eat things in my fingers, and forget I have heaps and heaps of money for the simple reason that it is no earthly use if I have.”
Meryl smiled softly and wistfully. “I wonder what they are doing?… I think they will miss us. It is extraordinary how Zimbabwe gets into one’s heart. I have never seen anything anywhere that appealed to me quite like those old walls, with their untold story and their patience of the ages. The Sphinx in Egypt may be older, but we know how it came to be there and who built it. One of Zimbabwe’s fascinations seems to be the absence of all knowledge about it, of all why and wherefore.” She broke off as a Cape cart drove up to the door. “Here is someone coming to call. I think it is Mrs. Cluer, by father’s description.”
“Then bother Mrs. Cluer!” snapped the peevish one. “In this country I wonder if people say they are ‘out’ or ‘asleep’ when they do not want to be found ‘at home’?”
But Mrs. Cluer knew both Major Carew and Stanley, so the conversation was not quite so uninteresting as Diana had anticipated. She was, moreover, a woman of exceptional charm, and at any other time they would both have lost their hearts to her.
“You probably did not see much of Major Carew,” she said. “He is the most unsociable man in the country. One can get him to a man’s bridge-party, but not much else; and most of us have given up trying. I expect it is partly his own doing that he is down there. He always manages to get work that takes him out on the veldt, if possible.”
“He appears to like it,” Meryl commented; “and Mr. Stanley and his companion are very fond of him, in spite of his unsociable ways.”
“O, all the men are fond of him,” she told them, evidently glad of an opportunity to sing his praises. “He never gives himself any airs with them for one thing, and he’s just a man all through, living a clean, sportsman’s life; and whether they do the same themselves or not, they all look up to him and admire him for it, without being afraid he will come down like a sledgehammer upon their failings. One knows the tone of the whole police force is better for having an officer like Major Carew, and it is a thousand pities there are not more like him. And Cecil Stanley is just the dearest boy in the world. Every one in Salisbury was fond of him. He is so good at games and dancing, and always so jolly and boyish and natural. We miss him badly, but I believe he likes being down there better than in the town.”
“I think he does; he seemed perfectly happy.”
They went on to speak of the gaiety of Salisbury; its golf and tennis and polo and dancing; and their visitor urged them to stay for a fancy-dress ball, when four hundred guests all in costume were expected. But neither of them were in the mood for balls, and the only attraction they cared about was an early-morning gallop with the hounds after jackal. Nothing could solace them for the careless, happy days they had left, and as soon as Mr. Pym had transacted his business, they persuaded him to take them out to Lomagundi with him, rather than be left behind in the town.
“They seem to be rather touchy ladies here, and so superior,” Diana urged, when he demurred; “and you know I am never safe for two minutes with that type. I should be driven into saying appalling things, and our reputation might be ruined for ever.”
In the end, as usual, they won him round, and departed one morning gleefully in the little toy train that runs out across the Gwebi Flats to the Eldorado Gold Mine. And to Diana’s joy, they had a luggage-van fitted up as an impromptu saloon for them, and were able to spin along with both doors wide open, enjoying the air and the country. The Eldorado is the show mine of Rhodesia, having a native compound equal to any in South Africa, and charming bungalows for the staff, and an airy, comfortable hospital. But mines were not likely to hold much interest to lady travellers from Johannesburg, and all their eagerness was to go out to Sinoia to see the limestone caves, where, like an exquisite jewel in a massive setting, an underground lake, of wonderful colouring, lies in lonely loveliness.
Or perhaps it were better likened to a butterfly, with its wings closed, and only the more or less drab outside showing. The veldt, somewhat uniform and colourless, with its surrounding hills, is the butterfly with its wings closed. Enter the wide hole in the ground, beside the hidden lake, and descend the rough natural staircase of rocky boulders, to where the sun through an opening in the ground above shines down on to the translucent water, and there lies the butterfly with its wings open, and all their exquisite design and colouring and blending unfolded to the eye.
“You have some rare treasures in this far Rhodesia,” Meryl said to their guide and host as they reluctantly left the hidden jewel behind; “treasures that your children and your children’s children will be very proud of some day.”
“If they have time,” he answered a trifle cynically. “Not many Rhodesians to-day have time to care for any but the treasures that they can work for and grasp and carry away. The time for natural beauties to be appreciated is not yet. Why, we do not even pay a native half-a-crown a week to keep the caves free from the baboons and bats that defile them. I am afraid, at present, Rhodesia lives almost entirely for to-day,” he continued. “The spirit ready to sacrifice itself for the good of future generations has yet to be developed.” He was a clever-looking man, with quiet, thoughtful eyes, and he and Meryl had talked much together during her short stay. “The nobility of the bee is not found much among humans. In all the annals of the race, is there anything to compare with their service to the coming swarm?”
“Only that we do not know it is the result of calm reasoning,” she answered. “The bee perhaps comes into existence, permeated through and through with this one idea, and lives solely to fulfil it. The service humanity asks of humanity is something even higher, surely—a willing, conscious sacrifice of present ease to future good. The spirit of heroes and fools”; and she smiled a little sadly, remembering Ailsa Grenville’s verse and her enthusiasm for the dear Ship of Fools. “But you have some fine men out here,” she added. “I think your future looks exceedingly hopeful.”
A few days later they started on their return to Bulawayo, and the tour was practically ended. There was nothing more now but dusty railway journeys and elegant garments and conventionalities.
“No more grubby hands and red faces and ‘anyhow’ clothes that did not matter,” was Diana’s constant lament. Meryl said nothing. What was there to say? But the pain that dwelt in her eyes sometimes, when she thought no one was looking, sent deep stabs to her father’s heart. With all his money, and all his power and influence, what could he do in this one thing that seemed to matter beyond all other things? Nothing except to look quietly on, and hope the wound was not too deep for healing. That, and to humour her in anything she asked. Which was partly why some of the long hours of the hot, dusty journey were spent in discussing plans for the settlement of young men upon his land, on exceptionally easy terms. He was not quite sure that the country was ripe for such a scheme yet; but Meryl’s great wish for it, and obvious pleasure in the discussions, took him to lengths he might otherwise have avoided.
So they came to Bulawayo, and as they stepped out on to the platform, Meryl saw suddenly among the other passengers a tall form in khaki that caused her to draw in her breath with a little catch, while her eyes grew strained and anxious. Diana was still in the saloon, only half dressed, and her father was talking aside to someone who had come to the station to meet him. She was quite alone, rooted momentarily to the spot, waiting for the tall man to turn in her direction, if he chanced to look that way at all before hurrying off.
Then someone accosted him, and she saw the strong, self-contained face, as he turned to the speaker. A moment’s suspense followed; then the man who had accosted him went towards the station entrance, and Carew came slowly in her direction, with his helmet low over his eyes. Thus he did not see her until they were face to face, and in the first moment of recognition she saw him start, as one taken in swift surprise. Then a slow colour crept up under the sunburn on his cheeks, and something came into his eyes that she had never seen there before.
But he only came forward with a formal air and saluted her solemnly. “I joined the train in the night,” he said. “I had no idea you would be coming to Bulawayo so soon.”
It was all very ordinary, very sedate, and a little wooden, but Meryl paid no heed to that, paid no heed to the obvious conclusion he had taken no chance journey hoping to see her again. For what his lips could not say, and his manner would not, his eyes had revealed to her in that first swift moment of surprise. She knew that whatever came between them in the future, whatever was between them now, Peter Carew was not indifferent to her.
“Did I hear the growl of a bear?” sang out a voice from behind a drawn blind of the saloon coach beside which they were standing.
“I’m afraid you did,” said Carew, addressing the blind.
“O, joy! joy! Growl again, growl again—like the Christmas bells. How would it go?… ‘Growl out, wild bear’—I forget the rest, but it’s a silly song I learnt to sing when I was young. Don’t go away; I shall be dressed directly. If these God-forsaken railways had not such a mania for landing you at your destination when all respectable people are snug in bed!…” and sundry sounds suggested the impatient speaker was flinging things about. Then a face with bright eyes appeared over the blind, which was a wooden shutter, and could be lowered to a discreet distance. “Hullo!… I simply had to take a look at you. I’ve been pining for a glimpse of The Kid’s smile and your scowl. It’s been deadly since we left Zimbabwe. Ugh!… how I hate civilisation!”
Carew looked at her with his rare, slow smile. “Is that why you keep the whole train waiting in the station, and the station-master, conductor, and guard in a state of ferment, because they cannot clear the line until you are dressed?”
“Rude man!” came back the quick retort. “You haven’t yet said, How do you do?”
“How do you do, Miss Diana Pym?” gravely. “I hope I see you well! And how did you leave Salisbury?”
“I do very nicely, thank you, Major Carew. You cannot see me very well through a wooden shutter, I imagine. And how is your old heap of stones?” … with which she vanished again to the interior. “Tell the conductor I’ve come to the last curl and the last hook and eye,” she called, and a few minutes later stepped out on to the platform, a vision of fresh daintiness. “I’m rather glad,” she remarked to Carew, with a twinkle, “that you will have an opportunity of seeing us in our best clothes”; then running on, “I see you look as fierce and awe-inspiring as ever; but having learnt, in Rhodesia, to keep quite calm with cockchafers and beetles running about in my bed, I am not likely to be afraid of a bear.”
“Are you going to the Grand Hotel?” Mr. Pym asked him, having joined them while Diana was finishing her toilet, “because there is plenty of room in our motor.”
Carew thanked him, and they all moved away together. At the hotel, however, he vanished, and it was only after a little adroit persuasion later that Mr. Pym got him to accept an invitation to dine with them in their private room in the evening.
And after accepting, Carew went about the work that had brought him to Bulawayo with an uneasy mind. The fortnight that had elapsed since the evening he found Meryl unexpectedly at the Grenvilles’ had been a somewhat disturbed one for him. For many years now his life had flown so evenly in all big essentials. Little worries, little disturbances, disappointments, were inevitable for a man whose heart was so thoroughly in his work, and for whom the conditions of work were often so trying. But these had only ruffled the surface; underneath the smooth river flowed along strong and self-contained. After the upheaval that had been as a volcanic eruption upon smiling sunshine-flooded fields in his life, and the black desolation that followed, there had succeeded a long quiet period of calm action that, if it held nothing which could be termed joy, held nothing either that was sorrow except his buried memories. And he had been well content that it should be so; well content to contemplate just that and nothing else to the journey’s end.
And now, suddenly, had come this vague unrest. He sought for its source and its reason, and could not find a satisfactory answer. For though it dated from the coming of the millionaire and his party, he would not admit himself capable of the folly of falling in love with Meryl. To him it was such inexcusable foolishness, in view of many things. Rather he chose to believe it was a voice from the old life, reawakened in his heart, and calling to him across the years. When he smoked his pipe outside the huts, and pondered deeply some knotty point in his report and in the work of the Native Commission, he found himself suddenly remembering that it was September. And away in his beloved Devon they would be out after the partridges—striding through the heather and across the stubble-fields, ranging over the purple moors with purple horizons all round, and in the distance a strip of turquoise, which was the sea. He could almost hear the whir … rr of wings and the shots on some far hill-side. And he knew that, though the shooting in a wild, vast country like Rhodesia is a far finer and more sportsmanlike affair than shooting driven birds in England, he yet felt, and would ever feel, that intense British love of the soil that had reared him, and the moors where he fired his first gun and shot his first bird. And, of course, upon the heels of the shooting came the hunting, which had once been the joy of his life, ever after he first put his pony at a stiff fence, entirely on his own, and sailed gloriously over, in spite of an anxious groom shouting caution to the winds.
And then all the woodcraft and fieldcraft he had learnt from his uncle’s keepers and his uncle’s farmer tenants. He remembered how it had been part of his education as a youngster, and how in pursuit of knowledge he had been up early and late and in the middle of the night, picking up information about the woodland creatures from anyone who could teach him or finding things out for himself. There was the poacher who had shown him, for love of the sport, if sport it could be called, how he got the pheasants silently off the boughs in the night—taking them from their roosting-places and never a sound. He had given that poacher a bright half-crown, he remembered, and his firm lips twitched a little over the recollection. He had not seen the humour then of paying the man who was stealing his uncle’s pheasants—the pheasants that would some day be his. He wondered if the boys in England now, the future landowners, were taught woodlore as he had been taught it, because it was good for an English gentleman to know all the scents and signs and sounds of his estate.
And after all, he was no landowner at all. By his own act, instead, merely an officer in the British South Africa Police, with a few hundreds a year income, and nothing but a meagre pension ahead.
Ah well! he had had a good deal besides for what he had lost, and it had been a good life enough, dependent solely on himself, and far removed from the caprices of a rich uncle. He regretted nothing at this stage of what had transpired after the upheaval came. Of course, his brother was now owner of the estates that might have been his, and was married, and had children; whereas he was a soldier-policeman looking forward to a meagre pension.
Not that it mattered. Nothing mattered. It was only that, seeing so much more of the Pyms socially than he had been wont to see of anyone, old memories had been awakened. He hoped they would soon go to sleep again, for, in passing, they had taken some of the restfulness out of Rhodesia’s far horizons, and fretted the flow of the strong, silent river, with a vague discontent. Sometimes between him and those far horizons there was a face now—sometimes a voice—sometimes just a dim presence—the voice and the face and the presence of Meryl Pym. And it was a thing to be fought down and crushed and conquered—a weakness that was well-nigh a foolishness—a folly such as stern men trample underfoot.
So when Mr. Pym asked him to dine with them privately, he made some excuse, and only yielded under pressure. And when he joined them he was in one of his gravest moods, as if he had barricaded himself round with impenetrable reserve. There were two other guests, so Diana did not twit him openly; she only murmured in an aside, for his ear alone, “I’m so sorry it’s a party, and we shall feel obliged to be polite. This civilisation is becoming a positive burden.”
Meryl was a little late, and she wore a beautiful gown, of a classic cut, with exquisite classic embroideries and a filigree band on her lovely hair. It was the first time he had seen her in evening dress, and he took one keen, sweeping glance and then looked away. He had rather the attitude of a soldier on parade, to whom the colonel had said “eyes front.” Only he was his own colonel, obeying his own laws and restrictions. And Meryl only dared to take a fleeting glance also, for fear her eyes might betray her. And though he looked as striking as a man may, in immaculate evening dress, with his strong, clear-cut features, and inches that dwarfed most men, with the inconsistency of a woman she decided she liked him best in khaki that had seen hard service, and that look of being all of a piece, because his hands and face were so brown. He sat on her left, while Lord Elmsleigh, who was passing through from the Victoria Falls, sat on her right; and though she chatted lightly to his lordship, she was conscious every second of the hour of the big, silent, rather grim soldier-policeman. He spoke very little. Just an opinion now and then when he was asked for it, or the corroboration or correction of a statement, when someone looked to him questioningly. The millionaire, chatting in his quiet, weighty way to his two other guests, noted everything. He knew that Carew and Meryl scarcely once looked at each other, or addressed each other direct, and with a deep sense of regret he had again that feeling of being brought up against some barrier where neither his money nor power nor influence could be of any avail. And at the same time he knew in his heart that he had never met any man to whom he would sooner entrust Meryl and the fortune that must be hers. For though their very silence together revealed to his astute brain that neither was indifferent to the other, he could not but see also that undercurrent of grim determination in Carew. True, he was almost always silent, but Henry Pym perceived that his silence to-day was not quite of that of yesterday. Something had gone out of it—some quiet, grave, unquestioning content. In the keen, direct, steel-blue eyes now there was a shadow lurking behind, that might have been of some old memory, or might have been of some new pain, but which vaguely hurt the millionaire host.
Meryl’s eyes were less smiling than her lips, turning a little unsteadily this way and that, with a restlessness that added a touch of vivacity to her quiet beauty. But that, he knew, was the thing we baldly name pluck. It was not to-night he need fear what he should see in her eyes, nor perhaps to-morrow. It was any day, any hour, any moment in the weeks to come, when she believed no one was observing her.
So the evening passed, and the last rubber of bridge was played, and the first move made towards departure.
“Shall we have your company for a day or two? I must stay here over to-morrow!” Mr. Pym said to Carew.
“I leave early in the morning,” was the quiet reply. “I only came here to see Mr. Ireson, and now I go to Salisbury.”
Meryl, with her face turned away, blanched a little in the shadow. This was the end then. This casual, conventional good-bye at a dinner-party. To-morrow he would go east before they were up; and the next day she would go back to Johannesburg, and later England. She turned quickly to make a gay remark. Something in her heart tightened. She felt suddenly appalled at the future, and was afraid she might show it.
But the evening had still one little unexpected treat in store for her. Lord Elmsleigh had a big-game trophy in his room that he wanted to show Mr. Pym and their other guests—something that he had shot in the Kafue valley. And in consequence, while Diana and Carew and Meryl were standing together by the open window that led on to the wide balcony, he took them both off with him.
And then Diana said to Carew, “As you are going to-morrow, I will give you those snapshots to-night. I have them in my room,” and she went away, pulling the door to after her.
So Carew and Meryl were left alone by the window, looking out into the pulsing southern night. Meryl, quite suddenly, felt a little dizzy, and she drew back into the corner, leaning against the woodwork, feeling glad of some support. Carew remained upright and rigid, with something in that very rigidity that suggested a special need to keep himself well in hand. If he had stopped to think about it, he might have felt that Fate was treating him a little unkindly. So far he had done the strong thing every time, and gone quietly away from danger; not because he was a coward, but because he knew it is sometimes far more cowardly to skate on thin ice, and hope it will be all right, than to remain in safety on the bank. For Meryl’s sake as well as his own he had chosen to remain on the bank. And yet here, for the third time, was Fate deliberately bringing the danger zone to him, in spite of his efforts to avoid it. But he did not stop to cogitate either one way or the other. Sufficient for him that he knew himself in the danger zone, and therefore it behoved him to be very wary. Not by act or word, if he could help it, must he let Meryl see how she had disturbed his peace. And there, again, it would seem, Fate had played with him. A subtler man would have perceived that an added rigidity was not entirely the safeguard he needed now. Meryl already knew him too well for that. Had he talked and laughed a little, she might have been puzzled and baffled. But Carew was not subtle. He was simply sincere. And so he just stood very rigid and silent; not perceiving that in the circumstances that it was hardly the best way to baffle the eyes of love. Meryl knew instinctively he was putting some special restraint on himself, and the knowledge made her quietly glad, underneath the sudden pain of the knowledge that it was farewell. Back, in her vantage of shadow, she looked at him. And she saw, not for the first time, but perhaps more fully, that inner force in this man, which told any who had eyes to see and understanding to perceive, that nothing would turn him from a set purpose, if he were persuaded it was a right one; and whatever woman’s arts she might possess, they would be as the waves against a granite rock. They might play round him, and sprinkle foam on him, and soften his aspect, but they would not move him. So, with an inner strength not unlike his own, she accepted his decree. For some reason, or set of reasons, love might not come into being between them. He was determined that it should not. Very well, she would hide her hurt and face her future without it.
