"Good-bye," the girl said, giving him her hand. "You won't let me thank you, but you know."
"I know," Ronald replied. "Good-bye"
She looked round for the surgeon, who had, after taking her up to Ronald, moved away for a short distance, but he was gone, having hurried off to meet the General below, and with a last nod to Ronald, she left the ward. She passed out through the door into the courtyard just as the group of officers were entering.
"That is Miss Armstrong," the surgeon said, as she passed out.
"What, the girl who was rescued?" Colonel Somerset said; "a very pretty, ladylike-looking young woman. I am not surprised, now that I see her, at this desperate exploit of my sergeant."
"No, indeed," the General said, smiling. "It's curious, colonel, what men will do for a pretty face. Those other two poor creatures who were carried off were both murdered, and I don't suppose their deaths have greatly distressed this young fellow one way or the other. No doubt he would have been glad to rescue them; but I imagine that their deaths have not in any way caused him to regard his mission as a failure. I suppose that it's human nature, colonel."
Colonel Somerset laughed.
"You and I would have seen the matter in the same light when we were youngsters, General."
The officers went through the wards, stopping several times to speak a few words to the patients.
"So this is the deserter," Colonel Somerset said, with some assumed sternness, as they stopped by Ronald's bedside. "Well, sir, we have had a good many of those black rascals desert from our ranks, but you are the first white soldier who has deserted since the war began. Of course, you expect a drumhead court-martial and shooting as soon as the doctor lets you out of his hands."
Ronald saw that the old colonel was not in earnest.
"It was very bad, colonel," he said, "and I can only throw myself on your mercy."
"You have done well, my lad – very well," the colonel said, laying his hand on his shoulder. "There are some occasions when even military laws give place to questions of humanity, and this was essentially one of them. You are a fine fellow, sir; and I am proud that you belong to my corps."
The General, who had stopped behind speaking to another patient, now came up.
"You have done a very gallant action, Sergeant Blunt," he said. "Captain Twentyman has reported the circumstances to me; but when you are out of hospital you must come to head-quarters and tell me your own story. Will you see to this, Colonel Somerset?"
"Certainly, sir. I will send him over, or rather bring him over to you, as soon as he's about, for I should like to hear the whole story also."
In ten days Ronald Mervyn was on his feet again, although not yet fit for duty; the wound had healed rapidly, but the surgeon said it would be at least another fortnight before he would be fit for active service. As soon as he was able to go out and sit on the benches in the hospital yard, many of his comrades came to see him, and there was a warmth and earnestness in their congratulations which showed that short as his time had been in the corps, he was thoroughly popular with them.
"I knew you were the right sort, Harry Blunt, as soon as I set eyes upon you," he said; "but I did not expect you were going to cut us all out so soon."
"How is my horse, sergeant?"
"Oh, he's none the worse for it, I think. He has been taking walking exercise, and his stiffness is wearing off fast. I think he misses you very much, and he wouldn't take his food the first day or two. He has got over it now, but I know he longs to hear your voice again."
Sometimes, too, Mary Armstrong would come out and sit for a time with Ronald. Her father was progressing favourably, and though still extremely weak, was in a fair way towards recovery.
"Will you come in to see father?" Mary said one morning; "he knows all about it now; but it was only when he came round just now that the doctor gave leave for him to see you."
"I shall be very glad to see him," Ronald said, rising. "I own that when I saw him last I entertained very slight hopes I should ever meet him alive again."
"He is still very weak," the girl said, "and the doctor says he is not to be allowed to talk much."
"I will only pay a short visit, but it will be a great pleasure to me to see him; I have always felt his kindness to me."
"Father is kind to every one," the girl said, simply. "In this instance his kindness has been returned a hundred-fold."
By this time they had reached the door of the ward.
"Here is Mr. Blunt come to see you, father. Now you know what the doctor said; you are not to excite yourself, and not to talk too much, and if you are not good, I shall take him away."
"I am glad to see you are better, Mr. Armstrong," Ronald said, as he went up to the bed, and took the thin hand in his own.
"God bless you, my boy," the wounded man replied; "it is to you I owe my recovery, for had you not brought Mary back to me, I should be a dead man now, and would have been glad of it."
"I am very glad, Mr. Armstrong, to have been able to be of service to your daughter and to you; but do not let us talk about it now; I am sure that you cannot do so without agitating yourself, and the great point at present with us all is for you to be up and about again. Do your wounds hurt you much?"
