- CHAPTER IV. SIR JAMES MAKES FRIENDS.
|<< chapter 3||< chapter 1||chapter 5 >||chapter 37 >>|
SIR JAMES MAKES FRIENDS.
"THEN you had heard I was coming?"
After greeting Betty, who came forward on hearing voices, Sir James took the seat offered him, and looked again with interest at Bobbie, now turning down her sleeves.
"We heard you were coming to see your claim, but we did not know if you would come the short cut past here, or go round by the road. A neighbour called this morning who said you were going by the road, so we left off expecting you for today."
"I wonder where your neighbour got his information?"
"I think he just imagined it. He said Rhodesian magnates were too fond of comfort to do much trekking off the road." And her eyes danced in a way that greatly pleased the man accustomed chiefly to subservient attention. "I'm glad he was not right. A strange visitor is a great treat to us."
"I am sure you are thirsty," put in the thoughtful Betty. "It is rather hot today. What would you like to drink? Are you a tea-drinker, like most Rhodesians?"
"I should love a cup of tea beyond anything. | | 35 It is hot out in the glare, but it is delightfully cool and shady here."
"Perhaps you will not need to hurry on to-day," she ventured a little shyly. "Our brothers will be in from the mine at midday, and we shall all be so pleased if you will stay." She spoke somewhat timidly, being painfully conscious that their larder was more or less groaning with emptiness, and their stock of supplies at a very low ebb, and to entertain anyone of Sir James's distinction under the circumstances seemed a most daring feat. Bobbie felt the same, but her natural wit helped her to cope with the situation. "We shall be both pleased and honoured," she told him; "but we shall be happier in our minds if you would forgive our explaining that, as the nearest store is forty miles away, we have to live very frugally. I am afraid the best thing we can offer you will be the welcome."
"It is most kind of you," Sir James answered warmly. "I should very much like to remain a few hours." Then, after a slight pause, he added gracefully: "I always think an unexpected guest in this country ought to be allowed the privilege of contributing to the menu in any circumstances such as your distance from a town. I shall feel much happier if you will humour me in this matter. I have more stores than I can possibly use, and a supply of buck meat as well."
Betty coloured, and looked a little uncomfortable, as if she feared Sir James thought they had been giving him a hint; but Bobbie accepted the offer in the spirit in which it was made, and replied gaily: "How thoughtful of you! If you! If you only | | 36 knew how we were both quaking in our shoes at the thought of the bully beef lunch we should be obliged to offer you! Of course, we should have tried to improve the flavour with curry powder, but even then it often tastes like boiled string."
Sir James laughed genially. "I know it," he said wit feeling. "One hots it, and colds it, and fries it, and bakes it, and in the end one finds nothing is really an improvement, and just eats it in its natural state. I have relished many a hearty meal off it, all the same, up here in the early days, even if Rhodesian magnates are so fond of comfort. You must find it very awkward sometimes to be so far from everywhere!"
"It is tiresome when we forget things like soap and sugar," Bobbie told him; "especially the latter"--with a little smile. "One can better exist without soap."
"And have you been here long?"
"We came about a year ago."
"Really!" He spoke in surprise, having supposed they were but paying a passing visit. "I think you are both very courageous. It must be extremely lonely sometimes, and catering is always difficult in these out-of-the-way places. Unless your brothers have time to shoot an occasional buck, I suppose you rarely get any fresh meat at all?"
"Only when Mr. Fitzgerald, who has a Kaffir store and butchery near, kills some old trek ox he has bought cheap. The butchery business depends almost entirely upon what old carcase he can buy very cheap to sell to the natives at fancy prices. He is very good in saving us the best piece; and | | 37 we eat it with a relish, and ask no questions concerning age and all that."
"We only ask when it was killed," put in Betty, "for fear it should walk away again while we are considering the best way to cook it."
Sir James looked from one to the other of the pretty sisters, and there was a glow almost like pride in his eyes. "You have evidently done your share of 'roughing it' here. May I say at once how tremendously I admire all the plucky women in this beautiful country, helping we men to make it a great colony. We should not get very far without you."