And if she chose to cherish his image, hidden deep down in her heart, that was her affair. A laughing, mocking world need never know.
She broke the silence first:
“If you are going early to-morrow, we shall not meet again.”
“No.” He looked at her a moment, about to say something else; then changed his mind, and looked out of the window in silence. Leaning up against the lintel, in the softened light, her outline and features and deep, true eyes made too fair a picture for him to trust himself to look upon.
“Perhaps you will be coming to Johannesburg presently?”
“I think not.”
“Nor England?…” with a little wistful smile.
“You speak almost as if you never expected to go there again?”
“I shall never go there again.”
There was a pause; then she continued:
“Yet you are so absolutely an Englishman, and they say”—with another little smile—”an Englishman always wants to go home to be buried.”
“I am more a Rhodesian.”
“And you feel like Cecil Rhodes?… We went out to the Matopos this afternoon. It was a big thought, that of his, to be buried there. It gives you people in the north something that we of the south have not—your own special great man, lying in your midst. What a country you will be some day! I envy you your share of the building.”
“The south is a great country now. It is not a small thing to be building there.”
“Yes, but we have two races, and it spells division and weakens our enthusiasm.”
“Help to bridge over the gap. Help to make it spell union. That were a work that any man might be proud to give his life to.”
And at that slowly she became taut and rigid almost as he, with wide eyes gazing into the night. He had struck a hidden chord; struck it full and strong.
“Do you mean,” she said a little breathlessly, “that though my sympathies are so much with the north, my work, any usefulness I may attain to, ought to be given to the south?… that … that … perhaps it belongs to it?…”
He was silent a moment, weighing his words.
“I think,” he said, “that you in the south are passing through a critical stage, and there must be much need for strong women as well as strong men. Dutch Predominance is the cry now, but the scales turn easily, and it may be English Predominance to-morrow. No country can make real headway, and consolidate its greatness, while there is this changing and interchanging of power. There must be no predominance but that of the country’s good; and to that end Dutch and English must be merged into South African. It is the duty of every true patriot to look this way and that, and see how it can best be achieved; and to be ready to sink all personal aims and triumphs for the furtherance of the great end.”
“Is it possible,” she asked slowly, “when it seems one side only is honest in its protestations?”
“You cannot be sure about that. Seek out the strongest and best men of both sides, and help them to gain the power and hold it. Your own side is not without blame. At the first big election after the country was settling down again, you could not even stand together. At the polls there were three parties, where there should have been only two. Englishmen opposed Englishmen, mostly over a question of small differences, and for personal pride of place. South Africa has never yet recovered from that mistake. You must not hold two hands out to the Boers—the hands of differing Englishmen—but one hand, that is absolutely reliable and sincere.”
“It is what I have heard my father say, and others also, but progress is very slow. There is much racial hatred rampant still.”
“It will yield gradually. The fittest must prevail in the end; but obviously that fittest will prove to be neither Dutch nor English, but South African.”
“How do you think it will prevail?” She was white now, and her eyes were gazing very straight out into the night.
“By intermarriage chiefly. It is almost the only solution to the problem. Speaking one tongue, owning one country, will never help it, as Dutch and English interests united upon one hearth. That is why you must be patient, and just go steadily on, avoiding dissension as much as possible, while trying to raise the tone of both races on every side.”
There was a little tremor in her voice as she said, “And are we to take it just meekly when Englishmen are ousted for Dutchmen and loyal service ignored?”
“I think you can only be patient at present. The strong part will lie with you, though the others seem to triumph. If the party in power find the country is at a standstill, and not progressing as they want it to, they will end by rearranging the public posts, and the Englishmen will come back because they are the fittest. As a race, you know, we are inclined to be domineering and somewhat overbearing. We certainly have ourselves to thank for some of the trouble. Probably while the Dutchman is ‘top dog’ he is having his fling, and we are learning a little wholesome wisdom. When the reaction comes the country will be the gainer.”
“And in the meantime intermarriage?” she questioned slowly.
“In the meantime intermarriage,” he said, with quiet emphasis.
But he little dreamt that at the cross-roads he was pointing her to a path of tears.
They heard Diana returning, and he moved restlessly.
“If I do not see you again”—with a hesitating voice unlike himself—”I hope you will be very happy…. Meeting you has been a great and unexpected pleasure.”
“Thank you,” was all she could trust herself to say.
And then Diana came into the room.
A moment later the other men returned, and they all said good-bye. And when Carew shook hands with Meryl, he noticed that her hand was as cold as ice and her cheeks as white as snow, and that she scarcely raised her eyes to his face.
And wondering and fearing, he walked away into the darkness, with the sense of a new shadow walking beside him—a shadow that had come to stay, in spite of all his resolutions and strong endeavours, the shadow of his love for the woman he had just left in silence and never thought to see again.
A “HOARDING HUSTLING”
There was probably no family in Johannesburg better known or better loved than that of Henry Pym, the millionaire. Even Aunt Emily was something of a favourite, in spite of her peculiarities, perhaps a little for the sake of the delightful entertaining that took place at Hill Court. Diana was adored for her spirits, and Meryl was regarded somewhat as a treasure Johannesburg had a right to be proud of. Certain it was that if eventually she followed the example of her American cousins and enriched an English peerage with her wealth, she would hold her own amidst the loveliest and most charming of England’s peeresses. At the same time, though many perhaps hoped that she would lead the way for the young South African heiresses, not many had much belief that she would lead it in the particular fashion they hoped; for there was ever that uncertain elusive quality about Meryl, that suggestion of the visionary and dreamer, that betold a nature not very likely to follow in any beaten path, or give overmuch value to the advantages of a high alliance from a worldly point of view. It was probable she would see things in quite a different light to the majority and act for herself. Nevertheless Johannesburg hoped for the best, and would have been pleased to number a peeress among her daughters; if it were only to show the world, for one thing, that some of South Africa’s heiresses were every whit as refined and clever and charming as America’s, whatever may have been implied to the contrary by scathing comments on Johannesburg’s millionaires which have appeared from time to time in varied guise.
Mr. Pym himself, however, was not among those who nursed such high hopes. When he took the Piccadilly mansion the preceding spring, and transferred his household to London for the season, he meant to entertain lavishly, and give the girls every possible opportunity to see the world of the highest London society, knowing full well he could do this because his friends numbered many among England’s high names. That he should take them into the wilds of Rhodesia instead had certainly been the very last thought in his mind. On the other hand, as we have said, it did not greatly perturb him. He was inclined to think they might gain as much from their pioneer pilgrimage as from a rush of continuous gaiety. What exactly they had gained it would have been difficult to gauge; nothing perhaps that Aunt Emily would detect, fussing and exclaiming round them upon their first arrival.
Diana, in a mood for merriment, and possibly to cover a certain invisible shadow that rested as a dim cloud upon the party, rouged her face to a brilliant red with an alarmingly fiery nose end. When she lifted her veil and confronted her aunt with a perfectly unconcerned smile, that lady raised her hands in horror and bemoaning. “O, my dear!… my dear!… your complexion is ruined. How could you be so careless? How could Meryl let you?… It will take weeks of care to undo the mischief.”
“O, don’t make a fuss, aunty! Complexions don’t matter tuppence-halfpenny in Rhodesia. You surely didn’t imagine I was going to carry a sun-umbrella about, did you?”
“But my dear child!…” still in great distress. “It is a dreadful thing to say, but you really look as if … as if …” but there her courage forsook her, and she could not name the dreadful possibility.
“As if I had been drinking!” finished Diana cheerfully. “Yes, it’s a little awkward, but perhaps if I don’t lurch or look foolish …” Then she encountered the astonished eyes of a young footman, who had come in with some small paraphernalia from the motor, and unable to keep her face, turned hurriedly away.
“I’m rather afraid James is going to have a fit,” she remarked to Meryl. “I hope it won’t incapacitate him for the rest of the day,” and she chuckled to herself. Meryl had not yet raised her veil, and the anxiety on Aunt Emily’s face, which she vainly strove to hide, was delighting Diana more than ever. “Better not take your veil off downstairs, Meryl. Aunt Emily has had rather a shock from my face; I don’t think she could bear any more.”
But the poor lady’s concern was too pitiful to Meryl, and she threw her veil far back, saying, “She is a wicked creature, aunty. Her face only wants washing”; and then Aunt Emily, reassured and comforted, joined in the general laugh.
“But soap and water won’t remedy all the defects,” Diana told her. “I’ve acquired a violent dislike to houses and rooms and tableclothes and clean hands, and all the absurd paraphernalia of civilised existence. Of course, I suppose I shall become rational again in time, but at present I thought of having a tent on the lawn and becoming a hermit.”
“How is everyone, Aunty?” Meryl asked, as the poor lady seemed again somewhat overcome. “Have you had hosts of visitors while you were all alone?”
“Yes, people have been very kind, and I have not had much time to be dull; and everyone is delighted you are back again. Mr. van Hert has called twice this week to know which day you would arrive.”
Meryl’s lips contracted a little, but Diana murmured, “Oho!… Dutch Willie! ready to be on the doorstep, of course, in spite of the hullabaloo you’ve been causing in the country, unrestrained by my caustic criticisms.”
“I expect he thought he would make hay while the sun shone,” Meryl told her, “and air his pet theories while they were not in danger of being stamped on.”
Then they both went upstairs, and Meryl stood awhile at the wide window, looking over the lovely garden; and though she still answered kindly to her aunt’s flow of chatter, the good lady having followed them to their room, her heart was far away among distant kopjes, where mysterious grey walls basked in the sunlight with the silence and the patience of the ages.
For the next two or three days a continuous stream of visitors passed up and down the drive, and invitations poured in, and the girls found themselves quickly in a very vortex of social life.
William van Hert did not come until the third day, and then he chose as late an hour as he well could, hoping to escape the throng. This he succeeded in doing, but Diana he could not escape. If it had been his hope to see Meryl alone he was entirely frustrated. Diana’s small, practical head perceived the wisdom of avoiding all haste in what these two might have to say to each other, and van Hert had to bow to her decision. Still further, he had to undergo a small fire of chaff with an edge to it, concerning some of his political doings and sayings during their absence. But this from Diana he could always take. Whether she knew it or not, and whether she cared or not, at the time she probably wielded a more direct influence over van Hert than anyone else living. Certainly a more direct influence than Meryl and her father, for whereas his liking for them only tempered his rashness and indiscretions, Diana aimed shafts straight at any of his rabid policies in a manner that caused him secretly to reconsider. Yet all his devotion was drawn to Meryl in her fairness and quiet strength, and the hope of his heart was still to win her.
As it happened, it was a very white-faced, silent Meryl who sat on the deep verandah that afternoon of his first call, and was content chiefly to listen to Diana waging her usual war. That astute young person had much to say, in her own slangy phraseology, concerning certain utterances of the Dutch extremists, openly derogatory to the English, and seemingly opposed to any spirit of racial conciliation.
“Why don’t you try and teach your people to play the game?” she asked him, with a fine scorn. “Do you hear any of our eminent men haranguing about ‘keeping down the Dutch’ and ‘steam-rollering the Dutch,’ and without any hesitation openly speaking of themselves as a separate and superior race? Whatever our men think, they are at least sportsmen enough just now to keep it to themselves, for the sake of the hopes and aims of the country. But you apparently allow your following to say anything, and either pretend not to hear or take no notice. Listen to this, said by a predicant of the Dutch Reformed Church….” She picked up a pamphlet, lying near, and read aloud: “‘We are a nation with our own taal, traditions, and history. We must now stand shoulder to shoulder and hand in hand for the rights of our people…. May God give our people strength to be unanimous!’ Unanimous in what?… Why, forcing the issue of the language question according to their own ends, and retrenching English teachers, and generally looking upon themselves as the superior, chosen people whom God meant to reign alone in South Africa.”
“My dear young lady,” he remonstrated, “can you blame me for the unwise, indiscreet utterances of every Dutch predicant who opens his mouth?”
“Why, of course I do. You are a leader, and you ought to protest openly against any such utterance; but naturally, if you only consider it unwise and indiscreet, you don’t regret the purport of the words at all, merely their being uttered at perhaps the wrong time. Well, that sort of spirit isn’t ‘cricket,’ as we understand it; and your attitude, in professing to hold out a hand to the English section, while the other is making secret signs to the Dutch, is what we call trying to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds; and that is an experiment being attempted by far too many of your colleagues just now.”
“I am doing nothing of the kind,” he repudiated indignantly. “I am standing by my countrymen, that they may maintain the dignity of their nation and not be trampled under foot by the English.”
“O fiddlesticks! No one wants to trample you under foot. We mostly want to raise you. We want to broaden your outlook and widen your views. But you know perfectly well that that means a great united country, for the back-veldters might learn at last where strength lay; and then your precious taal, traditions, and history will have to take their proper place in the general scheme, and that will be on a plane of equality and not blatantly on top.”
Again he protested with outspread hands. “But we have a great country now through union. You overlook the most important fact.”
“We should have had,” she corrected, “if the Bond in Cape Colony, and Het Volk in the Transvaal, and the Unie in the Orange River Colony had not chanced to be powerful enough to work almost entirely in the interests of a Dutch South Africa all the time they were waving a flag, and cheering the colours, and delivering orations on the beauty of Union and their love for the great Mother Country, meaning the Liberal Government, who mostly, it would seem, told them to do as they like and please themselves and not make a fuss, so long as they called it Union.”
He turned to Meryl with a deprecating air, as if asking for her support, and she smiled rather a tired smile and said, “It is only that she has had to bottle it all up for a long time, as you were not at hand. The next time you come she will be ready to smile on you.”
“But I hope in the meantime you do not endorse the slander?…”
“I have plenty of hope to balance a certain amount of doubt; and if it is any pleasure to you to know it, Diana never troubles to cross swords with a man she has not considerable regard for.”
He flushed and looked gratified, and Diana remarked coolly, “O, I’ve lots of regard for you. I’m only sorry that a man who might be brilliant is content to be mediocre because of his prejudices. Now when we were in Rhodesia …” and she paused, regarding him with the bright, piquant eyes of a small bird.
“Well, what about Rhodesia? You didn’t find much brilliance there, I imagine? Brilliance does not thrive on bully beef and existence in a mud hut.”
“Neither does ‘back-veldt’ obtuseness and narrow-minded bigotry and indiscreet loquacity, Meinheer van Hert.”
He could not help laughing at the droll way she made the statement. “Well, what does thrive?”
“But that did not appeal to you?” with significance.
“Not perhaps so much as the growl,” was her enigmatic reply.
“And did you like this wild, wilderness land of silence?”
She regarded him with half-grave, half-mocking eyes. “Well, we understood why you want to have a finger in Rhodesia’s pie, you and your various active organisations working in the interests of a Dutch South Africa. Any child could see what such a country would be worth to you. But you won’t succeed, my friend. They’ve got a few strong men up there who believe in ‘to-morrow’ more than ‘to-day,’ and are not afraid to forego present honours for future progress. You won’t bribe them, and you won’t hoodwink them, and you won’t get them. They may not have much weight or power or money to back them, but there’s something in the atmosphere up there, something in the very air, that would tell anyone with a grain of perspicacity they could be dangerous if they liked. I shouldn’t rouse the sleeping lion in Rhodesia if I were you, Meinheer, you and your colleagues, with coercion or anything else—that way lie explosives.”
At that moment Mr. Pym joined them, and the conversation at once became general, though van Hert laughingly told his host he had been undergoing a regular hoarding hustling. Then he told them of a few happenings since they went away, and because he was as glad as he could be to see them back again, all his natural versatility came uppermost, and one could easily perceive why he was a leader of men, and likely to remain so.
“If only one could make him see straight,” said Diana, when they spoke of it afterwards, “instead of with the warped vision of a one-idea’d fanatic.”
Later she tried to draw Meryl a little concerning her attitude towards him, but Meryl would only maintain an unrevealing silence, and Diana was baffled and troubled. She felt vaguely that some new thought was forming in Meryl’s mind, some thought that held danger, but she could not grasp in what direction it tended.
And van Hert smoked his pipe with a very thoughtful air that evening, pondering deeply. Meryl had neither encouraged him nor repulsed him, and she seemed just the same and yet different; and once more that half-formed dread came back to his memory that through Rhodesia he might lose her.
And then he thought he would put the uncertainty at an end quickly and learn his fate as soon as possible; for he was treading on rather thin ice in his public capacity just now, and a strong coalition against him, which was rumoured in the air, might place him in an unpleasant position.
On the other hand, Mr. Pym’s support and Meryl’s charm might prove weapons which would see him safely through, and help him to mould his position anew on broader lines.
But for another three weeks Diana successfully baffled his intention, influenced by that vague fear she could not fathom, and a futile, helpless desire to ward off some pending destiny. And in the meantime she puzzled her small head daily concerning the invulnerable silence and aloofness of Peter Carew, and the blue shadows deepening under Meryl’s eyes, though she strove hourly to be ever her old self and show no sign.
Although van Hert had no opportunity to reopen the subject of his hopes to Meryl during those three weeks, she knew quite well that he had in no wise changed to her. His every look showed it, and an intangible something in his manner whenever he addressed her. And all the time, though her heart was given hopelessly elsewhere, she felt herself in the grip of circumstances that might determine her action against her inclination.
It would be difficult to relate just what passed in her mind through those three weeks, while outwardly she moved in the whirl of social happenings dependent upon their return with all her usual charm and dignity. Certainly she was rather quieter than usual, but as Diana talked and laughed faster, possibly with intent, the change was not noticed. She was specially quieter when van Hert was there, and Diana was specially talkative; entertaining him, rallying him, teazing him, in a way that, at any rate, brought out his best side, and in a sense buffeted the bigot good-naturedly into the attractive companion. And it seemed to show Diana at her best too, for behind all her flippancy there was undoubtedly a purpose and a depth which she would not for a moment have admitted, but which nevertheless was sincere and true.
“Of course, I don’t really care either way,” she would tell him mockingly. “You may have a Dutch South Africa and welcome, if you won’t interfere with my personal schemes and general affairs. I’ve nothing modern about me, in the sense of wanting to reconstruct the world generally and be a Joan of Arc to my retrenched compatriots. But when some of you talkers get up and express high-flown sentiments of brotherhood and union for the benefit of the public Press one moment, and swerve right down and wink at such sentiments as steamroller the English or the finances or the language question the next, it is time you had a little wholesome plain speaking. Anyhow, who did vote the money for the new Government buildings?…”
But whether Diana cared or not, one thing was certain: the utterances of that well-known minister William van Hert were showing gradually a higher and broader tone, and an atmosphere of conciliation was beginning to spread over his hitherto rabid sectarianism.
And van Hert himself found it went well with his feelings to exchange wordy battles with Diana and keep his dreams for Meryl. The younger girl invigorated and enthused him, while the elder, curiously enough, appealed more to his senses. He wanted her fairness, as a strong, dark man often feels himself drawn to a woman who is frail and fair. And yet even while he wanted her he was a little afraid of her, a little baffled, a little uncertain of himself.
