Delilah of the Snowsскачать книгу бесплатно
"Gone over!" he said hoarsely. "Still, the top part's not quite so horribly steep."
They made for the spot at a floundering run, for it is a trifle difficult to travel fast in the bush, and came gasping to a rent in the undergrowth on the edge of the gully. Ingleby set his lips as he looked down.
The major, who looked up at them with fear in his eyes, lay full length on the steepest part of the slope beneath, with both hands clenched upon a little bush of juniper. Two or three yards beneath him lay a shadowy gulf, and the dull roar of water that came up suggested its depth.
"I think this thing is coming out," he said.
Ingleby saw a diminutive fir close to the man, and two more between himself and the edge of the ca?on, for in that country the firs will grow on anything short of an upright wall, and next moment he swung himself over the edge. However, he did it cautiously, taking care to drive his feet well into the gravel, and finally contrived to slide down to the nearest tree. Sewell was evidently coming down behind him, for the stones went rattling by and struck the upturned face beneath. It was flushed and distorted, with swollen veins on the forehead, for the man was evidently feeling the strain.
"Can you hold on for a minute or two, sir?" Ingleby asked.
"I might manage one – not more," was the hoarse answer.
"That should do," said Ingleby reassuringly, and letting himself go again clutched at the tree close above the brink of the declivity. He also grasped Sewell, who was coming down backwards amidst a shower of stones; and, when he arrived safe, lay full length with his comrade's hand upon his waist and one arm stretched out. Nor did he stop to consider whether he could get back to the tree again when the major clutched his hand.
"Hold fast, and we'll pull you up," he said.
Next moment a strenuous grip closed upon his hand, and he felt his arm being drawn out of its socket as he strove to bend his back. Coulthurst was horribly heavy and apparently incapable of rendering him any assistance. Indeed, for a moment or two he was far from sure that they would not slide down into the shadowy gorge together. He could see the major's suffused face and hear Sewell gasping behind him.
Then Coulthurst, apparently by a supreme effort, raised himself a trifle, and he was a foot or two nearer the fir when he lay prone again. Ingleby fancied he could feel his sinews cracking, and knew they would not endure that tension long.
"Reach your left hand back!" said Sewell hoarsely. Ingleby did so, and felt the bark of the slender tree, while Sewell leaned out recklessly over him and clutched Coulthurst's shoulder. Then, for a few seconds, they made a very grim effort, until the major got one foot under him and seized the tree. After that there was no great difficulty, and when they dragged him out of peril he lay still, gasping, for almost a minute. Then he raised himself so that he could sit.
"I think my rifle went over," he said.
"Where's the bear?"
Sewell's eyes twinkled, and Ingleby laughed, as did the major.
"Of course!" he said. "Very much obliged, I'm sure. I mean it. But – where is – the bear?"
Personal peril was not exactly a new thing to the major, who was also a man of fixed ideas; but he made a little comprehensive gesture when Sewell glanced significantly at the edge of the precipice.
"I don't know, sir, and really don't think an attempt to find out would be advisable," he said.
As a matter of fact, they never did discover what became of the bear; but in the meanwhile nobody said anything further for a moment or two. Then the major rubbed his leg.
"We couldn't very well stay here all night – and I've hurt my knee," he said.
Ingleby glanced at the almost precipitous descent. "I'm afraid we couldn't get you up without a rope."
"I am quite satisfied that you couldn't, and don't propose to let you try," said the major. "There are, however, the pack-horse lariats at my camp, and it can't be more than two miles away. I have a police trooper there. One of you could get up?"
Ingleby fancied that it was within his powers.
"I'll try, sir, if it's only because I believe I came very near shooting you," he said.
Coulthurst laughed. "You were within an ace of it."
Ingleby said nothing further, but crawled very cautiously up the slope.
ESMOND ACQUIRES INFORMATION
Ingleby contrived to discover Coulthurst's camp, and when a police trooper carrying a stout lariat accompanied him back to the ravine they had some little difficulty in transporting the major, who was no light weight, to the surface. It was, however, safely accomplished, and Ingleby was not greatly astonished to hear he had in the meanwhile insisted upon their spending at least that night in his commodious tent. Sewell possessed the useful faculty of making a good impression upon almost anybody, and generally exercised it, even when it did not appear worth while.
