Harold Bindloss.

Delilah of the Snows



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I
INGLEBY FEELS THE BIT

The tennis match was over, and Walter Ingleby stood swinging his racket impatiently beside an opening in the hazel hedge that overhung the lane. Wisps of hay were strewn about it, but already the nut bushes were sprinkled with the honeysuckle's flowers. Beyond the hedge, cornfields blotched with poppies, and cropped meadows, faded into the cold blueness of the east.

Ingleby looked out upon the prospect with a slight hardening of his face, for he loved the quiet, green country in which there was apparently no room for him; but a little thrill of expectancy ran through him as he glanced back across the stile towards the little white village he had left a few minutes earlier. A broad meadow shining with the tender green of the aftermath divided it from the lane, and light laughter and a murmur of voices came faintly across the grass. Again a trace of grimness, which seemed out of place there, crept into his face, and it was with a little resolute movement of his shoulders that he turned and raised his eyes to the dim blue ridge behind which burned the sunset's smoky red. He vaguely felt that it was portentous and emblematical, for that evening the brightness of the West seemed to beckon him.

He had graciously been permitted to play for a somewhat exclusive club during the afternoon, as well as to make himself useful handing round tea and carrying chairs, because he played tennis well, and the president's wife had said that while there was a risk in admitting that kind of people, young Ingleby evidently knew his place, and was seldom guilty of presumption. This was true, for Ingleby was shrewd enough to realize that there were limits to the toleration extended him, though the worthy lady would probably have been astonished had she known what his self-repression occasionally cost him. That a young man of his position should not esteem it a privilege to teach beginners and submit to be snubbed by any one of importance who happened to be out of temper had never occurred to her. Still, he certainly knew his place, and having played well, to please himself and his partner, had slipped away when the last game was over, since he understood that the compliments were not for him.

Suddenly his heart beat a trifle faster as a figure appeared in the meadow. It was a girl of about his own age, which did not greatly exceed twenty, who carried herself well, and moved, it seemed to him, with a gracefulness he had never noticed in any other woman. She wore a white hat with red poppies on it, and he noticed that the flowers he had diffidently offered her were still tucked in the belt of the light grey dress. She was walking slowly, and apparently did not see him in the shadow, so that when she stopped a moment with her hand upon the stile he could, although he felt the presumption of it, look at her steadily.

There were excuses for him, since any one with artistic perceptions would have admitted that Grace Coulthurst made a sufficiently attractive picture as she stood with the white clover at her feet and the glow of the West upon her face.

It was warm in colouring and almost too cleanly cut, but essentially English, with a suggestion of pride and vigour in it. The eyes were grey, and, perhaps, a trifle too grave and imperious considering her age; the clustering hair beneath the white hat shone in the sunset a gleaming bronze. She was also very dainty, though that did not detract from the indefinite something in the pose of the shapely head and figure which the lad vaguely recognized as patrician. The term did not please him. Indeed, it was one he objected to, but he could think of nothing more appropriate, and as he watched her he became almost astonished at his temerity. Ingleby was young, and fancied he knew his own value, but he was also acquainted with the unyielding nature of social distinction, and it was wholly respectful homage he paid Grace Coulthurst. She was Major Coulthurst's daughter, and a young woman of some local importance. When she saw Ingleby a faint tinge of warmer colour crept into her face for just a moment.

He swung off his straw hat, and held it at his knee as he raised a hand to her, and though his deference was, perhaps, a trifle overdone, it was redeemed by its genuineness, and did not displease her.

"I was afraid you would never come," he said.

The girl descended the stile before she looked at him, and then there was a suggestion of stiffness in her attitude, for the speech, which seemed to imply something of the nature of an appointment, was not a tactful one.

"Why did you think I would come this way at all?" she said.

"I don't know," said Ingleby, with a trace of confusion. "Of course, there wasn't any reason. Still, I hoped you would. That was why I waited."

Grace Coulthurst said nothing for a moment. It was, though she would never have admitted it, not altogether by accident that she had met and walked home with him somewhat frequently during the past month.

"As it happened, I was almost going round by the road, with Lilian Fownes," she said.

Young Ingleby, as she did not fail to notice, set his lips, for Miss Fownes had on that and other occasions been accompanied by her accomplished brother, who was an adept at graceful inanities.

