- CHAPTER VI. BOBBIE'S PRESENTIMENT.
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To anyone living in the lonely districts of Rhodesia, it sometimes seems as if life had stood still altogether, and there was no progress whatever--no marked change of the seasons, no eagerly awaited summer holiday, no gay Christmastide-- chiefly a uniform colourness over everything. Often it is difficult to ascertain the day of the week; and, as for the hour, the guidance of the sun in the sky is near enough. When news filters through, it is often so old as to have lost its savour, though the lonely settlers devour a month-old newspaper with avidity, possibly because they have nothing else to read. This sameness and monotony naturally strike hardest at the women. The men have their change between work and leisure, between morning and evening, between week-days and Sunday. For the women it is all much the same--the same household worries every day, the same plucky, strenuous efforts to fill in hours that seem as if they did not want to be filled in, but just to drag. For the man there is almost always another man near. For the woman there is often no other woman within reach, except under difficulties which probably preclude all intercourse. If Bobbie and Betty seemed nearly always cheerful, | | 53 it was not that they were immune to the aching longing that sometimes undermines the very health of isolated women; but they were too spirited to give way to it, and, moreover, possessed a rare gift of heartening each other. As Betty was engaged and likely to be married the following year, and was, still further, of a naturally dreamy disposition, she spent much of her leisure time fashioning garments for her trousseau and dreaming of her lover. Bobbie, on the other hand, liked life and action and vital interests, and often in the long, hot afternoons she ached to be up and doing something--anything- -so it seemed real and for the good of the world in general. At such times she could only rally herself vigorously, making a brave effort to be persuaded that the mere fact of helping to colonise a young colony was in its way a service. In this she was most certainly correct. It is surely among some of the finest services that women are able to give. But, alas! so often, seated alone, with little or nothing to do, and the heat and the silence all round, it is difficult not to feel one is but throwing away one's life and energy on a vain quest. Among one's fellows one might be actively useful. The role to "stand and wait" is so hard to the energetic soul. And yet, perhaps, for that very reason it is often the lot of women cast in an heroic mould. The small-minded woman, with small ideas and small hopes, cannot "stand and wait." An element of fuss and activity is necessary to her, though through it all she often achieves nothing beyond a little stir and commotion. It takes a large-souled woman to "stand and wait" patiently in the wilderness, upheld by far dreams of the prosperous | | 54 time that shall be in the future for those who come after her. Without this spirit, if she must needs stay, she will probably win to patience through an apathetic numbness which causes her to become a mere machine, ministering to the wants of some man she is too apathetic to love or hate. But she is making a path, all the same, and perhaps the God of Understanding "takes the work for good, and lets good be." But the woman who refuses to grow apathetic, and manufactures interests and hobbies and occupations, and struggles to be cheerful and contented in a life that is manifestly robbing her of many of youth's natural joys and delights, is among the heroines of this twentieth century, and some day will win the recognition due to her. For this is emphatically the keenest colonising century we have yet known, and for that very reason there is a far greater demand upon the women to leave all the manifold interests of home life and take a long farewell of friends and scenes of childhood and girlhood, and go out to the silent places, sometimes with their lives in their hands, to help with the great movement of path-finding in the big, new countries across the sea for the great crowds that shall come after. So to Canada, Africa, Australia, the march has set in--the splendid, unheralded, untrumpeted march of the large-hearted women, ready to leave everything they have loved behind them for the sake of the future. God send the men everywhere chivalrous instincts of the highest order to help these women in all their difficulties and realise something of the trials that hit them particularly! For at home one may be more or less independent of one particular man calling in carpenters, plumbers | | 55 or obtaining mechanical appliances. But in the lonely districts there are none of these helps. One must do everything for oneself, making the barest necessaries suffice where all manufactured goods arc at ruinous prices. One must learn to glory in every "canny" contrivance of one's own manufacture. It is all part of the unsung service given to the splendid work of colonising and imperialism.
