Harold Bindloss.

Delilah of the Snows



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"Yes," said the major reflectively. "He strikes me as sensible and solid – and one has a fancy that there's often a screw loose somewhere about brilliant men. They are apt to – double up unexpectedly – when the strain comes. The other kind I always find are more likely to wear well."

Grace laughed, but made no observation. Major Coulthurst, as she was quite aware, was almost painfully solid himself, but he had, at least, stood the rough usage of a hard world remarkably well, and she was disposed to admit the correctness of his opinion. Still, there was, in spite of his name, something about Sewell that Ingleby did not possess which appealed to her.

XIV
THE NECESSARY INCENTIVE

While Ingleby and Sewell made their way back to their tent Esmond sat thoughtfully in his comfortless room at the outpost, cigar in hand. He felt distinctly pleased with his astuteness, but he was by no means sure what use he would make of the information Ingleby had somewhat unwisely supplied him. Esmond was merely a capable police officer with certain defects in his character, and not a clever scoundrel. In fact, he had his good points, or he would not have retrieved his credit, in a service which demands a good deal from those who would rise in it, after becoming involved in difficulties in England; but he was arrogant, vindictive, and apt to be carried away by his passions.

He disliked Ingleby, and would in any circumstances have found it difficult to forgive the miner for having twice caused him to appear at a disadvantage, while the fact that Grace Coulthurst had shown Ingleby some degree of favour was an almost worse offence. Esmond had the prejudices that occasionally characterize men of his station, and it seemed to him distinctly unfitting that the Gold Commissioner's daughter should patronize, as he expressed it, a placer miner. He was not exactly in love with her, though he had once come near being so, but he cherished a tenderness for her which might in favourable circumstances have ripened. The circumstances were not, however, favourable, for there was a certain stain on his reputation which he fancied Major Coulthurst, at least, remembered.

It was therefore pleasant to feel that he held the whip over the presumptuous miner, and could apply it when advisable, though he had in the meanwhile no very definite purpose of doing so. It was not his business to see that Major Coulthurst carried out the mining laws, and, in any case, Ingleby had found no gold that would render the sequestration of his claim a matter of very much moment; besides which Esmond reflected that it would be considerably more congenial to humiliate him openly in person instead of inflicting a malicious injury on him by the hand of another man. An opportunity would no doubt be forthcoming, and he could afford to wait. With this commendable decision he flung his cigar away, and went to bed.

However, he became a little less sure that reticence was advisable when he saw that Ingleby and Sewell visited the Gold Commissioner every now and then; and it happened, somewhat unfortunately, that he dismounted to take up a stirrup leather when riding back to his outpost through the ca?on one evening.

Save for the hoarse roar of the river the tremendous hollow was very still, and the sound of voices came faintly up to him. Turning sharply, he made out two figures among the pines, and an expletive rose to his lips as he recognized them. One was a miner in miry long boots and soil-stained jean, the other a girl in a light dress.

Esmond's eyes grew a trifle vindictive as he watched them, and though he had one foot in the stirrup he did not obey the impulse that prompted him to swing himself to the saddle and ride away. Instead he led the horse behind a wide-girthed cedar and stood still, with a trace of darker colour in his face. It was unfortunate that he did not know Grace had met Ingleby by accident and that he could not hear their conversation when they stopped for a few minutes by the edge of the river.

"You have not been near us for awhile," said the girl.

"I have been busy, though I am not sure that is a very good excuse," said Ingleby. "Besides, one feels a little diffident – in the circumstances – about presuming too much on Major Coulthurst's kindness."

Grace laughed, though she understood the qualification. "I am, of course, not going to press you, but come when you wish. The major, if one might mention it, rather approves of you, and when he and Mr. Sewell play chess there is nobody to talk to me."

Ingleby, who had sense enough to take this admission for what it was worth, looked thoughtful.

"Sewell," he asked, "has been there without me?"

"Once or twice."

"Then he certainly never mentioned it to me."

"Does he give you an account of everything he does?" and Grace laughed. "How is your work at the mine progressing?"

"Slowly. In fact, considering our appliances, we have had almost overwhelming difficulties to contend with. Still, one could scarcely expect you to be interested in them."

"I am, however," and there was a faint but subtle suggestion of sympathy in the girl's voice that sent a thrill through him.

