Infomotions, Inc.Jess / Haggard, H. Rider (Henry Rider), 1856-1925



Author: Haggard, H. Rider (Henry Rider), 1856-1925
Title: Jess
Publisher: Project Gutenberg
Tag(s): bessie; muller; jantje; frank muller; niel; boers; silas croft; captain niel; john niel; john; cart; baas frank; frank
Contributor(s): Legge, James, 1815-1897 [Translator]
Versions: original; local mirror; HTML (this file); printable
Services: find in a library; evaluate using concordance
Rights: GNU General Public License
Size: 113,224 words (average) Grade range: 8-10 (high school) Readability score: 71 (easy)
Identifier: etext5898
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Title: Jess

Author: H. Rider Haggard

Release Date: April 22, 2006 [EBook #5898]

Language: English

Character set encoding: ASCII

*** START OF THIS PROJECT GUTENBERG EBOOK JESS ***




Produced by John Bickers; Dagny





JESS

By H. Rider Haggard

First Published 1887.




TO MY WIFE





JESS



CHAPTER I

JOHN HAS AN ADVENTURE

The day had been very hot even for the Transvaal, where the days still
know how to be hot in the autumn, although the neck of the summer is
broken--especially when the thunderstorms hold off for a week or two, as
they do occasionally. Even the succulent blue lilies--a variety of the
agapanthus which is so familiar to us in English greenhouses--hung their
long trumpet-shaped flowers and looked oppressed and miserable, beneath
the burning breath of the hot wind which had been blowing for hours like
the draught from a volcano. The grass, too, near the wide roadway
that stretched in a feeble and indeterminate fashion across the veldt,
forking, branching, and reuniting like the veins on a lady's arm, was
completely coated over with a thick layer of red dust. But the hot wind
was going down now, as it always does towards sunset. Indeed, all that
remained of it were a few strictly local and miniature whirlwinds,
which would suddenly spring up on the road itself, and twist and twirl
fiercely round, raising a mighty column of dust fifty feet or more into
the air, where it hung long after the wind had passed, and then slowly
dissolved as its particles floated to the earth.

Advancing along the road, in the immediate track of one of these
desultory and inexplicable whirlwinds, was a man on horseback. The man
looked limp and dirty, and the horse limper and dirtier. The hot wind
had "taken all the bones out of them," as the Kafirs say, which was
not very much to be wondered at, seeing that they had been journeying
through it for the last four hours without off-saddling. Suddenly the
whirlwind, which had been travelling along smartly, halted, and the
dust, after revolving a few times in the air like a dying top, slowly
began to disperse in the accustomed fashion. The man on the horse halted
also, and contemplated it in an absent kind of way.

"It's just like a man's life," he said aloud to his horse, "coming from
nobody knows where, nobody knows why, and making a little column of dust
on the world's highway, then passing away, leaving the dust to fall to
the ground again, to be trodden under foot and forgotten."

The speaker, a stout, well set-up, rather ugly man, apparently on the
wrong side of thirty, with pleasant blue eyes and a reddish peaked
beard, laughed a little at his own sententious reflection, and then gave
his jaded horse a tap with the _sjambock_ in his hand.

"Come on, Blesbok," he said, "or we shall never get to old Croft's place
to-night. By Jove! I believe that must be the turn," and he pointed with
his whip to a little rutty track that branched from the Wakkerstroom
main road and stretched away towards a curious isolated hill with a
large flat top, which rose out of the rolling plain some four miles to
the right. "The old Boer said the second turn," he went on still talking
to himself, "but perhaps he lied. I am told that some of them think it
is a good joke to send an Englishman a few miles wrong. Let's see, they
told me the place was under the lee of a table-topped hill, about half
an hour's ride from the main road, and that is a table-topped hill, so I
think I will try it. Come on, Blesbok," and he put the tired nag into
a sort of "tripple," or ambling canter much affected by South African
horses.

"Life is a queer thing," reflected Captain John Niel to himself as he
cantered along slowly. "Now here am I, at the age of thirty-four, about
to begin the world again as assistant to an old Transvaal farmer. It is
a pretty end to all one's ambitions, and to fourteen years' work in the
army; but it is what it has come to, my boy, so you had better make the
best of it."

Just then his cogitations were interrupted, for on the farther side of
a gentle slope suddenly there appeared an extraordinary sight. Over the
crest of the rise of land, now some four or five hundred yards away, a
pony with a lady on its back galloped wildly, and after it, with wings
spread and outstretched neck, a huge cock ostrich was speeding in
pursuit, covering twelve or fifteen feet at every stride of its long
legs. The pony was still twenty yards ahead of the bird, and travelling
towards John rapidly, but strive as it would it could not distance the
swiftest thing on all the earth. Five seconds passed--the great bird was
close alongside now--Ah! and John Niel turned sick and shut his eyes as
he rode, for he saw the ostrich's thick leg fly high into the air and
then sweep down like a leaded bludgeon!

_Thud!_ It had missed the lady and struck her horse upon the spine, just
behind the saddle, for the moment completely paralysing it so that it
fell all of a heap on to the veldt. In a moment the girl on its back was
up and running towards him, and after her came the ostrich. Up went the
great leg again, but before it could come crashing across her shoulders
she had flung herself face downwards on the grass. In an instant the
huge bird was on the top of her, kicking at her, rolling over her, and
crushing the very life out of her. It was at this juncture that John
Niel arrived upon the scene. The moment the ostrich saw him it gave up
its attacks upon the lady on the ground and began to waltz towards him
with the pompous sort of step that these birds sometimes assume before
they give battle. Now Captain Niel was unaccustomed to the pleasant ways
of ostriches, and so was his horse, which showed a strong inclination to
bolt; as, indeed, under other circumstances, his rider would have been
glad to do himself. But he could not abandon beauty in distress, so,
finding it impossible to control his horse, he slipped off it, and with
the _sjambock_ or hide-whip in his hand valiantly faced the enemy. For
a moment or two the great bird stood still, blinking its lustrous round
eyes at him and gently swaying its graceful neck to and fro.

Then all of a sudden it spread out its wings and came for him like
a thunderbolt. John sprang to one side, and was aware of a rustle of
rushing feathers, and of a vision of a thick leg striking downwards
past his head. Fortunately it missed him, and the ostrich sped on like
a flash. Before he could turn, however, it was back and had landed
the full weight of one of its awful forward kicks on the broad of his
shoulders, and away he went head-over-heels like a shot rabbit. In a
second he was on his legs again, shaken indeed, but not much the worse,
and perfectly mad with fury and pain. At him came the ostrich, and at
the ostrich went he, catching it a blow across the slim neck with his
_sjambock_ that staggered it for a moment. Profiting by the check, he
seized the bird by the wing and held on like grim death with both hands.
Now they began to gyrate, slowly at first, then quicker, and yet more
quick, till at last it seemed to Captain John Niel that time and space
and the solid earth were nothing but a revolving vision fixed somewhere
in the watches of the night. Above him, like a stationary pivot, towered
the tall graceful neck, beneath him spun the top-like legs, and in front
of him was a soft black and white mass of feathers.

Thud, and a cloud of stars! He was on his back, and the ostrich, which
did not seem to be affected by giddiness, was on _him_, punishing him
dreadfully. Luckily an ostrich cannot kick a man very hard when he is
flat on the ground. If he could, there would have been an end of John
Niel, and his story need never have been written.

Half a minute or so passed, during which the bird worked his sweet will
upon his prostrate enemy, and at the end of it the man began to feel
very much as though his earthly career was closed. Just as things were
growing faint and dim to him, however, he suddenly saw a pair of white
arms clasp themselves round the ostrich's legs from behind, and heard a
voice cry:

"Break his neck while I hold his legs, or he will kill you."

This roused him from his torpor, and he staggered to his feet. Meanwhile
the ostrich and the young lady had come to the ground, and were rolling
about together in a confused heap, over which the elegant neck and open
hissing mouth wavered to and fro like a cobra about to strike. With a
rush John seized the neck in both his hands, and, putting out all his
strength (for he was a strong man), he twisted it till it broke with a
snap, and after a few wild and convulsive bounds and struggles the great
bird lay dead.

Then he sank down dazed and exhausted, and surveyed the scene. The
ostrich was perfectly quiet, and would never kick again, and the lady
too was quiet. He wondered vaguely if the brute had killed her--he was
as yet too weak to go and see--and then fell to gazing at her face. Her
head was pillowed on the body of the dead bird, and its feathery plumes
made it a fitting resting-place. Slowly it dawned on him that the face
was very beautiful, although it looked so pale just now. Low broad brow,
crowned with soft yellow hair, the chin very round and white, the mouth
sweet though rather large. The eyes he could not see, because they
were closed, for the lady had fainted. For the rest, she was quite
young--about twenty, tall and finely formed. Presently he felt a little
better, and, creeping towards her (for he was sadly knocked about), took
her hand and began to chafe it between his own. It was a well-formed
hand, but brown, and showed signs of doing plenty of hard work. Soon she
opened her eyes, and he noted with satisfaction that they were very good
eyes, blue in colour. Then she sat up and laughed a little.

"Well, I am silly," she said; "I believe I fainted."

"It is not much to be wondered at," said John Niel politely, and lifting
his hand to take off his hat, only to find that it had gone in the fray.
"I hope you are not very much hurt by the bird."

"I don't know," she said doubtfully. "But I am glad that you killed the
_skellum_ (vicious beast). He got out of the ostrich camp three days
ago, and has been lost ever since. He killed a boy last year, and I told
uncle he ought to shoot him then, but he would not, because he was such
a beauty."

"Might I ask," said John Niel, "are you Miss Croft?"

"Yes, I am--one of them. There are two of us, you know; and I can guess
who you are--you are Captain Niel, whom uncle is expecting to help him
with the farm and the ostriches."

"If all of them are like that," he said, pointing to the dead bird, "I
don't think that I shall take kindly to ostrich farming."

She laughed, showing a charming line of teeth. "Oh no," she said,
"he was the only bad one--but, Captain Niel, I think you will find it
fearfully dull. There are nothing but Boers about here, you know. No
English people live nearer than Wakkerstroom."

"You overlook yourself," he said, bowing; for really this daughter of
the wilderness had a very charming air about her.

"Oh," she answered, "I am only a girl, you know, and besides, I am
not clever. Jess, now--that's my sister--Jess has been at school at
Capetown, and she _is_ clever. I was at Cape Town, too, though I didn't
learn much there. But, Captain Niel, both the horses have bolted; mine
has gone home, and I expect yours has followed, and I should like to
know how we are going to get up to Mooifontein--beautiful fountain,
that's what we call our place, you know. Can you walk?"

"I don't know," he answered doubtfully; "I'll try. That bird has knocked
me about a good deal," and accordingly he staggered on to his legs, only
to collapse with an exclamation of pain. His ankle was sprained, and
he was so stiff and bruised that he could hardly stir. "How far is the
house?" he asked.

"Only about a mile--just there; we shall see it from the crest of the
rise. Look, I'm all right. It was silly to faint, but he kicked all the
breath out of me," and she got up and danced a little on the grass to
show him. "My word, though, I am sore! You must take my arm, that's all;
that is if you don't mind?"

"Oh dear no, indeed, I don't mind," he said laughing; and so they
started, arm affectionately linked in arm.



CHAPTER II

HOW THE SISTERS CAME TO MOOIFONTEIN

"Captain Niel," said Bessie Croft--for she was named Bessie--when they
had painfully limped one hundred yards or so, "will you think me rude if
I ask you a question?"

"Not at all."

"What has induced you to come and bury yourself in this place?"

"Why do you ask?"

"Because I don't think that you will like it. I don't think," she added
slowly, "that it is a fit place for an English gentleman and an army
officer like you. You will find the Boer ways horrid, and then there
will only be my old uncle and us two for you to associate with."

John Niel laughed. "English gentlemen are not so particular nowadays, I
can assure you, Miss Croft, especially when they have to earn a living.
Take my case, for instance, for I may as well tell you exactly how I
stand. I have been in the army fourteen years, and I am now thirty-four.
Well, I have been able to live there because I had an old aunt who
allowed me 120 pounds a year. Six months ago she died, leaving me the
little property she possessed, for most of her income came from an
annuity. After paying expenses, duty, &c., it amounts to 1,115 pounds.
Now, the interest on this is about fifty pounds a year, and I can't live
in the army on that. Just after my aunt's death I came to Durban with
my regiment from Mauritius, and now they are ordered home. Well, I liked
the country, and I knew that I could not afford to live in England, so I
got a year's leave of absence, and made up my mind to have a look round
to see if I could not take to farming. Then a gentleman in Durban told
me of your uncle, and said that he wanted to dispose of a third interest
in his place for a thousand pounds, as he was getting too old to manage
it himself. So I entered into correspondence with him, and agreed to
come up for a few months to see how I liked it; and accordingly here I
am, just in time to save you from being knocked to bits by an ostrich."

"Yes, indeed," she answered, laughing; "you've had a warm welcome at any
rate. Well, I hope you _will_ like it."

Just as he finished his story they reached the top of the rise over
which the ostrich had pursued Bessie Croft, and saw a Kafir coming
towards them, leading the pony with one hand and Captain Niel's horse
with the other. About twenty yards behind the horses a lady was walking.

"Ah," said Bessie, "they've caught the horses, and here is Jess come to
see what is the matter."

By this time the lady in question was quite close, so that John was able
to gather a first impression of her. She was small and rather thin, with
quantities of curling brown hair; not by any means a lovely woman,
as her sister undoubtedly was, but possessing two very remarkable
characteristics--a complexion of extraordinary and uniform pallor, and a
pair of the most beautiful dark eyes he had ever looked on. Altogether,
though her size was almost insignificant, she was a striking-looking
person, with a face few men would easily forget. Before he had time to
observe any more the two parties had met.

"What on earth is the matter, Bessie?" Jess said, with a quick glance
at her sister's companion, and speaking in a low full voice, with just
a slight South African accent, that is taking enough in a pretty woman.
Thereon Bessie broke out with a history of their adventure, appealing to
Captain Niel for confirmation at intervals.

Meanwhile Jess Croft stood quite still and silent, and it struck John
that her face was the most singularly impassive one he had ever seen. It
never changed, even when her sister told her how the ostrich rolled on
her and nearly killed her, or how they finally subdued the foe. "Dear
me," he thought to herself, "what a very strange woman! She can't have
much heart." But just as he thought it the girl looked up, and then he
saw where the expression lay. It was in those remarkable eyes. Immovable
as was her face, the dark eyes were alight with life and a suppressed
excitement that made them shine gloriously. The contrast between the
shining eyes and the impassive face beneath them struck him as so
extraordinary as to be almost uncanny. As a matter of fact, it was
doubtless both unusual and remarkable.

"You have had a wonderful escape, but I am sorry for the bird," she said
at last.

"Why?" asked John.

"Because we were great friends. I was the only person who could manage
him."

"Yes," put in Bessie, "the savage brute would follow her about like a
dog. It was just the oddest thing I ever saw. But come on; we must be
getting home, it's growing dark. Mouti"--which, being interpreted, means
Medicine--she added, addressing the Kafir in Zulu--"help Captain Niel
on to his horse. Be careful that the saddle does not twist round; the
girths may be loose."

Thus adjured, John, with the help of the Zulu, clambered into his
saddle, an example that the lady quickly followed, and they set off once
more through the gathering darkness. Presently he became aware that they
were passing up a drive bordered by tall blue gums, and next minute the
barking of a large dog, which he afterwards knew by the name of Stomp,
and the sudden appearance of lighted windows told him that they had
reached the house. At the door--or rather, opposite to it, for there
was a verandah in front--they halted and got off their horses. As they
dismounted there came a shout of welcome from the house, and presently
in the doorway, showing out clearly against the light, appeared a
striking and, in its way, a most pleasant figure. He--for it was a
man--was very tall, or, rather, he had been very tall. Now he was much
bent with age and rheumatism. His long white hair hung low upon his
neck, and fell back from a prominent brow. The top of the head was
quite bald, like the tonsure of a priest, and shone and glistened in the
lamplight, and round this oasis the thin white locks fell down. The
face was shrivelled like the surface of a well-kept apple, and, like
an apple, rosy red. The features were aquiline and strongly marked; the
eyebrows still black and very bushy, and beneath them shone a pair
of grey eyes, keen and bright as those of a hawk. But for all its
sharpness, there was nothing unpleasant or fierce about the face; on
the contrary, it was pervaded by a remarkable air of good-nature and
pleasant shrewdness. For the rest, the man was dressed in rough tweed
clothes, tall riding-boots, and held a broad-brimmed Boer hunting hat in
his hand. Such, as John Niel first saw him, was the outer person of old
Silas Croft, one of the most remarkable men in the Transvaal.

"Is that you, Captain Niel?" roared out the stentorian voice. "The
natives said you were coming. A welcome to you! I am glad to see
you--very glad. Why, what is the matter with you?" he went on as the
Zulu Mouti ran to help him off his horse.

"Matter, Mr. Croft?" answered John; "why, the matter is that your
favourite ostrich has nearly killed me and your niece here, and that I
have killed your favourite ostrich."

Then followed explanations from Bessie, during which he was helped off
his horse and into the house.

"It serves me right," said the old man. "To think of it now, just to
think of it! Well, Bessie, my love, thank God that you escaped--ay, and
you too, Captain Niel. Here, you boys, take the Scotch cart and a
couple of oxen and go and fetch the brute home. We may as well have the
feathers off him, at any rate, before the _aasvogels_ (vultures) tear
him to bits."

After he had washed himself and tended his injuries with arnica and
water, John managed to limp into the principal sitting-room, where
supper was waiting. It was a very pleasant room, furnished in European
style, and carpeted with mats made of springbuck skins. In the corner
stood a piano, and by it a bookcase, filled with the works of standard
authors, the property, as John rightly guessed, of Bessie's sister Jess.

Supper went off pleasantly enough, and after it was over the two girls
sang and played whilst the men smoked. And here a fresh surprise awaited
him, for after Bessie, who apparently had now almost recovered from her
mauling, had played a piece or two creditably enough, Jess, who so
far had been nearly silent, sat down at the piano. She did not do
this willingly, indeed, for it was not until her patriarchal uncle had
insisted in his ringing, cheery voice that she should let Captain Niel
hear how she could sing that she consented. But at last she did consent,
and then, after letting her fingers stray somewhat aimlessly along the
chords, she suddenly broke out into such song as John Niel had never
heard before. Her voice, beautiful as it was, was not what is known as
a cultivated voice, and it was a German song, therefore he did not
understand it, but there was no need of words to translate its burden.
Passion, despairing yet hoping through despair, echoed in its every
line, and love, unending love, hovered over the glorious notes--nay,
possessed them like a spirit, and made them his. Up! up! rang her wild
sweet voice, thrilling his nerves till they answered to the music as an
Aeolian harp answers to the winds. On went the song with a divine sweep,
like the sweep of rushing pinions; higher, yet higher it soared, lifting
up the listener's heart far above the world on the trembling wings
of sound--ay, even higher, till the music hung at heaven's gate, and
falling thence, swiftly as an eagle falls, quivered, and was dead.

John sighed, and so strongly was he moved, sank back in his chair,
feeling almost faint with the revulsion of feeling that ensued when the
notes had died away. He looked up, and saw Bessie watching him with
an air of curiosity and amusement. Jess was still leaning against the
piano, and gently touching the notes, over which her head was bent low,
showing the coils of curling hair that were twisted round it like a
coronet.

"Well, Captain Niel," said the old man, waving his pipe in her
direction, "and what do you say to my singing-bird's music, eh? Isn't it
enough to draw the heart out of a man, eh, and turn his marrow to water,
eh?"

"I never heard anything quite like it," he answered simply, "and I have
heard most singers. It is beautiful. Certainly, I never expected to hear
such singing in the Transvaal."

Jess turned quickly, and he observed that, though her eyes were alight
with excitement, her face was as impassive as ever.

"There is no need for you to laugh at me, Captain Niel," she said
quickly, and then, with an abrupt "Good-night," she left the room.

The old man smiled, jerked the stem of his pipe over his shoulder after
her, and winked in a way that, no doubt, meant unutterable things, but
which did not convey much to his astonished guest, who sat still and
said nothing. Then Bessie rose and bade him good-night in her pleasant
voice, and with housewifely care inquired as to whether his room was to
his taste, and how many blankets he liked upon his bed, telling him that
if he found the odour of the moonflowers which grew near the verandah
too strong, he had better shut the right-hand window and open that on
the other side of the room. Then at length, with a piquant little nod of
her golden head, she went off, looking, John thought as he watched
her retreating figure, about as healthy, graceful, and generally
satisfactory a young woman as a man could wish to see.

"Take a glass of grog, Captain Niel," said the old man, pushing the
square bottle towards him, "you'll need it after the mauling that brute
gave you. By the way, I haven't thanked you for saving my Bessie! But
I do thank you, yes, that I do. I must tell you that Bessie is my
favourite niece. Never was there such a girl--never. Moves like a
springbuck, and what an eye and form! Work too--she'll do as much work
as three. There's no nonsense about Bessie, none at all. She's not a
fine lady, for all her fine looks."

"The two sisters seem very different," said John.

"Ay, you're right there," answered the old man. "You'd never think
that the same blood ran in their veins, would you? There's three years
between them, that's one thing. Bessie's the youngest, you see--she's
just twenty, and Jess is twenty-three. Lord, to think that it is
twenty-three years since that girl was born! And theirs is a queer story
too."

"Indeed?" said his listener interrogatively.

"Ay," Silas went on absently, knocking out his pipe, and refilling it
from a big brown jar of coarse-cut Boer tobacco, "I'll tell it to you if
you like: you are going to live in the house, and you may as well know
it. I am sure, Captain Niel, that it will go no further. You see I
was born in England, yes, and well-born too. I come from
Cambridgeshire--from the fat fen-land down round Ely. My father was a
clergyman. Well, he wasn't rich, and when I was twenty he gave me his
blessing, thirty sovereigns in my pocket, and my passage to the Cape;
and I shook his hand, God bless him, and off I came, and here in the old
colony and this country I have been for fifty years, for I was seventy
yesterday. Well, I'll tell you more about that another time, it's of the
girls I'm speaking now. After I left home--some years after--my dear
old father married again, a youngish woman with some money, but rather
beneath him in life, and by her he had one son, and then died. Well, it
was but little I heard of my half-brother, except that he had turned
out very badly, married, and taken to drink, till one night some twelve
years ago, when a strange thing happened. I was sitting here in this
very room, ay, in this very chair--for this part of the house was up
then, though the wings weren't built--smoking my pipe, and listening to
the lashing of the rain, for it was a very foul night, when suddenly an
old pointer dog I had, named Ben, began to bark.

"'Lie down, Ben, it's only the Kafirs,' said I.

"Just then I thought I heard a faint sort of rapping at the door, and
Ben barked again, so I got up and opened it, and in came two little
girls wrapped in old shawls or some such gear. Well, I shut the door,
looking first to see if there were any more outside, and then I turned
and stared at the two little things with my mouth open. There they
stood, hand in hand, the water dripping from both of them; the elder
might have been eleven, and the second about eight years old. They
didn't say anything, but the elder turned and took the shawl and hat off
the younger--that was Bessie--and there was her sweet little face and
her golden hair, and damp enough both of them were, and she put her
thumb in her mouth, and stood and looked at me till I began to think
that I was dreaming.

"'Please, sir,' said the taller at last, 'is this Mr. Croft's house--Mr.
Croft--South African Republic?'

"'Yes, little Miss, this is his house, and this is the South African
Republic, and I am he. And now who might you be, my dears?' I answered.

"'If you please, sir, we are your nieces, and we have come to you from
England.'

"'What!' I holloaed, startled out of my wits, as well I might be.

"'Oh, sir,' says the poor little thing, clasping her thin wet hands,
'please don't send us away. Bessie is so wet, and cold and hungry too,
she isn't fit to go any farther.'

"And she set to work to cry, whereon the little one cried also, from
fright and cold and sympathy.

"Well, of course, I took them both to the fire, and set them on my
knees, and called for Hebe, the old Hottentot woman who did my cooking,
and between us we undressed them, and wrapped them up in some old
clothes, and fed them with soup and wine, so that in half an hour they
were quite happy and not a bit frightened.

"'And now, young ladies,' I said, 'come and give me a kiss, both of you,
and tell me how you came here.'

"This is the tale they told me--completed, of course, from what I learnt
afterwards--and an odd one it is. It seems that my half-brother married
a Norfolk lady--a sweet young thing--and treated her like a dog. He was
a drunken rascal, was my half-brother, and he beat his poor wife and
shamefully neglected her, and even ill-used the two little girls, till
at last the poor woman, weak as she was from suffering and ill health,
could bear it no longer, and formed the wild idea of escaping to this
country and of throwing herself upon my protection. That shows how
desperate she must have been. She scraped together and borrowed some
money, enough to pay for three second-class passages to Natal and a few
pounds over, and one day, when her brute of a husband was away on the
drink and gamble, she slipped on board a sailing ship in the London
Docks, and before he knew anything about it they were well out to sea.
But it was her last effort, poor dear soul, and the excitement of it
finished her. Before they had been ten days at sea, she sank and
died, and the two little children were left alone. What they must have
suffered, or rather what poor Jess must have suffered, for she was old
enough to feel, God only knows, but I can tell you this, she has never
got over the shock to this hour. It has left its mark on her, sir.
Still, let people say what they will, there is a Power who looks after
the helpless, and that Power took those poor, homeless, wandering
children under its wing. The captain of the vessel befriended them,
and when at last they reached Durban some of the passengers made a
subscription, and paid an old Boer, who was coming up this way with his
wife to the Transvaal, to take them under his charge. The Boer and his
_vrouw_ treated the children fairly well, but they did not do one thing
more than they bargained for. At the turn from the Wakkerstroom road,
that you came along to-day, they put the girls down, for they had no
luggage with them, and told them that if they went along there they
would come to _Meinheer_ Croft's house. That was in the middle of the
afternoon, and they were till eight o'clock getting here, poor little
dears, for the track was fainter then than it is now, and they wandered
off into the veldt, and would have perished there in the wet and cold
had they not chanced to see the lights of the house. That was how my
nieces came here, Captain Niel, and here they have been ever since,
except for a couple of years when I sent them to the Cape for schooling,
and a lonely man I was when they were away."

"And how about the father?" asked John Niel, deeply interested. "Did you
ever hear any more of him?"

"Hear of him, the villain!" almost shouted the old man, jumping up in
wrath. "Ay, d--n him, I heard of him. What do you think? The two chicks
had been with me some eighteen months, long enough for me to learn to
love them with all my heart, when one fine morning, as I was seeing
about the new kraal wall, I saw a fellow come riding up on an old
raw-boned grey horse. Up he comes to me, and as he came I looked at
him, and said to myself, 'You are a drunkard you are, and a rogue, it's
written on your face, and, what's more, I know your face.' You see I did
not guess that it was a son of my own father that I was looking at. How
should I?

"'Is your name Croft?' he said.

"'Ay,' I answered.

"'So is mine,' he went on with a sort of drunken leer. 'I'm your
brother.'

"'Are you?' I said, beginning to get my back up, for I guessed what his
game was, 'and what may you be after? I tell you at once, and to your
face, that if you are my brother you are a blackguard, and I don't want
to know you or have anything to do with you; and if you are not, I beg
your pardon for coupling you with such a scoundrel.'

"'Oh, that's your tune, is it?' he said with a sneer. 'Well, now,
my dear brother Silas, I want my children. They have got a little
half-brother at home--for I have married again, Silas--who is anxious to
have them to play with, so if you will be so good as to hand them over,
I'll take them away at once.'

"'You'll take them away, will you?' said I, all of a tremble with rage
and fear.

"'Yes, Silas, I will. They are mine by law, and I am not going to
breed children for you to have the comfort of their society. I've taken
advice, Silas, and that's sound law,' and he leered at me again.

"I stood and looked at that man, and thought of how he had treated those
poor children and their young mother, and my blood boiled, and I grew
mad. Without another word I jumped over the half-finished wall, and
caught him by the leg (for I was a strong man ten years ago) and jerked
him off the horse. As he came down he dropped the _sjambock_ from his
hand, and I laid hold of it and then and there gave him the soundest
hiding a man ever had. Lord, how he did holloa! When I was tired I let
him get up.

"'Now,' I said, 'be off with you, and if you come back here I'll bid the
Kafirs hunt you to Natal with their sticks. This is the South African
Republic, and we don't care overmuch about law here.' Which we didn't in
those days.

"'All right, Silas,' he said, 'all right, you shall pay for this.
I'll have those children, and, for your sake, I'll make their lives
a hell--you mark my words--South African Republic or no South African
Republic. I've got the law on my side.'

"Off he rode, cursing and swearing, and I flung his _sjambock_ after
him. This was the first and last time that I saw my brother."

"What became of him?" asked John Niel.

"I'll tell you, just to show you again that there is a Power which keeps
such men in its eye. He rode back to Newcastle that night, and went
about the canteen there abusing me, and getting drunker and drunker,
till at last the canteen keeper sent for his boys to turn him out. Well,
the boys were rough, as Kafirs are apt to be with a drunken white man,
and he struggled and fought, and in the middle of it the blood began to
run from his mouth, and he dropped down dead of a broken blood-vessel,
and there was an end of him. That is the story of the two girls, Captain
Niel, and now I am off to bed. To-morrow I'll show you round the farm,
and we will have a talk about business. Good-night to you, Captain Niel.
Good-night!"



CHAPTER III

MR. FRANK MULLER

John Niel woke early the next morning, feeling as sore and stiff
as though he had been well beaten and then wrapped up tight in
horse-girths. He made shift, however, to dress himself, and then, with
the help of a stick, limped through the French windows that opened from
his room on to the verandah, and surveyed the scene before him. It was
a delightful spot. At the back of the stead was the steep boulder-strewn
face of the flat-topped hill that curved round on each side, embosoming
a great slope of green, in the lap of which the house was placed. It
was very solidly built of brown stone, and, with the exception of the
waggon-shed and other outbuildings which were roofed with galvanised
iron, that shone and glistened in the rays of the morning sun in a way
that would have made an eagle blink, was covered with rich brown thatch.
All along its front ran a wide verandah, up the trellis-work of which
green vines and blooming creepers trailed pleasantly, and beyond was the
broad carriage-drive of red soil, bordered with bushy orange-trees laden
with odorous flowers and green and golden fruit. On the farther side
of the orange-trees were the gardens, fenced in with low walls of rough
stone, and the orchard planted with standard fruit-trees, and beyond
these again the oxen and ostrich kraals, the latter full of long-necked
birds. To the right of the house grew thriving plantations of blue-gum
and black wattle, and to the left was a broad stretch of cultivated
lands, lying so that they could be irrigated for winter crops by means
of water led from the great spring that gushed out of the mountain-side
high above the house, and gave its name of Mooifontein to the place.

All these and many more things John Niel saw as he looked out from the
verandah at Mooifontein, but for the moment at any rate they were lost
in the wild and wonderful beauty of the panorama that rolled away for
miles and miles at his feet, till it was bounded by the mighty range of
the Drakensberg to the left, tipped here and there with snow, and by the
dim and vast horizon of the swelling Transvaal plains to the right and
far in front of him. It was a beautiful sight, and one to make the blood
run in a man's veins, and his heart beat happily because he was alive
to see it. Mile upon mile of grass-clothed veldt beneath, bending and
rippling like a corn-field in the quick breath of the morning, space
upon space of deep-blue sky overhead with ne'er a cloud to dim it, and
the swift rush of the wind between. Then to the left there, impressive
to look on and conducive to solemn thoughts, the mountains rear their
crests against the sky, and, crowned with the gathered snows of the
centuries whose monuments they are, from aeon to aeon gaze majestically
out over the wide plains and the ephemeral ant-like races who tread
them, and while they endure think themselves the masters of their little
world. And over all--mountain, plain, and flashing stream--the glorious
light of the African sun and the Spirit of Life moving now as it once
moved upon the darkling waters.

John stood and gazed at the untamed beauty of the scene, in his mind
comparing it to many cultivated prospects which he had known, and coming
to the conclusion that, however desirable the presence of civilised man
might be in the world, it could not be said that his operations really
add to its beauty. For the old line, "Nature unadorned adorned the
most," still remains true in more senses than one.

Presently his reflections were interrupted by the step of Silas
Croft, which, notwithstanding his age and bent frame, still rang firm
enough--and he turned to greet him.

"Well, Captain Niel," said the old man, "up already! It looks well if
you mean to take to farming. Yes, it's a pretty view, and a pretty place
too. Well, I made it. Twenty-five years ago I rode up here and saw this
spot. Look, you see that rock there behind the house? I slept under it
and woke at sunrise and looked out at this beautiful scene and at the
great veldt (it was all alive with game then), and I said to myself,
'Silas, for five-and-twenty years have you wandered about this great
country, and now you are getting tired of it; you've never seen a fairer
spot than this or a healthier; be a wise man and stop here.' And so I
did. I bought the 3,000 _morgen_ (6,000 acres), more or less, for 10
pounds down and a case of gin, and I set to work to make this place, and
you see I have made it. Ay, it has grown under my hand, every stone and
tree of it, and you know what that means in a new country. But one way
or another I have done it, and now I have grown too old to manage it,
and that's how I came to give out that I wanted a partner, as Mr. Snow
told you down in Durban. You see, I told Snow it must be a gentleman; I
don't care much about the money, I'll take a thousand for a third share
if I can get a gentleman--none of your Boers or mean whites for me. I
tell you I have had enough of Boers and their ways; the best day of my
life was when old Shepstone ran up the Union Jack there in Pretoria and
I could call myself an Englishman once more. Lord! and to think that
there are men who are subjects of the Queen and want to be subjects of
a Republic again--Mad! Captain Niel, I tell you, quite mad! However,
there's an end of it all now. You know what Sir Garnet Wolseley told
them in the name of the Queen up at the Vaal River, that this country
would remain English until the sun stood still in the heavens and the
waters of the Vaal ran backwards.[*] That's good enough for me, for, as
I tell these grumbling fellows who want the land back now that we have
paid their debts and defeated their enemies, no English government is
false to its word, or breaks engagements solemnly entered into by its
representatives. We leave that sort of thing to foreigners. No, no,
Captain Niel, I would not ask you to take a share in this place if I
wasn't sure that it would remain under the British flag. But we will
talk of all this another time, and now come in to breakfast."

[*] A fact.--Author.

After breakfast, as John was far too lame to walk about the farm, the
fair Bessie suggested that he should come and help her to wash a batch
of ostrich feathers, and, accordingly, off he went. The _locus operandi_
was in a space of lawn at the rear of a little clump of _naatche_
orange-trees, of which the fruit is like that of the Maltese orange,
only larger. Here were placed an ordinary washing-tub half-filled with
warm water, and a tin bath full of cold. The ostrich feathers, many of
which were completely coated with red dirt, were plunged first into the
tub of warm water, where John Niel scrubbed them with soap, and then
transferred to the tin bath, where Bessie rinsed them and laid them on
a sheet in the sun to dry. The morning was very pleasant, and John soon
came to the conclusion that there are many more disagreeable occupations
in the world than the washing of ostrich feathers with a lovely girl to
help you. For there was no doubt but that Bessie was lovely, looking a
very type of happy, healthy womanhood as she sat opposite to him on the
little stool, her sleeves rolled up almost to the shoulder, showing
a pair of arms that would not have disgraced a statue of Venus, and
laughed and chatted away as she washed the feathers. Now, John Niel was
not a susceptible man: he had gone through the fire years before and
burnt his fingers like many another confiding youngster but, all the
same, he did wonder as he knelt there and watched this fair girl, who
somehow reminded him of a rich rosebud bursting into bloom, how long
it would be possible to live in the same house with her without falling
under the spell of her charm and beauty. Then he began to think of Jess,
and of what a strange contrast the two were.

"Where is your sister?" he asked presently.

"Jess? Oh, I think that she has gone to the Lion Kloof, reading or
sketching, I don't know which. You see in this establishment I represent
labour and Jess represents intellect," and she nodded her head prettily
at him, and added, "There is a mistake somewhere, she got all the
brains."

"Ah," said John quietly, and looking up at her, "I don't think that you
are entitled to complain of the way in which Nature has treated you."

She blushed a little, more at the tone of his voice than the words, and
went on hastily, "Jess is the dearest, best, and cleverest woman in the
whole world--there. I believe that she has only one fault, and it is
that she thinks too much about me. Uncle said that he had told you how
we came here first when I was eight years old. Well, I remember that
when we lost our way on the veldt that night, and it rained so and was
so cold, Jess took off her own shawl and wrapped it round me over my
own. Well, it has been just like that with her always. I am always to
have the shawl--everything is to give way to me. But there, that is Jess
all over; she is very cold, cold as a stone I sometimes think, but when
she does care for anybody it is enough to frighten one. I don't know a
great number of women, but somehow I do not think that there can be many
in the world like Jess. She is too good for this place; she ought to go
away to England and write books and become a famous woman, only----"
she added reflectively, "I am afraid that Jess's books would all be sad
ones."

Just then Bessie stopped talking and suddenly changed colour, the bunch
of lank wet feathers she held in her hand dropping from it with a little
splash back into the bath. Following her glance, John looked down the
avenue of blue-gum trees and perceived a big man with a broad hat and
mounted on a splendid black horse, cantering leisurely towards the
house.

"Who is that, Miss Croft?" he asked.

"It is a man I don't like," she said with a little stamp of her foot.
"His name is Frank Muller, and he is half a Boer and half an Englishman.
He is very rich, and very clever, and owns all the land round this
place, so uncle has to be civil to him, though he does not like him
either. I wonder what he wants now."

On came the horse, and John thought that its rider was going to pass
without seeing them, when suddenly the movement of Bessie's dress
between the _naatche_ trees caught his eye, and he pulled up and looked
round. He was a large and exceedingly handsome man, apparently about
forty years old, with clear-cut features, cold, light-blue eyes, and a
remarkable golden beard that hung down over his chest. For a Boer he
was rather smartly dressed in English-made tweed clothes, and tall
riding-boots.

"Ah, Miss Bessie," he called out in English, "there you are, with your
pretty arms all bare. I'm in luck to be just in time to see them. Shall
I come and help you to wash the feathers? Only say the word, now----"

Just then he caught sight of John Niel, checked himself, and added:

"I have come to look for a black ox, branded with a heart and a 'W'
inside of the heart. Do you know if your uncle has seen it on the place
anywhere?"

"No, _Meinheer_ Muller," replied Bessie, coldly, "but he is down there,"
pointing at a kraal on the plain some half-mile away, "if you want to go
and ask about it."

"_Mr._ Muller," said he, by way of correction, and with a curious
contraction of the brow. "'_Meinheer_' is very well for the Boers, but
we are all Englishmen now. Well, the ox can wait. With your permission,
I'll stop here till _Oom_ Croft (Uncle Croft) comes back," and, without
further ado, he jumped off his horse and, slipping the reins over its
head as an indication to it to stand still, advanced towards Bessie with
an outstretched hand. As he came the young lady plunged both her arms
up to the elbow in the bath, and it struck John, who was observing the
scene closely, that she did this in order to avoid the necessity of
shaking hands with her stalwart visitor.

"Sorry my hands are wet," she said, giving him a cold little nod. "Let
me introduce you, Mr. (with emphasis) Frank Muller--Captain Niel--who
has come to help my uncle with the place."

John stretched out his hand and Muller shook it.

"Captain," he said interrogatively--"a ship captain, I suppose?"

"No," said John, "a Captain of the English Army."

"Oh, a _rooibaatje_ (red jacket). Well, I don't wonder at your taking to
farming after the Zulu war."

"I don't quite understand you," said John, rather coldly.

"Oh, no offence, Captain, no offence. I only meant that you
_rooibaatjes_ did not come very well out of that war. I was there with
Piet Uys, and it was a sight, I can tell you. A Zulu had only to show
himself at night and one would see your regiments _skreck_ (stampede)
like a span of oxen when they wind a lion. And then they'd fire--ah,
they did fire--anyhow, anywhere, but mostly at the clouds, there was no
stopping them; and so, you see, I thought that you would like to turn
your sword into a ploughshare, as the Bible says--but no offence, I'm
sure--no offence."

All this while John Niel, being English to his backbone, and cherishing
the reputation of his profession almost as dearly as his own honour,
was boiling with inward wrath, which was all the fiercer because he knew
there was some truth in the Boer's insults. He had the sense, however,
to keep his temper--outwardly, at any rate.

"I was not in the Zulu war, Mr. Muller," he said, and just then old
Silas Croft rode up, and the conversation dropped.

Mr. Frank Muller stopped to dinner and far on into the afternoon, for
his lost ox seemed to have entirely slipped his memory. There he sat
close to the fair Bessie, smoking and drinking gin-water, and talking
with great volubility in English sprinkled with Boer-Dutch terms that
John Niel did not understand, and gazing at the young lady in a manner
which John somehow found unpleasant. Of course it was no affair of his,
and he had no interest in the matter, but for all that he thought this
remarkable-looking Dutchman exceedingly disagreeable. At last, indeed,
he could bear it no longer, and hobbled out for a little walk with Jess,
who, in her abrupt way, offered to show him the garden.

"You don't like that man?" she said to him, as they went slowly down the
slope in front of the house.

"No; do you?"

"I think," replied Jess quietly, but with much emphasis, "that he is
the most odious man I ever saw--and the most curious." Then she relapsed
into silence, only broken now and again by an occasional remark about
the flowers and trees.

Half an hour afterwards, when they arrived again at the top of the
slope, Mr. Muller was just riding off down the avenue of blue gums. By
the verandah stood a Hottentot named Jantje, who had been holding the
Dutchman's horse. He was a curious, wizened-up little fellow, dressed
in rags, and with hair like the worn tags of a black woollen carpet.
His age might have been anything between twenty-five and sixty; it was
impossible to form any opinion on the point. Just now, however,
his yellow monkey face was convulsed with an expression of intense
malignity, and he was standing there in the sunshine cursing rapidly
beneath his breath in Dutch, and shaking his fist after the form of the
retreating Boer--a very epitome of impotent but overmastering passion.

"What is he doing?" asked John.

Jess laughed, and answered, "Jantje does not like Frank Muller any more
than I do, but I don't know why. He will never tell me."



CHAPTER IV

BESSIE IS ASKED IN MARRIAGE

In due course John Niel recovered from his sprained ankle and the other
injuries inflicted on him by the infuriated cock ostrich (it is, by the
way, a humiliating thing to be knocked out of time by a feathered fowl),
and set to work to learn the routine of farm life. He did not find this
a disagreeable task, especially when he had so fair an instructress as
Bessie, who knew all about it, to show him the way in which he should
go. Naturally of an energetic and hard-working temperament, he very soon
fell more or less into the swing of the thing, and at the end of six
weeks began to talk quite learnedly of cattle and ostriches and sweet
and sour veldt. About once a week or so Bessie used to put him through
a regular examination as to his progress; also she gave him lessons in
Dutch and Zulu, both of which tongues she spoke to perfection; so
it will be seen that John did not lack for pleasant and profitable
employment. Also, as time went on he grew much attached to Silas Croft.
The old gentleman, with his handsome, honest face, his large and varied
stock of experience and his sturdy English character, made a great
impression on his mind. He had never met a man quite like him before.
Nor was this friendship unreciprocated, for his host took a wonderful
fancy to John Niel.

"You see, my dear," he explained to his niece Bessie, "he is quiet, and
he doesn't know much about farming, but he's willing to learn, and such
a gentleman. Now, where one has Kafirs to deal with, as on a place
like this, you must have a _gentleman_. Your mean white will never get
anything out of a Kafir; that's why the Boers kill them and flog them,
because they can't get anything out of them without. But you see Captain
Niel gets on well enough with the 'boys.' I think he'll do, my dear,
I think he'll do," and Bessie quite agreed with him. And so it came to
pass that after this six weeks' trial the bargain was struck finally,
and John paid over his thousand pounds, becoming the owner of a third
interest in Mooifontein.

Now it is not possible, in a general way, for a man of John Niel's age
to live in the same house with a young and lovely woman like Bessie
Croft without running more or less risk of entanglement. Especially
is this so when the two people have little or no outside society or
distraction to divert their attention from each other. Not that there
was, at any rate as yet, the slightest hint of affection between them.
Only they liked one another very much, and found it pleasant to be a
good deal together. In short, they were walking along that easy, winding
road which leads to the mountain paths of love. It is a very broad road,
like another road that runs elsewhere, and, also like this last, it has
a wide gate. Sometimes, too, it leads to destruction. But for all that
it is a most agreeable one to follow hand-in-hand, winding as it does
through the pleasant meadows of companionship. The view is rather
limited, it is true, and homelike--full of familiar things. There stand
the kine, knee-deep in grass; there runs the water; and there grows
the corn. Also you can stop if you like. By-and-by it is different.
By-and-by, when the travellers tread the heights of passion, precipices
will yawn and torrents rush, lightnings will fall and storms will blind;
and who can know that they shall attain at last to that far-off peak,
crowned with the glory of a perfect peace which men call Happiness?
There are those who say it never can be reached, and that the halo which
rests upon its slopes is no earthly light, but rather, as it were, a
promise and a beacon--a glow reflected whence we know not, and lying on
this alien earth as the sun's light lies on the dead bosom of the moon.
Some declare, again, that they have climbed its topmost pinnacle
and tasted of the fresh breath of heaven which sweeps around its
heights--ay, and heard the quiring of immortal harps and the swan-like
sigh of angels' wings; and then behold! a mist has fallen upon them, and
they have wandered in it, and when it cleared they were on the mountain
paths once more, and the peak was far away. And a few there are who tell
us that they live there always, listening to the voice of God; but
these are old and worn with journeying--men and women who have outlived
passions and ambitions and the fire heats of love, and who now, girt
about with memories, stand face to face with the sphinx Eternity.

But John Niel was no chicken, nor very likely to fall in love with the
first pretty face he met. He had once, years ago, gone through that
melancholy stage, and there, he thought, was an end of it. Moreover, if
Bessie attracted him, so did Jess in a different way. Before he had
been a week in the house he came to the conclusion that Jess was the
strangest woman he had ever met, and in her own fashion one of the most
attractive. Her very impassiveness added to her charm; for who is there
in this world who is not eager to learn a secret? To him Jess was
a riddle of which he did not know the key. That she was clever and
well-informed he soon discovered from her rare remarks; that she could
sing like an angel he also knew; but what was the mainspring of her
mind--round what axis did it revolve--this was the puzzle. Clearly
enough it was not like most women's, least of all like that of happy,
healthy, plain-sailing Bessie. So curious did he become to fathom these
mysteries that he took every opportunity to associate with her, and,
when he had time, would even go out with her on her sketching, or rather
flower-painting, expeditions. On these occasions she would sometimes
begin to talk, but it was always about books, or England or some
intellectual question. She never spoke of herself.

Yet it soon became evident to John that she liked his society, and
missed him when he did not come. It never occurred to him what a boon
it was to a girl of considerable intellectual attainments, and still
greater intellectual capacities and aspirations, to be thrown for the
first time into the society of a cultivated and intelligent gentleman.
John Niel was no empty-headed, one-sided individual. He had both read
and thought, and even written a little, and in him Jess found a mind
which, though of an inferior stamp, was more or less kindred to her own.
Although he did not understand her she understood him, and at last, had
he but known it, there rose a far-off dawning light upon the twilight
of her heart that thrilled and changed it as the first faint rays of
morning thrill and change the darkness of the night. What if she should
learn to love this man, and teach him to love her? To most women such a
thought more or less involves the idea of marriage, and that change of
status which for the most part they consider desirable. But Jess did not
think much of that: what she did think of was the blessed possibility of
being able to lay down her life, as it were, in the life of another--of
at last finding somebody who understood her and whom she could
understand, who would cut the shackles that bound down the wings of
her genius, so that she could rise and bear him with her as, in Bulwer
Lytton's beautiful story, Zoe would have borne her lover. Here at length
was a man who _understood_, who was something more than an animal, and
who possessed the god-like gift of brains, the gift that had been a
curse rather than a blessing to her, lifting her above the level of
her sex and shutting her off as by iron doors from the comprehension of
those around her. Ah! if only this perfect love of which she had read
so much would come to him and her, life might perhaps grow worth the
living.

It is a curious thing, but in such matters most men never learn wisdom
from experience. A man of John Niel's age might have guessed that it
is dangerous work playing with explosives, and that the quietest, most
harmless-looking substances are sometimes the most explosive. He might
have known that to set to work to cultivate the society of a woman with
such tell-tale eyes as Jess's was to run the risk of catching the fire
from them himself, to say nothing of setting her alight: he might have
known that to bring all the weight of his cultivated mind to bear on her
mind, to take the deepest interest in her studies, to implore her to let
him see the poetry Bessie told him she wrote, but which she would
show to no living soul, and to evince the most evident delight in her
singing, were one and all hazardous things to do. Yet he did them and
thought no harm.

As for Bessie, she was delighted that her sister should have found
anybody to whom she cared to talk or who could understand her. It never
occurred to her that Jess might fall in love. Jess was the last person
to fall in love. Nor did she calculate what the results might be to
John. As yet, at any rate, she had no interest in Captain Niel--of
course not.

And so things went on pleasantly enough to all concerned in this drama
till one fine day when the storm-clouds began to gather. John had been
about the farm as usual till dinner time, after which he took his gun
and told Jantje to saddle up his shooting pony. He was standing on the
verandah, waiting for the pony to appear, and by him was Bessie, looking
particularly attractive in a white dress, when suddenly he caught sight
of Frank Muller's great black horse, and upon it that gentleman himself,
cantering up the avenue of blue gums.

"Hullo, Miss Bessie," he said, "here comes your friend."

"Bother!" said Bessie, stamping her foot; and then, with a quick look,
"Why do you call him my friend?"

"I imagine that he considers himself so, to judge from the number of
times a week he comes to see you," John answered with a shrug. "At any
rate, he isn't mine, so I am off shooting. Good-bye. I hope that you
will enjoy yourself."

"You are not kind," she said in a low voice, turning her back upon him.

In another moment he was gone, and Frank Muller had arrived.

"How do you do, Miss Bessie?" he said, jumping from his horse with the
rapidity of a man who had been accustomed to rough riding all his life.
"Where is the _rooibaatje_ off to?"

"Captain Niel is going out shooting," she said coldly.

"So much the better for you and me, Miss Bessie. We can have a pleasant
talk. Where is that black monkey Jantje? Here, Jantje, take my horse,
you ugly devil, and mind you look after him, or I'll cut the liver out
of you!"

Jantje took the horse, with a forced grin of appreciation at the joke,
and led him off to the stable.

"I don't think that Jantje likes you, _Meinheer_ Muller," said Bessie,
spitefully, "and I do not wonder at it if you talk to him like that. He
told me the other day that he had known you for twenty years," and she
looked at him inquiringly.

This casual remark produced a strange effect on her visitor, who turned
colour beneath his tanned skin.

"He lies, the black hound," he said, "and I'll put a bullet through him
if he says it again! What should I know about him, or he about me? Can
I keep count of every miserable man-monkey I meet?" and he muttered a
string of Dutch oaths into his long beard.

"Really, _Meinheer!_" said Bessie.

"Why do you always call me '_Meinheer_'?" he asked, turning so fiercely
on her that she started back a step. "I tell you I am not a Boer. I
am an Englishman. My mother was English; and besides, thanks to Lord
Carnarvon, we are all English now."

"I don't see why you should mind being thought a Boer," she said coolly:
"there are some very good people among the Boers, and besides, you used
to be a great 'patriot.'"

"Used to be--yes; and so the trees used to bend to the north when the
wind blew that way, but now they bend to the south, for the wind
has turned. By-and-by it may set to the north again--that is another
matter--then we shall see."

Bessie made no answer beyond pursing up her pretty mouth and slowly
picking a leaf from the vine that trailed overhead.

The big Dutchman took off his hat and stroked his beard perplexedly.
Evidently he was meditating something that he was afraid to say. Twice
he fixed his cold eyes on Bessie's fair face, and twice looked down
again. The second time she took alarm.

"Excuse me one minute," she said, and made as though to enter the house.

"_Wacht een beeche_" (wait a bit), he ejaculated, breaking into Dutch
in his agitation, and even catching hold of her white dress with his big
hand.

Drawing the dress from him with a quick twist of her lithe form, she
turned and faced him.

"I beg your pardon," she said, in a tone that could not be called
encouraging: "you were going to say something."

"Yes--ah, that is--I was going to say----" and he paused.

Bessie stood with a polite look of expectation on her face, and waited.

"I was going to say--that, in short, that I want to marry you!"

"Oh!" exclaimed Bessie with a start.

"Listen," he went on hoarsely, his words gathering force as he spoke, as
is the way even with uncultured people when they speak from the heart.
"Listen! I love you, Bessie; I have loved you for three years. Every
time I have seen you I have loved you more. Don't say me nay--you don't
know how I do love you. I dream of you every night; sometimes I dream
that I hear your dress rustling, then you come and kiss me, and it is
like being in heaven."

Here Bessie made a gesture of disgust.

"There, I have offended you, but don't be angry with me. I am very rich,
Bessie; there is the place here, and then I have four farms in Lydenburg
and ten thousand _morgen_ up in Waterberg, and a thousand head of
cattle, besides sheep and horses and money in the bank. You shall have
everything your own way," he went on, seeing that the inventory of his
goods did not appear to impress her--"everything--the house shall be
English fashion; I will build a new _sit-kammer_ (sitting-room) and it
shall be furnished from Natal. There, I love you, I say. You won't say
no, will you?" and he caught her by the hand.

"I am very much obliged to you, Mr. Muller," answered Bessie, snatching
away her hand, "but--in short, I cannot marry you. No, it is no use, I
cannot indeed. There, please say no more--here comes my uncle. Forget
all about it, Mr. Muller."

Her suitor looked up; there was old Silas Croft sure enough, but he was
some way off, and walking slowly.

"Do you mean it?" he said beneath his breath.

"Yes, yes, of course I mean it. Why do you force me to repeat it?"

"It is that damned _rooibaatje_," he broke out. "You used not to be like
this before. Curse him, the white-livered Englishman! I will be even
with him yet; and I tell you what it is, Bessie: you shall marry me,
whether you like or no. Look here, do you think I am the sort of man
to play with? You go to Wakkerstroom and ask what sort of a man Frank
Muller is. See! I want you--I must have you. I could not live if I
thought that I should never get you for myself. And I tell you I will
do it. I don't care of it costs me my life, and your _rooibaatje's_ too.
I'll do it if I have to stir up a revolt against the Government. There,
I swear it by God or by the Devil, it's all one to me!" And growing
inarticulate with passion, he stood before her clinching and unclinching
his great hand, and his lips trembling.

Bessie was very frightened; but she was a brave woman, and rose to the
emergency.

"If you go on talking like that," she said, "I shall call my uncle. I
tell you that I will not marry you, Frank Muller, and that nothing
shall ever make me marry you. I am very sorry for you, but I have not
encouraged you, and I will never marry you--never!"

He stood for half a minute or so looking at her, and then burst into a
savage laugh.

"I think that some day or other I shall find a way to make you," Muller
said, and turning, he went without another word.

A couple of minutes later Bessie heard the sound of a horse galloping,
and looking up she saw her wooer's powerful form vanishing down the
vista of blue gums. Also she heard somebody crying out as though in pain
at the back of the house, and, more to relieve her mind than for any
other reason, she went to see what it was. By the stable door she found
the Hottentot Jantje, shrieking, cursing and twisting round and round,
his hand pressed to his side, from which the blood was running.

"What is it?" she asked.

"Baas Frank!" he answered--"Baas Frank hit me with his whip!"

"The brute!" said Bessie, the tears starting to her eyes with anger.

"Never mind, missie, never mind," gasped the Hottentot, his ugly face
growing livid with fury, "it is only one more to me. I cut it on this
stick"--and he held up a long thick stick he carried, on which were
several notches, including three deep ones at the top just below the
knob. "Let him look out sharp--let him search the grass--let him creep
round the bush--let him watch as he will, one day he will find Jantje,
and Jantje will find him!"

"Why did Frank Muller gallop away like that?" asked her uncle of Bessie
when she got back to the verandah.

"We had some words," she answered shortly, not seeing the use of
explaining matters to the old man.

"Ah, indeed, indeed. Well, be careful, my love. It's ill to quarrel with
a man like Frank Muller. I've known him for many years, and he has a
black heart when he is crossed. You see, my love, you can deal with a
Boer and you can deal with an Englishman, but cross-bred dogs are hard
to handle. Take my advice, and make it up with Frank Muller."

All of which sage advice did not tend to raise Bessie's spirits, that
were already sufficiently depressed.



CHAPTER V

DREAMS ARE FOOLISHNESS

When, at the approach of Frank Muller, John Niel left Bessie on the
verandah, he had taken his gun, and, having whistled to the pointer dog
Pontac, he mounted his shooting pony and started in quest of partridges.
On the warm slopes of the hills round Wakkerstroom a large species of
partridge is very abundant, particularly in the patches of red grass
with which the slopes are sometimes clothed. It is a merry sound to hear
these birds calling from all directions just after daybreak, and one to
make the heart of every true sportsman rejoice exceedingly. On leaving
the house John proceeded up the side of the hill behind it--his pony
picking its way carefully between the stones, and the dog Pontac ranging
about two or three hundred yards off, for in this sort of country it
is necessary to have a dog with a wide range. Presently seeing him
stop under a mimosa thorn and suddenly stiffen out as if he had been
petrified, John made the best of his way towards him. Pontac stood still
for a few seconds, and then slowly and deliberately veered his head
round as though it worked on a hinge to see if his master was coming.
John knew his ways. Three times would that remarkable old dog look round
thus, and if the gun had not then arrived he would to a certainty run
in and flush the birds. This was a rule that he never broke, for his
patience had a fixed limit. On this occasion, however, John arrived
before it was reached, and, jumping off his pony, cocked his gun and
marched slowly up, full of happy expectation. On drew the dog, his eye
cold and fixed, saliva dropping from his mouth, and his head, on
which was frozen an extraordinary expression of instinctive ferocity,
outstretched to its utmost limit.

Pontac was under the mimosa thorn now and up to his belly in the warm
red grass. Where could the birds be? _Whirr!_ and a great feathered
shell seemed to have burst at his very feet. What a covey! twelve brace
if there was a bird, and they had all been lying beak to beak in a space
no bigger than a cart wheel. Up went John's gun and off too, a little
sooner than it should have done.

"Missed him clean! Now then for the left barrel." Same result. We will
draw a veil over the profanity that ensued. A minute later and it was
all over, and John and Pontac were regarding each other with mutual
contempt and disgust.

"It was all you, you brute," said John to Pontac. "I thought you were
going to run in, and you hurried me."

"Ugh!" said Pontac to John, or at least he looked it. "Ugh! you
disgusting bad shot. What is the good of pointing for you? It's enough
to make a dog sick."

The covey--or rather the collection of old birds, for this kind of
partridge sometimes "packs" just before the breeding season--had
scattered all about the place. It was not long before Pontac found some
of them, and this time John got one bird--a beautiful great partridge he
was too, with yellow legs--and missed another. Again Pontac pointed, and
a brace rose. Bang! down goes one; bang with the other barrel. Caught
him, by Jove, just as he topped the stone. Hullo! Pontac is still on the
point. Slip in two more cartridges. Oh, a leash this time! bang! bang!
and down come a brace of them--two brace of partridges without moving a
yard.

Life has joys for all men, but, I verily believe, it has no joy to
compare to that of the moderate shot and earnest sportsman when he
has just killed half a dozen driven partridges without a miss, or ten
rocketing pheasants with eleven cartridges, or, better still, a couple
of woodcock right and left. Sweet to the politician are the cheers
that announce the triumph of his cause and of himself; sweet to the
desponding writer is the unexpected public recognition by reviewers of
talents with which previously nobody had been much impressed; sweet to
all men are the light of women's eyes and the touch of women's lips. But
though he have experienced all these things, to the true sportsman and
the _moderate shot_, sweeter far is it to see the arched wings of the
driven bird bent like Cupid's bow come flashing fast towards him, to
feel the touch of the stock as it fits itself against his shoulder,
and the kindly give of the trigger, and then, oh thrilling sight! to
perceive the wonderful and yet awful change from life to death, the puff
of feathers, and the hurtling passage of the dull mass borne onward by
its own force to fall twenty yards from where the pellets struck it.
Next session the politician will be hooted down, next year perhaps
the reviewers will cut the happy writer to ribbons and decorate their
journals with his fragments, next week you will have wearied of those
dear smiles, or, more likely still, they will be bestowed elsewhere.
Vanity of vanities, my son, each and all of them! But if you are a true
sportsman (yes, even though you be but a moderate shot), it will always
be a glorious thing to go out shooting, and when you chance to shoot
well earth holds no such joy as that which will glow in your honest
breast (for all sportsmen are honest), and it remains to be proved if
heaven does either. It is a grand sport, though the pity of it is that
it should be a cruel one.

Such was the paean that John sang in his heart as he contemplated those
fine partridges before lovingly transferring them to his bag. But his
luck to-day was not destined to stop at partridges, for hardly had he
ridden over the edge of the boulder-strewn side, and on to the flat
table-top of the great hill which covered some five hundred acres of
land, before he perceived, emerging from the shelter of a tuft of grass
about a hundred and seventy yards away, nothing less than the tall neck
and whiskered head of a large _pauw_ or bustard.

