Harold Bindloss.

Delilah of the Snows



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"I guess," said the former, "you'll have to light out of this. You can't hold no meetings here."

The crowd was a Canadian one, good-humouredly tolerant, respectful of constituted authority, and, what was more to the purpose, reasonably contented with their lot. They were also, as usual, somewhat deficient in the quick enthusiasm which is common across the frontier. Had ample time been afforded him the orator might have got hold of them and impressed upon them a due comprehension of their wrongs, but a good many of them were by no means sure that they had very much to complain of as yet. Still, there were angry expostulations.

"Have you any ground for preventing my speaking here?" Sewell asked.

"Yes, sir," said the warden. "I guess we have. It's down in the park charter. You can't peddle those papers either. Call your boys in."

"The men who made those laws, as usual, made them to suit themselves."

"Well," said the warden, "I guess that don't matter now. There they are. All you have to do is to keep them, and nobody's going to worry you."

There was an embarrassing silence for a moment or two, for everybody felt the tension and realized that the position was rife with unpleasant possibilities; but the stolid warden stood eyeing the crowd unconcernedly, and, as usual, the inertia of British officialdom conquered. Sewell made a little whimsical gesture of resignation, and raised his hand.

"I'm afraid we'll have to break up, boys. There's nothing to be gained for anybody by making trouble now," he said. "If we can hire a big store of any kind I'll talk to you to-morrow."

He sprang down from the stump, the crowd melted away, and Hetty laughed as she glanced at her companions.

"That man has really a good deal more sense than some people with his notions seem to have," she said.

Ingleby shook his head at her. "You mean people who pull gates down on Sunday afternoons?" he asked. "Still, I scarcely think it was to save himself trouble he told them to go home, and nobody could have expected very much sympathy from the men who listened to him. He's wasting his time on them – they're too well fed. What do you think, Tom?"

Leger, who did not answer him for a moment, glanced thoughtfully through an opening between the stately trunks towards the far-off gleam of snow.

"This Province," he said drily, "is a tolerably big one, and from what I've heard they may want a man of his kind in the Northern ranges presently. It isn't the supinely contented who face the frost and snow there, and the Crown mining regulations don't seem to appeal to the men who stake their lives on finding a little gold. They appear to be even less pleased with those who administer them."

VII
HETTY BEARS THE COST

It was towards the end of the arduous day, and Ingleby was glad of the respite the breakage of a chain cargo-sling afforded him. The white side of a big Empress liner towered above the open-fronted shed, and a string of box cars stood waiting outside the sliding doors behind him.

A swarm of men in blue jean were hurrying across the wharf behind clattering trucks laden with the produce of China and Japan, for the liner had been delayed a trifle by bad weather, and the tea and silk and sugar were wanted in the East. Already a great freight locomotive was waiting on the side track, and, as Ingleby knew, the long train must be got away before the Atlantic express went out that evening. He had been promoted to a post of subordinate authority a few weeks earlier, and both he and Leger were, in the meanwhile, at least contented with their lot, for the great railway company treated its servants liberally.

There was, however, nothing that he could do for a minute or two, and he leaned against a tier of silk bales with a bundle of dispatch labels and a slip of paper in his hand, while Leger sat upon the truck behind him. He had, though it was no longer exactly his business, been carrying sugar bags upon his back most of that afternoon, partly to lessen the labour of Leger who had not his physique, and now the white crystals glittered in his hair and clung, smeared with dust, to his perspiring face. His sleeves were rolled back to the elbow, showing his brown arms, which had grown hard and corded since he came to Canada; while his coarse blue shirt, which was open at the neck and belted tight at the waist, displayed as more conventional attire would not have done the symmetry of a well set-up figure.

"We are still short of a few tea chests," said Leger. "However, if you would mark the two lots I've got yonder we could clear that car for dispatch as soon as the rest come out."

Ingleby glanced at his slip. "I'll wait until I get the others. It will keep the thing straighter. There's a good deal more in sorting cargo than I fancied there could be until I tried it, and it's remarkably easy to put the stuff into the wrong car."

"Then it might be well to keep your eye on those chests of tea. I can't keep the boys off them. There's another fellow at them now."

Ingleby swung round, and signed to a perspiring man who stopped with a truck beside the cases in question.

"Leave that lot alone! It's billed straight through, express freight, East," he said. "Stick this ticket on the cases, Tom."

