Delilah of the Snows
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"You know my opinions."
"Oh, yes," said Leger smiling. "Most of your acquaintances do. It would be a little astonishing if they didn't. Still, you have a few effete aristocratic notions clinging about you. Why shouldn't we drive out on Sunday, with the traditional crimson neckties and clay pipes if it pleases us, even if our presence is no great improvement to the scenery, when it ought to be clear that we can't go any other day? Besides, what is a man of your opinions doing with those luxuries yonder?"
He pointed to Ingleby's tennis flannels and black swimming costume which hung behind the door. Ingleby laughed.
"Are cleanliness and decency quite out of keeping with democratic views? I'm fond of swimming, and the only place where I can get into the river now is the big pool beside the Thorndale road. It's a trifle public even at seven A. M., but my landlady objects to my bathing here, and since I can't afford the necessary apparatus I don't blame her. She says it brings the plaster off the lower ceilings, and I really think it does."
"There is the establishment provided by a beneficent municipality."
"Where they charge you sixpence."
Leger nodded. "Sixpence," he said, "is certainly a consideration. Still, there are days on which one can obtain a sufficiency of water for half the sum. The plunge bath is, I believe, forty feet long."
"It is the quality and not the quantity to which I object."
Leger shook his head reproachfully. "I'm afraid those effete prejudices are still very strong in you. You play tennis, too. How much does that cost you?"
"It's a question I'm not going to answer," and Ingleby flushed hotly. "Anyway, I've had full value for the money."
Leger smiled in a curious fashion as he looked at him, but he changed the subject and pointed to the pamphlet on the floor. "What do you think of the new apostle's speeches?"
A little sparkle crept into Ingleby's eyes. "They are," he said slowly, "almost a revelation. Even on paper one feels the passion and the truth in them. The man's a genius, and you have to believe in him. I could fancy him doing anything he liked with you if you came in contact with him."
"It is not quite out of the question. It was an Oregon paper that first printed what he had to say, and I believe that State is on the Pacific slope where you are going. You evidently still mean to go?"
"Yes," said Ingleby shortly. "What chance is there for me – or any of us – here?"
Leger threw up the window and looked into the street. The lights of a big gin palace flared down in the narrow gap, and a stream of perspiring humanity flowed along beneath them, slatternly women, and men with flattened chests and shoulders bent by unhealthy toil, jostling one another. The garish brilliancy touched their pallid faces, and the harsh murmur of their voices came up hollowly between the tall houses with the reek of gas fumes and other confused odours.There were many poor in Hoddam, and in hot weather bargains were to be had in the neighbouring market at that hour; while trade was bad just then, and a little lower down the street shadowy figures were flitting into a pawnbroker's door. Leger's face grew a trifle weary as he watched them.
"At the best it is a poor one," he said. "One feels inclined to wonder if – this – is to last forever."
"It's too big a question. Give it up, and come out with me."
"And let the powers that be have it all their own way?" said Leger.
"I'm afraid neither you nor I can prevent them. Besides, from what this American says, there seem to be people with grievances out yonder, too. A good many of them, in fact. I expect there are everywhere."
Leger smiled. "I wonder," he said, "whether that has just dawned on you. Still, I'm not so strong as you are – and there's Hetty. You'll have to go alone, but you'll leave at least two people behind you who will think of you often."
He stopped abruptly, for there was a patter of feet on the stairway, and Ingleby rose as the door swung open and a girl came in. She carried a basket, and appeared a trifle breathless, for the stairs were steep, but her dress was tasteful, and most men would have admitted that she was pretty. She took the chair Ingleby drew out, and smiled at him.
"Do you know that the people downstairs would hardly let me in?" she said. "You seem to be very well looked after, but I knew you wouldn't mind me. I've come for Tom."
Ingleby laughed, but it was a trifle uneasily, for he was young, and by no means the girl's equal in the matter of self-possession. In fact, one had only to look at Hetty Leger to recognize that she was capable, and could be, on occasion, a trifle daring, for there was courage as well as cheerfulness in her clear blue eyes, which met one's glance steadily from under dark and unusually straight brows.
"You have been marketing?" he said.