Now it is quite useless to try and ride straight up to a bustard, and
this he knew. The only thing to do is to excite his curiosity and fix
his attention by moving round and round him in an ever-narrowing circle.
Putting his pony to a canter, John proceeded to do this with a heart
beating with excitement. Round and round he went; the _pauw_ had
vanished now, he was squatting in the tuft of grass. The last circle
brought him to within seventy yards, and he did not dare to ride any
nearer, so jumping off his pony he ran in towards the bird as hard as he
could go. When he had covered ten paces the _pauw_ was rising, but they
are heavy birds, and he was within forty yards before it was fairly on
the wing. Then he pulled up and fired both barrels of No. 4 into it.
Down it came, and, incautious man, he rushed forward in triumph without
reloading his gun. Already was his hand outstretched to seize the prize,
when, behold! the great wings spread themselves out and the bird was
flying away. John stood dancing upon the veldt, but observing that it
settled within a couple of hundred yards, he ran back, mounted his pony,
and pursued it. As he drew near it rose again, and flew this time
a hundred yards only, and so it went on till at last he got within
gun-shot of the king of birds and killed it.

By this time he was across the mountain-top, and on the brink of the
most remarkable chasm he had ever seen. The place was known as Lion's
Kloof, or Leeuwen Kloof in Dutch, because three lions had once been
penned up by a party of Boers and shot there. This chasm or gorge was
between a quarter and half a mile long, about six hundred feet in width,
and a hundred and fifty to a hundred and eighty feet deep. Evidently it
owed its origin to the action of running water, for at its head, just to
the right of where John Niel stood, a little stream welling from hidden
springs in the flat mountain-top trickled from stratum to stratum,
forming a series of crystal pools and tiny waterfalls, till at last it
reached the bottom of the mighty gorge, and pursued its way through
it to the plains beyond, half-hidden by the umbrella-topped mimosa and
other thorns that were scattered about. Without doubt this little stream
was the parent of the ravine it trickled down and through, but, wondered
John Niel, how many centuries of patient, never-ceasing flow must
have been necessary to the vast result before him? First centuries
of saturation of the soil piled on and between the bed rocks that lay
beneath it and jutted up through it, then centuries of floods caused
by rain and perhaps by melting snows, to carry away the loosened mould;
then centuries upon centuries more of flowing and of rainfall to wash
the debris clean and complete the colossal work.

I say the rocks that jutted up through the soil, for the kloof was not
clean cut. All along its sides, and here and there in its arena, stood
mighty columns or fingers of rock, not solid indeed, but formed by huge
boulders piled mason fashion one upon another, as though the Titans of
some dead age had employed themselves in building them up, overcoming
their tendency to fall by the mere crushing weight above, that kept them
steady even when the wild breath of the storms came howling down the
gorge and tried its strength against them. About a hundred paces from
the near end of the chasm, some ninety or more feet in height, rose
the most remarkable of these giant pillars, to which the remains at
Stonehenge are but as toys. It was formed of seven huge boulders, the
largest, that at the bottom, about the size of a moderate cottage,
and the smallest, that at the top, perhaps some eight or ten feet in
diameter. These boulders were rounded like a cricket-ball--evidently
through the action of water--and yet the hand of Nature had contrived
to balance them, each one smaller than that beneath, the one upon
the other, and to keep them so. But this was not always the case. For
instance, a very similar mass which once stood on the near side of the
perfect pillar had fallen, all except its two foundation stones, and
the rocks that formed it lay scattered about like monstrous petrified
cannon-balls. One of these had split in two, and seated on it, looking
very small and far off at the bottom of that vast gulf, John discovered
Jess Croft, apparently engaged in sketching.

He dismounted from his shooting pony, and looking about him perceived
that it was possible to descend by following the course of the stream
and clambering down the natural steps it had cut in its rocky bed.
Throwing the reins over the pony's head, and leaving him with the dog
Pontac to stand and stare about him as South African shooting ponies
are accustomed to do, he laid down his gun and game and proceeded to
descend, pausing every now and again to admire the wild beauty of the
scene and examine the hundred varieties of moss and ferns, the last
mostly of the maiden-hair (_Capillus Veneris_) genus, that clothed every
cranny and every rock where they could find foothold and win refreshment
from the water or the spray of the cascades. As he drew near the bottom
of the gorge he saw that on the borders of the stream, wherever the soil
was moist, grew thousands upon thousands of white arums, "pig lilies" as
they call them in Africa, which were now in full bloom. He had noticed
these lilies from above, but thence, owing to the distance, they seemed
so small that he took them for everlastings or anemones. John could not
see Jess now, for she was hidden by a bush that grows on the banks of
the streams in South Africa in low-lying land, and which at certain
seasons of the year is completely covered with masses of the most
gorgeous scarlet bloom. His footsteps fell very softly on the moss
and flowers, and when he passed round the glorious-looking bush it was
evident that she had not heard him, for she was asleep. Her hat was
off, but the bush shaded her, and her head had fallen forward over
her sketching block and rested upon her hand. A ray of light that came
through the bush played over her curling brown hair, and threw warm
shadows on her white face and the whiter wrist and hand by which it was
supported.

John stood there and looked at her, and the old curiosity took
possession of him to understand this feminine enigma. Many a man before
him has been the victim of a like desire, and lived to regret that he
did not leave it ungratified. It is not well to try to lift the curtain
of the unseen, it is not well to call to heaven to show its glory, or
to hell to give us touch and knowledge of its yawning fires. Knowledge
comes soon enough; many of us will say that knowledge has come too soon
and left us desolate. There is no bitterness like the bitterness of
wisdom: so cried the great Koheleth, and so hath cried many a son of man
following blindly on his path. Let us be thankful for the dark places
of the earth--places where we may find rest and shadow, and the heavy
sweetness of the night. Seek not after mysteries, O son of man, be
content with the practical and the proved and the broad light of day;
peep not, mutter not the words of awakening. Understand her who would be
understood and is comprehensible to those that run, and for the others
let them be, lest your fate should be as the fate of Eve, and as the
fate of Lucifer, Star of the morning. For here and there beats a human
heart from which it is not wise to draw the veil--a heart in which many
things are dim as half-remembered dreams in the brain of the sleeper.
Draw not the veil, whisper not the word of life in the silence where all
things sleep, lest in that kindling breath of love and pain pale shapes
arise, take form, and fright you!

A minute or so might have passed when suddenly, and with a little start,
Jess opened her great eyes, wherein the shadow of darkness lay, and
gazed at him.

"Oh!" she said with a little tremor, "is it you or is it my dream?"

"Don't be afraid," he answered cheerfully, "it is I--in the flesh."

She covered her face with her hand for a moment, then withdrew it, and
he noticed that her eyes had changed curiously in that moment. They were
still large and beautiful as they always were, but there was a change.
Just now they had seemed as though her soul were looking through them.
Doubtless it was because the pupils had been enlarged by sleep.

"Your dream! What dream?" he asked, laughing.

"Never mind," she answered in a quiet way that excited his curiosity
more than ever. "It was about this Kloof--and you--but 'dreams are
foolishness.'"



CHAPTER VI

THE STORM BREAKS

"Do you know, you are a very odd person, Miss Jess," John said
presently, with a little laugh. "I don't think you can have a happy
mind."

She looked up. "A happy mind?" she said. "Who _can_ have a happy mind?
Nobody who feels. Supposing," she went on after a pause--"supposing one
puts oneself and one's own little interests and joys and sorrows quite
away, how is it possible to be happy, when one feels the breath of human
misery beating on one's face, and sees the tide of sorrow and suffering
creeping up to one's feet? You may be on a rock yourself and out of the
path of it, till the spring floods or the hurricane wave come to sweep
you away, or you may be afloat upon it: whichever it is, it is quite
impossible, if you have any heart, to be indifferent."

"Then only the indifferent are happy?"

"Yes, the indifferent and the selfish; but, after all, it is the same
thing: indifference is the perfection of selfishness."

"I am afraid that there must be lots of selfishness in the world, for
certainly there is plenty of happiness, all evil things notwithstanding.
I should have said that happiness springs from goodness and a sound
digestion."

Jess shook her head as she answered, "I may be wrong, but I don't
see how anybody who feels can be quite happy in a world of sickness,
suffering, slaughter, and death. I saw a Kafir woman die yesterday, and
her children crying over her. She was a poor creature and had a rough
lot, but she loved her life, and her children loved her. Who can be
happy and thank God for His creation when he has just seen such a thing?
But there, Captain Niel, my ideas are very crude, and I dare say very
wrong, and everybody has thought them before: at any rate, I am not
going to inflict them on you. What is the use of it?" and she went
on with a laugh: "what is the use of anything? The same old thoughts
passing through the same human minds from year to year and century to
century, just as the same clouds float across the same blue sky. The
clouds are born in the sky, and the thoughts are born in the brain, and
they both end in tears and re-arise in blind, bewildering mist, and this
is the beginning and end of thoughts and clouds. They arise out of the
blue; they overshadow and break into storms and tears, then they are
drawn up into the blue again, and the story begins afresh."

"So you don't think that one can be happy in this world?" he asked.

"I did not say that--I never said that. I do think that happiness is
possible. It is possible if one can love somebody so hard that one can
quite forget oneself and everything else except that person, and it
is possible if one can sacrifice oneself for others. There is no true
happiness outside of love and self-sacrifice, or rather outside of love,
for it includes the other. This is gold, and all the rest is gilt."

"How do you know that?" he asked quickly. "You have never been in love."

"No," she answered, "I have never been in love like that, but all the
happiness I have had in my life has come to me from loving. I believe
that love is the secret of the world: it is like the philosopher's stone
they used to look for, and almost as hard to find, but if you find it
it turns everything to gold. Perhaps," she went on with a little laugh,
"when the angels departed from the earth they left us love behind, that
by it and through it we may climb up to them again. It is the one thing
that lifts us above the brutes. Without love man is a brute, and nothing
but a brute; with love he draws near to God. When everything else falls
away the love will endure because it cannot die while there is any life,
if it is true love, for it is immortal. Only it must be true--you see it
must be true."

He had penetrated her reserve now; the ice of her manner broke up
beneath the warmth of her words, and her face, usually impassive, had
caught life and light from the eyes above, and acquired a certain beauty
of its own. John looked at it, and understood something of the untaught
and ill-regulated intensity and depth of the nature of this curious
girl. He met her eyes and they moved him strangely, though he was not
an emotional man, and was too old to experience spasmodic thrills at the
chance glances of a pretty woman. He moved towards her, looking at her
curiously.

"It would be worth living to be loved like that," he said, more to
himself than to her.

Jess did not answer, but she let her eyes rest on his. Indeed, she did
more, for she put her soul into them and gazed and gazed till John Niel
felt as though he were mesmerised. And as she gazed there rose up in her
breast a knowledge that if she willed it she could gain this man's heart
and hold it against all the world, for her nature was stronger than his
nature, and her mind, untrained though it be, encompassed his mind and
could pass over it and beat it down as the wind beats down the tossing
seas. All this she learnt in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye: she
could not tell how she knew it, but she did know it as surely as she
knew that the blue sky stretched overhead, and, what is more--for the
moment, at any rate--he knew it too. This strange strong certainty came
on her as a shock and a revelation, like the tidings of some great joy
or grief, and for a moment left her heart empty of all things else.

Jess dropped her eyes suddenly.

"I think," she said quietly, "that we have been talking a great deal of
nonsense, and that I want to finish my sketch."

He rose and left her, for he was wanted at home, saying as he went that
he thought there was a storm coming up; the air was so quiet, and the
wind had fallen as it does before an African tempest. Presently on
looking round she saw him slowly climbing the precipitous ascent to the
table-land above the gulf.

It was one of those glorious afternoons that sometimes come in the
African spring, although it was so intensely still. Everywhere appeared
the proofs of evidences of life. The winter was over, and now, from
the sadness and sterility of its withered age, sprang youth and lovely
summer clad in sunshine, bediamonded with dew, and fragrant with the
breath of flowers. Jess lay back and looked up into the infinite depths
above. How blue they were, and how measureless! She could not see the
angry clouds that lay like visible omens on the horizon. Look, there,
miles above her, was one tiny circling speck. It was a vulture, watching
her from his airy heights and descending a little to see if she were
dead, or only sleeping.

Involuntarily she shuddered. The bird of death reminded her of Death
himself also hanging high up yonder in the blue and waiting his
opportunity to fall upon the sleeper. Then her eyes fell upon a bough of
the glorious flowering bush under which she rested. It was not more than
four feet above her head, but she lay so still and motionless that a
jewelled honeysucker came and hovered over the flowers, darting from one
to another like a many-coloured flash. Thence her glance travelled to
the great column of boulders that towered above her, and that seemed to
say, "I am very old. I have seen many springs and many winters, and
have looked down on many sleeping maids, and where are they now?
All dead--all dead," and an old baboon in the rocks with startling
suddenness barked out "_all dead_" in answer.

Around her were the blooming lilies and the lustiness of springing life;
the heavy air was sweet with the odour of ferns and the mimosa flowers.
The running water splashed and musically fell; the sunlight shot in
golden bars athwart the shade, like the memory of happy days in the
grey vista of a life; away in the cliffs yonder, the rock-doves were
preparing to nest by hundreds, and waking the silence with their cooing
and the flutter of their wings. Even the grim old eagle perched on
the pinnacle of the peak was pruning himself, contentedly happy in
the knowledge that his mate had laid an egg in that dark corner of the
cliff. All things rejoiced and cried aloud that summer was at hand and
that it was time to bloom and love and nest. Soon it would be winter
again, when things died, and next summer other things would live under
the sun, and these perchance would be forgotten. That was what they
seemed to say.

And as Jess lay and heard, her youthful blood, drawn by Nature's
magnetic force, as the moon draws the tides, rose in her veins like the
sap in the budding trees, and stirred her virginal serenity. All the
bodily natural part of her caught the tones of Nature's happy voice that
bade her break her bonds, live and love, and be a woman. And lo! the
spirit within her answered to it, flinging wide her bosom's doors, and
of a sudden, as it were, something quickened and lived in her heart that
was of her and yet had its own life--a life apart; something that sprang
from her and another, which would always be with her now and could
never die. She rose pale and trembling, as a woman trembles at the first
stirring of the child that she shall bear, and clung to the flowery
bough of the beautiful bush above, then sank down again, feeling that
the spirit of her girlhood had departed from her, and another angel had
entered there; knowing that she loved with heart and soul and body, and
was a very woman.

She had called to Love as the wretched call to Death, and Love had come
in his strength and possessed her utterly; and now for a little while
she was afraid to pass into the shadow of his wings, as the wretched
who call to Death fear him when they feel his icy fingers. But the fear
passed, and the great joy and the new consciousness of power and of
identity that the inspiration of a true passion gives to some strong
deep natures remained, and after a while Jess prepared to make her way
home across the mountain-top, feeling as though she were another being.
Still she did not go, but lay there with closed eyes and drank of this
new intoxicating wine. So absorbed was she that she did not notice
that the doves had ceased to call, and that the eagle had fled away for
shelter. She was not aware of the great and solemn hush which had taken
the place of the merry voice of beast and bird and preceded the breaking
of the gathered storm.

At last as she rose to go Jess opened her dark eyes, which, for the most
part, had been shut while this great change was passing over her, and
with a natural impulse turned to look once more on the place where her
happiness had found her, then sank down again with a little exclamation.
Where was the light and the glory and all the happiness of the life that
moved and grew around her? Gone, and in its place darkness and rising
mist and deep and ominous shadows. While she lay and thought, the sun
had sunk behind the hill and left the great gulf nearly dark, and, as is
common in South Africa, the heavy storm-cloud had crept across the blue
sky and sealed the light from above. A drear wind came moaning up the
gorge from the plains beyond; the heavy rain-drops began to fall one
by one; the lightning flickered fitfully in the belly of the advancing
cloud. The storm that John had feared was upon her.

Then came a dreadful hush. Jess had recovered herself by now, and,
knowing what to expect, she snatched up her sketching-block and hurried
into the shelter of a little cave hollowed by water in the side of the
cliff. And now with a rush of ice-cold air the tempest burst. Down came
the rain in a sheet; then flash upon flash gleaming fiercely through the
vapour-laden air; and roar upon roar echoing along the rocky cavities in
volumes of fearful sound. Then another pause and space of utter silence,
followed by a blaze of light that dazed and blinded her, and suddenly
one of the piled-up columns to her left swayed to and fro like a poplar
in a breeze, to fall headlong with a crash which almost mastered the
awful crackling of the thunder overhead and the shrieking of the baboons
scared from their crannies in the cliff. Down it rushed beneath the
stroke of that fiery sword, the brave old pillar that had lasted out so
many centuries, sending clouds of dust and fragments high up into the
blinding rain, and carrying awe and wonder to the heart of the girl who
watched its fall. Away rolled the storm as quickly as it had come, with
a sound like the passing of the artillery of an embattled host; then a
grey rain set in, blotting the outlines of everything, like an endless
absorbing grief, dulling the edge and temper of a life. Through it Jess,
scared and wet to the skin, managed to climb up the natural steps, now
made almost impassable by the prevailing gloom and the rush of water
from the table-top of the mountain, and on across the sodden plain, down
the rocky path on the farther side, past the little walled-in cemetery
with the four red gums planted at its corners, in which a stranger who
had died at Mooifontein lay buried, and so, just as the darkness of the
wet night came down like a cloud, home at last. At the back-door stood
her old uncle with a lantern.

"Is that you, Jess?" he called out in his stentorian tones. "Lord! what
a sight!" as she emerged, her sodden dress clinging to her slight form,
her hands torn with clambering over the rocks, her curling hair which
had broken loose hanging down her back and half covering her face.

"Lord! what a sight!" he ejaculated again. "Why, Jess, where have you
been? Captain Niel has gone out to look for you with the Kafirs."

"I have been sketching in Leeuwen Kloof, and got caught in the storm.
There, uncle, let me pass, I want to take these wet things off. It is
a bitter night," and she ran to her room, leaving a long trail of water
behind her as she passed. The old man entered the house, shut the door,
and blew out the lantern.

"Now, what is it she reminds me of?" he said aloud as he groped his way
down the passage to the sitting-room. "Ah, I know, that night when she
first came here out of the rain leading Bessie by the hand. What can the
girl have been thinking of, not to see the thunder coming up? She ought
to know the signs of the weather here by now. Dreaming, I suppose,
dreaming. She's an odd woman, Jess, very." Perhaps he did not quite know
how accurate his guess was, and how true the conclusion he drew from it.
Certainly she had been dreaming, and she was an odd woman.

Meanwhile Jess was rapidly changing her clothes and removing the traces
of her struggle with the elements. But of that other struggle she had
gone through she could not remove the traces. They and the love that
arose out of it would endure as long as she endured. It was her former
self that had been cast off in it and which now lay behind her, an empty
and unmeaning thing like the shapeless heap of garments. It was all very
strange. So John had gone to look for her and had not found her. She was
glad that he had gone. It made her happy to think of him searching
and calling in the wet and the night. She was only a woman, and it was
natural that she should feel thus. By-and-by he would come back and find
her clothed and in her right mind and ready to greet him. She was glad
that he had not seen her wet and dishevelled. A girl looks so unpleasant
like that. It might have set him against her. Men like women to look
nice and clean and pretty. That gave her an idea. She turned to her
glass and, holding the light above her head, studied her own face
attentively. She was a woman with as little vanity in her composition as
it is possible for a woman to have, and till now she had not given her
personal looks much consideration. They had not been of great importance
to her in the Wakkerstroom district of the Transvaal. But to-night all
of a sudden they became very important; and so she stood and looked at
her own wonderful eyes, at the masses of curling brown hair still damp
and shining from the rain, at the curious pallid face and clear-cut
determined mouth.

"If it were not for my eyes and hair, I should be very ugly," she said
to herself aloud. "If only I were beautiful like Bessie, now." The
thought of her sister gave her another idea. What if John were to prefer
Bessie? Now she remembered that he had been very attentive to Bessie.
A feeling of dreadful doubt and jealousy passed through her, for women
like Jess know what jealousy is in its bitterness. Supposing that it was
in vain, supposing that what she had given to-day--given utterly once
and for all, so that she could not take it back--had been given to a man
who loved another woman, and that woman her own dear sister! Supposing
that the fate of her love was to be like water falling unalteringly
on the hard rock that heeds it not and retains it not! True, the water
wears the rock away; but could she be satisfied with that? She could
master him, she knew; even if things were so, she could win him to
herself, she had read it in his eyes that afternoon; but could she, who
had promised to her dead mother to cherish and protect her sister, whom
till this day she had loved better than anything in the world, and
whom she still loved more dearly than her life--could she, if it should
happen to be thus, rob that sister of her lover? And if it should be so,
what would her life be like? It would be like the great pillar after the
lightning had smitten it, a pile of shattered smoking fragments, a very
heaped-up debris of a life. She could feel it even now. No wonder, then,
that Jess sat there upon the little white bed holding her hand against
her heart and feeling terribly afraid.

Just then she heard John's footsteps in the hall.

"I can't find her," he said in an anxious tone to some one as she rose,
taking her candle with her, and left the room. The light of it fell full
upon his face and dripping clothes. It was white and anxious, and she
was glad to see the anxiety.

"Oh, thank God! here you are!" he said, catching her hand. "I began to
think you were quite lost. I have been right down the Kloof after you,
and got a nasty fall over it."

"It is very good of you," she said in a low voice, and again their eyes
met, and again her glance thrilled him. There was such a wonderful light
in Jess's eyes that night.

Half an hour afterwards they sat down as usual to supper. Bessie did
not put in an appearance till it was a quarter over, and then sat
very silent through it. Jess narrated her adventure in the Kloof, and
everybody listened, but nobody said much. There seemed to be a shadow
over the house that evening, or perhaps it was that each party was
thinking of his own affairs. After supper old Silas Croft began talking
about the political state of the country, which gave him uneasiness.
He said that he believed the Boers really meant to rebel against the
Government this time. Frank Muller had told him so, and he always knew
what was going on. This announcement did not tend to raise anybody's
spirits, and the evening passed as silently as the meal had done. At
last Bessie got up, stretched her rounded arms, and said that she was
tired and going to bed.

"Come into my room," she whispered to her sister as she passed. "I want
to speak to you."



CHAPTER VII

LOVE'S YOUNG DREAM

After waiting a few minutes, Jess said "Good-night," and went straight
to Bessie's room. Her sister had undressed, and was sitting on her
bed, wrapped in a blue dressing-gown that suited her fair complexion
admirably, and with a very desponding expression on her beautiful face.
Bessie was one of those people who are easily elated and easily cast
down.

Jess came up to her and kissed her.

"What is it, love?" she said. And Bessie could never have divined the
gnawing anxiety that was eating at her heart as she said it.

"Oh, Jess, I'm so glad that you have come. I do so want you to advise
me--that is, to tell me what you think," and she paused.

"You must tell _me_ what it is all about first, Bessie dear," she said,
sitting down opposite to her in such a position that her face was shaded
from the light. Bessie tapped her naked foot against the matting with
which the little room was carpeted. It was an exceedingly pretty foot.

"Well, dear old girl, it is just this--Frank Muller has been here to ask
me to marry him."

"Oh," said Jess, with a sigh of relief. So that was all? She felt as
though a ton-weight had been lifted from her heart. She had expected
this bit of news for some time.

"He wanted me to marry him, and when I said I would not, he behaved
like--like----"

"Like a Boer," suggested Jess.

"Like a _brute_," went on Bessie with emphasis.

"So you don't care for Frank Muller?"

"Care for him! I loathe the man. You don't know how I loathe him, with
his handsome bad face and his cruel eyes. I always loathed him, and now
I hate him too. But I will tell you all about it;" and she did, with
many feminine comments and interpolations.

Jess sat quite still, and waited till she had finished.

"Well, dear," she said at last, "you are not going to marry him, and so
there is an end of it. You can't detest the man more than I do. I have
watched him for years," she went on, with rising anger, "and I tell you
that Frank Muller is a liar and a traitor. That man would betray his own
father if he thought it to his interest to do so. He hates uncle--I am
sure he does, although he pretends to be so fond of him. I am certain
that he has tried often and often to stir up the Boers against him.
Old Hans Coetzee told me that he denounced him to the Veld-Cornet as
an _uitlander_ and a _verdomde Engelsmann_ about two years before the
annexation, and tried to get him to persuade the Landrost to report him
as a law-breaker to the Raad; while all the time he was pretending to
be so friendly. Then in the Sikukuni war it was Frank Muller who caused
them to commandeer uncle's two best waggons and spans. He gave none
himself, nothing but a couple of bags of meal. He is a wicked fellow,
Bessie, and a dangerous fellow; but he has more brains and more power
about him than any man in the Transvaal, and you will have to be very
careful, or he will do us all a bad turn."

"Ah!" said Bessie; "well, he can't do much now that the country is
English."

"I am not so sure of that. I am not so sure that the country is going
to stop English. You laugh at me for reading the home papers, but I see
things there that make me doubtful. The other party is in power now in
England, and one does not know what they may do; you heard what uncle
said to-night. They might give us up to the Boers. You must remember
that we far-away people are only the counters with which they play their
game."

"Nonsense, Jess," said Bessie indignantly. "Englishmen are not like
that. When they say a thing, they stick to it."

"They used to, you mean," answered Jess with a shrug, and got up from
her chair to go to bed.

Bessie began to fidget her white feet over one another.

"Stop a bit, Jess dear," she said. "I want to speak to you about
something else."

Jess sat or rather dropped back into her chair, and her pale face turned
paler than ever; but Bessie blushed very red and hesitated.

"It's about Captain Niel," she said at length.

"Oh," answered Jess with a little laugh, and her voice sounded cold and
strange in her own ears. "Has he been following Frank Muller's example,
and proposing to you too?"

"No-o," said Bessie, "but"--and here she rose, and, sitting on a stool
by her elder sister's chair, rested her forehead against her knee--"but
I love him, and I _believe_ that he loves me. This morning he told me
that I was the prettiest woman he had seen at home or abroad, and the
sweetest too; and do you know," she said, looking up and giving a happy
little laugh, "I think he meant it."

"Are you joking, Bessie, or are you really in earnest?"

"In earnest! ah, but that I am, and I am not ashamed to say it. I fell
in love with John Niel when he killed that cock ostrich. He looked so
strong and savage as he fought with it. It is a fine thing to see a man
put out all his strength. And then he is such a gentleman!--so different
from the men we meet round here. Oh yes, I fell in love with him at
once, and I have got deeper and deeper in love with him ever since,
and if he does not marry me I think that it will break my heart. There,
that's the truth, Jess dear," and she dropped her golden head on to her
sister's knees and began to cry softly at the thought.

But the sister sat there on the chair, her hand hanging idly by her
side, her white face set and impassive as that of an Egyptian Sphinx,
and the large eyes gazing far away through the window, against which the
rain was beating--far away out into the night and the storm. She heard
the surging of the storm, she heard her sister's weeping, her eyes
perceived the dark square of the window through which they appeared to
look, she could feel Bessie's head upon her knee--yes, she could see
and hear and feel, and yet it seemed to her that she was _dead_. The
lightning had fallen on her soul as it fell on the pillar of rock, and
it was as the pillar is. And it had fallen so soon! there had been
such a little span of happiness and hope! And so she sat, like a stony
Sphinx, and Bessie wept softly before her, like a beautiful, breathing,
loving human suppliant, and the two formed a picture and a contrast
such as the student of human nature does not often get the chance of
studying.

It was the eldest sister who spoke first after all.

"Well, dear," she said, "what are you crying about? You love Captain
Niel, and you believe that he loves you. Surely there is nothing to cry
about."

"Well, I don't know that there is," said Bessie, more cheerfully; "but I
was thinking how dreadful it would be if I lost him."

"I do not think that you need be afraid," said Jess; "and now, dear,
I really must go to bed, I am so tired. Good-night, my dear; God bless
you! I think that you have made a very wise choice. Captain Niel is a
man whom any woman might love, and be proud of loving."

In another minute she was in her room, and there her composure left her,
for she was but a loving woman after all. She flung herself upon her
bed, and, hiding her face in the pillow, burst into a paroxysm of
weeping--a very different thing from Bessie's gentle tears. Her grief
absolutely convulsed her, and she pushed the bedclothes against her
mouth to prevent the sound of it penetrating the partition wall and
reaching John Niel's ears, for his room was next to hers. Even in the
midst of her suffering the thought of the irony of the thing forced
itself into her mind. There, separated from her only by a few inches of
lath and plaster and some four or five feet of space, was the man for
whom she mourned thus, and yet he was as ignorant of it as though he
were thousands of miles away. Sometimes at such acute crises in our
lives the limitations of our physical nature do strike us after this
fashion. It is strange to be so near and yet so far, and it brings the
absolute and utter loneliness of every created being home to the mind
in a manner that is forcible and at times almost terrible. John Niel
sinking composedly to sleep, his mind happy with the recollection of
those two right and left shots, and Jess, lying on her bed, six feet
away, and sobbing out her stormy heart over him, are indeed but types of
what is continually happening in this remarkable world. How often do we
understand one another's grief? And, when we do, by what standard can
we measure it? More especially is comprehension rare, if we chance to
be the original cause of the trouble. Do we think of the feelings of the
beetles it is our painful duty to crush into nothingness? Not at all. If
we have any compunctions, they are quickly absorbed in the pride of our
capture. And more often still, as in the present case, we set our foot
upon the poor victim by pure accident or venial carelessness.

Presently John was fast asleep, and Jess, her paroxysm past, was
walking up and down, down and up, her little room, her bare feet
falling noiselessly on the carpeting as she strove to wear out the first
bitterness of her woe. Oh that it lay in her power to recall the past
few days! Oh that she had never seen his face, which must now be ever
before her eyes! But for her there was no such possibility, and she felt
it. She knew her own nature well. Her heart had spoken, and the word it
said must roll on continually through the spaces of her mind. Who can
recall the spoken word, and who can set a limit on its echoes? It is not
so with most women, but here and there may be found a nature where it is
so. Spirits like this poor girl's are too deep, and partake too much
of a divine immutability, to shift and suit themselves to the changing
circumstances of a fickle world. They have no middle course; they cannot
halt half-way; they set all their fortune on a throw. And when the throw
is lost their hearts are broken, and their happiness passes away like a
swallow.

For in such a nature love rises like the wind on the quiet breast of
some far sea. None can say whence it comes or whither it blows; but
there it is, lashing the waters to a storm, so that they roll in thunder
all the long day through, throwing their white arms on high, as they
clasp at the evasive air, till the darkness that is death comes down and
covers them.

What is the interpretation of it? Why does the great wind stir the
deep waters? It does but ripple the shallow pool as it passes, for
shallowness can but ripple and throw up shadows. We cannot tell, but
this we know--that deep things only can be deeply moved. It is the
penalty of depth and greatness; it is the price they pay for the
divine privilege of suffering and sympathy. The shallow pools, the
looking-glasses of our little life, know nought, feel nought. Poor
things! they can but ripple and reflect. But the deep sea, in its
torture, may perchance catch some echo of God's voice sounding down the
driven gale; and, as it lifts itself and tosses its waves in agony, may
perceive a glow, flowing from a celestial sky that is set beyond the
horizon that bounds its being.

Suffering, or rather mental suffering, is a prerogative of greatness,
and even here there lies an exquisite joy at its core. For everything
has its compensations. Nerves such as these can thrill with a high
happiness, that will sweep unfelt over the mass of men. Thus he who is
stricken with grief at the sight of the world's misery--as all great and
good men must be--is at times lifted up with joy by catching some faint
gleam of the almighty purpose that underlies it. So it was with the Son
of Man in His darkest hours; the Spirit that enabled Him to compass out
the measure of the world's suffering and sin enabled Him also, knowing
their purposes, to gaze beyond them; and thus it is, too, with those
deep-hearted children of His race, who partake, however dimly, of His
divinity.

Thus, even in this hour of her darkest bitterness and grief, a gleam
of comfort struggled to Jess's breast just as the first ray of dawn was
struggling through the stormy night. She would sacrifice herself to her
sister--that she had determined on; and hence came that cold gleam
of happiness, for there is happiness in self-sacrifice, whatever the
cynical may say. At first her woman's nature had risen in rebellion
against the thought. Why should she throw her life away? She had as good
a right to this man as Bessie, and she knew that by the strength of her
own hand she could hold him against Bessie in all her beauty, however
far things had gone between them; and she believed, as a jealous woman
is prone to do, that they had gone much farther than was the case.

But by-and-by, as she pursued that weary march, her better self rose up,
and mastered the promptings of her heart. Bessie loved him, and Bessie
was weaker than she, and less suited to bear pain, and she had sworn to
her dying mother--for Bessie had been her mother's darling--to promote
her happiness, and, come what would, to comfort and protect her by every
means in her power. It was a wide oath, and she was only a child when
she took it, but it bound her conscience none the less, and surely it
covered this. Besides, she dearly loved her--far, far more than she
loved herself. No, Bessie should have her lover, and she should never
know what it had cost her to give him up; and as for herself, well, she
must go away like a wounded buck, and hide till she got well--or died.

She laughed a drear little laugh, and stayed to brush her hair just as
the broad lights of the dawn came streaming across the misty veldt. But
she did not look at her face again in the glass; she cared no more
about it now. Then she threw herself down to sleep the sleep of utter
exhaustion before it was time to go out again and face the world and her
new sorrow.

Poor Jess! Love's young dream had not overshadowed her for long. It had
tarried just three hours. But it had left other dreams behind.



"Uncle," said Jess that morning to old Silas Croft as he stood by the
kraal-gate, where he had been counting out the sheep--an operation
requiring much quickness of eye, and on the accurate performance of
which he greatly prided himself.

"Yes, yes, my dear, I know what you are going to say. It was very neatly
done; it isn't everybody who can count out six hundred running hungry
sheep without a mistake. But then, I oughtn't to say too much, for you
see I have been at it for fifty years, in the old colony and here. Now,
many a man would get fifty sheep wrong. There's Niel for instance----"

"Uncle," said she, wincing a little at the name, as a horse with a sore
back winces at the touch of the saddle, "it wasn't about the sheep that
I was going to speak to you. I want you to do me a favour."

"A favour? Why, God bless the girl, how pale you look!--not but what you
are always pale. Well, what is it now?"

"I want to go up to Pretoria by the post-cart that leaves Wakkerstroom
to-morrow afternoon, and to stop for a couple of months with my
schoolfellow, Jane Neville. I have often promised to go, and I have
never gone."

"Well, I never!" said the old man. "My stay-at-home Jess wanting to go
away, and without Bessie too! What is the matter with you?"

"I want a change, uncle--I do indeed. I hope you won't thwart me in
this."

Silas looked at her steadily with his keen grey eyes.

"Humph!" he said; "you want to go away, and there's an end of it. Best
not ask too many questions where a maid is concerned. Very well, my
dear, go if you like, though I shall miss you."

"Thank you, uncle," she said, and kissed him; then turned and went.

Old Croft took off his broad hat and polished his bald head with a red
pocket-handkerchief.

"There's something up with that girl," he said aloud to a lizard that
had crept out of the crevices of the stone wall to bask in the sun. "I
am not such a fool as I look, and I say that there is something wrong
with her. She is odder than ever," and he hit viciously at the lizard
with his stick, whereon it promptly bolted into its crack, returning
presently to see if the irate "human" had departed.

"However," he soliloquised, as he made his way to the house, "I am glad
that it was not Bessie. I couldn't bear, at my time of life, to part
with Bessie, even for a couple of months."



CHAPTER VIII

JESS GOES TO PRETORIA

That day, at dinner, Jess suddenly announced that she was going on the
morrow to Pretoria to see Jane Neville.

"To see Jane Neville!" said Bessie, opening her blue eyes wide. "Why,
it was only last month you said that you did not care about Jane Neville
now, because she had grown so vulgar. Don't you remember when she
stopped here on her way down to Natal last year, and held up her fat
hands, and said, 'Ah, Jess--Jess is a _genius!_ It is a privilege to
know her'? And then she asked you to quote Shakespeare to that lump of
a brother of hers, and you told her that if she did not hold her tongue
she would not enjoy the privilege much longer. And now you want to go
and stop with her for two months! Well, Jess, you are odd. And, what's
more, I think it is very unkind of you to run away for so long."

To all of which prattle Jess said nothing, but merely reiterated her
determination to go.

John, too, was astonished, and, to tell the truth, not a little
disgusted. Since the previous day, when he had that talk with her in
Lion Kloof, Jess had assumed a clearer and more definite interest in his
eyes. Before that she was an enigma; now he had guessed enough about her
to make him anxious to know more. Indeed, he had not perhaps realised
how strong and definite his interest was till he heard that she was
going away for a long period. Suddenly it struck him that the farm would
be very dull without this very fascinating woman moving about the
place in her silent, resolute way. Bessie was, no doubt, delightful
and charming to look on, but she had not her sister's brains and
originality; and John Niel was sufficiently above the ordinary run to
thoroughly appreciate intellect and originality in a woman, instead of
standing aghast at it. She interested him intensely, to say the least of
it, and, man-like, he felt exceedingly annoyed, and even sulky, at
the idea of her departure. He looked at her in protest, and, with an
awkwardness begotten of his irritation, knocked down the vinegar cruet
and made a mess upon the table; but she evaded his eyes and took no
notice of the vinegar. Then, feeling that he had done all that in him
lay, he went to see about the ostriches; first of all hanging about a
little in case Jess should come out, which she did not do. Indeed, he
saw nothing more of her till supper time. Bessie told him that she said
she was busy packing; but, as one can only take twenty pounds weight of
luggage in a post-cart, this did not quite convince him that it was so
in fact.

At supper Jess was, if possible, even more quiet than she had been
at dinner. After it was over, he asked her to sing, but she declined,
saying that she had given up singing for the present, and persisting
in her statement in spite of the chorus of remonstrance it aroused. The
birds only sing whilst they are mating; and it is, by the way, a curious
thing, and suggestive of the theory that the same great principles
pervade all nature, that now when her trouble had overtaken her,
and that she had lost the love which had suddenly sprung from her
heart--full-grown and clad in power as Athena sprang from the head of
Jove--Jess had no further inclination to use her divine gift of song.
Probably it was nothing more than a coincidence, although a strange one.

The arrangement was, that on the morrow Jess was to be driven in the
Cape cart to Martinus-Wesselstroom, more commonly called Wakkerstroom,
there to catch the post-cart, which was timed to leave the town at
mid-day, though when it would leave was quite another matter. Post-carts
are not particular to a day or so in the Transvaal.

Old Silas Croft was to drive her with Bessie, who wished to do some
shopping in Wakkerstroom, as ladies sometimes will; but at the last
moment the old man felt a premonitory twinge of the rheumatism to which
he was a martyr, and could not go. So, of course, John volunteered, and,
though Jess raised some difficulties, Bessie furthered the idea, and in
the end his offer was accepted.

Accordingly, at half-past eight on a beautiful morning up came the
tented cart, with its two massive wheels, stout stinkwood disselboom,
and four spirited young horses; to the heads of which the Hottentot
Jantje, assisted by the Zulu Mouti, clad in the sweet simplicity of a
moocha, a few feathers in his wool, and a horn snuffbox stuck through
the fleshy part of the ear, hung on grimly. In they got--John first,
then Bessie next to him, then Jess. Next Jantje scrambled up behind; and
after some preliminary backing and plunging, and showing a disposition
to twine themselves affectionately round the orange-trees, off went
the horses at a hand gallop, and away swung the cart after them, in a
fashion that would have frightened anybody, not accustomed to that mode
of progression, pretty well out of his wits. As it was, John had as much
as he could do to keep the four horses together, and to prevent them
from bolting, and this alone, to say nothing of the rattling and jolting
of the vehicle over the uneven track, was sufficient to put a stop to
any attempt at conversation.

Wakkerstroom is about eighteen miles from Mooifontein, a distance that
they covered well within the two hours. Here the horses were outspanned
at the hotel, and John went into the house whence the post-cart was
to start and booked Jess's seat, and then joined the ladies at the
_Kantoor_ or store where they were shopping. When their purchases were
made, they went back to the inn together and ate some dinner; by which
time the Hottentot driver of the cart began to tune up lustily, but
unmelodiously, on a bugle to inform intending passengers that it was
time to start. Bessie was out of the room at the moment, and, with the
exception of a peculiarly dirty-looking coolie waiter, there was nobody
about.

"How long are you going to be away, Miss Jess?" asked John.

"Two months, more or less, Captain Niel."

"I am very sorry that you are going," he said earnestly. "It will be
dull at the farm without you."

"You will have Bessie to talk to," she answered, turning her face to the
window, and affecting to watch the inspanning of the post-cart in the
yard on to which it looked.

"Captain Niel!" she said suddenly.

"Yes?"

"Mind you look after Bessie while I am away. Listen! I am going to tell
you something. You know Frank Muller?"

"Yes, I know him, and a very disagreeable fellow he is."

"Well, he threatened Bessie the other day, and he is a man who is quite
capable of carrying out a threat. I can't tell you anything more about
it, but I want you to promise me to protect Bessie if any occasion for
it should arise. I do not know that it will, but it might. Will you
promise?"

"Of course I will; I would do a great deal more than that if you asked
me to, Jess," he answered tenderly, for now that she was going away he
felt curiously drawn towards her, and was anxious to show it.

"Never mind me," she said, with an impatient little movement. "Bessie
is sweet enough and lovely enough to be looked after for her own sake, I
should think."

Before he could say any more, in came Bessie herself, saying that the
driver was waiting, and they went out to see her sister off.

"Don't forget your promise," Jess whispered to him, bending down as he
helped her into the cart, so low that her lips almost touched him, and
her breath rested for a second on his cheek like the ghost of a kiss.

In another moment the sisters had embraced each other, tenderly enough;
the driver had sounded once more on his awful bugle, and away went the
cart at full gallop, bearing with it Jess, two other passengers, and
her Majesty's mails. John and Bessie stood for a moment watching its
mad career, as it fled splashing and banging down the straggling street
towards the wide plains beyond; then they turned to enter the inn again
and prepare for their homeward drive. At that moment, an old Boer, named
Hans Coetzee, with whom John was already slightly acquainted, came
up, and, extending an enormously big and thick hand, bid them "_Gooden
daag._" Hans Coetzee was a very favourable specimen of the better sort
of Boer, and really came more or less up to the ideal picture that is so
often drawn of that "simple pastoral people." He was a very large, stout
man, with a fine open face and a pair of kindly eyes. John, looking at
him, guessed that he could not weigh less than seventeen stone, and that
estimate was well within the mark.

"How are you, Captain?" he said in English, for he could talk English
well, "and how do you like the Transvaal?--must not call it South
African Republic now, you know, for that's treason," and his eye
twinkled merrily.

"I like it very much, _Meinheer_," said John.

"Ah, yes, it's a beautiful veldt, especially about here--no horse
sickness, no 'blue tongue,'[*] and a good strong grass for the cattle.
And you must find yourself very snug at _Oom_ Croft's there; it's the
nicest place in the district, with the ostriches and all. Not that
I hold with ostriches in this veldt; they are well enough in the old
colony, but they won't breed here--at least, not as they should do. I
tried them once and I know; oh, yes, I know."

[*] A disease that is very fatal to sheep.

"Yes, it's a very fine country, _Meinheer_. I have been all over the
world almost, and I never saw a finer."

"You don't say so, now! Almighty, what a thing it is to have travelled!
Not that I should like to travel myself. I think that the Lord meant us
to stop in the place He has made for us. But it is a fine country, and"
(dropping his voice) "I think it is a finer country than it used to be."

"You mean that the veldt has got 'tame', _Meinheer_?"

"Nay, nay. I mean that the land is English now," he answered
mysteriously, "and though I dare not say so among my _volk_, I hope that
it will keep English. When I was Republican, I was Republican, and
it was good in some ways, the Republic. There was so little to pay in
taxes, and we knew how to manage the black folk; but now I am English,
I am English. I know the English Government means good money and safety,
and if there isn't a _Raad_ (assembly) now, well, what does it matter?
Almighty, how they used to talk there!--clack, clack, clack! just like
an old black _koran_ (species of bustard) at sunset. And where did they
run the waggon of the Republic to--Burghers and those damned Hollanders
of his, and the rest of them? Why, into the _sluit_--into a _sluit_ with
peaty banks; and there it would have stopped till now, or till the flood
came down and swept it away, if old Shepstone--ah! what a tongue that
man has, and how fond he is of the _kinderchies!_ (little children)--had
not come and pulled it out again. But look here, Captain, the _volk_
round here don't think like that. It's the '_verdomde Britische
Gouvernment_' here and the '_verdomde Britische Gouvernment_' there, and
_bymakaars_ (meetings) here and _bymakaars_ there. Silly folk, they all
run one after the other like sheep. But there it is, Captain, and I tell
you there will be fighting before long, and then our people will shoot
those poor _rooibaatjes_ of yours like buck, and take the land back.
Poor things! I could weep when I think of it."

John smiled at this melancholy prognostication, and was about to explain
what a poor show all the Boers in the Transvaal would make in front of a
few British regiments, when he was astonished by a sudden change in his
friend's manner. Dropping his enormous paw on to his shoulder, Coetzee
broke into a burst of somewhat forced merriment, the cause of which,
though John did not guess it at the moment, was that he had just
perceived Frank Muller, who was in Wakkerstroom with a waggon-load of
corn to grind at the mill, standing within five yards, and apparently
intensely interested in flipping at the flies with a cowrie made of the
tail of a vilderbeeste, but in reality listening to Coetzee's talk with
all his ears.

"Ha, ha! _nef_ (nephew)," said old Coetzee to the astonished John, "no
wonder you like Mooifontein--there are other _mooi_ (pretty) things
there beside the water. How often do you _opsit_ (sit up at night) with
Uncle Croft's pretty girl, eh? I'm not quite as blind as an ant-bear
yet. I saw her blush when you spoke to her just now. I saw her. Well,
well, it is a pretty game for a young man, isn't it, _nef_ Frank?" (this
was addressed to Muller). "I'll be bound the Captain here 'burns a long
candle' with pretty Bessie every night, eh, Frank? I hope you ain't
jealous, _nef_? My _vrouw_ told me some time ago that you were sweet in
that direction yourself;" and he stopped at last, out of breath,
looking anxiously towards Muller for an answer, while John, who had
been somewhat overwhelmed at this flood of bucolic chaff, gave a sigh
of relief. As for Muller, he behaved in a curious manner. Instead of
laughing, as the jolly old Boer had intended that he should, although
Coetzee could not see it, his face had been growing blacker and blacker;
and now that the flow of language ceased, with a savage ejaculation
which John could not catch, but which he appeared to throw at his
(John's) head, he turned on his heel and went off towards the courtyard
of the inn.

"Almighty!" said old Hans, wiping his face with a red cotton
pocket-handkerchief; "I have put my foot into a big hole. That stink-cat
Muller heard all that I was saying to you, and I tell you he will
save it up and save it up, and one day he will bring it all out to the
_volk_, and call me a traitor to the 'land' and ruin me. I know him. He
knows how to balance a long stick on his little finger so that the ends
keep even. Oh, yes, he can ride two horses at once, and blow hot and
blow cold. He is a devil of a man, a devil of a man! And what did he
mean by swearing at you like that? Is it about the _missie_ (girl), I
wonder? Almighty! who can say? Ah! that reminds me--though I'm sure I
don't know why it should--the Kafirs tell me that there is a big herd of
buck--vilderbeeste and blesbok--on my outlying place about an hour and
a half (ten miles) from Mooifontein. Can you hold a rifle, Captain? You
look like a bit of a hunter."

"Oh, yes, Meinheer!" said John, delighted at the prospect of some
shooting.

"Ah, I thought so. All you English are sportsmen, though you don't know
how to kill buck. Well now, you take _Oom_ Croft's light Scotch cart and
two good horses, and come over to my place--not to-morrow, for my wife's
cousin is coming to see us, and an old cat she is, but rich; she has a
thousand pounds in gold in the waggon-box under her bed--nor the next
day, for it is the Lord's day, and one can't shoot creatures on the
Lord's day--but Monday, yes, Monday. You will be there by eight o'clock,
and you shall see how to kill vilderbeeste. Almighty! now what can that
jackal Frank Muller have meant? Ah! he is the devil of a man," and,
shaking his head ponderously, the jolly old Boer departed, and presently
John saw him riding away upon a fat little shooting-pony which cannot
have weighed much more than himself, but that cantered off with him on
his fifteen-mile journey as though he were a feather-weight.



CHAPTER IX

JANTJE'S STORY

Shortly after the old Boer had gone, John went into the yard of the
hotel to see to the inspanning of the Cape cart, where his attention
was at once arrested by the sight of a row in active progress--at least,
from the crowd of Kafirs and idlers and the angry sounds and curses
which proceeded from them, he judged that it was a row. Nor was he wrong
in his conclusion. In the corner of the yard, close by the stable-door,
surrounded by the aforesaid crowd, stood Frank Muller; a heavy
_sjambock_ in his raised hand, as though in the act to strike. Before
him, a very picture of drunken fury, his lips drawn up like a snarling
dog's, so that the two lines of white teeth gleamed like polished ivory
in the sunlight, his small eyes all shot with blood and his face working
convulsively, was the Hottentot Jantje. Nor was this all. Across his
face was a blue wheal where the whip had fallen, and in his hand a heavy
white-handled knife which he always carried.

"Hullo! what is all this?" said John, shouldering his way through the
crowd.

"The _swartsel_ (black creature) has stolen my horse's forage, and given
it to yours!" shouted Muller, who was evidently almost off his head with
rage, making an attempt to hit Jantje with the whip as he spoke. The
latter avoided the blow by jumping behind John, with the result that the
tip of the _sjambock_ caught the Englishman on the leg.

"Be careful, sir, with that whip," said John to Muller, restraining his
temper with difficulty. "Now, how do you know that the man stole your
horse's forage; and what business have you to touch him? If there was
anything wrong, you should have reported it to me."

"He lies, Baas, he lies!" yelled out the Hottentot in tremulous,
high-pitched tones. "He lies; he has always been a liar, and worse than
a liar. Yah! yah! I can tell things about him. The land is English now,
and Boers can't kill the black people as they like. That man--that
Boer, Muller, he shot my father and my mother--my father first, then my
mother; he gave her two bullets--she did not die the first time."

"You yellow devil!--You black-skinned, black-hearted, lying son of
Satan!" roared the great Boer, his very beard curling with fury.
"Is that the way you talk to your masters? Out of the light,
_rooibaatje_"--this was to John--"and I will cut his tongue out of him.
I'll show him how we deal with a yellow liar;" and without further ado
he made a rush for the Hottentot.

As he came, John, whose blood was now thoroughly up, put out his open
hand, and, bending forward, pushed with all his strength on Muller's
advancing chest. John was a very powerfully made man, though not a large
one, and the push sent Muller staggering back.

"What do you mean by that, _rooibaatje?_" shouted Muller, his face livid
with fury. "Get out of my road or I will mark that pretty face of yours.
I owe you for some goods as it is, Englishman, and I always pay
my debts. Out of the path, curse you!" and he again rushed for the
Hottentot.

This time John, who was now almost as angry as his assailant, did not
wait for the man to reach him, but, springing forward, hooked his arm
around Muller's throat and, before he could close with him, with one
tremendous jerk managed not only to stop his wild career, but to
reverse the motion, and then, by interposing his foot with considerable
neatness, to land him--powerful as he was--on his back in a pool of
drainage that had collected from the stable in a hollow of the inn-yard.
Down he went with a splash, amid a shout of delight from the crowd,
who always like to see an aggressor laid low, his head bumping with
considerable force against the lintel of the door. For a moment he lay
still, and John was afraid that the man was really hurt. Presently,
however, he rose, and, without attempting any further hostile
demonstration or saying a single word, tramped off towards the house,
leaving his enemy to compose his ruffled nerves as best he could. Now
John, like most gentlemen, hated a row with all his heart, though he had
the Anglo-Saxon tendency to go through with it unflinchingly when once
it began. Indeed, the incident irritated him almost beyond bearing,
for he knew that the story with additions would go the round of
the countryside, and what is more, that he had made a powerful and
implacable enemy.

"This is all your fault, you drunken little blackguard!" he said,
turning savagely on the Tottie, who, now that his excitement had left
him, was snivelling and drivelling in an intoxicated fashion, and
calling him his preserver and his Baas in maudlin accents.

"He hit me, Baas; he hit me, and I did not take the forage. He is a bad
man, Baas Muller."

"Be off with you and get the horses inspanned; you are half-drunk," John
growled, and, having seen that operation advancing to a conclusion, he
went to the sitting-room of the hotel, where Bessie was waiting in happy
ignorance of the disturbance. It was not till they were well on their
homeward way that he told her what had passed, whereat, remembering the
scene she had herself gone through with Frank Muller, and the threats
that he had then made use of, she looked very grave. Her old uncle, too,
was very much put out when he heard the story on their arrival home that
evening.

"You have made an enemy, Niel," he said, as they sat upon the verandah
after breakfast on the following morning, "and a bad one. Not but what
you were right to stand up for the Hottentot. I would have done as much
myself had I been there and ten years younger, but Frank Muller is not
the man to forget being put upon his back before a lot of Kafirs and
white folk too. Perhaps that Jantje is sober by now. I will go and
call him, and we will hear what this story is about his father and his
mother."

Presently he returned followed by the ragged, dirty-faced little
Hottentot, who, looking very miserable and ashamed of himself, took off
his hat and squatted down on the drive, in the full glare of the African
sun, to the effects of which he appeared to be totally impervious.

"Now, Jantje, listen to me," said the old man. "Yesterday you got drunk
again. Well, I'm not going to talk about that now, except to say that if
I hear of your being drunk once more--you leave this place."

"Yes, Baas," said the Hottentot meekly. "I was drunk, though not very; I
only had half a bottle of Cape smoke."

"By getting drunk you made a quarrel with Baas Muller, so that blows
passed between Baas Muller and the Baas here on your account, which was
more than you are worth. Now when Baas Muller had struck you, you said
that he had shot your father and your mother. Was that a lie, or what
did you mean by saying it?"

"It was no lie, Baas," answered the Hottentot excitedly. "I have said
it once, and I will say it again. Listen, Baas, and I will tell you the
story. When I was young--so tall"--and he held his hand high enough
to indicate a Tottie of about fourteen years of age--"we, that is,
my father, my mother, my uncle--a very old man, older than the Baas"
(pointing to Silas Croft)--"were _bijwoners_ (authorised squatters) on
a place belonging to old Jacob Muller, Baas Frank's father, down in
Lydenburg yonder. It was a bush-veldt farm, and old Jacob used to come
down there with his cattle from the High veldt in the winter when there
was no grass in the High veldt, and with him came the Englishwoman, his
wife, and the young Baas Frank--the Baas we saw yesterday."

"How long was all this ago?" asked Mr. Croft.

Jantje counted on his fingers for some seconds, and then held up his
hand and opened it four times in succession. "So," he said, "twenty
years last winter. Baas Frank was young then, he had only a little down
upon his chin. One year when _Oom_ Jacob went away, after the first
rains, he left six oxen that were too _poor_ (thin) to go, with
my father, and told him to look after them as though they were his
children. But the oxen were bewitched. Three of them took the lung-sick
and died, a lion got one, a snake got one, and one ate 'tulip' and died
too. So when _Oom_ Jacob came back the next year all the oxen were gone.
He was very angry with my father, and beat him with a yoke-strap till he
was all blood, and though we showed him the bones of the oxen, he said
that we had stolen them and sold them.

"Now _Oom_ Jacob had a beautiful span of black oxen that he loved like
children. Sixteen of them there were, and they would come up to the yoke
when he called them and put down their heads of themselves. They were
tame as dogs. These oxen were thin when they came down, but in two
months they grew fat and began to want to trek about as oxen do. At this
time there was a Basutu, one of Sequati's people, resting in our hut,
for he had hurt his foot with a thorn. When _Oom_ Jacob found that the
Basutu was there he was very angry, for he said that all Basutus were
thieves. So my father told the Basutu that the Baas said that he must go
away, and he went that night. Next morning the span of black oxen were
gone too. The kraal-gate was down, and they had gone. We hunted all day,
but we could not find them. Then _Oom_ Jacob went mad with rage, and
the young Baas Frank told him that one of the Kafir boys had said to him
that he had heard my father sell them to the Basutu for sheep which he
was to pay to us in the summer. It was a lie, but Baas Frank hated my
father because of something about a woman--a Zulu girl.

"Next morning when we were asleep, just at daybreak, _Oom_ Jacob Muller
and Baas Frank and two Kafirs came into the hut and pulled us out, the
old man my uncle, my father, my mother, and myself, and tied us up to
four mimosa-trees with buffalo-hide reims. Then the Kafirs went away,
and _Oom_ Jacob asked my father where the cattle were, and my father
told him that he did not know. Then _Oom_ Jacob took off his hat and
said a prayer to the Big Man in the sky, and when he had done Baas Frank
came up with a gun and stood quite close and shot my father dead, and he
fell forward and hung quiet over the reim, his head touching his feet.
Then he loaded the gun again and shot the old man my uncle, and he
slipped down dead, and his hands stuck up in the air against the reim.
Next he shot my mother, but the bullet did not kill her, and cut the
reim, and she ran away, and he ran after her and killed her. When that
was done he came back to shoot me; but I was young then, and did not
know that it is better to be dead than to live like a dog, and I cried
and prayed for mercy while he was loading the gun.

"But the Baas only laughed, and said he would teach Hottentots how to
steal cattle, and old _Oom_ Jacob prayed out loud to the Big Man and
said he was very sorry for me, but it was the dear Lord's will. And
then, just as Baas Frank lifted the gun, he dropped it again, for there,
coming softly, softly over the brow of the hill, in and out between the
bushes, were all the sixteen oxen! They had got out in the night and
strayed away into some kloof for a change of pasture, and came back when
they were full and tired of being alone. _Oom_ Jacob turned quite white
and scratched his head, and then fell upon his knees and thanked the
dear Lord for saving my life; and just then the Englishwoman, Baas
Frank's mother, came down from the waggon to see what the firing was at,
and when she saw all the people dead and me weeping, tied to the tree,
and learnt what it was about, she went quite mad, for sometimes she had
a kind heart when she was not drunk, and said that a curse would fall on
them, and that they would all die in blood. And she took a knife and cut
me loose, though Baas Frank wanted to kill me, so that I might tell no
tales; and I ran away, travelling by night and hiding by day, for I was
very much frightened, till I reached Natal, and there I stopped, working
in Natal till this land became English, when Baas Croft hired me to
drive his cart up from Maritzburg; and living by here I found Baas
Frank, looking bigger but just the same except for his beard.

"There, Baas, that is the truth, and all the truth, and that is why
I hate Baas Frank, because he shot my father and mother, and why Baas
Frank hates me, because he cannot forget that he did it and because I
saw him do it, for, as our people say, 'one always hates a man one has
wounded with a spear.'"

Having finished his narrative, the miserable-looking little man picked
up his greasy old felt hat that had a leather strap fixed round the
crown, in which were stuck a couple of frayed ostrich feathers, and
jammed it down over his ears. Then he fell to drawing circles on the
soil with his long toes. His auditors only looked at one another. Such a
ghastly tale seemed to be beyond comment. They never doubted its truth;
the man's way of telling it carried conviction with it; indeed, two of
them at any rate had heard such stories before. Most people have who
live in the wilder parts of South Africa, though they are not all to be
taken for gospel.

"You say," remarked old Silas at last, "that the Englishwoman said that
a curse would fall on them, and that they would die in blood? She was
right. Twelve years ago _Oom_ Jacob and his wife were murdered by a
party of Mapoch's Kafirs down on the edge of that very Lydenburg veldt.
There was a great noise about it at the time, I remember, but nothing
came of it. Baas Frank was not there. He was away shooting buck, so he
escaped, and inherited all his father's farms and cattle, and came to
live here."

"So!" said the Hottentot, without showing the slightest interest or
surprise. "I knew it would be so, but I wish I had been there to see it.
I saw that there was a devil in the woman, and that they would die as
she said. When there is a devil in people they always speak the truth,
because they can't help it. Look, Baas, I draw a circle in the sand with
my foot, and I say some words so, and at last the ends touch. There,
that is the circle of _Oom_ Jacob and his wife the Englishwoman. The
ends have touched and they are dead. An old witch-doctor taught me how
to draw the circle of a man's life and what words to say. And now I draw
another of Baas Frank. Ah! there is a stone sticking up in the way. The
ends will not touch. But now I work and work and work with my foot, and
say the words and say the words, and so--the stone comes up and the ends
touch now. Thus it is with Baas Frank. One day the stone will come up
and the ends will touch, and he too will die in blood. The devil in
the Englishwoman said so, and devils cannot lie or speak half the truth
only. And now, look, I rub my foot over the circles and they are gone,
and there is only the path again. That means that when they have died
in blood they will be quite forgotten and stamped out. Even their graves
will be flat," and Jantje wrinkled up his yellow face into a smile, or
rather a grin, and then added in a matter-of-fact way:

"Does the Baas wish the grey mare to have one bundle of green forage or
two?"



CHAPTER X

JOHN HAS AN ESCAPE

On the following Monday, John, taking Jantje to drive him, departed in
a rough Scotch cart, to which were harnessed two of the best horses at
Mooifontein, to shoot buck at Hans Coetzee's.

He reached the place at about half-past eight, and concluded, from the
fact of the presence of several carts and horses, that he was not the
only guest. Indeed, the first person whom he saw as the cart pulled up
was his late enemy, Frank Muller.

"_Kek_ (look), Baas," said Jantje, "there is Baas Frank talking to his
servant Hendrik, that ugly Basutu with one eye."

