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- Jess - 5/58 -
got all the brains."
"Ah," said John quietly, and looking up at her, "I don't think that you are entitled to complain of the way in which Nature has treated you."
She blushed a little, more at the tone of his voice than the words, and went on hastily, "Jess is the dearest, best, and cleverest woman in the whole world--there. I believe that she has only one fault, and it is that she thinks too much about me. Uncle said that he had told you how we came here first when I was eight years old. Well, I remember that when we lost our way on the veldt that night, and it rained so and was so cold, Jess took off her own shawl and wrapped it round me over my own. Well, it has been just like that with her always. I am always to have the shawl--everything is to give way to me. But there, that is Jess all over; she is very cold, cold as a stone I sometimes think, but when she does care for anybody it is enough to frighten one. I don't know a great number of women, but somehow I do not think that there can be many in the world like Jess. She is too good for this place; she ought to go away to England and write books and become a famous woman, only----" she added reflectively, "I am afraid that Jess's books would all be sad ones."
Just then Bessie stopped talking and suddenly changed colour, the bunch of lank wet feathers she held in her hand dropping from it with a little splash back into the bath. Following her glance, John looked down the avenue of blue-gum trees and perceived a big man with a broad hat and mounted on a splendid black horse, cantering leisurely towards the house.
"Who is that, Miss Croft?" he asked.
"It is a man I don't like," she said with a little stamp of her foot. "His name is Frank Muller, and he is half a Boer and half an Englishman. He is very rich, and very clever, and owns all the land round this place, so uncle has to be civil to him, though he does not like him either. I wonder what he wants now."
On came the horse, and John thought that its rider was going to pass without seeing them, when suddenly the movement of Bessie's dress between the /naatche/ trees caught his eye, and he pulled up and looked round. He was a large and exceedingly handsome man, apparently about forty years old, with clear-cut features, cold, light-blue eyes, and a remarkable golden beard that hung down over his chest. For a Boer he was rather smartly dressed in English-made tweed clothes, and tall riding-boots.
"Ah, Miss Bessie," he called out in English, "there you are, with your pretty arms all bare. I'm in luck to be just in time to see them. Shall I come and help you to wash the feathers? Only say the word, now----"
Just then he caught sight of John Niel, checked himself, and added:
"I have come to look for a black ox, branded with a heart and a 'W' inside of the heart. Do you know if your uncle has seen it on the place anywhere?"
"No, /Meinheer/ Muller," replied Bessie, coldly, "but he is down there," pointing at a kraal on the plain some half-mile away, "if you want to go and ask about it."
"/Mr./ Muller," said he, by way of correction, and with a curious contraction of the brow. "'/Meinheer/' is very well for the Boers, but we are all Englishmen now. Well, the ox can wait. With your permission, I'll stop here till /Oom/ Croft (Uncle Croft) comes back," and, without further ado, he jumped off his horse and, slipping the reins over its head as an indication to it to stand still, advanced towards Bessie with an outstretched hand. As he came the young lady plunged both her arms up to the elbow in the bath, and it struck John, who was observing the scene closely, that she did this in order to avoid the necessity of shaking hands with her stalwart visitor.
"Sorry my hands are wet," she said, giving him a cold little nod. "Let me introduce you, Mr. (with emphasis) Frank Muller--Captain Niel--who has come to help my uncle with the place."
John stretched out his hand and Muller shook it.
"Captain," he said interrogatively--"a ship captain, I suppose?"
"No," said John, "a Captain of the English Army."
"Oh, a /rooibaatje/ (red jacket). Well, I don't wonder at your taking to farming after the Zulu war."
"I don't quite understand you," said John, rather coldly.
"Oh, no offence, Captain, no offence. I only meant that you /rooibaatjes/ did not come very well out of that war. I was there with Piet Uys, and it was a sight, I can tell you. A Zulu had only to show himself at night and one would see your regiments /skreck/ (stampede) like a span of oxen when they wind a lion. And then they'd fire--ah, they did fire--anyhow, anywhere, but mostly at the clouds, there was no stopping them; and so, you see, I thought that you would like to turn your sword into a ploughshare, as the Bible says--but no offence, I'm sure--no offence."
All this while John Niel, being English to his backbone, and cherishing the reputation of his profession almost as dearly as his own honour, was boiling with inward wrath, which was all the fiercer because he knew there was some truth in the Boer's insults. He had the sense, however, to keep his temper--outwardly, at any rate.
