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GERTRUDE PAGE'S NOVELS.
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SOME THERE ARE——.
WHERE THE STRANGE ROADS GO DOWN.
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TWO LOVERS AND A LIGHTHOUSE.
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JILL'S RHODESIAN PHILOSOPHY.
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PADDY THE NEXT BEST THING.
LOVE IN THE WILDERNESS.
THE GREAT SPLENDOUR.
THE EDGE O' BEYOND.
THE SILENT RANCHER.
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Author of "The Edge o' Beyond," "The Silent Rancher," etc.
London: Hurst & Blackett, Ltd. Paternoster House, E.C.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
I THE POLICE STATION II THE MISSION STATION III TWO HEIRESSES IV THE RHODESIAN PROJECT V WILLIAM VAN HERT VI THE JOURNEY VII CAREW IS DISTURBED VIII TWO UNEXPECTED MEETINGS IX THE BEAR X A MINING CAMP XI AN EVENING RIDE XII THE MISSION STATION XIII A DECISION THAT FAILED XIV THE ANCIENT RUINS XV CAREW RIDES AWAY XVI "THE SHIP OF FOOLS" XVII AN EVENING CONVERSATION XVIII THE CHARTER FLATS XIX THE CONVENTIONALITIES ONCE MORE XX FAREWELL XXI A "HOARDING HUSTLING" XXII MERYL'S DECISION XXIII CAREW'S STORY XXIV A RAIN-WASHED MORNING AND A DISCUSSION XXV AILSA LEARNS CAREW'S SECRET XXVI "HOW CAN I GO TO HER!..." XXVII DIANA BEGINS TO GROW PERPLEXED XXVIII DIANA'S PERPLEXITIES INCREASE XXIX A USEFUL BLUNDER XXX DIANA IS RESTLESS XXXI THE SOLUTION IS SEALED XXXII A CHAPTER OF SURPRISES FINIS
TO THE PATHFINDERS
"Fate lies hid, But not the deeds that true men dared and did."
THE POLICE CAMP
The velvety darkness of a southern night, with its sense of rich, luscious, breathing intensity, lay over that romantic spot in Southern Rhodesia where the grey walls of the Zimbabwe ruins, with a sublime, imperturbable indifference, continue to baffle the ingenuity and ravish the curiosity of all who would read their story. Scientists, archaeologists, tourists come and go, but the stern old walls, guarded by the sentinel hills, give back no answer to eager questioning, eager delving, eager surmise.
But in the meantime the Valley of Ruins no longer lies alone and unheeded in the sunlight; and no longer do the hills look down upon rich plains left solely to the idle pleasure of a careless black people. The forerunners of to-day's great civilising army have marched into the valley, and beside the ancient walls there is now a police camp of the British South Africa Police, presided over by two robust young troopers.
In the velvety darkness on the night in question there is a single bright light pouring through the open doorway of a dwelling-hut. Through the enfolding silence breaks the bizarre music of an indifferent gramophone, recklessly mocking the sublime grandeur of the age-old antiquities. Laughter and gay music and devil-may-care colonists awaking echoes that have been more or less silent to civilisation for how many thousand years?
But on this particular evening it is as though some shadow had fallen upon the little camp. Nothing tangible—nothing that changed the general habits or surroundings—but a vague regret and introspective sadness upon the faces of two young men, usually full of careless content. Cecil Stanley, the more refined, a gentleman by birth and education, lounged low in his chair, with his hands behind his head and his feet on the table, and ever and anon his eyes looked with pained regret into the surrounding depths of night. Patrick Moore, with a grave face, cleaned his gun in a deeper silence than usual, proceeding with an occupation that was his joy on many evenings, whether the gun needed cleaning or not, rather as if it eased his mind to have his hands busy.
"I wonder if the Major will come through to-night?" he remarked, as if the silence were growing over-oppressive.
"Sure to," laconically. "The moon will be up directly, and he can't be very far away."
"I suppose he won't have heard?"
"Not likely to have done. Gad! I feel as if I'd give anything to have had a chance to stand three hours in that queue. It will hit him hard. If it's bad for us, who have at least known all along, it will be worse for him, hearing it suddenly at this late hour. Those newspapers to-day have made me feel like a kid on his first day at boarding-school. I'd like to cry if I weren't ashamed to."
"I liked that professor," said Moore, changing the subject. "Decent old Johnny, wasn't he? Jolly nice of him to bring all those papers in case he came across anyone glad of them."
"Quite a good old bird. That's a rum theory of his about the corpses in the temple being buried deeper than anyone has yet dug, and hung with valuable ornaments. Wouldn't it be a jolly lark to dig down for one and have a look at it!..."
He gave a low, half-hearted chuckle over his gruesome suggestion, and lazily getting to his feet, selected another tune for his gramophone.
Moore, busy still with his gun, gave a corresponding chuckle, and remarked:
"Begorra, lad!... if we could get a few out one at a time on moonlight nights, and fill up the blooming holes again, we shouldn't want any blasted machinery for our gold mine, except a pickaxe and a shovel."
"We'd want a bit of pluck, though. The ghosts of the corpses might come dancing round to have their say in the matter."
"We'd chance the ghosties. Shure! if they've been hanging round for three or four thousand years, they'd maybe like a new sensation by this time."
Stanley put on "The Stars and Stripes," wound up the gramophone, and slid into his lounge chair again.
Moore glanced up as the music started.
"What!... that thing again!... I'm beginning to feel like those old ghosts about it. The same moth-eaten tune for three or four thousand years. I'd like a new sensation."
"It can't be much staler than cleaning that old gun."
"Shure, she's a daisy." The Irishman looked tenderly at his treasure. "An' she just loves me to be fondlin' her like."
"If it weren't for the Major I don't know what is to prevent us proving the old man's theory," said Stanley, evidently harping again on his corpses.
"Him, and the bloomin' Company! The old gentlemen sittin' on the Board in London suddenly find that the Yankees have been snaffling a lot of valuable trinkets and things from the ruins while they took forty winks, and then they up and says no one's to look for anything more at all; not even a boney fidey Rhodesian, sweating in the police camp outside the walls."
"Still, it would be a rare lark to find a corpse with gold ornaments on it, and say nothing at all."
"And what should you be doing with the old corpse when you've taken the gold?"
"Oh! put him in the soup!" And Stanley slid lower in his chair, with another chuckle.
The gramophone ran down with a horrible grind, but its owner only looked at it dully and took no notice.
"Shall I wind up again?" Moore asked.
"No, let it rip. It sounds all wrong to-night. Everything is all wrong. The whole world gone awry. It's like being on another planet to be out here in this wilderness at such a time. I don't believe I've ever felt exiled before, but, begad! I do to-night. Let's turn in. Probably he won't come now."
Moore carried his gun into one of the huts and stood it carefully beside his little stretcher-bed. Stanley took the gramophone into another hut, and planked it down somewhat roughly on a table, evidently made by an amateur. Without going outside again, he shouted "Good night," and after that no sound broke the silence, except sundry mutterings from the Irishman, who had discovered an enormous frog under his bed, and his beloved pointer pup inside the blankets serenely sleeping.
All the next morning Stanley hung about the camp as one who waited, but it was not until three o'clock that Major Carew rode slowly up to the huts. As he dismounted, briefly acknowledging Stanley's salute, there was a characteristic absence of all superfluous words. The latter waited until the soldier-servant had led away the mule and another boy relieved the officer of his water-bottle, which he always carried himself, and then he looked hard at the thin, brown, resolute face, with an expression in his eyes that made Carew ask shortly:
"Bad news from England. I suppose you haven't heard?"
"I haven't heard anything."
For one pulsing second the two men stood and looked at each other; and to a looker-on it might have appeared that, however laconic and indifferent their attitude, their relationship was not solely that of officer and subordinate. The elder man, in his gruff way, was the friend of the man under him. The younger had acquired a respect that held something deeper than casual liking, and his face showed it now as he hesitated before breaking his news. Then he said, very simply:
"The King is dead."
A quick, incredulous expression filled Carew's eyes.
"The King?..." he repeated. "Not ... surely not ..." He paused, leaving his sentence unfinished.
"Yes. King Edward. After a few days' illness."
The man's mouth grew rigid. He stood like a figure of bronze, staring with unseeing eyes to the far horizon. Stanley drew in his breath a little sharply. Yes, he had been right, the news had hit Carew very hard.
"When?..." came at last, abruptly.
"A fortnight ago. Just after you left. The funeral took place yesterday."
Carew made no comment. Evidently it was true. Little else mattered. Nearly all through this trek of his round those distant kraals his King had been lying dead, and he had not known it. Such a man as he is not stunned by tidings; but he recedes still further into his shell, if possible. There is no comment, no discussion, just a grim silence sealing a deep pain that cannot express itself.
