- CHAPTER XXII. THE INTERVIEW.
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A WEEK passed before Blake made up his mind to face the ordeal of an interview with Bobbie. He heard then that Sir James had gone to Loka to his gold claim, and would be away for a week; and he knew that, if he went in the afternoon, the two brothers would be working at the mine, and the two sisters alone. It would therefore be probable that he and Bobbie might be left together for a little; and, while fearing her instinctively, he yet longed to hasten the interview and get it over.
So he rode up to the huts about half-past three, trying to look as if nothing unusual had happened. Bobbie was lying on a lounge chair in the shade, with her arm in a sling, and he was almost startled to see how ill she looked. Betty was sewing beside her. As he approached he saw an instant distrust come into her face; but Bobbie only gave him one fleeting glance of acknowledgment, and then dropped her gaze so that he could not see the expression in her eyes.
"I hope you are better," he said, standing beside her. "I should have come sooner, but your brother told me you were hardly equal to seeing anyone yet, and I did not want to be a nuisance."| | 203
She murmured a few words of thanks without looking up, and Betty relieved the situation by asking him if he had heard any news of Toby.
He coloured slightly as he answered: "Only that he seems to have gone in a hurry, and does not intend to return at present. He was always bad at writing notes, if he could help it. I expect he will turn up again as suddenly, and surprise us all."
"I suppose nothing could have happened to him?" said Betty anxiously.
"Oh, no I Toby is too great a favourite everywhere."
"I was thinking of a lion or leopard," Betty said, a little coldly.
"We should be sure to hear of that. He evidently went to the railway, and a good many boys pass that way. But, in any case, it is a very open path, and perfectly safe. Lions and leopards rarely attack white men, unless they are wounded."
Still Bobbie remained with lowered eyes and said nothing, and Blake felt himself regarding her with growing uneasiness.
"Ken has been to the store once or twice," Betty continued. "We shall try to keep it going for him while there is anything to sell. Sixpence is a good boy, and will take care of everything." There was a pause, and then she added: "It seems so odd he should have gone that day of all days. We quite expected him to follow us to Geegi to see Mr. Shute."
They had tea, and still Bobbie continued strangely silent and aloof. Blake tried to chat to Betty, but he saw little except the grave, white face of the invalid, so resolutely turned away from him.| | 204
After tea Betty remarked that she had to go to the garden for one or two things, and prepared to leave Blake alone with Bobbie. For one moment he thought he would go with Betty, then he decided that he must know the worst, if possible, and would stay.
As Betty moved away, there was a pulsing silence, and then Bobbie raised her eyes and looked straight into his face. Instantly he realised that she knew everything. He got up and moved away for a few minutes to recover himself, and then he came back. While he was gone, she had risen from her reclining posture, and now sat upright, with one hand gripping a chair near.
"I suppose," he said huskily, "you--overheard --something--at my house?"
"I overheard everything." She spoke in a low voice, but all she said was perfectly clear and distinct.
Suddenly he burst out: "Did you hear that my share was for love of you? I told you then I loved you better than I have ever loved anyone before. I tell you again now. Sir James had it in his power to come between us. It made me desperate. I--I thought you were going to care for him."
"So you consented to be an accomplice to a dastardly murder!" Her low voice lashed him.
"I was caught like a rat in a hole. If I had thwarted Van Tyl, he would have turned on me."
"Yet you tried-in the end."
"Good God, do you think I would let the low cur hurt you? I recognised you instantly even in that dim firelight. I meant to kill him!"--and his voice had a savage note.
There was a silence, and at last he asked sullenly:| | 205
"Well, what are you going to do? Damn me off-hand, I suppose?" She still said nothing, and, as if struggling violently to steady himself, he ran on: "What did you come to my kia for at all? Were you just playing with me?"
"I came to hear what Van Tyl had to say to you." He stared at her in astonishment. "Then you knew--before?"
"I knew before you asked me to come. It was here"--with slow emphasis--"that I overheard the sentence which gave me the clue."
He seemed staggered by all that the revelation implied. "Then--then you only accepted my invitation in order to try--" Words failed him.
"Certainly, that was all," she answered coldly. "I had to use desperate means to foil a desperate deed."
"Ah!" Once more he got up and walked away a few paces. Then he came back. "Then you don't really care a tinker's curse for me--you didn't when you came?"--a little roughly.
"No, I never cared for you."
"Then"--a little wildly--"why shield me the other day? At the full inquiry I suppose you will give me away."
Once more she looked full into his eyes, and he was struck by a certain simple dignity in her whole face. "Why should I give you away? I am not your judge."
"You mean?"--with a puzzled expression.
"I mean that, as far as I am concerned, you will get a chance to wipe out this black stain, and no one will know of it."
"Without caring for me, and knowing everything, | | 206 you positively mean to shield me?" he asked incredulously.
"I do not see that it would benefit anyone if I did otherwise. Sir James is not likely to be in danger from you again. Already you have apparently lived down some ill deeds of the past. Why should I be the one to rake them up again in condemning you?"
She was silent a moment, then added: "I would like to ask one thing."
She hesitated, looking painfully at a loss, and he moved a little nearer, saying in a gentle voice, wholly unlike any he had ever used before in all his life:
"Yes, what is it? Ask me; I promise faithfully to do what you wish."
"If you ever have the chance"--still speaking with hesitation--"will you tell Toby Fitzgerald why I was at your house that day?"
He looked at her strangely, and his face went grey.
"Do you--do you care so much, then, what Toby thinks?"
