- CHAPTER X. THE LUNCH.
|<< chapter 9||< chapter 1||chapter 11 >||chapter 37 >>|
When Blake saw her coming from the stoep, he hurried forward to receive her, and it was all Bobbie could do to meet unflinching the burning ardour in his eyes.
"So you've come," he said tensely.
"So I've come," she answered lightly. "I haven't had an adventure that offered so long, I simply had to grasp at anything that offered."
" You are not very polite. Do I merely represent the best chance of an adventure that offered?"
"About that. Why, I told you only a spirit of adventure would bring me."
"I should have liked a warmer reason, but, since you've actually come--"-meaningly.
"As a matter of fact, it's a wonder I ever arrived. I nearly turned back several times."
"What--nervous?"--with a little laugh.
"Nervous!" she echoed. "Whatever about? what an odd person you are! You talk as if you might turn into a lion, or a wolf, or something, like Riding Hood's grandmother. No, I nearly turned back because of the heat--nothing else. The wind is in the south, and it makes it extra hot walking in this direction."| | 94
They reached the pretty bungalow, built of native-made bricks and with a corrugated iron roof painted red, which had a particularly pleasing effect against the fresh green of the M'Sasa trees and the intense blue sky. Moreover, Blake had some beautiful flowering creepers blooming in masses over the verandah, giving the house the appearance of a fairy bower rather than a dwelling where two lawless men could discuss the perpetration of an infamous deed. Looked at in another way, it also had a certain flaunting air of abandon-much brilliant colour splashed on recklessly, and all around a tangled bush that knew neither law nor order.
There are times when Rhodesia may wear, even to those who love her, an air of heartlessness and cruelty--something of the primeval riotousness of Nature--something that seems to defy blatantly the conventions of civilisation. A man may feel it often when he is wrestling with his first bit of wilderness, for, in the wanton summertime, it is as though Rhodesia mocked openly at his efforts, growing what she will where she will, in spite of him, and maliciously choking his work with weeds and rank growth. Or, if it is winter, when the streams are running dry, and the rains are overdue, yet tarry unkindly, she will wreck all his work with dryness; and when she has parched his seeds to death, she will send rain in such superabundance that he has more moisture than he can cope with. Even his animals she will not spare, torturing them with drought one day, and overpowering them with swollen torrents and muddy vleis the next. And yet with it all, as some beautiful, tantalising woman, she wins all hearts. The man who is thoroughly "fed up" with | | 95 her one year will hasten back the next. The woman who shakes her annoying red dust from her feet and garments one dry season, and rejoices that she is able to depart, will have a yearning after a time for the riotous beauty of flowers and sunshine, the far blue hills, the wide spaces, the freedom. And, after all, who that is worth his salt would choose a life that is all ease and smoothness. The keen breezes of the height are more invigorating than the warm winds of the valley; obstacles to be overcome, better than a sloth and leisure that overcomes us. Man is by nature a fighter. "By the sweat of thy brow" was the mandate of old. To fight a beautiful, wayward wilderness, even if she tantalises almost beyond endurance, may yet hold a deeper compensation than to go on just where one's father and one's father's father left off. To cut a groove for oneself in face of many difficulties, may hold a greater satisfaction than to move slowly and easily along a groove cut by someone else. It is this spirit that makes such fine colonists of Englishmen. It is as though the sons of all the Drakes and Frobishers, able no longer to rove the high seas in search of adventure and prizes, roved out over the wilderness lands of the earth, expending their northern energy in taming the untamed valleys and bringing the waste places into line. The followers of Drake and Frobisher did a splendid work in making England mistress of the seas. Are the plucky colonists of today doing any less in spreading the bounds of her Empire and opening up new dwelling-places for her overflowing population? Only let them remember sometimes that it is an Empire work, and not just making a living for oneself, then shall we have | | 96 strong men coming forward to stand in singleness of purpose for the rights and fair government of their comrades.
But in the meantime there is much hardship to be cheerfully endured, much disappointment to b1 overcome, much depression to be grappled with, when the sturdy white man comes along and says to the beautiful, flaunting wilderness: "As you have grown for love of growing in the past, casting your wealth upon the wilderness air, so you shall now grow for me, and shall grow those things I want grown." Naturally a duel of wills follows, until the wrestling merges into long furrows, and civilisation waves her magic wand.
But it was the cruel aspect that seemed strangely to strike Bobbie that morning, as she looked at the gay little house, with its tangled surroundings, and remembered how she was there, against her will and inclination, to combat a deed possible only in a district as yet barely within reach of civilisation's waves. She glanced also at Blake, and saw in him the product of the border country--the man who had come in the early days, solely to take, and with no idea of giving; the man who hated law and order, and wanted only to snatch whatever good things he could find in the universe, ignoring all thoughts of brotherhood, and desiring only gain for himself, by fair means or foul; a man who was something of an anomaly now that civilisation had followed after him, unwilling, perhaps incapable, of going back to the state he had flung away from, but choosing still to be a law unto himself, and to seize, regardless of risk, whatever thing he most desired. In truth, a dangerous man for a girl to visit alone, | | 97 away there in his stronghold, as Bobbie very well knew. But danger to herself had no longer any power to move her. The danger overshadowing one who seemed of so infinitely more importance dwarfed all else.
