E-text prepared by Al Haines
Stories Of South Africa
Author of "Poppy," "Wild Honey," etc.
G. P. Putnam's Sons New York and London
The Knickerbocker Press 1919
Copyright, 1919 by Cynthia Stockley
The Strange Story of a Karoo Farm
Night, with the sinister, brooding peace of the desert, enwrapped the land, and the inmates of the old Karoo farm had long been at rest; but it was an hour when strange tree-creatures cry with the voices of human beings, and stealthy velvet-footed things prowl through places forbidden by day, and not all who rested at Blue Aloes were sleeping.
Christine Chaine, wakeful and nervous, listening to the night sounds, found them far more distracting than any the day could produce. Above the breathing of the three children sleeping near her in the big room, the buzz of a moth-beetle against the ceiling, and the far-off howling of jackals, she could hear something out in the garden sighing with faint, whistling sighs. More disquieting still was a gentle, intermittent tapping on the closed and heavily barred shutters, inside which the windows stood open, inviting coolness. She had heard that tapping every one of the three nights since she came to the farm.
The window stood to the right of her bed, and, by stretching an arm, she could have unbolted the shutters and looked out, but she would have died rather than do it. Not that she was a coward. But there was some sinister quality in the night noises of this old Karoo farm that weighed on her courage and paralyzed her senses. So, instead of stirring, she lay very still in the darkness, the loud, uncertain beats of her heart adding themselves to all the other disconcerting sounds.
Mrs. van Cannan had laughed her lazy, liquid laugh when Christine spoke, the first morning after her arrival, of the tapping.
"It was probably a stray ostrich pecking on your shutters," said the mistress of Blue Aloes. "You are strange to the Karoo, my dear. When you have been here a month, you'll take no notice of night noises."
There was possibly truth in the prophecy, but Christine doubted it. There were also moments when she doubted being able to last a week out at the farm, to say nothing of a month. That was only in the night watches, however; by day, she found it hard to imagine any circumstances so unpleasant as to induce her to leave the three little van Cannan children, who, even in so short a time, had managed to twine their fingers and their mops of bronze hair round her affections.
The tapping began again, soft and insistent. Christine knew it was not a branch, for she had taken the trouble to ascertain; and that a stray ostrich should choose her window to peck at for three nights running seemed fantastic. Irrelatively, one of the children murmured drowsily in sleep, and the little human sound braced the girl's nerves. The sense of loneliness left her, giving place to courageous resolution. She forgot everything save that she was responsible for the protection of the children, and determined that the tapping must be investigated, once and for all. Just as she was stirring, the soft sighing recommenced close to the shutters, followed by three clear taps. Christine changed her mind about getting out of bed, but she leaned toward the window on her elbow, and said, in a low voice that trembled a little:
"Is any one there?"
A whistling whisper answered her:
"Take care of the children."
With the words, a strangely revolting odour came stealing through the shutters. The girl shrank back, all her fears returning. Yet she forced herself to speak again.
"Who is it? What do you want?"
"Mind the boy—take care of the boy," sobbed the whistling voice, and again the foul odour stole into the room. It seemed to Christine the smell of something dead and rotten and old. She could not bear it. Hatred of it was greater than fear, and, springing from her bed, she wrestled with the bolts of the shutters. But when she threw them open there was—nothing! Darkness stood without like a presence, and seemed to push against the shutters, trying to enter as she hastily rebarred them.
Something was stirring in the room, too. With hands that shook, she lit the candle and, by its gleam, discovered Roderick, the eldest child, sitting up in bed, his red-gold mop all tumbled, his eyes, full of dreams, fixed on her with a wide stare. She crossed the room, and knelt beside him.
"What is it, darling?"
"I thought my nannie was there," he murmured.
"Your nannie?" she echoed, in surprise, knowing that "nannie" was the common name for any black nurse who tended and waited on them. "But she is in bed and asleep long ago."
"I don't mean that one. I mean my nannie what's dead—Sophy."
The girl's backbone grew chill. She remembered hearing that the children had been always minded by an educated old Basuto woman called Sophy, who had been a devoted slave to each from birth up, and because of whose death, a few months back, a series of English governesses had come and gone at the farm.
She remembered, too, those fluty whispers that resembled no human voice.
"Lie down, darling, and sleep," she said gently. "I will stay by you."
The boy did not instantly obey. He had a whim to sit up, watching. There was no fear in his wide grey eyes, but it was uncanny to see them searching the shadows of the room and returning always, with a fixed, somnambulistic stare, to the window. Christine had a fancy that children, with the memories of another world clinging to them, have a vision of unseen things denied to older people; and she wondered painfully what was going on in the mind behind this handsome little face. At last, she prevailed upon him to lie down, but it was long before he slept. Even then, she sat on, holding his hand, keeping vigil over him and the two other small sleepers.
They were lovely children. Each head glowed red-gold upon its pillow, and each little profile was of a regularity almost classical, with the pure colouring peculiar to red-haired people. The boy's face was well sprinkled with freckles, but five-year-old Marguerite and little Coral, of four, who were perfect little imps of mischief, had the dainty snow-pink look of daisies growing in a meadow with their faces turned up to God.
It was difficult to connect such fragrant, well-tended flowers with the whistling horror out in the darkness. More, it was absurd, impossible. The girl decided that the whole thing was a bad nightmare which she must shake off. The explanation of it could only be that, half asleep, she had dreamed she heard the tapping and the whispers, and smelled the evil odour. Why should a Thing come and tell her to mind the children? "Mind the boy." He was already minded—they were all happy and well cared for in their own home. The boy Roderick must have been dreaming, too, and talking in his sleep. Thus, Christine's clear English mind rejected the whole thing as an illusion, resulting from weariness and the new, strange conditions of her life. Yet there was an Irish side to her that could not so easily dispose of the matter. She remembered with what uneasiness her nights had been haunted from the first. How always, when the dark fell, she had sensed something uncanny, something unseen and menacing, that she could never track to its source. But tonight the sense of hovering evil had taken definite form and direction. It was at the children that harm was directed; the whistling, sighing words had concerned the children only. The girl shivered again at the horrid recollection.
"Yet anything that cares about children cannot be altogether evil," she thought. That comforted her a little, but the spell of horror the night had laid upon her was not lifted until dawn came. Then she slipped on some clothes and let herself out into the morning air.
The garden that straggled about the farm was composed of a dozen century-old oaks, a sprinkling of feathery pepper-trees, and many clumps of brilliant-blossomed cacti. The veranda and outbuildings were heavily hung with creepers, and great barrels of begonias and geraniums stood about. Within a few hundred yards of the house, the green and glowing cultivation stopped as abruptly as the edges of an oasis in the desert, and the Karoo began—that sweeping, high table-land, empty of all but brown stones, long white thorns, fantastically shaped clumps of prickly-pear, bare brown hills, and dried-up rivulets, and that yet is one of the healthiest and, from the farmer's point of view, wealthiest plateaux in the world.
Between the farm and the far hills arose a curious line of shroudy blue, seeming to hover round the estate, mystically encircling it, and cutting it off from the rest of the desert. This was the century-old hedge of blue aloes which gave the farm its name. Planted in a huge ring of many miles' circumference, the great spiked cacti, with leaves thick and flat as hide shields, and pointed as steel spears, made a barrier against cattle, ostriches, and human beings that was impassable except by the appointed gaps. No doubt it had a beauty all its own, but beneath its fantastic, isolated blooms and leaves of Madonna blue, the gnarled roots sheltered a hundred varieties of poisonous reptiles and insects. That is why, in Africa, no one likes blue aloes—they always harbour death.
Dawn on the Karoo more than compensates for its fearsome nights and torrid noontides. The dew, jewelling a thousand spider-webs, the sparkling brightness of the air, the exquisite purity of the atmosphere, and grandeur of space and loneliness rimmed about by rose-tipped skies and far forget-me-not hills make a magic to catch the heart in a net from which it never quite escapes.
Christine felt this enchantment as she wandered across the veld, her eyes fixed on the hills from behind which the sun would presently emerge to fill the land with a clear, pitiless heat that turned everything curiously grey. A dam of water reflecting pink cloud-tips lay bright and still as a sheet of steel. The fields of lucerne, under the morning light, were softly turning from black to emerald, and beyond the aloe hedge a native kraal that was scattered on the side of a hill slowly woke to life. A dog barked; a wisp of smoke curled between the thatched huts, and one or two blanketed figures crept from the low doors. The simple yet secret lives of these people intrigued Christine deeply. She knew little of Kafirs, for she had been in Africa only a few months; but the impassive silence of them behind their watching, alert eyes always fascinated her. They said so little before their masters, the whites. Here, for instance, was a little colony of fifty or more people living in a kraal close to their employers. Some of them were grey-haired and had worked for a quarter of a century on the farm—the men on the land, the women at the house—yet, once their daily tasks were over, none knew what their lives were when they returned to the straggling village of palisades and low-doored huts.
