Delilah of the Snowsскачать книгу бесплатно
He stopped, and looked at Ingleby, whose face grew a trifle grave.
"A placer claim," said the latter, "can only be held while you work upon it continuously."
"Exactly! Seventy-two hours after we lay down the shovel any other man who thinks it worth while can seize upon our last chance of making a fortune. I think you understand that, considering the present cost of provisions, we are scarcely likely to save as much as would keep us while we try again, out of what we make on Tomlinson's claim."
Ingleby realized this and said nothing. The giving up of his claim implied the parting with certain aspirations which had of late supported him through long days of feverish toil; but one must live, and he had discovered that to work as the free miners do in that country a somewhat ample diet is necessary. He sat near the fire, and Hetty, who saw the hardness of his face, understood it.
"You really think there is gold in the claim?" she said.
"Yes," said Ingleby. "Tomlinson and one or two of the others who have played this game half their lives admitted that the signs were as good as any they had seen. Still, I'm by no means sure we can hold out until we strike it."
Hetty smiled in a curious fashion. "Especially while you have me to keep?"
Even Leger appeared astonished, and Ingleby flushed hotly as he turned to her. "Hetty," he said sternly, "what do you mean by that?"
The girl laughed, and pointed to the loaf. "That is nice bread?"
"It is," said Ingleby. "Still, I don't see what that has to do with it."
"There's no bread like it in the Green River country," persisted Hetty. "They taught me to bake at the boarding-house. I made it."
Ingleby looked at her in astonishment. "Go on," he said. "I'll wait a little."
"Well," and though Hetty spoke quietly her voice was not quite her usual one, "what are you and Tom longing for just now more than anything?"
"The means to go on working on our claim."
"Then what would you say if I gave you them?"
Ingleby gasped. For days he had been haunted by the fear that their provisions would run out before they found the gold he believed in, for a little very simple figuring had shown that there was only a faint hope of their making more than the value of their day's labour once they relinquished the hitherto unprofitable claim. There was also, it was evident, no great probability that a mere wielder of pick and shovel would ever gain the regard of the Gold Commissioner's daughter, though Miss Coulthurst, whom he met occasionally, had of late been unusually gracious to him. He had, however, not the faintest notion of the fact that Hetty Leger read his thoughts.
"You see, it's quite simple," she said. "I made this bread, and there are men up the valley who are really finding gold. They don't want to waste a minute doing anything else, and it takes time to bake. You can't even make flapjacks in a moment. Now, if I had two or three sacks of flour I think I could get almost what I liked to ask for every loaf."
Leger looked up with a little expressive smile.
"I believe she has found the way out of the difficulty."
It was, however, Ingleby at whom Hetty glanced, though it did not strike him then – as it did long afterwards – that she must have been quite aware what she was offering him.
"Well?" she said.
Ingleby's lips were set, and his face a trifle grim. To live, even for the purpose of working for a result by which she would benefit, upon the yield of a woman's enterprise and toil did not commend itself to him, though he could not very well tell her so.
"We haven't got the flour," he said.
"No," said Hetty. "Still, it can be bought at the settlement, and no doubt you could find the pack-horses in the bush. You could go down and get it while Tom holds the claim."
"There is still the difficulty that I haven't got the money."
Hetty laughed. "I have. The wages were really good at the boarding-house. Of course, you and Tom could build the oven and chop the wood, while I wouldn't mind your kneading the dough either if you wanted to. That would leave me with nothing to do but watch the bread baking."
Ingleby still said nothing; but his face, as the firelight showed, was a trifle flushed, and Leger shook his head at him. "One can't afford to be whimsical up here," he said. "Anyway, I'm willing to give the thing a trial, and if we don't strike gold we can always go over to Tomlinson's or start baking, too. I shouldn't wonder if it should turn out as profitable as mining, and it is certainly likely to be a good deal more reliable."
Hetty once more glanced at Ingleby. "Of course, we can't make you join us if you don't want."
At last Ingleby turned to her. "Hetty," he said quietly, "I don't think you could understand how much you have done for me. I would sooner cut my hand off than let the claim go."
Hetty only smiled, and they had almost thrashed out the scheme when a thud of hoofs came up faintly through the roar of the river from the gorge below. Then the figure of a horseman became visible, and when he swung himself very stiffly from the saddle in front of the fire Ingleby rose hastily and held out his hand.