"Not much; and yours, Blunt?"
"Oh, mine is a mere nothing," Ronald said, cheerfully, "it's healing up fast, and except when I forget all about it, and move sharply, I scarcely feel it. I feel something like the proverbial man who swallowed the poker, and have to keep myself as stiff as if I were on inspection. This ward is nice and cool, much cooler than they are upstairs. Of course the verandah outside shades you. You will find it very pleasant there when you are strong enough to get up. I am afraid that by that time I shall be off, for the troops are all on their march up from the coast, and in another ten days we expect to begin operations in earnest."
"I don't think the doctor ought to let you go," Mary Armstrong said. "You have done quite your share, I am sure."
"I hope my share in finishing up with these scoundrels will be a good deal larger yet," Ronald laughed. "My share has principally been creeping and hiding, except just in that last brush, and there, if I mistake not, your share was as large as mine. I only fired three shots, and I think I heard your pistol go four times."
"Yes, it is dreadful to think of now," the girl said; "but somehow it didn't seem so at the time. I feel shocked now when I recall it."
"There's nothing to be shocked at, Miss Armstrong; it was our lives or theirs; and if your hand had not been steady, and your aim true, we should neither of us be here talking over the matter now. But I think my visit has been long enough. I will come in again, Mr. Armstrong, to-morrow, and I hope each day to find you more and more able to take your share in the talk."
In another ten days Ronald rejoined his troop, and the next day received an order to be ready at four o'clock to accompany Colonel Somerset to the General's.
"Now, sergeant, take a seat," the General said, "and tell me the full story of your adventures."
Ronald again repeated his story. When he had done, the General remarked:
"Your report more than bears out what I heard from Captain Twentyman. I have already talked the matter over with Colonel Somerset, and as we consider that such an action should be signally rewarded, Colonel Somerset will at once apply for a commission for you in your own corps, or if you would prefer it, I will apply for a commission for you in one of the line regiments. I may say that the application under such circumstances would certainly be acceded to."
"I am deeply obliged to you for your kindness, sir, and to you, Colonel Somerset; but I regret to say that, with all respect, I must decline both offers."
"Decline a commission!" the General said in surprise. "Why, I should have thought that it was just the thing that you would have liked – a dashing young fellow like you, and on the eve of serious operations. I can hardly understand you."
Ronald was silent for a moment.
"My reason for declining it, sir, is a purely personal one. Nothing would have given me greater pleasure than a commission so bestowed, but there are circumstances that absolutely prevent my mingling in the society of gentlemen. The name I go by is not my true one, and over my own name there is so terrible a shadow resting that so long as it is there – and I have little hope of its ever being cleared off – I must remain as I am."
Both officers remained silent a moment.
"You are sure you are not exaggerating the case, Blunt?" Colonel Somerset said after a pause. "I cannot believe that this cloud of which you speak can have arisen from any act of yours, and it would be a pity indeed were you to allow any family matter to weigh upon you thus."
Ronald shook his head. "It is a matter in which I am personally concerned, sir, and I do not in any way exaggerate it. I repeat, I must remain in my present position."
"If it must be so, it must," the General said, "though I am heartily sorry. At least you will have the satisfaction of seeing your name in General Orders this evening for an act of distinguished bravery."
"Thank you, sir," and Ronald, seeing the conversation was at an end, saluted to the two officers, went out, and rode back to his quarters.
The town was full of troops now, for the regiments that had been despatched from England had nearly all arrived upon the spot, and the operations against the Kaffirs in the Amatolas were to begin at once. Some of the troops, including two squadrons of the Rifles, were to march next morning.
Ronald went about his duties till evening, and then turned out to walk to the hospital. As he passed through the streets, he saw a group round one of the Rifles, who had just come out from a drinking shop, and was engaged in a fierce altercation with a Fingo. The man was evidently the worse for liquor, and Ronald went up to him and put his hand on his shoulder.
"You had better go off to the barracks at once," he said, sharply; "you will be getting into trouble if you stay here."
The man turned savagely round.
"Oh, it's you, Sergeant Blunt? Hadn't you better attend to your own business? I am not committing any crime here. I haven't been murdering women, or anything of that sort."
Ronald started back as if struck. The significance of the tone in which the man spoke showed him that these were no random words, but a shaft deliberately aimed. In a moment he was cool again.
