ON THE FIRING LINE
Anna Chapin Ray and Hamilton Brock Fuller
Six feet one in his stockings, broad-shouldered and without an ounce of extra flesh, Harvard Weldon suddenly halted before one of a line of deck chairs.
"I usually get what I want, Miss Dent," he observed suggestively.
"You are more fortunate than most people." Her answering tone was dry.
Most men would have been baffled by her apparent indifference. Not so was Weldon. Secure in the possession of a good tailor and an equally good digestion, he was willing to await the leisurely course of events.
"My doctor always advises mild exercise after lunch," he continued.
"You are in the care of a physician?" she queried, with a whimsical glance up at his brown face and athletic figure.
"Not just now. I was once, however." She raised her brows in polite interrogation. Her involuntary thawing of a moment before had given place to absolute conventionality. Weldon smiled to himself, as he noted the change. He had been at sea for three days now, and those three days had been chiefly spent in trying to penetrate the social shell of his next neighbor at table. It was not so much that Ethel Dent was undeniably pretty as that he had been piqued by her frosty reception of his efforts to supplement the services of a careless waiter.
Now, uninvited, he dropped into the empty chair next her own.
"If I may?" he said questioningly, as he raised his cap. "Yes, I have had a doctor twice. Once was measles, once a collar bone broken in football. Both times, I was urged to take a walk after luncheon. Is Miss Arthur—?"
He hesitated for the right word. Still ignoring his obvious hint, Ethel Dent supplied the word, without charity for her luckless chaperon. "Horridly seasick." She pointed out to the level steely-gray sea. "And on this duck-pond," she added.
Her accent was expressive. Weldon laughed.
"Perhaps she isn't as used to the duck-pond as you are."
The girl brushed a lock of vivid gold hair from her eyes; then she sat up, to add emphasis to her words. "Miss Arthur has been to America and back seven times and to Australia once," she said conclusively.
"As globe-trotter, or as commercial traveller?"
"Neither. As professional chaperon. When she applied for me, she stated—" The girl caught her breath and stopped short.
"Well?" he asked encouragingly. She shook her head. Again, for an instant, Weldon could see the humanity beneath the veneering. Moreover, he liked what he saw. The blue eyes were honest and steady. One mocking dimple belied the gravity of the firm lips.
"What did she state?" he asked again.
"It's not manners to tell tales about one's companion," she demurred.
"Not if you spell it with a little c. With a capital, it becomes professional, and you can say what you choose. Miss Arthur is a righteous lady; nevertheless, she is a bit professional. And you were saying that the lady stated—"
"That she never had been seasick in her life."
"Oh. And did she also produce certificates as to her moral character? Or is fibbing merely bad form nowadays?"
With swift inconsequence, the girl shifted to the other side of the discussion.
"Of course, this may be a first attack."
"Of course," Weldon assented gravely. But again she shifted her ground. "Only," she continued, with her eyes thoughtfully fixed on the distant, impersonal point where sea and sky met; "only it is a little strange that, yesterday, I heard her tell the stewardess she never took beeftea when she was seasick."
"Oh." Weldon's eyes joined hers on the sky-line. "I have heard of similar cases before."
"She offered to come on deck," Ethel went on quietly. "It was generous of her, for she knew I was left entirely alone. Nevertheless, I persuaded her that she was better off in her berth."
Leaning back in the chair of the absent invalid, Weldon watched his companion out of the corners of his eyes and rejoiced at the change in her. Even while he rejoiced, he marvelled. A Canadian by birth and education, he had rarely come in contact with English girls. At first, he had been totally at a loss to account for the haughty chill in the manner of this one. Grown accustomed to that, he was still more at a loss to account for this sudden awakening into humanity. He had as yet to learn that two days of having her only companion seasick, coupled with a sparkling sun and a crisp breeze, can rouse even a duenna-led English girl to the point of expressing her opinions pithily and with vigor.
As the Dunottar Castle had slid away from Southampton, three days before, Weldon had tramped briskly up and down the crowded deck, taking mental note of his companions for the next two weeks. Among the caped and capped throng leaning over the rail and staring after the receding shore with homesick eyes, he saw little to interest him. Neither did the shore interest him in the least. His own partings had come, two weeks before, when the steam yacht had put back from Sandy Hook. Now, accordingly, he went in search of the dining-room steward to whom he gave much gold and instruction. Then he betook himself to his stateroom where his mates were already busy settling their belongings.
The luncheon hour disclosed the fact that the dining-room steward had earned his money and had digested his instruction. A short pause on the threshold informed Weldon that the Dunottar Castle held exactly one pretty girl; the steward informed Weldon that the vacant chair beside her was his own. Weldon picked up his napkin with a brief prayer of thanksgiving. What if he was going out to Africa in search of Boers and glory? There was no especial reason he should not enjoy himself on the way.
Weldon had gained a wide experience of American girls, well-bred, well-chaperoned, nevertheless they offered possible points of contact to the strangers with whom they were thrown. To all seeming, Ethel Dent was as accessible as the outer wall of an ice palace. Beside her decorous ignoring of his existence, Miss Arthur, lean and spectacled and sniffy, appeared to be of maternal kindliness, albeit her only advances had been a muffled request for the salt. The next morning, Miss Arthur's chair had been empty, and her charge, left to herself, had been more glacially circumspect than ever. Whatever skittish traits the pair might develop, Weldon felt assured that they would be solely upon the side of Miss Ophelia Arthur.
Now, however, he was giving himself praise for his own astute generalship. It was no slight matter, at the end of the third day, to find himself sitting next to Miss Dent in the line of steamer chairs and even bending over to pick up the novel she had dropped. In his elation, Weldon neglected to give credit to Miss Arthur whose digestive woes were the cause of the whole situation. Only the riper Christianity which comes with declining years can make one wholly loyal to a seasick comrade.
He gave himself yet more praise, next morning at sunrise, when he found himself pacing the deck at Ethel Dent's side. As a rule, he and his mates rose betimes and, clad in slippers and pajamas, raced up and down the decks to keep their muscles in hard order, before descending for the tubbing which is the matin duty of every self-respecting British subject. This morning, instead of the deserted decks and the pajama-clad athletes, the passengers were out early to catch the first glimpse of Madeira, and Weldon, starchy and glowing with much cold water, was on deck to catch the first glimpse of Ethel.
Miss Arthur was still invisible, and the girl was discreetly late about appearing. The deck was full, when at last she came in sight; and it seemed, to her first glance, that she was the only unattended person abroad, that morning. Her chin rose a little aggressively as she moved forward. Then her eyes lighted. Cap in hand, Weldon stood in her direct path.
"Good morning," he said. "We've just passed the lighthouse and are nearly opposite Canical. If you come over here, you can see it."
His tone was matter-of-course, yet masterful. At the very beginning of her fourth solitary day, Ethel admitted to herself that it was good to have some one take possession of her in this summary fashion.
"Is Miss Arthur still unhappy?" he asked, as he swung into step at her side.
"Yes. She has taken to her hymnal, this morning, in search of consolation. I tried to coax her to get up and go ashore; but she said there was no use in experiencing the same woe twice."
"I am afraid I do not quite catch the lady's line of argument," Weldon remarked doubtfully.
The girl laughed. Then she decorously checked her laugh and endeavored to turn sympathetic once more.
"She means to make one prolonged illness. Else she will only recover in order to fall ill again." "Oh." Weldon's tone was still blank. "And shall you go ashore?"
She shook her head.
"I am sorry. You would find any amount to see."
"I am sorry, too," she said frankly. "Still, I don't see how I can, without Miss Arthur."
His hands in his pockets, Weldon took a dozen steps in doubtful silence.
"I'll tell you what we can do, Miss Dent: Harry Carew, one of the fellows going out with me, had a note of introduction to Colonel Scott and his wife. He is the pompous old Englishman across the table. I'll get Carew to introduce us, and perhaps they will let us go ashore with them."
"But are they going?" she asked irresolutely.
"Surely. We have three hours here. I know Carew's mother well; she and Mrs. Scott were schoolmates at Madame Prather's in London."
She looked up with sudden interest.
"Madame Prather's? That is where I have been, for the past five years."
"Then we are all right," Weldon said coolly. "The arrangement is made. Carew is the only missing link. Excuse me, and I will go in search of him."
It was high noon when the Dunottar Castle finally weighed anchor at Funchal and started on her long, unbroken voyage to the southward. Side by side in the stern, Weldon and Ethel looked back at the blue harbor dotted with the myriad little boats, at the quaint town backed with its amphitheatre of sunlit hills and, poised on the summit, the church where Nossa Senhora do Monte keeps watch and ward over the town beneath. Ethel's experience was the broader for her hilarious ride in a bullock-drawn palanquin. Weldon's experience was more instructive. It taught him that, her hat awry and her yellow hair loosened about her laughing face, Ethel Dent was tenfold more attractive than when she made her usual decorous entrance to the dining-room.
