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Anne Hampson - Call of The Veld
 

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Anne Hampson - Call of The Veld


  Anne Hampson - Call of The Veld

  "Irma will be very happy when you go!"

  Carl's words made her angry, but in truth, Sara would have been equally happy to leave. Coming to Africa to care for her invalid sister, Irma, had brought problems.

  Irma had married Ray Barton, the man that Sara had once loved, and her jealous accusations made them all miserable.

  But the cold-blooded solutions suggested by Carl van der Linden, their neighboring landowner, appalled Sara. She disliked Carl more than any other man she'd ever met!

  CHAPTER ONE

  The ever-changing subtleties of grey and green and gold drew Sara's eyes unsuspectingly to the delights of the valley farther on where, ribboned by the lazy river —a tributary of the Limpopo—the fields were lush and fruitful, the trees a riot of spring colour gleaming in the African sunshine.

  It was a tranquil scene, viewed from the shady front stoep of Njangola Farm, but Sara's gaze was frowning, her thoughts disturbed, her normally clear and logical mind assuring her one moment that she had done what was right in coming here to this sub-tropical part of the Transvaal to care for her invalid sister, and the next moment telling her that she had made the greatest mistake of her life.

  A step behind her brought her head round and she forced a smile as she looked up into her brother-in-law's drawn and tired face.

  'Taking a rest?' Ray spoke softly, as if anxious to keep from his wife the knowledge that he was talking to her sister.

  'Just for a few minutes.'

  He stood looking down at her, seeing a slender slip of a girl with clear creamy skin, high cheekbones and a wide, unlined forehead. Her mouth, full and emotional, was as arresting as her eyes—eyes that were of a blending of blue and grey, large, and fringed by long dark lashes which, at this moment, were sending seductive shadows on to her cheeks.

  'You must be tired,' said Ray at length. 'It's time you had some kind of a break.'

  Sara shook her head.

  'I'm not tired, Ray. After all, I've not been here a month until tomorrow.' A month… It seemed more like a year since she had thrown up everything to come out here in response to Irma's impassioned entreaty.

  'I wonder if you'll stay?' Ray's voice was listless, his brown eyes dull and brooding.

  'What makes you say a thing like that?' she asked even while avoiding his gaze.

  Ray shifted restlessly.

  'I suppose I've no confidence. I don't know how deep the love is between you and Irma.'

  'How does one measure love?' she countered, wondering what his reaction would be were she to unburden herself by the confession that she was deeply in love with him, that her heart had been his even before he met her sister.

  'How does one measure love?' Ray looked away, towards the sun-hazed bushveld in the distance. 'I suppose, in some obscure way, that question has some connection with the one: how long does love last?'

  Sara caught her breath, fear tightening her nerves. This mood of brooding discontent was new to her and it tore at her heart, increasing her unhappiness. Was Ray already becoming tired of the celibate life he was now forced to live?

  A shuddering sigh escaped her as she thought of what might have been had not Ray fallen head over heels in love with Irma from the moment of Sara's introducing them to one another. What might have been… How profitless to dwell on something that was only a dream. Resolutely she thrust away the vision of herself as Ray's wife, just as she had thrust it away on countless occasions before.

  The breeze from the berg had freshened; it began to rustle the leaves of the trees in the garden, and to sigh through the bamboo culms. Sara glanced uneasily at the sky, not trusting the clear blue heavens to retain their cloudless serenity. She said, more to end the oppressive silence than anything else,

  'It's so peaceful at present, but I'm afraid we're in for a storm.'

  Her brother-in-law nodded absently. 'You've already learned the signs.' His eyes rested on her face again, so searchingly that Sara turned away, endeavouring to concentrate on the diversity of the scene around her—the mealies in the nearest field and the paw-paws along its northern boundary, the bending willows by the stream, and in the garden close to the homestead, the gay canna lilies, the honeysuckle and the thickly-leaved acacias.