Musing on these things, Christine turned at last and sauntered slowly homeward. Everything was still very quiet, but smoke was rising from the solid farm chimneys, and, rounding the corners of some large outbuildings, she came suddenly upon more life—feathery, fantastic life of spindlelegs and fluttering wings. Scores of baby ostriches, just released from their night shelter, were racing into the morning light, pirouetting round each other like crazy, gleesome sprites. Christine stood laughing at their fandangos and the antics of the Kafirs engaged in herding them. A man standing near, pipe in mouth, and hands in pockets, observing the same scene, was astonished that her sad yet passionate face could so change under the spell of laughter. He had wondered, when he first saw her, why a girl with such ardent eyes should wear such weariness upon her lips and look so disdainfully at life. Now he saw that it was a mask she wore and forgot when she was alone, and he wondered still more what had brought such a girl to be a governess on a Karoo farm.
But in a moment Christine's face changed, resuming, like a veil over its youth and bloom, the look of world-weariness. She bowed slightly to him, with a somewhat cool response to his pleasant morning greeting, and made haste to resume her walk homeward.
She knew him to be Richard Saltire, the government forest and land expert, who was engaged in certain experiments on the farm. He shared a bungalow somewhere on the land with two young Hollanders who were learning ostrich-farming, and came with them to lunch every day at the house. Already, his bold, careless face, with its sunbitten beauty, had separated itself in her memory from the faces of the other men, for it was a face and personality that could not leave a woman undisturbed. Incidentally, it had disturbed her in connection with an impression not altogether agreeable.
One of the first hints Mrs. van Cannan had given the new governess was that the master of Blue Aloes did not care for any kind of intimacy to exist between the womenfolk of the farm and the men occupied about it. Christine had been long enough in South Africa to recognize that this was an odd departure from the general rule of friendliness and equality; but a hint to the proud has the same efficacy as a word to the wise. Besides, she had no longing for the society of men, but rather a wish to forget that she had ever known any. Life had made a hole in her heart which she meant to fill if she could, but only with inanimate things and the love of children. So that Mr. van Cannan's unsociable restriction, far from being irksome, suited her perfectly.
Mrs. van Cannan apparently did not apply to herself her husband's injunction, for she was charming to everybody, and especially to Mr. Saltire. It was impossible not to notice this, and also that the fact was not lost upon the gloomy, fanatic glance of the master of the house.
If Mr. Saltire showed bad taste in so openly returning Mrs. van Cannan's interest, it had to be admitted that it was the form of bad taste that is a law unto itself and takes no thought of the opinion of others. Although Africa had spoiled Saltire's complexion, it was evident that she had never bowed his neck or put humility into his eye or made him desist from looking over his boldly cut nose as though he had bought the world and did not want it.
But to Christine Chaine it seemed that to cause pain to a man racked with neuritis and jealousy for the sake of a mild flirtation with a pretty woman was a cruel as well as a dangerous game. That was one of the reasons why the friendliness of his morning greeting had been met with such coldness. She had known heartlessness before in her life, and wished no further acquaintance with it. That was the resolution with which she hurried back through the straggling garden, the whitewashed porch, and massive front door to the nursery.
The children, full of high spirits and wilfulness, were engaged in their morning romp of trying to evade Meekie, the colored "nannie," whose business it was to bathe them.
They were extraordinarily lovable children, in spite of a certain elf-like disobedience which possessed them like a disease. It was quite enough to tell them not to do a thing for them to be eaten up with a desire to do it forthwith. Christine had discovered this, and had learned to manage them in other ways than by direct command.
"Take Roddy—no; take Coral, she is the dirtiest—no, no—Rita! Rita is the pig!" they shrieked, as they pranced from bed to bed. "Bathe yourself, old Meekie—you are the blackest of all."
Christine had her work cut out with them for the next half-hour, but at last they were marshalled, sweet and shining, to breakfast, where she presided, for their father always took an early breakfast, and Mrs. van Cannan never rose until eleven. Afterward, according to custom, they paid a visit to the latter's room, to wish her good-morning.
Isabel van Cannan was a big, lazy, laughing woman, with sleepy, golden eyes. She spent hours in bed, lying, as she did now, amid quantities of pillows, doing absolutely nothing. She had told Christine that she was of Spanish extraction, yet she was blond as a Swede. Her hair, which had a sort of lamb's-wool fluffiness, lay upon her pillows in two great ropes, yellow as the pollen of a lily. She took the children one by one into a sleepy embrace, kissed and patted their cheeks, admonishing them to be good and obey Miss Chaine in everything.
"Be sure not to go in the sun without your hats," she adjured the two small girls. "Roddy doesn't matter so much, but little girls' complexions are very important."
Rita and Coral stuck out their rose-pink chins and exchanged a sparkling glance. Christine knew that she would have trouble with them and their hats all day.
"Good-bye," said Mrs. van Cannan, and sank back among her pillows. As the children scampered out of the room, she called sharply, "Don't go near the dam, Roddy!"
Christine had heard her say that before, and always with that sharp inflection.
"I never let them go near the dam without me," she said reassuringly. Mrs. van Cannan did not answer, but a quiver, as if of pain, passed over her closed eyelids.
Outside in the passage, Roderick pressed close to Christine and murmured, with a sort of elfin sadness:
"Carol was drowned in the dam."
The girl was startled.
"Carol?" she echoed. "Who was Carol?"
"My big brother—a year older than me," he whispered. "He is buried out in the graveyard. I'll take you to see the place if you like. Let us go now."
Christine collected herself.
"We must go to lessons now, dear. Later on, you shall show me anything you like."
But from time to time during the morning, sitting in the creeper-trimmed summer-house they used for a school-room, with her charges busy round her, Christine's thoughts returned to the strange little revelation. Roddy, with his red-gold brush of hair, bent over his slate, was not the first-born, then! He had been drowned in the dam—that peaceful sheet of walled-in water that reflected the pink tips of dawn and wherein, at eventide, the cattle waded happily to drink. This old Karoo farmhouse had known tragedy, even as she had sensed. Small wonder Bernard van Cannan's eyes wore a haunted look! Yet his wife, with her full happy laugh and golden locks, lying among her pillows, seemed curiously untouched by sorrow. Except for that quiver of the eyelids, Christine had never seen her show anything but a contented face to life.
Well—the history of Blue Aloes was a sealed book when the girl came to it, knowing nothing of its inmates beyond their excellent references as an old Huguenot family. Now the book, slowly opening page by page, was revealing strange things.
The luncheon-hour always provided fresh material for a reflective mind. The dining-room was large and lofty, and the table must have dated back to the early days at the Cape, when every great family had its scores of retainers and slaves. It was composed of time-stained teak, and could have seated dozens, being curiously shaped like a capital E with the middle branch of the letter missing. Only one of the branches was now in use, and at this Christine presided over her small charges, fortunately somewhat aloof from the rest, for they had many odd habits which it was her business to correct without drawing attention. Coral did not like pumpkin, and would keep dropping it on the floor. Rita loved to kill flies with a spoon. Roddy's specialty was sliding bits of meat into the open jaws of a pointer—there were always several under the table—then briskly passing his plate for more. Once or twice, looking up from correcting these idiosyncrasies, the girl found the blue eyes of Richard Saltire fixed upon her as if in ironic inquiry, and though she felt the slow colour creep into her face, she returned the glance coldly. How dare he be curious about her, she thought rather angrily. Let him confine himself to making the lids of his hostess droop and her cheeks dimple. Not that Christine believed there to be any harm in their open flirtation—Mrs. van Cannan was plainly devoted to her husband; perhaps it was natural that she should enjoy admiration. She possessed the kind of beauty only to be achieved by the woman who makes the care of her appearance an art, and spends hours in absolute repose of mind and body. Her face had not a line in it of strain or sorrow. Faint pink tinted her cheeks. Her pink-linen gown, open in a low V, showed the perfect contour and creaminess of her breast. The restless, adoring eyes of her husband came back to her always with that glance, vigilant and sombre, that was peculiar to them.
With some assumption of state, he always sat in the centre of the body of the table, with his wife beside him. Saltire sat at her right, and Saxby, the overseer, was placed beside his host. Opposite them, on the other side of the table, were the two young Hollanders and a cheerful Scotch colonial called McNeil.
These six men were expected to take both luncheon and dinner at the farm, but only the Hollanders turned up in the evening, perhaps because the excellence of the fare was outbalanced by the long prayers and hymns with which the meal was prefaced and ended. Even at lunch-time, there was a Bible at the host's elbow, from which he read a number of texts before pronouncing a long grace, while the visitors listened with expressions that varied from embarrassment to impatience. Richard Saltire always looked frankly bored, but sometimes he and Mrs. van Cannan exchanged a smile of sympathy at having to listen to the maledictions of Job while the roast was getting cold. Hymns for lunch were mercifully omitted. Bernard van Cannan, though plainly a religious fanatic, was also the owner of one of the wealthiest farms in the colony, and no doubt he realized that the working-hours of his employees might be more profitably engaged than by chanting hymns.