John, as may be imagined, was not best pleased at this meeting. He had
always disliked the man, and since Muller's conduct on the previous
Friday, and Jantje's story of the dark deed of blood in which he had
been the principal actor, positively he loathed the sight of him. He
jumped out of the cart, and was going to walk round to the back of the
house in order to avoid him, when Muller, suddenly seeming to become
aware of his presence, advanced to meet him with the utmost cordiality.

"How do you do, Captain?" he said, holding out his hand, which John just
touched. "So you have come to shoot buck with _Oom_ Coetzee; going to
show us Transvaalers how do to it, eh? There, Captain, don't look as
stiff as a rifle barrel. I know what you are thinking of; that little
business at Wakkerstroom on Friday, is it not? Well, now, I tell you
what it is, I was in the wrong, and I am not afraid to say so as between
man and man. I had had a glass, that was the fact, and did not quite
know what I was about. We have got to live as neighbours here, so let us
forget all about it and be brothers again. I never bear malice, not I.
It is not the Lord's will that we should bear malice. Hit out from the
shoulder, I say, and then forget all about it. If it hadn't been for
that little monkey," he added, jerking his thumb in the direction
of Jantje, who was holding the horses' heads, "it would never have
happened, and it is not nice that two Christians should quarrel about
such as he."

Muller jerked out this long speech in a succession of sentences,
something as a schoolboy repeats a hardly learnt lesson, fidgeting his
feet and letting his restless eyes travel about the ground as he spoke.
It was evident to John, who stood quite still and listened to it in icy
silence, that his address was by no means extemporary; clearly it had
been composed for the occasion.

"I do not wish to quarrel with anybody, _Meinheer_ Muller," he answered
at length. "I never do quarrel unless it is forced on me, and then,"
he added grimly, "I do my best to make it unpleasant for my enemy. The
other day you attacked first my servant and then myself. I am glad that
you now see that this was an improper thing to do, and, so far as I am
concerned, there is an end of the matter," and he turned to enter the
house.

Muller accompanied him as far as where Jantje was standing at the
horses' heads. Here he stopped, and, putting his hand in his pocket,
took out a two-shilling piece and threw it to the Hottentot, calling to
him to catch it.

Jantje was holding the horses with one hand. In the other he held his
stick--a long walking kerrie that he always carried, the same on which
he had shown Bessie the notches. In order to secure the piece of money
he dropped the stick, and Muller's quick eye catching sight of the
notches beneath the knob, he stooped down, picked it up, and examined
it.

"What do these mean, boy?" he asked, pointing to the line of big and
little notches, some of which had evidently been cut years ago.

Jantje touched his hat, spat upon the "Scotchman," as the natives of
that part of Africa call a two-shilling piece,[*] and pocketed it before
he answered. The fact that the giver had murdered all his near relations
did not make the gift less desirable in his eyes. Hottentot moral sense
is not very elevated.

     [*] Because once upon a time a Scotchman made a great
     impression on the simple native mind in Natal by palming off
     some thousands of florins among them at the nominal value of
     half a crown.

"No, Baas," he said with a curious grin, "that is how I reckon. If
anybody beats Jantje, Jantje cuts a notch upon the stick, and every
night before he goes to sleep he looks at it and says, 'One day you will
strike that man twice who struck you once,' and so on, Baas. Look, what
a line of them there are, Baas. One day I shall pay them all back again,
Baas Frank."

Muller abruptly dropped the stick, and followed John towards the house.
It was a much better building than the Boers generally indulge in, and
the sitting-room, though innocent of flooring--unless clay and cowdung
mixed can be called a floor--was more or less covered with mats made of
springbuck skins. In the centre of the room stood a table made of
the pretty _buckenhout_ wood, which has the appearance of having been
industriously pricked all over with a darning-needle, and round it were
chairs and couches of stinkwood, and seated with rimpis or strips of
hide.

In one big chair at the end of the room, busily employed in doing
nothing, sat _Tanta_ (Aunt) Coetzee, the wife of Old Hans, a large and
weighty woman, who evidently had once been rather handsome; and on
the couches were some half-dozen Boers, their rifles in their hands or
between their knees.

It struck John as he entered that some of these did not seem best
pleased to see him, and he thought he heard one young fellow, with
a hang-dog expression of face, mutter something about the "damned
Englishman" to his neighbour rather more loudly than was necessary to
convey his sentiments. However, old Coetzee came forward to greet him
heartily enough, and called to his daughters--two fine girls, very
smartly dressed for Dutch women--to give the Captain a cup of coffee.
Then John made the rounds after the Boer fashion, and beginning with the
old lady in the chair, received a lymphatic shake of the hand from every
single soul in the room. They did not rise--it is not customary to do
so--they merely extended their paws, all of them more or less damp, and
muttered the mystic monosyllable "_Daag_," short for good-day. It is
a very trying ceremony till one gets used to it, and John pulled up
panting, to be presented with a cup of hot coffee that he did not want,
but which it would be rude not to drink.

"The Captain is the _rooibaatje?_" said the old lady "Aunt" Coetzee
interrogatively, and yet with the certainty of one who states a fact.

John signified that he was.

"What does the Captain come to the 'land' for? Is it to spy?"

The whole audience listened attentively to their hostess's question,
then turned their heads to listen for the answer.

"No. I have come to farm with Silas Croft."

There was a general smile of incredulity. Could a _rooibaatje_ farm?
Certainly not.

"There are three thousand men in the British army," announced the old
_vrouw_ oracularly, and casting a severe glance at the wolf in sheep's
clothing, the man of blood who pretended to farm.

Everybody looked at John again, and awaited his answer in dead silence.

"There are more than a hundred thousand men in the regular British army,
and as many more in the Indian army, and twice as many more volunteers,"
he said, in a rather irritated voice.

This statement also was received with the most discouraging incredulity.

"There are three thousand men in the British army," repeated the old
lady, in a tone of certainty that was positively crushing.

"Yah, yah!" chimed in some of the younger men in chorus.

"There are three thousand men in the British army," she repeated for the
third time in triumph. "If the Captain says that there are more he lies.
It is natural that he should lie about his own army. My grandfather's
brother was at Cape Town in the time of Governor Smith, and he saw the
whole British army. He counted them; there were exactly three thousand.
I say that there are three thousand men in the British army."

"Yah, yah!" said the chorus; and John gazed at this terrible person in
bland exasperation.

"How many men do you command in the British army?" she interrogated
after a solemn pause.

"A hundred," said John sharply.

"Girl," said the old woman, addressing one of her daughters, "you have
been to school and can reckon. How many times does one hundred go into
three thousand?"

The young lady addressed giggled confusedly, and looked for assistance
to a sardonic Boer whom she was going to marry, who shook his head
sadly, indicating thereby that these were mysteries into which it was
not well to pry. Thrown on her own resources, she plunged into the
recesses of an intricate calculation, in which her fingers played a
considerable part, and finally, with an air of triumph, announced that
it went twenty-six times exactly.

"Yah, yah!" said the chorus, "it goes twenty-six times exactly."

"The Captain," said the oracular old lady, who was rapidly driving John
mad, "commands a twenty-sixth part of the British army, and he says that
he comes here to farm with Uncle Silas Croft. He says," she went on,
with withering contempt, "that he comes here to farm when he commands a
twenty-sixth part of the British army. It is evident that he lies."

"Yah, yah!" said the chorus.

"It is natural that he should lie!" she continued; "all Englishmen lie,
especially the _rooibaatje_ Englishmen, but he should not lie so badly.
It must vex the dear Lord to hear a man lie so badly, even though he be
an Englishman and a _rooibaatje_."

At this point John burst from the house, and swore frantically to
himself as soon as he was outside. It is to be hoped that he was
forgiven, for the provocation was not small. It is not pleasant to be
universally set down not only as a _leugenaar_ (liar), but as one of the
very feeblest order.

In another minute old Hans Coetzee came out and patted him warmly on the
shoulder, in a way that seemed to say that, whatever others might think
of the insufficiency of his powers of falsehood, he, for one, quite
appreciated them, and announced that it was time to be moving.

Accordingly the party climbed into their carts or on to their
shooting-horses, as the case might be, and started. Frank Muller, John
noticed, was mounted as usual on his fine black horse. After driving
for more than half an hour along an indefinite kind of waggon track, the
leading cart, in which were old Hans Coetzee himself, a Malay driver,
and a coloured Cape boy, turned to the left across the open veldt, and
the others followed in turn. This went on for some time, till at last
they reached the crest of a rise that commanded a large sweep of open
country, and here Hans halted and held up his hand, whereon the
others halted too. On looking out over the vast plain before him John
discovered the reason. About half a mile beneath them was a great herd
of blesbuck feeding, three hundred or more of them, and beyond them
another herd of some sixty or seventy much larger and wilder-looking
animals with white tails, which John at once recognised as vilderbeeste.
Nearer to them again, dotted about here and there on the plain, were a
couple of dozen or so of graceful yellow springbuck.

Now a council of war was held, which resulted in the men on
horseback--among whom was Frank Muller--being despatched to circumvent
the herds and drive them towards the carts, that took up their stations
at various points, towards which the buck were likely to run.

Then came a pause of a quarter of an hour or so, till suddenly, from
the far ridge of the opposite slope, John saw a couple of puffs of white
smoke float up into the air, and one of the vilderbeeste below rolled
over on his back, kicking and plunging furiously. Thereon the whole herd
of buck turned and came thundering towards them, stretched in a long
line across the wide veldt; the springbuck first, then the blesbuck,
looking for all the world like a herd of great bearded goats, owing to
their peculiar habit of holding their long heads down as they galloped.
Behind and mixed up with them were the vilderbeeste, who twisted and
turned, and jumped into the air as though they had gone clean off their
heads and were next second going clean on to them. It is very difficult,
owing to his extraordinary method of progression, to distinguish one
part of a galloping vilderbeeste from another; now it is his horns, now
his tail, and now his hoofs that present themselves to the watcher's
bewildered vision, and now again they all seem to be mixed up together.
On came the great herd, making the ground shake beneath their footfall:
and after them galloped the mounted Boers, from time to time jumping
off their horses to fire a shot into the line of game, which generally
resulted in some poor animal being left sprawling on the ground, whereon
the sportsmen would remount and continue the chase.

Presently the buck were within range of some of the guns in the carts,
and a regular fusillade began. About twenty blesbuck turned and came
straight past John, at a distance of forty yards. Springing to the
ground he fired both barrels of his "Express" at them as they tore
along--alas and alas! without touching them. The first bullet struck
under their bellies, the second must have shaved their backs. Reloading
rapidly, he fired again at about two hundred yards' range, and this time
one fell to his second barrel. But he knew that it was a chance shot: he
had fired at the last buck, and he had killed one ten paces in front
of it. In fact this sort of shooting is extremely difficult till the
sportsman understands it. The inexperienced hand firing across a line of
buck will not kill once in twenty shots, as an infinitesimal difference
in elevation, or the slightest error in judging distance--in itself
no easy art on those great plains--will spoil his aim. A Boer almost
invariably gets immediately behind a herd of running buck, and fires
at one about half-way down the line. Consequently if his elevation is a
little wrong, or if he has misjudged his sighting, the odds are that he
will hit one either in front of or behind the particular animal fired
at. All that is necessary is that the line of fire should be good. This
John soon learnt, and when he had mastered the fact he became as good a
game shot as the majority of Boers, but it being his first attempt, much
to his vexation, he did not particularly distinguish himself that day,
with the result that his friends the Dutchmen went home firmly convinced
that the English _rooibaatje_ shot as indifferently as he lied.

Jumping into the cart again, and leaving the dead blesbuck to look after
itself for the present--not a very safe thing to do in a country where
there are so many vultures--John, or rather Jantje, put the horses into
a gallop, and away they went at full tear. It was a most exciting mode
of progression, bumping along furiously with a loaded rifle in his hands
over a plain on which antheaps as large as an armchair were scattered
like burnt almonds on a cake. Then there were the antbear holes to
reckon with, and the little swamps in the hollows, and other agreeable
surprises. But the rush and exhilaration of the thing were too great to
allow him much time to think of his neck, so away they flew, hanging on
to the cart as best they could, and trusting to Providence to save them
from complete disaster. Now they were bounding over an antheap, now one
of the horses was on his nose, but somehow they always escaped the
last dire catastrophe, thanks chiefly to the little Hottentot's skilful
driving.

Whenever the game was within range they pulled up, and John would spring
from the cart and let drive, then jump in and follow on again. This
went on for nearly an hour, in which time he had fired twenty-seven
cartridges and killed three blesbuck and wounded a vilderbeeste, which
they proceeded to chase. But the vilderbeeste was struck in the rump,
and an antelope so wounded will travel far, and go very fast also, so
that some miles of ground had been covered before it began to rest, only
to start on again as they drew near. At last, on crossing the crest of
a little rise, John saw what at first he took to be his vilderbeeste,
dead. A second look, however, showed him that, although it was a dead
vilderbeeste, most undoubtedly it was not the one which he had wounded,
for that animal was standing, its head hanging, about one hundred and
twenty yards beyond the other buck, which, no doubt, had fallen to
somebody else's rifle, or else had been hit farther back and come here
to die. Now this vilderbeeste lay within a hundred yards of them, and
Jantje pointed out to John that his best plan would be to get out of the
cart and creep on his hands and knees up to the dead animal, from the
cover of which he would get a good shot at his own wounded bull.

Accordingly Jantje having withdrawn with the cart and horses out of
sight under the shelter of the rise, John crouched upon his hands and
knees and proceeded to carry out his stalk. All went well till he was
quite close to the dead cow, and was congratulating himself on the
prospect of an excellent shot at the wounded bull, when suddenly
something struck the ground violently just beneath his body, throwing up
a cloud of earth and dust. He stopped amazed, and at that instant heard
the report of a rifle somewhat to his right and knew that a bullet
had passed beneath him. Scarcely had he realised this when there was a
sudden commotion in his hair, and the soft black felt hat that he was
wearing started from his head, apparently of its own accord, and, after
twirling round twice or thrice in the air, fell gently to the earth,
just as the sound of a second report reached his ears. It was now
evident that somebody was firing at him; so, jumping up from his
crouching position, John tossed his arms into the air and sprang and
shouted in a way that left no mistake as to his whereabouts. In another
minute he saw a man on horseback, cantering easily towards him, in whom
he had little difficulty in recognising Frank Muller. He picked up his
hat; there was a bullet-hole right through it. Then, full of wrath, he
advanced to meet Frank Muller.

"What the devil do you mean by firing at me?" he asked.

"_Allemachter, carle!_" (Almighty, my dear fellow) was the cool answer,
"I thought that you were a vilderbeeste calf. I galloped the cow and
killed her, and she had a calf with her, and when I got the cartridges
out of my rifle--for one stuck and took me some time--and the new ones
in, I looked up, and there, as I thought, was the calf. So I got my
rifle on and let drive, first with one barrel and then with the other,
and when I saw you jump up like that and shout, and that I had been
firing at a man, I nearly fainted. Thank the Almighty I did not hit
you."

John listened coldly. "I suppose that I am bound to believe you,
_Meinheer_ Muller," he said. "But I have been told that you have the
most wonderful sight of any man in these parts, which makes it odd that
at three hundred yards you should mistake a man upon his hands and knees
for a vilderbeeste calf."

"Does the Captain think, then, that I wished to murder him; especially,"
he added, "after I shook his hand this morning?"

"I don't know what I think," answered John, looking straight into
Muller's eyes, which fell before his own. "All I know is that your
curious mistake very nearly cost me my life. Look here!" and he took a
lock of his brown hair out of the crown of his perforated hat and showed
it to the other.

"Ay, it was very close. Let us thank God that you escaped."

"It could not well have been closer, _Meinheer_. I hope that, for your
own sake and for the sake of the people who go out shooting with you,
you will not make such a mistake again. Good-morning!"

The handsome Boer, or Anglo-Boer, sat on his horse stroking his
beautiful beard and gazing curiously after John Niel's sturdy
English-looking figure as he marched towards the cart, for, of course,
the wounded vilderbeeste had long ago vanished.

"I wonder," he said to himself aloud, as he turned his horse's head
and rode leisurely away, "if the old _volk_ are right after all, and if
there is a God." Frank Muller was sufficiently impregnated with modern
ideas to be a free-thinker. "It almost seems like it," he went on, "else
how did it come that the one bullet passed under his belly and the other
just touched his head without harming him? I aimed carefully enough too,
and I could make the shot nineteen times out of twenty and not miss.
Bah, a God! I snap my fingers at Him. Chance is the only god. Chance
blows men about like the dead grass, till death comes down like the
veldt fire and devours them. But there are men who ride chance as one
rides a young colt--ay, who turn its headlong rushing and rearing to
their own ends--who let it fly hither and thither till it is weary, and
then canter it along the road that leads to triumph. I, Frank Muller, am
one of those men. I never fail in the end. I will kill that Englishman.
Perhaps I will kill old Silas Croft and the Hottentot too. Bah! they
do not know what is coming. I know; I have helped to lay the mine; and
unless they bend to my will I shall be the one to fire it. I will kill
them all, and I will take Mooifontein, and then I will marry Bessie. She
will fight against it, but that will make it all the sweeter. She loves
that _rooibaatje_; I know it; and I will kiss her over his dead body.
Ah! there are the carts. I don't see the Captain. Driven home, I
suppose, on account of the shock to his nerves. Well, I must talk to
those fools. Lord, what fools they are with their chatter about the
'land,' and the '_verdomde Britische Gouvernment_.' They don't know what
is good for them. Silly sheep, with Frank Muller for a shepherd! Ay, and
they shall have Frank Muller for a president one day, and I will rule
them too. Bah! I hate the English; but I am glad that I am half
English for all that, for that is where I get the brains! But these
people--fools, fools! Well, I shall pipe and they shall dance!"



"Baas," said Jantje to John, as they were driving homewards, "Baas Frank
shot at you."

"How do you know that?" asked John.

"I saw him. He was stalking the wounded bull, and not looking for a calf
at all. There was no calf. He was just going to fire at the wounded bull
when he turned and saw you, and he knelt down on one knee and covered
you, and before I could do anything he fired, and then when he saw that
he had missed you he fired again, and I don't know how it was that he
did not kill you, for he is a wonderful shot with a rifle--he never
misses."

"I will have the man tried for attempted murder," said John, bringing
the butt-end of his rifle down with a bang on to the bottom of the cart.
"A villain like that shall not go scot-free."

Jantje grinned. "It is no use, Baas. He would get off, for I am the
only witness. A jury won't believe a black man in this country, and they
would never punish a Boer for shooting at an Englishman. No, Baas! you
should lie up one day in the veldt where he is going to pass and shoot
_him_. That is what I would do if I dared."



CHAPTER XI

ON THE BRINK

For a few weeks after John Niel's adventure at the shooting-party no
event of any importance occurred at Mooifontein. Day followed day in
charming monotony, for, whatever "gay worldlings" may think, monotony
is as full of charm as a dreamy summer afternoon. "Happy is the country
that has no history," says the voice of wisdom, and the same remark
maybe made with even more truth of the individual. To get up in the
morning conscious of health and strength, to pursue the common round and
daily task till evening comes, and finally to go to bed pleasantly tired
and sleep the sleep of the just, is the true secret of happiness. Fierce
excitements, excursions, and alarms do not conduce either to mental or
physical well-being, and it is for this reason that we find that those
whose lives have been chiefly concerned with them crave the most after
the quiet round of domestic life. When they get it, often, it is true,
they pant for the ardours of the fray whereof the dim and distant sounds
are echoing through the spaces of their heart, in the same way that the
countries without a history are sometimes anxious to write one in their
own blood. But that is a principle of Nature, who will allow of no
standing still among her subjects, and who has ordained that strife of
one sort or another shall be the absolute condition of existence.

On the whole, John found that the life of a South African farmer came
well up to his expectations. He had ample occupation; indeed, what
between ostriches, horses, cattle, sheep, and crops, he was rather over
than under occupied. Nor was he much troubled by the lack of civilised
society, for he was a man who read a great deal, and books could be
ordered from Durban and Cape Town, while the weekly mail brought with it
a sufficient supply of papers. On Sundays he always read the political
articles in the "Saturday Review" aloud to Silas Croft, who, as he grew
older, found that the print tried his eyes, an attention which the
old man greatly appreciated. Silas was a well-informed man, and
notwithstanding his long life spent in a half-civilised country, had
never lost his hold of affairs or his interest in the wide and rushing
life of the world in one of whose side eddies he lived apart. This
task of reading the "Saturday Review" aloud had formerly been a part
of Bessie's Sunday service, but her uncle was very glad to effect an
exchange. Bessie's mind was not quite in tune with the profundities of
that learned journal, and her attention was apt to wonder at the most
pointed passages.

Thus it came about, what between the "Saturday Review" and other things,
that a very warm and deep attachment sprang up twixt the old man and his
younger partner. John was a taking man, especially to the aged, for whom
he was never tired of performing little services. One of his favourite
sayings was that old people should be "let down easy," and he acted up
to it. Moreover, there was a quiet jollity and a bluff honesty about him
which was undoubtedly attractive both to men and women. Above all, he
was a well-informed, experienced man, and a gentleman, in a country in
which both were rare. Each week Silas Croft came to rely more and more
on him, and allowed things to pass more and more into his hands.

"I'm getting old, Niel," he said to him one night; "I'm getting very
old; the grasshopper is becoming a burden to me: and I'll tell you what
it is, my boy," laying his hand affectionately upon John's shoulder, "I
have no son of my own, and you must be a son to me, as my dear Bessie
has been a daughter."

John looked up into the kindly, handsome face, crowned with its
fringe of snowy hair, and at the keen eyes set deep in it beneath the
overhanging brows, and thought of his old father who was long since
dead; and somehow he was moved, and his own eyes filled with tears.

"Ay, Mr. Croft," he said, taking the old man's hand, "that I will to the
best of my ability."

"Thank you, my boy, thank you. I don't like talking much about these
things, but, as I said, I am getting old, and the Almighty may require
my account any hour, and if He does I rely on you to look after these
two girls. It is a wild country this, and one never knows what will
happen in it from day to day, and they may want help. Sometimes I wish
I were clear of the place. And now I'm going to bed. I am beginning to
feel as though I had done my day's work in the world. I'm getting feeble
John, this is the fact of it."

After that he always called him John.

Of Jess they heard but little. She wrote every week, it is true, and
gave an accurate account of all that was going on at Pretoria and of
her daily doings, but she was one of those people whose letters tell one
absolutely nothing of themselves and of what is passing in their minds.
They ought to have been headed "Our Pretoria Letter," as Bessie said
disgustedly after reading through three sheets in Jess's curious,
upright handwriting. "Once you lose sight of Jess," she went on, "she
might as well be dead for all you learn about her. Not that one learns
very much when she is here," she added reflectively.

"She is a peculiar woman," said John thoughtfully. At first he had
missed her very much, for, strange as she undoubtedly was, she had
touched a new string in him, of the existence of which he had not till
then been himself aware. And what is more, it had answered strongly
enough for some time; but now it was slowly vibrating itself into
silence again, much as a harp does when the striker takes his fingers
from the strings. Had she stayed on another week or so the effect might
have been more enduring.

But although Jess had gone away Bessie had not. On the contrary, she was
always about him, surrounding him with that tender care a woman, however
involuntarily, cannot prevent herself from lavishing on the man she
loves. Her beauty moved about the place like a beam of light about a
garden, for she was indeed a lovely woman, and as pure and good as she
was lovely. Nor could John long remain in ignorance of her liking for
himself. He was not a vain man--very much the reverse, indeed--but
neither was he a fool. And it must be said that, though Bessie never
overstepped the bounds of maidenly reserve, neither did she take
particular pains to hide her preference. Indeed, it was too strong
to permit her so to do. Not that she was animated by the half-divine,
soul-searing breath of passion, such as animated her sister, which is a
very rare thing, and, take it altogether, as undesirable and unsuitable
to the ordinary conditions of this prosaic and work-a-day life as it
is rare. But she was tenderly and truly in love after the usual
young-womanly fashion; indeed, her passion, measured by the everyday
standard, would have proved to be a deep one. However this might be, she
was undoubtedly prepared to make John Niel a faithful and loving wife if
he chose to ask her to marry him.

And as the weeks went on--though, of course, he knew nothing of all
this--it became a very serious question to John whether he should not
ask her. It is not good for a man to live alone, especially in the
Transvaal, and it was not possible for him to pass day by day at the
side of so much beauty and so much grace without thinking that it
would be well to draw the bond of union closer. Indeed, had John been
a younger man of less experience, he would have succumbed to the
temptation much sooner than he did. But he was neither very young nor
very inexperienced. Ten years or more ago, in his green and gushing
youth, as has been said, he had burnt his fingers to the bone, and a
lively recollection of this incident in his career heretofore had proved
a very efficient warning. Also, he had reached that period of life when
men think a great many times before they commit themselves wildly to the
deep matrimonial waters. At three-and-twenty, for the sake of a pretty
face, most of us are willing to undertake the serious and in many
cases overwhelming burdens, risks, and cares of family life, and the
responsibility of the parentage of a large and healthy brood, but at
three-and-thirty we take a different view of the matter. The temptation
may be great, but the per contra list is so very alarming, and we
never know even then if we see all the liabilities. Such are the
black thoughts that move in the breasts of selfish men, to the great
disadvantage of the marriage market; and however it may lower John Niel
in the eyes of those who take the trouble to follow this portion of his
life's history, in the interests of truth it must be confessed that he
was not free from them.

In short, sweet and pretty as Bessie might be, he was not violently in
love with her; and at thirty-four a man must be violently in love to
rush into the near risk of matrimony. But, however commendably
cautious that man may be, he is always liable to fall into temptation
sufficiently strong to sweep away his caution and make a mockery of his
plans. However strong the rope, it has its breaking strain; and in the
same way our power of resistance to any given course depends entirely
upon the power of the temptation to draw us into it. Thus it was
destined to be with our friend John Niel.

It was about a week after his conversation with old Silas Croft that it
occurred to John that Bessie's manner had grown rather strange of late.
It seemed to him that she had avoided his society instead of showing a
certain partiality for it, if not of courting it. Also, she had looked
pale and worried, and evinced a tendency to irritation that was quite
foreign to her natural sweetness of character. Now, when a person on
whom one is accustomed to depend for most of that social intercourse
and those pleasant little amenities which members of one sex value from
another, suddenly cuts off the supply without any apparent rhyme or
reason, it is enough to induce a feeling of wonder, not to say of
vexation, in the breast. It never occurred to John that the reason
might be that Bessie was truly fond of him, and perhaps unconsciously
disappointed that he did not show a warmer interest in her. If, however,
we were to examine into the facts of the case we should probably
discover that here was the real explanation of this change. Bessie was
a straightforward young person, whose mind and purposes were as clear
as running water. She was vexed with John--though she would probably not
have owned it even to herself in so many words--and her manner reflected
the condition of her mind.

"Bessie," said John one lovely day, just as the afternoon was merging
into evening, "Bessie"--he always called her Bessie now--"I am going
down to the black wattle plantation by the big mealie patch. I want to
see how those young trees are doing. If you have done your cooking"--for
she had been engaged in making a cake, as young ladies, to their souls'
health, often have to do in the Colonies--"I wish you would put on your
hat and come with me. I don't believe that you have been out to-day."

"Thank you, Captain Niel, I don't think that I want to come out."

"Why not?" he said.

"Oh, I don't know--because there is too much to do. If I go out that
stupid girl will burn the cake," and she pointed to a Kafir _intombi_
(young girl), who, arrayed in a blue smock, a sweet smile, and a feather
stuck in her wool, was vigorously employed in staring at the flies on
the ceiling and sucking her black fingers. "Really," she added with a
little stamp, "one needs the patience of an angel to put up with that
idiot's stupidity. Yesterday she smashed the biggest dinner-dish and
then brought me the pieces with a broad grin on her face and asked me
to 'make them one' again. The white people were so clever, she said, it
would be no trouble to me. If they could make the china plate once, and
could cause flowers to grow on it, it would surely be easy to make it
whole again. I did not know whether to laugh or cry or throw the pieces
at her."

"Look here, young woman," said John, taking the sinning girl by the arm
and leading her solemnly to the oven, which was opened to receive the
cake; "look here, if you let that cake burn while the _inkosikaas_ (lady
chieftain) is away, when I come back I will cram you into the oven to
burn with it. I cooked a girl like that in Natal last year, and when she
came out she was quite white!"

Bessie translated this fiendish threat, whereat the girl grinned from
ear to ear and murmured "_Koos_" (chief) in cheerful acquiescence. A
Kafir maid on a pleasant afternoon is not troubled by the prospect of
being baked at nightfall, which is a long way off, especially when it is
John Niel who threatened the baking. The natives about Mooifontein had
taken the measure of John's foot by this time with accuracy. His threats
were awful, but his performances were not great. Once, indeed, he was
forced to engage in a stand-up fight with a great fellow who thought
that he could be taken advantage of on this account, but after he had
succeeded in administering a sound hiding to that champion he was never
again troubled in this respect.

"Now," he said, "I think we have provided for the safety of your cake,
so come on."

"Thank you, Captain Niel," answered Bessie, looking at him in a
bewitching little way she well knew how to assume, "thank you, but I
think I had rather not go out walking." This was what she said, but her
eyes added, "I am offended with you; I want to have nothing to do with
you."

"Very well," said John; "then I suppose I must go alone," and he took up
his hat with the air of a martyr.

Bessie looked through the open kitchen door at the lights and shadows
that chased each other across the swelling bosom of the hill behind the
house.

"It certainly is very fine," she said; "are you going far?"

"No, only round the plantation."

"There are so many puff-adders down there, and I hate snakes," suggested
Bessie, by way of finding another excuse for not coming.

"Oh, I'll look after the puff-adders--come along."

"Well," she said at last, as she slowly unrolled her sleeves, which had
been tucked up during the cake-making, and hid her beautiful white
arms, "I will come, not because I want to come, but because you have
over-persuaded me. I don't know what is happening to me," she added,
with a little stamp and a sudden filling of her eyes with tears, "I do
not seem to have any will of my own left. When I want to do one thing
and you want me to do another it is I who have to do what you want; and
I tell you I don't like it, Captain Niel, and I shall be very cross out
walking;" and sweeping past him, on her way to fetch her hat, in that
peculiarly graceful fashion which angry women can sometimes assume, she
left John to reflect that he never saw a more charming or taking lady in
Europe or out of it.

He had half a mind to risk it and ask her to marry him. But then,
perhaps, she might refuse him, and that was a contingency which he did
not quite appreciate. After their first youth few men altogether relish
the idea of putting themselves in a position that gives a capricious
woman an opportunity of first figuratively "jumping" on them, and
then perhaps holding them up to the scorn and obloquy of her friends,
relations, and other admirers. For, unfortunately, until the opposite is
clearly demonstrated, many men are apt to believe that not a few women
are by nature capricious, shallow, and unreliable; and John Niel,
owing, possibly, to that unhappy little experience of his youth, must be
reckoned among their misguided ranks.



CHAPTER XII

OVER IT

On leaving the house Bessie and John took their way down the long avenue
of blue gums. This avenue was old Silas Croft's particular pride, since
although it had only been planted for about twenty years, the trees,
which in the divine climate and virgin soil of the Transvaal grow at the
most extraordinary rate, were for the most part very lofty, and as thick
in the stem as English oaks of a hundred and fifty years' standing. The
avenue was not over wide, and the trees were planted quite close one to
another, with the result that their brown, pillar-like stems shot up for
many feet without a branch, whilst high overhead the boughs crossed and
intermingled in such a way as to form a leafy tunnel, through which the
landscape beyond appeared as though through a telescope.

Down this charming avenue John and Bessie walked, and on reaching its
limit they turned to the right and followed a little footpath winding in
and out of the rocks that built up the plateau on the hillside whereon
the house stood. Presently this led them through the orchard; then came
a bare strip of veldt, a very dangerous spot in a thunderstorm, but
a great safeguard to the stead and trees round it, for the ironstone
cropped up here, and from the house one might often see flash after
flash striking down on to it, and even running and zigzagging about its
surface. To the left of this ironstone were some cultivated lands, and
in front of them the plantation, in which John was anxious to inspect
the recently planted wattles.

They walked up to the copse without saying a word. It was surrounded
by a ditch and a low sod wall, whereon Bessie seated herself, remarking
that she would wait there till he had looked at the trees, as she was
afraid of the puff-adders, whereof a large and thriving family were
known to live in this plantation.

John assented, observing that the puff-adders were brutes, and that he
must have some pigs turned in to destroy them, which the pigs effect
by munching them up, apparently without unpleasant consequences to
themselves. Then he departed on his errand, wending his way gingerly
through the feathery black wattles. It did not take long, and he saw
no puff-adders. When he had finished looking at the young trees, he
returned, still walking delicately like Agag. On reaching the border of
the plantation, he paused to look at Bessie, who was some twenty paces
from him, perched sideways on the low sod wall, and framed, as it were,
in the full rich light of the setting sun. Her hat was off, for the sun
had lost its burning force, and the hand that held it hung idly by her,
while her eyes were fixed on the horizon flaming with all the varied
glories of an African sunset. He gazed at her sweet face and lissom
form, and some lines that he had read years before floated into his
mind--

     The little curls about her head
     Were all her crown of gold,
     Her delicate arms drooped downwards
     In slender mould,
     As white-veined leaves of lilies
     Curve and fold.
     She moved to measures of music,
     As a swan sails the stream--

He had got thus far when she turned and saw him, and he abandoned poetry
in the presence of one who might well have inspired it.

"What are you looking at?" she said with a smile; "the sunset?"

"No; I was looking at you."

"Then you might have been better employed with the sky," she answered,
turning her head quickly. "Look at it! Did you ever see such a
sunset? We sometimes get them like that at this time of year when the
thunderstorms are about."

She was right; it was glorious. The heavy clouds which a couple of hours
before had been rolling like celestial hearses across the azure deeps
were now aflame with glory. Some of them glowed like huge castles
wrapped in fire, others with the dull red heat of burning coal. The
eastern heaven was one sheet of burnished gold that slowly grew to red,
and higher yet to orange and the faintest rose. To the left departing
sunbeams rested lovingly on grey Quathlamba's crests, even firing the
eternal snows that lay upon his highest peak, and writing once more upon
their whiteness the record of another day fulfilled. Lower down the sky
floated little clouds, flame-flakes fallen from the burning mass above,
and on the earth beneath lay great depths of shadow barred with the
brightness of the dying light.

John stood and gazed at it, and its living, glowing beauty seemed to
fire his imagination, as it fired earth and heaven, in such sort that
the torch of love lit upon his heart like the sunbeams on the mountain
tops. Then from the celestial beauty of the skies he turned to look at
the earthly beauty of the woman who sat there before him, and found
that also fair. Whether it was the contemplation of the glories of
Nature--for there is always a suspicion of melancholy in beautiful
things--or whatever it was, her face had a touch of sadness on it that
he had never seen before, and which certainly added to its charm as a
shadow adds to the charm of the light.

"What are you thinking of, Bessie?" he asked.

She looked up, and he saw that her lips were quivering a little. "Well,
do you know," she said, "oddly enough, I was thinking of my mother. I
can only just recall her, a woman with a thin, sweet face. I remember
one evening she was sitting in front of a house while the sun was
setting as it is now, and I was playing by her, when suddenly she
called me to her and kissed me, then pointed to the red clouds that were
gathered in the sky, and said, 'I wonder if you will ever think of
me, dear, when I have passed through those golden gates?' I did not
understand what she meant, but somehow I have remembered the words, and
though she died so long ago, I do often think of her;" and two large
tears rolled down her face as she spoke.

Few men can bear to see a sweet and pretty woman in tears, and this
little incident was too much for John, whose caution and doubts all went
to the winds together.

"Bessie," he said, "don't cry, dear; please, don't! I can't bear to see
you cry."

She looked up as though to remonstrate at his words, then she looked
down again.

"Listen, Bessie," he went on awkwardly enough, "I have something to say
to you. I want to ask you if--if, in short, you will marry me. Wait a
bit, don't say anything yet; you know me pretty well by now. I am no
chicken, dear, and I have knocked about the world a good deal, and had
one or two love affairs like other people. But, Bessie, I never met such
a sweet woman, or, if you will let me say it, such a lovely woman as you
are, and if you will have me, dear, I think that I shall be the luckiest
man in South Africa;" and he stopped, not knowing exactly what else to
say, and feeling that the time had not come for action, if indeed it was
to come at all.

When first she understood the drift of his talk Bessie had flushed up to
the eyes, then the blood sank back to her breast, and left her as pale
as a lily. She loved the man, and they were happy words to her, and she
was satisfied with them, though perhaps some women might have thought
that they left a good deal to be desired. But Bessie was not of an
exacting nature.

At last she spoke.

"Are you sure," she asked, "that you mean all this? You know sometimes
people say things of a sudden, upon an impulse, and afterwards they wish
they never had been said. Then it would be rather awkward supposing I
were to say 'yes,' would it not?"

"Of course I am sure," he said indignantly.

"You see," went on Bessie, poking at the sod wall with the stick
she held in her hand, "perhaps in this place you might be putting an
exaggerated value on me. You think I am pretty because you see nobody
but Kafir and Boer women, and it would be the same with everything. I'm
not fit to marry such a man as you," she went on, with a sudden burst
of distress; "I have never seen anything or anybody. I am nothing but an
ignorant, half-educated farmer girl, with nothing to recommend me, and
no fortune except my looks. You are different to me; you are a man of
the world, and if ever you went back to England I should be a drag on
you, and you would be ashamed of me and my colonial ways. If it had been
Jess now, it would have been different, for she has more brains in her
little finger than I have in my whole body."

Somehow this mention of Jess jarred upon John's nerves, and chilled him
like a breath of cold wind on a hot day. He wanted to put Jess out of
his mind just now.

"My dear Bessie," he broke in, "why do you suppose such things? I can
assure you that, if you appeared in a London drawing-room, you would put
most of the women into the shade. Not that there is much chance of my
frequenting London drawing-rooms again," he added.

"Oh, yes! I may be good-looking; I don't say that I am not; but can't
you understand, I do not want you to marry me just because I am a pretty
woman, as the Kafirs marry their wives? If you marry me at all I want
you to marry me because you care for _me_, the real _me_, not my eyes
and my hair. Oh, I don't know what to answer you! I don't indeed!" and
she began to cry softly.

"Bessie, dear Bessie!" said John, who was pretty well beside himself by
this time, "just tell me honestly--do you care about me? I am not worth
much, I know, but if you do all this goes for nothing," and he took her
hand and drew her towards him, so that she half slipped, half rose from
the sod wall and stood face to face with him, for she was a tall woman,
and they were very nearly of a height.

Twice she raised her beautiful eyes to his to answer and twice her
courage failed her; then at last the truth broke from her almost with a
cry:

"Oh, John, I love you with all my heart!"

And now it will be well to drop a veil over the rest of these
proceedings, for there are some things that should be sacred, even from
the pen of the historian, and the first transport of the love of a good
woman is one of them.

Suffice it to say that they sat there side by side on the sod wall,
and were happy as people ought to be under such circumstances, till the
glory departed from the western sky and the world grew cold and pale,
till the night came down and hid the mountains, and only the stars and
they were left to look out across the dusky distances of the wilderness
of plain.



Meanwhile a very different scene was being enacted up at the house half
a mile away.

Not more than ten minutes after John and his lady-love had departed on
that fateful walk to look at the young trees, Frank Muller's stalwart
form, mounted on his great black horse, was to be seen leisurely
advancing towards the blue-gum avenue. Jantje was lurking about between
the stems of the trees in the peculiar fashion that is characteristic
of the Hottentot, and which doubtless is bred into him after tens of
centuries of tracking animals and hiding from enemies. There he was,
slipping from trunk to trunk, and gazing round him as though he expected
each instant to discover the assegai of an ambushed foe or to hear the
footfall of some savage beast of prey. Absolutely there was no reason
why he should behave in this fashion; he was simply indulging his
natural instincts where he thought nobody would observe him. Life at
Mooifontein was altogether too tame and civilised for Jantje's taste,
and he needed periodical recreations of this sort. Like a civilised
child he longed for wild beasts and enemies, and if there were none at
hand he found a reflected satisfaction in making a pretence of their
presence.

Presently, however, whilst they were yet a long way off, his quick ear
caught the sound of the horse's footfalls, and he straightened himself
and listened. Not satisfied with the results, he laid himself down, put
his ear to the earth, and gave a guttural sound of satisfaction.

"Baas Frank's black horse," Jantje muttered to himself. "The black horse
has a cracked heel, and one foot hits the ground more softly than the
others. What is Baas Frank coming here for? After Missie I think. He
would be mad if he knew that Missie went down to the plantation with
Baas Niel just now. People go into plantations to kiss each other"
(Jantje was not far out there), "and it would make Baas Frank mad if he
knew that. He would strike me if I told him, or I would tell him."

The horse's hoofs were drawing near by now, so Jantje slipped as easily
and naturally as a snake into a thick tuft of rank grass which grew
between the blue gums, and waited. Nobody would have guessed that this
tuft of grass hid a human being; not even a Boer would have guessed it,
unless he had happened to walk right on to the spy, and then it would
have been a chance but that the Hottentot managed to avoid being trodden
on and escaped detection. Again there was no reason why he should hide
himself in this fashion, except that it pleased him to do so.

Presently the big horse approached, and the snakelike Hottentot raised
his head ever so little and peered out with his beady black eyes through
the straw-like grass stems. They fell on Muller's cold face. It was
evident that he was in a reflective mood--in an angrily reflective mood.
So absorbed was he that he nearly let his horse, which was also absorbed
by the near prospect of a comfortable stall, put his foot in a big hole
that a wandering antbear had amused himself on the previous night by
digging exactly in the centre of the road.

"What is Baas Frank thinking of, I wonder?" said Jantje to himself as
horse and man passed within four feet of him. Then rising, he crossed
the road, and slipping round by a back way like a fox from a covert,
was standing at the stable-door with a vacant and utterly unobservant
expression of face some seconds before the black horse and its rider had
reached the house.

"I will give them one more chance, just one more," thought the handsome
Boer, or rather half-breed--for it will be remembered that his mother
was English--"and if they won't take it, then let their fate be upon
their own heads. To-morrow I go to the _bymakaar_ at Paarde Kraal to
take counsel with Paul Kruger and Pretorius, and the other 'fathers
of the land,' as they call themselves. If I throw in my weight against
rebellion there will be no rebellion; if I urge it there will be, and
if _Oom_ Silas will not give me Bessie, and Bessie will not marry me, I
will urge it even if it plunge the whole country in war from the Cape to
Waterberg. Patriotism! Independence! Taxes!--that is what they will cry
till they begin to believe it themselves. Bah! those are not the things
that I would go to war for; but ambition and revenge, ah! that is
another matter. I would kill them all if they stood in my way, all
except Bessie. If war breaks out, who will hold up a hand to help the
'_verdomde Englesmann_'? They would all be afraid. And it is not my
fault. Can I help if it I love that woman? Can I help it if my blood
dries up with longing for her, and if I lie awake hour by hour of
nights, ay, and weep--I, Frank Muller, who saw the murdered bodies of my
father and my mother and shed no tear--because she hates me and will not
look favourably upon me?

"Oh, woman! woman! They talk of ambition and of avarice and of
self-preservation as the keys of character and action, but what force is
there to move us like a woman? A little thing, a weak fragile thing--a
toy from which the rain will wash the paint and of which the rust will
stop the working, and yet a thing that can shake the world and pour out
blood like water, and bring down sorrow like the rain. So! I stand by
the boulder. A touch and it will go crashing down the mountain-side
so that the world hears it. Shall I send it? It is all one to me. Let
Bessie and _Oom_ Silas judge. I would slaughter every Englishman in
the Transvaal to gain Bessie--ay! and every Boer too, and throw all the
natives in;" and he laughed aloud, and struck the great black horse,
making it plunge and caper gallantly.

"And then," he went on, giving his ambition wing, "when I have won
Bessie, and we have kicked all these Englishmen out of the land, in a
very few years I shall rule this country, and what next? Why, then I
will stir up the Dutch feeling in Natal and in the old Colony, and we
will push the Englishmen back into the sea, make a clean sweep of the
natives, only keeping enough for servants, and have a united South
Africa, like that poor silly man Burgers used to prate of, but did not
know how to bring about. A united Dutch South Africa, and Frank Muller
to rule it! Well, such things have been, and may be again. Give me forty
years of life and strength, and we shall see----"

Just then he reached the verandah of the house, and, dismissing his
secret ambitions from his mind, Frank Muller dismounted and entered. In
the sitting-room he found Silas Croft reading a newspaper.

"Good-day, _Oom_ Silas," he said, extending his hand.

"Good-day, _Meinheer_ Frank Muller," replied the old man very coldly,
for John had told him of the incident at the shooting-party which so
nearly ended fatally, and though he made no remark he had formed his own
conclusions.

"What are you reading about in the _Volkstem_, _Oom_ Silas--about the
Bezuidenhout affair?"

"No; what was that?"

"It was that the _volk_ are rising against you English, that is all. The
sheriff seized Bezuidenhout's waggon in execution of taxes, and put it
up to sale at Potchefstroom. But the _volk_ kicked the auctioneer off
the waggon and hunted him round the town; and now Governor Lanyon is
sending Raaf down with power to swear in special constables and enforce
the law at Potchefstroom. He might as well try to stop a river by
throwing stones. Let me see, the big meeting at Paarde Kraal was to have
been on the fifteenth of December, now it is to be on the eighth, and
then we shall know if it will be peace or war."

"Peace or war?" answered the old man testily. "That has been the cry for
years. How many big meetings have there been since Shepstone annexed
the country? Six, I think. And what has come of it all? Just nothing but
talk. And what can come of it? Suppose the Boers did fight, what would
the end of it be? They would be beaten, and a lot of people would be
killed, and that would be the end of it. You don't suppose that England
would give in to a handful of Boers, do you? What did General Wolseley
say the other day at the dinner in Potchefstroom? Why, that the country
would never be given up, because no Government, Conservative, Liberal,
or Radical, would dare to do it. And now this new Gladstone Government
has telegraphed the same thing, so what is the use of all the talk and
childishness? Tell me that, Frank Muller."

Muller laughed as he answered, "You are all very simple people, you
English. Don't you know that a government is like a woman who cries
'No, no, no,' and kisses you all the time? If there is noise enough your
British Government will eat its words and give Wolseley, and Shepstone,
and Bartle Frere, and Lanyon, and all of them the lie. This is a bigger
business than you think for, _Oom_ Silas. Of course all these meetings
and talk are got up. The people are angry because of the English way of
dealing with the natives, and because they have to pay taxes; and
they think, now that you British have paid their debts and smashed up
Sikukuni and Cetewayo, that they would like to have the land back. They
were glad enough for you to take it at first; now it is another matter.
But still that is not much. If they were left to themselves nothing
would come of it except talk, for many of them are very glad that the
land should be English. But the men who pull the strings are down in
the Cape. They want to drive every Englishman out of South Africa. When
Shepstone annexed the Transvaal he turned the scale against the Dutch
element and broke up the plans they have been laying for years to make a
big anti-English republic of the whole country. If the Transvaal remains
British there is an end of their hopes, for only the Free State is left,
and it is hemmed in. That is why they are so angry, and that is why
their tools are stirring up the people. They mean to make them fight
now, and I think that they will succeed. If the Boers win the day, they
will declare themselves; if not, you will hear nothing of them, and the
Boers will bear the brunt of it. They are very cunning people the Cape
'patriots,' but they look well after themselves."

Silas Croft looked troubled, but made no answer, and Frank Muller rose
and stared out of the window.



CHAPTER XIII

FRANK MULLER SHOWS HIS HAND

Presently Muller turned round. "Do you know why I have told you all
this, _Oom_ Silas?" he asked.

"No."

"Because I want you to understand that you and all the Englishmen in
this country are in a very dangerous position. The war is coming, and
whether it goes for you or against you, you must suffer. You Englishmen
have many enemies. You have got all the trade and own nearly half the
land, and you are always standing up for the black people, whom the
Boers hate. It will go hard with you if there is a war. You will be shot
and your houses will be burnt, and if you lose the day those who escape
will be driven out of the country. It will be the Transvaal for the
Transvaalers, then, and Africa for the Africanders."

"Well, Frank Muller, and if all this should come to pass, what of it?
What are you driving at, Frank Muller? You don't show me your hand like
this for nothing."

The Boer laughed. "Of course I don't, _Oom_ Silas. Well, if you want to
know, I will tell you what I mean. I mean that I alone can protect you
and your place and people in the bad times which are coming. I have more
influence in the land than you know of. Perhaps even, I could stave
off the war, and if it suited me to do so I would do it. At the least
I could keep you from being harmed, that I know. But I have my price,
_Oom_ Silas, as we all have, and it must be money down and no credit."

"I don't understand you and your dark sayings," said the old man coldly.
"I am a straightforward man, and if you will tell me what you mean I
will give you my answer; if not, I don't see the good of our going on
talking."

"Very well; I will tell you what I mean. I mean _Bessie_. I mean that I
love your niece and want to marry her--ay, I mean to marry her by fair
means or foul--and that she will have nothing to say to me."

"And what have I to do with that, Frank Muller? The girl is her own
mistress. I cannot dispose of her in marriage, even if I wished it, as
though she were a colt or an ox. You must plead your own suit and take
your own answer."

"I have pleaded my suit and I have got my answer," replied the Boer with
passion. "Don't you understand, she will have nothing to say to me? She
is in love with that damned _rooibaatje_ Niel whom you have brought up
here. She is in love with him, I say, and will not look at me."

"Ah," replied Silas Croft calmly, "is it so? Then she shows very good
taste, for John Niel is an honest man, Frank Muller, and you are not.
Listen to me," he went on, with a sudden outburst of passion; "I tell
you that you are a dishonourable man and a villain. I tell you that you
murdered the Hottentot Jantje's father, mother, and uncle in cold blood
when you were yet a lad. I tell you that the other day you tried to
murder John Niel, pretending to mistake him for a buck! And now you, who
petitioned for this country to be taken over by the Queen, and have gone
round singing out your loyalty at the top of your voice, come and tell
me that you are plotting to bring about an insurrection, and to
plunge the land into war, and ask me for Bessie as the price of your
protection! But I will tell you something in answer, Frank Muller," and
the old man rose up, his keen eyes flashing in wrath, and, straightening
his bent frame, he pointed towards the door. "Go out of that door and
never come through it again. I rely upon God and the English nation
to protect me, and not on such as you, and I would rather see my dear
Bessie dead in her coffin than married to a knave and traitor and a
murderer like Frank Muller. Go!"

The Boer turned white with fury as he listened. Twice he tried to speak
and failed, and when the words did come they were so choked and laden
with passion as to be scarcely audible. When thwarted he was liable
to these accesses to rage, and, speaking figuratively, they spoilt his
character. Could he have kept his head, he would have been a perfect and
triumphant villain, but as it was, the carefully planned and audacious
rascality of years was always apt to be swept away by the sudden gale
of his furious passion. It was in such an outburst of rage that he had
assaulted John in the inn yard at Wakkerstroom, and thereby put him on
his guard against him, and now it mastered him once more.

"Very well, Silas Croft," he said at last, "I will go; but mark this, I
will come back, and when I come it shall be with men armed with rifles.
I will burn this pretty place of yours, that you are so proud of, over
your head, and I will kill you and your friend the Englishman, and
take Bessie away, and very soon she shall be glad enough to marry Frank
Muller; but then I will not marry her--no, not if she goes on her knees
to me--and she shall go on her knees often enough. We will see then what
God and the English nation will do to protect you. God and the English
nation! Call on the sheep and the horses; call on the rocks and the
trees, and you will get a better answer."

"Go!" thundered the old man, "or by the God you blaspheme I will put a
bullet through you," and he reached towards a rifle that hung over the
mantelpiece, "or my Kafirs shall whip you off the place."

Frank Muller waited no more. He turned and went. It was dark now, but
there was still some light in the sky at the end of the blue-gum
avenue, and against it, as he rode away, he discovered Bessie's tall and
graceful form softly outlined upon the darkening night. John had left
her to see about some pressing matter connected with the farm, and there
she stood, filled with the great joy of a woman who has found her love,
and loth as yet to break its spell by entering again into the daily
round of common life.

There she stood, a type and symbol of all that is beautiful and gracious
in this rough world, the lovelights shining in her blue eyes and
thoughts of happy gratitude to the Giver of all good rising from her
heart to Heaven, drawn up thither, as it were, by the warmth of her pure
passion, as the dew mists of the morning are drawn upward by the sun.
There she was, so good, so happy, and so sweet; an answer to the world's
evil, a symbol of the world's joy, and an incarnation of the world's
beauty! Who but a merciful and almighty Father can create children such
as she, so lovely, so lovable, and set them on the world as He sets the
stars upon the sky to light it and make beholders think of holy things,
and who but man could have the heart to turn such as she to the base
uses whereto they are daily turned?

Presently she heard the horse's hoofs, and looked up, so that the
faint light fell full upon her face, idealising it, and making its
passion-breathing beauty seem more of Heaven than of earth. There was
some look upon it, some indefinable light that day--such is the power
that Love has to infuse all human things with the tint of his own
splendour--that it went even to the heart of the wild and evil man who
adored her with the deep and savage force of his dark nature. Was it
well to meddle with her, and to build up plans for her overthrow and
that of all to whom she clung? Would it not be better to let her be,
to go his way and leave her to go hers in peace? She did not look
quite like a woman standing there, but more like something belonging
to another world, some subject of a higher rule. Men of powerful but
undisciplined intellect like Frank Muller are never entirely free
from superstition, however free they may be from religion, and he grew
superstitious as he was apt to do. Might there not be an unknown penalty
for treading such a flower as that into the mire--into mire mixed
perchance with the blood of those she loved?

For a few seconds he hesitated. Should he throw up the whole affair,
leave the rebellion to look after itself, marry one of Hans Coetzee's
daughters, and trek to the old colony, or Bechuanaland, or anywhere? His
hand began to tighten on his bridle-rein and the horse to answer to the
pressure. As a first step towards it he would turn away to the left and
avoid her, when suddenly the thought of his successful rival flashed
into his mind. What, leave her with that man? Never! He had rather kill
her with his own hand. In another second he had sprung from his horse,
and, before she guessed who it was, he was standing face to face with
her. The strength of his jealous desire overpowered him.

"Ah, I thought he had come after missie," said Jantje, who, pursuing his
former tactics, was once more indulging his passion for slinking about
behind trees and in tufts of grass. "Now what will missie say?"

"How are you, Bessie?" said Muller in a quiet voice, but she, looking
into his face, saw that it belied the voice. It was alive with evil
passions that seemed to make it positively lurid, an effect that its
undoubted beauty only intensified.

"I am quite well, thank you, Mr. Muller," she answered as she began to
move homewards, commanding her voice as well as she could, but feeling
dreadfully frightened and lonely. She knew something of her admirer's
character, and feared to be left alone with him so far from any help,
for nobody was about now, and they were more than three hundred yards
from the house.

He stood before her so that she could not pass without actually pushing
by him. "Why are you in such a hurry?" he said. "You were standing still
enough just now."

"It is time for me to be going in. I want to see about the supper."

"The supper can wait awhile, Bessie, and I cannot wait. I am starting
for Paarde Kraal to-morrow at day-break, and I want to say good-bye to
you first."

"Good-bye," she said, more frightened than ever at his curious
constrained manner, and she held out her hand.

He took it and retained it.

"Please let me go," she said.

"Not till you have heard what I have to say. Look here, Bessie, I love
you with all my heart. I know you think I am only a Boer, but I am more
than that. I have been to the Cape and seen the world. I have brains,
and can see and understand things, and if you will marry me I will lift
you up. You shall be one of the first ladies in Africa, though I am only
plain Frank Muller now. Great things are going to happen in the country,
and I shall be at the head of them, or near it. No, don't try to get
away. I tell you I love you, you don't know how. I am dying for you. Oh!
can't you believe me? my darling! my darling! Yes, I _will_ kiss you,"
and in an agony of passion, that her resistance only fired the more, he
flung his strong arms round her and drew her to his breast, fight as she
would.

But at this opportune moment an unexpected diversion occurred, of which
the hidden Jantje was the cause. Seeing that matters were becoming
serious, and being afraid to show himself lest Frank Muller should kill
him then and there, as indeed he would have been quite capable of doing,
he hit upon another expedient, to the service of which he brought a
ventriloquistic power that is not uncommon among natives. Suddenly the
silence was broken by a frightful and prolonged wail that seemed to
shape itself into the word "Frank," and to proceed from the air just
above the struggling Bessie's head. The effect produced upon Muller was
something wonderful.

"_Allemachter!_" he cried, looking up, "it is my mother's voice!"

"_Frank!_" wailed the voice again, and he let go of Bessie in his
perplexity and fear, and turned round to try and discover whence the
sound proceeded--a circumstance of which that young lady took advantage
to beat a rapid if not very dignified retreat.

"_Frank! Frank! Frank!_" wailed and howled the voice, now overhead, now
on this side, now on that, till at last Muller, thoroughly mystified
and feeling his superstitious fears rising apace as the moaning sound
flitted about beneath the dark arch of the gum-trees, made a rush for
his horse, which was snorting and trembling in every limb. It is almost
as easy to work upon the superstitious fears of a dog or a horse as upon
those of a man, but Muller, not being aware of this, took the animal's
alarm as a clear indication of the uncanny nature of the voice. With
a single bound he sprang into his saddle, and as he did so the woman's
voice wailed out once more--

"_Frank_, thou shalt die in blood as I did, Frank!"

Muller turned livid with fear, and the cold perspiration streamed from
his face. He was a bold man enough physically, but this was too much for
his nerves.

"It is my mother's voice, they are her very words!" he called out aloud,
then, dashing his spurs into his horse's flanks, he went like a flash
far from the accursed spot; nor did he draw rein till he came to his own
place ten miles away. Twice the horse fell in the darkness, for there
was no moon, the second time throwing him heavily, but he only dragged
it up with an oath, and springing into the saddle again fled on as
before.

Thus the man who did not hesitate to plot and to execute the cruel
slaughter of unoffending men cowered beneath the fancied echo of a dead
woman's voice! Truly human nature is full of contradictions.

When the thunder of the horse's hoofs grew faint Jantje emerged from one
of his hiding-places, and, throwing himself down in the centre of the
dusty road, kicked and rolled with delight, shaking all the while with
an inward joy to which his habits of caution would not permit him to
give audible vent. "His mother's voice, his mother's words," he quoted
to himself. "How should he know that Jantje remembers the old woman's
voice--ay, and the words that the devil in her spoke too? Hee! hee!
hee!"

Finally he departed to eat his supper of beef, which he had cut off
an unfortunate ox which that morning had expired of a mysterious
complication of diseases, filled with a happy sense that he had not
lived that day in vain.

Bessie fled without stopping till she reached the orange-trees in front
of the verandah, where, reassured by the lights from the windows, she
paused to consider. Not that she was troubled by Jantje's mysterious
howling; indeed, she was too preoccupied to give it a second thought.
What she debated was whether she should say anything about her encounter
with Frank Muller. Young ladies are not, as a rule, too fond of
informing their husbands or lovers that somebody has kissed them; first,
because they know it will force them to make a disturbance and possibly
to place themselves in a ridiculous position; and, secondly, because
they fear lest suspicious man might take the story with a grain of salt,
and suggest even that they, the kissed, were themselves to blame. Both
these reasons presented themselves to Bessie's practical mind, also a
further one, namely, that he had not kissed her after all. So on a rapid
review of the whole case she came to the decision to say nothing to John
about it, and only enough to her uncle to make him forbid Frank Muller
the house--an unnecessary precaution, as the reader will remember. Then,
after pausing for a few seconds to pick a branch of orange blossom and
to recover herself generally, which, not being hysterically inclined,
she very soon did, she entered the house quietly as though nothing had
happened. The very first person she met was John himself, who had come
in by the back way. He laughed at her orange-blossom bouquet, and said
that it was most appropriate, then proceeded to embrace her tenderly in
the passage; and indeed he would have been a poor sort of lover if he
had not. It was exactly at this juncture that old Silas Croft happened
to open the sitting-room door and became the spectator of this
surprising and attractive tableau.

"Well, I never!" said the old gentleman. "What is the meaning of all
this, Bessie?"

Of course there was nothing for it but to advance and explain the facts
of the case, which John did with much humming and ha-ing and a general
awkwardness of manner that baffles description, while Bessie stood by,
her hand upon her lover's shoulder, blushing as red as any rose.

Mr. Croft listened in silence till John had finished, a smile upon his
face and a kindly twinkle in his keen eyes.

"So," he said, "that is what you young people have been after, is it? I
suppose that you want to enlarge your interests in the farm, eh, John?
Well, upon my word, I don't blame you; you might have gone farther and
fared worse. These sort of things never come singly, it seems. I had
another request for your hand, my dear, only this afternoon, from that
scoundrel Frank Muller, of all men in the world," and his face darkened
as he said the name. "I sent him off with a flea in his ear, I can tell
you. Had I known then what I know now, I should have referred him to
John. There, there! He is a bad man, and a dangerous man, but let him
be. He is taking plenty of rope, and he will hang himself one of these
days. Well, my dears, this is the best bit of news that I have heard for
many a long year. It's time you got married, both of you, for it is
not right for man to live alone, or woman either. I have done it all
my life, and that is the conclusion I have come to after thinking the
matter over for somewhere about fifty years. Yes, you have my consent
and my blessing too, and you will have something more one day before so
very long. Take her, John, take her. I have led a rough life, but I have
seen somewhat of women for all that, and I tell you that there is not
a sweeter or a prettier girl in South Africa than Bessie Croft, and in
wanting to marry her you have shown your sense. God bless you both, my
dears; and now, Bessie, come and give your old uncle a kiss. I hope that
you won't let John quite drive me out of your head, that's all, for you
see, my dear, having no children of my own, I have managed to grow very
fond of you in the last twelve years or so."

