[Frontispiece: "All had gone well the first day"]
By HAROLD BINDLOSS
Author of "Ranching for Sylvia," "Alton of Somasco," "Thurston of Orchard Valley," "By Right of Purchase," Etc.
With Frontispiece in Colors By
D. C. HUTCHISON
A. L. BURT COMPANY, PUBLISHERS
114-120 East Twenty-third Street New York
Published by Arrangement With Frederick A. Stokes Company
Copyright, 1914, by
FREDERICK A. STOKES COMPANY
All rights reserved
I THE BLAKE AFFAIR II ON THE RIVER BOAT III THE COUSINS IV THE MAN FROM CONNECTICUT V CORNERING THE BOBCAT VI THE PRAIRIE VII THE OCCULT MAN VIII TROUBLE IX A SUSPICIOUS MOVE X THE MUSKEG XI KIDNAPPED XII THE FEVER PATIENT XIII A STAUNCH ALLY XIV DEFEAT XV THE FROZEN NORTH XVI THE TRAIL OF THE CARIBOU XVII A RESPITE XVIII THE BACK TRAIL XIX THE DESERTED TEPEES XX A STARTLING DISCOVERY XXI A MATTER OF DUTY XXII THE GIRL AND THE MAN XXIII SOLVING THE PROBLEM XXIV LOVE AND VICTORY
THE BLAKE AFFAIR
On a fine morning early in July Mrs. Keith sat with a companion, enjoying the sunshine, near the end of Dufferin Avenue, which, skirts the elevated ground above the city of Quebec. Behind her rose the Heights of Abraham where the dying Wolfe wrested Canada from France; in front, churches, banks, offices and dwellings, curiously combining the old and the very new, rose tier on tier to the great red Frontenac Hotel. It is a picturesque city that climbs back from its noble river; supreme, perhaps, in its situation among Canadian towns, and still retaining something of the exotic stamp set upon it by its first builders whose art was learned in the France of long ago.
From where she sat Mrs. Keith could not see the ugly wooden wharves. Her glance rested on the flood that flowed toward her, still and deep, through a gorge lined with crags and woods, and then, widening rapidly, washed the shores of a low, green island. Opposite her white houses shone on the Levis ridge, and beyond this a vast sweep of country, steeped in gradations of color that ended in ethereal blue, rolled away toward the hills of Maine.
Mrs. Keith and her companion were both elderly. They had played their part in the drama of life, one of them in a strenuous manner, and now they were content with the position of lookers-on. So far, however, nothing had occurred since breakfast to excite their interest.
"I think I'll go to Montreal by the special boat tonight," Mrs. Keith said with characteristic briskness. "The hotel's crowded, the town's full, and you keep meeting people whom you know or have heard about. I came here to see Canada, but I find it hard to realize that I'm not in London; I'm tired of the bustle."
Mrs. Ashborne smiled. She had met Margaret Keith by chance in Quebec, but their acquaintance was of several years' standing.
"Tired?" she said. "That is sorely a new sensation for you. I've often envied you your energy."
Age had touched Mrs. Keith lightly, though she had long been a childless widow and had silvery hair. Tall and finely made, with prominent nose and piercing eyes, she was marked by a certain stateliness and a decided manner. She was blunt without rudeness, and though often forceful was seldom arrogant.
Careless of her dress, as she generally was, Margaret Keith bore the stamp of refinement and breeding, "Ah!" she said; "I begin to feel I'm old. But will you come to Montreal with me to-night?"
"I suppose I'd better, though the boat takes longer than the train, and I hear that the Place Viger is full. I don't know anything about the other hotels; they might not be comfortable."
"They'll no doubt be able to offer us all that we require, and I never pamper myself," Mrs. Keith replied. "In fact, it's now and then a relief to do something that's opposed to the luxuriousness of the age."
'This was a favorite topic, but she broke off as a man came toward her, carrying one or two small parcels which apparently belonged to the girl at his side. He was a handsome man, tall and rather spare, with dark eyes and a soldierly look. His movements were quick and forceful, but a hint of what Mrs. Keith called swagger somewhat spoiled his bearing. She thought he allowed his self-confidence to be seen too plainly. The girl formed a marked contrast to him; she was short and slender, her hair and eyes were brown, while her prettiness, for one could not have, called her beautiful, was of an essentially delicate kind. It did not strike one at first sight, but grew upon her acquaintances. Her manner was quiet and reserved and she was plainly dressed in white, but when she turned and dismissed her companion her pose was graceful. Then she handed Mrs. Keith some letters and papers.
"I have been to the post-office, and Captain Sedgwick made them search for our mail," she said. "It came some time ago, but there was a mistake through its not being addressed to the hotel."
Mrs. Keith took the letters and gave Mrs. Ashborne an English newspaper.
"The bobcat has torn a hole in the basket," the girl went on, "and I'm afraid it's trying to get at the mink."
"Tell some of the hotel people to take it out at once and see that the basket is sent to be mended."
The girl withdrew and Mrs. Ashborne looked up.
"Did I hear aright?" she asked in surprise. "She said a bobcat?"
Mrs. Keith laughed.
"I am making a collection of the smaller American animals. A bobcat is something like a big English ferret. It has high hindquarters, and walks with a curious jump—I suppose that is how it got its name. I'm not sure it lives in Canada; an American got this one for me. I find natural history very interesting."
"I should imagine you found it expensive. Aren't some of the creatures savage?"
"Millicent looks after them; and I always beat the sellers down. Fortunately, I can afford to indulge in my caprices. You can consider this my latest fad, if you like. I am subject to no claims, and my means are hardly large enough to make me an object of interest to sycophantic relatives."
"Is your companion fond of attending to wild animals?" Mrs. Ashborne inquired. "I have wondered where you got her. You have had a number, but she is different from the rest."
"I suppose you mean she is too good for the post?" Mrs. Keith suggested. "However, I don't mind telling you that she is Eustace Graham's daughter; you must have heard of him."
"Eustace Graham? Wasn't he in rather bad odor—only tolerated on the fringe of society? I seem to recollect some curious tales about him."
"Toward the end he was outside the fringe; indeed, I don't know how he kept on his feet so long; but he went downhill fast. A plucker of plump pigeons, an expensive friend to smart young subalterns and boys about town. Cards, bets, loans arranged, and that kind of thing. All the same, he had his good points when I first knew him."
"But after such a life as his daughter must have led, do you consider her a suitable person to take about with you? What do your friends think? They have to receive her now and then."
"I can't say that I have much cause to respect my friends' opinions, and I'm not afraid of the girl's contaminating me," Mrs. Keith replied. "Besides, Millicent lost her mother early and lived with her aunts until a few months before her father's death. I expect Eustace felt more embarrassed than grateful when she came to take care of him, but, to do him justice, he would see that none of the taint of his surroundings rested on the girl. He did wrong, but I think he paid for it, and it is better to be charitable."
She broke off, and glanced down at the big liner with cream-colored funnel that was slowly swinging across the stream.
"I must send Millicent to buy our tickets for Montreal," she said. "The hotel will be crowded before long with that steamer's noisy passengers. I shall be glad to escape from it all. Let us hope that Montreal will be quieter, and we shall have a chance to see a bit of Canada."
Mrs. Ashborne opened the Morning Post, and presently looked up at her companion.
"'A marriage—between Blanche Newcombe and Captain Challoner—at Thornton Holme, in Shropshire,'" she read out. "Do you know the bride?"
"I know Bertram Challoner better," Mrs. Keith replied, and was silent for a minute or two, musing on former days. "His mother was an old friend of mine—a woman of imagination, with strong artistic tastes; and Bertram resembles her. It was his father, the Colonel, who forced him into the army, and I'm somewhat astonished that he has done so well."
"They were all soldiers, I understand. But wasn't there some scandal about a cousin?"
"Richard Blake?" said Mrs. Keith, making room for Millicent Graham, her companion, who rejoined them. "It's getting an old story, and I always found it puzzling. So far as one could Judge, Dick, Blake should have made an excellent officer; his mother, the Colonel's sister, was true to the Challoner strain, his father a reckless Irish sportsman."
"But what was the story? I haven't heard it."
"After Blake broke his neck when hunting, the Colonel brought Dick up, and, as a matter of course, sent him into the army. He became a sapper, entering the Indian service. There he met his cousin, Bertram, who was in the line, somewhere on the frontier. They were both sent with an expedition into the hills, and there was a night attack. It was important that an advanced post should be defended, and Dick had laid out the trenches. In the middle of the fight an officer lost his nerve, the position was stormed, and the expedition terribly cut up. Owing to the darkness and confusion there was a doubt about who had led the retreat, but Dick was blamed and made no defense. In spite of this, he was acquitted at the inquiry, perhaps because he was a favorite and Colonel Challoner was well known upon the frontier; but the opinion of the mess was against him. He left the service, and the Challoners never speak of him."
"I once met Lieutenant Blake," Millicent broke in, with a flush in her face. "Though he spoke only a word or two to me, he did a very chivalrous thing; one that needed courage and coolness. I find it hard to believe that such a man could ever be a coward."
