- CHAPTER XXIII. SIR JAMES SPEAKS.
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SIR JAMES SPEAKS.
BOBBIE was right in concluding that her illness kept Sir James silent upon the matter uppermost in his heart. Every day he longed to tell her of the love that seemed to pervade his whole being, and every day her white, wan face held him silent. He felt vaguely that something was troubling her, and longed to have the right to sympathise and comfort, but feared she was as yet feeling too unstrung for him to speak to her upon so great a subject. In going to Loka, ostensibly to see his claim, he was in reality planning chiefly to get away from the Glynns' huts for a week. He thought that if Bobbie did not see him every day as a matter of course, she might perhaps miss him, and so discover her own heart. He felt sure that she realised the depths of his feelings for her, although as yet he had refrained from speaking, and he thought to give her time to think things over a little before he declared himself. Whether Bobbie understood this or not, she was vaguely relieved when he came to tell her he was going, and to say good-bye.
Her heart was full of soreness and longing for Toby, and she found it difficult to talk and laugh naturally. Every day she had hoped against hope | | 213 that some message might come to them, telling them where he was, and when he might be returning, but every day only brought disappointment.
When Sir James came to say good-bye to her,he found her looking harassed and tired, and his heart smote him for all she had gone through on his behalf. He spoke to her cheerfully and hopefully, and she tried to be her usual bright self in spite of her weariness.
"You mustn't run your head into any more tragedies," she told him, smiling, "for I'm sure I should never be in time again."
"Indeed, for your sake, I hope not, as well as for my own. I could ill bear to have you once more an invalid on my account."
Suddenly she grew more serious. "I think you understood that, from what I overheard, there is no doubt Shagann's natives were implicated?"
"Yes, I understood that. I have kept the axe poor Jim used, on purpose. I shall go to the kraal with all my carriers, and try to discover the culprits." He hesitated a little, and then added: "You could not tell me a little more? It need not go any further unless you wish it."
Bobbie flushed crimson. It was the first time he had actually implied that he thought she was keeping something back, and she was a little at a loss.
"I only heard something about Shagann's natives and axes, and I put two and two together. Naturally, Van Tyl would see it was the safest way to throw the blame on them."
"I suppose one or more was hovering near my tent when you arrived, and Jim sprang upon him | | 214 in the dark, and the boy got away afterwards. Well, I shall try and unravel the Shagann mystery for myself. You must get well while I am gone"--turning to her with a glance of the utmost solicitude. "I expect my boys will arrive this afternoon with the port wine I sent for, and a few things that may tempt your appetite."
Bobbie thanked him gratefully, and said she hoped to be as well as ever in a week, and quite equal to "bully beef" and potatoes for a staple diet.
But, after he had gone, she grew very thoughtful, and felt her mind full of misgivings for the future. The cloud upon her brothers' faces, which they tried to hide on her behalf, hurt her badly, and she knew that Betty's eyes told a tale of tears in the night. All through the week she pondered upon ways and means to keep the home together, only to grow more despondent with each day. And ever and always was the consciousness of how she missed Toby's cheery presence and his unwearying good spirits and hopefulness. Doubtless he lacked many things that some women sought for in a lover and husband, but to her they were amply balanced by those good qualities he emphatically had. She loved his honest, fearless, boyish nature, and if he were perhaps unreliable in some things, at least he was devoted in his love, and of a nature to remain so. That his conduct now was caused by any change in his feelings she never believed for one moment. Through a disastrous Fate she had shattered his faith in her, and, just because he could not unlove all in a moment, he had flung away. And now had come this trouble that threatened to break up their home. He could not have helped | | 215 them, with his five pounds profit a month and occasional sirloins of beef, but at least he would have made it easier for her to view the future hopefully and help the others with her cheerfulness.
And, instead, Betty's tell-tale eyes and the brothers' depressed looks went to her heart and seemed to rob her of her ancient hope. And ever and anon each day came the memory of Betty's sentence: "Sir James could do so much, if you would ask him."
It was not even a case of asking, she felt. It was merely to let him do it--to let him love her, and accept his love, and so establish a right for him to help and for them to accept. But, if she did this, she must resolutely turn a deaf ear to her heart, and tear Toby's image--indeed, the very thought of him--from her mind. Was it possible life asked such a sacrifice as that? Was it possible she could give it?
At the end of the week Sir James came back, and Bobbie's clear eyes saw at once that a climax was drawing near. She saw that the others began to suspect it also, and it seemed to her that their eyes asked wordless questions. That Sir James would gladly help because of his debt to her alone did not hold much weight with her. Could they let him take their welfare into his keeping if she had refused to become his wife? Would not the position be untenable and unpleasant for all? If only they could win through unaided! If only once more an unexpected outcrop would rescue them, pay all their debts and give them a fresh start! Day by day she looked with a new longing at the thatched huts, and thought of all the happiness they had had there, in spite of the debts and worries. | | 216 Perhaps these things were less wearing in Rhodesia than in some countries, or perhaps the household worries left one less time to brood, and created a diversion in themselves, followed by hours of blessed relief when they were satisfactorily grappled with. She thought of the times she and Betty had wrestled with a raw nigger, to turn him into a presentable house-boy; of the awful things these raw boys sometimes did, directly their backs were turned, all in good faith--things that sometimes only cost them a laugh, and at others were irremediable.
She thought of all their efforts to rear chickens, in spite of hawks and crows and rats; and of the struggles they had had at first over their butter-making, putting their heads together and reading it up in books, and never discovering for some time that the temperature was the trouble, and they could make it quite easily if they commenced about five o'clock instead of nine.
