What had he done with four and thirty years, putting it at the very highest valuation? He had sunk so far below the standard of his youth that he would not be fit for his old companions, even if he had wanted to go back to them, which, except in certain fits of depression, he did not. His own mother cared very little what became of him. At Christmas time she always sent him a letter, which reached him much later, as a rule, and he answered it. His brothers had forgotten him. His sister, of whom he had been very fond once, and for whom he had hoped a great deal, had married well enough and gone to London; but she, too, had forgotten him long since.
"So?" said Cairness, with the appearance of stolidity he invariably assumed to cover disappointment or any sort of approach to emotion. "Where's she gone to?"
But the argument was weak. Forbes paid small heed to it. "You've a great deal besides. Every one in the country knows your mines have made you a[Pg 320] rich man. And you are better than that. You are a talented man, though you've frittered away your abilities too long to amount to anything much, now. You ought to get as far off from this kind of thing as you can." "Do you think, sir, that you could tell that to twelve officers and make them believe it?"
But she only answered that that was unlikely and slipped her arm around his neck, as she added that if anything were to happen to him, she would not have one real friend in the world. There was something pathetic in the quiet realization of her loneliness.
He did not answer at once, but sat watching the trumpeter come out of the adjutant's office to sound recall. "Yes, she will marry," he agreed; "if no one else marries her, I will. I am as old as her father would have been but it would save telling some fellow about her birth."
Mrs. Campbell appliqued a black velvet imp on a green felt lambrequin, and thought. "Do you ever happen to realize that you have your hands very full?"
"You do doubt me. If you did not, it would never occur to you to deny it. You doubt me now, and you will doubt me still more if you don't read it. In justice to me you must."
On the next day they were in the flat, nearing the post. There was a dust storm. Earlier in the morning the air had grown suddenly more dry, more close and lifeless than ever, suffocating, and a yellow cloud had come in the western sky. Then a hot wind began to blow the horses' manes and tails, to snarl through the greasewood bushes, and to snap the loose ends of the men's handkerchiefs sharply. The cloud had thinned and spread, high up in the sky, and the light had become almost that of a sullen evening. Black bits floated and whirled high overhead, and birds beat about in the gale. Gradually the gale and the dust had dropped nearer to the earth, a sand mist had gone into every pore and choked and parched. And now the tepid, thick wind was moaning across the plain, meeting no point of resistance anywhere.
"You didn't stay to see the operation?" His voice was ominously quiet.