By H. Rider Haggard
First Published 1887.
TO MY WIFE
JOHN HAS AN ADVENTURE
The day had been very hot even for the Transvaal, where the days still know how to be hot in the autumn, although the neck of the summer is broken—especially when the thunderstorms hold off for a week or two, as they do occasionally. Even the succulent blue lilies—a variety of the agapanthus which is so familiar to us in English greenhouses—hung their long trumpet-shaped flowers and looked oppressed and miserable, beneath the burning breath of the hot wind which had been blowing for hours like the draught from a volcano. The grass, too, near the wide roadway that stretched in a feeble and indeterminate fashion across the veldt, forking, branching, and reuniting like the veins on a lady's arm, was completely coated over with a thick layer of red dust. But the hot wind was going down now, as it always does towards sunset. Indeed, all that remained of it were a few strictly local and miniature whirlwinds, which would suddenly spring up on the road itself, and twist and twirl fiercely round, raising a mighty column of dust fifty feet or more into the air, where it hung long after the wind had passed, and then slowly dissolved as its particles floated to the earth.
Advancing along the road, in the immediate track of one of these desultory and inexplicable whirlwinds, was a man on horseback. The man looked limp and dirty, and the horse limper and dirtier. The hot wind had "taken all the bones out of them," as the Kafirs say, which was not very much to be wondered at, seeing that they had been journeying through it for the last four hours without off-saddling. Suddenly the whirlwind, which had been travelling along smartly, halted, and the dust, after revolving a few times in the air like a dying top, slowly began to disperse in the accustomed fashion. The man on the horse halted also, and contemplated it in an absent kind of way.
"It's just like a man's life," he said aloud to his horse, "coming from nobody knows where, nobody knows why, and making a little column of dust on the world's highway, then passing away, leaving the dust to fall to the ground again, to be trodden under foot and forgotten."
The speaker, a stout, well set-up, rather ugly man, apparently on the wrong side of thirty, with pleasant blue eyes and a reddish peaked beard, laughed a little at his own sententious reflection, and then gave his jaded horse a tap with the sjambock in his hand.
"Come on, Blesbok," he said, "or we shall never get to old Croft's place to-night. By Jove! I believe that must be the turn," and he pointed with his whip to a little rutty track that branched from the Wakkerstroom main road and stretched away towards a curious isolated hill with a large flat top, which rose out of the rolling plain some four miles to the right. "The old Boer said the second turn," he went on still talking to himself, "but perhaps he lied. I am told that some of them think it is a good joke to send an Englishman a few miles wrong. Let's see, they told me the place was under the lee of a table-topped hill, about half an hour's ride from the main road, and that is a table-topped hill, so I think I will try it. Come on, Blesbok," and he put the tired nag into a sort of "tripple," or ambling canter much affected by South African horses.
"Life is a queer thing," reflected Captain John Niel to himself as he cantered along slowly. "Now here am I, at the age of thirty-four, about to begin the world again as assistant to an old Transvaal farmer. It is a pretty end to all one's ambitions, and to fourteen years' work in the army; but it is what it has come to, my boy, so you had better make the best of it."
Just then his cogitations were interrupted, for on the farther side of a gentle slope suddenly there appeared an extraordinary sight. Over the crest of the rise of land, now some four or five hundred yards away, a pony with a lady on its back galloped wildly, and after it, with wings spread and outstretched neck, a huge cock ostrich was speeding in pursuit, covering twelve or fifteen feet at every stride of its long legs. The pony was still twenty yards ahead of the bird, and travelling towards John rapidly, but strive as it would it could not distance the swiftest thing on all the earth. Five seconds passed—the great bird was close alongside now—Ah! and John Niel turned sick and shut his eyes as he rode, for he saw the ostrich's thick leg fly high into the air and then sweep down like a leaded bludgeon!
Thud! It had missed the lady and struck her horse upon the spine, just behind the saddle, for the moment completely paralysing it so that it fell all of a heap on to the veldt. In a moment the girl on its back was up and running towards him, and after her came the ostrich. Up went the great leg again, but before it could come crashing across her shoulders she had flung herself face downwards on the grass. In an instant the huge bird was on the top of her, kicking at her, rolling over her, and crushing the very life out of her. It was at this juncture that John Niel arrived upon the scene. The moment the ostrich saw him it gave up its attacks upon the lady on the ground and began to waltz towards him with the pompous sort of step that these birds sometimes assume before they give battle. Now Captain Niel was unaccustomed to the pleasant ways of ostriches, and so was his horse, which showed a strong inclination to bolt; as, indeed, under other circumstances, his rider would have been glad to do himself. But he could not abandon beauty in distress, so, finding it impossible to control his horse, he slipped off it, and with the sjambock or hide-whip in his hand valiantly faced the enemy. For a moment or two the great bird stood still, blinking its lustrous round eyes at him and gently swaying its graceful neck to and fro.
Then all of a sudden it spread out its wings and came for him like a thunderbolt. John sprang to one side, and was aware of a rustle of rushing feathers, and of a vision of a thick leg striking downwards past his head. Fortunately it missed him, and the ostrich sped on like a flash. Before he could turn, however, it was back and had landed the full weight of one of its awful forward kicks on the broad of his shoulders, and away he went head-over-heels like a shot rabbit. In a second he was on his legs again, shaken indeed, but not much the worse, and perfectly mad with fury and pain. At him came the ostrich, and at the ostrich went he, catching it a blow across the slim neck with his sjambock that staggered it for a moment. Profiting by the check, he seized the bird by the wing and held on like grim death with both hands. Now they began to gyrate, slowly at first, then quicker, and yet more quick, till at last it seemed to Captain John Niel that time and space and the solid earth were nothing but a revolving vision fixed somewhere in the watches of the night. Above him, like a stationary pivot, towered the tall graceful neck, beneath him spun the top-like legs, and in front of him was a soft black and white mass of feathers.
Thud, and a cloud of stars! He was on his back, and the ostrich, which did not seem to be affected by giddiness, was on him, punishing him dreadfully. Luckily an ostrich cannot kick a man very hard when he is flat on the ground. If he could, there would have been an end of John Niel, and his story need never have been written.
Half a minute or so passed, during which the bird worked his sweet will upon his prostrate enemy, and at the end of it the man began to feel very much as though his earthly career was closed. Just as things were growing faint and dim to him, however, he suddenly saw a pair of white arms clasp themselves round the ostrich's legs from behind, and heard a voice cry:
"Break his neck while I hold his legs, or he will kill you."
This roused him from his torpor, and he staggered to his feet. Meanwhile the ostrich and the young lady had come to the ground, and were rolling about together in a confused heap, over which the elegant neck and open hissing mouth wavered to and fro like a cobra about to strike. With a rush John seized the neck in both his hands, and, putting out all his strength (for he was a strong man), he twisted it till it broke with a snap, and after a few wild and convulsive bounds and struggles the great bird lay dead.
Then he sank down dazed and exhausted, and surveyed the scene. The ostrich was perfectly quiet, and would never kick again, and the lady too was quiet. He wondered vaguely if the brute had killed her—he was as yet too weak to go and see—and then fell to gazing at her face. Her head was pillowed on the body of the dead bird, and its feathery plumes made it a fitting resting-place. Slowly it dawned on him that the face was very beautiful, although it looked so pale just now. Low broad brow, crowned with soft yellow hair, the chin very round and white, the mouth sweet though rather large. The eyes he could not see, because they were closed, for the lady had fainted. For the rest, she was quite young—about twenty, tall and finely formed. Presently he felt a little better, and, creeping towards her (for he was sadly knocked about), took her hand and began to chafe it between his own. It was a well-formed hand, but brown, and showed signs of doing plenty of hard work. Soon she opened her eyes, and he noted with satisfaction that they were very good eyes, blue in colour. Then she sat up and laughed a little.
"Well, I am silly," she said; "I believe I fainted."
"It is not much to be wondered at," said John Niel politely, and lifting his hand to take off his hat, only to find that it had gone in the fray. "I hope you are not very much hurt by the bird."
"I don't know," she said doubtfully. "But I am glad that you killed the skellum (vicious beast). He got out of the ostrich camp three days ago, and has been lost ever since. He killed a boy last year, and I told uncle he ought to shoot him then, but he would not, because he was such a beauty."
"Might I ask," said John Niel, "are you Miss Croft?"
"Yes, I am—one of them. There are two of us, you know; and I can guess who you are—you are Captain Niel, whom uncle is expecting to help him with the farm and the ostriches."
"If all of them are like that," he said, pointing to the dead bird, "I don't think that I shall take kindly to ostrich farming."
She laughed, showing a charming line of teeth. "Oh no," she said, "he was the only bad one—but, Captain Niel, I think you will find it fearfully dull. There are nothing but Boers about here, you know. No English people live nearer than Wakkerstroom."
"You overlook yourself," he said, bowing; for really this daughter of the wilderness had a very charming air about her.