And was it all to cease now? Were their huts to stand empty and deserted in the wilderness, while the veldt crept in over their garden and took back its own? She told herself there had been days when the tiresome things had almost beaten them--when the insects and the dust or the rain and the commissariat worries had very nearly drained their powers of endurance--only to remember, with infinite longing, how Toby had usually turned up, full of laughter and nonsense, with some absurd story about his store, and the troubles had been forgotten in the sunshine and careless inconsequence.
If she let herself make this sacrifice, and marry Sir James Fortescue, for the sake of her brothers and | | 217 Betty, how was she ever to support life amid the tiresome conventionalities of town, as the wife of the most prominent citizen? Bobbie had ever been a lover of the country. At home, in the little village where her father had been vicar, she had spent whole days wandering out over fields and moors, with perhaps an apple or two in her pocket, or possibly a sandwich. The artificiality of town life was abhorrent to her, the thought of dressing up and paying calls vexed her very soul. However much Sir James loved her, would he not soon find her a burden and an obstacle, since she was sure she could never grace the position that must be held by his wife?
To Bobbie it sounded altogether too civilised and luxurious. She had gone out to a colony gaily telling herself she would wrestle with all the difficulties gladly for the sake of the Empire. What then should she be doing in a luxurious house in a town, with servants to wait on her, and pretty frocks to wear, and plenty of nice things to eat? She tried to make herself think only of the great advantages that would accrue to her brothers and Betty; but though she longed to make the sacrifice gladly, in spite of her efforts her heart grew heavy within her.
Then Sir James came back.
The moment he approached she saw in his eyes that he meant to wait no longer, and her own fell before the ardent love of his. At the first opportunity he spoke to her. It was in the cool, shady part of the afternoon, and, having poured out tea,Betty went away, as usual, to do a little gardening.
Then Sir James drew his chair close to hers, and, | | 218 even in her distress of mind, she noted how good a man he was in all respects to look upon.
A minute later he was pouring his tale in her ears in low, earnest tones. In a low voice she answered him:
"I'm afraid I'm not very well suited to be the wife of a politician. I hate town life and conventionalities. I should be afraid I was only an obstacle in your path."
She did not say straight out that she did not love him. It was a question he had not yet asked her.
"As if I should let that stay me!" And he smiled into her eyes. "The conventionalities, as you call them, shall never worry you if I can help it, and my political career can go on the same as before. In my garden you could forget you were in a town, it is so shady and quiet and secluded."
Then his voice changed a little, and he spoke wistfully. "I know I must seem quite old to you. It is no use denying I was fifty last birthday. Probably I am twice your age, but it does not make a man love any less--rather more, I think. Because I am fifty, I know better how well worth loving you are. Because I have already experienced and learnt so much, I ask nothing better of life than to devote myself to you. If only you could love me a little in return! Or do I seem too old altogether?"
"No--oh, no, it is not that!" she said, speaking with hesitation and a little discomfort. "You do not seem old at all. You never have done. But"--and her voice dropped--"I'm afraid I don't love you as I ought if I were going to marry you."
He took her hand in his and held it fast. "I | | 219 will take the risk of that, because I believe I can win your love. There is so much I can do to win it. There is nothing I would not do to win it. I will move heaven and earth, and surely I can prevail!"
She was silent, looking away from him with troubled eyes.
"It will be a great joy to me to help your brothers and sister in any way I can, and it will not be difficult. Good men are scarce. I can find them posts where they may win the success they deserve."
"We should be very grateful to you for that. I think I am influenced by the hope of it. It would not be fair not to tell you."
"My dear, God knows I will do anything for them that I can! It would be too much to expect you to love me solely for myself--me with my fifty years and grey hairs, you with your splendid youth. But I am confident I can win your love and respect, and that is why I am not afraid to urge you to come to me."
"You are very good," she said softly, and leaned back in her chair with a tired air.
He bent forward and kissed the hand he had taken in his. "Only let me show you!" he breathed. "Only come to me and let me show you!"
"For several minutes Bobbie gazed hard at the horizon, and still, for all her efforts, she could not crush Toby out of her mind. If only she knew where he was, and what he meant to do! If only some message had told her it was useless to expect him back!"
Supposing he came, and found her plighted to | | 220 Sir James? If he had one grain of faith left, it would be lost for ever. Could she bear that? Even for the boys and Betty, could she bear that?
Bent by a sudden yearning she could not stifle, she breathed: "Will you let me think it over? Will you give me a week? It means so much. I had not thought of marriage for years to come, and I love my freedom."
His face expressed disappointment, but he said as cheerfully as he could: "Of course I will. I have sent a runner to excuse myself from the only important meeting due this month, so I need not leave just yet. Also, there is the full inquiry coming on. I have asked Mr. Shute to try to get it over quickly, so that I can return to my work. Don't look sad, little girl. You shall not lose your freedom through me. I love no caged birds. I will not worry you: again at present, but a week today I will come for my answer." He bent down and kissed her hair. Then, as Betty was seen returning, he said he would go to the mine and look for Ken and Bay. "I shall tell them at once I mean to get them the offer of good posts," he told her brightly. "They are looking depressed, and they deserve better fortune."
Bobbie's eyes sought and found the first star of the evening, and their sadness came back.
"What am I to do, Toby?" she whispered. "Oh, couldn't you come back and tell me what to do?"
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