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- Jess - 3/58 -
Supper went off pleasantly enough, and after it was over the two girls sang and played whilst the men smoked. And here a fresh surprise awaited him, for after Bessie, who apparently had now almost recovered from her mauling, had played a piece or two creditably enough, Jess, who so far had been nearly silent, sat down at the piano. She did not do this willingly, indeed, for it was not until her patriarchal uncle had insisted in his ringing, cheery voice that she should let Captain Niel hear how she could sing that she consented. But at last she did consent, and then, after letting her fingers stray somewhat aimlessly along the chords, she suddenly broke out into such song as John Niel had never heard before. Her voice, beautiful as it was, was not what is known as a cultivated voice, and it was a German song, therefore he did not understand it, but there was no need of words to translate its burden. Passion, despairing yet hoping through despair, echoed in its every line, and love, unending love, hovered over the glorious notes-- nay, possessed them like a spirit, and made them his. Up! up! rang her wild sweet voice, thrilling his nerves till they answered to the music as an Aeolian harp answers to the winds. On went the song with a divine sweep, like the sweep of rushing pinions; higher, yet higher it soared, lifting up the listener's heart far above the world on the trembling wings of sound--ay, even higher, till the music hung at heaven's gate, and falling thence, swiftly as an eagle falls, quivered, and was dead.
John sighed, and so strongly was he moved, sank back in his chair, feeling almost faint with the revulsion of feeling that ensued when the notes had died away. He looked up, and saw Bessie watching him with an air of curiosity and amusement. Jess was still leaning against the piano, and gently touching the notes, over which her head was bent low, showing the coils of curling hair that were twisted round it like a coronet.
"Well, Captain Niel," said the old man, waving his pipe in her direction, "and what do you say to my singing-bird's music, eh? Isn't it enough to draw the heart out of a man, eh, and turn his marrow to water, eh?"
"I never heard anything quite like it," he answered simply, "and I have heard most singers. It is beautiful. Certainly, I never expected to hear such singing in the Transvaal."
Jess turned quickly, and he observed that, though her eyes were alight with excitement, her face was as impassive as ever.
"There is no need for you to laugh at me, Captain Niel," she said quickly, and then, with an abrupt "Good-night," she left the room.
The old man smiled, jerked the stem of his pipe over his shoulder after her, and winked in a way that, no doubt, meant unutterable things, but which did not convey much to his astonished guest, who sat still and said nothing. Then Bessie rose and bade him good-night in her pleasant voice, and with housewifely care inquired as to whether his room was to his taste, and how many blankets he liked upon his bed, telling him that if he found the odour of the moonflowers which grew near the verandah too strong, he had better shut the right-hand window and open that on the other side of the room. Then at length, with a piquant little nod of her golden head, she went off, looking, John thought as he watched her retreating figure, about as healthy, graceful, and generally satisfactory a young woman as a man could wish to see.
"Take a glass of grog, Captain Niel," said the old man, pushing the square bottle towards him, "you'll need it after the mauling that brute gave you. By the way, I haven't thanked you for saving my Bessie! But I do thank you, yes, that I do. I must tell you that Bessie is my favourite niece. Never was there such a girl--never. Moves like a springbuck, and what an eye and form! Work too--she'll do as much work as three. There's no nonsense about Bessie, none at all. She's not a fine lady, for all her fine looks."
"The two sisters seem very different," said John.
"Ay, you're right there," answered the old man. "You'd never think that the same blood ran in their veins, would you? There's three years between them, that's one thing. Bessie's the youngest, you see--she's just twenty, and Jess is twenty-three. Lord, to think that it is twenty-three years since that girl was born! And theirs is a queer story too."
"Indeed?" said his listener interrogatively.
"Ay," Silas went on absently, knocking out his pipe, and refilling it from a big brown jar of coarse-cut Boer tobacco, "I'll tell it to you if you like: you are going to live in the house, and you may as well know it. I am sure, Captain Niel, that it will go no further. You see I was born in England, yes, and well-born too. I come from Cambridgeshire--from the fat fen-land down round Ely. My father was a clergyman. Well, he wasn't rich, and when I was twenty he gave me his blessing, thirty sovereigns in my pocket, and my passage to the Cape; and I shook his hand, God bless him, and off I came, and here in the old colony and this country I have been for fifty years, for I was seventy yesterday. Well, I'll tell you more about that another time, it's of the girls I'm speaking now. After I left home--some years after--my dear old father married again, a youngish woman with some money, but rather beneath him in life, and by her he had one son, and then died. Well, it was but little I heard of my half-brother, except that he had turned out very badly, married, and taken to drink, till one night some twelve years ago, when a strange thing happened. I was sitting here in this very room, ay, in this very chair--for this part of the house was up then, though the wings weren't built--smoking my pipe, and listening to the lashing of the rain, for it was a very foul night, when suddenly an old pointer dog I had, named Ben, began to bark.