  'Sara…' Ray's voice was very quiet and she swung around, her lovely golden hair floating about her shoulders. His mouth seemed to quiver; he said with difficulty, 'Tell me, truthfully, are you finding the life monotonous out here?'

  At the depth of anxiety in his voice she instantly voiced the lie, wanting only to reassure him,

  'No, of course not, Ray. How could anyone find life monotonous with so much beauty around?' She swept a slender white hand, just for effect and to add strength to her statement. 'I've a good deal of exploring to do, remember.'

  The frown in his eyes brought uneasiness to her again, and she was not surprised when he said,

  'I don't think you'll stay, Sara. What chance of exploring will you ever have, waiting hand and foot on my wife the way you do? Was she always as demanding as she is now?' he added in conclusion, bringing to Sara's mind the fact that he had known Irma only six weeks when he became engaged to her.

  'Not at all,' returned Sara at once. 'You seem to forget, Ray, that Irma's condition has a lot to do with the way she feels and acts.'

  'Forget!' he exclaimed bitterly. 'How can I forget that my wife of only five months is denied me for ever?'

  'I'm sorry.' Sara bit her lip, thinking that it was most difficult not to say the wrong thing when speaking of her sister. Whatever she said Ray seemed to take it the wrong way. And yet in her deep compassion she could understand the anguish which consumed him, the terrible sense of loss, the bleak loneliness that faced him, both in his work and in his leisure hours. For he and Irma, enthusiastically taking up their new lives as farmers, had planned to work together, and to play together. 'I do feel,' murmured Sara at length, 'that Irma will eventually agree to using one of these marvellous wheelchairs they make nowadays for people like her. Then she'll begin to do things for herself, and not want me fussing around all the time———————-'

  'She enjoys it!' broke in Ray shortly. 'I've no faith at all in your assertion that she'll begin to do things for herself!'

  Sara, her eyes darting to his harsh set face, knew a return of her fear. What a terrible disaster it would be if Ray were to fall out of love almost as speedily as he had fallen in love.

  A few silent moments passed before her attention was caught by a horse and rider in the distance. Involuntarily she frowned, for in a short while she would be forced to treat the visitor with a civility she would be very far from feeling. In fact, she disliked the man more than any other person she had met in the whole of her life. His cynicism, his arrogance—which always seemed to be portrayed even in the movement of his long, athletic body—those inscrutable lynx-like eyes, deep amber in colour, which insolently flicked over her, that twisted smile with which she was occasionally favoured… all these compounded to outweigh the fact that both his looks and his physique could only be described as superlative.

  Carl van der Linden… His name lingered in her mind as did the picture of his house, a white colonial- style homestead set among delightfully mature grounds where—Ray had told her— every conceivable species of exotic flower and bush seemed to flourish, where palm and frangipani and the magnificent flamboyant trees patterned the sky above them. His views were to the mountains on one side and the valley on the other; his seemingly limitless estate produced citrus fruits, maize, cotton and several other profitable commodities, all in addition to the extensive lands given over to mixed farming and pasture.

  Of noble linea
ge, Carl seemed to Sara to flaunt his ancestry with an arrogance that was totally out of proportion. That he regarded women as necessary evils was plain; they had their uses, unfortunately, so could not be ruled out as the nonentities which, decided Sara, he would have liked them to be. Such was Sara's impression of her brother-in-law's nearest neighbour, and she felt convinced she would never change her opinion no matter how good he might be to Ray who, being a novice at farming, was always calling upon Carl for assistance in one way or another. The help was always freely given, a circumstance that amazed Sara, who would have thought that Carl's attitude towards a newcomer to his country would have been that of derision rather than pity.

  Sara watched as he rode along the plantation, galloping the magnificent chestnut gelding when eventually he diverted to the fire-paths. He was looking towards the homestead and Sara wondered whether he was comparing it with his own. A rambling, whitewashed structure with a red-tiled roof and huge water storage tanks precluding any possibility of beautifying the garden on the eastern side of the house, the Njangola farmhouse could scarcely be viewed as an attractive building. Yet inside it was surprisingly comfortable, with woodblock floors, attractive rugs and furniture —some inherited from the previous owner but most of it bought in England and brought over by Ray and his bride—and pretty lace curtains framed by side drapes and pelmets in varying colours chosen to match the decor particular to each room.

