Delilah of the Snows
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The white peaks that gleamed ethereally high up in the blue, crystal lakes, and the endless ranks of climbing pines, scarcely appealed to her as she floundered through tangled undergrowth and ten-foot fern, or stumbled amidst the boulders beside thundering rivers. She had lain awake shivering, with the ill-packed fir twigs galling her weary body, high up on great hill shoulders, and fared Spartanly on a morsel of unsavoury salt pork and a handful of flour, while Ingleby set his lips now and then when he saw the little forced smile in her jaded face. It was no great consolation to reflect that other women in that country had borne as much and more.
"Walter," she said, "you and Tom are very quiet. I expect you're tired."
Ingleby smiled, though his heart smote him as he saw the weariness in her eyes.
"I certainly am," he said. "Still, we can't be half as worn out as you are. You were limping all the afternoon."
"If I was it was only the boot that hurt me," said Hetty. "All those loose stones and gravel made it worse, you see. How many miles have we come to-day?"
"I feel that it must have been forty, but you shall have a rest to-morrow; and you don't look as comfortable as you ought to now. Would you mind standing up a minute?"
Hetty rose, hiding the effort it cost her, and when he had shaken up the cedar twigs into a softer cushion sank gratefully down on them. Then she turned her face aside that he might not see the little flush that crept into it as he gravely tucked the coarse brown blanket round her.
"Now," he said, "I think that ought to be a good deal nicer. You're too patient, Hetty, and I'm almost afraid we don't take enough care of you."
The girl saw his face in the firelight, and sighed as she noticed the gentleness in it. She knew exactly how far his concern for her went. Leger noticed it, but his shrewdness failed him now and then.
"He will make somebody a good husband by and by," he said. "She will have a good deal to thank you for, Hetty."
Ingleby smiled with an absence of embarrassment which had its significance for one of the party.
"There are, after all, a good many advantages attached to being a single man, and I shall probably have to be content with them," he said.
"Of course!" said Hetty softly. "It is no use crying for the moon."
"What do you mean by that?"
"Nothing in particular," and Hetty glanced reflectively at the fire. "Still, I don't think you would be content with any girl likely to look at you, and most of us would like to have a good deal more than we ever get."
Ingleby was a trifle disconcerted, though Hetty had an unpleasant habit of astonishing him in this fashion, but Leger laughed.
"It probably wouldn't be good for us to have it. At least, that is the orthodox view, and, after all, one can always do without."
"Of course!" said Hetty, with a curious little inflection in her voice. "Still, it is a little hard now and then.Isn't it, Walter?"
"Is there any special reason why you should ask me?"
Hetty appeared reflective. "Perhaps there isn't. I really don't know. Do you hear a sound in the valley, Tom?"
They listened, and a beat of hoofs came out of the sliding mists below. For the last week they had met nobody upon the trail, but now several men and horses were apparently scrambling up the hillside, for they could hear the gravel rattling away beneath them. The sound grew louder, and at last a man called to them.
"Lead that beast of yours out of the trail," he said.
Ingleby glanced at his comrade, for the voice was English and had a little imperious ring in it, and Leger smiled.
"There is no doubt where that man comes from, but I scarcely think there's any great need of haste," he said.
"Do you mean to keep us waiting?" the voice rose again sharply. "It's some of your slouching prospectors, Major. Get down and cut that beast's tether, trooper."
Ingleby rose and moved out into the trail, and had just led the pack-horse clear of it when a horseman rode up. He was dressed in what appeared to be cavalry uniform and was, Ingleby surmised, that worn by the Northwest Police, a detachment of which had lately been dispatched to the new mining districts of the far North. It was also evident that he held a commission, for the firelight, which forced it up out of the surrounding gloom, showed the imperiousness in his face. It also showed Ingleby standing very straight in front of him with his head tilted backwards a trifle. Then there was a jingle of accoutrements as the young officer, turning half-round in his saddle with one hand on his hip, glanced backward down the trail.
"Look out for the low branch as you come up, sir," he said.