"Oh," she answered, "I am only a girl, you know, and besides, I am not clever. Jess, now—that's my sister—Jess has been at school at Capetown, and she is clever. I was at Cape Town, too, though I didn't learn much there. But, Captain Niel, both the horses have bolted; mine has gone home, and I expect yours has followed, and I should like to know how we are going to get up to Mooifontein—beautiful fountain, that's what we call our place, you know. Can you walk?"
"I don't know," he answered doubtfully; "I'll try. That bird has knocked me about a good deal," and accordingly he staggered on to his legs, only to collapse with an exclamation of pain. His ankle was sprained, and he was so stiff and bruised that he could hardly stir. "How far is the house?" he asked.
"Only about a mile—just there; we shall see it from the crest of the rise. Look, I'm all right. It was silly to faint, but he kicked all the breath out of me," and she got up and danced a little on the grass to show him. "My word, though, I am sore! You must take my arm, that's all; that is if you don't mind?"
"Oh dear no, indeed, I don't mind," he said laughing; and so they started, arm affectionately linked in arm.
HOW THE SISTERS CAME TO MOOIFONTEIN
"Captain Niel," said Bessie Croft—for she was named Bessie—when they had painfully limped one hundred yards or so, "will you think me rude if I ask you a question?"
"Not at all."
"What has induced you to come and bury yourself in this place?"
"Why do you ask?"
"Because I don't think that you will like it. I don't think," she added slowly, "that it is a fit place for an English gentleman and an army officer like you. You will find the Boer ways horrid, and then there will only be my old uncle and us two for you to associate with."
John Niel laughed. "English gentlemen are not so particular nowadays, I can assure you, Miss Croft, especially when they have to earn a living. Take my case, for instance, for I may as well tell you exactly how I stand. I have been in the army fourteen years, and I am now thirty-four. Well, I have been able to live there because I had an old aunt who allowed me 120 pounds a year. Six months ago she died, leaving me the little property she possessed, for most of her income came from an annuity. After paying expenses, duty, &c., it amounts to 1,115 pounds. Now, the interest on this is about fifty pounds a year, and I can't live in the army on that. Just after my aunt's death I came to Durban with my regiment from Mauritius, and now they are ordered home. Well, I liked the country, and I knew that I could not afford to live in England, so I got a year's leave of absence, and made up my mind to have a look round to see if I could not take to farming. Then a gentleman in Durban told me of your uncle, and said that he wanted to dispose of a third interest in his place for a thousand pounds, as he was getting too old to manage it himself. So I entered into correspondence with him, and agreed to come up for a few months to see how I liked it; and accordingly here I am, just in time to save you from being knocked to bits by an ostrich."
"Yes, indeed," she answered, laughing; "you've had a warm welcome at any rate. Well, I hope you will like it."
Just as he finished his story they reached the top of the rise over which the ostrich had pursued Bessie Croft, and saw a Kafir coming towards them, leading the pony with one hand and Captain Niel's horse with the other. About twenty yards behind the horses a lady was walking.
"Ah," said Bessie, "they've caught the horses, and here is Jess come to see what is the matter."
By this time the lady in question was quite close, so that John was able to gather a first impression of her. She was small and rather thin, with quantities of curling brown hair; not by any means a lovely woman, as her sister undoubtedly was, but possessing two very remarkable characteristics—a complexion of extraordinary and uniform pallor, and a pair of the most beautiful dark eyes he had ever looked on. Altogether, though her size was almost insignificant, she was a striking-looking person, with a face few men would easily forget. Before he had time to observe any more the two parties had met.
"What on earth is the matter, Bessie?" Jess said, with a quick glance at her sister's companion, and speaking in a low full voice, with just a slight South African accent, that is taking enough in a pretty woman. Thereon Bessie broke out with a history of their adventure, appealing to Captain Niel for confirmation at intervals.
Meanwhile Jess Croft stood quite still and silent, and it struck John that her face was the most singularly impassive one he had ever seen. It never changed, even when her sister told her how the ostrich rolled on her and nearly killed her, or how they finally subdued the foe. "Dear me," he thought to herself, "what a very strange woman! She can't have much heart." But just as he thought it the girl looked up, and then he saw where the expression lay. It was in those remarkable eyes. Immovable as was her face, the dark eyes were alight with life and a suppressed excitement that made them shine gloriously. The contrast between the shining eyes and the impassive face beneath them struck him as so extraordinary as to be almost uncanny. As a matter of fact, it was doubtless both unusual and remarkable.
"You have had a wonderful escape, but I am sorry for the bird," she said at last.
"Why?" asked John.
"Because we were great friends. I was the only person who could manage him."
"Yes," put in Bessie, "the savage brute would follow her about like a dog. It was just the oddest thing I ever saw. But come on; we must be getting home, it's growing dark. Mouti"—which, being interpreted, means Medicine—she added, addressing the Kafir in Zulu—"help Captain Niel on to his horse. Be careful that the saddle does not twist round; the girths may be loose."
Thus adjured, John, with the help of the Zulu, clambered into his saddle, an example that the lady quickly followed, and they set off once more through the gathering darkness. Presently he became aware that they were passing up a drive bordered by tall blue gums, and next minute the barking of a large dog, which he afterwards knew by the name of Stomp, and the sudden appearance of lighted windows told him that they had reached the house. At the door—or rather, opposite to it, for there was a verandah in front—they halted and got off their horses. As they dismounted there came a shout of welcome from the house, and presently in the doorway, showing out clearly against the light, appeared a striking and, in its way, a most pleasant figure. He—for it was a man—was very tall, or, rather, he had been very tall. Now he was much bent with age and rheumatism. His long white hair hung low upon his neck, and fell back from a prominent brow. The top of the head was quite bald, like the tonsure of a priest, and shone and glistened in the lamplight, and round this oasis the thin white locks fell down. The face was shrivelled like the surface of a well-kept apple, and, like an apple, rosy red. The features were aquiline and strongly marked; the eyebrows still black and very bushy, and beneath them shone a pair of grey eyes, keen and bright as those of a hawk. But for all its sharpness, there was nothing unpleasant or fierce about the face; on the contrary, it was pervaded by a remarkable air of good-nature and pleasant shrewdness. For the rest, the man was dressed in rough tweed clothes, tall riding-boots, and held a broad-brimmed Boer hunting hat in his hand. Such, as John Niel first saw him, was the outer person of old Silas Croft, one of the most remarkable men in the Transvaal.
"Is that you, Captain Niel?" roared out the stentorian voice. "The natives said you were coming. A welcome to you! I am glad to see you—very glad. Why, what is the matter with you?" he went on as the Zulu Mouti ran to help him off his horse.
"Matter, Mr. Croft?" answered John; "why, the matter is that your favourite ostrich has nearly killed me and your niece here, and that I have killed your favourite ostrich."
Then followed explanations from Bessie, during which he was helped off his horse and into the house.
"It serves me right," said the old man. "To think of it now, just to think of it! Well, Bessie, my love, thank God that you escaped—ay, and you too, Captain Niel. Here, you boys, take the Scotch cart and a couple of oxen and go and fetch the brute home. We may as well have the feathers off him, at any rate, before the aasvogels (vultures) tear him to bits."
After he had washed himself and tended his injuries with arnica and water, John managed to limp into the principal sitting-room, where supper was waiting. It was a very pleasant room, furnished in European style, and carpeted with mats made of springbuck skins. In the corner stood a piano, and by it a bookcase, filled with the works of standard authors, the property, as John rightly guessed, of Bessie's sister Jess.
Supper went off pleasantly enough, and after it was over the two girls sang and played whilst the men smoked. And here a fresh surprise awaited him, for after Bessie, who apparently had now almost recovered from her mauling, had played a piece or two creditably enough, Jess, who so far had been nearly silent, sat down at the piano. She did not do this willingly, indeed, for it was not until her patriarchal uncle had insisted in his ringing, cheery voice that she should let Captain Niel hear how she could sing that she consented. But at last she did consent, and then, after letting her fingers stray somewhat aimlessly along the chords, she suddenly broke out into such song as John Niel had never heard before. Her voice, beautiful as it was, was not what is known as a cultivated voice, and it was a German song, therefore he did not understand it, but there was no need of words to translate its burden. Passion, despairing yet hoping through despair, echoed in its every line, and love, unending love, hovered over the glorious notes—nay, possessed them like a spirit, and made them his. Up! up! rang her wild sweet voice, thrilling his nerves till they answered to the music as an Aeolian harp answers to the winds. On went the song with a divine sweep, like the sweep of rushing pinions; higher, yet higher it soared, lifting up the listener's heart far above the world on the trembling wings of sound—ay, even higher, till the music hung at heaven's gate, and falling thence, swiftly as an eagle falls, quivered, and was dead.
John sighed, and so strongly was he moved, sank back in his chair, feeling almost faint with the revulsion of feeling that ensued when the notes had died away. He looked up, and saw Bessie watching him with an air of curiosity and amusement. Jess was still leaning against the piano, and gently touching the notes, over which her head was bent low, showing the coils of curling hair that were twisted round it like a coronet.
"Well, Captain Niel," said the old man, waving his pipe in her direction, "and what do you say to my singing-bird's music, eh? Isn't it enough to draw the heart out of a man, eh, and turn his marrow to water, eh?"