He stayed a moment longer, while Stanley told him a few details, and then he went away into his hut and shut his door to the sunlight—one of those exiles for whom the news had, as it were, an added sorrow, because during the first shock he had remained in ignorance, and had thus been prevented joining in the loyal homage of grief that had been offered by his countrymen from the four corners of the earth.
It was thus with many of the far-off Empire-builders. They heard so late, so unpreparedly, so suddenly; and in the first shock, an exile which had been a calmly accepted condition, became almost a menace, seemed swiftly to develop a force. The men in the far places felt their aloofness; knew that their souls were beating vainly against prison bars, for the longing to annihilate space and stand beside the beloved dead. That quiet band of men whom we sometimes call "The Pathfinders," and who go away across the world to bring the wilderness into line; to smooth the rough, link the severed, subdue the untamed, and carry prosperity to the waste places. The men who cope with strange, deadly diseases; who fight fever swamps, and compel them to carry a railroad across their reluctant bosoms, though the swamps in turn exact a heavy toll of human life; who make the paths that the women and children will presently pass over, though no such soul-stirring cry urges their exhausting efforts.
But it is not usual to laud these men, who win their colours at the dull, prosaic work of path-finding, as it is to laud those who encounter shot and shell in the lurid atmosphere of battle, and one feels they do not ask it. Yet now and then they must surely be glad to know that thoughtful women and thoughtful men follow their work and bless them in silence, sending across the world to them a homage of praise that is, perhaps, richer than the plaudits of the crowd. And not to them only, but also to the mothers who bid them go, accepting their hard part of lonely, anxious waiting without complaint.
And if they fall by the wayside, unrecognised, unknown, but having carried the path forward, maybe a mile, maybe a yard, maybe an inch, how great a thing is that compared to the small happenings that of necessity make up most men's lives!
In the sultry midday heat Carew sat alone in his hut, and certain memories, that for fifteen years he had tried to crush out of his mind, crowded back upon him with overwhelming force in the grip of his sudden sorrow. For that sad event which had plunged a great nation into grief had been to him a personal loss. In the silence and shadow he mourned deeply, not only the idol of his youth and dear object of his heart's best loyalty, but the memory of a friend.
For long ago, or so it seemed, there had been a moment when a royal hand had clasped his, and a royal voice—the royalty all lost in the friend—had said, "Perhaps you are right. It is best to begin again. But do not imagine your life is over and its aims purposeless. Out there you will find renewing. Some day come back and tell me about it."
That was fifteen years ago, but he had never gone back. Never sought the second hand-clasp that would have been his. Never unfolded to those interested ears his personal experiences with the pioneer column that led the way to do the path-finding in Rhodesia. In the hush of the afternoon, with his head bowed on his arms, the years between seemed to pass out of mind, and that which once had been to stand alone, awaking within him an infinite regret.
He saw again certain lovely park-lands—the woods and hills and dales—of a rich inheritance that should have been his. He saw himself, the gay guardsman. He saw the dear face of the woman for whom he had chosen to cross that arbitrary will which would brook no disobedience, and sought to intimidate him with disinheritance. Through his mind passed in slurred detail the sordid story which had given him a brother's hate in return for a quixotic championing of the weak—a hate which proved to have power enough behind it to draw a devastating hand across the promise of his future.
Lastly—and here in the silence it was as though his head sank deeper in its pain—he saw that woman's dear face, as he had last seen it, lying white upon the heather—dead.
Ah, the memories were terribly alive to-day; not even fifteen years in a new life, with new interests, had done anything but draw a thin curtain of silence over the unforgettable pain. Would anything ever ease it in reality? Had he for a moment believed that it would? Or had he always known, that just as surely as his hand had held the gun which killed her, so to his last breath the tragedy would cast a shadow over the whole of his life?
He might look out upon the world with quiet eyes and firm lips and fearless mien, but the gnawing ache would surely go with him to his grave.
And because of it he knew that he had grown somewhat churlish; that men who did not understand his unsociable ways and extreme reticence looked at him askance. But what of it? How little such things mattered! The tragedy was his and the silence was his, and he had never asked anyone to share either.
Only to-day, for just this one afternoon, fifteen years was as yesterday, and he seemed to realise thoroughly for the first time all that royal hand-clasp had meant, before he went to his voluntary exile in a far wilderness.
But after a time, when it grew cool enough to walk, he came out into the sunshine and started off towards the steep rock pathway that leads to the summit of the Acropolis Hill, following an impulse to seek comfort in the fresh hopefulness of a height, and to lessen the pain in his heart by looking out across a world still living and loving and striving. So he climbed on up the winding pathway, enfolded with mystery and romance concerning the feet that trod it in the far-off centuries, and made his way between the mighty natural boulders out on to the high platform, where eyes, all those long centuries ago, must have looked out even as his, across the lovely land.
Was it as lovely then?... Could it have been less so?...
How the quiet beauty soothed and caressed him! Surely there were moments when the wilderness, tamed at last, like a lovely, wayward mistress become entrancingly docile, fondles the hand, and ravishes the senses of the strong man who conquered it.
Is this one of the rich rewards Life holds in the palm of her hand for the path-finders?... This glorious sense of ownership. This winsome soothing of shy gratitude when the fierce first resistance to conquest is overpast. A man may call England his country because he was born there, and his father before him; but, perhaps, after all, that is a small thing compared to standing upon a high eminence, and looking across a quiet world which is your country because of all you yourself have given to it of hope and faith and steadfast purpose.
In some such spirit soothing came to the quiet man on the top of the Acropolis Hill, whispering to him that, after all, this was his country, and if the beloved dead did indeed seem so far away in fact, in spirit he was perhaps nearer to his Empire-builders than he had ever been before.
He turned his head at last, and his eyes rested upon the circular wall, four hundred feet below, that enclosed the temple ruins. Then for a moment a wave of depression swept over him, blotting out the landscape loveliness. Was it all, then, vanity, this building and striving?... The making of walls and fortifications for another race, centuries afterwards, to look upon with cold wonder and curiosity? Three thousand years ago perhaps another man had stood even there and mourned his king that was dead. And so soon ... so soon ... he also died, and the massive walls became ruins, and the dynasty, or empire, or era, passed away into oblivion. How soon might a similar fate overtake his own great Empire!... and the beloved King, Edward the Peacemaker, be perhaps but a legend to some strange new race.
And then it was as though the land to which he had given so much rose up to give in her turn the might of hope and renewing. His eyes wandered again to the distant mountains and over the fertile plain lying between, and all the outspread richness called to him that at least there was no ruin here, no hopelessness, no decay.
Progress spoke to him from the rolling plains and from the mysterious kopjes, and his blood warmed to that glad sense of possession—if not in fact, at least in the fancy born of what he had given. For it is when we give, and not when we take, we become the truest possessors, rich owners of so much that neither wealth, nor birth, nor striving can buy.
In the quiet evening hour the stars were just beginning to light their brilliant lamps, and a glow like a rose-flush in the west marked the passage of the departed sun. Carew prepared to make the steep descent. And as he looked out across this country, that seemed so intensely his country, he felt himself heir of all the ages, the strong product of long eons of careful development, too rich in those vague splendours of the human and the divine not to realise the weak futility of musing sadly upon dead dynasties and bygone races.
On the northernmost point, ere the path drops suddenly on its way to the valley, he stood still once more and gazed steadily to the north where England lay.
Then, thinking deep thoughts of love and loyalty of the King who had been his friend, and the friend who had been his King, he gravely gave the salute.
THE MISSION STATION
Although only stationed for a short time at the Zimbabwe camp, Carew had chosen always to conduct his own menage, and take his meals in solitary state apart from Stanley and Moore. This was in every case typical of the man, who rarely sought company, and was often quiet to taciturnity when he had it. He had not come to the wilderness for adventure, or for the companionship of the men he might find there; he had come because he wanted to forget. Not even to seek renewing and fresh hopes, but only to crowd out of his life the memory of that upheaval and tragedy that, it seemed, had placed a stern hand upon mere joy for evermore. And he believed he would achieve this best with the vigorous, interesting occupation of helping a young country struggle through to fulfilment.
It was not until after the dinner-hour that he again showed himself, and then he came outside his hut, filling his pipe, and stood for a moment beside Stanley and Moore without saying anything.
"Did you have a successful trip, sir?" Stanley asked.
The young trooper watched him a moment, and then added:
"Did you have trouble with M'Basch?"
"He tried to make trouble. He is a dangerous native."
"And you gave him a lesson?"
"I burnt his kraal."
"Whew!..." and Stanley gave a low whistle. The man was courageous indeed who dare resort to such a step, now that it was necessary to pamper the natives if one wanted no trouble at headquarters.
Carew took no notice of the significant rejoinder, but his firm mouth, if anything, grew a little firmer.
"I gave him due warning, but he thought I dare not carry out my threat. He was mistaken. Never make a threat that you can't carry out. It matters more than anything with natives. He will not give trouble again at present."
