Harold Bindloss.

Delilah of the Snows



скачать книгу бесплатно

"I'm not sure I've met many young men with nerve enough to do that, but I think you're right," he said. "I was pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr. Ingleby – and it is, perhaps, not altogether your fault that the present unfortunate circumstances must necessarily lead to a temporary break in it."

Ingleby made him a little grave inclination. "I understand, sir, and there is only one thing I would like to ask," he said. "We may make some suggestions shortly for a compromise, and, in view of Captain Esmond's temperament – and our own – they might be considered more dispassionately if passed through a third party. Would you be willing to receive Sewell here?"

He was evidently about to go, and Coulthurst held out his hand. "Send him as soon as you can. If your ideas are reasonable, I'll do my utmost with Esmond. This state of affairs can't go on."

Ingleby turned towards the door, but Grace, who was waiting, opened it for him, and let her hand rest in his a moment.

"Walter," she said very softly, "it was exactly what I would have expected from you."

Ingleby did not think it advisable to turn round, but he gripped the little fingers hard as he passed out into the darkness.

XXX
SEWELL'S DOWNFALL

Sewell went to Major Coulthurst's the following night, and remained some time in conference with him. He also went there a day or two later to hear Esmond's answer to the suggestions he had conveyed, and when it was delivered he found himself no nearer a compromise. There was not a man in the valley who would agree to what the police officer demanded; and though Sewell went back with somewhat modified proposals from time to time, affairs dragged on at a deadlock, while each party hoped to starve the other into surrender.

The miners could with difficulty have obtained a temporary and insufficient supply of provisions, but fearing that Esmond would be driven to action, their leaders were dubious about sending any number of their men away again. It was a game of bluff they were playing, and it had dragged out much longer than any of them had anticipated, while all could recognize that it was only by holding command of such a force as would render hopeless any attempt to drive them from their barricade that they could avoid an actual recourse to arms, which must eventually prove disastrous to them.

Finally, after a meeting of all concerned, Sewell was dispatched again with what practically amounted to an ultimatum, and on the evening on which he was to deliver it he and Ingleby and Leger discussed the affair at the bakery. Hetty was not present, for though they were on short rations, she had gone up the valley with one or two little dainties she had contrived to make for Tomlinson. He had been a strong and healthy man, but wounds, complicated by comminuted bones, give trouble in the cold of that country, and the very indifferent food had further militated against his recovery. Sewell stood ready to set out, Ingleby and Leger sat by the hearth, and there was anxiety in the faces of all of them.

"I'm afraid it's a fool's errand I'm going on," said Sewell.

"It is, of course, useless to threaten to seize the outpost when Esmond must realize that we have no intention of doing it. The thing's out of the question. It was all very well to block the troopers out, but if we shot one of them it would bring every policeman in the country, and, if necessary, the whole Canadian militia, down upon our heads."

"It's almost a pity you didn't realize that before," said Leger.

Sewell made a little gesture which might have expressed anything. "Mutual recriminations seldom do much good, and I scarcely think any one would have expected Esmond to hold out as he has done. I met one of the troopers the last time I went to Coulthurst's, and he admitted that they were practically starving. It was a bluff we put up, but we made the mistake of assuming that the opposition had less nerve than we had. After all, it's not a very uncommon one."

"Are you quite sure it was only bluff when you began?" asked Leger quietly.

Sewell started, almost imperceptibly, but Leger saw it, and even Ingleby, who would have believed in him in spite of everything, fancied that there was embarrassment in his face.

"Circumstances alter cases, and I've learnt a little about British official inertia since I've been up here," he said. "It's rather a big contract to dictate terms to the Dominion of Canada when we have failed to make any great impression on one police officer. Anyway, I may as well get on to the commissioner's. Neither of us is, I fancy, in the most amiable temper."

He went out, and Ingleby looked at Leger, who shook his head.

"He's quite right, Walter. It's too big a thing for us, and we have failed," he said. "If it comes to the worst and Esmond goes down, he'll beat us still."

Ingleby said nothing, though his face grew grim, and Leger continued with a little dry smile, "Sewell will do no good. It's almost a pity we hadn't chosen another man. His heart isn't in the thing."

"You can say that – when you know his record?" and there was a flash of anger in Ingleby's eyes.

