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Aletta Part 39

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He has heard of the well-nigh miraculous escape of that rival, and the inopportune appearance of his own accomplice; has heard of it, not witnessed it, because he had sought to be despatched on outpost duty in the early hours of that morning which was to have brought his rival's death. Well, he would console himself with the thought that at any rate he had won Aletta. She had given him her promise, and he knew her well enough to be sure she would keep it. But what of his side of the bargain unfulfilled? He had thought of that. He would persuade her that the firing was to be a sham, and that the firing party were using blank cartridge. He could easily induce Roux and Delport to swear to this. Yet, it was inconvenient that Aletta had mustered up the courage to act as she had done. He ought not to have overlooked such a contingency. Still, she could not go back upon her promise.

Then, in the darkness, those words return to him--words spoken by his victim on the very threshold of the tomb. "Within three days will death find you." Words and tone alike appealed to the superst.i.tious side of his nature then, and the effect remains now. Perhaps, however, the fact of his intended victim having escaped death might have robbed the forecast of its prophetic nature.

A barely audible whisper from his next door neighbour, and then but one thought alone can find place in Adrian's mind. The moment has come.

Gripping his Mauser in fierce, eager delight, he brings it forward on to the rest which he has already arranged for it. Pitch dark as it is, he knows to a yard where the first bullet will strike. At the same time, ever so faint a spark away in the blackness catches his glance and the glance of many another. It might be the friction of metal--momentary and accidental--upon a stone lying on the slope, or it might be a signal.

Soon a stealthy sound reaches each listening ear--the sound of footsteps drawing near in the darkness.

Nearer--nearer--and then--The whole ridge bursts into a line of flame and a deafening crackle as of a mighty hailstorm upon myriad iron roofs.

Yet, great in volume as it is, not so great as to drown the wild, ringing British cheer as the khaki-clad figures, dimly visible in the unceasing flash of musketry, come surging up the slope, leaping, stumbling, falling, dropping down suddenly, only to spring up again and press on, the dreaded bayonet fixed, for the world-renowned charge before which nothing can stand. But the grim dwellers in these wild wastes are not to be turned so easily. A kopje hard by, silent hitherto, is now ringed with flame, and, caught in this terrible crossfire, the intrepid a.s.sailants are literally mown down, and for a few moments the slaughter is terrific.

Adrian De la Rey, lying in his shelter, is pouring in his shots--cool, well-directed and telling. The expression of hate and blood-l.u.s.t upon his set features is well-nigh devilish; yet his mind preserves a murderous coolness, as he watches every chance, and never fails to take it. But he is in the very forefront of the fray, and in the wild confusion a knot of desperate British, not hearing, or disregarding, the "retire," have charged with irresistible dash headlong on to his position. Their wild slogan is in his ears, and in the ears of those beside him. The points of the deadly bayonets gleam in the sheeting flashes, and then--and then--with the hard sickening pang which wrenches his very life away--he discharges his Mauser full in the face of the tall soldier, who topples heavily back with a hole through his brain-- and Briton and Boer lie feet to feet--facing each other as they fell.

Morning light--a truce--white flags here and there--the Red Cross symbol everywhere. The hillsides strewn with dead and dying and wounded, and up yonder, in their strongly entrenched laager in the background, Commandant Schoeman and the grim Republican leaders are viewing their many prisoners, impa.s.sive, laconic, and manifesting neither surprise nor elation over the efficiency of the trap so carefully laid for the discomfiture of a respected and brave enemy.

Below, on the ridge, Adrian De la Rey is lying--lying where he fell, the bayonet which had let out his life in a great gaping gash resting across his body as it had fallen from the dying grip of the soldier--his dead, rigid face staring upward to the sky.

Ratels Hoek again, peaceful and prosperous--the blue smoke curling up from its chimneys, the flocks and herds scattered over their grazing grounds in the broad valley, black ostriches, with snowy wing-plumes, stalking truculently along the wire fences in the "camps"--Ratels Hoek peaceful and prosperous, as though no stern fratricidal war were going on not so very many miles away.

Down by the river bank two persons are wandering in easy restful happiness, and these two we should recognise, for they have borne their part throughout the time of trial and of storm, which for them, at any rate, has come to an end--has found its climax in the dawn of a lifelong joy and peace.