Saxby, the overseer, a dark, burly man of unusual height, was marked by the thick lips and general fulness of countenance that suggests to those who have lived long enough in Africa "a touch of colour." He had the soft voice, too, and full, deep laugh of those who have a dash of native blood in their veins. His manner was melancholy, though charming, and he imposed his society upon no man, but attended strictly to his business. He was the best manager the farm had ever known. After being there for less than a year, he had so improved the stock and the land that Bernard van Cannan looked upon him as a little god, and his word was law on the farm. His private history, a rather sad one, Christine had already heard from Mrs. van Cannan. It appeared that his wife had been terribly disfigured in a fire and was not only a semi-invalid but a victim of melancholia. She lived with him in an isolated bungalow some way off, and he did everything for her with his own hands as she shrank from being seen by any one, and particularly detested natives. While her husband was away at his duties, she remained locked in the bungalow, inaccessible to any one save Mrs. van Cannan, who sometimes went to sit with her.
"But I can't bear to go often," Isabel van Cannan told Miss Chaine. "She depresses me so terribly, and what good can I do her, poor soul?"
Unnecessary for her to add that she hated being depressed. It was bad for the complexion, she laughed. Laughter was never far from her lips. But, at the moment, there really seemed some trace of the morning's pain on her as she looked at her husband.
"Bernard's shoulder is giving him so much trouble," she said appealingly to Saltire. "He wants to go to East London to see his old specialist, but I don't believe in that man. I think rest in bed is the cure for all ills. Don't you agree with me, Mr. Saltire?"
"Bed has its uses no doubt," laughed Saltire, with the cheerful carelessness of the thoroughly healthy man, "but a change of scene is better sometimes, for some people."
Van Cannan, his shoulder and left eye twitching perpetually, turned a searching gaze upon the deeply tanned face of the forestry expert, as though suspecting some double meaning in the words. Saltire bore the scrutiny undisturbed. Immaculate in white linens, his handsome fairish head wearing a perpetually well-groomed look, perhaps by reason of a bullet which, during the Boer War, had skimmed straight through his hair, leaving a perfect parting in the centre, he was a striking contrast to the haggard master of the house, who muttered morosely:
"There is some Latin saying—isn't there?—about people 'changing their skies but not their dispositions.'"
"Indisposition is a different matter," remarked Saxby sagely, "and with neuritis it is a mistake to let the pain get too near the heart. I think you ought to see a doctor, Mr. van Cannan, but East London is a long way off. Why not call in the district man?"
"He would prescribe a bottle of pink water and charge me a couple of pounds for it. I need better treatment than that. I could not even ride this morning—had to leave my horse and walk home. The pain was vile."
Saxby looked at him sympathetically.
"Well, try a couple of weeks' rest in bed, as Mrs. van Cannan suggests. You know that I can keep things going all right."
"And Mr. Saltire will continue to turn the prickly-pears into ogres and hags," said his wife, with her childlike smile. "When you get up again, he will have a whole army of shrivelled monsters ready for you."
It is true that this was Richard Saltire's business on the farm—to rid the land of that bane and pest of the Karoo, the prickly-pear cactus. The new governmental experiment was the only one, so far, that had shown any good results in getting rid of the pest. It consisted in inoculating each bush with certain poisons, which, when they entered the sap of the plant, shrivelled and withered it to the core, making its large, pale, flapping hands drop off as though smitten by leprosy, and causing the whole bush to assume a staggering, menacing attitude that was immensely startling and grotesque. Many of the natives were now afraid to go about on the farm after dusk. They said the prickly-pears threatened them, even ran after them, intent on revenge.
Christine had heard Mr. van Cannan say that his father knew the man whose grandfather was the first Dutchman to introduce the prickly-pear into the Karoo. It was a great treasure then, being looked upon as good fodder for beast and ostrich in time of drought, and the boy used to be beaten if he did not properly water the leaves which were being laboriously preserved on the great trek into the desert. Unfortunately, the preservation had been so complete that it was now the ruin of many a fine Karoo estate, springing up everywhere, smothering other growths and destroying, with its tiny multitudinous thorns, the stomachs of the cattle, who love too much its watery leaves. Mr. van Cannan was one of the farmers rich enough to take drastic steps to save his farm. Saltire was doing it for him very thoroughly and efficiently.
"How much longer do you expect to be?" asked van Cannan.
"Oh, another three weeks ought to finish the job," said Saltire. "But, as you know, they are most persistent things. When you think they are done for, you find them sprouting green again below the wound, and have to give them another dose."
"Three weeks!" muttered van Cannan, with moody eyes. He looked to Christine like a man suffering with sickness of the soul. Everyone supposed the rest-cure definitely settled on, but, with the contrariness of an ailing child, he suddenly announced determinedly, "I shall leave for East London this afternoon."
The children were called to kiss him good-bye, and they clustered round him.
"Take care of them for me," he said, with a piercing wistfulness, to Christine. "Take care of my boy."
Then he turned brusquely to Saxby, making arrangements for a mule-cart to be ready at two o'clock to drive him into Cradock, the nearest large town, where he would have to spend the night before proceeding farther by rail.
Christine could not but be struck by the words he had used, and mused over them wonderingly while she tucked Rita and Coral under their mosquito-curtains. It was her habit to spend this hour with Roddy and a story-book. But today he hovered restlessly, showing no inclination to settle down, and seeming full of some suppressed excitement. At last, he whispered in her ear:
"Don't forget where you said you would come with me—to see Carol and the others." Christine wondered if old Sophy was one of the others, and, even in the noontide heat, she felt a chill.
"All right, Roddy," she agreed slowly. "Wait till I get a sunshade, though. It is dreadfully hot."
She shaded him as much as herself while they threaded their way through the shrubs that seemed to simmer in the grey-brown heat.
Almost every South African farm has its private cemetery. It is the custom to bury the dead where they have lived, and often the graveyard is in the shadiest corner of the garden, where the women sit to sew, the men bring their pipes, and children spread their playthings upon the flat, roughly hewn tombstones.
At Blue Aloes, the place of the dead was hidden far from the haunts of the living, but the narrow, uncertain path led to it at last—a bare, sun-bleached spot, secluded but unshaded by a gaudy-blossomed hedge of cactus. A straight, single line of graves, less than a dozen in number, lay blistering in the sunshine. Some were marked with slabs of lime-worn [Transcriber's note: time-worn?] stone, upon whose faded lettering little green rock-lizards were disporting themselves. The last two in the line had white marble crosses at their heads, each bearing a name in black letters, and a date. The preceding one, too, was fairly new, with the earth heaped in still unbroken lumps upon it, but it bore no distinguishing mark of any kind. Death appeared to have been fairly busy in recent times at Blue Aloes. The date on the end grave was no older than six months.
Little Bernard Quentin van Cannan lay there, sleeping too soon at the age of three and a half. Roddy pronounced his brief but sufficiently eloquent epitaph.
"He was Coral's twin. A tarantula bit him—one of the awful big poisonous ones out of the aloe hedge."
The next cross registered the resting-place of Carol Quentin van Cannan—drowned a year back, at the age of nine. Christine's sad gaze travelled to the third and unmarked mound.
"Is that Sophy's grave?" she asked softly, for shrivelling on the lumps of earth lay a bunch of poppies that she had seen Roddy gathering the day before, and now remembered wondering where he had disappeared to afterward. Roddy did not answer. He was staring before him with manful eyes that winked rapidly but shed no tears. His lips were pursed up as if to whistle, yet made no sound. At the sight of him and the withered poppies in the place where never a flower of memory blossomed, hot tears surged to the girl's eyes. It was wistful to think of a child remembering when all others forgot.
"No one ever comes here but me," he said, at last.
Christine got rid of her tears by turning her back on him and pressing them away with her fingers, for she knew that emotion embarrasses and pains children, and she wanted to help this small, brave man, not hurt him.
"You and I will come here often, Roddy. We will turn it into a garden, and make it blossom like the rose—shall we?"
"Yes, yes!" he cried eagerly. "'Blossom like the rose'—that comes out of the Bible! I have heard daddy read it. But we must not talk about it to mamma. It makes her too sad to come here, or even talk about it. Mamma doesn't like sad things."
Suddenly, the strange quietude of the place was invaded by the sound of voices. They were far-off voices, but both the girl and the child started as though caught in some forbidden act, and instinctively took hands. A moment later they were hurrying away from the lonely spot, back by the way they had come. Half-way home they came upon Richard Saltire and the squad of Kafirs who carried his implements and liquids. Theirs were the voices that had been heard. Work had begun on the territory so thickly sewn with prickly-pears that lay between farm and cemetery.
Saltire, with sleeves rolled up, was operating with a syringe upon the trunk of a giant bush, but he turned round to throw a smile to Roddy.
"Hello, Dick!" was the blithe response. "Gr-r-r! You giving it to that old bush?"
"Rather! He's getting it where the chicken got the ax. Like to have a go at him?"