"Don't misunderstand me. Sewell will not actually play us false. He is, of course, a much more brilliant man than either of us, and he'll handle our case with his usual ability. Still, that is scarcely enough, and one has to admit that it's a poor one intrinsically. We started with the mistake of taking it for granted that Esmond could be bluffed."

"I'm not sure that we did. To be correct, I started the thing without thinking of anything. Anyway, you believed as firmly as the rest of us in Sewell and that the men here and at Westerhouse could make a stand that would result in their getting what they wanted."

Leger sat silent a moment or two. "Perhaps I did, though I think I saw the weak points of the scheme clearly. They, however, didn't count for so much then. Nobody, you see, can put a big thing through by working it all out logically beforehand. It appears all difficulties if you look at it that way. One has to take his chances with the faith that attempts the impossible and the fire that carries him through an obstacle before he realizes that it is one. Sewell had the faith and the fire, and the trouble is that he hasn't now. There has been a big change in the man since he came into the Green River country."

Ingleby could not controvert this, but it was evident to Leger, who watched him closely, that he had still full confidence in Sewell, and was as far as ever from guessing at any reason that might account for the change in him.

"Well," he said slowly, "we can't back down now. What are we to do?"

"Go on. Play the game out to the bitter end. I think you know that as well as I do."

The little sign Ingleby made seemed to imply that there was nothing more to be said.

"Isn't it time Hetty was back?" he asked.

He opened the door, and the cold struck through him like a knife. There was not a breath of wind astir, and the pines cut sharp and black against the luminous blueness of the night without the faintest quiver of a spray, for that afternoon an Arctic frost had descended upon the valley.

"I'll go along and meet her," he said.

It was ten minutes later when he did so. She was plodding somewhat wearily up the climbing trail, a shapeless figure in a big blanket-coat, and she took his arm and leaned upon it. It occurred to him that Hetty had lost some of her brightness, and had been looking a little worn of late; but that was not astonishing, since the scanty food and strain of anxiety were telling upon everybody in the Green River valley. It was also a long way from the bakery to the hut where Tomlinson still lay helpless, and Ingleby felt very compassionate as the girl, who said very little, walked by his side. When at last he opened the door for her she sank into the nearest chair and turned to him with a curiously listless gesture.

"Keep it open – wide," she said.

Ingleby understood her, for the little room was very hot, and the sudden change of temperature from the frost of the Northwest had once or twice painfully affected him. Then as he turned again he heard a faint cry and saw Hetty clutch at the table. In another moment her chair went over with a crash, and he caught her as she fell.

"No!" said Leger sharply. "Don't try to lift her. Lay her flat."

Ingleby stupidly did as he was bidden, and when Hetty lay at his feet, a pitiful, huddled object with blanched hands and face, beneath the snow-sprinkled coat, he felt an unnerving thrill of apprehension run through him as he looked down at her. Leger, however, kept his head.

"I don't think there's anything to be afraid of, but we must get these things loose about her neck," he said. "Undo that hook while I lift her head a little. It's pressed right into her throat."

Ingleby dropped on one knee, and with clumsy fingers loosed the blanket-cloak. Then he stopped a moment, and glanced at Leger, who had slipped one arm under Hetty. As she lay, her garments were drawn tight about her neck and shoulders.

"Go on!" said Leger sharply. "Get that collar undone. Be quick. The thing is choking her."

Ingleby loosed the collar, though the blood crept to his face as the bodice fell apart from Hetty's white neck. Leger was, however, not contented yet.

"Pull those hooks out, or cut the stuff," he said. "What – are – you stopping for?"

Ingleby got the hooks out, that is, one or two of them, and then he stopped again, while Leger saw the narrow black ribbon pressed into the white flesh upon which his eyes were fixed.

"I don't know what that is, but pull it out," he said. "If you can't get it loose, cut the thing."

Ingleby did as he was bidden, but there was no need to use the knife, for, as Leger moved his arm a little, the ribbon slackened, and a little trumpery locket which, as Ingleby knew, was not even of high-carat gold, slid out and lay on Hetty's breast. As he saw it all the blood in his body seemed to rush into his face. Leger, however, apparently did not notice that.

"Get me the old jacket yonder. I want it under her shoulders," he said.