"'Lie down, Ben, it's only the Kafirs,' said I.
"Just then I thought I heard a faint sort of rapping at the door, and Ben barked again, so I got up and opened it, and in came two little girls wrapped in old shawls or some such gear. Well, I shut the door, looking first to see if there were any more outside, and then I turned and stared at the two little things with my mouth open. There they stood, hand in hand, the water dripping from both of them; the elder might have been eleven, and the second about eight years old. They didn't say anything, but the elder turned and took the shawl and hat off the younger--that was Bessie--and there was her sweet little face and her golden hair, and damp enough both of them were, and she put her thumb in her mouth, and stood and looked at me till I began to think that I was dreaming.
"'Please, sir,' said the taller at last, 'is this Mr. Croft's house-- Mr. Croft--South African Republic?'
"'Yes, little Miss, this is his house, and this is the South African Republic, and I am he. And now who might you be, my dears?' I answered.
"'If you please, sir, we are your nieces, and we have come to you from England.'
"'What!' I holloaed, startled out of my wits, as well I might be.
"'Oh, sir,' says the poor little thing, clasping her thin wet hands, 'please don't send us away. Bessie is so wet, and cold and hungry too, she isn't fit to go any farther.'
"And she set to work to cry, whereon the little one cried also, from fright and cold and sympathy.
"Well, of course, I took them both to the fire, and set them on my knees, and called for Hebe, the old Hottentot woman who did my cooking, and between us we undressed them, and wrapped them up in some old clothes, and fed them with soup and wine, so that in half an hour they were quite happy and not a bit frightened.
"'And now, young ladies,' I said, 'come and give me a kiss, both of you, and tell me how you came here.'
"This is the tale they told me--completed, of course, from what I learnt afterwards--and an odd one it is. It seems that my half-brother married a Norfolk lady--a sweet young thing--and treated her like a dog. He was a drunken rascal, was my half-brother, and he beat his poor wife and shamefully neglected her, and even ill-used the two little girls, till at last the poor woman, weak as she was from suffering and ill health, could bear it no longer, and formed the wild idea of escaping to this country and of throwing herself upon my protection. That shows how desperate she must have been. She scraped together and borrowed some money, enough to pay for three second-class passages to Natal and a few pounds over, and one day, when her brute of a husband was away on the drink and gamble, she slipped on board a sailing ship in the London Docks, and before he knew anything about it they were well out to sea. But it was her last effort, poor dear soul, and the excitement of it finished her. Before they had been ten days at sea, she sank and died, and the two little children were left alone. What they must have suffered, or rather what poor Jess must have suffered, for she was old enough to feel, God only knows, but I can tell you this, she has never got over the shock to this hour. It has left its mark on her, sir. Still, let people say what they will, there is a Power who looks after the helpless, and that Power took those poor, homeless, wandering children under its wing. The captain of the vessel befriended them, and when at last they reached Durban some of the passengers made a subscription, and paid an old Boer, who was coming up this way with his wife to the Transvaal, to take them under his charge. The Boer and his /vrouw/ treated the children fairly well, but they did not do one thing more than they bargained for. At the turn from the Wakkerstroom road, that you came along to-day, they put the girls down, for they had no luggage with them, and told them that if they went along there they would come to /Meinheer/ Croft's house. That was in the middle of the afternoon, and they were till eight o'clock getting here, poor little dears, for the track was fainter then than it is now, and they wandered off into the veldt, and would have perished there in the wet and cold had they not chanced to see the lights of the house. That was how my nieces came here, Captain Niel, and here they have been ever since, except for a couple of years when I sent them to the Cape for schooling, and a lonely man I was when they were away."
"And how about the father?" asked John Niel, deeply interested. "Did you ever hear any more of him?"
"Hear of him, the villain!" almost shouted the old man, jumping up in wrath. "Ay, d--n him, I heard of him. What do you think? The two chicks had been with me some eighteen months, long enough for me to learn to love them with all my heart, when one fine morning, as I was seeing about the new kraal wall, I saw a fellow come riding up on an old raw-boned grey horse. Up he comes to me, and as he came I looked at him, and said to myself, 'You are a drunkard you are, and a rogue, it's written on your face, and, what's more, I know your face.' You see I did not guess that it was a son of my own father that I was
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