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The Top of the World by Ethel M. Dell

Part 8 out of 8

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overpowering longing. The temptation to take her just as she was
and go was almost more than human endurance could bear. He had
undergone so much for her sake. He had suffered so fiery a
torture. The evil impulse gripped and tore him like a living thing.

And then--was it the purity of those eyes upraised to his?--he was
conscious of a change within him. It was as if a quieting touch
had been laid upon him. He knew--quite suddenly he knew--what he
would do. The temptation and the anguish went out together like an
extinguished fire. He was his own master.

He bent to her and spoke, his words clear above the tumult: "Help
me to save him! There is just a chance!"

He saw the swift change in her eyes. She bent with a sharp
movement, and before he could stop her he felt her lips upon his
hand. They thrilled him with a strange exaltation. The memory of
that kiss would go with him to the very Gate of Death.

Then he had reached Guy, was bending over him, raising him with
urgent hands. He saw the boy's face for a moment, ashen in the
flickering candlelight, and he knew that the task before him was
one which it would take his utmost strength to accomplish. But he
exerted it and dragged him to his feet, half-supporting,
half-carrying, him towards the open door, Sylvia helping on the
other side. The thought went through him that this was the last
act that they would perform in partnership. And somehow he knew
that she would remember it later in the same way.

They reached the threshold. Guy was stumbling blindly. He seemed
to be dazed, scarcely conscious of his surroundings. The turmoil
of the water was terrific through the ceaseless rush of the rain.
With heads bent to the storm they forced their way out into the

They found Diamond tramping and snorting with fright at the back of
the hut, but to Burke's brief command and Sylvia's touch he stood

"Get up!" Burke said to the girl.

But she started and drew back. "Oh no--no!" she cried back to him.
"I will go on foot."

He said no more, merely turned and hoisted Guy upwards. He landed
in the saddle, instinctively gripping with his knees while Burke on
one side, Sylvia on the other, set his feet in the stirrups.

Then still in that utter silence Burke went back to Sylvia. He had
lifted her before she was aware, and for one breathless moment he
held her. Then she also was up on the horse's back. He thrust her
hands away from him, pushing them into Guy's belt with a mastery
that would brook no resistance.

"Wake up!" he yelled to Guy, and smote him on the thigh as he
dragged the bridle free.

Then, slipping and sliding on the yielding ground, he pulled the
horse round, gave the rein, into Guy's clutching hand, and struck
the animal smartly on the flank. Diamond squealed and sprang
forward bearing his double burden, and in a moment he was off,
making for the higher ground and the track that led to the farm,
terrified yet blindly following the instinct that does not err.

The sound of the scrambling, struggling hoofs was lost in the
strife of waters, the swaying figures disappeared in the gloom, and
the man who was left behind turned grimly and went back into the
empty hut.

The candle still cast a flickering light over table and bed. He
stood with his back to the raging night and stared at the unsteady
flame. It was screened from extinction in the draught by a
standing photograph-frame. The picture this contained was turned
away from him. After a moment it caught his attention. He moved
round the table. Though Death were swooping towards him, swift and
certain, on the wings of the rising current, he was drawn as a
needle to the magnet. Like a dying man, he reached for the last
draught that should slake his thirst and give him peace in dying.

He leaned upon the table, that creaked and shook beneath his
weight. He stretched forth his arms on each side of the candle,
and drew the portrait close to the flame. Sylvia's face laughed at
him through the shifting, uncertain light. She was standing on a
wind-blown open space. Her lips were parted. He thought he heard
her voice, calling him. And the love in her eyes--the love that
shone through the laughter! It held him like a spell--even though
it was not for him.

He gazed earnestly upon this thing that had been another man's
treasure long before he had even seen her, and as he gazed, he
forgot all beside. By that supreme sacrifice of self, he had wiped
out all but his exceeding love for her. The spirit had triumphed
over the flesh. Love the Immortal to which Death is but a small
thing had lifted him up above the world. . . .