Mrs. Scott had been a willing chaperon and an efficient one. Nevertheless, as they stood together in the stern, looking out across the gold-flecked sea, Weldon felt that he had made a long stride, that morning, towards acquaintance with his companion. And, even now, the voyage was nearly all before them.
As if in answer to his thoughts, she lifted her eyes to his face.
"Twelve more days!" she said slowly.
"Are you sorry?"
She shook her head.
"Glad and sorry both. I love the sea; but home is at the end of it."
"You live out there?" he asked.
She smiled at the question. "Yes, if out there means Cape Town. At least, my parents live there."
"How long have you been in England?" he queried, while, abandoning all pretence of interest in the fast-vanishing town, he turned his back to the rail in order to face his companion more directly.
"Always, except for one year, six years ago, and a summer—summer in England, I mean—two years later."
Rather inconsequently, Weldon attacked the side issue suggested by her words.
"How does it seem to have one's seasons standing on their heads?"
She answered question with question. "Haven't you been out before?"
"I supposed you had taken the voyage any number of times. But about the seasons, it doesn't count for much until you come to Christmas. No England-born mortal can hang up his stocking in mid-summer without a pang of regretful homesickness."
"Do you substitute a refrigerator for a chimney corner?" he asked. "But are you England-born?"
"Yes. My father went out only seven years ago. The 'home' tradition is so strong that I was sent back to school and for a year of social life. My little brother goes to Harrow in two years. Even in Cape Town, a few people still hold true to the tradition of the public school."
Weldon nodded assent.
"We meet it in Canada, now and then; not too often, though. So in reality you are almost as much a stranger to Cape Town as I am."
"Quite. My father says it is all changed now. It used to be a lazy little place; now it is pandemonium, soldiers and supplies going out, time-expired men and invalids coming in. Mr. Weldon—"
His questioning smile answered the pause in her sentence.
"Well?" he asked, after a prolonged interval.
Her teeth shut on her lower lip, she stared at the wide blue sea with wide blue eyes. Something in its restless tossing, in the changing lights that darted back to her from the crests of the waves, seemed to be holding her in an hypnotic trance. Out of the midst of the trance she spoke again, and it was plain to Weldon, as he listened to her low, intent voice, that her thoughts were not upon the sea nor yet upon him.
"It ought to terrify me," she said. "I mean the war, of course. I ought to dread the going out into the atmosphere of it. I don't. Sometimes I think I must have fighting blood in my veins. Instead of being frightened at what my father writes me, I feel stirred by it all, as if I were ready for anything. I went out to Aldershot, one day last year; but that was only so many dainty frills, so much playing soldier. That's not what I mean at all." Turning suddenly, she looked up directly into Weldon's dark gray eyes. "One of my cousins wants to be a nurse. She lives at Piquetberg Road, but she has been visiting friends who live in Natal on the edge of the fighting, where she has seen things as they happen. In her last letter, she told me that she was only waiting for my uncle's permission to go out as a nurse."
"Is that what you would do?"
Her head lifted itself proudly.
"No. She can take care of the wounded men, if she chooses. For my part, I'd rather cheer on the men who are starting for the front. If I could know that one man, one single man, fought the better for having known me, I should feel as if I had done my share."
She spoke with fiery vigor; then her eyes dropped again to the dancing waves. When at length she spoke again, she was once more the level-voiced English girl who sat next him at the table.
"You are going out to Cape Town to stay, Mr. Weldon?" she asked, with an accent so utterly conventional that Weldon almost doubted his own ears.
"To stay until the war ends," he replied, in an accent as conventional as her own.
"In Cape Town?" Then she felt her eyes drawn to meet his eyes, as he answered quietly,—
"I shall do my best to make myself a place in the firing line."
Again her conventionality vanished, and she gave him her hand, as if to seal a compact.
"I hope you will win it and hold it," she responded slowly. "I can wish you nothing better."
A berugged, bedraggled bundle of apologies, Miss Ophelia Arthur lay prone in her steamer chair, her cheeks pale, her eyes closed. Her conscience, directed towards the interests of her charge, demanded her presence on deck. Once on deck and apparently on guard, Miss Arthur limply subsided into a species of coma. Her charge, meanwhile, rosy and alert, sat in the lee of a friendly ventilating shaft. Beside her, also in the lee of the ventilating shaft, sat Mr. Harvard Weldon.
The past week had been full of the petty events which make up life on shipboard. The trail of smoke from a passing steamer, the first shoal of flying fish, the inevitable dance, the equally inevitable concert and, most inevitable of all, the Sabbatic contest between the captain and the fresh-water clergyman who insists upon reading service: all these are old details, yet ever new. Throughout them all, Weldon had sturdily maintained his place at Ethel's side. By tacit consent, the girl had been transferred to the motherly care of Mrs. Scott who, after a keen inspection of Weldon, had decided that it was safe to take upon trust this clean-eyed, long-legged Canadian who was so obviously well-born and well-bred.
Now and then Carew joined the group; but the handsome, dashing young fellow had no mind to play the part of second violin. He would be concertmaster or nothing. Accordingly, he withdrew to the rival corner where a swarthy little French girl maintained her court without help from any apparent chaperonage whatsoever. Left in possession of the field, Weldon made the most of his chances. The acknowledged attendant of Ethel, his jovial ministrations overflowed to Mrs. Scott, until the sedate colonel's wife admitted to herself that no such pleasant voyage had fallen to her lot since the days when she had started for India on her wedding journey. Weldon had the consummate tact to keep the taint of the filial from his chivalry. His attentions to Mrs. Scott and Ethel differed in degree, but not in kind, and Mrs. Scott adored him accordingly. One by one, the languid days dropped into the past. Neptune had duly escorted them over the Line, to the boredom of the first-class passengers and the strident mirth of the rest of the ship's colony. Winter was already behind them, and the late December days took on more and more of the guise of summer, as the log marked their passing to the southward. To many on board, the idle passage was a winter holiday; but to Weldon and Carew and a dozen more stalwart fellows, those quiet days were the hush before the breaking of the storm. Home, school, the university were behind them; before them lay the crash of war. And afterwards? Glory, or death. Their healthy, boyish optimism could see no third alternative.
For ten long days, Miss Ophelia Arthur lay prone in her berth. Her hymnal and her Imitation lay beside her; but she read less than she pondered, and she invariably pondered with her eyes closed and her mouth ajar. On the eleventh day, however, she gathered herself together and went on deck. With anxious care Weldon tucked the rugs about her elderly frame. Then he exchanged a glance with Ethel and together they sought the shelter of the ventilating shaft.
Nothing shows the temperature more surely than the tint of the gray sea. It was a warm gray, that morning, and the bowl-like sky above was gray from the horizon far towards the blue zenith. From the other end of the ship, they could hear the plaudits that accompanied an impromptu athletic tournament; but the inhabitants of the nearest chairs were reading or dozing, and the deck about them was very still. Only the throbbing of the mighty screw and the hiss of the cleft waves broke the hush.
Out of the hush, Ethel spoke abruptly.
"Do you know, Mr. Weldon, you have never told me what brings you out here."
He had been sitting, chin on his fists, staring out across the gray, foam-flecked water. Now he looked up at her in surprise.
"I thought you knew. The war, of course."
"Yes; but where are you going?"
"To somewhere on the firing line. Beyond that I've not the least idea."
"Where is your regiment now?"
"I haven't any."
She frowned in perplexity.
"I think I don't quite understand."
"I mean I haven't enlisted yet."
"But your commission?" she urged.
"I have no commission, Miss Dent."
"Not—any commission!" she said blankly.
In site of himself, he laughed at her tone.
"Certainly not. I am going as a soldier."
She sat staring at him in thoughtful silence.
"But you are a gentleman," she said slowly at length.
Weldon's mouth twitched at the corners.
"I hope so," he assented.
"Then how can you go as soldier, for I suppose you mean private?"
Dictated by generations-old tradition, the question was eloquent. Weldon's one purpose, however, was to combat that tradition; and he answered calmly,—
"Because—because it isn't neat," she responded unexpectedly.
This time, Weldon laughed outright. Trained in the wider, more open-air school of Canadian life, he found her insular point of view distinctly comic.
"I have a portable tub somewhere among my luggage," he reassured her.
She shook her head.
"No; that's not what I mean. But you won't be thrown with men of your own class. The private is a distinct race; you'll find him unbearable, when you are really in close quarters with him."
Deliberately Weldon rose and stood looking down at her. His lips were smiling; his eyes were direct and grave. His mother could have told the girl, just then, that some one had touched him on the raw.
"Miss Dent," he asked slowly; "is this the way you cheer on the men?"
She flushed under his rebuke and, for a moment, her blue eyes showed an angry light.
"I beg your pardon. I was referring to the men whom I am likely to know."
"And omitting myself?" he inquired.
"You are the exception which proves the rule," she answered a little shortly. "Of course, I wish you all good; but I don't see how it is to be gained, if you bury yourself in the ranks."