"I owe him an explanation," she answered, with quiet dignity, "and I think it would be better, under the circumstances, that it should come from you."
"I will remember and keep my promise." The huskiness had come again into his throat. He knew she was asking him to dig the grave of the dearest hope his life had ever held.
"And I should prefer you to go away for a time, if you can," she went on. "I--I hardly feel able to receive you here as if nothing had happened. I think you will understand that."
"I will do whatever you wish." There was a | | 207 break in his voice, in spite of his efforts to steady it, as it came home to him more and more what her generous nature was giving him by her self-imposed silence. What had been a fierce passion for her before was merging into a reverence such as he had never believed himself capable of feeling for God or man. She did not care for him; she never would care. All his plans had failed utterly, yet even in his bitterness of defeat and self-condemnation, even in his inner depth of shame, he knew that the best of him which existed would worship her as long as he lived. In giving him his acquittal, she had given him also a new and unexpected belief in goodness, a new and unexpected loathing of evil. Yet his manner seemed a little ungracious as he stammered out: "Of course, it means a new life to me. If you had chosen to speak, I was powerless. How am I to thank you?"
"You can thank me best by wiping out the stain in your future, and--and in helping others who are weak."
"I will try."
She leaned back in her chair, looking very exhausted, and he knew he must go. His eyes wandered round the little camp, and a sudden swift passion of regret filled them."
"God knows, I'm a blackguard!" he muttered, "but if--if there had been someone like you sooner--" He broke off, and his face hardened.
"I always think idle regret is for fools and imbeciles. What can't be helped must be stamped on. I'm not going to whine about the past at this late hour; but just because of you, and through you, and for you, I'm going to trek a damned sight straighter | | 208 in the future! Good-bye! I'll tell Toby, if; l ever see him, and he does not already know."
Then he turned sharply on his heel and vanished.
When Betty came back, she was surprised to find Bobbie alone, and noticed that her eyelashes were glistening with tears hastily wiped away.
"I ought not to have left you," she said; you were too tired to talk to him alone."
"Oh, no, I didn't mind! He is going away too. We shall have no neighbours left "--and smiled faintly.
"We shall not miss Mr. Blake." And Betty made no attempt to hide her dislike. "Where is he going?"
"He did not say. He spoke of being tired of the monotony here, and said he felt he must wander a little."
Betty glanced at her sister keenly. She had long suspected that Blake cared for her, and, putting two and two together, decided that Bobbie had just refused to marry him. She wondered if anything of the same kind were the reason for Toby's sudden departure, but decided it could hardly be so when they were almost engaged already. She wished with all her heart that Toby had not gone. For reasons she had not yet divulged to Bobbie, they needed his cheering presence more than ever before to help them to forget their anxieties occasionally. But, if she had said nothing, Bobbie had not been slow to observe the worried expression upon her brothers' faces, and upon Betty's when she thought no one was looking; and because she felt a certain relief now the interview with Blake was over, and she had been able to ask him the thing
"It is only the mine," Betty faltered. "It does not pay to work it now."
"It has not done before, and then a fresh vein cropped up. I do not think that is all."
There was a short silence, and then Bobbie asked:
"Have you heard anything from Uncle Frank?"
Betty coloured, and the younger girl urged her point In the end, Betty confessed that there had been a letter, and their uncle wrote to say that he had lost so much money in an unlucky speculation that he feared he could not let them have the promised loan at present.
"What happened about the stores?" Bobbie asked, knitting her forehead, for they had relied upon this loan.
"The boys had to give a bill on their machinery."
Bobbie turned, if possible, whiter. If no vein of gold cropped up, it spelt ruin. The very machinery would not be theirs to start on another mine, even if they could afford to move it.She leaned back and gazed long and steadily at the sky. Beyond doubt they would have to separate at last. How hard it seemed! All the fine spirit with which they had laughed at the wilderness difficulties wasted; the little home to be left desolate; their meagre capital lost on an enterprise that gave them nothing in the end but a sense of tired hopelessness. She thought | | 210 how hard the boys had worked week after week,upheld always by the hope that success would come on the morrow; how she and Betty had tried to hearten and encourage them, even when they both felt they were struggling with a forlorn hope. Even the disputed claim meant little now, for, if they won it, they could not move their machinery without a loan, and they were already considerably in debt.If it proved good, they might sell it; but some time must elapse first, and meanwhile, what of Betty and herself? Of course, they would have to seek any posts they were fitted for, and live among strangers, without a home of their own, until some day when fortune should perhaps smile at last. Then she discovered suddenly that Betty was crying, and, as ever, gave all her attention to rallying her.
"It will all come right," she declared reassuringly. "We have been down in the depths before. Obstacles are things to thrive on." And she smiled with an attempt at brightness.
But at night she watched the stars with vague and sad misgivings. Before they had dropped the subject, Betty had spoken a sentence that seemed burnt into her brain.
"Sir James could do a great deal for us," she had said timidly, "if you would ask him."
Yes, it was true indeed--perhaps Bobbie knew better than any of them how true. It had been impossible to be blind to his feelings for her since the dreadful night at the camp. He had not tried to hide them. He had not wished her to be blind. True, he had not spoken of them yet, but she felt that was due to consideration for her invalid state. | | 211 When the time came, what was she to say? If she refused his love, would he ever feel the same interest again in her brothers' welfare? Could they possibly expect anything from him at all? And, if so, how could she fail them now, after the fine fight they had made together.
"Oh, Toby," she breathed pitifully to the night: "could I possibly fail them now?"
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