Harold Bindloss.

Delilah of the Snows



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"You felt yourself responsible then?" she suggested.

"No," said the man slowly. "I certainly didn't; though it's clear that I was. I don't think I felt anything except that – you – were in the rapid."

This was also evidently perfectly sincere, but he seemed to pull himself up abruptly, and laughed in a fashion that suggested embarrassment.

"You will not remember that little speech. It's not the kind of thing one is pleased with afterwards; but, in the circumstances, it was, perhaps, excusable," he said.

He gave her no opportunity for answering, but struck the cayuse, and they went on again. Still, Grace had noticed the tremor in his voice, and knew that he had meant exactly what he said. Nor was she displeased at it.

Then the thoughts and fancies which the moment of peril had galvanized into activity grew blurred again, and she was only sensible of the physical pain and weariness and an intolerable cold, as the man and beast stumbled on. Twice again they dipped to the river, which, however, scarcely rose to his knee, and after that there was only a sliding past of snow-dimmed trees, while by a grim effort she kept herself in the saddle. Then at last a light blinked in front of her through the filmy haze, the cayuse stopped, and Ingleby, it seemed, lifted her down. At least, she felt his arm about her, and then found herself standing beside him before the commissioner's dwelling without any very clear notion of how she came there. It was only afterwards she remembered, with tingling cheeks, how she had seen a miner walk away with a one-hundred-and-forty-pound bag of flour. Then they went into a lighted room together, and stood still, gasping, a moment, with a distressful dizziness creeping over both of them. Ingleby apparently roused himself with an effort, and threw the door open.

"Keep away from the stove," he said, a trifle faintly. "There's a chair yonder."

He stood in the entrance, white with snow, looking at her. The blood was in her head now, and a most unpleasant tingling ran through her half-frozen limbs, but Ingleby was a trifle grey in face.

"You can shut the door in another minute or two. I may come back to-morrow to make sure you are none the worse?" he asked.

Grace looked at him with a smile. "You can't go away now."

Ingleby turned and glanced at the whirling haze that swept athwart the light in the veranda.

"I'm afraid I must," he said. "It would be difficult to get off the trail as far as the bakery, and there is apparently nothing I can do for you here. Somebody lighted the fire?"

"One of the police troopers," said Grace. "That doesn't matter. It is snowing harder than ever. You can't go away."

She had brushed aside the dictates of conventionality, and the blood was in her face and a curious sparkle in her eyes. They had been close to death together a little while ago, and it was a long way to the bakery. Still, it was not this fact alone that impelled her to bid him stay.

"I'm afraid I must," he said slowly, as with an effort.

"You see, there is something I have to talk over with Leger. He expects me. Besides, it would be advisable to send back any of the boys who may be there to see what has become of the major."

Then he turned abruptly, and Grace, who had scarcely remembered the major, laughed curiously when he went out of the door. She knew now, at least, exactly what she felt for Ingleby, and had he stayed and declared boldly what his wishes were, it is probable that Coulthurst would have been astonished when he came home. Ingleby, however, had gone away, and the girl was left standing, flushed in face, with the melting snow dripping from her, beside the stove, which she remembered with some little satisfaction was precisely what he had told her not to do. Then with a little disdainful gesture she swept into the adjoining room.

XXIII
INGLEBY LOSES HIS HEAD

A keen frost had followed the snow, but there was warmth and a brightness in the little inner room of the Gold Commissioner's house. Its log walls and double casements kept out the stinging cold, the stove snapped and crackled, and a big lamp diffused a cheerful light. Ingleby, who had just come in, sat with his back to the logs, with Coulthurst and Grace opposite him. Grace was in the shadow, but the light shone full upon the major's weather-darkened face.

"Grace," he said, "is, as you can see, none the worse, but it was a fortunate thing you turned up when you did. Very much obliged to you for taking such good care of her."

It was evident to Ingleby that Coulthurst did not know what had nearly happened at Alison's Sault. He had, in fact, already had reasons for surmising that Miss Coulthurst did not think it advisable to tell her father everything.

"I'm not sure it wouldn't have been better if I had not met Miss Coulthurst, sir," he said. "In that case she would probably have gone back, and waited with you until daylight, which would have saved you both a good deal of anxiety. Of course, when we made up our minds to push on, I had no idea the snow would be so bad."