"It may depend a little upon what you mean by good," he returned, with a dignity which, notwithstanding her momentary petulance, won her full respect. "I am not going out in search of the path to a generalship. Fighting isn't my real profession."
"Then what are you going for?" she demanded sharply. With no consciousness of dramatic effect, his eyes turned to the Union Jack fluttering above them.
"Because I couldn't stay away," he answered simply. "From Magersfontein to Nooitdedacht, the pull on me has been growing stronger. I am not needed at home; I can shoot a little and ride a good deal. I am taking out my own horse; I shall draw no pay. I can do no harm; and, somewhere or other, I may do a little good. For the rest, I prefer the ranks. It's not always the broadest man who lives entirely with his own class. For a while, I am willing to meet some one outside. As soon as I get to Cape Town, I shall enlist in a regiment of horse, put on the khaki and learn to wind myself up in my putties. Then it will remain to be seen whether my old friends will accept Trooper Weldon on their list of acquaintances."
"One of them will," the girl said quickly. "If only for the sake of novelty, I shall be glad to know a man in the ranks."
He shook his head.
"No novelty, Miss Dent. I know any number of fellows who are doing the same thing. We can't all be officers; a few of us must take orders. Out in the hunting field, we say it is the thoroughbred dog who answers to call most quickly."
She ignored his last words.
"And you don't even know where you are going?" she asked. "To Cape Town."
"But after that?"
"To my banker. After that, to the nearest recruiting station."
"So you'll not stop in Cape Town?"
Weldon's quick ear caught the little note of regret in her voice.
"Not long. Long enough, however, to pull any latch-string that offers itself to me."
Her eyes dropped to the shining sea.
"My mother will offer ours to you," she said quietly. Then she added, with a swift flash of merriment, "And you will wish to see Miss Arthur again."
Weldon cast a mocking glance over his shoulder at the recumbent, open-mouthed form.
"Is the lady going to stop long with you?" he queried.
"Long enough to recover from her invalidism."
"To judge from her greeny-yellow cast of countenance, that may take some time. But tell me, Miss Dent, does she always sleep out loud like this?"
"Not always. It usually comes when she is taking what she calls forty winks."
"Then may a merciful heaven prevent her from taking eighty," Weldon observed piously. "Still, the sleeping cat—"
"Fox," she corrected him promptly.
"Fox be it, then. Miss Arthur seems to me to be feline, rather than vulpine, though." Bending forward, the girl studied her chaperon thoughtfully.
"She really isn't so bad, Mr. Weldon. She means well. It is only that I don't like tight frizzles and a hymn-book in combination. People should always have one point of absolute worldliness."
"Aren't fizzles—that is what you called the thatch over her eyebrows; isn't it?—aren't they worldly?"
Ethel Dent laughed with the consciousness of a woman's superior knowledge.
"It depends upon the season," she replied enigmatically, as she rose.
It was five days later that Ethel closed and locked her steamer trunk. Leaving Miss Arthur to grapple alone with the cabin bags, the girl went out on deck. Regardless of the glaring sunshine of New Year morning, groups of people were dotted along the rail, staring up at the flat top and seamy face of cloud-capped Table Mountain. In the very midst of a knot of eager, excited men, Weldon was leaning on the rail, talking so earnestly to Carew that he was quite unconscious of the girl, twenty paces behind him. She hesitated for a moment. Then, as she walked away to the farther end of the deck, she told herself that Weldon was like all other men, regardful of women only when no more vital interest presented itself. Already she regretted the girlish vanity which had dictated the choice of the gown in which she was to go ashore. For all the young Canadian was likely to know to the contrary, she might be clad in a calico wrapper and a blanket shawl, rather than the masterpiece of a London tailor.
The Dunottar Castle was forging steadily ahead through the blue waters of Table Bay. Beyond the bay, Cape Town nestled in its bed of living green, backed by the sinister face of Table Mountain, and fringed with a thicket of funnels and of raking masts. To the girl, familiar with the harbor when Cape Town had been a peaceful seaport, it seemed that the navies of the world were gathered there before her eyes. It seemed to her, too, that the low, squat town never looked half so fair as it did now, viewed from a softening distance and ringed about with its summer setting of verdure.
Already the docks were in sight and, far to her left at the other end of the long curve of the water front, her keen eyes could make out the roof which, six years before, she had learned to call home. She could imagine the stir and excitement in that home: the controlled eagerness of her busy father, the gentle flurry of her invalid mother, and the tempestuous bulletins issued by the small brother whose occasional letters, full of incoherent affection and quaint bits of orthography, had added interest to the last years of her English life. One and all, they were loyally intent upon her coming. And she, ingrate that she was, could spare thought from the dear home circle to waste it upon the forgetful young Canadian who was talking horse and politics by the rail.
She turned sharply, as Weldon's voice fell upon her ears.
"Happy New Year, Miss Dent! It is an odd wish to be giving, with the mercury at ninety."
With her London gown, she had also donned her London manner, and her answer was banal.
"But none the less welcome, for all its being so warm. May I return it?"
He laughed, like the great, overgrown boy that he so often showed himself.
"I decline to take it back. And where have you been, all the morning?"
"Packing my steamer trunk. I have been on deck for nearly an hour, though."
"I'm sorry I missed so much of the time. I don't see why I didn't see you," he said regretfully. "I was over there by the rail with Carew and a lot of the other fellows, watching the town show up. It was mighty interesting, too, this getting one's first glimpse of a new corner of the earth."
Most men would have seemed penitent over their absorption in other things. Weldon merely acknowledged it as a matter of course, and allowed the girl to draw her own conclusions. She drew them accordingly. At first, they antagonized her. Later on, she admitted their justice. Meanwhile, she kept her momentary antagonism quite to herself, as she looked up into the face of her companion, an earnest, manly face, in spite of its boyish outlines.
"It is hard for me to realize that you are a stranger here," she answered him. "All the way out, you have given the impression of having made the voyage any number of times."
"In what way?"
"In the way of getting what you wish in an utterly matter-of-course fashion." Her laugh belied her London exterior and belonged to the broad felt hat and the soft blouse of the past two weeks.
"That is the one compliment I most value, Miss Dent."
"See that you continue to live up to it, Mr. Weldon."
For an instant, they faced each other, a merry boy and girl. Then Weldon's lips straightened resolutely, and he bowed.
"I will do my best," he answered slowly.
Half an hour later, he joined her at the gangway and took forcible possession of her hand luggage.
"Surely," he said, in answer to her objections; "you will let me do you this one last little service."
"Not if you call it that," she said quietly. "Our acquaintance is only just beginning. If you are to be in Cape Town for a day or two, come and let my mother thank you for your kindness to me, all the way out."
He took her hand, outstretched in farewell.
"Even if I come as Trooper Weldon?" he asked with a smile.
And she answered, with a prophecy of whose truth she was as yet in ignorance,—
"Trooper Weldon will always be a welcome guest in our home."
Then her father came to claim her. When she emerged from his welcoming embrace, she saw Weldon, cap in hand, bowing to her from what appeared a most unseemly distance. The next moment, he had vanished in the crowd.
According to one's individual point of view, Cape Town, on that New Year morning of nineteen hundred and one, was either a point of departure for the front, or a city of refuge for the sleek and portly Uitlanders who thronged the hotels and made too audible mourning for their imperiled possessions. Viewed in either light, it was hot, crowded and unclean. From his caricature of a hansom, Weldon registered his swift impression that he wished to get off to the front as speedily as possible. The hansom contributed to this impression no less than did the city. Out of a multitude of similar vehicles, he had chosen this for its name, painted across its curving front. The Lady of the Snows had obviously been christened as a welcome to the scores of his fellow colonials who had gone that way before; and he and Carew had dashed past Killarney and The Scotch Thistle, to take possession of its padded interior.
It was almost noon, as they drove through the Dock Gates, past the Amsterdam Battery, and turned eastward towards Adderley Street and the Grand Hotel. It was nightfall before their luggage was safe through the custom house and in their room. Carew eyed his boxes askance. Weldon attacked the straps of his nearest trunk.
"Wherefore?" Carew queried languidly from the midst of a haze of smoke.
"To take account of stock."
"What's the use?"
"To find out what we need, of course."
"But we don't need anything. We've tobacco for our pipes and quinine for our stomachs and fuller's earth for our feet. What more can a man need?" As he spoke, Carew hooked his toe around a second chair, drew it towards him and promptly converted it into a foot-rest. "Besides," he added tranquilly; "to-morrow is Boxing Day, and the bank won't be open until the day after. You know you can't buy anything more than a pink-bordered handkerchief out of your present supplies."
"Don't be too sure I can make out even that," he said, as he dived into the trunk and pulled out a Klondyke sleeping-bag.
Carew watched him from between half-closed lids.
"Going beddy?" he inquired.
"Confound it, no! I thought my calling kit was in there." A pair of dark gray blankets landed in the corner on top of the sleeping-bag.