Hetty nodded. "Yes," she answered. "You can, if you know how to go about it, get provisions cheap after ten o'clock on Saturday night, and I have had the usual difficulty in making ends meet this week. Wouldn't it be a relief to live in a country where there was no rent to pay and you take a spade and grow what you want to eat?"
"Ingleby's going where they do something of that kind, though I believe they now and then dig up gold and silver, too," said her brother.
Hetty, for no ostensible reason, pulled up one of her little cotton gloves, which did not seem to need it, and then looked quietly at Ingleby.
"Then you are going away?" she asked.
Her brother nodded. "Yes," he said. "To the Pacific slope of North America. He was just suggesting that we should come, too."
Hetty sat silent for several moments.
"Well?" she said at last.
"I told him it couldn't be thought of. For one thing, it would cost a good deal of money."
Hetty glanced swiftly at Ingleby, and an older man might have noticed the suppressed intentness in her face.
"I'm afraid Tom is right – though I wish you could come," he said. "When I mentioned it I didn't remember that he isn't very strong and that it must be a very rough country for an Englishwoman. You wouldn't care to live in a log hut forty miles from anywhere, Hetty?"
The girl now looked straight in front of her. "No, I suppose not; but as I shall never get the chance, that doesn't matter. Well, I think you are wise to go. There are already more of us here than there seems to be any use for."
Ingleby almost fancied that there was something slightly unusual in her voice; but her face was impassive, and she rose with a little smile.
"It is getting late, Tom," she said. "You are both going to the demonstration to-morrow?"
Ingleby said they were, and Hetty waited a moment, apparently doing something to her hat, when her brother, who took the basket, passed out of the room. She had a pretty figure, and the pose she fell into with one rounded arm raised and a little hand busy with the hatpin was not unbecoming. She was also on excellent terms with Ingleby, who leaned against the mantel watching her until she shook the hat a trifle impatiently, when he stepped forward.
"If you want the thing put straight, let me try," he said.
Then, to his astonishment, the hand he had laid upon the hat was snatched away, and next moment Hetty, with a red spot in her cheek, stood at least a yard away from him. She had moved so quickly that he was not quite sure how she had got there.
"Do you think I am less particular than – any one else?"
"No," answered Ingleby contritely, with a trace of confusion. "Certainly not. I would never have offered, only we are such old friends; and I think that when you brought that hat home after buying it you let me put it on for you."
Hetty's face was still a trifle flushed, but she laughed. "That," she said, "was a long time ago; but, after all, we needn't quarrel. In fact, I let Tom go on because I had something to ask you."
"Of course, anything I can do – "
Hetty smiled sardonically. "Oh, yes, I know! Still, it's really very little – or I wouldn't ask you. Just to look after Tom to-morrow. Now, he has in most ways a good deal more sense than you – "
"I can believe it," said Ingleby. "It really isn't very astonishing."
"Still, you are stronger than he is, and he hasn't been very well since he took up the night work at the mill. If there should be any trouble you will look after him?"
Ingleby promised; and, hearing her brother reascending the stairway, the girl swiftly flitted out of the room, while Ingleby sat down to consider, with the warmth still in his face, for he was not quite pleased with himself, and, as a natural result, a trifle vexed with Hetty. It was true, he admitted, that the girl had made a somewhat enticing picture as she stood with face partly turned from him and one hand raised to her head; but it was, he decided, merely the brotherly kindness he had always felt for her which had prompted his offer, and it was unpleasant to feel that he had done anything that might hurt her self-respect. Still, he could not understand why this should be so, since she had undoubtedly permitted him to put the hat on and admire her in it not so very long ago, and he failed to discover any reason why she should, in the meanwhile, have grown stricter in her views as to what was fitting. Nor could he understand her question, which suggested that she considered herself entitled to at least as much deference as a person she preferred not to name.
Then, remembering that most young women were subject to unaccountable fancies now and then, he dismissed the matter as of no importance, after all, and once more busied himself with the American's speeches. They were certainly stirring, and made the more impression because he was unacquainted with Western hyperbole; but there was in them, as wiser men had admitted, the ring of genuine feeling, as well as a logical vindication of democratic aspirations. Ingleby was young, and his blood warmed as he read; while Hetty Leger, as she walked home through the hot streets of the still noisy town with her brother, was for once curiously silent, and almost morose, though, considering the life she led, she was usually a cheerful girl.