They spent the next day with the major, who extended them a bluff but cordial invitation to visit him at his official residence, which Ingleby, for reasons of his own, promised to do. He was, however, a little astonished that Sewell, who had not his inducement, and could scarcely be expected to consider Major Coulthurst's patronage any particular compliment, should evince an equal alacrity. Still, he did not feel warranted in inquiring his comrade's reasons, and promptly forgot all about it when a few days later he and Leger bottomed upon gold. It was not a rich find. Indeed, they laboriously transported and washed down a good many hundred-weights of d?bris in return for an insignificant quantity of the precious metal; but it was sufficient to fill Ingleby with fresh ardour, and he lengthened his hours of toil until it was with difficulty he dragged himself back at night to the camp on the hillside. Every stroke of pick and drill brought him so much nearer the realization of his aspirations.
Leger protested now and then, but Hetty, who was wiser, said nothing, though there were times when she watched Ingleby, who naturally never suspected it, with anxious eyes. The physical strain and tension were commencing to tell on him, for even the experienced placer miner seldom knows whether the next few strokes of the shovel will bring him wealth or make it evident that he has thrown his toil away.
There, however, came an evening when Ingleby desisted early in order to redeem his promise to Coulthurst, and when he had made what he felt was a very insufficient toilet Sewell, who had pegged out a claim in the vicinity, arrived at the bakery. Hetty and Leger were sitting, as usual at that hour, beside the fire, and there was a little twinkle in the latter's eyes as he glanced at Sewell.
"I suppose," he said, "Major Coulthurst knows whom he is to have the pleasure of entertaining."
Sewell laughed. "I felt it my duty to inform him; but my name did not seem to convey very much to him. In fact, I don't mind admitting that one could have fancied he had never heard of it. Then, having a certain sense of fitness, I endeavoured to make him understand what my views were. They didn't appear to affect him greatly, either. He was good enough to predict that I would probably grow out of them."
"He hasn't told you all," Ingleby broke in. "Major Coulthurst graciously admitted that most men are occasionally afflicted with fancies of the kind when they are young. No sensible person minded it. He had even indulged in them himself when his colonel had been unduly hard on him, and he seemed quite under the impression that people generally took to our opinions by way of protest when they fancied themselves badly used."
For a moment it almost seemed to Ingleby that Sewell's face hardened, and he remembered that his comrade had appeared faintly disconcerted when the major expressed this view in camp. It had naturally not occurred to Ingleby that Major Coulthurst's deductions, like those of other men with no great appearance of intelligence, might come near the truth now and then. Hetty, who was looking at Sewell, did not, however, appear to notice anything unusual.
"So you told him who you really were?" she asked.
Sewell, for no very evident reason, stooped and flicked a little dust off one of his boots, and it was a few moments later when he looked up with a smile.
"I think you heard me mention it," he said. "You are ready, Ingleby?"
Ingleby stood up, with a somewhat rueful glance, not altogether unwarranted, at his attire. He did not know what Hetty meant, and felt no great interest in the question, for he had a supreme faith in one man and one woman, and if he had discovered that Sewell had been charged with felony it would not have concerned him greatly. He would have believed in him, almost in spite of the evidences of his senses.
Coulthurst received them cordially when they reached his little log-built dwelling, which stood not far from the police outpost beyond the ca?on where a tremendous wall of hillside shut in the adjacent valley. That region, while unpleasantly remote from civilization, was still accessible, and the Gold Commissioners' quarters were, considering their situation, far from uncomfortable. There was even a very artistic set of chessmen at which Coulthurst glanced during a pause in the conversation.
"I was once in a native Indian state, and those pieces are a little memento," he said. "They played the game rather well there, and I've had a liking for it ever since."
Now Ingleby's father had also played chess well, and he knew a little of the game; but he was accustomed to yield his comrade priority and was more than usually content to do so that evening. Sewell, who seemed to understand this, smiled.
"I'm afraid I should make a very indifferent opponent, sir, but that is your affair," he said.
Coulthurst drew out a little table with some alacrity, and Grace and Ingleby found a place apart from them. The latter made no great attempt at conversation, for he was worn-out by a long day's toil and quite content to be there and listen to his companion. Ingleby could talk when he felt prompted to; but, like other men with the capacity for strenuous effort, he could be silent without embarrassing himself or those about him.
In the meanwhile the surroundings had their effect on him. The soft light of the big shaded lamp was pleasant after the glare of the crackling fire; the hangings that hid door and windows conveyed to one who had lived as he had done a suggestion of comfort and luxury; and his eyes did not miss the fashion in which each trifle brought up through long leagues of forest on the pack-saddle had been arranged. Grace Coulthurst had artistic tastes, and she had also, to some extent, the means of indulging them.