Thus the three weeks passed, and the moment of the inevitable decision came near.
And all the time Meryl felt herself rather as one who stood upon a difficult, stony place, with the forbidden land behind her and the clear call of a great need before. She believed that she would never see Carew again; that definitely and forever he had cut the threads of deep sympathy both had known existed. It was his dictum and she could only abide by it. What then should she do with her life? To what end turn this existence, blessed by fortune with wealth and the power wealth brings, though suddenly swept bare of joy?
And ever and again back to her mind came Carew’s words that last evening at Bulawayo: “Help to bridge over the gap. Help to make division become union. That were a work that any man might be proud to give his life to.”
And every day, more and more fully, she recognised that whatever she had to give she owed to South Africa. She gradually thought herself into a state in which she existed for herself and her own inclinations no more, but only for that sacred claim upon her.
For the spirit of noble deeds, the spirit that carried Joan of Arc to the rescue of her country and to martyrdom, is not dead in the world, though no modern historian may depict a woman in armour leading allied armies on the battlefield. In quieter guise, in hidden corners, in unsung self-forgetfulness, women still answer to the divine call that sounds in their hearts, more inspiringly perhaps than in a man’s; and for the everlasting good of the human race let us hope it will never cease to sound.
Lamartine has said: “Nature has given woman two painful but heavenly gifts which distinguish her from the condition of men, and often raise her above it: pity and enthusiasm. Through pity she sacrifices herself; enthusiasm ennobles her. Self-sacrifice and enthusiasm! What else is there in heroism? Women have more heart and imagination than men. Enthusiasm arises from the imagination, self-sacrifice springs from the heart. They are therefore by nature more heroic than heroes.”
Enthusiasm and a divine spirit of self-sacrifice held a very deep part in Meryl’s heart, though never for a moment would the thought of heroism have occurred to her. Where Diana, out of her mocking, but staunch and loyal heart, amused herself dashing cold water and playful satire upon all heroics, Meryl said nothing at all, but at a critical moment both were equally capable of acting.
And it did not require much thought on Meryl’s part to see now where this spirit of enthusiasm and self-sacrifice seemed to call her. South Africa was at the cross-roads; she was at the period of her most urgent need for great women as well as great men. The only question that seemed to arise was, what did she specially want of the women ready to serve her?
In her own case Meryl found an answer from the lips of Carew himself. “Intermarriage,” he had said; “that is the real solution to this great barrier of racialism. The same hopes united upon the same hearth.” And it did not need much thought to perceive that should she, the admired and beloved heiress, fondly expected to marry an English nobleman and blossom into a peeress, marry instead a Dutchman and devote herself absolutely to South Africa, she would give a tremendous impetus to this question of intermarriage which was to consolidate the great South African Union. She saw herself giving this impetus, because it seemed to be the service life asked of her, and following it up by a wise and steadying influence upon the man who was likely always to be in the forefront of South Africa’s politics.
And yet, sometimes in the silence of the night, how her spirit shuddered and shrank from it, lying bare and desolate and bleeding under the hopeless, unconquerable ache for that strong Englishman in the north—that soldier-policeman for whom she would willingly have foregone all pride of place, all luxury of wealth, all satisfaction of achievement! Yet this he would never know, seeing her, as he ever must, framed in a vast fortune from which she could not extricate herself. She thought if she might choose, she would remain quietly with her father for ever, doing good, as he, by stealth and without ostentation, feeding her heart on a memory that would never die; but here the spirit of self-sacrifice intervened, and gave her no hope of rest but in fulfilment of what she believed life asked of her.
And so the day of decision came, and all unconsciously Diana struck the final note. In the morning, glancing through various papers, magazines, and pamphlets with an extraordinary skill to glean any little essential point without wading through column upon column of matter, she came upon a paragraph that aroused her instant indignation.
“O listen to this!” she cried. “If they are not at it again! Somewhere or other General Grets has been making a speech, and here is part of his noble sentiment: ‘I earnestly appeal to parents to prevent their children marrying any of the English race. They must not let this colony become a bastard race the same as the Cape Colony. If God had wanted us to be one race, He would not have made a distinction between English and Dutch.’ Well, I wonder what Dutch Willie will have to say to that?” and she smiled grimly to herself in anticipation of some satisfaction to come. “This man Grets is certainly one of his supporters. If he comes this afternoon I shall have a nice little bomb ready for him!”
But instead of waiting for his usual late hour, van Hert came early, and asked to see Miss Meryl Pym alone; and when Diana returned from a game of golf ready for the fray, she was presented to van Hert as her future cousin.
For once even she was nonplussed and at a loss for words. “O well, it would be silly to pretend to be surprised, wouldn’t it?” she said rather lamely, and crossed to the tea-table to pour out her own cup of tea. “And it is superfluous to hope you’ll be happy and prosperous and all that; so I’ll just say, my dear future-in-law, I think you’re a devilish lucky man!…” And Diana snapped it out as if an unaccountable sensation demanded an explosive of some sort.
“My dear!… my dear!…” cried Aunt Emily in outraged horror. “Do try to remember where you are and who you are! If you indulge in such vulgar, disgraceful language on the golf course, you certainly cannot expect to repeat it in the drawing-room.” But Diana paid no heed. She had already observed that Meryl, though blushing faintly, avoided meeting her eyes.
“And what about this brilliant speech of General Grets’ reported this morning? Will your party allow you to consummate the match, do you think?…” with biting sarcasm.
But van Hert only laughed good-temperedly. “Could it in any way better be given the lie?” he asked, and before that irrefutable logic Diana was silent.
Neither could she see her way to raising any reasonable objections, when a little, later the engagement was announced broadcast with considerable beating of big drums, but she flung a few sarcasms about with some violence.
She flung one or two at her uncle, being at a loss to understand his taking the engagement so quietly; but if she had been present at the interview between him and Meryl before the final sanction was given, she would have seen that he too could hardly act otherwise. In truth, Meryl perplexed them both in those first few days, for she was so calm and quiet and self-contained they both felt a little dumb before her. It was as if, having finally made up her mind, she was determined to avoid all paths that might weaken her and take her stand alone. She was far more quiet and composed than either her father or Diana. These did not say much, but they showed perhaps the more. Henry Pym’s hair whitened perceptibly, as if from some stern mental trouble, and Diana was uncertain, peevish, and difficult to please. Only once the subject was alluded to between them.
“I confess the news took me rather by surprise,” her uncle admitted in reply to some sally of hers, “and I was a little at a loss to follow her actions.”
“Actions?…” sniffed Diana. “What actions?… None were needed; it is the result of meditation.”
“You mean?…” questioningly.
“Heroics and martyrdom,” she snapped, and flung out of the room, leaving him perplexed and grave.
“If I thought so,” he said in his heart, “if I were sure of it, I would forbid the banns myself.”
He moved to the window, and stood for a long time looking silently and sadly to the far blue hills. He was thinking that, though he had given his life almost to be all in all to Meryl since she was left motherless, there was one part now he could not play.
“A mother would have seen through anything and known what to do,” he finished, and sighed heavily.
The news reached Carew through a newspaper. He was back in Salisbury now, attending the renewed sitting of the Commission, giving invaluable assistance. Whatever he said was instantly listened to. The chief members of the Commission, men of note and weight, wondered a little over this distinguished-looking man, merely a soldier-policeman, who knew such an extraordinary amount about the black races in Rhodesia; but if they sought enlightenment they were disappointed. No one knew anything about Major Carew, except that he was once in the Blues and now in the British South Africa police, and that the natives were more or less his hobby.
But there was one morning when he was more silent than usual; when he seemed a little distrait and very difficult to approach. And the moment the sitting was over he declined, somewhat curtly, an invitation to dinner that evening, and rode out across the veldt alone. That was the morning the daily newspaper contained the news that the only child of Henry Pym, the well-known millionaire, was engaged to be married to Mr. William van Hert, the eminent politician.
And Carew’s comment was to ride out across the veldt alone.
The news was undoubtedly a shock to him. Of course, he had known she would marry, but, more or less unconsciously, he had pictured her with an English home and a permanent place in English society.
The reality,—what actually had happened,—had not entered his head at all. Of course he knew van Hert by name; everyone did. And because of his reputation for anti-English views Carew both marvelled and at the same time gleaned a probable motive. And the result of his cogitations was that added sternness which always came into his face when he was seriously troubled.
Yet what use to fret and trouble now? She had gone out of his life for ever, and with her his last chance of glad renewing. Henceforth he must go back to his quiet life of service which asked and gave nothing else, and to the companionship of those old memories which sometimes awakened from their sleep.
He rode far across the veldt, and for the first time for many a long year turned back the leaves of the closed book. And the reason he did this was the remembrance of Meryl’s face, as she leaned up against the lintel of the window that last evening at Bulawayo, when they both felt it was a final parting. Something that had been in the depths of her eyes, and which she had been powerless to hide, although she made no other sign. It was a remembrance that called that added sternness to his face: the sternness of deep trouble suppressed. For he knew no woman of Meryl’s nature would look as she had looked that evening and love another man in a month. Therefore it was probably for some altruistic motive and not love that she had consented to marry van Hert; no shallow, selfish motive he knew well enough, but perhaps some call she had found the courage to answer.
But if it was also a sacrifice, an offering of herself and her happiness upon some altar of need, ought he to let her fulfil it? Between her and the husband he had pictured for her he could not allow himself to stand; between her and van Hert, whom he was convinced she did not love, was another matter. Yet he knew in his heart that he could not save her now; the die was cast, both of them must abide by it. And in any case, how could he tell her his story? How could he go to her with that story and empty-handed as well; she the heiress of great wealth, and he without even a name and position?
Away out in the kopjes he rode his horse slowly up a steep hill-side, and on the top dismounted and sat upon a boulder, looking over a vast tract of lovely country to infinite blue distances. As ever in moments of stress, he had chosen the height, with wide horizons, fresh-blowing winds, far spaces of sunlight; and in the flickering shade of the thinly foliaged trees he took off his helmet, baring his head to the breeze. And it could be seen that the grey about the temples had been increasing, while the strong lines on the face had deepened already, as if it had gone hardly with him of late.
He sat very still; so still that a little squirrel ran down almost to his feet to investigate the strange figure, and little birds chirped all kinds of personalities about him to each other close at hand. He was taking a journey into a far land—the far land of the buried past. He was thinking of that story he would have had to tell Meryl Pym. Of Joan’s sad life, sad love, sad death. Of how long ago she had lain dead upon the heather, as far as anyone could tell, slain by his hand.
He went back to it now, page by page; it seemed in some sort of penance that he must give. The first pages dealt with those two gay young brothers in the Blues; the elder, Peter, the recognised heir to the rich bachelor uncle, who now made life gay for them with an allowance of two thousand a year each; but he was an autocrat and something of a tyrant, the old uncle, and his will had to be law. He did not mind their sowing of wild oats if they were what he called gentlemanly wild oats, and merely got them talked about as gay young dogs, and he was always generous with an extra cheque if they got into difficulties; but he would not have foolhardy, quixotic affairs at all. There he put his foot down. When the younger brother, Geoffrey, a youth of small, mean aims and temperament, led the pretty daughter of one of the keepers into trouble, he told his uncle he was going to give her a fixed sum out of his own allowance yearly while she was unmarried, and something always for the child.
“Nonsense,” said the old gentleman tartly; “the girl shouldn’t have been such a fool. I will pay one hundred pounds into the bank for her, and she shall not have another penny.” Geoffrey thought himself well out of the scrape, but before the incident closed there were words between the brothers that neither ever forgot. Peter took a different view of the matter entirely; he knew the girl, and he knew that she was gentle and confiding, and that Geoffrey had won her round with promises. So he called his brother a cur, and a few other things with strong adjectives, and because he knew he was in the wrong Geoffrey never forgave him. He went further, and hated him from that time onward.
But the incident was destined to bear fruit of a far more searching nature. Because he heard the girl was very ill and quietly fretting herself to death, Peter went one day to see her, prepared to make any amends in his power for his brother’s sin. And beside the sofa where the girl lay he met Joan Whitby. And such are the vagaries of human nature, with its beginning on that day, the gay, light heart, the fickle fancies, light loves, wild escapades of the devil-may-care young sportsman, all vanished away into thin air before a love that filled his whole being. Lovelier, gayer, cleverer women, ready enough to meet the heir of Richard Fourtenay-Carew halfway, had left him only gay and careless. Joan Whitby, shy, distrustful, reserved, won the prize unsought. She had run away from him, avoided any spot where they might meet, hidden if she saw him in the distance, tried to hurry past if they met unawares; more than that she could not do, because she was the governess at the agent’s house, and she and her charge must often cross the park. But Captain Peter Fourtenay-Carew was a hot-headed, determined young man, and having lost his heart to Joan’s grey eyes and delicate, lovely face, he was not very likely to be abashed by the fact that she hid from him; rather it whetted his determination to win her. And in the end, because Joan perceived he was an honest gentleman and that he truly loved her, and because with all her pure, strong soul she truly loved him, she left off running away and came shyly through the wood to meet him. And of course Geoffrey, the jealous, spiteful brother, discovered their secret, and carried the tale to his uncle in violent, indignant guise, precipitating anger for his own ends, where a little discretion might have found a compromise. Mr. Carew’s lips curled a little cruelly as he remarked he would easily nip that peccadillo in the bud. He would have no penniless, unknown governess reigning at Dartwood Hall, having already quite other views for his future successor. Then he informed his agent the young lady holding the post of governess in his house must be sent away at once, with a quarter’s wages which he would be pleased to remit. To Peter he said nothing; he merely waited for an indignant scene, easily to be squashed with cold and cursory logic concerning allowances and future inheritance if his wishes were disregarded. But it was just there that he misjudged this gay, handsome nephew of his, possessed also of a fund of spirit and strong character which his uncle had not had the perspicacity to perceive.
The interview duly transpired, but there was no indignation at all. If he had looked for melodrama he was disappointed; the melodramatic did not appeal to Peter Fourtenay-Carew. He merely told his uncle quite quietly and respectfully that he intended to marry Joan Whitby. Richard Carew condescended to reason a little before he resorted to that cold, cursory logic, but he might just as well have saved himself both. Peter stood in the library window, looking across the grand old park, and heard, apparently unmoved, that all those rich acres and woodlands and well-stocked waters and preserves would pass from him to his brother, if he chose to remain obdurate and marry the poor governess, instead of the lady of high lineage his uncle had already selected for him.
What he said was, “Do you wish me also to lose my career and leave the Blues?”
For the moment his uncle had been too angry to reply. “Get out,” he had said roughly. “You can’t be yourself this morning. I will not believe you seriously contemplate losing anything.”
Peter had turned back from the window, and stood a moment looking squarely into his uncle’s face. “I am going to marry Joan,” he said, “and as you have brought me up to be perfectly useless, except in a crack regiment, I only want to know if you will continue my allowance long enough to give me time to find out what I can be useful at,” then he had walked quietly out of the room.
And Richard Carew, distrusting his own ears and far more upset than he would ever for a moment admit, remembered that he had seen just that look on the face of Peter’s mother when he had had to break to her that her husband had been killed in the hunting-field—a look of desperate finality and unswerving resolve. Within the year he had stood beside her grave also, and taken the two baby boys home to his own house.
Then Geoffrey had come to him, and because he was clever and unscrupulous he fanned the flame easily to white-heat. Finally the uncle had decreed, “I will give him a week to think it over, and in the event of his remaining obdurate I will offer him one thousand a year for five years, and at the end of that time the allowance to be renewed or decreased, or stopped, according to my pleasure.”
At the end of the week Peter’s reply was “I am going to marry Joan on the 25th by special licence, in London. If you will not receive us together, I should be glad if my man might pack my clothes and bring them to me, with a few other belongings.”
And Richard Carew’s answer to that had been a lawyer’s letter, politely enquiring of Captain Peter Fourtenay-Carew to what address he wished the allowance sent, which was to be his for five years. Peter, not yet too angry to be cautious, asked if the five thousand pounds might be invested for him in entirety, and made arrangements at once to exchange into a far cheaper regiment, aware that as a soldier he might still keep a home for his wife, whereas any experiment in the untried fields of labour might swallow up all he had. In due course the solicitor replied that the request would be granted. But ere the wedding was solemnised the unlooked-for hand of fate dealt him a pitiless blow. He had many friends in the neighbourhood of his uncle’s estate, friends who were glad and willing to receive Joan for his sake and her own; and in an unhappy hour he received a pressing invitation to meet her at the house of one of them, and have a week with the pheasants before he had to rejoin his regiment. It was a bitter cold month that year, and every sportsman’s temper was a little on edge at having to face December blasts in October. And one day when they were out in a preserve that adjoined Richard Carew’s, he and his friend heard shots and voices over the dividing hedge; and it brought up the subject of young Geoffrey’s cold-blooded delight in his good fortune at becoming his uncle’s heir, and unthinkingly the friend commenced to repeat a report of something he had said in the local club when a little the worse for drink. Then he had stopped short abruptly, trying to turn away the subject, but with a sudden dangerous light in his eyes Peter had demanded to be told; and because the other man’s heart was sore for his friend, and he wanted to give Peter an excuse to cross swords with his brother, he told how Geoffrey had implied his relations with Joan had been exactly the same as his own, Geoffrey’s, with the keeper’s daughter in the beginning, but that he had not been clever enough to get clear of the affair as he had done, and that now he was nicely sold for his high-flown superiority.
And then the wrath in Peter’s face had been a terrible thing to see. It was as if his very nature reeled. He ground his teeth together, and his eyes had a red look as he muttered savagely, “God damn him; he shall pay for this!” He was standing with his face towards his uncle’s preserve, and even as he cursed there was a sound of shots, and a second later a hare dashed out and fled past them.
Scarcely knowing what he did in the blind white-heat of his passion, but possessed suddenly with an awful desire to kill, he swung completely round and fired at it. And just at that moment Joan and their hostess were coming up behind, hidden by the brushwood and shrubs, to go with them to the luncheon-place,—and Joan fell, shot through the heart. In the first awful moment no one seemed able to grasp the appalling fact. Peter threw himself down on his knees beside her, and was like a man struck dazed and speechless. He had a feeling that it was some horrible dream or hallucination, and presently this bewildering dazed sense would pass away and he would find the horror had not been real. Then across his torment he heard a voice that stung him alive with dreadful venom. His uncle and his brother had climbed the fence and had come to see what had happened, hearing from a scared keeper that someone was shot. Peter looked up and saw them. It was a dreadful moment for the three to meet. His friend, Maitland, seeing the unnatural ferocity in his eyes, tried to draw him away. Even Richard Carew, the uncle, looked a little alarmed. But Peter in his madness took a step forward. “You cur, you libelled her,” he hissed at his brother, and cursed him bitterly. And then Geoffrey lost his head too. An ugly sneer distorted his face as he answered, “Well, anyhow, you won’t get your inheritance back now, just through a casual shot. Lady Lilton is going to marry me, and …” But he had no time to finish, for Peter suddenly hurled himself upon him, and struggled fiercely to get his hands at his throat.