"I was not in the Zulu war, Mr. Muller," he said, and just then old Silas Croft rode up, and the conversation dropped.
Mr. Frank Muller stopped to dinner and far on into the afternoon, for his lost ox seemed to have entirely slipped his memory. There he sat close to the fair Bessie, smoking and drinking gin-water, and talking with great volubility in English sprinkled with Boer-Dutch terms that John Niel did not understand, and gazing at the young lady in a manner which John somehow found unpleasant. Of course it was no affair of his, and he had no interest in the matter, but for all that he thought this remarkable-looking Dutchman exceedingly disagreeable. At last, indeed, he could bear it no longer, and hobbled out for a little walk with Jess, who, in her abrupt way, offered to show him the garden.
"You don't like that man?" she said to him, as they went slowly down the slope in front of the house.
"No; do you?"
"I think," replied Jess quietly, but with much emphasis, "that he is the most odious man I ever saw--and the most curious." Then she relapsed into silence, only broken now and again by an occasional remark about the flowers and trees.
Half an hour afterwards, when they arrived again at the top of the slope, Mr. Muller was just riding off down the avenue of blue gums. By the verandah stood a Hottentot named Jantje, who had been holding the Dutchman's horse. He was a curious, wizened-up little fellow, dressed in rags, and with hair like the worn tags of a black woollen carpet. His age might have been anything between twenty-five and sixty; it was impossible to form any opinion on the point. Just now, however, his yellow monkey face was convulsed with an expression of intense malignity, and he was standing there in the sunshine cursing rapidly beneath his breath in Dutch, and shaking his fist after the form of the retreating Boer--a very epitome of impotent but overmastering passion.
"What is he doing?" asked John.
Jess laughed, and answered, "Jantje does not like Frank Muller any more than I do, but I don't know why. He will never tell me."
BESSIE IS ASKED IN MARRIAGE
In due course John Niel recovered from his sprained ankle and the other injuries inflicted on him by the infuriated cock ostrich (it is, by the way, a humiliating thing to be knocked out of time by a feathered fowl), and set to work to learn the routine of farm life. He did not find this a disagreeable task, especially when he had so fair an instructress as Bessie, who knew all about it, to show him the way in which he should go. Naturally of an energetic and hard-working temperament, he very soon fell more or less into the swing of the thing, and at the end of six weeks began to talk quite learnedly of cattle and ostriches and sweet and sour veldt. About once a week or so Bessie used to put him through a regular examination as to his progress; also she gave him lessons in Dutch and Zulu, both of which tongues she spoke to perfection; so it will be seen that John did not lack for pleasant and profitable employment. Also, as time went on he grew much attached to Silas Croft. The old gentleman, with his handsome, honest face, his large and varied stock of experience and his sturdy English character, made a great impression on his mind. He had never met a man quite like him before. Nor was this friendship unreciprocated, for his host took a wonderful fancy to John Niel.
"You see, my dear," he explained to his niece Bessie, "he is quiet, and he doesn't know much about farming, but he's willing to learn, and such a gentleman. Now, where one has Kafirs to deal with, as on a place like this, you must have a /gentleman/. Your mean white will never get anything out of a Kafir; that's why the Boers kill them and flog them, because they can't get anything out of them without. But you see Captain Niel gets on well enough with the 'boys.' I think he'll do, my dear, I think he'll do," and Bessie quite agreed with him. And so it came to pass that after this six weeks' trial the bargain was struck finally, and John paid over his thousand pounds, becoming the owner of a third interest in Mooifontein.
Now it is not possible, in a general way, for a man of John Niel's age to live in the same house with a young and lovely woman like Bessie Croft without running more or less risk of entanglement. Especially is this so when the two people have little or no outside society or distraction to divert their attention from each other. Not that there was, at any rate as yet, the slightest hint of affection between them. Only they liked one another very much, and found it pleasant to be a good deal together. In short, they were walking along that easy, winding road which leads to the mountain paths of love. It is a very broad road, like another road that runs elsewhere, and, also like this last, it has a wide gate. Sometimes, too, it leads to destruction. But for all that it is a most agreeable one to follow hand-in-hand, winding as it does through the pleasant meadows of companionship. The view is rather limited, it is true, and homelike--full of familiar things. There stand the kine, knee-deep in grass; there runs the water; and there grows the corn. Also you can stop if you like. By-
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