"That looks jolly comfortable. You'd better bunk in there, and leave the bed to me," Carew advised him. "You're in the wrong trunk for your calling clothes, anyway. What under heaven do you want of them, Weldon?"
"I don't want them to lie all in a heap."
"They'll lie in heaps for a good long time, before you are out of this country," Carew predicted cheerfully. "Moreover, from the look of the place, you could make calls in either pajamas or khaki, and it would pass muster. I saw one fellow, this noon, in evening clothes and a collar button. Besides, there isn't anybody for us to call on."
Weldon smiled contentedly, as he drew out a frock-coat and inspected its satin-faced lapels.
"Not for you, perhaps," he observed quietly.
"Oh, I see." Carew puffed vigorously. "So you have a bidding to call upon Miss Dent."
Weldon dislodged Carew's feet from the extra chair and utilized the chairback as a temporary coat-rack.
"No; quite the contrary," he replied. "I am invited to call upon Miss Ophelia Arthur. Now you will please to keep quiet, for I think I shall go to bed."
In silence, Carew watched him half through the process of undressing. Then, emptying his pipe and snapping open its case, he rose and faced his friend.
"Weldon," he said sententiously; "we don't care to hang around this place longer than we must; and we shall have all we can do to get ourselves enlisted and our horses into condition. We haven't time for much else. I hope you will remember that you came out here, not to fuss the girls, but for the fuss with the Boers."
From his seat on the edge of the bed, Weldon eyed him amicably.
"Don't preach, Carew," he answered coolly. "It doesn't do my soul any good, and it only renders you a bore. It has always been a clause of my creed that two good things are better than one."
Nevertheless, in spite of his haste to unpack his calling clothes, it was full three days later that Weldon turned his face eastward in search of the home of Ethel Dent. Moreover, in all those three days, he had given scarcely a thought to the companion of his voyage. Notwithstanding his first impressions, Weldon had found much to interest him in Cape Town. The streets, albeit unlovely, were full of novel sights and the patter of novel tongues. Cape carts and Kaffirs, traction engines and troopers, khaki everywhere and yet more khaki, and, rising grimly behind it all, the naked face of Table Mountain covered with its cloth of clouds! It was all a tumult of busy change, bounded by the unchanging and the eternal. For one entire morning, Weldon loitered about the streets, viewing all things with his straightforward Canadian gaze, jostling and jostled by turns. War had ceased to be a myth, and, of a sudden, was become a grim reality; yet in the face of it all his courage never faltered. His sole misgivings concerned themselves with the contrast between the seasoned regulars marching to their station, and his boyish self, full of eager enthusiasm, but trained only in the hunting field, the polo ground and the gymnasium. Then, gripping his hope in both hands, he resolutely shouldered his way into the nearest recruiting office. He went into the office as Harvard Weldon, amateur athlete and society darling of his own home city. He came out as Trooper Weldon of the First Regiment of Scottish Horse.
He spent the next morning in sorting over his miscellaneous luggage. In the light of Cape Town and the practical advice which had been his for the asking, his outfit appeared comically complete. Two thirds of it must be stored in Cape Town; of the other third, one full half must be left with the negro servants at the hotel. His toilet fixtures would have been adequate for a Paris season; his superfluous rugs would have warmed him during a winter on the apex of the North Pole. It was with something between a smile and a sigh that he stowed away the greater part of his waistcoats and neckties, in company with the silver-mounted medicine chest by which his mother had set such store. It was as Carew had said: quinine and tobacco were the main essentials.
Then, for the last time in many months, he arrayed himself in black cloth and fine linen, chose his stick and gloves with care, and, leaving Adderley Street behind him, turned eastward towards the home of the Dents.
He found Ethel on the broad veranda, bordered with flower-boxes and overlooking the garden and the blue waters of Table Bay. Dressed in a thin white gown which, to Weldon's mind, was curiously out of keeping with all his preconceived notions of January weather, she rose and came forward to greet him at the top of the steps.
"At last," she said cordially, while she gave him her hand. "I began to fear you had already gone to the front."
"Not without seeing you again," he answered, as he followed her back to the bamboo chairs at the shaded western end of the veranda. "In fact, I began to be rather afraid I should never see the front at all."
"What do you mean?" she asked quickly. "Has something happened since I saw you?"
"A great deal has happened. The thing I referred to was my first sight of British regulars."
Her face cleared.
"Oh, is that all?"
"It is a good deal," he assured her, as he sat down. "I came out here with all sorts of high notions regarding volunteers."
"Well?" she questioned smilingly.
"Well, they have been taken out of me. An untrained man isn't worth much in any line, least of all in the firing line. Still, it would be very ignominious to go back home again."
Her eyes swept over his alert, well-groomed figure.
"And when do you start for the front, Trooper Weldon?"
"How do you know I start at all?"
"How do I know you are sitting opposite me?" she asked lightly. "Having eyes, I use them."
"And they tell you—?" he responded.
"That you are looking content with life."
The laughter died out of his eyes.
"I am," he said gravely; "perfectly content. I am enrolled in the Scottish Horse, and I go tomorrow."
"The Scottish Horse?" she asked quickly. "Which squadron?"
"Do you know anything of it?"
"A little," she answered; "but that little is good. Then it is to Maitland that you are going?"
"Are you omniscient, Miss Dent?"
"No; merely an inquisitive girl who remembers the answers to the questions that she asks. My father, you know, is in the thick of things, and it seems to me I have met half the British army, in the four days I have been at home."
"Officers, or Tommies?" he reminded her.
She laughed at the recollection of her former prejudice.
"You told the truth, Mr. Weldon. One of the men I danced with, last season, is riding across Natal in the same squadron with his groom. In my one London season, I met only officers. Out here, I find Lord Thomas turned into Tommy Atkins, and I meet him every day. But, aside from the war, what do you think of Cape Town?"
"What would I think of Table Mountain without its tablecloth?" he parried. "In both cases, the two things seem inseparable."
"Wait till you know the place better, then," she advised him. "It really does have a life of its own, apart from its military setting."
"I am afraid there's not much chance of my knowing it better," he answered a little regretfully.
"Maitland is only three miles away, and you've not met my mother yet," she suggested.
"Is she at home now?" Weldon asked, with the conscious air of a man suddenly recalled to his social duty.
"Not this afternoon. She has taken Miss Arthur for a drive through Rondebosch. That is quite one of the things to do, you know."
"I didn't know. Is the redoubtable Miss Arthur well?"
The dimple beside the girl's firm lips displayed itself suddenly, and her eyes lighted.
"Wonderfully. Her convalescence has been remarkably short. More remarkable still is the fact that she has neglected to mention her illness to any one."
"How soon does she go back?"
The blue eyes met his eyes in frank merriment.
"Not until she has finished informing my mother of the present London code of chaperonage."
Weldon raised his brows.
"Then I shall find her here, when I come back at the end of the war."
She made no pretence of misunderstanding him.
"Are you so much less strict in Canada?"
"We are—different," he confessed. "Miss Arthur's lorgnette would be impossible with us. I don't mean the lorgnette itself; but the acute accent which she contrives to give to it. Mrs. Scott is more of a colonial matron."
"Dear little lady! Have you seen her since she landed?"
"Once. They are at the Mount Nelson, and Carew and I called on them there. They are leaving for De Aar, Monday."
"And what about Mr. Carew?"
"He goes with me to Maitland. He is Trooper Carew now."
The girl sat staring thoughtfully out across the lawn.
"I wonder what sort of a soldier he will make," she said, half to herself. Weldon faced her sharply.
"Because life is an embodied joke to him."
Weldon rose a little stiffly. His call had lasted its allotted time; nevertheless, under other conditions, it might have lasted even longer. He liked Ethel Dent absolutely; yet now and then she had a curious fashion of antagonizing him. The alternations of her cordial moments with her formal ones were no more marked than were the alternations of her viewpoint. As a rule, she looked on life with the impartial eyes of a healthy-minded boy; occasionally, however, she showed herself hidebound by the fetters of tradition, and, worst of all, she wore the fetters as if they lay loosely upon her. At such moments, he longed acutely to impress her with his own point of view, as the only just one possible.
"I think perhaps you don't fully understand Carew, Miss Dent," he said courteously, yet with a slight accent of finality. "He laughs at life like a child; but he lives it like a man. I have known him since we were boys together; I have never known him to shirk or to funk a difficult point. If the Scottish Horse ever sees the firing line, it will hold no better trooper than Harry Carew."
He bowed in farewell and turned away. Looking after him, Ethel Dent told herself that Weldon's simple words had been descriptive, not only of his friend, but of his loyal, honest self.