Roddy delightedly grasped the syringe, and was instructed how to fill and plunge it into the green, dropsical flesh of the plant. The Kafirs stood looking on with grave, imperturbable faces. Christine sat down on a rock and, from the rosy shadow of her parasol, observed the pair. She was astonished at this revelation of intimacy. Saltire's satirical blue eyes were full of warm affection as he looked at the boy, and Roddy's manner toward him contained a loving familiarity and trust she had never seen him exhibit to any one. It was interesting, too, to watch the man's fine, capable hands manipulating his instruments and his quick eye searching each bush to select a vulnerable spot for the virus of death. His movements had the grace and energy of one whose every muscle is trained by service and in perfect condition. Only men who hail from cold climates retain this characteristic in Africa. Those born in its disintegrating heats are usually overtaken in the early thirties by physical weariness or, as some choose to call it, "slackness" that only fine moral training can overcome.
He was good to look at, too, this man in spotless white clothes, the blueness of his eyes throwing up the clear tan of his face, his burnished hair lying close to his head. Christine thought rather sadly that the presence on the farm of any one so sane and fearless-looking would have been a great comfort to her, if only he had not been one of the people whose ways troubled her most.
It was with difficulty that she at last got Roddy away, he was so evidently under the forestry man's spell. Almost she felt that spell herself when he began talking to her, looking deep into her eyes while he explained his work; but suddenly it seemed to her that those blue eyes were explaining something quite different, and, flushing furiously, she made haste to take Roddy's hand and end the interview by walking away.
There was considerable trouble during the afternoon with Rita and Coral. If Christine turned her back for a moment, they flew out into the sunshine, hatless, disporting themselves like baby ostriches. Reproaches were received with trills of laughter, warnings of punishment with trusting, happy eyes.
When, at last, Christine had them safely absorbed in a table-game, it was to realize that Roddy had suddenly disappeared. Calling Meekie to take charge of the little girls, she hastened, with beating heart, in search of the boy. Instinct took her in the direction of the dam, and she caught him up just as he had reached its brink. He looked at her brightly, no sign of shamefacedness or sulkiness on him, but would give no further explanation than that he "only wanted to peep in."
"But, Roddy, how could you be so disobedient, dear? And you remember what your mother said this morning?"
"Yes, I remember; but I did not promise. If I had promised, I would not have gone."
"Well, will you promise me, darling?"
But at that he broke away from her and ran toward the house, singing, "Just a little peep-in—just a little peep-in."
She felt more than slightly dispirited. There were three bad nights behind her, and the day had been particularly tiring. Though young and energetic, and with an extraordinary sense of love and responsibility toward these naughty, attractive children, she wondered, for a weary moment, whether she could stand the racket. The work of governessing was new to her. Any work was new to her, and governessing in Africa is as different to governessing in England (which is bad enough) as plowing cultivated land is to opening up virgin soil. But life had unexpectedly laid the burden of work upon Christine Chaine, and having put her hand to the plow, she did not mean to turn back. Only, for once, she was glad when nightfall brought the hour when she could leave her charges for a while in someone else's care.
Once the children were safely in bed, it was Meekie's task to sit beside them until Christine had dined and rested, and chose to come to bed. Meekie belonged to the kraal people, but she had white blood in her, like so many natives, and spoke very good English.
That all the men on the farm should turn up to dinner that evening did not seem to Christine so much a cause for surprise as for contempt. In her short but not too happy experience of life, she had, like a certain great American philosopher, discovered that the game of life is not always "played square" when there is a woman in it. Of course, it was comprehensible that all men liked a good dinner, especially when it was not marred by hymns and long prayers, fervent to the point of fanaticism. Equally, of course, the pretty hostess, with a charming word of welcome for everyone, was an attraction in herself. But, somehow, it sickened the clear heart of Christine Chaine to see this jubilant gathering round a dinner table that was usually deserted, and from which the host had just departed, a sick and broken man. She thought the proceedings more worthy of a lot of heartless schoolboys delighting in a master's absence than of decent, honest men.
And whatever she thought of the Hollanders and colonials, whose traditions were unknown to her, it was certain that her scorn was redoubled for the one man she knew to be of her own class and land.
Yet there he sat at the elbow of his hostess, calm and smiling, no whit removed from his usual self-contained and arrogant self. Christine gave him one long look that seemed to turn her violet eyes black; then she looked no more his way. She could not have told why she hated this action in him so bitterly. Perhaps she felt that he was worthy of higher things, but, if questioned, she would probably have laid it at the door of caste and country. All that she knew, for a poignant moment, was an intense longing to strike the smile from his lips with anything to hand—a wine-glass, a bowl, a knife.
Mercifully, the moment passed, and all that most of them saw was a young girl who had come late to dinner—a girl with a rather radiant skin, purply black hair that branched away from her face as though with a life of its own, and violet eyes that, after one swordlike glance all round, were hidden under a line of heavy lashes. The black-velvet dinner gown she wore, simple to austerity, had just a faint rim of tulle at the edges against her skin. Only an artist or connoisseur would have observed the milkiness of that skin and the perfect lines under the sombre velvet. Small wonder that most eyes turned to the lady who tonight took the place of ceremony at the table, and who, as always, was arrayed in the delicate laces and pinkish tints that seemed to call to notice the gold of the hair, the rose of her cheek, and the golden-brown shadows of her eyes.
The little cloud of sadness and loss that hovered over her, yet never descended, was like the rain-cloud that sometimes threatens a June day. It seemed everyone's business to drive that cloud away, and everyone but Christine applied themselves nobly to the task. At the end of the long dinner, all were so properly employed in this manner that apparently no one noticed the departure of the silent, scornful-lipped governess, and she was able to make her exit without notice or remonstrance.
For a little while she walked up and down in the garden under the rays of a new and early-retiring slip of moon. Then, with a pain at her heart that she had hoped it was for ever out of the power of life to deal her, she retired to the nursery, relieved the coloured nurse from her watch, and went quietly to bed.
For fully an hour afterward she heard the echo of laughter and voices in the front veranda—sometimes the chink of glasses. Later, Mrs. van Cannan sang and played waltz-music to them in the drawing-room. At last the men departed, one by one. Mrs. van Cannan was heard calling sharply for her night lemonade and someone to unlace her frock. Next, the servants shuffled softly homeward through the dusk. The old Cape cook, who had quarters somewhere near the kitchen, went the rounds, locking up. The clang of the iron bar falling into its bracket across the great front door echoed through the house. Then all was still.
In the sinister, brooding peace of the desert that ensued, the night noises presently began to make themselves heard.
A cricket somewhere in the house set up a sprightly cheeping. Far, far away, an animal wailed, and a jackal distressfully called to its mate. Then something laughed terribly—rocking, hollow laughter—it might have been a hyena.
Christine Chaine was a Catholic. She crossed herself in the darkness and softly repeated some of the prayers whose cadences and noble phrases seem to hold power to hush the soul into peace. She hoped at this time they would hush her mind into sleep, but for a long while many impressions of the day haunted her. Sometimes she saw the twitching shoulders and tormented gaze of a sick man, then the smiling blond-and-pink beauty of a woman. Sometimes a pair of blue eyes, with riddles in them that she would not read, held her; then graves—graves in a long arid line. At last she slept, the sleep of weariness that mercifully falls upon the strong and healthy like a weight, blotting out consciousness.
Then—taps on the shutter, and words:
"Mind the boy—take care of the boy!"
They were soft taps and whispered words, but, like the torment of dropping water, they had their effect at last. The girl sat up in bed again, her fingers pressed to her temples, her eyes staring, listening, listening. Yes—they were the same eternal taps and words. With the dull desperation of fatigue, she got out of bed and approached the window.
"Who are you? What are you? Tell me what to do," she said quietly.
In the long silence that followed, there was only one answer—the subtle odour of rottenness stole into the room.
She never knew afterward what possessed her to take the course she did. Probably if she had not gone to sleep in the strength and peace of prayers, and awakened with the protection of them woven about her, she would have taken no course at all. As it was, she knew she had got to do something to solve the mystery of this warning. It did not occur to her to get out of the window. The right thing seemed to be to make her way very quietly through the house, let herself out by the front door, and come round to the window where the warning thing waited. It would not hurt her, she knew. It was a hateful Thing, but that its intentions were benevolent was a conclusion that had forced itself upon her soul.
Groping for her dressing-gown, she found it and put it on without striking a light. And though she carried a box of matches in her hand, she believed she would not need them, for the way was perfectly simple and well known to her—a long passage that led to the dining-room, at one end of which was the great, iron-barred front door.
Her feet and hands found the way quietly, and she reached the front door without incident, but when she felt for the great bar whose strident clanging in its bracket had been a last signal of night within the house, her hand encountered nothing. Wonderingly she slid her fingers up and down the polished oak. At last she realized that the bar hung loose; the door was merely on the latch. Someone beside herself who dwelt within the house had business without its portals that night and was still abroad!
For the first time, the girl's purpose faltered. A slow fear pierced her, and her feet refused to take her farther. The thought flashed into her mind that, if she passed the door, she might find herself locked out, with the night—and she knew not what beside.