Leger moved away, and Ingleby was endeavouring to scrape some of the sugar off his person when a man, whom he recognized as one of the leading citizens of Vancouver, and several ladies, came down the steamer's gangway. Then he started and felt his heart throb as his glance rested on one of them, who, as it happened, looked up just then. It was evident that she saw him, and he was unpleasantly sensible that his face was growing hot. There was, he would have admitted at any other time, no reason for this, but in the meanwhile it was distinctly disconcerting that Grace Coulthurst should come upon him in his present guise, smeared with dust and half-melted sugar. Then he occupied himself with his cargo slip, for it was in the circumstances scarcely to be expected that she would vouchsafe him any recognition.

The longing to see her again, however, became too strong for him, and looking up a moment he was conscious of a blissful astonishment, for she was walking straight towards him with a smile in her eyes. She seemed to him almost ethereally dainty in the dust and turmoil of the big cargo shed, and for the moment he forgot his uncovered arms and neck, and felt every nerve in him thrill as he took the little gloved hand she held out. What she had done was not likely to be regarded as anything very unusual in that country, where most men are liable to startling vicissitudes of fortune and there are no very rigid social distinctions; but Ingleby failed to recognize this just then, and it was not astonishing that he should idealize her for her courage.

"You are about the last person I expected to meet. What are you doing here?" she said, with the little tranquil smile that became her well.

Ingleby's heart was throbbing a good deal faster than usual, but he held himself in hand. Miss Coulthurst was apparently pleased to see him, but there was an indefinite something in her serene graciousness which put a check on him. It was, he felt, perhaps only because she was patrician to her finger-tips that she had so frankly greeted him. A girl with less natural distinction could, he fancied, scarcely have afforded to be equally gracious to a wharf-labourer.

"I am at present loading railway cars with tea and silk, though I have been carrying sugar bags most of the day," he said.

Grace showed no sign of astonishment as she glanced at his toiling comrades, and, though this was doubtless the correct attitude for her to assume, Ingleby was, in spite of his opinions, not exactly pleased until she spoke again.

"Don't you find it rather hard work?" she said. "Of course, one cannot always choose the occupation one likes here, but couldn't you find something that would be a little more – profitable?"

Ingleby laughed. "I'm afraid I can't," he said. "In this city the one passport to advancement appears to be the ability to play in the band, and I was, unfortunately, never particularly musical. Still, there is no reason why I should trouble you with my affairs. I wonder if I might venture to ask you how you came to be here?"

"It is quite simple. Major Coulthurst was appointed Gold Commissioner in one of the mining districts, and I came out with him; but he has been sent to an especially desolate post in the Northern ranges, and I am staying with friends in the city for a week or two. Then I am going to join him."

She stopped a moment, and then looked at him reflectively. "Why don't you go North and try your fortune at prospecting, too? They have been finding a good deal of gold lately in the Green River country where my father is."

It had seemed to Ingleby almost unnatural that he should be so quietly discussing his affairs with the girl he had last seen nearly six thousand miles away. This was not the kind of meeting he would have anticipated; but as she made the suggestion a little thrill once more ran through him, for he had heard that the district in question was a great desolation, and it almost seemed that she desired his company. However, he shook off the notion as untenable, for there would be, he knew, a distinction between a placer miner and the Gold Commissioner's daughter even in that land of rock and snow.

"I have thought of it," he said. "Some day I may go, but it is at the far end of the province, and for one who works on a steamboat wharf the getting there is a risky venture. I don't suppose everybody finds gold."

"I'm afraid they don't, and the cost of transporting provisions is a serious matter to those who fail. In fact, some of them have been giving my father trouble. They appear to lay the blame of everything on the mining regulations."

She stopped and glanced at him with a little smile. "From what I remember of your views, you would no doubt be inclined to agree with them."

Ingleby laughed, though it was pleasant to be told that she remembered anything he had said. "I really fancy I have learned a little sense in Canada, and I am not going to inflict my crude notions upon you again. Still, there is a question I should like to ask. Did Mr. Esmond of Holtcar – recover?"

Grace noticed the sudden intentness of his tone, and looked at him curiously. "Of course. In fact, he got better in a week or two, and I think behaved very generously. The police could not induce him to give them any information about the men who injured him."

Ingleby started, and the girl saw the relief in his face.

"I wonder," he said, "if you ever heard who they were supposed to be?"

