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moment he could not trust himself to answer her.
"Would it not be best to make a clean breast of it to Bessie?" he said at last. "I should feel a villain for the rest of my life, but upon my word I have a mind to do it."
"No, no," she cried passionately, "I will not allow it! You shall swear to me that you will never breathe a word to Bessie. I will not have her happiness destroyed. We have sinned, we must suffer; not Bessie, who is innocent, and only takes her right. I promised my dear mother to look after Bessie and protect her, and I will not be the one to betray her--never, never! You must marry her and I must go away. There is no other way out of it."
John looked at her, not knowing what to say or do. A sharp pang of despair went through him as he watched the passionate pale face and the great eyes dim with tears. How was he to part from her? He put out his arms to take her in them, but she pushed him away almost fiercely.
"Have you no honour?" she cried. "Is it not all hard enough to bear without your tempting me? I tell you it is done with. Finish saddling that horse and let us start. The sooner we get off the sooner it will be over, unless the Boers catch us again and shoot us, which for my own part I devoutly hope they may. You must make up your mind to remember that I am nothing but your sister-in-law. If you will not remember it, then I shall ride away and leave you to go your road and I will go mine."
John said no more. Her determination was as crushing as the cruel necessity that dictated it. What was more, his own reason and sense of honour approved it, whatever his passion might prompt to the contrary. As he turned wearily to finish saddling the horses, with Jess he almost regretted that they had not both been drowned.
Of course the only saddles that they had were those belonging to the dead Boers, which was very awkward for a lady. Luckily for herself, however, from constant practice, Jess could ride almost as well as though she had been trained to the ring, and was even capable of balancing herself without a pommel on a man's saddle, having often and often ridden round the farm in that fashion. So soon as the horses were ready she astonished John by clambering into the saddle of the older and steadier animal, placing her foot in the stirrup-strap and announcing that she was ready to start.
"You had better ride some other way," said John. "It isn't usual, I know, but you will tumble off so."
"You shall see," she said with a cold little laugh, putting the horse into a canter as she spoke. John followed her on the other horse, and noticed with amazement that she sat as straight and steady on her slippery seat as though she were on a hunting saddle, keeping herself from falling by an instinctive balancing of the body which was very curious to notice. When they were well on to the plain they halted to consider their route, and, turning, Jess pointed to the long lines of vultures descending to feast on their would-be murderers. If they went down the river it would lead them to Standerton, and there they would be safe if they could slip into the town, which was garrisoned by English. But then, as they had gathered from the conversation of their escort, Standerton was closely invested by the Boers, and to try and pass through their lines was more than they dared to do. It was true that they still had the pass signed by the Boer general, but after what had occurred not unnaturally they were somewhat sceptical about the value of a pass, and certainly most unwilling to put its efficacy to the proof. So after due consideration they determined to avoid Standerton and ride in the opposite direction till they found a practicable ford of the Vaal. Fortunately, they both of them had a very good idea of the lay of the land; and, in addition to this, John possessed a small compass, fastened to his watch-chain, which would enable him to steer a fairly correct course across a veldt--a fact that rendered them independent of the waggon tracks. On the roads they were exposed to the risk, if not the certainty, of detection. But on the wide veldt the chances were they would meet no living creature except the wild game. Should they see houses they could avoid them, and probably their male inhabitants would be far away from home on business connected with the war.
Accordingly they rode ten miles or more along the bank without seeing a soul, till they reached a space of bubbling, shallow water that looked fordable. Indeed, an investigation of the banks revealed the fact that a loaded waggon had passed the river here and at no distant date, perhaps a week before.
"This is good enough," said John; "we will try it." And without further ado they plunged into the rapid.
In the centre of the stream the water was strong and deep, and for a few yards swept the horses off their legs, but they struck out boldly till they found their footing again; and after that there was no more trouble. On the farther side of the river John took counsel with his compass, and they steered a course straight for Mooifontein. At midday they off-saddled the horses for an hour by some water, and ate a small portion of their remaining food. Then they up-saddled and went on across the lonely, desolate veldt. No human being did they see all that long day. The wide country was tenanted only by great herds of game that went thundering past like squadrons of cavalry, or here and there by coteries of vultures, hissing and fighting furiously over some dead buck. And so at last the twilight gathered and found them alone in the wilderness.