It was, however, her propinquity that most affected him. Her daintiness appealed to his senses, and the faint perfume that hung about her and the touch of her gown when it brushed against him sent a little thrill through him. Miss Coulthurst was possibly not unaware of this, but she was none the less gracious to him. Ingleby was a well-favoured man, and physical effort and endurance with a wholesome singleness of purpose had set a stamp on him that almost amounted to distinction. Athletic toil and plain living, with the moral discipline which binds the worn-out flesh in obedience to the will, have a refining influence on most men, and there was in Ingleby's gaunt face, steady eyes, and clear, bronzed skin the faint suggestion of spirituality which in that country, at least, not infrequently characterizes even the placer miner of low degree. Grace Coulthurst, who had quick perceptions, recognized it, but naturally kept her impressions to herself.
"Mr. Sewell plays chess very well," she said. "In fact, he made what seemed to me a really brilliant opening."
"He is one of the men who do everything that is worth while well," said Ingleby. "That sounds a little comprehensive, but I almost think it's no more than the fact."
Grace asked no very pertinent question that Ingleby could remember; but she nevertheless induced him to speak of his comrade, which, being simple of mind in some respects, he had evident pleasure in doing. In the meanwhile she watched the man at the chess-table, and it seemed to her that part, at least, of his friend's belief in him was justified. Sewell's face was expressive and mobile as well as forceful, and there was a subtle suggestive gracefulness in his speech and gesture which was not to be found in Ingleby's. Then she smiled, and changed the subject.
"I wonder," she said, "why he sacrificed the castle?"
"The knight," said Ingleby gravely, "was certainly not a very good exchange."
Grace laughed. "I scarcely think you would ever, as they say in this country, go back on a friend. My father, as he said, is fond of the game, but that doesn't go very far, after all."
"He plays it creditably."
"And Mr. Sewell, as you are quite aware, plays it exceptionally well. I wonder if he realizes that the major is not fond of losing."
Ingleby smiled as he again glanced round the room. Then he turned to her, the origin and complement of its refinement, and she read his thoughts without difficulty.
"I scarcely think that anybody who knows how we live would blame him," he said.
Grace laughed. "Then," she said, "as I'm not quite sure that I know, suppose you tell me."
Ingleby did so in simple fashion, and it is probable that most young women would not have found his story entertaining. Grace Coulthurst, who had lived in the bush, however, had comprehension and could fill in a good deal that he did not supply. It was also, in its own way, to one who knew that country, an epic, a recital of man's high endeavour and herculean grapple with untrammelled nature, for in the struggle for the subjugation of the wilderness the placer miner leads the van. The smothering rush of slipping gravel, the crash of shattered props as the little shaft closed up, and the unexpected fall of half-charred trees had a place in it, as well as the monotony of toil, and the girl listened gravely.
"And you have found the gold?" she said.
"A little," said Ingleby, "but not half enough. We have failed to bottom quite on the old creek bed, and are going to sink again or drive an adit."
The mention of insufficiency was in itself significant, for though he had spoken no word in Canada that could afford the slightest hint of the aspirations that had animated him Grace was quite aware of them. There are not many women who do not know when a man is in love with them.
"But there are only two of you, and it will take you ever so long," she said.
"Still, we will get it done," and there was a curious brightness in Ingleby's eyes.
Grace noticed the hollowness of his quiet face and the leanness of his hard, scarred hands, and her heart grew soft towards him. The sign of the strain was plain upon him, though the breaking point had not yet been reached, and it was for her that he had done so much.
"And you expect the effort will be warranted?" she said.
Ingleby turned and looked at her gravely.
"Men get rich placer mining now and then, and it might happen to me," he said. "In fact, I almost think from what one or two of the old prospectors tell me that I am going to be successful. I don't know if you will understand me, but after a life like mine the probability of being so is a little overwhelming."
There was a tension in his voice which had its effect upon the girl, and she sat silent for a moment or two until the major's voice broke sharply in on them.
"Check! I fancied at one time the game was in your hands, but there's seldom much use in anticipating when there are points you can't foresee," he said.
Grace glanced at Ingleby, who smiled.
"I'm afraid Major Coulthurst is right. One can only wait," he said.
Just then there was a tapping at the door, and Ingleby moved abruptly when Esmond came in. The officer, however, showed no sign of astonishment when he saw who was there, but smiled as he looked at Grace, and turned to the major.