What was it that suddenly pierced him as he leaned there? No sound
above that mighty tumult could possibly have reached him. No
movement beyond that single flickering flame could have caught his
vision. No touch was laid upon him. Yet suddenly he jerked
upright with every nerve a-quiver--and beheld her!

She stood in the doorway, gasping for breath, clinging to the
woodwork for support, with Death behind her, but no fear of Death
in her eyes. They held instead a glory which he had never seen

He stood and gazed upon her, unbelieving, afraid to move. His lips
formed her name. And, as one who springs from tempest into safe
shelter, Sylvia sprang to him. Her arms were all about him before
he knew that she was not a dream.

He clasped her then with such a rush of wonder and joy as nearly
deprived him of the power to think. And in that moment their lips
met in a kiss that was close and sacred, uniting each to each
beyond all severance--a soul communion.

Burke was trembling as she had never known him tremble before.
"Why--have you come back?" he said, as speech returned.

She answered him swiftly and passionately, clinging faster with the
words: "Because--God knows--I would rather die with you--than--than
live without you! I love you so! Oh, don't you understand?"

Yes, he understood, though all else were beyond his comprehension.
Never again would he question that amazing truth that had burst
upon him here at the very Gate of Death, changing the whole world.

He looked down upon her as he held her, the light from the candle
shining through her hair, her vivid face uplifted to his, her eyes
wide and glowing, seeing him alone. No, he needed no words to tell
him that.

And then suddenly the roar without increased a hundredfold. A
shrieking wind tore past, and in a moment the flickering light went
out. They stood in darkness.

Her arms clasped his neck more closely. He felt the coming agony
in her hold. She spoke again, her lips against his own. "Through
the grave--and Gate of Death--" she said.

That aroused him. A strength that was titanic entered into him.
Why should they wait here for Death? At least they would make a
fight for it, however small their chance. He suddenly realized
that mortal life had become desirable again--a thing worth fighting
for--a precious gift.

He bent, as he had bent on that first night at the farm--how long
ago!--and gathered her up into his arms.

A rush of water swirled about his knees as he made for the dim
opening. The bank had gone. Yet the rise in the ground would give
them a few seconds. He counted upon the chance. Out into the open
he stumbled.

The water was up to his waist here. He floundered on the yielding

"Don't carry me!" she said. "I can wade too. Let me hold your

But he would not let her go out of his arms. His strength in that
moment was as the strength of ten. He knew that unless the flood
actually overwhelmed him, it would not fail.

So, slipping, struggling, fighting, he forced his way, and, like
Diamond, he was guided by an instinct that could not err. Thirty
seconds after they left it, the hut on the sand was swept away by
the hungry waters, but those thirty seconds had been their
salvation. They had reached the point where the ground began to
rise towards the _kopje_, and though the water still washed around
them the force of it was decreasing at every step,

As they reached the foot of the _kopje_ itself, a stream of
moonlight suddenly rushed down through the racing clouds, revealing
the whole great waste of water like a picture flung upon a screen.

Burke's breath came thick and laboured; yet he spoke. "We are
saved!" he said.

"Put me down now!" she urged. "Please put me down!"

But still he would not, till he had climbed above the seething
flood, and could set her feet upon firm ground. And even then he
clasped her still, as if he feared to let her go.

They stood in silence, holding fast to one another while the
moonlight flickered in and out, and Burke's heart gradually
steadied again after the terrific struggle. The rain had almost
ceased. Only the sound of the flood below and the gurgle of a
hundred rivulets around filled the night.

Sylvia's arm pressed upon Burke's neck. "Shall we go--right to the
top?" she said.

"The top of what?" He turned and looked into her eyes as she stood
above him.

She bent to him swiftly, throbbing, human, alive. She held his
face between her hands, looking straight back for a space. Then
with a little quivering laugh, she bent lower and kissed him.