"Your creepers are making a brave show," she said, as they mounted the verandah steps.
"They are decking a triumphal arch," he told her, "for the coming of the queen."
"What nonsense!" curling her lip a little. "Anyone would think it was a long-looked-forward- to event, instead of a casual drop in, to pass a dull day."
"It is a long-looked-looked-forward-to event," he answered calmly. I have counted on it for months. Of course, I knew you would come one day, but I hardly dared hope it would be so soon."
She leaned her sunshade against a chair with a studied air of unconcern, and glanced round the sitting-room. "A pleasant little surprise for you; but I fear it will be of short duration, as they say in books. I was too lazy to do anything this morning so I shall have to hurry back, lest poor Mr. Hulatt comes all the way to play the part of guardian, and finds nothing to eat."
"Why does he come at all?" asked Blake almost fiercely. "Why doesn't your brother ask me to be guardian? I am much nearer. Doesn't he trust me?"
"I expect not," she replied, so coolly that he could not help laughing.
"Perhaps he's right," he added, with a like coolness. "But if you wished me to come "--pointedly--" it would be all right, wouldn't it?"| | 98
"I don't trust you either," said Bobbie lightly. "You might steal the sugar."
"I should be a fool if I didn't," he answered darkly, looking very hard into her face.
Bobbie pretended not to notice, and with forced calm, she turned away to pick up a fine leopard skin from a chair-back. "What a beauty! Is it a new one?"
"Yes. I got him about a week ago. My boys saw him slinking on a kopje near the goats, so I went after him at sundown. Tiger put him up, and made a lucky shot. Got him dead as a doornail first time. You may have it if you like. It is rather well brayed."
Bobbie laid the skin down again. She did want to accept the gift, yet could hardly decline
"I won't rob you," she said; "it looks so well over that chair."
"You won't be robbing me. I meant to give to you all along; I should have brought it up."
At that moment a boy came in, clad in spotless "limbo," and, as he went out again, she changed the conversation by remarking with a smile: "What spotlessness! How do you manage it? Even when we had so eminent a personage as Sir James Fortescue to see us, our house-boy appeared clad in very short electric blue knickers, and a shirt with a rent the whole length of the back. Yet we had given 'limbo' only a few days before."
"Like the house," said Blake, "he is dressed for the coming of the queen."
"Anyone would think I had come to stay"-- trying to laugh naturally.
"Why not stay?" And this time, in spite of | | 99 herself, the colour rushed to her face. He seemed to enjoy it, for he watched her closely, and then said: "By Jove, a blush is becoming to you!"
"I don't like compliments. If you can't talk sense, I shall go home again at once."
"That depends upon if I will let you."
"Indeed it doesn't!"--and her eyes flashed a little. "I shall go when I choose."
"Well, don't let us start off with a quarrel. I've a lot to say to you, but you mustn't wear that indignant air, or I'm afraid I shall have to kiss you."
"Rats!" said Bobbie, perceiving that her safest plan lay in refusing to take him seriously. "I don't like kisses any better than compliments, and I don't want to have anything to do with either, thank you."
"Oh, don't you? Not even if it were Toby, the butcher,or Sir James the old lady?" "I love Toby's butcheriness. He reminds me of a happy kid building mud castles."
"Well, he isn't much more than a kid--too young to be really interesting to a clever woman like you."
"I'm not clever, and Toby interests me immensely.You never know what he will be up to next."
"Which is much the case with any fool."
"Oh, of course, if you are jealous of him, as well as of Sir James, it isn't worth while discussing the subject."
"I'm not jealous of either nincompoop!"--with an angry note in his voice. "I wonder why you are in such an aggravating mood today?"
She smiled and shrugged her shoulders. "Am I?" she asked, in a voice that made him want to shake her.
"Just a little"--smiling in his turn-- "but we | | 100 won't fall out about it. Here's lunch. Not rich fare, I'm afraid, but the best fowl I possessed-- slaughtered for the queen."
"Poor best fowl! Evidently sometimes it pays to be second-best."
"I hate the second-best in anything. It's got too easily, for one reason. I like a thing I've had to win against odds." He paused a moment, then added: "I suppose that is why I want you, and why I mean to have you. You're so much better worth wrestling for than most women!"
Bobbie felt her colour changing uncomfortably, and was unable to meet the challenge in his eyes.
"I guess that's where you've miscalculated, as the Americans would say," she answered, with a forced laugh. "What an excellent fowl! Your poor dear best bird seems to have been worthy of his distinction."