The scene was terrible. Those who were present never forgot it, and by the time a keeper and Maitland managed to separate them Geoffrey was too much hurt to stand alone. They left him lying on the ground, while Richard Carew forced a little brandy between his clenched teeth, and Maitland dragged Peter away to where his wife and a keeper were watching with horror in their eyes beside Joan’s lifeless form. For a moment they feared he had lost his reason, and then some dreadful tension in his brain seemed to snap suddenly and they saw he was himself again. Without a word to either of them he stooped down and lifted the still form in his arms, and carried her unaided back to the Maitlands’ house.
He did not lose hold of himself again, but for weeks suffered a mind agony that might well have permanently turned the brain of a weaker man. Night after night the Maitlands heard him leave the house, after all had gone to bed; and they knew that he went out to tramp the moors till morning, for it was only from utter physical exhaustion he ever slept. No word came from the Hall, but rumour said the younger brother was injured so that he would not walk for months. Richard Carew’s only action was to lavish hush-money, and keep as much as possible out of the papers. One mistake he made. Through his solicitor he informed his nephew he was willing to give him his former income, that he might remain in his old regiment. In answer to that Peter wrote to the lawyer: “I am leaving England for ever, and I shall cease to remember from this moment that I have the misfortune to be related to Richard and Geoffrey Fourtenay-Carew. No letters will reach me. I leave no address,” and then he signed himself “Peter Carew” without the Fourtenay, and used the second name no more. And immediately afterwards he joined one of the early pioneer bands setting out for Rhodesia, possessing nothing in the world but a little money gained by the sale of his personal possessions and a memory that would shadow his whole life.
Sitting alone on the kopje-top, he leaned his elbows on his knees and buried his face in his hands, and it was as though the waters of bitterness overflowed him.
No, of course he could never tell Meryl such a story as that. For sixteen years his path had lain alone and his bitterness been shared with none. It must go on so now to the end. When he could bear it the memory of Joan’s dear face still came to him as in infinite love and compassion; but he seldom dared allow himself even that; it was better to have nothing in his life—no past, present, nor future except his work.
He got up and stood for a moment leaning against his horse, resting his arms on the saddle and gazing far away. Then he rode slowly home under the stars, and by the time he reached the police camp his face was only rigid and mask-like.
A RAIN-WASHED MORNING AND A DISCUSSION
It was the first rain-washed morning of the wet season when Ailsa Grenville heard the news, through a letter from Diana.
And the first rain-washed morning is an epoch in the Rhodesian year; therefore it cannot be dismissed with a curt announcement.
All night long the vigorous, boisterous spring-cleaning had been in progress. Ailsa, snug in her little bed, with the rain slashing and banging and pounding on the corrugated-iron roof, and the trees swishing and swaying, and the wind rushing around like a mad thing, apparently from all four corners of the earth at once, had laughed softly to herself at the commotion Mother Nature was making upon the dusty, dishevelled, rubbish-strewn land. It was as if, having been very busy elsewhere for three months, she meant to stand no nonsense now, but get the whole country furbished up in one night. What a time they were having, those dusty, untidy-looking trees! Bucket after bucket, millions of buckets as big as a house, full of delicious rain-water, flung at their heads! And the dusty, disgraceful roads swept bare, with gallons upon gallons of water driving their refuse hither and thither, all of it, as if mightily ashamed of itself, scrambling along in masses; and, of course, in its haste choking up the drains, and becoming a serious hindrance until a veritable water-spout was necessary to clear the course.
And then the dead branches and twigs that the trees had been too lazy to shed; short shrift for them on the first spring-cleaning night. Down they came, helter-skelter, and no notice taken of the tree’s groaning, or its crackling cries of protest.
And the little river-beds and stream-beds, carelessly left to get filled up with dead leaves and rank grass, such a turning out for them as the resistless water was driven in sweeping streams along their bosoms! And woe betide any carelessly thatched or unsightly roofs! Off they went, away with the general medley. The coming summer would have none of them. And the granite, which had allowed dust and dirt and dead grasses to accumulate upon it, how it got its face scrubbed and washed that first night, and the wind shrieking with glee all the time, dashing the sheets of rain against it with its whole might!
But, of course, one could tell that everything liked it. The laughter in the trees and the wind was quite distinct, and the little rivers were fairly shouting with joy. It was not their fault that all that piece of the earth had grown so dusty and untidy; it was Mother Nature’s own fault for being so long coming with those big buckets of hers. How could any land, however willing, look spruce and green and clean with no rain for four months? No wonder there was such a commotion, and it was such a noisy, vigorous business, when at last the rain did come! Every tree and every blade and every flower had a special little life-plan of its own to carry out, if only it could get enough moisture, to say nothing of all the myriad insects and birds and animals, who were too lackadaisical, after the long, dry heat, to thoroughly begin their summer preparations until the rain came. The activity among the humans, with their gold-mines and farms and fanciful erections, would be nothing, would not be worth mentioning, compared with the activity going on in the hidden world all around them on the morrow. Even the flowers had been chary of wearing their best dresses in such a dusty, untidy world.
But wait till to-morrow, and then see them! Far, far outvying any assembly of Ascot frocks or Lords’ cricket week or Henley Sunday. The boisterous rain was a little severe on the dainty blossoms, but one may be sure they bore it with the pluckiest patience, whispering to each other gleefully about the lovely frocks they were going to wear the next day. And there would be such eager, joyful cogitations in the bosoms of all the little males anxious to be off on their spring courting affairs. How could any self-respecting young cock bird or male insect go and pay his addresses in a dusty, dirty, faded coat? Of course, it wasn’t to be thought of. The other chap, who waited, would get all the running. But to-morrow there would be no further need to wait at all. Plumage and coats would be spring-cleaned, and expectations for the coming summer of the highest. Well-filled storehouses, leaf-cosy nests, glorious hunting-grounds. Never mind these boisterous winds and the violent way they hurl the rain about; sit tight and make lovely plans for to-morrow.
Ailsa, snug in her little bed, thought happily about the earth and its glad renewing, and woke up her precious Billy to say, “Are you awake, Billy? Can you hear it?… We shan’t know our little world to-morrow.”
And Billy, who was sometimes of a very prosaic turn of mind, answered, with a grunt, “Just in time to save that top patch of mealies and the bed of onions, by Jove!…” and then rolled over and went to sleep again.
“Bother your onions and mealies,” said his adoring wife. “The world wasn’t made for you to grow vegetables in!…”
But the next morning they climbed a kopje together, just for the joy of it, and laughed softly, and exclaimed in hushed voices at all the wonder outspread.
Such a glorious new heaven and new earth! In the heaven a rain-washed sky, resplendent with armaments of fairy cloud-vessels sailing across deepest, loveliest blue. On the earth every leaf and every blade flashing light, as if it had a little sun of its own; every flower in its loveliest court dress; the very stones gay with beautiful shades of lichen; the granite kopjes in the distance, with their faces so thoroughly scrubbed, gleaming with the dazzling brightness of new-fallen snow. Dark, rich soil where the plough had been, renewed with the richness of velvet. Sullen, colourless veldt, radiant in a few short hours with the first outposts of its coming spring glory. Far, blue hills, bluer and intenser than ever in the rain-washed atmosphere. Little cock birds and male insects away off soon after sunrise about those courting affairs that had been delayed. A whole world rejoicing; a whole world singing Te Deums of praise and thanksgiving in its own dear, happy, overflowing way.
No wonder the big fellow in the well-worn khaki, with his vigorous enthusiasms and wide sympathies, thought a little regretfully of the hide-bound, clause-bound, doctrine-bound, sober-minded black cloth he had felt himself obliged to put off. Would humanity ever sing again as the sons of the morning? Ever burst into Te Deums of overflowing thanksgiving to the Giver of all good, such as echoed and re-echoed from a long-parched earth on its first rain-washed morning.
Well, he could but try to keep the long face and depressing atmosphere and thin air of superiority safely out of his own little sphere, and while he taught the natives to be active, useful members of society, try to help all the settlers about him, hard cases or otherwise, to be honest, fearless, clean-living men, whether they achieved it to the accompaniment of good round oaths and a Sunday morning spent in bed, or on their knees between consecrated walls in the accepted way. Of course, he liked them to come to his little stone tabernacle with its thatched roof, and he made his service just as attractive as ever he could on their behalf; but if they were too lazy or too busy to come—well, it didn’t follow they couldn’t be honest, clean-living fellows without it; so then he went to them, and sat over their camp fire, and told them a good story or two, and in the end there wasn’t a camp within twelve miles where the “bloomin’ sky pilot” wasn’t one of the most welcome guests.
But to do them justice, they mostly liked going to his little tabernacle, for it was always a pleasant meeting-place, and men in exile, even “hard cases,” like to sing a good old-fashioned hymn just once in a way; to say nothing of the big home-made cake, full of plums, which was usually ready to be handed round afterwards on the “sky pilot’s” verandah, and which he teasingly informed Ailsa was her way of bribing his congregation to come to church, rather than suffer the ignominy of hearing him preach to empty benches.
But that was as it might be; anyhow, if a settler within reach chanced to be ill, he might be sure he would get a jelly or soup or milk, even if he had never put a foot inside the little wilderness church. And if Billy could not take it The Kid or Moore had to, for Ailsa ruled her little sphere with a rod of iron, and the two troopers had long been her willing slaves.
But though she had cut herself adrift from the pleasant world of her girlhood, and won a real satisfaction out of life that would be death to most women, she had never lost her sympathies with all that went on in that existence, where
Life treads on life
And heart on heart;
We press too close in church and mart
To keep a dream or grave apart.
And when they came back from their ramble on that joyous morning, Diana’s letter caused a shadow to come over all the sunlight, and a quick anxious ache to grow up in her heart. After baldly stating the news of Meryl’s engagement her cousin wrote:—
“Was it you, or was it that bearish policeman, who suggested to such a dreamer as Meryl the desirability of a martyr’s crown?… She is far better suited to love in a cottage and babies, but just because that is the case and it is easy to obtain, she chooses to break her heart on some vague altar of sacrifice. I have no patience with these high-falutin ideas myself, nor with the cottage and babies either, for the matter of that; but I suppose a few people had to be practical and selfish and commonplace, to keep the world going round without violent bumps and jerks. Don’t send Meryl congratulations; send her an In Memoriam card. Believe me, it is better suited to the auspicious occasion.”
Ailsa showed the letter to her husband, feeling that it was the worst news she had had for many years. “What does it mean, Billy?… What can have influenced her?… My sweet Meryl! What is it?… What can it be?… that keeps Major Carew so aloof? It was easy to see how they attracted each other.”
“He is a proud man,” her husband said, gravely. “It is not easy for a proud man with nothing to choose a wife with a large fortune.”
“Ah, but there is something more,” she cried, “it cannot be only that. What has kept him so reserved in every particular all these years?”
But Grenville could not help her, and all the afternoon she worried and fretted in silence.
In the evening she said to him anxiously, after again discussing the news, “Mrs. Fleetwood has often asked me to visit her in Salisbury. Shall I go now? Perhaps if I could get Major Carew to talk?…”
“You will never get him to talk,” with quiet conviction.
“Nevertheless, my husband, I feel I must try. We have so much, you and I. One can but make the effort.”
She got up from her chair and went round to him, and climbed on to his knee and hid her face, because she was troubled and unhappy.
“Tell me something I can do to help them, Billy?” she pleaded.
He fondled her hair in silence a moment, and then, because he thought it might comfort her afterwards to know she had tried, he said, “There is no harm in your going to Mrs. Fleetwood’s. I think the change would do you good.”
And Ailsa went to bed a little comforted that at least he sanctioned her journey.
AILSA LEARNS CAREW’S SECRET
Ailsa had to journey to Selukwe in the post-cart, and she found it very trying; all the more so because her tender heart, which loved all animals, suffered agonies of compassion for the poor underfed, overworked mules, some with sores, urged pitilessly along by their black driver. She wished vainly that she was the happy possessor of a fortune, and might at once finance in Rhodesia the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, for which funds are so urgently needed. At Selukwe she had some little time to wait at the hotel before taking the train, and she went round to the posting-stables to interview any white man she could find who might be in a responsible position towards the post-cart mules on the subject of their condition. The man, of course, complained of the roads, which were in a hopeless condition, and beyond satisfying in a measure her own sense of compassion, she knew she had done little good. But while she talked to the white man at the stables, a thin, scholarly looking, grey-haired gentleman chanced to overhear their discourse, and raising his hat to her with grave courtesy, expressed his admiration of her action.
“But can nothing be done, do you think?” she asked him dolefully.
“I’m afraid not. You see, the Government do not particularly wish that route used, and so they have allowed the road to lapse. Let us hope there will very shortly be a railway, at any rate, to Edwardstown, and that then visitors will be encouraged to go and see your wonderful Zimbabwe ruins, instead of discouraged by the discomforts of the way.”
They moved towards the hotel together, and Ailsa asked, “Have you seen them?”
“Only for a few short hours, which were all I could spare from some research work I was doing elsewhere in Rhodesia. I was tremendously impressed by the little I had time to see, and look forward to a long sojourn there presently.”
They talked on, their conversation drifting from one subject to another, and then he discovered her name was Grenville, and she that his was Delcombe, and they greeted each other anew as both hailing from lovely Devon. After that he proudly assumed the rôle of escort, and waited upon her hand and foot. As it chanced, he also was journeying to Salisbury, so they became travelling companions, and the chance acquaintanceship ripened rapidly. In the evening they dined together in the restaurant-car and sat long over their meal; and then it was that Ailsa chanced to mention the name of Major Carew.
Henry Delcombe at once remarked, “There was a Major Carew at the Zimbabwe police camp, I think, when I visited the ruins, but I did not see him. I should like to have done. I understood from the young trooper there that he is some relation to the Fourtenay-Carews?” and he paused interrogatively.
“It was the man I am speaking of. He is a Fourtenay-Carew.”
“Ah!…” and Ailsa saw instantly the swift interest in her companion’s eyes; a wave as of thought-telepathy that this man probably held the key to Peter Carew’s past. Delcombe read in her sparkling eyes that her interest in the soldier-policeman was no casual one, but of the warmest friendship.
“Did you know him before he came out here?” she ventured.
“I knew his father well; I lived near to them in Devon. I was doing some research work, and I had a quiet little home in a lovely valley close to the little place that was then this man’s home, and quite near also to Dartwood Hall, where the elder brother, Richard Fourtenay-Carew, lived. They are not a rich family at all, you know. Dartwood Hall and estates and money came to Richard Carew through a very eccentric godmother, who brought him up, and he could do as he liked with it all. His younger brother, Peter Fourtenay-Carew, and his wife had, I think, only a very small income between them besides his pay as a captain. They rented a pretty little place in Devonshire close to Dartwood Hall, and came there for the hunting whenever he was able. The brothers were good friends, and he always had the run of the Dartwood stables. They were an interesting pair, but it was the younger whom I regarded as a friend, and that was why I was anxious to find out if I had stumbled across his son. As you may have heard, Captain Fourtenay-Carew, the father, was killed in the hunting-field and his wife died within the year. The two boys, then quite babies, were adopted by Richard Carew and brought up as his own sons.”
He paused and studied Ailsa’s face gravely. She was almost breathless with interest, and he seemed a little taken aback by it. She saw the question in his eyes, and hastened to add frankly, “I cannot tell you how interested I am to hear this. My husband and I think there is no one in the world like Major Carew; in fact, in some vague, distant way I believe we are related. But he never speaks of his past life at all. For some reason he seems to regard it as a closed book; he even persists in calling himself a Rhodesian, and resolutely ignores the fact that he is anything else as well.”
“Ah!…” and the thin, scholarly face of her companion looked as if he were obtaining a clue he wanted. There was a pause, and each seemed to be weighing something in his and her mind. Then Ailsa spoke: “I conclude he has some reason for his extreme reticence, and I hope I should be one of the last to pry into anyone’s secrets; but for a reason I can hardly explain, I should be very glad to know something now that might possibly help me to do a special service for him. I shall see him in Salisbury.”
“What I know is no secret in a general sense,” said Delcombe, speaking with grave deliberation; “but the facts of it were cleverly hushed up by his uncle, and you will easily understand that Major Carew would never speak of it now. My own interest in the matter is because of my regard for his father, and, I think I may say, admiration for himself. Anyone seeing the two brothers together as I did—that is, the younger men—must have felt deeply drawn to the elder and repulsed by the younger. A finer young fellow than Peter Fourtenay-Carew never stepped. The other brother was good-looking also, but he was cunning and crafty and little liked. Yet, such are the mysterious ways of Providence, the younger brother, by an unlooked-for turn of events, became the possessor of wealth and place and influence, and the elder went out from his country penniless, exiled, and alone. As far as I can judge, no one in England has ever heard of him since. I don’t think it is even known where he is. A few of us knew that he came out to South Africa, and journeyed to Rhodesia with one of the pioneer columns, but that is quite sixteen years ago, and events at home move quickly, and his utter silence lost him the warm places he might have held in most hearts, or, at any rate, left them in abeyance. I only came out to Rhodesia a few months ago, and I have been much on the veldt, studying ancient relics; but I have kept my ears open. I heard of the man you are speaking of at the police camp at Zimbabwe, but the young trooper, Mr. Stanley, was not communicative. With a very praiseworthy esprit de corps, he declined to be drawn into any discussion whatever concerning his officer. I heard after I left that he, Major Carew, was a very reserved, taciturn man, but it was generally credited he had once held a captaincy in the Blues; that and a personal description persuaded me he was my old friend’s son.”
“Yes,” Ailsa said, “there can be no doubt about it. I suppose you knew that he was going to be married just before he came away, and something rather dreadful happened?”
“Ah; he has revealed that much, has he?” in some surprise.
“Not to me; to a great friend of mine.”
He seemed perplexed, uncertain evidently, how much to tell her. Ailsa understood, and was a little at a loss how to act herself.
“I should not have mentioned the fact to anyone else,” she said, “as he evidently wishes to keep all personal matters entirely to himself; but, of course, you were very likely to know it. I also learnt from my husband that he was the elder brother and originally his uncle’s heir, but something happened to cause Mr. Carew to change his mind.”
Then Mr. Delcombe said thoughtfully, “I think there is no reason why I should not tell you a little more about him. I have always felt exceedingly sorry for his determined exile, and the isolation from all his old friends and old delights. I know that he dearly loved Devon, and one feels it is time now that he came back to try and pick up the threads. You and your husband appear to be his only friends, and as a distant connection you might be able to approach him upon a subject where a stranger, or shall we say a forgotten friend, would be diffident.” He paused, then added, “I wonder if he has the remotest idea that, owing to several deaths, he is now the next heir to the Marquis of Toxeter?”