"Then I should not have seen you – and I especially wanted to," he said.

His voice had a little uncertain note in it, and Grace glanced at him sharply. "In that case, why did you run away as soon as the game was over?"

"Don't you know?" and Ingleby's laugh had a trace of bitterness in it. "When it is over they don't want me. Of course, we helped them to win, but that was what I was there for – that, and nothing more – while you played splendidly. You see, one depends so much upon his partner."

"Does he?"

"Of course!" and Ingleby lost his head. "Now – I don't mean at tennis only – I could do almost anything with you to encourage me. Still, that is evidently out of the question – like the rest."

He concluded somewhat incoherently, for he realized that this was going too far, and in his embarrassment naturally made matters worse by the attempted qualification. Still, though the girl's colour was a trifle higher, she was not altogether displeased, and felt that there was, perhaps, some excuse for his confidence as she glanced at him covertly. Walter Ingleby was not remarkably different from most other young Englishmen, but he had a sturdy, well set-up figure, and an expressive and by no means unattractive face, with broad forehead, fearless blue eyes, and a certain suggestive firmness of his mouth. He had also a trick of looking at one steadily with his head held well erect, and then speaking with a curious clipped curtness. It was a trifling mannerism which nevertheless carried with it a suggestion of vigour and straightforwardness. Just then there was a little scintillation in his eyes, and he looked like one who had at least the courage to attempt a good deal.

"Well," she said, in a non-committal fashion, "we certainly won the match, and I think you were wrong to slip away. One would almost fancy that you are unduly sensitive now and then."

Ingleby laughed. "Perhaps I am, but it isn't so very astonishing that I should occasionally resent a slight that isn't meant when there are so many of them that certainly are. No doubt, it's my own fault. I should have known what to expect when I crept into the exclusive tennis club at Holtcar."

"Then I wonder why you joined it at all."

"So do I at times. Still, I wanted to see what people of position and refinement were really like, and to learn anything they might be inclined to teach me. I was ambitious, you see – and besides, I was really fond of the game."

"And you were disappointed when you met them?"

Ingleby made a little expressive gesture. "Chiefly in myself. I thought I was strong enough not to mind being treated as a professional and politely ignored except when I was useful. Then I imagined it would be excellent discipline, and discipline is presumably good for one, as the worthy vicar, who really appears to have ideas, is fond of observing."

Again the girl glanced at him sharply, with a faint but perceptible arching of her brows.

"Isn't that a trifle patronizing?" she said. "You can't be very much older than I am, and he has, at least, seen a good deal of the world."

Ingleby laughed frankly, though there was a little flush in his face. "I know I very often talk like a fool – and the difference between you and the others is that you very seldom think it necessary to remind me of it. That is, of course, one difference. The rest – "

"I think," said the girl, severely, "we were talking about the vicar."

"Well," said Ingleby, "I really believe he means well, but he is, after all, part of the system, and naturally interested in maintaining the existing state of things. We have in England a few great bolstered-up professions, one could almost call them professional rings, and the men fortunate enough to enter them are more or less compelled to play into one another's hands. The millions who don't belong to them are, of course, outsiders, and couldn't be expected to count, you see."

The girl stiffened perceptibly, and really looked very patrician as she turned and regarded him indignantly.

"You appear to forget that my father belongs to one of those professions," she said.

"He did," corrected Ingleby, and then stopped abruptly, as he remembered it was reputed that it was not exactly by his own wish Major Coulthurst no longer actively served his nation.

"I wonder if you have deliberately made up your mind to offend me?" asked Grace Coulthurst with icy quietness.

"You know I would cut my hand off sooner than do anything I thought would vex you," Ingleby answered. "I'm afraid I talk too much, but I can't help it now and then. There are, you see, so few people who will listen to me seriously. Unless you are content to adopt the accepted point of view, everybody seems to think it his duty to put his foot on you."

Grace's anger was usually short-lived, for she had a generous nature as well as a sense of humour, and the lad's naive admission appealed to the latter.

"Well," she said, with a little gleam in her eyes, "I really think I, at least, have listened to you with patience; but your views are likely to lead you into trouble. Where did you get them?"