Half-way across the heart-shaped bit of lawn enclosed within the curve of the drive, Weldon met another guest going towards the steps. There was no need of the trim uniform of khaki serge to assure him that the man was also a soldier. The starred shoulder straps were needless to show him that here was one born to command. Glancing up, Weldon looked into a pair of keen blue eyes exactly on a level with his own, took swift note of the full, broad forehead, of the black lashes contrasting with the yellow hair and of the resolute lines of the shaven chin. Then, mindful of his frock-coat and shining silk hat, he repressed his inclination to salute, and walked steadily on, quite unconscious of the part in his life which the stranger was destined to play, during the coming months.
Sitting in the lee of the picket fence which bounded Maitland Camp on the west, Paddy the cook communed with himself, and Weldon and Carew communed with him.
"Oh, it's long and long yet before a good many of these ones will be soldiers," he, observed, with a disrespectful wave of his thumb towards the awkward squad still manoeuvering its way about over the barren stretch of the parade ground. "They ride like tailors squatting on their press-boards, and they salute like a parrot scratching his head with his hind paw. A soldier is like a poet, born, not made."
In leisurely fashion, Weldon stretched himself at full length and drew out a slender pipe.
"Paddy, if you keep on, I'll fire a kopje at you," he threatened.
Paddy disdained the threat.
"Glory be, the kopjes be riveted down on the bottom end of them! But it's the truth I'm telling. Half of these men is afraid of their lives, when they're on a horse."
"The horses of South Africa are divided into two classes," Carew observed sententiously; "the American ones that merely buck, and the cross-eyed Argentine ones that grin at you like a Cheshire cat, after they have done it. Both are bad for the nerves. Still, I'd rather be respectfully bucked, than bucked and then laughed at, after the catastrophe occurs. Paddy, my knife has been splitting open its handle. What's to be done about it?"
Bending forward, Carew drew the black-handled knife and fork from the coils of his putties. In the orderly surroundings of Maitland Camp, there was no especial need of his adopting the storage methods of the trek; nevertheless, he had taken to the new idea with prompt enthusiasm. Up to that time, it had never occurred to him to bandage his legs with khaki, and then convert the bandages into a species of portable sideboard.
"Paddy," Weldon remonstrated; "don't stop to play with his knife. No matter if it is cracked. So is he, for the matter of that. Go and tell your menial troop to remember to put a little beef in the soup, this noon. I am tired of sipping warm water and onion juice."
"What time is it, then?"
"My watch says eleven; but my stomach declares it is half-past two. Trot along, there's a good Paddy. And don't forget to tie a pink string to my piece of meat, when you give it to the orderly. Else I may not know it's the best one." With a reluctant yawn and a glance upward towards the sun, Paddy scrambled to his feet and brushed himself off with the outspread palms of his stubby hands. Then he turned to the men behind him.
"Stick your fork back in your putties, Mr. Carew, and I'll send you a knife to go with it. As long as Paddy manages the cooking tent, the cracked knives shall go to the dunderheads. The best isn't any too good for them as rides like you and Mr. Weldon, and drinks no rum at all."
Weldon eyed him mockingly.
"And gives their ration of rum to Paddy," he added. "Go along, man, and set your kettles to boiling, while you return thanks that you know a good thing when you see it."
"Paddy is a great boy," Carew observed, as the little Irishman saluted them in farewell, then turned and strolled away in the direction of his quarters.
"And, what's more, a most outrageously good cook," Weldon assented. "If Paddy's ambition to shoot a gun should ever be fulfilled, England might gain a soldier; but it would lose a chef of the cordon bleu."
"If I were to choose, I'd sacrifice his sense of taste for the sake of keeping his sense of humor," Carew returned. "Not even war can subdue Paddy."
With a disdainful gesture, Weldon pointed out across the sun-baked parade ground with the stem of his pipe.
"War! This?" he protested. "It is nothing in this world but a Sunday school picnic."
And Carew, as his eyes followed the pointing pipe-stem, was forced to give his assent.
It was now five days since, with scores of their mates, Weldon and Carew had been passed from their medical examination to the double test of their riding and their shooting. Elated by their threefold recommendation, they had lost no time in donning their khaki and taking up their quarters under the fraction of canvas allotted to them. The days that followed were busy and slid past with a certain monotony, notwithstanding their varied routine. From morning stables at seven until evening stables at six, each hour held its duty, for in that regular, clock-marked life, recreation was counted a duty just as surely as were the daily drills.
Carew, trained on the football field, took to the foot drill as a duck takes to water. Weldon was in his glory on mounted parade. One summer spent on an Alberta ranch had taught him the tricks of the broncho-buster, and five o'clock invariably found him pirouetting across the parade ground on the back of the most vicious mount to be found within the limits of Maitland. More than once there had been a breathless pause while the entire squadron had waited to watch the killing of Trooper Weldon; more than once there had been an utterly profane pause while the officers had waited for Trooper Weldon to bring his bolting steed back into some semblance of alignment. The pause always ended with Weldon upright in his saddle, his face beaming with jovial smiles and his horse ranged up with mathematical precision. The delays were by no means helpful to discipline. Nevertheless, the officers yielded to the inevitable with the better grace, inasmuch as no one else would voluntarily trust life and limb to the vicious beasts in which Weldon's soul delighted.
Twice already, during the past five days, Weldon had handed over to the authorities a chastened and obedient pony, and had made petition to select a fresh and untrammelled spirit. The one of the afternoon before had been the most untrammelled he had as yet attempted. The contest had begun with the first touch of the saddle. It had continued with Weldon's being borne across the camp on the back of a little gray broncho who was making tentative motions towards a complete handspring. By the time the pony was convinced of the proper function of her own hind legs, Weldon found himself being driven from the door of the cooking tent by Paddy and a volley of potatoes. The broncho surveyed Paddy with scorn, rose to her hind legs and strolled towards the corner of the camp sacred to visitors. There she delivered herself of one final, mighty buck. When Weldon regained the perpendicular, he found himself directly facing the merry, admiring eyes of Ethel Dent. By Ethel's side, mounted on a huge khaki-colored horse, sat the man he had met, only the week before, in the driveway of the Dents' home.
Scarlet with his exertions, grimly aware that his sleeve was pulled from its armhole and his left puttie was strained out of its usual compact folds, nevertheless Weldon saluted her smilingly and, his mount well in hand, galloped off in search of his squadron. That night, however, his clear baritone voice was missing from the usual chorus about the camp fire; and, as he thoughtfully drained his tin billy of coffee, next morning, he was revolving in mind the relative merits of his banker and a dead mother-in-law, as excuses for demanding a pass to town, that afternoon.
However, afternoon found him moodily riding about the camp. His body was on a subdued gray broncho; his mind was solely upon Ethel and her companion. He liked the girl for herself, as well as for the fact that, in this remote corner of the world, she represented the sole bit of feminine companionship which is the rightful heritage of every son of Eve. True, there was Miss Arthur; but Miss Arthur was antediluvian. Under these conditions, it was galling to Weldon to see Ethel absorbed by a comrade who, he frankly admitted to himself, was far the more personable man of the two. And the girl's blue eyes had laughed up into the eyes of the stranger just exactly as, two short weeks before, they had laughed up into his own. Then the little gray broncho jumped cornerwise, and Weldon had difficulty in impressing upon her that handsprings were not an approved form of cavalry tactics. Nevertheless, he did it with a word of apology. For the moment, the broncho was not wholly responsible for her return to evil ways.
Over their breakfast, next morning, his five tentmates fell to catechising him as to his pensive mood, and their catechism was largely intermingled with chaff.
"Paddy's compliments, and roll up for your tucker," the mess orderly proclaimed, as he came into the tent, brandishing a coffee pot in one hand, the frying pan in the other.
Fork in hand, Carew nevertheless paused to take exception to the word.
"I confess I can't see why Tucker, when it is supposed to untuck the creases of us," he observed. "Hermit, shall I serve you in the corner; or will you deign to join us about the festive frying pan?"
"What's the matter with Weldon, anyhow?" another of the group queried, as dispassionately as if the subject of discussion had been absent in Rhodesia. "His face is a yard long, and his lips hang down in the slack of the corners."
"Brace up, man, and get over your grouch," a third adjured him. "You are worse than O'Brien was, the morning after he was shoved in kink. Were you in Cape Town, last night?"
"Not a bit of it," Carew put in hastily, while he buried his knife-blade in the nearest pot of jam. "My left ear can prove an alibi for him. From taps till midnight, Weldon discoursed of all the grewsome things in the human calendar."
The smallest of the group turned himself about and peered up into Weldon's face.
"Homesick, man?" he queried.
"Sure," Weldon replied imperturbably.
"Oh. Then get over it. Just dream of the days when the bronchos cease from bucking and the Stringies shoot no more. Meanwhile, if you could look pleasant, as the photographers say, it would help on things wonderfully."
But the mess orderly interrupted. He had tidings to impart, and they burned upon his tongue.
"Have you heard about Eaton-Hill?" he asked, in the first pause that offered itself.
Five faces turned to him with gratifying expectancy. Eaton-Hill had come out on the Dunottar Castle. He was known to them all as the acknowledged exquisite of the entire camp.
"What about him?"