Bessie kissed the old man tenderly.

"No, uncle," she answered, "neither John nor anybody nor anything in the
world can do that," and it was evident from her manner that she meant
what she said. Bessie had a large heart, and was not at all the person
to let her lover drive her uncle and benefactor out of his share
thereof.



CHAPTER XIV

JOHN TO THE RESCUE

The important domestic events described in the last chapter took place
on December 7, 1880, and for the next twelve days or so everything went
as happily at Mooifontein as things should go under the circumstances.
Every day Silas Croft beamed with an enlarged geniality in his
satisfaction at the turn that matters had taken, and every day John
found cause to congratulate himself more and more on the issue of his
bold venture towards matrimony. Now that he came to be on such intimate
terms with his betrothed, he perceived a hundred charms and graces
in her nature which before he had never suspected. Bessie was like a
flower: the more she basked in the light and warmth of her love the more
her character opened and unfolded, shedding perfumed sweetness around
her and revealing unguessed charms. It is so with all women, and more
especially with a woman of her stamp, whom Nature has made to love and
be loved as maid and wife and mother. Her undoubted personal beauty
shared also in this development, her fair face taking a richer hue and
her eyes an added depth and meaning. She was in every respect, save one,
all that a man could desire in his wife, and even the exception would
have stood to her credit with many men. It was this: she was not an
intellectual person, although certainly she possessed more than the
ordinary share of intelligence and work-a-day common sense. Now John was
a decidedly intellectual man, and, what is more, he highly appreciated
that rare quality in the other sex. But, after all, when one is just
engaged to a sweet and lovely woman, one does not think much about her
intellect. Those reflections come afterwards.

And so they sauntered hand in hand through the sunny days and were happy
exceedingly. Least of all did they allow the rumours which reached them
from the great Boer gathering at Paarde Kraal to disturb their serenity.
There had been so many of these reports of rebellion that folk were
beginning to regard them as a chronic state of affairs.

"Oh, the Boers!" said Bessie, with a pretty toss of her golden head, as
they were sitting one morning on the verandah. "I am sick to death of
hearing about the Boers and all their got-up talk. I know what it is;
it is just an excuse for them to go away from their farms and wives and
children and idle about at these great meetings, and drink 'square-face'
with their mouths full of big words. You see what Jess says in her
last letter. People in Pretoria believe that it is all nonsense from
beginning to end, and I think they are perfectly right."

"By the way, Bessie," asked John, "have you written to Jess telling her
of our engagement?"

"Oh yes, I wrote some days ago, but the letter only went yesterday. She
will be pleased to hear about it. Dear old Jess, I wonder when she means
to come home again. She has been away long enough."

John made no answer, but went on smoking his pipe in silence, wondering
if Jess would be pleased. He did not understand her yet. She had gone
away just as he was beginning to understand her.

Presently he observed Jantje sneaking about between the orange-trees as
though he wished to call attention to himself. Had he not wanted to do
so he would have moved from one to the other in such a way that nobody
could have seen him. His partial and desultory appearances indicated
that he was on view.

"Come out of those trees, you little rascal, and stop slipping
about like a snake in a stone wall!" shouted John. "What is it you
want--wages?"

Thus adjured, Jantje advanced and sat down on the path, as usual in the
full glare of the sun.

"No, Baas," he said, "it is not wages. They are not due yet."

"What is it, then?"

"No, Baas, it is this. The Boers have declared war on the English
Government, and they have eaten up the _rooibaatjes_ at Bronker's
Spruit, near Middleburg. Joubert shot them all there the day before
yesterday."

"What!" shouted John, letting his pipe fall in his astonishment. "Stop,
though, that must be a lie. You say near Middleburg, the day before
yesterday: that would be December 20. When did you hear this?"

"At daybreak, Baas. A Basutu told me."

"Then there is an end of it. The news could not have reached here in
thirty-eight hours. What do you mean by coming to me with such a tale?"

The Hottentot smiled. "It is quite true, Baas. Bad news flies like a
bird," and he picked himself up and slipped off to his work.

Notwithstanding the apparent impossibility of the thing, John was
considerably disturbed, knowing the extraordinary speed with which
tidings do travel among Kafirs, more swiftly, indeed, than the fleetest
mounted messenger can bear them. Leaving Bessie, who was also somewhat
alarmed, he went in search of Silas Croft, and, finding him in the
garden, told him what Jantje had said. The old man did not know what to
make of the tale, but, remembering Frank Muller's threats, he shook his
head.

"If there is any truth in it, that villain Muller has a hand in it," he
said. "I'll go to the house and see Jantje. Give me your arm, John."

He obeyed, and, on arriving at the top of the steep path, they perceived
the stout figure of old Hans Coetzee, who had been John's host at the
shooting-party, ambling along on his fat little pony.

"Ah," said Silas, "here is the man who will tell us if there is anything
in it all."

"Good-day, _Oom_ Coetzee, good-day!" he shouted out in his stentorian
tones. "What news do you bring with you?"

The jolly-looking Boer rolled awkwardly off his pony before answering,
and, throwing the reins over its head, came to meet them.

"_Allemachter_, _Oom_ Silas, it is bad news. You have heard of the
_bymakaar_ at Paarde Kraal. Frank Muller wanted me to go, but I would
not, and now they have declared war on the British Government and sent
a proclamation to Lanyon. There will be fighting, _Oom_ Silas, the land
will run with blood, and the poor _rooibaatjes_ will be shot down like
buck."

"The poor Boers, you mean," growled John, who did not like to hear her
Majesty's army talked of in terms of regretful pity.

_Oom_ Coetzee shook his head with the air of one who knew all about it,
and then turned an attentive ear to Silas Croft's version of Jantje's
story.

"_Allemachter!_" groaned Coetzee, "what did I tell you? The poor
_rooibaatjes_ shot down like buck, and the land running with blood! And
now that Frank Muller will draw me into it, and I shall have to go and
shoot the poor _rooibaatjes_; and I can't miss, try as hard as I will, I
_can't_ miss. And when we have shot them all I suppose that Burgers
will come back, and he is _kransick_ (mad). Yes, yes; Lanyon is bad, but
Burgers is worse," and the comfortable old gentleman groaned aloud at
the troubles in which he foresaw he would be involved, and finally took
his departure by a bridle-path over the mountain, saying that, as
things had turned out, he would not like it to be known that he had been
calling on an Englishman. "They might think that I was not loyal to the
'land,'" he added in explanation; "the land which we Boers bought with
our blood, and which we shall win back with our blood, whatever the
poor 'pack oxen' of _rooibaatjes_ try to do. Ah, those poor, poor
_rooibaatjes_, one Boer will drive away twenty of them and make them run
across the veldt, if they can run in those great knapsacks of theirs,
with the tin things hanging round them like the pots and kettles to the
bed-plank of a waggon. What says the Holy Book? 'One thousand shall flee
at the rebuke of one, and at the rebuke of five shall ye flee,' at least
I think that is it. The dear Lord knew what was coming when He wrote it.
He was thinking of the Boers and the poor _rooibaatjes_," and Coetzee
departed, shaking his head sadly.

"I am glad that the old gentleman has made tracks," said John, "for if
he had gone on much longer about the poor English soldiers he would have
fled 'at the rebuke of one,' I can tell him."

"John," said Silas Croft suddenly, "you must go up to Pretoria and fetch
Jess. Mark my words, the Boers will besiege Pretoria, and if we don't
get her down at once she will be shut up there."

"Oh no," cried Bessie, in sudden alarm, "I cannot let John go."

"I am sorry to hear you talk like that, Bessie, when your sister is in
danger," answered her uncle rather sternly; "but there, I dare say that
it is natural. I will go myself. Where is Jantje? I shall want the Cape
cart and the four grey horses."

"No, uncle dear, John shall go. I was not thinking what I was saying. It
seemed--a little hard at first."

"Of course I must go," said John. "Don't fret, dear, I shall be back in
five days. Those four horses can go sixty miles a day for that time, and
more. They are fat as butter, and there is lots of grass along the road
if I can't get forage for them. Besides, the cart will be nearly empty,
so I can carry a muid of mealies and fifty bundles of forage. I will
take that Zulu boy, Mouti, with me. He does not know very much about
horses, but he is a plucky fellow, and would stick by one at a pinch.
One can't rely on Jantje; he is always sneaking off somewhere, and would
be sure to get drunk just as one wanted him."

"Yes, yes, John, that's right, that's right," said the old man. "I will
go and see about having the horses got up and the wheels greased. Where
is the castor-oil, Bessie? There is nothing like castor-oil for these
patent axles. You ought to be off in an hour. You had better sleep at
Luck's to-night; you might get farther, but Luck's is a good place to
stop, and they will look after you well there, and you an be off by
three in the morning, reaching Heidelberg by ten o'clock to-morrow
night, and Pretoria by the next afternoon," and he bustled away to make
the necessary preparations.

"Oh, John," said Bessie, beginning to cry, "I don't like your going at
all among all those wild Boers. You are an English officer, and if they
find you out they will shoot you. You don't know what brutes some of
them are when they think it safe to be so. Oh, John, John, I can't
endure your going."

"Cheer up, my dear," said John, "and for Heaven's sake stop crying, for
I cannot bear it. I must go. Your uncle would never forgive me if I did
not, and, what is more, I should never forgive myself. There is
nobody else to send, and we can't leave Jess to be shut up there in
Pretoria--for months perhaps. As for the risk, of course there is a
little risk, but I must take it. I am not afraid of risks--at least I
used not to be, but you have made a bit of a coward of me, Bessie dear.
There, give me a kiss, old girl, and come and help me to pack my things.
Please God I shall get back all right, and Jess with me, in a week from
now."

Whereon Bessie, being a sensible and eminently practical young woman,
dried her tears, and with a cheerful face, albeit her heart was heavy
enough, set to work with a will to make every possible preparation.

The few clothes John was to take with him were packed in a Gladstone
bag, the box fitted underneath the movable seat in the Cape cart was
filled with the tinned provisions which are so much used in South
Africa, and all the other little arrangements, small in themselves, but
of such infinite importance to the traveller in a wild country, were
duly attended to by her careful hands. Then came a hurried meal, and
before it was swallowed the cart was at the door, with Jantje hanging as
usual on to the heads of the two front horses, and the stalwart Zulu,
or rather Swazi boy, Mouti, whose sole luggage appeared to consist of a
bundle of assegais and sticks wrapped up in a grass mat, and who, hot as
it was, was enveloped in a vast military great-coat, lounging placidly
alongside.

"Good-bye, John, dear John," said Bessie, kissing him again and again,
and striving to keep back the tears that, do what she could, would
gather in her blue eyes. "Good-bye, my love."

"God bless you, dearest," he said simply, kissing her in answer;
"good-bye, Mr. Croft. I hope to see you again in a week," and he was
in the cart and had gathered up the long and intricate-looking reins.
Jantje let go the horses' heads and uttered a whoop. Mouti, giving up
star-gazing, suddenly became an animated being and scrambled into the
cart with surprising alacrity; the horses sprang forward at a hand
gallop, and were soon hidden from Bessie's dim sight in a cloud of dust.
Poor Bessie, it was a hard trial, and now that John had gone and her
tears could not distress him, she went into her room and gave way to
them freely enough.

John reached Luck's, a curious establishment on the Pretoria road, such
as are to be met with in sparsely populated countries, combining the
characteristics of an inn, a shop, and a farm-house. It was not an inn
and not a farm-house, strictly speaking, nor was it altogether a shop,
although there was a "store" attached. If the traveller is anxious to
obtain accommodation for man and beast at a place of this stamp he has
to proceed warily, so to say, lest he should be requested to move on. He
must advance, hat in hand, and ask to be taken in as a favour, as many a
stiff-necked wanderer, accustomed to the obsequious attentions of "mine
host," has learnt to his cost. There is no such dreadful autocrat
as your half-and-half innkeeper in South Africa, and then he is so
completely master of the situation. "If you don't like it, go and
be d--d to you," is his simple answer to the remonstrances of the
infuriated voyager. Then you must either knock under and look as though
you liked it, or trek on into the "unhostelled" wilderness. But on this
occasion John fared well enough. To begin with, he knew the owners of
the place, who were very civil people if approached in a humble spirit,
and, furthermore, he found everybody in such a state of unpleasurable
excitement that they were only too glad to get another Englishman with
whom to talk over matters. Not that their information amounted to much,
however. There was a rumour of the Bronker's Spruit disaster and other
rumours of the investment of Pretoria, and of the advance of large
bodies of Boers to take possession of the pass over the Drakensberg,
known as Laing's Nek, but there was no definite intelligence.

"You won't get into Pretoria," said one melancholy man, "so it's no use
trying. The Boers will just catch you and kill you, and there will be
an end of it. You had better leave the girl to look after herself and go
back to Mooifontein."

But this was not John's view of the matter. "Well," he answered, "at any
rate I'll have a try." Indeed, he had a sort of bull-dog nature about
him which led him to believe that if he made up his mind to do a thing,
he would do it somehow, unless he should be physically incapacitated by
circumstances beyond his own control. It is wonderful how far a mood
of the kind will take a man. Indeed, it is the widespread possession of
this sentiment that has made England what she is. Now it is beginning
to die down and to be legislated out of our national character, and the
results are already commencing to appear in the incipient decay of our
power. We cannot govern Ireland. It is beyond us; let Ireland have Home
Rule! We cannot cope with our Imperial responsibilities; let them be
cast off: and so on. The Englishmen of fifty years ago did not talk in
this "weary Titan" strain.

Well, every nation becomes emasculated sooner or later, that seems to be
the universal fate; and it appears that it is our lot to be emasculated,
not by the want of law but by a plethora thereof. This country was made,
not by Governments, but for the most part in despite of them by the
independent efforts of generations of individuals. The tendency nowadays
is to merge the individual in the Government, and to limit or even
forcibly to destroy personal enterprise and responsibility. Everything
is to be legislated for or legislated against. As yet the system is only
in its bud. When it blooms, if it is ever allowed to bloom, the Empire
will lose touch of its constituent atoms and become a vast soulless
machine, which will first get out of order, then break down, and, last
of all, break up. We owe more to sturdy, determined, unconvinceable
Englishmen like John Niel than we know, or, perhaps, should be willing
to acknowledge in these enlightened days. "Long live the Caucus!" that
is the cry of the nineteenth century. But what will Englishmen cry in
the twentieth?[*]

     [*] These words were written some ten years ago; but since
     then, with all gratitude be it said, a change has come over
     the spirit of the nation, or rather, the spirit of the
     nation has re-asserted itself. Though the "Little England"
     party still lingers, it exists upon the edge of its own
     grave. The dominance and responsibilities of our Empire are
     no longer a question of party politics, and among the
     Radicals of to-day we find some of the most ardent
     Imperialists. So may it ever be!--H. R. H. 1896.

John resumed his perilous journey more than an hour before dawn on
the following morning. Nobody was stirring, and as it was practically
impossible to arouse the slumbering Kafirs from the various holes and
corners where they were taking their rest--for a native hates the cold
of the dawning--Mouti and he were obliged to harness the horses and
inspan them without assistance--an awkward job in the dark. At last,
however, everything was ready, and, as the bill had been paid overnight,
there was nothing to wait for, so they clambered into the cart and made
a start. But before they had proceeded forty yards, however, John heard
a voice calling to him to stop. He did so, and presently, holding a
lighted candle which burnt without a flicker in the still damp air, and
draped from head to foot in a dingy-looking blanket, appeared the male
Cassandra of the previous evening.

He advanced slowly and with dignity, as became a prophet, and at length
reached the side of the cart, where the sight of his illuminated figure
and of the dirty blanket over his head nearly made the horses run away.

"What is it?" said John testily, for he was in no mood for delay.

"I thought I'd just get up to tell you," replied the draped form, "that
I am quite sure that I was right, and that the Boers will shoot you. I
should not like you to say afterwards that I have not warned you," and
he held up the candle so that the light fell on John's face, and gazed
at it in fond farewell.

"Curse it all," said John in a fury, "if that was all you had to say you
might have kept in bed," and he brought down his lash on the wheelers
and away they went with a bound, putting out the prophet's candle and
nearly knocking the prophet himself backwards into the _sluit_.



CHAPTER XV

A ROUGH JOURNEY

The four greys were fresh horses, in good condition and with a light
load behind them, so, notwithstanding the bad state of the tracks which
they call roads in South Africa, John made good progress.

By eleven o'clock that day he had reached Standerton, a little town upon
the Vaal, not far from which, had he but known it, he was destined
to meet with a sufficiently striking experience. Here he obtained
confirmation of the Bronker's Spruit disaster, and listened with set
face and blazing eyes to the tale of treachery and death which was, as
he said, with a parallel in the annals of civilised war. But, after all,
what does it matter?--a little square of graves at Bronker's Spruit,
a few more widows and a hundred or so of orphans. England, by her
Government, answered the question plainly--it matters very little.

At Standerton John was again warned that it would be impossible for
him to make his way through the Boers at Heidelberg, a town about sixty
miles from Pretoria, where the Triumvirate, Kruger, Pretorious, and
Joubert, had proclaimed the Republic. But he answered as before, that
he must go on till he was stopped, and inspanning his horses set forward
again, a little comforted by the news that the Bishop of Pretoria, who
was hurrying up to rejoin his family, had passed through a few hours
before, also intent upon running the blockade, and that if he drove fast
he might overtake him.

On he went, hour after hour, over the great deserted plain, but he did
not succeed in catching up the Bishop. About forty miles from Standerton
he saw a waggon standing by the roadside, and halted to try if he could
obtain any information from its driver. But on investigation it became
clear that the waggon had been looted of the provisions and goods with
which it was loaded and the oxen driven off. Nor was this the only
evidence of violence. Across the disselboom of the waggon, its hands
still clasping a long bamboo whip, as though he had been trying to
defend himself with it, lay the dead body of the native driver. His
face, John noticed, was so composed and peaceful, that had it not been
for the attitude and a neat little blue hole in the forehead, one might
have thought he was asleep, not dead.

At sunset John outspanned his now flagging horses by the roadside, and
gave them each a couple of bundles of forage from the store that he had
brought with him. Whilst they were eating it, leaving Mouti to keep an
eye to them, he strolled away and sat down on a bit ant-heap to think.
It was a wild and melancholy scene that stretched before and behind him.
Miles upon miles of plain, rolling east and west and north and south
like the billows of a frozen sea, only broken, far along the Heidelberg
road, by some hills, known as Rooi Koppies. Nor was this all. Overhead
was blazing and burning one of those remarkable sunsets which are
sometimes seen in the South African summer time. The sky was full of
lowering clouds, and the sullen orb of the setting sun had stained them
perfectly blood-red. Blood-red they floated through the ominous sky, and
blood-red their shadows lay upon the grass. Even the air seemed red. It
looked as though earth and heaven had been steeped in blood; and, fresh
as John was from the sight of the dead driver, his ears yet tingling
with the tale of Bronker's Spruit, it is not to be wondered at that the
suggestive sight oppressed him, seated in that lonely waste, with no
company except the melancholy "_kakara-kakara_" of an old black _koran_
hidden away somewhere in the grass. He was not much given to such
reflections, but he did begin to wonder whether this was the last
journey of all the many he had made during the past twenty years, and if
for him a Boer bullet was about to solve the mystery of life and death.

Then he sank to the stage of depression that most people have made
acquaintance with at some time or another, when a man begins to ask,
"What is the use of it? Why were we born? What good do we do here? Why
should we--as the majority of mankind doubtless are--mere animals be
laden up with sorrows till at last our poor backs break? Is God powerful
or powerless? If powerful, why did He not let us sleep in peace, without
setting us here to taste of every pain and mortification, to become
acquainted with every grief, and then to perish miserably?" Old
questions these, which the sprightly critic justly condemns as morbid
and futile, and not to be dangled before a merry world of make-believe.
Perhaps he is right. It is better to play at marbles on a sepulchre than
to lift the lid and peep inside. But, for all that, they _will_ arise
when we sit alone at even in our individual wildernesses, surrounded,
perhaps, by mementoes of our broken hopes and tokens of our beloved
dead, strewn about us like the bleaching bones of the wild game on the
veldt, and in spirit watch the red sun of our existence sinking towards
its vapoury horizon. They _will_ come even to the sanguine, successful
man. One cannot always play at marbles; the lid of the sepulchre will
sometimes slip aside of itself, and we _must_ see. True, it depends
upon individual disposition. Some people can, metaphorically, smoke
cigarettes and make puns by the death-beds of their dearest friends, or
even on their own. We should pray for a disposition like that--it makes
life more pleasant.

By the time that the horses had eaten their forage and Mouti had forced
the bits into their reluctant mouths, the angry splendour of the sunset
faded, and the quiet night was falling over the glowing veldt like the
pall on one scarce dead. Fortunately for the travellers, there was a
bright half moon, and by its light John managed to direct the cart over
many a weary mile. On he went for hour after hour, keeping his tired
horses to the collar as best he could, till at last, about eleven
o'clock, he saw the lights of Heidelberg before him, and knew that the
question of whether or no his journey was at an end would speedily be
decided for him. However, there was nothing for it but to go on and take
his chance of slipping through. Presently he crossed a little stream,
and distinguished the shape of a cart just ahead, around which men and
a couple of lanterns were moving. No doubt, John thought to himself, it
was the Bishop, who had been stopped by the Boers. He was quite close to
the cart when it moved on, and in another second he was greeted by the
rough challenge of a sentry, and caught sight of the cold gleam of a
rifle barrel.

"_Wie da?_" (Who's there?)

"Friend!" he answered cheerfully, though feeling far from cheerful.

There was a pause, during which the sentry called to another man, who
came up yawning, and saying something in Dutch. Straining his ears he
caught the words, "Bishop's man," and this gave him an idea.

"Who are you, Englishman?" asked the second man gruffly, holding up a
lantern to look at John, and speaking in English.

"I am the Bishop's chaplain, sir," he answered mildly, trying
desperately to look like an unoffending clergyman, "and I want to get on
to Pretoria with him."

The man with the lantern inspected him closely. Fortunately John wore
a dark coat and a clerical-looking black felt hat; the same that Frank
Muller had put a bullet through.

"He is a preacher fast enough," said the one man to the other. "Look, he
is dressed like an old crow! What did _Oom_ Kruger's pass say, Jan? Was
it two carts or one that we were to let through? I think it was one."

The other man scratched his head.

"I think it was two," he said. He did not like to confess to his comrade
that he could not read. "No, I am sure that it was two."

"Perhaps we had better send up to _Oom_ Kruger and ask?" suggested the
first man.

"_Oom_ Kruger will be in bed, and he puts up his quills like a porcupine
if one wakes him," was the answer.

"Then let us keep the damned preaching Englishman till to-morrow."

"Pray let me go on, gentlemen," said John, still in his mildest voice.
"I am wanted to preach the Word at Pretoria, and to watch by the wounded
and dying."

"Yes, yes," said the first man, "there will soon be plenty of wounded
and dying there. They will all be like the _rooibaatjes_ at Bronker's
Spruit. Lord, what a sight that was! But they will get the Bishop, so
they won't want you. You can stop and look after our wounded if the
_rooibaatjes_ manage to hit any of us." And he beckoned to him to come
out of the cart.

"Hullo!" said the other man, "here is a bag of mealies. We will
commandeer that, anyhow." And he took his knife and cut the line with
which the sack was fastened to the back of the cart, so that it fell
to the ground. "That will feed our horses for a week," he said with a
chuckle, in which the other man joined. It was pleasant to become so
easily possessed of an unearned increment in the shape of a bag of
mealies.

"Well, are we to get the old crow go?" said the first man.

"If we don't let him go we shall have to take him up to headquarters,
and I want to sleep." And he yawned.

"Well, let him go," said the other. "I think you are right. The pass
said two carts. Be off, you damned preaching Englishman!"

John did not wait for any more, but laid the whip across the horses'
backs with a will.

"I hope we did right," said the man with the lantern to the other as the
cart bumped off. "I am not sure he was a preacher after all. I have
half a mind to send a bullet after him." But his companion, who was very
sleepy, gave no encouragement to the idea, so it dropped.

On the following morning when Commandant Frank Muller--having heard that
his enemy John Niel was on his way up with the Cape cart and four grey
horses--ascertained that a vehicle answering to that description had
been allowed to pass through Heidelberg in the dead of night, his state
of mind may better be imagined than described.

As for the two sentries, he tried them by court-martial and sent them to
make fortifications for the rest of the rebellion. Now they can neither
of them hear the name of a clergyman mentioned without breaking out into
a perfect flood of blasphemy.

Luckily for John, although he had been delayed for five minutes or more,
he managed to overtake the cart in which he presumed the Bishop was
ensconced. His lordship had been providentially delayed by the breaking
of a trace; otherwise, it is clear that his self-nominated chaplain
would never have got through the steep streets of Heidelberg that night.
The town was choked up with Boer waggons, full of sleeping Boers. Over
one batch of waggons and tents John saw the Transvaal flag fluttering
idly in the night breeze, marking, no doubt, the headquarters of the
Triumvirate, and emblazoned with the appropriate emblem of an ox-waggon
and an armed Boer. Once the cart ahead of him was stopped by a sentry
and some conversation ensued. Then it went on again; and so did John,
unmolested. It was weary work, that journey through Heidelberg, and full
of terrors for John, who every moment expected to be stopped and dragged
off ignominiously to gaol. The horses, too, were dead beat, and made
frantic attempts to turn and stop at every house. But, somehow, they
won through the little place, and then were halted once more. Again the
first cart passed on, but this time John was not so lucky.

"The pass said one cart," said a voice.

"Yah, yah, one cart," answered another.

John again put on his clerical air and told his artless tale; but
neither of the men could understand English, so they went to a waggon
that was standing about fifty yards away, to fetch somebody who could.

"Now, _Inkoos_," whispered the Zulu Mouti, "drive on! drive on!"

John took the hint and lashed the horses with his long whip; while
Mouti, bending forward over the splashboard, thrashed the wheelers
with a _sjambock_. Off went the team in a spasmodic gallop, and it had
covered a hundred yards of ground before the two sentries realised what
had happened. Then they began to run after the cart shouting, but were
soon lost in the darkness.

John and Mouti did not spare the whip, but pressed on up the stony hills
on the Pretoria side of Heidelberg without a halt. They were, however,
unable to keep up with the cart ahead of them, which was evidently more
freshly horsed. About midnight, too, the moon vanished altogether, and
they must creep on as best they could through the darkness. Indeed, so
dark was it, that Mouti was obliged to get out and lead the exhausted
horses, one of which would now and again fall down, to be cruelly
flogged before it rose. Once, too, the cart very nearly upset; and on
another occasion it was within an inch of rolling down a precipice.

This went on till two in the morning, when John found that it was
impossible to force the wearied beasts a yard farther. So, having
luckily come to some water about fifteen miles out of Heidelberg, he
halted, and after the horses had drunk, gave them as much forage as they
could eat. One lay down at once, and refused to touch anything--a sure
sign of great exhaustion; a second ate lying down; but the other two
filled themselves in a satisfactory way. Then came a weary wait for the
dawn. Mouti slept a little, but John did not dare to do so. All he could
do was to swallow a little _biltong_ (dried game flesh) and bread, drink
some square-face and water, and then sit down in the cart, his rifle
between his knees, and wait for the light. At last it came, lying on the
eastern sky like a promise, and he once more fed the horses. And now a
new difficulty arose. The animal that would not eat was clearly too weak
to pull, so the harness had to be altered, and the three sound animals
arranged unicorn fashion, while the sick one was fastened to the rear of
the cart. Then they started again.

By eleven o'clock they reached an hotel, or wayside house, known as
Ferguson's, situate about twenty miles from Pretoria. It was empty,
except for a couple of cats and a stray dog. The inhabitants had
evidently fled from the Boers. Here John stabled and fed his horses,
giving them all that remained of the forage; and then, once more,
inspanned for the last stage. The road was dreadful; and he knew that
the country must be full of hostile Boers, but fortunately he met none.
It took him four hours to cover the twenty miles of ground; but it was
not until he reached the _Poort_, or neck running into Pretoria, that he
saw a vestige of a Boer. Then he perceived two mounted men riding along
the top of a precipitous stone-strewn ridge, six hundred yards or so
from him. At first he thought that they were going to descend it, but
presently they changed their minds and got off their horses.

While he was still wondering what this might portend, he saw a puff of
white smoke float up from where the men were, and then another. Next
came the sharp unmistakable "ping" of a bullet passing, as far as he
could judge, within some three feet of his head, followed by a second
"ping," and a cloud of dust beneath the belly of the first horse. The
two Boers were firing at him.

John did not wait for any more target practice, but, thrashing the
horses to a canter, drove the cart round a projecting bank before they
could load and fire again. After that, they troubled him no more.

At last he reached the mouth of the _Poort_, and saw the prettiest of
the South African towns, with its red and white houses, its tall clumps
of trees, and pink lines of blooming rose hedges lying on the plain
before him, all set in the green veldt, made beautiful by the golden
light of the afternoon, and he thanked God for the sight. John knew that
he was safe now, and let his tired horses walk slowly down the hillside
and across the space of plain beyond. To his left were the gaol and the
barrack-sheds, and gathered about them stood hundreds of waggons and
tents, towards which he drove. Evidently the town was deserted and its
inhabitants were in laager. When he was within half a mile or so, a
picket of mounted men rode out to meet him, followed by a miscellaneous
crowd on horseback and on foot.

"Who goes there?" shouted a voice in honest English.

"A friend who is uncommonly glad to see you," John answered, with that
feeble jocosity in which we are all apt to indulge when at length a
great weight is lifted from our nerves.



CHAPTER XVI

PRETORIA

Jess was not very happy at Pretoria previous to the unexpected outbreak
of hostilities. Most people who have made a great moral effort, and
after some severe mental struggle have entered on the drear path from
self-sacrifice, experience the reaction that will follow as certainly
as the night follows the day. It is one thing to renounce the light,
to stand in the full glow of the setting beams of our imperial joy and
chant out our farewell, and quite another to live alone in the darkness.
For a little while memory may support us, but memory grows faint. On
every side is the thick, cheerless pall and that stillness through which
no sound comes. We are alone, quite alone, cut off from the fellowship
of the day, unseeing and unseen. More especially is this so when the
dungeon is of our own making, and we ourselves have shot its bolts.
There is a natural night that comes to all, and in its unwavering course
swallows every mortal hope and fear, for ever and for ever. To this we
can more easily resign ourselves, for we recognise the universal lot
and bow ourselves beneath the all-effacing hand. The earth does not pine
when the daylight passes from its peaks; it only sleeps.

But Jess had buried herself and she knew it. There was no absolute need
for her to have sacrificed her affection to her sister's: she had done
so of her own will, and at times not unnaturally she was regretful.
Self-denial is a stern-faced angel. If only we hold him fast and wrestle
with him long enough he will speak us soft words of happy sound, just
as, if we wait long enough in the darkness of the night, stars will come
to share our loneliness. Still this is one of those things that Time
hides from us and only reveals at his own pleasure; and, so far as Jess
was concerned, his pleasure was not yet. Outwardly, however, she showed
no sign of her distress and of the passion which was eating at her
heart. She was pale and silent, it is true, but then she had always been
remarkable for her pallor and silence. Only she gave up her singing.

So the weeks passed very drearily for the poor girl, who was doing what
other people did--eating and drinking, riding, and going to parties like
the rest of the Pretoria world, till at last she began to think that
she had better be returning home again, lest she should wear out her
welcome. And yet she dreaded to do so, mindful of her daily prayer to be
delivered from temptation. As to what was happening at Mooifontein she
was in almost complete ignorance. Bessie wrote to her, of course, and so
did her uncle once or twice, but they did not tell her much of what she
wanted to know. Bessie's letters were, it is true, full of allusions
to what Captain Niel was doing, but she did not go beyond that. Her
reticence, however, told her observant sister more than her words. Why
was she so reticent? No doubt because things still hung in the balance.
Then Jess would think of what it all meant for her, and now and again
give way to an outburst of passionate jealousy which would have been
painful enough to witness if anybody had been there to see it.

Thus the time went on towards Christmas, for Jess, having been warmly
pressed to do so, had settled to stay over Christmas and return to the
farm with the new year. There had been a great deal of talk in the town
about the Boers, but she was too much preoccupied with her own affairs
to pay much attention to it. Nor, indeed, was the public mind greatly
moved; they were so much accustomed to Boer scares at Pretoria, and
hitherto these had invariably ended in smoke. But all of a sudden,
on the morning of the eighteenth of December, came the news of the
proclamation of the Republic. The town was thrown into a ferment, and
there arose a talk of going into laager, so that, anxious as she was
to get away, Jess could see no hope of returning to the farm till the
excitement was over. Then, a day or two later, Conductor Egerton came
limping into Pretoria from the scene of the disaster at Bronker's
Spruit, with the colours of the 94th Regiment tied round his middle,
and such a tale to tell that the blood went to her heart and seemed to
stagnate there as she listened.

After that there was confusion worse confounded. Martial law having
been proclaimed, the town, which was large, straggling, and incapable of
defence, was abandoned, the inhabitants being ordered into laager on the
high ground overlooking the city. There they were, young and old, sick
and well, delicate women and little children, all crowded together in
the open under the cover of the fort, with nothing but canvas tents,
waggons, and sheds to shelter them from the fierce summer suns and
rains. Jess shared a waggon with her friend and her friend's sister and
mother, and found it rather a tight fit even to lie down. Sleep with all
the noises of the camp going on round her was almost impossible.

It was about three o'clock on the day following that first miserable
night in the laager when, by the last mail that passed into Pretoria,
she received Bessie's letter, announcing her engagement to John. She
took her letter and went some way from the camp to the side of Signal
Hill, where she was not likely to be disturbed, and, finding a nook
shaded by mimosa-trees, sat down and broke the envelope. Before she had
reached the foot of the first page she saw what was coming and set her
teeth. Then she read the long epistle through from beginning to end
without flinching, though the words of affection seemed to burn her. So
it had come at last. Well, she expected it, and had plotted to bring it
about, so really there was no reason in the world why she should feel
disappointed. On the contrary, she ought to rejoice, and for a little
while she really did rejoice in her sister's happiness. It made her glad
to think that Bessie, whom she so dearly loved, was happy.

And yet she felt angry with John with that sort of anger which we feel
against those who have blindly injured us. Why should it be in his power
to hurt her so cruelly? Still she hoped that he would be happy with
Bessie, and then she hoped that these wretched Boers would take
Pretoria, and that she would be shot or otherwise put out of the way.
She had no heart for life; all the colour had faded from her sky. What
was she to do with her future? Marry somebody and busy herself with
rearing a pack of children? It would be a physical impossibility to her.
No, she would go away to Europe and mix in the great stream of life and
struggle with it, and see if she could win a place for herself among the
people of her day. She had it in her, she knew that; and now that she
had put herself out of the reach of passion she would be more likely to
succeed, for success is to the impassive, who are also the strong. She
would not stop on the farm after John and Bessie were married; she
was quite determined as to that; nor, if she could avoid it, would she
return there before they were married. She would see him no more, no
more! Alas, that she had ever seen him.

Feeling somewhat happier, or at any rate calmer, in this decision, she
rose to return to the noisy camp, extending her walk, however, by a
detour towards the Heidelberg road, for she was anxious to be alone as
long as she could. She had been walking some ten minutes when she caught
sight of a cart that seemed familiar to her, with three horses harnessed
in front of it and one tied behind, which were also familiar. There were
many men walking alongside the cart all talking eagerly.

Jess halted to let the little procession go by, when suddenly she
perceived John Niel among these men and recognised the Zulu Mouti on the
box. _There_ was the man whom she had just vowed never to see again, and
the sight of him seemed to take all her strength out of her, so that
she felt inclined to sink down upon the veldt. His sudden appearance was
almost uncanny in the sharpness of its illustration of her impotence in
the hands of Fate. She felt it then; all in an instant it seemed to be
borne in upon her mind that she could not help herself, but was only
the instrument in the hands of a superior power whose will she was
fulfilling through the workings of her passion, and to whom her
individual fate was a matter of little moment. It was inconclusive
reasoning and perilous doctrine, but it must be allowed that the
circumstances gave it a colour of truth. And, after all, the border-line
between fatalism and free-will has never been quite authoritatively
settled, even by St. Paul, so perhaps she was right. Mankind does not
like to admit it, but it is, at the least, a question whether we can
oppose our little wills against the forces of a universal law, or
derange the details of an unvarying plan to suit the petty wants and
hopes of individual mortality. Jess was a clever woman, but it would
take a wiser head than hers to know where or when to draw that red line
across the writings of our lives.

On came the cart and the knot of men, then suddenly John looked up and
saw her gazing at him with those dark eyes that at times did indeed
seem as though they were the windows of her soul. He turned and said
something to his companions and to the Zulu Mouti, who went on with the
cart, then he came towards her smiling and with outstretched hand.

"How do you do, Jess?" he said. "So I have found you all right?"

She took his hand and answered, almost angrily, "Why have you come? Why
did you leave Bessie and my uncle?"

"I came because I was sent, also because I wished it. I wanted to bring
you back home before Pretoria was besieged."

"You must have been mad! How could you expect to get back? We shall both
be shut up here together now."

"So it appears. Well, things might be worse," he added cheerfully.

"I do not think that anything could be worse," she answered with a stamp
of her foot, then, quite thrown off her balance, she burst incontinently
into a flood of tears.

John Niel was a very simple-minded man, and it never struck him to
attribute her grief to any other cause than anxiety at the state of
affairs and at her incarceration for an indefinite period in a besieged
town that ran the daily risk of being taken _vi et armis_. Still he was
a little hurt at the manner of his reception after his long and most
perilous journey, which is not, perhaps, to be wondered at.

"Well, Jess," he said, "I think that you might speak a little more
kindly to me, considering--considering all things. There, don't cry,
they are all right at Mooifontein, and I dare say that we shall win back
there somehow some time or other. I had a nice business to get here at
all, I can tell you."

Suddenly she stopped weeping and smiled, her tears passing away like a
summer storm. "How did you get through?" she asked. "Tell me all about
it, Captain Niel," and accordingly he did.

She listened in silence while he sketched the chief events of his
journey, and when he had done she spoke in quite a changed tone.

"It is very good and kind of you to have risked your life like this for
me. Only I wonder that you did not all of you see that it would be of no
use. We shall both be shut up here together now, that is all, and that
will be very sad for you and Bessie."

"Oh! So you have heard of our engagement?" he said.

"Yes, I read Bessie's letter about a couple of hours ago, and I
congratulate you both very much. I think that you will have the sweetest
and loveliest wife in South Africa, Captain Niel; and I think that
Bessie will have a husband any woman might be proud of;" and she half
bowed and half curtseyed to him as she said it, with a graceful little
air of dignity that was very taking.

"Thank you," he answered simply; "yes, I think I am a very lucky
fellow."

"And now," she said, "we had better go and see about the cart. You will
have to find a stand for it in that wretched laager. You must be very
tired and hungry."

A few minutes' walk brought them to the cart, which Mouti had outspanned
close to Mrs. Neville's waggon, where Jess and her friends were living,
and the first person they saw was Mrs. Neville herself. She was a good,
motherly colonial woman, accustomed to a rough life, and one not easily
disturbed by emergencies.

"My goodness, Captain Niel!" she cried, as soon as Jess had introduced
him. "Well, you are plucky to have forced your way through all those
horrid Boers! I am sure I wonder that they did not shoot you or beat
you to death with _sjambocks_, the brutes. Not that there is much use
in your coming, for you will never be able to take Jess back till Sir
George Colley relieves us, and that can't be for two months, they say.
Well, there is one thing; Jess will be able to sleep in the cart now,
and you can have one of the patrol-tents and camp alongside. It won't
be quite proper, perhaps, but in these times we can't stop to consider
propriety. There, there, you go off to the Governor. He will be glad
enough to see you, I'll be bound; I saw him at the other end of the camp
five minutes ago. We will have the cart unpacked and arrange about the
horses."

Thus adjured, John departed, and when he returned half an hour
afterwards, having told his eventful tale, which did not, however,
convey any information of general value, he was rejoiced to find that
the process of "getting things straight" was almost complete. What was
better still, Jess had fried him a beefsteak over the camp fire, and was
now employed in serving it on a little table by the waggon. He sat down
on a stool and ate his meal heartily enough, while Jess waited on him
and Mrs. Neville chattered incessantly.

"By the way," she said, "Jess tells me that you are going to marry her
sister. Well, I wish you joy. A man wants a wife in this country. It
isn't like England, where in five cases out of six he might as well go
and cut his throat as get married. It saves him money here, and children
are a blessing, as Nature meant them to be, and not a burden, as
civilisation has made them. Lord, how my tongue does run on! It isn't
delicate to talk about children when you have only been engaged a couple
of weeks; but, you see, that's what it comes to after all. She's a
pretty girl, Bessie, and a good one too--I don't know her much--though
she hasn't got the brains of Jess here. That reminds me; as you are
engaged to Bessie, of course you can look after Jess, and nobody will
think anything of it. Ah! if you only knew what a place this is for
talk, though their talk is pretty well scared out of them now, I'm
thinking. My husband is coming round presently to the cart to help to
get Jess's bed into it. Lucky it's big. We are such a tight fit in that
waggon that I shall be downright glad to see the last of the dear girl;
though, of course, you'll both come and take your meals with us."

Jess heard all this in silence. She could not well insist upon stopping
in the crowded waggon; it would be asking too much; and, besides, she
had passed one night there, and that was quite enough for her. Once she
suggested that she should try to persuade the nuns to take her in at the
convent, but Mrs. Neville suppressed the notion instantly.

"Nuns!" she said; "nonsense. When your own brother-in-law--at least he
will be your brother-in-law if the Boers don't make an end of us all--is
here to take care of you, don't talk about going to a parcel of nuns. It
will be as much as they can do to look after themselves, I'll be bound."

As for John, he ate his steak and said nothing. The arrangement seemed a
very proper one to him.



CHAPTER XVII

THE TWELFTH OF FEBRUARY

John soon settled down into the routine of camp life in Pretoria, which,
after one became accustomed to it, was not so disagreeable as might
have been expected, and possessed, at any rate, the merit of novelty.
Although he was an officer of the army, having several horses to ride
and his services not being otherwise required, John preferred, on the
whole, to enrol himself in the corps of mounted volunteers, known as
the Pretoria Carbineers. This, in the humble capacity of a sergeant, he
obtained leave to do from the officer commanding the troops. He was an
active man, and his duties in connection with the corps kept him fully
employed during most of the day, and sometimes, when there was outpost
duty to be done, during a good part of the night too. For the rest,
whenever he returned to the cart--by which he had stipulated he should
be allowed to sleep in order to protect Jess in case of any danger--he
always found her ready to greet him, and every little preparation made
for his comfort that was possible under the circumstances. Indeed, as
time went on, they thought it more convenient to set up their own little
mess instead of sharing that of their friends. So every day they used to
sit down to breakfast and dine together at a little table contrived out
of a packing-case, and placed under an extemporised tent, for all the
world like a young couple picnicking on their honeymoon. Of course, the
situation was very irksome in a way, but it is not to be denied that it
had a charm of its own.

To begin with, once thoroughly known, Jess was one of the most
delightful companions possible to a man like John Niel. Never, till this
long _tete-a-tete_ at Pretoria, had he guessed how powerful and original
was her mind, or how witty she could be when she liked. There was a fund
of dry and suggestive humour about her, which, although it would no more
bear being written down than champagne will bear standing in a tumbler,
was very pleasant to listen to, more especially as John soon discovered
that he was the only person so privileged. Her friends and relations had
never suspected that Jess was humorous. Another thing which struck him
as time went on, was that she was growing quite handsome. She had been
very pale and thin when he reached Pretoria, but before a month was over
she had become, comparatively speaking, stout, which was an enormous
gain to her appearance. Her pale face, too, gathered a faint tinge of
colour that came and went capriciously, like star-light on the water,
and her beautiful eyes grew deeper and more beautiful than ever.

"Who would ever have thought that it was the same girl!" said Mrs.
Neville to him, holding up her hands as she watched Jess solemnly
surveying a half-cooked mutton chop. "Why, she used to be such a poor
creature, and now she's quite a fine woman. And that with this life,
too, which is wearing me to a shadow and has half-killed my dear
daughter."

"I suppose it is being in the open air," said John, it having never
occurred to him that the medicine that was doing Jess so much good might
be happiness. But so it was. After her first struggles came a lull, and
then an idea. Why should she not enjoy his society while she could? He
had been thrown into her way through no wish of hers. She had no desire
to wean him from Bessie; or, if she had the desire, it was one which she
was far too honourable a woman to entertain. He was perfectly innocent
of the whole story; to him she was the young lady who happened to be the
sister of the woman he was going to marry, that was all. Why should she
not pluck her innocent roses whilst she might? Jess forgot that the rose
is a flower with a dangerous perfume, and one that is apt to confuse the
senses and turn the head. So she gave herself full swing, and for some
weeks went nearer to knowing what happiness really meant than she
ever had before. What a wonderful thing is the love of a woman in its
simplicity and strength, and how it gilds all the poor and common things
of life and even finds a joy in service! The prouder the woman the more
delight does she extract from her self-abasement before her idol. Only
not many women can love like Jess, and when they do almost invariably
they make some fatal mistake, whereby the wealth of their affection
is wasted, or, worse still, becomes a source of misery or shame to
themselves and others.

It was after they had been incarcerated in Pretoria for a month that
a bright idea occurred to John. About a quarter of a mile from the
outskirts of the camp stood a little house known, probably on account of
its diminutive size, as "The Palatial." This cottage, like almost every
other house in Pretoria, had been abandoned to its fate, its owner, as
it happened, being away from the town. One day, in the course of a walk,
John and Jess crossed the little bridge that spanned the _sluit_ and
went in to inspect the place. Passing down a path lined on either side
with young blue gums, they reached the little tin-roofed cottage. It
consisted of two rooms--a bedroom and a good-sized sitting-room, in
which still stood a table and a few chairs, with a stable and a kitchen
at the back. They went in, sat down by the open door and looked out. The
garden of the cottage sloped down towards a valley, on the farther side
of which rose a wooded hill. To the right, too, was a hill clothed in
deep green bush. The grounds themselves were planted with vines,
just now loaded with bunches of ripening grapes, and surrounded by a
beautiful hedge of monthly roses that formed a blaze of bloom. Near the
house, too, was a bed of double roses, some of them exceedingly lovely,
and all flowering with a profusion unknown in this country. Altogether
it was a delightful spot, and, after the noise and glare of the camp,
seemed a perfect heaven. So they sat there and talked a great deal about
the farm and old Silas Croft and a little about Bessie.

"This _is_ nice," said Jess presently, putting her hands behind her head
and looking out at the bush beyond.

"Yes," said John. "I say, I've got a notion. I vote we take up our
quarters here--during the day, I mean. Of course we shall have to sleep
in camp, but we might eat here, you know, and you could sit here all
day; it would be as safe as a church, for those Boers will never try to
storm the town, I am sure of that."

Jess reflected, and soon came to the conclusion that it would be a
charming plan. Accordingly, next day she set to work and made the place
as clean and tidy as circumstances would allow, and they commenced
house-keeping.

The upshot of this arrangement was that they were thrown more together
even than before. Meanwhile the siege dragged its slow length along. No
news whatever reached the town from outside, but this did not trouble
the inhabitants very much, as they were sure that Colley was advancing
to their relief, and even got up sweep-stakes as to the date of his
arrival. Now and then a sortie took place, but, as the results attained
were very small, and were not, on the whole, creditable to our arms,
perhaps the less said about them the better. John, of course, went out
on these occasions, and then Jess would endure agonies that were all
the worse because she was forced to conceal them. She lived in constant
terror lest he should be among the killed. However, nothing happened to
him, and things went on as usual till the twelfth of February, when
an attack was made on a place called the Red House Kraal, which was
occupied by Boers near a spot known as the Six-mile Spruit.

The force, which was a mixed one, left Pretoria before daybreak, and
John went with it. He was rather surprised when, on going to the cart in
which Jess slept, to get some little thing before saddling up, he found
her sitting on the box in the night dews, a cup of hot coffee which she
had prepared for him in her hand.

"What do you mean by this, Jess?" he asked sharply. "I will not have you
getting up in the middle of the night to make coffee for me."

"I have not got up," she answered quietly; "I have not been to bed."

"That makes matters worse," he exclaimed; but, nevertheless, he drank
the coffee and was glad of it, while she sat on the box and watched him.

"Put on your shawl and wrap something over your head," he said, "the dew
will soak you through. Look, your hair is all wet."

Presently she spoke. "I wish you would do something for me, John," for
she called him John now. "Will you promise?"

"How like a woman," he said, "to ask one to promise a thing without
saying what it is."

"I want you to promise for Bessie's sake, John."

"Well, what is it, Jess?"

"Not to go on this sortie. You know you can easily get out of it if you
like."

He laughed. "You little silly, why not?"

"Oh, I don't know. Don't laugh at me because I am nervous. I am afraid
that--that something might happen to you."

"Well," he remarked consolingly, "every bullet has its billet, and if it
does I don't see that it can be helped."

"Think of Bessie," she said again.

"Look here, Jess," he answered testily, "what is the good of trying to
take the heart out of a fellow like this? If I am going to be shot I
can't help it, and I am not going to show the white feather, even for
Bessie's sake; so there you are, and now I must be off."

"You are quite right, John," she said quietly. "I should not have liked
to hear you say anything different, but I could not help speaking.
Good-bye, John; God bless you!" and she stretched out her hand, which he
took, and went.

"Upon my word, she has given me quite a turn," reflected John to
himself, as the troop crept on through the white mists of dawn. "I
suppose she thinks that I am going to be plugged. Perhaps I am! I wonder
how Bessie would take it. She would be awfully cut up, but I expect that
she would get over it pretty soon. Now I don't think that Jess would
shake off a thing of that sort in a hurry. That is just the difference
between the two; the one is all flower and the other is all root."

Then he fell to wondering how Bessie was, and what she was doing, and if
she missed him as much as he missed her, and so on, till his mind came
back to Jess, and he reflected what a charming companion she was, and
how thoughtful and kind, and breathed a secret hope that she would
continue to live with them after they were married. Unconsciously they
had arrived at that point of intimacy, innocent in itself, when two
people become absolutely necessary to each other's daily life. Indeed,
Jess had travelled a long way farther, but of this John was of course
ignorant. He was still at the former stage, and was not himself aware
how large a proportion of his daily thoughts were occupied by this
dark-eyed girl or how completely her personality overshadowed him. He
only knew that she had the knack of making him feel thoroughly happy
in her company. When he was talking to her, or even sitting silently by
her, he became aware of a sensation of restfulness and reliance that he
had never before experienced in the society of a woman. Of course to
a large extent this was the natural homage of the weaker nature to the
stronger, but it was also something more. It was a shadow of the utter
sympathy and complete accord that is the surest sign of the presence of
the highest forms of affection, which, when it accompanies the passion
of men and women, as it sometimes though rarely does, being more often
to be found in perfection in those relations from which the element of
sexuality is excluded, raises it almost above the level of the earth.
For the love where that sympathy exists, whether it is between mother
and son, husband and wife, or those who, whilst desiring it, have no
hope of that relationship, is an undying love, and will endure till the
night of Time has swallowed all things.

Meanwhile, as John reflected, the force to which he was attached was
moving into action, and soon he found it necessary to come down to the
unpleasantly practical details of Boer warfare. More particularly did
this come home to his mind when, shortly afterwards, the man next to him
was shot dead, and a little later he himself was slightly wounded by a
bullet which passed between the saddle and his thigh. Into the details
of the fight that ensued it is not necessary to enter here. They were,
if anything, more discreditable than most of the episodes of that
unhappy war in which the holding of Potchefstroom, Lydenburg,
Rustenburg, and Wakkerstroom are the only bright spots. Suffice it to
say that they ended in something very like an utter rout of the English
at the hands of a much inferior force, and that, a few hours after he
had started, the ambulance being left in the hands of the Boers, John
found himself on the return road to Pretoria, with a severely wounded
man behind his saddle, who, as they went painfully along, mingled curses
of shame and fury with his own. Meanwhile exaggerated accounts of the
English defeat had reached the town, and, amongst other things, it was
said that Captain Niel had been shot dead. One man who came in stated
that he saw him fall, and that he was shot through the head. This
Mrs. Neville heard with her own ears, and, greatly shocked, started to
communicate the intelligence to Jess.

As soon as it was daylight, as was customary with her, Jess had gone
over to the little house which she and John occupied, "The Palatial," as
it was called ironically, and settled herself there for the day. First
she tried to work and could not, so she took a book that she had brought
with her and began to read, but it was a failure also. Her eyes would
wander from the page and her ears strain to catch the distant booming of
the big guns that came from time to time floating across the hills.
The fact of the matter was that the poor girl was the victim of a
presentiment that something was going to happen to John. Most people of
imaginative mind have suffered from this kind of thing at one time or
other in their lives, and have lived to see the folly of it; and there
was more in the circumstances of the present case to excuse indulgence
in the luxury of presentiments than as usual. Indeed, as it happened,
she was not far out--only a sixteenth of an inch or so--for John was
very _nearly_ killed.

Not finding Jess in camp, Mrs. Neville made her way across to "The
Palatial," where she knew the girl sat, crying as she went, at the
thought of the news that she had to communicate, for the good soul had
grown very fond of John Niel. Jess, with that acute sense of hearing
which often accompanies nervous excitement, caught the sound of the
little gate at the bottom of the garden almost before her visitor had
passed through it, and ran round the corner of the house to see who was
there.

One glance at Mrs. Neville's tear-stained face was enough for her. She
knew what was coming, and clasped at one of the young blue gum trees
that grew along the path to prevent herself from falling.

"What is it?" she said faintly. "Is he dead?"

"Yes, my dear, yes; shot through the head, they say."

Jess made no answer, but clung to the sapling, feeling as though she
were going to die herself, and faintly hoping that she might do so. Her
eyes wandered vaguely from the face of the messenger of evil, first up
to the sky, then down to the cropped and trodden veldt. Past the gate of
"The Palatial" garden ran a road, which, as it happened, was a short
cut from the scene of the fight, and down this road came four Kafirs and
half-castes, bearing something on a stretcher, behind which rode three
or four carbineers. A coat was thrown over the face of the form on the
stretcher, but its legs were visible. They were booted and spurred, and
the feet fell apart in that peculiarly lax and helpless way of which
there is no possibility of mistaking the meaning.

"_Look!_" she said, pointing.

"Ah, poor man, poor man!" said Mrs. Neville, "they are bringing him here
to lay him out."

Then Jess's beautiful eyes closed, and down she went with the bending
tree. Presently the sapling snapped, and she fell senseless with a
little cry, and as she fell the men with the corpse passed on.

Two minutes afterwards, John Niel, having heard the rumour of his own
death on arrival at the camp, and greatly fearing lest it should have
reached Jess's ears, cantered up hurriedly, and, dismounting as well as
his wound would allow, limped up the garden path.

"Great heavens, Captain Niel!" exclaimed Mrs. Neville, looking up;
"why--we thought that you were dead!"

"And that is what you have been telling her, I suppose," he said
sternly, glancing at the pale and deathlike face; "you might have waited
till you were sure. Poor girl! it must have given her a turn!" and,
stooping down, he placed his arms under Jess, and, lifting her with
some difficulty, staggered to the house, where he laid her down upon
the table and, assisted by Mrs. Neville, began to do all in his power to
revive her. So obstinate was her faint, however, that their efforts were
unavailing, and at last Mrs. Neville started for the camp to get some
brandy, leaving him to go on rubbing her hands and sprinkling water on
her face.

The good lady had not been gone more than two or three minutes when Jess
suddenly opened her eyes and sat up, slipping her feet to the ground.
Her eyes fell upon John and dilated with wonder; he thought that she was
about to faint again, for even her lips blanched, and she began to shake
and tremble all over in the extremity of her agitation.

"Jess, Jess," he said, "for God's sake don't look like that, you
frighten me!"

"I thought you were--I thought you were----" she said slowly, then
suddenly burst into a passion of tears and fell forward upon his breast
and lay there sobbing her heart out, her brown curls resting against his
face.

It was an awkward and a most moving position. John was only a man, and
the spectacle of this strange woman, to whom he had lately grown so much
attached, plunged into intense emotion, awakened, apparently, by anxiety
about his fate, stirred him very deeply--as it would have stirred
anybody. Indeed, it struck some chord in him for which he could not
quite account, and its echoes charmed and yet frightened him. What did
it mean?

"Jess, dear Jess, pray stop; I can't bear to see you cry so," he said at
last.

She lifted her head from his shoulder and stood looking at him, her hand
resting on the edge of the table behind her. Her face was wet with tears
and looked like a dew-washed lily, and her beautiful eyes were alight
with a flame that he had never seen in the eyes of woman before. She
said nothing, but her whole face was more eloquent than any words, for
there are times when the features can convey a message in that language
of their own which is more suitable than any tongue we talk. There
she stood, her breast heaving with emotion as the sea heaves when the
fierceness of the storm has passed--a very incarnation of the intensest
love of woman. And as she stood something seemed to pass before her eyes
and blind her; a spirit took possession of her that absorbed all her
doubts and fears, and she gave way to a force that was of her and yet
compelled her, as, when the wind blows, the sails compel a ship. Then,
for the first time, where her love was concerned, she put out all her
strength. She knew, and had always known, that she could master him, and
force him to regard her as she regarded him, did she but choose. How
she knew it she could not say, but it was so. Now she yielded to an
unconquerable impulse and chose. She said nothing, she did not even
move, she only looked at him.

"Why were you in such a fright about me?" he stammered.

She did not answer, but kept her eyes upon his face, and it seemed to
John as though power flowed from them; for, while she looked, he felt
the change come. Everything melted away before the almost spiritual
intensity of her gaze. Bessie, honour, his engagement--all were
forgotten; the smouldering embers broke into flame, and he knew that he
loved this woman as he had never loved any living creature before--that
he loved her even as she loved him. Strong man as he was, he shook like
a leaf before her.

"Jess," he said hoarsely, "God forgive me! I love you!" and he bent
forward to kiss her.

She lifted her face towards him, then suddenly changed her mind, and
laid her hand upon his breast.

"You forget," she said almost solemnly, "you are going to marry Bessie."

Crushed by a deep sense of shame, and by a knowledge of the calamity
that had overtaken him, John turned and limped from the house.



CHAPTER XVIII

AND AFTER

In front of the door of "The Palatial" was a garden-bed filled with
weeds and flowers mixed up together like the good and evil in the
heart of a man, and to the right-hand side of this bed stood an old and
backless wooden chair. No sooner had John limped outside the door of
the cottage than he became sensible that, what between one thing and
another--weariness, loss of blood from his wound, and intense mental
emotion--if he did not sit down somewhere quickly, he should follow the
example set by Jess and faint away. Accordingly he steered for the old
chair and sank into it with gratitude. Presently he saw Mrs. Neville
running up the path with a bottle of brandy in her hand.

"Ah!" he thought to himself, "that will just come in handy for me. If
I don't have a glass of brandy soon I shall roll off this infernal
chair--I am sure of it."

"Where is Jess?" panted Mrs. Neville.

"In there," he said; "she has recovered. It would have been better for
us both if she hadn't," he added to himself.

"Why, bless me, Captain Niel, how queer you look!" said Mrs. Neville,
fanning herself with her hat; "and there is such a row going on at the
camp there; the volunteers swear that they will attack the military
for deserting them, and I don't know what all; and they simply wouldn't
believe me when I said you were not shot. Why, I never! Look! your boot
is full of blood! So you were hit after all."

"Might I trouble you to give me some brandy, Mrs. Neville?" said John
faintly.

She filled a glass she had brought with her half full of water from
a little irrigation furrow that ran down from the main _sluit_ by the
road, and then topped it up with brandy. He drank it, and felt decidedly
better.

"Dear me!" said Mrs. Neville, "there are a pair of you now. You should
just have seen that girl go down when she saw the body coming along the
road! I made sure that it was you; but it wasn't. They say that it was
poor Jim Smith, son of old Smith of Rustenburg. I tell you what it is,
Captain Niel, you had better be careful; if that girl isn't in love with
you she is something very like it. A girl does not pop over like that
for Dick, Tom, or Harry. You must forgive an old woman like me for
speaking out plain, but she is an odd girl is Jess, just like ten women
rolled into one so far as her mind goes, and if you don't take care you
will get into trouble, which will be rather awkward, as you are going
to marry her sister. Jess isn't the one to have a bit of a flirt to pass
away the time and have done with it, I can tell you;" and she shook her
head solemnly, as though she suspected him of trifling with his future
sister-in-law's young affections, then, without waiting for an answer,
she turned and went into the cottage.