"But they may say a good deal at headquarters if he carries his story there!"
"I had to risk that. But he is so entirely in the wrong, and so clearly aware of it, I don't think he will venture to say anything. I have three cases of diabolical cruelty against him, besides stealing and law-breaking generally."
Stanley watched him with eyes of admiration. To him the man's strength was ever a source of delight, now that his unsociable ways were no longer a puzzle.
"We had a scientific man here yesterday to view the ruins," he continued, as Carew still lingered while he lit his pipe. "He has a remarkable theory for divining corpses by the gold ornaments buried on them. He thinks there are probably several in the temple, deeper than anyone has yet dug."
Carew did not look very interested. His eyes had still the retrospective, pained expression that had come into them instantly, when he grasped the import of Stanley's sad tidings.
"Where did he come from?" he asked, half turning away.
"I don't know. He was only here for a few hours. We gave him some tea, and he left us some interesting papers, if you would care to have them. He seemed rather interested in you!..." and Stanley looked keenly into his face.
"In what way?" Carew pulled hard at his beloved pipe and spoke with studied carelessness.
"Your name cropped up about something, and he wanted to know if you were a Fourtenay-Carew."
The officer started very slightly, but made no comment, and Stanley added, "He particularly wanted to know if you were a Devonshire man. I said you were."
"I was a Devonshire man," Carew corrected; "I am a Rhodesian."
Then he turned and with a short good night went back into his hut.
The next morning, directly his official work was finished, he started to ride over to the mission station, where some far-off connections of his, William and Ailsa Grenville, found by chance in the wilderness, lived the simple life with a contentment that surprised all who beheld them.
It was the first visit he had been able to pay for some weeks, and almost before he dismounted a woman stepped out from the large rustic building, with its thatched roof, and came towards him with eagerness and sorrow strangely blended in her eyes.
"Ah, how long you have been coming! I have watched for you ever since we heard the sad news. Billy and I so wanted someone from home to talk to."
"I could not help it. I have been right away into the Ingigi district. How are you?"
He did not give her his hand because the formalities had long been dropped between them, but as he walked beside her to the building his face seemed a shade softer.
"We are both well. We are splendid. But we have felt very cut off these two weeks. England seemed so terribly far away. The evening we heard, Billy and I just sat hand in hand under the stars, dabbing the tears away. Don't smile, it was the only thing to do, and we longed so to be in London." As she talked she passed into the cool shade of the hut and busied herself preparing a lemon squash for him, not needing to ask if it were his choice. "We were miserable for days. I'm sure all of you were too."
"I did not hear until I came back yesterday."
"Ah ... I was afraid so. Of course, that made it worse."
She brought him the lemon squash and stood leaning against the table beside him while he drank it, with the gladness of seeing him still in her eyes, though they were grave now with sympathy. It was evident their friendship had in it a wide understanding.
She was silent a few moments, and then added simply, "I suppose you knew him personally?"
He did not tell her more, and she did not ask him. There was one subject that no deepening of friendship had ever made it possible to approach, and that was the story of his past. She knew only, from her husband, who was extremely vague on the subject, that he had once held a commission in the Blues, and been, not only a well-known society man, but the heir of a rich old uncle. And then suddenly something had happened, and his brother became the heir, and England had known him no more. Even William Grenville himself was in the dark as to the cause of the lost inheritance, as he had been abroad at the time, and had never had much intercourse with Carew's branch of the family. He was supposed to be in disgrace himself, because his soul was too honest to allow him to continue in a comfortable country living, after his convictions lost faith in the tenets of the English Church; but if it were so it never troubled him, and he loved his wilderness home dearly. Ailsa had her story also, but she too, it was evident, had found a solution that held satisfaction.
After giving Carew his drink she moved away and picked up some needlework, seating herself near the open door, with sympathy in her face and in her silence.
"We had a splendid service," she told him. "We did all we possibly could to show our loyalty. But how little it seemed! The far countries hurt at a time like this."
He assented in silence, looking out over the lovely landscape as if it were a sight his soul loved, and she bent lower over her needlework.
"Tell me about your Ingigi trip, unless you would rather wait for Billy. He will be in directly, and he will want to hear everything."
He glanced towards her a moment, noting half indifferently that she looked unusually pretty to-day; but he only said a few generalities about his work, with his eyes again on the landscape. Ailsa sewed on, not in the least dismayed. It was good enough to have him there, whether he were communicative or not, and she was glad she chanced to have put on her new, pretty dress from home. For, of course, all women liked to look fair in the eyes of Peter Carew, quite indifferent to the fact that in all probability he scarcely saw them.
But Ailsa Grenville could not have looked other than fair to any man, though to some she looked so much more besides. Her frank grey eyes, full of expression, her low, broad forehead and chestnut hair, were so full of beauty that they seemed to counteract entirely a nose that was a little too small and a mouth a little too large. One felt that nature had intended to make her a beautiful woman, and then changed her mind and allowed a flaw in her beauty, possibly to give her more character and an attraction of a different order. To the lonely men within reach of the mission station she was goddess and angel combined, and knowing it was one of the joys of her uneventful life.
Thus they sat on together in the doorway, speaking quietly of the loss they had chosen to make their own, in an intimate sense perhaps only possible to far-off Empire-builders. And while they talked the missionary himself appeared, and all his face lit up when he saw Carew.
"By Jove! I'm glad to see you," he exclaimed, tossing his khaki helmet carelessly aside. "We hoped you would come soon. Ailsa was sure you would."
He sat on the edge of the table, swinging one putteed leg, a fine, athletic, big fellow, with a khaki shirt open at the throat, and sleeves rolled up above his elbows, and a brown attractive face with honest eyes. "How are the others?... Going strong?... We had them all here for our funeral service: the Macaulays, White, Richards, Henley, the three prospectors out Chini way, everyone within reach. And afterwards we gave them a feed. A homely one, with cakes and jam, as Englishy as possible. By gad, Carew! how a loss like this makes you think of home and country; and how we Britishers in the colonies ought to hang together through thick and thin! If we all felt it more, it would be a great thing for the dear old Mother Country. She'll want her boys in the colonies to stand by her stoutly, if she is to go on holding her own, I'm thinking."
He got up and strode about the hut, his hands in his pockets and his pipe in his mouth. "Hang it all!... since I came out here to try and do a little useful development among the blacks, I've grown more and more to feel that helping the settlers to live clean lives and pull together and care about the Old Country, is every bit as important, in fact far more so, than teaching Christianity to the heathen."
He stood in the doorway, blocking the view with his immense bulk, a rarely attractive man, with boyish enthusiasm in his eyes, and fearless honesty in his whole aspect, and just that touch of the fanatic which helped him to soar above disappointments and keep his charming wife devoted and content with him out there in the wilderness.
From his post in the doorway he swung round suddenly, and was about to launch upon one of his enthusiastic tirades on the natives or settlers or both, when Ailsa stayed him lightly, declaring that lunch was ready, and they all proceeded to the dining-room hut.
Afterwards they lazed in a wide verandah, commanding one of the loveliest views in Rhodesia, and talked a little of the West Country, because the ache was still with each one to be at home at that sad time.
When Carew, later, prepared to depart homewards, she gave a large plum cake carefully into the hands of his black soldier-servant, telling him, Carew, that it was for The Kid and Patrick, and not to let The Kid overeat himself, and tell him to come over and see her at once.
"He is rather interested in the subject of corpses just now," Carew said, with something approaching a gleam in his eye, "but I don't encourage him, because, for two pins, I believe he would dig up the entire temple, if the spirit took him."
"The scoundrel!..." with an affectionate laugh. "Tell him if he dares to touch one stone of my temple he shall never, never have a cake again."
"Oh, I only surmise it from the expression in his eyes when he told me, rather wistfully, that some scientific visitor had described to him how the corpses, if found, would certainly be decked with valuable gold ornaments."
Then he mounted and saluted her gravely as he rode away.
In a Piccadilly mansion, about the same time that Major Carew returned from his long trek, two girls sat in a wide window-seat and looked somewhat disconsolately across the fresh spring green of the park. Both were the daughters of South African millionaires. Both were motherless, and one an orphan. They were also cousins, and the same roof usually was their home.
Two months previously the father of the one and guardian of the other had brought them to England, that they might duly "come out" the ensuing season in London society. Their presentation at Court had taken place in April, followed by a splendid ball at the stately mansion taken for their stay, and both girls had looked eagerly forward to the festivities ahead.
And now, a few weeks later, they found themselves suddenly dressed in black, with nearly all the expected gaieties cancelled, and this overshadowing loss weighing upon their spirits. Added to this the death of first one mother and then the other, followed by a period of ill-health to the guardian and father, had postponed that "coming out" long past the ordinary age for such functions; Diana, the orphan, being now twenty-two, and Meryl two years older.