"If you do not return to the barracks at once," he said, sternly, "I will fetch a corporal's guard and put you in the cells."
The man hesitated a moment, and then muttering to himself, reeled off towards the barracks. Had the blow come a month before, Ronald Mervyn would have felt it more, for absorbed in his active work, on horseback the greater portion of his time, the remembrance of the past had become blunted, and the present had occupied all his thoughts. It was only occasionally that he had looked back to the days when he was Captain Mervyn, of the Borderers. But from the hour he had brought Mary Armstrong safely back to her father, the past had been constantly in his mind because it clashed with the present.
Before, Ronald Mervyn and Harry Blunt had almost seemed to be two existences, unconnected with each other; now, the fact of their identity had been constantly in his thoughts. The question he had been asking himself over and over again was whether there could be a permanent separation between them, whether he could hope to get rid of his connection with Ronald Mervyn, and to continue to the end of the chapter as Harry Blunt. He had told himself long before that he could not do so, that sooner or later he should certainly be recognised; and although he had tried to believe that he could pass through life without meeting any one familiar with his face, he had been obliged to admit that this was next to impossible.
Had he been merely a country gentleman, known only to the people within a limited range of distance, it would have been different; but an officer who has served ten years in the army has innumerable acquaintances. Every move he makes brings him in contact with men of other regiments, and his circle goes on constantly widening until it embraces no small portion of the officers of the army. Then every soldier who had passed through his regiment while he had been in it would know his face; and, go where he would, he knew that he would be running constant risks of detection. More than one of the regiments that had now arrived at King Williamstown had been quartered with him at one station or another, and there were a score of men who would recognise him instantly did he come among them in the dress of an officer. This unexpected recognition, therefore, by a trooper in his own corps, did not come upon him with so sudden a shock as it would have done a month previously.
"I knew it must come," he said to himself bitterly "and that it might come at any moment. Still it is a shock. Who is this man, I wonder? It seemed to me, when he first came up, that I had some faint remembrance of his face, though where, I have not the least idea. It was not in the regiment, for he knows nothing of drill or military habits. Of course, if he had been a deserter, he would have pretended ignorance, but one can always tell by little things whether a man has served, and I am sure that this fellow has not. I suppose he comes from somewhere down home.
"Well, it can't be helped. Fortunately, I have won a good name before this discovery is made, and am likely to reap the benefit of what doubt there may be. When a man shows that he has a fair amount of pluck, his comrades are slow to credit him with bad qualities. On the whole, perhaps it is well that it should have come on this evening of all when I had quite made up my mind as to my course, for it strengthens me in my decision as to what I ought to do. It is hard to throw away happiness, but this shows how rightly I decided. Nothing will shake me now. Poor little girl! it is hard for her, harder by far than for me. However, it is best that she should know it now, than learn it when too late."
The sun had already set an hour when Ronald Mervyn reached the hospital, but the moon had just risen, and the stars were shining brilliantly.
Mary Armstrong met him at the door.
"I saw you coming," she said, "and father advised me to come out for a little turn, it is such a beautiful evening."
"I am glad you have come out, Mary; I wanted to speak to you."
Mary Armstrong's colour heightened a little. It was the first time he had called her by her Christian name since that ride through the Kaffirs. She thought she knew what he wanted to speak to her about, and she well knew what she should say.
"Mary," Ronald went on, "you know the story of the poor wretch who was devoured by thirst, and yet could not reach the cup of water that was just beyond his grasp?"
"I know," Mary said.
"Well, I am just in that position. I am so placed by an inscrutable Fate, that I cannot stretch out my hand to grasp the cup of water."
The girl was silent for a time.
"I will not pretend that I do not understand you, Ronald. Why cannot you grasp the cup of water?"
"Because, as I said, dear, there is a fate against me; because I can never marry; because I must go through the world alone. I told you that the name I bear is not my own. I have been obliged to change it, because my own name is disgraced; because, were I to name it, there is not a man here of those who just at present are praising and making much of me, who would not shrink from my side."
"No, Ronald, no; it cannot be."
"It is true, dear; my name has been associated with the foulest of crimes. I have been tried for murdering a woman, and that woman a near relative. I was acquitted, it is true: but simply because the evidence did not amount to what the law required. But in the sight of the world I went out guilty."