As for John, he only groaned. What could he do but groan? The thing was
self-evident, and if ever a man felt ashamed of himself that man was
John Niel. He was a strictly honourable individual, and it cut him to
the heart to think that he had entered on a course which, considering
his engagement to Bessie, was not honourable. When a few minutes before
he had told Jess he loved her he had said a disgraceful thing, however
true it might be. And that was the worst of it; it was true; he did love
her. He felt the change come sweeping over him like a wave as she
stood looking at him in the room, utterly drowning and overpowering his
affection for Bessie, to whom he was bound by every tie of honour. It
was a new and a wonderful experience this passion that had arisen within
him, as a strong man armed, driving every other affection away into the
waste places of his mind; and, unfortunately, as he already guessed, it
was overmastering and enduring. He cursed himself in his shame and anger
as he sat recovering his equilibrium on the broken chair and tying a
handkerchief tightly round his wounded leg. What a fool he had been! Why
had he not waited to see which of the two he really loved? Why had
Jess gone away like that and thrown him into temptation with her pretty
sister? He was sure now that she had cared for him all along. Well,
there it was, and a bad business too! One thing he was clear about; it
should go no farther. He would not break his engagement to Bessie; it
was not to be thought of. But, all the same, he felt sorry for himself,
and sorry for Jess too.

Just then, however, the bandage on his leg slipped, and the wound
began to bleed so fast that he was fain to hobble into the house for
assistance.

Jess, who had apparently quite recovered from her agitation, was
standing by the table talking to Mrs. Neville, who was persuading her
to swallow some of the brandy she had been at such pains to fetch. The
moment she caught sight of John's face, which had now turned ghastly
white, and saw the red line trickling down his boot, she took up her hat
that was lying on the table.

"You had better lie down on the old bedstead in the little room," she
said; "I am going for the doctor."

Assisted by Mrs. Neville he was only too glad to take this advice, but
long before the doctor arrived John had followed Jess's example, and
gone off into a dead faint, to the intense alarm of Mrs. Neville, who
was vainly endeavouring to check the flow of blood, which had now become
copious. On the arrival of the doctor it appeared that the bullet had
grazed the walls of one of the arteries on the inside of his thigh
without actually cutting them, which had now given way, rendering it
necessary to tie the artery. This operation, with the assistance
of chloroform, he proceeded to carry out successfully, announcing
afterwards that a great deal of blood had already been lost.

When at last it was over Mrs. Neville asked about John being moved up to
the hospital, but the doctor declared that he must lie where he was,
and that Jess must stop and help to nurse him, with the assistance of a
soldier's wife whom he would send to her.

"Dear me," said Mrs. Neville, "that is very awkward."

"It will be more awkward if you try to move him at present," was the
grim reply, "for the silk may slip, in which case the artery will
probably break out again, and he will bleed to death."

As for Jess, she said nothing, but set to work to make preparations
for her task of nursing. As Fate had once more thrown them together she
accepted the position gladly, though it is fair to say that she would
not have sought it.

In about an hour's time, just as John was beginning to recover from the
painful effects of the chloroform, the soldier's wife who was to assist
her in nursing arrived. As Jess soon discovered, she was not only a low
stamp of woman, but both careless and ignorant into the bargain, and all
that she could be relied on to do was to carry out some of the rougher
work of the sick-room. When John woke up and learned whose was the
presence that was bending over him, and whose the cool hand that lay
upon his forehead, he groaned again and went to sleep. But Jess did not
go to sleep. She sat by him there throughout the night, till at last the
cold lights of the dawn came gleaming through the window and fell upon
the white face of the man she loved. He was still sleeping soundly, and,
as the night was exceedingly hot and oppressive, she had left nothing
but a sheet over him. Before she went to rest a little herself she
turned to look at him once more, and as she looked she saw the sheet
grow suddenly red with blood. The artery had broken out fresh.

Calling to the soldier's wife to run across to the doctor, Jess shook
her patient till he awoke, for he was sleeping quite soundly, and would,
no doubt, have continued to do so till he glided away into a still
deeper sleep; and then between them they did what they could to quench
that dreadful pumping flow, Jess knotting her handkerchief round his
leg and twisting it with a stick, while he pressed his thumb upon the
severed artery. But, strive as they would, they were only partially
successful, and Jess began to think that he would die in her arms from
loss of blood. It was agonising to wait there minute after minute and
see his life ebbing away.

"I don't think I shall last much longer, Jess. God bless you, dear!" he
said. "The place is beginning to go round and round."

Poor soul! she could only set her teeth and wait for the end.

Presently John's pressure on the wounded artery relaxed, and he
fainted off, and, oddly enough, just then the flow of blood diminished
considerably. Another five minutes, and she heard the quick step of the
doctor coming up the path.

"Thank God you have come! He has bled dreadfully."

"I was out attending a poor fellow who was shot through the lung, and
that fool of a woman waited for me to come back instead of following me.
I have brought you an orderly in place of her. By Jove, he has bled!
I suppose the silk has slipped. Well, there is only one thing for it.
Orderly, the chloroform."

Then followed another long half-hour of slashing and tying and horror,
and when at last the unfortunate John opened his eyes again he was too
weak to speak, and could only smile feebly. For three days after this he
lay in a dangerous state, for if the artery had broken out for the third
time the chances were that, having so little blood left in his veins,
he would die before anything could be done for him. At times he was very
delirious from weakness, and these were the critical hours, for it was
almost impossible to keep him still, and every moment threw Jess into
an agony of terror lest the silk fastenings of the artery should break
away. Indeed there was only one fashion in which she could quiet him,
and that was by placing her slim white hand upon his forehead or giving
it to him to hold. Oddly enough, this had more effect upon his fevered
mind than anything else. For hour after hour she would sit thus, though
her arm ached, and her back felt as if it were about to break in two,
till at last she was rewarded by seeing his wild eyes cease their
wanderings and close in peaceful sleep.

Yet with it all that week was perhaps the happiest time in her life.
There he lay: the man she loved with all the intensity of her deep
nature, and she ministered to him, and felt that he loved her, and
depended on her as a babe upon its mother. Even in his delirium her
name was continually on his lips, and generally with some endearing term
before it. She felt in those dark hours of doubt and sickness as though
they two were growing life to life, knit up in a divine identity she
could not analyse or understand. She felt that it was so, and she
believed that, once being so, whatever her future might be, that
communion could never be dissolved, and therefore was she happy, though
she knew that his recovery meant their lifelong separation. For though
Jess, when thrown utterly off her balance, had once given her passion
way, it was not a thing she meant to repeat. She had, she knew, injured
Bessie enough already in taking her future husband's heart. That she
could not help now, but she would take no more. John should go back to
her sister.

And so she sat and gazed at that sleeping man through the long watches
of the night, and was happy. There lay her joy. Soon they must part and
she would be left desolate; but whilst he lay there he was hers. It was
passing sweet to her woman's nature to place her hand upon him and see
him sleep, for this desire to watch the sleep of a beloved object is one
of the highest and strangest manifestations of passion. Truly, and with
a keen insight into the human heart, has the poet said that there is no
joy like the joy of a woman watching what she loves asleep. As Jess sat
and gazed those beautiful and tender lines came floating to her mind,
and she thought how true they were:

     For there it lies, so tranquil, so beloved,
     All that it hath of life with us is living;
     So gentle, stirless, helpless, and unmoved,
     And all unconscious of the joy 'tis giving;
     All it hath felt, inflicted, passed and proved,
     Hushed into depths beyond the watcher's diving;
     There lies the thing we love with all its errors
     And all its charms, like death without its terrors.

Ay! there lay the thing she loved.

The time went on, and the artery broke out no more. Then at last came
a morning when John opened his eyes and watched the pale earnest
face bending over him as though he were trying to remember something.
Presently he shut them again. He had remembered.

"I have been very ill, Jess," he said after a pause.

"Yes, John."

"And you have nursed me?"

"Yes, John."

"Am I going to recover?"

"Of course you are."

He closed his eyes again.

"I suppose there is no news from outside?"

"No more; things are just the same."

"Nor from Bessie?"

"None: we are quite cut off."

Then came a pause.

"John," said Jess, "I want to say something to you. When people are
delirious, or when delirium is coming on, they sometimes say things that
they are not responsible for, and which had better be forgotten."

"Yes," he said, "I understand."

"So," she went on, in the same measured tone, "we will forget everything
you may fancy that you said, or that I did, since the time when you came
in wounded and found that I had fainted."

"Quite so," said John. "I renounce them all."

"_We_ renounce them all," she corrected, and gave a solemn little nod
of her head and sighed, and thus they ratified that audacious compact of
oblivion.

But it was a lie, and they both knew that it was a lie. If love had
existed before, was there anything in his helplessness and her long and
tender care to make it less? Alas! no; rather was their companionship
the more perfect and their sympathy the more complete. "Propinquity,
sir, propinquity," as the wise man said;--we all know the evils of it.

It was a lie, and a very common and everyday sort of lie. Who, being
behind the scenes, has not laughed in his sleeve to see it acted?--Who
has not admired and wondered at the cold and formal bow and shake of the
hand, the tender inquiries after the health of the maiden aunt and the
baby, the carelessly expressed wish that we may meet somewhere--all so
palpably overdone? _That_ the heroine of the impassioned scene at which
we had unfortunately to assist an hour ago! Where are the tears, the
convulsive sobs, the heartbroken grief? And _that_ the young gentleman
who saw nothing for it but flight or a pistol bullet! There, all the
world's a stage, and fortunately most of us can act at a pinch.

Yes, we can act; we can paint the face and powder the hair, and summon
up the set smile and the regulation joke and make pretense that things
are as things were, when they are as different as the North Pole from
the Torrid Zone. But unfortunately, or fortunately--I do not know
which--we cannot bedeck our inner selves and make them mime as the
occasion pleases, and sing the old song when their lips are set to a
strange new chant. Of a surety there is within us a spark of the Eternal
Truth, for in our own hearts we cannot lie. And so it was with these
two. From that day forward they forgot that scene in the sitting-room of
"The Palatial," when Jess put out her strength and John bent and broke
before it like a reed before the wind. Surely it was a part of the
delirium! They forgot that now, alas! they loved each other with a love
which did but gather force from its despair. They talked of Bessie, and
of John's marriage, and discussed Jess's plans to go to Europe, just
as though these were not matters of spiritual life and death to each
of them. In short, however for one brief moment they might have gone
astray, now, to their honour be it said, they followed the path of duty
with unflinching feet, nor did they complain when the stones cut them.

But it was a living lie, and they knew it. For behind them stood the
irrevocable Past, who for good or evil had bound them together in his
unchanging bonds, and with cords that never can be broken.



CHAPTER XIX

HANS COETZEE COMES TO PRETORIA

Once he had turned the corner, John's recovery was rapid. Naturally of a
vigorous constitution, when the artery had reunited, he soon made up
for the great loss of blood which he had undergone, and in a little more
than a month from the date of his wound physically, was almost as good a
man as ever.

One morning--it was the 20th of March--Jess and he were sitting in "The
Palatial" garden. John was lying in a lone cane deck chair that Jess
had borrowed or stolen out of one of the deserted houses, and smoking
a pipe. By his side, in a hole in the flat arm of the chair, fashioned
originally to receive a soda-water tumbler, was a great bunch of purple
grapes which she had gathered for him; and on his knees lay a copy of
that journalistic curiosity, the "News of the Camp," which was chiefly
remarkable for its utter dearth of news. It was not easy to run a
journal in a beleaguered town.

They sat in silence: John puffing away at his pipe, and Jess, her
work--one of his socks--lying idly upon her knees, her hands clasped
over it, and her eyes fixed upon the lights and shadows that played with
broad fingers upon the wooded slopes beyond.

So silently did they sit that a great green lizard came and basked
himself in the sun within a yard of them, and a beautiful striped
butterfly perched deliberately upon the purple grapes! It was a
delightful day and a delightful spot. They were too far from the camp to
be disturbed by its rude noise, and the only sounds that reached their
ears were the rippling of running water and the whispers of the wind,
odorous with the breath of mimosa blooms, as it stirred the stiff grey
leaves on the blue gums.

They were seated in the shade of the little house that Jess had learned
to love as she had never loved a spot before, but around them lay the
flood of sunshine shimmering like golden water; and beyond the red line
of the fence at the end of the garden, where the rich pomegranate bloom
tried to blush the roses down, the hot air danced merrily above the
rough stone wall like a million microscopic elves at play. Peace!
everywhere was peace! and in it the full heart of Nature beat out in
radiant life. Peace in the voice of the turtle-doves among the willows!
peace in the play of the sunshine and the murmur of the wind! peace
in the growing flowers and hovering butterfly! Jess looked out at the
wealth and glory which were spread before her, and thought that it was
like heaven; then, giving way to the melancholy strain in her nature,
she began to wonder idly how many human beings had sat and thought the
same things, and had been gathered up into the azure of the past and
forgotten; and how many would sit and think there when she in her turn
had been utterly swept away into that gulf whence no echo ever comes!
But what did it matter? The sunshine would still flood the earth with
gold, the water would ripple, and the butterflies hover; and there would
be other women to sit and fold their hands and consider them, thinking
the same identical thoughts, beyond which our human intelligence cannot
travel. And so on for thousands upon thousands of centuries, till at
last the old world reaches its journey's appointed end, and, passing
from the starry spaces, is swallowed up with those it bore.

And she--where would she be? Would she still live on, and love and
suffer elsewhere, or was it all a cruel myth? Was she merely a creature
bred of the teeming earth, or had she an individuality beyond the earth?
What awaited her after sunset?--Sleep. She had often hoped that it was
sleep, and nothing but sleep. But now she did not hope that. Her life
had centred itself around a new interest, and one that she felt could
never die while that life lasted. She hoped for a future now; for if
there was a future for her, there would be one for _him_, and then her
day would come, and where he was there she would be also. Oh, sweet
mockery, old and unsubstantial thought, bright dream set halowise about
the dull head of life! Who has not dream it, but who can believe in
it? And yet, who shall say that it is not true? Though philosophers and
scientists smile and point in derision to the gross facts and freaks
that mark our passions, is it not possible that there may be a place
where the love shall live when the lust has died; and where Jess will
find that she has not sat in vain in the sunshine, throwing out her pure
heart towards the light of a happiness and a visioned glory whereof, for
some few minutes, the shadow seemed to lie within her?

John had finished his pipe, and, although she did not know it, was
watching her face, which, now when she was off her guard, was no longer
impassive, but seemed to mirror the tender and glorious hope that was
floating through her mind. Her lips were slightly parted, and her wide
eyes were full of a soft strange light, while on the whole countenance
was stamped a look of eager thought and spiritualised desire such as he
had known portrayed in ancient masterpieces upon the face of the
Virgin Mother. Except as regards her eyes and hair, Jess was not even a
good-looking person. But, at that moment, John thought that her face was
touched with a diviner beauty than he had yet seen on the face of
woman. It thrilled him and appealed to him, not as Bessie's beauty had
appealed, but to that other side of his nature, of which Jess alone
could turn the key. It was more like the face of a spirit than that of a
human being, and it almost frightened him to see it.

"Jess," he said at last, "what are you thinking of?"

She started, and her face resumed its normal expression. It was as
though a mask had been suddenly set upon it.

"Why do you ask?" she said.

"Because I want to know. I never saw you look like that before."

She laughed a little.

"You would call me foolish if I told you what I was thinking about.
Never mind, it has gone wherever thoughts go. I will tell you what I am
thinking about now, which is--that it is about time we got out of this
place. My uncle and Bessie must be half distracted."

"We've had more than two months of it now. The relieving column can't be
far off," suggested John; for these foolish people in Pretoria laboured
under a firm belief that one fine morning they would be gratified with a
vision of the light dancing down a long line of British bayonets, and of
Boers evaporating in every direction like storm clouds before the sun.

Jess shook her head. She was beginning to lose faith in relieving
columns that never came.

"If we don't help ourselves, my opinion is that we may stop here till
we are starved out, which in fact we are. However, it's no use
talking about it, so I'm off to fetch our rations. Let's see, have you
everything you want?"

"Everything, thanks."

"Well, then, mind you stop quiet till I come back."

"Why," laughed John, "I am as strong as a horse."

"Possibly; but that is what the doctor said, you know. Good-bye!" and
Jess took her big basket and started on what John used feebly to call
her "rational undertaking."

She had not gone fifty paces from the door before she suddenly caught
sight of a familiar form seated on a familiar pony. The form was fat
and jovial-looking, and the pony was small but also fat. It was Hans
Coetzee--none other!

Jess could hardly believe her eyes. Old Hans in Pretoria! What could it
mean?

"_Oom_ Coetzee! _Oom_ Coetzee!" she called, as he came ambling past her,
evidently heading for the Heidelberg road.

The old Boer pulled up his pony, and gazed around him in a mystified
fashion.

"Here, _Oom_ Coetzee! Here!"

"_Allemachter!_" he said, jerking his pony round. "It's you, Missie
Jess, is it? Now who would have thought of seeing you here?"

"Who would have thought of seeing _you_ here?" she answered.

"Yes, yes; it seems strange; I dare say that it seems strange. But I am
a messenger of peace, like Uncle Noah's dove in the ark, you know. The
fact is," and he glanced round to see if anybody was listening, "I have
been sent by the Government to arrange about an exchange of prisoners."

"The Government! What Government?"

"What Government? Why, the Triumvirate, of course--whom may the Lord
bless and prosper, as He did Jonah when he walked on the wall of the
city."

"Joshua, when he walked round the wall of the city," suggested Jess.
"Jonah walked down the whale's throat."

"Ah! to be sure, so he did, and blew a trumpet inside. I remember
now; though I am sure I don't know how he did it. The fact is that our
glorious victories have quite confused me. Ah! what a thing it is to be
a patriot! The dear Lord makes strong the arm of the patriot, and takes
care that he hits his man well in the middle."

"You have turned wonderfully patriotic all of a sudden, _Oom_ Coetzee,"
said Jess tartly.

"Yes, missie, yes; I am a patriot to the bone of my back! I hate the
English Government; damn the English Government! Let us have our land
back and our _Volksraad_. Almighty! I saw who was in the right at
Laing's Nek there. Ah, those poor _rooibaatjes!_ I killed four of them
myself; two as they came up, and two as they ran away, and the last one
went head-over-heels like a buck. Poor man! I cried for him afterwards.
I did not like going to fight at all, but Frank Muller sent to me and
said that if I did not go he would have me shot. Ah, he is a devil of a
man, that Frank Muller! So I went, and when I saw how the dear Lord had
put it into the heart of the English general to be a bigger fool even
that day than he is every day, and to try and drive us out of Laing's
Nek with a thousand of his poor _rooibaatjes_, then, I tell you, I saw
where the right lay, and I said, 'Damn the English Government! What is
the English Government doing here?' and after Ingogo I said it again."

"Never mind all that, _Oom_ Coetzee," broke in Jess. "I have heard you
tell a different tale before, and perhaps you will again. How are my
uncle and my sister? Are they at the farm?"

"Almighty! you don't suppose that I have been there to see, do you? But,
yes, I have heard they are there. It is a nice place, that Mooifontein,
and I think that I shall buy it when we have turned all you English
people out of the land. Frank Muller told me that they were there. And
now I must be getting on, or that devil of a man, Frank Muller, will
want to know what I have been about."

"_Oom_ Coetzee," said Jess, "will you do something for me? We are
old friends, you know, and once I persuaded my uncle to lend you five
hundred pounds when all your oxen died of the lungsick."

"Yes, yes, it shall be paid back one day--when we have hunted the damned
Englishmen out of the country." And he began to gather up his reins
preparatory to riding off.

"Will you do me a favour?" said Jess, catching the pony by the bridle.

"What is it? What is it, missie? I must be getting on. That devil of a
man, Frank Muller, is waiting for me with the prisoners at the Rooihuis
Kraal."

"I want a pass for myself and Captain Niel, and an escort. We wish to go
home."

The old Boer held up his fat hands in amazement.

"Almighty!" he said, "it is impossible. A pass!--who ever heard of such
a thing? Come, I must be going."

"It is not impossible, Uncle Coetzee, as you know," said Jess. "Listen!
If I get that pass I will speak to my uncle about the five hundred
pounds. Perhaps he would not want it all back again."

"Ah!" said the Boer. "Well, we are old friends, missie, and 'never
desert a friend,' that is my saying. Almighty! I must ride a hundred
miles--I will swim through blood for a friend. Well, well, I must see.
It depends upon that devil of a man, Frank Muller. Where are you to be
found--in the white house yonder? Good. To-morrow the escort will come
in with the prisoners, and if I can get it they will bring the pass.
But, missie, remember the five hundred pounds. If you do not speak to
your uncle about that I shall be even with him. Almighty! what a thing
it is to have a good heart, and to love to help your friends! Well,
good-day, good-day," and off he cantered on his fat pony, his broad face
shining with a look of unutterable benevolence.

Jess cast a look of contempt after him, and then went on towards the
camp to fetch the rations.

When she returned to "The Palatial," she told John what had taken
place, and suggested that it would be as well, in case there should be
a favourable reply to her request, to have everything prepared for a
start. Accordingly, the cart was brought down and stood outside "The
Palatial," where John unscrewed the patent caps and filled them with
castor-oil, and ordered Mouti to keep the horses, which were all in
health, though "poor" from want of proper food, well within hail.

Meanwhile, old Hans pursued the jerky tenour of his way for an hour or
so, till he came in sight of a small red house.

Presently, from the shadow in front of the red house emerged a rider,
mounted on a powerful black horse. The horseman--a stern, handsome,
bearded man--put his hand above his eyes to shade them from the sun, and
gazed up the road. Then he seemed suddenly to strike his spurs into the
horse, for the animal bounded forward swiftly, and came sweeping towards
Hans at a hand gallop.

"Ah! it is that devil of a man, Frank Muller!" ejaculated Coetzee. "Now
I wonder what he wants? I always feel cold down the back when he comes
near me."

By this time the plunging black horse was being reined up alongside of
his pony so sharply that it reared till its great hoofs were pawing the
air within a few inches of Hans' head.

"Almighty!" said the old man, tugging his pony round. "Be careful,
nephew, be careful; I do not wish to be crushed like a beetle."

Frank Muller--for it was he--smiled. He had made his horse rear
purposely, in order to frighten the old man, whom he knew to be an
arrant coward.

"Why have you been so long? and what have you done with the Englishmen?
You should have been back half an hour ago."

"And so I should, nephew, and so I should, if I had not been detained.
Surely you do not suppose that I would linger in the accursed place?
Bah," and he spat upon the ground, "it stinks of Englishmen. I cannot
get the taste of them out of my mouth."

"You are a liar, Uncle Coetzee," was the cool answer. "English with the
English, Boer with the Boer. You blow neither hot nor cold. Be careful
lest I show you up. I know you and your talk. Do you remember what you
were saying to the Englishman Niel in the inn-yard at Wakkerstroom
when you turned and saw me? I heard, and I do not forget. You know what
happens to a 'land betrayer'?"

Hans' teeth positively chattered, and his florid face blanched with
fear.

"What do you mean, nephew?" he asked.

"I--ah!--I mean nothing. I was only speaking a word of warning to you as
a friend. I have heard things said about you by----" and he dropped
his voice and whispered a name, at the sound of which poor Hans turned
whiter than ever.

"Well," went on his tormentor, when he had sufficiently enjoyed his
terror, "what sort of terms did you make in Pretoria?"

"Oh, good, nephew, good," he gabbled, delighted to find a fresh subject.
"I found the Englishmen supple as a tanned skin. They will give up their
twelve prisoners for our four. The men are to be in by ten to-morrow.
I told their commandant about Laing's Nek and Ingogo, and he would not
believe me. He thought I lied like himself. They are getting hungry
there now. I saw a Hottentot I knew, and he told me that their bones
were beginning to show."

"They will be through the skin before long," muttered Frank. "Well,
here we are at the house. The General is there. He has just come up from
Heidelberg, and you can make your report to him. Did you find out about
the Englishman--Captain Niel? Is it true that he is dead?"

"No, he is not dead. By the way, I met _Oom_ Croft's niece--the dark
one. She is shut up there with the Captain, and she begged me to try and
get them a pass to go home. Of course I told her that it was nonsense,
and that they must stop and starve with the others."

Muller, who had been listening to this last piece of information with
intense interest, suddenly checked his horse and answered:

"Did you? Then you are a bigger fool than I thought you. Who gave you
authority to decide whether they should have a pass or not?"



CHAPTER XX

THE GREAT MAN

Completely overcome by this last remark, Hans collapsed like a
jelly-fish out of water, and reflected in his worthless old heart
that Frank Muller was indeed "a devil of a man." By this time they
had reached the door of the little house, and were dismounting, and in
another minute Hans found himself in the presence of one of the leaders
of the rebellion.

He was a short, ugly person of about fifty-five, with a big nose, small
eyes, straight hair, and a stoop. The forehead, however, was good, and
the whole face betrayed a keenness and ability far beyond the average.
The great man was seated at a plain deal table, writing something with
evident difficulty upon a dirty sheet of paper, and smoking a very large
pipe.

"Sit, _Heeren_, sit," he said, when they entered, waving the stem of
his pipe towards a deal bench. Accordingly they sat down without even
removing their hats, and, pulling out their pipes, proceeded to light
them.

"How, in the name of God, do you spell 'Excellency'?" asked the General
presently. "I have spelt it in four different ways, and each one looks
worse than the last."

Frank Muller gave the required information. Hans in his heart thought he
spelt it wrong, but he did not dare to say so. Then came another pause,
only interrupted by the slow scratching of a quill across the dirty
paper, during which Hans nearly went to sleep; for the weather was very
hot, and he was tired with his ride.

"There!" said the writer presently, gazing at his handwriting with an
almost childish air of satisfaction, "that is done. A curse on the man
who invented writing! Our fathers did very well without it; why should
not we? Though, to be sure, it is useful for treaties with the Kafirs.
I don't believe you have told me right now about that 'Excellency,'
nephew. Well, it will have to serve. When a man writes such a letter
as that to the representative of the English Queen he needn't mind his
spelling; it will be swallowed with the rest," and he leaned back in his
chair and laughed softly.

"Now, _Meinheer_ Coetzee, what is it? Ah, I know; the prisoners. Well,
what did you do?"

Hans told his story, and was rambling on when the General cut him short.

"So, cousin, so! You talk like an ox-waggon--rumble and creak and jolt,
a devil of a noise and turning of wheels, but very little progress. They
will give up their twelve prisoners for our four, will they? That is
about a fair proportion. No, it is not, though: four Boers are better
than twelve Englishmen any day--ay, better than forty!" and he laughed
again. "Well, the men shall be sent in as you arranged; they will help
to eat up their last biscuits. Good-day, cousin. Stop, though; one word
before you go. I have heard about you at times, cousin. I have heard
it said that you cannot be trusted. Now, I don't know if that is so.
I don't believe it myself. Only, listen; if it should be true, and
I should find you out, by God! I will have you cut into rimpis with
afterox _sjambocks_, and then shoot you and send in your carcase as a
present to the English." As he spoke thus he leaned forward, brought
down his fist upon the deal table with a bang that produced a most
unpleasant effect upon poor Hans's nerves, and a cold gleam of sudden
ferocity flickered in the small eyes, very discomforting for a timid man
to behold, however innocent he knew himself to be.

"I swear----" he began to babble.

"Swear not at all, cousin; you are an elder of the church. There is no
need for it, besides. I told you I did not believe it of you; only I
have had one or two cases of this sort of thing lately. No, never mind
who they were. You will not meet them about again. Good-day, cousin,
good-day. Forget not to thank the Almighty God for our glorious
victories. He will expect it from an elder of the church."

Poor Hans departed crestfallen, feeling that the days of him who tries,
however skilfully and impartially, to sit upon two stools at once are
not happy days, and sometimes threaten to be short ones. And supposing
that the Englishmen should win after all--as in his heart he hoped
they might--how should he then prove that he had hoped it? The General
watched him waddle through the door from under his pent brows, a
half-humourous, half-menacing expression on his face.

"A windbag; a coward; a man without a heart for good or for evil. Bah!
nephew, that is Hans Coetzee. I have known him for years. Well, let him
go. He would sell us if he could, but I have frightened him now, and,
what is more, if I see reason, he shall find I never bark unless I mean
to bite. Well, enough of him. Let me see, have I thanked you yet for
your share in Majuba? Ah! that was a glorious victory! How many were
there of you when you started up the mountain?"

"Eighty men."

"And how many at the end?"

"One hundred and seventy--perhaps a few more."

"And how many of you were hit?"

"Three--one killed, two wounded, and a few scratches."

"Wonderful, wonderful! It was a brave deed, and because it was so brave
it was successful. He must have been mad, that English general. Who shot
him?"

"Breytenbach. Colley held up a white handkerchief in his hand, and
Breytenbach fired, and down went the general of a heap, and then they
all ran helter-skelter down the hill. Yes, it was a wonderful thing!
They could have beat us back with their left hand. That is what comes of
having a righteous cause, uncle."

The general smiled grimly. "That is what comes of having men who can
shoot, and who understand the country, and are not afraid. Well, it
is done, and well done. The stars in their courses have fought for us,
Frank Muller, and so far we have conquered. But how is it to end? You
are no fool; tell me, how will it end?"

Frank Muller rose and walked twice up and down the room before he
answered. "Shall I tell you?" he asked, and then, without waiting for
a reply, went on: "It will end in our getting the country back. That is
what this armistice means. There are thousands of _rooibaatjes_ there at
the Nek; they cannot therefore be waiting for soldiers. They are waiting
for an opportunity to yield, uncle. We shall get the country back, and
you will be President of the Republic."

The old man took a pull at his pipe. "You have a long head, Frank, and
it has not run away with you. The English Government is going to give
in. The stars in their courses continue to fight for us. The English
Government is as mad as its officers. They will give in. But it means
more than that, Frank; I will tell you what it means. It means"--and
again he let his heavy hand fall upon the deal table--"the triumph of
the Boer throughout South Africa. Bah! Burgers was not such a fool after
all when he talked of his great Dutch Republic. I have been twice to
England now and I know the Englishman. I could measure him for his
_veldtschoens_ (shoes). He knows nothing--nothing. He understands his
shop; he is buried in his shop, and can think of nothing else. Sometimes
he goes away and starts a shop in other places, and buries himself in
it, and makes it a big shop, because he understands shops. But it is all
a question of shops, and if the shops abroad interfere with the shops at
home, or if it is thought that they do, which comes to the same thing,
then the shops at home put an end to the shops abroad. Bah! they talk a
great deal there in England, but, at the bottom of it, it is shop, shop,
shop. They talk of honour, and patriotism too, but they both give way
to the shop. And I tell you this, Frank Muller: it is the shop that has
made the English, and it is the shop that will destroy them. Well, so be
it. We shall have our slice: Africa for the Africanders. The Transvaal
for the Transvaalers first, then the rest. Shepstone was a clever man;
he would have made it all into an English shop, with the black men for
shop-boys. We have changed all that, but we ought to be grateful to
Shepstone. The English have paid our debts, they have eaten up the
Zulus, who would otherwise have destroyed us, and they have let us beat
them, and now we are going to have our turn again, and, as you say, I
shall be the first President."

"Yes, uncle," replied the younger man calmly, "and I shall be the
second."

The General looked at him. "You are a bold man," he said; "but boldness
makes the man and the country. I dare say you will. You have the head;
and one clear head can turn many fools, as the rudder does the ship, and
guide them when they are turned. I dare say that you will be President
one day."

"Yes, I shall be President, and when I am I will drive the Englishmen
out of South Africa. This I will do with the help of the Natal Zulus.
Then I will destroy the natives, as T'Chaka destroyed, keeping only
enough for slaves. That is my plan, uncle; it is a good one."

"It is a big one; I am not certain that it is a good one. But good or
bad, who shall say? You may carry it out, nephew, if you live. A man
with brains and wealth may carry out anything if he lives. But there is
a God. I believe, Frank Muller, that there is a God, and I believe that
God sets a limit to a man's doings. If he is going too far, God kills
him. _If you live_, Frank Muller, you will do these things, but perhaps
God will kill you. Who can say? You will do what God wills, not what
_you_ will."

The elder man was speaking seriously now. Muller felt that this was
none of the whining cant people in authority among the Boers find it
desirable to adopt. It was what he thought, and it chilled Muller
in spite of his pretended scepticism, as the sincere belief of an
intellectual man, however opposite to our own, is apt to chill us
into doubt of ourselves and our opinions. For a moment his slumbering
superstition awoke, and he felt half afraid. Between him and that bright
future of blood and power lay a dark gulf. Suppose that gulf should be
death, and the future nothing but a dream--or worse! His face fell as
the idea occurred to him, and the General noticed it.

"Well," he went on, "he who lives will see. Meanwhile you have done good
service to the State, and you shall have your reward, cousin. If I am
President"--he laid emphasis on this, the meaning of which his listener
did not miss--"if by the support of my followers I become President, I
will not forget you. And now I must up-saddle and ride back. I want to
be at Laing's Nek in sixty hours, to wait for General Wood's answer. You
will see about the sending in of those prisoners;" and he knocked out
his pipe and rose.

"By the way, _Meinheer_," said Muller, suddenly adopting a tone of
respect, "I have a favour to ask."

"What is it, nephew?"

"I want a pass for two friends of mine--English people--in Pretoria to
go down to their relations in Wakkerstroom district. They sent a message
to me by Hans Coetzee."

"I don't like giving passes," answered the General with some irritation.
"You know what it means, letting out messengers. I wonder you ask me."

"It is a small favour, _Meinheer_, and I do not think that it will
matter. Pretoria will not be besieged much longer; I am under an
obligation to the people."

"Well, well, as you like; but if any harm comes of it, you will be held
responsible. Write the pass; I will sign it."

Frank Muller sat down and wrote and dated the paper. Its contents were
simple: "Pass the bearers unharmed."

"That is big enough to drive a waggon along," said the General, when it
was handed to him to sign. "It might mean all Pretoria."

"I am not certain if there are two or three of them," answered Muller
carelessly.

"Well, well, you are responsible. Give me the pen," and he scrawled his
big coarse signature on the paper.

"I propose, with your permission, to escort the cart down with two other
men. As you are aware, I go to take over the command of the Wakkerstroom
district to-morrow."

"Very good. It is your affair; you are responsible. I shall ask no
questions, provided your friends do no harm to the cause;" and he left
the room without another word.

When the great man had gone, Frank Muller sat down again on the bench
and looked at the pass, and communed with himself, for he was far too
wise to commune with anybody else. "The Lord hath delivered mine enemy
into mine hand," he said with a smile, and stroked his golden beard.
"Well, well, I will not waste His merciful opportunities as I did that
day out buck-shooting. And then for Bessie. I suppose I shall have
to kill old Croft too. I am sorry for that, but it can't be helped;
besides, if anything should happen to Jess, Bessie will take
Mooifontein, and that is worth having. Not that I want more land; I have
enough. Yes, I will marry her. It would serve her right if I didn't;
but, after all, marriage is more respectable; also one has more hold of
a wife. Nobody will interfere for her. Then, she will be of use to
me by-and-by, for a beautiful woman is a power even among these
fellow-countrymen of mine, if only a man knows how to bait his lines
with her. Yes, I shall marry her. Bah! that is the way to win a
woman--by capture; and, what is more, they like it. It makes her worth
winning too. It will be a courtship of blood. Well, the kisses will be
the sweeter, and in the end she will love me the more for what I have
dared for her.

"So, Frank Muller, so! Ten years ago you said to yourself: 'There are
three things worth having in the world--first, wealth; secondly, women,
if they take your fancy, or, better still, one woman, if you desire her
above all others; thirdly, power.' Now, you have got the wealth, for one
way or another you are the richest man in the Transvaal. In a week you
will have the woman you love, and who is sweeter to you than all the
world besides. In five years' time you will have the power--absolute
power. That old man is clever; he will be President. But I am cleverer.
I shall soon take his seat, thus"--and he rose and seated himself in the
General's chair--"and he will go down a step and take mine. Ay, and then
I will reign. My tongue shall be honey and my hand iron. I will pass
over the land like a storm. I will drive these English out with the help
of the Kafirs, and then I will kill the Kafirs and take their country.
Ah!"--and his eyes flashed and his nostrils dilated as he said it to
himself--"then life will be worth living! What a thing is power! What
a thing it is to be able to destroy! Take that Englishman, my rival:
to-day he is well and strong; in three days he will be gone utterly, and
I--I shall have sent him away. That is power. But when the time
comes that I have only to stretch out my hand to send thousands after
him!--that will be absolute power; and then with Bessie I shall be
happy."

And so he dreamed on for an hour or more, till at last the fumes of
his untutored imagination actually drowned his reason in a spiritual
drunkenness. Picture after picture rose and unrolled itself before his
mind's eye. He saw himself as President addressing the _Volksraad_,
and compelling it to his will. He saw himself, the supreme general of
a great host, defeating the forces of England with awful carnage, and
driving them before him; ay, he even selected the battle-ground on the
slopes of the Biggarsberg in Natal. Then he saw himself again, sweeping
the natives out of South Africa with the relentless besom of his might,
and ruling unquestioned over a submissive people. And, last of all, he
saw something glittering at his feet--it was a crown!

This was the climax of his dream. Then there came an anticlimax. The
rich imagination which had been leading him on as a gaudy butterfly does
a child, suddenly changed colour and dropped to earth; and there rose
up in his mind the memory of the General's words: "God sets a limit to a
man's doings. If he is going too far, _God kills him_."

The butterfly had settled on a coffin!



CHAPTER XXI

JESS GETS A PASS

About half-past ten on the morning following her interview with
Hans Coetzee, Jess was at "The Palatial" as usual, and John was just
finishing packing the cart with such few goods as they possessed. There
was little chance of his labour proving of material use, for he did not
in the slightest degree expect that they would get the pass; but, as he
said cheerfully, it was as good an amusement as any other.

"I say, Jess," he called out presently, "come here."

"What for?" asked Jess, who was seated on the doorstep mending
something, and looking at her favourite view.

"Because I want to speak to you."

She rose and went, feeling rather angry with herself for going.

"Well," she said tartly, "here I am. What is it?"

"I have finished packing the cart, that's all."

"And you mean to tell me that you have brought me round here to say
that?"

"Yes, of course I have; exercise is good for the young." Then he
laughed, and she laughed too.

It was all nothing--nothing at all--but somehow it was very delightful.
Certainly mutual affection, even when unexpressed, has a way of making
things go happily, and can find entertainment anywhere.

Just then, who should arrive but Mrs. Neville, in a great state of
excitement, and, as usual, fanning herself with her hat.

"What do you think, Captain Niel? The prisoners have come in, and I
heard one of the Boers in charge say that he had a pass signed by the
Boer general for some English people, and that he was coming over to see
about them presently. Who can it be?"

"It is for us," said Jess quickly. "We are going home. I saw Hans
Coetzee yesterday, and begged him to try and get us a pass, and I
suppose he has."

"My word! going to get out: well, you are lucky! Let me sit down and
write a letter to my great-uncle at the Cape. You must post it when you
can. He is ninety-four, and rather soft, but I dare say he will like
to hear from me," and she hurried into the house to give her aged
relative--who, by the way, laboured under the impression that she was
still a little girl of four years of age--as minute an account of the
siege of Pretoria as time would allow.

"Well, John, you had better tell Mouti to put the horses in. We shall
have to start presently," said Jess.

"Ay," he said, pulling his beard thoughtfully, "I suppose that we
shall;" adding, by way of an afterthought, "Are you glad to go?"

"No," she said, with a sudden flash of passion and a stamp of the foot.
Then she turned and entered the house again.

"Mouti," said John to the Zulu, who was lounging about in a way
characteristic of that intelligent but unindustrious race, "inspan the
horses. We are going back to Mooifontein."

"_Koos!_" said the Zulu unconcernedly, and started on the errand as
though it were the most everyday occurrence to drive off home out of a
closely beleaguered town. That is another beauty of the Zulu race: you
cannot astonish them. No doubt they consider that extraordinary mixture
of wisdom and insanity, the white man, to be _capable du tout_, as the
agnostic French critic said in despair of the prophet Zerubbabel.

John stood and watched the inspanning absently. In truth, he, too, was
conscious of a sensation of regret. He felt ashamed of himself for it,
but there it was; he was sorry to leave the place. For the last week or
so he had been living in a dream, and everything outside that dream was
blurred, indistinct as a landscape in a fog. He knew the objects
were there, but he could not quite appreciate their relative size and
position. The only real thing was his dream; all else was as vague as
those far-off people and events that we lose in infancy and find again
in old age.

Now there would be an end of dreaming; the fog would lift, and he must
face the facts. Jess, with whom he had dreamed, would go away to Europe
and he would marry Bessie, and all this Pretoria business would glide
away into the past like a watch in the night. Well, it must be so; it
was right and proper that it should be so, and he for one would not
flinch from his duty; but he must have been more than human had he not
felt the pang of awakening. It was all so very unfortunate.

By this time Mouti had got up the horses, and asked if he was to inspan.

"No; wait a bit," said John. "Very likely it is all nonsense," he added
to himself.

Scarcely were the words out of his mouth when he caught sight of two
armed Boers of a peculiarly unpleasant type and rough appearance, riding
across the veldt towards "The Palatial" gate. With them was an escort
of four carbineers. At the gate they all stopped, and one of the Boers
dismounted and walked to where John was standing by the stable-door.

"Captain Niel?" he said interrogatively, in English.

"That is my name."

"Then here is a letter for you;" and he handed him a folded paper.

John opened it--it had no envelope--and read as follows:


"Sir,--The bearer of this has with him a pass which it is understood
that you desire, giving you and Miss Jess Croft a safe-conduct to
Mooifontein, in the Wakkerstroom district of the Republic. The only
condition attached to the pass, which is signed by one of the honourable
Triumvirate, is that you must carry no despatches out of Pretoria. Upon
your giving your word of honour to the bearer that you will not do this
he will hand you the pass."


This letter, which was fairly written and in good English, had no
signature.

"Who wrote this?" asked John of the Boer.

"That is no affair of yours," was the curt reply. "Will you pass your
word about the despatches?"

"Yes."

"Good. Here is the pass;" and he handed over that document to John.
It was in the same handwriting as the letter, but signed by the Boer
general.

John examined it, and then called to Jess to come to translate it, who,
having heard the voice of the Boer, was on her way round the corner of
the house.

"It means, 'Pass the bearers unharmed,'" she said, "and the signature is
genuine. I have seen Paul Kruger's signature before."

"When must we start?" asked John of the Boer.

"At once, or not at all."

"I must drive round by the headquarter camp to explain my departure.
They will think that I have run away."

To this the Boer demurred, but finally, after going to the gate to
consult his companion, he consented and the two rode back to the
headquarter camp, saying that they would wait for the cart there,
whereupon the horses were inspanned.

In five minutes everything was ready, and the cart was standing on the
roadway in front of the little gate. After he had looked to all the
straps and buckles, and seen that the baggage was properly packed, John
went to call Jess. He found her by the doorstep, looking out at her
favourite view. Her hand was placed sideways against her forehead, as
though to shade her eyes from the sun. But where she was standing there
was no sun, and John could not help guessing why she was shading her
eyes. She was crying at leaving the place in that quiet and harrowing
way which some women indulge in; that is to say, a few big tears were
rolling down her face. John felt a lump rise in his own throat at the
sight, and not unnaturally relieved his feelings by rough language.

"What the deuce are you after?" he asked. "Are you going to keep the
horses standing all day?"

Jess did not resent this. The probability is that she guessed its
reason. Besides, it is a melancholy fact that women rather like being
sworn at than otherwise, provided that the swearer is the man whom they
are attached to. But he must only swear on state occasions. At this
moment, too, Mrs. Neville plunged out of the house, licking an envelope
as she ran.

"There," she said, "I hope you weren't waiting for me. I haven't told
the old gentleman half the news; in fact, I've only taken him down to
the time when the communications were cut, and I dare say he has seen
all that in the papers. But he won't understand anything about it, and
if he does he will guess the rest; besides, for all I know, he may be
dead and buried by now. I shall have to owe you for the stamp. I think
it's threepence. I'll pay you when we meet again--that is, if we ever
do meet again. I'm beginning to think that this siege will go on for all
eternity. There, good-bye, my dear! God bless you! When you get out of
it, mind you write to the _Times_, in London, you know. There, don't
cry. I am sure I should not cry if I were going to get out of this
place;" for at this point Jess took the opportunity of Mrs. Neville's
fervent embrace to burst out into a sob or two.

In another minute they were in the cart, and Mouti was scrambling up
behind.

"Don't cry, old girl," said John, laying his hand upon her shoulder.
"What can't be cured must be endured."

"Yes, John," she answered, and dried her tears.

At the headquarter camp John went in and explained the circumstances of
his departure. At first the officer who was temporarily in command--the
Commandant having been wounded at the same time that John was
hit--rather demurred to his going, especially when he learned that he
had passed his word not to carry despatches. Presently, however, he
thought better of it, and said he supposed that it was all right, as
he could not see that their departure could do the garrison any harm:
"rather the reverse, in fact, because you can tell people how we are
getting on in this God-forsaken hole. I only wish that somebody would
give me a pass, that's all." So John shook hands with him and left, to
find an eager crowd gathered outside.

The news of their good luck had gone abroad, and everybody was running
down to hear the truth of it. Such an event as a departure out of
Pretoria had not happened for a couple of months and more, and the
excitement was proportionate to its novelty.

"I say, Niel, is it true you are going?" halloed a burly farmer.

"How the deuce did you get a pass?" put in another man with a face like
a weasel. He was what is known as a _Boer vernuker_ (literally a "Boer
cheater"), that is, a travelling trader whose business it is to beguile
the simple-minded Dutchman by selling him worthless goods at five times
their value. "I have loads of friends among the Boers. There is hardly
a Boer in the Transvaal who does not know me"--("To his cost," put in
a bystander with a grunt)--"and yet I have tried all I know"--("And you
know a good deal," said the same rude man)--"and _I_ can't get a pass."

"You don't suppose those poor Boers are going to let you out once they
have got you in?" went on the tormentor. "Why, man, it's against human
nature. You've got all their wool: now do you think they want you to
have their skin too?"

Whereupon the weasel-faced individual uttered a howl of wrath, and
pretended to make a rush at the author of these random gibes, waiting
halfway for somebody to stop him and prevent a breach of the peace.

"Oh, Miss Croft!" cried out a woman in the crowd, who, like Jess, had
been trapped in Pretoria while on a flying visit, "if you can, do send a
line to my husband at Maritzburg, to tell him that I am well, except for
the rheumatism from sleeping on the wet ground; and tell him to kiss the
twins for me."

"I say, Niel, tell those Boers that we will give them a d--d good hiding
yet, when Colley relieves us," sang out a jolly young Englishman in
the uniform of the Pretoria Carbineers. He little knew that poor
Colley--kind-hearted English gentleman that he was--lay sleeping
peacefully under six feet of ground with a Boer bullet in his brain.

"Now, Captain Niel, if you are ready, we must trek," said one of the
Boers in Dutch, suiting the action to the word by giving the near
wheeler a sharp cut with his riding _sjambock_ that made him jump nearly
out of the traces.

Away started the horses with a plunge, scattering the crowd to the right
and left, and, amid a volley of farewells, they were off upon their
homeward journey.

For more than an hour nothing particular happened. John drove at a fair
pace, and the two Boers cantered along behind. At the end of this time,
however, just as they were approaching the Red House, where Frank Muller
had obtained the pass from the General on the previous day, one of the
Boers rode up and told them, roughly enough, that they were to outspan
at the house, where they would find some food. As it was past one
o'clock, they were by no means sorry to hear this, and John drew up the
cart about fifty yards from the place, where they outspanned the horses,
and, having watched them roll and drink, they went up to the house.

The two Boers, who had also off-saddled, were already sitting on the
verandah, and when Jess looked inquiringly towards them one of them
pointed with his pipe towards the little room. Taking the hint, they
entered, and found a Hottentot woman just setting some food upon the
table.

"Here is dinner; let us eat it," said John; "goodness knows when we will
get any more;" and accordingly he sat down.

As he did so the two Boers came in, and one of them made some sneering
remark that caused the other to look at them and laugh insultingly.

John flushed, but took no notice. Indeed he thought it safest not, for,
to tell the truth, he did not much like the appearance of these two
worthies. One of them was a big, smooth, pasty-faced man, with a
peculiarly villainous expression of countenance and a prominent tooth
that projected in ghastly isolation over his lower lip. The other was
a small man, with a sardonic smile, a profusion of black beard and
whiskers on his face, and long hair hanging on to his shoulders. Indeed,
when he smiled more vigorously than usual, his eyebrows came down and
his whiskers advanced, and his moustache went up till there was scarcely
any face left, and he looked more like a great bearded monkey than
a human being. This man was a Boer of the wildest type from the far
borders of Zoutpansberg, and did not understand a word of English.
Jess nicknamed him the Vilderbeeste, from his likeness to that
ferocious-looking and hairy animal. His companion, on the other hand,
understood English perfectly, for he had passed many years of his life
in Natal, having left that colony on account of some little indiscretion
about thrashing Kafirs which had brought him into collision with the
penal laws. Jess named him the Unicorn, on account of his one gleaming
tusk.

The Unicorn was an unusually pious person, and on arriving at the table,
to John's astonishment, gently but firmly he grasped the knife with
which he was about to cut the meat.

"What's the matter?" said John.

The Boer shook his head sadly. "No wonder, you English are an accursed
race, and have been given over into our hands as the great king Agag
was given into the hands of the Israelites, so that we have hewed you to
pieces. You sit down to meat and give no thanks to the dear Lord," and
he threw back his head and sang out a portentously long Dutch grace
through his nose. Not content with this, he set to work to translate
it to English, which took a good time; nor was the rendering a very
finished one in the result.

The Vilderbeeste grinned sardonically and put in a pious "Amen," and
then at last they were allowed to proceed with their dinner, which,
on the whole, was not a pleasant meal. But they could not expect much
pleasure under the circumstances, so they ate their food and made the
best of a bad business. After all, it might have been worse: they might
have had no dinner to eat.



CHAPTER XXII

ON THE ROAD

John and Jess had finished their meal, and were about to leave the
table, when suddenly the door opened, and who should appear at it but
Frank Muller himself! Mistake was impossible; there he stood, stroking
his long golden beard, as big, as handsome, and, to Jess's mind, as
evil-looking as ever. The cold eyes fell upon John with a glance of
recognition, and something like a smile began to play around the corners
of the finely cut cruel mouth. Suddenly, however, his gaze lit upon the
two Boers, one of whom was picking his teeth with a steel fork and
the other lighting his pipe within a few inches of Jess's head, and
instantly his face grew stern and angry.

"Did I not tell you two men," he said, "that you were not to eat with
the prisoners?"--this word struck awkwardly on Jess's ear. "I told
you that they were to be treated with all respect, and here I find you
sprawling over the table and smoking in their faces. Be off with you!"

The smooth-faced man with the tusk rose at once with a sigh, put
down the steel fork with which he had been operating, and departed,
recognising that _Meinheer_ Muller was not a commanding officer to be
trifled with, but his companion, the Vilderbeeste, demurred. "What,"
he said, tossing his head so as to throw the long black hair out of his
eyes, "am I not fit to sit at meat with a couple of accursed English--a
_rooibaatje_ and a woman? If I had my way he should clean my boots
and she should cut up my tobacco;" and he grinned at the notion till
eyebrows, whiskers, and moustache nearly met round his nose, causing him
to look for all the world like a hairy-faced baboon.

Frank Muller made no answer in words. He simply took one step forward,
pounced upon his insubordinate follower, and with a single swing of his
athletic frame sent him flying headlong through the door, so that this
free and independent burgher lit upon his head in the passage, smashing
his pipe and considerably damaging his best feature--his nose. "There,"
said Muller, shutting the door after him, "that is the only way to deal
with such a fellow. And now let me bid you good-day, Miss Jess," and he
extended his hand, which Jess took, rather coldly it must be owned.

"It has given me great pleasure to be able to do you this little
service," he added politely. "I had considerable difficulty in obtaining
the pass from the General--indeed I was obliged to urge my personal
services before he would give it to me. But never mind that, I got
it, as you know, and it will be my care to escort you safely to
Mooifontein."

Jess bowed, and Muller turned to John, who had risen from his chair and
was standing some two paces away, and addressed him. "Captain Niel," he
said, "you and I have had some differences in the past. I hope that the
service I am doing you will prove that I, for one, bear no malice. I
will go farther. As I told you before, I was to blame in that affair in
the inn-yard at Wakkerstroom. Let us shake hands and end what we cannot
mend," and he stepped forward and extended his hand.

Jess turned to see what would happen. She knew the whole story, and
hoped he would take the man's hand; next, remembering their position,
she hoped that he would.

John turned colour a little, then he drew himself up deliberately and
put his hand behind his back.

"I am very sorry, Mr. Muller," he said, "but even in our present
position I cannot shake hands with you; you will know why."

Jess saw a flush, bred of the furious passion which was his weak point,
spread itself over the Boer's face.

"I do _not_ know, Captain Niel. Be so good as to explain."

"Very well, I will," said John calmly. "You tried to assassinate me."

"What do you mean?" thundered Muller.

"What I say. You shot at me twice under pretence of firing at a
buck. Look here!"--and he took up his soft black hat, which he still
wore--"here is the mark of one of your bullets! I did not know about it
then; I do now, and I decline to shake hands with you."

By this time Muller's fury had got the better of him. "You shall answer
for that, you English liar!" he said, at the same time clapping his
hand to his belt, in which his hunting-knife was placed. Thus for a few
seconds they stood face to face. John never flinched or moved. There he
stood, quiet and strong as some old stubby tree, his plain honest face
and watchful eye affording a strange contrast to the beautiful but
demoniacal countenance of the great Dutchman. Presently he spoke in
measured tones.

"I have proved myself a better man that yourself once, Frank Muller, and
if necessary I will again, notwithstanding that knife of yours. But, in
the meantime, I wish to remind you that I have a pass signed by your own
General guaranteeing our safety. And now, Mr. Muller," with a flash of
the blue eyes, "I am ready." The Dutchman drew the knife, but replaced
it in its sheath. For a moment he was minded to end the matter then and
there, but suddenly, even in his rage, he remembered that there was a
witness.

"A pass from the General!" he said, forgetting his caution in his fury.
"Much good a pass from the General is likely to be to you. You are in
my power, man! If I choose to close my hand I can crush you. But
there--there," he added, checking himself, "perhaps I ought to make
allowances. You are one of a defeated people, and no doubt are sore, and
say what you do not mean. Anyhow, there is an end of it, especially in
the presence of a lady. Some day we may be able to settle our trouble
like men, Captain Niel; till then, with your permission, we will let it
drop."

"Quite so, Mr. Muller," said John, "only you must not ask me to shake
hands with you."

"Very good, Captain Niel; and now, if you will allow me, I will tell
the boy to get your horses in; we must be getting on if we are to reach
Heidelberg to-night." And he bowed himself out, feeling that once more
his temper had endangered the success of his plans. "Curse the fellow!"
he said to himself: "he is what those English call a gentleman. It was
brave of him to refuse to take my hand when he is in my power."

"John," said Jess, as soon as the door had closed, "I am afraid of that
man. If I had understood that he had anything to do with the pass I
would not have taken it. I thought that the writing was familiar to me.
Oh dear! I wish we had stopped at Pretoria."

"What can't be cured must be endured," said John again. "The only thing
to do is to make the best of it, and get on as we can. You will be
all right anyhow, but he hates me like poison. I suppose that it is on
account of Bessie."

"Yes, that's it," said Jess: "he is, or was, madly in love with Bessie."

"It is curious to think that a man like that can be in love," remarked
John as he lit his pipe, "but it only shows what queer mixtures people
are. I say, Jess, if this fellow hates me so much, what made him give me
the pass, eh? What's his game?"

Jess shook her head as she answered, "I don't know, John; I don't like
it."

"I suppose he can't mean to murder me; he did try it on once, you know."

"Oh no, John," she answered with a sort of cry, "not that."

"Well, I don't know that it would matter much," he said, with an
approach to cheerfulness which was rather a failure. "It would save
one a deal of worry, and only anticipate things a bit. But there, I
frightened you, and I dare say that, for the present at any rate, he is
an honest man, and has no intentions on my person. Look! there is Mouti
calling us. I wonder if those brutes have given him anything to eat!
We'll secure the rest of this leg of mutton on chance. At any rate, Mr.
Frank Muller sha'n't starve me to death," and with a cheerful laugh he
left the room.

In a few minutes they were on their road again. As they started Frank
Muller came up, took off his hat, and informed them that probably he
would join them on the morrow below Heidelberg, in which town they would
find every preparation to enable them to spend the night comfortably.
If he did not join them it would be because he was detained on duty.
In that case the two men had his orders to escort them safely to
Mooifontein, and, he added significantly, "I do not think that you will
be troubled with any further impoliteness."

In another moment he had galloped off on his great black horse, leaving
the pair considerably mystified and not a little relieved.

"Well," said John, "at any rate that does not look like foul play,
unless, indeed, he has gone on to prepare a warm reception for us."

Jess shrugged her shoulders, she could not understand it; and then they
settled themselves down to their long lonely drive. They had forty odd
miles to cover, but the guides, or rather the guard, would only consent
to their outspanning once, which they did on the open veldt a little
before sunset. At sundown they inspanned again, and started across the
darkening veldt. The road was in a shocking state, and until the moon
rose, which it did about nine o'clock, the journey was both difficult
and dangerous. After that things were a little better; and at last,
about eleven o'clock, they reached Heidelberg. The town seemed almost
deserted. Evidently the great body of the Boers were at the front, and
had only left a guard at their seat of government.

"Where are we to outspan?" asked John of the Unicorn, who was jogging on
alongside, apparently half asleep.

"At the hotel," was the short reply, and thither they went. Thankful
enough they were to reach it, and to find, from the lights in the
windows, that people were still about.

Notwithstanding the awful jolting of the cart, Jess had been asleep for
the last two hours. Her arm was hooked round the back of the seat, and
her head rested against John's great-coat, which he had fixed up in such
a way as to make a pillow. "Where are we?" she asked, waking up with a
start as the cart stopped. "I have had such a bad dream! I dreamt that I
was travelling through life, and that suddenly everything stopped, and I
was dead."

"I don't wonder at it," laughed John; "the road for the last ten miles
has been as rough as anybody's life. We are at the hotel. Here are the
boys to take the horses," and he clambered stiffly out of the cart and
helped or rather lifted her down, for she was almost too cramped to
move.

Standing at the inn-door, holding a light above her head, they found a
pleasant-looking Englishwoman, who welcomed them heartily.

"Frank Muller was here three hours ago, and told me to expect you," she
said; "and very glad I am to see an English face again, I can tell you.
My name is Gooch. Tell me, is my husband all right in Pretoria? He went
up there with his waggon just before the siege began, and I have not
heard a word from him since."

"Yes," said John, "he is all right. He was slightly wounded in the
shoulder a month ago, but he has quite recovered."

"Oh, thank God!" said the poor woman, beginning to cry; "those devils
told me that he was dead--to torment me, I suppose. Come in, miss: there
is some hot supper ready when you have washed your hands. The boys will
see to the horses."

Accordingly they entered, and were made as happy as a good supper,
a hearty welcome, and comfortable beds could make people in their
condition.

In the early morning one of their estimable escort sent in a message
to say that they were not to start before half-past ten, as the horses
required more rest, so they enjoyed some hours longer in bed than they
had expected, and anybody who has ever made a journey in a post-cart
in South Africa can understand the blessing thereof. At nine they
breakfasted, and as the clock struck half-past ten Mouti brought the
cart round, and with it came the two Boers.

"Well, Mrs. Gooch," said John, "what do we owe you?"

"Nothing, Captain Niel, nothing. If you only knew what a weight you have
taken off my mind! Besides, we are quite ruined; the Boers have looted
all my husband's cattle and horses, and until last week six of them were
quartered on me without paying a farthing, so it makes no odds to me."

"Never mind, Mrs. Gooch," said John cheerfully, "the Government will
compensate you when this business is over, no doubt."

Mrs. Gooch shook her head prophetically. "Never a halfpenny do I expect
to see," she said. "If only I can get my husband back, and we can escape
out of this wicked place with our lives, I shall be thankful. And look
here, Captain Niel, I have put up a basketful of food--bread, meat, and
hard-boiled eggs, with a bottle of three-star brandy. It may be useful
to you and the young lady before you reach home. I don't know where you
will sleep to-night, for the English are still holding Standerton, so
you won't be able to stop there, and you can't drive right through. No,
don't thank me, I could not do less. Good-bye--good-bye, miss; I hope
you will get through all right. You had better look out, though. Those
two men you have with you are very bad lots. I heard say, rightly
or wrongly, that that fat-faced man with the tooth shot two wounded
soldiers through the head after the fight at Bronker's Spruit, and I
know no good of the other. They were laughing and talking together about
you in the kitchen this morning; one of my boys overheard them, and
the Boer with the long hair said that, at any rate, they would not be
troubled with you after to-night. I don't know what he meant; perhaps
they are going to change the escort; but I thought that I had better
tell you."

John looked grave, and his suspicions re-arose, but at that moment one
of the men in question rode up and told him that he must start at once,
and so off they went.

This second day's journey was in many respects a counterpart of the
first. The road was utterly deserted, and they saw neither Boer,
Englishman, nor Kafir upon it; nothing, indeed, except a few herds of
game grazing on the ridges. About two o'clock, however, just as they had
started after a short outspan, a little incident occurred. Suddenly
the Vilderbeeste's horse put his foot into an ant-bear hole and fell
heavily, throwing his rider on to his head. He was up in a minute, but
his forehead had struck against the jawbone of a dead buck, and the
blood was pouring from it down his hairy face. His companion laughed
brutally at the accident, for there are some natures in the world to
which the sight of pain is irresistibly comical, but the injured man
cursed aloud, trying to staunch the flow with the lappet of his coat.