Ingleby stood still, nettled by the fashion in which the man ignored him, for no freighter or prospector would have passed without at least a friendly greeting, and while he waited it happened that Leger stirred the fire. A brighter blaze sprang up and flashed upon the officer's accoutrements and spurs, and then there was a pounding of hoofs, and a horse reared suddenly in the stream of ruddy light. The officer wheeled his beast with a warning shout, but Ingleby had seen the shadowy form in the habit, and seized the horse's bridle.
"Hold fast!" he said. "There's a nasty drop just outside the trail."
Then for a few seconds man and startled horse apparently went round and round scattering fir needles and rattling gravel, until the half-broken cayuse yielded and Ingleby stood still, gasping, with his hand on the bridle, while a girl who did not seem very much concerned looked down on him from the saddle.
"You!" she said. "I fancied the voice was familiar. So you are going to the mines after all?"
The firelight still flickering redly upon the towering trunks showed Hetty Leger the curious intentness in Ingleby's gaze. Then, having done enough to disturb her peace of mind for that night, at least, it sank a trifle, and as two more men rode out of the shadow the officer turned to Ingleby.
"Have you no more sense than build your fire right beside the trail?" he asked.
Ingleby quietly turned his back on him, and patted the still trembling horse.
"I hope you were not frightened, Miss Coulthurst," he said.
Grace smiled at him, but before she could speak the young officer pushed his horse a few paces nearer Ingleby.
"I asked you a question," he said.
Ingleby glanced at him over his shoulder. "Yes," he said drily, "I believe you did."
He turned his head again, and Hetty, sitting unseen in the shadow, failed to see his face as he looked up at the girl whose bridle he held. She could, however, see the young officer glancing down at him apparently with astonishment as well as anger, and the police trooper behind sitting woodenly still with a broad grin on his face, until a burly man appeared suddenly in the sinking light. Then Grace Coulthurst laughed.
"Will you be good enough to ride on, Reggie? I told you my opinion of this horse," she said. "Father, I really think you ought to thank Mr. Ingleby."
Major Coulthurst turned suddenly in his saddle.
"Ingleby?" he said. "Very much obliged to you, I'm sure. I have a fancy I've seen you before."
"I once had the pleasure of handing you a cup of tea at a tennis match at Holtcar."
Coulthurst laughed. "Yes," he said. "I remember it now, especially as it was a remarkably hot day and I would a good deal sooner have had a whisky-and-soda. Still, I've seen you somewhere since then, haven't I?"
"Yes, sir," said Ingleby drily. "On a Sunday afternoon – at Willow Dene."
Coulthurst laughed again, good-humouredly. "Of course I remember that, too, though I hope you've grown out of your fondness for taking liberties with other people's property. That kind of thing is still less tolerated in this country. In the meanwhile we have a good way to go before we camp. Once more, I'm much obliged to you."
He touched his horse with the spur, and when he and the troopers melted into the night Ingleby turned, with one hand closed a trifle viciously, towards the fire.
"Major Coulthurst is human, anyway, but the other fellow's insolence made me long to pull him off his horse," he said. "Is there, after all, any essential difference between an officer of the Northwest Police and a mineral claim prospector?"
"One can't help admitting that in some respects there seems to be a good deal," said Leger drily. "Still, I should scarcely fancy the Canadian ones are likely to be so unpleasantly sensible of it. The gentleman in question was apparently born in England."
"Where else could you expect a man of his kind to come from?" and Ingleby kicked a smouldering brand back into the fire, "I fancied we had left that languid superciliousness behind us. It's galling to run up against it again here."
"My uncle's spirit in these stones!" said Leger. "Still, aren't you getting a little too old now to run a tilt against the defects of the national character? One feels more sure of doing it effectively when he's younger."
Ingleby laughed, for his ill humour seldom lasted long. "I suppose nobody can help being an ass now and then, and, after all, the best protest is the sure and silent kick when people who treat you like one unnecessarily add to your burden. Anyway, that trooper's grin was soothing. It suggested that there was a good deal of human nature under his uniform."