It cost him an effort to hold himself in hand; but Ingleby had been taught restraint in Canada, one sign of which was that he seldom inflicted his opinions on other people. He had decided that it would be time to let his aspirations become apparent when he had found the gold and made himself a position; it never occurred to him that the girl was probably quite aware of them already. It was not an easy thing to hide them, and, though he was growing accustomed to the discipline, the topic she had suggested was a safe one.

"Well," he said, "the gold we expect to strike lies in what was presumably an ancient river bed, though there is, strange to say, very little of it in the Green River now. It was probably deposited there thousands of years ago, and it is evident that we have struck only the outer edge of the patch of sand and gravel containing it. We tried tunnelling, but twice the soil came in and nearly buried Leger, and at Tomlinson's advice we sank another shaft. All the work had to be done again, and we often go on half the night now. It is, I think, only a question if we can hold out long enough, for winter is coming. Still, it – must – be done."

He had not purposed to indulge in more than a very matter-of-fact narration, and had, in one respect, certainly not exceeded this; but there was a curious ring in his voice; and Grace understood his thoughts as she flashed a swift glance at him. His face, which was a trifle haggard, had grown intent, and the little glint in his eyes had its meaning. Grace Coulthurst recognized, as Hetty Leger had done some time earlier, that Ingleby was toiling harder than was wise. She also knew as well as if he had told her what purpose animated him. Still, she had no intention of admitting it just then.

"I think," she said, "you should be careful not to do too much, and if you are going back to work to-night you must come no farther."

Ingleby protested, but Grace was resolute, and, turning, left him standing in the trail. She walked homewards thoughtfully with a faint trace of colour in her face, for the man's unexpressed devotion had stirred her. Then, in a somewhat unfortunate moment, she looked up and saw Esmond waiting beside the trail for her. A glance at his face sufficed to show her that he was quite aware she had not come there alone, and roused in her a curious sense of antagonism. It had become evident to her already that he bore no particular good will toward Ingleby.

"The view is really worth even your attention," she said.

Esmond knew what the suggestion of hardness in her tone meant, and smiled as he glanced, down the froth-smeared river towards the tremendous rift in the rocks through which it thundered. Beyond it the mists were streaming across the deep valley and crawling filmily athwart the pines that climbed in serried battalions towards the gleaming snow.

"It is. In fact, I scarcely think I could improve on it; but it was not the view that kept me here," he said.

"No?" and Grace's voice was a trifle harder still.

Esmond looked at her steadily. "I had," he said, "the pleasure of seeing you coming down the ca?on – a little while ago."

His meaning was very plain, but he had given her an opportunity, for Grace had noticed that the cedar he stood near was great of girth and the undergrowth was trampled at one side of it. The man winced as she moved forward a little and glanced at it.

"I suppose," she asked, with quiet contempt, "that was why you thought it necessary to lead your horse out of the trail?"

Esmond, who had not expected affairs to take this turn, fumed inwardly. He was not quite sure why he had stayed there at all, but in his indignation he had become possessed by a vague and very senseless notion that a friendly remonstrance might be admissible, and, at least, afford him an opportunity for expressing his opinion of Ingleby. He was, of course, by no means a clever man, and angry at the time, or he would never have made that mistake; but his purpose was not altogether a base or selfish one. Grace Coulthurst, who was of his own station, must, he felt, be guarded against herself, and, since there was apparently nobody else available, he undertook the task. He became vindictive, however, when he realized that it would be difficult to carry out his commendable purpose.

"I think we need not go into that," he said. "Perhaps I did wrong, but it would only lead us away from the topic I want to talk about. Has it occurred to you that unless you put a stop to his presumption that miner fellow might get ideas into his head?"

Grace appreciated his courage in persisting, especially in view of the result of her previous thrust; but while she was not exactly sure of her sentiments towards Ingleby, he was, at least, the man who loved her, which counted a good deal in his favour. Esmond, she was quite aware, chiefly loved himself.

"Isn't that a trifle vague? What ideas do you mean?" she asked.

Esmond stood silent a moment or two, for his task was becoming unpleasantly difficult; but his bitterness against Ingleby rashly determined him to go on.

"I should prefer not to be more definite – and I'm not sure that it is necessary," he said. "Still, one might, perhaps, venture to warn you that the miners and my troopers, who, of course, have eyes, have already found an entertaining topic."

Grace Coulthurst's face grew a trifle colourless with anger, though she did not quite believe him.