Ingleby got it and then stood leaning on the table, while Leger still knelt by his sister's side. His face was set and anxious, but it was evident that he was equal to the occasion, and had not let his apprehensions master him. It was, however, different with Ingleby, for now there was no longer anything to do he felt that he was quivering.

"I'll run for the American who's looking after Tomlinson," he said.

Leger made a little sign. "No. Don't go. I may want you. She'll come round in a minute or two. This room must have been seventy, and outside it's forty below. Where has your nerve gone?"

Ingleby did not know. It had, however, certainly deserted him, and he felt for once scarcely capable of doing anything as he leaned upon the table. Then Leger, who slipped the locket back beneath the dress, looked up at him.

"She mightn't like to think we had seen it, and, of course, I didn't know what the thing was," he said, and then added, without moving his eyes from Ingleby, "I wonder where she got it?"

Ingleby said nothing, though he knew. He had bought her the little trinket in England long ago, but it seemed to him that Hetty might not like her brother to know it. Apart from that, he was scarcely sensible of anything clearly, for he was overwhelmed by a horrible confusion, and he looked down at Leger vacantly until a little shiver seemed to run through the girl.

"Now see if you can find the coffee," said his comrade sharply. "There is a little somewhere. We have nothing else to give her."

Ingleby waited another moment until he saw a faint tinge of colour creep into Hetty's face, and then he moved towards the box of stores, dazed from relief. He was busy for a moment or two, and when he turned again Hetty was lying in the low hide-chair with her brother's arm about her and the blanket-coat clutched closely to her neck. Leger flashed a swift glance at him and pointed towards the door.

"I think it would be better if you got out of this," he said.

Ingleby also thought so and went forthwith. He felt that he could not meet Hetty's eyes just then, and he wanted to be alone and get rid of the almost insufferable confusion that afflicted him. He had never made love to Hetty. They had been comrades, almost as brother and sister to each other; but she had worn his locket hidden on her breast, which was, he surmised, considerably more than a sister would have done. Brotherly tenderness could also, he realized, scarcely account for the uneasiness he had felt and the relief that had replaced it; but it appeared quite out of the question – in fact, a thought to shrink from – that he could be in love with two women. It was as unpleasant to contemplate the probability of two women being in love with him. He could find no solution of the problem as he swung along beneath the solemn pines, and when he reached his black and silent shanty his brain was still in a whirl. One thing alone was clear to him, and that was that Hetty was alive and apparently recovering.

In the meanwhile Sewell found that Coulthurst, who, it seemed, had gone across to the outpost, had not yet come home. Grace told him so standing in the doorway, with the sweeping lines of her figure cut in black against the light, and though she could see the admiration in his face he could not see her curious little smile. Miss Coulthurst had decided that the struggle between the miners and their rulers had continued long enough, and it was time she made some attempt to put an end to it.

"Still, I really think you might come in," she said. "He will be back before very long."

Sewell came in, and sat down opposite her across the hearth, and Grace glanced covertly at her little watch which hung upon the wall. Major Coulthurst was punctuality in itself, and she realized that she had about twenty minutes in which to do a good deal. Ingleby's devotion to her – and it was, perhaps, significant that she felt that was the best description of it – was evident; but there were points on which he was as unyielding and impervious to suggestion as a rock; while Sewell, with his more delicately balanced nature and wider grasp of comprehension, was, in her hands, at least, as malleable clay.

"How long is this very unpleasant state of affairs to continue, Mr. Sewell?" she asked. "You promised me we should have quietness this winter."

Sewell made a little deprecatory gesture. "Circumstances were too strong for me, but I have done what I could. Unpleasant as things are, they might be worse – considerably."

"It is a little difficult to see how they could be."

She had straightened herself a little, and sat looking at him with a certain quiet and half-scornful imperiousness which she knew became her, and yet was not altogether affected. Sewell, the democrat, understood exactly what she meant, and knew that it was not the loneliness or physical discomfort the blockade entailed that she was thinking of. It was the humbling of the pride of the ruling caste to which she belonged, and the bold denial of its prerogative of authority, that she felt the most. It was curious that he could understand this and sympathize with her as Ingleby, who only saw and did the obvious thing, could not have done.