  'I wonder what Carl wants?' Ray's voice had lightened; the visit was going to be an agreeable interlude for him, thought Sara with satisfaction.

  'Perhaps just a social call,' she replied, her eyes still on the horse and rider, and darting into her memory the first meeting she had had with him a couple of days after her arrival at the farm. She recalled vividly her dislike, and the way the image of his austere countenance had left so strong an impression on her mind that it remained with her long after he had made his departure. 'You've not sent for him, so it must be a social call.' Sara smiled up at Ray as she spoke; he nodded, his eyes wandering to her hair, gleaming like pure gold in the sunshine slanting through the gaps in the trellised vines shading the stoep.

  'You're miles away,' he commented. 'Where are you, Sara?'

  Her smile hovered for a space, then faded.

  'I was just relaxing my mind,' she said. But as a matter of fact she was cudgelling her brain to find some excuse for removing herself from Carl's presence just as soon as it was polite to do so. Not that the man would be at all deceived; he was under no illusions regarding her opinion of him any more than she was regarding his opinion of her. His affectation of politeness irritated her, in fact. On neither side had the dislike been made apparent, but undoubtedly there existed an undercurrent which, at some time or another, must blow the fuse, and the result would be open hostility.

  'Carl!' Ray's smile was a welcome, his greeting almost effusive. Sara's heart went out to him; he had so little pleasure in his life these days. 'I'm so very glad to see you! You'll stay a while, I hope!' The faintest smile was his only answer and Sara's lips went tight. Why couldn't the man be a little more perceptive? Why didn't he realise that this visit made a most pleasant break for Ray? 'By Jove,' Ray was saying, 'that gelding's a real beauty! You don't happen to have another like it, that you want to sell?'

  Having swung from the saddle Carl secured the reins before taking the steps two at a time, apparently without effort. Pompous creature I thought Sara uncharitably. Did he really have to show off like that?

  'No,' he was saying, 'but I can have a word with Jacob Dessel, who breeds fine horses. He might have one to suit your taste.' Turning casually to Sara he greeted her with the kind of cool civility he might have extended to someone he was meeting for the first time. She responded with chill reserve, murmuring a stiff, 'good morning', and tilting her head in a gesture of hauteur. She saw his amber eyes glint, and wondered if he were piqued by her treatment of him. He was used to adulation, from what she had seen on her two visits to the Glenview Club in town. Most of the young women appeared to have had difficulty in keeping their eyes off his arresting figure. He had danced with them, but Sara had noticed that he never indulged in much conversation. With Sara herself he had adopted his customary manner of near indifference, which suited her well enough. She would have hated to be compelled to assume a show of friendliness which was insincere.

  'I think Irma's calling,' said Ray with a sudden frown.

  'I'll see what she wants.' Glad of the excuse, Sara murmured an apology to their visitor and left the two men on their own.

  Irma, her delicate rose-tinted beauty unimpaired by the accident that had robbed her of the use of her legs, was sitting up, against the pillows, a petulant look on her face.

  'I've called several times,' she complained. 'What have you been doing?'

  'I was on the stoep. I didn't hear you, Irma, or I'd have come immediately. I must remind Ray to see about having a bell fixed up. I did make enquiries when I was in Paulsville the other day, and there's a man somewhere around here who might be able to do it, but I couldn't quite grasp just where he lives. So many customers came into the shop that I felt I ought not to bother the assistant any more just then.' Sara paused, smiling. 'What is it you're wanting?' Automatically she straightened the covers, and stooped to pick up a book that Irma had let fall to the floor.

  'You didn't hear me, eh?' Irma's mouth twisted suddenly. 'Too busy talking to my husband, I suppose?'