"It's questionable whether she could have found the way. I could see nothing whatever, and scarcely fancy I would have got here if two of the older prospectors hadn't come with me. In fact, I scarcely remember a worse night anywhere, and one result of it is an unpleasant twinge in the shoulder. I never used to get anything of that kind. I suppose I'm getting old."

It occurred to Ingleby that Coulthurst was certainly looking older than he had done in England. There was a good deal of grey in his hair, his cheeks were hollower, and there were deepening lines about his eyes. Ingleby felt sorry for the man, who had served his nation for so small a reward, that after a life of hardship he must bear the burden still, and yet the fact was in one respect encouraging. Since Coulthurst's means were scanty, there was less probability of his objecting too strenuously to the successful miner who aspired to his daughter's hand; and, though not so rich as the one Ingleby had thrown away, Tomlinson's claim was yielding well. He, however, said nothing, and Coulthurst went on again.

"A devil of a night! It would be hard on any one in the ranges. I wonder where Tomlinson could have gone?"

"One would naturally expect him to head for the settlements," said Ingleby indifferently.

"He left no trail behind him if he did. At least, Esmond's troopers couldn't find any. There was, however, a good deal it is difficult to understand about the affair. One point that would strike anybody is how Tomlinson got away from here without being seen by Esmond, who turned up almost as he must have gone off the veranda."

"It really is a trifle hard to understand, sir."

They looked at each other steadily for a moment or two, and then Ingleby could have fancied that there was a twinkle in Coulthurst's eyes.

"Perhaps it was as well he got away after all," he said. "Appearances were against him, and it might have gone hard with him; but I can't quite bring myself to believe that Tomlinson did the thing."

Then Grace, who laughed softly, broke in. "Of course," she said, "you tried very hard."

A moment later there was a tramp of feet outside, and the major, who passed into the outer room, came back in a minute or two. He smiled at Ingleby somewhat drily.

"It isn't news of Tomlinson," he said. "Noel has brought the Frenchman over. They've been burrowing into each other's claims, and if I can't straighten the thing out they'll probably settle their differences in their own way with the shovel. I shall probably be half an hour over it, but don't go."

He went out, and left Ingleby with Grace. She looked none the worse for the journey she had made the previous night, and was dressed with unusual simplicity. Ingleby did not know what the fabric was, or whether the colour was blue or grey, nor did it occur to him that its severe simplicity was the result of skill; but he noticed that it enhanced the girl's beauty and added a suggestion of stateliness to her figure, of which Miss Coulthurst was probably quite aware. She looked up at him with a little smile when a murmur of excited voices rose from the adjoining room.

"They will, of course, both be disgusted with his decision, whatever it is," she said. "A Gold Commissioner has really a good deal to put up with."

"Major Coulthurst's position is naturally a responsible one," said Ingleby.

Grace laughed. "With a very disproportionate emolument – which is a point one has to consider after all. I'm not sure it wouldn't have been better if he had been a prospector."

Ingleby's pulse throbbed a trifle faster. He had no great knowledge of the gentler sex; but he was not a fool, and it seemed to him that the girl had not spoken altogether without a purpose.

"I don't think you really believe that," he said.

"Perhaps I don't," and Grace appeared to reflect. "At least, I suppose I shouldn't have done so once, but, of course, a prospector who has done sufficiently well for himself can take any place that pleases him in Canada."

"Still, you don't think that right."

"It would naturally depend a good deal upon the prospector."

Ingleby sat still, almost too still, in fact, for a moment or two; but he could not hide the little gleam in his eyes. He had, it is true, democratic views, that is, so far as everybody but Grace Coulthurst was concerned; but he was quite willing to admit that she was a being of a very different and much higher order than his own. That added to the attraction she had for him; and now she had suggested that they were, after all, more or less on the same level. It was almost disconcerting. He did not know what to make of it; but while he pondered over it she flashed a quick glance at him.

"I wonder if you know how Tomlinson got away?" she asked.

It was apparently an astonishingly abrupt change of subject, but when Ingleby, who had grown wiser in the meanwhile, afterwards recalled that night, he was less sure that it might not have been, after all, part of an instinctive continuity of policy. He had discovered by then that even very charming and ingenuous women not infrequently have a policy.

"I don't mind admitting that I do – to you," he said.

Grace was pleased and showed it. It is gratifying to feel that anybody has complete confidence in one, and the possession of a common secret of some importance is not infrequently a bond between the two who share it. Ingleby realized this and felt with a curious gratification that the girl recognized it as clearly as he did. Still, she had said nothing that could lead him to believe so.