"So do I," Mrs. Keith agreed. "Still, I haven't seen him since he was a boy."
"I saw him in London just before he went to India," Mrs. Ashborne said. "It's strange I have never heard the story before; although I have had whispers of the scandal from several quarters. It seems to be a sort of skeleton in the closet' for the Challoners."
"The disgrace was a great blow to the Colonel. He has never got over it."
"I saw some one in the hotel last night that reminded me strongly of young Blake. But I suppose it couldn't have been."
"No one knows where he is," Mrs. Keith replied. "I believe he went to East Africa, and from there he may have drifted to America. The Colonel never hears from him."
She picked up one of her letters which had not yet been opened.
"This," she said, "is from Frances Foster—you know her. I'm sure it will contain news of the Challoner wedding."
She tore open the envelope and Mrs. Ashborne turned again to her English newspaper. Millicent sat looking out over the gorge, while her thoughts went back to a dimly lighted drawing-room in a small London apartment, where she was feeling very lonely and half dismayed, one evening soon after she had joined her father. A few beautiful objects of art were scattered among the shabby furniture; there were stains of wine on the fine Eastern rug, an inlaid table was scraped and damaged, and one chair had a broken leg. All she saw spoke of neglect and vanished prosperity. Hoarse voices and loud laughter came from an ad joining room, and a smell of cigar smoke accompanied them. Sitting at the piano, she restlessly turned over some music and now and then played a few bars to divert her troubled thoughts. Until a few weeks before, she had led a peaceful life in the country, and it had been a painful surprise to her to find her father of such doubtful character and habits. She was interrupted by the violent opening of the door, and a group of excited men burst into the room. They were shouting with laughter at a joke which made her blush, and one dragged a companion in by the arm. Another, breaking off from rude horse-play, came toward her with a drunken leer. She shrank from his hot face and wine-laden breath as she drew back, wondering how she could reach her father, who stood in the doorway trying to restrain his guests. Then a young man sprang forward, with disgust and anger in his brown face, and she felt that she was safe. He looked clean and wholesome by contrast with the rest, and his movements were swift and athletic. Millicent could remember him very well, for she had often thought of Lieutenant Blake with gratitude. Just as the tipsy gallant stretched out his hand to seize her, the electric light went out; there was a brief scuffle in the darkness, the door banged, and when the light flashed up again only Blake and her father were in the room. Afterward her father told her, with a look of shame on his handsome, dissipated face, that he had been afraid of something of the kind happening, and she must leave him. Millicent refused, for, worn as he was by many excesses, his health was breaking down; and when he fell ill she nursed him until he died. She had not seen Lieutenant Blake since.
Mrs. Keith's voice broke in upon her recollections. "It's possible we may see Bertram and the new Mrs. Challoner. She is going out with him, but they are to travel by the Canadian Pacific route and spend some time in Japan before proceeding to his Indian station." Referring to the date of her letter she resumed, "They may have caught the boat that has just come in; she's one of the railway Empresses, and there's an Allan liner due to-morrow. We will go to the hotel and try to get a list of the passengers."
She rose, and they walked slowly back along the avenue.
ON THE RIVER BOAT
Dusk was falling on the broad river, and the bold ridge behind the city stood out sharp and black against a fading gleam in the western sky. A big, sidewheel steamer, spotlessly white, with tiers of decks that towered above the sheds and blazed with light, was receiving the last of her passengers and preparing to cast off from her moorings. Richard Blake hurried along the wharf and, on reaching the gangplank, stood aside to let an elderly lady pass. She was followed by her maid and a girl whose face he could not see. It was a few minutes after the sailing time, and as the lady stepped on board a rope fell with a splash. There was a shout of warning as the bows, caught by the current, began to swing out into the stream, and the end of the gangplank slipped along the edge of the wharf. It threatened to fall into the river, and the girl was not yet on board. Blake leaped upon the plank. Seizing her shoulder, he drove her forward until a seaman, reaching out, drew her safe on deck. Then the paddles splashed and as the boat forged out into the stream, the girl turned and thanked Blake. He could not see her clearly, for an overarching deck cast a shadow on her face.
"Glad to have been of assistance; but I don't think you could have fallen in," he said. "The guy-rope they had on the gangplank might have held it up."
Turning away, he entered the smoking-room, where he spent a while over an English newspaper that devoted some space to social functions and the doings of people of importance, noticing once or twice, with a curious smile, mention of names he knew. He had the gift of making friends, and before he went to India he had met a number of men and women of note who had been disposed to like him. Then he had won the good opinion of responsible officers on the turbulent frontier and had made acquaintances that might have been valuable. Now, however, he had done with all that; he was banished from the world in which they moved, and if they ever remembered him it was, no doubt, as one who had gone under.
Shaking off these thoughts, he joined some Americans in a game of cards, and it was late at night when he went out into the moonlight as the boat steamed up Lake St. Peter. A long plume of smoke trailed across the cloudless sky, the water glistened with silvery radiance, and, looking over the wide expanse, he could see dark trees etched faintly on the blue horizon. Ahead, the lights of Three Rivers twinkled among square, black blocks of houses and tall sawmill stacks.
A few passengers were strolling about, but the English newspaper had made Blake restless, and he wanted to be alone. Descending to a quieter deck, he was surprised to see the girl he had assisted sitting in a canvas chair near the rail. Nearby stood several large baskets, from which rose an angry snarling.
"What is this?" he asked, with the careless abruptness which usually characterized him. "With your permission."
He raised a lid, while the girl watched him with amusement.
"Looks like a menagerie on a small scale," he remarked. "Are these animals yours?"
"No; they belong to Mrs. Keith."
"Mrs. Keith?" he said sharply. "The lady I saw at the Frontenac, with the autocratic manners? It's curious, but she reminds me of somebody I knew, and the name's the same. I wonder——"
He broke off, and Millicent Graham studied him as he stood in the moonlight. She did not think he recognized her, and perhaps he was hardly justified in supposing that his timely aid at the gangway dispensed with the need for an introduction, but she liked his looks, which she remembered well. She had no fear of this man's presuming too far; and his surprise when she mentioned Mrs. Keith, had roused her interest.
"Yes," she said; "I believe it was my employer you knew."
He did not follow this lead.
"Are you supposed to sit up all night and watch the animals for her?" he asked.
"Only for an hour or two. The steamboat people refused to have them in the saloon, and the maid should have relieved me. She was tired, however, with packing and running errands all day, and I thought I'd let her sleep a while."
"Then it can't be much of an intrusion if I try to make you more comfortable. Let me move your chair nearer the deckhouse, where you'll be out of the wind; but I'll first see if I can find another rug."
He left her without waiting for a reply, and, returning with a rug, placed her chair in a sheltered spot; then he leaned against the railing.
"So you are Mrs. Keith's companion," he observed. "It strikes me as rather unfeeling of her to keep you here in the cold." He indicated the baskets. "But what's her object in buying these creatures?"
"Caprice," Millicent smiled. "Some of them are savage, and they cost a good deal. I can't imagine what she means to do with them; I don't think she knows herself. One of them, however, has been growling all day, and as it's apparently unwell it mustn't be neglected."
"If it growls any more, I'll feel tempted to turn yonder hose upon it, or try some other drastic remedy."
"Please don't!" cried Millicent in alarm. "But you mustn't think Mrs. Keith is inconsiderate. I have much to thank her for; but she gets very enthusiastic over her hobbies."
"Do you know whether she ever goes down to a little place in Shropshire?"
"Yes; I have been with her. Once she took me to your old home." The color crept into Millicent's face. "You don't seem to remember me, Lieutenant Blake."
Blake had learned self-control and he did not start, though he came near doing so as he recalled a scene in which he had taken part some years earlier.
"It would have been inexcusable if I had forgotten you," he responded with a smile. "Still, I couldn't quite place you until a few moments ago, when you faced the light. But you were wrong in one thing: I'm no longer Lieutenant Blake."
She appreciated the frankness which had prompted this warning, and she saw that she had made a tactless blunder, but she looked at him steadily.
"I forgot," she said; "forgive me. I heard of—what happened in India—but I knew that there must have been some mistake." She hesitated for a moment. "I think so now."
Blake made a sudden movement, and then leaned back against the railing.
"I'm afraid that an acquaintance which lasted three or four minutes could hardly enable you to judge: first impressions are often wrong, you know. Anyway, I don't complain of the opinion of gentlemen who knew more about me."
Millicent saw that the subject must be dropped.
"At our first meeting," she said, "I had no opportunity for thanking you; and you gave me none tonight. It's curious that, while I've met you only twice, on both occasions you turned up just when you were needed. Is it a habit of yours?"
"That's a flattering thing to hint. The man who's always on hand when he's wanted is an estimable person."
He studied her with an interest which she noticed but could not resent. The girl had changed and gained something since their first meeting, and he thought it was a knowledge of the world. She was, he felt, neither tainted nor hardened by what she had learned, but her fresh childish look which suggested ignorance of evil had gone and could not come back. Indeed, he wondered bow she had preserved it in her father's house. This was not a matter he could touch upon; but presently she referred to it.