Grace turned a trifle and gazed at him steadily, though there was now a little flash in her eyes.

"You," she said, with incisive coldness, "were one of them?"

Ingleby grew hot beneath her gaze, for he felt that all the pride and prejudices of her station were arrayed against him. "You will remember the form of my question. I was supposed to be one of them – but that was all," he said.

Grace's face softened, and she glanced at her companions, who, after waiting a little while, were just leaving the shed. "Of course," she said, "I should have known it was absurd to fancy that you could do anything of that kind."

"I am afraid I have kept you," said Ingleby. "Perhaps I should not have abused your kindness by letting you stop at all, but the desire to see you was too strong for me. I wonder whether even you would have dared to do as much had it been in England?"

There was a faint flush in the girl's cheek, but she smiled as she held out her hand.

"I scarcely think we need go into that, and I can't keep the others waiting any longer," she said. "Perhaps I shall meet you in the Green River country."

She swept away with a soft swish of dainty garments, and Ingleby, whose face grew curiously intent as he watched her, climbed the slanting gangway to the deck of the liner when she disappeared. From there he could see the white tops of the ranges gleaming ethereally as they stretched back mountain behind mountain towards the lonely North. The Green River country lay far beyond them, and there were leagues of tangled forest, and thundering rivers, to be crossed; but that day the untrodden snow he gazed upon seemed to beckon him, and a sudden longing to set out upon the long trail grew almost irresistible. There was gold in the wilderness, and with enough of it a man might aspire to anything, even the hand of a Crown Commissioner's daughter.

Then the winch beside him clattered, and he shook off the fancies as a fresh stream of bales and cases slid down the gangway. Whatever the future might have in store, there were several more hours of arduous work in front of him then. One of them had passed when Leger came hastily up to him.

"I suppose you got those last few cases?" he said.

Ingleby started. "I'm afraid I never remembered them until this moment. Have they pulled the car out, Tom?"

"It's not there, anyway. I fancied you had made the lot up. Somebody has put those cases in."

While they looked at one another the tolling of a locomotive bell broke through the clatter of the trucks, and Ingleby sped towards the door of the shed with Leger close behind him. When they reached it the hoot of a whistle came ringing down the track, and they saw the great locomotive vanish amidst the piles of lumber outside a big sawmill, with the long cars lurching through the smoke behind it. Ingleby said nothing then, but turned back into the shed with his lips set and questioned several men before he looked at Leger.

"Nobody seems to know whether they put that tea into the through East car or not, and it's no use being sorry now we didn't see it done," he said. "The sooner we have a word with the freight-traffic agent the better."

The gentleman in question, had, however, very little consolation to offer them.

"The fast freight has got to make Kamloops ahead of the Atlantic express," he said. "She's not going to be held up more than ten minutes there, and they'll have the mountain loco ready to rush her up the loops and over the Selkirks. I'll send a wire along, but so long as the road is clear it's going to be more than any man's place is worth, to side-track that train for freight checking."

Ingleby's face grew anxious. "Well," he said, "what is to be done?"

"Nothing!" said the traffic manager. "If there's anything wrong with your sorting you'll probably hear about it in a week or so."

They went out of the office, and Ingleby turned to his comrade.

"I'm afraid we'll be adrift again before very long, and while I wish you had seen nobody moved those cases, it's my fault," he said. "There's another thing I must mention so that you may realize all you owe me. That was Miss Coulthurst of Holtcar to whom I was talking, though, of course, I should have been attending to my business instead, and from what she told me it seems that I needn't have brought you and Hetty out here at all. Esmond got better rapidly, and could not even be induced to prosecute."

Leger smiled. "Well," he said, "I'm uncommonly glad to hear it; and in regard to the other question neither of us has any intention of blaming you. So far, we have been a good deal better off than we probably should ever have been in England."

Nothing further was said about the affair, though both of them devoted more than a little anxious thought to it, until one morning they were summoned before the head wharfinger.

"They're raising Cain in the office about a consignment of tea billed through urgent to the East that's gone down the Soo Line into the States," he said. "I guess I've no more use for either of you."

"I can't grumble," said Ingleby, who had almost expected this. "Still I should like to point out that only one of us is responsible."

"No," said Leger. "As a matter of fact, there were two, and if there hadn't been it would have come to the same thing, anyway."