  Frowning, Sara looked down at her, puzzled by her sister's manner.

  'What do you mean?' she wanted to know.

  'Was my husband with you?'

  'He came out to the stoep, yes.'

  'He was here, but he soon left me. Ray hasn't any patience to stay with me these days.'

  Sara bit her lip, at a complete loss as to how she could reply.

  'What is it you want?' she asked again.

  'Changing the subject?' Irma's voice was bitter. 'I'm thirsty.'

  Sara made no immediate move, but stood staring into her sister's flawless countenance, and as always she had no difficulty in understanding why Ray had chosen her —in fact, he had never even noticed Sara in the way she had so desperately wanted him to. She recalled her first meeting with him when, at a dance, her friend had made the introduction. Awed by his outstanding good looks, Sara had at the same time felt a quickening of her senses, had felt the presence of something intangible affecting her whole body, had known a strange bewilderment in the little access of pleasure which she derived from his touch.

  Fair and tall, with clear-cut features and a smile that could not possibly fail to charm, he was Sara's idea of perfection, the kind of dream-man she had hoped she would one day marry. He had danced with her many times; she had concluded he was attracted to her, but later learned that it was her superb lightness on the dance floor that made him choose her for his partner over and over again. He had escorted her home—to the house owned by Irma, with whom Sara had been staying for her Easter holiday—and even made a date with her. Sara's head was in a whirl, her mind overcharged with excitement. Ray must like her, for otherwise he would not have dated her I Perhaps this was the beginning of a courtship—the first ever for Sara. Would he kiss her the next time they were together? Would she feel the thrill of his arms about her, drink in the heady wine that even one tender word would give?

  They dined on that second evening, then danced again. He brought her home and Sara found herself quivering with anticipation when, having stopped the car outside the house, Ray slid an arm along the back of her seat, and touched the nape of her neck in such a way that ripples of sheer ecstasy ran along her spine. Then, unexpectedly, the front door opened and Irma stood there with the light behind her, framed in the doorway like a beautiful picture. For she had been out too, and she wore a lovely evening gown of white lace and organza, tight-waisted and billowing out over layer on layer of ruched white net. Sara heard Ray catch his breath; a moment later she heard herself introducing her sister to him. And that proved to be the
end of Sara's dreams and the beginning of Irma's. In a little less than six weeks she and Ray were engaged, and a month later, with tears in her heart but a smile on her lips, Sara stood in the church, arrayed in a lovely lime-green dress, long and full with tiny rosebuds trimming the neckline and the hem, and took part in the ceremony that joined Irma and Ray together as man and wife.

  The reason for the wedding being rushed like that was that Ray had inherited a farm in South Africa, and as Irma was quite agreeable to go out there, they had married with all possible speed and immediately after the wedding breakfast they flew to their new home.

  Relieved to see them go, Sara had set about forgetting her handsome brother-in-law and picking up her life again. It was difficult, but she was determined. However, fate took a hand; she was not to be given the chance of forgetting Ray so easily, for within three and a half months of saying goodbye to the happy couple she was getting ready to fly out to join them, having thrown up her well-paid post as private nurse to a titled lady in whose beautiful home she had been given her own private rooms. The decision was difficult to make, causing Sara much uneasiness because she was still in love with Ray. On the other hand she could not ignore Irma's letter imploring her to come over to 'keep her company and look after her very few needs'. The sisters had been fairly close, having lost their parents within a year of one another when they were in their teens. Sara was now twenty-three and her sister twenty-five.

  'Are you going to get me that drink?' Irma's voice intruded into Sara's reflections and she smiled then and said yes, she would make Irma a nice cup of tea.

  'I don't want tea, I want orange juice,' Irma said.

  'All right, I'll get it for you.'

  'Make it fresh. I hate juices that have been standing. They taste bitter.'

  'I'll see that it's freshly made.'

  'Don't let Sadie make it; she's not clean enough for me.'

  'She's very clean,' argued Sara. 'She's the best house- girl for miles around, everyone says so.'

 
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