"I imagine," she said shyly, "that on the evening when you came to my rescue in London you were surprised to find me—so unprepared; so incapable of dealing with the situation."
"That is true," Blake answered with some awkwardness. "A bachelor dinner, you know, after a big race meeting at which we had backed several winners! One has to make allowances."
Millicent smiled rather bitterly.
"You may guess that I had to make them often in those days; but it was on the evening we were speaking of that my eyes were first opened, and I was startled. But you must understand that it was not by my father's wish that I came to London and stayed with him—until the end. He urged me to go away; but his health had broken down and he had no one else to care for him. When he was no longer able to get about, everybody deserted him, and he felt it."
"I was truly sorry to hear of his death," Blake said. "Your father was once a very good friend to me. But, if I may ask, how was it he let you come to his flat?"
"I forced myself upon him. My mother died long ago, and her unmarried sisters took care of me. They lived very simply in a small secluded country house: two old-fashioned Evangelicals, gentle but austere, studying small economies, giving all they could away. In winter we embroidered for missionary bazaars; in summer we spent the days in a quiet, walled garden. It was all very peaceful, but I grew restless; and when I heard that my father's health was failing I felt that I must go to him. My aunts were grieved and alarmed, but they said they dare not hinder me if I thought it my duty."
Stirred by troubled memories and perhaps encouraged by the sympathy he showed, she had spoken on impulse without reserve, and Blake listened with pity. The girl, brought up, subject to wholesome Puritanical influences, in such surroundings as she had described, must have suffered a cruel shock when suddenly plunged into the society of the rakes and gamblers who frequented her father's flat.
"Could you not have gone back when you were no longer needed?" he asked.
"No," she said; "it would not have been fair. I had changed since I left my aunts. They were very sensitive, and I think the difference they must have noticed in me would have jarred on them. I should have brought something alien into their unworldly life. It was too late to return; I had to follow the path I had chosen."
Blake mused a while, watching the lights of Three Rivers fade astern and the broad white wake of the paddles stream back across the glassy surface of the lake. The girl must have learned much of human failings since she left her sheltered home, but he thought the sweetness of character which could not be spoiled by knowledge of evil was greatly to be admired. He was, however, a man of action and not a philosopher.
"Well," he said, "I appreciate your letting me talk to you; but it's cold and getting late, and you have sat on deck long enough. I'll see that somebody looks after the animals."
Millicent felt dubious, though she was sleepy and tired.
"If anything happened to her pets, Mrs. Keith would not forgive me."
"I'll engage that something will happen to some of them very soon unless you promise to go to your room," Blake laughed. Then he called a deckhand. "What have you to do?"
"Stand here until the watch is changed."
"Then, you can keep an eye on these baskets. If any of the beasts makes an alarming noise, send to my room, the second, forward, port side. Look me up before we get to Montreal."
"That's all right, sir," replied the man.
Blake turned to Millicent and held out his hand as she rose.
"Now," he said, "you can go to rest with a clear conscience."
She left him with a word of thanks, wondering whether she had been indiscreet, and why she had told him so much. She knew nothing to his advantage except one chivalrous action, and she had not desired to arouse his pity, but he had an honest face and had shown an understanding sympathy which touched her, because she had seldom experienced it. He had left the army with a stain upon his name; but she felt very confident that he had not merited his disgrace.
Dinner was over at the Windsor, in Montreal, and Mrs. Keith was sitting with Mrs. Ashborne in the square between the hotel and St. Catharine's Street. A cool air blew uphill from the river, and the patch of grass with its fringe of small, dusty trees had a certain picturesqueness in the twilight. Above it the wooded crest of the mountain rose darkly against the evening sky; lights glittered behind the network of thin branches and fluttering leaves along the sidewalk, and the dome of the cathedral bulked huge and shadowy across the square. Downhill, toward St. James's, rose towering buildings, with the rough-hewn front of the Canadian Pacific station prominent among them, and the air was filled with the clanging of street-cars and the tolling of locomotive bells. Once or twice, however, when the throb of the traffic momentarily subsided, music rose faint and sweet from the cathedral, and Mrs. Keith turned to listen. She had heard the uplifted voices before, through her open window in the early morning when the city was silent and its busy toilers slept, and now it seemed to her appropriate that they could not be wholly drowned by its hoarse commercial clamor.
The square served as a cool retreat for the inhabitants of crowded tenements and those who had nowhere else to go, but Margaret Keith was not fastidious about her company. She was interested in the unkempt immigrants who, waiting for a west-bound train, lay upon the grass, surrounded by their tired children; and she had sent Millicent down the street to buy fruit to distribute among the travelers. She liked to watch the French Canadian girls who slipped quietly up the broad cathedral steps. They were the daughters of the rank and file, but their movements were graceful and they were tastefully dressed. Then the blue-shirted, sinewy men, who strolled past, smoking, roused her curiosity. They had not acquired their free, springy stride in the cities; these were adventurers who had met with strange experiences in the frozen North and the lonely West. Some of them had hard faces and a predatory air, but that added to their interest. Margaret Keith liked to watch them all, and speculate about their mode of life; that pleasure could still be enjoyed, though, as she sometimes told herself with humorous resignation, she could no longer take a very active part in things.
Presently, however, something that appealed to her in a more direct and personal way occurred, for a man came down the steps of the Windsor and crossed the well-lighted street with a very pretty English girl. He carried himself well, and had the look of a soldier; his figure was finely proportioned; but his handsome face suggested sensibility rather than decision of character, and his eyes were dreamy. His companion, so far as Mrs. Keith could judge by her smiling glance as she laid her hand upon his arm when they left the sidewalk, was proud of him, and much in love with him.
"Whom are you looking at so hard?" Mrs. Ashborne inquired.
"Bertram Challoner and his bride," said Mrs. Keith. "They're coming toward us yonder."
Then a curious thing happened, for a man who was crossing the street seemed to see the Challoners and, turning suddenly, stepped back behind a passing cab. They had their backs to him when he went on, but he looked around, as if to make sure he had not been observed, before he entered the hotel.
"That was strange," said Mrs. Ashborne. "It looked as if the fellow didn't want to meet our friends. Who can he be?"
"How can I tell?" Mrs. Keith answered. "I think I've seen him somewhere, but that's all I know."
Looking around as Millicent joined them, she noticed the girl's puzzled expression. Millicent had obviously seen the stranger's action, but Mrs. Keith did not wish to pursue the subject then; and the next moment Challoner came up and greeted her heartily, while his wife spoke to Mrs. Ashborne.
"We arrived only this afternoon, and must have missed you at dinner," he said. "We may go West to-morrow, though we haven't decided yet. I've no doubt we shall see you again to-night or at breakfast."
After a few pleasant words the Challoners passed on, and Mrs. Keith looked after them thoughtfully.
"Bertram has changed in the last few years," she said. "I heard that he had malaria in India, and that perhaps accounts for it, but he shows signs of his mother's delicacy. She was not strong, and I always thought he had her highly strung nervous temperament, though he must have learned to control it in the army."
"He couldn't have got in unless the doctors were satisfied with him," Mrs. Ashborne pointed out.
"That's true; but both mental and physical traits have a way of lying dormant while we're young, and developing later. Bertram has shown himself a capable officer; but, to my mind, he looked more like a soldier when he was at Sandhurst than he does now."
Mrs. Ashborne glanced toward Millicent, who was distributing a basket of peaches among a group of untidy immigrant children. One toddling baby clung to her skirt.
"What a charming picture! Miss Graham fits the part well. You can see that she's sorry for the dirty little beggars. They don't look as if they'd had a happy time; and a liner's crowded steerage isn't a luxurious place."
Mrs. Keith smiled as Millicent came toward her with a few of the small children clustered round her.
"I have some English letters to write," she said; "and I think we'll go in."
The Challoners did not leave for the West the next day. About an hour before sunset they leaned upon the rails of a wooden gallery built out from the rock on the summit of the green mountain that rises close behind Montreal. It is a view-point that visitors frequent, and they gazed with appreciation at the wide landscape. Wooded slopes led steeply down to the stately college buildings of McGill and the rows of picturesque houses along Sherbrook Avenue; lower yet, the city, shining in the clear evening light, spread across the plain, dominated by its cathedral dome and the towers of Notre Dame. Green squares with trees in them checkered the blocks of buildings; along its skirts, where a haze of smoke hung about the wharves, the great river gleamed in a broad silver band. On the farther bank the plain ran on again, fading from green to gray and purple, until it melted into the distance, and the hills on the Vermont frontier cut, faintly blue, against the sky.
"How beautiful this world is!" Challoner exclaimed. "I have seen grander sights, and there are more picturesque cities than Montreal—I'm looking forward to showing you the work of the Moguls in India—but happiness such as I've had of late casts a glamour over everything. It wasn't always so with me; I've had my bad hours when I was blind to beauty."
Though Blanche Challoner was very young, and much in love, she ventured a smiling rebuke.
"You shouldn't wish to remember them; I'm afraid, Bertram, there's a melancholy strain in you, and I don't mean to let you indulge in it. Besides, how could you have had bad hours? You have been made much of, and given everything you could wish for, since you were a boy. Indeed, I sometimes wonder how you escaped from being spoiled."