"I was looking at the officer man, and scarcely noticed him. It occurred to me that the attitude you complain of probably runs in the family."
"I can't say I understand you."
"Well," said Leger reflectively, "I can't help a fancy that we once met somebody very like him on another occasion when we both lost our temper."
"At Willow Dene?"
"Exactly!" said Leger. "You can think it over. I'll wash the plates at the creek and get some water."
He turned away, leaving Ingleby considerably astonished and half-persuaded that he was right. The latter was still looking into the darkness when Hetty spoke to him.
"It's not worth worrying about. Come and sit down," she said. "Who was that girl, Walter?"
"Miss Coulthurst," said Ingleby.
Hetty moved a little so that the firelight no longer fell upon her, and Ingleby noticed that she was silent a somewhat unusual time. Then she asked, "The girl you used to play tennis with at Holtcar?"
Hetty wished that she could see his face. "You have met her before, in Canada?"
"Once only. On the Vancouver wharf, the day I let them put the tea into the wrong car. She was coming from the steamer."
Hetty's face grew a trifle hard for a moment as she made a tolerably accurate guess at the cause of his neglect on the afternoon in question. Then with a sudden change of mood she laid her hand gently on his arm.
"Don't you think it would have been better for everybody if she had stayed in England, Walter?"
"I expect it would have been for Tom and you. If I had remembered what my business on the wharf was I should never have brought all this upon you."
Hetty's hand closed almost sharply on his arm. "No," she said, "I don't mean that. You see, I was really glad to get away from the boarding house."
"You assured me you liked it once," said Ingleby.
"Well, perhaps I did, but we needn't go into that. I was thinking of you just now."
Ingleby would not pretend to misunderstand her. He felt it would probably be useless, for Hetty, he knew, could be persistent.
"Men get rich in this country now and then," he said. "It would, at least, be something to work and hope for."
He could not see Hetty's face, but he noticed that there was a faint suggestion of strain in her voice.
"Do you think she would ever be happy with you even if you found a gold mine?" she said.
"What do you mean, Hetty?" and Ingleby turned towards her suddenly with a flush in his face.
"I only want to save you trouble. Don't you think when a girl of that kind found out how much there was that she had been accustomed to think necessary and that you knew nothing about, she might remember the difference between herself and you. After all, it's not always the most important points that count with a girl, you know."
She stopped somewhat abruptly, but Ingleby made a little gesture. "I would rather you would go on and say all you mean to."
"Well," said Hetty reflectively, "if I had been rich I think I should like the man I married to do everything – even play cards and billiards and shoot pheasants – as well as my friends did. It wouldn't be nice to feel that I had to make excuses for him, and I'm not sure I wouldn't be vexed if he didn't seem to know all about the things folks of that kind get for dinner."
Ingleby's laugh was a protest, but it was only half-incredulous, for he had now and then realized with bitterness the deference paid to conventional niceties in England.
"You can't believe that would trouble any sensible woman?" he said.
"Well," answered Hetty, "perhaps it mightn't, for a little while, or if there was only one thing, you see – but if you put everything together and kept on doing what jarred on her?"
"One could get somebody to teach him."
Hetty laughed. "To be like the officer man, or Mr. Esmond of Holtcar?"
Ingleby understood the significance of the question. The little conventional customs might be acquired, but the constant jarring of opinion, and absence of comprehending sympathy or a common point of view was, he realized, quite a different thing. Still, though there was concern in his face, he had the hope of youth in him. There was silence for a moment or two, and then Hetty spoke again.
"Besides," she said, "after all, aren't gold mines a little hard to find?"
Just then Leger made his appearance, somewhat to Ingleby's relief, and ten minutes later Hetty retired to the tent while the men, rolling themselves in their blankets, lay down upon the cedar twigs beside the fire. One of them, however, did not sleep as well as usual, and Leger noticed that his sister appeared a little languid when she rose in the morning. They were weary still, and it was afternoon when they once more pushed on into the wilderness along the climbing trail that had for guide-posts empty provision cans.