- CHAPTER III. UNEXPECTED VISITORS.
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Two days passed, and Sir James Fortescue did not appear, but neither Betty nor Bobbie felt any the less interest in the prospective visit. At the same time they wished he would make his appearance quickly, because it was very inconvenient to continue wearing clean linen skirts, whatever they were doing,and making special efforts to keep them clean. And naturally one did not want to be caught looking untidy by a Rhodesian celebrity such as Sir James. In fact, as a distinguished visitor was so rare an event as never to have occurred before, they both wanted to look their best. Moreover, Bay and Kenneth had added to their interest greatly by their account of the man, for at that time Sir James was to a large extent the backbone of Rhodesian politics --a man of means and independence, in no way subservient to the Chartered Company, and therefore eminently fitted to be a leader of the people. And thus it chanced that the settlers had come to pin their hopes upon him to steer them clear of any course that might mean inclusion in the South African Union, followed by bilingualism and an influx of undesirable poor settlers from the south- -for which Rhodesia would no doubt prove a most | | 26 satisfactory dumping ground--and also to help them win their rights as an independent successful community when the hour arrived for the renewal or withdrawal of the British South Africa Company's charter. That the vast majority wished the charter renewed did not by any means imply that they were entirely satisfied with the existing conditions, and to get it renewed with the rights of the people more definitely respected was the end to which Sir James was everywhere trusted by his followers. At the moment he was the most interesting and striking figure in the country, and it was small wonder that the two girls in their wilderness home wished to be presentably attired should he call at their dwelling. So that short khaki skirts were laid aside for a day or two, and while Betty looked charming in cool green linen, Bobbie looked brisk and fresh in white.
But after two days of what Bobbie called "young-ladyism," which merely meant leaving all occupations likely to spoil the freshness of their skirts to some indefinite future, the irksomeness of the uncertain expectancy became very boring, and it was quite a relief when their neighbour, Harry Blake, filled the gap to some extent by quite unaccountably paying them a morning call, although he brought information that grievously damped their spirits.
"It is a long time since you chanced to call upon us in the morning," was Betty's greeting. "I hope you will not fail to observe how clean and tidy we both are, because we are engaged in special efforts to look as presentable as possible, should we receive a sudden visit from Sir James Fortescue without any warning."| | 27
I merely observed that you both look a little charming than usual," was the prompt reply.
"But I am afraid the special efforts would have Wasted, had I not chanced to ride over today, to bring you this paper and beg a book. Sir James Fortescue is not in the least likely to come this way. The road is too bad, for one thing. He will go round with mules, and drive to within a few miles of his Property."
"Perhaps he will trek all the way," suggested Bobbie, "and if so, he is sure to pass here; it is the short cut." She spoke in a slightly off-hand way, and held her head a trifle higher than usual, as if to impress upon their visitor that his pronounced attitude of admiration was a mere waste of time, But if so she could hardly be said to achieve any success, for Harry Blake, leaning against a tree in a nonchalant attitude that suited perfectly the cool dare-devilry of his mien, only continued to gaze steadily and persistently, with that same pronounced admiration filling his eyes. That he should so admire Bobbie was perhaps the most natural thing in the world, for her fearless independence could only appeal strongly to a man whose lawlessness was a characteristic coupled with his name throughout the land. One of the pioneers, he had joined the first column at a time when every hardy, vigorous man was welcome, and no questions asked about a doubtful past. That he had been under a cloud, and probably an assumed name also was pretty generally accepted, but so also was many another of the intrepid adventurers of the early days. They were the stuff that shapes best in a civilising army, if only for the | | 28 simple reason that they could not afford to turn back, whatever the discomforts and hardships of the way. But it was not long before Blake became known as something more than the intrepid adventurer. Among his comrades he was known as a dare-devil of the most virile type, to whom fear was unknown, and pity, too--a man who stopped at nothing to achieve his end, and usually did achieve it. Rumour whispered he was not merely fleeing from justice, but the supreme penalty; but, however that might be, rumour was little heeded with that hardy band marching forward to carry the light of civilisation and prosperity to Cecil Rhodes's land. A little later his chance came in the rebellions, where he distinguished himself beyond any for cool effrontery and absolute fearlessness, coupled secretly with cold-blooded cruelty which men shrank from, yet must fain condone because it was regarded as a retaliation to the hellish cruelty of the blacks. Afterwards he received a further grant of land beside that he had already contrived to attain as a pioneer, and thus became the owner of a large and valuable farm. A story, which was no doubt true, put down his speedy stocking of it partly to raids upon native cattle, and partly to a system by which he paid for a cow with a handful of beads; but he was too far from any centre to be brought to book about it, and, until mines were started in his vicinity, ruled his little kingdom with a rod of iron. It was not very long after Bobbie and Betty had joined their brothers that he commenced to pay attention to Bobbie, only to find the aristocratic young butcher and store-keeper had walked lightly in and won | | 29 smiles where he won little else but rebuffs. But all his life Blake had never given in easily, and while he congratulated himself that Toby had no means to keep a wife, whereas he was more or less a rich man, he bided his time with cool patience and, as ever, believed in himself. Anyhow, there was no immediate haste, and Toby, to his thinking, was but a delightful fool-not probably a very serious obstacle in the long run to an unscrupulous adventurer, accustomed to get what he wanted by any means that offered, fair or foul. So now he lounged by the tree, looking his best in riding breeches and gaiters, a soft white shirt, and a Baden-Powell hat on the back of his head, and coolly admired Bobbie to his heart's content, in spite of her unpromising attitude.