"When I joined the army, I hated it; that sounds like high treason, doesn't it? However, I got used to things, and made art my hobby instead of my vocation. You won't mind if I confess that a view of this kind makes me long to paint?"
"Oh, no; I intend to encourage you. You mustn't waste your talent. When we stay among the Rockies we will spend the days in the most beautiful places we can find, and I shall take my pleasure in watching you at work. But didn't your fondness for sketching amuse the mess?"
"I used to be chaffed about it, but I repaid my tormentors by caricaturing them. On the whole, they were very good-natured."
"I am sure they admired the drawings; they ought to have done so, anyway. You have talent. Indeed, I never quite understood why you became a soldier."
"I think it was from a want of moral courage; you have seen that determination is not among my virtues. If you knew my father very well, you would understand. Though he's fond of pictures, he looks upon artists and poets as a rather effeminate and irresponsible set, and I must admit that he has met one or two unfavorable specimens. Then, he couldn't imagine the possibility of a son of his not being anxious to follow the family profession; and, knowing how my defection would grieve him, I let him have his way. There has always been a Challoner fighting or ruling in India since John Company's time."
"They must have been fine men, by their portraits. There's one of a Major Henry Challoner I fell in love with. He was with Outram, wasn't he? You have his look, though there's a puzzling difference. I think those men were bluffer and blunter than you are. You're gentler and more sensitive; in a way, finer drawn."
"My sensitiveness has not been a blessing," said Challoner soberly.
"But it makes you lovable," Blanche declared. "There must have been a certain ruthlessness about those old Challoners which you couldn't show. After all, their pictures suggest that their courage was of the unimaginative, physical kind."
A shadow crept into Challoner's face, but he banished it.
"I am happy in having a wife who won't see my faults." Then he added humorously: "After all, however, that's not good for one."
Blanche gave him a tender smile; but he did not see it, for he was gazing at a man who came down the steps from the neighboring cable railway. The newcomer was about thirty years old, of average height, and strongly made. His face was deeply sunburned and he had eyes of a curious dark blue, with a twinkle in them, and dark lashes, though his hair was fair. As he drew nearer, Blanche was struck by something that suggested the family likeness of the Challoners. He had their firm mouth and wide forehead, but by no means their somewhat austere expression. He looked as if he went carelessly through life and could readily be amused. Then he saw Bertram, and, starting, made as if he would pass the entrance to the gallery, and Blanche turned her surprised glance upon her husband. Bertram's hand was tightly closed on the glasses he held, and his face was tense and flushed, but he stepped forward with a cry:
The newcomer moved toward him, and Blanche knew that he was the man who had brought dishonor upon her husband's family.
"This is a fortunate meeting," Bertram said, and his voice was cordial, though rather strained. "Blanche, here's my cousin, Dick Blake."
Blake showed no awkwardness. Indeed, on the whole, he looked amused; but his face grew graver as he fixed his eyes on Mrs. Challoner.
"Though I'm rather late, you'll let me wish you happiness," he said. "I believe it will be yours. Bertram's a good fellow; I have much to thank him for."
There was a sincerity and a hint of affection in his tone, and Bertram looked uncomfortable.
"But how did you come here?" Bertram asked, as if to turn the conversation from himself. "Where have you been since——"
He stopped abruptly, and Blake laughed.
"Since you surreptitiously said good-by to me at Peshawur? Well, after that I went to Penang, and from there to Queensland. Stayed a time at a pearl-fishing station among the Kanakas, and then went to England for a few months."
"But how did you manage?" Bertram inquired with some diffidence. "It raises a point you wouldn't let me talk about at Peshawur, but I've often felt guilty because I didn't insist. Traveling about as you have done is expensive."
"Not to me," Blake explained with a twinkle. "I've turned adventurer, and I have the Blake gift of getting along without money." He added in an explanatory aside to Blanche: "For two or three generations we kept open house and a full stable in Ireland, on a revenue derived from rents which were rarely paid, and if I hadn't been too young when a disaster gave the creditors their chance. I'd have given them a sporting run."
"But what did you do when you left England?" Bertram broke in.
"Went to East Africa; after that, to this country, where I tried my hand at prairie farming. Found it decidedly monotonous and sold the homestead at a profit. Then I did some prospecting, and now I'm here on business."
"On business!" Bertram exclaimed. "You could never be trusted to get proper value for a shilling!"
"I've learned to do so lately, and that's not going far. If you're in commerce in this country, you must know how to put down fifty cents and take up a dollar's worth. Anyhow, I'm here to meet an American whose acquaintance I made farther West. He's a traveler in paints and varnishes, and a very enterprising person, as well as an unusually good sort. But I've told you enough about myself; I want your news."
Blanche thought it cost her husband an effort to fall in with his cousin's casual mood. Blake, however, seemed quite at ease, and she was growing interested in him. He reminded her of the Challoner portraits in the dark oak gallery at Sandymere, but she thought him lighter, more brilliant, and, in a sense, more human than those stern soldiers. Then she remembered that his Irish blood explained something.
They talked a while about English friends and relatives; and then Blake asked rather abruptly:
"And the Colonel?"
"Well," said Bertram, "I heard that you saw him, Dick."
"I did, for half an hour. I felt that it was my duty, though the interview was hard on us both. He was fair, as he always was, and tried to hide his feelings. I couldn't blame him because he failed."
Bertram looked away, and Blake's face was troubled. There was a hint of emotion in his voice as he went on, turning to Blanche:
"Whatever he may think of me, I have a sincere respect for Colonel Challoner; and I owe him more than I can ever repay. He brought me up after my father's death and started me, like a son, in an honorable career." His tone grew lighter. "It's one of my few virtues that I don't forget my debts. But I've kept you some time. My American friend hasn't turned up yet and I may be here a few days. Where are you staying? I'll look you up before I leave."
"We go West to-morrow morning. Come down and have dinner with us at the Windsor," Bertram said; and when Mrs. Challoner seconded the request, they went up the steps to the platform from which the cable train started.
THE MAN FROM CONNECTICUT
After an excellent dinner, Mrs. Keith took Blanche away, and the men found a quiet corner in the rotunda, where they sat talking for a while.
"I have an appointment to keep and must go in a few minutes," Blake said, glancing at his watch. "Make my excuses to your wife; I shall not see her again. It would be better: there's no reason why she should be reminded of anything unpleasant now. She's a good woman, Bertram, and I'm glad she didn't shrink from me. It would have been a natural thing, but I believe she was sorry and was anxious to make all the allowances she could."
Challoner was silent for a few moments, his face showing signs of strain.
"I don't deserve her, Dick; the thought of it troubles me. She doesn't know me for what I really am!"
"Rot!" Blake exclaimed. "It's your misfortune that you're a sentimentalist with a habit of exaggerating things; but if you don't indulge in your weakness too much, you'll go a long way. You showed the true Challoner pluck when you smoked out that robbers' nest in the hills, and the pacification of the frontier valley was a smart piece of work. When I read about the business I never thought you would pull it off with the force you had. It must have impressed the authorities, and you'll get something better than your major's commission before long. I understand that you're already looked upon as a coming man."
It was a generous speech, but it was justified, for Challoner had shown administrative as well as military skill in the affairs his cousin mentioned. However, he still looked troubled, and his color was higher than usual.
"Dick," he said, "you know all I owe to you. I wish you would let me repay you in the only way I can. You know———"
"No," Blake interrupted curtly; "it's impossible! Your father made me a similar offer, and I couldn't consent. I suppose I have the Blakes' carelessness about money, but what I get from my mother's little property keeps me on my feet." He laughed as he went on: "It's lucky that your people, knowing the family failing, arranged matters so that the principal could not be touched. Besides, I've a plan for adding to my means."
Bertram dropped the subject. Dick was often rather casual and inconsequent, but there was a stubborn vein in him. When he took the trouble to think a matter out he was apt to prove immovable.
"Anyway, you will let me know how you get on?"
"I think not. What good would it do? While I'm grateful, it's better that the Challoners should have nothing more to do with me. Think of your career, keep your wife proud of you—she has good reason for being so—and let me go my way and drop out of sight again. I'm a common adventurer and have been mixed up in matters that fastidious people would shrink from—which may happen again. Still, I manage to get a good deal of pleasure out of the life; it suits me in many ways." He rose, holding out his hand. "Good-by, Bertram. We may run across each other somewhere again."
"I'll always be glad to do so," Challoner said with feeling. "Be sure I won't forget what a generous thing you've done for me, Dick."
Blake turned away, but when he left the hotel his face was sternly set. It had cost him something to check his cousin's friendly advances and break the last connection between himself and the life he once had led; but he knew it must be broken, and he felt no pang of envious bitterness. For many years Bertram had been a good and generous friend, and Blake sincerely wished him well.
The Challoners left by the Pacific Express the next morning, and that evening a group of men were engaged in conversation at one end of the hotel rotunda. One was a sawmill owner; another served the Hudson Bay Company in the northern wilds; the third was a young, keen-eyed American, quick in his movements and concise in speech.
"You're in lumber, aren't you?" he said, taking a strip of wood from his pocket and handing it to the mill owner. "What would you call this?"