A sudden joy seemed to sweep Ailsa through and through, and her eyes shone, and she clasped and unclasped her hands with excitement as she breathed, “O, is that really true? It seems too good; too much like a story-book.”
“Yes, it is a fact. Major Carew’s family was a younger branch, and sixteen years ago it would never have entered anyone’s head that the marquisate might fall to them. Time makes many changes, and three heirs have died in succession. The present marquis is old and has no children, therefore the next heir was Richard Fourtenay-Carew, also childless, and after him Major Carew’s father. Richard Carew died very shortly after this man left England, and young Geoffrey Carew then succeeded to all his possessions. I believe something was left to Major Carew, but he refused to touch it. It is since then that (his uncle being dead) he has become the heir of the present marquis, and I think it highly probable he has no notion of the fact whatever.”
“I am almost certain he has not,” Ailsa intercepted, “for I think he would have mentioned it to my husband.”
“Unfortunately there is very little money with the title, but he is not a man to trouble much about that; and, of course, the present marquis may live some time. But I have thought sometimes if he knew it might wipe out a little of the past bitterness. His brother robbed him of so much, but in the end it would seem Nature is making things even again. Geoffrey would give half his wealth to have the title, and I have reason to believe that it is a great bitterness to him to know that his brother, who cares nothing at all about it probably, must inevitably inherit it if he outlives the present owner.”
“And you will tell him?…” eagerly.
“Perhaps. Or it may be that you!…” He hesitated, and looked at her thoughtfully.
And then Ailsa said impulsively, “Let me give you trust for trust. I am taking this journey now chiefly on Major Carew’s account. There is trouble in the air. I cannot tell you the facts; I scarcely know them. But he has lived his isolated, reserved life so long, I feel it has perhaps warped his view a little, and if he could be persuaded to open his heart to a friend he might see things in a clearer light, and save himself and a dear friend of mine great unhappiness.” She paused, then added sadly, “But I am so much in the dark concerning him I hardly know how to win his confidence. There appears to have been this something before he left England, something rather terrible, that has shadowed all his life.”
“There was; I will tell you in confidence. Richard Carew hushed it all up, but there were a few of us who knew. His quarrel with his uncle was because he insisted upon marrying a poor governess, a most lovely and charming lady, instead of the bride his uncle had chosen. He was disinherited, and his allowance so curtailed that he would have to leave his regiment; but none of that troubled him in the least. He adored his fiancée, and was supremely happy, as anyone could see. Then the tragedy fell. I cannot tell you all the details, probably no one knows them except his friends the Maitlands and his brother, and uncle who is now dead. He was out shooting with Maitland, and the other two were near at hand; and Maitland had repeated something to him his brother had said, which was a deadly insult to Miss Whitby. He was in a blind fury, and scarcely knew what he was doing, when he swung round and fired at a hare behind him….” There was a moment’s intense pause before he finished in a low voice—”and the shot killed the poor girl he was to have married in a week.”
“O, how terrible!…” Ailsa gasped, and went white to the lips. “How terrible! Poor man! O, poor man!” Tears came into her eyes, and she turned away to hide them, and for some moments both were silent.
Then Delcombe continued, “It is no wonder that he has been always reserved and silent. I suppose in a way it killed the part of him that could be anything else. He just went right away to a strange country, dropped the double name they had always been proud of, and cut himself adrift altogether from everything connected with his old life. It is no doubt his intention to remain apart, and take up the old threads no more. But I loved his father, and I loved him in my old-fashioned way which he was not likely to perceive; and when the Royal Geographical Society offered me a chance of a trip to Rhodesia I took it gladly. One of my first thoughts, when the decision was finally made and I was appointed, was, ‘Perhaps I shall come across Peter Carew’s son.'”
Ailsa rested her elbow on the table and leaned her head on her hand, still with the glisten of tears in her eyes. “It makes one feel there is surely a Providence,” she told him softly, “for my chance meeting with you may save him, and that other, from everlasting regret.”
A little later, when they went to their separate compartments for the night, she thanked him again. “You have made me feel quite broken-hearted for our dear soldier-policeman. Think what his memories must have been all these years! But perhaps his dark day is finished. I am very hopeful now. God bless you for remaining so staunch a friend to him and giving me your confidence!”
And in Johannesburg that night Meryl said simply and quietly to van Hert, “I will marry you as soon as you wish. As you say, there is nothing to wait for, and, afterwards, there is much that we can do together.”
“In a fortnight?” he urged, and she assented.
But Diana insisted otherwise. “It is simply indecent haste,” she exclaimed, “and nothing in this world will persuade me to decide upon my bridesmaid’s frock and have it ready in less than three weeks, and it may be a month.”
And Meryl—a quiet, white-faced Meryl nowadays, with little enough enthusiasm for frocks and wedding-presents—let her have her way.
“HOW CAN I GO TO HER!…”
The first meeting between Ailsa and Carew was a very difficult one for the woman. Directly she saw him she realised that he had drawn back into his shell further than ever, and the increased greyness on his temples spoke for itself of anxious, troubled hours. At first he had been difficult to entrap. In reply to her note came just a vague regret that he was exceptionally busy, and often out on the veldt, with a hope that he would see her before she left. One or two other attempts failed entirely to procure the interview, and she was almost at her wits’ end. Finally, she had to resort to strong measures, and gain her end by subterfuge. Carew went to the house of a man friend by invitation, and was shown into his friend’s den to find Ailsa awaiting him alone. The expression on his face told her instantly that he felt himself trapped, and resented it. But she could be very disarming when she liked, and she had tact enough to follow the straight course most likely to appeal to him now that she had gained her interview.
“You must not be angry with me,” she said, with engaging frankness. “I simply had to see you.”
He stood very upright, with a cold, unresponsive face, and waited for her to proceed.
“Won’t you sit down? You make it difficult for me when you are … so … so … distant and unbending.”
He moved away to the window, and stood looking out, with his back to the room. “Will you tell me what it is you have to say?” he asked very quietly. He knew perfectly well it had to do with Meryl, and he did not want her to see his secret in his face. In fact, he did not wish to speak of the subject at all.
Ailsa stood silently a moment, looking at his back, and then she said very quietly, “I have heard the story of your past life. I … I … know it all.”
For a moment there was such a stillness in the room that one could almost hear heart beats. The figure in the window never moved.
“Who told you?…” he asked at last.
“Mr. Henry Delcombe, the scientist, who was a great friend of your father’s.”
Another silence. At last—
“Is he in Rhodesia now?”
“He is here, in Salisbury. He will not tell anyone else,” she added. “He told me because … because … he perceived that Billy and I cared for you very much, and for your happiness.” She moved a little nearer to him, and continued gently, “I felt almost as if I could break my heart with sympathy for you,—and that you should have borne such memories all these years, alone.”
“I have put them behind me,” he said, speaking almost harshly. “The past is dead. What does it matter who and what I was before?… To-day I am a Rhodesian, and my work is here. I shall remain here now until I die.”
“You may not be able to do that,” and her voice had suddenly a ring in it that seemed to arrest him.
“Why may I not?”
“Because presently—very soon perhaps—you will have to answer to a call that requires you in England.”
He half turned to her, waiting silently and unmoved, with grave eyes fixed on the distance.
She came a step nearer. “Mr. Delcombe told me also, that because of many changes that have taken place in the sixteen years since you cut yourself adrift from home, you are now heir to the marquisate of Toxeter. When the present marquis dies you will succeed him.”
It seemed at first as if he heard without understanding. Once more there was a silence in which one might hear heart beats.
“Will you let me congratulate you?” Ailsa asked a little timidly.
“I think he must have been dreaming,” he said in slow comment.
“No; there is no doubt about it whatever. He will tell you himself if you will let him. He wants to see you very much.”
And still he was only silent, gazing, gazing to the far distance. If it was true, how was it he had never heard?… Could it possibly all have transpired during the times he had been away shooting in the far north, or out on the veldt, away from newspapers for months?
“There is something else I want to speak about,” and her voice trembled somewhat. “This news concerning your future will make it a little easier. You know, of course, that Meryl Pym has become engaged to Mr. van Hert, the well-known Dutch politician?”
Instantly he stiffened. “I saw it in a newspaper.”
She came close up to him suddenly. “O, Major Carew”—and there was an infinite pleading in her voice—”Billy and I thought you cared for her, and we believed she cared for you. Don’t let her wreck her whole life now…. Don’t stand by and let her marry a man she does not love. Go to her before it is too late!”
Under his iron control his face seemed to work strangely. She saw the swift compression of his lips, the swift pain in his eyes, the strong hunger he could not entirely hide.
“It is impossible,” and the usual steadiness of his voice was shaken. “You say you know my story!… How can I go to her and tell her that once I killed the woman I loved?… How can I speak to her of love—I, the policeman, she the heiress?… How can I tell her that story which was told to you?… The story of damnable hate and passion, when I tried to strangle my own brother. I tell you she would shrink away in horror. She must shrink. Why did you speak to me about it at all! Your thoughts are folly and madness. I offer love to Meryl Pym?… My God! I have some decency—some pride left.” And the pain and bitterness in his voice shocked and stabbed her.
But in spite of her inward shrinking she answered him boldly, drawing on a courage lent her by love and sincerity.
“And I say that if you love her truly, you ought to be able to trust her with your story. It is not noble and spirited of you to stand aside as you perhaps think. It is cowardly. Pride is generally cowardly. For the sake of your pride, of your own personal feelings, you will let her go on with this marriage and never say a word and never move a finger to save her from shipwrecking her whole life. First you will let your own sad past come between you; then you will let her hateful gold drive you away; then you will talk of yourself as just a policeman. And in any case—you must know it as well as I know it—none of these things would estrange Meryl Pym from the man she loved. There is nothing whatever between you except your pride, and you think that demands a renunciation from you, careless or no whether it brings heart-break for her.”
He had grown deathly white now, with dark hollows round his eyes, and she could almost see how his teeth were clenched behind the firm lips. She had taken him entirely by surprise in her outburst, and her news concerning himself; and he discovered she had swept his secret from him concerning his love for Meryl, almost before he knew what he was speaking of.
“There might be something in what you say if Miss Pym cared for me in return. That she does is the merest supposition.”
“And how do you know that with such sureness?” she cried. “No, no, Major Carew; in your heart you know otherwise. But you just let her go away without a word, without a hope, and one or two of us know what this hasty engagement means. Diana calls it martyrdom. She wrote me to send Meryl an in memoriam card instead of congratulations, for it was more in accord with the occasion.”
His face worked visibly, in spite of his stern suppression, but he still stood rigid and upright, looking away from her—out over the far shadowy veldt, seeing nothing.
In the pulsing silence that followed he beheld again that terrible October scene, when his love lay dead upon the heather. Could he ask any other woman to share that with him?… let the burden of such a memory faintly touch her life?… He knew that at the inquest it had been decided no one could possibly say who fired the shot. His uncle and brother were both shooting at the time, in the same direction; but though his friend Maitland had insisted upon a verdict of accidentally shot by someone unknown, and Richard Carew had resolutely supported him, in his own heart he had stood condemned. Yet if penance were required, what had he not given?… Exile, loneliness, nonentity for all the best years of his life; and her image, the beloved face of his lost Joan, the only woman’s presence in his life. And yet now, as he stood gazing, gazing to the far blue hills, it seemed that her face and Meryl’s were strangely blended. From the very first their eyes had been as the eyes of one woman, infinitely comprehending, infinitely true. Was it possible that Ailsa’s accusation was true? One woman had been sacrificed more or less to his mad, insensate fury against his brother. Was the other perhaps to be sacrificed to his rigid, indomitable pride? One picture seemed to stamp itself upon his brain with ever-increasing strength and clearness: the picture of Meryl, leaning up against the window lintel that last evening at Bulawayo, white as a frail, exquisite lily, with the anguish in her deep eyes that she could not entirely hide. That, and the iron control he had needed to put upon himself, making him seem grim and unfeeling for fear one instant’s weakness should make his longing arms enfold her. Well, he had played his man’s part as well as he could; ridden away from her, disappointed her, openly avoided her, only in the end to love her with the deep, wise, understanding, all-embracing love of a man past his first youth, and with a wide knowledge of human nature.
And this engagement of hers to van Hert! What might it not result from?… What hopelessness, what despair, what heroic resolve to play her little part in the country’s good, and win some satisfaction perhaps, since she might not have happiness!
Standing silently at the window it all seemed to pass through his mind with piercing clearness, and Ailsa’s spirited attack rang still in his ears: “First you will let your sad story come between you, then her hateful gold, then your lowly position, answering to the call of your own pride, careless whether it wreck her life’s happiness or no.”
Yes, she was quite right, it was his pride. Even now the thought of the gold was hateful to him.
Still, if some day he would indeed be the Marquis of Toxeter!… if he could at least offer her a high position!… if it was no longer a question of going to her empty-handed….
The silence continued, and in the background Ailsa waited and watched. She could read nothing from the tall figure in the window, except that his thoughts were far away and he was probing deeply. She leaned back in a low chair, feeling suddenly very tired and overwrought. She had come all the way from far Zimbabwe for this interview, just to say to this man, before it was too late, the spirited things she had said. And now?…
She looked round the den of the man who was her friend, and his, and had helped her to win the interview, noting each trivial detail, each attempt at decoration and hominess, each cunning substitute such as every Rhodesian contrives out of his ingenuity for some trifle not easily procured in that far land. And all the time she was tensely painfully aware of that strong man in the window, and of the issues that hung upon his decision. How, in the event of his deciding to approach Meryl, the recognised fiancé was to be treated, was beyond her. She was too tired to probe further. She only cared that Meryl’s happiness should be saved. Her own had been so nearly lost, she had seen so much unspeakable bitterness arise out of one great mistake, made once by many women at the altar, and she only waited to know if she had lost or won.
At last the silent figure moved. At the window Carew turned and came towards her. She watched him with all her soul in her eyes, unable to rise from her chair for very tension.
“What are you going to do?…” she asked, hoarsely.
“Can you tell me where I can find Henry Delcombe?” he said.
DIANA BEGINS TO GROW PERPLEXED
In the meantime the household at Hill Court was a restless, uneasy, depressed one. No person in it, except Meryl, seemed undisturbed by the unsatisfactory atmosphere. She by taking thought, had, contrary to the old dictum, added to her stature; but it was the stature of her mind. The spirit that takes a woman through the troubled waters at hand, with all her consciousness set upon the great goal ahead, upheld her now; and in the presence of onlookers gave her a grave serenity, not in any way akin to joy, but baffling to those who would fain have seen her show a stronger feeling either of gladness or regret.
It baffled even van Hert himself. To him she seemed so strangely the same, yet different, from the woman he had loved before the Rhodesian tour. In all his work, his plans, his schemes, she was as earnest and interested as he could possibly wish; but that fairness his dark strength had coveted seemed to elude him at every turn. When he kissed her, he felt vaguely that she suffered his caress; on one or two occasions it almost seemed as if she went further and shuddered, and yet she never actually repulsed him. And then the dainty, light humour that had been hers as well as Diana’s!… What had become of it?… It seemed now as if Diana had absorbed it all, for Meryl was nearly always quiet, while the younger girl was almost boisterous. And yet even in Diana there was a note that puzzled him. She was so jumpy and uncertain. Childishly gay one moment, and cuttingly brilliant the next. He was glad she was there. After the first week of the engagement he found himself quite willing to further Meryl’s obvious wish for her company upon every occasion. So if she rose to leave them alone they deterred her with vague requests and excuses; and when they went in public together, Diana was always with them. And when she was snappy, they laughed at her and did not mind. Diana snappy was better than no Diana at all.
Aunt Emily thought otherwise, and was deeply grateful to them in her heart whenever they took her refractory niece safely out of her way. Her escapades were apt to be so wild nowadays, and her language so horrifying; and whenever the poor lady remonstrated, she was always told that it was the result of the Rhodesian trip.
“It will take me quite a year to get over it,” Diana informed her. “You can’t eat rats, and sleep with a frog in your bed, and go unwashed for weeks on end, without suffering from it in some way. God bless my soul!… is it likely?…”
At the end of the second week, anyone watching with keen insight might have seen a still more significant change creeping over the three most noticeable inmates of the house; for Mr. Pym was only silent and grave and retiring, going early to his study and feigning to be much occupied. And Aunt Emily had acquired a habit of going to sleep after dinner during her solitariness, which Diana wickedly called a dispensation from Heaven to bless the household of Henry Pym.
So the lovers and Diana were left to themselves, and usually sat upon the deep verandah. And it became apparent presently that all the talking was done by Diana and van Hert; Meryl was merely a silent listener. Perhaps she was not even a listener; one could not tell. She sat so still, with wistful eyes looking out beyond the stars. But Diana, on the other hand, exceeded herself; and in doing so she made van Hert exceed himself also. She was brilliant, mischievous, reckless, serious, satirical, nonsensical, all in a breath. She drove him hither and thither; led him on one moment, and withered him with her satire the next. It was obvious the man very soon left off treating her with any careless levity; if he did he was outwitted in no time; torn to shreds, and cast to the four winds on merry logic that had ever the sting of satire behind its laughing lightness. Very quickly he was on his guard, with thrust and parry; keen, watchful, alert—the politician to whom South Africa listened. And finally there came a day when, after unfolding a plan to Meryl, he added, “That is my idea, but I thought I would consult your cousin first.” It seemed to strike him that it was a little odd, and he added, “She is extraordinarily observant. She may see some weak point we have overlooked.”
“Yes, consult Diana,” Meryl had replied at once; “she knows a lot about statistics of that kind. She has often had arguments with father over them.”
So in the evening van Hert came in eager haste to have his talk with Diana. And Diana had taken herself off to a dinner-party and was not forthcoming. So the lovers sat on the verandah alone, and after a little they began to feel at a loss for anything to say, and wished devoutly that Diana would return.
As she was likely to be late, van Hert got up and spoke of departing. He said he had a measure to study carefully, ready for the reopening of Parliament at Cape Town. And while he was still explaining, Diana returned. She had made an excuse and left the party early.
“It was so dull,” she said. “I have no patience with people who let me bite them, and do not try to bite back. I bit them all, more or less, in the end, and left them bathing each other’s sores, so to speak, and exclaiming with bated breath at my cleverness. Fools and blockheads! just because I’ve got a banking account that would buy half of them up, and never miss it. As if I didn’t know, when I’m in that mood, I’m a cattish little spitfire!…”
“So you came home to worry us?…” and the pleasure in his face was suddenly illuminating.