Meryl was the graver of the two; graver indeed than is at all usual at twenty-four, but with a quiet fund of humour and a romantic dreaminess, and withal a certain elusive quality that made her always interesting, and pleasantly something of a mystery. Diana was a sparkling, practical, outspoken young woman, much adored of young men whom she treated with scant courtesy, and with a great deal of common sense in her pretty head. The girls' influence upon each other, which was cemented by a very deep affection, was wholly beneficial; for whereas Diana awakened Meryl from too much dreaminess, Meryl's quiet dignity had a softening effect upon Diana's too great exuberance of spirits and occasional boyish lack of refinement, which was more the result of a boisterous capacity for enjoyment than inbred.
Meryl, as became the dreamer, had been profoundly touched by the event which had called forth that swift grief; and whereas Diana could not refrain from bemoaning all she must necessarily lose through the season of mourning, Meryl thought chiefly of how they could get away quickly into the country and replace the lost gaieties with quiet delight.
She had already spoken to her father about her wish to leave town, but he had been much occupied of late, and not yet had time thoroughly to discuss the question. And meanwhile she and Diana waited a little disconsolately to see what the days brought forth. Diana was disposed for a trip to Switzerland, or Norway, or even Iceland, but she wanted to go in a party, and not just they two and a chaperon. Meryl was not enthusiastic and it nettled her a little, so that, on the wide window-seat, there was a cloud on her face as she drummed idly with her fingers and watched the traffic go by.
"If you would only say what you do want," she asserted impatiently, "instead of just mooning about and making no plans whatever."
But the fact was, Meryl could not quite make up her mind what she did want. In some vague way a kind of upheaval had been taking place in her heart, and left her high and dry upon the rocks of uncertainty and dim dissatisfaction. New thoughts, new questions, new desires had risen in her during that sad month of May, and she felt as one seeking vainly she knew not what. She looked beyond the trees of the Green Park to the far skies with wistful eyes, and asked herself deep questions concerning many things, born of the thoughts that arose in her mind when she stood amid a people mourning tenderly a dearly loved sovereign, and beheld how in hearts all over the world he had won love and admiration, in that, to the best of his endeavour, he had splendidly fulfilled his high trust.
And a high trust was hers. How could she not know it, when she was sole heiress to her father's millions; and yet, what was she doing, or preparing to do, in fulfilment of that trust? That it was no less so with Diana did not weigh with her. Diana was different. When she was allowed a free hand with her fortune she would buy yachts and houses and diamonds, and scatter it right and left, which was good in its way; but it would never satisfy her, Meryl, the visionary and dreamer, who looked with grave eyes to the far skies, and asked vague questions.
Presently, with an impatient little kick at a footstool, Diana broke the silence. "Do you know what you want? Have you any ideas at all, or are you just a blank?"
Meryl smiled charmingly. "I'm not exactly a blank, but something of a confusion. I confess crowded Swiss hotels do not sound alluring. I like Iceland better, but it seems rather ... well ... purposeless."
"And what in the world do you want it to be? Do you want to go a journey to convert heathen, or preach Christian Science, or explore untrodden country? If so, you had better take Aunt Emily and go alone. I'm hoping for a little life and amusement."
"We always have that. I want something bigger for a change."
"O, now you're getting to high altitudes. Meryl, do come down and be rational. I just feel as if I could shake you." She got up and roamed round the room, then returned to the window-seat and leaned out of the window watching some workmen who were painting the balcony below them. Meryl sat on silently, still seeking some sort of a solution to something she could not name.
"There's such a good-looking workman," Diana remarked presently, "I'm sure he's an artist. I wish he would look up, but he is too shy."
"Too wise, perhaps. Why are you sure he is an artist?"
"O, well, because he looks like it. He has a Grecian head, and his hair curls adorably, and I'm certain his eyes are blue. He'll be just underneath the window soon, and if he doesn't look up then I shall drop something to make him."
"Come away to lunch and don't be a goose. The gong sounded quite five minutes ago."
Diana withdrew her head reluctantly.
"Who wants to eat cutlets when they can watch a Grecian profile!"
"Perhaps you would sooner drop one on his head to make him look up?"
"I would; much sooner. Do you think they've brought their lunch with them, or shall we send them some?"
"I expect they've got their dinners in red pocket-handkerchiefs, hidden away somewhere at the back."
"Except my Greek"—with a little smile—"and I'm sure his is in a Liberty silk square."
They sat down to lunch in the big, oppressive dining-room alone, as their chaperon, Aunt Emily, was laid up with a headache, and Mr. Henry Pym, Meryl's father, was usually in the City at midday. And after lunch, for the sake of something to do, they ordered the motor and drove out to Ranelagh to see the polo.
Then came dinner, and with it in quiet, unsuspected guise the news that would presently change their lives. Henry Pym, a small, dark man, with the keen eyes and quiet manner that so often go with success, told them that because there would be practically no London season at all that year he had decided to go back to Africa, and he would take a country house for them anywhere they liked and leave them there for the summer with Aunt Emily.
Aunt Emily nodded her head with an approving air. A quiet country house instead of a season's racketing was quite to her taste, and she felt dear Henry, as ever, was showing the marked common sense for which she humbly worshipped him afar off. Meryl looked at her father inquiringly and with a thoughtful air. Diana remarked, rather disgustedly, "O, uncle, what rot! Why should we be condemned to some dull little hole of an English village, just because there is to be no London season?"
"My dear Diana," remonstrated the lady who was supposed to fill the post of mother and chaperon to both girls, and was therefore in duty bound to express disapproval of Diana's English, "you surely do not imagine your uncle admires that unladylike mode of speech!"
"But he understands it," said the incorrigible, "and that is far more important."
There was a decided gleam in the millionaire's eyes as he inquired, "And what do you want to do instead, Di?"
"Oh, yacht, or travel, or go in an aeroplane, or anything. I simply can't sit down in an English village until further notice."
Then Meryl spoke:
"Why can't we go back with you to South Africa, father?"
"Because I'm going to take a trip north. I'm going up to Rhodesia about some mining claims."
"And couldn't we go there with you?"
"Not very well. I'm not going to the towns, except for a day or two. I shall have to do a lot of trekking in the wild, outlying parts. You couldn't manage that."
"Of course not," murmured Aunt Emily. "How dreadful that you should have to go, Henry! Why, there are lions and elephants and things, and the natives are savages; surely no mines are worth running such risks?"
"Not quite as bad as all that, Emily, but hardly the place for you and the girls. Would you all like to go to Norway?"
"And fish?..." from Diana, with a sudden light in her eyes.
"You could have a yacht and take a party," he continued, "and come back when you are all tired of it. I'll ask Sir Robert to let me have the 'Skylark,' because his captain is so reliable. What do you say, Meryl?... Shall you like that?..."
"I wish you could come," was her rather evasive answer, and she gazed at the table decorations as if pondering something in her mind.
"Well, you can think it over," said the millionaire quietly, "and if there is something you would like better tell me." He was peeling a pear in a slow, methodical fashion, and his face quickly seemed to assume the expression of one whose thoughts were already elsewhere; but not before, with a quick, characteristic movement, he had glanced keenly and surreptitiously into Meryl's face and read her indecision. Something was on her mind. He knew it quite well; and his busy brain, under its mask of complacent thoughtfulness, probed into the question.
Ever since the day of the King's funeral she had worn that thoughtful air and baffled him a little with her wistful indecision. And though he said nothing, he thought about it in his leisured moments; for dearer than all his wealth and his power and his success was his only child.
That night, trying still to probe the unrest in her heart, Meryl stepped out on to their balcony and looked at the stars. Straight before her, outlined in a misty moonlight that was almost overpowered by the glare of the city's lights, were the tall towers of Westminster. Down below the traffic passed ceaselessly to and fro. From all sides came the mysterious hum of a great city's life. And as she leaned listening, and gazing at the far-off stars that seemed such mere pin-pricks above the glare, there came to her a thought of the majestic stars that hung over Africa and the majesty of silence upon the African veldt. And then gradually there stirred in her a warm remembrance of Africa, and of how she had always loved it, and a swift, unaccountable feeling of kinship with all the Britishers scattered far and wide who called some colony "home."
True, she was English born and English educated; but so also was she South African, for quite half her life had been passed in Johannesburg, and it was there that her actual home existed. And so, by slow imperceptible degrees, out of nowhere and without explanation, crept into her mind the sudden realisation of Africa's claim upon her. She remembered that it was there her father had amassed his wealth. There had been won for her all the smooth, luxurious ways of her life; and, but a step further, as it were, stood out the answer to her questioning doubts. Whatever trust is yours in the future, whatever life asks of you in return for all she has given, it must be for Africa. Her heart warmed and swelled swiftly, and her eyes glowed in the misty darkness. She felt in her blood that Africa was calling. Africa, so sunny, so gay, so breezy, so lovable, and withal with so great a need of strong women as well as strong men, to help her to win through to the great future that should be hers.