A swift softness crossed Bobbie's eyes. "How nice of you!" she said. "Betty and I often hearten each other with the idea that we are doing a little service for dear old England, but we never look for any recognition from anyone else. Not matters"--cheerfully. "We like being here, and think it worth while, or perhaps we should not stay."
"I think it matters a great deal. The pioneers thought it worth while, or probably they would not have stayed, but that does not make anyone admire them the less. It all shows grit and spirit, and one is so pleased to think one's countrywomen have it in abundance. When there is a little less commercialism about our government, I hope there will be more thought for the women throughout the country. To-day you must let me give myself the pleasure of showing my appreciation in one way by producing the best feast we can manage between us. I heard of your brothers at Geegi. I had to stay there a day and night to get some postal matter. They have had rather bad luck, I'm afraid?"
"They have lately, but we've still a large balance, | | 38 of hope to draw upon." Bobbie was now busying herself preparing a little rustic packing-case table for tea, while Betty fetched cups and saucers and called to Twilight to boil the kettle. Sir James, seated in a low deck chair, with his sun helmet on the ground beside him, watched both, but particularly Bobbie, with increasing interest, noting afresh the flank naturalness that was her greatest charm, and also the slim, upright, graceful figure, which even the old, short, khaki skirt and workaday blouse could not hide. And Bobbie glanced with frank interest from time to time at him, seeing a soldierly-looking man of about fifty, with humorous grey eyes, iron-grey hair, and a very square, determined chin. And because, in spite of all their hardships, she had grown to dearly love Rhodesia, she was conscious of a glad inward swell that the young country had such a man as this at the helm to help her through the troubles and pitfalls that befall all new countries in their early stages. One felt, looking at the fine head and face, that here was a man who would not stoop to petty dealing, either for his own benefit, or for that of any far-off shareholders; who would not propagate any policy that blessed the present day at the expense of a future one; a man who would never pander to this power or to that would never cloak his deeds so that they read and sounded well, but were in reality governed by principles of self-interest; a man who would give all or lose all before he would stoop to do a deal that was not open in every particular to the whole world. And, even away there in the wilderness, Bobbie knew how great was Rhodesia's need of such men. And behind his keen, quiet eyes Sir James watched the | | 39 woman with the frank, fearless face, and he said to himself: "If only there were more of her to influence our men and spur them on along the difficult right paths, what a country we should become!" Then Betty came with the teapot, as Twilight's electric blue knickerbockers were too dirty to be presentable, and his shirt hanging in shreds, and Sir James jumped up to take it from her, smilingly protesting when she sought to stay him.
"My carriers are all camped by the river," he told them. "When my personal boy comes up, we will send him for some buck meat and stores."
Finally, by the luncheon hour, a dainty repast was outspread to greet the miners, and Bobbie and Betty had contrived to slip into their hut and don the clean dresses while their guest went with his boy to select whatever he thought would please them best among his stores. Bobbie also contrived to send a message to Toby, and by three o'clock he arrived with a radiant face, though his attire was of much the same nondescript quality as usual.
Sir James greeted him pleasantly. "I understand you represent the principal stores of the district, and, among other things, supply a joint of beef when you can pick up an old trek ox cheap."
"It is a libel," stated the store-keeper stoutly.
"My beef is of the best. I give you my word of honour I never sell any beast unless I am quite satisfied what it died of first. I hope," he added politely, "that you have not been regaled upon rat soup to-day, as I was three evenings ago? It is really quite impossible to ascertain correctly where the rats came from!"
In order to pay him out for giving their cook-boy | | 40 away, the girls immediately commenced to give him a list of all the dainties they had had for lunch, after which, as Sir James said he could not possibly take anything away that had already found its way to the house, Toby promptly invited himself upon a three days' visit.
"I believe I know your father," Sir James said to him presently. "Surely he was in the Guards in I890 or thereabouts?"
"Yes, sir. He has mentioned you in one or two letters."
"I thought I could not be mistaken; you are the exact image of what he was then. I am sorry I did not know before. And you say you have a store and butchery. I hope you are making a fortune?"