"Mr. Sewell!" he said. "I don't mean it conventionally, this – is – a pleasure."
The stranger, who swept his wide hat off as he turned to Hetty, laughed. "I have just come in. I wonder if I could ask – Mrs. Ingleby, isn't it – for a little supper?"
The request was a very usual one in a country where the stranger is rarely turned away unfed; but Hetty, who seemed to draw a little farther back into the shadow, was a trifle slow in answering it.
"Miss Leger!" she said. "Of course, you shall have supper. Put on two more trout and fill the kettle, Tom."
Sewell gratefully took his place beside the fire, and, for he had an engaging tongue, had almost gained Hetty's confidence, which was not lightly given, by the time the meal was over. Then she looked hard at him.
"What did you come here for?" she asked.
"Wouldn't the fame of the Green River mines be excuse enough?" said the man.
Hetty shook her head. "No," she said, "I don't think it would. People who talk as you do aren't generally fond of digging."
"Then finding I wasn't wanted in Vancouver I went back into the States, and as usual got into a trifling difficulty there. That was in Colorado, where the men and the manager of a certain big mine couldn't come to terms. The manager was, as not infrequently happens, friendly with the constituted authorities, and between them and the men's executive, with whom I managed to quarrel, they made that town unpleasant for me. Of course, one gets accustomed to having his character pulled to pieces and being hustled in the streets, but they go rather farther than that in Colorado."
"And so you ran away?"
Sewell laughed. "I certainly went when it was evident that I could do no good. Still, it was in the daylight, and half the populace came with me to the station."
"I asked you what brought you here," said Hetty severely.
Sewell made a little expressive gesture. "Between friends – I think I can go so far?" he asked, and it was Hetty alone he looked at. "You see, I met your brother and Mr. Ingleby in Vancouver."
Hetty regarded him silently for a moment or two. He was a well-favoured man with a curiously pleasing manner. "Yes," she said. "I think you can."
"Then I came here to see what I could do at mining – I have really used the shovel oftener than you seem to fancy – and, when it is necessary, go through by the Indian trail to the camps between this country and the Yukon. Though they will probably work on quietly while the ground is soft, they're not pleased with the mining regulations yonder."
He looked out into the soft blue darkness which now veiled the great white peaks that lay between him and the vast desolation of the Northwest, and the smile died out of his eyes. A few moments slipped by before Leger broke the silence.
"I believe that trail is scarcely practicable to a white man. Only one or two have ever tried it," he said.
"That is so much the better. I am, however, certainly going in."
There was a little silence, and then Ingleby said suggestively, "They have been sending a good many of the Northwest Police into that country."
Sewell smiled. "From one point of view I think they were wise. It's not the contented that one usually finds mining in the wilderness. The soil, of course, is British, but that, after all, does not imply very much."
"You mean that the men up there have no country?" asked Leger.
"Some of them, at least, have unpleasantly good memories. They are the cast-outs and the superfluities; but, as no doubt you know, it is not their criminals the older lands get rid of now."
"That," said Hetty sharply, "is all nonsense. If they're really bad they are put into prison."
Sewell laughed. "I believe they are, now and then. Now, suppose you tell me about the Green River country."
They sat late that night about the crackling fire, though there was a vague uneasiness upon two of them. Hetty liked the stranger, as a man, but she had seen that trouble came of following out the theories he believed in; while all Ingleby wished for just then was an opportunity for toiling quietly at his claim.
Sewell naturally slept in their tent, and it was not until he had breakfasted next morning that he rode into the valley. Ingleby walked with him a short distance, and as it happened they met Grace Coulthurst on the trail. She smiled as she passed Ingleby. Sewell, his companion fancied, looked at her harder than was necessary as he sat still in the saddle, a somewhat striking figure of a man, with his wide hat in his hand.
"Who is that?" he asked.
"Miss Coulthurst, daughter of the Gold Commissioner."
"There is no reason why a prospector shouldn't look at a queen, and she has a striking face. Of course, one would hardly call it beautiful – still, it is distinctly attractive."
"You have no doubt met a good many beautiful women of her station?" asked Ingleby, who was a trifle nettled and could not quite restrain the ironical question.
Sewell laughed. "Well," he said, "I have certainly come across one or two. Besides, I had rather a fancy that I might be an artist once – a good while ago."
Ingleby was duly astonished, but no more was said on the subject, and in another few minutes Sewell rode on up the valley alone.
