- CHAPTER XII. BOBBIE'S STRATAGEM.
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WHEN Bobbie had remarked to Blake that Tobys uncertainty held charm, and that one never knew what he would do next, she had spoken the truth in the latter portion of the criticism more literally than she knew. Toby was emphatically the type of man who needed a level-headed woman to take care of him, else he was inclined to be so irresponsible and uncertain he would never get on. It was not that he was lazy or over-fond of pleasure, but he needed balance, and in the hands of a sensible woman might achieve a great deal. With all her love, Bobbie was not in the least blind to his short-comings. He was the dearest man in the world to her, but he was no paragon, and she had never imagined him one. She knew that he lacked steadiness of purpose, and was therefore liable to lose ground at any time by going off in a mistaken direction. And now, when he flung away with that last sentence about not coming back on his lips, she knew he was quite likely in his bitter indignation, to throw all the work of months to the winds, and desert his store just when he was beginning to make it pay.
115 BOBBIE'S STRATAGEMthe world might go. For a little while a blackness seemed to come down upon her also, and she sat with clenched hands and compressed lips, utterly at a loss to know how to act.
Then Blake recalled her sharply to herself, and to the present, and all the pressing need of the hour. By no possible chance could she follow Toby and explain anything now, so her faculties must once more all be trained upon the exigencies that had resulted in her present position.
"He seems a bit annoyed," Blake said, with a sneer. "Thought he was getting it all his own way absolutely. Silly young ass, with his tuppeny-ha'penny store and his five pounds a month!"
"I'm sorry he came." Bobbie stood up and spoke quite frankly. "I'm afraid he will be angry with me. Perhaps it was rather foolish of me to come."
"What rot! What has it got to do with him, anyway? I never believed you were serious when you led him on. He might have had the sense to see it, too. A woman like you to accept a boy like him-pshaw!" "Well, anyhow, he hasn't asked me," she replied, with feigned lightness. "I'm going home now."
"Nonsense. You can't go in this heat! I shouldn't dream of allowing it!"
"Hoity-toity!" she laughed. "I'm afraid I intend to please myself."
116 THE PATHWAY--love you--love you!" And with each repetition he crushed her hand more tightly in his.
A sickening dread took possession of her for a moment, but she rallied herself with all her strength to wrestle with him and get safely away to achieve her object.
"I don't believe it," she said. "Men like you do not love anyone but themselves. Let me go!" And she tried to withdraw her hand, but he only held it more firmly.
"No, I won't let you go--I'll never let you go! I'm going to marry you soon, whether that young whipper-snapper likes it or not. I've meant to for months. I was only biding my time, and you knew it."
"And what if I don't want to marry you?"-- with a slight curl of her lips.
"I'll make you want. Don't look at me like that--you make me feel dangerous! I never wanted anything in my life half so much as I want you. It isn't likely I'm going tamely to let you go. Why did you come here today, if you don't care? What do you--what does any woman want that I cannot give you? I am a rich man, and I shall be much richer. I can give you anything in the world you fancy. Bobbie, I love you! Do you hear?" And he tried to take her in his arms. But she held him off valiantly, conscious only that somehow or other she must get away.
"If you kiss me, I shall hate you" she said. "No man worth the name forces a kiss on a woman."
He desisted a moment, looking angry. Something about her baffled him. It occurred to him that for some reason, she was acting.
117 BOBBIE'S STRATAGEM
"Don't play with me," he muttered, in tense, hard tones. "I'm not a man to play with lightly. Play with Toby and that tribe of silly young idiots if you like, but not with me. I've seen too much of the dare-devil side of life and been a law to myself for too long to take any trifling lightly about a thing I have very much at heart."
"Are you threatening me?" she asked, with a brave show of irony, in no way in keeping with the tremor at her heart.
"I don't know about threatening, but I feel I could kill you rather than let you go to anyone else!" And he moved near to her again, and Bobbie saw a light in his eyes that had a dangerous look.
Because she was afraid of being unnerved, she braced herself sternly to combat him, and, steadying her voice with a great effort, said calmly: "Don't you think you are treating me a little badly, now you have got me here all alone in your power? I trusted you a good deal by coming at all. Do you want to make me regret my trust?"
"Is it treating you badly to tell you I love you?"
"That depends. At the present moment I am very hot and very tired, and my head aches. You have taken me so much by surprise, I hardly know how to grasp all you mean, and then you get angry with me. If you won't let me go quietly home, will you leave me in peace to rest on the verandah a little, until the afternoon cools?"
118 THE PATHWAYeverything in heaven and earth. I want you so much that I can't be cool about it. And yet you stand there so calm and quiet, while I am positively raging. I don't know that I meant to tell you today; but since you came, I knew I should--nothing could stop me. And then that young fool Toby turns up, obviously thinking you ought not to be here at all, and I have to tell you at once. You'll promise to marry me before you go, won't you?"
"I can't say what I shall do later on. At the present moment I feel I would rather rest for an hour than marry the most splendid person in the world."
