He held out his hand. She hesitated, then gripped it heartily, and smiled through her tears.
“I wish—” she faltered, “I wish, instead of that black Mary, you’d given me somebody to swear for me.”
And with this enigmatic utterance she turned away.
Sheldon did not mention the subject again, nor did his conduct change from what it had always been. There was nothing of the pining lover, nor of the lover at all, in his demeanour. Nor was there any awkwardness between them. They were as frank and friendly in their relations as ever. He had wondered if his belligerent love declaration might have aroused some womanly self-consciousness in Joan, but he looked in vain for any sign of it. She appeared as unchanged as he; and while he knew that he hid his real feelings, he was firm in his belief that she hid nothing. And yet the germ he had implanted must be at work; he was confident of that, though he was without confidence as to the result. There was no forecasting this strange girl’s processes. She might awaken, it was true; and on the other hand, and with equal chance, he might be the wrong man for her, and his declaration of love might only more firmly set her in her views on single blessedness.
While he devoted more and more of his time to the plantation itself, she took over the house and its multitudinous affairs; and she took hold firmly, in sailor fashion, revolutionizing the system and discipline. The labour situation on Berande was improving. The Martha had carried away fifty of the blacks whose time was up, and they had been among the worst on the plantation—five-year men recruited by Billy Be-blowed, men who had gone through the old days of terrorism when the original owners of Berande had been driven away. The new recruits, being broken in under the new regime, gave better promise. Joan had joined with Sheldon from the start in the programme that they must be gripped with the strong hand, and at the same time be treated with absolute justice, if they were to escape being contaminated by the older boys that still remained.
“I think it would be a good idea to put all the gangs at work close to the house this afternoon,” she announced one day at breakfast. “I’ve cleaned up the house, and you ought to clean up the barracks. There is too much stealing going on.”
“A good idea,” Sheldon agreed. “Their boxes should be searched. I’ve just missed a couple of shirts, and my best toothbrush is gone.”
“And two boxes of my cartridges,” she added, “to say nothing of handkerchiefs, towels, sheets, and my best pair of slippers. But what they want with your toothbrush is more than I can imagine. They’ll be stealing the billiard balls next.”
“One did disappear a few weeks before you came,” Sheldon laughed. “We’ll search the boxes this afternoon.”