Ingleby laughed. "To tell the truth, I often wonder myself. In any case, it wasn't from my father. He was a staunch and consistent churchman, and kept a little book shop. You can see it in the High Street now. He sold books – and papers behind the counter; I would like you to remember this. Still, as I said, he was consistent, and there was literature he would not handle, nor when they made him a councillor would he wink at certain municipal jobbery. The latter fact was duly remembered when his lease fell in, as well as on other occasions, and when he died, when I was fourteen, there was nothing left for me. He was a scholar, and an upright man – as well as a Tory of the old school and a high churchman."

"Is it very unusual for a scholar to be either of the latter then?"

"Well," said Ingleby, with a little twinkle in his eyes, "one would almost fancy that it ought to be. However, you can't be in the least interested in these fancies of mine. Shall I gather you that spray of blossom?"

Grace looked curiously at him instead of at the pale-tinted honeysuckle whose sweetness hung about them. She was quite aware that he had somewhat eccentric views, and it was perhaps his originality which had attracted her when, prompted chiefly by pity for the lad who was usually left out in the cold, she had made his acquaintance; but her interest in him had increased with suspicious rapidity considering that it was only a month or two since she had delicately made the first overtures. She was quite willing to admit that she had made them, for she had understood, and under the circumstances sympathized with, the lad's original irresponsiveness, which had vanished when he saw that her graciousness sprang from a kindly nature and was unspoiled by condescension; and Grace Coulthurst could afford to do what other young women of her age at Holtcar would have shrunk from. She had also a certain quiet imperiousness which made whatever she did appear fitting.

"I am afraid you are an inveterate radical," she said.

"I scarcely think that goes quite far enough, as radicalism seems to be understood by its acknowledged leaders. Blatant is the adjective usually hurled at us; and no doubt I deserve it, as witness what you have endured to-night. Still, you see, I wasn't talking quite without a purpose, because I want you to understand my attitude – and that brings me to the point. I'm afraid I can't play with you at the tournament, as was arranged."

"No?" said Grace, a trifle sharply, for she was very human, and after somewhat daringly showing favour to the man of low degree it was a trifle galling to discover that he failed to appreciate it. "You have, presumably, something that pleases you better to do that day?"

Ingleby turned partly away from her, and glanced across the valley. "No," he said with unusual quietness, "I think you know that could not be. I am, in fact, going away."

Grace was a trifle startled, as well as more concerned than she would have admitted, and had Ingleby been looking at her he might have seen this. It had not been exactly pleasant to hear that he was an advanced democrat, for, while by no means unduly conventional, she had an inborn respect for established customs and procedure, and she felt that the existing condition of affairs, while probably not beyond improvement, might be made considerably worse, at least, so far as she and her friends were concerned. Still, it was disconcerting to find that he was going away, for there would then be no opportunity for teaching him – indirectly, of course – the erroneous nature of his views. This, at least, was the reason she offered herself.

"Where are you going?" she asked, with studied indifference.

Ingleby swung around, with head tilted a trifle backwards – she knew that unconscious pose and the little gleam in his eyes which usually accompanied it – and looked across the cool blue-green meadows towards the fading splendours of the West.

"Out there where men are equal, as they were made to be, and the new lands are too wide for the cramped opinions and prejudices that crush one here!" Then he turned to the girl with a little laugh. "I wish you would say something quietly stinging. I deserve it for going off in that way again. Still, I really felt it."

"Do you think I could?" and Grace's tone was severe.

Ingleby was even more contrite than she expected. "It was absurd to suggest it. You could never say an unkind or cutting thing to anybody. In fact, your kindness is the one pleasant memory I shall carry away with me. I – you see – "

He pulled himself up abruptly, but the colour was in his cheeks, and the little thrill in his voice again, while it seemed only natural that the girl should smile prettily.

"I wonder," she said, "if one might ask you why you are going?"

The lane was growing dusky now, and Grace, as it happened, held a white glove and a fold of the silvery grey skirt in an uncovered hand, for the dew was settling heavily upon the grass between the wheel ruts. Ingleby did not look at her.

"I don't think I could make you understand how sordid and distasteful my life here is – and it can't be changed," he said. "Every door is closed against the man with neither friends nor money. He must be taught his place, and stay in it, dragging out his life in hopeless drudgery, while I – "

He stopped again, and then looked his companion steadily in the face. "I have found out in the last month how much life has to offer one who has the courage to make a bold bid for what he is entitled to."

