Harold Bindloss.

Delilah of the Snows



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"That is all I ask until I have won my spurs," he said. "Just now I am only the squire of low degree."

Grace said nothing, for the door opened and the major came in.

XXIV
THE UNEXPECTED HAPPENS

It was a bitterly cold night, and Hetty Leger sat close to the fire which crackled on the big hearth in the bakery shanty. It flung an uncertain radiance and pungent aromatic odours about the little room, but there was no other light. Kerosene is unpleasantly apt to impart its characteristic flavour to provisions when jolted for leagues in company with them on the same pack-saddle, and the bringing of stores of any kind into the Green River country was then a serious undertaking. Tom Leger sat by the little table, and Sewell lay upon a kind of ottoman ingeniously extemporized out of spruce-twigs and provision bags.

It was significant that they were assembled in what had been Hetty's private apartment, for the bakery had grown, and there were two other rooms attached to it now. Leger had also struck gold a little while ago, and there was no longer any necessity for Hetty to continue baking, though she did so. She said she had grown used to it, and would sooner have something to do; but it had seemed to Leger that while everything was done with her customary neatness and system there was a change in her, and he fancied she did her work more to keep herself occupied than because she took pleasure in it. It had not been so once. In fact, the change had only become perceptible after Ingleby left the bakery; but Leger was wise in some respects and made no sign that he noticed this.

On that particular evening Hetty had not displayed her usual tranquillity of temper, and she turned to her brother with a little shiver.

"Can't you put on some more wood? It's disgustingly cold," she said. "If I'd known they had weather like this here I'd have stayed in Vancouver."

Leger remembered that she had once professed herself perfectly contented with the Green River country, but he did not think it advisable to mention the fact. He rose and flung an armful of wood upon the fire, and then stood still smiling.

"You know you can go back there and stay through the winter, if you would like to," he said.

"That's nonsense," said Hetty. "How could I go myself? You and your friends haven't made everybody nice to everybody yet. I'm not going, anyway, and if you worry me I'll be cross."

She looked up sharply and saw that Sewell's face was unnaturally grave.

"Of course," she said, "you were grinning at Tom a moment ago. Still, I can't help it if I am a very little cross just now. It's the cold – and Tom spoiled the last batch of bread. It is cold, isn't it? If it hadn't been, we shouldn't have seen you."

"I don't know why you should seem so sure of that," said Sewell.

Hetty looked at him sharply. "Well," she said, "I am. You would have gone on to the major's. You know you would. What do you go there so often for?"

Sewell had occasionally found Hetty's questions disconcerting, but he saw that she expected an answer.

"I am rather fond of chess," he said.

Hetty smiled incredulously.

"That's rubbish!"

"The major, at least, likes a game, and after pulling him back into this wicked world from the edge of a gully one naturally feel that he owes him a little."

"You didn't pull him. It was Walter. Hadn't you better try again?"

Sewell appeared a trifle embarrassed, for he saw that Leger was becoming interested.

"It is, to some extent, my business to understand the habits of the ruling classes," he said reflectively. "You see, it's almost necessary. Unless I know a little about them, how can I persuade anybody how far they are beneath us, as I'm expected to do?"

Hetty laughed. "Well," she said, "you haven't tried to do anything of that kind for a long while now. Anyway, it seems to me that you knew a good deal about them before you ever saw Major Coulthurst. Of course, it's not my business, but if I were the major I'd make you tell me exactly what you were going there for."

Sewell apparently did not relish this, though he laughed. It happens occasionally that those most concerned in what is going on are the last to notice it, and it had not occurred to Coulthurst or Ingleby that Sewell spent his evenings at the Gold Commissioner's dwelling frequently. He had, however, not often met Ingleby there, and it was significant that neither of them ever mentioned Grace Coulthurst to the other. In any case, Sewell did not answer, and while they sat silent there was a tramp of feet outside and the corporal came in. He was a taciturn and somewhat unsociable man, but he smiled as he looked at Hetty and sat down where the rude chimney Tomlinson had built was between him and the one small window.

"It's a bitter night, and there's 'most four foot of snow on the range. I figured I'd look in to tell you it will be two or three days yet before you get the flour the folks at the settlements are sending up," he said. "A trooper has just come in with the mail, and he left the freighter and his beasts held up by the snow."

He stopped a moment, and looked at Leger somewhat curiously. "Somebody has just gone away?"