"I never heard anything quite like it," he answered simply, "and I have heard most singers. It is beautiful. Certainly, I never expected to hear such singing in the Transvaal."
Jess turned quickly, and he observed that, though her eyes were alight with excitement, her face was as impassive as ever.
"There is no need for you to laugh at me, Captain Niel," she said quickly, and then, with an abrupt "Good-night," she left the room.
The old man smiled, jerked the stem of his pipe over his shoulder after her, and winked in a way that, no doubt, meant unutterable things, but which did not convey much to his astonished guest, who sat still and said nothing. Then Bessie rose and bade him good-night in her pleasant voice, and with housewifely care inquired as to whether his room was to his taste, and how many blankets he liked upon his bed, telling him that if he found the odour of the moonflowers which grew near the verandah too strong, he had better shut the right-hand window and open that on the other side of the room. Then at length, with a piquant little nod of her golden head, she went off, looking, John thought as he watched her retreating figure, about as healthy, graceful, and generally satisfactory a young woman as a man could wish to see.
"Take a glass of grog, Captain Niel," said the old man, pushing the square bottle towards him, "you'll need it after the mauling that brute gave you. By the way, I haven't thanked you for saving my Bessie! But I do thank you, yes, that I do. I must tell you that Bessie is my favourite niece. Never was there such a girl—never. Moves like a springbuck, and what an eye and form! Work too—she'll do as much work as three. There's no nonsense about Bessie, none at all. She's not a fine lady, for all her fine looks."
"The two sisters seem very different," said John.
"Ay, you're right there," answered the old man. "You'd never think that the same blood ran in their veins, would you? There's three years between them, that's one thing. Bessie's the youngest, you see—she's just twenty, and Jess is twenty-three. Lord, to think that it is twenty-three years since that girl was born! And theirs is a queer story too."
"Indeed?" said his listener interrogatively.
"Ay," Silas went on absently, knocking out his pipe, and refilling it from a big brown jar of coarse-cut Boer tobacco, "I'll tell it to you if you like: you are going to live in the house, and you may as well know it. I am sure, Captain Niel, that it will go no further. You see I was born in England, yes, and well-born too. I come from Cambridgeshire—from the fat fen-land down round Ely. My father was a clergyman. Well, he wasn't rich, and when I was twenty he gave me his blessing, thirty sovereigns in my pocket, and my passage to the Cape; and I shook his hand, God bless him, and off I came, and here in the old colony and this country I have been for fifty years, for I was seventy yesterday. Well, I'll tell you more about that another time, it's of the girls I'm speaking now. After I left home—some years after—my dear old father married again, a youngish woman with some money, but rather beneath him in life, and by her he had one son, and then died. Well, it was but little I heard of my half-brother, except that he had turned out very badly, married, and taken to drink, till one night some twelve years ago, when a strange thing happened. I was sitting here in this very room, ay, in this very chair—for this part of the house was up then, though the wings weren't built—smoking my pipe, and listening to the lashing of the rain, for it was a very foul night, when suddenly an old pointer dog I had, named Ben, began to bark.
"'Lie down, Ben, it's only the Kafirs,' said I.
"Just then I thought I heard a faint sort of rapping at the door, and Ben barked again, so I got up and opened it, and in came two little girls wrapped in old shawls or some such gear. Well, I shut the door, looking first to see if there were any more outside, and then I turned and stared at the two little things with my mouth open. There they stood, hand in hand, the water dripping from both of them; the elder might have been eleven, and the second about eight years old. They didn't say anything, but the elder turned and took the shawl and hat off the younger—that was Bessie—and there was her sweet little face and her golden hair, and damp enough both of them were, and she put her thumb in her mouth, and stood and looked at me till I began to think that I was dreaming.
"'Please, sir,' said the taller at last, 'is this Mr. Croft's house—Mr. Croft—South African Republic?'
"'Yes, little Miss, this is his house, and this is the South African Republic, and I am he. And now who might you be, my dears?' I answered.
"'If you please, sir, we are your nieces, and we have come to you from England.'
"'What!' I holloaed, startled out of my wits, as well I might be.
"'Oh, sir,' says the poor little thing, clasping her thin wet hands, 'please don't send us away. Bessie is so wet, and cold and hungry too, she isn't fit to go any farther.'
"And she set to work to cry, whereon the little one cried also, from fright and cold and sympathy.
"Well, of course, I took them both to the fire, and set them on my knees, and called for Hebe, the old Hottentot woman who did my cooking, and between us we undressed them, and wrapped them up in some old clothes, and fed them with soup and wine, so that in half an hour they were quite happy and not a bit frightened.
"'And now, young ladies,' I said, 'come and give me a kiss, both of you, and tell me how you came here.'
"This is the tale they told me—completed, of course, from what I learnt afterwards—and an odd one it is. It seems that my half-brother married a Norfolk lady—a sweet young thing—and treated her like a dog. He was a drunken rascal, was my half-brother, and he beat his poor wife and shamefully neglected her, and even ill-used the two little girls, till at last the poor woman, weak as she was from suffering and ill health, could bear it no longer, and formed the wild idea of escaping to this country and of throwing herself upon my protection. That shows how desperate she must have been. She scraped together and borrowed some money, enough to pay for three second-class passages to Natal and a few pounds over, and one day, when her brute of a husband was away on the drink and gamble, she slipped on board a sailing ship in the London Docks, and before he knew anything about it they were well out to sea. But it was her last effort, poor dear soul, and the excitement of it finished her. Before they had been ten days at sea, she sank and died, and the two little children were left alone. What they must have suffered, or rather what poor Jess must have suffered, for she was old enough to feel, God only knows, but I can tell you this, she has never got over the shock to this hour. It has left its mark on her, sir. Still, let people say what they will, there is a Power who looks after the helpless, and that Power took those poor, homeless, wandering children under its wing. The captain of the vessel befriended them, and when at last they reached Durban some of the passengers made a subscription, and paid an old Boer, who was coming up this way with his wife to the Transvaal, to take them under his charge. The Boer and his vrouw treated the children fairly well, but they did not do one thing more than they bargained for. At the turn from the Wakkerstroom road, that you came along to-day, they put the girls down, for they had no luggage with them, and told them that if they went along there they would come to Meinheer Croft's house. That was in the middle of the afternoon, and they were till eight o'clock getting here, poor little dears, for the track was fainter then than it is now, and they wandered off into the veldt, and would have perished there in the wet and cold had they not chanced to see the lights of the house. That was how my nieces came here, Captain Niel, and here they have been ever since, except for a couple of years when I sent them to the Cape for schooling, and a lonely man I was when they were away."
"And how about the father?" asked John Niel, deeply interested. "Did you ever hear any more of him?"
"Hear of him, the villain!" almost shouted the old man, jumping up in wrath. "Ay, d—n him, I heard of him. What do you think? The two chicks had been with me some eighteen months, long enough for me to learn to love them with all my heart, when one fine morning, as I was seeing about the new kraal wall, I saw a fellow come riding up on an old raw-boned grey horse. Up he comes to me, and as he came I looked at him, and said to myself, 'You are a drunkard you are, and a rogue, it's written on your face, and, what's more, I know your face.' You see I did not guess that it was a son of my own father that I was looking at. How should I?
"'Is your name Croft?' he said.
"'Ay,' I answered.
"'So is mine,' he went on with a sort of drunken leer. 'I'm your brother.'
"'Are you?' I said, beginning to get my back up, for I guessed what his game was, 'and what may you be after? I tell you at once, and to your face, that if you are my brother you are a blackguard, and I don't want to know you or have anything to do with you; and if you are not, I beg your pardon for coupling you with such a scoundrel.'
"'Oh, that's your tune, is it?' he said with a sneer. 'Well, now, my dear brother Silas, I want my children. They have got a little half-brother at home—for I have married again, Silas—who is anxious to have them to play with, so if you will be so good as to hand them over, I'll take them away at once.'
"'You'll take them away, will you?' said I, all of a tremble with rage and fear.
"'Yes, Silas, I will. They are mine by law, and I am not going to breed children for you to have the comfort of their society. I've taken advice, Silas, and that's sound law,' and he leered at me again.
"I stood and looked at that man, and thought of how he had treated those poor children and their young mother, and my blood boiled, and I grew mad. Without another word I jumped over the half-finished wall, and caught him by the leg (for I was a strong man ten years ago) and jerked him off the horse. As he came down he dropped the sjambock from his hand, and I laid hold of it and then and there gave him the soundest hiding a man ever had. Lord, how he did holloa! When I was tired I let him get up.
"'Now,' I said, 'be off with you, and if you come back here I'll bid the Kafirs hunt you to Natal with their sticks. This is the South African Republic, and we don't care overmuch about law here.' Which we didn't in those days.
"'All right, Silas,' he said, 'all right, you shall pay for this. I'll have those children, and, for your sake, I'll make their lives a hell—you mark my words—South African Republic or no South African Republic. I've got the law on my side.'
"Off he rode, cursing and swearing, and I flung his sjambock after him. This was the first and last time that I saw my brother."