"_Waacht een beeche_," said Jess, "there is some water in that pool,"
and telling John to pull up she sprang from the trap and led the man,
who was half-blinded with blood, to the spring. Here she made him
kneel down and bathed the wound, which was not a very deep one, till it
stopped bleeding, and then, having first placed a pad of cotton-wool,
some of which she happened to have in the cart, upon it, she bound her
handkerchief tightly round his head. The man, brute as he was, appeared
to be much touched at her kindness.

"Almighty," he said, "but you have a kind heart and soft fingers; my own
wife could not have done it better; it is a pity that you are a damned
Englishwoman."

Jess climbed back into the cart, making no reply, and they started on,
the Vilderbeeste looking more savage and unhuman than ever with the
discoloured handkerchief round his head, and his dense black beard and
hair mattered with gore which he would not take the trouble to wash out
of them.

After this nothing further occurred till, by the orders of their escort,
they outspanned, an hour or so before sunset, at a spot in the veldt
where a faint track forked from the Standerton road.



CHAPTER XXIII

IN THE DRIFT OF THE VAAL

The day had been intensely hot, and our travellers sat in the shade of
the cart overpowered and gasping. During the afternoon a faint breeze
blew, but this had now died away, and the stifling air felt as thick as
though they were breathing cream. Even the two Boers seemed to feel the
heat, for they lay outstretched on the grass a few paces to the left, to
all appearance fast asleep. As for the horses, they were thoroughly done
up--too much so to eat--and hobbled along as well as their knee-halters
would allow, daintily picking a mouthful here and a mouthful there. The
only person who did not seem to mind was the Zulu Mouti, who sat on
an ant-heap near the horses, in full glare of the setting sun, and
comfortably droned out a little song of his own invention, for Zulus
seem as clever at improvising as are the Italians.

"Have another egg, Jess?" said John. "It will do you good."

"No, thank you; the last one stuck in my throat. It is impossible to eat
in this heat."

"You had better. Goodness knows when and where we shall stop again. I
can get nothing out of our delightful escort; either they don't know or
they won't say."

"I can't, John. There is a thunderstorm coming up. I feel it in my head,
and I can never eat before a thunderstorm--and when I am tired," she
added by an afterthought.

After that the conversation flagged for a while.

"John," said Jess at last, "where do you suppose we are going to camp
to-night? If we follow the main road we shall reach Standerton in an
hour."

"I don't think that they will go near Standerton," he answered, "I
suppose that we shall cross the Vaal by another drift and have to
'veldt' it."

Just then the two Boers woke up and began to talk earnestly together, as
though they were debating something hotly.

Slowly the huge red ball of the sun sank towards the horizon, steeping
the earth and sky in blood. About a hundred yards from where they sat
the little bridle path that branched from the main road crossed the
crest of one of the great landwaves which rolled away in every direction
towards the far horizon. John watched the sun sinking behind it till
something called off his attention for a minute. When he looked up again
there was a figure on horseback, standing quite still upon the crest of
the ridge, and in full glow of the now disappearing sun. It was Frank
Muller. John recognised him in a moment. His horse was halted sideways,
so that even at that distance every line of his features, and even the
trigger-guard of the rifle which rested on his knee, showed distinctly
against the background of smoky red. Nor was that all. Both he and
his horse had the appearance of being absolutely on fire. The effect
produced was so wild and extraordinary that John called his companion's
attention to it. Jess looked and shuddered involuntarily.

"He looks like a devil in hell," she said; "the fire seems to be running
all up and down him."

"Well," said John, "he is certainly a devil, but I am sorry to say
that he has not yet reached his destination. Here he comes, like a
whirlwind."

In another twenty seconds Muller had reined the great black horse on to
his haunches alongside of them, and was smiling sweetly and taking off
his hat.

"You see I have managed to keep my word," he said. "I can tell you that
I had great difficulty in doing so; indeed I was nearly obliged to give
the thing up at the last moment. However, here I am."

"Where are we to outspan to-night?" asked Jess. "At Standerton?"

"No," he said; "I am afraid that is more than I could manage for you,
unless you can persuade the English officers there to surrender. What
I have arranged is, that we should cross the Vaal at a drift I know of
about two hours (twelve miles) from here, and outspan at a farm on
the other side. Do not trouble, I assure you you shall both sleep well
to-night," and he smiled, a somewhat terrifying smile, as Jess thought.

"But how about this drift, Mr. Muller?" said John. "Is it safe? I should
have thought the Vaal would have been in flood after all the rain that
we have had."

"The drift is perfectly safe, Captain Niel. I crossed it myself about
two hours ago. I know you have a bad opinion of me, but I suppose you do
not think that I would guide you to an unsafe drift?" Then with another
bow he rode on to speak to the two Boers, saying, as he went, "Will you
tell the Kafir to put the horses in?"

With a shrug of the shoulders John rose and went to Mouti, to help him
to drive up the four greys, which were now standing limply together,
biting at the flies, that, before a storm, sting more sharply than at
any other time. The two horses belonging to the escort were some fifty
paces to the left. It was as though they appreciated the position
of affairs, and declined to mix with the animals of the discredited
Englishman.

The Boers rose as Muller came and walked towards their horses, Muller
slowly following them. As they drew near, the horses hobbled away for
twenty or thirty yards. Then they lifted up their heads, and, as a
consequence, their forelegs, to which the heads were tied, and stood
looking defiantly at their captors, just as though they were trying to
make up their minds whether or not to shake hands with them.

Frank Muller was alongside the two men now, and they were alongside the
horses.

"Listen!" he said sternly.

The men looked up.

"Go on loosening the reims, and listen."

They obeyed, and slowly began to fumble at the knee-halters.

"You understand what our orders are. Repeat them--you!"

The man with the tooth, who was addressed, still handling the reim,
began as follows: "To take the two prisoners to the Vaal, to force them
into the water where there is no drift, at night, so that they drown: if
they do not drown, to shoot them."

"Those are the orders," said the Vilderbeeste, grinning.

"You understand them?"

"We understand, _Meinheer_; but, forgive us, the matter is a big one.
You have the orders--we wish to see the authority."

"Yah, yah," said the other, "show us the authority. These are two
harmless people enough. Show us the authority for killing them. People
must not be killed so, even if they are English folk, without proper
authority, especially when one is a pretty girl who would do for a man's
wife."

Frank Muller set his teeth. "Nice fellows you are to have under one!"
he said. "I am your officer; what other authority do you want? But I
thought of this. See here!" and he drew a paper from his pocket. "Here,
you--read it! Careful now--do not let them see from the waggon."

The big flabby-faced man took the paper and, still bending down over the
horse's knee, read aloud:

"The two prisoners and their servant (an Englishman, an English girl,
and a Zulu Kafir) to be executed in pursuance of our decree, as your
commanding officer shall order, as enemies to the Republic. For so doing
this shall be your warrant."

"You see the signature," said Muller, "and you do not dispute it?"

"Yah, we see it, and we do not dispute it."

"Good. Give me back the warrant."

The man with the tooth was about to obey when his companion interposed.

"No," he said, "the warrant must remain with us. I do not like the job.
If it were only the man and the Kafir now--but the girl, the girl! If
we give you back the warrant, what shall we have to show for the deed of
blood? The warrant must remain with us."

"Yah, yah, he is right," said the Unicorn; "the warrant must remain with
us. Put it in your pocket, Jan."

"Curse you, give it me!" said Muller between his teeth.

"No, Frank Muller, no!" answered the Vilderbeeste, patting his pocket,
while the two or three square inches of skin round his nose wrinkled
up in a hairy grin that, owing to the cut on his head, was even more
curious than usual. "If you wish to have the warrant you shall have
it, but then we shall up-saddle and go, and you can do your murdering
yourself. There, there! take your choice; we shall be glad enough to
get home, for we do not care for the job. If I go out shooting I like to
shoot buck or Kafirs, not white people."

Frank Muller reflected a moment, then he laughed a little.

"You are funny folk, you home-bred Boers," he said; "but perhaps you are
right. After all, what does it matter who keeps the warrant, provided
that the thing is well done? Mind that there is no bungling, that is
all."

"Yah, yah," said the fat-faced man, "you can trust us for that. It
won't be the first that we have toppled over. If I have my warrant I ask
nothing better than to go on shooting Englishmen all night, one down
the other come on. I know no prettier sight than an Englishman toppling
over."

"Stop that talk and saddle up, the cart is waiting. You fools can never
understand the difference between killing when it is necessary to kill
and killing for killing's sake. These people must die because they have
betrayed the land."

"Yah, yah," said the Vilderbeeste, "betrayed the land; we have heard
that before. Those who betray the land must manure it; that is a good
rule!" and he laughed and passed on.

Frank Muller watched his retreating form with a smile of peculiar
malignity on his handsome face. "Ah, my friend," he said to himself in
Dutch, "you and that warrant will part company before you are many hours
older. Why, it would be enough to hang me, even in this happy land of
patriots. Old ---- would never forgive even me for taking that little
liberty with his name. Dear me, what a lot of trouble it is to be rid
of a single enemy! Well, it must be done, and Bessie is well worth the
pains; but if it had not been for this war I could never have managed
it. Yes! I did well to give my voice for war. I am sorry for the girl
Jess, but it is necessary; there must be no living witnesses left. Ah!
we are going to have a storm. So much the better. Such deeds are best
done in a storm."

Muller was right; the storm was coming up fast, throwing a veil of inky
cloud across the star-spangled sky. In South Africa there is but little
twilight, and the darkness follows hard upon the heels of the day. No
sooner had the angry ball of the setting sun disappeared than the night
swept with all her stars across the sky. And now after her came the
great storm, covering up her beauty with his blackness. The air was
stiflingly hot. Above was a starry space, to the east the black bosom
of the storm, in which the lightnings were already playing with
an incessant flickering movement, and to the west a deep red glow,
reflected from the sunken sun, yet lingered on the horizon.

On toiled the horses through the gathering gloom. Fortunately, the road
was almost level and free from mud-holes, and Frank Muller rode just
ahead to show the way, his strong athletic form standing out clearly
against the departing western glow. Silent was the earth, silent as
death. No bird or beast, no blade of grass or breath of air stirred upon
its surface. The only sign of life was the continual flickering of those
awful tongues of light as they licked the lips of the storm. On for mile
after mile, on through the desolation! They were not far from the river
now, and could hear the distant growling of the thunder, echoing down it
solemnly.

It was an awful night. Great pillars of mud-coloured cloud came creeping
across the surface of the veldt towards them, seemingly blown along
without a wind. Now, too, a ghastly-looking ringed moon arose throwing
an unholy and distorted light upon the blackness that seemed to shudder
in her rays as though with a prescience of the advancing terror. On
crept the mud-coloured columns, and on above them, and resting on them,
came the muttering storm. The cart was quite close to the river now, and
they could distinguish the murmur of its waters. To their left stood
a koppie, covered with white, slab-like stones, on which the sickly
moonbeams danced.

"Look, John, look!" cried Jess with an hysterical laugh; "it is like
a huge graveyard, and the dark shadows between are the ghosts of the
buried."

"Nonsense," said John sternly; "why do you talk such rubbish?"

He felt that her mind had lost its balance, and, what is more, his own
nerves were shaken. Therefore he was naturally the angrier with her, and
the more determined to be perfectly matter-of-fact.

Jess made no answer, but she was frightened, she could not tell why. The
scene resembled that of some awful dream, or of one of Dore's pictures
come to life. No doubt, also, the near presence of the tempest exercised
a physical effect upon her. Even the wearied horses snorted and shook
themselves uneasily.

They crept over the ridge of a wave of land, and the wheels rolled
softly on the grass.

"Why, we are off the road!" shouted John to Muller, who was still
guiding them, fifteen or twenty paces ahead.

"All right! all right! it is a short cut to the ford!" he called in
answer, and his voice rang strange and hollow through the great depths
of the silence.

Below them, a hundred yards away, the light, such as it was, gleamed
faintly upon the wide surface of the river. Another five minutes and
they were on the bank, but in the gathering doom they could not see the
opposite shore.

"Turn to the left!" shouted Muller; "the ford is a few yards up. It is
too deep here for the horses."

John turned accordingly, and followed Muller's horse some three hundred
yards up the bank till they came to a spot where the water ran with an
angry music, and there was a great swirl of eddies.

"Here is the place," said Muller; "you must make haste through. The
house is just the other side, and it will be better to get there before
the tempest breaks."

"It is all very well," said John, "but I cannot see an inch before me; I
don't know where to drive."

"Drive straight ahead; the water is not more than three feet deep, and
there are no rocks."

"I am not going, and that is all about it."

"You must go, Captain Niel. You cannot stop here, and if you can we will
not. Look there, man!" and he pointed to the east, which now presented a
truly awful and magnificent sight.

Down, right on to them, its centre bowed out like the belly of a sail by
the weight of the wind behind, swept the great storm-cloud, while
over all its surface the lightning played unceasingly, appearing and
disappearing in needles of fire, and twisting and writhing serpentwise
round and about its outer edges. So brilliant was the intermittent light
that it appeared to fire the revolving pillars of mud-coloured cloud
beneath, and gave ghastly peeps of river and bank and plain, miles
upon miles away. But perhaps its most awful circumstance was the
preternatural silence. The distant boom and muttering of thunder had
died away, and now the great storm swept on in voiceless majesty, like
the passage of a ghostly host, from which there arose no sound of feet
or of rolling wheels. Only before it sped the swift angels of the wind,
and behind it swung the curtain of the rain.

Even as Muller spoke a gust of icy air caught the cart and tilted it,
and the lightning needles began to ply more dreadfully than ever. The
tempest was breaking upon them.

"Come, drive on, drive on!" he shouted, "you will be killed here; the
lightning always strikes along the water;" and as he said it he struck
one of the wheelers sharply with his whip.

"Climb over the back of the seat, Mouti, and stand by to help me with
the reins!" called out John to the Zulu, who obeyed, scrambling between
him and Jess.

"Now, Jess, hold on and say your prayers, for it strikes me that we
shall have need of them. So, horses, so!"

The horses backed and plunged, but Muller on the one side and the
smooth-faced Boer on the other lashed them without mercy, and at last
they went into the river with a rush. The gust had passed now, and for
a few moments the heavy quiet was renewed, except for the whirl of the
water and the snake-like hiss of the coming rain.

For some yards, ten or fifteen perhaps, all went well, and then John
discovered suddenly that they were driving into deep water; the two
leaders were evidently almost off their legs, and could scarcely stand
against the current of the flooded river.

"Damn you!" he shouted back, "there is no drift here."

"Go on, go on, it is quite safe!" came Muller's voice in answer.

John said no more, but, putting out all his strength, he tried to drag
the horses round. Jess turned herself on the seat to look, and just then
a blaze of lightning flamed which revealed Muller and his two companions
standing dismounted on the bank, the muzzles of their rifles pointing
straight at the cart.

"O God!" she screamed, "they are going to shoot us."

Even as the words passed her lips three tongues of fire flared from the
rifles' mouths, and the Zulu Mouti, sitting by her side, pitched heavily
forward on to his head into the bottom of the cart, while one of the
wheelers reared straight up into the air with a shriek of agony, and
fell with a splash into the river.

Then followed a scene of horror indescribable. Overhead the storm burst
in fury, and flash after flash of fork, or rather chain lightning, leapt
into the river. The thunder, too, began to crack like the trump of doom;
the wind rushed down, tearing the surface of the water into foam, and,
catching under the tent of the cart, lifted it quite off the wheels, so
that it began to float. Then the two leaders, made mad with fear by the
fury of the storm and the dying struggles of the off-wheeler, plunged
and tore at the traces till at last they rent themselves loose and
vanished between the darkness overhead and the boiling water beneath.
Away floated the cart, now touching the bottom and now riding on the
river like a boat, oscillating this way and that, and slowly turning
round and round. With it floated the dead horse, dragging down the other
wheeler beneath the water. It was awful to see his struggles in the
glare of the lightning, but at last he sank and choked.

Meanwhile, sounding sharply and clearly through the din and hubbub of
the storm, came the cracking of the three rifles whenever the flashes
showed the position of the cart to the murderers on the bank. Mouti was
lying still in the bottom of it on the bed-plank, a bullet between his
broad shoulders and another in his skull: but John felt that his life
was yet whole in him, though something had hissed past his face and
stung it. Instinctively he reached across the cart and drew Jess on to
his knee, and cowered over her, thinking dimly that perhaps his body
would protect her from the bullets.

_Rip! rip!_ through the wood and canvas; _phut! phut!_ through the air;
but some merciful power protected them, and though one cut John's coat
and two passed through the skirt of Jess's dress, not a bullet struck
them. Very soon the shooting began to grow wild, then that dense veil of
rain came down and wrapped them so closely that even the lightning could
not reveal their whereabouts to the assassins on the bank.

"Stop shooting," said Frank Muller; "the cart has sunk, and there is
an end of them. No human being can have lived through that fire and the
Vaal in flood."

The two Boers ceased firing, and the Unicorn shook his head softly and
remarked to his companion that the damned English people in the water
could not be much wetter than they were on the bank. It was a curious
thing to say at such a moment, but probably the spirit which caused the
remark was not so much callousness as that which animated Cromwell, who
flipped the ink in his neighbour's face when he signed the death-warrant
of his king.

The Vilderbeeste made no reply. His conscience was oppressed; he had a
touch of imagination. He thought of the soft fingers which had bound up
his head that morning: the handkerchief--her handkerchief!--was still
around it. Now those fingers would be gripping at the slippery stones of
the Vaal in a struggle for life, or more probably they were already limp
in death, with little grains of gravel sticking beneath the nails.
It was a painful thought, but he consoled himself by remembering the
warrant, also by the reflection that whoever had shot the people he had
not, for he had been careful to fire wide of the cart every time.

Muller was also thinking of the warrant which he had forged. He must get
it back somehow, even if----

"Let us take shelter under the shore. There is a flat place, about fifty
yards up, where the bank hangs down. This rain is drowning us. We can't
up-saddle till it clears. I must have a nip of brandy, too. Almighty!
I can see that girl's face still! the lightning shone on it just as I
shot. Well, she will be in heaven now, poor thing, if English people
ever go to heaven."

It was the Unicorn who spoke, and the Vilderbeeste made no reply, but
advanced with him to where the horses stood. They caught the patient
brutes that were waiting for their masters, their heads well down and
the water streaming from their flanks, and led them along with them.
Frank Muller stood by his own horse still thinking, and watched them
vanish into the gloom. How was he to win that warrant back without dying
his hands even redder than they were?

As he thought an answer came. For at that moment, accompanied by a
fearful thunderclap, there shot from the storm overhead, which had now
nearly passed away, one of those awful flashes that sometimes end an
African tempest. It lit up the scene with a light vivid as that of day,
and in the white heart of it Muller saw his two companions in crime and
their horses as the great king saw the men in the furnace. They were
about forty paces from him on the crest of the bank. He saw them, one
moment erect; the next--men and horses falling this way and that prone
to the earth. Then it was dark again.

Muller staggered with the shock, and when it had passed he rushed to the
spot, calling the men by name; but no answer came except the echo of
his voice. He was there alone now, and the moonlight began to struggle
faintly through the rain. Its pale beams lit upon two outstretched
forms--one lying on its back, its distorted features gazing up to
heaven, the other on its face. By them, the legs of the nearer sticking
straight into the air, lay the horses. They had all gone to their
account. The lightning had killed them, as it kills many a man in
Africa.

Frank Muller looked; then, forgetting about the warrant and everything
else in the horror of what he took to be a visible judgment, he rushed
to his horse and galloped wildly away, pursued by all the terrors of
hell.



CHAPTER XXIV

THE SHADOW OF DEATH

The firing from the bank had ceased, and John, who still kept his head,
being a rather phlegmatic specimen of the Anglo-Saxon race, knew that,
for the moment at any rate, all danger from this source was ended. Jess
lay perfectly still in his arms, her head upon his breast. A horrible
idea struck him that she might be shot, perhaps already dead!

"Jess, Jess," he shouted, through the turmoil of the storm, "are you
hit?"

She lifted her head an inch or two--"I think not," she said. "What is
going on?"

"God only knows, I don't. Sit still, it will be all right."

But in his heart he knew it was not "all right," and that they stood in
imminent danger of death by drowning. They were whirling down a raging
river in a cart. In a few moments it was probable that the cart would
upset, and then----

Presently the wheel bumped against something, the cart gave a great
lurch, and scraped along a little.

"Now for it," thought John, for the water was pouring over the flooring.
Then came a check, and the cart leant still farther to one side.

_Crack!_ The pole had gone, and the cart swung round bows, or rather
box, on to the stream. What had happened was this: they had drifted
across a rock that projected from the bed of the river, the force of the
current having washed the dead horses to the one side of it and the cart
to the other. Consequently they were anchored to the rock, as it were,
the anchor being the dead horses, and the cable the stout traces of
untanned leather. So long as these traces and the rest of the harness
held, they were safe from drowning; but of course they did not know
this.

Indeed, they knew nothing. Above them rolled the storm; about them the
river seethed and the rain hissed. They knew nothing except that they
were helpless living atoms tossing between the wild waters and the
wilder night, with imminent death staring them in the face, around,
above, and below. To and fro they rocked, locked fast in each other's
arms, and as they swung came that awful flash that, though they guessed
it not, sent two of the murderers to their account, and for an instant,
even through the sheet of rain, illumined the space of boiling water and
the long lines of the banks on either side. It showed the point of rock
to which they were fixed, it glared upon the head of one of the poor
horses tossed up by the driving current as though it were still trying
to escape its watery doom, and revealed the form of the dead Zulu,
Mouti, lying on his face, one arm hanging over the edge of the cart and
dabbling in the water that ran level with it, in ghastly similarity to
some idle passenger in a pleasure boat, who lets his fingers slip softly
through the stream.

In a second it was gone, and once more they were in darkness. Then by
degrees the storm passed off and the moon began to shine, feebly indeed,
for the sky was not clear washed of clouds, which still trailed along in
the tracks of the tempest, sucked after it by its mighty draught. Still
it was lighter and the rain thinned gradually till at last it stopped.
The storm had rolled in majesty down the ways of night, and there was no
sound round them save the sound of rushing water.

"John," said Jess presently, "can we do anything?"

"Nothing, dear."

"Shall we escape, John?"

He hesitated. "It is in God's hands, dear. We are in great danger. If
the cart upsets we shall be drowned. Can you swim?"

"No, John."

"If we can hang on here till daylight we may get ashore, if those devils
are not there to shoot us. I do not think that our chance is a good
one."

"John, are you afraid to die?"

He hesitated. "I don't know, dear. I hope to meet it like a man."

"Tell me what you truly think. Is there any hope for us at all?"

Once more he paused, reflecting whether or no he should speak the truth.
Finally he decided to do so.

"I can see none, Jess. If we are not drowned we are sure to be shot.
They will wait about the bank till morning, and for their own sakes they
will not dare to let us live."

He did not know that all which was left of two of them would indeed wait
for many a long year, while the third had fled aghast.

"Jess, dear," he went on, "it is of no good to tell lies. Our lives may
end any minute. Humanly speaking, they must end before the sun is up."

The words were awful enough--if the reader can by an effort of
imagination throw himself for a moment into the position of these two,
he will understand how awful.

It is a dreadful thing, when in the flow of health and youth, suddenly
to be placed face to face with the certainty of violent death, and to
know that in a few more minutes your course will have been run, and that
you will have commenced to explore a future, which may prove to be even
worse, because more enduring, than the life you are now quitting in
agony. It is a dreadful thing, as any who have ever stood in such
a peril can testify, and John felt his heart sink within him at
the thought of it--for Death is very strong. But there is one thing
stronger, a woman's perfect love, against which Death himself cannot
prevail. And so it came to pass that now as he fixed his cold gaze upon
Jess's eyes they answered him with a strange unearthly light. She feared
not Death, so that she might meet him with her beloved. Death was her
hope and opportunity. Here she had nothing; there she might have all.
The fetters had fallen from her, struck off by an overmastering hand.
Her duty was satisfied, her trust fulfilled, and she was free--free to
die with her beloved. Ay! her love was indeed a love deeper than the
grave; and now it rose in eager strength, standing expectant upon the
earth, ready, when dissolution had lent it wings, to soar to its own
predestined star.

"You are sure, John?" she asked again.

"Yes, dear, yes. Why do you force me to repeat it? I can see no hope."

Her arms were round his neck, her soft curls rested on his cheek, and
the breath from her lips played upon his brow. Indeed it was only by
speaking into each other's ears that conversation was possible, owing to
the rushing sound of the waters.

"Because I have something to tell you which I cannot tell unless we are
going to die. You know it, but I want to say it with my own lips before
I die. I love you, John, _I love you, I love you_; and I am glad to die
because I can die with you, and go away with you."

He heard, and such was the power of her love, that his, which had been
put out of mind in the terror of that hour, reawoke and took the colour
of her own. He too forgot the imminence of death in the warm presence of
his down-trodden passion. She was in his arms as he had taken her during
the firing, and he bent his head to look at her. The moonlight played
upon her pallid, quivering face, and showed that in her eyes which no
man could look upon and turn away. Once more--yes, even then--there came
over him that feeling of utter surrender to the sweet mastery of her
will which had possessed him in the sitting-room of "The Palatial."
Only all earthly considerations having faded into nothingness now, he no
longer hesitated, but pressed his lips to hers and kissed her again and
yet again. It was perhaps as wild and pathetic a love scene as ever the
old moon above has witnessed. There they clung, those two, in the actual
shadow of death experiencing the fullest and acutest joy that our life
has to offer. Nay, death was present with them, for, beneath their very
feet, half-hidden by the water, lay the stiffening corpse of the Zulu.

To and fro swung the cart in the rush of the swollen river, up and down
beside them the carcases of the horses rose and fell with the surge of
the water, on whose surface the broken moonbeams played and quivered.
Overhead was the blue star-sown depth through which they were waiting
presently to pass, and to the right and left the long broken outlines of
the banks stretched away till at last they appeared to grow together in
the gloom.

But they heeded none of these things; they remembered nothing except
that they had found each other's hearts, and were happy with a wild joy
it is not often given to us to feel. The past was forgotten, the future
loomed at hand, and between the one and the other was spanned a bridge
of passion made perfect and sanctified by its approaching earthly end.
Bessie was forgotten, all things were forgotten, for they were alone
with Love and Death.

Let those who would blame them pause awhile. Why not? They had kept the
faith. They had denied themselves and run straightly down the path of
duty. But the compacts of life end with life. No man may bargain for the
beyond; even the marriage service shrinks from it. And now that hope had
gone and life was at its extremest ebb, why should they not take their
joy before they passed to the land where, perchance, such things will be
forgotten? So it seemed to them; if indeed they were any longer capable
of reason.

He looked into her eyes and she laid her head upon his heart in that
mute abandonment of worship which is sometimes to be met with in the
world, and is redeemed from vulgar passion by an indefinable quality of
its own. He looked into her eyes and was glad to have lived, ay, even to
have reached this hour of death. And she, lost in the abyss of her deep
nature, sobbed out her love-laden heart upon his breast, and called him
her own, her own, her very own!



Thus the long hours passed unheeded, till at last a new-born freshness
in the air told them that they were not far from dawn. The death they
were awaiting had not found them. It must now be very near at hand.

"John," she whispered in his ear, "do you think that they will shoot
us?"

"Yes," he answered hoarsely; "they must for their own sakes."

"I wish it were over," she said.

Suddenly she started back from his arms with a little cry, causing the
cart to rock violently.

"I forgot," she said; "you can swim, though I cannot. Why should you
not swim to the bank, and escape under cover of the darkness? It is only
fifty yards, and the current is not so very swift."

The idea of flight without Jess had never occurred to John, and now
that she suggested it, it struck him as so absurd that he broke into the
ghost of a laugh.

"Don't be foolish, Jess," he said.

"Yes, yes, I will. Go! You _must_ go! It does not matter about me now.
I know that you love me, and I can die happy. I will wait for you. Oh,
John! wherever I am, if I have any individual life and any remembrance
I will wait for you. Never forget that all your days. However far I may
seem away, if I live at all, I shall be waiting for you. And now go;
you _shall_ go, I say. No, I will not be disobeyed. If you will not go I
will throw myself into the water. Oh, the cart is turning over!"

"Hold on, for God's sake!" shouted John. "The traces have broken."

He was right; the tough leather was at length worn through by constant
rubbing against the rock, and the strain and sway of the dead horses on
the one side, and of the cart upon the other. Round it spun, broadside
on to the current, and immediately began to heave over, till at last
the angle was so sharp that the dead body of poor Mouti slid out with
a splash and vanished into the darkness. This relieved the cart, and it
righted for a moment, but now being no longer held up by the bodies of
the horses or by the sustaining power of the wind it began to fill and
sink, and at the same time to revolve swiftly. John understood that
all was finished, and that to stop in the cart would only mean certain
death, because they would be held under water by the canvas tent. So
with a devout aspiration for assistance he seized Jess round the waist
with one arm and sprang off into the river. As he leapt the cart filled
and sank.

"Lie still, for Heaven's sake!" he shouted, when they rose to the
surface.

In the dim light of the dawn which was now creeping over the earth he
could discover the line of the left bank of the Vaal, the same from
which they had been driven into the river on the previous night. It
appeared to be about forty yards away, but the current was running
quite six knots, and he saw that, burdened as he was, it would be quite
impracticable for him to reach it. The only thing to do was to keep
afloat. Luckily the water was warm and he was a strong swimmer. In a
minute or so he saw that about fifty paces ahead some rocks jutted out
twenty yards into the bed of the stream. Then catching Jess by the hair
with his left hand he made his effort, and a desperate one it was. The
broken water boiled furiously round the rocks. Presently he was in it,
and, better still, his feet touched the ground. Next second he was swept
off them and rolled over and over at the bottom of the river, to be
sadly knocked about against the boulders. Somehow he struggled to his
legs, still retaining his hold of Jess. Twice he fell, and twice he
struggled up again. One more effort--so. The water was only up to his
thighs now, and he was obliged to half carry his companion.

As he lifted her he felt a deadly sickness come over him, but still
he staggered on, till at last they both fell of a heap upon a big flat
rock, and for a while he remembered no more.

When he came to himself again it was to see Jess, who had recovered
sooner than he had, standing over him and chafing his hands. Indeed,
as the sun was up he guessed that he must have lost his senses for some
time. He rose with difficulty and shook himself. Except for some bruises
he was sound enough.

"Are you hurt?" he asked of Jess, who, pale, faint and bruised, her hat
gone, her dress torn by bullets and the rocks, and dripping water at
every step, looked an exceedingly forlorn object.

"No," she said feebly, "not very much."

He sat down on the rock in the sun, for they were both shivering with
cold. "What is to be done?" he asked.

"Die," she said fiercely; "I meant to die--why did you not let me die?
Ours is a position that only death can set straight."

"Don't be alarmed," he said, "your desire will soon be gratified: those
murderous villains will hunt us up presently."

The bed and banks of the river were clothed with thin layers of mist,
but as the sun gathered power these lifted. The spot at which they had
climbed ashore was about three hundred yards below that where the
two Boers and their horses had been destroyed by the lightning on the
previous night. Seeing the mist thin, John insisted upon Jess crouching
with him behind a rock so that they could look up and down the river
without being seen themselves. Presently he made out the forms of two
horses grazing about a hundred yards away.

"Ah," he said, "I thought so; the devils have off-saddled there. Thank
Heaven I have still got my revolver, and the cartridges are watertight.
I mean to sell our lives as dearly as I can."

"Why, John," cried Jess, following the line of his out-stretched hand,
"those are not the Boers' horses, they are our two leaders that broke
loose in the water. Look, their collars are still on."

"By Jove! so they are. Now if only we can catch them without being
caught ourselves we have a chance of getting out of this."

"Well, there is no cover about, and I can't see any signs of Boers. They
must have been sure of having killed us, and gone away," Jess answered.

John looked round, and for the first time a sense of hope began to creep
into his heart. Perhaps they would survive after all.

"Let's go up and look. It is no good stopping here; we must get food
somewhere, or we shall faint."

She rose without a word, and taking his hand they advanced together
along the bank. They had not gone twenty yards before John uttered an
exclamation of joy and rushed at something white that had lodged in
the reeds. It was the basket of food which was given to them by the
innkeeper's wife at Heidelberg that had been washed out of the cart, and
as the lid was fastened nothing was lost out of it. He undid it. There
was the bottle of three-star brandy untouched, also most of the eggs,
meat, and bread, the last, of course, sodden and worthless. It did not
take long to draw the cork, and then John filled a broken wineglass
there was in the basket half full of water and half of brandy, and made
Jess drink it, with the result that she began to look a little less like
a corpse. Next, he repeated the process twice on his own account, and
instantly felt as though new life were flowing into him. Then they went
on cautiously.

The horses allowed themselves to be caught without trouble, and did not
appear to be any the worse for the adventure, although the flank of one
was grazed by a bullet.

"There is a tree yonder where the bank shelves over; we had better
tie the horses up, dress, and eat some breakfast," said John, almost
cheerfully; and accordingly they proceeded towards it. Suddenly John,
who was ahead, started back with an exclamation of fear, and the horses
began to snort, for there, stark and stiff in death, already swollen
and discoloured by decomposition--as is sometimes the case with people
killed by lightning--the rifles in their hands twisted and fused, their
clothes cut and blown from their bandoliers--lay the two Boer murderers.
It was a terrifying sight, and, taken in conjunction with their own
remarkable escape, one to make the most careless and sceptical reflect.

"And yet there are people who say that there is no God, and no
punishment for wickedness," said John aloud.



CHAPTER XXV

MEANWHILE

John, it will be remembered, left Mooifontein for Pretoria towards the
end of December, and with him went all the life and light of the place.

"Dear me, Bessie," said old Silas Croft on the evening after he had
started, "the house seems very dull without John"--a remark in which
Bessie, who was weeping secretly in the corner, heartily concurred.

Then, a few days afterwards, came the news of the investment of
Pretoria, but no news of John. They ascertained that he had passed
Standerton in safety, but beyond that nothing could be heard of him. Day
after day passed, but without tidings, and at last, one evening, Bessie
broke into a passion of hysterical tears.

"What did you send him for?" she asked of her uncle. "It was
ridiculous--I knew that it was ridiculous. He could not help Jess or
bring her back; the most that could happen was that they would be both
shut up together. Now he is dead--I know that those Boers have shot
him--and it is all your fault! And if he is dead I will never speak to
you again."

The old man retreated, somewhat dismayed at this outburst, which was not
at all in Bessie's style.

"Ah, well," he said to himself, "that is the way of women; they turn
into tigers about a man!"

There may have been truth in this reflection, but a tiger is not a
pleasant domestic pet, as poor old Silas discovered during the next two
months. The more Bessie thought about the matter the more incensed she
grew because he had sent her lover away. Indeed, in a little while she
quite forgot that she had herself acquiesced in his going. In short, her
temper gave way completely under the strain, so that at last her uncle
scarcely dared to mention John's name.

Meanwhile, things had been going as ill without as within. First of
all--that was the day after John's departure--two or three loyal
Boers and an English store-keeper from Lake Chrissie, in New Scotland,
outspanned on the place and implored Silas Croft to fly for his life
into Natal while there was yet time. They said that the Boers would
certainly shoot any Englishman who might be sufficiently defenceless.
But the old man would not listen.

"I am an Englishman--_civis Romanus sum_," he said in his sturdy
fashion, "and I do not believe that they will touch me, who have lived
among them for twenty years. At any rate, I am not going to run away and
leave my place at the mercy of a pack of thieves. If they shoot me they
will have to reckon with England for the deed, so I expect that they
will leave me alone. Bessie can go if she likes, but I shall stop here
and see the row through, and there's an end of it."

Whereon, Bessie having flatly declined to budge an inch, the loyalists
departed in a hurry, metaphorically wringing their hands at such an
exhibition of ill-placed confidence and insular pride. This little scene
occurred at dinner-time, and after dinner old Silas proceeded to hurl
defiance at his foes in another fashion. Going to a cupboard in his
bedroom, he extracted an exceedingly large Union Jack, and promptly
advanced with it to an open spot between two of the orange-trees in
front of the house, where in such a position that it could be seen for
miles around a flagstaff was planted, formed of a very tall young blue
gum. Upon this flagstaff it was Silas's habit to hoist the large Union
Jack on the Queen's birthday, Christmas Day, and other State occasions.

"Now, Jantje," he said, when he had bent on the bunting, "run her up,
and I'll cheer!" and accordingly, as the broad flag floated out on the
breeze, he took off his hat and waved it, and gave such a "hip, hip,
hoorah!" in his stentorian tones that Bessie ran out from the house to
see what was the matter. Nor was he satisfied with this, but, having
obtained a ladder, he placed it against the post and sent Jantje up
it, instructing him to fasten the rope on which the flag was bent at a
height of about fifteen feet from the ground, so that nobody should get
at it to haul it down.

"There," he said, "I've nailed my colours to the mast. That will show
these gentry that an Englishman lives here.

     "Confound their politics,
     Frustrate their knavish tricks,
     God save the Queen."

"Amen," said Bessie, but she had her doubts about the wisdom of that
Union Jack, which, whenever the wind blew, streamed out, a visible
defiance not calculated to soothe the breasts of excited patriots.

Indeed, two days after that, a patrol of three Boers, spying the ensign
whilst yet a long way off, galloped up in hot haste to see what it
meant. Silas saw them coming, and, taking his rifle in his hand, went
and stood beneath the flag, for which he had an almost superstitious
veneration, feeling sure that they would not dare to meddle either with
him or it.

"What is the meaning of this, _Oom_ Silas?" asked the leader of the
three men, with all of whom he was perfectly acquainted.

"It means that an Englishman lives here, Jan," was the answer.

"Haul the dirty rag down!" said the man.

"I will see you damned first!" replied old Silas.

Thereon the Boer dismounted and made for the flagstaff, only to find
"Uncle Croft's" rifle in a direct line with his chest.

"You will have to shoot me first, Jan," he said, and thereon, after some
consultation, they left him and went away.

In truth, his British nationality notwithstanding, Silas Croft was
very popular with the Boers, most of whom had known him since they were
children, and to whose _Volksraad_ he had twice been elected. It was to
this personal popularity he owed the fact that he was not turned out of
his house, and forced to choose between serving against his countrymen
or being imprisoned and otherwise maltreated at the very commencement of
the rebellion.

For a fortnight or more after this flag episode nothing of any
importance happened, and then came the tidings of the crushing defeat
at Laing's Nek. At first, Silas Croft would not believe it. "No
general could have been so mad," he said; but soon the report was amply
confirmed from native sources.

Another week passed, and with it came the news of the British defeat
at Ingogo. The first they heard of it was on the morning of February 8,
when Jantje brought a Kafir up to the verandah at breakfast-time. This
Kafir said that he had been watching the fight from a mountain; that
the English were completely hemmed in and fighting well, but that "their
arms were tired," and they would all be killed at night-time. The
Boers, he said, were not suffering at all--the English could not "shoot
straight." After hearing this they passed a sufficiently miserable day
and evening. About twelve o'clock that night, however, a native spy
despatched by Mr. Croft returned with the report that the English
general had won safely back to camp, having suffered heavily and
abandoned his wounded, many of whom had died in the rain, for the night
after the battle was wet.

Then came another long pause, during which no reliable news reached
them, though the air was thick with rumours, and old Silas was made
happy by hearing that large reinforcements were on their way from
England.

"Ah, Bessie, my dear, they will soon sing another song now," he said
in great glee; "and what's more, it's about time they did. I can't
understand what the soldiers have been about--I can't indeed."

And so the time wore heavily along till at last there came a dreadful
day, which Bessie will never forget so long as she lives. It was the
20th of February--just a week before the final disaster at Majuba Hill.
Bessie was standing idly on the verandah, looking down the long avenue
of blue gums, where the shadows formed a dark network to catch the
wandering rays of light. The place looked very peaceful, and certainly
no one could have known from its appearance that a bloody war was being
waged within a few miles. The Kafirs came and went about their work as
usual, or made pretence to; but now and then a close observer might see
them stop, look towards the Drakensberg, and then say a few words to
their neighbour about the wonderful thing which had come to pass, that
the Boers were beating the great white people, who came out of the sea
and shook the earth with their tread. Whereon the neighbour would take
the opportunity to relax from toil, squat down, have a pinch of snuff,
and relate in what particular collection of rocks on the hillside he and
his wives slept the last night--for when the Boers are out on commando
the Kafirs will not sleep in their huts for fear of being surprised and
shot down. Then the pair would spend half an hour or so in speculating
on what would be their fate when the Boer had eaten up the Englishman
and taken back the country, and finally come to the conclusion that they
had better emigrate to Natal.

Bessie, on the verandah, noted all this going on, every now and again
catching snatches of the lazy rascals' talk, which chimed in but too
sadly with her own thoughts. Turning from them impatiently, she began
to watch the hens marching solemnly about the drive, followed by their
broods. This picture, also, had a sanguinary background, for under an
orange-tree two rival cocks were fighting furiously. They always did
this about once a week, nor did they cease from troubling till each
retired, temporarily blinded, to the shade of a separate orange-tree,
where they spent the rest of the week in recovering, only to emerge when
the cure was effected and fight their battle over again. Meanwhile, a
third cock, young in years but old in wisdom, who steadily refused to
retaliate when attacked, looked after the hens in dispute. To-day the
fray was particularly ferocious, and, fearing that the combatants would
have no eyes left at all if she did not interfere, Bessie called to the
old Boer hound who was lying in the sun on the verandah.

"Hi, Stomp, Stomp--hunt them, Stomp!"

Up jumped Stomp and made a prodigious show of furiously attacking the
embattled cocks; it was an operation to which he was used, and which
afforded him constant amusement. Suddenly, however, as he dashed towards
the trees, the dog stopped midway, his simulated wrath ceased, and
instead of it, an expression of real disgust grew upon his honest face.
Then the hair along his backbone stood up like the quills upon the
fretful porcupine, and he growled.

"A strange Kafir, I expect," said Bessie to herself.

Stomp hated strange Kafirs. She had scarcely uttered the words
before they were justified by the appearance of a native. He was a
villainous-looking fellow, with one eye, and nothing on but a ragged
pair of trousers fastened round the middle with a greasy leather strap.
In his wool, however, were stuck several small distended bladders such
as are generally worn by medicine-men and witch-doctors. With his left
hand he held a long stick, cleft at one end, and in the cleft was a
letter.

"Come here, Stomp," said Bessie, and as she spoke a wild hope shot
across her heart like a meteor across the night: perhaps the letter was
from John.

The dog obeyed her unwillingly enough, for evidently he did not like
that Kafir; and when he saw that Stomp was well out of the way the
Kafir himself followed. He was an insolent fellow, and took no notice of
Bessie before squatting himself down upon the drive in front of her.

"What is it?" said Bessie in Dutch, her lips trembling as she spoke.

"A letter," answered the man.

"Give it to me."

"No, missie, not till I have looked at you to see if it is right. Light
yellow hair that curls--_one_," checking it on his fingers, "yes, that
is right; large blue eyes--_two_, that is right; big and tall, and fair
as a star--yes, the letter is for you, take it," and he poked the long
stick almost into her face.

"Where is it from?" asked Bessie, with sudden suspicion and recoiling a
step.

"Wakkerstroom last."

"Who is it from?"

"Read it, and you will see."

Bessie took the letter, which was wrapped in a piece of old newspaper,
from the cleft of the stick and turned it over and over doubtfully. Most
of us have a mistrust of strange-looking letters, and this letter was
unusually strange. To begin it, with had no address whatever on the
dirty envelope, which seemed curious. In the second place, that envelope
was sealed, apparently with a threepenny bit.

"Are you sure it is for me?" asked Bessie.

"Yah, yah--sure, sure," answered the native, with a rude laugh. "There
are not many such white girls in the Transvaal. I have made no
mistake. I have 'smelt you out.'" And he began to go through his
catalogue--"Yellow hair that curls," &c.--again.

Then Bessie opened the letter. Inside was an ordinary sheet of paper
written over in a bold, firm, yet slightly unpractised writing that she
knew well enough, and the sight of which filled her with a presentiment
of evil. It was Frank Muller's.

She turned sick and cold, but could not choose but read as follows:


"Camp, near Pretoria. 15 February.

"Dear Miss Bessie,--I am sorry to have to write to you, but though we
have quarrelled lately, and also your good uncle, I think it my duty to
do so, and send this to your hand by a special runner. Yesterday was
a sortie made by the poor folk in Pretoria, who are now as thin with
hunger as the high veldt oxen just before spring. Our arms were again
victorious; the redcoats ran away and left their ambulance in our hands,
carrying with them many dead and wounded. Among the dead was the Captain
Niel----"


Here Bessie uttered a sort of choking cry, and let the letter fall
over the verandah, to one of the posts of which she clung with both her
hands.

The ill-favoured native below grinned, and, picking the paper up, handed
it to her.

She took it, feeling that she must know all, and read on like one reads
in some ghastly dream:

"who has been staying on your uncle's farm. I did not see him killed
myself, but Jan Vanzyl shot him, and Roi Dirk Oosthuizen, and Carolus, a
Hottentot, saw them pick him up and carry him away. They say that he was
quite dead. For this I fear you will be sorry, as I am, but it is
the chance of war, and he died fighting bravely. Make my obedient
compliments to your uncle. We parted in anger, but I hope in the new
circumstances that have arisen in the land to show him that I, for one,
bear no anger.--Believe me, dear Miss Bessie, your humble and devoted
servant,

"Frank Muller."


Bessie thrust the letter into the pocket of her dress, then again she
caught hold of the verandah post, and supported herself by it, while the
light of the sun appeared to fade visibly out of the day before her eyes
and to replace itself by a cold blackness in which there was no break.
He was dead!--her lover was dead! The glow had gone from her life as it
seemed to be going from the day, and she was left desolate. She had
no knowledge of how long she stood thus, staring with wide eyes at the
sunshine she could not see. She had lost her count of time; things were
phantasmagorical and unreal; all that she could realise was this one
overpowering, crushing fact--John was dead!

"Missie," said the ill-favoured messenger below, fixing his one eye upon
her poor sorrow-stricken face, and yawning.

There was no answer.

"Missie," he said again, "is there any answer? I must be going. I want
to get back in time to see the Boers take Pretoria."

Bessie looked at him vaguely. "Yours is a message that needs no answer,"
she said. "What is, is."

The brute laughed. "No, I can't take a letter to the Captain," he said;
"I saw Jan Vanzyl shoot him. He fell _so_," and suddenly he collapsed
all in a heap on the path, in imitation of a man struck dead by a
bullet. "I can't take _him_ a message, missie," he went on, rising, "but
one day you will be able to go and look for him yourself. I did not mean
that; what I meant was that I could take a letter to Frank Muller. A
live Boer is better than a dead Englishman; and Frank Muller will make
a fine husband for any girl. If you shut your eyes you won't know the
difference."

"Go!" said Bessie, in a choked voice, and pointing her hands towards the
avenue.

Such was the suppressed energy in her tone that the man sprang to his
feet, and while he rose, interpreting her gesture as an encouragement to
action, the old dog, Stomp, who had been watching him all the time, and
occasionally giving utterance to a low growl of animosity, flew straight
at his throat from the verandah. The dog, which was a heavy one, struck
the man full in the chest and knocked him backwards. Down came dog and
man on the drive together, and then ensued a terrible scene, the man
cursing and shrieking and striking out at the dog, and the dog worrying
the man in a fashion that he was not liable to forget for the remainder
of his life.

Bessie, whose energy seemed again to be exhausted, took absolutely
no notice of the fray, and it was at this juncture that her old uncle
arrived upon the scene, together with two Kafirs--the same whom Bessie
had seen idling.

"Hullo! hullo!" he halloed in his stentorian tones, "what is all this
about? Get off, you brute!" and what between his voice and the blows
of the Kafirs the dog was persuaded to let go his hold of the man, who
staggered to his feet, severely mauled, and bleeding from half a dozen
bites.

For a moment he did not say anything, but picked up his sticks. Then,
however, having first made sure that the dog was being held by the
Kafirs, he turned, his face streaming with blood, his one eye blazing
with fury, and, shaking both his clenched fists at poor Bessie, broke
into a scream of cursing.

"You shall pay for this--Frank Muller shall make you pay for it. I am
his servant. I----"

"Get out of this, however you are," thundered old Silas, "or by Heaven
I will let the dog on you again!" and he pointed to Stomp, who was
struggling wildly with the two Kafirs.

The man paused and looked at the dog, then, with a final shake of the
fist, he departed at a run down the avenue, turning once only to look if
the dog were coming.

With empty eyes Bessie watched him go, taking no more notice of him
than she had of the noise of the fighting. Then, as though struck by a
thought, she turned and went into the sitting-room.

"What is all this, Bessie?" said her uncle, following her. "What does
the man mean about Frank Muller?"

"It means, uncle dear," she said at last, in a voice that was something
between a sob and a laugh, "that I am a widow before I am married. John
is dead!"

"Dead! dead!" said the old man, putting his hand to his forehead and
turning round in a dazed sort of fashion, "John dead!"

"Read the letter," said Bessie, handing him Frank Muller's missive.

The old man took and read it. His hand shook so much that he was a long
while in mastering its contents.

"Good God!" he said at last, "what a blow! My poor Bessie," and he
drew her into his arms and kissed her. Suddenly a thought struck him.
"Perhaps it is all one of Frank Muller's lies," he said, "or perhaps he
made a mistake."

But Bessie did not answer. For the time, at any rate, hope had left her.



CHAPTER XXVI

FRANK MULLER'S FAMILIAR

The study of the conflicting elements which go to make up a character
like that of Frank Muller, however fascinating it might prove, is not
one which can be attempted in detail here. Such a character in its
developed form is fortunately well-nigh impossible in a highly civilised
country, for the dead weight of the law would crush it back to the level
of the human mass around it. But those who have lived in the wild places
of the earth will be acquainted with its prototypes, more especially
in the countries where a handful of a superior race rule over the dense
thousands of an inferior. Solitudes are favourable to the production of
strongly marked individualities. The companionship of highly developed
men, on the contrary, whittles individualities away; the difference
between their growth being the difference between the grown of a tree on
a plain and a tree in the forest. On the plain the tree takes the innate
bend of its nature. It springs in majesty towards the skies; it spreads
itself around, or it slants along the earth, just as Nature intended
that it should, and in accordance with the power of the providential
breath which bends it. In the forest it is different. There the tree
grows towards the light wherever the light may be. Forced to modify its
natural habit in obedience to the pressure of circumstances over which
it has no command, it takes such form and height as its neighbours will
allow it to, all its energies being directed to the preservation of its
life in any shape and at any sacrifice.

Thus is it with us all. Left to ourselves, or surrounded only by the
scrub of humanity, we become outwardly that which the spirit within
would fashion us to, but, placed among our fellows, shackled by custom,
restrained by law, pruned and bent by the force of public opinion, we
grow as like one to another as the fruit bushes on a garden wall. The
sharp angles of our characters are fretted away by the friction of the
crowd, and we become round, polished, and, superficially, at any rate,
identical. We no longer resemble a solitary boulder on a plain, but are
as a worked stone built into the great edifice of civilised society.

The place of a man like Frank Muller is at the junction of the waters
of civilisation and barbarism. Too civilised to possess those savage
virtues which, such as they are, represent the quantum of innate good
Nature has thought fit to allow in the mixture, Man; and too barbarous
to be subject to the tenderer constraints of cultivated society, he is
at once strong in the strength of both and weak in their weaknesses.
Animated by the spirit of barbarism, Superstition; and almost entirely
destitute of the spirit of civilisation, Mercy, he stands on the edge of
both and an affront to both, as terrific a moral spectacle as the world
can afford.

Had he been a little more civilised, with his power of evil trained by
education and cynical reflection to defy the attacks of those spasms of
unreasoning spiritual terror and unrestrainable passion that have their
natural dwelling-place in the raw strong mind of uncultivated man, Frank
Muller might have broken upon the world as a Napoleon. Had he been a
little more savage, a little farther removed from the unconscious
but present influence of a progressive race, he might have ground his
fellows down and ruthlessly destroyed them in the madness of his rage
and lust, like an Attila or a T'Chaka. As it was he was buffeted between
two forces he did not realise, even when they swayed him, and thus at
every step in his path towards a supremacy of evil an unseen power made
stumbling-blocks of weaknesses which, if that path had been laid along
a little higher or a little lower level in the scale of circumstances,
would themselves have been deadly weapons of overmastering force.

See him as, with his dark heart filled up with fears, he thunders along
from that scene of midnight death and murder which his brain had not
feared to plan and his hand to execute. Onward his black horse strides,
companioned by the storm, like a dark thought travelling on the wings of
Night. He does not believe in any God, and yet the terrible fears that
spring up in his soul, born fungus-like from a few drops of blood, take
shape and form, and seem to cry aloud, "_We are the messengers of the
avenging God_." He glances up. High on the black bosom of the storm the
finger of the lightning is writing that awful name, and again and again
the voice of the thunder reads it aloud in spirit-shaking accents. He
shuts his dazed eyes, and even the falling rhythm of his horse's hoofs
beats out, "_There is a God! there is a God!_" from the silent earth on
which they strike.

And so, on through the tempest and the night, flying from that which no
man can leave behind.



It was near midnight when Frank Muller drew rein at a wretched and
lonely mud hut built on the banks of the Vaal, and flanked by an equally
miserable shed. The place was silent as the grave; not even a dog
barked.

"That beast of a Kafir is not here," he said aloud, "I will have him
flogged to death. Hendrik! Hendrik!"

As he called, a form rose up at his very feet, causing the weary horse
to start back so violently that he almost threw his rider to the ground.

"What in the name of the devil are you?" almost shrieked Frank Muller,
whose nerves, indeed, were in no condition to bear fresh shocks.

"It is I, Baas," said the form, at the same time throwing off a
grey blanket in which it was enveloped, and revealing the villainous
countenance of the one-eyed witch-doctor, who had taken the letter to
Bessie. For years this man had been Muller's body-servant, who followed
him about like a shadow.

"Curse you, you dog! What do you mean by hiding up like that? It is one
of your infernal tricks; be careful"--tapping his pistol case--"or I
shall one day put an end to you and your witchcraft together."

"I am very sorry, Baas," said the man in a whine, "but half an hour
ago I heard you coming. I don't know what is the matter with the air
to-night, but it sounded as though twenty people were galloping after
you. I could hear them all quite clearly; first the big black horse, and
then all those that followed, just as though they were hunting you. So
I came out and lay down to listen, and it was not till you were quite
close that one by one the others stopped. Perhaps it was the devils who
galloped."

"Damn you, stop that wizard's talk," said Muller, his teeth chattering
with fear and agitation. "Take the horse, groom and feed him well; he
has galloped far, and we start at dawn. Stop, tell me, where are the
lights and the brandy? If you have drunk the brandy I will flog you."

"They are on the shelf to the left as you go in, Baas, and there is
flesh too, and bread."

Muller swung himself from the saddle and entered the hut, pushing
open the cranky, broken-hinged door with a kick. He found the box of
Tandstickor matches, and, after one or two attempts--due chiefly to his
shaking hand--succeeded in striking fire and lighting a coarse dip such
as the Boers make out of mutton fat. Near the candle were a bottle of
peach brandy two thirds full, a tin pannikin and a jug of river water.
Seizing the pannikin, he half filled it with spirit, added a little
water, and drank off the mixture. Then he took the meat and bread from
the same shelf, and, cutting some of each with his clasp-knife, tried
to eat. But he could not swallow much, and soon gave up the attempt,
consoling himself instead with the brandy.

"Bah!" he said, "the stuff tastes like hell fire;" and he filled his
pipe and sat smoking.

Presently Hendrik came in to say that the horse was eating well, and
turned to go out again, when his master beckoned him to stop. The man
was surprised, for generally his master was not fond of his society,
except when he wanted to consult him or persuade him to exercise his
pretended art of divination. The truth was, however, that at the moment
Frank Muller would have been glad to consort with a dog. The events of
the night had brought this terrible man, steeped in iniquity from his
youth up, down to the level of a child frightened at the dark. For a
while he sat in silence, the Kafir squatting on the ground at his feet.
Presently, however, the doses of powerful spirit took effect on him,
and he began to talk more unguardedly than was his custom, even with his
black "familiar" Hendrik.

"How long have you been here?" he asked of his retainer.

"About four days, Baas."

"Did you take my letter to _Oom_ Croft's?"

"Yah, Baas. I gave it to the missie."

"What did she do?"

"She read it, and then stood like this, holding on to the verandah
pole;" and he opened his mouth and one eye, twisting up his hideous
countenance into a ghastly imitation of Bessie's sorrow-stricken face,
and gripping the post that supported the hut to give verisimilitude to
his performance.

"So she believed it?"

"Surely."

"What did she do, then?"

"She set the dog on me. Look here! and here! and here!" and he pointed
to the half-healed scars left by Stomp's sharp fangs.

Muller laughed a little. "I should like to have seen him worry you, you
black cheat; it shows her spirit, too. I suppose you are angry, and want
to have a revenge?"

"Surely."

"Well, who knows? Perhaps you shall; we are going there to-morrow."

"So, Baas! I knew that before you told me."

"We are going there, and we are going to take the place; and we are
going to try Uncle Silas by court-martial for flying an English flag,
and if he is found guilty we are going to shoot him, Hendrik."

"So, Baas," said the Kafir, rubbing his hands in glee, "but will he be
found guilty?"

"I don't know," murmured the white man, stroking his golden beard; "that
will depend upon what missie has to say; and upon the verdict of the
court," he added, by way of an afterthought.

"On the verdict of the court, ha! ha!" chuckled his wicked satellite;
"on the verdict of the court, yes! yes! and the Baas will be president,
ha! ha! One needs no witchcraft to guess that verdict. And if the court
finds Uncle Silas guilty, who will do the shooting, Baas?"

"I have not thought of that; the time has not come to think of it. It
does not matter; anybody can carry out the sentence of the law."

"Baas," said the Kafir, "I have done much for you, and had little pay.
I have done ugly things. I had read omens and made medicines and 'smelt
out' your enemies. Will you grant me a favour? Will you let me shoot
_Oom_ Croft if the court finds him guilty? It is not much to ask, Baas.
I am a clever wizard and deserve my pay."

"Why do you want to shoot him?"

"Because he flogged me once, years ago, for being a witch-doctor, and
the other day he hunted me off the place. Beside, it is nice to shoot
a white man. I should like it better," he went on, with a smack of the
lips, "if it were missie, who set the dog on me. I would----"

In a moment Muller had seized the astonished ruffian by the throat, and
was kicking and shaking him as though he were a toy. His brutal talk of
Bessie appealed to such manliness as he had in him, and, whatever his
own wickedness may have been, he was too madly in love with the woman to
let her name be taken in vain by a man whom, though he held his "magic"
in superstitious reverence, he yet ranked lower than a dog. With his
nerves strung to the highest possible state of tension, and half drunk
as he was, Frank Muller was no more to be played with or irritated than
is a mad bull.

"You black beast!" he yelled, "if ever you dare to mention her name
again like that I will kill you, for all your witchcraft;" and he hurled
him with such force against the wall of the hut that the whole place
shook. The man fell and lay for a moment groaning; then he crept from
the hut on his hands and knees.

Muller sat scowling from under his bent brows, and watched him go. When
he was gone, he rose and fastened the door behind him, then suddenly he
burst into tears, the result, no doubt, of the mingled effects of drink,
mental and physical exhaustion, and the never-resting passion--one can
scarcely call it love--which ate at his heart, like the worm that dieth
not.

"Oh, Bessie, Bessie!" he groaned, "I have done it all for you. Surely
you cannot be angry when I have killed them all for you? Oh, my
darling, my darling! If you only knew how I love you! Oh, my darling,
my darling!" and in an agony of passion he flung himself on to the rough
pallet in the corner of the hut and sobbed himself to sleep.

It would seem that Frank Muller's evil-doing did not make him happy,
the truth being that to enjoy wickedness a man must be not only without
conscience, but also without passion. Now Frank Muller was tormented
with a very effective substitute for the first--superstition, and by the
latter his life was overshadowed, since the beauty of a girl possessed
the power to dominate his wildest moods and to inflict upon him torments
that she herself was incapable even of imagining.



At the first light of dawn Hendrik crept humbly into the hut to wake
his master, and within half an hour they were across the Vaal and on the
road to Wakkerstroom.

As the light increased so did Muller's spirits rise, till at last, when
the red sun came up in glory and swept away the shadows, he felt as
though all the load of guilt and fear that lay upon his heart had
departed with them. He could see now that the death of the two Boers by
lightning was a mere accident--a happy accident, indeed; for, had it not
so chanced, he would have been forced to kill them himself, if he could
not have obtained possession of the warrant by other means. As it was,
he had forgotten about this document; but it did not matter much, he
reflected. Nobody would be likely to find the bodies of the two men and
horses under that lonely bank. Certainly they would not be found before
the _aasvogels_ had picked them clean, and these would be at work upon
them now. And if they were found, the paper would have rotted or
been blown away, or, at the worst, rendered so discoloured as to be
unreadable. For the rest, there was nothing to connect him with the
murder, now that his confederates were dead. Hendrik would prove an
alibi for him. He was a useful man, Hendrik. Besides, who would believe
that it was a murder? Two men were escorting an Englishman to the river;
they became involved in a quarrel; the Englishman shot them, and they
shot the Englishman and his companion. Then the horses plunged into the
Vaal upsetting the cart, and there was an end of it. He could see
now how well things had gone for him. Events had placed him beyond
suspicion.