"I have just come across for a few minutes, and will not disturb you, sir," he said. "I don't suppose you have any objections to my looking over your register?"
"No," said Coulthurst. "It's yonder. Has anything gone wrong?"
Esmond's eyes rested for just a moment on Sewell. "Only two or three of the men talking rather wildly, sir. Somebody has been putting notions into their heads. It occurred to me I might as well make sure they all had certificates."
"Quite right!" said Coulthurst appreciatively. "I have decided objections to their doing me out of my money."
Esmond took down the register, which was not remarkably well kept, and had some little trouble in tracing out the information he desired. At last, however, he read, "Thomas Leger, Free miner's certificate, Five dollars; also Five dollars, Walter Ingleby."
He made a careful note of the date, and then turned over the pages systematically. Later on he found, "Walter Ingleby, Five dollars," but there was no further entry for Leger. Then he put the book back, and the major glanced at him.
"Check!" he said. "I almost think I've got you, Mr. Sewell. You found what you wanted, Reggie?"
"Yes, sir," said Esmond, whose eyes now rested on Grace and Ingleby. "I fancy I have."
He crossed the room in a leisurely fashion, and Ingleby rose when Grace turned to him.
"You have no doubt come across Mr. Ingleby in the course of your duties, Reggie, but I should like to present him formally as one of my friends," she said.
Esmond made Ingleby, who responded as briefly, a little curt inclination.
"I have," he said, "certainly met Mr. Ingleby at least twice already."
"I believe I remember one occasion," said Grace, with a little twinkle in her eyes. She had naturally not heard of the second encounter. "I'm not sure you were in quite as good a temper as usual that night. Still, you see, circumstances are very different now."
Esmond laughed, but there was a dryness in his tone which Ingleby afterwards remembered.
"Circumstances have a trick of changing somewhat rapidly in this country," he said. "You have, I believe, bottomed on gold, Mr. Ingleby?"
"Yes," said Ingleby.
"You struck it rich?"
"No," said Ingleby. "Still, the signs are promising. We hope to be more fortunate when we have driven our adit."
"How long do you expect to be over it?"
"It is a little difficult to tell."
Esmond appeared to reflect, and Grace, who watched him, did not quite understand his face.
"Well," he said, "I suppose placer mining is always a trifle uncertain. One would almost fancy that baking was more profitable. Your friend Miss Leger seems to be doing well, or is it your venture?"
Ingleby wondered if this was meant for Miss Coulthurst's enlightenment; but he could not very well permit his dislike of the man, who would seize such an opportunity, to become apparent then, and there was also something in Esmond's tone which suggested that he might, after all, have a different purpose. Unfortunately, he had no notion of what that purpose was.
"She is," he said quietly, "selling a good deal of bread."
"At excellent prices! Still, she probably deserves all she gains. It would cost a good deal to bring flour up. How did she get it?"
Ingleby was a little astonished at the man's persistence, and Grace noticed it.
"Are you going to turn baker, too?" she asked.
Esmond laughed in a fashion which brought the blood to Ingleby's face. Still, he answered the man's question.
"I went down for it," he said.
Just then the major's voice broke in again. "A very good fight, Mr. Sewell. I scarcely think I could have beaten you if you hadn't let me see your game. However strong your position is, that is very seldom wise."
"Major Coulthurst," said Esmond, "is now and then astonishingly accurate. One could generalize from such a speech as that. But to resume the topic, wasn't it a little careless of you, Ingleby? You invalidate your record when you leave a placer claim."
Ingleby, secure, as he fancied, smiled. "Leger," he said, "holds a share with me."
"Of course!" said Esmond, as though the subject had no longer any interest to him. "So you left Leger! Well, I must get back to the outpost now. Grace, you will excuse me."
He went out, and while Grace entertained Ingleby the major and Sewell, who lost again, played another game. Then she made and served them coffee with her own hands, and Ingleby, at least, went back to his tent filled with the memory of how she did it.
In the meanwhile Grace, sitting by the fire when he had gone away, glanced at her father.
"I wonder," she said, "what you think of Mr. Sewell?"
"The man," said Coulthurst, "is, in spite of the opinions he seems to hold, evidently a gentleman; I can't think of a more appropriate word for it. There is also, I fancy, a good deal more in him than any one who was not good at reading character might suppose. He plays chess exceptionally well. In fact, almost as well as I do."
Grace smiled a little. "I fancied he did," she said. "Were you equally pleased with his companion?"скачать книгу бесплатно