Harold Bindloss.

Delilah of the Snows



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There was a light step on the stairway, and he stopped suddenly. "There's Hetty," he said. "We'll leave it to her."

The door swung open, and the girl came in gasping, with horror in her eyes.

"Oh," she said, "its awful! They've come in with the wagonettes, and Harry told me. How did it happen?"

"Sit down," said Ingleby gently. "Tom will explain."

Leger did so concisely, and Hetty clenched the chair-arm hard as she listened to him. Still, young as she was, she held herself in hand, and sat very still, with the colour ebbing from her face.

"What shall we do?" she said.

"Ingleby has asked us to go out to Canada with him. He offers to lend us the money."

The girl's face flushed suddenly, and she glanced at Ingleby, who appeared embarrassed.

"How much will you have left if you do that?" she asked.

"I don't know yet. Anyway, it doesn't matter. If you make any silly objections, Hetty, Tom will go to jail."

The girl turned to her brother, with the crimson still in her cheek and her lips quivering, and it suddenly struck Ingleby that she was really remarkably pretty, though that appeared of no great moment just then.

"That would happen, Tom?" she said.

"Yes," said Leger quietly; "I believe it would."

Hetty turned again, and looked at Ingleby with a curious intentness. "You are quite sure you want us?"

Ingleby, moved by an impulse he did not understand, caught and held fast one of her hands. "Hetty," he said, "aren't we old friends? There is nobody I would sooner take with me, but we shall certainly quarrel if you ask me a question of that kind again."

The girl's expression perplexed him, and with a sudden movement she drew her hand away. "Well," she said, "we will come. I would stay – only I know Tom would not go without me; but whatever happens we will pay you back the money."

"I don't think you want to be unpleasant, Hetty," said Ingleby. "Anyway, you have only about an hour in which to get ready, because if we're not off by the next train it's quite likely that we shall not have the opportunity for going at all. Get what you want together, and meet us behind the booking office on the main line platform. Tom and I will take the back way to the station."

Hetty turned and went out without a word, and Leger looked at his companion.

"I don't think she meant to hurt you, but what she did mean exactly is a good deal more than I understand," he said.

Ingleby made a little impatient gesture. "I don't suppose it matters. Girls seem to have curious fancies. In the meanwhile it might be as well if we made a start. I'll lend you a decent jacket, and, as you had a cap on, it would be advisable to take my straw hat. To carry out the same notion I'll slip on my one dark suit. They usually make a point of mentioning one's clothes."

They were ready in about ten minutes, but when they had descended the long stairway Ingleby stopped in the dingy hall, and stood still a moment irresolute.

"If it wasn't for the harpy downstairs we might get clear away before anybody was aware that we had gone," he said.

"I can't leave her what I owe her either, for one never does seem to have change when he wants it. How much have you got on you?"

"A handful of copper," said Leger, with a little grim smile.

Ingleby appeared to reflect. "I could send her the few shillings from wherever we stop."

"The Post Office people obligingly stamp every envelope with the name of the place it comes from. I don't think we want to leave a trail behind us."

Ingleby stood still a moment longer with a flush in his face. "Nothing would stop that woman's talking – not even a gag. It's horribly unfortunate."

"It usually is," and Leger looked at him with a curious little smile. "The worst of having a propaganda is that the people who haven't any get indignant when one doesn't live up to it. They naturally lay part of the blame on the fallacies he believes in."

Ingleby swung round. "I'd sooner face a battery – but I'm going down."

He disappeared down the basement steps, and in another minute a harsh voice apparently vituperating him rose up, and when he rejoined his comrade his face was redder than ever.

"Now," he said, "we'll go; the sooner the better. Everybody in the neighbourhood will know what she thinks of me inside of ten minutes."

They slipped out into the street, and Ingleby stopped a moment at the end of it and looked back with a curious expression in his face. The sunlight that lay bright upon one side of it emphasized its unattractiveness. Tall houses, grim in their squalid ugliness, shut it in, and the hot air that scarcely stirred between them was heavy with the sour odours from a neighbouring tanyard. A hoarse clamour and a woman's voice, high-pitched and shrill with fear or anger, came out of a shadowy alley where unkempt children played in the gutter. The uproar did not concern them. They were apparently used to it.

"I've lived five years in the midst of – this – and now I'm almost sorry to leave it," he said. "There's no reason in us."

Then he turned again with a little resolute shake of his shoulders. "Well, we have done with it at last, and if half what one hears is true there is a chance for such as us in the country we are going to."

