Jess

Jess

JESS H. RIDER HAGGARD CHAPTER I JOHN HAS AN ADVENTURE The day had been very hot even for the Transvaal where the days still know how to be hot in the autumn although the neck of the summer is broken--especially when the thunderstorms hold off for a week or two as they do occasionally. Even the succulent blue lilies--a variety of the agapanthus which is so familiar to us in English greenhouses--hung their long trumpet-shaped flowers and looked oppressed and miserable beneath the burning breath of the hot wind which had been blowing for hours like the draught from a volcano. The grass too near the wide roadway that stretched in a feeble and indeterminate fashion across the veldt forking branching and reuniting like the veins on a lady's arm was completely coated over with a thick layer of red dust. But the hot wind was going down now as it always does towards sunset. Indeed all that remained of it were a few strictly local and miniature whirlwinds which would suddenly spring up on the road itself and twist and twirl fiercely round raising a mighty column of dust fifty feet or more into the air where it hung long after the wind had passed and then slowly dissolved as its particles floated to the earth. Advancing along the road in the immediate track of one of these desultory and inexplicable whirlwinds was a man on horseback. The man looked limp and dirty and the horse limper and dirtier. The hot wind had "taken all the bones out of them" as the Kafirs say which was not very much to be wondered at seeing that they had been journeying through it for the last four hours without off-saddling. Suddenly the whirlwind which had been travelling along smartly halted and the dust after revolving a few times in the air like a dying top slowly began to disperse in the accustomed fashion. The man on the horse halted also and contemplated it in an absent kind of way. "It's just like a man's life" he said aloud to his horse "coming from nobody knows where nobody knows why and making a little column of dust on the world's highway then passing away leaving the dust to fall to the ground again to be trodden under foot and forgotten." The speaker a stout well set-up rather ugly man apparently on the wrong side of thirty with pleasant blue eyes and a reddish peaked beard laughed a little at his own sententious reflection and then gave his jaded horse a tap with the /sjambock/ in his hand. "Come on Blesbok" he said "or we shall never get to old Croft's place to-night. By Jove! I believe that must be the turn" and he pointed with his whip to a little rutty track that branched from the Wakkerstroom main road and stretched away towards a curious isolated hill with a large flat top which rose out of the rolling plain some four miles to the right. "The old Boer said the second turn" he went on still talking to himself "but perhaps he lied. I am told that some of them think it is a good joke to send an Englishman a few miles wrong. Let's see they told me the place was under the lee of a table- topped hill about half an hour's ride from the main road and that is a table-topped hill so I think I will try it. Come on Blesbok" and he put the tired nag into a sort of "tripple" or ambling canter much affected by South African horses. "Life is a queer thing" reflected Captain John Niel to himself as he cantered along slowly. "Now here am I at the age of thirty-four about to begin the world again as assistant to an old Transvaal farmer. It is a pretty end to all one's ambitions and to fourteen years' work in the army; but it is what it has come to my boy so you had better make the best of it." Just then his cogitations were interrupted for on the farther side of a gentle slope suddenly there appeared an extraordinary sight. Over the crest of the rise of land now some four or five hundred yards away a pony with a lady on its back galloped wildly and after it with wings spread and outstretched neck a huge cock ostrich was speeding in pursuit covering twelve or fifteen feet at every stride of its long legs. The pony was still twenty yards ahead of the bird and travelling towards John rapidly but strive as it would it could not distance the swiftest thing on all the earth. Five seconds passed --the great bird was close alongside now--Ah! and John Niel turned sick and shut his eyes as he rode for he saw the ostrich's thick leg fly high into the air and then sweep down like a leaded bludgeon! /Thud!