It was as hot as it can be now and then during the fierce brief summer of the North, and the perspiration rose in beads on the Crown Recorder's face as he stood on the rude verandah of his log-built dwelling looking down at the tents and shanties which showed here and there amidst the pines. He was a little man with a quiet and almost expressionless face, and attired, although he lived far remote from civilization in the wilderness, with a fastidious neatness which with the erectness of his carriage furnished a hint as to his character. There was, however, nothing that any one could have termed finicking about him. He was precise, formal, and unemotional, a man of fixed opinions, as little to be moved by argument as by any attempt at compulsion, for Recorder Eshelby was one of the Insular Englishmen who, when entrusted with authority on the outskirts of the Empire, are equally capable of adding to their nation's credit or involving it in difficulties by their soulless and undeviating regard for its law. There are a good many of them, and, while occasionally respected, they are, as a rule, not greatly loved in any of England's dependencies.
Sitting in the shadowy room behind him a hard-bitten Canadian of a very different stamp watched Eshelby with an ironical twinkle in his eyes. He had won his promotion, on merit, in the Northwest Police, and there was red dust on his faded uniform, which showed a roughly stitched-up rent here and there.
Outside the sunglare was dazzling, and when he turned his eyes from Eshelby he could see the peaks gleaming with a hard whiteness against the blue. They were by no means high, for the level of perpetual snow is low in that country, and it was only on the eastern hand that they rose to any elevation. West and north a desolation of swamp muskeg, wherein few living creatures could face the mosquitoes, rock and river, stretched back to the Yukon, and Eshelby was there to carry out the mining laws of that district, which are less lenient than those of the province to the south of it.
The valley was very still, and the drowsy fragrance of the firs crept into the dwelling; but Slavin, who would sooner have heard the clatter of shovels or the crash of a blasting charge, was not in the least deceived. He knew that unusual quietness now and then presages storm, and he had felt that there was a tension in the atmosphere for some little time. He smiled, however, when Eshelby glanced into the room.
"If they do not turn up in another minute I will walk across to the outpost with you," said the latter. "The time is up."
He spoke concisely, with a clean English intonation, and, as usual, betrayed no impatience; but Slavin fancied he was by no means pleased at the fact that a band of miners with grievances should presume to keep him waiting for even a few moments.
"I guess they'll come," he said. "If I were you I'd promise them something if it's only to humour them."
Eshelby glanced at him coldly, for he was not as a rule addicted to considering any advice that might be offered him.
"A concession," he said, "is usually regarded as a sign of wavering. In dealing with a mob of this kind firmness is necessary."
Slavin made a little gesture, and smiled in a somewhat curious fashion. He had shepherded the Blackfeet on the plains, as well as put down whisky-runners and carried out the prohibition laws, and he knew that to gain an end one must yield a point occasionally. It was, however, not his business to instruct the Crown Recorder, and Eshelby seldom deviated a hair's-breadth from the course he had once decided on.
"Well," Slavin said, "I guess I hear them, and I'll stay right where I am. They can't see me in the shadow, and if they knew I was hanging round it might worry them. You don't want to hang out a red rag when you have a difference of opinion with a bull."
He moved his chair back a little farther from the door when a murmur of voices and patter of feet came up through the dimness beneath the stunted pines, for he was quite aware that his warning was not likely to restrain Eshelby from a display of the exasperating crimson on the smallest provocation. Then he leaned forward with a quiet intentness in his eyes as a group of men came out of the shadows. They were dressed for the most part in soil-stained jean, and were all of them spare of flesh and sinewy. They had bronzed faces with a significant grimness in them, and moved with a certain air of resolution that did not astonish Slavin. They were hard men – English, Canadians, Americans, Teutons, by birth – though that meant very little to most of them then; men who had faced many perils and borne as much privation as flesh and blood is capable of. To men of their kind all countries are the same, and they have not as a rule any particular tenderness for the land which had, in their phraseology, no use for them.
They had also, or, at least, so they thought, legitimate grievances; for the exactions of the Crown were heavy, and it is because the opinions of such as they were are seldom listened to that news now and then reaches England which is unpleasant to complacent optimists with Imperialistic views. The wonder is, however, that the latter are not more frequently disturbed in their tranquillity, for even when peace and prosperity are proclaimed at St. Stephen's there is usually, and probably must necessarily be, all round the fringe of the Empire a vague unrest which is occasionally rife with unpleasant probabilities. The men of the outer marches have primitive passions, and, or they would in all probability never have been there at all, an indomitable will. Slavin, at least, understood them, and knew that while it is well to keep a tight grasp on the reins, it is not always advisable to make those driven unduly sensible of it.