Leger said nothing, and it was silently they threaded their way deviously in and out of alleys and archways towards the station. Their life had been a hard one in that squalid town, but the place had, after all, been home, and they could not tell what awaited them in the unknown. They had in them the steadfastness which is born of struggle, but the unthinking courage of youth that has felt no care is quite a different thing.

However, nobody appeared desirous of preventing their departure, and they eventually got away by a steamer for which they had to wait several days in Liverpool.

In the meanwhile Geoffrey Esmond lay one evening propped up amidst the pillows in a darkened room at Holtcar Grange. He was blanched in face, and his eyes were heavy, while a big wet bandage was still rolled about his head. Major Coulthurst was by his bedside, and a burly sergeant of police sat on the very edge of a sofa with a notebook in his hand. The window was open behind the blind, and a little cool air that brought the fragrance of flowers with it crept into the room.

"Major Coulthurst fancied he could recognize the man who assaulted you, Mr. Esmond, and I have no doubt we will lay hands on him in a day or two," said the officer. "If you could identify him, too, it would make the thing more certain, and I would like to read you the description furnished me before we go any farther."

"If that is the usual course I don't see why I should object," said Esmond drily. "Still, isn't it a trifle suggestive?"

The sergeant did not appear to notice the irony of the inquiry, and launched out into what was, in the circumstances, a tolerably accurate description of Leger. Esmond listened quietly, with a little smile in his half-closed eyes.

"Major Coulthurst," he said, "is evidently astonishingly quick-sighted if he saw all that."

"I'm not sure I understand you, Esmond," and Coulthurst looked up sharply.

"Well," said the younger man reflectively, "I always fancied you were a sportsman, and we had our fun. Of course, while it lasted I would cheerfully have broken the Socialist fellow's head if I could have managed it, but just now the odds seem a trifle heavy against him."

Coulthurst laughed a little, but the sergeant shook his head. "That's not at all the way to look at it, sir," he said. "In a case of this kind one has, if I may point it out, a duty to society."

"And the police?" said Esmond, who made a little gesture. "I really do not think I should ask the opinion of the latter as to what is incumbent on me. Still, that is scarcely the point. You want me to identify the man – and I can't do it."

"You must have seen him close to, sir."

Esmond laughed. "Have you ever had incipient concussion of the brain? You probably haven't. I believe they line your headgear with cork or cane. Well, in one respect, it's a little unfortunate, since it would have helped you to understand my position. Now, the major says the man's hair was light brown, but so far as I can remember it was red. Are you quite sure it wasn't, Coulthurst?"

Coulthurst appeared reflective. "He certainly had his hat on."

"A cap, sir," said the sergeant.

Esmond glanced at the major reproachfully. "You will notice, sergeant, how reliable he is."

"The fact mentioned wouldn't prevent your seeing what kind of man he was," said the sergeant, tartly. "He is described as little and pale, and of a delicate appearance."

"Then if the blow on my head is anything to go by, I really think my friend was mistaken," said Esmond. "It's my firm opinion the man was distinctly muscular."

The sergeant stood up, and closed his book. "The affair is a serious one, and we naturally look to a gentleman of your position for – "

Esmond stopped him with a gesture and a little languid smile, under which, however, the burly sergeant flushed.

"As I fancy I mentioned, there are matters in which it is hardly the province of the police to instruct me," he said. "I'm sorry I can't do anything more for you to-day, sergeant, but if you were to come round when my head has settled down a little I might be able to recollect the fellow's appearance rather more distinctly."

"If we are to lay hands on him we must have a warrant at once."

"Then if it depends on me I'm very much afraid you will not get it – and now, as the doctor insists on quietness, you will excuse me. Can you reach the bell, Major?"

The sergeant went out fuming inwardly, and Coulthurst laughed. "I'm not quite sure that I should have let the fellow off," he said. "What made you do it?"

"I really don't know, and scarcely think it matters," said Esmond languidly. "Still, you see, I fancy we went a little farther than the law would sanction, and that being so one could scarcely expect the other fellow to pay for everything. Now, if I might remind you, Miss Coulthurst was kind enough to promise to come in and talk to me."