“Well, you have the pluck to hit back,” and she looked at him with a flash of her eyes that made his senses reel a little. She threw her costly evening-cloak on to a chair, and pushed it a little aside with her foot, with a graceful action that displayed a dainty slipper and ankle, in no wise lost upon him. “I always hit back myself,” she continued. “I’ve no sympathy with the ‘other cheek’ theory. I hit twice as hard as the attacker if possible. If Aunt Emily were here, I should say I give a dickens of a smack; but as she isn’t, it is not worth while.” She came forward with a mischievous gleam in her eyes. “Poor dear Aunt Emily! I sometimes have her conscience very much on my mind; but there … I can bear it.” And her comical enunciation in the poor lady’s exact tones set both Meryl and van Hert off laughing.
The laughter was coming back to her own eyes too. When she entered they had been clouded, and her lips pouting. If they only knew it, she had been bored to tears at the party; bored utterly and completely, longing to be back on the verandah fighting a wordy, keen, good-tempered battle with van Hert; and she felt sure he would have gone when she returned. She had noticed he never stayed late when she was absent. But she was just in time. He had not gone, was only just going, and she perceived the face of each was tired and depressed.
“What have you been doing?” she rallied them. “You looked as if you had been intending to read the marriage service through together, and had read the funeral one by mistake; or possibly because it appealed to you more!… You both seemed doleful enough for anything.”
“We missed you,” Meryl said, simply. “William wanted to ask you about a new measure he is planning.”
Van Hert said nothing, but he was looking at her unconsciously, with a light in his eyes that staggered her. Other men had looked at her with admiration, but this man had an expression that seemed to envelop her with himself. She felt throughout her pulses that he was all fire and eagerness and intensity, a strong, wilful, obstinate, fierce, virile personality that reached out mute, unconscious arms to her level-headed coolness. The fire in his eyes was only smouldering as yet, but it seemed to tell her that he was a fine-toned, brilliant instrument that she, and perhaps she only, could play upon as she liked, bringing forth both thundering chords and enveloping sweetness.
And in the sudden silence that had fallen upon the verandah, Diana knew that she liked to play, would always like to play, that with this man at least boredom would never fret her restless soul.
Then she plunged into words with him, and they sparred delightedly, and that work he had spoken of as awaiting him at home was left to take care of itself.
Later, Diana went outside on the verandah of her room and Meryl’s and looked at the stars. The tables had turned utterly, but it was doubtful if either of them perceived it. Meryl went quietly to bed with only a few words, and either slept, or feigned sleep. Diana loitered on the verandah, and looked at the stars. She hardly knew why, only some strange half-consciousness was springing up inside her that made her restless. Somehow van Hert seemed to be gaining a hold over her. She could not gauge how, nor why, nor wherefore; but as she thought of his fine dark eyes in the starlight, with that luminous, glad expression when he looked at her, she had a sense of violent antipathy one moment, and of a gladness that made her blush secretly the next.
But within three days the date of the wedding was fixed, and all the papers paragraphed it far and wide.
It appeared in Salisbury the day after Ailsa had had her talk with Carew, and it came as a shock to both of them. It left just three weeks for action, and no more. What was to be done? Ailsa tried to get another interview with Carew at once, and found he had had to ride to some place twenty miles distant, and might not be back until the morrow. So, in distress, she sought Henry Delcombe. What he had to tell her was faintly reassuring. Carew had gone to see him after he left Ailsa, and had asked for proofs of his heirship to the marquisate of Toxeter. Delcombe had been able to satisfy him, and he had been gravely friendly, but that was all. At last, in desperation, Ailsa decided to write to Diana. The mail left that morning, and would reach Johannesburg in three days. Diana was full of resource, and she might think of a plan. Ailsa decided to tell her as much as she could without betraying any confidence. She said no word of the tragedy. That only concerned Meryl, and if she were to hear it at all, she must hear it from him. Neither did she mention his changed position; that also he should tell himself. She contented herself with letting Diana know that he had admitted he loved Meryl.
In the meantime she waited anxiously for Carew to return, but heard no word of him until the Sunday afternoon. In reply to an urgent little note he came to see her. She had wondered if he would be changed at all; if his new position would shed a ray of gladness in his steady eyes. But he seemed exactly the same, and she could read nothing.
“Did you see the announcement yesterday?” she asked. “There is so little time. I had to see you.”
“And what are you going to do?”
He looked down at the carpet, lost in thought. “I hardly know,” he said.
“O, won’t you at least go to Johannesburg?…” she pleaded. “See Meryl once. If you fail her now, perhaps you will never forgive yourself.”
“On the other hand, I may only disturb her mind. How do you know she has not cared for this man for a long time? In any case, what right have I to cross his path now?”
“O, your logic!…” she cried. “The way you men think this and that and the other, when a woman just knows! Go and see her. Go and make sure of things for yourself.”
But he shook his head in doubt and perplexity. To him it seemed almost like stealing to go and attempt to take from this other man what he had won fairly and openly; and though Ailsa tried other arguments, she could not move him. Only one half-hope she extracted from him.
“Perhaps,” he said, “I will write to Mr. Pym and ask his advice.”
Then he went back to the hours of desperate mental stress, that were steadily increasing the grey about his temples. To Ailsa he might have seemed cold and self-contained as ever, but if she could have known it, all his being was torn with conflict. With the hourly growing ache and longing to throw everything to the winds and to try to carry Meryl off while there was yet time there was the fear lest a wrong step on his part should shatter for her some newly found content.
DIANA’S PERPLEXITIES INCREASE
The two days after Diana came home early from her dinner-party were chiefly noticeable for the fact that for the first time since the engagement van Hert remained away from Hill Court. No one knew why, and the excuse he sent was of the vaguest. Diana asked her own heart and was troubled. When he came on the third day, he walked into the drawing-room to look for Meryl, and found Diana reading in the window alone. They discovered each other suddenly, and it was almost as if he gave a guilty start; and he looked unusually pale, with haggard eyes, as if he had slept badly of late. Diana saw it all, but gave no sign.
“You are something of a stranger, Meinheer van Hert,” she said lightly. “My sword had almost time to rust.”
“It would never do that. The best of swords is none the worse for an occasional rest; unless”—with a somewhat tired gleam of humour—”you have been keeping it bright at the expense of poor Aunt Emily.”
“No, it has had a real rest. I am saving it again for the best swordsman worthy of it.”
His eyes came suddenly to her face, and she realised at once that until that moment he had scarcely looked at her; and in that second’s flash she saw something in them that hurt: a swift, deep trouble that he was struggling to hide. He looked away again quickly, noting the lovely shades of the room, the masses of violets, the general airiness and elegance.
“Is Meryl at home?”
“Yes. I will go and tell her you are here.”
Diana went upstairs very slowly, lost in thought. And when she had told Meryl, she stood a long time at the window, thinking still. Presently Meryl came back. “William came to ask me to definitely fix the date of the wedding. We decided on the fifth; that will give us just a week before he must go to Cape Town.” Then, as if she did not expect Diana to make any comment, she added, “The invitations must go out to-night.”
That evening van Hert came as usual, but, simply because he was gayer than usual, Diana perceived that his gaiety was forced; and she saw also that he shunned meeting her eyes, looking anywhere, nowhere, rather than into her face.
The next day she rode in a direction where she and Meryl often met and joined him for a gallop. Meryl had suggested coming as usual, but Diana had contrived to put her off. She wanted if possible, without quite knowing why, to see van Hert alone; and as it happened, Fortune favoured her, for he appeared up a side road suddenly, and had no time to escape her, even had he wished. So they rode together, and he tried to talk to her as usual. When they came to a spot where they often dismounted, and sat to enjoy the lovely view of distant hills, Diana prepared to get off her horse. She saw him hesitate, and then he muttered something about an important engagement.
“O, nonsense!…” with a gay, airy smile. “If I’m not in a hurry, you can’t be. I only want to sit for about fifteen minutes.”
So they gave their horses’ reins to the smart black groom, who always rode with the girls, and sat on the rustic bench where the three had several times sat together.
And suddenly, Diana, giving rein to her impulsive temperament, said, “What is your opinion of a man who marries one woman and loves another?”
She saw him start and stiffen, but he tried to parry the thrust. “What a question to ask a fiancé of a few weeks, on the eve of becoming a bridegroom!…”
“Well, that’s why! I thought you would have formed many opinions on the subject of love and marriage.”
“And why do you want to know?”
“O, just a fancy! I know men sometimes do that kind of thing. Personally I think it is rather cowardly.”
“Because it shows a man hasn’t the pluck to own he has made a mistake. He would rather go on with it, and pretend everything is all right.”
She saw him bite his lip, and felt more thoroughly that he would not meet her eyes.
“It is hard on the other woman, the one he does love, too. It might make her very happy to be told. One joy is better than two miseries any day, even if his lordship did have to own to a mistake and look rather silly!…” with a little laugh.
“Perhaps I shall know more about it when I am married,” trying to speak carelessly. “You must ask me later.”
“Probably I shall not want to know then; my fancies are always varying. What should you do, for instance, if you suddenly found you cared for someone else more than Meryl?”
She was watching him closely, and she saw the swift, tell-tale blood rush to his face.
“I’m sure I don’t know,” he answered, with a forced, unnatural laugh. “It is rather a remote probability now.”
“O, one never knows!…” Diana spoke with assumed lightness, and looked away to the hills, feeling a little unnerved by the sudden, swift palpitating in her blood. “Shall we go on now?” rising and turning her back to him. “I mustn’t keep you any longer from that important engagement.”
She might have added that she had learnt what she came out to learn; but instead she put her horse to a smart gallop, and rode back without scarcely speaking, flinging him a gay good-bye over her shoulder when their roads separated.
When she reached home she found Meryl surrounded by dressmakers, and trying hard to assume an interest in the proceedings; but Diana’s clear eyes saw the effort as plainly as if it had been written across her forehead. She saw that she looked ill, too; ill and worn and joyless, as if something had damped for ever her natural fount of gaiety. And withal she was so sweet-tempered and considerate, studying everybody else’s feelings in this wedding of hers; everyone’s apparently except her own. Diana wanted to shake her one moment, and howl round her neck the next. Instead of doing either she was a little more snappy than usual.
“Will you have your dress fitted now?” Meryl asked her. “Madame has it all ready.”
“No,” shortly. “I haven’t time this morning; and besides, one can’t be fitted just after a ride. I’m going to have a hot bath and a cigarette,” and she flung out of the room, leaving Meryl a little perplexed and Madame considerably perturbed.
In her own apartment she tossed things about, and was very irritable with her maid. Later, she went out into the garden to a shady nook where she was not likely to be disturbed, because she wanted to think. But thinking was no easy matter. On every side were perplexities.
“It’s just the devil’s own mess,” she summed up at last, unable to think of any other sufficiently strong description. “Meryl doesn’t want to marry van Hert, and van Hert doesn’t want to marry Meryl; they both want to marry someone else; and yet they both mean to go on to the bitter end, because of some rotten-cotton notion about serving South Africa. O! I’ve no patience with these heroic attitudes! They are not suited to commonplace everyday life. If they’d a little more sound common sense, and a little less of the noble and lofty soul spirit, they would perceive they will only do more harm than good by going against nature and trying to force inclinations. But the absurd thing is, that neither has yet had the perspicacity to perceive the other’s unwilling frame of mind. That exactly bears out my point. These heroic attitudes do not suit the exigencies of everyday life. If they weren’t both so bent on doing the noble thing, they would perceive they are merely making fools of themselves, and incidentally straining my powers of resource beyond all reason. Of course it can’t go on; but what in the name of all that’s wonderful can I do to stop it?… Send for The Bear, and compel him to make the best of the awful fact that Meryl possesses a fortune, and console dear Dutch Willie myself, I suppose!…” And she smiled grimly. Then her face softened, and tears unexpectedly gleamed in her eyes. She brushed them away, apostrophising herself impatiently. Then she swallowed down a sob, murmuring, “I can’t bear the thought of Meryl, standing with that smile on her lips and that expression in her eyes, to be fitted for her wedding-dress. It makes one want to tear the whole world to pieces, and sink South Africa in the nethermost ocean. No wonder uncle shuts himself in his study so much nowadays. He must be just as hard put to it as I am to know what to do.” A step disturbed her cogitations at that moment, and Aunt Emily came into view.
“Ah, my dear, I thought I saw you come down the garden. There is a letter for you with a Rhodesian stamp. I thought you might like to have it.” And she handed it to her, at the same time sitting down on the garden-seat beside her.
“Have you seen Meryl’s dress,” she enquired, with an expression that had suddenly grown sentimental. “The dear child. To think of her in her wedding-dress, so soon to be a bride!”
“Well, that’s a commonplace enough event! Girls like Meryl usually do become brides, and later on they wear shrouds, and have a nice little coffin all to themselves. There really isn’t very much difference!…”
“O, my dear!… What a dreadful remark to make! I am sure it is unlucky to speak like that.”
“Then I hope it will be unlucky enough to postpone the wedding indefinitely.”
Aunt Emily turned and looked at her niece as if she thought she had taken leave of her senses, but that was not by any means a new expression upon the face of Henry Pym’s sister confronting Henry Pym’s niece.
“Really, Diana!…” she expostulated. “I think it is hardly a subject for jesting. Marriage is a very serious thing. I hope God will bless dear Meryl with great happiness. I confess, at first, I was disappointed that she chose a Dutch husband; but Mr. van Hert has very good Huguenot blood in his veins, and he is undoubtedly a very charming man; and then, of course, her children will only be half Dutch.”
“Her children ought to be bear cubs!” snapped Diana, wishing her aunt would go away and leave her to read her letter in peace.
For a moment Aunt Emily was too horrified to reply, and then Diana added, “Don’t trouble to expostulate any more. I’m not really mad, only eccentric. I never could see why people make such a silly fuss about weddings; anyhow, they are all the same and all commonplace. When I marry, I shall give all my friends the shock of their lives, something to talk about for a year, and then for once in my life I shall be a public benefactor. I see Helen looking about on the terrace as if she wanted you. Shall I ask her?…”
“No, I will go in to her”; and she got up and walked towards the house, still wearing a shocked expression.
“I wonder if Helen will have the sense to manufacture some request?” thought Diana, glancing after her. “As if I could see the terrace from here!…”
Then she opened her letter.
When she had read it through once, she turned back to the beginning and read it through again. And all the time she was so rigidly still, that a little bird hopped close up to her foot to investigate.
Then she laid the letter down and looked out across the garden. Five minutes later she got to her feet.
In a moment of crisis Diana was the type who courageously follows an inspiration, without overmuch weighing and sifting. She had faith in her own keen woman’s instinct and she knew there were times when sharp, decisive action is better than lengthy, minute attention to all the laws of war, and far-reaching considerations of what might or might not result.
A gate at the far end of the garden led out to the main road, and not very far down was a post office. Diana went straight to it, and sent a wire, with prepaid reply, directed to Major Carew, which ran:—
“Can you come at once? Urgently wanted. Go to Carlton and send message on arrival to me.
A USEFUL BLUNDER
The railway journey from Salisbury to Johannesburg takes three and sometimes four days; so that whether Carew responded to her urgent message or not, Diana had rather a long time to possess her soul in patience and make up her mind what course to take next. She was in two minds whether to take her uncle into her confidence or not, but decided men were always apt to bungle, and she had better trust entirely to her own guidance. Beyond a doubt the situation required the most delicate and skilful handling. First of all, she felt she must convey to van Hert some suggestion that would prepare him for the shock of what might be expected to follow upon Carew’s arrival, supposing he came. Meryl she did not worry greatly about. She might be expected to be swept off her feet and go with the tide, by the very suddenness of it all. The two men presented the obstacles. Carew would have to be inveigled with the greatest finesse into an interview with Meryl, without ever letting him perceive a woman was leading him. In her heart Diana was a little afraid of the steady, unbending face. He was not likely to prove pliable; he might even refuse to come. Nothing she could say could alter the fact that he was a policeman and Meryl was burdened with a fortune, and that was the only barrier Diana was aware of. She laughed a little to herself as she wondered whether it would help matters if Mr. Pym made a will disinheriting Meryl, and dividing his money between her and charities. She could easily give it back to Meryl later. Then she sighed. “More heroics!… and they tell us it is a base world. Here am I driven out of my senses nearly, positively suffocated with high-mindedness, because three delightful people can’t come down from their unlivable altitude and exhibit a little practical common sense.”
Then, of course, there was van Hert’s pride to consider. What in the world, at this time of all others, was to be made of an English girl jilting a prominent Dutch politician a week before the wedding day! “It’s almost enough to cause another war!” sighed poor Diana. “I’m really beginning to wish I had let them all go their own foolish ways. If I don’t mind I shall end in becoming a heroine myself, and that’s really too alarming!…”
However, the bull having been taken by the horns, it was wiser to keep a firm hold of them; though more than once Diana felt herself very entirely in sympathy with Mark Twain when he says, “It is better to take hold by the tail, because then you can let go when you like.”
Obviously van Hert must be tackled first, but she waited until the morning after sending her wire, hoping for a reply. It came early, and fortune favoured her in that she received her orange-coloured envelope unknown to anyone. She carried it upstairs and opened it with a beating, anxious heart. It contained only two words, and was not signed:—
For a moment she felt a little dazed. He was coming then, the stern soldier-policeman. What in the world was she to say to him?…
Then a flood of gladness began to well up in her heart. After all, it meant before all things, that a day of great joy might be at hand for Meryl. Did anything else really matter?… If she personally came through the transaction a little battered—well, it wouldn’t really matter, if Meryl and The Bear were safely off the rocks. Rather than let any shadowy good for South Africa come between them now she would marry van Hert herself, and at that she gave a little low laugh. In the meantime she had three days to think out a plan and convey to van Hert some sort of preparation.
When he came that Wednesday evening it was easily seen that he was feverish. His eyes were unnaturally bright and his face flushed, and at dinner he only played with his food and ate nothing. He talked and laughed gaily, but with intermittent shivering which he tried hard to hide. Everyone saw it, and Meryl grew concerned. He tried to laugh it off, but was not successful. Finally Mr. Pym advised him to go home to bed. And then Aunt Emily made the crowning blunder of her life, and like some other big blunders now historical, it proved a blessing in disguise.
She glanced at Diana with a scared face and exclaimed in perturbation, “Now if the wedding is put off it will be your fault, Diana. I told you it must bring ill-luck to speak about it as you did.”
There was an awkward pause, and in spite of herself Diana flushed scarlet.
“What did Diana say?” van Hert asked of Aunt Emily, half grave and half casual.
The poor lady, having quickly discovered she had made an unfortunate remark and become considerably flurried, made matters worse by stammering guiltily, “O, it was nothing much; she was only talking at random. She … she …”—distressfully discovering van Hert’s eyes still fixed upon her—”said something about hoping the wedding would be postponed, and I said it was unlucky.”
For a moment the constraint was painful. Meryl had grown as white as the tablecloth, and Mr. Pym looked thoroughly worried. Diana, however, had quickly recovered herself, and was now the most composed of any. She gave a little sniff and glanced defiantly at van Hert. His eyes roved round the table and finally fixed themselves upon hers. She did not waver, but looked steadily back at him. He gave a self-conscious, constrained laugh. “I presume you had your reasons?” he said.