Even as she stood there hesitating, trying to collect her courage, a sound—the soft tread of a foot on gravel—told her that some other being was close by. There came the same stealthy tread in the porch. Swiftly she shrank back into the embrasure of one of the long windows, thankful for the green blinds against which her dark dressing-gown would give no sign. With one full sleeve, she shrouded her face. She had suddenly become terribly aware of being nothing but a slight girl in a nightgown and wrap, with bare feet thrust into straw slippers. She remembered stories she had heard of struggles in the darkness with powerful natives, and her heart turned to water.
It seemed to her the most horrible moment of her life while she stood shrinking there in the shadow, listening to the door open and close, the bar being replaced, the quiet, regular breathing of that other person. Whoever it was, his movements were calm and undisturbed, but Christine could see nothing, only a large, dim outline that moved sure-footedly across the room, opened another door on the far side, closed it, and was gone.
There were so many other doors, so many other passages. All Christine could be certain of and thankful for was that it was not her door and her passage that had swallowed up the mysterious night-walker. It was some little time before she collected sufficient fortitude to creep back whence she had come, her plan unfulfilled, her courage melted. She was bitterly ashamed, yet felt as if she had escaped from some great evil. Once in the nursery, she locked the door, lighted a candle, and, after she had looked to ascertain that the children were sleeping soundly, she opened her dressing-case and took out a little box of cachets that had been prescribed for her a year before when bitter trouble had stolen sleep for many a night. She felt, and with some reason, that this was an occasion when it would not be too cowardly to resort to artificial means of restoring her nerves by sleep. For though fright and surprise had bereft her, for the time being, of her nerve, her firm spirit was neither beaten nor cowed. She meant to see this thing through, and her last waking thought was a murmured prayer for help to steel her heart against terrors that walked by night, and to resist to the utmost any menace of evil that should approach the little children in her charge.
There followed some tranquil days of which nothing broke the peaceful monotony. The children were extraordinarily tractable, perhaps because Mrs. van Cannan seemed too preoccupied to lay any injunctions upon them. True, Roddy made one of his mysterious disappearances, but it was not long before Christine, hard on his heels, discovered him emerging from an outhouse, where she later assured herself that he could have come to no great harm, for it was merely a big barn stacked with grain and forage, and a number of old packing cases. Nothing there to account for the expression he wore—that same suggestion of tears fiercely restrained which she had noticed when they were looking at the unmarked grave in the cemetery. It wrung her heart to see his young mouth pursed up to whistle a tune that would not come, the look of longing in eyes where only happiness and the divine contentment of childhood should dwell; but the boy volunteered no information, and she did not press him. She wanted his confidence, not to have him regard her as a sort of jailer.
Every day, in the cool of the early morning, while the others were still sleeping, he and she visited the graveyard, starting the good work of making it blossom like the rose, as Christine had promised. They planted lilies and geraniums over the little brothers, and edged the lonely, unmarked grave with a species of curly-leaved box common to that part of the country and which grew rapidly. It was Roddy's fancy, too, to cover this grave with portulaca—a little plant bearing starry flowers of vivid hues that live for a day only. He chose plants that bore only scarlet and golden blossoms.
"She liked those two colours," he told Christine, smiling. "She said that when we were babies we were all like that—very red, with yellowy golden hair."
Christine, looking at the bright head and the fresh cheeks so rare in a South African child, readily understood. But she could not help wondering, as before, at the loyal little heart that remembered so well the words and fancies of a dead woman—when all others forgot!
Nearly always on returning from these morning excursions they met Saltire, rapidly wreaking destruction upon the district. Already, scores of the prickly-pears through which they must wend their way were assuming the staggering attitude characteristic of them as the sap dried and they died of their wounds. Sometimes, one side of a bush would shrivel first, causing it to double up like a creature agonizing. Some crouched like strange beasts watching to spring. Others thrust themselves ominously forward with projected arms, as if ready to grapple. Some brandished their flat leaves as the painter Wiertz, in his famous picture of Napoleon in Hell, made wives and mothers brandish their menacing fists at the man who had robbed them of their loved ones. All wore a look that suggested both agony and revenge. Christine understood, at last, why the Kafirs hated to go about the land after dark, averring that the afflicted bushes threatened and chased them. She began herself to experience an inexplicable feeling of relief, as though at the overcoming of an enemy, when a great spire of smoke betokened the final uprooting and burning of a clump of bush. For fire was the ultimate element used to transform the pest from a malignant into a beneficent factor, and, as aromatic ash, it became of service to the land it had ruined so long. Almost, the process seemed an exposition of Job's words: "When thou hast tried me with fire, I shall come forth as gold."
It was a curious thing how the "personality" of the bushes appeared to affect them all. Saltire at his work gave the impression of a fighter concentrating on the defeat of an enemy. Roddy would dance for joy before each staggering bush. The impassivity of the natives departed from them when they stood about the funeral pyres, and clapping of hands and warlike chanting went heavenward with the smoke. Christine and Roddy often lingered to watch these rejoicings; indeed, it was impossible at any time to get the boy past Saltire and his gang without a halt. The English girl, while standing somewhat aloof, would nevertheless not conceal from herself the interest she felt in the forestry man's remarks, not only on the common enemy, but his work in general.
"They have a great will to live, Roddy—much stronger than you and I, because we dissipate our will in so many directions. I've met this determination before in growing things, though. There are plants in the African jungle that you have to track and trail like wild beasts and do murder upon before they will die. And this old prickly-pear is of the same family. If a bit of leaf can break off and fly past you, it hides itself behind a stone, hastily puts roots into the ground, and grows into a bush before you can say 'Jack Robinson.' Your farm will be a splendid place when we've got rid of all these and replaced them with the spineless plant. Prickly-pear without spines is a perfect food for cattle and ostriches in this climate."
Thus he talked to Roddy, as if the latter were already a man and in possession of his heritage—the wide lands of Blue Aloes; but always while he talked, he looked at and considered the girl who stood aloof, wearing her air of world-weariness like a veil over the youth and bloom of her.
And she, on her side, was considering and reading him, too. She liked him better, because, since that first night of Mr. van Cannan's departure, he had absented himself from the dinner-table. That showed some glimmer of grace in him. Still, there was far too much arrogance in his manner, she thought, and decided that he had probably been spoiled by too facile women. Nothing blunts the fine spiritual side of a man's character so rapidly as association with women of low ideals. The romance of her own life had been split upon that rock. She had known what it was to stand by and see the man she loved with all the pure idealism of youth wrecked by the cheap wiles of a high-born woman with a second-rate soul. Perhaps her misfortune had sharpened her vision for this defect in men. Certainly, it had tainted her outlook with disdain. She sometimes felt, as Pater wrote of Mona Lisa, that "she had looked upon all the world, and her eyelids were a little weary." At any rate, when she found Dick Saltire's blue eyes looking into hers so straightly and significantly that it almost seemed as if an arrow came glancing from him to her, she merely told herself, with an inward-smiling bitterness, that no doubt the same phenomenon occurred when he spoke to Mrs. van Cannan.
Some days after the departure of the master of the farm for the coast, the post-bag arrived from Cradock, and, as Mrs. van Cannan was still sleeping, it fell to Christine, as it had sometimes done before, to distribute the mail. Among her own large batch of home letters it was so unusual to find a South African one that she opened it immediately, and was astonished to discover it to be from Bernard van Cannan. It had been written from Cradock on the evening of the day he left the farm.
"DEAR MISS CHAINE:
"I want once more to commend to you the very special care of my children while I am away. My wife, not being very strong, is unable to see as much of them as she would wish, and I do not like her to be worried. But there are many dangers on a farm, and I have already, by most unhappy chance, lost two young sons. Both deaths occurred during absences of mine and were the result of accident, though, at the time, they were surrounded by every loving care and security. Perhaps, therefore, you will understand the kind of superstitious apprehension I feel about Roderick, who is the last and only one left to come after me in the old place. He has always needed special looking-after, being extremely curious and impulsive while, at the same time, nervous and reticent.
"Perhaps it is only my illness that makes me full of fears, but I can assure you that had it not been for the great confidence you have inspired in me from the first, I should not have left the farm, so anxious do I continually feel about the welfare of my third and last son. However, I trust in God I shall be back soon, better in health, to find that all is well.
"Do not worry my dear wife with this matter. She is of a disposition that cannot cope with sorrow and trouble, and I would not for the world cloud her happy outlook with my morbid fancies. Keep my confidence, and remember that I rely on you with all my heart to guard my little ones.
"BERNARD VAN CANNAN.
"P. S.—I append my last London address, and if I am detained for any time, I shall be glad to hear from you."
A vision of the gloomy-eyed man, twitching with pain and nerves, rose up before her eyes as she folded the letter, and she resolved to write to him at once, allaying his fears as much as possible by an assurance of her devotion. She was sitting in the summer-house at the time, the children beside her, bent over their morning lessons. Through the creeper-framed doorway, she could see the walls and veranda of the old farm, glaring white in the fierce sunlight, but with every line expressing such harmony as only the old Dutch architects seem to have had the secret of putting into the building of South African homesteads. Before the front door stood three gnarled oaks, which yet bore the marks of chains used by the early van Cannans to fasten up the cattle at night, for fear of the hostile Kafirs who at set of sun came creeping over the kopjes. Scores of fierce, man-eating dogs were kept to deal with the marauders, and there were still loopholes in the white walls from which those within had watched and defended.