"So you can listen while your policemen discuss – me?" she said.

"No," said Esmond unguardedly. "I would have risked my commission by thrashing the man I heard mention you."

A sardonic gleam crept into Grace's eyes. "Then, since you haven't done it, it is a little difficult to understand how you could be aware of what they are saying."

The man's embarrassment was evident, but it lasted only a moment, and he made a little abrupt gesture.

"I'm no match for you at this game, Grace," he said. "Of course, I'm taking a great liberty, but if you think a little you might find some excuse for me."

"For playing the spy on me?"

Esmond's lips set tight, and the bronze in his cheeks took on a still deeper tinge; but there was, as is usually the case, good as well as evil in him, and he was to some extent endeavouring just then to discharge what he considered a duty.

"I suppose I deserve it, and I am in your hands, but you can be angry with me afterwards if you will let me speak. We are old friends, and I feel that implies a certain responsibility. There is nobody else in this country except the major who would concern himself about you, and he, with all due respect to him, seldom sees beyond his nose."

There was a suggestion of genuine solicitude in his voice now, but Grace was, unfortunately, far from being conciliated.

"And you possess the faculty of seeing very much farther?"

Esmond made a little deprecatory gesture. "In this case, at least. You see, I know the presumption of those half-trained fellows of Ingleby's description, and I would like to save you the unpleasantness I think you are courting. There are times when one has to be candid. The fellow is quite capable of fancying you are in love with him."

He stopped, for there was a red spot of anger in Grace Coulthurst's cheek, which was otherwise curiously colourless.

"I think," she said incisively, "you had better change the topic. You have gone quite far enough."

Esmond gazed at her with evident appreciation. She had never seemed so alluring to him as she did just then while she stood very straight in front of him quivering a little with ill-suppressed anger. In fact, he felt very far from sure that he was not in love with her. Still, he persisted.

"It would have been less preposterous had he been a man with any education or nicety of feeling; but you have even to take his antecedents on trust, and a good many of the men here have a somewhat astonishing history."

Grace stopped him with a little imperious gesture. "I have heard enough," she said. "In fact, a good deal more than I shall probably ever forgive you. Besides, it was scarcely advisable of you to allude to other people's antecedents. One would have fancied that you had a better memory."

Esmond closed one of his hands, for he had almost hoped that Grace had not heard of the little discreditable affair in England. The contempt in her face made the fact that he had deceived himself unpleasantly plain.

"I scarcely think that is quite what one would have expected from you," he said. "A little charity is always advisable – and you may find it indispensable."

He swung himself into the saddle, and Grace went on alone, well content that he had gone, but nevertheless wondering whether she had ventured too far on Ingleby's behalf, for she realized that the rejoinder which had closed the discussion was not altogether excusable. She did not care to ask herself why Esmond's insinuations should have stirred her to an indignation that was stronger than her sense of what was fitting.

Esmond rode back to the outpost furious, and, since he could not retaliate on the girl, decided to seize the first opportunity for injuring the man, and he had reasons for believing that one would shortly be offered him. It is, however, probable that he would never have profited by it had not the girl stung him to vindictive passion. It was, though she was not aware of it, by no means a kindness Grace Coulthurst had done Ingleby.

XV
INGLEBY STRIKES IT RICH

It was late at night, but the red light of a fire flickered among the trunks where a creek swirled across the bottom of the valley, and Leger, who had just flung fresh branches upon it, leaned against the rude windlass at the head of the adjacent shaft. The roar of the river seemed to have sunk to a lower tone that night, and save for its dull reverberations there was deep silence among the pines across which the fleecy mists were drifting. It seemed to emphasize the harshness of the persistent clink of the pick which broke sharply though the stillness of the night.

Leger was stiff in every joint, and his limbs were aching from a long day's labour. He was also wet with the dew and now and then shivered a little, for the night air was chilled by the snow; but he scarcely noticed this as he listened to the sound of his comrade's toil below. He had not Ingleby's incentive, but it is probable that very few men would have concerned themselves much about weariness or discomfort just then. The shaft they had painfully driven had at last reached, or was very close upon, the ancient river bed, and now any stroke of the pick might make the result of their labour plain to them. It might be disastrous failure or a competence for the rest of their days, and the oldest prospector could have done no more than guess at the probabilities. Placer mining is a gamble in which, in the Northwest, at least, man stakes the utmost toil of his body, and often his life, on the chance of finding a very uncertain quantity of the precious metal.