Then he fell to thinking of the fruits of his honest labours, and
Muller's cheek grew warm with the mounting blood, and his eyes flashed
with the fire of youth. In two days--forty-eight hours--at the outside,
Bessie would be in his arms. He could not miscarry now, for was he not
in absolute command? Besides, Hendrik had read it in his omens long
ago.[*] Mooifontein should be stormed on the morrow, if that were
necessary, and _Oom_ Silas Croft and Bessie should be taken prisoners;
and then he knew how to deal with them. His talk about shooting on the
previous night had been no idle threat. She should yield herself to him,
or the old man must die, and then he would take her. There could be no
legal consequences now that the British Government was in the act of
surrender. It would be a meritorious deed to execute a rebel Englishman.

     [*] It is not a very rare thing to meet white men in South
     Africa who believe more or less in the efficacy of native
     witchcraft, and, although such a proceeding is forbidden by
     law, who at a pinch will not hesitate to consult the
     witch-doctors.--Author.

Yes, it was all plain sailing now. How long had it needed to win
her--three years? He had loved her for three years. Well, he would have
his reward; and then, his passion satisfied, he would turn his mind to
those far-reaching, ambitious schemes, whereof the end was something
like a throne.



CHAPTER XXVII

SILAS IS CONVINCED

At first Bessie was utterly prostrated by the blow that had fallen on
her, but as time went on she revived a little, for hers was an elastic
and a sanguine nature. Troubles sink into the souls of some like water
into a sponge, and weight them down almost to the grave. From others
they run off as the water does if poured upon marble, merely wetting the
surface.

Bessie belonged to neither of these classes, but was of a substance
between the two--a healthy, happy-hearted woman, full of beauty and
vigour, made to bloom in the sunshine, not to languish in the shadow
of some old grief. Women of her stamp do not die of broken hearts or
condemn themselves to life-long celibacy as a sacrifice to the shade of
the departed. If unfortunately No. 1 is removed, as a general rule they
shed many a tear and suffer many a pang, and after a decent interval
very sensibly turn their attention to No. 2.

Still it was but a pale-faced, quiet Bessie who went to and fro about
the place after the visit of the one-eyed Kafir. All her irritability
had left her now; she no longer reproached her uncle because he had
despatched John to Pretoria. Indeed, on that very evening after the evil
tidings came, he began to blame himself bitterly in her presence for
having sent her lover away, when she stopped him.

"It is God's will, uncle," she said quietly. "You only did what it was
ordained that you should do." Then she came and laid her sunny head upon
the old man's shoulder and cried a little, and said that they two were
all alone in the world now; and he comforted her in the best fashion
that he could. It was a curious thing that they neither of them thought
much of Jess when they talked thus of being alone. Jess was an enigma, a
thing apart even from them. When she was there she was loved and allowed
to go her own way, when she was not there she seemed to fade into outer
darkness. A veil came down between her and her belongings. Of course
they were both very fond of her, but simple-natured people are apt to
shrink from what they cannot understand, and these two were no exception
to the rule. For instance, Bessie's affection for her sister was a poor
thing compared to the deep and self-sacrificing, though often secret
love that her sister showered upon her. She loved her old uncle far more
dearly than she loved Jess, and it must be owned that he returned her
attachment with interest, and in those days of heavy trouble they drew
nearer to each other than ever they were before.

But as time went on they began to hope again. No confirmation of John's
death reached them. Was it not possible then, after all, that the story
was an invention? They knew that Frank Muller was not a man to hesitate
at a lie if he had a purpose to gain, and they could guess in this case
what that purpose was. His furious passion for Bessie was no secret from
either of them, and it occurred to them as possible that the tale of
John's death might have been invented to forward it. This was scarcely
probable, it is true, but it might be so, and however cruel suspense
may be, it is at least less absolutely crushing than the dead weight of
certainty.

One Sunday--it was just a week since the letter came--Bessie was sitting
after dinner on the verandah, when her quick ears caught what she took
to be the booming of heavy guns far away on the Drakensberg. She rose,
and leaving the house, climbed the hill behind it. On reaching its top
she stood and looked at the great solemn stretch of mountains. Away, a
little to her right, was a square precipitous peak called Majuba, which
was generally clothed in clouds. To-day, however, there was no mist, and
it seemed to her that it was from the direction of this peak that the
faint rolling sounds came floating on the breeze. But she could see
nothing; the mountain seemed as tenantless and devoid of life as on the
day when it first towered up upon the face of things created. Presently
the sounds died away, and she returned, thinking that she must have been
deceived by the echoes of some distant thunderstorm.

Next day they learnt from the natives that what she had heard was the
roar of the big guns covering the flight of the British troops down
the precipitous sides of Majuba Mountain. After these tidings old
Silas Croft began to lose heart a little. The run of disaster was
so unrelieved that even his robust faith in the invincibility of the
English arms was shaken.

"It is very strange, Bessie," he said, "very strange; but, never mind,
it is bound to come right at last. Our Government is not going to knock
under because it has suffered a few reverses."

Then followed a long four weeks of uncertainty. The air was thick with
rumours, most of them brought by natives, and one or two by passing
Boers, to which Silas Croft declined to pay any attention. Soon,
however, it became abundantly clear that an armistice was concluded
between the English and the Boers, but what were its terms or its object
they were quite unable to decide. Silas Croft thought that the Boers,
overawed by the advance of an overwhelming force, meant to give in
without further fighting;[*] but Bessie shook her head.

     [*] This is said on good authority to have been their
     intention had not Mr. Gladstone surprised them by his sudden
     surrender.--Author.

One day--it was the same on which John and Jess left Pretoria--a Kafir
brought the news that the armistice was at an end, that the English were
advancing up to the Nek in thousands, and were going to force it on the
morrow and relieve the garrisons--a piece of intelligence that brought
some of the old light back to Bessie's eyes. As for her uncle, he was
jubilant.

"The tide is going to turn, at last, my love," he said, "and we shall
have our innings. Well, it is time we should, after all the disgrace,
loss and agony of mind we have gone through. Upon my word, for the last
two months I have been ashamed to call myself an Englishman. However,
there is an end of it now. I knew that they would never give in and
desert us," and the old man straightened his crooked back and
slapped his chest, looking as proud and gallant as though he were
five-and-twenty instead of seventy years of age.

The rest of that day passed without any further news, and so did the
following two days, but on the third, which was March 23, the storm
broke.

About eleven o'clock in the forenoon Bessie was employed upon her
household duties as usual, or rather she had just finished them. Her
uncle had returned from his usual after-breakfast round upon the farm,
and was standing in the sitting-room, his broad felt hat in one hand and
a red pocket-handkerchief in the other, with which he was polishing his
bald head, while he chattered to Bessie through the open door.

"No news of the advance, Bessie dear?"

"No, uncle," she replied with a sigh, her blue eyes filling with tears,
for she was thinking of one of whom there was also no news.

"Well, never mind. These things take a little time, especially with
our soldiers, who move so slowly. I dare say that there was some delay
waiting for guns or ammunition or something. I expect that we shall hear
by to-night----"

"De Booren, Baas, de Booren!" (the Boers, master, the Boers) he shouted.
"The Boers are coming with a waggon, twenty of them or more, with Frank
Muller at their head on his black horse, and Hans Coetzee, and the
one-eyed Basutu wizard with him. I was hiding behind a tree at the end
of the avenue, and I saw them riding over the rise. They are going to
take the place;" and, without waiting to give any further explanations,
he slipped through the house and hid himself up somewhere out of the way
at the back, for Jantje, like most Hottentots, was a sad coward.

The old man stopped rubbing his head and stared at Bessie, who stood
pale and trembling in the doorway. Just then he heard the patter of
running feet on the drive outside, and looked out of the window. It was
caused by the passing of some half-dozen Kafirs who were working on the
place, and who, on catching sight of the Boers, had promptly thrown down
their tools and were flying to the hills. Even as they passed a shot was
fired somewhere from the direction of the avenue, and the last of the
Kafirs, a lad of about twelve, suddenly threw up his hands and pitched
forward on to his face, with a bullet between his shoulder-blades.

Bessie heard the shout of "Good shot, good shot!" the brutal laughter
that greeted his fall, and the tramping of the horses as they came up
the drive.

"Oh, uncle!" she said, "what shall we do?"

The old man made no answer at the moment, but going to a rack upon the
wall, he reached down a Wesley-Richards falling-block rifle that hung
there. Then he sat down in a wooden armchair that faced the French
window opening on to the verandah, and beckoned to her to come to him.

"We will meet them so," he said. "They shall see that we are not afraid
of them. Don't be frightened, dear, they will not dare to harm us; they
will be afraid of the consequences of harming English people."

The words were scarcely out of his mouth when the cavalcade began to
appear in front of the window, led, as Jantje had said, by Frank Muller
on his black horse, accompanied by Hans Coetzee on the fat pony, and the
villainous-looking Hendrik, mounted on a nondescript sort of animal, and
carrying a gun and an assegai in his hand. Behind these were a body of
about fifteen or sixteen armed men, among whom Silas Croft recognised
most of his neighbours, by whose side he had lived for years in peace
and amity.

Opposite the house they stopped and began looking about. They could not
see into the room at once, on account of the bright light outside and
the shadow within.

"I fancy you will find the birds flown, nephew," said the fat voice of
Hans Coetzee. "They have got warning of your little visit."

"They cannot be far off," answered Muller. "I have had them watched, and
know that they have not left the place. Get down, uncle, and look in the
house, and you too, Hendrik."

The Kafir obeyed with alacrity, tumbling out of his saddle with all the
grace of a sack of coals, but the Boer hesitated.

"Uncle Silas is an angry man," he ventured; "he might shoot if he found
me poking about his house."

"Don't answer me!" thundered Muller; "get down and do as I bid you!"

"Ah, what a devil of a man!" murmured the unfortunate Hans as he hurried
to obey.

Meanwhile, Hendrik the one-eyed had jumped upon the verandah and was
peering through the windows.

"Here they are, Baas; here they are!" he sung out; "the old cock and the
pullet too!" and he gave a kick to the window, which, being unlatched,
swung wide, revealing the old man sitting in his wooden armchair, his
rifle on his knees, and holding by the hand his fair-haired niece, who
was standing at his side. Frank Muller dismounted and came on to the
verandah, and behind him crowded a dozen or more of his followers.

"What is it that you want, Frank Muller, that you come to my house with
all these armed men?" asked Silas Croft from his chair.

"I call upon you, Silas Croft, to surrender to take your trial as a
land betrayer and a rebel against the Republic," was the answer. "I am
sorry," he added, with a bow towards Bessie, on whom his eyes had been
fixed all the time, "to be obliged to take you prisoner in the presence
of a lady, but my duty gives me no choice."

"I do not know what you mean," said the old man. "I am a subject of
Queen Victoria and an Englishman. How, then, can I be a rebel against
any republic? I am an Englishman, I say," he went on with rising anger,
speaking so high that his powerful voice rang till every Boer there
could hear it, "and I acknowledge the authority of no republics. This
is my house, and I order you to leave it. I claim my rights as an
Englishman----"

"Here," interrupted Muller coldly, "Englishmen have no rights, except
such as we choose to allow to them."

"Shoot him!" cried a voice.

"Treat him as Buskes treated Van der Linden at Potchefstroom!" cried
another.

"Yes, make him swallow the same pill that we gave to Dr. Barber," put in
a third.

"Silas Croft, are you going to surrender?" asked Muller in the same cold
voice.

"_No!_" thundered the old man in his English pride. "I surrender to no
rebels in arms against the Queen. I will shoot the first man who tries
to lay a finger on me!" and he rose to his feet and lifted his rifle.

"Shall I shoot him, Baas?--shall I shoot him?" asked the one-eyed
Hendrik, smacking his lips at the thought, and fiddling with the rusty
lock of the old fowling-piece he carried.

Muller, by way of answer, struck him across the face with the back of
his hand. "Hans Coetzee," he said, "go and arrest that man."

Poor Hans hesitated, as well he might. Nature had not endowed him
with any great amount of natural courage, and the sight of his old
neighbour's rifle-barrel made him feel positively sick. He hesitated and
began to stammer excuses.

"Are you going, uncle, or must I denounce you to the General as a
sympathiser with Englishmen?" asked Muller in malice, for he knew the
old fellow's weakness and cowardice, and was playing on them.

"I am going. Of course I am going, nephew. Excuse me, a little faintness
took me--the heat of the sun," he babbled. "Oh, yes, I am going to seize
the rebel. Perhaps one of these young men would not mind engaging his
attention on the other side. He is an angry man--I know him of old--and
an angry man with a gun, you know, dear cousin----"

"Are you going?" said his terrible master once more.

"Oh, yes! yes, certainly, yes. Dear Uncle Silas, pray put down that gun,
it is so dangerous. Don't stand there looking like a wild ox, but come
up to the yoke. You are old, Uncle Silas, and I don't want to have to
hurt you. Come now, come, come," and he held out his hand towards him as
though he were a shy horse that he was endeavouring to beguile.

"Hans Coetzee, traitor and liar that you are," said the old man, "if you
draw a single step nearer, by God! I will put a bullet through you."

"Go on, Hans, chuck a reim over his head; get him by the tail; knock him
down with a yokeskei; turn the old bull on his back!" shouted the crowd
of scoffers from the window, taking very good care, however, to clear
off to the right and left in order to leave room for the expected
bullet.

Hans positively burst into tears, and Muller, who was the only one
who held his ground, caught him by the arm, and putting out all his
strength, swung him towards Silas Croft.

For reasons of his own, he was anxious that the latter should shoot one
of them, and he chose Hans Coetzee, whom he disliked and despised, for
the sacrifice.

Up went the rifle, and at that moment Bessie, who had been standing
bewildered, made a dash at it, knowing that bloodshed could only make
matters worse. As she did so it exploded, but not before she had shaken
her uncle's arm, for, instead of killing Hans, as it undoubtedly would
have done, the bullet only cut his ear and then passed out through the
open window-place. In an instant the room was filled with smoke. Hans
Coetzee clapped his hand to his head, uttering yells of pain and terror,
and in the confusion that ensued three or four men, headed by the Kafir
Hendrik, rushed into the room and sprang upon Silas Croft, who had
retreated to the wall and was standing with his back against it, his
rifle, which he had clubbed in both his hands, raised above his head.

When his assailants were close to him they hesitated, for, aged and bent
as he was, the old man looked dangerous. He stood there like a wounded
lion, and swung the rifle-stock about. Presently one of the men struck
at him and missed him, but before he could retreat Silas brought down
the stock of the rifle on his head, and down he went like an ox beneath
a poleaxe. Then they closed on him, but for a while he kept them
off, knocking down another man in his efforts. At that moment the
witch-doctor Hendrik, who had been watching his opportunity, brought
down the barrel of his old fowling-piece upon Silas's bald head and
felled him. Fortunately the blow was not a very heavy one, or it would
have broken his skull. As it was, it only cut his scalp open and knocked
him down. Thereon, the whole mass of Boers, with the exception of
Muller, who stood watching, seeing that he was now defenceless,
fell upon Silas, and would have kicked him to death had not Bessie
precipitated herself upon him with a cry, and thrown her arms about his
body to protect him.

Then Frank Muller interfered, fearing lest she should be hurt. Plunging
into the fray with a curse, he exercised his great strength, throwing
the men this way and that like ninepins, and finally dragging Silas to
his feet again.

"Come!" he shouted, "take him out of this;" and accordingly, with
taunts, curses and obloquy, the poor old man, whose fringe of white
locks was red with blood, was kicked and pushed on to the verandah, then
off it on to the drive. Here he fell over the body of the murdered Kafir
boy, but finally he was dragged to the open space by the flagstaff, on
which the Union Jack that he had hoisted there some two months before
still waved bravely in the breeze. There he sank down upon the grass,
his back against the flagstaff, and asked faintly for some water.
Bessie, who was weeping bitterly, and whose heart felt as though it were
bursting with anguish and indignation, pushed her way through the men,
and, running to the house, filled a glass and brought it to him. One of
the brutes tried to knock it out of her hand, but she avoided him and
gave it to her uncle, who drank it greedily.

"Thank you, love, thank you," he said; "don't be frightened, I ain't
much hurt. Ah! if only John had been here, and we had had an hour's
notice, we would have held the place against them all."

Meanwhile one of the Boers, climbing on to the shoulders of another,
had succeeded in untying the cord on which the Union Jack was bent, and
hauled it down. Then they reversed it and hoisted it half-mast high, and
began to cheer for the Republic.

"Perhaps Uncle Silas does not know that we are a Republic again now,"
said one of the men, a near neighbour of his own, in mockery.

"What do you mean by a Republic?" asked the old man. "The Transvaal is a
British colony."

There was a hoot of derision at this. "The English Government has
surrendered," said the same man. "The country is given up, and the
British are to evacuate it in six months."

"It is a lie!" said Silas, springing to his feet, "a cowardly lie!
Whoever says that the English have given up the country to a few
thousand blackguards like you, and deserted its subjects and the loyals
and the natives, is a liar--a liar from hell!"

There was another howl of mockery at this outburst, and when it had
subsided Frank Muller stepped forward.

"It is no lie, Silas Croft," he said, "and the cowards are not we Boers,
who have beaten you again and again, but your soldiers, who have done
nothing but run away, and your Mr. Gladstone, who follows the example of
your soldiers. Look here"--and he took a paper out of his pocket--"you
know that signature, I suppose? It is that of one of the Triumvirate.
Listen to what he says," and he read aloud:--

"'Well-beloved _Heer_ Muller,--this is to inform you that, by the
strength of our arms fighting for the right and freedom, and also by the
cowardice of the British Government, generals, and soldiers, we have by
the will of the Almighty concluded this day a glorious peace with the
enemy. The _Heer_ Gladstone surrenders nearly everything except in the
name. The Republic is to be re-established, and the soldiers who are
left will leave the land within six months. Make this known to everyone,
and forget not to thank God for our glorious victories.'"

The Boers shouted aloud, as well they might, and Bessie wrung her hands.
As for the old man, he leant against the flagstaff, and his gory
head sank back upon his breast as though he were about to faint. Then
suddenly he lifted it, and with clenched and quivering fists, held high
in the air, he broke out into such a torrent of blasphemy and cursing
that even the Boers fell back for a moment, dismayed into silence by the
force of the fury wrung from his utter humiliation.

It was an appalling sight to see this good and God-fearing old man, his
face bruised, his grey hairs dabbled with blood, and his clothes nearly
rent from his body, stamp and reel to and fro, blaspheming his Maker and
the day that he was born; hurling execrations at his beloved country and
the name of Englishman, and the Government of Britain that had deserted
him, till at last nature gave out, and he fell in a fit, there, in the
very shadow of his dishonoured flag.



CHAPTER XXVIII

BESSIE IS PUT TO THE QUESTION

Meanwhile another little tragedy was being enacted at the back of the
house. After the one-eyed witch-doctor Hendrik had knocked Silas Croft
down and assisted in the pleasing operation of dragging him to the
flagstaff, it occurred to his villainous heart that the present would be
a good opportunity to profit personally by the confusion, and possibly
add to the Englishman's misfortunes by doing him some injury on his
own account. Accordingly, just before Frank Muller began to read the
despatch announcing the British surrender, he slipped away into the
house, which was now totally deserted, to see what he could steal.
Passing into the sitting-room, he annexed Bessie's gold watch and chain,
which was lying on the mantelpiece, a present that her uncle had made
her on the Christmas Day before the last. Having pocketed this he
proceeded to the kitchen, where, lying on the dresser ready to put away,
there was a goodly store of silver forks and spoons which Bessie had
been busily engaged in cleaning that morning. These he also transferred,
to the extent of several dozens, to the capacious pockets of the
tattered military great-coat that he wore. Whilst thus employed he was
much disturbed by the barking of the dog Stomp, the same animal that had
mauled him so severely a few weeks before, and was now, as it happened,
tied up in his kennel--an old wine barrel--just outside the kitchen
door. Hendrik peeped out of the window, and having ascertained that the
dog was secured, he proceeded, with a diabolical chuckle, to settle his
account with the poor animal. He had left his gun behind on the grass,
but he still held his assegai in his hand, and going out of the kitchen
door with it, he showed himself within a few feet of the kennel. The dog
recognised him instantly, and went nearly mad with fury, making the most
desperate efforts to break its chain and get at him. For some moments
he stood exciting the animal by derisive gestures and pelting it with
stones, till at last, fearing that the clamour would attract attention,
he suddenly transfixed it with his spear, and then, thinking he was
quite unobserved, sat down, snuffed and enjoyed the luxury of watching
the poor beast's last agonies.

But, as it happened, he was not quite alone, for, creeping along in the
grass and rubbish that grew on the farther side of the wall, his brown
body squeezed tightly against the brown stones--so tightly that an
unpractised eye would certainly have failed to notice it at a distance
of a dozen paces--was the Hottentot Jantje. Occasionally, too, he would
lift his head above the level of the wall and observe the proceedings
of the one-eyed man. Apparently he was undecided what to do, for he
hesitated a little, and whilst he did so Hendrik killed the dog.

Now Jantje had all a Hottentot's natural love for animals, which is,
generally speaking, as marked as is the Kafir's callousness towards
them, and he was particularly fond of the dog Stomp, which always went
out with him those rare occasions when he thought it safe or desirable
to walk like an ordinary man instead of wriggling from bush to bush like
a panther, or wriggling through the grass like a snake. The sight of
the animal's death, therefore, raised in his yellow breast a very keen
desire for vengeance on the murderer, if vengeance could be safely
accomplished; and he paused to reflect how this might be done. As he
thought Hendrik rose, gave the dead dog a kick, withdrew his assegai
from the carcase, and then, as though struck by a sudden desire to
conceal the murder, he undid the collar and, lifting the dog in his
arms, carried him with difficulty into the house and laid him under the
kitchen-table. This done, he came out again to the wall, which was built
of unmortared stones, pulled one out without trouble, deposited the
watch and the silver he had stolen in the cavity, and replaced the
stone. Next, before Jantje could guess what he meant to do, he proceeded
to make it practically impossible for his robbery to be discovered,
or at any rate very improbable, by lighting a match, and, having first
glanced round to see that nobody was looking, reaching up and applying
it to the thick thatch wherewith the house itself was roofed, the fringe
of which just at this spot was not more than nine feet from the ground.
No rain had fallen at Mooifontein for several days, and there had been
a hot sun with wind. As a result the thatch was dry as tinder. The light
caught in a second, and in two more a thin line of fire was running up
the roof.

Hendrik paused, stepped a few paces back, resting his shoulders against
the wall, immediately the other side of which was Jantje, and began
to chuckle aloud and rub his hands as he admired the results of
his labours. This proved too much for the Hottentot behind him. The
provocation was overmastering, and so was the opportunity. Jantje
carried with him the thick stick on which he was so fond of cutting
notches. Raising it in both hands be brought the heavy knob down with
all his strength upon the one-eyed villain's unprotected skull. It was
a thick skull, but the knob prevailed against it, and fractured it, and
down went the estimable witch-doctor as though he were dead.

Next, taking a leaf out of his fallen enemy's book, Jantje slipped over
the wall, and, seizing the senseless man, he dragged him by one arm into
the kitchen and rolled him under the table to keep company with the
dead dog. Then, filled with a fearful joy, he crawled out, to a point of
vantage in a little plantation seventy or eighty yards to the right of
the house, whence he could see what the Boers were doing and watch the
conflagration that he knew must ensue, for the fire had taken instant
and irremediable hold.

Ten minutes or so afterwards that amiable character Hendrik partially
regained his senses, to find himself surrounded by a sea of fire, in
which he perished miserably, not having power to move, and his feeble
cries being totally swallowed up and lost in the fierce roaring of the
flames. Such was the very appropriate end of Hendrik and of the magic of
Hendrik.

Down by the flagstaff the old man lay in his fit, while Bessie tended
him and a posse of Boers stood round, smoking and laughing or lounging
about with an air of lordly superiority, well worthy of victors in
possession.

"Will none of you help me to take him to the house?" she cried. "Surely
you have ill treated an old man enough."

Nobody stirred, not even Frank Muller, who was gazing at her
tear-stained face with a fierce smile playing round the corners of his
clean-cut mouth, which his beard was trimmed to show.

"It will pass, Miss Bessie," he said; "it will pass. I have often seen
such fits. They come from too much excitement, or too much drink----"

Suddenly he broke off with an exclamation, and pointed to the house,
from the roof of which pale curls of blue smoke were rising.

"Who has fired the house?" he shouted. "By Heaven! I will shoot the
man."

The Boers wheeled round staring in astonishment, and as they gazed the
tinderlike roof burst into a red sheet of flame that grew and gathered
breadth and height with an almost marvellous rapidity. Just then, too,
a light breeze sprang up from over the hill at the rear of the house,
as it sometimes did at this time of the day, and bent the flames over
towards them in an immense arch of fire, so that the fumes and heat and
smoke began to beat upon their faces.

"Oh, the house is burning down!" cried Bessie, utterly bewildered by
this new misfortune.

"Here, you!" shouted Muller to the gaping Boers, "go and see if anything
can be saved. Phew! we must get out of this," and, stooping down, he
lifted Silas Croft in his arms and walked away with him, followed by
Bessie, towards the plantation on their left, the same spot where Jantje
had taken refuge. In the centre of this plantation was a little glade
surrounded by young orange and blue-gum trees. Here he laid the old
man down upon a bed of dead leaves and soft springing grass, and then
hurried away without a word to the fire, only to find that the house
was already utterly unapproachable. Such was the rapidity with which the
flames did their work upon the mass of dry straw and the wooden roof and
floorings beneath, that in fifteen minutes the whole of the interior of
the house was a glowing incandescent pile, and in half an hour it was
completely gutted, nothing being left standing but the massive outer
walls of stone, over which a dense column of smoke hung like a pall.
Mooifontein was a blackened ruin; only the stables and outhouses, which
were roofed with galvanised iron, remained uninjured.

Frank Muller had not been gone five minutes when, to Bessie's joy, her
uncle opened his eyes and sat up.

"What is it? what is it?" he said. "Ah! I recollect. What is all this
smell of fire? Surely they have not burnt the place?"

"Yes, uncle," sobbed Bessie, "they have."

Silas groaned aloud. "It took me ten years to build, bit by bit, almost
stone by stone, and now they have destroyed it. Well, why not? God's
will be done. Give me your arm, love; I want to get to the water. I feel
faint and sick."

She did as he bade her, sobbing bitterly. Within fifteen yards, on the
edge of the plantation, was a little _spruit_ or runnel of water, and of
this he drank copiously, and bathed his wounded head and face.

"There, love," he said, "don't fret; I feel quite myself again. I fear I
made a fool of myself. I haven't learnt to bear misfortune and dishonour
as I should yet, and, like Job, I felt as though God had forsaken us.
But, as I said, His will be done. What is the next move, I wonder? Ah!
we shall soon know, for here comes our friend Frank Muller."

"I am glad to see that you have recovered, uncle," said Muller politely,
"and I am sorry to have to tell you that the house is beyond help.
Believe me, if I knew who fired it I would shoot him. It was not my wish
or intention that the property should be destroyed."

The old man merely bowed his head and made no answer. His fiery spirit
seemed to be crushed out of him.

"What is it your pleasure that we should do, sir?" said Bessie at last.
"Perhaps, now that we are ruined, you will allow us to go to Natal,
which, I suppose, is still an English country?"

"Yes, Miss Bessie, Natal is still English--for the present; soon it will
be Dutch; but I am sorry that I cannot let you go there now. My orders
are to keep you both prisoners and to try your uncle by court-martial.
The waggon-house," he went on quickly, "with the two little rooms on
each side of it, have not been touched by the fire. They shall be made
ready for you, and as soon as the heat is less you can go there;" and,
turning to his men who had followed him, he gave some rapid orders,
which two of them departed to carry out.

Still the old man made no comment; he did not even seem indignant or
surprised; but poor Bessie was utterly prostrated, and stood helpless,
not knowing what to say to this terrible, remorseless man, who stood so
calm and unmoved before them.

Frank Muller paused awhile to think, stroking his golden beard, then he
turned again and addressed the two other men who stood behind him.

"You will keep guard over the prisoner," indicating Silas Croft, "and
suffer none to communicate with him by word or sign. As soon as it is
is ready you will place him in the little room to the left of the
waggon-house, and see that he is supplied with all he wants. If he
escapes or converses, or is ill treated, I will hold you responsible. Do
you understand?"

"Yah, _Meinheer_," was the answer.

"Very good; be careful you do not forget. And now, Miss Bessie, I shall
be glad if you can give me a word alone----"

"No," said Bessie; "no, I will not leave my uncle."

"I fear you will have to do that," he said, with his cold smile. "I beg
you to think again. It will be very much to your advantage to speak to
me, and to your uncle's advantage also. I should advise you to come."

Bessie hesitated. She hated and mistrusted the man, as she had good
reason to do, and feared to trust herself alone with him.

While she still hesitated, the two Boers, under whose watch and ward
Muller had placed her uncle, advanced and stood between him and her,
cutting her off from him. Muller turned and walked a few paces--ten or
so--to the right, and in desperation she followed him. He halted behind
a bushy orange-tree of some eight years' growth. Overtaking him, she
stood silent, waiting for him to begin. They were quite close to the
others, but the roaring of the flames of the burning house was still
sufficiently loud to have drowned a much more audible conversation.

"What is it you have to say to me?" she said at length, pressing her
hand against her heart to still its beating. Her woman's instinct told
her what was coming, and she was trying to nerve herself to meet it.

"Miss Bessie," he said slowly, "it is this. For years I have loved you
and wanted to marry you. I again ask you to be my wife."

"Mr. Frank Muller," she answered, her spirit rising to the occasion,
"I thank you for your offer, and the only answer that I can give you is
that I once and for all decline it."

"Think," he said; "I love you as women are not often loved. You are
always in my mind, by day and by night too. Everything I do, every step
I go up the ladder, I have said and say to myself, 'I am doing it
for Bessie Croft, whom I mean to marry.' Things have changed in this
country. The rebellion has been successful. It was I who gave the
casting vote for it that I might win you. I am now a great man, and
shall one day be a greater. You will be great with me. Think what you
say."

"I have thought, and I will not marry you. You dare to come and ask me
to marry you over the ashes of my home, out of which you have dragged me
and my poor old uncle. I hate you, I tell you, and I will not marry you!
I had rather marry a Kafir than marry you, Frank Muller, however great
you may be."

He smiled. "Is it because of the Englishman Niel that you will not marry
me? He is dead. It is useless to cling to a dead man."

"Dead or alive, I love him with all my heart, and if he is dead it is at
the hands of your people, and his blood rises up between us."

"His blood has sunk down into the sand. He is dead, and I am glad that
he is dead. Once more, is that your last word?"

"It is."

"Very good. Then I tell you that you shall marry me or----"

"Or what?"

"Or your uncle, the old man you love so much, shall _die!_"

"What do you mean?" she said in a choked voice.

"What I say; no more and no less. Do you think that I will let one old
man's life stand between me and my desire? Never. If you will not marry
me, Silas Croft shall be put upon his trial for attempted murder and for
treason within an hour from this. Within an hour and a half he shall
be condemned to die, and to-morrow at dawn he shall be shot, by warrant
under my hand. I am commandant here, with power of life and death, and
I tell you that he shall certainly die--and his blood will be on your
head."

Bessie grasped at the tree for support. "You dare not," she said; "you
dare not murder an innocent old man."

"Dare not!" he answered; "you must understand me very ill, Bessie Croft,
when you talk of what I dare not do for you. There is nothing," he
added, with a thrill of his rich voice, "that I dare not do to gain you.
Listen: promise to marry me to-morrow morning. I will bring a clergyman
here from Wakkerstroom, and your uncle shall go free as air, though he
is a traitor to the land, and though he has tried to shoot a burgher
after the declaration of peace. Refuse, and he dies. Choose now."

"I have chosen," she answered with passion. "Frank Muller, perjured
traitor--yes, murderer that you are, I will _not_ marry you."

"Very good, very good, Bessie; as you will. But now one more thing. You
shall not say that I have not warned you. If you persist in this your
uncle shall die, but you shall not escape me. You will not marry me?
Well, even in this country, where I can do most things, I cannot force
you to do that. But I can force you to be my wife in all but the name,
without marriage; and this, when your uncle is stiff in his bloody
grave, I will do. You shall have one more chance after the trial, and
one only. If you refuse he shall die, and then, after his death, I shall
take you away by force, and in a week's time you will be glad enough to
marry me to cover up your shame, my pretty!"

"You are a devil, Frank Muller, a wicked devil, but I will not be
frightened into dishonour by you. I had rather kill myself. I trust to
God to help me. I will have nothing to do with you;" and she put her
hands before her face and burst into tears.

"You look lovely when you weep," he said with a laugh; "to-morrow I
shall be able to kiss away your tears. As you will. Here, you!" he
shouted to some men, who could be seen watching the progress of the
dying fire, "come here."

Some of the men obeyed, and to them he gave instructions in the same
terms that he had given to the other two men who were watching old
Silas, ordering Bessie to be instantly incarcerated in the corresponding
little room on the other side of the waggon-house, and kept strictly
from all communication with the outside world, adding, however, these
words:

"Bid the burghers assemble in the waggon-house for the trial of the
Englishman, Silas Croft, for treason against the State, and attempted
murder of one of the burghers of the State in the execution of the
commands of the Triumvirate."

The two men advanced and seized Bessie by both arms. Then, faint and
overpowered, she was led through the little plantation, over a gap in
the garden wall, down past the scorched syringa-trees which lined the
roadway that ran along the hillside at the back of the still burning
house, till they reached the waggon-house with the two little rooms
which served respectively as a store and a harness room. There she was
thrust into the store-room, which was half full of loose potatoes and
mealies in sacks, and the door locked upon her.

There was no window to this room, and the only light in it was such
as found its way through the chinks of the door and an air-hole in the
masonry of the back wall. Bessie sank on a half-emptied sack of mealies
and tried to reflect. Her first thought was of escape, but soon she came
to the conclusion that this was a practical impossibility. The stout
yellow wood door was locked upon her, and a sentry stood before it. She
rose and looked through the air-hole in the rear wall, but there another
sentry was posted. Then she turned her attention to the side wall that
divided the room from the waggon-house. It was built of fourteen-inch
green brickwork, and had cracked from the shrinkage of the bricks, so
that she could hear everything that went on in the waggon-house, and
even see anybody who might be moving about in it. But it was far too
strong for her to hope to be able to break through, and even if she did,
it would be useless, for armed men were there also. Besides, how could
she run away and leave her old uncle to his fate?



CHAPTER XXIX

CONDEMNED TO DEATH

Half an hour passed in silence, which was broken only by the footsteps
of the sentries as they tramped, or rather loitered, up and down, or
by the occasional fall of some calcined masonry from the walls of the
burnt-out house. What between the smell of smoke and dust, the heat of
the sun on the tin roof above, and the red-hot embers of the house in
front, the little room where Bessie was shut up grew almost unbearable,
and she felt as though she should faint upon the sacks. Through one of
the cracks in the waggon-house wall there blew a slight draught, and by
this crack Bessie placed herself, leaning her head against the wall
so as to get the full benefit of the air and to command a view of the
place. Presently several of the Boers came into the waggon-house and
pulled some of the carts and timber out of it, leaving one buck-waggon,
however, placed along the wall on the side opposite to the crack through
which Bessie was looking. Then they pulled the Scotch cart over to her
side, laughing about something among themselves as they did so, and
arranged it with its back turned towards the waggon, supporting the
shafts upon a waggon-jack. Next, out of the farther corner of the place,
they extracted an old saw-bench, and set it at the top of the open
space. Then Bessie understood what they were doing: they were arranging
a court, and the saw-bench was the judge's chair. So Frank Muller meant
to carry out his threat!

Shortly after this all the Boers, except those who were keeping guard,
filed into the place and began to clamber on to the buck-waggon, seating
themselves with much rough joking in a double row upon the broad
side rails. Next appeared Hans Coetzee, his head bound up in a bloody
handkerchief. He was pale and shaky, but Bessie could see that he was
but little the worse for his wound. Then came Frank Muller himself,
looking white and very terrible, and as he came the men stopped their
jokes and talking. Indeed it was curious to observe how strong was his
ascendancy over them. As a rule, the weak part of Boer organisation is
that it is practically impossible to persuade one Boer to pay deference
to or obey another; but this was certainly not the case where Frank
Muller was concerned.

Muller advanced without hesitation to the saw-bench at the top of the
open space, and sat down on it, placing his rifle between his knees.
After this there was a pause, and then Bessie saw her old uncle led
forward by two armed Boers, who halted in the middle of the space, about
three paces from the saw-bench, and stood one on either side of their
prisoner. At the same time Hans Coetzee climbed into the Scotch cart,
and Muller drew a note-book and a pencil from his pocket.

"Silence!" he said. "We are assembled here to try the Englishman, Silas
Croft, by court-martial. The charges against him are that by word and
deed, notably by continuing to fly the British flag after the country
had been surrendered to the Republic, he has traitorously rebelled
against the Government of this country. Further, that he has attempted
to murder a burgher of the Republic by shooting at him with a loaded
rifle. If these charges are proved against him he will be liable to
death, by martial law. Prisoner Croft, what do you answer to the charges
against you?"

The old man, who seemed very quiet and composed, looked up at his judge,
and then replied:

"I am an English subject. I only defended my house after you had
murdered one of my servants. I deny your jurisdiction over me, and I
refuse to plead."

Frank Muller made some notes in his pocket-book, and then said, "I
overrule the prisoner's objection as to the jurisdiction of the court.
As to the charges, we will now take evidence. Of the first charge no
evidence is needed, for we all saw the flag flying. As to the second,
Hans Coetzee, the assaulted burgher, will now give evidence. Hans
Coetzee, do you swear, in the name of God and the Republic, to speak the
truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?"

"Almighty, yes," answered Hans from the cart on which he had enthroned
himself, "so help me the dear Lord."

"Proceed, then."

"I was entering the house of the prisoner to arrest him, in obedience
to your worshipful commands, when the prisoner lifted a gun and fired
at me. The bullet from the gun struck me upon the ear, cutting it and
putting me to much pain and loss of blood. That is the evidence I have
to give."

"That's right; that is not a lie," said some of the men on the waggon.

"Prisoner, have you any question to ask the witness?" said Muller.

"I have no question to ask; I deny your jurisdiction," said the old man
with spirit.

"The prisoner declines to question the witness, and again pleads to the
jurisdiction, a plea which I have overruled. Gentlemen, do you desire to
hear any further evidence?"

"No, no."

"Do you find the prisoner guilty of the charges laid against him?"

"Yes, yes," from the waggon.

Muller made a further note in his book, and went on:

"Then, the prisoner having been found guilty of high treason and
attempted murder, the only matter that remains is the question of
the punishment required to be meted out by the law to such wicked
and horrible offences. Every man will give his verdict, having duly
considered if there is any way by which, in accordance with the holy
dictates of his conscience, and with the natural promptings to pity
in his heart, he can extend mercy to the prisoner. As commandant and
president of the court, the first vote lies with me; and I must tell
you, gentlemen, that I feel the responsibility a very heavy one in
the sight of God and my country; and I must also warn you not to be
influenced or overruled by my decision, who am, like you, only a man,
liable to err and be led away."

"Hear, hear," said the voices on the waggon as he paused to note the
effect of his address.

"Gentlemen and burghers of the State, my natural promptings in this case
are towards pity. The prisoner is an old man, who has lived many years
amongst us like a brother. Indeed, he is a _voortrekker_, and, though an
Englishman, one of the fathers of the land. Can we condemn such a one to
a bloody grave, more especially as he has a niece dependent on him?"

"No, no!" they cried, in answer to this skilful touch upon the better
strings in their nature.

"Gentlemen, those sentiments do you honour. My own heart cried but now,
'No, no. Whatever his sins have been, let the old man go free.' But
then came reflection. True, the prisoner is old; but should not age have
taught him wisdom? Is that which is not to be forgiven to youth to be
forgiven to the ripe experience of many years? May a man murder and be a
traitor because he is old?"

"No, certainly not!" answered the chorus on the waggon.

"Then there is the second point. He was a _voortrekker_ and a father to
the land. Should he not therefore have known better than to betray it
into the hands of the cruel, godless English? For, gentlemen, though
that charge is not laid against him, we must remember, as throwing light
upon his general character, that the prisoner was one of those vile men
who betrayed the land to Shepstone. Is it not a most cruel and unnatural
thing that a father should sell his own children into slavery?--that
a father of the land should barter away its freedom? Therefore on this
point too does justice temper mercy."

"That is so," echoed the chorus with particular enthusiasm, most of them
having themselves been instrumental in bringing the annexation about.

"Then one more thing: this man has a niece, and it is the care of
all good men to see that the young shall not be left destitute and
friendless, lest they should grow up bad and become enemies to the
well-being of the State. But in this case that will not be so, for the
farm will go to the girl by law; and, indeed, she will be well rid of so
desperate and godless an old man.

"And now, having set my reasons towards one side and the other before
you, and having warned you fully to act each man according to his
conscience, I give my vote. It is"--and in the midst of the most intense
silence he paused and looked at old Silas, who never even quailed--"it
is _death_."

There was a little hum of conversation, and poor Bessie, surveying the
scene through the crack in the store-room wall, groaned in bitterness
and despair of heart.

Then Hans Coetzee spoke. "It cut his bosom in two," he said, "to have to
say a word against one to whom he had for many years been as a brother.
But, then, what was he to do? The man had plotted evil against their
land, the dear land that the dear Lord had given them, and which they
and their fathers had on various occasions watered, and were still
continuing to water, with their blood. What could be a fitting
punishment for so black-hearted a traitor, and how would it be possible
to insure the better behaviour of other damned Englishmen, unless they
inflicted that punishment? There could, alas! be but one answer--though,
personally speaking, he uttered it with many tears--and that answer was
_death_."

After this there were no more speeches, but each man voted, according to
his age, upon his name being called by the president. At first there
was a little hesitation, for some among them were fond of old Silas,
and loth to destroy him. But Frank Muller had played his game very well,
and, notwithstanding his appeals to their independence of judgment, they
knew full surely what would happen to him who gave his vote against the
president. So they swallowed their better feelings with all the ease for
which such swallowing is noted, and one by one uttered the fatal word.

When they had all done Frank Muller addressed Silas:

"Prisoner, you have heard the judgment against you. I need not now
recapitulate your crimes. You have had a fair and open trial by
court-martial, such as our law directs. Have you anything to say why
sentence of death should not be passed upon you in accordance with the
judgment?"

Old Silas looked up with flashing eyes, and shook back his fringe of
white hair like a lion at bay.

"I have nothing to say. If you will do murder, do it, black-hearted
villain that you are! I might point to my grey hairs, to my murdered
servant, to my home that took me ten years to build--destroyed by you!
I might tell you how I have been a good citizen and lived peaceably
and neighbourly in the land for more than twenty years--ay, and done
kindness after kindness to many of you who are going to butcher me in
cold blood! But I will not. Shoot me if you will, and may my death lie
heavy on your heads. This morning I would have said that my country
would avenge me; I cannot say that now, for England has deserted us, and
I have no country. Therefore I leave the vengeance in the hands of God,
who never fails to avenge, though sometimes He waits for long to do
it. I am not afraid of you. Shoot me--now if you like. I have lost my
honour, my home, and my country; why should I not lose my life also?"

Frank Muller fixed his cold eyes upon the old man's quivering face and
smiled a dreadful smile of triumph.

"Prisoner, it is now my duty in the name of God and the Republic, to
sentence you to be shot to-morrow at dawn, and may the Almighty forgive
you your wickedness and have mercy upon your soul.

"Let the prisoner be removed, and let a man ride full speed to the empty
house on the hillside, where the Englishman with the red beard used to
live, one hour this side of Wakkerstroom, and bring back with him the
clergyman he will find waiting there, that the prisoner may be offered
his ministrations. Also let two men be set to dig the prisoner's grave
in the burial-place at the back of the house."

The guards laid their hands upon the old man's shoulders, and he turned
and went with them without a word. Through her crack in the wall Bessie
watched him go till the dear old head with its fringe of white hairs
and the bent frame were no more visible. Then at last, benumbed and
exhausted by the horrors she was passing through, her faculties failed
her, and she fell forward in a faint there upon the sacks.

Meanwhile Muller was writing the death-warrant on a sheet of his
pocket-book. At the foot he left a space for his own signature, but for
reasons of his own he did not sign. What he did do was to pass the book
round to be countersigned by all who had formed the court in this mock
trial, his object being to implicate every one there present in the
judicial murder by the direct and incontrovertible evidence of his
sign-manual. Now, Boers are simple pastoral folk, but they are not quite
so simple as to be deceived by a move like this, and hereon followed a
very instructive little scene. To a man they had been willing enough to
give their verdict for the execution of Silas, but they were by no means
prepared to record it in black and white. As soon as they understood
the object of their feared and respected commandant, a general desire
manifested itself to make themselves individually and collectively
scarce. Suddenly they found that they had business outside, to which
each and all of them must attend. Already they had escaped from their
extemporised jury-box, and, headed by the redoubtable Hans, were
approaching the entrance to the waggon-house, when Frank Muller
perceived their design, and roared in a voice of thunder:

"Stop! Not a man leaves this place till the warrant is signed."

Instantly they halted, and began to look innocent and converse.

"Hans Coetzee, come here and sign," said Muller again, whereon that
unfortunate advanced with as good a grace as he could muster, murmuring
to himself curses, not loud but deep, upon the head of "that devil of a
man, Frank Muller."

However, there was no help for it, so, with a sickly smile, he put his
name to the fatal document in big and shaky letters. Then Muller
called another man, who instantly tried to shirk on the ground that his
education had been neglected, and that he could not write, an excuse
which availed him little, for Frank Muller quietly wrote his name for
him, leaving a space for his mark. After this there was no more trouble,
and in five minutes the back of the warrant was covered with the
sprawling signatures of the various members of the court.



One by one the men went, till at last Muller was left alone, seated on
the saw-bench, his head sunk upon his breast, in one hand holding the
warrant, while with the other he stroked his golden beard. Presently he
ceased stroking his beard and sat for some minutes perfectly still--so
still that he might have been carved in stone. By this time the
afternoon sun had sunk behind the hill and the deep waggon-house was
full of shadow that seemed to gather round him and invest him with a
sombre, mysterious grandeur. He looked like a King of Evil, for Evil has
her princes as well as Good, whom she stamps with an imperial seal of
power, and crowns with a diadem of her own, and among these Frank Muller
was surely great. A little smile of triumph played upon his beautiful
cruel face, a little light danced within his cold eyes and ran down the
yellow beard. At that moment he might have sat for a portrait of his
master, the devil.

Presently he awoke from his reverie. "I have her!" he said to himself;
"I have her in a vice! She cannot escape me; she cannot let the old man
die! Those curs have served my purpose well; they are as easy to play on
as a fiddle, and I am a good player. Yes, and now we are getting to the
end of the tune."



CHAPTER XXX

"WE MUST PART, JOHN"

Jess and her companion stood in awed silence and gazed at the blackening
and distorted corpses of the thunder-blasted Boers. Then they passed by
them to the tree which grew some ten paces or more on the other side of
the place of death. There was some difficulty in leading the horses by
the bodies, but at last they came with a wheel and a snort of suspicion,
and were tied up to the tree by John. Meanwhile Jess took some of the
hard-boiled eggs out of the basket and vanished, remarking that she
should take her clothes off and dry them in the sun while she at her
breakfast, and that she advised him to do likewise. Accordingly, so soon
as she was well out of sight behind the shelter of the rocks she set
to work to free herself from her sodden garments, a task of no little
difficulty. Then she wrung them out and spread them one by one on the
flat water-washed stones around, which were by now thoroughly warmed
with the sun. Next she climbed to a pool under the shadow of the steep
bank, in the rock-bed of the river, where she bathed her bruises and
washed the sand and mud from her hair and feet. Her bath finished, she
returned and sat herself on a slab of flat stone out of the glare of the
sun, and ate her breakfast of hard-boiled eggs, reflecting meanwhile
on the position in which she found herself. Her heart was very sore and
heavy, and almost could she wish that she were lying deep beneath those
rushing waters. She had counted upon death, and now she was not dead;
indeed, she with her shame and trouble might yet live for many a year.
She was as one who in her sleep had seemed to soar on angels' wings far
into the airy depths, and then awakened with a start to find that
she had tumbled from her bed. All the heroic scale, all the more than
earthly depth of passion, all the spiritualised desires that sprang into
being beneath the shadow of the approaching end, had come down to the
common level of an undesirable attachment, along which she must drag
her weary feet for many a year. Nor was this all. She had been false to
Bessie; more, she had broken Bessie's lover's troth. She had tempted
him and he had fallen, and now he was as bad as she. Death would have
justified all this; never would she have done it had she thought that
she was doomed to live; but now Death had cheated her, as is his fashion
with people to whom his presence is more or less desirable, leaving her
to cope with the spirit she had invoked when his sword was quivering
over her.

What would be the end of it in the event of their escape? What could be
the end except misery? It should go no farther, far as it had gone--that
she swore; no, not if it broke her heart and his too. The conditions
were altered again, and the memory of those dreadful and wondrous hours
when they two swung upon the raging river and exchanged their undying
troth, with the grave for an altar, must remain a memory and nothing
more. It had risen in their lives like some beautiful yet terrible
dream-image of celestial joy, and now like a dream it must vanish. And
yet it was no dream, except in so far as all her life was a dream and
a vision, a riddle of which glimpses of the answer came as rarely as
gleams of sunshine on a rainy day. Alas! it was no dream; it was a
portion of the living, breathing past, that, having once been, is
immortal in its every part and moment, incarnating as it does the very
spirit of immortality, an utter incapacity to change. As the act was,
as the word had been spoken, so would act and word be for ever and for
ever. And now this undying thing must be caged and cast about with
the semblance of death and clouded over with the shadow of an unreal
forgetfulness. Oh, it was bitter, very bitter! What would it be now to
go away, quite away from him, and know him married to her own sister,
the other woman with a prior right? What would it be to think of
Bessie's sweetness slowly creeping into her empty place and filling it,
of Bessie's gentle constant love covering up the recollection of their
wilder passion; pervading it and covering it up as the twilight slowly
pervades and covers up the day, till at last perhaps it was blotted out
and forgotten in the night of forgetfulness?

And yet it must be so: she was determined that it should be so. Ah, that
she had died then with his kiss upon her lips! Why had he not let her
die? And grieving thus the poor girl shook her damp hair over her face
and sobbed in the bitterness of her heart, as Eve might have sobbed when
Adam reproached her.

But, naked or dressed, sobbing will not mend matters in this sad world
of ours, a fact which Jess had the sense to recognise; so presently she
wiped her eyes with her hair, having nothing else at hand to wipe them
with, and set to work to struggle into her partially dried garments
again, a process calculated to irritate the most fortunate and
happy-minded woman in the whole wide world. Certainly in her present
frame of mind those damp, bullet-torn clothes drove Jess frantic,
so much so that had she been a man she would probably have sworn--a
consolation that her sex denied her. Fortunately she carried a
travelling comb in her pocket, with which she made shift to do her
curling hair, if hair can be said to be done when one has not a hairpin
or even a bit of string wherewith to fasten it.

Then, after a last and frightful encounter with her sodden boots, that
seemed to take almost as much out of her as her roll at the bottom of
the Vaal, Jess rose and walked back to the spot where she had left John
an hour before. When she reached him he was employed in saddling up
the two greys with the saddles and bridles that he had removed from the
carcases of the horses which the lightning had destroyed.

"Why, Jess, you look quite smart. Have you dried your clothes?" he said.
"I have after a fashion."

"Yes," she answered.

He looked at her. "Dearest, you have been crying. Come, things are black
enough, but it is useless to cry. At any rate, we have escaped with our
lives so far."

"John," said Jess sharply, "there must be no more of that. Things
have changed. We were dead last night. Now we have come to life again.
Besides," she added, with a ghost of a laugh, "perhaps you will see
Bessie to-morrow. I should think that we ought to have come to the end
of our misfortunes."

John's face fell as a sense of the impossible and most tragic position
in which they were placed, physically and morally, swept into his mind.

"Jess, my own Jess," he said, "what _can_ we do?"

She stamped her foot in the bitter anguish of her heart. "I told you,"
she said, "that there must be no more of that. What are you thinking
about? From to-day we are dead to each other. I have done with you
and you with me. It is your own fault; you should have let me die. Oh,
John," she wailed out, "why did you not let me die? Why did we not both
die? We should have been happy now, or--asleep. We must part, John, we
must part; and what shall I do without you, how _shall_ I live without
you?"

Her distress was very poignant, and it affected him so much that for a
moment he could not trust himself to answer her.

"Would it not be best to make a clean breast of it to Bessie?" he said
at last. "I should feel a villain for the rest of my life, but upon my
word I have a mind to do it."

"No, no," she cried passionately, "I will not allow it! You shall swear
to me that you will never breathe a word to Bessie. I will not have her
happiness destroyed. We have sinned, we must suffer; not Bessie, who is
innocent, and only takes her right. I promised my dear mother to look
after Bessie and protect her, and I will not be the one to betray
her--never, never! You must marry her and I must go away. There is no
other way out of it."

John looked at her, not knowing what to say or do. A sharp pang of
despair went through him as he watched the passionate pale face and the
great eyes dim with tears. How was he to part from her? He put out his
arms to take her in them, but she pushed him away almost fiercely.

"Have you no honour?" she cried. "Is it not all hard enough to bear
without your tempting me? I tell you it is done with. Finish saddling
that horse and let us start. The sooner we get off the sooner it will
be over, unless the Boers catch us again and shoot us, which for my own
part I devoutly hope they may. You must make up your mind to remember
that I am nothing but your sister-in-law. If you will not remember
it, then I shall ride away and leave you to go your road and I will go
mine."

John said no more. Her determination was as crushing as the cruel
necessity that dictated it. What was more, his own reason and sense of
honour approved it, whatever his passion might prompt to the contrary.
As he turned wearily to finish saddling the horses, with Jess he almost
regretted that they had not both been drowned.

Of course the only saddles that they had were those belonging to the
dead Boers, which was very awkward for a lady. Luckily for herself,
however, from constant practice, Jess could ride almost as well as
though she had been trained to the ring, and was even capable of
balancing herself without a pommel on a man's saddle, having often and
often ridden round the farm in that fashion. So soon as the horses were
ready she astonished John by clambering into the saddle of the older and
steadier animal, placing her foot in the stirrup-strap and announcing
that she was ready to start.

"You had better ride some other way," said John. "It isn't usual, I
know, but you will tumble off so."

"You shall see," she said with a cold little laugh, putting the horse
into a canter as she spoke. John followed her on the other horse,
and noticed with amazement that she sat as straight and steady on her
slippery seat as though she were on a hunting saddle, keeping herself
from falling by an instinctive balancing of the body which was very
curious to notice. When they were well on to the plain they halted to
consider their route, and, turning, Jess pointed to the long lines of
vultures descending to feast on their would-be murderers. If they went
down the river it would lead them to Standerton, and there they would be
safe if they could slip into the town, which was garrisoned by English.
But then, as they had gathered from the conversation of their escort,
Standerton was closely invested by the Boers, and to try and pass
through their lines was more than they dared to do. It was true that
they still had the pass signed by the Boer general, but after what had
occurred not unnaturally they were somewhat sceptical about the value of
a pass, and certainly most unwilling to put its efficacy to the proof.
So after due consideration they determined to avoid Standerton and ride
in the opposite direction till they found a practicable ford of the
Vaal. Fortunately, they both of them had a very good idea of the lay
of the land; and, in addition to this, John possessed a small compass,
fastened to his watch-chain, which would enable him to steer a fairly
correct course across a veldt--a fact that rendered them independent of
the waggon tracks. On the roads they were exposed to the risk, if not
the certainty, of detection. But on the wide veldt the chances were
they would meet no living creature except the wild game. Should they see
houses they could avoid them, and probably their male inhabitants would
be far away from home on business connected with the war.

Accordingly they rode ten miles or more along the bank without seeing a
soul, till they reached a space of bubbling, shallow water that looked
fordable. Indeed, an investigation of the banks revealed the fact that a
loaded waggon had passed the river here and at no distant date, perhaps
a week before.

"This is good enough," said John; "we will try it." And without further
ado they plunged into the rapid.

In the centre of the stream the water was strong and deep, and for a few
yards swept the horses off their legs, but they struck out boldly
till they found their footing again; and after that there was no more
trouble. On the farther side of the river John took counsel with his
compass, and they steered a course straight for Mooifontein. At midday
they off-saddled the horses for an hour by some water, and ate a small
portion of their remaining food. Then they up-saddled and went on across
the lonely, desolate veldt. No human being did they see all that long
day. The wide country was tenanted only by great herds of game that went
thundering past like squadrons of cavalry, or here and there by coteries
of vultures, hissing and fighting furiously over some dead buck. And so
at last the twilight gathered and found them alone in the wilderness.

"Well, what is to be done now?" said John, pulling up his tired horse.
"It will be dark in half an hour."

Jess slid from her saddle as she answered, "Get off and go to sleep, I
suppose."

She was quite right; there was absolutely nothing else that they could
do; so John set to work and hobbled the horses, tying them together
for further security, for it would be a dreadful thing if they were to
stray. By the time that this was done the twilight was deepening into
night, and the two sat down to contemplate their surroundings with
feelings akin to despair. So far as the eye could reach there was
nothing to be seen but a vast stretch of lonely plain, across which the
night wind blew in dreary gusts, causing the green grass to ripple like
the sea. There was absolutely no shelter to be had, nor any object to
break the monotony of the veldt, except two ant-heaps set about five
paces apart. John sat down on one of the ant-heaps, and Jess took up
her position on the other, and there they remained, like pelicans in the
wilderness, watching the daylight fade out of the day.

"Don't you think that we had better sit together?" suggested John
feebly. "It would be warmer, you see."

"No, I don't," answered Jess snappishly. "I am very comfortable as I
am."

Unfortunately, however, this was not the exact truth, for already poor
Jess's teeth were chattering with cold. Soon, indeed, weary as they
were, they found that the only way to keep their blood moving was
to tramp continually up and down. After an hour and a half of this
exercise, the breeze dropped and the temperature became more suitable to
their lightly clad, half-starved, and almost exhausted bodies. Then the
moon came up, and the hyenas, or wolves, or some such animals, came up
also and howled round them--though they could not see them. These hyenas
proved more than Jess's nerves would bear, and at last she condescended
to ask John to share her ant-heap: where they sat, shivering in each
other's arms, throughout the livelong night. Indeed, had it not been for
the warmth they gathered from each other, it is probable that they might
have fared even worse than they did; for, though the days were hot, the
nights were now beginning to be cold on the high veldt, especially when,
as at present, the air had recently been chilled by the passage of a
heavy tempest. Another drawback to their romantic situation was that
they were positively soaked with the falling dew. There they sat, or
rather cowered, for hour after hour without sleeping, for sleep was
impossible, and almost without speaking; and yet, notwithstanding the
wretchedness of their circumstances, not altogether unhappy, since they
were united in their misery. At last the eastern sky began to turn grey,
and John rose, shook the dew from his hat and clothes, and limped off
as well as his half-frozen limbs would allow to catch the horses, which
were standing together some yards away, looking huge and ghost-like in
the mist. By sunrise he had managed to saddle them up, and they started
once more. This time, however, he was obliged to lift Jess on to the
saddle.

About eight o'clock they halted and ate their little remaining food, and
then went on, slowly enough, for the horses were almost as tired as
they were, and it was necessary to husband them if they were to reach
Mooifontein by dark. At midday they rested for an hour and a half, and
then, feeling almost worn out, continued their journey, reckoning that
they could not be more than sixteen or seventeen miles from Mooifontein.
It was about two hours after this that the catastrophe happened. The
course they were following ran down the side of one land wave, then
across a little swampy _sluit_, and up the opposite slope. They crossed
the marshy ground, walked their horses up to the crest of the opposite
rise, and found themselves face to face with a party of armed and
mounted Boers.



CHAPTER XXXI

JESS FINDS A FRIEND

The Boers swooped down on them with a shout, like hawks on a sparrow.
John pulled up his horse and drew his revolver.

"Don't, don't!" cried Jess; "our only chance is to be civil;" whereon,
thinking better of the matter, he replaced it, and wished the leading
Boer good-day.

"What are you doing here?" asked the Dutchman; whereon Jess explained
that they had a pass--which John promptly produced--and were proceeding
to Mooifontein.

"Ah, _Oom_ Croft's!" said the Boer as he took the pass, "you are likely
to meet a burying party there," but at the time Jess did not understand
what he meant. He eyed the pass suspiciously all over, and then asked
how it came to be stained with water.

Jess, not daring to tell the truth, said that it had been dropped into a
puddle. The Boer was about to return it when suddenly his eye fell upon
Jess's saddle.

"How is it that the girl is riding on a man's saddle?" he asked. "Why,
I know that saddle; let me look at the other side. Yes, there is a
bullet-hole through the flap. That is Swart Dirk's saddle. How did you
get it?"

"I bought it from him," answered Jess without a moment's hesitation. "I
could get nothing to ride on."

The Boer shook his head. "There are plenty of saddles in Pretoria,"
he said, "and these are not the days when a man sells his saddle to an
English girl. Ah! and that other is a Boer saddle too. No Englishman has
a saddle-cloth like that. This pass is not sufficient," he went on in a
cold tone; "it should have been countersigned by the local commandant. I
must arrest you."

Jess began to make further excuses, but he merely repeated, "I must
arrest you," and gave some orders to the men with him.

"We are caught again," she said to John; "and there is nothing for it
but to go."

"I sha'n't mind so much if only they will give us some food," replied
John philosophically. "I am half starved."

"And I am half dead," said Jess with a little laugh. "I wish they would
shoot us and have done with it."