She leaned lower, and it was as though her gaze looked beyond the darkness to some unseen horizon. She saw the veldt with its far blue mountains, that called to men again and again with such resolute calling. Overhead, in her fancy, she saw the luminous Southern Cross. All around were the wide, boundless horizons, the swift, scented winds. In her spirit she was back again in the sun-soaked land, breathing the sun-soaked atmosphere, looking far to the "never, never" country that called from the clear distance.
And it was her Africa,—hers, hers, hers.
What did she want with an English village? What to her was a yachting cruise in Norway? These might be won some day as restful leisure hours in a strenuous life; but without the just winning, what had they to do with her?
Africa needed strong women as well as strong men; and, strong or weak, Africa was calling—calling.
She had come to London for the season because it was what all the other rich men's daughters did; but was she honestly grieved that their plans had all to be changed? Surely, now she was free, she could find something to do that would fill her hours afterward with gladder remembrance than just a season's triumphs.
She leaned on in the starlight, chin sunk in hands, thinking, dreaming.
And so presently, still by those imperceptible degrees, through which works the hand of Fate, her thoughts came at last to the dinner-table conversation.
As in a flash, she remembered Rhodesia; and, remembering, it was as though the romance of the land reached out strong arms to enfold her.
Here in very truth was a young country, offering a wide field to all who sought work, adventure, achievement. Her thoughts ran on exultantly. She was rich, she was free, she was young, she was strong; why dawdle and dream among the fiords of Norway? Why scale Swiss mountains? Let that come later, when she had earned a playtime. In the first vigorous years of her youth, let her go out to the sunny land that was her home and give it of her best. Let her go north and see a young country struggling towards fruition, and perhaps win the joy and privilege, generally reserved for men, of helping it forward. All in a moment her decision was made. If she could anyhow win her father's consent, she would go with him on his trip to Rhodesia.
She stood up, tall and slim, and the subdued light glowed more deeply in her eyes. The eyes of the visionary, who sees great things and dreams great dreams, and, alas! how often, breaks a heart that of its very fineness could only do or die.
Yet better, how much better, to hope and dare and die upon the heights, than linger content in the warm, snug valley of little joys and little sorrows!
And then across her dreams broke the sound of a sleepy voice from the room behind her.
"If you stay out there any longer, Meryl, you will grow wings and fly away. Do be rational enough to come in and go to bed."
"I thought you were asleep, Di. I'm sure I haven't been keeping you awake."
"No, but you are doing so now; and, besides, it's so imbecile to stand out there and stare at the stars."
"I've been thinking hard, Di." She came in and sat on the little gilt bedstead, with its dainty hangings, and looked lovingly at the pretty head on the lace-decked pillow.
"That's nothing new. If you hadn't been thinking hard it would be worth while mentioning it," and there was half a pout and half a smile on the winsome mouth.
"But there was more object than usual to-night. Listen. If I persuade father to take me up to Rhodesia with him, will you come too?..."
"O, golly!... to be eaten by lions, and tigers, and savages, and elephants, and things!..."
"Well, there wouldn't be much apiece if they all had a bite."
Diana sat up and shook the hair out of her eyes, looking very much like a small imp of ten, instead of a finished young lady of twenty-two. "There's just a chance they would eat Aunt Emily first," said she, "and as that is a consummation devoutly to be wished, I think we'll go...."
They both laughed, but Meryl soon grew serious again. "I'm awfully in earnest, Di. Who cares about Norway when they might go to Rhodesia! You'll perhaps fall overboard and be eaten by commonplace fishes if you go there."
"What has given you the notion, Meryl? I thought only miners and farmers went to Rhodesia, except a few tourists to the Victoria Falls. Do you think there is anything to eat there except locusts and wild honey?"
"Let's go and see. I ... I ... want to do some Empire work or something. I can't explain. But we've just got into such a maze of petty happenings and petty pleasures, and since the King died ..."
"Of course!... you've been miles away ever since, dreaming and romancing and imperialising. But it won't last, and when you've landed us all high and dry in some Rhodesian wilderness we shall just hate each other and everything else, and be ready to murder you."
"Nonsense. We shall explore all round, and study the natives and the animals, and make friends with the settlers; and it will all be just new and big and teeming with interest."
"Not if you are chewing the mule harness, because you've had nothing to eat for days."
"O yes, even that; why not?... We should love it all when we came safely back."
"Well, I'll have the bridle, then. It won't, perhaps, be quite so greasy."
"Now you're disgusting. Just put your head back on the pillow, and register a vow to see me through this craze, if you like to call it so, and I'll love you for ever. I like to think of it as Empire work. Come and do a little Empire work too."
"But I don't want to. I'm bored to tears with the Empire. We hear a great deal too much of it nowadays; that and Standard Bread. I don't know which is the worst"—making a wry face—"and, besides, if you really want to do Empire work, your plain duty is to marry Dutch Willie and cement the races."
A cloud flitted for a moment across Meryl's fair face, which Diana was quick to see, and she snoozled down into her cosy bed with a little chuckle.
"Got you there, my fair Imperialist! Dutch Willie, or let us call him William van Hert, will drop this wild anti-British policy of his like a hot brick, if you will only make up your mind to be Madam van Hert, and bless his hearth with a Dutch doll or two, having good English blood in their veins as well as eighteen-carat Dutch," and the chuckles grew more and more audible.
But Meryl only got up slowly and moved away to her own little bed.
"Well, I shall ask father to-morrow, and if you won't come I shall try to make him take me without you. I think he will."
"O, no he won't. If you are really quite obdurate, I shall do a little Imperial work also. I shall come along to keep watch and ward, and see that you don't fail the Empire by losing your heart to some fascinating young Rhodesian settler and forget your own South Africa altogether. Dutch Willie is a lot the nicest Dutchman who ever belonged to that obtuse people, and I foresee it will be my lot to guide you to your high destiny on behalf of the two races."
Meryl only smiled dreamily, as if she scarcely heard. Swiftly, mysteriously, unaccountably, as is her way, Rhodesia had caught her senses and filled all her horizon for the time being. She nestled down into her own pretty bed, with the unrest already fading from her eyes, and a new gladness in her heart, as of one renewed with a great purpose and comforted with a wide hope.
THE RHODESIAN PROJECT
Aunt Emily represented what Diana was pleased to call "the family skeleton in the flesh." She was Henry Pym's only sister, and there had been a time when she shared a pound a week with him in a tiny cottage in Cornwall, while he worked as a miner in order to teach himself all he could about mining. After that she had taken a situation as housekeeper, while he went out to South Africa to make his fortune. Later she had spent a year or two with him, sharing his struggles in the new country, and then he had married, and she was once more left to take care of herself; for at that stage Henry's finances would barely keep himself and his wife. Three years afterwards, when his genius for finance was bearing fruit, his wife died, and at twenty-seven he found himself a childless widower just becoming prosperous. He again offered his sister a home, but her recollections of Africa were none to draw her back thither, and she chose to continue life in the comfortable situation she had procured as companion to an invalid lady. So Henry devoted himself entirely to the science of money-making, and at thirty-five he was a rich man. He married a second time, choosing for his wife among the gentlest-born Johannesburg could offer, and winning the sweet woman who was Meryl's mother. About the same time his brother came out from England and joined him, and in fifteen years they were two of Johannesburg's wealthiest millionaires. A few years later both were widowers, and very shortly afterwards John Pym died, leaving his only daughter and all the wealth that would be hers to his brother's care. Thus the household became as we have seen it, for Henry, remembering gratefully how his sister had stood by him in his days of struggle, now insisted upon her sharing his luxurious homes and acting as chaperon to the two girls. That she was a little trying he knew perfectly, but his sense of fair play and kinship resolutely turned a deaf ear to the half-spoken pleas of the girls, that he would give her instead a cosy home of her own, and procure a younger and brighter chaperon for them; and she had now become a fixture.
But what irritated Diana so was the fact that had the good lady consulted her own taste, she would infinitely have preferred the cosy, independent home; but just as Henry's sense of fair play offered her a place in his, so her sense of duty to the two motherless girls made her accept it in spite of her inclination.
"If people would but consult their comfort instead of their duty," quoth poor Diana, "how much nicer it would be all round! Uncle doesn't really want her here, and she doesn't really want to come, and we'd give our heads to be rid of her; but just because Old Man Duty loves to make people supremely uncomfortable, here we all are!" and her expressive gesture made further comment unnecessary.
But, as a matter of fact, she made a very easy and good-natured chaperon, and it was only some of her irritating little ways that troubled them. Without being really deaf, she usually failed to hear any opening speech, and this Diana coped with very summarily. "Aunt Emily," she would begin. "Eh ... eh ... eh ... eh ... ah," and when Aunt Emily had duly enquired, "What did you say, my dear?" she would speak her sentence for the first time. Or, again, with reference to her propensity to get exceedingly worked up upon a subject of very little general interest, she would say, "The great point is, not to start her off, and not to give her a chance to start herself off. A little perspicacity will soon tell you what subject to nip in the bud, or when to talk as hard and fast as you can about something else."