At last the tension grew almost unendurable, and Leger, worn-out as he was, felt his courage fail him. His body craved sleep, and he dreaded the answer to the question which had occupied him ceaselessly for the last few days. He felt that should it be unfavourable he could hardly face it then, and even the harrowing uncertainty was better than a negative.

"Come up, Walter. I'm getting cold," he said.

There was a harsh laugh below, and a voice that sounded strained and hollow rose from the shaft.

"Then sit by the fire!" it said.

"Come up!" said Leger sharply. "If you must have the truth, I've borne about as much as you could expect of me to-day. We'll probably know the result soon enough."

"I can't wait," said Ingleby.

Leger said nothing further. He could not leave his comrade there, and he sat down by the windlass with his fingers trembling a little on the pipe he did not light. The faint sighing in the fir tops had died away, and only the noise of man's petty activity ran on, discordant and, it almost seemed, presumptuous. A half-moon hung above the shoulder of a towering peak wrapped in a mantle of everlasting white, the river twinkled in the gloom below; but it counted for nothing with Leger that earth and sky were steeped in a profound serenity. He was sensible only of the jar of the pick below.

In the meanwhile Ingleby, stripped to the waist, toiled feverishly by the light of a few blazing resin-knots in the narrow pit. His hands were bleeding, and the dew of effort dripped from him while he swung with the clinking pick like an automaton. He was grimed with mire, his long boots were sodden, and the drip from the shaft side splashed upon his naked shoulders, while his face was grim and grey with the weariness he did not feel. At last there was a sharp ringing as the pick went down, and while his raw hands tingled he flung the implement aside.

"Bed rock or a boulder!" he said hoarsely. "Send the bucket down."

It was a bald announcement, but that was not a time for speech, and Leger fully realized the significance of it. The crazy windlass rattled, and the rude receptacle of deer-hide stretched on a willow-hoop came down. Ingleby filled it with the shovel, and then pressed down a further load of sand and soil and pebbles with quivering hands.

"Heave!" he said sharply.

The bucket went up, and it was with a little grim smile Ingleby struggled into his rent shirt, though the operation cost him at least a minute. There was, he knew, a necessity for keeping his head now, and, holding himself in hand by an effort, he crawled slowly up the notched fir-pole lowered into the little shaft. Then he and Leger, saying nothing, proceeded to the creek with the heavy bucket and a big indurated basin. Ingleby went in knee-deep, with the firelight flickering on him, and with a twirl of his hands washed out half the lighter contents of the basin. Then he glanced at Leger.

"Shall we try it now?" he said.

"No," said Leger, a trifle hoarsely. "Put in the rest."

Ingleby emptied into a little heap what was left in the basin, after which he filled it again, and repeated the process several times while Leger stood still upon the bank watching him. Neither said anything, though there was a strained expectancy in their faces that showed the importance of the result. At last there was nothing left in the bucket, and Leger's hands shook as he scooped up the little heap upon the bank and flung it into the basin.

"Get it done!" he said.

Ingleby stepped back into the stream, and was busy some little time tilting and twirling the basin, and now and then stirring its contents with his hand. Then he very carefully let the water run away, and waded with a curious slowness to the bank. He stood there for a tense moment while he and Leger looked at each other, until the latter, turning, stirred the crackling fire.

"Pour it out!" he said hoarsely. "I can't stand much more of this."

Ingleby shook out the contents of the basin on a little strip of hide, and for a moment or two could scarcely discern anything, for his heart throbbed painfully and his sight was a trifle dim. Then he made out that there were little yellow grains scattered about the hide, and when he stirred the fragments of stone and pebbles with his fingers larger particles of the same hue became visible. He straightened himself slowly with a little gasp, and the blood surged to his face.

"I almost think – we've struck it rich!" he said.

Leger said nothing whatever, for there are times when it is difficult to express one's feelings articulately, and he stood quite still in the firelight blinking at Ingleby. Then he sat down, and scraping the precious grains into a little bag poised it in his hand.

"There will be no need for any more baking – at this rate. We'll go home and tell Hetty," he said.

"She's asleep," said Ingleby, whose voice shook a little.

"Perhaps she is," said Leger, with a curious smile. "I fancy I shall rest to-night."



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