"Well, what is to be done now?" said John, pulling up his tired horse. "It will be dark in half an hour."
Jess slid from her saddle as she answered, "Get off and go to sleep, I suppose."
She was quite right; there was absolutely nothing else that they could do; so John set to work and hobbled the horses, tying them together for further security, for it would be a dreadful thing if they were to stray. By the time that this was done the twilight was deepening into night, and the two sat down to contemplate their surroundings with feelings akin to despair. So far as the eye could reach there was nothing to be seen but a vast stretch of lonely plain, across which the night wind blew in dreary gusts, causing the green grass to ripple like the sea. There was absolutely no shelter to be had, nor any object to break the monotony of the veldt, except two ant-heaps set about five paces apart. John sat down on one of the ant-heaps, and Jess took up her position on the other, and there they remained, like pelicans in the wilderness, watching the daylight fade out of the day.
"Don't you think that we had better sit together?" suggested John feebly. "It would be warmer, you see."
"No, I don't," answered Jess snappishly. "I am very comfortable as I am."
Unfortunately, however, this was not the exact truth, for already poor Jess's teeth were chattering with cold. Soon, indeed, weary as they were, they found that the only way to keep their blood moving was to tramp continually up and down. After an hour and a half of this exercise, the breeze dropped and the temperature became more suitable to their lightly clad, half-starved, and almost exhausted bodies. Then the moon came up, and the hyenas, or wolves, or some such animals, came up also and howled round them--though they could not see them. These hyenas proved more than Jess's nerves would bear, and at last she condescended to ask John to share her ant-heap: where they sat, shivering in each other's arms, throughout the livelong night. Indeed, had it not been for the warmth they gathered from each other, it is probable that they might have fared even worse than they did; for, though the days were hot, the nights were now beginning to be cold on the high veldt, especially when, as at present, the air had recently been chilled by the passage of a heavy tempest. Another drawback to their romantic situation was that they were positively soaked with the falling dew. There they sat, or rather cowered, for hour after hour without sleeping, for sleep was impossible, and almost without speaking; and yet, notwithstanding the wretchedness of their circumstances, not altogether unhappy, since they were united in their misery. At last the eastern sky began to turn grey, and John rose, shook the dew from his hat and clothes, and limped off as well as his half-frozen limbs would allow to catch the horses, which were standing together some yards away, looking huge and ghost-like in the mist. By sunrise he had managed to saddle them up, and they started once more. This time, however, he was obliged to lift Jess on to the saddle.
About eight o'clock they halted and ate their little remaining food, and then went on, slowly enough, for the horses were almost as tired as they were, and it was necessary to husband them if they were to reach Mooifontein by dark. At midday they rested for an hour and a half, and then, feeling almost worn out, continued their journey, reckoning that they could not be more than sixteen or seventeen miles from Mooifontein. It was about two hours after this that the catastrophe happened. The course they were following ran down the side of one land wave, then across a little swampy /sluit/, and up the opposite slope. They crossed the marshy ground, walked their horses up to the crest of the opposite rise, and found themselves face to face with a party of armed and mounted Boers.
JESS FINDS A FRIEND
The Boers swooped down on them with a shout, like hawks on a sparrow. John pulled up his horse and drew his revolver.
"Don't, don't!" cried Jess; "our only chance is to be civil;" whereon, thinking better of the matter, he replaced it, and wished the leading Boer good-day.
"What are you doing here?" asked the Dutchman; whereon Jess explained that they had a pass--which John promptly produced--and were proceeding to Mooifontein.
"Ah, /Oom/ Croft's!" said the Boer as he took the pass, "you are likely to meet a burying party there," but at the time Jess did not understand what he meant. He eyed the pass suspiciously all over, and then asked how it came to be stained with water.
Jess, not daring to tell the truth, said that it had been dropped into a puddle. The Boer was about to return it when suddenly his eye fell upon Jess's saddle.
"How is it that the girl is riding on a man's saddle?" he asked. "Why, I know that saddle; let me look at the other side. Yes, there is a bullet-hole through the flap. That is Swart Dirk's saddle. How did you get it?"
"I bought it from him," answered Jess without a moment's hesitation. "I could get nothing to ride on."
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