"Well," he said, "I think this winter might have seen an undreamt-of overturning of constituted authority and the setting up of what you were once pleased to call a visionary Utopia. My comrades were almost ready to undertake it a little while ago. In fact, they only wanted somebody to show them how."

Grace laughed a careless, silvery laugh, which would have been wasted on Ingleby. There was no scorn in it now, only amusement, but Sewell nodded comprehendingly as he looked up at her.

"Your friends would naturally never believe it, but I almost think the inauguration of the Utopia would have been possible," he said. "At least, we could have cleared the ground for it."

"There are," said Grace suggestively, "men enough in this valley to make about one company."

"And between here and the Arctic sea enough to make such a small army-corps of marchers and marksmen as no country has ever enrolled beneath its banner. A very little spark in the right place will kindle a great blaze, you know; but I only want to show you that the thing might have happened. I scarcely think you need expect it now."

Grace looked at him with a curious intensity. "Then," she said, "you were afraid?"

"No," answered Sewell slowly. "I was not sure I was strong enough to control the forces I could set in motion, or that the result of unloosing them would be – Utopia. It seemed too big a risk. That was one reason – you can, perhaps, guess the other. After all, one has to admit that there are certain advantages attached to the direction of affairs by the more highly trained divisions of society."

"To which," said Grace, with a soft laugh, "you, of course, belong. What made – you – a democrat?"

Sewell made a little gesture. "Ah," he said, "that is a different story, and one I hardly care to go into, but perhaps the instincts one is born with can't be entirely rooted out. I am, at least, not the iconoclast I was when I came into the valley. That, however, really isn't very astonishing. I now have a good deal to lose."

He looked at her steadily with grave deference, but as like to like, and the girl recognized this and what his words implied. She was, however, playing a game then, and another swift glance at her watch showed her that she had little time in which to finish it.

"And so, for fear you should lose it, you did not strike the spark? Well, I think that was wise. It would certainly have cost you one thing which you seem to value," she said.

This was vague, but it seemed to Sewell that there could be only one meaning to it. What he had feared to lose was not yet beyond his reach. He did not know that there were in the girl qualities which would have made her a successful Pompadour. Just then her craving for influence was irresistible; but she swept away from the topic with a swift smile expressive only of the indifference which of all the feelings that she could show he most shrank from.

"Still, to be practical, how could the blaze have spread?" she said. "It would have smouldered out in one snow-bound valley, and in the spring there would have been a very inglorious downfall to the strictly limited Utopia."

Sewell was nettled. There was, though it was seldom apparent, vanity in him, as both Hetty and Grace had guessed. Her blame he could have borne, but there was a sting in her smile. That she should think him a visionary schemer led away by his imagination, and without the faculty of execution, hurt him.

"The blaze would have leapt the snowy barriers," he said. "In fact, that was all arranged. Then it would have flashed from range to range across to the Yukon. One tolerably big bonfire has been waiting some time ready for lighting. I had only to send the message. I think you know why I didn't."

Grace saw his eyes, and understood the look in them. It was suggestive of passionate admiration. She also knew that a word would dispel it, perhaps forever, but she was lost in the game now, and what the man might think of her afterwards did not matter.

"Then there is a road out – beside the one you made to the settlement? It must be to Westerhouse?" she said.

"Yes," answered Sewell simply. "I have been there."

Grace had just five minutes left, and a task before her which, under ordinary circumstances, she could scarcely have expected to accomplish; but she had to deal with a man who was, after all, of her own caste, a man with a deep vein of vanity in him, who was also in love with her. The latter fact had been apparent for some little while, and she let him see now that she recognized it, while during the next few minutes she used every attribute with which Nature had endowed her, as well as art of a very delicate description. In fact, Grace had never until then exactly realized her own capabilities.

Neither Sewell nor she could afterwards remember all that she said, and in fact she said very little, though that little was suggestive; there was no great need for a girl with her patrician beauty to waste words unduly when she had her eyes. In any case, Sewell was as wax beneath her hands, and when she had finished with him she knew that the mountain barrier between the Green River country and Westerhouse was not impassable, and how the one gorge ran that traversed it. If Sewell fancied she appreciated the passion which had led him to do so much for her, that was his affair. There was, however, a curious glow in his eyes when he rose as the major came in.



скачать книгу бесплатно

страницы: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27