"Cedar, sawn from a good log."
"That's so; red cedar. You know something about that material?"
"I ought to, considering how much of it I've cut. Been in the business for twenty years."
The American took out another strip.
"The same stuff, sir. How would you say it had been treated?"
The sawmill man carefully examined the piece of wood.
"It's not French polish, but I've never seen varnish as good as this. Except that it's clear and shows the grain, it's more like some rare old Japanese lacquer."
"It is varnish. Try to scrape it with your knife."
The man failed to make a mark on it, and the American looked at him with a smile.
"What would you think of it as a business proposition?"
"If not too dear, it ought to drive every other high-grade varnish off the market. Do you make the stuff?"
"We're not ready to sell it yet: can't get hold of the raw material in quantities, and we're not satisfied about the best flux. I'll give you my card."
It bore the address of a paint and varnish factory in Connecticut, with the words, "Represented by Cyrus P. Harding," at the bottom.
"Well," said the lumber man, "you seem to have got hold of a good thing, Mr. Harding; but if you're not open to sell it, what has brought you over here?"
"I'm looking round; we deal in all kinds of paints, and miss no chance of a trade. Then I'm going 'way up Northwest. Is there anything doing in my line there?"
"Not much," the Hudson Bay man answered him. "You may sell a few kegs along the railroad track, but as soon as you leave it you'll find no paint required. The settlers use logs or shiplap and leave them in the raw. The trip won't pay you."
"Well, I'll see the country, and find out something about the coniferous gums."
"They're soft and resinous. Don't you get the material you make good varnish of from the tropics?"
"You people don't know your own resources. There's 'most everything a white man needs right on this American continent, if he'll take the trouble to look for it. Lumber changes some of its properties with the location in which it grows, I guess. We have pines in Florida, but when you get right up to their northern limit you'll find a difference."
"There's something in that," the sawmill man agreed.
"If you're going up to their northern limit, you'll see some of the roughest and wildest country on this earth," declared the Hudson Bay agent. "It's almost impossible to get through in summer unless you stick to the rivers, and to cross it in winter with the dog sleds is pretty tough work."
"So I've heard." said Harding. "Well, I'm going to take a smoke. Will you come along?"
They declined, and when he left them one smiled at the other.
"They're smart people across the frontier, but to send a man into the northern timber belt looking for paint trade openings or resin they can make varnish of is about the limit to commercial enterprise."
Harding was leaning back in his chair in the smoking-room with a frown on his face when Blake joined him. He had a nervous, alert look, and was dressed with fastidious neatness.
"So you have come along at last!" he remarked in an ironical tone. "Feel like getting down to business, or shall we put it off again?"
"Sorry I couldn't come earlier," Blake replied. "Somehow or other I couldn't get away. Things kept turning up to occupy me."
"It's a way they seem to have. Your trouble is that you're too diffuse; you spread yourself out too much. You want to fix your mind on one thing; and that will have to be business as soon as we leave here."
"I dare say you're right. My interest's apt to wander; but if you take advantage of every opportunity that offers, you get most out of life. Concentration's good; but if you concentrate on a thing and then don't get it, you begin to think what a lot of other things you've missed."
"That may be all right," said Harding dubiously; "but we're going to concentrate on business right now. I have a wife, and I don't forget it. Marianna—that's Mrs. Harding—is living in a two-room tenement, making her own dresses and cooking on a gasoline stove, so's to give me my chance for finding the gum. And I'm here in an expensive hotel, where I've made about two dollars' commission in three days. We have got to pull out as soon as possible. Did you get any information from the Hudson Bay man?"
"I learned something about our route through the timber belt, and the kind of camp outfit we'll want; the temperature's often fifty below in winter. Then I was in Revillons', looking at their cheaper furs, and in a store where they supply especially light hand-sleds, snowshoes, and patent cooking cans. We must have these things good, and I estimate they'll cost about six hundred dollars."
"Six hundred dollars will make a big hole in our capital."
"I'm afraid so, but we can't run the risk of freezing to death; and we may have to spend all winter in the wilds."
"That's true; I don't go back until I find the gum."
Harding's tone was resolute, and when he leaned forward, musing, with knitted brows, Blake gave him a sympathetic glance. Harding had entered the paint factory when a very young man, and had studied chemistry in his scanty spare time, with the object of understanding his business better. He found the composition of varnishes an interesting subject, and as the best gums employed came from the tropics and were expensive he began to experiment with the exudations from American trees. His employers hinted that he was wasting his time, but Harding continued, trying to test a theory that the texture and hardness of the gums might depend upon climatic temperature. By chance, a resinous substance which had come from the far North fell into his hands, and he found that, when combined with an African gum, it gave astonishing results. Before this happened, however, his employers had sent him out on the road; and as they were sceptical about his discovery and he would not take them fully into his confidence, they merely promised to keep his place open for a time. Now he was going to search for the gum at his own expense.
"We'll order the outfit in the morning," he said presently, glancing toward a man who sat across the room. "Do you think that fellow Clarke can hear? I've a notion that he's been watching us."
"Does it matter?"
"You must bear in mind that we have a valuable secret; and I understand that he lives somewhere in the country we are going through."
As he spoke, the Hudson Bay agent came in and walked over to Clarke.
"That was good stuff you gave me a dose of last night," he said to him. "It cured my ague right off."
"It's a powerful drug," Clarke answered, "and must be used with discretion. If you feel you need it, I'll give you another dose. It's an Indian remedy; I learned the secret up in the timber belt, but I Spent some time experimenting before I was satisfied about its properties."
"Then you get on with Indians?"
"Yes," Clarke said shortly. "It isn't difficult when you grasp their point of view. You ought to know something about that. On the whole, the Hudson Bay people treat the Indians well; there was a starving lad you picked up suffering from snow-blindness near Jack-pine River and sent back safely to his tribe."
"That's so; but I don't know how you knew. I'm sure I haven't talked about it, and my clerk has never left the factory. There wasn't another white man within a week's Journey."
"I heard, all the same. You afterward had some better furs than usual brought in."
The agent looked surprised.
"Some of these people are grateful, but although I've been in the country twelve years I don't pretend to understand them."
"They understand you. The proof of it is that you can keep your factory open in a district where furs are rather scarce, and you have had very few mishaps. You can take that as a compliment."
Blake noticed something significant in Clarke's tone.
"Then you know the Jack-pine?" the agent asked.
"Pretty well, though it's not easy to reach. I came down it one winter from the Wild-goose hills. I'd put in the winter with a band of Stonies."
"The Northern Stonies? Did you find them easy to get on with?"
"They knew some interesting things," Clarke answered dryly. "I went there to study."
"Ah!" said the agent. "What plain folk, for want of a better name, call the occult. But it's fortunate that there's a barred door between white men and the Indian's mysticism."
"It has been opened to a white man once or twice."
"Oh, yes! He stepped through into the darkness and never came out again. There was an instance I could mention."
"Civilized people would have no use for him afterward," Harding broke in. "We want sane, normal men on this continent. Neurotics, hoodoos and fakirs are worse than the plague; there's contagion in their fooling."
"How would you define them? Those who don't fit in with your ideas of the normal?" Clarke sneered.
"I know a clean, straight man when I meet him, and that's enough for me," Harding retorted.
"I imagine that cleverer people are now and then deceived," said Clarke, moving away as he spoke.
"That's a man I want to keep clear of," Harding declared. "There's something wrong about him; he's not wholesome!"
CORNERING THE BOBCAT
The next evening Harding was taking out a cigar in the vestibule when a man brushed past him wearing big mittens and a loose black cloak such as old-fashioned French-Canadians sometimes use.
"Why, Blake!" he cried. "What have you got on? Have you been serenading somebody?"
"I can't stop," Blake answered with a grin. "Open that door for me—quick!"
A porter held back the door, but as Blake slipped through, Harding seized his cloak.
"Hold on! I want a talk with you!"
Blake made an effort to break loose, and as he did so a bobcat dropped from beneath his arm and fell, spitting and snarling, to the floor. Its fur was torn and matted, tufts were hanging loose, and the creature had a singularly disreputable and ferocious appearance. Blake made an attempt to recapture it, but, evading him easily, it ran along the floor with a curious hopping gait and disappeared among the pillars. Then he turned to his friend with a rueful laugh.
"You see what you've done! It's gone into the rotunda, where everybody is."
Harding looked at him critically.
"You seem sober. What ever possessed you to get yourself up like an Italian opera villain and go round the town with a wild beast under your arm?"
"I'll tell you later," Blake laughed. "What we have to do now is to catch the thing."
"It's time," drawled Harding. "The circus is beginning."
Men's laughter and women's shrieks rose from the rotunda. Somebody shouted orders in French, there was a patter of running feet, and then a crash as of chairs being overturned. Blake sprang in, and Harding followed, divided between amusement and impatience. They saw an animated scene. Two porters were chasing the bobcat, which now and then turned upon them savagely, while several waiters, keeping at a judicious distance, tried to frighten it into a corner by flourishing their napkins. Women fled out of the creature's way, men hastily moved chairs and tables to give the pursuers room, and some of the more energetic joined in the chase. At one end of the room, Mrs. Keith stood angrily giving instructions which nobody attended to. Millicent, standing near her, looked hot and unhappy, but for all that her eyes twinkled when a waiter, colliding with a chair, went down with a crash and the bobcat sped away from him in a series of awkward jumps.