"What became of him?" asked John Niel.
"I'll tell you, just to show you again that there is a Power which keeps such men in its eye. He rode back to Newcastle that night, and went about the canteen there abusing me, and getting drunker and drunker, till at last the canteen keeper sent for his boys to turn him out. Well, the boys were rough, as Kafirs are apt to be with a drunken white man, and he struggled and fought, and in the middle of it the blood began to run from his mouth, and he dropped down dead of a broken blood-vessel, and there was an end of him. That is the story of the two girls, Captain Niel, and now I am off to bed. To-morrow I'll show you round the farm, and we will have a talk about business. Good-night to you, Captain Niel. Good-night!"
MR. FRANK MULLER
John Niel woke early the next morning, feeling as sore and stiff as though he had been well beaten and then wrapped up tight in horse-girths. He made shift, however, to dress himself, and then, with the help of a stick, limped through the French windows that opened from his room on to the verandah, and surveyed the scene before him. It was a delightful spot. At the back of the stead was the steep boulder-strewn face of the flat-topped hill that curved round on each side, embosoming a great slope of green, in the lap of which the house was placed. It was very solidly built of brown stone, and, with the exception of the waggon-shed and other outbuildings which were roofed with galvanised iron, that shone and glistened in the rays of the morning sun in a way that would have made an eagle blink, was covered with rich brown thatch. All along its front ran a wide verandah, up the trellis-work of which green vines and blooming creepers trailed pleasantly, and beyond was the broad carriage-drive of red soil, bordered with bushy orange-trees laden with odorous flowers and green and golden fruit. On the farther side of the orange-trees were the gardens, fenced in with low walls of rough stone, and the orchard planted with standard fruit-trees, and beyond these again the oxen and ostrich kraals, the latter full of long-necked birds. To the right of the house grew thriving plantations of blue-gum and black wattle, and to the left was a broad stretch of cultivated lands, lying so that they could be irrigated for winter crops by means of water led from the great spring that gushed out of the mountain-side high above the house, and gave its name of Mooifontein to the place.
All these and many more things John Niel saw as he looked out from the verandah at Mooifontein, but for the moment at any rate they were lost in the wild and wonderful beauty of the panorama that rolled away for miles and miles at his feet, till it was bounded by the mighty range of the Drakensberg to the left, tipped here and there with snow, and by the dim and vast horizon of the swelling Transvaal plains to the right and far in front of him. It was a beautiful sight, and one to make the blood run in a man's veins, and his heart beat happily because he was alive to see it. Mile upon mile of grass-clothed veldt beneath, bending and rippling like a corn-field in the quick breath of the morning, space upon space of deep-blue sky overhead with ne'er a cloud to dim it, and the swift rush of the wind between. Then to the left there, impressive to look on and conducive to solemn thoughts, the mountains rear their crests against the sky, and, crowned with the gathered snows of the centuries whose monuments they are, from aeon to aeon gaze majestically out over the wide plains and the ephemeral ant-like races who tread them, and while they endure think themselves the masters of their little world. And over all—mountain, plain, and flashing stream—the glorious light of the African sun and the Spirit of Life moving now as it once moved upon the darkling waters.
John stood and gazed at the untamed beauty of the scene, in his mind comparing it to many cultivated prospects which he had known, and coming to the conclusion that, however desirable the presence of civilised man might be in the world, it could not be said that his operations really add to its beauty. For the old line, "Nature unadorned adorned the most," still remains true in more senses than one.
Presently his reflections were interrupted by the step of Silas Croft, which, notwithstanding his age and bent frame, still rang firm enough—and he turned to greet him.
"Well, Captain Niel," said the old man, "up already! It looks well if you mean to take to farming. Yes, it's a pretty view, and a pretty place too. Well, I made it. Twenty-five years ago I rode up here and saw this spot. Look, you see that rock there behind the house? I slept under it and woke at sunrise and looked out at this beautiful scene and at the great veldt (it was all alive with game then), and I said to myself, 'Silas, for five-and-twenty years have you wandered about this great country, and now you are getting tired of it; you've never seen a fairer spot than this or a healthier; be a wise man and stop here.' And so I did. I bought the 3,000 morgen (6,000 acres), more or less, for 10 pounds down and a case of gin, and I set to work to make this place, and you see I have made it. Ay, it has grown under my hand, every stone and tree of it, and you know what that means in a new country. But one way or another I have done it, and now I have grown too old to manage it, and that's how I came to give out that I wanted a partner, as Mr. Snow told you down in Durban. You see, I told Snow it must be a gentleman; I don't care much about the money, I'll take a thousand for a third share if I can get a gentleman—none of your Boers or mean whites for me. I tell you I have had enough of Boers and their ways; the best day of my life was when old Shepstone ran up the Union Jack there in Pretoria and I could call myself an Englishman once more. Lord! and to think that there are men who are subjects of the Queen and want to be subjects of a Republic again—Mad! Captain Niel, I tell you, quite mad! However, there's an end of it all now. You know what Sir Garnet Wolseley told them in the name of the Queen up at the Vaal River, that this country would remain English until the sun stood still in the heavens and the waters of the Vaal ran backwards.[*] That's good enough for me, for, as I tell these grumbling fellows who want the land back now that we have paid their debts and defeated their enemies, no English government is false to its word, or breaks engagements solemnly entered into by its representatives. We leave that sort of thing to foreigners. No, no, Captain Niel, I would not ask you to take a share in this place if I wasn't sure that it would remain under the British flag. But we will talk of all this another time, and now come in to breakfast."
[*] A fact.—Author.
After breakfast, as John was far too lame to walk about the farm, the fair Bessie suggested that he should come and help her to wash a batch of ostrich feathers, and, accordingly, off he went. The locus operandi was in a space of lawn at the rear of a little clump of naatche orange-trees, of which the fruit is like that of the Maltese orange, only larger. Here were placed an ordinary washing-tub half-filled with warm water, and a tin bath full of cold. The ostrich feathers, many of which were completely coated with red dirt, were plunged first into the tub of warm water, where John Niel scrubbed them with soap, and then transferred to the tin bath, where Bessie rinsed them and laid them on a sheet in the sun to dry. The morning was very pleasant, and John soon came to the conclusion that there are many more disagreeable occupations in the world than the washing of ostrich feathers with a lovely girl to help you. For there was no doubt but that Bessie was lovely, looking a very type of happy, healthy womanhood as she sat opposite to him on the little stool, her sleeves rolled up almost to the shoulder, showing a pair of arms that would not have disgraced a statue of Venus, and laughed and chatted away as she washed the feathers. Now, John Niel was not a susceptible man: he had gone through the fire years before and burnt his fingers like many another confiding youngster but, all the same, he did wonder as he knelt there and watched this fair girl, who somehow reminded him of a rich rosebud bursting into bloom, how long it would be possible to live in the same house with her without falling under the spell of her charm and beauty. Then he began to think of Jess, and of what a strange contrast the two were.
"Where is your sister?" he asked presently.
"Jess? Oh, I think that she has gone to the Lion Kloof, reading or sketching, I don't know which. You see in this establishment I represent labour and Jess represents intellect," and she nodded her head prettily at him, and added, "There is a mistake somewhere, she got all the brains."
"Ah," said John quietly, and looking up at her, "I don't think that you are entitled to complain of the way in which Nature has treated you."
She blushed a little, more at the tone of his voice than the words, and went on hastily, "Jess is the dearest, best, and cleverest woman in the whole world—there. I believe that she has only one fault, and it is that she thinks too much about me. Uncle said that he had told you how we came here first when I was eight years old. Well, I remember that when we lost our way on the veldt that night, and it rained so and was so cold, Jess took off her own shawl and wrapped it round me over my own. Well, it has been just like that with her always. I am always to have the shawl—everything is to give way to me. But there, that is Jess all over; she is very cold, cold as a stone I sometimes think, but when she does care for anybody it is enough to frighten one. I don't know a great number of women, but somehow I do not think that there can be many in the world like Jess. She is too good for this place; she ought to go away to England and write books and become a famous woman, only——" she added reflectively, "I am afraid that Jess's books would all be sad ones."
Just then Bessie stopped talking and suddenly changed colour, the bunch of lank wet feathers she held in her hand dropping from it with a little splash back into the bath. Following her glance, John looked down the avenue of blue-gum trees and perceived a big man with a broad hat and mounted on a splendid black horse, cantering leisurely towards the house.
"Who is that, Miss Croft?" he asked.
"It is a man I don't like," she said with a little stamp of her foot. "His name is Frank Muller, and he is half a Boer and half an Englishman. He is very rich, and very clever, and owns all the land round this place, so uncle has to be civil to him, though he does not like him either. I wonder what he wants now."
On came the horse, and John thought that its rider was going to pass without seeing them, when suddenly the movement of Bessie's dress between the naatche trees caught his eye, and he pulled up and looked round. He was a large and exceedingly handsome man, apparently about forty years old, with clear-cut features, cold, light-blue eyes, and a remarkable golden beard that hung down over his chest. For a Boer he was rather smartly dressed in English-made tweed clothes, and tall riding-boots.