To all these aspects Betty and Bobbie had adapted themselves from the first, discovering how to cope with the white ants that threatened to eat them out of house and home, the black ants that swarmed on to all the food and even into the beds, the borers that rained down fine dust from the roof all over the hut; how to cook with the fewest possible utensils; how to clean without knife powders and silver powders and fancy cleansing properties, making fine wood ash serve, because it cost nothing; how to make furniture out of packing-cases, and paint it for themselves; to darn and mend garments till there was little of the original left; to make butter in a bottle with no fancy appliances at all, provided they were lucky enough to secure the milk; even to mend old shoes and recover an old chair, and last, but not least, to superintend the re-thatching of their roof by the cook-boy, because no other boy could be spared from the mine. They also dug a garden and grew vegetables, in spite of the battalion of insects that lie in wait in Rhodesia to eat up every vegetable the moment it appears. They even reared chickens, in spite of rats and snakes and crows, which often eat them wholesale; but they had to give the little turkeys up in disgust, because they had not the sense to come in out of | | 56 the rain, and their mother would not bother to call them, and after being dried and revivified in a bake-pot twice over, they stood still to get drowned the third time. Bobbie thought they might have saved them if they had had an oven; but never having possessed anything so luxurious as a kitchen-stove, but accomplished all cooking in three-legged Kaffir bake-pots upon the floor, they decided to "give the turkeys best," and be satisfied in future with barn-door fowls, or such of them as they could contrive to rear. The mother turkey, therefore, graced a banquet they gave at Christmas to all the lonely men round, and to which each guest contributed an item on the menu. It was a memorable banquet, and deserves a mention in passing. Toby produced a small sucking-pig as part of his contribution. He said the mother had overlain it on the veldt near his store; but, when questioned, he appeared to be extraordinarily vague as to the whereabouts of the mother and the scene of the tragedy and in the end the tale collapsed in laughter by Blake exclaiming: "Well, if the mother was near Somari's kraal, it must have been my sow and my sucking-pig, because I am having them herded there."
"Well, she wasn't," said Toby promptly. "She was south-west of it."
"In uninhabited country-mostly marsh?"
"South-west of the marsh," asserted Toby.
"A matter of six miles or so, in rocky kopjes?" --pressing him.
"Anyhow, the blinking blighter who had stolen it said the mother overlaid it," he blurted out, "and there's a deal too much looking gift horses in the mouth about this banquet!"| | 57
"I thought it tasted like one of mine," said Blake, amid the general laughter. "Anyhow, Toby "--good-naturedly--" we won't ask questions about the oranges. We know no one grows them for miles round except myself, and these are freshly picked."
"They blew off in the storm and rolled down the hill clean into the store," said the culprit, perfectly unperturbed. "Don't eat any if you don't fancy them bruised."
But to speak again of the colourlessness and monotony of the lives of the dwellers on the outskirts, and Bobbie's and Betty's share therein; Bobbie, in spite of her love for Toby, felt keenly conscious of them as she lay down to sleep that night. To meet a man like Sir James had been an unprecedented treat, and she knew that, after he had gone again on the morrow, the old monotony would close down and the old worries re-grip them with renewed force. At last, wondering if anything of absorbing interest could ever happen at all in that out-of-the-world spot, or if she would just go on waiting for years for Toby to make enough to marry on, she fell asleep, little indeed dreaming that she was on the eve of happenings that might shake the whole country.
The next morning there was a good deal of bustle over the various departures, the brothers' town- going clothes having to be hunted up, and sandwiches cut to eat on the long drive, and the very last items added to Betty's list for the store. Sir James left first, after making a hearty breakfast at sunrise, while his carriers took down his tent and packed his things.| | 58
"I'm sorry I cannot stay and keep you company today," he said to Bobbie, "but I am already a day late, and I must try to get back to Lobenwayo in a fortnight for affairs of State. A poor, unfortunate politician is not given much peace in Rhodesia."
"I wish you could," she answered him frankly. "I would put off washing those blouses yet another day."