"And as for her mournfulness," declared the matter-of-fact young heiress, "well, that's genuinely funny. If I've got a bit of a hump myself, and I hear Aunt Emily, with a face of heroic resignation, say, 'I can bear it,' I begin to feel quite chirpy at once."
But when the Rhodesian project came seriously under discussion, they were all a good deal surprised to hear Aunt Emily take part in it as one who must inevitably be of the party. Henry Pym was a reserved, undemonstrative man, and when Meryl begged him to let them accompany him on his travels, though he said very little, he was secretly a good deal gratified and pleased. His own early hardships had taught him the inestimable value of learning self-dependence and plucky endurance, and it was not without some regret he viewed a future for the girls entirely of rose leaves. Yet how could it very well be otherwise? When, however, Meryl pleadingly asked him to take them to Rhodesia with him, he perceived that the trip might be beneficial in more ways than one.
"You probably don't understand," he told her quietly, "that I am going on a business, prospecting trip. I am going right away from hotels and railways to see mines, and I don't intend to be bothered with anything elaborate in the way of an outfit. I suppose I shall take a tent, and travel in a travelling ambulance, but certainly nothing out of the way in food or equipment. You would have to do the same, and as you know absolutely nothing in the world about 'roughing it,' you probably wouldn't like it at all."
"But that is just what we should like," Meryl urged. "That is one reason why we want to come."
They were sitting in the smoke-room with him, as was often their habit in the evening, preferring it, as he did, to the stately drawing-room.
Meryl sat on a footstool near him, watching his face anxiously, while Diana, with an open book on her knee, listened from the depths of an enormous arm-chair in which she had curled herself.
"Shouldn't we ever need to wash?" she asked suddenly, in a sprightly voice that set them all laughing.
"Well, it's a hot country, you know," said her uncle, "but it might be more or less optional."
"Scrumptious!" and Diana snoozled lower into her chair.
"Uncouth," remarked Aunt Emily, disapprovingly.
"Or do you mean unclean?" enquired the sinner.
"It is quite the maddest idea I ever heard of." Ignoring her, and growing more and more mournful, the poor lady heaved a deep sigh.
"But need you be bothered with us?" enquired Meryl, diplomatically. "Wouldn't you rather have a nice quiet summer in England?"
"And let you go alone?... How could I?... Your father will be much engaged with his business, and it would be most unseemly for two girls of your age to be left so much alone. I believe it is a dreadful country, but if you can face it, I think I can find the courage to come with you."
"Think you can bear it, aunty?..." chirped the voice from the arm-chair, and Meryl frowned in a little aside at the snoozler.
"If they decide to come at all, they would be all right with me out on the veldt," put in Mr. Pym. "If they are prepared to eat 'bully beef' and probably do their own washing-up."
"How horrible!..." from the arm-chair. "It sounds worse than chewing mule harness."
"What do you mean, Diana?" her aunt asked, nervously.
"Oh, didn't you know there was nourishment in mule harness?... It's simply splendid stuff when you've had nothing else for days."
The poor lady shuddered, and her brother chuckled, but Meryl interposed with, "Don't listen to her, Aunt Emily. It isn't likely we shall ever have had nothing for days."
"I once heard of a man ..." began the spinster, putting down her work, and raising her head with the air they all knew so well, denoting a long rigmarole about some exceedingly uninteresting person, and Diana immediately chimed in with, "Shall you wear a knickerbocker suit, aunty, or just a commonplace divided skirt?"
"Neither will be in the least necessary," was the decided answer. "I have met people from Rhodesia, and they dress quite ordinarily."
"Oh, that's when they're in another country," insisted the incorrigible. "Up there you simply must wear knickers, or a divided skirt; it's ... it's ... such a high altitude ... and so ... windy!..."
"Diana, be quiet," interrupted Meryl, now sitting on the arm of her father's chair. "If you don't mind we shall leave you behind."
"Well, I don't know that I particularly want to go. It doesn't sound very inviting except about the washing."
"I think you had all better take a week to decide in," said Henry Pym, finally. "I won't say anything about the yacht at present, and you can change your minds and have it if you like. And if your aunt chooses to stay quietly in England, I'll take a house for her anywhere she likes, and I'll look after you both myself. You can take care of each other when I have to be absent for a day."
"Would you like us to go?" asked Diana, screwing her head round impishly. "Or are we going to be a ... a ... frightful nuisance?"
"I'd like you to come, if you can make up your minds thoroughly to take the rough and the smooth together, and make the best of it. I think it will be an experience for you, and a wholesome change from too much luxury. But mind"—and his strong, dark face looked very determined—"I want no grumbling and no fretfulness. If you think you've any real, genuine pioneer spirit in you, come. If you're in doubt about it, stay behind, and go to Norway and have your gaiety."
"I don't think I've very much," said Diana, "but Meryl has enough for two, I'm sure; and for the rest, I never grumble, and I'm only peevish with very young men. That, of course, I might work off on the niggers."
"Has Meryl a lot of pioneer spirit?" asked her father, watching her with quiet, affectionate eyes.
"Stacks of it. She wants to become an Empire-builder. I don't. I'm bored with the Empire. But I don't mind sampling just one dive into the wilderness, to see how I like primitive conditions. I don't know what Aunt Emily wants with the wilderness though, unless she has a secret fancy for niggers!..."
"I think that is a little coarse of you, Diana. I have no fancy either for a wilderness or niggers; but if either you or Meryl were ill, or anything happened to you, I should never forgive myself had I remained comfortably at home."
"Nothing will happen to us, aunty. I think you are rather unwise to think of coming," said Meryl.
"If you go, I shall come as far as Bulawayo anyhow. Then I shall at least be within reach."
"Well, think it over for a week," said Henry Pym again, getting up and moving towards his writing-table. "I don't like hurried decisions at any time. If you like to come and take pot-luck with me I shall be glad to have your company, but do not let that influence you. Come for your own sakes, and prepared for anything, or remain behind."
They understood that he wished to be left to do some reading or writing, and after kissing him good night, went upstairs to their room.
But Meryl's eyes had already a new glow of hopeful anticipation, and it was easy to see she did not intend to waste much time in making up a mind already entirely decided.
Diana found her a little irritating.
"Really, Meryl!" she said, "you look as ridiculously pleased as a cat with kittens. You are quite the most unaccountable creature in the world. What, in the name of fortune, is the good of going to Rhodesia? Frankly, I'd rather stay in England."
But Meryl only smiled happily, and made no comment.
"Oh, put the light out," snapped Diana. "I really can't stand that superior, complacent air of yours any longer."
For answer the elder girl crossed the room and gave her a hug.
"Don't be cross, Di. You know you'll love the atmosphere of adventure when you are fairly started. Anyone can go to Norway."
"Adventure! Stuff! Heat and flies and sand, that's all we're in for; and uncle in a prosaic, 'I told you so' mood."
"We may see lions when we are trekking."
Diana put her head on one side, like a small, bright-eyed bird. "We can see those in the Zoo, beloved."
"Well, and you can see Norway on a cinematograph."
Diana turned away with a low laugh.
"Clean bowled. Good for you, O wise Hypatia! Well, we'll go to this heathen land and be horribly uncomfortable for a time, and then we'll come back and make things hum in London as they never hummed before. Where is Jeanne, I wonder? If I've got to do my own hair for two solid months I'll never touch a wisp of it until we go," and she rang the bell peremptorily.
Later, for a few moments, Meryl again stood out on the balcony, enjoying the June night, and as she looked at the stars she smiled softly. She was going back to Africa, after all—her Africa, and perhaps Life would give her something big to do yet.
And half unconsciously, though with a sense of pleasurable possession, she stood with her eyes to the south.
And away in a distant land, on a high hill, strewn with ruins of an ancient, mysterious race, a man stood with his eyes to the north.
A taciturn, difficult, unaccountable man, who baffled the people that would fain be friendly with him, and chilled any who showed him warmth, and yet was invariably liked and trusted by all who had the perspicacity to see beyond the rigid exterior.
Even to-day, though he was mourning his sovereign, he had shown no softening of grief to those who beheld him. Rather, if anything, he had been more silent, more taciturn, more aloof than ever.
Yet the enfolding night and the quiet stars saw what none others saw. They saw the ache in the steady eyes, the compression as of pain on the resolute lips, the swift, unusual hunger, sternly suppressed, for something that had once been in some old life and was now for ever ended.
WILLIAM VAN HERT
They, that is, the Pyms, stayed in Johannesburg before they started on their travels. Mr. Pym had built for himself a charming house in the Sachsenwald neighbourhood, architectured, of course, by Mr. Herbert Baker, and having a lovely view to far blue hills.