"I think you're right, partner," she said. "We don't need to
go--any farther than this. We've--got there."

He caught her to him with a mastery that was dearer to her in that
moment than any tenderness, swaying her to his will. "Yes--we've
got there!" he said, and kissed her again with lips that trembled
even while they compelled. "But oh, my soul--what a journey!"

She clung to him more closely, giving of her all in full and sweet
surrender. "And oh, my soul," she laughed back softly--"what an

And at that they laughed together, triumphant as those who have the
world at their feet.



The flood went down in the morning, and behind it there sprang into
being a new world of softest, tenderest green in place of the
brown, parched desert that had been. Mary Ann stood at the door of
her hut and looked at it with her goggle-eyes in which the fright
of the storm was still very apparent.

Neither she nor her satellites would go near the house of the
_baas_ that morning, for a dread shadow lay upon it into which they
dared not venture. The _baas_ himself was there. He had driven
her into the cooking-hut a little earlier and compelled her to
prepare a hot meal under his stern supervision. But even the
_baas_ could not have forced her to enter the bungalow. For by
some occult means Mary Ann knew that Death was waiting there, and
the wrath of the gods was so recent that she had not courage left
for this new disaster.

Diamond had brought his burden safely out of the storm, and was now
comfortably sheltered in his own stable. But the man who had
ridden him had been found hours later by the big _baas_ face
downwards on the _stoep_, and now he lay in the room in which he
had lain for so long, with breathing that waxed and waned and
sometimes stopped, and eyes that wandered vaguely round as though
seeking something which they might never find.

What were they looking for? Sylvia longed to know. In the hush of
that room with the light of the early morning breaking through, it
seemed to her that those eyes were mutely waiting for a message
from Beyond. They did not know her even when they rested upon her

She herself was worn out both physically and mentally, but she
would not leave him. And so Burke had brought in the long chair
for her and made her lie down while she watched. He brought her
food also, and they ate together in the quiet room where the
ever-changing breathing of the man upon the bed was the only sound.

He would have left them alone then, but she whispered to him to
come back.

He came and bent over her. "I'll smoke on the _stoep_," he said.
"You have only to raise your voice if you want-me, and I shall

She slipped her arms about his neck, and drew him down to her. "I
want you--all the time," she whispered.

He kissed her on lips and hair, but he would not stay. She heard
him pass out on to the _stoep_, and there fell a deep silence.

It seemed to lap her round like a vast and soundless sea.
Presently she was drifting upon it, sometimes dipping under,
sometimes bringing herself to the surface with a deliberate effort
of the will, lest Guy should come back and need her. She was
unutterably tired, and the rest was balm to her weary soul, but
still, she fought against complete repose, until, like the falling
of a mist, oblivion came at last very softly upon her, and she sank
into the deeps of slumber. . . .

It must have been some time later that something spoke within her,
recalling her. She raised herself quickly and looked at Guy to
find his eyes no longer roving but fixed upon her. She thought his
breathing must be easier, for he spoke without effort.

"Fetch Burke!" he said.

She started up to obey. There was that about Guy at the moment
which she had never seen before, a curious look of knowledge, a
strength new-born that, was purely spiritual. But ere she reached
the window, Burke was there. He came straight in and went to Guy.
And she knew that the end was very near.

Instinctively she drew back as the two men met. She had a strong
feeling that her presence was not needed, was almost an intrusion.
Yet she could not bring herself to go, till suddenly Burke turned
to her and drew her forward.

"He wants you to say good-bye to him," he said, "and then--to go."

It was very tenderly spoken. His hand pressed her shoulder, and
the pressure was reassuring, infinitely sustaining.

She bent over Guy. He looked straight up at her, and though the
mystery of Death was in his eyes they held no fear. They even
faintly smiled upon her.

"Good-bye, darling!" he said softly. "Think of me sometimes--when
you've nothing better to do!"