She narrowed her eyes a little as she replied with a directness probably he alone understood, “Yes, I suppose I had. It was yesterday, Tuesday. Tuesday is often a queer day with me.”
And he knew she was referring to their conversation during the morning’s ride.
Then Meryl got up to relieve the tension, and because she began to feel a little uncertain of herself.
“Di often has queer days, but they have nothing to do with your feverishness, William. Jackson had better go back with you, and we will telephone Dr. Smythe to look in and see how you are.” She went away to order the motor, and van Hert seized an opportunity to speak to Diana unheard.
“I know what you are alluding to,” he said, gravely. “We cannot very well leave it like this. Will you ride the same way to-morrow?”
“But if you have fever?” hesitatingly.
“In the war I fought all day long with fever on me. Surely I can ride! You will be there?”
When van Hert arrived at the meeting-place next morning, he wore an overcoat and looked as if he ought to be in bed, and Diana’s heart smote her. But she comforted herself with the thought that his fever was very much of the mind, and her medicine, if drastic, might still do him more good than any physician’s.
They rode side by side to the seat they had sat upon before, and without saying much he helped her to alight and gave the reins of both horses to the black groom.
Once seated, however, he turned to her and said, gravely, “Of course, that remark of yours had to do with our conversation the last time we sat here?”
“Of course,” agreed Diana, calmly. The intricacies of the task she had set herself were beginning to interest more than scare her, and she was not afraid as to her skill in handling van Hert.
“May I ask in what exact particular?”
“Merely that you are the man about to marry a woman you do not love.”
He opened his lips to expostulate and deny, but she rested a little hand on his arm a moment and interrupted. “No, do not trouble to deny it. I should not have dared to say such a thing without being sure of my ground. Your face told me on Tuesday.”
He was silent, feeling himself unaccountably in the grip of something he could no longer thwart.
“Now listen to me. When Meryl went to Rhodesia you did love her. I think she was all the world to you. So she was when she came back, at first. You were in haste to win her, and she consented to be engaged to you. Afterwards….” She paused.
“Well, afterwards?…” in a strained, unnatural voice.
“Afterwards you found in some vague way she was changed. You had won her, but you did not possess her. Something had happened. You seemed to have seized the substance and found it shadow. I seem to be talking like a book, but we will let that pass! Instead of trying to find out whether this really was the case, you attempted to hurry forward the wedding. That, I think, was weak of you.”
“And something had happened?…” he asked, hoarsely. “What?…”
Diana spread out her hands with a little French gesture. “It is sometimes just as poignant to say, ‘Cherchez l’homme’ as, ‘Cherchez la femme.'”
“That what had happened was another man.”
“Ah!…” in quick surprise; and after a short, tense silence, “Then why in the world?…” But again she stayed him with a little arresting hand.
“You wonder why she engaged herself to you?… When you have the clue it is quite simple. The other man loves her, but he has not told her so. I do not know that he ever will. He is a proud, obstinate Englishman, and has no position and no money. Apparently he is ready to let Meryl wreck her life, rather than bless his with herself and her fortune. Some men are like that. It is a mixture of pride and heroics very difficult for a well-meaning cousin like myself to cope with. I think it may even turn my hair grey yet.” Again she spread out her hands. “Can you not see the rest?… You yourself led up to it. You urged your united service to South Africa (though why poor South Africa should be dragged in, I don’t know), and she, having as she thought lost all hope of simple, personal happiness, decided to give herself to you and to her country. Now do you understand?”
He was silent for a considerable time, thinking deeply; and then, with one of his quick versatile changes, he turned and pounced upon her with the question, “Granting all is as you say, what I want to know is, how have you discovered it?” He looked hard into her face with keen, searching eyes. “How did you know that I had changed?”
He had taken her a little unawares, and suddenly she felt the hot, tell-tale blood mounting higher and higher up her face. She moved restlessly, impatiently, as if his gaze were intolerable, and then replied a trifle lamely, “You must have heard the English proverb, ‘Lookers-on see most of the game.'”
“Ah! I wonder at what particular point you saw first?…”
“In any case it is beside the question,” she declared, anxious to get the conversation away from herself. “As I asked you on Tuesday, I ask you again, ‘What do you think of a man who marries a woman when he does not love her?'”
“That is not the question you asked me.”
“Yes it is,” a trifle shortly. Diana was beginning to feel rather like a swimmer out of his depth.
“I beg your pardon, it is not; but we will let it pass for the moment. Granting that what you have told me is true, what do you expect me to do?”
“Tell Meryl the truth.”
“And what is the truth?” He was gazing hard at her again, and Diana began to wish she could run away and hide. She knew that her changing colour and averted eyes were telling him something he badly wanted to know.
“O, you’re very dense!” she cried, seeking to cover her discomfort. “Tell her you have discovered it is all a mistake; that you do not think she loves you better than all the world; and that you feel yourself wedded to your work, and … and … that kind of thing. Of course it won’t be nice, but surely you can see it is a far braver thing to do, than just to go on because you are afraid of what the world will say?”
“And suppose Meryl wishes to hold to her promise and give herself to her country?”
“She can still do that, only in some other way.”
“And what do you think South Africa will say?”
“O, that’s quite beyond me!…” with a little comical grimace, “but, of course, at any cost, you must avert another war!…” They both smiled, and she added more seriously, “You can announce that you discovered in time you were not very well suited to each other, and mutually agreed to break off the engagement.”
Again he was silent for a long time, lost in thought. At last, “And when do you think I should say this to Meryl?”
“It will not be any easier through waiting. Why not to-night?”
Again he was silent, and something in the air, some secret, veiled magnetism, told Diana whither his thoughts were tending, and her cheeks grew hot in spite of herself.
“If I speak to Meryl to-night, and she decrees that the engagement shall end, will you promise to ride this way to-morrow morning?”
“What for?” trying to speak with nonchalance.
“To answer the question I asked you just now.”
“Which question? I have forgotten it.”
“I will ask it again to-morrow.”
“But why all this mystery?… Ask me now. I will answer it if I can.”
“I would rather wait until to-morrow. Come, you have said all you wanted to say to me. Let me have my turn now.” And she knew that his eyes, sharpened by love, were reading things she had scarcely yet admitted to herself.
She got up suddenly, feeling a little breathless. She began to have again that alarming sensation of being mastered; as if he had some hold upon her, against which it was her instinct to fight, not because of any antipathy to him, but because, like all women of her independent character and fearlessness, she dreaded the mere thought of losing her liberty or yielding her independence. And at the same time she knew that the thought which held a dread held a charm also. Diana would never lose her grit and personality, she would never submit for a moment to any overshadowing, but deep in her heart she knew she was true woman enough to like to be conquered by the right man. Her instinct was to contradict van Hert in anything just then and deny any wish, but she was glad he quietly insisted upon her granting his request, and that when they finally rode away it was an understood thing she would come again the next morning.
DIANA IS RESTLESS
It would be most difficult, indeed well-nigh impossible, for any chronicler to describe the state of Diana’s feelings that afternoon; and very certain that under no circumstances would she have attempted to describe them herself. The swift coming into life of the love between her and van Hert was like the man who said he had not been born, he just happened. One could imagine Diana calmly stating their love had no explanation, it just happened. Perhaps it had been there longer than either of them knew; perhaps it took form suddenly when each realised the unsubstantial nature of the engagement to Meryl. Diana had always had a special liking for van Hert, and had said so openly; but as he had for some time been presented in her mind as her cousin’s lover, there had been no reason why the liking should grow to anything warmer, and probably it never would have. But when she thoroughly realised how unsatisfactory a basis he was about to build his wedded happiness upon, a certain resentment on his behalf took shape in her mind, as well as troubled anxiety for Meryl. From this it was not a very far step to a warmer feeling still, and as we have seen, the old gaieties ceased to attract her if he was not a partaker. And then, knowing well that Meryl’s heart was given elsewhere, she spent no anxious moments as to whether this warmer feeling of hers were unfair to her cousin. It was as though it was just held in abeyance waiting for something to happen; and when the something had happened, she swam out fearlessly into the deep water. With van Hert it had necessarily been different. He knew nothing of Carew, and only felt vaguely that Meryl had changed; nothing tangible that he could take hold of, and yet a something that was as an invisible barrier between their closer knowledge of each other. Puzzled and baffled, he turned with eagerness to Diana’s frank camaraderie, to awake suddenly one evening to the fact that, unknown to him, his heart had slipped out of his and Meryl’s keeping into hers. Yet even then he tried to deny the change even to himself; he would not believe he could so suddenly transfer his affection. It was not until later, seeing the whole from the vantage-ground of distance, that he realised his affections had not been transferred. His affection for Meryl still existed; he admired her profoundly as before. What had died was his desire, starved by the growing sense that she chiefly suffered his caress. But he had not the moral courage to go to her frankly and tell her this; and rather than face the consequences he attempted to stifle this strong longing for Diana and put himself beyond the reach of it. Fortunately for all three, that practical common sense of Diana’s, which she was pleased to call selfish commonplaceness, dared swift, unconventional measures, careless of consequences, rather than to sit still and let the mistake pass beyond recall.
But at the beginning she had not given much thought to her own personal feelings in the matter, and it was only after the ride with van Hert she found these suddenly confronting her in their full significance. And because the turn of events was becoming a little overwhelming, she spent the hours between parting with him and his coming interview with Meryl in a whirl of emotion wholly new to her.
Once or twice Meryl asked her if anything was the matter, she was so extraordinarily restless, but she only laughed it off and tried to steady her feelings.
In the evening, when they left the dinner-table after dessert, she mysteriously vanished; but later, swept with an inexplicable wave of longing and uncertain dread, she crept down to the dining-room to try and discover what had happened. It was growing in her consciousness with illuminating clearness that her own happiness depended upon what decision Meryl made.
At last there was a movement in the drawing-room as of someone stepping in from the verandah, and she waited breathlessly for a glimpse of Meryl’s face. She and van Hert came out into the hall together, and Diana saw that her cousin looked extraordinarily frail and white and rather exhausted. Van Hert was very gentle to her.
“Shall I see your father to-night?” he asked, and she answered, “No, I will tell him myself. I expect he will see you to-morrow.”
“Good night,” and Meryl held out her hand.
Diana saw him hesitate; and then, with a movement that had in it the graceful courtesy of the Huguenot and the reverence of a fine spirit, he bent very low before her and kissed her hand. Afterwards he went quietly away, and Meryl stood alone in the hall. For one moment she waited, as if listening to his departing footsteps, and then very slowly turned and walked to her father’s study.
Diana slipped out and went upstairs, but presently her restlessness again caused her to descend. She could not settle to anything until she knew the truth and how Meryl took it. Thus she was again in the dining-room when the study door opened and Meryl came out. Her father came with her to the threshold, and it was evident that she had been crying. Diana saw her raise a white, tear-stained face, and saw Henry Pym kiss his child with ineffable tenderness. Then Meryl went slowly upstairs, and Mr. Pym went back into his study and closed the door.
But something in his face, at her last glimpse of it, went swiftly to Diana’s loyal, devoted heart; and because she loved him as if he were her own father, an impulse carried her straight across the hall with noiseless feet to the study door. Without knocking, she opened it softly and crept in. Henry Pym was seated at his writing-table, with his face hidden in his hand; and she saw, perhaps more poignantly than ever before, how the last few weeks had whitened his hair.
As she softly closed the door and crossed the room he looked up. Diana warm-hearted to a degree when she deeply loved, slipped on to her knees beside him, and taking the hand hanging limply at his side in both hers, raised it to her lips.
Henry Pym looked down into her eyes, and for the first time guessed from whence the solution had come.
“You saved her?…” he said a little huskily.
Diana nestled up against him. “I saved them,” she corrected. “Van Hert is a fine man; he deserves a wife who gives him her whole heart, just as truly as Meryl deserves a husband who has no thought for anyone else in the world.”
“Then you knew he cared for someone else?”
“Did he tell her so?” She lowered her head that he might not see her face.
“Did he say whom?”
“I do not know.”
“Perhaps Meryl knew?”
“She did not say.”
She kissed his hand again, and asked in low tones, “Why was she crying when she came out of the study? She … she … is not sorry about things?…”
“No; she is glad. She sees she made a mistake.”
“Then why was she crying?”
She saw him flinch, and read in his face all the pain in his heart. Evidently he knew of that hidden sorrow shadowing his child’s life; evidently her sorrow was his sorrow. The wedding he so dreaded was safely prevented, but would the happiness come back?… the happiness that had been in that household before they went to Rhodesia? Could all his love and hope and tenderness bring back joy to the eyes that were his heaven and his earth?
“Dearie,” murmured Diana again, “was she crying because of that big soldier-policeman up north?”
He did not reply, and suddenly she knelt upright, and took his sad, careworn face in her hands and nestled her soft cheek against it.
“Because he’s coming on Saturday, dearie. Hush! don’t breathe a word; it is my secret; only I had to tell you because of what I saw in your face just now. He is coming because he loves her.”
Then slowly a great tear gathered in Henry Pym’s eyes and fell unheeded upon Diana’s hand. He held her fast and made no attempt to speak. And Diana hid her face because there were great tears in her eyes also.
After a moment she got up, and shook the hair back from her face, and rallied him tenderly.
“You see, Meryl must ‘mother’ something in the way of a country: it is her tremendous Imperial instinct; so I thought she had better ‘mother’ Rhodesia.” And with a last tender kiss she went softly away and left him.
In their own room she found Meryl had sent the maid away, and was waiting for her in the dark, standing in the window with her form dimly outlined against a moonlit sky.
She went up to her at once and slipped her arm through that of the silent figure. Meryl pressed it, but for a moment or two did not speak. Diana did not speak either; for once in her life she had nothing to say.
At last Meryl said, as if answering some thought deep in her own mind, “William told me to-night that there was someone else he loved. Di darling, I think there is only one woman it could be.”
And still Diana was silent.
“I gathered also that something had been said between you and him; something that resulted in … what has happened to-night….”
“But you are not angry?…” Diana whispered.
“O no. Every moment now I see more clearly what I ought to have seen before. I am afraid I have only been foolish, and … and … I wanted so to do what seemed the best,” with a little break in her voice.
“Of course you did; we all know that,” said Diana loyally. “But I saw the mistake quickest, and I couldn’t just sit still and do nothing; I am not made that way.”
Meryl pressed her arm affectionately.
“Di,” she whispered, “I want it all to come right as quickly as possible. I won’t ask you any questions. Of course, I know it is you William cares for, and it seems so perfectly natural now that it should be. If you care for him, don’t delay anything on my account. It would make me glad to hear that you were engaged to him to-morrow.”
Diana pressed the hand in hers. She felt strangely bashful with Meryl to-night; unable to say anything at all. In her heart she was a little shy with herself too. When she started out with a more or less light spirit to change the course of two lives, she had hardly realised how great a mountain she would be moving.
“Do you love him, Di?…” Meryl asked her softly.
“Yes,” and Diana felt a little breathless as she made the admission.
“God bless you! I’m very glad.” And Meryl took the girl’s face in her two hands and kissed her.
Then they went quietly to bed, and Diana knew she had said no word of Carew’s coming because she was afraid to.
THE SOLUTION IS SEALED
It was a rather sobered Diana who rode out the next morning to meet William van Hert, and when she saw him she felt suddenly conscious of herself in a way she had never done before and hoped she never would again. The glow in his eyes made it difficult for her to meet them, and they dismounted and went almost in silence to their usual seat.
“You know, of course, what happened last night,” he said, with ill-suppressed eagerness. “It has seemed like weeks and months since; every hour a week. I have not slept all night with longing for the morning.”
He was looking at his very best: another man almost since they last sat there; not good-looking, no one would ever call van Hert good-looking, but muscular and lean, with an air of virility and force always alluring. A man destined to be a leader in some way; one who must carry others along with him, if only because of his enthusiasm and fervour. The main point was, that he should carry them in a useful, practical direction. And hitherto there had been no special reason to hope this would be the case; it seemed more probable that, for the sake of making a noise in the world and gaining a following, he would identify himself with policies which the older and wiser men left alone; not from any indifference to the influence he was likely to wield, but because he was so full of warmth and intensity it must find an outlet. Some men are like that, especially politicians. They seem to be obsessed with the idea that they must make a hit somehow at once and come to the front now. And so they are apt to seize upon the first available policy likely to prove a good solid tub to stand and shout on; whether it is a durable tub, or one certain to be to their credit, is something of a side issue. The main point is a tub big enough and strong enough to bear them while they make the commotion and gain the hearing they are bent upon. And this spirit, like most spirits, may have its uses; it is not entirely to be deprecated. It may bring home very forcibly to the electors a weak spot that had otherwise been overlooked. In listening to the shouter, they may perceive how very entirely he is wrong; and, none the less, make the useful discovery that he is a good shouter. This then becomes the critical point. Having gained his hearing, will he condescend to moderate his views and listen to a little wisdom from older and more experienced men; or will he be obtuse enough to continue to stamp and shout on his tub, for fear people will call him a turncoat, or a few, who really do not matter, will leave off listening to him if he grows less noisy? And it is then perhaps a great politician is marred or made. Perhaps it often depends very much upon the main influence that held sway when the moment came to leave off shouting. That moment had come for van Hert, and he had the perspicacity to perceive it; though whether he would have acted upon his wiser judgment, left entirely to himself, it is impossible to say. It is, on the whole, pleasanter to think that, just because he was a clever, capable, sincere man and South Africa had need of such, the God of nations placed the matter beyond all doubt by sending the right influence across his path.
Diana’s mocking spirit loved to make game of heroics and big matters, but it was an affectation and nothing more: as Meryl and Henry Pym had long ago perceived, not van Hert himself nor Meryl cared more at heart for the great questions of the day affecting South Africa, and through her the Empire itself, since every year shows more clearly how tremendously England’s colonies must matter to the mother country. The older and wiser men were already beginning to shake their heads over the grave and difficult problem of the white races and the black; over the tremendous increase of the latter in comparison, which threatened to swamp the white man out of South Africa altogether. One thing was obvious to all thinkers, the white races must combine. Union must indeed be Union and not an empty name. The Englishman and the Dutchman must join hands and sink differences, not only for the common good, but the common safety. So when Diana’s practical spirit perceived how great and real an attraction van Hert had for her, she did not try to put it from her and struggle against it because he was a Dutchman. The moment she was sure, and the course was clear, she let herself go fearlessly; not as an act of sacrifice at all, she was far too practical to have much faith in a sacrifice such as Meryl had conceived, but because she loved the man and believed in him, and had no shadow of doubt as to his courage and sincerity if he were but influenced to move in the right direction.
Well, he had stood on his tub and done his shouting right well; and now he had a goodly following and was the object of not a little execration, which is a usual thing for tub-shouters, and does not matter very much. What mattered was whether he possessed the genius to keep his followers and carry them along with him, after moderating his views and coming into line with the older and wiser men. Diana believed that he did, and as to be believed in is a very strong aid to all men, there was very little doubt that eventually the God of nations would prove to have given South Africa a fine statesman, even if he were built up upon a rabid politician. And if the instrument used was a woman, has not a great nation itself been built up through such instrumentality?