"Ah, Miss Bessie," he called out in English, "there you are, with your pretty arms all bare. I'm in luck to be just in time to see them. Shall I come and help you to wash the feathers? Only say the word, now——"
Just then he caught sight of John Niel, checked himself, and added:
"I have come to look for a black ox, branded with a heart and a 'W' inside of the heart. Do you know if your uncle has seen it on the place anywhere?"
"No, Meinheer Muller," replied Bessie, coldly, "but he is down there," pointing at a kraal on the plain some half-mile away, "if you want to go and ask about it."
"Mr. Muller," said he, by way of correction, and with a curious contraction of the brow. "'Meinheer' is very well for the Boers, but we are all Englishmen now. Well, the ox can wait. With your permission, I'll stop here till Oom Croft (Uncle Croft) comes back," and, without further ado, he jumped off his horse and, slipping the reins over its head as an indication to it to stand still, advanced towards Bessie with an outstretched hand. As he came the young lady plunged both her arms up to the elbow in the bath, and it struck John, who was observing the scene closely, that she did this in order to avoid the necessity of shaking hands with her stalwart visitor.
"Sorry my hands are wet," she said, giving him a cold little nod. "Let me introduce you, Mr. (with emphasis) Frank Muller—Captain Niel—who has come to help my uncle with the place."
John stretched out his hand and Muller shook it.
"Captain," he said interrogatively—"a ship captain, I suppose?"
"No," said John, "a Captain of the English Army."
"Oh, a rooibaatje (red jacket). Well, I don't wonder at your taking to farming after the Zulu war."
"I don't quite understand you," said John, rather coldly.
"Oh, no offence, Captain, no offence. I only meant that you rooibaatjes did not come very well out of that war. I was there with Piet Uys, and it was a sight, I can tell you. A Zulu had only to show himself at night and one would see your regiments skreck (stampede) like a span of oxen when they wind a lion. And then they'd fire—ah, they did fire—anyhow, anywhere, but mostly at the clouds, there was no stopping them; and so, you see, I thought that you would like to turn your sword into a ploughshare, as the Bible says—but no offence, I'm sure—no offence."
All this while John Niel, being English to his backbone, and cherishing the reputation of his profession almost as dearly as his own honour, was boiling with inward wrath, which was all the fiercer because he knew there was some truth in the Boer's insults. He had the sense, however, to keep his temper—outwardly, at any rate.
"I was not in the Zulu war, Mr. Muller," he said, and just then old Silas Croft rode up, and the conversation dropped.
Mr. Frank Muller stopped to dinner and far on into the afternoon, for his lost ox seemed to have entirely slipped his memory. There he sat close to the fair Bessie, smoking and drinking gin-water, and talking with great volubility in English sprinkled with Boer-Dutch terms that John Niel did not understand, and gazing at the young lady in a manner which John somehow found unpleasant. Of course it was no affair of his, and he had no interest in the matter, but for all that he thought this remarkable-looking Dutchman exceedingly disagreeable. At last, indeed, he could bear it no longer, and hobbled out for a little walk with Jess, who, in her abrupt way, offered to show him the garden.
"You don't like that man?" she said to him, as they went slowly down the slope in front of the house.
"No; do you?"
"I think," replied Jess quietly, but with much emphasis, "that he is the most odious man I ever saw—and the most curious." Then she relapsed into silence, only broken now and again by an occasional remark about the flowers and trees.
Half an hour afterwards, when they arrived again at the top of the slope, Mr. Muller was just riding off down the avenue of blue gums. By the verandah stood a Hottentot named Jantje, who had been holding the Dutchman's horse. He was a curious, wizened-up little fellow, dressed in rags, and with hair like the worn tags of a black woollen carpet. His age might have been anything between twenty-five and sixty; it was impossible to form any opinion on the point. Just now, however, his yellow monkey face was convulsed with an expression of intense malignity, and he was standing there in the sunshine cursing rapidly beneath his breath in Dutch, and shaking his fist after the form of the retreating Boer—a very epitome of impotent but overmastering passion.
"What is he doing?" asked John.
Jess laughed, and answered, "Jantje does not like Frank Muller any more than I do, but I don't know why. He will never tell me."
BESSIE IS ASKED IN MARRIAGE
In due course John Niel recovered from his sprained ankle and the other injuries inflicted on him by the infuriated cock ostrich (it is, by the way, a humiliating thing to be knocked out of time by a feathered fowl), and set to work to learn the routine of farm life. He did not find this a disagreeable task, especially when he had so fair an instructress as Bessie, who knew all about it, to show him the way in which he should go. Naturally of an energetic and hard-working temperament, he very soon fell more or less into the swing of the thing, and at the end of six weeks began to talk quite learnedly of cattle and ostriches and sweet and sour veldt. About once a week or so Bessie used to put him through a regular examination as to his progress; also she gave him lessons in Dutch and Zulu, both of which tongues she spoke to perfection; so it will be seen that John did not lack for pleasant and profitable employment. Also, as time went on he grew much attached to Silas Croft. The old gentleman, with his handsome, honest face, his large and varied stock of experience and his sturdy English character, made a great impression on his mind. He had never met a man quite like him before. Nor was this friendship unreciprocated, for his host took a wonderful fancy to John Niel.
"You see, my dear," he explained to his niece Bessie, "he is quiet, and he doesn't know much about farming, but he's willing to learn, and such a gentleman. Now, where one has Kafirs to deal with, as on a place like this, you must have a gentleman. Your mean white will never get anything out of a Kafir; that's why the Boers kill them and flog them, because they can't get anything out of them without. But you see Captain Niel gets on well enough with the 'boys.' I think he'll do, my dear, I think he'll do," and Bessie quite agreed with him. And so it came to pass that after this six weeks' trial the bargain was struck finally, and John paid over his thousand pounds, becoming the owner of a third interest in Mooifontein.
Now it is not possible, in a general way, for a man of John Niel's age to live in the same house with a young and lovely woman like Bessie Croft without running more or less risk of entanglement. Especially is this so when the two people have little or no outside society or distraction to divert their attention from each other. Not that there was, at any rate as yet, the slightest hint of affection between them. Only they liked one another very much, and found it pleasant to be a good deal together. In short, they were walking along that easy, winding road which leads to the mountain paths of love. It is a very broad road, like another road that runs elsewhere, and, also like this last, it has a wide gate. Sometimes, too, it leads to destruction. But for all that it is a most agreeable one to follow hand-in-hand, winding as it does through the pleasant meadows of companionship. The view is rather limited, it is true, and homelike—full of familiar things. There stand the kine, knee-deep in grass; there runs the water; and there grows the corn. Also you can stop if you like. By-and-by it is different. By-and-by, when the travellers tread the heights of passion, precipices will yawn and torrents rush, lightnings will fall and storms will blind; and who can know that they shall attain at last to that far-off peak, crowned with the glory of a perfect peace which men call Happiness? There are those who say it never can be reached, and that the halo which rests upon its slopes is no earthly light, but rather, as it were, a promise and a beacon—a glow reflected whence we know not, and lying on this alien earth as the sun's light lies on the dead bosom of the moon. Some declare, again, that they have climbed its topmost pinnacle and tasted of the fresh breath of heaven which sweeps around its heights—ay, and heard the quiring of immortal harps and the swan-like sigh of angels' wings; and then behold! a mist has fallen upon them, and they have wandered in it, and when it cleared they were on the mountain paths once more, and the peak was far away. And a few there are who tell us that they live there always, listening to the voice of God; but these are old and worn with journeying—men and women who have outlived passions and ambitions and the fire heats of love, and who now, girt about with memories, stand face to face with the sphinx Eternity.
But John Niel was no chicken, nor very likely to fall in love with the first pretty face he met. He had once, years ago, gone through that melancholy stage, and there, he thought, was an end of it. Moreover, if Bessie attracted him, so did Jess in a different way. Before he had been a week in the house he came to the conclusion that Jess was the strangest woman he had ever met, and in her own fashion one of the most attractive. Her very impassiveness added to her charm; for who is there in this world who is not eager to learn a secret? To him Jess was a riddle of which he did not know the key. That she was clever and well-informed he soon discovered from her rare remarks; that she could sing like an angel he also knew; but what was the mainspring of her mind—round what axis did it revolve—this was the puzzle. Clearly enough it was not like most women's, least of all like that of happy, healthy, plain-sailing Bessie. So curious did he become to fathom these mysteries that he took every opportunity to associate with her, and, when he had time, would even go out with her on her sketching, or rather flower-painting, expeditions. On these occasions she would sometimes begin to talk, but it was always about books, or England or some intellectual question. She never spoke of herself.