She found and clasped his hand. "Often!" she whispered. "Very

His fingers pressed hers weakly. "I wish--I'd made good," he said.

She bent lower over him. "Ah, never mind now!" she said. "That is
all over--forgiven long ago."

His eyes still sought hers with that strange intentness. "I never
loved---anyone but you, Sylvia," he said. "You'll remember that.
It's the only thing in all my life worth remembering. Now go,
darling! Go and rest! I've got--to talk to Burke--alone."

She kissed him on the forehead, and then, a moment later, on the
lips. She knew as she went from him that she would never hear his
voice again on earth.

* * * * *

She went to her own room and stood at the window gazing out upon
that new green world that but yesterday had been a desert. The
thought of her dream came upon her, but the bitterness and the
fears were all gone from her heart. The thing she had dreaded so
unspeakably had come and passed. The struggle between the two men
on that path which could hold but one was at an end. The greater
love had triumphed over the lesser, but even so the lesser had not
perished. Dimly she realized that Guy's broken life had not been
utterly cast away. It seemed to her that already--there at the
Gate of Death--he had risen again. And she knew that her agonized
prayer had found an answer at last. Guy was safe.

It was a long time before Burke came to her. When he did, it was
to find her in a chair by the window with her head pillowed on the
table, sunk in sleep. But she awoke at his coming, looking at him
swiftly with a question in her eyes which his as swiftly answered.
He came and knelt beside her, and gathered her into his arms.

She clung to him closely for a while in silence, finding peace and
great comfort in his hold. Then at length, haltingly she spoke.

"Burke,--you--forgave him?"

"Yes," he said.

She lifted her face and kissed his neck. "Burke, you
understand--I--couldn't forsake him--then?"

"I understand," he said, drawing her nearer. "You couldn't forsake
anyone in trouble."

"Oh, not just that," she said. "I loved him so. I couldn't help
it. I--had to love him."

He was silent for a few seconds, and the wonder stirred within her
if perhaps even now he could misunderstand her. And then he spoke,
his voice very low, curiously uneven. "I know. I loved him, too.
That was--the hell of it--for me."

"Oh, Burke--darling!" she said.

He drew a hard breath, controlling himself with an effort. "I'd
have cut off my right hand to save him, but it was no good. It
came to me afterwards--that you were the one who might have done
it. But it was too late then. Besides--besides--" he spoke as if
something within him battled fiercely for utterance--"I couldn't
have endured it--standing by. Not you--not you!"

She put up a hand, and stroked his face. "I belonged to you from
the first moment I saw you," she said.

"Sylvia!" He moved abruptly, taking her by the shoulders so that
he might look into her eyes. "That is--the truth?" he said.

She met his look steadfastly. "Of course it is the truth!" she
said. "Could I tell you anything else?"

He held her still. "But--Sylvia----"

Her hands were clasped against his breast. "It is the truth," she
said again. "I didn't realize it myself at first. It came to
me--quite suddenly--that day of the sand-storm--the day Guy saved
your life."

"Ah!" he said.

She went on with less assurance. "It frightened me--when I knew.
I was so afraid you would find out."

"But why?" he said. "Why?"

She shook her head, and suddenly her eyes fell before his. She
looked almost childishly ashamed.

"Won't you tell me why?" he said.

She made a small, impulsive movement of protest. "I
didn't--quite--trust you," she said.

"But you knew I loved you!" he said.

She shook her head again with vehemence. "I didn't know--I didn't
know! How could I? Why, you have never told me so--even now."

"Great heavens!" he said, as if aghast.

Very oddly his unexpected discomfiture restored her confidence.
She faced him again. "It doesn't matter now," she said. "You
needn't begin at this stage. I've found out for myself--as you
might have done long ago if you hadn't been quite blind. But I'm
rather glad, after all, that you didn't, because--you learnt to
trust me without. It was dear of you to trust me, Burke. I don't
know how you managed it."

