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the fray. "I hope you are not very much hurt by the bird."
"I don't know," she said doubtfully. "But I am glad that you killed the /skellum/ (vicious beast). He got out of the ostrich camp three days ago, and has been lost ever since. He killed a boy last year, and I told uncle he ought to shoot him then, but he would not, because he was such a beauty."
"Might I ask," said John Niel, "are you Miss Croft?"
"Yes, I am--one of them. There are two of us, you know; and I can guess who you are--you are Captain Niel, whom uncle is expecting to help him with the farm and the ostriches."
"If all of them are like that," he said, pointing to the dead bird, "I don't think that I shall take kindly to ostrich farming."
She laughed, showing a charming line of teeth. "Oh no," she said, "he was the only bad one--but, Captain Niel, I think you will find it fearfully dull. There are nothing but Boers about here, you know. No English people live nearer than Wakkerstroom."
"You overlook yourself," he said, bowing; for really this daughter of the wilderness had a very charming air about her.
"Oh," she answered, "I am only a girl, you know, and besides, I am not clever. Jess, now--that's my sister--Jess has been at school at Capetown, and she /is/ clever. I was at Cape Town, too, though I didn't learn much there. But, Captain Niel, both the horses have bolted; mine has gone home, and I expect yours has followed, and I should like to know how we are going to get up to Mooifontein-- beautiful fountain, that's what we call our place, you know. Can you walk?"
"I don't know," he answered doubtfully; "I'll try. That bird has knocked me about a good deal," and accordingly he staggered on to his legs, only to collapse with an exclamation of pain. His ankle was sprained, and he was so stiff and bruised that he could hardly stir. "How far is the house?" he asked.
"Only about a mile--just there; we shall see it from the crest of the rise. Look, I'm all right. It was silly to faint, but he kicked all the breath out of me," and she got up and danced a little on the grass to show him. "My word, though, I am sore! You must take my arm, that's all; that is if you don't mind?"
"Oh dear no, indeed, I don't mind," he said laughing; and so they started, arm affectionately linked in arm.
HOW THE SISTERS CAME TO MOOIFONTEIN
"Captain Niel," said Bessie Croft--for she was named Bessie--when they had painfully limped one hundred yards or so, "will you think me rude if I ask you a question?"
"Not at all."
"What has induced you to come and bury yourself in this place?"
"Why do you ask?"
"Because I don't think that you will like it. I don't think," she added slowly, "that it is a fit place for an English gentleman and an army officer like you. You will find the Boer ways horrid, and then there will only be my old uncle and us two for you to associate with."
John Niel laughed. "English gentlemen are not so particular nowadays, I can assure you, Miss Croft, especially when they have to earn a living. Take my case, for instance, for I may as well tell you exactly how I stand. I have been in the army fourteen years, and I am now thirty-four. Well, I have been able to live there because I had an old aunt who allowed me 120 pounds a year. Six months ago she died, leaving me the little property she possessed, for most of her income came from an annuity. After paying expenses, duty, &c., it amounts to 1,115 pounds. Now, the interest on this is about fifty pounds a year, and I can't live in the army on that. Just after my aunt's death I came to Durban with my regiment from Mauritius, and now they are ordered home. Well, I liked the country, and I knew that I could not afford to live in England, so I got a year's leave of absence, and made up my mind to have a look round to see if I could not take to farming. Then a gentleman in Durban told me of your uncle, and said that he wanted to dispose of a third interest in his place for a thousand pounds, as he was getting too old to manage it himself. So I entered into correspondence with him, and agreed to come up for a few months to see how I liked it; and accordingly here I am, just in time to save you from being knocked to bits by an ostrich."
"Yes, indeed," she answered, laughing; "you've had a warm welcome at any rate. Well, I hope you /will/ like it."
Just as he finished his story they reached the top of the rise over which the ostrich had pursued Bessie Croft, and saw a Kafir coming towards them, leading the pony with one hand and Captain Niel's horse with the other. About twenty yards behind the horses a lady was walking.
"Ah," said Bessie, "they've caught the horses, and here is Jess come to see what is the matter."