Two who came foremost stopped in front of the veranda, and one of them was a well-favoured man with restless dark eyes. Slavin fancied he had seen the picture of somebody very like him in an American paper. The rest waited a few yards away, and the man with the dark eyes greeted Eshelby, who responded with the curtest inclination, courteously.
"We have come for an answer to the request we handed you," he said.
Eshelby glanced at him coldly. "You are a free miner? What is the name on your certificate?"
"Sewell," said the other. "You may, perhaps, have heard of it?"
Slavin started a little, and then smiled to himself, for there was, at least, no sign in the Recorder's face that he attached any particular significance to the announcement.
"Well," he said, "I have, as I promised, glanced at what you are pleased to term your request, though it bears a somewhat unfortunate resemblance to a demand."
"We're not going to worry 'bout what you call it," said the man who had not spoken yet. "We have come here so you can tell us what you mean to do."
Eshelby smiled a little, though it would have been wiser if he had refrained from it.
"Personally," he said, "I can do nothing whatever."
There was a low murmur with an unpleasant note in it from the rest of the deputation. The curt non possumus is usually the last resource of the diplomatist when argument has failed, and it very seldom makes for peace, as everybody knows. Slavin wondered why the Crown authorities should have inflicted upon him such a man as Eshelby when his burden was already sufficiently heavy.
"Well," said the miner grimly, "something has got to be done. We let you know what we wanted. Haven't you anything to say?"
"Only that I shall send your petition to the proper quarter."
"I wonder," said Sewell drily, "if you would tell us what is likely to be done with it there?"
"It will receive attention when the department is at liberty to consider it."
Sewell laughed. "Presumably at any time during the next two years! Can you guarantee that it will not be neatly docketed and put away for ever?"
"And," said one of the men who stood behind, "we may be dead by then. How're we going to worry through when the snow comes and it's going to cost a fortune to get provisions in when the Crown takes the big share of what most of us make?"
Eshelby did not even look at the last speaker as he answered Sewell.
"I certainly can't guarantee anything," he said.
There was a little murmur from the men, but Sewell raised his hand restrainingly. "We had," he said, with a quietness which had, nevertheless, a suggestion of irony in it, "the honour of pointing out to you some of our difficulties and suggesting how they could be obviated. We may now take it that you can give us no assurance that the matter will even receive the attention we, at least, think necessary?"
"I am," said Eshelby, "not in a position to promise you anything. The petition will be submitted to men qualified to deal with it."
"With a recommendation that as the matter is urgent it should be looked into?"
Eshelby straightened himself a trifle. "My views will be explained to those in authority. I do not recognize any necessity for laying them before you."
The rest of the deputation had drawn a little closer to Sewell, and Slavin was watching their faces intently. He felt that unless they had confidence in their leader, and he was endued with all the qualities necessary for the part, there was trouble on hand. Sewell, who made a little forceful gesture as he glanced at the rest, was, however, apparently still master of the situation.
"Then," he said, "there is in the meanwhile nothing you can suggest?"
"I fancied you understood that already," said Eshelby. "If those whose business it is think fit to modify the regulations you complain of I will let you know. Unless that happens they will be adhered to as usual, rigorously."
His coldly even voice was in itself an aggravation, and Slavin, who saw one of the deputation move forward with a little glow in his eyes, rose sharply to his feet. He, however, sat down again next moment with a smile, for Sewell quietly laid his hand upon the man's arm, and the rest stood still in obedience to his gesture. Slavin was not astonished, for he, too, was a man who understood how to wield authority.
"Then," said Sewell, "we need not waste any more of your time. We have heard nothing that we did not expect, boys, and now we at least know where we stand."
He turned once more to Eshelby, raising his wide hat, and then moved back into the shadow of the pines, taking care, as Slavin noticed, that the others, who did not seem greatly desirous of doing so, went on in front of him. The Recorder glanced at Slavin complacently when they disappeared.
"A little firmness is usually effective in a case of this kind," he said. "I will, of course, send on the petition, but as I scarcely suppose it will be referred to again we can consider the affair as closed."скачать книгу бесплатно