"C. B. I met him coming out of the orderly room."
"Hm! Camp scavenger. Eaton-Hill will like that," Weldon commented dryly. "What's the row about?"
"Cupid apparently. He went calling in Cape Town, last night, without leave, stayed till past eleven and undertook to come in by sea. He shipped in a leaky boat with a crew composed of one Kaffir boy; the Kaffir funked the surf; they had an upset and Eaton-Hill waked up the picket by the fervor of his swearing at the half-drowned Kaffir."
"Poor Eaton-Hill! Both his morals and his clothes must have suffered," Carew suggested. "Weldon, take warning. Next time you go to call on Miss Arthur, start early and be sure you have your pass pinned to the lining of your coat."
"Who is Miss Arthur?" demanded the chorus.
Deliberately Carew helped himself to the last of the bacon. Then he made answer, with equal deliberation,—
"Miss Arthur is Weldon's lawful chaperon."
At four o'clock, that afternoon, Weldon arose reluctantly from his seat on the western end of the Dents' veranda.
"Parade at five, Miss Dent, and Maitland Camp is four miles away."
Without rising, she smiled up into his waiting eyes.
"You made more than four miles an hour, when Captain Frazer and I were watching you, the other day, Mr. Weldon."
"Yes, twenty at least. Still, as you may have noticed, my mount doesn't always choose the straightest course. If she elects to go to Maitland by way of Durban, it will take me all of the hour to make the journey."
She laughed at his words. Then of a sudden her face grew grave.
"They've no right to give you such a horse, Mr. Weldon."
"Right? Oh, I beg pardon. I chose it."
"Is your life so unhappy?" she questioned, in mocking rebuke.
"It is no suicidal mania, Miss Dent," he reassured her. "I like the rush and excitement of it all; but I had a summer on a ranch, and I learned the trick of sitting tight until the beast tires itself out. Broncho-busting is only a concrete form of philosophy, after all."
"And must you really go?" she asked him.
He lingered and hesitated. Then, with a glance at the horse fastened to a post in the drive below, he straightened his shoulders.
She rose to her feet.
"Good afternoon, then."
"And good by," he added.
"What does that mean?"
"That we leave Maitland Camp in the morning."
"I am sorry," she said, and her voice showed her regret. "Where are you going?"
"To Maitland station. Then into a train. Beyond that, I do not know."
"I am sorry," she repeated; "but very glad. It is time you were doing something. I know you didn't take all this journey out here for the sake of being drilled in Maitland Camp until the end of time. We shall miss you; but you will come back to us, some day, and tell us all the story of your deeds. Success to you, Trooper Weldon!"
She gave him her hand; then stood looking after him, as he went down the steps. Once in the saddle, he turned back to wave a farewell to the tall girl framed in the arching greenery that sheltered the broad veranda. Then, urging on his horse, he went galloping away, his boyish face turned resolutely towards the front.
Careless of the oldtime superstition, the girl watched him out of sight. Then slowly she moved back to their deserted corner where she sat long, her elbows on the arms of her chair and her chin resting on her hands. Her eyes were held steadily on Table Bay; but her thoughts followed along the road to Maitland Camp—and beyond.
That January had brought the second irruption of Boers into Cape Colony. In reality, they were near Calvinia; but, by the middle of the month, rumor had so far out-stripped fact that certain refugee Uitlanders were ready to affirm that Table Mountain was held by an invading army who patrolled the summit, coffee pot in one hand and Bible in the other. Under these conditions, the little Dutch church at Piquetberg Road had become, in all truth, the abiding-place of the Church Militant.
In deference to tradition, the altar had been promptly pulled down and its ornaments stowed away to be safe from possible desecration. The altar rail was left, however, and Weldon sat leaning against it, his eyes vaguely turned upwards to the organ in the farther end of the church. From the open floor between, the buzz of many voices and the smoke of many pipes rose to the roof; from the vestry room behind him, he heard the cleaner-cut accent of the officers. Outside, above the light spatter of rain on the windows, he could hear the horses stamping contentedly in the leafy avenue without the churchyard wall, and the brawl of the stream beyond. The twilight lay heavy over the church, heaviest of all over the distant organ gallery, where Weldon could barely make out a single figure moving towards the bench. There was a rattle of stops, a tentative chord or two and then a few notes of this or that melody, as if the player, albeit a musician, found himself continually thwarted by the darkness and the absence of any printed notes.
"Who is up there, Weldon?" Carew asked, as he peered up into the dimness.
"Shut up; can't you?" Weldon ordered him abruptly.
And Carew subsided, just as the unseen organist, apparently abandoning his more ambitious efforts, with sure touch swept into the familiar harmonies of the Eventide Hymn, and then, still with his hymnal in mind, jerked out the dozen stops and set the air rocking to the steady beat of Onward, Christian Soldiers.
As he listened, Weldon's mind went backward to his last Sunday evening in the cathedral at home. He had known why the old rector had chosen that time-worn hymn for a recessional; he could still feel the stir of the congregation as he passed them, still see the scarlet blot of color made by his own hymnal against his stiffly starched cotta, still see his mother, erect and pale, staring at him with a resolute bravery which matched his own. Since then, he had been inside no church until to-day. It was a far cry from worshipping in the Gothic cathedral to camping in the simple little Dutch church; but in each the air was vibrating to the same martial hymn.
Little by little, the groups scattered over the floor fell into silence. Here and there, one took up the refrain, now humming it softly, now singing it with full voice. Then the refrain died away; there was an instant's hush, an instant's modulation; and, as a man, the crowd beneath rose to their feet and stood, pipe in hand, while slowly, steadily from the organ came rolling down the familiar notes of God Save the Queen.
The organ was closed with a muffled clatter, the organist rose and slowly came down to the floor. With a friendly word here and there, he passed among the troopers who saluted him and then settled themselves again for comfort and their pipes. Last of all, he paused beside Weldon.
"It is good to put my fingers on the keys again," he said, as he sat down for a moment on the low rail. "We had an organ at home, and I miss it. I builded better than I knew, when I chose this place for our barracks. One rarely finds an organ out here."
Just then an orderly lighted the chancel where they stood. The organist gave a slight exclamation of surprise.
"Isn't this Trooper Weldon?"
The speaker's face was in shadow. Only the starred shoulder straps gave Weldon any clue to the rank of his companion.
"It is," he answered briefly.
"Miss Dent has spoken of you. In fact, we were together at Maitland Camp, last week, when you tried issues with the little gray broncho."
As he spoke, he moved slightly, and the light fell full upon his yellow hair and on his blue eyes, dark and fringed with long black lashes. Weldon looked up at him with a smile of recognition.
"It is Captain Frazer, then?"
"Yes. I am congratulating you on having won your way into Miss Dent's good graces. She tells me you were most thoughtful for her, all the way out."
"You have known Miss Dent for a long time?" Weldon queried.
Captain Frazer answered the question as frankly as it was asked. For the moment, they were man and man. In a moment more, they could resume their formal relations of captain and soldier.
"I knew her well in England. We met at one or two house parties, a year ago last fall. I was at her coming-out function, too." Then he rose. "I shall see you again," he added formally. "Now I wish to make my round of the guards." And, turning, he went striding away towards his own quarters in the vestry.
Weldon looked after him thoughtfully. Then he uttered terse judgment.
"Carew, that's a man," he said.
"Quite likely," Carew assented. "Women don't usually wear khaki. Shall we go in search of Paddy?"
They found him smoking tranquilly by the churchyard gate. The old stone wall towering above his head made good shelter from the drizzle; and Paddy, his day's labor done, was leaning back at his ease, exchanging adverse compliments with the half-dozen sentries who patrolled the wall. He hailed Weldon with cordiality.
"Come along here, little Canuck," he called. "There's room for the two of us and fine smoking. Mr. Carew can stay out in the rain. It's worth his while, even then, for the sake of watching that pigeon-toed cockney in the oilskins, him as is stubbing his toes in the sand, this blessed minute."
"Shut up, Paddy," his victim retorted hotly.
"It's you that should shut up and teach the toes of you to walk hushlike. If you go on like this, you living watchman's rattle, the Boers can hear you, clear up in the Transvaal. Tell me, little one, have you seen your captain yet?"
"Yes, Captain Leo Frazer, sure as you're a trooper of C. Squadron. You're in luck, boy. There's not a better soldier nor a finer Christian, this side the line. Neptune must have give him an extry scrubbing, when he come over, for he's white he is, all white. Boys!" Paddy spoke in a portentous whisper.
"Let her go," Weldon advised him calmly.
"It goes without letting. Once let Paddy get free of his skillets, once let him have a rifle in place of his spoon, and you'll see war. The Kingdom of Heaven is a spot of everlasting peace. All I ask of Saint Peter is a place in front of a line of Boers and Captain Frazer beside me to give the orders."
"Here he is, Paddy." The low-pitched voice was full of mirth. "He orders you inside your tent to plan up an extra good breakfast. Some of these fellows must volunteer for a night guard out in the open, and they will need a feast, when they come in."