But those days were long past. Nothing now in the gracious building, with its shady stoeps and high, red roof, toned melodiously by age, to betoken battle, murder, and sudden death. It seemed strange that sinister forebodings should attach themselves in any mind to such harmony of form and colour. Yet Christine held in her hand the very proof of such thoughts, and, what was more, knew herself to be obsessed by them when darkness took the land. For a moment even now, looking out at the brilliant sunshine, she was conscious of a falter in her soul, a moment of horrible loneliness, a groping-out for some human being stronger than herself of whom to take counsel. A thought of Saltire flashed across her. He looked strong and sane, kind and chivalrous. But could he be trusted? Had she not already learned in the bitter school of life that "Ye have no friend but resolution!"
A shadow fell across the doorway. It was Saxby, the manager. He gave her his pleasant, melancholy smile.
"I wonder if Mrs. van Cannan is up yet," he said, in his full, rich voice. "There are one or two farm matters I want to consult her about."
Christine looked at the watch on her wrist and saw that it was past eleven.
"Oh, I should think so, Mr. Saxby. The closing of all the shutters is usually a sign that she is up and about."
It is, in fact, a practice in all Karoo houses to close every window and shutter at about ten o'clock each morning, not throwing them open again until sunset. This keeps the interiors extraordinarily cool, and, as the walls are usually whitewashed, there is plenty of light.
"I expect I shall find her in the drawing-room," Saxby remarked, and passed on. Christine saw him leave again about half an hour later. Then the sound of waltz-music within the closed house told that Mrs. van Cannan was beguiling away the rest of the long, hot morning in a favourite fashion. At noon, the heat, as usual, made the summer-house untenable, and its occupants were driven indoors.
Lunch introduced the only excitement the quiet monotony of the day ever offered, when the men came filing into the soft gloom of the dining-room, bringing with them a suggestion of a world of work that still went on its way, come rain, come shine. All of them took advantage of the custom of the climate to appear coatless. Indeed, the fashion of shirts was sometimes so decolletee as to be slightly embarrassing to English eyes. Only Saltire paid the company the compliment of unrolling his sleeves, buttoning the top button of his shirt, and assuming a tie for the occasion.
Everyone seemed of opinion that the summer rains were brewing and that was the reason of the insufferable heat.
"We'll have a couple of days of this," prophesied Andrew McNeil, "then down it will come with a vengeance."
"The land wants it, of course, but it will be a confounded nuisance to me," remarked the forestry expert.
"Oh, Mr. Saltire, you are insatiable in your work of murder," smiled his hostess. "Are you as merciless in all your dealings?" She looked at him with provoking eyes. Christine hardened herself to hear an answer in the same vein, but was as agreeably relieved as surprised.
"I want to get the work done," said Saltire briefly.
"I never knew any one so anxious to leave us before," grumbled Mrs. van Cannan prettily. "You must be terribly bored with us all."
"Never less in my life."
The answer was so impersonal as to be almost a sign of boredom in itself, and Mrs. van Cannan, little accustomed to have her charming advances met in such fashion, turned away with a pucker on her brow to a more grateful audience. At the same moment, an irresistible impulse drew Christine's glance to Saltire in time to receive one of those straight, significant looks that indescribably disturbed her. Nothing there of the impersonality his words had betrayed! It was a clear message from a man to a woman—one of those messages that only very strong-willed people who know what they want have the frankness, perhaps the boldness, to send. Even an indifferent woman would have been stirred to a knowledge of dangerous sweetness, and she knew that she had never been quite indifferent to the personal magnetism of Dick Saltire. As it was, she was shaken to the very soul of her. For a moment, she had the curious illusion that she had never lived before, never had been happy or unhappy, was safe at last in some sure, lovely harbour from all the hurts of the world. It was strange in the midst of everyday happenings, with the talk and clatter of a meal going on, to be swept overwhelmingly away like that to a far place where only two people dwelt—she and the man who looked at her. And before the illusion was past, she had returned a message to him. She did not know what was in her look, but she knew what was in her heart.
Almost immediately it was time to take the children and go. Mrs. van Cannan delayed them for a moment, giving some directions for the afternoon. If Christine could have seen herself with the children clinging to her, she would have been surprised that she could appear so beautiful. Her grace of carriage and well-bred face had always been remarkable, but gone were disdain and weariness from her. She passed out of the room without looking again at Dick Saltire, though he rose, as always, to open the door for her.
An afternoon of such brazen heat followed that it was well to be within the shelter of the shuttered house. But outside, in the turmoil of dust and glare, the work of the farm went on as usual. Christine pictured Saltire at his implacable task, serene in spite of dust and blaze, with the quality of resolution in his every movement that characterized him, the quality he had power to put into his eyes and throw across a room to her. The remembrance of his glance sent her pale, even now in the quiet house. Only a strong man, sure of himself and with the courage of his wishes, would dare put such a message into his eyes, would dare call boldly and silently to a woman that she was his raison d'etre, that, because of her, the dulness and monotony of life had never bored him less, that he had found her, that she must take of and give to him. She knew now that he had been telling her these things ever since they had met, but that she had turned from the knowledge, until, at last, in an unguarded moment, it had reached and overwhelmed her, flooding her soul with passionate joy, yet filling her with a peace and security she had never known, either in the old farmhouse or since the long-ago day when all her brave castles of youth and love had crashed down into the dust. Gone now was unbelief, and disdain, and fear of terror that stalked by night; a rock was at her back, there was a hand to hold in the blackest darkness. Never any more need she feel fear and spiritual loneliness. Withal, there was the passionate joy of adventure, of exploration in sweet, unknown lands of the heart, the launching of a boat upon a sea of dreams. Life sang to Christine Chaine like a nightingale under the stars.
How tenderly and patiently she beguiled the heat-weary children throughout that long afternoon! There was no feeling of haste upon her. She knew that sweetness was travelling her way, that "what is for thee, gravitates toward thee," and is vain to seek before the appointed hour. It might come as even-song to a seemingly endless day, or dawn following a fearsome night. But it was coming. That was all that mattered!
The directions Mrs. van Cannan had given, as they left the luncheon, were to the effect that, when the siesta hour was over, the children were to have possession of the drawing-room until it was cool enough for them to go for their accustomed walk. This plan was to continue as long as the hot weather lasted.
"I think it is not very healthy for any of you," she said amiably, "to stick all day in a room you have to sleep in at night."
Christine could not help being surprised at her giving up the coolest and quietest room in the house, and one that had hitherto been forbidden ground to the children. However, here they were, installed among gaily cretonned furniture, the little girls dashing about like squirrels in a strange cage, Roddy, apparently more at home, prowling softly around, examining things with a reverent yet familiar air.
"I remember when we used to come here every day," said Rita suddenly, and stood stock-still with concentrated eyes, like one trying to catch the memory of a dream. "When was it, Roddy?"
He looked at her steadily.
"When our old nannie was here."
Rita fixed her blue eyes on his.
"There was someone else here, too," she insisted.
"Sophy always brought us here," he repeated mechanically.
"I remember old Sophy," murmured Rita thoughtfully. "She cried dreadfully when she went away. She was not allowed to kiss us because she had turned all silver colour." She trilled into gay laughter. "Mamma told me that it might have turned us all silver, too."
"I kissed her before she went, anyway!" burst from Roddy fiercely. "And I would not have cared if it had turned me to silver."
Christine glanced wonderingly at him, astonished at this new theme of silver.
"But if she went away, how is it that she is buried here, Roddy?"
"But the grave we covered with portulaca—" She stopped abruptly, for the boy's face had assumed the look she could not bear—the look of enduring that only those hardened to life should know. "Come and listen to this story of a magic carpet on which two children were carried over strange lands and cities," she said gently, and drew them all round her, with an arm through Roddy's.
The windows and shutters were thrown open at sunset, and the children had their tea in the dining-room. Afterward, they went for a long walk across the sands toward the kopjes, which had receded into distance again and in the west were turning purple with mauve tops. But the rest of the sky was coloured a threatening greenish bronze, with monstrous-shaped clouds sprawled across it; and the air, though sunless, was still sand-laden and suffocating, with the promise of storm.
It would have been easy for Christine to take the children toward the vicinity in which Saltire was occupied and where he would now be putting up his instruments and dismissing his workers for the night, but some instinct half modest, half self-sacrificing made her postpone the happiness of seeing him again, and guided her feet in an opposite direction. She was certain that, though he had refrained from dining at the farm except for the one night of Mr. van Cannan's departure, she would see him there that evening, and she dressed with special care and joy in the beauty of her hair, her tinted, curving face, and the subtle glamour that she knew she wore as the gift of happiness.