V
THE NEW COUNTRY

It was a still evening, and Major Coulthurst and Mrs. Esmond paced slowly side by side up and down the terrace at Holtcar Grange. The house looked westward, and the last of the sunshine rested lovingly upon its weathered front, where steep tiled roof and flaking stone that had silvery veins in it were mellowed to pale warm tints by age. Beyond it, orchid house, fernery, and vinery flashed amidst the trees; while the great cool lawn, shaven to the likeness of emerald velvet, glowing borders, and even the immaculate gravel that crunched beneath the major's feet conveyed the same suggestion to him. It was evident that there was no need of economy at Holtcar Grange, and Coulthurst, who had faced the world long enough to recognize the disadvantages of an empty purse, sighed as he remembered the last budget the post had brought him.

He had served his nation sturdily, according to his lights, which, however, were not especially brilliant, wherever work was hardest and worst paid; while now, when it was almost time to rest, he was going out again to the wilderness on the farthest confines of a new country, where even those who serve the Government live primitively. He longed to stay in England and take his ease, but funds were even lower than they usually were with him. Still, he shrank from exposing his daughter to the discomforts he was at last commencing to find it hard to bear, and she had but to speak a word and remain, with all that any young woman could reasonably look for, the mistress of Holtcar Grange. Though he roused himself with an effort he felt that his conversation was even less brilliant than usual and that his companion noticed it. It was certain that she smiled when she surprised him glancing somewhat anxiously across the lawn.

"You have quite decided on going out?" she asked.

"I have," said Coulthurst simply. "In ten days from to-day. The commission's in my pocket – I was uncommonly glad to get it."

"Still," said Mrs. Esmond, "the pay cannot be very high, and it must be a wild country."

"It is quite sufficient for a lonely man, and now Grace – "

He stopped abruptly, a trifle flushed in face, and his companion smiled at him.

"Yes," she said, "I understand, and if it happens as we both wish I shall be content. Geoffrey has been a good son, but I could not expect to keep him always to myself – and I would rather it should be Grace than any one else."

"Thank you!" said Coulthurst simply. "Whether I have done right in allowing her to come here I do not know. In any case, I never suspected what might happen until a month ago. Then I was a trifle astonished, but the mischief was done."

Mrs. Esmond laughed, "You might have expressed it more happily, though it is perhaps only natural that there was a day or two when I would not have found fault with you."

Coulthurst said nothing further, but his thoughts were busy. He knew better than most men what life in the newer lands is, and he had no desire that Grace should share it with him. What she thought of Esmond he did not know; but the latter had told him what he thought of her, and his mother was, it seemed, content with the choice he had made. A good deal depended on the girl's fancy.

They had turned again when she came towards them across the lawn as though she did not see them, until, hearing their footsteps, she stopped abruptly. Nobody spoke for a moment or two, but she felt their eyes upon her, and the crimson grew deeper in her cheek as she turned to the elder lady.

"I see you know," she said, with a little tremor in her voice. "You will forgive me if he feels hurt over it – but I felt I could not. Geoffrey, of course, is – "

The major groaned inwardly when she stopped, and there was a sudden slight but perceptible change in his companion. Her face lost its usual gentleness, and became for a moment not hard or vindictive, but impressively grave.

"I am glad – because he is my only son – that you had the courage to do the right thing – now," she said.

Grace flashed a swift glance at her, and the colour showed a trifle more plainly in her face, but, saying nothing, she hastily turned away. Coulthurst stood stiffly still, evidently perplexed at something in the attitude of both, until Mrs. Esmond looked at him.

"I am disappointed," she said.

Coulthurst raised his hand in protest. "It is very good of you to say so, but, while she is my daughter and I am naturally a trifle proud of her, the advantages would in one sense have been so much in her favour – "

"I don't think you apprehend me. These affairs seldom fall out as one would wish them, which is, perhaps, now and then fortunate for all concerned. It is Grace I am disappointed with."

Coulthurst smiled somewhat grimly. "I'm by no means sure that I do understand, but one thing, at least, is plain: she has made her own choice and must abide by it."

It was ten minutes later, and Mrs. Esmond had left him, when he came upon Grace sitting where a shrubbery swept round a bend of the lawn. She looked at him deprecatingly.

"I am very sorry – but it was out of the question – quite," she said.

Coulthurst made a little gesture of resignation, for if he seldom foresaw a difficulty where others would have done so, he, at least, made no futile protest when it had to be faced.

"I suppose," he said, "you realize what you have turned your back upon to-day?"

"Still, I felt I had to do so."

Coulthurst checked a groan. "Then, since you presumably know your own mind, there is nothing more to be said. You will be ready to come out to the Northwest with me?"