"Oh, how could they think so?" Mary said, bursting into tears; "how could they have thought, Ronald, those who knew you, that you could do this?"
"Many did believe it," Ronald said, "and the evidence was so strong that I almost believed it myself. However, thus it is. I am a marked man and an outcast, and must remain alone for all my life, unless God in His mercy should clear this thing up."
"Not alone, Ronald, not alone," the girl cried "there, you make me say it."
"You mean you would stand by my side, Mary? Thank you, my love, but I could not accept the sacrifice. I can bear my own lot, but I could not see the woman I loved pointed at as the wife of a murderer."
"But no one would know," Mary began.
"They would know, dear. I refused a commission the General offered me to-day, because were I to appear as an officer there are a score of men in this expedition who would know me at once; but even under my present name and my present dress I cannot escape. Only this evening, as I came here, I was taunted by a drunken soldier, who must have known me, as a murderer of women. Good Heavens! do you think I would let any woman share that? Did I go to some out-of-the-way part of the world, I might escape for years; but at last the blow would come. Had it not been for the time we passed together when death might at any moment have come to us both, had it not been that I held you in my arms during that ride, I should never have told you this, Mary, for you would have gone away to England and lived your life unhurt; but after that I could not but speak. You must have felt that I loved you, and had I not spoken, what would you have thought of me?"
"I should have thought, Ronald," she said, quietly, "that you had a foolish idea that because my father had money, while you were but a trooper, you ought not to speak; and I think that I should have summoned up courage to speak first, for I knew you loved me, just as certainly as I know that I shall love you always."
"I hope not, Mary," Ronald said, gravely; "it would add to the pain of my life to know that I had spoilt yours."
"It will not spoil mine, Ronald; it is good to know that one is loved by a true man, and that one loves him, even if we can never come together. I would rather be single for your sake, dear, than marry any other man in the world. Won't you tell me about it all? I should like to know."
"You have a right to know, Mary, if you wish it;" and drawing her to a seat, Ronald told her the story of the Curse of the Carnes, of the wild blood that flowed in his veins, of his half-engagement to his cousin, and of the circumstances of her death. Only once she stopped him.
"Did you love her very much, Ronald?"
"No, dear; I can say so honestly now. No doubt I thought I loved her, though I had been involuntarily putting off becoming formally engaged to her; but I know now, indeed I knew long ago, that my passion when she threw me off was rather an outburst of disappointment, and perhaps of jealousy, that another should have stepped in when I thought myself so sure, than of real regret. I had cared for Margaret in a way, but now that I know what real love is, I know it was but as a cousin that I loved her."
Then he went on to tell her the proofs against himself; how that the words he had spoken had come up against him; how he had failed altogether to account for his doings at the hour at which she was murdered; how his glove had borne evidence against him.
"Is that all, Ronald?"
"Not quite all, dear. I saw in an English paper only a few days ago that the matter had come up again. Margaret's watch and jewels were found in the garden, just hidden in the ground, evidently not by a thief who intended to come again and fetch them, but simply concealed by some one who had taken them and did not want them. If those things had been found before my trial, Mary, I should assuredly have been hung, for they disposed of the only alternative that seemed possible, namely, that she had been murdered by a midnight burglar for the sake of her valuables."
Mary sat in silence for a few minutes, and then asked one or two questions with reference to the story.
"And you have no idea yourself, Ronald, not even the slightest suspicion, against any one?"
"Not the slightest," he said; "the whole thing is to me as profound a mystery as ever."
"Of course, from what you tell me, Ronald, the evidence against you was stronger than against any one else, and yet I cannot think how any one who knew you could have believed it."
"I hope that those who knew me best did not believe it, Mary. A few of my neighbours and many of my brother officers had faith in my innocence; but, you see, those in the county who knew the story of our family were naturally set against me. I had the mad blood of the Carnes in my veins; the Carnes had committed two murders in their frenzy, and it did not seem to them so strange that I should do the same. I may tell you, dear, that this trial through which I have passed has not been altogether without good. The family history had weighed on my mind from the time I was a child, and at times I used to wonder whether I had madness in my blood, and the fear grew upon me and embittered my life. Since that trial it has gone for ever. I know that if I had had the slightest touch of insanity in my veins I must have gone mad in that awful time; and much as I have suffered from the cloud that rested on me, I am sure I have been a far brighter and happier man since."