/ It had missed the lady and struck her horse upon the spine just behind the saddle for the moment completely paralysing it so that it fell all of a heap on to the veldt. In a moment the girl on its back was up and running towards him and after her came the ostrich. Up went the great leg again but before it could come crashing across her shoulders she had flung herself face downwards on the grass. In an instant the huge bird was on the top of her kicking at her rolling over her and crushing the very life out of her. It was at this juncture that John Niel arrived upon the scene. The moment the ostrich saw him it gave up its attacks upon the lady on the ground and began to waltz towards him with the pompous sort of step that these birds sometimes assume before they give battle. Now Captain Niel was unaccustomed to the pleasant ways of ostriches and so was his horse which showed a strong inclination to bolt; as indeed under other circumstances his rider would have been glad to do himself. But he could not abandon beauty in distress so finding it impossible to control his horse he slipped off it and with the /sjambock/ or hide- whip in his hand valiantly faced the enemy. For a moment or two the great bird stood still blinking its lustrous round eyes at him and gently swaying its graceful neck to and fro. Then all of a sudden it spread out its wings and came for him like a thunderbolt. John sprang to one side and was aware of a rustle of rushing feathers and of a vision of a thick leg striking downwards past his head. Fortunately it missed him and the ostrich sped on like a flash. Before he could turn however it was back and had landed the full weight of one of its awful forward kicks on the broad of his shoulders and away he went head-over-heels like a shot rabbit. In a second he was on his legs again shaken indeed but not much the worse and perfectly mad with fury and pain. At him came the ostrich and at the ostrich went he catching it a blow across the slim neck with his /sjambock/ that staggered it for a moment. Profiting by the check he seized the bird by the wing and held on like grim death with both hands. Now they began to gyrate slowly at first then quicker and yet more quick till at last it seemed to Captain John Niel that time and space and the solid earth were nothing but a revolving vision fixed somewhere in the watches of the night. Above him like a stationary pivot towered the tall graceful neck beneath him spun the top-like legs and in front of him was a soft black and white mass of feathers. Thud and a cloud of stars! He was on his back and the ostrich which did not seem to be affected by giddiness was on /him/ punishing him dreadfully. Luckily an ostrich cannot kick a man very hard when he is flat on the ground. If he could there would have been an end of John Niel and his story need never have been written. Half a minute or so passed during which the bird worked his sweet will upon his prostrate enemy and at the end of it the man began to feel very much as though his earthly career was closed. Just as things were growing faint and dim to him however he suddenly saw a pair of white arms clasp themselves round the ostrich's legs from behind and heard a voice cry: "Break his neck while I hold his legs or he will kill you." This roused him from his torpor and he staggered to his feet. Meanwhile the ostrich and the young lady had come to the ground and were rolling about together in a confused heap over which the elegant neck and open hissing mouth wavered to and fro like a cobra about to strike. With a rush John seized the neck in both his hands and putting out all his strength (for he was a strong man) he twisted it till it broke with a snap and after a few wild and convulsive bounds and struggles the great bird lay dead. Then he sank down dazed and exhausted and surveyed the scene. The ostrich was perfectly quiet and would never kick again and the lady too was quiet. He wondered vaguely if the brute had killed her--he was as yet too weak to go and see--and then fell to gazing at her face. Her head was pillowed on the body of the dead bird and its feathery plumes made it a fitting resting-place. Slowly it dawned on him that the face was very beautiful although it looked so pale just now. Low broad brow crowned with soft yellow hair the chin very round and white the mouth sweet though rather large. The eyes he could not see because they were closed for the lady had fainted. For the rest she was quite young--about twenty tall and finely formed. Presently he felt a little better and creeping towards her (for he was sadly knocked about) took her hand and began to chafe it between his own. It was a well-formed hand but brown and showed signs of doing plenty of hard work. Soon she opened her eyes and he noted with satisfaction that they were very good eyes blue in colour. Then she sat up and laughed a little. "Well I am silly" she said; "I believe I fainted." "It is not much to be wondered at" said John Niel politely and lifting his hand to take off his hat only to find that it had gone in 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. CHAPTER II 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 1115 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 Jess. 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 ...