At last, Blake managed to seize it with his mittened hands. He rolled it in a cloth and gave it to a porter, and then advanced toward Mrs. Keith, his face red with exertion but contrite, and the cloak, which had come unhooked, hanging down from one shoulder. She glanced at him in a puzzled, half-disturbed manner when he stopped.
"As the cat belongs to me," she said imperiously, "and as I'm told you dropped it in the vestibule, I feel that I'm entitled to an explanation. I gave the animal to my maid this morning, sending Miss Graham to see it delivered to a veterinary surgeon, and it disappeared. May I ask how it came into your possession?"
"Through no fault of Miss Graham's, I assure you. I happened to notice your maid trying to carry an awkwardly shaped hamper, and Miss Graham looking for a cab. It struck me the thing was more of a man's errand and I undertook it."
"It's curious that you knew what the errand was, unless Miss Graham told you." Mrs. Keith looked sternly at Millicent, and the girl blushed. "I have been led to believe that you made her acquaintance, without my knowledge, on board the steamer by which we came up."
"That," said Blake respectfully, "is not quite correct. I was formally presented to Miss Graham in England some time ago. However, as I saw a car coming along St. Catharine's while your maid was looking for a hack, and there was no time to explain, I scribbled a note on a bit of a letter and gave it to a boy to deliver to Miss Graham, and then I took the cat to a taxidermist."
"To a taxidermist! Why?"
"It struck me that he ought to know something about the matter. Anyway, he was the nearest approach to a vet that I could find."
Mrs. Keith looked at him thoughtfully.
"You seem to have a curious way of reasoning. What did the man say?"
"He promised to engage the services of a dog-fancier friend of his."
"You imagined that a dog-fancier would specialize in cats?"
Millicent's eyes twinkled, but Mrs. Keith's face was serious and Blake's perfectly grave.
"I don't know that I argued the matter out. To tell the truth, I undertook the thing on impulse."
"So it seems. But you haven't told me what became of my hamper."
"The hamper was unfortunately smashed. I left it at a basket shop; and that explains the cloak. My friend, the taxidermist, insisted on lending it and his winter gloves to me. One looks rather conspicuous walking through the streets with a bobcat on one's arm."
Then, to Blake's astonishment, Mrs. Keith broke into a soft laugh.
"I understand it all," she said. "It was a prank one would expect you to play. Though it's a very long time since I saw you, you haven't changed, Dick. Now take that ridiculous cloak off and come back and talk to me."
When Blake returned, Millicent had gone, and Mrs. Keith noticed the glance he cast about the room.
"I sent Miss Graham away," she said. "You have been here some days. Why didn't you tell me who you were?"
"I wasn't sure you would be willing to acknowledge me," he answered frankly.
"Oh, I never quite agreed with the popular opinion about what you were supposed to have done. It wasn't like you; there must have been something that did not come out."
"Thank you," Blake said quietly.
She gave him a searching glance.
"Can't you say something for yourself?" she urged.
"I think not. The least said, the soonest mended, you know."
"But for the sake of others."
"So far as I know, only one person was much troubled about my disgrace. I'm thankful my father died before it came."
"Your uncle felt it very keenly. He was furious when the first news arrived, and refused to believe you were to blame. Then, when Major Allardyce wrote, he scarcely spoke for the rest of the day, and it was a long time before he recovered from the blow; I was staying at Sandymere. He loved you, Dick, and I imagined he expected you to do even better than his son."
Blake mused for a few moments, and Mrs. Keith could not read his thoughts.
"Bertram is a good fellow," he said. "Why should his people think less of him because he likes to paint? But I've been sorry for the Colonel; more sorry than I've felt for myself."
There was a softness in his dark blue eyes that appealed to Mrs. Keith. She had been fond of Dick Blake in his younger days and firmly believed in him. Now she could not credit his being guilty of cowardice.
"Well," she said, "you have a long life before you, I trust; and there are people who would be glad to see you reinstated."
He made a sign of grave dissent.
"That can't happen, in the way you mean. I closed the door of the old life against my return, with my own hands; and you don't gain distinction, as the Challoners think of it, in business."
"What business have you gone into?"
Blake's eyes gleamed humorously.
"At present, I'm in the paint line."
"Paint!" Mrs. Keith exclaimed.
"Yes, but not common paint. We use the highest grade of lead and the purest linseed oil. Varnish also of unapproachable quality, guaranteed to stand exposure to any climate. There's nothing to equal our products in North America."
"Do you seriously mean that you are going about selling these things?"
"I'm trying to. I booked an order for two kegs yesterday, but it isn't to be paid for until arrival, when I shall not be here. Can't I induce you to give us a trial? Your house must need painting now and then, and we'll ship you the stuff to Liverpool in air-tight drums. Once you have tried it you'll use nothing else."
Mrs. Keith laughed.
"Dick, you're a marvel! I'm glad adversity hasn't soured you; but you know that you won't make enough to keep you in neckties at any business you take up. It's ludicrous to think of your running about with paint samples!"
"You seem to doubt my ability," Blake said humorously. "Here comes my American partner. He has been waiting for a word with me since this morning."
"And you kept him waiting? That was a true Blake. But bring him here. I want to know your friend."
They spent a pleasant evening; and the next afternoon Blake and Harding drove up the mountain with Mrs. Keith and one or two others. The city was unpleasantly hot and the breeze that swept its streets blew clouds of sand and cement about, for Montreal is subject to fits of feverish constructional activity and on every other block buildings were being torn down and replaced by larger ones of concrete and steel. Leaving its outskirts, the carriage climbed the road which winds in loops through the shade of overhanging trees. Wide views of blue hills and shining river opened up through gaps in the foliage; the air lost its humid warmth and grew fresh and invigorating.
Reaching the level summit, they found seats near the edge of a steep, wooded slope. The strip of tableland is not remarkably picturesque, but it is thickly covered with trees, and one can look out across a vast stretch of country traversed by the great river.
When the party scattered, Mrs. Keith was left with Harding. They were, in many ways, strangely assorted companions—the elderly English lady accustomed to the smoother side of life, and the young American who had struggled hard from boyhood—but they were sensible of a mutual liking. Mrs. Keith had a trace of the grand manner, which had its effect on Harding; he showed a naive frankness which she found attractive. Besides, his talk and conduct were marked by a labored correctness which amused and pleased her. She thought he had taken some trouble to acquire it.
"So you had to leave your wife at home," she said presently. "Wasn't that rather hard for both of you?"
"It was hard enough," he replied with feeling. "What made it worse was that I hadn't much money to leave with her; but I had to go. The man who will take no chances has to stay at the bottom."
"Then, if it's not an impertinence, your means are small?"
"Your interest is a compliment. We had two hundred dollars when we were married. You wouldn't consider that much to begin on?"
"No. Still, of course, it depends upon what one expects. After all, I think my poorest friends have been happiest."
"We had only one trouble—making the money go round," Harding told her with grave confidence. "It was worst in the hot weather, when other people could move out of town, and it hurt me to see Marianna looking white and tired. I used to wish I could send her to one of the farms up in the hills—though I guess she wouldn't have gone without me. She's brave, and when my chance came she saw that I must take it. She sent me off with smiles; but I knew what they cost."
"Courage to face a hard task is a great gift. So you consider this trip to the Northwest your opportunity? You must expect to sell a good deal of paint."
Harding looked up with a sudden twinkle.
"I'll admit to you, ma'am, that I expect to sell very little. The company will pay my commission on any orders I get at the settlements, but this is my venture, not theirs. I'm going up into the wilds to look for a valuable raw material."
"Ah!" said Mrs. Keith. "I suspected something like this. It's difficult to imagine Dick Blake's going into anything so sober and matter-of-fact as the paint business. Have you known him long?"
"I met him a year ago, and we spent two or three weeks together."
"But was that long enough to learn much about him? Do you know his history?"
Harding gave her a direct glance.
"Yes," she said; "and I gather that he has taken you into his confidence."
"Now you set me free to talk. When I asked him to be my partner, he told me why he had left the army. That was the square thing, and it made me keen on getting him."
"Then you were not deterred by what you learned?"
"Not at all. I knew it was impossible that Blake should have done what he was charged with."
"I agree with you; but, then, I know him better than you do. What made you jump to the conclusion?"
"You shall judge whether I hadn't good reason. I was in one of our lake ports, collecting accounts, and Blake had come with me. It was late at night when I saw my last customer at his hotel, and I had a valise half-full of silver currency and bills. Going back along the waterfront where the second-rate saloons are, I thought that somebody was following me. The lights didn't run far along the street, I hadn't seen a patrol, and as I was passing a dark block a man jumped out. I got a blow on the shoulder that made me sore for a week, but the fellow had missed my head with the sandbag, and I slipped behind a telegraph post before he could strike again. Still, things looked ugly. The man who'd been following came into sight, and I was between the two. Then Blake ran up the street—and I was mighty glad to see him. He had two men to tackle, and one had a sandbag, while I guess the other had a pistol."