Weldon rose hastily.
"At your service, Captain," he said, just as Paddy, in nowise daunted by the unexpected presence of his superior, responded,—
"Sure, Captain, I put a condition on the tail of it. If you'll remember back a little, you'll see that I merely said, 'when I get a rifle instead of a spoon.' It's a sorry day for an able-bodied man to be tied to a frying pan all his days. Now and then he longs to leap out and get into the fire."
Meanwhile, half of the men inside the church were volunteering for the party of twenty guards demanded by the Captain. It was a surly night, cold and raw with a drizzling rain. Nevertheless, this was their first approach to anything even remotely resembling active service, and the men sought it eagerly.
By dint of attaching himself to the Captain's elbow and assuming that his going was an understood thing, Weldon accomplished his aim. Eleven o'clock found him, wet to his skin, sneaking on the points of his toes through the thick grass beyond the river, with nineteen other men sneaking at his heels. There had been no especial pretext of Boers in the neighborhood; tactical thoroughness merely demanded a guard on the farther side of the river. Nevertheless, the enthusiastic fellows threw themselves into the game with the same spirit with which, twenty years before, they had faced the danger of a runaway by the tandem of rampant hall chairs. A stray Boer or two would have made an interesting diversion; but, even without the Boers, a night guard in the open possessed its own interest.
By four in the morning, the interest had waned perceptibly. The establishment of their force in a convenient hut and the placing of pickets had served to occupy an hour or so. After that, nothing happened. The storm was increasing. The rain beat ceaselessly on the corrugated iron roof of their shelter and made a dreary bass accompaniment to the strident tenor of the rising wind. Inside the but the men yawned and whispered together by turns. Carew's best jokes began to fall a little flat, and Weldon held his watch to his ear, to assure himself that it was still in active service. Then hastily he thrust the watch into his pocket, gathered up his sleeping-bag and removed himself to a remote corner of the hut, with Carew and a dozen more after him.
Not even the most enthusiastic champion of South African rights can affirm that the South African citizen is heedful of the condition of his lesser buildings. The rising wind had proved too much for the hut. Its joints writhed a little, seesawed up and down a little, then yawned like a weary old man. From a dozen points above, the rain came pattering down, seeking with unerring instinct that precise spot on each man's back where skin and collar meet.
"Whither?" Carew queried, as Weldon made his fifth move.
"Outside, to see what the pickets are about."
"But it rains," Carew protested lazily.
"So I observe. Still, I'd rather take it outside as it comes, instead of having a gutter empty itself on me, when I am supposed to be under cover."
"Better stay in," Carew advised him.
"No use. Sleep is out of the question, and I'd rather be moving; it is less monotonous."
"Go along, then, and look out for Boers. Can I have your bag?"
"You're too wet; you'd soak up all the inside of it. If I am to get a chill, I'd rather do it from my dampness than your own." Carew laid hands on the bag.
"What a selfish beast you are, Weldon!" he observed tranquilly. "This is no sack-race; you can't go out to walk in your bag. In fact, it takes two to make a navigable pair. Then why not let me have it?"
"Why didn't you bring your own?"
Already Carew was arranging himself in his new covering.
"I mislaid mine in Cape Town," he replied sleepily. "Now please go away. I need my beauty nap."
An hour later, he was roused by a sharp reversal of his normal position. When he became fully awake, he was lying in a pool of water in the middle of the hut, and Weldon was in possession of the blankets and bag.
"What's the row?" he asked thickly. "I'm a Canadian, out here shooting Boers. Oh, I say!" And he was on his feet, saluting the man at Weldon's side.
"The only bag in the squadron, Captain Frazer," Weldon was explaining. "The blankets are quite dry. Roll yourself up, and you will be warm in a few minutes."
Carew surveyed the transfer with merry, impartial eyes.
"Well, I like that," he said, when the Captain's yellow head was all that was visible above the encircling cocoon. "I thought you said that you preferred to catch cold from your own wetness, Weldon. I was merely damp; this man is a sponge."
Before Weldon could answer, the yellow head turned, and the blue eyes looked up into Carew's eyes laughingly.
"Merely one of the privileges of rank, Carew," the Captain observed as dryly as if he had not risen from his warm bed to swim the river and walk a mile in the darkness and the downpour, in order to see how the new boys were getting on.
Captain Leo Frazer, age thirty and an Englishman, had a trick of looking Fate between the eyes with those black-fringed blue eyes of his, of accepting its gifts with gratitude, its occasional knocks with cheery optimism. At Rugby he had ultimately been captain of the school; at Oxford he had been of equal prowess in rowing and football. Since taking his degree, he had been a successful doctor in the intervals of time allowed him by his membership in one of the crack regiments at home. He had never seriously contemplated the possibility of active service; but Colenso had been too strong a pull upon him. Leaving some scores of sorrowing patients to bemoan him as already dead, he had promptly shipped for Cape Town. The year of grace nineteen hundred had found him on the scene at most of its exciting events. Where Fate refused to take him, he asserted his strong hand and took Fate, until that weary lady was forced to go hopping about the map of South Africa with the agility of a sand flea.
In battle, Frazer was always in the thickest spatter of bullets, where he bowed himself to the inevitable and lay prone, though with his face turned to one side to give free passage to the chaff which carried his comrades through so many grim hours. In the presence of danger, his humor never failed him. In those sorrowful hours which followed the cessation of firing, no man was in greater demand than he. Many a brave fellow had died with his hand shut fast over Frazer's long, slim fingers; many a man's first, awful moments in hospital had been soothed by the touch of those same firm, slim hands. And in the singsongs around the camp fire, or at the mess table, Frazer's voice was always heard, no matter how great the tumult of a moment before.
Like many another of his countrymen, Captain Frazer had learned lessons since he had left the ship at Cape Town, just a year before. He had come out from England, trained to the inflexibly formal tactics of the British army. Again and again he had seen those tactics proved of no avail in the face of an invisible enemy and an almost inexpugnable country. He had learned the nerve-racking tension of being exposed to a storm of bullets that came apparently from nowhere to cut down the British lines as the hail cuts down the standing grain; he had learned the shock of seeing the level veldt, over which he was marching, burst into a line of fire at his very feet from a spot where it seemed that scarce a dozen men could lie in hiding, to say nothing of a dozen scores. He had learned that, under such fire, a man's first duty was to drop flat on his face, to push up a tiny breastwork of earth and to fire from behind that slender shelter. England could not afford to send her sons over seas for the sake of having them slaughtered by needless obedience to the laws of martial good form. Fighting a nation of hunters, they too must adopt the methods of the hunt. And, most of all, Captain Frazer had learned the imperative need of mounted riflemen. Two months before, while lying up at Durban until his wrist had healed from a Mauser bullet, he had come into close contact with the Marquis of Tullibardine. As a result of that contact, January had found Captain Frazer in Cape Town, ready to take command of the newly enlisted Scottish Horse.
Now, as he looked over his force at Piquetberg Road, he was congratulating himself that his men were fit for service, very fit. Frazer knew something of men. Experience had assured him that these men were worth training and his months of service under the great Field Marshal had taught him that an officer could be a man among his men, yet lose not one jot of his dignity. Accordingly, Frazer set himself to the task in band. By the time he had been at Piquetberg Road for two days, he knew the name and face of every man in his squadron. A week later he could tell to a nicety which of his men were engaged to girls at home, which of them had heard of one Rudyard Kipling, and which of them could be counted upon in an emergency. The two latter counts Weldon filled absolutely. In regard to the first, Frazer permitted himself a moment of acute uneasiness. It had been in a spirit of unmitigated joy that Frazer had met Ethel Dent in Cape Town, on the morning of New Year's day. In London he had known the girl just well enough to admire her intensely, not well enough, however, to have found out that she had any permanent connection with South Africa. His joy had lasted until the hour of his calling upon her, three days later; then it had received a sudden check. Ethel had been as cordial as ever; nevertheless, her talk had been full of the young Canadian whom he had met in the drive. Frazer was intensely human. After a year of separation he would have preferred to bound the talk by the experiences of their two selves.
As a natural consequence, he had developed a strong prejudice against Weldon; but Weldon, all unconsciously, had done much to remove that prejudice. Not every man could manage a crazy, bucking broncho in any such fashion as that; fewer still could come out of the scrimmage, unhurt, to bow to a young woman with a cordiality quite untinged with boyish bravado. That day at Maitland, Frazer had registered his mental approval of the long-legged, lean Canadian with his keen gray eyes and his wrists of bronze. He had registered a second note of approval, that first night at Piquetberg Road, when Weldon, with no unnecessary words, had contrived to impress upon the mind of his captain that he was to be included in the guard to cross the river. Totally obedient and respectful, Weldon nevertheless had given the impression of a man who intended to win his own way. Moreover, the direction of that way appeared to be straight towards the front.