"And you expect to make it out there – which presumably means America or Canada?"

They had reached an oaken door in a mossy wall, and Ingleby stood still. "Yes," he said, slowly, "I intend to make it there. Life holds so much – I did not know how much a little while ago – and there are alluring possibilities if one has the courage to break away from the groove prejudice and tradition force him into here. I may never see you again – unless I am successful I think I never shall. Would it be a very great presumption if I asked you for something, a trifle, to carry away with me?"

He stood looking down upon her with a curious wistfulness in his face, and Grace afterwards tried to believe that it was by accident she dropped her glove just then. In any case, next moment young Ingleby stooped, and when he straightened himself again he not only held the glove exultantly fast, but the hand she had stretched out for it. Then a patch of vivid crimson showed in Grace Coulthurst's cheek as they stood face to face in the summer twilight – the lad of low degree, with tingling nerves and throbbing heart, and the girl of station rudely shaken out of her accustomed serenity. In those few moments they left their youth behind, and crossed the mystic threshold into the ampler life of man and woman.

Then Ingleby, swinging off his straw hat, let the little hand go, and looked at the girl steadily.

"If that was wrong you will have a long while in which to forgive me," he said. "If I live and prosper out there I will bring you back the glove again – and, whatever happens, you cannot prevent my carrying your memory away with me."

Then he turned away, looked back, still bareheaded, and with a little resolute shake of his shoulders swung away down the darkening lane, while Grace inserted a key in the oaken door with somewhat unsteady fingers. She was as yet neither pleased nor angry, but bewildered, and only certain that he had gone, and her face was burning still.

II
INGLEBY STANDS BY HIS OPINIONS

It was late on Saturday night, and unpleasantly hot in the little dingy room where Ingleby sat with a companion beneath the slates of a tall, four-story house in a busy cloth-making town. There were several large holes in the threadbare carpet, and a portion of the horsehair stuffing protruded from the dilapidated sofa, while the rickety chairs and discoloured cloth on the table were equally suggestive of severe economy. A very plain bookcase hung on the wall, and the condition of the historical works and treatises on political economy it contained seemed to indicate that they had been purchased secondhand; while an oil lamp burned dimly on the mantel, for the room was almost intolerably stuffy already, and the gas supplied at Hoddam was bad and dear. A confused murmur of voices came up from the narrow street below, with the clatter of heavy shoes and the clamour of the cheap-Jacks in the neighbouring market square.

Ingleby, who had taken off his jacket, lay in a decrepit arm-chair holding a slip of paper in his hand. Opposite him sat another young man with the perspiration beaded on his face, which was sallow and somewhat hollow. He was watching Ingleby with a faint smile in his eyes.

"The little excursion doesn't seem to commend itself to you," he said.

"No," answered Ingleby drily, "I can't say it does. I had looked forward to spending a quiet day on the moors to-morrow. It will in all probability be the last Sunday I shall ever pass in this country. Besides, considering that I don't even belong to the Society, this notice is a trifle peremptory. Why should the Committee confidently expect my co-operation in enforcing the right of way through Willow Dene? I certainly did not tell anybody to keep me a place in the wagonette, which they are good enough to intimate has been done."

"Still, after that speech you made you will have to go. You're in sympathy with the movement, anyway?"

Ingleby made a little impatient gesture. "I don't know what came over me that night, and, to tell the truth, Leger, I've been almost sorry I got up ever since. It was, in one way, an astonishing piece of assurance, and I can't help a fancy that most of those who heard me must have known a good deal more about the subject than I did."

"It's not altogether improbable," and his companion laughed. "In fact, twice when you made a point I heard a man behind me quoting your authorities. Still, they didn't expect you to be original."

"One or two of the others certainly were; but that's not quite the question. Of course, there is no excuse for the closing of Willow Dene, but driving out in wagonettes on Sunday doesn't quite appeal to me. It's over three miles, too, unfortunately. One has, after all, to consider popular – prejudice – you see."

Leger was slight of physique and of wholly undistinguished appearance, as well as shabbily dressed; but there was a hint of rather more than intelligence in his sallow face, and he had expressive brown eyes. A little twinkle crept into them just then.

"I can remember occasions when it seemed to please you to fly in the face of them, but your thoroughness isn't altogether above suspicion now and then. One has to be one thing or the other."



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