"But you were there. That made it equal."
"Oh, no; I'd been nearly knocked out with the sandbag and could hardly keep my feet. Besides, I had my employers' money in the valise, and it was my business to take care of it."
Mrs. Keith made a sign of agreement.
"I beg your pardon. You were right."
"Blake got after the first thief like a panther. He was so quick I didn't quite see what happened, but the man reeled half-way across the street before he fell, and when his partner saw Blake coming for him he ran. Then, when the trouble was over, a policeman came along, and he and Blake helped me back to my hotel. Knowing I had the money, he'd got uneasy when I was late." Harding paused and looked meaningly at his companion. "Later I was asked to believe that the man who went for those two toughs with no weapon but his fists ran away under fire. The thing didn't seem plausible."
"And so you trust Blake, in spite of his story?"
"The Northwest is a hard country in winter and I may find myself in a tight place before I've finished my search," Harding answered with grave quietness. "But if that happens, I'll have a partner I can trust my life to. What's more, Mrs. Harding feels I'm safe with him."
Mrs. Keith was moved; his respect for his wife's judgment and his faith in his comrade appealed to her.
"Tell me something about your journey," she said.
While they talked, Millicent and Blake sat in the sunshine on the slope of the hill. Beneath them a wide landscape stretched away toward the Ottawa valley, the road to the lonely North, and the girl felt a longing to see the trackless wilds. The distance drew her.
"Your way lies up yonder," she said. "I suppose you are thinking about it. Are you looking forward to the trip?"
"Not so much as Harding is," Blake replied. "He's a bit of an enthusiast; and I've been in the country before. It's a singularly rough one, and I anticipate our meeting with more hardships than money."
"Which doesn't seem to daunt you."
"No; not to a great extent. Hardship is not a novelty to me, and I don't think I'm avaricious. The fact is, I'm a good deal better at spending than gathering."
"It's undoubtedly easier," the girl laughed. "But, while I like Mr. Harding, I shouldn't consider him a type of the romantic adventurer."
"You're right in one sense and wrong in another. Harding's out for money, and I believe he'll get it if it's to be had. He'll avoid adventures so far as he can, but if there's trouble to be faced, it won't stop him. Then, he has left a safe employment, broken up his home, and set off on this long journey, for the sake of a woman who is trying to hold out on a very few dollars in a couple of poor rooms until his return. He's taking risks which, I believe may be serious, in order that she may have a brighter and fuller life. Is there no romance in that?"
What Blake said about his comrade's devotion to his wife appealed to the girl, and she mused for a moment or two. She liked Blake and he improved upon acquaintance. He had a whimsical humor and a dash of reckless gallantry. He was supposed to be in disgrace, but she had cause to know that he was compassionate and chivalrous.
"You haven't been with us long," she said, "but we shall be duller when you have gone."
"That's nice to hear; but it's with mixed feelings that one leaves friends behind. I've lost some good ones."
"I can imagine your making others easily; but haven't you retained one or two? I think, for instance, you could count on Mrs. Keith."
"Ah! I owe a good deal to her. A little charity, such as she shows, goes a very long way."
Millicent did not answer, and he watched her as she sat looking out into the distance with grave brown eyes. Her face was gentle; he thought there was pity for him in it, and he felt strongly drawn to her; but he remembered that he was a man with a tainted name and must travel a lonely road.
Some of the others joined them, and soon afterward they walked down the winding road to the city. There Harding found some letters he had been waiting for, and there was now nothing to keep them in Montreal.
Mrs. Keith was gracious to Blake when he went to say good-by the next morning, but he felt a strong sense of disappointment at finding her alone. He looked around for Millicent, and then, as he was going out, he met her in the hall. She wore her hat, and the flush of color in her face indicated that she had been walking fast.
"I'm glad I didn't miss you," she said. "You are going now, by the Vancouver express?"
"Yes," answered Blake, stopping beside a pillar; "and I was feeling rather gloomy until I saw you. Harding's at the station, and it's depressing to set off on a long journey feeling that nobody minds your going."
"Mrs. Keith will mind," smiled Millicent. "I'm sure you have her good wishes."
Blake looked at her keenly.
"I want yours."
"You have them," she said softly. "I haven't forgotten what happened one evening in London. I wish you a safe journey and every possible success!"
"Thank you! It will be something to remember that you have wished me well."
As his eyes rested upon her he forgot that he was a marked man. She looked very fresh and desirable; there was a hint of regret and pity in her face and a trace of shyness in her manner.
"I suppose I can't ask you to think of me now and then; it would be too much," he said, a little bitterly. "But I want you to know that these few days of your friendship have meant a great deal to me. I wish"—he hesitated a moment—"that I might have something of yours—some little memento—to take with me on my trip."
Millicent took a tiny bunch of flowers from the lace at the neck of her white dress, and handed them to him with a smile.
"Will these do? They won't last very long."
"They will last a long time, well taken care of. When I come back, I will show them to you."
"But I shall be in England then."
"England is not very far off; and I'm a wanderer, you know."
"Well," she said with faint confusion, "unless you hurry you will miss your train. Good-by, and good fortune!"
He took the hand she gave him and held it a moment.
"If your last wish is ever realized, I shall come to thank you, even in England."
He turned and went out with hurried steps, wondering what had led him to break through the reserve he had prudently determined to maintain. What he had said might mean nothing, but it might mean much. He had seen Millicent Graham for a few minutes in her father's house, and afterward met her every day during the week spent in Montreal; but, brief as their friendship had been, he had yielded to her charm. Had he been free to seek her love, he would eagerly have done so; but he was not free. He was an outcast, engaged in a desperate attempt to repair his fortune. Miss Graham knew this. Perhaps she had taken his remarks as a piece of sentimental gallantry; but something in her manner suggested a doubt. Anyway, he had promised to show her the flowers again some day, and he carefully placed them in his pocketbook.
A strong breeze swept the wide plain, blowing fine sand about and adding to Blake's discomfort as he plodded beside a jaded Indian pony and a small cart. The cart was loaded with preserved provisions, camp stores, and winter clothes; he had bought it and the pony because that seemed cheaper than paying for transport. The settlement for which he and Harding were bound stands near the northern edge of the great sweep of grass which stretches across central Canada. Since leaving the railroad they had spent four days upon the trail, which sometimes ran plain before them, marked by dints of wheels among the wiry grass, and sometimes died away, leaving them at a loss in a wilderness of sand and short poplar scrub.
It was now late in the afternoon and the men were tired of battling with the wind which buffeted their sunburned faces with sharp sand. They were crossing one of the high steppes of the middle prairie toward the belt of pines and muskegs which divides it from the barrens of the North. The broad stretch of fertile loam, where prosperous wooden towns are rising fast among the wheatfields, lay to the south of them, and the arid tract through which they journeyed had so far no attraction for even the adventurous homestead pre-emptor.
They found it a bleak and cheerless country, crossed by the ravines of a few sluggish creeks, the water of which was unpleasant to drink, and dotted at long intervals by ponds bitter with alkali. In places, stunted poplar bluffs cut against the sky, but, for the most part, there was only a rolling waste of dingy grass. The trail was heavy, the wheels sank deep in sand as they climbed a low rise, and, to make things worse, the rounded, white-edged clouds which had scudded across the sky since morning were gathering in threatening masses. This had happened every afternoon, but now and then the cloud ranks had broken, to pour out a furious deluge and a blaze of lightning. Harding anxiously studied the sky.
"I guess we're up against another thunderstorm," he said. "My opinion of the mid-continental climate is singularly mean, but I'd put this strip of Canada near the limit. Our Texan northers are fierce when they come along; but here it blows all the time."
"We'll make camp, if you like; I don't feel very fresh," Blake replied.
"Not here," snapped Harding. "Where I stop I sleep, and I'm not particularly enthusiastic about sheltering under the cart. Last time we tried it the pony stampeded and the wheel went over my foot. The tent's no good; you'd want a chain to stop its blowing away. We'll go on until we bring up to lee of a big, solid bluff."
"Very well," Blake agreed. "I dare say we ought to find one in the hollow we got a glimpse of from the last rise; but we haven't had to put up with much discomfort yet."
"That's a matter of opinion. You haven't limped forty miles on a bad foot; but I'm not complaining. It's a whole lot to feel that we have started; doing nothing takes the sand out of me."
Blake had once or twice suggested that his comrade should ride, but the pony was overburdened and Harding refused. He explained that they could not expect to sell it at the settlement if it were in a worn-out condition; but Blake suspected him of sympathy for the patient beast.
They crossed the ridge and, seeing a wavy line of trees in the wide hollow, quickened their pace. The soil was firmer, the scrub through which the wheels crushed was short, and the trail led smoothly down a slight descent. This was comforting, for half the sky was barred with leaden cloud and the parched grass gleamed beneath it lividly white, while the light that struck a ridge-top here and there had a sinister luridness. It was getting cold and the wind was dropping; and that was not a favorable sign.