Meanwhile, peacefully unconscious of this diagnosis, Weldon was sitting on the river bank, prosaically occupied in scooping out the remaining taste left in an almost-empty jam tin. Beside him, Carew was similarly occupied. Two more jam tins were between them and, exactly opposite the pair of jam tins, there squatted a burly Kaffir, young, alert and crowned with a thatch of hair which by rights should have sprouted from the back of a sable pig. His mouth was slightly open, and now and then his tongue licked out, like the tongue of an eager dog. Aside from his hair, his costume consisted of one black sock worn in lieu of muffler and a worn pair of khaki trousers.
Behind him, the river caught the sunset light and turned it to a sheet of flowing copper; beyond stretched the open country in long, waving lines that ended in the deep yellow band of the afterglow. Above them, the sky was blue; but it dropped from the blue zenith to the yellow horizon through every imaginable shade of emerald and topaz until all other shades lost themselves in one vivid blaze of burnt orange. It had been a day of intense heat. Already, however, the falling twilight and the inevitable eastward shift of the wind had brought the first hint of the evening chill.
Weldon shrugged his shoulders.
"Hurry up, Carew," he adjured his companion. "I am for leaving our feast and hieing us back to the sanctuary."
"Right, oh!" Carew raised his jam tin and took careful aim at a rock in mid stream.
Instantly the Kaffir hitched forward.
"Mine?" he demanded.
Carew stayed his arm.
"Eat. Um good."
"Nothing in there but atmosphere, sonny. You can get that out of any box. Suppose I can hit that little black point, Weldon?"
"Not if I know it," Weldon said coolly, as he tossed his own tin to the boy and, seizing that of Carew, threw it after its mate. "Let the little coon have his lick, Carew. It's not pretty to watch him go at it, tongue first; but we can't all be Chesterfields. What is your name, sonny?"
The boy paused with suspended tongue, while he rolled the great whites of his eyes up at the questioner. Then, the whites still turned upon Weldon, he took one more hasty lick.
"Kruger Roberts," he said then, detaching himself for an instant from his treasure. "Oh, I infer you like to sit on fences?" Weldon said interrogatively.
"Which side do you intend to come down?"
"Me no come down," the boy answered nonchalantly, more from inherent indifference than from any comprehension of Weldon's allegory.
"All right. Stop where you are. Meanwhile, I think I should call you Jamboree."
"Ya, Boss." The face vanished from sight behind the tilted tin. Then it reappeared, and a huge finger pointed to the remaining tins. "Mine, too?"
But already the boy was forgotten. Weldon was following hard on the heels of the sentry who had dashed through the gate in the churchyard wall.
Four o'clock the next morning, that darkest hour which, by its very darkness, heralds the coming dawn, found C. Squadron moving out from the gray-walled churchyard, their faces set towards the eastern mountains. All night long they had stood under arms, ready for the attack which might be at hand. By dawn, they were well on their way towards the laager, fifteen miles distant, whence had come the scouting hand of Boers who, for two days past, had made leisurely efforts to pick off their scattered sentinels. At the head of the little troop rode Frazer. Behind him and as close to his heels as military law allowed, came Weldon, mounted on the same little black horse which had so often carried him to the hunt at home. Horse and rider both sniffed the chilly dawn with eager anticipation. Each knew that something was in store for them; each contrived to impress upon the other his determination to make a record, whatever happened. For one short minute, Weldon let his strong hand rest on the satiny neck. He could feel the answering pressure of the muscles beneath the shining skin. That was enough. He and The Nig were in perfect understanding, one with another.
He spurred forward to the Captain's side and saluted.
"In the flurry, last night, I forgot to tell you that Miss Dent comes to Piquetberg Road, to-day. She is to visit a cousin, Miss Mellen; and she wished me to tell you that she hoped you could find time to call upon her."
The Captain spoke low, his eyes, after the first moment, steadily fixed upon the line of hills before them. Weldon answered in the same low tone.
"You have heard from Miss Dent?"
"Yes. A note came, last night. She is to be here for a month, while her uncle is in England on a business trip. Mr. Mellen is the mayor. You probably know the house."
"I can easily find it. Please tell Miss Dent I shall be sure to call as—"
A blinding flash ran along the line of hills close in the foreground where, an instant before, had been only empty ground. There was a sharp crackle, a strident hum and then the muffled plop of bullets burying themselves in the earth six hundred feet in the rear. The Nig grew taut in every muscle; then she edged slowly towards the huge khaki-colored horse that bore the Captain, and, for an instant, the two muzzles touched.
"Too long a range, man. Try it again," Frazer observed coolly, as his glance swept the empty landscape, then, turning, swept the faces of his men.
That last sight was to his liking. He nodded to himself and straightened in his saddle, while the orders dropped from his lips, swift, clean-cut and brooking no question nor delay. Ten men went galloping off far to the southward, to vanish among the foothills and reappear on the pass behind the enemy, while a dozen Boers, springing up from the bowels of the earth, followed hard on their heels. Ten more took the horses and fell back out of range of the firing; and the remainder of the squadron stayed in their places and helped to play out the game.
It was all quite simple, all a matter of course. Instead of the fuss and fume and chaos of fighting, it had worked itself out like a problem in mathematics, and Weldon, as he lay on the ground with his Lee-Enfield cuddled into the curve of his shoulder, felt himself reducing it to a pair of simultaneous equations: if X Britons equal Y Boers on the firing line, and Y Britons draw off the fire of W Boers, then how many Britons—But there came a second flash and a second spatter, nearer, this time; and he lost his mathematics in a sudden rush of bad temper which made him long to fly at the invisible foe and beat him about the head with his clubbed rifle. It was no especial satisfaction for a man in his position to climb up on his elbow and help to discharge a volley at an empty landscape. The war pictures he had been prone to study in his boyhood had been full of twisty-necked prancing horses and bright-coated swaggering men, all on their feet, and very hot and earnest. Here the picture was made up of a row of brown-clothed forms lying flat on their stomachs and, far before them, a single flat-topped hill and a few heaps of scattered black rocks. And this was modern war.
There came a third blaze, a third hum of Mauser bullets. Then he heard a swift intake of the breath, followed by Carew's voice, the drawling, languid voice which Weldon had learned to associate with moments of deep excitement.
"Say, Weldon, some beggar has hit me in the shoulder!"
Then of a sudden Weldon realized that at last he knew what it meant to be under fire.
"Oh, truce! Truce!" Alice Mellen protested. "Don't talk shop, Cooee."
"It's not shop; it is topics of the day," Ethel responded tranquilly. "Besides, I want to hear about Mr. Carew. Is he dangerous?"
"No, for his wound; yes, for his temper. One was only a scratch; the other way, he was horribly cut up."
"Did he swear?" Alice queried, while she distributed lumps of sugar among the cups.
"Don't pretend to be shocked, Cooee. Even if you haven't been out but one season, you ought to know what happens when a man turns testy. Frankly, I think it is a healthy sign, if a man stops to swear when he is hit. It shows there are no morbid secretions."
"You prefer superficial outbreaks, Miss Mellen?" Frazer inquired, as he handed Ethel her cup.
"Yes. They are far less likely to produce mortification later on," she answered, laughing up into his steady eyes. "What do you do, when you are hit, Captain Frazer?"
"They call me Lucky Frazer, you know," he replied. "I've been in no end of scrimmages, and I was never hit but once."
Bending over, Ethel turned back the cloth and thumped on the under side of the table.
"Unberufen and Absit omen," she said hastily. "Don't tempt Providence too far, Captain Frazer. At my coming-out reception, I met a man who boasted that he always broke everything within range, from hearts to china. Ten minutes later, he tripped over a rug and fell down on top of the plate of salad he was bringing me. And he didn't break a thing—"
"Except his own record," Weldon supplemented unexpectedly. "I suspect he also broke the third commandment. The keeping of that and the falling down in public are totally incompatible."
"And that reminds me, you were going to tell what Mr. Carew did when he was hit," Ethel reminded him.
"I never tell tales, Miss Dent."
"But, really, how does it feel to be under fire?" she persisted.
"Ask Captain Frazer. He has had more experience than I."
She barely turned her eyes towards Frazer's face.
"He is talking to my cousin and won't hear. Were you frightened?"
"Truly? But you wouldn't confess, if you were."
He blushed at the mockery in her tone.
"Yes. Why not? I expected to be desperately afraid; but I was only desperately angry."
"Nothing. That's the point. There was nothing in sight to be angry at. Bullets came from nowhere in a pelting shower. Most of them didn't hit anything; there was no cloud from which the shower could come. One resented it, without knowing exactly why. It was being the big fellow who can't hit back when the little one torments him."
The remonstrance was long-drawn and forceful. This time, Ethel heeded.
"What is it, Alice?"
"Do you remember that, this noon, we agreed not to mention the war? These men fight almost without ceasing. When they aren't fighting, they do sentry and stables and things. This is an afternoon off for them. We really must talk accordingly."