"Going to." Toby's eyes twinkled. "The returns were five pounds last month."
"Anyhow, you look uncommonly well on it," laughed Sir James. "I'll tell your father when I next see him in the club. Like myself, you appear to prefer Colonial freedom to the barrack life of a smart regiment."
"Oh, Lord, yes!"--and there was no doubt about Toby's sincerity. "I'm as happy as a king when the blooming store is paying!"
In the end, Sir James was so pleased with his company that he was prevailed upon to put up his tent and stay the night. "It will delay me a day," was his only demur, "as I cannot get through to Loka to-morrow; but I don't suppose my claim will run away, and, having once got out upon the veldt, I am in no hurry to get back to Lobenwayo. There is little else there just now but dust and | | 41 drought." He looked round with a pleased expression upon the peaceful, shady little wilderness home. It was the end of the dry season, and the spring tints upon the trees were making beautiful the land. The veldt round the Glynns' mine had been burnt early, and in consequence the ground was gay with many veldt flowers of exquisite shades and the bright green of the young sugar bush. After tea he went down the mine with the brothers, and had a long talk with them on their prospects, heartening them considerably, and promising to help them in any way he could. While they were away, Bobbie and Betty were Very surprised to see Blake approaching once more, and almost instantly a vague misgiving seized Bobbie concerning his object and concerning the welfare of Sir James--nothing she could give a name to, nothing tangible at all--but something born of a new furtiveness in Blake's demeanour and the unexpectedness of his second visit. Noting the surprise she did not attempt to conceal, he remarked at once:
"You are surprised to see me again so soon, Miss Bobbie; but I heard Sir James had come this way, after all, and was at your place. Naturally, I could not resist the chance to come and see him."
"How did you hear?" asked Bobbie casually. Blake's farm was well out of the way of the traveller's route, and it puzzled her how he could know of their guest's arrival.
"A native told me, and I just rode over. I fought under Sir James in one of the rebellions, but he is not likely to remember me."
A few minutes later the rest of the party returned, | | 42 and, watching from the background, Bobbie observed that Sir James recognised Blake instantly, and that there was momentarily a dark look in his eyes. Blake, on the other hand, appeared almost gushingly affable, though, as ever, his manner did not seem to Bobbie sincere. It occurred to her that both men instantly remembered something they would prefer to forget, and each knew that the other remembered. Blake saluted, as to his former commander, and, coldly acknowledging the salute, Sir James replied to his greeting laconically: "How d'ye do? Are you still living down here?"
But Blake had no intention of being repulsed, and presently drew the visitor into conversation, whether he would or no, showing himself only ready to help him on his journey.
"If you do not go through to Loka tomorrow," he said, "there is a most excellent camping-place by the M'Tarsa river. It is near a large kraal, where you could easily get all the 'scoff' (food) you need for your boys."
"I am wanting 'scoff' rather badly," Sir James said. "I dare say I could arrange with them to supply me for a fortnight."
"I'm sure you could. Their meal is good, too. They grind it very fine."
"You are not speaking of Shagann's kraal, are you?" asked Toby suddenly. "Those natives are the biggest set of villains in the country."
Blake gave a low laugh. "They used to be. There is not much use for villainy nowadays; it doesn't pay."
"Anyhow, I dare say their meal is none the worse," put in Sir James, with a smile. "I might | | 43 go through and make arrangements with them tomorrow, and then finish my journey the next day. Thank you for mentioning it, Blake."
"Not at all, sir. I am only too glad to be of any service. Here's to the new gold mine! I expect you have got a good thing up there, and I hope it is going to make money for all of us. I shall sow an extra large crop of mealies and ground nuts on the strength of it."
"And I shall enlarge my store," chimed in Toby, "and book an option upon every sick beast in the neighbourhood!"
But Bobbie secretly knit her straight brows with a worried air. "Only this morning," was her thought, "he told me the rich reef was on this Dutchman's claim, and practically nothing on Sir James's."
|<< chapter 3||< chapter 1||chapter 5 >||chapter 37 >>|