Around, the sunlight bathes, in a misty s.h.i.+mmer, the roll of veldt, and the slope of mountain and iron-faced cliff. The air, clear and fragrant and balmy, is redolent of the _very_ breath of a new life, and the sky, arching above in unbroken and cloudless blue, is even as their own clear and dazzling horizon. They are talking of many things, these two--of the dark days of doubt and trial, and peril--all of which have but served to refine and cement their great and mutual love--of the wedding which took place but a few days ago in Schalkburg, on such a scale never before witnessed in that somnolent _dorp_. "One would have thought it Nachtmaal time" had been the comment of more than one of the guests, so extensive was the gathering a.s.sembled to do honour to that most substantial and respected burgher, Stepha.n.u.s De la Rey; and indeed the gathering had been as h.o.m.ogeneous as extensive--for every conceivable relative of the bride, whether on the paternal or maternal side, and every casual acquaintance or even stranger, had flocked into Schalkburg to witness it. The church, tightly packed as it was, would not hold them all, nor yet would Ratels Hoek, whither all who could, subsequently repaired to spend the next two days and nights in uninterrupted festivity.

Of all this they were talking now, these two--and of the hundred and one droll and ludicrous incidents which had so appealed to the humorous side of both of them--the outspoken comments of the blunt old farmers and their _vrouws_ as to Stepha.n.u.s De la Rey marrying his eldest girl to an Englishman, under the palliative circ.u.mstances, however, that perhaps a rich Englishman was a better match than an impoverished Boer, after all; of the hopeless efforts to convince many of them that Colvin was not the Governor, merely because he had the right to prefix his name with "Sir"; of old Tant' Plessis and her conviction that the great Calvinus was a greater man than even she had thought, since he had been able to leave his grandson so much money; of Kenneth Kershaw, who while making a most efficient "best man," had given rise to endless chaff to the effect that he ought to be branded and ear-marked, lest at the last moment Mynheer should marry _him_ to Aletta by mistake; of Frank Wenlock, who waxed so exuberant amid all the festivities, that he came near starting a little war of his own right in the midst of the convivialities; of Mynheer Albertyn himself, who while congratulating the pair, and fingering gratefully by far the biggest fee he had ever seen in the whole of his professional career, had remarked drily, and not altogether jocosely, that he vastly preferred starting a man on fresh terms in this life to seeing him off into another; of the exceeding attractiveness in their array of bridesmaids of Andrina and Condaas, and a bevy of girl relatives pressed into the service for the occasion; of the absence of May Wenlock, and the future before her and Kenneth.

This brought them down to serious matters and the fate of Adrian.

"Poor chap," Colvin was saying. "Honestly, I don't bear him the slightest ill-feeling. I suppose I did come between you and him, dearest, and if that is not enough to justify him in hating me worse than Satan, will you tell me what is?"

Aletta pressed his arm lovingly and for a moment said nothing. Then:

"That is so like you, Colvin," she said. "You are generosity itself, my darling. Yes, we can afford to think kindly of poor Adrian now. But, oh Colvin--what if you find afterwards that I am not able to make you happy? Remember, I did not know who you were. I thought you were here among us to settle for life and farm."

"Would it have made any difference if you had known, Lady Kershaw?" he asked quizzically, slipping an arm round her, and looking down into her eyes.

"Not in my loving you," she answered. "But remember, I am only a Boer girl, after all."

"Only a what? Only the bravest, truest, sweetest, most refined and lovable specimen of womanhood I ever encountered in a tolerably wide experience. Only--"

"Kwaak--kwaak--kwaa! Kwaak--kwaak--kwaa!"

Shrilling forth his harsh call, an old c.o.c.k koorhaan sprang upward from the thorn bushes on the opposite river bank, and went circling away over the ostrich camps, yelling up half a dozen others in his flight. The eyes of these two people met, and both broke into a hearty laugh.

"Why, I believe that's the same old joker I spared when we were here together that day, Aletta," said Colvin, turning to watch the disappearing bird.

"Yes, it must be, for we are on the same spot. Colvin, my darling, our happiness first came to us on this very spot where we are standing. Do you remember? And now that we stand here again, it is complete for ever. Is it not?"

"For ever," he answered, a grateful solemnity in his voice.

And here, reader, we will leave them.

The End.

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