"A man like Fortescue does not do much trekking," he said, answering her surmise. "Rhodesian magnates like comfort, especially if they are Company men"--with a sneer--"and there are shareholders to pay the piper."
"I thought Sir James was not a Company man?" said Betty.
"He is not a manager, but he is a director of two or three."
"But this claim is his own, isn't it?"
"Yes." Then he added with an assumed carelessness that instantly struck Bobbie as insincere: "As a matter of fact his claim is practically worthless. The best samples that have been crushed came from the adjoining claim, which belongs to a Dutchman named Van Tyl and two or three friends of his who are putting up the money to work it. I think our great man will have rather a shock | | 30 when he comes along to inspect his valuable property.The gold is in a kopje, and he only owns part of the slope. All the top of the kopje is Van Tyl's."
"I thought the top of the kopje was Sir James's," said Bobbie, continuing some work in her hands with an air of but slight concern.
"I believe that is the general impression, but it is a mistake. Van Tyl's pegs take in the top, therefore Sir James can only work his slope a short distance. He can't go under Van Tyl's claim."
"How odd!" she commented. "We thought it was just the other way about, and the adjoining claim ran under Sir James's."
At that moment Betty rose and went inside one of the huts,leaving her sister and Blake alone. Bobbie half unconsciously stiffened instantly, but Blake, perfectly unperturbed, moved a little nearer and stood beside her. "Always busy," he remarked, in a softer voice than usual. "I don't think I like to see it. I feel it would be more fitting to see you mounted on a beautiful thoroughbred, galloping after hounds, or enjoying a spin in a motor."
"I'm perfectly satisfied as I am," she answered with a light laugh. "I should certainly fall off the thoroughbred, and might easily get killed in the motor."
"You would soon learn to ride," he said, ignoring her flippancy."You would look splendid on horseback."
"Hanging round its neck and crying out to someone to stop it! I think I am safer on a bicycle." Then she added pointedly: "You don't seem very busy this morning?"
"As a matter of fact, I am busy; but I hadn't | | 31 called for some days, and I wondered if you had beard about Sir James's trip this way."
"But if he isn't coming this way?"--inquiringly; and immediately Bobbie guessed he had come to find out whether they expected him or not, and how much they had heard.
"Oh, of course, I only surmise! I know he is a man who likes comforts. If he is in no hurry, it is easier for him to go the other way."
"Do you know him?"
"I have met him "--guardedly.
"And do you like him?"
"I think he is a clever man, but he is spoilt, like most clever men, with his vast opinion of himself."
He paused a moment, then ran on: "I expect he is already imagining himself a millionaire over this gold find, and is more inflated than ever, so it will be rather a joke when he discovers the truth." He waited as if expecting her to say something, but as Bobbie merely sewed on unconcernedly, he added: "Of course, Van Tyl will make a pile. The gold is there all right, and most of it is on his claim."
"Do you know Van Tyl?" she asked suddenly, with characteristic directness.
"Yes. I knew him in Bechuanaland."
"Really! And have you seen him lately?"
"I saw him at Geegi last week. He is coming up to his property. I expect him any day."
Bobbie said no more, but she registered a doubt in her keen brain, and decided to watch developments closely. She knew Blake well enough to perceive something might lie behind his various | | 32 assertions, and felt it would be interesting to unravel his latest scheme.
A little later he left, saying he had to be back at his farm, and could not stay until Kenneth and Bay came up from the mine.
"Then what in the world did he come at all for?" she asked of Betty, glancing after his retreating figure. "Just to inform us that Rhodesian magnates always travel in comfort, and therefore Sir James will not come this way?" And she laughed with a note of sarcasm.
" Anyhow, I think I'll make that Cape gooseberry jam," said Betty. "He won't come to-day, and the fruit is spoiling."
"And I think I'll wash those blouses," Bobbie decided."I'm tired of seeing them about. No doubt he will take the road, and never come near us at all."
So the fresh white skirt was discarded, and the old short khaki donned once more; and under a shady tree she rolled her sleeves up to the elbow and proceeded to wash two or three dainty blouses in the bath. She stood with her back to the path approaching their huts,and was singing softly to herself as she splashed about in soap suds enjoying a little fresh breeze that fanned her hair and blew it in pretty tendrils over her forehead. Thus she was perfectly unaware that a tall, fine-looking man, somewhat dusty and travel-stained with trekking, had walked up the path to the huts,and now stood watching her with amused, quizzical eyes, wondering how soon she would become aware of his presence. Bobbie wrung out a blouse and held it up at arm's length outspread, to see if it | | 33 looked really clean. Then a man's cough close behind startled her, and she swung round suddenly, to meet the grey eyes with their quizzical twinkle, and find herself face to face, soapsuds and all, with a stranger who could not possibly be other than Sir James Fortescue.
"There now!" she exclaimed after a swift survey, while her face broke into a delightful smile. "If I haven't been specially tidy to receive you every day this week, and you positively arrive when I'm all anyhow, mixed up with soapsuds!"
Sir James had been known as a courtier all his life. Raising his hat with a courtly bow, he replied charmingly: "May I say that the 'all anyhow' costume and the soapsuds are singularly becoming?"
Bobbie felt herself captured instantly, and Sir James noted, with pleased gratification, the welcoming flash of her fine eyes. But little did either think, standing there where a fretwork of sunshine played on them through the trees, that the link of a lifetime was forging, and Heaven's safeguard for a man and a country brought into being.
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