The wharfinger nodded. "Well," he said, "I'd keep you if I could, but after the circus that's going on about the thing it's out of the question. I guess I'd try the Green River diggings if I were you."

They went out together, and when Ingleby was about to speak Leger checked him with a gesture. "I think I know what you mean to say – but there's another question to consider," he said. "Trade's slack in the city just now, and taking it all round I fancy that man's advice is good. If we can induce Hetty to stay here we'll try the new mining country."

In different circumstances Ingleby would have been exultant at the prospect, but as it was he recognized his responsibility. It was, however, late that evening before they were able to lay the state of affairs before Hetty, and Ingleby was almost astonished at the quietness with which she listened.

"Well," she said, "there's no use worrying about it now. All you have to do is to try the mines. The man who came down with the gold yesterday said they were offering five and six dollars to anybody who would work on some of the claims."

"But you don't seem to realize that we should have to leave you behind," said Leger.

Hetty laughed, and flashed a covert glance at Ingleby. "No," she said, "I'm coming with you."

The two men looked at each other, and Leger protested. "Hetty," he said, "it's out of the question. You couldn't face the snow and frost, and I don't even know how we could get you there. There are forests one can scarcely drag a pack-horse through, as well as rivers one has to swim them across, and we should probably have to spend several weeks on the trail. In fact, it seems to be an appalling country to get through."

"Go on!" said Hetty drily. "Isn't there anything else?"

"There are certainly mosquitoes that almost eat you alive. You know you never could stand mosquitoes!"

"Are they quite as big as bluebottles?" said Hetty.

Leger made a little gesture, and glanced at Ingleby, as if to ask for support, but though Hetty's brows were assuming a portentous straightness she smiled again.

"Walter was anxious to leave me behind once before, so you needn't look at him," she said. "In fact, there's not the least use in talking. I'm coming."

Ingleby said nothing. He did not wish to hurt the girl, though he fancied he knew how hard she would find the life they must lead in the great desolation into which they were about to venture. That Grace Coulthurst was going there did not affect the question, for there could be no comparison between the lot of a prospector's sister and that of the daughter of the Gold Commissioner. Then he saw that Hetty was watching him.

"Of course you don't want me, Walter," she said.

Ingleby felt his face grow hot. "Hetty," he said simply, "you ought to know that isn't so. If you must come we shall be glad to have you, and if you find the life a hard one you must try to forgive me. If I had known what I was doing I might have spared you this."

They had decided it all in half an hour, but Ingleby frowned when he and his comrade were left alone.

"The whole thing hurts me horribly, Tom," he said. "Of course, we can worry along, and may do well – but you have read what the country is like – and Hetty – "

Leger appeared unusually grave. "It is," he said, "certainly a little rough on Hetty. She, at least, was not to blame, but she will have to face the results all the same, and whatever we have to put up with will be twice as hard on her."

Ingleby said nothing, for he realized his responsibility. In compensation for the few minutes he had spent with Grace Coulthurst, Hetty Leger must drag out months of privation and peril.

VIII
ON THE TRAIL

Darkness was settling down upon the mountains and the chill of the snow was in the air when Hetty Leger and Ingleby sat beside a crackling fire. Down in the great gorge beneath them the white mists were streaming athwart the climbing pines, and no sound broke the deep stillness but the restless stamping of the tethered pack-horses and the soft splash of falling water. Hetty had a brown blanket rolled about her, and there were hard red blotches where the mosquitoes had left their virus on the hand she laid upon it. Leger lay not far away, and his face was swollen, but Ingleby had escaped almost scatheless, as some men seem to do, from the onslaughts of the buzzing legions which had pursued them through the swampy hollows.

A blackened kettle, a spider – as a frying-pan is usually termed in that country – and a few plates of indurated fibre lay about the fire, for the last meal of the day was over, and it had been as frugal as any one who had not undertaken twelve hours' toil in that vivifying air would probably have found it unappetizing. Where resinous wood was plentiful Ingleby could make a fire, but he could not catch a trout or shoot a deer. Indeed, a man unaccustomed to the bush usually finds it astonishingly difficult even to see one, and provisions were worth a ransom in the auriferous wilderness into which they were pushing their way. They had spent several weeks in it now, travelling, where the trail was unusually good, eight to twelve miles a day, though there were occasions when they made less than half the distance with infinite difficulty, and Hetty alone knew what that journey had cost her.



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