Yet it soon became evident to John that she liked his society, and missed him when he did not come. It never occurred to him what a boon it was to a girl of considerable intellectual attainments, and still greater intellectual capacities and aspirations, to be thrown for the first time into the society of a cultivated and intelligent gentleman. John Niel was no empty-headed, one-sided individual. He had both read and thought, and even written a little, and in him Jess found a mind which, though of an inferior stamp, was more or less kindred to her own. Although he did not understand her she understood him, and at last, had he but known it, there rose a far-off dawning light upon the twilight of her heart that thrilled and changed it as the first faint rays of morning thrill and change the darkness of the night. What if she should learn to love this man, and teach him to love her? To most women such a thought more or less involves the idea of marriage, and that change of status which for the most part they consider desirable. But Jess did not think much of that: what she did think of was the blessed possibility of being able to lay down her life, as it were, in the life of another—of at last finding somebody who understood her and whom she could understand, who would cut the shackles that bound down the wings of her genius, so that she could rise and bear him with her as, in Bulwer Lytton's beautiful story, Zoe would have borne her lover. Here at length was a man who understood, who was something more than an animal, and who possessed the god-like gift of brains, the gift that had been a curse rather than a blessing to her, lifting her above the level of her sex and shutting her off as by iron doors from the comprehension of those around her. Ah! if only this perfect love of which she had read so much would come to him and her, life might perhaps grow worth the living.
It is a curious thing, but in such matters most men never learn wisdom from experience. A man of John Niel's age might have guessed that it is dangerous work playing with explosives, and that the quietest, most harmless-looking substances are sometimes the most explosive. He might have known that to set to work to cultivate the society of a woman with such tell-tale eyes as Jess's was to run the risk of catching the fire from them himself, to say nothing of setting her alight: he might have known that to bring all the weight of his cultivated mind to bear on her mind, to take the deepest interest in her studies, to implore her to let him see the poetry Bessie told him she wrote, but which she would show to no living soul, and to evince the most evident delight in her singing, were one and all hazardous things to do. Yet he did them and thought no harm.
As for Bessie, she was delighted that her sister should have found anybody to whom she cared to talk or who could understand her. It never occurred to her that Jess might fall in love. Jess was the last person to fall in love. Nor did she calculate what the results might be to John. As yet, at any rate, she had no interest in Captain Niel—of course not.
And so things went on pleasantly enough to all concerned in this drama till one fine day when the storm-clouds began to gather. John had been about the farm as usual till dinner time, after which he took his gun and told Jantje to saddle up his shooting pony. He was standing on the verandah, waiting for the pony to appear, and by him was Bessie, looking particularly attractive in a white dress, when suddenly he caught sight of Frank Muller's great black horse, and upon it that gentleman himself, cantering up the avenue of blue gums.
"Hullo, Miss Bessie," he said, "here comes your friend."
"Bother!" said Bessie, stamping her foot; and then, with a quick look, "Why do you call him my friend?"
"I imagine that he considers himself so, to judge from the number of times a week he comes to see you," John answered with a shrug. "At any rate, he isn't mine, so I am off shooting. Good-bye. I hope that you will enjoy yourself."
"You are not kind," she said in a low voice, turning her back upon him.
In another moment he was gone, and Frank Muller had arrived.
"How do you do, Miss Bessie?" he said, jumping from his horse with the rapidity of a man who had been accustomed to rough riding all his life. "Where is the rooibaatje off to?"
"Captain Niel is going out shooting," she said coldly.
"So much the better for you and me, Miss Bessie. We can have a pleasant talk. Where is that black monkey Jantje? Here, Jantje, take my horse, you ugly devil, and mind you look after him, or I'll cut the liver out of you!"
Jantje took the horse, with a forced grin of appreciation at the joke, and led him off to the stable.
"I don't think that Jantje likes you, Meinheer Muller," said Bessie, spitefully, "and I do not wonder at it if you talk to him like that. He told me the other day that he had known you for twenty years," and she looked at him inquiringly.
This casual remark produced a strange effect on her visitor, who turned colour beneath his tanned skin.
"He lies, the black hound," he said, "and I'll put a bullet through him if he says it again! What should I know about him, or he about me? Can I keep count of every miserable man-monkey I meet?" and he muttered a string of Dutch oaths into his long beard.
"Really, Meinheer!" said Bessie.
"Why do you always call me 'Meinheer'?" he asked, turning so fiercely on her that she started back a step. "I tell you I am not a Boer. I am an Englishman. My mother was English; and besides, thanks to Lord Carnarvon, we are all English now."
"I don't see why you should mind being thought a Boer," she said coolly: "there are some very good people among the Boers, and besides, you used to be a great 'patriot.'"
"Used to be—yes; and so the trees used to bend to the north when the wind blew that way, but now they bend to the south, for the wind has turned. By-and-by it may set to the north again—that is another matter—then we shall see."
Bessie made no answer beyond pursing up her pretty mouth and slowly picking a leaf from the vine that trailed overhead.
The big Dutchman took off his hat and stroked his beard perplexedly. Evidently he was meditating something that he was afraid to say. Twice he fixed his cold eyes on Bessie's fair face, and twice looked down again. The second time she took alarm.
"Excuse me one minute," she said, and made as though to enter the house.
"Wacht een beeche" (wait a bit), he ejaculated, breaking into Dutch in his agitation, and even catching hold of her white dress with his big hand.
Drawing the dress from him with a quick twist of her lithe form, she turned and faced him.
"I beg your pardon," she said, in a tone that could not be called encouraging: "you were going to say something."
"Yes—ah, that is—I was going to say——" and he paused.
Bessie stood with a polite look of expectation on her face, and waited.
"I was going to say—that, in short, that I want to marry you!"
"Oh!" exclaimed Bessie with a start.
"Listen," he went on hoarsely, his words gathering force as he spoke, as is the way even with uncultured people when they speak from the heart. "Listen! I love you, Bessie; I have loved you for three years. Every time I have seen you I have loved you more. Don't say me nay—you don't know how I do love you. I dream of you every night; sometimes I dream that I hear your dress rustling, then you come and kiss me, and it is like being in heaven."
Here Bessie made a gesture of disgust.
"There, I have offended you, but don't be angry with me. I am very rich, Bessie; there is the place here, and then I have four farms in Lydenburg and ten thousand morgen up in Waterberg, and a thousand head of cattle, besides sheep and horses and money in the bank. You shall have everything your own way," he went on, seeing that the inventory of his goods did not appear to impress her—"everything—the house shall be English fashion; I will build a new sit-kammer (sitting-room) and it shall be furnished from Natal. There, I love you, I say. You won't say no, will you?" and he caught her by the hand.
"I am very much obliged to you, Mr. Muller," answered Bessie, snatching away her hand, "but—in short, I cannot marry you. No, it is no use, I cannot indeed. There, please say no more—here comes my uncle. Forget all about it, Mr. Muller."
Her suitor looked up; there was old Silas Croft sure enough, but he was some way off, and walking slowly.
"Do you mean it?" he said beneath his breath.
"Yes, yes, of course I mean it. Why do you force me to repeat it?"
"It is that damned rooibaatje," he broke out. "You used not to be like this before. Curse him, the white-livered Englishman! I will be even with him yet; and I tell you what it is, Bessie: you shall marry me, whether you like or no. Look here, do you think I am the sort of man to play with? You go to Wakkerstroom and ask what sort of a man Frank Muller is. See! I want you—I must have you. I could not live if I thought that I should never get you for myself. And I tell you I will do it. I don't care of it costs me my life, and your rooibaatje's too. I'll do it if I have to stir up a revolt against the Government. There, I swear it by God or by the Devil, it's all one to me!" And growing inarticulate with passion, he stood before her clinching and unclinching his great hand, and his lips trembling.
Bessie was very frightened; but she was a brave woman, and rose to the emergency.
"If you go on talking like that," she said, "I shall call my uncle. I tell you that I will not marry you, Frank Muller, and that nothing shall ever make me marry you. I am very sorry for you, but I have not encouraged you, and I will never marry you—never!"
He stood for half a minute or so looking at her, and then burst into a savage laugh.
"I think that some day or other I shall find a way to make you," Muller said, and turning, he went without another word.
A couple of minutes later Bessie heard the sound of a horse galloping, and looking up she saw her wooer's powerful form vanishing down the vista of blue gums. Also she heard somebody crying out as though in pain at the back of the house, and, more to relieve her mind than for any other reason, she went to see what it was. By the stable door she found the Hottentot Jantje, shrieking, cursing and twisting round and round, his hand pressed to his side, from which the blood was running.
"What is it?" she asked.
"Baas Frank!" he answered—"Baas Frank hit me with his whip!"
"The brute!" said Bessie, the tears starting to her eyes with anger.
"Never mind, missie, never mind," gasped the Hottentot, his ugly face growing livid with fury, "it is only one more to me. I cut it on this stick"—and he held up a long thick stick he carried, on which were several notches, including three deep ones at the top just below the knob. "Let him look out sharp—let him search the grass—let him creep round the bush—let him watch as he will, one day he will find Jantje, and Jantje will find him!"
"Why did Frank Muller gallop away like that?" asked her uncle of Bessie when she got back to the verandah.
"We had some words," she answered shortly, not seeing the use of explaining matters to the old man.