"I would trust you to the world's end--blindfold," he said. "I
know you."

"Yes, now. But you didn't then. When you found me in the
hut--with Guy," her voice quivered a little--"you didn't
know--then--that I was with him because he was too ill to be there

"And to protect him from me," Burke said.

"Yes; that too." She laid her cheek suddenly against his hand.
"Forgive me for that!" she said.

He drew her head back to his shoulder. "No--you had reason enough
for fearing me," he said. "God alone knows what brought you back
to me."

She leaned against him with a little sigh. "Yes, He knows," she
said softly, "just as He knows what made you stay behind to die
alone. It was the same reason with us both. Don't you understand?"

His arms grew close about her. His lips pressed her forehead.
"Yes," he said. "Yes, I understand."

They spoke later of Kieff and the evil influence he had exerted
over Guy.

"The man was his evil genius," Burke said. "But I couldn't keep
him away when the boy was damaged and there was no one else to
help." He paused a moment. "He was the only man in the world I was
ever afraid of," he said then. "He had an uncanny sort of strength
that I couldn't cope with. And he was such a fiend. When he tried
to get you into his toils--frankly, I was terrified. He had
dragged down so many,"

"And you think--Guy--might have been different but for him?" Sylvia

"Yes. I believe I could have kept him straight if it hadn't been
for Kieff. He and Piet Vreiboom were thick as thieves, and between
them the boy got pulled under. I was beat, and Kelly, too."

"Mr. Kelly!" Sylvia gave a slight start; that name reminded her.
"Burke, do you know--I owe him money? I've got to tell you about

She paused in rather painful hesitation; it was hard to tell him
even now what she had sacrificed so much to hide.

But he stopped her. "No. You needn't. I know all about it. I
put Kelly up to the job. The money was mine."

"Burke!" She stared at him in astonishment. "You--knew!"

He nodded. "I guessed a little. And I made Donovan do the rest.
You were so upset about it. Something had to be done."

"Oh, Burke!" she said again.

He went on. "Guy told me all about it too--only a little while
ago. He made a clean breast of everything. He was--awfully
penitent. Look here! We'll forget all that, won't we? Promise me
you'll forget it!" He spoke rapidly, just as Guy would have spoken.
She saw that he was deeply moved. "I was a devil ever to doubt
you. I want to be sure--to be certain sure--that you'll never
think of it again--that you'll forget it all--as if it had never

The earnest appeal in his eyes almost startled her. It brought the
quick tears to her own. She gave him both her hands. "I shall
only remember--one thing," she said. "And that is--your great
goodness to me--from beginning to end."

He made a sound of dissent, but she would not hear.

"I am going to remember that always, for it is the biggest thing in
my life. And now, Burke, please tell me--for I've got to know--are
we quite ruined?"

He gave her an odd look. "What made you think of that?"

She coloured a little. "I don't know. I have been thinking about
it a great deal lately. Anyhow," she met his look almost
defiantly, "I've a right to think of it, haven't I? We're

"You've a right to do anything that seems good to you," he said.
"I am not absolutely down and out, but I'm pretty near it. There
isn't much left."

She squeezed his hands hard, hearing the news with no hint of
dismay. Her eyes were shining with the old high courage. "Never
mind, partner! We'll pull up again," she said. "We're a sound
working proposition, aren't we?"

He drew her suddenly and closely into his arms. "My own brave
girl!" he said.

* * * * *

Bill Merston came over in the evening, summoned by one of Burke's
Kaffirs, and they buried Guy under the shadow of the _kopje_ in
what in a few more days would be a paradise of flowers. The sun
was setting far away in an opalescent glow of mauve and pink and
pearl. And the beauty of it went straight to Sylvia's heart.

She listened to the Burial Service, read by Merston in his simple
sincere fashion, and she felt as if all grief or regret were
utterly out of place. She and Burke, standing hand in hand, had
been lifted above earthly things. And again there came to her the
thrilling certainty that Guy was safe. She wondered if, in his own
words, he had forgotten it all and started afresh.

