"Now look here, Miss Dent, I can't talk shop in tea-table English. In fact, shop has no place at a tea-table, anyway. Still, you were the one to start it. Let's have it out. I don't want to funk, at this late day. If there is any fighting to be done, I want a hand in it. I went into a game of a certain length; I hope I played up, and stuck to the professional rules. That game is played out. I am not Trooper Weldon of the Scottish Horse. I am plain Harvard Weldon again and, to be quite frank, I don't like the change from khaki to tweed. But about going in for another game: it all depends on what the game will be. If it plays itself out, well and good; if it just dribbles on and on, without accomplishing anything, even an end, then I can see no use in going in for it. Fighting is one thing; having a picnic all over the face of South Africa is quite another matter. And, for the life of me, I can't see which is bound to come."
There was a minor cadence to the final phrase. Then he fell silent, and sat staring at the rug, while Ethel, leaning back in her chair, studied him at her ease. All in all, she was pleased with the result of her study. Always frank and likable, Weldon had developed wonderfully during those past months of hard work and slender comfort. Underneath his sunburn, his face had taken on new lines of resolution. His eyes were as clear as ever; but their boyishness was all in the past. It was a man who had come striding into the room, that afternoon, and paused beside her tea-table. And Ethel, looking up, had greeted him as she might have greeted Baden-Powell in his place.
To a great extent, Cape Town was resuming at least a semblance of its oldtime social life. Heroes were more plentiful than is altogether normal, however, and there was a dust-colored tint to most assemblages. During the past months, the Dents' house had come to be one of the focal points of society, and there were few men of note who had failed to mount the wide white steps and pass between the flanking pillars at the top, on their way to the drawing-room beyond. Once there, they usually came again, immediately, if they lingered in Cape Town; on their way back from the front, if no quicker opportunity offered itself. Many a bullet-interrupted conversation was resumed there; many a boy, just out from home, confided his mingled homesickness and aspirations to dainty, white- haired Mrs. Dent in her easy-chair; many a seasoned officer forgot his ambitions and his disappointments and even his still sensitive wounds in the gay talk of the golden-haired girl by the tray. As a rule, Ethel talked shop with no man. She merely looked sympathetic, and left him to do the talking, which he did unhesitatingly and without reservation. From the first hour of their meeting, Weldon had been the one exception. Even in the hospital at Johannesburg, she had gone over with him in detail his experiences in camp and field, and it had been Weldon by no means who had done all the talking.
To-day, as she had welcomed the tall Canadian in his irreproachable frock-coat, she had known a sudden pang of regret. Undeniably, his tailor was an artist. Nevertheless, she liked him better as she had seen him last, in his stained khaki and his well-worn shoes, bending over her hand in farewell, then taking The Nig's bridle from the waiting Kruger Bobs, to leap into the tarnished saddle, lift his hat and ride away out of sight. No one but Ethel herself had known that it was not distance alone which had rendered him invisible to her. And the next week in the hospital had dragged perceptibly. At the end of that time, she had been quite ready to say good by to Johannesburg and all that it contained. But, meanwhile, her smile gave no clue to her memories, as she offered her hand to Weldon.
"I knew you were here," she said cordially; "and I have any number of things to talk over with you. There is no talking for me now, though, with all these people on my hands. Can't you stay on and dine with us? That will give us an hour to gossip comfortably, and Captain Frazer is to be the only other guest. I asked him, on the chance of your appearing. Oh, good afternoon, Colonel Douglas!"
And Weldon found himself swept on out of her radius.
He took refuge beside Mrs. Dent and, from that safe slack-water, he made a thorough survey of the room. It was the first time he had been present at one of the Dents' reception days, and he acknowledged himself surprised at what he saw. Here and there an acquaintance nodded to him; but, for the most part, he was a stranger to the guests, save for the dozen whom he knew well by sight and better still by reputation. Moreover, while he watched her, he began to wonder whether he were not something of a stranger to Ethel herself. This stately girl was not the comrade with whom he had tramped the deck of the Dunottar Castle, nor yet the friend of his early days in Cape Town, nor yet again the blithe companion of his last tedious hours of convalescence. This girl was altogether admirable; but a bit awe-inspiring withal. He watched the non- chalant ease with which she provided a white-haired veteran of many wars and many orders with a cup of steaming tea, and then sat and chatted with him while he drank it. He felt himself a bashful boy, as he watched her, and, like any other bashful boy, he fell to talking to Mrs. Dent about his mother.
Then the last visitor made a reluctant exit, and Ethel crossed the room to his side. With the passing of the little throng of guests her assured manners had passed, and she met him with the same informal manner which had marked those last days at Johannesburg.