"Ah, indeed, indeed. Well, be careful, my love. It's ill to quarrel with a man like Frank Muller. I've known him for many years, and he has a black heart when he is crossed. You see, my love, you can deal with a Boer and you can deal with an Englishman, but cross-bred dogs are hard to handle. Take my advice, and make it up with Frank Muller."
All of which sage advice did not tend to raise Bessie's spirits, that were already sufficiently depressed.
DREAMS ARE FOOLISHNESS
When, at the approach of Frank Muller, John Niel left Bessie on the verandah, he had taken his gun, and, having whistled to the pointer dog Pontac, he mounted his shooting pony and started in quest of partridges. On the warm slopes of the hills round Wakkerstroom a large species of partridge is very abundant, particularly in the patches of red grass with which the slopes are sometimes clothed. It is a merry sound to hear these birds calling from all directions just after daybreak, and one to make the heart of every true sportsman rejoice exceedingly. On leaving the house John proceeded up the side of the hill behind it—his pony picking its way carefully between the stones, and the dog Pontac ranging about two or three hundred yards off, for in this sort of country it is necessary to have a dog with a wide range. Presently seeing him stop under a mimosa thorn and suddenly stiffen out as if he had been petrified, John made the best of his way towards him. Pontac stood still for a few seconds, and then slowly and deliberately veered his head round as though it worked on a hinge to see if his master was coming. John knew his ways. Three times would that remarkable old dog look round thus, and if the gun had not then arrived he would to a certainty run in and flush the birds. This was a rule that he never broke, for his patience had a fixed limit. On this occasion, however, John arrived before it was reached, and, jumping off his pony, cocked his gun and marched slowly up, full of happy expectation. On drew the dog, his eye cold and fixed, saliva dropping from his mouth, and his head, on which was frozen an extraordinary expression of instinctive ferocity, outstretched to its utmost limit.
Pontac was under the mimosa thorn now and up to his belly in the warm red grass. Where could the birds be? Whirr! and a great feathered shell seemed to have burst at his very feet. What a covey! twelve brace if there was a bird, and they had all been lying beak to beak in a space no bigger than a cart wheel. Up went John's gun and off too, a little sooner than it should have done.
"Missed him clean! Now then for the left barrel." Same result. We will draw a veil over the profanity that ensued. A minute later and it was all over, and John and Pontac were regarding each other with mutual contempt and disgust.
"It was all you, you brute," said John to Pontac. "I thought you were going to run in, and you hurried me."
"Ugh!" said Pontac to John, or at least he looked it. "Ugh! you disgusting bad shot. What is the good of pointing for you? It's enough to make a dog sick."
The covey—or rather the collection of old birds, for this kind of partridge sometimes "packs" just before the breeding season—had scattered all about the place. It was not long before Pontac found some of them, and this time John got one bird—a beautiful great partridge he was too, with yellow legs—and missed another. Again Pontac pointed, and a brace rose. Bang! down goes one; bang with the other barrel. Caught him, by Jove, just as he topped the stone. Hullo! Pontac is still on the point. Slip in two more cartridges. Oh, a leash this time! bang! bang! and down come a brace of them—two brace of partridges without moving a yard.
Life has joys for all men, but, I verily believe, it has no joy to compare to that of the moderate shot and earnest sportsman when he has just killed half a dozen driven partridges without a miss, or ten rocketing pheasants with eleven cartridges, or, better still, a couple of woodcock right and left. Sweet to the politician are the cheers that announce the triumph of his cause and of himself; sweet to the desponding writer is the unexpected public recognition by reviewers of talents with which previously nobody had been much impressed; sweet to all men are the light of women's eyes and the touch of women's lips. But though he have experienced all these things, to the true sportsman and the moderate shot, sweeter far is it to see the arched wings of the driven bird bent like Cupid's bow come flashing fast towards him, to feel the touch of the stock as it fits itself against his shoulder, and the kindly give of the trigger, and then, oh thrilling sight! to perceive the wonderful and yet awful change from life to death, the puff of feathers, and the hurtling passage of the dull mass borne onward by its own force to fall twenty yards from where the pellets struck it. Next session the politician will be hooted down, next year perhaps the reviewers will cut the happy writer to ribbons and decorate their journals with his fragments, next week you will have wearied of those dear smiles, or, more likely still, they will be bestowed elsewhere. Vanity of vanities, my son, each and all of them! But if you are a true sportsman (yes, even though you be but a moderate shot), it will always be a glorious thing to go out shooting, and when you chance to shoot well earth holds no such joy as that which will glow in your honest breast (for all sportsmen are honest), and it remains to be proved if heaven does either. It is a grand sport, though the pity of it is that it should be a cruel one.
Such was the paean that John sang in his heart as he contemplated those fine partridges before lovingly transferring them to his bag. But his luck to-day was not destined to stop at partridges, for hardly had he ridden over the edge of the boulder-strewn side, and on to the flat table-top of the great hill which covered some five hundred acres of land, before he perceived, emerging from the shelter of a tuft of grass about a hundred and seventy yards away, nothing less than the tall neck and whiskered head of a large pauw or bustard.
Now it is quite useless to try and ride straight up to a bustard, and this he knew. The only thing to do is to excite his curiosity and fix his attention by moving round and round him in an ever-narrowing circle. Putting his pony to a canter, John proceeded to do this with a heart beating with excitement. Round and round he went; the pauw had vanished now, he was squatting in the tuft of grass. The last circle brought him to within seventy yards, and he did not dare to ride any nearer, so jumping off his pony he ran in towards the bird as hard as he could go. When he had covered ten paces the pauw was rising, but they are heavy birds, and he was within forty yards before it was fairly on the wing. Then he pulled up and fired both barrels of No. 4 into it. Down it came, and, incautious man, he rushed forward in triumph without reloading his gun. Already was his hand outstretched to seize the prize, when, behold! the great wings spread themselves out and the bird was flying away. John stood dancing upon the veldt, but observing that it settled within a couple of hundred yards, he ran back, mounted his pony, and pursued it. As he drew near it rose again, and flew this time a hundred yards only, and so it went on till at last he got within gun-shot of the king of birds and killed it.
By this time he was across the mountain-top, and on the brink of the most remarkable chasm he had ever seen. The place was known as Lion's Kloof, or Leeuwen Kloof in Dutch, because three lions had once been penned up by a party of Boers and shot there. This chasm or gorge was between a quarter and half a mile long, about six hundred feet in width, and a hundred and fifty to a hundred and eighty feet deep. Evidently it owed its origin to the action of running water, for at its head, just to the right of where John Niel stood, a little stream welling from hidden springs in the flat mountain-top trickled from stratum to stratum, forming a series of crystal pools and tiny waterfalls, till at last it reached the bottom of the mighty gorge, and pursued its way through it to the plains beyond, half-hidden by the umbrella-topped mimosa and other thorns that were scattered about. Without doubt this little stream was the parent of the ravine it trickled down and through, but, wondered John Niel, how many centuries of patient, never-ceasing flow must have been necessary to the vast result before him? First centuries of saturation of the soil piled on and between the bed rocks that lay beneath it and jutted up through it, then centuries of floods caused by rain and perhaps by melting snows, to carry away the loosened mould; then centuries upon centuries more of flowing and of rainfall to wash the debris clean and complete the colossal work.
I say the rocks that jutted up through the soil, for the kloof was not clean cut. All along its sides, and here and there in its arena, stood mighty columns or fingers of rock, not solid indeed, but formed by huge boulders piled mason fashion one upon another, as though the Titans of some dead age had employed themselves in building them up, overcoming their tendency to fall by the mere crushing weight above, that kept them steady even when the wild breath of the storms came howling down the gorge and tried its strength against them. About a hundred paces from the near end of the chasm, some ninety or more feet in height, rose the most remarkable of these giant pillars, to which the remains at Stonehenge are but as toys. It was formed of seven huge boulders, the largest, that at the bottom, about the size of a moderate cottage, and the smallest, that at the top, perhaps some eight or ten feet in diameter. These boulders were rounded like a cricket-ball—evidently through the action of water—and yet the hand of Nature had contrived to balance them, each one smaller than that beneath, the one upon the other, and to keep them so. But this was not always the case. For instance, a very similar mass which once stood on the near side of the perfect pillar had fallen, all except its two foundation stones, and the rocks that formed it lay scattered about like monstrous petrified cannon-balls. One of these had split in two, and seated on it, looking very small and far off at the bottom of that vast gulf, John discovered Jess Croft, apparently engaged in sketching.