It was not much quieter on the following afternoon when Ingleby, who, partly as a protest against the decrees of conventionality, wore a soft cap and his one suit of light summer tweed, met Leger on the doorstep of the Committee rooms of a certain Society. Several big wagonettes were already drawn up, and men with pallid faces sat in them, neatly attired for the most part, though somewhat to Ingleby's annoyance several of them smoked clay pipes and wore brilliant neckties and hard felt hats. He was quite aware that it was unreasonable of him to object to this, but, nevertheless, he could not help it. They were, however, quiet and orderly enough, and indulged in no more than good-humoured badinage with the crowd that had assembled to see them off; but Ingleby felt inclined to protest when Leger led him to a place on the box-seat of the foremost vehicle, where a man was scattering leaflets among the crowd.
"Couldn't we sit anywhere else?" he asked. "It's a little conspicuous here."
Leger shook his head. "That can't be helped," he said. "It's the penalty of making speeches. You are considered one of the stalwarts now. There's no use in objecting to the result when you have been guilty of the cause, you know."
"I'll be especially careful another time," said Ingleby, with a little grimace. "In the meanwhile I'm ready to do anything you can reasonably expect of me."
Then there was a cracking of whips and a rattle of wheels, and the discordant notes of a cornet broke through the semi-ironical cheer; and, as they rolled across the river, which, foul with the refuse of tanneries and dye-works, crept out of the close-packed town, a man who sat on the bridge waved his hat to the leading driver.
"Take them straight to the lock-up, Jim," he said. "It will save everybody trouble, and what's the use of going round?"
Then they wound through dusky woods out of the hot valley, and down the long white road across a sun-baked moor, where the dust whirled behind them in a rolling cloud. However, the men in the foremost vehicle got little of it, and Ingleby felt that the drive would have been pleasant in different circumstances, as he watched the blue hills that rose in the dazzling distance, blurred with heat. Only one white fleecy cloud flecked the sweep of cerulean, and the empty moor lay still under the drowsy silence of the Sunday afternoon. It seemed to him most unfitting that the harsh voices of his companions, the clatter of hoofs, and the doleful tooting of the cornet, should jar upon it. Then as they dipped into a hollow they came upon other travellers, all heading in the same direction, who hurled somewhat pointed jests at them as they passed; but these did not exactly resemble the men in the wagonettes. Their attire was by no means neat, and they had not in the least the appearance of men about to discharge a duty, while several of them carried heavy sticks.
"I wonder what they mean to do with those bludgeons," said Ingleby a trifle uneasily.
Leger laughed. "I have no doubt they would come in handy for killing pheasants. There are, I believe, a good many young ones down in the Dene. Of course, the Committee could very well dispense with the company of those fellows, but we can't prevent any man from asserting his rights as a Briton."
"That," said Ingleby, grimly, "is in one respect almost a pity. The difficulty is that somebody will get the credit of our friends' doings."
"Of course!" and Leger laughed again. "You can't be a reformer for nothing; you have to take the rough with the smooth – though there is, as a rule, very little of the latter."
Ingleby said nothing further; but it dawned on him, as it had, indeed, done once or twice before, that even a defective system of preserving peace and order might be preferable to none at all. Still, he naturally would not admit his misgivings, and said nothing until the wagonettes rolled into a little white village gay with flowers and girt about by towering beeches. The windows of an old grey house caught the sunlight and flashed among the trees, and, as the vehicles drew up, a trim groom on a splendid horse swept out through the gate of a clematis-covered lodge.
Then there was a hoarse cheer from a group of dilapidated and dusty loungers as the men swung themselves down outside the black-beamed hostelry which bore a coat-of-arms above its portal. They were unusually quiet, and Leger, who glanced at them, touched Ingleby's shoulder.
"They'll do their work," he said. "Still, I fancy we are expected, and I'm not sure that I'd be sorry if we had the thing done, and were driving home again."