"No," said Leger. "We have had nobody here. We are expecting Ingleby, but he hasn't turned up yet."

"Quite sure he's not outside there?"

"It's scarcely likely. It's a little too cold for anybody to stay outside when he needn't. Ingleby would certainly come in."

"Well," said the corporal, "I guess I didn't see anybody, after all. It was quite dark, anyway, in among the trees. Winter's shutting down on us 'most a month before it should have done. It's kind of fortunate we sent the horses out when we did. I don't know what they wanted to bring them for. Nobody has any use for horses in this country."

It was evident that the worthy corporal was bent on getting away from what he felt to be an awkward topic, and Hetty laughed outright at his quite unnecessary delicacy.

"No," she said, "you know you saw somebody, and fancied it was one of the boys waiting to see me."

The corporal appeared embarrassed, but was wise enough not to involve himself further. "Well," he said, "when I was coming along the trail I saw a man slip in behind a cedar. That kind of struck me as not the usual thing, and I went round the other way to meet him. It was quite a big tree, and when I got around he wasn't there. You keep the dust you get for the bread in the shanty, Leger?"

"Yes," said Leger. "Most of the boys who come here know where it is. I really don't think there is any reason why they shouldn't, either."

"No," said the corporal reflectively, "I guess there isn't. I'll say that for them. Still, I did see somebody."

He contrived to glance round at the faces of the rest, unnoticed by any of them except Hetty, and was satisfied that they knew no more than he did. The corporal had been a long while a policeman, and had quick perceptions. He decided to look into the matter later.

"Well," he said, "I guess it's not worth worrying over."

He drew a little closer to the fire, and nobody said anything for a minute or two, though Hetty glanced towards the little window. The room was dim except when a blaze sprang up, and turning suddenly she stirred the fire, and then, for no very apparent reason, set herself to listen. The bush outside was very still, and she could hear the frost-dried snow fall softly from a branch. Then there was a sharp snapping of resinous wood in the fire, and it was not until that died away she heard a sound again. It was very faint, and suggested a soft crunching down of powdery snow. Nobody else seemed to hear it, not even the corporal, who was apparently examining a rent in his tunic just then, and she had almost persuaded herself that she had fancied it when she glanced towards the window again. A flickering blaze was roaring up the chimney now.

Then a little shiver ran through her, and closing her hands tight she stared at the glass in horror. A face was pressed against it, a drawn, grey face that seemed awry with pain. There was, however, something that reminded her of somebody in it, and she was about to cry out when she felt a hand laid restrainingly on her arm. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw that her brother was also gazing at the window, and then she knew suddenly to whom the face belonged. It had gone when she looked round again, and it was evident that neither Sewell nor the corporal had seen it. Unfortunately, it appeared very unlikely that the man outside could have seen the latter, and she knew that something must be done, or in another moment or two Prospector Tomlinson would walk into the arms of the policeman. Leger appeared incapable of suggesting anything and was gazing at her with apprehension in his eyes.

It was a singularly unpleasant moment. Hetty was aware that she and her brother owed Tomlinson a good deal, and, in any case, it would be particularly distasteful to see him arrested. She was also by no means certain that her brother and Sewell would permit it, and the corporal was a heavily-built man. It very seldom happens that a Northwest policeman lets a prisoner go; and Hetty was quite aware that the result of a struggle might be disastrous to everybody. She realized this in a flash, and then there was a sound of shuffling feet outside in the snow. They were approaching the doorway, and she knew it would be flung open in another moment or two. Then the inspiration came suddenly.

"There's somebody outside," she said, and laughed as she noticed the bewildered consternation in her brother's eyes. "If it's Ingleby I don't think I'll let him in."

Her voice was almost as steady as usual, and apparently Leger alone noticed the suggestion of strain in it, while next moment she crossed the room and threw the door open. It was narrow, however, and she stood carefully in the middle of it.

"You're not coming in, Walter, until you cut some wood," she said. "You never touched the axe the last time you came."

Hetty's nerve almost failed her during the next few moments, and she felt the throbbing of her heart while the man the others could not see blinked at her stupidly. She dare venture no plainer warning, and he was apparently dazed with cold and weariness.

"I'm not going to stand here. It's too cold," she said. "If you're too lazy to do what I tell you, I'll ask the corporal."

Then she banged the door to, and went back to her seat with a little laugh that sounded slightly hollow to her brother, at least.

"If there's one thing Walter doesn't like it's chopping wood – and that's why I wouldn't let him off," she said. "He hasn't troubled to come round and see me for a week. I'm vexed with him."