"Then you no doubt know where he went?" she asked.

"I naturally know that, too."

Grace smiled. "That means you helped him to get away. Are you wise in admitting that you were an accessory? Captain Esmond is a friend of ours."

Ingleby made her a little whimsical inclination, though there was a look in his eyes which was not quite in keeping with it.

"I am," he said, "quite safe in your hands."

It was a fortunate answer, and worth the more because he was not usually a very tactful person, as the girl was aware. She was afflicted by a craving for influence, and it was not the adulation of men she wanted, but an insight into their thoughts and purposes, and the privilege of controlling them. Thus Ingleby, who did not know it, could not have done more wisely than he did in admitting that he had an unquestioning confidence in her. He was, as she had discovered some time ago, in spite of his simplicity, a man capable of bold conceptions and resolute execution, the type of man, in fact, that usually came to the front in Western Canada. She had the intelligence to realize and weigh all this, and yet there was a strain of passion in her which he had awakened.

"I almost think you are," she said. "How is the new claim progressing?"

"Reasonably well. In fact, although Sewell is apparently getting rich on the one I threw away, I can't complain. What he makes will, at least, be spent on what he thinks is doing good, while I want mine for my own selfish purposes."

"They are necessarily selfish?"

Ingleby laughed, though the little glow crept into his eyes again. "Well," he said, "I suppose so. You see, a third-share in Tomlinson's claim is not of itself of much value to me. It only provides the money to make a start with."

Grace nodded comprehendingly. He was crude in his mode of expression, but she understood him.

"That implies a going on?" she asked.

"It does," and Ingleby laughed. "There is room, I think, in this Province for men who will take big risks, and boldly stake what they have on the advancement of its prosperity. I'm not sure there is any reason I shouldn't be one of them."

"And gather in the money? More than you are entitled to? Haven't you been changing your opinions?"

Ingleby made a little whimsical gesture, which alone sufficed to show that he had, as the girl expressed it to herself, expanded.

"I suppose I have – that is, I have modified them. One has to now and then," he said. "Still, you see, the men I mean don't grind money out of others. They create it. They take hold of the wilderness, bridge the rivers, drive the roads through it, and the ranches and the orchards follow. Every man who makes a new home in the waste owes a little to them."

"Still, all that is not done easily. One must have the faith – and, as you suggest, the money with which to make the start. Even then the ladder is hard to climb."

Ingleby involuntarily glanced down at his hands, and the girl noticed the scars on them, which, however, did not repel her. She also noticed the spareness of his frame, the curious transparency of his darkened skin, and the brightness of his eyes, all significant of an intensity of bodily effort. The man had been purged of grossness, moral and physical, by toil in icy water and scorching sun, and the light that shone out through his eyes was the brighter for the hardships he had undergone. He had gained more than vigour while he swung the shovel and gripped the drill with hands that bled from the blundering hammer stroke, after other men's work was done. It is possible that he had also gained more than tenacity of will.

"Still," he said slowly, "I think I shall manage it."

Grace felt that this was likely. She realized the purpose which animated him, and there suddenly came upon her a desire that he should tell it to her. She knew that he would do so when he felt the time was ripe; but she wished to hear it now, or, at least, to see how far his reticence would carry him. She leaned forward a little and looked him steadily in the eyes.

"It will be a struggle," she said. "Is it worth while?"

Ingleby stirred uneasily beneath her gaze, for it seemed to him that she had brushed aside every distinction there might be between them. He did not know how she had conveyed this impression, but he felt it. She was also very close to him. As she moved, the hem of her skirt had touched him, and he felt the blood tingle in his veins.

"It would be worth dying for," he said.

Grace laughed in a curious fashion. "The money, and the envy of less fortunate men?"

Ingleby stood up suddenly, though he scarcely knew why he did so, or how it came about that he yielded with scarcely a struggle now to the impulse that swept him away. It is, however, possible that Grace Coulthurst, who had only looked at him, understood the reason.

"Success would be worth nothing without another thing," he said. "Like what I have already, the money wouldn't be mine, you see. I am not poor now – but I should never have held on here by any strength of purpose that was in me alone. I borrowed it from another person."

He stopped abruptly, half-afraid, wondering what had happened to him that the truth should be wrung from him in this fashion. Then he saw the clear rose colour creep into the girl's cheeks and the sudden softening of her eyes, and his courage came back to him. He had ventured too far to be silent now.