Grace rose, and slipped her hand through his arm. "Father," she said, "I'm sorry – dreadfully sorry. I must be a horrid responsibility."

Coulthurst smiled, somewhat ruefully. "So am I! No doubt we will worry along as we have already done; but it is a very hard country we are going to."

It was scarcely a sufficient expression of what he felt, but Coulthurst had his strong points, and his daughter knew it was very unlikely he would ever allude to the subject again. There were, however, as usual, guests at Holtcar Grange just then, and they had formed a tolerably correct opinion as to what was happening. It was also natural that they should discuss it, and on that evening two matrons and the lady who had taken Grace's part on a previous occasion expressed their views concerning the conduct of the latter.

"The girl led him on shamefully," said one of them. "That was evident to everybody, and one would have fancied the reason was equally so – though, of course, we know now it wasn't the right one."

Grace's advocate appeared reflective, and, as it happened, her opinion was usually listened to. "I have watched the girl, and she is interesting as a study," she said. "I am, of course, not infallible, but it seems to me from what I have heard of the major that she has inherited his disregard of consequences. Coulthurst, one would conclude, is not a man who ever saved himself or others trouble by anticipating anything."

One of her companions signified concurrence. "And the fact that the opportunity for a flirtation with the most eligible man in the vicinity appealed to her natural arrogance accounts for the rest?"

"Not exactly, though you are in a measure right. I should rather call it love of influence, for, though I'm not sure Grace Coulthurst realizes it, one could fancy that the opportunity for dominating a man of position, or more especially character, would prove almost irresistible to her. Still, one must discriminate between that and the not unusual fondness for love-making."

"The distinction is a little difficult. It seems to lead to much the same thing."

The previous speaker, who was a woman of discernment, shook her head. "There is a difference," she said. "The girl has, I think, a personality – by which I do not altogether mean physical attributes – that is apt to appeal to a man of character, though I almost fancy she will sooner or later be sorry she was ever endued with it. There is a good deal that is admirable in Grace Coulthurst, but unfortunately, in one respect, perhaps, not – quite – enough."

It was not evident that the rest altogether understood her, but Mrs. Esmond appeared just then, and the subject was changed abruptly.

In the meanwhile there were at least three people who would have found no fault with Major Coulthurst's description of Western Canada. Having discovered somewhat to their astonishment that the population of Quebec and Montreal was already quite sufficient, and that strangers without means were not greatly desired in either city, these three had, in accordance with Ingleby's previous purpose, started West again, and on the fifth day sat spiritlessly in a Colonist car as, with whistle screaming, the long train rolled into sight of a little desolate station on the Albertan prairie.

All the way from Winnipeg a dingy greyness had shrouded the apparently interminable levels, which lay parched and white beneath an almost intolerable heat, while the lurching cars swung through a rolling cloud of dust that blurred the dreary prospect. Now, as they were slowing down, grimy faces were thrust from the windows and perspiring men leaned out from the platforms, gazing down the track and inquiring with expletives why they were stopping again.

Hetty Leger, however, sat languidly still, where the hot draught that blew in through an open window scattered the dust upon her. Her face was damp, and unpleasantly gritty, for the water in the tank had long run out. Her head ached, as did every bone in her body, for Colonist cars are not fitted as the Pullmans are, and she had with indifferent success for four nights essayed to sleep on a maple shelf which pulled out from the roof above when one wanted it. She had certainly hired a mattress, but its inch or two of thickness had scarcely disguised the hardness of the polished wood beneath it; and although the cost of it and the little green curtain had made a serious inroad on the few dollars left in her scanty purse they had not solved the problem of dressing; while the atmosphere of a close-packed Colonist car when the big lamps are lighted in hot weather is a thing to shudder at. It is also, in view of the fact that most of the passengers dispense with curtains, somewhat embarrassing to rise in the morning and wait amidst a group of half-dressed men and women for a place in the cupboard at the rear of the car where ablutions may at least be attempted when there is any water in the tank.

Presently, however, a big bell commenced to toll, and the jolting of the air-brakes flung her forward in her seat, while in another few moments the long cars stopped, and the conductor pushed his way through the perspiring passengers who surged towards the vestibule.

"They've had a big washout up the track," he said. "You can light out and admire the scenery for two hours, anyway, if you feel like it."

Hetty looked round, but could see nothing of her brother or Ingleby. She had seen very little to admire at other prairie stations; but anything seemed better than the close heat of the car, and when the vestibule was clear at last she went out languidly and stepped down upon the track.



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