Now, the corporal was, of course, aware that throughout most of Western Canada visitors to a homestead not infrequently lighten their hostess's labour by washing the dishes or carrying wood. In the case of the miners, who were pleased to spend an hour at the bakery, chopping wood for the oven was the most obvious thing, though those specially favoured were now and then permitted to weigh out flour or knead the bread. There was thus nothing astonishing in what Hetty had apparently said to Ingleby, nor did Sewell, who provoked the corporal into an attempt to prove that the troopers' carbine was a more efficient weapon than the miners' Marlin rifle, appear to notice anything unusual, and only Leger saw that Hetty's colour was fainter than it had been and that she was quivering a little.

In the meanwhile there was a tramp of feet outside, which grew less distinct, until the ringing chunk of the axe replaced it, and Leger wondered how he could make Sewell understand that it was desirable to cut the discussion short. He could think of no means of doing it and glanced at Hetty anxiously, for how long the corporal meant to stay was becoming a somewhat momentous question. A man accustomed to the axe can split a good deal of wood in ten minutes, even when he works by moonlight; and it was evident that the one outside could not continue his chopping indefinitely without the corporal's wondering what was keeping him.

Ten minutes passed, and the regular thud of the axe rang through the forest outside, while the corporal, who was a persistent man, still discussed extractors and magazine springs. Leger felt the tension becoming intolerable. Then Hetty contrived to catch Sewell's attention, and, looking at him steadily, set her lips tight. The corporal had, as it happened, turned from the girl; but she saw a gleam of comprehension in Sewell's eyes.

"Well," he said reflectively, "I suppose you are right. I like the easier pull-off of the American rifles. One is less apt to shake the sights off the mark, but no doubt with men accustomed to the handling of rifled weapons, as the police troopers are, the little extra pull required is no great matter."

The corporal was evidently gratified. "I've shown quite a few men they were wrong on that point, and now I guess I must be getting on. You'll excuse me, Miss Leger?"

He put on his fur-coat and opened the door, but Hetty's heart throbbed again when he stopped a moment. As it happened, the fire was flashing brilliantly, and the corporal appeared to be looking down at the footprints by the threshold.

"I've seen Ingleby twice since the snow came, and he was wearing gum-boots," he said. "The man who was outside here had played-out leather ones on."

"Walter has an old pair he wore until lately," said Leger. "There's a good deal of sharp grit in the Tomlinson mine, and he'd probably come along in the boots he went down in."

This appeared reasonable, and the corporal made a little gesture as though to show that he concurred in it, and then, stepping forward, disappeared into the night. Sewell rose and shut the door, and then glanced at Hetty, who stood quivering a little in the middle of the room.

"I fancy one of you has something to tell me," he said.

Hetty gasped. "Oh," she said, "I thought he meant to stay until morning! It was getting awful, Tom."

Then she looked at Sewell. "Don't you know?" she said. "It's Tomlinson."

"Now," said Sewell, whose astonishment was evident, "I think I understand. There can scarcely be many girls capable of doing what you have done."

Hetty made a little sign of impatience. "Yes, there are – lots of them. Of course, you think all women are silly – you're only a man. Besides, Tom pinched me. But why are you stopping here and talking? Go and bring him."

Both Leger and Sewell went, and Tomlinson came back with them. He was haggard and ragged, and his thin jean garments were hard with the frozen snow-dust. He dropped into the nearest chair and blinked at them.

"Yes," he said, "I'm here and 'most starving. Get me something to eat, and I'll try to tell you."

They gave him what they had, and he ate ravenously, while Hetty's eyes softened as she watched him.

"You have had a hard time?" she said.

"Yes," answered the man slowly, "I guess I had. I got stuck up in the range. Couldn't make anything of the gorge in the loose snow. Tried to crawl up over the ice track and dropped through. Burst the pack-straps getting out, and don't know where most of the grub and one blanket went to. It was the bigger packet. That was why I had to come back. I don't quite know how I made the valley."

"When did you lose the grub?" asked Sewell.

Tomlinson shook his head. "I don't quite know," he said. "I guess it must have been 'most three weeks ago."

Leger looked at Sewell, for that was quite sufficient to give point to the bald narrative.

"What was in the smaller package would scarcely keep a man in health a week," he said. "I'm not going to keep you talking, Tomlinson, but – although it's fortunate you did so – why did you stop outside instead of coming in?"