"Yes," he said, "there is somebody I owe everything to – and it's you."

Grace do longer looked at him, but sat still now with hands clasped on her knees, and Ingleby felt the silence becoming intolerable. There was still a murmur of voices in the adjoining room, and he could hear the wind outside moaning among the pines.

"I suppose I have offended past forgiveness. I did not mean to tell you this to-night," he said.

Grace looked up for a moment. "Oh," she said softly, "I think I knew – and you see I am not blaming you."

Ingleby quivered visibly, and his face grew hot; but while the desire to kneel beside her and seize the clasped hands was almost irresistible, he stood still, looking gravely down upon her, which was, perhaps, not wise of him.

"You knew?" he said.

"Is that so difficult to understand, after what happened at Alison's Sault?"

Ingleby bent down and took one of her hands, but he did it very gently, though the signs of the fierce restraint he laid upon himself were in his face.

"I should never have told you, Grace – I lost my head," he said. "Still, the one hope that has led me so far, and will, I think, lead me farther, has been that I might – one day when the time was ripe – induce you to listen, and not send me away. Now it must be sufficient that you are not angry. I can take no promise from you."

"Is it worth so little?" Grace said softly.

Ingleby's grasp tightened on her hand until it grew almost painful. "It would," he said, "be worth everything to me, but I dare not take it now. What I am, you know – but the claim is yielding well – and I only want a little time. Until I can ask Major Coulthurst for you boldly you must be free."

Grace looked up at him. "And you?"

"I," said Ingleby with a little grave smile, "was your very willing bondsman ever so long ago."

The hot flush had faded from his face, and the girl swept her skirt aside, and made room for him beside her. There was, she knew, no fear of his again breaking through the restraint he had laid upon himself. She was, however, not altogether pleased at this, for while it was evident that his attitude was warranted, the self-command which now characterized it was not quite what she had expected. It scarcely appeared natural under the circumstances.

"Well," she said, "we will let it be so, and I have something to tell you. I am going to Vancouver for the winter. In fact, I should have left already but for the snow."

Ingleby started visibly. "You are going away?"

"Yes," said Grace, with a trace of dryness in her smile; "is that very dreadful? You will go away in due time, too. While you struggle for what you think will buy my favour, I must wait patiently."

"I suppose I have deserved it," and Ingleby winced. "Still, it will be horribly hard to let you go. It is a good deal to know that you are here even when I may not see you."

Grace smiled. "Well," she said, "if that would afford you any great satisfaction, is there any reason why you should not go to Vancouver too? Most of the placer miners do."

Ingleby's glance at her suggested that the notion had not occurred to him. Regular work at the mine would be out of the question until the spring came round again, and already several of the men were talking of leaving the valley. He could also readily afford to spend a few months in Vancouver now. Still, there was one insuperable obstacle.

"If I had only kept my claim!" he said. "It is horribly unfortunate I let it go."

"How does that affect the question?"

"I made a compact with Tomlinson to hold his claim for him."

Once more the colour crept into Grace's face. "You do not mean to let that stop you when there are men you could hire to do what the law requires?"

"You don't seem to understand," and there was a trace of astonishment in Ingleby's eyes. "One could not depend absolutely upon them, and I made a bargain with Tomlinson. That claim is worth everything to him and his mother – I think it is – back in Oregon."

The flush grew plainer in Grace's cheek. She was a trifle imperious, and now her will had clashed with one that was as resolute as it. She was, however, sensible that she had blundered.

"Those men could do almost as much as you could, which would, after all, be very little just now," she said. "I never meant that you should risk the claim falling in."

"They might fall sick, or get hurt."

"And that might happen to you."

"I should, at least, have kept my word to Tomlinson," said Ingleby gravely.

Grace was too proud to persist. He was right, of course, but the fact that he would sooner part from her than incur the slightest risk of breaking faith with Tomlinson had nevertheless its sting. That, however, she would not show.

"Then I suppose I must not complain," she said. "You evidently have no intention of doing so."

Ingleby made a little gesture. "It will be hard – but it can't be helped," he replied. "As you said, I must go away too one day. Still, I think that I, at least, will feel by and by that it was all worth while."

Then there was a tramp of feet in the adjoining room, and he raised the hand he held and just touched it with his lips. It was not what Grace would have expected from him, but she noticed that he did not do it awkwardly.



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