"Come, cheer up, Jess," he answered; "perhaps the luck is going to
change."

She shook her head with the air of one who expects the worst, and then
some gay young spirits among the Boers came up and made things pleasant
by an exhibition of their polished wit, which they chiefly exercised at
the expense of poor Jess, whose appearance, as may well be imagined, was
exceedingly wretched and forlorn; so much so that it would have moved
the pity of most people. But these specimens of the golden youth of
a simple pastoral folk found in it a rich mine of opportunities. They
asked her if she would not like to ride straddle-legged, and if she had
bought her dress from an old Hottentot who had done with it, and if she
had been rolling about tipsy in the veldt to get all the mud on it; and
generally availed themselves of this unparalleled occasion to be witty
at the expense of an English lady in sore distress. Indeed, one gay
young dog called Jacobus was proceeding from jokes linguistic to jokes
practical. Perceiving that Jess only kept her seat on the man's saddle
by the exercise of a faculty of balance, it occurred to him that it
would be a fine thing to upset it and make her fall upon her face.
Accordingly, with a sudden twist of the rein he brought his horse
sharply against her wearied animal, nearly throwing it down; but she was
too quick for him, and saved herself by catching at the mane. Jess said
nothing; indeed, she made no answer to her tormentors, and fortunately
John understood little of what they were saying. Presently, however,
the young Boer made another attempt, putting out his hand to give her
a slight push. As it happened John saw this, and the sight of the
indignity caused the blood to boil in his veins. Before he could reflect
on what he was doing he was alongside of the man, and, catching him by
the throat, had hurled him backwards over his crupper with all the force
he could command. Jacobus fell heavily upon his shoulders, and instantly
there was a great hubbub. John drew his revolver, and the other Boers
raised their rifles, so that Jess thought there was an end of it, and
put her hand before her face, having first thanked John for avenging the
insult with a swift flash of her beautiful eyes. And indeed in another
second it would have been all over had not the elder man who inspected
the pass interposed. In fact he had witnessed the proceedings which led
to his follower's discomfiture, and, being a decent person at bottom,
strongly disapproved of them.

"Leave them alone and put down those guns," he shouted. "It served
Jacobus right; he was trying to push the girl from her horse! Almighty!
it is not wonderful those English call us brute beasts when you boys do
such things. Put down your guns, I say, and one of you help Jacobus up.
He looks as sick as a buck with a bullet through it."

Accordingly the row passed over, and the playful Jacobus--whom Jess
noted with satisfaction seemed exceedingly ill and trembled in every
limb--was with difficulty hoisted on to his horse, to continue his
journey with not a single bit of fun left in him.

A little while after this Jess pointed out a long low hill that lay upon
the flat veldt, a dozen miles or so away, like a stone upon a stretch of
sand.

"Look," she said, "there is Mooifontein at last!"

"We are not there yet," remarked John sadly.

Another weary half-hour passed, and then on passing over a crest
suddenly they saw Hans Coetzee's homestead lying down by the water in
the hollow. So that was whither they were being taken.

Within a hundred yards of the house the Boers halted and consulted,
except Jacobus, who went on, still looking very green. Finally the elder
man came to them and addressed Jess, at the same time handing her back
the pass.

"You can go on home," he said. "The Englishman must stay with us till we
find out more about him."

"He says that I can go. What shall I do?" asked Jess. "I don't like
leaving you with these men."

"Do? why, go, of course. I can look after myself; and if I can't,
certainly you won't be able to help me. Perhaps you will be able to get
some help from the farm. At any rate, you must go."

"Now, Englishman," said the Boer.

"Good-bye, Jess," said John. "God bless you."

"Good-bye, John," she answered, looking him steadily in the eyes for a
moment, and then turning away to hide the tears which would gather in
her own.

And thus they parted.

She knew her way now even across the open veldt, for she dared not go
by the road. There was, however, a bridle path that ran over the hill at
the back of Mooifontein, and for this she shaped her course. It was five
o'clock by now, and both she and her horse were in a condition of great
exhaustion, enhanced in her own case by want of food and trouble of
mind. But she was a strong woman, with a will like iron, and she held
on when most girls would have died. Jess meant to get to Mooifontein
somehow, and she knew that she would get there. If only she could reach
the place and find help to send to her lover, she did not greatly care
what happened to her afterwards. The pace of the horse she was riding
grew slower and slower. From the ambling canter into which at first she
managed occasionally to force it, and which is the best pace to travel
at in South Africa, it relapsed continually into a rough short trot,
which was agony to her, riding as she was, and from the trot into a
walk. Indeed, just before sunset, or a little after six o'clock, the
walk became final. At last they reached the rising ground that stretched
up the slope of the Mooifontein hill, and here the poor beast fell down
utterly worn out. Jess slipped off and tried to drag it up, but failed.
It had no strength left in it. So she did what she could, pulling off
the bridle and undoing the girth, so that the saddle would fall off
if the horse ever managed to rise. The animal watched her go with
melancholy eyes, knowing that it was being deserted. First it neighed,
then with a desperate effort it struggled to its feet and trotted after
her for a hundred yards or so, only to fall down again at last. Jess
turned and saw it, and, exhausted as she was, she positively ran to get
away from the look in those big eyes. That night there was a cold rain,
in which the horse perished, as "poor" horses are apt to do.

It was nearly dark when at length Jess reached the top of the hill and
looked down. She knew the spot well, and from it she could always see
the light in the kitchen window of the house. To-night there was no
light. Wondering what it could mean, and feeling a fresh chill of doubt
creep round her heart, she scrambled on down the hill. When she was
about half-way a shower of sparks suddenly shot into the air from the
spot where the house should be, caused by the fall of a piece of wall
into the smouldering embers beneath. Again Jess paused, wondering and
aghast. What could have happened? Determined at all hazards to discover,
she crept on very cautiously. Before she had gone another twenty yards,
however, a hand was laid suddenly upon her arm. She turned quickly, too
paralysed with fear to cry out, and a voice that was familiar to her
whispered into her ear, "Missie Jess, Missie Jess, is it you? I am
Jantje."

She gave a sigh of relief, and her heart, which had stood still, began
to move again. Here was a friend at last.

"I heard you coming down the hill, though you came so softly," he said;
"but I could not tell who it was, because you jumped from rock to rock
and did not walk as usual. But I thought it was a woman with boots; I
could not see, because the light all falls dead against the hill, and
the stars are not up. So I got to the left of your path--for the wind is
blowing from the right--and waited till you had passed and _winded_ you.
Then I knew who you were for certain--either you or Missie Bessie; but
Missie Bessie is shut up, so it could not be her."

"Bessie shut up!" ejaculated Jess, not even pausing to marvel at the
dog-like instinct that had enabled the Hottentot to identify her. "What
do you mean?"

"This way, missie, come this way, and I will tell you;" and he led her
to a fantastic pile of rocks in which it was his wild habit to sleep.
Jess knew the place well, and had often peeped into, but never entered,
the Hottentot's kennel.

"Stop a bit, missie. I will go and light a candle; I have some in there,
and they can't see the light from outside;" and accordingly he vanished.
In a few seconds he returned, and, taking her by the sleeve, led her
along a winding passage between great boulders till they came to a
beehole in the rocks, through which she could see the light shining.
Going down on his hands and knees, Jantje crept through, and Jess
followed him. She found herself in a small apartment, about six feet
square by eight high, formed for the most part by the accidental falling
together of big boulders, and roofed in with one great natural slab. The
place, which was lighted by an end of candle stuck upon the floor, was
very dirty, as might be expected of a Hottentot's den, and in it
were collected an enormous variety of odds and ends. As, discarding a
three-legged stool that Jantje offered her, Jess sank down on a pile of
skins in the corner, her eye fell upon a collection worthy of an old
rag and bone shop. The sides of the chamber were festooned with every
imaginable garment, from the white full-dress coat of an Austrian
officer down to a shocking pair of corduroys "lifted' by Jantje from
the body of a bushman, which he had discovered in his rambles. All these
clothes were in various stages of decay, and obviously the result of
years of patient collecting. In the corners again were sticks, kerries,
and two assegais, a number of queer-shaped stones and bones, handles of
broken table-knives, bits of the locks of guns, portions of an American
clock, and various other articles which this human jackdaw had picked
up and hidden away. Altogether it was a strange place: and vaguely it
occurred to Jess, as she sank back upon the dirty skins, that, had it
not been for the old clothes and the wreck of the American clock, she
would have made acquaintance with a very fair example of the dwellings
of primeval man.

"Stop before you begin," she said. "Have you anything to eat here? I am
nearly starving."

Jantje grinned knowingly, and, grubbing in a heap of rubbish in the
corner, drew out a gourd with a piece of flat sheet iron, which once had
formed the back plate of a stove, placed on the top of it. It contained
"maas," or curdled buttermilk, which a woman had brought him that very
morning from a neighbouring kraal, and it was destined for Jantje's own
supper. Hungry as he was himself, for he had tasted no food all day, he
gave it to Jess without a moment's hesitation, together with a wooden
spoon, and, squatting on the rock before her, watched her eat it with
guttural exclamations of satisfaction. Not knowing that she was robbing
a hungry man, Jess ate the maas to the last spoonful, and was grateful
to feel the sensation of gnawing sickness leave her.

"Now," she said, "tell me what you mean."

Thereon Jantje began at the beginning and related the events of the day
so far as he was acquainted with them. When he came to where the old
man was dragged, with kicks and blows and ignominy, from his own
house, Jess's eyes flashed, and she positively ground her teeth with
indignation; and as for her feelings when she learnt that he was
condemned to death and to be shot at dawn on the morrow, they are simply
indescribable. Of the Bessie complication Jantje was quite ignorant, and
could only tell her that Frank Muller had an interview with her sister
in the little plantation, after which she was shut up in the store-room,
where she still remained. But this was quite enough for Jess, who knew
Muller's character better, perhaps, than anybody else, and was not by
any means ignorant of his designs upon Bessie. A few moments' thought
put the key of the matter into her hand. She saw now what was the
reason of the granting of the pass, and of the determined and partially
successful attempt at wholesale murder of which they had been the
victims. She saw, too, why her old uncle had been condemned to death--it
was to be used as a lever with Bessie; the man was capable even of that.

Yes, she saw it all as clear as daylight; and in her heart she swore,
helpless as she seemed to be, that she would find a way to prevent it.
But what way? what way? Ah, if only John were here! but he was not, so
she must act without him if only she could see the road to action. She
thought first of all of going down boldly to face Muller and denounce
him as a murderer before his men; but a moment's reflection showed that
this was impracticable. For his own safety he would be obliged to
stop her mouth somehow, and the best she could expect would be to be
incarcerated and rendered quite powerless. If only she could manage to
communicate with Bessie! At any rate it was absolutely necessary that
she should know what was happening. She might as well be a hundred miles
away as a hundred yards.

"Jantje," she said, "tell me where the Boers are."

"Some are in the waggon-house, missie, some are on sentry, and the rest
are down by the waggon they brought with them and outspanned behind the
gums there. The cart is there, too, that came just before you did, with
the clergyman in it."

"And where is Frank Muller?"

"I don't know, missie; but he brought a round tent with him in the
waggon, and it is pitched between the two big gums."

"Jantje, I must go down there and find out what is going on, and you
must come with me."

"You will be caught, missie. There is a sentry at the back of the
waggon-house, and two in front. But," he added, "perhaps we might get
near. I will go out and look at the night."

Presently he returned and said that a "small rain" had come on, and the
clouds covered up the stars so that it was very dark.

"Well, let us go at once," said Jess.

"Missie, you had better not go," answered the Hottentot. "You will get
wet, and the Boers will catch you. Better let me go. I can creep about
like a snake, and if the Boers catch me it won't matter."

"You must come too, but I am going. I must find out."

Then the Hottentot shrugged his shoulders and yielded, and, having
extinguished the candle, silently as ghosts they crept out into the
night.



CHAPTER XXXII

HE SHALL DIE

The night was still and very dark. A soft cold rain, such as often falls
in the Wakkerstroom and New Scotland districts of the Transvaal, and
which more resembles a true north country mist than anything else, was
drizzling gently but persistently. This condition of affairs was as
favourable as possible to their enterprise, and under cover of it the
Hottentot and the white girl crept far down the hill to within twelve
or fourteen paces of the back of the waggon-house. Then Jantje, who was
leading, suddenly put back his hand and checked her, and at that moment
Jess caught the sound of a sentry's footsteps as he tramped leisurely up
and down. For a couple of minutes or so they stopped thus, not knowing
what to do, when suddenly a man came round the corner of the building
holding a lantern in his hand. On seeing the lantern Jess's first
impulse was to fly, but Jantje by a motion made her understand that she
was to stop still. The man with the lantern advanced towards the other
man, holding the light above his head, and looking dim and gigantic in
the mist and rain. Presently he turned his face, and Jess saw that it
was Frank Muller himself. He stood thus for a moment waiting till the
sentry was near to him.

"You can go to your supper," he said. "Come back in half an hour. I will
be responsible for the prisoners till then."

The man growled out an answer something about the rain, and then
departed round the end of the building, followed by Muller.

"Now then, come on," whispered Jantje; "there is a hole in the
store-room wall, and you may be able to speak to Missie Bessie."

Jess did not require a second invitation, but slipped up to the wall
in five seconds. Passing her hand over the stone-work she found the
air-hole, which she remembered well, for they used to play bo-peep there
as children, and was about to whisper through it, when suddenly the door
at the other end opened, and Frank Muller entered, bearing the lantern
in his hand. For a moment he stood on the threshold, opening the slide
of the lantern in order to increase the light. His hat was off, and he
wore a cape of dark cloth thrown over his shoulders, which seemed to
add to his great breadth. Indeed the thought flashed through the mind
of Jess as she looked at him through the hole, and saw the light strike
upon his face and form, glinting down his golden beard, that he was the
most magnificent specimen of humanity whom she had ever seen. In another
instant he had turned the lantern round and revealed her dear sister
Bessie to her gaze. Bessie lay upon one of the half-empty sacks of
mealies, apparently half asleep, for she opened her wide blue eyes and
looked round apprehensively like one suddenly awakened. Her golden curls
were in disorder and falling over her fair forehead, and her face was
very pale and troubled, and marked beneath the eyes with deep blue
lines. Catching sight of her visitor she rose hurriedly and retreated as
far from him as the pile of sacks and potatoes would allow.

"What is it?" she asked in a low voice. "I gave you my answer. Why do
you come to torment me again?"

He placed the lantern upon an upright sack of mealies, and carefully
balanced it before he answered. Jess could see that he was taking time
to consider.

"Let us recapitulate," he said at length, in his full rich voice. "The
position is this. I gave you this morning the choice between consenting
to marry me to-morrow and seeing your old uncle and benefactor shot.
Further, I assured you that if you would not consent to marry me your
uncle should be shot, and that I would then make you mine, dispensing
with the ceremony of marriage. Is that not so?"

Bessie made no answer, and he continued, his eyes fixed upon her face,
and thoughtfully stroking his beard.

"Silence gives consent. I will go on. Before a man can be shot according
to law he must be tried and condemned according to law. Your uncle has
been tried and has been condemned."

"I heard it all, cruel murderer that you are," said Bessie, lifting her
head for the first time.

"So! I thought you would, through the crack. That is why I had you put
into this place; it would not have looked well to bring you before the
court;" and he took the light and examined the crevice. "This wall is
badly built," he went on in a careless tone; "look, there is another
space there at the back;" and he actually came up to it and held the
lantern close to the airhole in such fashion that its light shone
through into Jess's eyes and nearly blinded her. She shut them quickly
so that the gleam reflected from them should not betray her, then held
her breath and remained still as the dead. In another second Muller took
away the light and replaced it on the mealie bag.

"So you say you saw it all. Well, it must have shown you that I was in
earnest. The old man took it well, did he not? He is a brave man, and
I respect him. I fancy that he will not move a muscle at the last. That
comes of English blood, you see. It is the best in the world, and I am
proud to have it in my veins."

"Cannot you stop torturing me, and say what you have to say?" asked
Bessie.

"I had no wish to torture you, but if you like I will come to the
point. It is this. Will you now consent to marry me to-morrow morning
at sun-up, or am I to be forced to carry the sentence on your old uncle
into effect?"

"I will not. I will not. I hate you and defy you."

Muller looked at her coldly, and then drew his pocket-book from his
pocket and extracted from it the death-warrant and a pencil.

"Look, Bessie," he said. "This is your uncle's death-warrant. At present
it is valueless and informal, for I have not yet signed, though, as
you will see, I have been careful that everybody else should. If once I
place my signature there it cannot be revoked, and the sentence must
be carried into effect. If you persist in your refusal I will sign it
before your eyes;" and he placed the paper on the book and took the
pencil in his right hand.

"Oh, you cannot, you cannot be such a fiend," wailed the wretched woman,
wringing her hands.

"I assure you that you are mistaken. I both can and will. I have gone
too far to turn back for the sake of one old Englishman. Listen, Bessie.
Your lover Niel is dead--that you know."

Here Jess behind the wall felt inclined to cry out, "it is a lie!" but,
remembering the absolute necessity of silence, she checked herself.

"And what is more," went on Muller, "your sister Jess is dead too! she
died two days ago."

"Jess dead! Jess dead! It is not true. How do you know that she is
dead?"

"Never mind; I will tell you when we are married. She is dead, and,
except for your uncle, you are alone in the world. If you persist in
this he will soon be dead too, and his blood will be upon your head, for
you will have murdered him."

"And if I were to say yes, how would that help him?" she cried wildly.
"He is condemned by your court-martial--you would only deceive me and
murder him after all."

"On my honour, no. Before the marriage I will give this warrant to
the pastor, and he shall burn it as soon as the service is said. But,
Bessie, don't you see that these fools who tried your uncle are only
like clay in my hands? I can bend them this way and that, and whatever
song I sing they will echo it. They do not wish to shoot your uncle, and
will be glad indeed to get out of it. Your uncle shall go in safety to
Natal, or stay here if he wills. His property shall be secured to him,
and compensation paid for the burning of his house. I swear it before
God."

She looked up at him, and he could see that she was inclined to believe
him.

"It is true, Bessie, it is true--I will rebuild the place myself, and
if I can find the man who fired it he shall be shot. Come, listen to me,
and be reasonable. The man you love is dead, and no amount of sighing
can bring him to your arms. I alone am left--I who love you better than
life, better than man ever loved woman before. Look at me: am I not a
proper man for any maid to wed, though I be half a Boer? And I have the
brains, too, Bessie, the brains that shall make us both great. We were
made for each other--I have known it for years, and slowly, slowly,
I have worked my way to you till at last you are in my reach;" and he
stretched out both his arms towards her.

"My darling," he went on, in a soft, half-dreamy voice, "my love and
desire, yield, now--yield! Do not force this new crime upon me. I want
to grow good for your sake, and have done with bloodshed. When you are
am wife I believe that the evil will go out of me, and I shall grow
good. Yield, and never shall woman have had such a husband as I will be
to you. I will make your life soft and beautiful to you as women love
life to be. You shall have everything that money can buy and power
bring. Yield for your uncle's sake, and for the sake of the great love I
bear you."

As he spoke he was slowly drawing nearer Bessie, whose face wore a
half-fascinated expression. As he came the wretched woman gathered
herself together and put out her hand to repulse him. "No, no," she
cried, "I hate you--I cannot be false to him, living or dead. I shall
kill myself--I know I shall."

He made no answer, but only came always nearer, till at last his strong
arms closed round her shrinking form and drew her to him as easily as
though she were a babe. And then all at once she seemed to yield. That
embrace was the outward sign of his cruel mastery, and she struggled no
more, mentally or physically.

"Will you marry me, darling--will you marry me?" he whispered, with his
lips so close to the golden curls that Jess, straining her ears outside,
could only just catch the words--

"Oh, I suppose so; but I shall die--it will kill me."

He strained her to his heart and kissed her beautiful face again and
again, until Jess heard the heavy footsteps of the returning sentry,
and saw Muller leave go of her. Then Jantje caught Jess by the hand,
dragging her away from the wall, and presently she was once more
ascending the hill-side towards the Hottentot's kennel. She had desired
to find out how matters stood, and she had found out indeed. To attempt
to portray the fury, the indignation, and the thirst to be avenged upon
this fiend who had attempted to murder her and her lover, and had bought
her dear sister's honour at the price of their innocent old uncle's
life, would be impossible. Her weariness had left her; she was mad with
all she had seen and heard, with the knowledge of what had been done
and of what was about to be done. She even forgot her passion in it, and
swore that Muller should never marry Bessie while she lived to prevent
it. Had she been a bad woman herein she might have seen an opportunity,
for Bessie once tied to Muller, John would be free to marry her, but
this idea never even entered her mind. Whatever Jess's errors may have
been she was a self-sacrificing, honourable woman, and one who would
have died rather than profit thus by circumstance. At length they
reached the shelter again and crept into it.

"Light a candle," said Jess.

Jantje hunted for and struck a match. The piece of candle they had been
using, however, was nearly burnt out, so from the rubbish in the corner
he produced a box full of "ends," some of them three or four inches
long. In the queer sort of way that trifles do strike us when the mind
is undergoing a severe strain, Jess remembered instantly that for years
she had been unable to discover what became of the odd bits of the
candles used in the house. Now the mystery was explained.

"Go outside and leave me. I want to think," she said.

The Hottentot obeyed, and seated upon the heap of skins, her forehead
resting on her hand and her fingers buried in her silky rain-soaked
hair, Jess began to review the position. It was evident to her that
Frank Muller would be as good as his word. She knew him too well to
doubt this for a moment. If Bessie did not marry him he would murder
the old man, as he had tried to murder herself and John, only this time
judicially, and then abduct her sister afterwards. She was the only
price that he was prepared to take in exchange for her uncle's life. But
it was impossible to allow Bessie to be so sacrificed; the thought was
horrible to her.

How, then, was it to be prevented?

She thought again of confronting Frank Muller and openly accusing him
of her attempted murder, only, however, to dismiss the idea. Who would
believe her? And if they did believe what good would it do? She would
only be imprisoned and kept out of harm's way, or possibly murdered out
of hand. Then she thought of attempting to communicate with her uncle
and Bessie, to tell them that John was, so far as she knew, alive,
only to recognise the impossibility of doing so now that the sentry had
returned. Besides, what object could be served? The knowledge that John
was alive might, it is true, encourage Bessie to resist Muller, but then
the death of the old man must certainly ensue. Dismissing this
project from her mind Jess began to consider whether they could obtain
assistance. Alas! it was impossible. The only people from whom she could
hope for aid would be the natives, and now that the Boers had triumphed
over the English--for this much she had gathered from her captors and
from Jantje--it was very doubtful if the Kafirs would dare to assist
her. Besides, at the best it would take twenty-four hours to collect a
force, and by then help would come too late. The situation was hopeless.
Nowhere could she see a ray of light.

"What," Jess said aloud to herself--"what is there in the world that
will stop a man like Frank Muller?"

And then of an instant the answer rose up in her brain as though by
inspiration--

"_Death!_"

Death, and death alone, would stay him. For a minute she held the idea
in her mind till she grew familiar with it, then it was driven out by
another thought that followed swiftly on its track. Frank Muller must
die, and die before the morning light. By no other possible means could
the Gordian knot be cut, and both Bessie and her old uncle be saved. If
he were dead he could not marry Bessie, and if he died with the warrant
unsigned their uncle could not be executed. That was the terrible answer
to her riddle.

Yet it was most just that he should die, for had he not murdered and
attempted murder? Surely if ever a man deserved a swift and awful doom
that man was Frank Muller.

And so this forsaken, helpless girl, crouching upon the ground a torn
and bespattered fugitive in the miserable hiding-hole of a Hottentot,
arraigned the powerful leader of men before the tribunal of her
conscience, and without pity, if without wrath, passed upon him a
sentence of extinction.

But who was to be the executioner? A dreadful thought flashed into her
mind and made her heart stand still, but she dismissed it. No, she had
not come to that! Her eyes wandering round the kennel lit upon
Jantje's assegais and sticks in the corner, and these gave her another
inspiration. Jantje should do the deed.

John had told her one day when they were sitting together in "The
Palatial" at Pretoria the whole of Jantje's awful story about the
massacre of his relatives by Frank Muller twenty years before, of which,
indeed, she already knew something. It would be most fitting that this
fiend should be removed from the face of the earth by the survivor of
those unfortunates. That would be poetic justice, and justice is so rare
in the world. But the question was, would he do it? The little man was
a wonderful coward, that she knew, and had a great terror of Boers, and
especially of Frank Muller.

"Jantje," she whispered, stooping towards the bee-hole.

"Yah, missie," answered a hoarse voice outside, and next second the
Hottentot's monkey-like face came creeping into the ring of light,
followed by his even more monkey-like form.

"Sit down there, Jantje. I am lonely here and want to talk."

He obeyed her, with a grin. "What shall we talk about, missie? Shall I
tell you a story of the time when the beasts could speak, as I used to
do years and years ago?"

"No, Jantje. Tell me about that stick--that long stick with a knob at
the top, and the nicks cut on it. Has it not something to do with Frank
Muller?"

The Hottentot's face instantly grew evil. "Yah, yah, missie!" he said,
reaching out a skinny claw and seizing the stick. "Look, this big notch,
that is my father, Baas Frank shot him; and this next notch, that is my
mother, Baas Frank shot her; and this next notch, that is my uncle, an
old, old man, Baas Frank shot him also. And these small notches, they
are when he has beaten me--yes, and other things too. And now I will
make more notches, one for the house that is burnt, and one for the old
Baas Croft, my own Baas, whom he is going to shoot, and one for
Missie Bessie." And Jantje drew from his side his large white-handled
hunting-knife and began to cut them then and there upon the hard wood of
the stick.

Jess knew this knife of old. It was Jantje's peculiar treasure, the
chief joy of his narrow little heart. He had brought it from a Zulu for
a heifer which her uncle had given him in lieu of half a year's wage.
The Zulu had it from a half-caste whose kraal was beyond Delagoa Bay.
As a matter of fact it was a Somali knife, manufactured from the soft
native steel which takes an edge like a razor, and with a handle cut out
of the tusk of a hippopotamus. For the rest, it was about a foot long,
with three grooves running the length of the blade, and very heavy.

"Stop cutting notches, Jantje, and let me look at that knife."

He obeyed, and put it into her hand.

"That knife would kill a man, Jantje," she said.

"Yes, yes," he answered: "no doubt it has killed many men."

"It would kill Frank Muller, now, would it not?" she went on, suddenly
bending forward and fixing her dark eyes upon the little man's jaundiced
orbs.

"Yah, yah," he said starting back, "it would kill him dead. Ah! what a
thing it would be to kill him!" he added, making a fierce sound, half
grunt, half laugh.

"He killed your father, Jantje."

"Yah, yah, he killed my father," said Jantje, his eyes beginning to roll
with rage.

"He killed your mother."

"Yah, he killed my mother," he repeated after her with eager ferocity.

"And your uncle. He killed your uncle."

"And my uncle too," he went on, shaking his fist and twitching his long
toes as his hoarse voice rose to a subdued scream. "But he will die in
blood--the old Englishwoman, his mother, said it when the devil was in
her, and the devils never lie. Look! I draw Baas Frank's circle in the
dust with my foot; and listen, I say the words--I say the words," and he
muttered something rapidly; "an old, old witch-doctor taught me how to
do it, and what to say. Once before I did it, and there was a stone in
the circle, now there is no stone: look, _the ends meet_. He will die in
blood; he will die _soon_. I know how to read the omen;" and he gnashed
his teeth and sawed the air with his clenched fists.

"Yes, you are right, Jantje," she said, still holding him with her dark
eyes. "He will die in blood, and he will die to-night, and _you_ will
kill him, Jantje."

The Hottentot started, and turned pale under his yellow skin.

"How?" he said; "how?"

"Bend forward, Jantje, and I will tell you how;" and Jess whispered for
some minutes into his ear.

"Yes! yes! yes!" he said when she had done. "Oh, what a fine thing it is
to be clever like the white people! I will kill him to-night, and then
I can cut out the notches, and the spooks of my father and my mother and
my uncle will stop howling round me in the dark as they do now, when I
am asleep."



CHAPTER XXXIII

VENGEANCE

For three or four minutes more Jess and Jantje whispered together, after
which the Hottentot rose and crept away to find out what was passing
among the Boers below, and watch when Frank Muller retired to his tent.
So soon as he had marked him down it was agreed that he was to come back
and report to Jess.

When he was gone Jess gave a sigh of relief. This stirring up of Jantje
to the boiling-point of vengeance had been a dreadful thing to nerve
herself to do, but now at any rate it was done, and Muller's doom was
sealed. But what the end of it would be none could say. Practically she
would be a murderess, and she felt that sooner or later her guilt must
find her out, and then she could hope for little mercy. Still she had no
scruples, for after all Frank Muller's would be a well-merited fate.
But when all was said and done, it was a dreadful thing to be forced to
steep her hands in blood, even for Bessie's sake. If Muller were removed
Bessie would marry John, provided that John escaped the Boers, and be
happy, but what would become of herself? Robbed of her love and with
this crime upon her mind, what could she do even if she escaped--except
die? It would be better to die and never see him again, for her sorrow
and her shame were more than she could bear. Then Jess began to think
of John till all her poor bruised heart seemed to go out towards him.
Bessie could never love him as she did, she felt sure of that, and yet
Bessie was to have him by her all her life, and she--she must go away.
Well, it was the only thing to do. She would see this deed done, and set
her sister free, then if she happened to escape she would go at once--go
quite away where she would never be heard of again. Thus at any rate
she would have behaved like an honourable woman. She sat up and put her
hands to her face. It was burning hot though she was wet through, and
chilled to the bone with the raw damp of the night. A fierce fever of
mind and body had taken hold of her, worn out as she was with emotion,
hunger, and protracted exposure. But her brain was clear enough; she
never remembered its being so clear before. Every thought that came into
her mind seemed to present itself with startling strength, standing out
alone against a black background of nothingness, not softened down and
shaded one into another as thoughts generally are. She seemed to see
herself wandering away--alone, utterly alone, alone for ever!--while in
the far distance John stood holding Bessie by the hand, gazing after her
regretfully. Well, she would write to him, since it must be so, and bid
him one word of farewell. She could not go without that, though how her
letter was to reach John she knew not, unless indeed Jantje could find
him and deliver it. She had a pencil, and in the breast of her dress was
the Boer pass, the back of which, stained as it was with water, would
serve the purpose of paper. She found it, and, bending forward towards
the light, placed it on her knees.

"Good-bye," she wrote, "good-bye! We can never meet again, and it is
better that we never should in this world. I believe that there is
another. If there is I shall wait for you there if I have to wait ten
thousand years. If not, then good-bye for ever. Think of me sometimes,
for I have loved you very dearly, and as nobody will ever love you
again; and while I live in this or any other existence and am myself,
I shall always love you and you only. Don't forget me. I never shall be
really dead to you until I am forgotten.--J."

She lifted the paper from her knee, and without even re-reading what
she had written thrust the pass back into her bosom and was soon lost in
thought.

Ten minutes later Jantje, like a great snake in human form, came
creeping in to where she sat, his yellow face shining with the
raindrops.

"Well," whispered Jess, looking up with a start, "have you done it?"

"No, missie, no. Baas Frank has but now gone to his tent. He has been
talking to the clergyman, something about Missie Bessie, I don't know
what. I was near, but he talked low, and I could only hear the name."

"Are all the Boers asleep?"

"All, missie, except the sentries."

"Is there a sentry before Baas Frank's tent?"

"No, missie, there is nobody near."

"What is the time, Jantje?"

"About three hours and a half after sundown" (half-past ten).

"Let us wait half an hour, and then you must go."

Accordingly they sat in silence. In silence they sat facing each other
and their own thoughts. Presently Jantje broke it by drawing the big
white-handled knife and commencing to sharpen it on a piece of leather.

The sight made Jess feel sick. "Put the knife up," she said quickly, "it
is sharp enough."

Jantje obeyed with a feeble grin, and the minutes passed on heavily.

"Now, Jantje," she said at last, speaking huskily in her struggle to
overcome the spasmodic contractions of her throat, "it is time for you
to go."

The Hottentot fidgeted about, and at last spoke.

"Missie must come with me!"

"Come with you!" answered Jess starting, "why?"

"Because the ghost of the old Englishwoman will be after me if I go
alone."

"You fool!" said Jess angrily; then recollecting herself she added,
"Come, be a man, Jantje; think of your father and mother, and be a man."

"I am a man," he answered sulkily, "and I will kill him like a man, but
what good is a man against the ghost of a dead Englishwoman? If I put
the knife into her she would only make faces, and fire would come out of
the hole. I will not go without you, missie."

"You must go," she said fiercely; "you shall go!"

"No, missie, I will not go alone," he answered.

Jess looked at him and saw that Jantje meant what he said. He was
growing sulky, and the worst dispositioned donkey in the world is far,
far easier to deal with than a sulky Hottentot. She must either give up
the project or go with the man. Well, she was equally guilty one way or
the other, and being almost callous about detection, she might as well
go. She had no power left to make fresh plans. Her mind seemed to be
exhausted. Only she must keep out of the way at the last. She could not
bear to be near then.

"Well," she said, "I will go with you, Jantje."

"Good, missie, that is all right now. You can keep off the ghost of the
dead Englishwoman while I kill Baas Frank. But first he must be fast
asleep. Fast, fast asleep."

Then slowly and with the uttermost caution once more they crept down the
hill. This time there was no sound to be heard except the regular tramp
of the sentries. But their present business did not take them to the
waggon-house; they left that on their right, and went on towards the
blue-gum avenue. When they were nearly opposite to the first tree they
halted in a patch of stones, and Jantje slipped forward to reconnoitre.
Presently he returned with the intelligence that all the Boers who were
with the waggon had gone to sleep, but that Muller was still sitting in
his tent thinking. Then they crept on, perfectly sure that if they were
not heard they would not be seen, curtained as they were by the dense
mist and darkness.

At length they reached the bole of the first big gum tree. Five paces
from this tree Frank Muller's tent was pitched. There was a light in
it which caused the wet tent to glow in the mist, as though it had been
rubbed with phosphorus, and on this lurid canvas the shadow of Frank
Muller was gigantically limned. He was so placed that the lamp cast a
magnified reflection of his every feature and even of his expression
upon the screen before them. The attitude in which he sat was his
favourite one when he was plunged in thought, his hands resting on his
knees and his gaze fixed on vacancy. He was thinking of his triumph,
and of all that he had gone through to win it, and of all that it would
bring him. He held the trump cards now, and the game lay in his own
hand. He had triumphed, and yet over him hung the shadow of that curse
which dogs the presence of our accomplished desires. Too often, even
with the innocent, does the seed of our destruction lurk in the rich
blossom of our hopes, and much more is this so with the guilty. Somehow
this thought was present with him to-night, and in a rough half-educated
way he grasped its truth. Once more the saying of the old Boer general
rose in his mind: "I believe that there is a God--I believe that God
sets a limit to a man's doings. If he is going too far, God _kills
him_."

What a dreadful thing it would be if the old fool were right after all!
Supposing that there were a God, and God were to kill him to-night, and
hurry off his soul, if he had one, to some dim place of unending fear!
All his superstitions awoke at the thought, and he shivered so violently
that the shadow of the shiver caused the outlines of the gigantic form
upon the canvas to tremble visibly.

Then rising with an angry curse, Muller hastily threw off his outer
clothing, and having turned down but not extinguished the rough
parrafine lamp, he flung himself down upon the little camp bedstead,
which creaked and groaned beneath his weight like a thing in pain.

Now came silence, only broken by the drip, drip of the rain from the gum
leaves overhead, and the rattling of the boughs whenever a breath of air
stirred them. It was an eerie and depressing night, a night that might
well have tried the nerves of any strong man who, wet through and worn
out, was obliged to crouch upon the open veldt and endure it. How
much more awful was it then to the unfortunate woman who, half
broken-hearted, fever-stricken, and well-nigh crazed with the suffering
of mind and body, waited in it to see murder done! Slowly the minutes
passed, and at every raindrop or rustle of a bough her guilty conscience
summoned up a host of fears. But by the mere power of her will she kept
them down. She would go through with it. Yes, she would go through with
it. Surely he must be asleep by now!

They crept up to the tent and placed their ears within two inches of his
head. Yes, he was asleep; the sound of his breathing rose and fell with
the regularity of an infant's.

Jess turned round and touched her companion upon the shoulder. He did
not move, but she felt that his arm was shaking.

"_Now_," she whispered.

Still he hung back. It was evident to her that the long waiting had
taken the courage out of him.

"Be a man," she whispered again, so low that the sound scarcely reached
his ears although her lips were almost touching them, "go, and mind you
strike home!"

Then at last she heard him softly draw the great knife from the sheath,
and in another second he had glided from her side. Presently she saw the
line of light that streamed upon the darkness through the opening of the
tent broaden a little, and by this she knew that he was creeping in upon
his dreadful errand. Then she turned her head and put her fingers in her
ears. But even so she could see a long line of shadow travelling across
the skirt of the tent. So she shut her eyes also, and waited sick at
heart, for she did not dare to move.

Presently--it might have been five minutes or only half a minute
afterwards, for she had lost count of time--Jess felt somebody touch her
on the arm. It was Jantje.

"_Is it done?_" she whispered again.

He shook his head and drew her away from the tent. In going her foot
caught one of the guy-ropes and stirred it slightly.

"I could not do it, missie," he said. "He is asleep and looks just like
a child. When I lifted the knife he smiled in his sleep and all the
strength went out of my arm, so that I could not strike. And then before
I grew strong again the spook of the old Englishwoman came and hit me in
the back, and I ran away."

If a look could have blasted a human being Jantje would assuredly have
been blasted then. The man's cowardice maddened Jess, but whilst she
still choked with wrath a duiker buck, which had come down from its
stony home to feed upon the rose-bushes, suddenly sprang with a crash
almost from their feet, passing away like a grey gleam into the utter
darkness.

Jess started, then recovered herself, guessing what it was, but the
miserable Hottentot, overcome with terror, fell upon the ground groaning
out that it was the spook of the old Englishwoman. He had dropped the
knife as he fell, and Jess, seeing the imminent peril in which they were
placed, knelt down, found it, and hissed into his ear that if he were
not quiet she would kill him.

This pacified him a little, but no earthly power could persuade him to
enter the tent again.

What was to be done? What could she do? For two minutes or more she
buried her face in her wet hands and thought wildly and despairingly.

Then a dark and dreadful determination entered her mind. The man Muller
should not escape. Bessie should not be sacrificed to him. Rather than
that, she would do the deed herself.

Without a word she rose, animated by the tragic agony of her purpose and
the force of her despair, and glided towards the tent, the great knife
in her hand. Now, ah! all too soon, she was inside of it, and stood for
a second to allow her eyes to grow accustomed to the light. Presently
she began to see, first the outline of the bed, then the outline of the
manly form stretched upon it, then both bed and man distinctly. Jantje
had said that he was sleeping like a child. He might have been; now he
was _not_. On the contrary, his face was convulsed like the face of one
in an extremity of fear, and great beads of sweat stood upon his brow.
It was as though he knew his danger, and yet was utterly powerless to
avoid it. He lay upon his back. One heavy arm, his left, hung over the
side of the bed, the knuckles of the hand resting on the ground; the
other was thrown back, and his head was pillowed upon it. The clothing
had slipped away from his throat and massive chest, which were quite
bare.

Jess stood and gazed. "For Bessie's sake, for Bessie's sake!" she
murmured; then impelled by a force that seemed to move of itself she
crept slowly, slowly, to the right-hand side of the bed.

At this moment Muller woke, and his opening eyes fell full upon
her face. Whatever his dream had been, what he now saw was far more
terrible, for bending over him was the _ghost of the woman he had
murdered in the Vaal!_ There she was, risen from her river grave, torn,
dishevelled, water yet dripping from her hands and hair. Those sunk
and marble cheeks, those dreadful flaming eyes could belong to no human
being, but only to a spirit. It was the spirit of Jess Croft, of the
woman whom he had slain, come back to tell him that there _was_ a living
vengeance and a hell!

Their eyes met, and no creature will ever know the agony of terror that
he tasted of before the end came. She saw his face sink in and turn
ashen grey while the cold sweat ran from every pore. He was awake, but
fear paralysed him, he could not speak or move.

He was awake, and she could hesitate no more. . . .

He must have seen the flash of the falling steel, and----



Jess was outside the tent again, the red knife in her hand. She flung
the accursed thing from her. That shriek must have awakened every soul
within a mile. Already she could faintly hear the stir of men down by
the waggon, and the patter of the feet of Jantje running for his life.

Then she too turned, and fled straight up the hill. She knew not
whither, she cared not where! None saw her or followed her, the hunt had
broken away to the left after Jantje. Her heart was lead and her brain
a rocking sea of fire, whilst before her, around her, and behind her
yelled all the conscience-created furies that run Murder to his lair.

On she flew, one sight only before her eyes, one sound only in her ears.
On over the hill, far into the rain and the night!



CHAPTER XXXIV

TANTA COETZEE TO THE RESCUE

After Jess had been set free by the Boers outside Hans Coetzee's place,
John was sharply ordered to dismount and off-saddle his horse. This
he did with the best grace that he could muster, and the horse was
knee-haltered and let loose to feed. It was then indicated to him that
he was to enter the house, and this he also did, closely attended by two
of the Boers. The room into which he was conducted was the same that he
had first become acquainted with, on the occasion of the buck hunt that
had so nearly ended in his murder. There was the Buckenhout table,
and there were the stools and couches made of stinkwood. Also, in the
biggest chair at the other end of the room, a moderate-sized slop-basin
full of coffee by her side, sat Tanta Coetzee, still actively employed
in doing absolutely nothing. There, too, were the showily dressed
maidens, there was the sardonic lover of one of them, and all the posse
of young men with rifles. The _sit-kammer_ and its characteristics were
quite unchanged, and on entering it John felt inclined to rub his eyes
and wonder whether the events of the last few months had been nothing
but a dream.

The only thing that had changed was his welcome. Evidently he was not
expected to shake hands all round on the present occasion. Fallen indeed
would that Boer have been considered who, within a few days of Majuba,
offered to shake hands with a wretched English _rooibaatje_, picked
up like a lame buck on the veldt. At the least he would have kept the
ceremony for private celebration, if only out of respect to the feelings
of others. On this occasion John's entry was received in icy silence.
The old woman did not deign to look up, the young ones shrugged their
shoulders and turned their backs, as though they had suddenly seen
something that was not nice. Only the countenance of the sardonic lover
softened to a grin.

John walked to the end of the room where there was a vacant chair and
stood by it.

"Have I your permission to sit down, ma'am?" he said at last in a loud
tone, addressing the old lady.

"Dear Lord!" said the old lady to the man next to her, "what a voice the
poor creature has! it is like a bull's. What does he say?"

The man explained.

"The floor is the right place for Englishmen and Kafirs," said the
old lady, "but after all he is a man, and perhaps sore with riding.
Englishmen always get sore when they try to ride." Then with startling
energy she shouted out:

"_Sit!_"

"I will show the _rooibaatje_ that he is not the only one with a voice,"
she added by way of explanation.

A subdued sniggle followed this sally of wit, during which John took his
seat with such native grace as he could command, which at the moment was
not much.

"Dear me!" she went on presently, for she was a bit of a humorist, "he
looks very dirty and pale, doesn't he? I suppose the poor thing has been
hiding in the ant-bear holes with nothing to eat. I am told that up in
the Drakensberg yonder the ant-bear holes are full of Englishmen. They
had rather starve in them than come out, for fear lest they should meet
a Boer."

This provoked another snigger, and then the young ladies took up the
ball.

"Are you hungry, _rooibaatje_?" asked one in English.

John was boiling with fury, but he was also starving, so he answered
that he was.

"Tie his hands behind him, and let us see if he can catch in his mouth,
like a dog," suggested a gentle youth.

"No, no; make him eat pap with a wooden spoon, like a Kafir," said
another. "I will feed him--if you have a very long spoon."

Here again was legitimate cause for merriment, but in the end matters
were compromised by a lump of biltong and a piece of bread being thrown
to John from the other end of the room. He caught them and began to
eat, trying to conceal his ravenous hunger as much as possible from the
circle of onlookers who clustered round to watch the operation.

"Carolus," said the old lady to the sardonic affianced of her daughter,
"there are three thousand men in the British army."

"Yes, my aunt."

"There are three thousand men in the British army," she repeated,
looking round angrily as though somebody had questioned the truth of her
statement. "I tell you that my grandfather's brother was at Cape Town in
the time of Governor Smith, and he counted the whole British army, and
there were three thousand of them."

"That is so, my aunt," answered Carolus.

"Then why did you contradict me, Carolus?"

"I did not intend to, my aunt."

"I should hope not, Carolus; it would vex the dear Lord to see a boy
with a squint" (Carolus was slightly afflicted in this way) "contradict
his future mother-in-law. Tell me how many Englishmen were killed at
Laing's Nek?"

"Nine hundred," replied Carolus promptly.

"And at Ingogo?"

"Six hundred and twenty."

"And at Majuba?"

"One thousand."

"Then that makes two thousand five hundred men; yes, and the rest
were finished at Bronker's Spruit. Nephews, that _rooibaatje_ there,"
pointing to John, "is one of the last men left in the British army."

Most of her audience appeared to accept this argument as conclusive, but
some mischievous spirit put it into the breast of the saturnine Carolus
to contradict her, notwithstanding the lesson he had just received.

"That is not so, my aunt; there are many damned Englishmen still
sneaking about the Nek, and also at Pretoria and Wakkerstroom."

"I tell you it is a lie," said the old lady, raising her voice, "they
are only Kafirs and camp-followers. There were three thousand men in the
British army, and now they are all killed except that _rooibaatje_. How
dare you contradict your future mother-in-law, you dirty squint-eyed,
yellow-faced monkey? There, take that!" and before the unfortunate
Carolus knew where he was, he received the slop-basin with its contents
full in the face. The bowl broke upon the bridge of his nose, and the
coffee flew all about him, into his eyes and hair, down his throat and
over his body, making such a spectacle of him as must have been seen to
be appreciated.

"Ah!" went on the old lady, much soothed and gratified by the eminent
and startling success of her shot, "never you say again that I don't
know how to throw a basin of coffee. I haven't practised at my man Hans
for thirty years for nothing, I can tell you. Now you, Carolus, I have
taught you not to contradict; go and wash your face and we will have
supper."

Carolus ventured no reply, and was led away by his betrothed half
blinded and utterly subdued, while her sister set the table for the
evening meal. When it was ready the men sat down to meat and the women
waited on them. John was not asked to join them, but one of the girls
threw him a boiled mealiecob, for which, being still very hungry, he
was duly grateful, and afterwards he managed to secure a mutton bone and
another bit of bread.

When supper was over, some bottles of peach brandy were produced, and
the Boers began to drink freely, and then it was that matters commenced
to look dangerous for the Englishman. Suddenly one of the men remembered
about the young fellow whom John had thrown backwards off the horse, and
who was lying very sick in the next room, and suggested that measures of
retaliation should be taken, which would undoubtedly have been done if
the elderly Boer who had commanded the party had not interposed. This
man was getting drunk like the others, but fortunately for John he grew
amiably drunk.

"Let him alone," he said, "let him alone. We will send him to the
commandant to-morrow. Frank Muller will know how to deal with him."

John thought to himself that he certainly would.

"Now, for myself," the man went on with a hiccough, "I bear no malice.
We have thrashed the British and they have given up the country, so let
bygones be bygones, I say. Almighty, yes! I am not proud, not I. If an
Englishman takes off his hat to me I shall acknowledge it."

This staved the fellows off for a while, but presently John's protector
went away, and then the others became playful. They took their rifles
and amused themselves with levelling them at him, and making sham bets
as to where they would hit him. John, seeing the emergency, backed his
chair well into the corner of the wall and drew his revolver, which
fortunately for himself he still had.

"If any man interferes with me, by God, I'll shoot him!" he said in
good English, which they did not fail to understand. Undoubtedly as
the evening went on it was only the possession of this revolver and his
evident determination to use it that saved his life.

At last things grew very bad indeed, so bad that John found it
absolutely necessary to keep his eyes continually fixed, now on one and
now on another, to prevent their putting a bullet through him unawares.
He had twice appealed to the old woman, but she sat in her big chair
with a sweet smile upon her fat face and refused to interfere. It is
not every day that a Boer _frau_ has the chance of seeing a real live
English _rooibaatje_ baited like an ant-bear on the flat.

Presently, just as John in desperation was making up his mind to begin
shooting right and left, and take his chance of cutting his way out, the
saturnine Carolus, whose temper had never recovered the bowl of coffee,
and who was besides very drunk, rushed forward with an oath and dealt a
tremendous blow at him with the butt-end of his rifle. John dodged the
blow, which fell upon the back of the chair and smashed it to bits, and
in another second Carolus's gentle soul would have departed to a better
sphere, had not the old _frau_, seeing that the game had gone beyond a
joke, waddled down the room with marvellous activity and thrown herself
between them.

"There, there," she said, cuffing right and left with her fat fists, "be
off with you, every one. I can't have this noise going on here. Come,
off you all go, and get the horses into the stable; they will be right
away by morning if you trust them to the Kafirs."

Carolus collapsed, and the other men also hesitated and drew back,
whereupon, following up her advantage, the old woman, to John's
astonishment and relief, bundled the whole tribe of them bodily out of
the front door.

"Now then, _rooibaatje_," said the old lady briskly when they had gone,
"I like you because you are a brave man, and were not afraid when they
mobbed you. Also, I don't want to have a mess made upon my floor here,
or any noise or shooting. If those men come back and find you here they
will first get rather drunker and then kill you, so you had better be
off while you have the chance," and she pointed to the door.

"I really am much obliged to you, my aunt," said John, utterly
astonished to find that she possessed a heart at all, and more or less
had been playing a part throughout the evening.

"Oh, as to that," she said drily, "it would be a great pity to kill the
last English _rooibaatje_ in the whole British army; they ought to keep
you as a curiosity. Here, take a tot of brandy before you go; it is
a wet night, and sometimes when you are clear of the Transvaal and
remember this business, remember, too, that you owe your life to Tanta
Coetzee. But I would not have saved you, not I, if you had not been so
plucky. I like a man to be a man, and not like that miserable monkey
Carolus. There, be off!"

John poured out and swallowed half a tumblerful of the brandy, and in
another moment he was outside the house and had slipped off into the
night. It was very dark and wet, for the rain-clouds had covered up the
moon, and he soon learned that any attempt to look for his horse would
end in failure and probably in his recapture. The only thing to do was
to get away on foot in the direction of Mooifontein as quickly as he
could; so off he went down the track across the veldt as fast as his
stiff legs would take him. He had a ten miles trudge before him, and
with that cheerful acquiescence in circumstances over which he had no
control which was one of his characteristics, he set to work to make the
best of it. For the first hour or so all went well, then to his intense
disgust he discovered that he was off the track, a fact at which anybody
who has ever had the pleasure of wandering along a so-called road on the
African veldt on a dark night will scarcely be surprised.

After wasting a quarter of an hour or more in a vain attempt to find the
path, John struck out boldly for a dim mass that loomed in the distance,
and which he took to be Mooifontein Hill. And so it was, only instead of
keeping to the left, where he would have arrived at the house, or rather
where the house had stood, unwittingly he bore to the right, and thus
went half round the hill before he found out his mistake. Nor would he
have discovered it then had he not chanced in the mist and darkness to
turn into the mouth of the great gorge known as Leeuwen Kloof, where
once, months ago, he had had an interesting talk with Jess just before
she went to Pretoria. It was whilst he was blundering and stumbling up
this gorge that at length the rain ceased and the moon revealed herself,
it being then nearly midnight. Her very first rays lit upon one of the
extraordinary pillars of balanced boulders, and by it he recognised the
locality. As may be imagined, strong man though he was, by this time
John was quite exhausted. For nearly a week he had been travelling
incessantly, and for the last two nights he had not only not slept, but
also had endured much mental excitement and bodily peril. Were it not
for the brandy that Tanta Coetzee gave him he could never have tramped
the fifteen miles or so of ground which he had covered. Now he was quite
broken down, and felt that the only thing which he could do, wet through
as he was, would be to lie down somewhere, and sleep or die as the case
might be. Then it was that he remembered the little cave near the top
of the Kloof, the same from which Jess had watched the thunder-storm. He
had visited it once with Bessie after their engagement, and she had told
him that it was one of her sister's favourite haunts.

If he could but reach the cave at any rate he would find shelter and a
dry place to lie in. It could not be more than three hundred yards away.
So he struggled on bravely through the wet grass and over the scattered
boulders, till at last he came to the base of the huge column that had
been shattered by the lightning before Jess's eyes.

Thirty paces more and John was in the cave.

With a sigh of utter exhaustion he flung himself down upon the rocky
floor, and almost instantly was buried in a profound sleep.



CHAPTER XXXV

THE CONCLUSION OF THE MATTER

When the rain ceased and the moon began to shine, Jess was still fleeing
like a wild thing across the plain on the top of the mountain. She felt
no sense of exhaustion now or even of weariness; her only idea was to
get away, right away somewhere, where she could lose herself and nobody
would ever see her again. Presently she reached to top of Leeuwen Kloof,
and recognising the spot in a bewildered way she began to descend it.
Here was a place where she might lie till she died, for no one ever came
there, except now and again some wandering Kafir herd. On she sprang,
from rock to rock, a wild and eerie figure, well in keeping with the
solemn and titanic sadness of the place.

Twice she fell, once right into the stream, but she took no heed,
she did not even seem to feel it. At last she was at the bottom, now
creeping like a black dot across the wide spaces of moonlight, and now
swallowed up in the shadow. There before her gaped the mouth of the
little cave; her strength was leaving her at last, and she was fain to
crawl into it, broken-hearted, crazed, and--_dying_.

"Oh, God forgive me! God forgive me!" she moaned as she sank upon the
rocky floor. "Bessie, I sinned against you, but I have washed away my
sin. I did it for you, Bessie love, not for myself. I had rather have
died than kill him for myself. You will marry John now, and you will
never, never know what I did for you. I am going to die. I know that.
I am dying. Oh, if only I could see his face once more before I
die--before I die!"

Slowly the westering moonlight crept down the blackness of the rock. Now
at last it peeped into the little cave and played upon John's sleeping
face lying within six feet of her. Her prayer had been granted; there
was her lover by her side.

With a start and a great sigh of doubt she recognised him. Was it a
vision? Was he dead? She dragged herself to him upon her hands and knees
and listened for his breathing, if perchance he still breathed and was
not a wraith. Then it came, strong and slow, the breath of a man in deep
sleep.

So he lived. Should she try to wake him? What for? To tell him she was
a murderess and then to let him see her die? For instinct told her that
nature was exhausted; and she knew that she was certainly going--going
fast. No, a hundred times no!

Only she put her hand into her breast, and drawing out the pass on the
back of which she had written her last message to him, she thrust it
between his listless fingers. It should speak for her. Then she leant
over him, and watched his sleeping face, a very incarnation of infinite,
despairing tenderness, and love that is deeper than the grave. And as
she watched, gradually her feet and legs grew cold and numb, till at
length she could feel nothing below her bosom. She was dead nearly to
the heart. Well, it was better so!

The rays of the moon faded slowly from the level of the little cave, and
John's face grew dark to her darkening sight. She bent down and kissed
him once--twice--thrice.

At last the end came. There was a great flashing of light before her
eyes, and within her ears the roaring as of a thousand seas, and her
head sank gently on her lover's breast as on a pillow; and there Jess
died and passed upward towards the wider life and larger liberty, or, at
the least, downward into the depths of rest.

Poor dark-eyed, deep-hearted Jess! This was the fruition of her love,
and this her bridal bed.

It was done. She had gone, taking with her the secret of her
self-sacrifice and crime, and the night-winds moaning amidst the rocks
sang their requiem over her. Here she first had learned her love, and
here she closed its book on earth.

She might have been a great and a good woman. She might even have been a
happy woman. But fate had ordained it otherwise. Women such as Jess are
rarely happy in the world. It is not worldly wise to stake all one's
fortune on a throw, and lack the craft to load the dice. Well, her
troubles are done with. Think gently of her and let her pass in peace!



The hours grew on towards the evening, but John, the dead face of the
woman he had loved still pillowed on his breast, neither dreamed nor
woke. There was a strange and dreadful irony in the situation, an irony
which sometimes finds its counterpart in our waking life, but still the
man slept, and the dead girl lay till the night turned into the morning
and the earth woke up as usual. The sunbeams slid into the cave, and
played indifferently upon the ashen face and tangled curls, and on the
broad chest of the living man whereon they rested. An old baboon peeped
round the rocky edge and manifested no surprise, only indignation, at
the intrusion of humanity, dead or alive, into his dominions. Yes, the
world woke up as usual, and recked not and troubled not because Jess was
dead.

It is so accustomed to such sights.

At last John woke up also. He stretched his arms yawning, and for the
first time became aware of the weight upon his breast. He glanced down
and saw dimly at first--then more clearly.



There are some things into which it is wisest not to pry, and one of
them is the first agony of a strong man's grief.

Happy was it for John that his brain did not give way in that lonely
hour of bottomless despair. But he lived through it, as we do live
through such things, and was sane and sound after it, though it left its
mark upon his life.



Two hours later a gaunt, haggard figure stumbled down the hill-side
towards the site of Mooifontein, bearing something in his arms. The
whole place was in commotion. Here and there were knots of Boers talking
excitedly, who, when they saw the man coming, hurried up to learn who
it was and what he carried. But when they knew, they fell back awed and
without a word, and John too passed through them without a word. For
a moment he hesitated, seeing that the house was burnt down. Then he
turned into the waggon-shed, and laid his burden down on the saw-bench
where Frank Muller had sat as judge upon the previous day.

Now at last John spoke in a hoarse voice: "Where is the old man?"

One of them pointed to the door of the little room.

"Open it!" he said, so fiercely that again they fell back and obeyed him
without a word.

"John! John!" cried Silas Croft, rising amazed from his seat upon a
sack. "Thank God--you have come back to us from the dead!" and trembling
with joy and surprise he would have fallen on his neck.

"Hush!" he answered; "I have brought the dead with me."

And he led him to where Jess lay.



During the day all the Boers went away and left them alone. Now that
Frank Muller lay dead there was no thought among them of carrying out
the sentence upon their old neighbour. Besides, there was no warrant for
the execution, even had they desired so to do, for their commandant
died leaving it unsigned. So they held an informal inquest upon their
leader's body, and buried him in the little graveyard that was walled in
on the hill-side at the back of where the house had stood, and planted
with the four red gums, one at each corner. Rather than be at the pains
of hollowing another grave, they buried him in the very place that he
had caused to be dug to receive the body of Silas Croft.

Who had murdered Frank Muller was and remains a mystery among them
to this day. The knife was identified by natives about the farm as
belonging to the Hottentot Jantje, and a Hottentot had been seen running
away from the place of the deed and hunted for some way, but he could
not be caught or heard of again. Therefore many of them are of the
opinion that he is the guilty man. Others, again, believe that the crime
rests upon the shoulders of the villainous one-eyed Kafir, Hendrik,
Muller's own servant, who had also vanished. But as they have never
found either of them, and are not likely to do so, the point remains a
moot one. Nor, indeed, did they take any great pains to hunt for them.
Frank Muller was not a popular character, and the fact of a man coming
to a mysterious end does not produce any great sensation among a rough
people and in rough times.



On the following day, old Silas Croft, Bessie, and John Niel also buried
their dead in the little graveyard on the hill-side, and there Jess
lies, with some ten feet of earth only between her and the man upon whom
she was the instrument of vengeance. But they never knew this, or even
guessed it. They never knew indeed that she had been near Mooifontein on
that awful night. Nobody knew it except Jantje; and Jantje, haunted by
the footfall of the pursuing Boers, was gone from the ken of the white
man far into the heart of Central Africa.

"John," said the old man when they had filled in the grave, "this is no
country for Englishmen. Let us go home to England." John bowed his head
in assent, for he could not speak. Fortunately means were not wanting,
although practically they were both ruined. The thousand pounds that
John had paid to Silas as the price of a third interest in the farm
still lay to the credit of the latter in the Standard Bank at Newcastle,
in Natal, together with another two hundred and fifty pounds in cash.

And so in due course they went.

Now what more is there to tell? Jess, to those who read what has been
written as it is meant to be read, was the soul of it all, and Jess--is
dead. It is useless to set a lifeless thing upon its feet, rather let us
strive to follow the soarings of the spirit. Jess is dead and her story
at an end.

* * * * *

So but one word more.

After some difficulty, John Niel, within three months of his arrival
in England, obtained employment as a land agent to a large estate
in Rutlandshire, which position he fills to this day, with credit to
himself and such advantage to the property as can be expected in these
times. Also, in due course he became the beloved husband of sweet Bessie
Croft, and on the whole he may be considered a happy man. At times,
however, a sorrow overcomes him of which his wife knows nothing, and for
a while he is not himself.

He is not a man much addicted to sentiment or speculation, but sometimes
when his day's work is done, and he strays to his garden gate and looks
out at the dim and peaceful English landscape beyond, and thence to the
wide star-strewn heavens above, he wonders if the hour will ever come
when once more he will see those dark and passionate eyes, and hear that
sweet remembered voice.

For John feels as near to his lost love now that she is dead as he
felt while she was yet alive. From time to time indeed he seems to know
without possibility of doubt that if, when death is done with, there
should prove to be an individual future for us suffering mortals, as he
for one believes, certainly he will find Jess waiting to greet him at
its gates.





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