By this time the lady in question was quite close, so that John was able to gather a first impression of her. She was small and rather thin, with quantities of curling brown hair; not by any means a lovely woman, as her sister undoubtedly was, but possessing two very remarkable characteristics--a complexion of extraordinary and uniform pallor, and a pair of the most beautiful dark eyes he had ever looked on. Altogether, though her size was almost insignificant, she was a striking-looking person, with a face few men would easily forget. Before he had time to observe any more the two parties had met.
"What on earth is the matter, Bessie?" Jess said, with a quick glance at her sister's companion, and speaking in a low full voice, with just a slight South African accent, that is taking enough in a pretty woman. Thereon Bessie broke out with a history of their adventure, appealing to Captain Niel for confirmation at intervals.
Meanwhile Jess Croft stood quite still and silent, and it struck John that her face was the most singularly impassive one he had ever seen. It never changed, even when her sister told her how the ostrich rolled on her and nearly killed her, or how they finally subdued the foe. "Dear me," he thought to herself, "what a very strange woman! She can't have much heart." But just as he thought it the girl looked up, and then he saw where the expression lay. It was in those remarkable eyes. Immovable as was her face, the dark eyes were alight with life and a suppressed excitement that made them shine gloriously. The contrast between the shining eyes and the impassive face beneath them struck him as so extraordinary as to be almost uncanny. As a matter of fact, it was doubtless both unusual and remarkable.
"You have had a wonderful escape, but I am sorry for the bird," she said at last.
"Why?" asked John.
"Because we were great friends. I was the only person who could manage him."
"Yes," put in Bessie, "the savage brute would follow her about like a dog. It was just the oddest thing I ever saw. But come on; we must be getting home, it's growing dark. Mouti"--which, being interpreted, means Medicine--she added, addressing the Kafir in Zulu--"help Captain Niel on to his horse. Be careful that the saddle does not twist round; the girths may be loose."
Thus adjured, John, with the help of the Zulu, clambered into his saddle, an example that the lady quickly followed, and they set off once more through the gathering darkness. Presently he became aware that they were passing up a drive bordered by tall blue gums, and next minute the barking of a large dog, which he afterwards knew by the name of Stomp, and the sudden appearance of lighted windows told him that they had reached the house. At the door--or rather, opposite to it, for there was a verandah in front--they halted and got off their horses. As they dismounted there came a shout of welcome from the house, and presently in the doorway, showing out clearly against the light, appeared a striking and, in its way, a most pleasant figure. He --for it was a man--was very tall, or, rather, he had been very tall. Now he was much bent with age and rheumatism. His long white hair hung low upon his neck, and fell back from a prominent brow. The top of the head was quite bald, like the tonsure of a priest, and shone and glistened in the lamplight, and round this oasis the thin white locks fell down. The face was shrivelled like the surface of a well-kept apple, and, like an apple, rosy red. The features were aquiline and strongly marked; the eyebrows still black and very bushy, and beneath them shone a pair of grey eyes, keen and bright as those of a hawk. But for all its sharpness, there was nothing unpleasant or fierce about the face; on the contrary, it was pervaded by a remarkable air of good-nature and pleasant shrewdness. For the rest, the man was dressed in rough tweed clothes, tall riding-boots, and held a broad- brimmed Boer hunting hat in his hand. Such, as John Niel first saw him, was the outer person of old Silas Croft, one of the most remarkable men in the Transvaal.
"Is that you, Captain Niel?" roared out the stentorian voice. "The natives said you were coming. A welcome to you! I am glad to see you-- very glad. Why, what is the matter with you?" he went on as the Zulu Mouti ran to help him off his horse.
"Matter, Mr. Croft?" answered John; "why, the matter is that your favourite ostrich has nearly killed me and your niece here, and that I have killed your favourite ostrich."
Then followed explanations from Bessie, during which he was helped off his horse and into the house.
"It serves me right," said the old man. "To think of it now, just to think of it! Well, Bessie, my love, thank God that you escaped--ay, and you too, Captain Niel. Here, you boys, take the Scotch cart and a couple of oxen and go and fetch the brute home. We may as well have the feathers off him, at any rate, before the /aasvogels/ (vultures) tear him to bits."
After he had washed himself and tended his injuries with arnica and water, John managed to limp into the principal sitting-room, where supper was waiting. It was a very pleasant room, furnished in European style, and carpeted with mats made of springbuck skins. In the corner stood a piano, and by it a bookcase, filled with the works of standard authors, the property, as John rightly guessed, of Bessie's sister
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