"I saw a man," said Tomlinson. "I figured it wouldn't be wise to show myself until I was sure of him. Then when I crawled up to the shanty I didn't seem to remember anything. I only wanted to get in."

He stopped, and looked at Leger. "I can't push on to-night – I'm 'most used-up, but I'm not going to stay here and make trouble for you. I'll light out again to-morrow."

"You are going to lie down and sleep now," said Hetty severely. "We'll decide what is the wisest thing to do to-morrow, but you shan't leave the shanty for a day or two, anyway. No, I'm not going to listen to anything. He's to sleep in the store, Tom."

Tomlinson appeared desirous of protesting, but Leger laid a hand on his shoulder and led him into an outbuilt room.

XXV
TOMLINSON GETS AWAY

The early Canadian supper had been cleared away, and Sewell was sitting with Grace Coulthurst opposite him by the little stove in the inner room of the Gold Commissioner's dwelling, as he had done somewhat frequently of late. The major was apparently occupied with his business in the adjoining room, for they could hear a rustle of papers, and now and then the shutting of a book, through the door, which stood partly open. He closed one a trifle noisily, and the next moment his voice reached them.

"This thing has kept me longer than I expected, but I must get it finished before I stop. Esmond's sending a trooper off first thing to-morrow," he said. "Still, I shall not be much longer, and then we'll get out the chess."

Coulthurst had spoken loudly, and as Sewell and Grace did not raise their voices it appeared probable that he could not hear what they were saying. Sewell smiled as he glanced at the girl.

"I am not particularly impatient, or sorry for Major Coulthurst, though one could fancy that his dislike of official correspondence is quite as strong as his fondness for chess. He knows exactly what he has to do, and does it without having to trouble about the results, which in his case concern the Crown. That naturally simplifies one's outlook."

"The major," said Grace reflectively, "has arrived at an age when one does not expect too much, and is content with the obvious, which is certainly an advantage."

"And we, being younger, are different in that respect?"

Grace was a trifle disconcerted, which occasionally happened when Sewell talked to her, though she looked at him with a little smile in her eyes. It was, at least, not very clear to her why she found it pleasant to discuss such questions with him in a confidential voice when she had, to all intents and purposes, plighted herself to Ingleby. Sewell was always deferential, but there was something in his attitude which suggested personal admiration for her, though she was not quite sure that the vague word "liking" was not a little nearer the mark. How far that liking went she did not know, but while she had no intention of allowing it in any way to prejudice her regard for Ingleby, Sewell was, she knew, of subtler and more complex nature, and the craving for influence was strong in her. She knew what, under any given circumstances, Ingleby would probably do, and though this was satisfactory in one respect it had its disadvantages. She had long been troubled with a fondness for probing into masculine thoughts and emotions, and it pleased her to find an opportunity for directing them, which was not often afforded her in Ingleby's case. His programme was usually cut and dried, and it was, as a rule, an almost exasperatingly simple one.

"I suppose we are," she said. "When I know what is expected of me, I usually want to do something else."

Now Sewell was not aware how matters stood between her and his comrade, but he might have guessed what she was thinking, for his next remark was curiously apposite.

"I'm not sure that the obvious people are not the most fortunate," he said, with a little laugh. "They know exactly what they want, which not infrequently means that what they have to do to get it is equally plain. It must necessarily save them a good many perplexities. Now take the case of my very obvious comrade, Ingleby."

"Well?"

"Ingleby wants to make a fortune placer mining."

"Which is, from your point of view, a most reprehensible thing!"

Sewell laughed. "That is not quite the point. Perhaps he means to do good with it, and it ought to be quite plain that Ingleby has no real sympathy with Communist notions. In any case, he sets about it in the simplest fashion by working most of every day and often half the night as well. The result is that he has acquired what is apparently a competence and is more or less contented with everything. Any one can see it in the way he looks at you lately."

Grace smiled, for it was evident that there were directions in which Sewell's penetration was defective.

"The fortune will probably come later," she said. "And then – "

"Yes," said Sewell, with a little gesture of comprehension. "Since he has made his mind up, he will, I fancy, manage that, too. Ingleby is that kind of person. Then, if he does not do so sooner, he will naturally marry Hetty Leger."

Grace turned to him sharply and then directed his attention to the fact that the door at the bottom of the stove admitted rather too much draught. He was a moment or two adjusting it, and when he looked up again she was smiling indifferently.



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