"How sweet it is to be young and desirable—and desired by the one man in the world!" was the half-formed thought in her mind as she combed her soft, cloudy black hair high above her face and fixed it with a tall amber comb. But she would not converse too clearly with her heart. Enough that she had heard it singing in her breast as she had never thought to hear it sing again. She was glad of the excuse of the heavy heat to discard her usual black gown and be seen in a colour that she knew belonged to her by right of her black hair and violet eyes—a deep primrose-yellow of soft, transparent muslin.
Saltire was late for dinner, but he came, as she had known he would, taking his usual place next to Mrs. van Cannan and almost opposite Christine, who, for the evening meal, was always expected to sit at the main body of the table. She was busy at the moment hearing from Mr. McNeil all about the process of ostrich-feather plucking which was to begin next day, but she did not miss a word of the late comer's apologies or the merry raillery with which they were met by his hostess. The latter, as usual, gathered unto herself every remark uttered at the table, and the attentions of every man, though she never bothered much about old Andrew McNeil. But if she had the lip-service, Christine was very well aware to whom was accorded, that night, the service of the eyes.
Every man there had become aware of the youth and beauty which, till that day, she had worn as if veiled, and they were paying the tribute that men will proffer until the end of time to those two gifts of the gods. She knew it without vanity, but also without embarrassment, for she had tasted triumph before in a world more difficult to please than this, surrounded by opponents worthier of her steel than Isabel van Cannan. The little triumph only pleased her in that she could offer it as a gift to the man she loved. For here is another eternal truth, that all men are one in pride of possession of that which excites envy and admiration in other men. All women know this with a gladness that is salted by sorrow.
Saltire's eyes were the only ones she could not meet with serenity. She felt his glance on her often, but always when she tried to lift hers to meet it, her lids seemed weighted by little heavy pebbles.
She meant to overcome this weakness, though, and look at him even as she had answered at noon; but, in the middle of dinner, while she yet strove against the physical inability, her resolution was disturbed by a strange occurrence. A wild scream of fear and horror came ringing from the nursery. Without a thought for anything but that it was Roddy's voice, Christine sprang from the table. Down the long passage and into the nursery she ran, and, almost bursting into the room, caught the boy in her arms. He was not screaming now, but white as death and staring with fearful eyes at the bed, on which the bedclothes were pulled back, with Meekie peering over it. The two little girls, round-eyed and frightened, were sitting up in their cots. For a moment, Roddy stayed rigid in her arms; then he hid his face against her arm and broke into convulsive sobs.
"It's a big spider—all red and black—like the one that bit Bernard!"
And, in fact, from where she stood, Christine could see the monstrous thing, with its black, furry claws, protruding eyes, and red-blotched body, still crouching there in a little hollow at the end of the bed. Only, the person leaning over examining it now was not Meekie but Saltire, who had reached the nursery almost on her heels.
"I put my foot against it and touched its beastly fur!" cried Roddy, and suddenly began to scream again.
"Roddy! How dare you make that abominable noise?"
Mrs. van Cannan's voice fell like a jet of ice-cold water into the room. Behind her in the doorway loomed the tall figure of Saxby, the manager, with McNeil and the others. Christine's warm heart would never have suggested such a method of quieting the boy, but it had its points. Roddy, though still shaking and ashen, stood up straight and looked at his mother.
"All about a silly spider!" continued the latter, with cutting scorn. "I am ashamed of you! I thought you were brave, like your father."
That flushed Roddy to his brows.
"It has fur—red fur," he stammered.
"You deserve a whipping for your cowardice," said Mrs. van Cannan curtly, and walked over to the bed. "The thing is half dead, and quite harmless," she said.
"Half dead or half drunk," McNeil jocosely suggested. "I never saw a tarantula so quiet as that before."
"The question is how long would it have stayed in that condition?" said Saltire significantly. "For you are mistaken about its harmlessness, Mrs. van Cannan. It is one of the most poisonous and ferocious of its tribe."
They had got the strangely sluggish beast off the bed by knocking it with a stick into an old shoe, and were removing it. Christine only vaguely heard the remarks, for Roddy hid his eyes while it was being carried out, and was trembling violently against her. It seemed amazing to her that Mrs. van Cannan did not realize that there was more than mere cowardice in his behaviour. The trouble was so plainly psychological—the memory of the loss of a loved little brother subtly interwoven with horror of that particular species of venomous insect. Christine herself had a greater hatred of spiders than of any creeping things, and well understood the child's panic of disgust and fear. It filled her with indignation to hear Mrs. van Cannan turn once more and lash the boy with a phrase before she swept from the room.
"Miserable little coward!"
In a moment, the girl was kneeling on the floor beside the unhappy child, holding him tight, whispering words of love and comfort.
"No, no, darling; it is only that she does not understand! We will explain to her—I will tell her later why you hated it so. Wait till your daddy comes back. I am sure he will understand."
So she strove to comfort him, while Meekie coaxed the little girls back to the horizontal attitude under their sheets.
"Don't make me go back into that bed," whispered Roddy fearfully.
"No; of course not. Don't worry; just trust me, darling!" She turned to Meekie. "I will stay with them now, Meekie. You may go."
"But has the missy had her dinner?" asked the Cape woman politely.
"I have had all I want, thank you, Meekie."
The thought of going back to the dinner-table—to eat and join in the talk and laughter while this small boy whom she loved stayed alone with his wretchedness revolted her. Perhaps later, when he slept, she might slip out into the garden for a while. In the meantime, she beguiled him over to her own bed, and having taken off the coverlet to show him that it held no lurking horrors, she made him get in and curl up, and she knelt beside him, whispering softly so as not to disturb the others, reassuring him of her belief in his courage whilst understanding his horror, confessing her own hatred of spiders, but urging him to try and fight against his fear of them. She told him stories of her own childhood, crooned little poems to him, and sang old songs softly, hoping and praying that he would presently fall asleep. But time slipped by, and he remained wide-eyed, gripping her hand tightly, and only by the slightest degrees relaxing the nervous rigour of his body under the coverlet. Suddenly, he startled her by a strange remark:
"If I could only get into the pink palace with Carol, I'd be all right."
The girl looked down into the distended pupils gazing so wistfully at her, and wondering what new psychological problem she had to deal with. She knew she must go very warily, or defeat her own longing to help him. At last, she said very tenderly,
"The world is full of pink palaces, Roddy, but we do not always find them until we are grown up."
He looked at her intently.
"Carol found one at the bottom of the dam," he whispered slowly. "He is there now; it's only his body that is buried in the graveyard."
She smoothed his hair gently with her hand.
"Carol is in a more beautiful palace than any we find here on earth, darling."
The secret, elfin expression crossed his face, but he said nothing.
"And you must not believe that about the dam," she warned him gravely. "There is nothing at the bottom of it but black mud, and deep water that would drown you, too, if you went in."
"I know the palace is there," he repeated doggedly. "I have seen it. The best time to see it is in the early morning or in the evening. All the towers of it are pink then, and you can see the golden wings of the angels shining through the windows."
"That is the reflection of the pink-and-gold clouds in the sky at dawn and sunset that you see, dear silly one. Will you not believe me?"
He squeezed her hand lovingly.
"Mamma has seen it, too," he whispered. "You know she was with Carol when he fell in, and she saw him go into the door of the palace and be met by all the golden angels. She tried to get him back, but she cannot swim, and then she came running home for help. Afterward, they took Carol's body out and buried him, but, you know, he is really there still. Mamma has seen him looking through the windows—she told me—but you must not tell any one. It is very secret, and once I thought I saw him, too, beckoning to me."
Christine was staggered. That so dangerous an illusion had been fostered by a mother was too bewildering, and she hardly knew how to meet and loyally fight it. It did not take her long to decide. With all the strength at her command, she set to work to clear away from his mind the whole fantastical construction. He clung to it firmly at first, and, in the end, almost pleaded to be left with the belief that he had but to step down the dam wall and join his brother in the fair pink palace. She realized now what tragedy had been lurking at her elbow all these days. Remembering the day when she had caught him up at the brink of the dam, she turned cold as ice in the heat-heavy room. A moment later, she returned to her theme, her explanations, her prayers for a promise from him that never, never would he go looking again for a vision that did not exist. At last he promised, and almost immediately fell asleep.
As for Christine Chaine, she stayed where she was on the floor, her head resting on the bed in sheer exhaustion, her limbs limp. All thought of going into the garden had left her. Sitting there, stiff-kneed and weary, she thought of Saltire's eyes, and realized that there had come and gone an evening which she must count for ever among the lost treasures of her life. Yet she did not regret it as she rose at last and looked down by the dim light on the pale, beautiful, but composed little face on the pillow.
She lay long awake. Roddy's bed was too short for her, and there was no ease in it, even had her mind and heart been at rest. All the fantasies she had beguiled from the boy's brain had come to roost in her own, with a hundred other vivid and painful impressions. The night, too, was fuller than usual of disquietude. The wind, which had been rising steadily, now tore at the shutters and rushed shrieking through the trees. There was a savage rumble of thunder among the hills, and, intermittently, lightning came through the shutter-slats.