He dismounted from his shooting pony, and looking about him perceived that it was possible to descend by following the course of the stream and clambering down the natural steps it had cut in its rocky bed. Throwing the reins over the pony's head, and leaving him with the dog Pontac to stand and stare about him as South African shooting ponies are accustomed to do, he laid down his gun and game and proceeded to descend, pausing every now and again to admire the wild beauty of the scene and examine the hundred varieties of moss and ferns, the last mostly of the maiden-hair (Capillus Veneris) genus, that clothed every cranny and every rock where they could find foothold and win refreshment from the water or the spray of the cascades. As he drew near the bottom of the gorge he saw that on the borders of the stream, wherever the soil was moist, grew thousands upon thousands of white arums, "pig lilies" as they call them in Africa, which were now in full bloom. He had noticed these lilies from above, but thence, owing to the distance, they seemed so small that he took them for everlastings or anemones. John could not see Jess now, for she was hidden by a bush that grows on the banks of the streams in South Africa in low-lying land, and which at certain seasons of the year is completely covered with masses of the most gorgeous scarlet bloom. His footsteps fell very softly on the moss and flowers, and when he passed round the glorious-looking bush it was evident that she had not heard him, for she was asleep. Her hat was off, but the bush shaded her, and her head had fallen forward over her sketching block and rested upon her hand. A ray of light that came through the bush played over her curling brown hair, and threw warm shadows on her white face and the whiter wrist and hand by which it was supported.
John stood there and looked at her, and the old curiosity took possession of him to understand this feminine enigma. Many a man before him has been the victim of a like desire, and lived to regret that he did not leave it ungratified. It is not well to try to lift the curtain of the unseen, it is not well to call to heaven to show its glory, or to hell to give us touch and knowledge of its yawning fires. Knowledge comes soon enough; many of us will say that knowledge has come too soon and left us desolate. There is no bitterness like the bitterness of wisdom: so cried the great Koheleth, and so hath cried many a son of man following blindly on his path. Let us be thankful for the dark places of the earth—places where we may find rest and shadow, and the heavy sweetness of the night. Seek not after mysteries, O son of man, be content with the practical and the proved and the broad light of day; peep not, mutter not the words of awakening. Understand her who would be understood and is comprehensible to those that run, and for the others let them be, lest your fate should be as the fate of Eve, and as the fate of Lucifer, Star of the morning. For here and there beats a human heart from which it is not wise to draw the veil—a heart in which many things are dim as half-remembered dreams in the brain of the sleeper. Draw not the veil, whisper not the word of life in the silence where all things sleep, lest in that kindling breath of love and pain pale shapes arise, take form, and fright you!
A minute or so might have passed when suddenly, and with a little start, Jess opened her great eyes, wherein the shadow of darkness lay, and gazed at him.
"Oh!" she said with a little tremor, "is it you or is it my dream?"
"Don't be afraid," he answered cheerfully, "it is I—in the flesh."
She covered her face with her hand for a moment, then withdrew it, and he noticed that her eyes had changed curiously in that moment. They were still large and beautiful as they always were, but there was a change. Just now they had seemed as though her soul were looking through them. Doubtless it was because the pupils had been enlarged by sleep.
"Your dream! What dream?" he asked, laughing.
"Never mind," she answered in a quiet way that excited his curiosity more than ever. "It was about this Kloof—and you—but 'dreams are foolishness.'"
THE STORM BREAKS
"Do you know, you are a very odd person, Miss Jess," John said presently, with a little laugh. "I don't think you can have a happy mind."
She looked up. "A happy mind?" she said. "Who can have a happy mind? Nobody who feels. Supposing," she went on after a pause—"supposing one puts oneself and one's own little interests and joys and sorrows quite away, how is it possible to be happy, when one feels the breath of human misery beating on one's face, and sees the tide of sorrow and suffering creeping up to one's feet? You may be on a rock yourself and out of the path of it, till the spring floods or the hurricane wave come to sweep you away, or you may be afloat upon it: whichever it is, it is quite impossible, if you have any heart, to be indifferent."
"Then only the indifferent are happy?"
"Yes, the indifferent and the selfish; but, after all, it is the same thing: indifference is the perfection of selfishness."
"I am afraid that there must be lots of selfishness in the world, for certainly there is plenty of happiness, all evil things notwithstanding. I should have said that happiness springs from goodness and a sound digestion."
Jess shook her head as she answered, "I may be wrong, but I don't see how anybody who feels can be quite happy in a world of sickness, suffering, slaughter, and death. I saw a Kafir woman die yesterday, and her children crying over her. She was a poor creature and had a rough lot, but she loved her life, and her children loved her. Who can be happy and thank God for His creation when he has just seen such a thing? But there, Captain Niel, my ideas are very crude, and I dare say very wrong, and everybody has thought them before: at any rate, I am not going to inflict them on you. What is the use of it?" and she went on with a laugh: "what is the use of anything? The same old thoughts passing through the same human minds from year to year and century to century, just as the same clouds float across the same blue sky. The clouds are born in the sky, and the thoughts are born in the brain, and they both end in tears and re-arise in blind, bewildering mist, and this is the beginning and end of thoughts and clouds. They arise out of the blue; they overshadow and break into storms and tears, then they are drawn up into the blue again, and the story begins afresh."
"So you don't think that one can be happy in this world?" he asked.
"I did not say that—I never said that. I do think that happiness is possible. It is possible if one can love somebody so hard that one can quite forget oneself and everything else except that person, and it is possible if one can sacrifice oneself for others. There is no true happiness outside of love and self-sacrifice, or rather outside of love, for it includes the other. This is gold, and all the rest is gilt."
"How do you know that?" he asked quickly. "You have never been in love."
"No," she answered, "I have never been in love like that, but all the happiness I have had in my life has come to me from loving. I believe that love is the secret of the world: it is like the philosopher's stone they used to look for, and almost as hard to find, but if you find it it turns everything to gold. Perhaps," she went on with a little laugh, "when the angels departed from the earth they left us love behind, that by it and through it we may climb up to them again. It is the one thing that lifts us above the brutes. Without love man is a brute, and nothing but a brute; with love he draws near to God. When everything else falls away the love will endure because it cannot die while there is any life, if it is true love, for it is immortal. Only it must be true—you see it must be true."
He had penetrated her reserve now; the ice of her manner broke up beneath the warmth of her words, and her face, usually impassive, had caught life and light from the eyes above, and acquired a certain beauty of its own. John looked at it, and understood something of the untaught and ill-regulated intensity and depth of the nature of this curious girl. He met her eyes and they moved him strangely, though he was not an emotional man, and was too old to experience spasmodic thrills at the chance glances of a pretty woman. He moved towards her, looking at her curiously.
"It would be worth living to be loved like that," he said, more to himself than to her.
Jess did not answer, but she let her eyes rest on his. Indeed, she did more, for she put her soul into them and gazed and gazed till John Niel felt as though he were mesmerised. And as she gazed there rose up in her breast a knowledge that if she willed it she could gain this man's heart and hold it against all the world, for her nature was stronger than his nature, and her mind, untrained though it be, encompassed his mind and could pass over it and beat it down as the wind beats down the tossing seas. All this she learnt in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye: she could not tell how she knew it, but she did know it as surely as she knew that the blue sky stretched overhead, and, what is more—for the moment, at any rate—he knew it too. This strange strong certainty came on her as a shock and a revelation, like the tidings of some great joy or grief, and for a moment left her heart empty of all things else.
Jess dropped her eyes suddenly.
"I think," she said quietly, "that we have been talking a great deal of nonsense, and that I want to finish my sketch."
He rose and left her, for he was wanted at home, saying as he went that he thought there was a storm coming up; the air was so quiet, and the wind had fallen as it does before an African tempest. Presently on looking round she saw him slowly climbing the precipitous ascent to the table-land above the gulf.
It was one of those glorious afternoons that sometimes come in the African spring, although it was so intensely still. Everywhere appeared the proofs of evidences of life. The winter was over, and now, from the sadness and sterility of its withered age, sprang youth and lovely summer clad in sunshine, bediamonded with dew, and fragrant with the breath of flowers. Jess lay back and looked up into the infinite depths above. How blue they were, and how measureless! She could not see the angry clouds that lay like visible omens on the horizon. Look, there, miles above her, was one tiny circling speck. It was a vulture, watching her from his airy heights and descending a little to see if she were dead, or only sleeping.
Involuntarily she shuddered. The bird of death reminded her of Death himself also hanging high up yonder in the blue and waiting his opportunity to fall upon the sleeper. Then her eyes fell upon a bough of the glorious flowering bush under which she rested. It was not more than four feet above her head, but she lay so still and motionless that a jewelled honeysucker came and hovered over the flowers, darting from one to another like a many-coloured flash. Thence her glance travelled to the great column of boulders that towered above her, and that seemed to say, "I am very old. I have seen many springs and many winters, and have looked down on many sleeping maids, and where are they now? All dead—all dead," and an old baboon in the rocks with startling suddenness barked out "all dead" in answer.
Around her were the blooming lilies and the lustiness of springing life; the heavy air was sweet with the odour of ferns and the mimosa flowers. The running water splashed and musically fell; the sunlight shot in golden bars athwart the shade, like the memory of happy days in the grey vista of a life; away in the cliffs yonder, the rock-doves were preparing to nest by hundreds, and waking the silence with their cooing and the flutter of their wings. Even the grim old eagle perched on the pinnacle of the peak was pruning himself, contentedly happy in the knowledge that his mate had laid an egg in that dark corner of the cliff. All things rejoiced and cried aloud that summer was at hand and that it was time to bloom and love and nest. Soon it would be winter again, when things died, and next summer other things would live under the sun, and these perchance would be forgotten. That was what they seemed to say.