And here one pauses a moment to think the old question, how often is a woman at the back of a man’s greatness or a country’s or any greatness whatsoever? Only these women do not need to do any shouting, because, as a rule, they only want to be heard by one. And when the result is a fine edifice, they are still content to go unnamed and unsung if that one be lauded generously. For God made women in the beginning, the best women of all, to want love and be content with love, and care very little about fame. And so they go quietly on their way, creating great results, moving mountains, and saying very little about it. It is that old heroic spirit Lamartine wrote about. And there is a spark of it in the soul of every woman waging her solitary fight on the outposts of the Empire, whether she put new life and hope and spirit into a miner’s cabin, or a farmer’s little wattle-and-daub home, or in the heart of any servant of the Empire. What the colonies owe to their women is so little talked about, partly perhaps because words are all too inadequate to express it, and also perhaps because if the one is there to listen and the one to love, many women want no recognition.
But all this time it only remains to be said that Diana believed in van Hert and believed in his work for her country, and that was why she had been able to give her love so frankly and absolutely, and was not in the least deterred by those mutterings of execration which there is very little doubt she intended shortly to put an end to for good and all; for if she had entertained any doubts as to how much he loved her and was ready to do for her, they must have been swept away utterly out of sight after the first moment of their meeting this morning. What he had fought to keep out of his face before was now flooding through it. Never at any moment, even when he first loved Meryl, had he looked at her as he now looked at Diana. In every pulse of her being she felt he loved her, not perhaps with the calm, strong love of her own countrymen, but with a fierceness and intensity, inherited maybe from some French ancestor, that appealed to her love of vigour. She at least had level-headedness enough for the two.
But it would hardly have been Diana to sit demurely and listen to his outpouring, now that he might speak and she might hear. It was far more natural that the very certainty of everything should make her feel contrary and want to tantalise him; particularly when, after his first question had been answered with a quiet affirmative, he plunged into the subject filling his heart without any preliminary, and with all that quick enthusiasm of his bursting its bounds.
“Then we need not say any more about it. Why should we?… There is only you and I now. It seems for the moment as if there were no one else in the entire universe. But I want the answer to that other question of mine”; and he leaned near to her, with his whole attitude a sort of inspired interrogation.
“What question?…” A shade of lightness had crept into Diana’s voice; the shadow of a smile into her eyes. She felt on the verge of being a little unnerved, and a feigned or real inconsequence was ever her refuge.
“The question you were not willing to answer yesterday, and which I told you I should ask again to-day. You said that you had asked me what I thought of a man who married a woman when he did not love her. And I said that was not what you had asked. Do you remember the original question, or must I tell you what it was?”
“I don’t remember anything about it. I’m afraid I’m rather given to asking questions.”
“That means I must tell you. Diana, what you asked me was, what did I think of a man who married one woman and loved another? Now, I want to know how and when you discovered that I loved another?…”
“It was the obvious conclusion”—studying the toe of her smart riding-boot with exaggerated interest. “Otherwise you must have loved Meryl; you could not help it.”
“I see.” The smile dawned in his eyes now. “And was it equally obvious who the other woman was?”
She glanced away to hide her tell-tale mouth. “It might have been if it had interested me.”
“But, of course, it didn’t?…” and he laughed a low, happy laugh.
“Not in the least. Why should it?…”
“Ah, why?…” and his hand suddenly closed over hers, and at the strong, possessive touch the magnetism of the man made her blood race through her veins. She tried to draw her hand away, but he only held it more tightly, and his face was very engaging as he said, “I’ve a good mind not to tell you who the other woman is as you are not interested.”
“Then I shall conclude she will not have anything to do with you,” came the quick retort. And then her fascinating mouth twitched at the corners in a way that threatened to undo van Hert entirely. He looked away with a half-fierce expression. “If you don’t want me to crush you in my arms out here in a public road, don’t do that.”
“Don’t do what?…” innocently; and then they both laughed.
When they were serious again his voice sounded a deeper and more forceful note. “Dearest,” he said, still imprisoning her hand, “it seems superfluous for me to tell you how much I love that other woman, as superfluous as to name her. I seem as if I had neither a thought nor an idea nor a feeling that does not love her.”
“Then let us hope she is not a stiff-necked Britisher,” quoth Diana, still as if a little afraid to be serious.
“Ah!…” and he raised her hand to his lips. “I believe you will make me love the whole race.”
“That would complicate matters exceedingly for you,” with a mischievous taunt in her eyes. “You seem to have hated them so very satisfactorily up to now. What shall you say to your colleagues the next time they are expecting you at one of their fiery denunciation meetings?… I have married a wife, an English one, therefore I cannot come?…”
“Shall I have married her?…” and he looked hard into her face, blissfully indifferent to her shafts.
“Married whom?…” she asked, provokingly.
He clenched his teeth together. “I feel as if I could shake you!…” and he glanced round to see if anyone were in sight.
“O, if you’re going to be that sort of a tyrant!…” Diana began. But she got no further. No one was in sight, not even the boy with the horses. And van Hert just gathered her into his arms and crushed her for the sheer joy of it until she cried for mercy. “Say you will be good and treat me with proper respect,” he demanded before he released her, and Diana was compelled to promise.
“But I won’t marry you,” she added, wickedly, the moment she was free. And then to save herself from a second undignified surrender she had to capitulate quickly, and add, “At least, not before next week.”
Then she raised her eyes, shining with happiness, to his. “Meinheer van Hert, if my memory serves me rightly, you have not yet asked me the most important question of all.”
He raised her hand again to his lips, with a movement of reverence, and said, very simply, “Diana, I love you with all my heart and soul and strength; will you do me the honour to become my wife?”
And there was a little warm glisten in her eyes as she answered, “Yes, dear; I am ready to take the long trek with you.”
A little later she went home with an air of quiet radiance that told Meryl all she needed to know the moment she set eyes on her, and her embrace was full of warmest affection.
Only Aunt Emily seemed thoroughly perplexed, and not able to entirely grasp the happy aspect of affairs when she heard it all for the first time.
“How extraordinary!…” she exclaimed; and then, with an air full of mournful reproach, she looked at Diana and added, “I told you something dreadful would happen, my dear, if you spoke of the wedding so strangely.”
“Yes, aunty, so you did! and it was very clever of you,” Diana replied. “But, of course, you ought to have warned me before I said it. Now, you see, I’ve got caught in the net myself. Ah well!…” she finished comically, “I can bear it.”
And Meryl’s low laughter, as she hastened to soothe poor Aunt Emily’s wounded feelings, had a happier note than it had known for many a day.
“I don’t think I quite understand,” continued the perplexed lady. “It reminds me of a story I once heard about the aunt of a friend of my father’s, that is to say, the aunt of a friend of your grandfather’s….”
“Yes, I remember,” said the incorrigible; “but she didn’t do it in the end, you know. And, anyhow, the great question just now is, having taken over the bridegroom, ought I to take over the wedding presents as well?…”
“Of course, they must all be sent back,” Aunt Emily replied, with great gravity. “Dear me, what a pity!… What a pity!… And he is really quite a nice man, although he is Dutch.”
“O, do you really think so?…” Diana asked, and went laughing out of the room.
A CHAPTER OF SURPRISES
In Diana’s happy state of mind there was not the slightest doubt her interview with Carew, when it came off, would be the reverse of conventional.
He arrived at the Carlton the day after it had been notified to the papers that the engagement between Miss Pym and William van Hert was broken off by mutual agreement. The new engagement was looked upon only as a secret understanding at present, and no announcement was to be made for some weeks.
Carew saw the news in a paper he got at Kimberley, so that when he stepped out upon Johannesburg station, from a difficult, perplexing, somewhat equivocal situation he found himself suddenly and unexpectedly with a clear course.
He had responded to Diana’s urgent summons with alacrity, although it left him entirely in the dark as to what had transpired; his action had in fact something of the daring which had led to the sending of the telegram. Wearied out physically and mentally with the struggle, he seized swiftly the chance of a solution the message suggested, and trusting to Diana’s resourcefulness let himself go with the tide. It was as though after sixteen years some spirit of the past suddenly re-entered him; some of that old reckless, dare-devil spirit that had distinguished him in his regiment long ago.
Without doubt the news that he would some day inherit the Marquisate of Toxeter, if he outlived the present owner, had worked a wonderful change in him. He still hated Meryl’s fortune, when he dared to let himself think of a future they might possibly share, but at least he could now offer her a position that might one day be among the highest in England. And all that it meant to him after his long exile and lonely life, apart from all the friends and delights of his youth, lit a new light in his eyes. And when he saw the paragraph in the paper, and realised Diana had indeed not sent for him for nothing, he seemed to let many years slip from his shoulders. Only a week earlier he had felt middle-aged, and looked every year of his forty-two. The man who strode down the platform on Johannesburg station, drawing all eyes after his upright, distinguished form, looked at the very prime of manhood, and the grey on his temples only enhanced whatever it was that caused those eyes to turn in his direction.
Diana, waiting for his message in no small trepidation, went off at once to the hotel. Nothing was to be gained by hanging back, and she felt more sure of herself generally if she dashed headlong into a delicate situation.
So she walked boldly up to the door of his private sitting-room, gave a little sharp knock, and entered.
He was standing with his back to the door, looking idly from the window, but when he heard the door open he turned round and faced her.
Diana closed the door and walked into the room, glancing about her.
“What a nice den!…” she said. “I’m sure you could only growl prettily here.”
He came towards her with outstretched hand, and she was instantly struck with the change in his eyes. The steadiness was still there, the expression of unflinching purpose, but behind it all was that new light now: the light she had never seen in Carew’s eyes before.
“You look very well,” she told him, warming swiftly to their old friendship and forgetting her moments of trepidation. “You … really … you almost look as if you might have come into a kingdom!…”
“Perhaps I have,” with a humorous gleam.
“Umh!… I’d be very sorry for the subjects; they would be ruled with a rod of iron.”
He pulled a chair forward, a large cosy one, such as he knew her soul loved, and she sank down into it. He still stood upright, watching her with kindly eyes.
“Well!…” he began. “You sent me a very curt summons.”
Diana coloured a little, not quite clear where to begin.
“Won’t you sit down? You seem so far away up there. I feel a little lost somehow, you are so … so … Perhaps if you were to growl I should feel more at home with you!…” she finished.
He smiled and took the chair beside her.
“I never did growl really. It was all your imagination.”
“O, was it?…” emphatically. “Why, thunder in the distance was dulcet music beside it!…”
“Well,” he said again, “about that summons?…”
“It’s just this way,” began Diana. “I had a letter from Mrs. Grenville….” She watched him keenly, and saw that he grasped at once something of what the letter had contained.
“And she told you?…”
“Not very much, but enough, in my mind”—with a sudden flash—”to justify my summons.”
“I don’t think I quite understand.” He was grave again now, with a line between the straight brows.
“Well, don’t get too serious or you will frighten me. I suppose I’d better be quite direct. You and I don’t either of us care for much beating about the bush and subterfuge, do we?”
He signified his agreement, and she ran on.
“I knew that Meryl cared for you; I have known it a long time. Yet she was going to marry van Hert. And van Hert cared … well, he cared for someone else too, yet he was going to marry Meryl. It was just a silly muddle altogether, do you see?… Honestly, I was at my wits’ end-to know how to prevent them making fools of themselves. Then came Mrs. Grenville’s letter. Mrs. Grenville had seen you. She had discovered that you cared for Meryl, and she told me so. I didn’t stop to think then. I saw in a moment it was your business to help me help them out of the tangle. So I just sent you a telegram and asked you to come at once.”
“And now I am here?”
Diana began to look roguish. “I just wanted to suggest,” she said, demurely, “whether it wouldn’t simplify things all round if Mr. Pym disinherited Meryl, and divided all the silly money between me and charities!…”
He could not help smiling, but there was something more than mere friendship in his eyes as he looked at her. He understood perfectly that she had strained every nerve to bring him and Meryl together.
“And in the meantime,” he commented, “I gather from the newspaper the knot disentangled itself, and everything is smoothed out.”
“Well, I shouldn’t exactly say there were no wounded left on the battlefield!…” with a low laugh.
“I see; and you think it is for me to attend to the wounded?”
“To one of them,” with significance; and then suddenly her unmanageable mouth began to twitch. Carew divined something lay beyond the remark.
“And what about the other one?”
“Well,” with a little air of coyness, “I rather thought of attending to his hurt myself.”
He watched her keenly for a moment, and at last she raised a pair of laughing eyes to his face.
“The only thing that’s worrying me is that I may unintentionally find myself a heroine.”
His low laugh was full of amusement, and his eyes grew kindlier still.
“You are evidently a most resourceful young woman. Have you made up your mind how you propose to heal him?”
“Yes,” with feigned gravity. “I thought on the whole it would simplify matters if I took Meryl’s place at the wedding.”
He stared at her with undisguised astonishment. “You mean?…”
“Just exactly what I say. I’ve taken over the prospective bridegroom, and incidentally I thought of taking over the wedding presents as well….” And then she threw her head back and laughed whole-heartedly at his incredulous face.
“You have given me a great surprise,” he said. “I suppose you are in earnest?”
“Your surprise is nothing to what is coming upon my friends. Just think of it!… I can hardly think of anything else. I do so love giving people shocks. Do you remember our first meeting in the ruins, when I sat quite still and watched you until you looked up?… That was your shock!… You were frightfully disgusted with me, but I didn’t mind, I’d had my bit of amusement and no one was hurt; any other silly girl would have coughed or walked away. Goodness!… how black you looked!…” And again she laughed mirthfully.
He began to tell her he hoped she would be very happy, but she stayed him and suddenly sobered.
“Not now. We haven’t much time left, and we must plan something. Meryl will come here and call for me soon in the motor. She knows I have come to see a friend, but she does not know whom. She will not come in herself, because she is shy about being seen just now. What shall we do? When will you see her?”
He got up, and walked to the window with a grave face, and for some time he did not speak.
“Are you still worrying about that absurd money? My dear good man, she isn’t stuffed with it, and she doesn’t care tuppence about it. Isn’t it enough that you know she could love you as a Rhodesian soldier-policeman? Why torture yourself unnecessarily?”
“If I were only a Rhodesian policeman I should not have come.”
She looked at him with quick curiosity. Then something had happened! There really was some great change in him. He smiled into her questioning eyes. “Then Mrs. Grenville did not tell you?”
“Tell me what?…” with swift eagerness. “O, do be quick, I love surprises. Have you found a gold-mine up there?… or the corpses in the temple hung with gold ornaments?…”
She took his arm and gave it a little shake.
“Then what? O, do tell me quickly!…”
“It isn’t very much, but it gives me courage to hope, where a policeman might consider himself called upon only to renounce. And,” he added, quietly, “I owe the knowledge of it to Mrs. Grenville.”
“It must be a legacy?…”
“Not exactly. It is only that when the present Marquis of Toxeter dies I shall succeed.”
“O, my goodness!…” comically. “Am I going to be own cousin to a marchioness?…”
“That is as your cousin decrees.” Then with a little smile he added, “So the shocks are not all given by you, you see.”
At that moment a knock sounded on the door, and in reply to Carew’s “Come in,” a hall-porter informed them that Miss Pym was waiting in the motor.
“And we haven’t decided what to do,” said Diana, in dismay.
He was thoughtful a moment, then told her he would endeavour to find Mr. Pym at his office and come to Hill Court later.
So Diana went downstairs alone. But on the way, with that mixture of restlessness and level-headedness that was so characteristic of her, she decided Carew’s plan was much too prosaic and dull, and speedily commenced to think out a better one. After which she accosted Meryl with the words, “I want to introduce you to my friend. It won’t keep us long. She has a sitting-room upstairs, but she has a cold, and could not come down to you.”
Meryl looked unwilling, but finally yielded to persuasion and alighted. Outside the door of Carew’s room, Diana was so afraid her face would betray her, she had to pretend to sneeze, in order to hide it with her handkerchief. Quite suddenly it had occurred to her humour-loving mind, that if shocks were the order of the hour, Carew and Meryl were going to have the biggest all to themselves for that day at least. Then she opened his door and half pushed Meryl in in front of her. They saw only a broad back at the window first, then he half turned. The next instant the door closed softly, and Meryl found herself alone in the room, face to face with Peter Carew.
There were a few tense seconds in which they each seemed trying to realise the other; and then she understood. She went slowly towards him, seeing with unerring tuition all the love in his eyes, and without knowing it held out both hands.
And across the long years, that self that he had thought for ever dead seemed to reawaken by leaps and bounds. He would always be somewhat quiet perhaps, a little grave, but the spirit of vigour and reckless daring was in him still, if sobered by sixteen years and all that the years had brought. He did not stop to explain. Quite suddenly it all seemed unnecessary. Between these two the hours of probing were ended. He took her outstretched hands in his and drew her into his arms.
It was some time before he told her of his changed position; there was so much else to tell first. And when at last it was said she paid little heed.
She only looked at him a trifle anxiously, saying, “But, of course, you could never give up Rhodesia? You wouldn’t let any claim come before hers?”
He kissed the finger-tips of the hand imprisoned in his, and murmured, “Bless you; it would have gone hard with me if you had wanted me to leave Rhodesia for good.”
“I shall never do that,” softly. “It was the Rhodesian policeman I loved first. The other does not greatly matter, except that perhaps it brought us together.” Then with one of her rare flashes of humour she added, “I’m not sure that we shall even have time for a honeymoon. We may have to go up there any time about this settlement scheme of father’s and mine. As Diana is going to help William van Hert to run South Africa generally, we must get to work quickly with Rhodesia….” And her smile was a very happy one.
And so in the end Diana had her little jest, and gave Johannesburg its shock and its nine days’ wonder, and was certainly the most surprising bride of the year; though, of course, afterwards most people said they were not surprised at all, and had expected it all along.
Before the wedding a sufficiently characteristic letter found its way to a certain mission station in Rhodesia to delight the hearts of its contented occupants. After duly relating all that had transpired and how the problem had been solved, it added: “And now the only difficulty seems to be how to relieve Meryl of her superfluous fortune, in order that she and The Bear may live upon love and air, and how to save me from appearing in the guise of a heroine!…”
To her old friend Stanley she wrote gaily of the perfectly splendid surprise she had succeeded in administering to about half the English-speaking population of South Africa.
And Stanley wrote back, with many regretful qualms tugging at his heart: “The astonishment of South Africa is a mere detail. When the news reached Zimbabwe, bones that have lain buried for three thousand years rattled in their grave-clothes, and antiquities of the ages crumbled to dust. In the morning, over our coffee, Moore and I ask of the four winds and of the liquid butter and of the unyielding bread, ‘Which did he actually marry in the end, and what became of whom?'” …
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