"So you shall; but you must kiss me first." And he advanced a pace.
"No," she declared resolutely, refusing again to see the dangerous gleam in his eyes. Even to gain her great end she could not act the part of Delilah.
"I do not like your violent methods. Surely you are not the man to care for a kiss given unwillingly. Why all this haste? Give me time to think."
He turned away almost with a sullen air. "You baffle me," he said; "I do not understand you."
"But still you can respect my wishes"--and Bobbie smiled. She saw that she had gained an advantage, and hastened to follow it up. She knew she was playing a double game, and hated it, but the end that was hers must surely excuse any means; and as the duel between them had proceeded, she had realised as never before how unscrupulous Blake could be. Hitherto she had known him only as the pleasant visitor, about whom there were rumours concerning a past that would not bear inspection;
119 BOBBIE'S STRATAGEMbut it had been easy to believe, whatever it were he had turned over a new leaf and left the old ways behind him. Today, however, she had seen something in his face that seemed to say their trust was unfounded and Toby's suspicions correct. The old character was there still, hidden under a mere veneer of pleasant seeming. To gain an end he had much at heart, this man could do anything. She saw it in that strange gleam in his eyes when he let himself go. She felt it in a consciousness of danger to herself. She understood why the villainous Dutchman had found an accomplice so easily, knowing the gain to Blake himself weighed more heavily than any threat of harm from his enemy. To take what he wanted was his creed. The shame lay in being found out. She felt more strongly every moment that stratagem was her only weapon, and the one way she could hope to defeat him. So she pressed her vantage ground now, still bravely thrusting the thoughts of Toby that tried to crowd in upon her, into the background.
"See here," she said, with seeming frankness, "I'll rest awhile on the shady side of the house, and you must humour me by going away. You are much too disturbing a person to remain. Later on we can talk again."
In calling him "disturbing " she had flattered him at a particularly vulnerable point, and he showed himself almost more amenable than she had dared to hope.
120 THE PATIHWA\AYshrink--"afterwards little woman--well, we'll enjoy ourselves"
She turned away with a sense of loathing she could only with difficulty conceal, and he fetched some cushions for the lounge chair for her. Then, with a laughing au revoir, he went away, and she saw him walking off in the direction of his tobacco beds.
The shady side of the verandah chanced, fortunately, to be the one bounded by trees and shrub, through which she had secretly approached, and could as secretly retire. In a fever of dread, she lay back in the chair, longing to start, yet fearful of making a blunder. There was no time for thought of anything else now. The ordeal she had passed through, Toby's bitter anger, were thrust into the background. Would any power take her safely the ten miles to Sir James's camp before night fell? If not, did anything else in the world matter?
After ten minutes, judging he must have set to work, and be unlikely to return for about an hour, she scrambled to her feet and hurriedly sought a paper and pencil. Then she scribbled him a little note, saying she had gone home without waiting for him, as her head was no better, and, as she felt feverish, she thought it wiser to go while she could. "Do not follow me," she added. "I would rather be left to myself. Come another day instead." She felt sure he would obey her instructions, because he had no time to spare himself, and, by suggesting that he should come another day, she made her hurried departure seem less strange. Then she placed the note in a prominent position in the sitting-room, and stole away into the trees.
121 BOBBIE'S STRATAGEMas much as possible, regardless of the hot afternoon sun, and reached the huts within half an hour. She longed for a cup of tea, but feared to wait a moment, lest he followed her and thwarted her plans. If he came at all, he must find no signs of her, and no one about to ask any questions of. The cook-boy she meant to take as guide, and the piccanin she would send at once to Mr. Hulatt with a note, asking him to come to Sir James Fortescue's camp, near Shagann's kraal, as soon as possible. Doubtless he would be amazed at such a message, and think her behaviour very strange; but she could not explain in a note, and could only leave it to subsequent events.
As soon as the piccanin was dispatched,:she called to the cook-boy, and told him danger was threatened to the big, white Inkaas who had visited them and gone on to Shagann's kraal, and they must follow him at once. The cook-boy looked stupid and uncomprehending, but Bobbie succeeded at last in making him understand where she wanted to go, and that he must come with her. He tried to tell her it was too far, but she paid no heed, merely locking the huts herself, and making ready for an immediate start.
"Too far--too far--very long way," reiterated the black boy; but Bobbie seemed scarcely to hear him, she was in such nervous haste to be off, for fear Blake should follow her. What did distance matter when a life lay in the balance? Had it been twice as far, she would have tried to get there. While she could stand, she would never stop until she had spoken her warning and put Sir James on his guard.
122 THE PATHWAY
Finally they stole away to follow the difficult footpath through the kopjes, because it was so much nearer than the main track. In vain the boy murmured of a schelums, meaning, as she well knew, a possible lion or leopard or baboon. All her world, all her life, held but one object in that critical hour. Wild beasts themselves should not stay her efforts to get to Sir James. If she fell by the way, before arriving, what was that to her? The warrior spirit burned in her heart. Let her at least fall trying to save this man.
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