Merston could not stay for the night. He looked at Sylvia rather
questioningly at parting.

She smiled in answer as she gave him her hand. "Give my love to
Matilda!" she said. "Say I am coming to see her soon!"

"Is that all?" he said.

She nodded. "Yes, that's all. No--one thing more!" She detained
him a moment. "Thank her for all she has done for me, and tell her
I have found the right mixture at last! She will understand,
or--if she doesn't--I will give her the recipe when I come."

He frowned at her with masculine curiosity. "What is it for? A
new kind of pickles?"

She turned from him. Her face was deeply flushed. "No. It's a
thing called happiness. Don't forget to tell her! Good-bye!^

"Then in heaven's name, come soon!" said Merston, as he mounted his

* * * * *

When he was gone, they mounted the _kopje_ together, still hand in

The way was steep, but they never rested till they reached the top.
The evening light was passing, but the sky was full of stars. The
_spruit_ was a swift-flowing river below them. They heard the rush
of its waters--a solemn music that seemed to fill the world.

Sylvia turned her face to the north, and the long, dim range of
hills beyond the _veldt_.

"We will go beyond some day," Burke said.

She held his hand very fast. "I don't mind where we go, partner,
so long as we go together," she said.

He drew something out of his pocket and held it out to her. "I've
got to give you this," he said.

She looked at him in surprise. "Burke! What is it?"

"It's something Guy left to you," he said, "with his love. I
promised to give it you to-night. Take it, won't you?"

She took it, a small object wrapped in paper, strangely heavy for
its size. "What is it?" she said again.

"Open it!" he said.

She complied, trembling a little. "Oh--Burke!" she said.

It lay in her hand, a rough stone like a small crystal, oddly
shaped. The last of the evening light caught it, and it gleamed as
if with living fire.

"The diamond!" she whispered.

"Yes--the diamond." Burke spoke very quietly. "He gave it to me
just before he died. 'Tell her she is not to keep it!' he said.
'She is to sell it. I won it for her, and she is to make use of

"But--it is yours really," Sylvia said.

"No. It is yours." Burke spoke with insistence. "But I think he
is right. You had better sell it. Vreiboom and some of
Hoffstein's gang are after it. They don't know yet who won it.
Donovan covered Guy's tracks pretty cleverly. But they'll find
out. It isn't a thing to keep."

She turned to him impulsively. "You take it, partner!" she said.
"It was won with your money, and no one has a greater right to it."

"It is yours," he insisted.

She smiled. "Very well. If it's mine, I give it to you; and if
it's yours you share it with me. We are partners, aren't we?
Isn't that what Guy intended?"

He smiled also. "Well--perhaps."

She put it into his hand and closed his fingers over it. "There's
no perhaps about it. We'll take it back to Donovan, and make him
sell it. And when we've done that--" She paused.

"Yes?" he said.

She pushed her hand through his arm. "Would it bore you very much,
partner, to take me back to England--just--for a little while? I
want to see my daddy again and tell him how happy I am. He'll like
to know."

"Of course I will take you," he said.

"Thank you." Her hand pressed his arm. "And then we'll come back
here. I want to come back here, Burke. It isn't--a land of
strangers to me any more. It's just--the top of the world. Shall
I tell you--would you like me to tell you--how we managed to get

His arm went round her. "I think I know."

She turned her face to his. "By faith--and love, my darling," she
said. "There is--no other way. You taught me that."

He kissed her fervently, with lips that trembled. "I love you with
my whole soul," he told her, with sudden passion. "God knows how I
love you!"

She gave herself to him with a little quivering laugh. "Do you
know, partner," she said, "I wanted you to tell me that? I've been
wanting it--for ever so long."

And they were nearer to the stars above them in that moment than to
the world that lay at their feet.


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