Few people who have never seen Johannesburg have the smallest conception of the charm of its best suburbs, with their wonderful far vistas to a dream country of blue mountains on the horizon. To most it suggests little beyond dump-heaps of white powdered quartz, tall machinery, tall chimneys, with a town of tramways and offices and wealthy people all struggling together for more wealth.
Yet in a few minutes one may leave all this behind, and drive along tree-lined roads and avenues to where, probably amidst swaying firs, a "stately home" of South Africa is picturesquely standing.
Mr. Pym's house was not of the largest, for he had never been ostentatious of his wealth, and much of it was represented by large tracts of land, where he generously experimented for the benefit of the country. As with several rich South Africans, he had his stud farm and his agricultural farm; and both were kept up to a very high standard, without any particular consideration for profit and loss. But his house in the Sachsenwald neighbourhood had more of charm and comfort in it than display. The rooms were very high and airy and well ventilated, with artistic colour effects which the girls had achieved, and something of an Italian air about it.
Along one side, widening into an embrasure at the middle, where doors from the drawing-room and dining-room stood open to it, ran a broad tessellated terrace; and from the terrace one looked out over a lovely garden, gorgeous with the flaming flowers of South Africa, yet softened by velvety turf such as is seldom seen "over there," and can only be attained by much consistent care and attention.
It was here the girls loved best to sit: Diana because the prospect was fresh and breezy and wide, and, true to her namesake, she loved the smell of the firs and the earth; Meryl because of those far blue hills which made so fitting a background to the dreamland thoughts that filled her mind; and, moreover, Aunt Emily did not particularly love light and air, so she usually remained in her own sanctum, and Diana was able to enjoy, not one cigarette, but two or three, after each meal without the tiresome accompaniment of a disapproving eye.
They reached Johannesburg in the latter half of July, and those people who had not already fled from the high winds and driving dust were hurriedly preparing to do so. In consequence, few friends were there to welcome them on their return, and their plans proceeded apace. Diana had a smart khaki knickerbocker suit made, and a wonderful broad-brimmed hat with a long feather to go with it. When they laughingly told her she was not journeying to an uncivilised country, and could not possibly wear such a garb in modern Rhodesia, she merely asserted she was going into the wilderness to please them, and in return they must put up with her in any sort of garb she chose. In the end Meryl was persuaded to have a knickerbocker garb also, though she insisted that she would never wear it. Aunt Emily bought yards and yards of green and blue muslin, in which she proposed to tie up her head. "You must have a particularly ugly helmet, and a pair of smoked spectacles, and a butterfly-net as well," said Diana, "and then you will look as if you belonged to the British Association."
Her uncle, sitting back silently in his big arm-chair, with the quiet twinkle in his keen eyes, remarked, "And you will look like the principal boy at a pantomime."
"How heavenly!..." said outspoken Diana, and Aunt Emily raised her hands in horror.
It was on one of the last evenings before their final departure that William van Hert came from a quiet sea-side place above Durban to see them. He was taking a long rest there, after a strenuous parliamentary campaign, and only discovered through a belated newspaper that they had returned from England, and were contemplating a journey north. He immediately took a day's road journey to the nearest railway and departed for Johannesburg.
Diana saw him arrive, and executed a remarkable spring into the air, finished off with a little kick. "Oh, golly!..." she breathed. "Here's Dutch Willy come flying to the arms of his ladylove!"
Meryl looked up with swift, questioning eyes.
"Impossible!... He is down at M'genda."
"A little bird whispered, 'She, the fair one of many millions, has returned,' and straightway the thousand white arms of M'genda failed to hold him."
"Don't be spiteful, Di. Mr. van Hert cares nothing for anyone's millions. You know it well."
"I do; and for that reason he should be kept in a glass case. Still, he cares for a fair Englishwoman who has been—well, kind to him."
"He is interesting. Was there any special kindness in letting him know that I had the perspicacity to see it?" And they went downstairs together to receive him.
William van Hert was at that time one of the most disliked, one of the most attractive, and one of the most disturbing men in South Africa. Gifted with brains and polish, he was yet, at present, marred by bigotry, narrowness of vision, and an unreasonable antipathy to the advance of English ways and customs. Furthermore, having obtained for himself a considerable following, he was, unfortunately, powerful. When genuine efforts were being made to bury the hatchet over the racial question, this man had more than once dug it up again; but it was not entirely clear at present whether he was actuated by motives of misguided patriotism, or whether, like far greater men, he only wanted to make himself thoroughly heard in the world first, and when that object was satisfactorily attained, he would modify his tendency to rabid policies and prove himself a reliable statesman. In the meantime he was dangerous.
In England there were many who quite seriously believed the racial feud was over. There were others who knew that it was still exceedingly bitter. There were others again who said very little, and perhaps professed to know very little, but in the quietness of their own thoughts pondered deeply and patriotically how a real and sincere union, and not a merely public newspaper one, was to be wrought between two fine races, so that in true harmony they might bring a country of great promise to its day of fulfilment. The men who saw any solution in making both languages compulsory were not men of true insight; neither were those who retrenched Englishmen in one direction, and created new posts for Dutchmen in others. One could but suppose these men were content to be patriots, not in a big sense to the whole country, but in a limited one to their own countrymen. To be patriots of South Africa herself, in her widest sense, seemed too much to ask of them. Yet, because of the fine qualities many of these men possessed, one could but hope that ere long what was good for South Africa would be good for each individual, whether in private life he called himself English or Dutch.
That William van Hert was ever a welcome guest in the Pyms' household showed that he had many excellent qualities besides his undisputed personal attractiveness to counterbalance his obstinate bigotry. Otherwise Mr. Pym would not have shown him the friendliness he did; for in his quiet way Henry Pym possessed greatness, and everyone throughout the land knew that he was of those resolute, reliable few who would let all their wealth go before they would pander to any government or any party to save it. Meryl talked to him because she perceived there was a rough sincerity in the man underneath his bigotry, and hoped because he was powerful he would presently expand.
Diana alone crossed swords with him, and though perhaps he did not know it, it was no small thing that she thought it worth while.
He stayed to dine with them in a simple, homely manner, and his conversation at the table was sparkling and vivacious. He told them some excellent stories, concluding with one in very broad Dutch that they had great difficulty in following. And then Diana opened fire.
"Such a monstrous, face-distorting language," she remarked coolly. "I wonder you don't forbid its use instead of urging it."
The gleam came quickly to her uncle's eye, though he appeared to take no heed. It was left to Meryl to frown cautiously, and shake a wise head.
"Don't frown at me, Meryl," said the incorrigible. "It's a hideous tongue, and he knows it, and what's the good of pretending anything else? I don't hold with pretence in anything."
"It is the tongue of my country," van Hert told her, more amused than annoyed. "Every true patriot loves his mother tongue."
"O, nonsense!" with a charming insolence. "Meryl and I both have Norse blood in us. If you go far enough back we probably are Norse. But where would be the sense in our professing to love our country by talking her tongue, when it served every reasonable purpose in the world better to talk English? You're so one idea'd, you Dutch folk, at least some of you," pointedly. "The language and the Bible and your early-morning coffee!"
They could not help laughing at her, but van Hert indignantly repudiated her charge.
"O well!..." she continued, airily. "You know perfectly well you do make a fetish of the Language Question; and that your back-veldt followers believe the Bible was written in Dutch for the Dutch race alone; and that you start having coffee at daybreak, with relays up to breakfast-time. And you don't expect your natives or your women to possess such a thing as an individual will. That is a luxury for the strong sex only!... It all means just one thing. Out in the back veldt you are years and years and years, positive, aeons, behind the times; and you'd sooner represent a big dam to the progress of the world than yield one little silly, rotten cotton prejudice to help it forward. So there!..." And having delivered herself of this piece of oration Diana got up, pushed her chair back with a jerk, and finished, "I'm going out on the terrace. When I think of your back-veldters, and your back-veldt policy of suppressing all individualism and all advance, I need the company of a few worlds and solar systems to regain my equilibrium. No, don't expostulate," as he rose in his eagerness to confront her. "I seldom argue. It is not worth while. I merely 'express an opinion,' having the good fortune to belong to a race in which women are permitted such an indulgence," and she threw a laughing glance back at him from the window before she stepped out.
Meryl watched her with a swift look of deep affection in her eyes, and then glanced at her father. Henry Pym's face was expressionless, but his eyes seemed to reply to her unspoken question, and tell her that he, too, recognised a little more thoroughly that under the surface flippancy and light raillery there was depth. In the meantime, feeling she had not been quite fair to her opponent, to go off without allowing him to defend himself, he purposely discussed the language question a little more openly than was at all his wont with such prickly subjects, speaking a few quiet truths in a way that even a firebrand like van Hert could not possibly resent. When they joined Diana she was sitting on a table, swinging her feet, and singing a new music-hall ditty.
"Touching that slander of yours," van Hert began, good-humouredly, for few could ever be seriously annoyed with Diana, "I should like to say ..."