"Or perhaps I could help you! I've washed a shirt before now. I had to do it myself to economise the soap. It was half a crown for about two square inches, and I daren't trust it out of my sight, much less let a nigger use it."
"You are not going through to the mine until tomorrow, I think you said?" one of the brothers asked him.
"No. I shall camp near Shagann's kraal tonight, and do a little business with him before going on."
"That is only about ten miles away," Bobbie remarked, "by the path through the kopjes."
"About that. But, if I get my trading done today, I can make an early start in the morning."
A little later he thanked them all most warmly for the hospitality they had shown him, promising to come again on his return journey, and started away up the track.
Then the four best of the span of donkeys were harnessed to the little utility cart, and Betty and Ken prepared to depart on it, accompanied by Bay on his bicycle. Toby had arranged to meet them on the road, as it was rather out of his way to come back to the huts.
"I've had a message from Hulatt, "Ken said to | | 59 Bobbie, as they were starting." He will come over this evening. We will get back as soon as we can tomorrow."
"Don't hurry for me," she assured them. "I shall be quite all right. I have a lot to do, and a scrumptious book to read. I shall expect you when I see you."
Nevertheless, there was a vague shadow in her eyes as she watched them drive away--the shadow of some vague, intangible presentiment oppressing her. She felt that something was going to happen; and yet, as she looked round on the dreaming, sunbathed scene, it seemed impossible that anything ever should happen in that particular spot. For nearly a year now, had she not seen it with just that remote, impersonal, sleeping air, like a world that had ceased to progress, a world given over to torpor. In the wet season for a little while it had been green, and the skies clear and beautiful, but for the most part there had been rank grass drying to colourlessness, and smoke-hazed skies and horizons from veldt fires--for the smoke of fires will travel many miles, and hang over the land immense distances away from the fire, and a haze may last many days--but so often, except when the splendid storms chased each other across the skies and broke in fury overhead, there was that sense of sameness and uneventful monotony. Whence, then, came this feeling of unrest? Why did she vaguely wish that it had not been this day, of all days, that they should go away and leave her? What was this presentiment oppressing her? She moved away to their little bit of cultivated land, hidden by some trees and the cane partition, thinking to occupy | | 60 herself for a little with the flowers and vegetables, before the sun grew too hot.
When at last she returned, she was amazed to hear voices talking by their sitting-room hut, and stood still a moment, peering through the screen to see who could possibly be thus holding a conversation, apparently of a somewhat confidential nature, at such an hour, in such a spot. To her astonishment, she beheld Blake and with him an uncouth-looking Dutchman with a villainous appearance that he did not seem to wish to conceal.
And as she stood with a puzzled air, hesitating to go forward, he exclaimed mutteringly: "I don't know what the deuce you brought me here for! It would look odd enough if anyone saw us. I'd better get away quickly, and meet you later at your place to tell you the latest plans."
"All right. I only wanted to make sure that Fortescue had really gone, and that he was taking my advice about camping by Shagann's kraal." As he said this, Bobbie instantly became all alert. Her senses quickened by the presentiment troubling her; she immediately divined some ill to Sir James was intended, and, casting all thoughts of eavesdropping away, listened with every sense strained to hear anything that was said.
"Now we have seen his boy," Blake went on, "and know that he has gone straight there, we have all the information we need. You can go on, bit I must stay a minute and talk to Miss Glynn, to explain our call and put her off the scent."
"Very well. I'll be at your place about half-past eleven, and I must be off again soon after twelve. I simply must be seen at Loma during the afternoon, | | 61 to bury our tracks. But that will give us time to discuss terms," replied the other, with an ugly look.
"Very well. As Miss Glynn hasn't seen you here, I won't mention it, or I can easily make out you were someone else. If you take that path through the trees, you will come into the track lower down."
For one moment Bobbie thought she would show herself; but the growing conviction that some desperate game was afoot decided her swiftly to try and fight them with their own weapons, and conceal the fact that she had overheard their conversation. With a quick, light step she returned to the garden, hidden by the trees, and waited there until Blake came to look for her, divining that the boy must have told him where she was.
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