When, above it all, she heard a gentle tapping, and sensed the whispering presence without, her cup of dreadful unease was full. But she was not afraid. She rose, as she had done one night before, and put on her dressing-gown. For a while, standing close to the shutters, she strained her ears to catch the message whose import she knew so well. The idea of speaking to someone or something as anxious as herself over Roddy had banished all horror. She longed for an interview with the strange being without. There was nothing to do but attempt, as before, to leave the house by the front door.
Down the long passage and through the dining-room she felt her way, moving noiselessly. When she came to the door, she found it once again with the bar hanging loose. More, it was ajar, and stirring (sluggishly, by reason of its great weight) to the wind. But her hand fell back when she would have opened it wide, for there were two people in the blackness of the porch, bidding each other good-night with kisses and wild words. Clear on a gust of wind came Isabel van Cannan's voice, fiercely passionate.
"I hate the place. Oh, to be gone from it, Dick! To be gone with you, my darling! When—when?"
He crushed the question on her lips with kisses and whisperings.
Christine Chaine stole back from whence she came, with the strange and terrible sensation that her heart was being crushed between iron fingers and was bleeding slowly, drop by drop, to death. Once more, life had played her false. Love had mocked her and passed by on the other side.
Some of the men wondered, next day, how they could have had the illusion that Miss Chaine was a beautiful girl. The two Hollanders, who were great friends, discussed the matter after lunch while they were clipping feathers from the ostriches. One thing was quite clear to them both: she was just one of those cold Englishwomen without a drop in her veins of the warmth and sparkle that a man likes in a woman. Mrs. van Cannan now—she was the one! Still, it was a funny thing how they should have been taken in over Miss Chaine. Someone else had been taken in, too, however, and with a vengeance—that fellow Saltire, with his "sidey" manners. He had got a cold douche, if you like, at the hands of the proud one. They had all witnessed it. Thus and thus went the Dutchmen's remarks and speculations, and they chuckled with the malice of schoolboys over the discomfiture of Saltire. For it was well known to them and to the other men that the Englishman had ridden off, in the cool hours of the dawn, to Farnie Marais' place about ten miles away, to get her some flowers. He wanted to borrow an instrument, he said, but it was funny he should choose to go to Marais', who was more famous for the lovely roses he grew for the market than for any knowledge of scientific instruments. Funny, too, that all he had been seen to bring back was a bunch of yellow roses that must have cost him a stiff penny, for old Farnie did not grow roses for fun.
No one had seen Saltire present the roses (that must have happened in the dining-room before the others came in); but all had marked the careless indifference with which they were scattered on the table and spilled on the floor beside the governess's chair. She looked on calmly, too, while the little girls, treating them like daisies, pulled several to pieces, petal by petal. Only the boy Roderick had appeared to attach any worth to them. He rescued some from under the table, and was overheard to ask ardently if he might have three for his own. The answer that he might have them all if he liked was not missed by any one in the room, though spoken in Miss Chaine's usual quiet tones. It might have been an accident that she walked over some of the spilled roses as she left the room, but certainly she could not have shown her mind more plainly than by leaving every single one behind her. Roddy only, with a pleased and secret look upon his face, carried three of them away in a treasured manner.
Whatever Saltire's feelings were at the affront put upon him, he gave no sign. He was not one who wore his emotions where they could be read by all who ran, or even by those who sat and openly studied him with malice and amusement. His face was as serene as usual, and his envied gift of turning events of the monotonous everyday veld life into interesting topics of conversation remained unimpaired. He had even risen, as always, with his air of careless courtesy, to open the door for the woman who walked over his flowers.
The fact remained, as the manager said to the foreman after lunch, that he had certainly "caught it in the neck," and must have felt it somewhere. Perhaps he did. Perhaps he merely congratulated himself that the little scene when he had given the roses to Miss Chaine had been lost by everyone except the children, who were too young and self-engrossed to value its subtlety.
Either by accident or design, he had come to lunch a little earlier than usual, and as Miss Chaine and the children were always in their seats a good ten minutes before the rest of the party, it was quite simple for him, entering quietly and before she even knew of his presence, to lay the bunch of fragrant roses across her hands. A sweep of heavy delicious perfume rose to her face, and she gave a little rapturous "Oh!"
"I thought you might like them," said Saltire, with a sort of boyish diffidence that was odd in him. "They are just the colour of the dress you wore last night."
In an instant, her face froze. She looked at him, with eyes from which every vestige of friendliness or liking had completely disappeared, and said politely, but with the utmost disdain:
"Thank you, I do not care for them. Pray give them where they will be appreciated."
She pulled her hands from under the lovely blooms and pushed them away as if there were something contaminating in their touch. Some fell on the table, some on the floor. For a moment, Saltire seemed utterly taken aback, then he said carelessly:
"Throw them away if you like. They were meant for you and no one else."
She gave him a curiously cutting glance, but spoke nothing. As the sound of voices told of the approach of the other men, he walked to his place without further remark, and had already taken his seat when Mrs. van Cannan, followed by Saxby, entered. They were talking about Saxby's wife, and Mrs. van Cannan looked infinitely distressed.
"I am so sorry. I will go and sit with her this afternoon and see if I can cheer her up," she said.
"It will be very kind of you," said Saxby gratefully. "I have never known her so low."
"It must be the weather. We are all feeling the heat terribly. If only the rains would break."
"They are not far off," said Andrew McNeil cheerfully. "I prophesy that tonight every kloof will be roaring full, and tomorrow will see the river in flood."
"In that case, the mail had better go off this evening at six," said Mrs. van Cannan. "It may be held up for days otherwise. I hope everyone has their letters ready? Have you, Miss Chaine?"
"I have one or two still to write, but I can get through them quickly this afternoon."
Christine avoided looking directly at her. She felt that the woman must see the contempt in her eyes. It was hard to say which she detested more of the two sitting there so serenely cheerful—the faithless wife and mother, or the man who ate another man's salt and betrayed him in his absence. It made her feel sick and soiled to be in such company, to come into contact with such creeping, soft-footed, whispering treachery. She ached to get away from it all and wipe the whole episode from her mind. Yet how could she leave the children, leave Roddy, desert the father's trust? She knew she could not. But very urgently she wrote after lunch to Mr. van Cannan, begging him to return to the farm as soon as his health permitted and release her from her engagement. She expressed it as diplomatically as she was able, making private affairs her reason for the change; but she could not and would not conceal the fervency of her request.
There was a brooding silence in the room where she sat writing and thinking. Roddy, for once, tired out from the night before, slept under his mosquito-net, side by side with the little girls, and Christine, looking at his beautiful, classical face and sensitive mouth, wondered how she would ever be able to carry out her plan to leave the farm. Who would understand him as she did, and protect him? Even the father who loved him had not known of the secret, fantastic danger of the dam. And the woman who should have destroyed the fantasy had encouraged it! But God knew what was in the heart of that strange woman; Christine Chaine did not—nor wished to. All she wished was that she might never see her again. As for Saltire, her proud resolve was to blot him from her memory, to forget that he had ever occupied her heart for a moment. But—O God, how it hurt, that empty, desecrated heart! How it haunted her, the face she had thought so beautiful, with its air of strength and chivalry, that now she knew to be a mockery and a lie!
She sat in the shuttered gloom, with her hands pressed to her temples, and bitter tears that could no longer be held back sped down her cheeks. In all the dark hours since she had stolen back to the nursery, overwhelmed by the discovery of a hateful secret, she had not wept. Her spirit had lain like a stricken thing in the ashes of humiliation, and her heart had stayed crushed and dead. "Cold as a stone in a valley lone." Now it was wakened to pain once more by the scent of three yellow roses carefully placed by Roddy in a jug on the table. The scent of those flowers told her that she must go wounded all her life. She could "never again be friends with roses." He had even spoiled those for her. How dared he? Oh, how dared he come to her with gifts of flowers in his hands straight from a guilty intrigue with another man's wife?
The children stirred and began to chirrup drowsily, and she hastily collected herself, forcing back her tears and assuming the expressionless mask which life so often makes women wear. She was only just in time. A moment later, Isabel van Cannan came into the room with a packet of letters in her hands.
"Oh, Miss Chaine," she said, with her pretty, child-like air, "would it be too much to ask you to take down these letters to the store presently? The mail is to leave about four o'clock. I have to go out myself by and by, but the Saxbys' house is in the opposite direction, as you know, and I am really not able to knock about too much in this heat."
"Certainly I will take them," said Christine. "But the children?"
"They must not go, of course. Indeed, I would not ask you to go out in this blaze, but I don't like to trust letters with servants. There is no hurry, however. Finish your own letters first, then bring the children to my room. They will amuse themselves there all right."
By the time Christine had donned a shady hat and gloves, Mrs. van Cannan had made out a long list of articles she required at the store. The household things were to be sent in the ordinary way, but she begged Christine to choose some coloured cottons that she required for new pinafores for the little girls and bring them along, also to look through the stock of note-paper for anything decently suitable, as her own stock had given out. It was the type of errand Christine was unaccustomed to perform and plainly foreign to her recognized duties; but it was difficult to be unobliging and refuse, so she took the letters and the list and departed.