"No, I forbid it," she interrupted. "Arguments bore me. Have you heard that little song before that I was singing? It's a ripping little ditty. Chain Aunt Emily to the drawing-room sofa and I'll sing it all through to you; but if she were to hear it she might faint, and that is so tiresome."
He laughed, and sat on the table beside her, and the rabid sectarian politician, so given to raising storms and creating scenes in that most remarkable of parliaments, the South African Union Assembly, forgot his pet injustices and prejudices, and was quickly the versatile, virile, engaging social man. Meryl sat a little apart, with some dainty crochet-work in her delicate fingers, and though the visitor chatted with Diana, his eyes were almost always upon her.
They had purposely put out the electric light after their coffee was served, preferring only the lights in the rooms behind them and the splendour of the night before. And in the dimness Meryl's fair skin gleamed unusually white beside her dusky hair, and the velvety, blue-grey eyes, when she looked up, had caught the dreaming darkness of the heavens. Only now and then she glanced round. Mostly she sat with her eyes on the shadowy darkness and her work in her lap. And the Dutchman, gazing, felt with a sort of fierce reluctance that there were no women in the world for calmness and strength quite like the Englishwomen, nor more delicately, entrancingly fair.
Then, suddenly, Meryl heard her name and looked up.
"Why in the world do you want to go to Rhodesia?" he had said; and Diana answered, "I don't know that we do want to go; but Meryl has suddenly developed into a violent Imperialist, and we go at her desire."
"What to do?" and he asked the question a little sharply of the dark eyes now turned to theirs. Quite suddenly and unaccountably he resented their going; resented, at any rate, that she, Meryl, should go. There had been so much "Rhodesia" of late. Everyone seemed bitten with a kind of silly craze for the place. Now it was gold; now it was land; now it was union or no union; now it was annexation and "twenty pieces of silver"; such a lot of fuss about some square miles of wilderness, containing odd outcrops of gold-bearing reef.
"There is nothing worth seeing in Rhodesia, except the Victoria Falls," he asserted; "and you can run up there and see all you want to and get back in a week!" And still he looked enquiringly at Meryl.
"We want to see the people," she said, half turning. "The pioneers, who went first to investigate, the settlers who followed, the women who went forward with their husbands into the wilderness."
He got off the table and came and leaned against a verandah-post beside her with folded arms, looking down. "But that is what you won't see; how should you? You will only see dusty, upstart towns, with horrible corrugated-iron hotels, where you will swelter in heat and flies and eat abominable tinned stuffs. It is a barren, comfortless land at present, with a possibility of being useful some day. They want money, energy, brains to develop it thoroughly; and they won't accept them when they are offered, because a few stiff-necked Englishmen happen to be in power. It is absurd to go there at present. You will only get typhoid and malaria, and be excruciatingly uncomfortable."
"It sounds a pretty rotten sort of place! What do you and your colleagues want it for so badly, anyway?..." asked Diana, throwing her head back and narrowing her eyes as she looked at him with a shrewd questioning air.
He coloured slightly under the sunburn on his cheeks. "We want a United South Africa. Why should one country stand aloof!"
"Meinheer van Hert," said she, coming down from her table and taking a step forward to confront him, "for any man with your political views to talk about including Rhodesia in the Union solely for the sake of a United South Africa and for her own good, is the veriest cant. There's gold up there, and perhaps tin; and there's land for farming, and land for ranching, and hunting grounds, and a big river. In your United South Africa you want your people to be 'top dog' always, and as long as Rhodesia stands out there's a menace in the north. That's one reason why you want her! Rumour tells us there's a fine race of men up there, who don't mean to have any tongue but Cecil Rhodes's tongue taught in Cecil Rhodes's country, so it certainly is no place for you! You've got to learn more thoroughly what an Englishman means by 'cricket' before your overtures will be considered; and we're all hoping you'll learn it quickly, because we want to be friends, good friends, just as soon as ever we can."
He bit his lip and looked angry, but she was already laughing the moment's tension aside. "You didn't know I was a politician, did you?... As a matter of fact, I'm not!... I'm sick of the whole bag of tricks, and the Empire that fills Meryl with heaves and swells isn't half so much to me as winning a tennis tournament or a golf championship. But when you Hollanders are bursting with pride of place and achievement, and offering energy and brains to help Britishers along, I just feel as if you'd got to be told a few home-truths for your good. Now I'm going to liven the meeting with a little operatic music," and she tripped indoors to the piano. Van Hert shrugged his shoulders expressively, and then stood silently beside Meryl for some moments looking into the night. And as he stood he became conscious of a vague sort of dissatisfaction with himself. It was a sensation he knew only at rare moments, and those moments were chiefly at the Pyms' house. He admired the two cousins more than any women he knew; he admired Henry Pym; he loved the homyness of their household; and he had to remember that they were English. There must, of course, be many others like them. Were there many like them among his own countrymen? When Diana told him his people had yet to learn more thoroughly what was meant by "cricket" she had hit him hard. He would never have admitted it for one moment, but, nevertheless, when he was at the Pyms' house he wondered.... Densely, stubbornly patriotic to his own people and his own tongue he might be, but he had travelled enough to recognise certain traits in the English "old public-school boy" which it was good for a country there should be in her young men, and which were not noticeably present in his countrymen of the back veldt.
Then his eyes rested on Meryl, and all his pulses throbbed with her nearness. He had known for many months now that he loved her, yet he had never actually told his love. At first there had been a disinclination to marry an Englishwoman because of the unbending, resolute policy he had identified himself with in the Union Parliament. No one spoke of anti-British and anti-Dutch nowadays. It was impolitic. But whereas certain men genuinely tried to ease the forced situation and meet with fairness and justice upon common ground, others still kept the flag of discord in their hands, though they hid it under the table, so to speak, and only produced it when, as they chose to assert, some pet foible of their countrymen was overruled or some indignity threatened.
And of this section in Parliament van Hert was the leader. If he then married an Englishwoman, not even South African born, would he not be held up to ridicule by his colleagues? And then he would see Meryl again, and all his feelings would merge into one great longing for her; not for her money—she had been right when she said such a charge was unjust, indeed, he almost wished she had been poor—but her quiet dignity and calm strength and the exquisite fairness that held all his senses.
And as he stood beside her now he hated more and more, without knowing why, that she should go to Rhodesia. Whatever he had said to the contrary, he knew that there was a romance about that far land that might fascinate her. He knew that up there there were some of the cream of England's men. "The second son's country," he had heard it called, and that meant very often the well-born, high-bred gentleman who was not afraid to work, who had never been pampered, and was full of the best sportsman's spirit. The man of all others to attract such a woman as Meryl Pym. The mere thought of it seemed to fill him with a growing alarm, and presently, almost before he knew it, he found himself pouring into her ears the story of his love.
Meryl was startled and taken aback. She had known perhaps that he had a special liking for her; seen it often in his eyes when he gazed at her. But that he should speak now was a little sudden, and she wished Diana had not left them alone. She tried to meet his eyes, but something a little too ardent in them abashed her, and she looked out into the darkness, nervously twisting and untwisting the thread of her work.
He saw that she was taken aback, and tried somewhat to curb the eager intensity that he felt was unnerving her.
"You are going away up there, and I shall be very anxious about you," he pleaded. "If you would only give me your promise before you go, and let me have the right to follow at once if you are ill or anything, it would make it so much easier."
She stood up, agitated, still gazing wistfully into the night.
"It is very sudden.... I did not know.... I hardly thought.... Have you ... have you ... remembered everything?..."
"That you are English and I am Dutch?... What of it, Meryl?... I may call you Meryl, mayn't I?... Are we not both South Africans?..."
He tried to take her hand and draw her to him, but she shrank away and he did not urge it.
"Have you remembered it long enough?... Thought it out thoroughly?... It all seems somehow so sudden."
"I have known long that I loved you. Does anything else really matter if you can love me in return?"
"Ah!..." she breathed and stopped short.
She had liked him long. She had always liked him. Away from his politics he was liked by most people. Huguenot blood was in his veins, and it showed itself in a French charm of manner that came to him naturally when he could get away from that bigoted, narrow obstinacy that marred him. She felt he was a man who might be led to many things, though driven to none. Because he attracted her she felt she half loved the Huguenot side of him already. If only the other side did not so insistently repel! Could it perhaps be overruled? Could she love him truly enough to hold his love for ever, and through it lead him to heights he might never even sight without her? Yet her eyes were wistful, gazing out there at the dreaming stars, and her face gleamed whiter and whiter.
This was not the love that whispered to her when she looked to the far blue hills. This was not the consummation the high stars in far infinities told her vaguely might some day bless her life.
And then he pleaded again in low-voiced eagerness, and in distress she turned to him. "I'm so sorry. I can't bear to think of perhaps making you unhappy. But ... but ... I'm afraid I don't love you in the way you want. I hadn't thought about it."