"Of course he was. All my best things are. And you will be when you join them." He seemed to take a special delight in embarrassing her, watching keenly the changing colour in her cheeks, and secretly enjoying the defiant light in her eyes. It suited her amazingly. Blake had never blinded himself that she was beautiful, but he knew that she was distinguished-looking, and to a perfect figure added a piquancy and power of expression never likely to pall as beauty may. And today, flushed with her walk and defiant under his treatment, she looked handsomer than he had ever seen her before. After lunch he told himself he would try his old methods of daring conquest, and take not one kiss, but many, till his personality dominated hers, and he might win her by his power.| | 9101
Bobbie, far more alert than she appeared, noted every move and every inflection, and meant to withstand him with a weapon of invulnerable indifference and a judicious amount of ridicule. As soon as possible she hoped to get away without his escort, and, even as they sparred over their meal, she was making desperate plans, not merely to baffle his familiarity, but to prevent him from returning to their huts with her. She thought the best plan would be to suggest he left her to rest on the shady side of the verandah for an hour, and, directly she thought it safe, she would slip away unobserved. After that there was only one course left. By hook or by crook she must reach Sir James's camp before seven o'clock. And to do this she must take a boy with her and walk the ten miles, taking the Kopje path, where, if anything should arouse Blake's suspicions, he was less likely to find her. In the meantime there was Blake to cope with, and with a shrinking heart she realised it would be no easy matter. She felt that, whether he wished it or no, his natural lust of power was growing upon him, and that her guard of indifference was almost as dangerous as a yielding mood. In his determination not to be thwarted, he might ignore the hurt to his cause, and try to triumph just for triumph's sake. And in this she was right. Resistance always brought out Blake's fiercest attributes. He believed in conquering first and soothing afterwards, wedded to the belief that any woman could be soothed from anger if you petted her enough and gave her many presents. Which showed that, in perceiving the strength and attraction of Bobbie's character, he yet had failed to differentiate between | | 102 her and the class of women he had had mostly to deal with.
Bobbie's life had not been an easy, safe-guarded one at any time since she grew out of childhood. She had had to fend for herself on various occasions, and, in consequence, many women in their whole lives might possess less self-reliance and resource than she was blessed with at twenty-five. And mingled with it was a fineness of character that Blake could not comprehend, choosing rather to judge her by his own standards. Thus, just because she had accepted his invitation, he saw in her, unexpectedly and with agreeable surprise, a more yielding nature than he had supposed. Doubtless she was already bored with Toby's youthfulness, he argued, and had had the wisdom to perceive in him a more suitable mate. If only he could safely combat the ill to his schemes that threatened from Sir James's quarter, should he live to tell what he knew of Blake's past I As, to outward seeming, his success drew nearer, it made him harden his heart mercilessly against the man he deemed his enemy, and all the old dare-devil recklessness of the early days flooded in upon him again. He had seen deeds of bloodshed then without turning a hair. He could see one more, he felt, if it were to give him the thing he desired most in the world, and safety from a following dread.
So he plied Bobbie with whatever good things he had, and teased her to make her blush, only smiling when she grew angry. When they had finished lunch, he suggested to her to sit on a low couch, covered with a fine caross, and smoke a cigarette. But Bobbie declined, saying she would | | 103 smoke a cigarette at the table, and then go home.
"Home!" he echoed. "You can't possibly go home for hours. You will have to wait until it is cool."
"It will be perfectly cool going back, as I shall meet the wind. I told you I should not stay long, as I must prepare for Mr. Hulatt."
"I know you said something of the kind, but I did not think you meant it," he remarked in a way that made her secretly furious.
But she curbed her anger for the sake of the work she had in hand, and answered with a touch of corn: "Oh, is that your way? It isn't mine. When I say a thing, I mean it."
Then the only course will be to change your mind," said Blake, still smiling provokingly. "That, at least, as a woman, you can do without hurting your dignity."
"I don't want to change it. Give me a cigarette, and then I shall go."
"And is this adventure"--with a sarcastic emphasis--"of which you have made so much to end there? You certainly don't ask a great deal if a tame outing like this will serve you for adventure."
She smiled lightly. "Beggars cannot be choosers. I told you before it was the best that offered."
He was silent a moment, looking vexed, then he said: "You also mentioned that you were not afraid of me. Then why not come and sit on the couch? You always mean what you say. Or does the rule lapse at convenient times?"
"I don't mind coming in the least"--with a jaunty air. "I only thought it looked a little hot. | | 104 I'll sit there until I finish my cigarette, if it is only to show you I am a woman of my word, which also means I am shortly going home."
He was content to have gained one point, and watched with smouldering triumph in his eyes while she stood up, moved gracefully across the room, and seated herself on the couch. Then he picked up some photographs from a table behind her, and casually leaned over the back of the sofa to show them to her. Bobbie took a photograph from him that pleased her exceedingly, and, leaning over it fully engrossed, did not notice that he had sidled nearer to her, and, with one arm behind her shoulders, had his head bent down so close to hers that it was almost an embrace.
And just at that moment there was a tread on the verandah, as a gay voice cried: "I say, Blake, you old loafer, can you lend me a bicycle pump?"
Bobbie looked up with an exclamation that was almost a cry, to see Toby standing in the doorway, regarding them with a face of stunned amazement.
"You!" he gasped hoarsely. "You!"
|<< chapter 9||< chapter 1||chapter 11 >||chapter 37 >>|