Pushing the cart through the softer places, dragging the jaded pony by the head, they hurried on and at last plunged through a creek with the trees just beyond. A few minutes later they tethered the pony to lee of the cart, and set up their tent. While Blake was rummaging out provisions, and Harding searching the bluff for dry sticks, they heard a beat of hoofs and a man rode up, leading a second horse. He got down and hobbled the horses before he turned to Blake.
"From the south? You're for Sweetwater?" he asked.
"Yes. How much farther is it?"
"You ought to make it in a day and a half," the stranger said. "I'll ride in with you. My name's Gardner. I run a store and hotel at Sweetwater, but I feel that I want to get out on the prairie now and then, and as a horse was missing I went after him. A looker, isn't he?"
The man had a good-humored, sunburned face and an honest look, and he gladly acquiesced in Blake's suggestion that he join them instead of cooking a separate supper.
The prairie was now wrapped in inky gloom, and there was an impressive stillness except for the occasional rustle of a leaf; but the stillness was broken by a puff of icy wind which suddenly stirred the grass. The harsh rustle it made was followed by a deafening crash, and a jagged streak of lightning fell from the leaden clouds; then the air was filled with the roar of driving hail. It swept the woods, rending leaves and smashing twigs, while a constant blaze of lightning flickered about the grass. Then the thunder died away and the hail gave place to torrential rain, while the slender trees rocked in the blast and small branches drove past the tent, where the men crouched inside. After the rain ceased, suddenly, a fierce red light streamed along the saturated grass from the huge sinking sun.
Harding, with Gardner's help, brought his pile of wood out of the tent, and soon made a fire; and it was getting dark, though a band of transcendental green still burned upon the prairie's western edge, when they finished supper and, sitting round the fire, took out their pipes. The hobbled horses were quietly grazing near them.
"That's undoubtedly a fine animal," Blake observed. "Is it yours?"
"No; it belongs to Clarke's Englishman."
"Who's he? It's a curious way to speak of a fellow."
"It fits him," laughed Gardner. "Guess he's Clarke's, hide and bones—and that's all there'll be when the doctor gets through with him. He's a sucker the doctor taught farming and then sold land to."
"Then, who's the doctor?" Harding inquired.
"That's not so easy to answer; but he's a man you want to be friends with if you stay near the settlement. Teaches farming to tenderfoot young Englishmen and Americans; finds them land and stock to start with—and makes a mighty good thing out of it. Goes to Montreal now and then, but whether it's to look up fresh suckers is more than I know."
"We met a fellow named Clarke at the Windsor not long ago. What's he like?"
When Gardner described him, Harding frowned.
"That's the man," he said.
"Then I can't see what he was doing at the Windsor; an opium joint would have been more in his line."
"Does the fellow live at Sweetwater?" Blake asked.
"Has a farm—and runs it well—about three miles back; but he's away pretty often in the North, and at a settlement on the edge of the bush country. Don't know what he does there, and they're a curious crowd—Dubokars, Russians of sorts, I guess."
Blake had seen the Dubokars in other parts of Canada and had found them an industrious people, leading, from religious convictions, a remarkably primitive life. There were, however, fanatics among them, and he understood that these now and then led their followers into outbreaks of emotional extravagance.
"They make good settlers, as a rule," he commented. "But, as they don't speak English, how does the fellow get on with them?"
"Told me he was a philologist, when I asked him; then he allowed two or three of them were mystics, and he was something in that line. He was a doctor once and got fired out of England for something he shouldn't have done. Anyhow, the Dubokars are like the rest of us—good, bad, and pretty mixed—and the crowd back of Sweetwater belong to the last. At first, some of them didn't believe it was right to work horses, and made the women drag the plow; and they had one or two other habits that brought the police down on them. After that they've given no trouble, but they get on a jag of some kind now and then."
Blake nodded. He knew that the fanatic with untrained and unbalanced mind is liable under the influence of excitement to indulge in crude debauchery; but it was strange that a man of culture, such as Clarke appeared to be, should take part in these excesses. He had, however, no interest in the fellow; and he turned the talk on to other matters, until it got cold and they went to sleep.
Starting early the next morning, they reached Sweetwater after an uneventful journey, and found it by no means an attractive place. South of it, rolling prairie ran back, grayish white with withered grass, to the skyline; to the north, straggling poplar bluffs and scattered Jack-pines crowned the summits of the ridges. A lake gleamed in a hollow, a slow creek wound across the foreground in a deep ravine, and here and there in the distance was an outlying farm. A row of houses followed the crest of the ravine, some built of small logs, and some of shiplap lumber which had cracked with exposure to the sun, but all having a neglected and poverty-stricken air. The land was poor and the settlement was located too far from a market. With leaden thunderclouds hanging over it, the place looked as desolate as the sad-colored waste.
Following the deeply rutted street, which had a narrow, plank sidewalk, they reached the Imperial Hotel—a somewhat pretentious, double-storied building of unpainted wood, with a veranda across the front. Here Gardner took the pony from them and gave them a room which had no furniture except a chair and two rickety iron beds. Before he left them he indicated a printed list of the things they were not allowed to do. Harding studied it with a sardonic smile.
"I don't see much use in prohibiting people from washing their clothes in the bedrooms when they don't give you any water," he remarked. "This place must be about the limit in the way of cheap hotels."
"It isn't cheap," responded Blake; "I've seen the tariff."
They found their supper better than they had reason to expect, and afterward sat out on the veranda with the proprietor and one or two of the settlers who boarded at the hotel. The sun had set, and now and then a heavy shower beat upon the shingled roof, but the western sky was clear and flushed with vivid crimson, toward which the prairie rolled away in varying tones of blue. Lights shone in the windows behind the veranda, and from one which stood open a hoarse voice drifted out, singing in a maudlin fashion snatches of an old music-hall ditty.
"It's that fool Benson—Clarke's Englishman," Gardner explained. "Found he'd got into my bed with his boots on, after falling down in a muskeg. It's not the first time he's played that trick; when he gets worse than usual he makes straight for my room."
"Why do you give him the liquor?" Harding inquired.
"I don't. He's a pretty regular customer, but he never gets too much at this hotel."
"And there isn't another."
"That's so," Gardner assented, but he offered no explanation and Blake changed the subject.
"Unless you're fond of farming, life in these remote districts is trying," he remarked. "The loneliness and monotony are apt to break down men who are not used to it."
"Turns some of them crazy and kills off a few," said a farmer, who appeared to be well educated. "After all, worse things might happen to them."
"It's conceivable," agreed Blake. "But what particular things were you referring to?"
"I was thinking of men who go to the devil while they're alive. There's a fellow in this neighborhood who's doing something of the kind."
"Rot!" exclaimed a thick voice; and a man's figure appeared against the light at the open window. "Devil'sh a myth; allegorolical gentleman, everybody knowsh. Hard word that—allegorolical. Bad word too; reminds you of things in the rivers down in Florida. Must be some in the creek here; seen them, in my homestead."
"You go to bed!" said Gardner sternly.
"Nosh a bit," replied Benson. "Who you talking to?" He leaned forward, in danger of falling through the window. "Lemme out!"
"It's not all drink," Gardner explained. "He has something like shakes and ague now and then. Says he got it in India."
Benson disappeared, and a few moments afterward reeled out of the door and held himself upright by one of the veranda posts.
"Now I'm here, don't let me interrupt, gentlemen," he said. "Nice place if this post would keep still."
Warned by a sign from Gardner, the others ignored him; and Harding turned to the farmer.
"You hadn't finished what you were saying when he disturbed you."
"I don't know that it was of much importance; speaking of degenerates, weren't we? We have a curious example of the neurotic here: a fellow who makes a good deal of money by victimizing farmers who are forced to borrow when they lose a crop, as well as preying on young fools from England; and, by way of amusement, he studies modern magic and indulges in refined debauchery. It strikes me as a particularly unhallowed combination."
"No sensible man has any use for hoodoo tricks and the people who practise them," Harding said. "They're frauds from the start."
"Don't know what you're talking about!" Benson broke in. "Not all tricks. Seen funny things in the East; thingsh decent men better leave alone."
Letting go the post, he lurched forward; and as the light fell on his face Blake started. He had been puzzled by something familiar in the voice, and now he recognized the man, and had no wish to meet him. He was too late in hitching his chair back into the shadow, for Benson had seen him and stopped with an excited cry.
"Blake of the sappers! Want to cut your old friendsh? Whatsh you doing here?"
"It's a mutual surprise, Benson," Blake replied.
Benson, holding on by a chair back, smiled at him genially.
"Often wondered where you went to after you left Peshawur, old man. Though you got the sack for it, it wasn't your fault the ghazees broke our line that night. Said so to the Colonel—can see him now, sitting there, looking very sick and cut up, and Bolsover, acting adjutant, blinking like an owl."
"Be quiet!" Blake commanded in alarm, for the man had been a lieutenant of native infantry when they had met on the hill campaign.
Benson, however, was not to be deterred.
"This gentleman old friend of mine; never agreed with solemn old Colonel, but they wouldn't listen to me. Very black night in India; ghazees coming yelling up the hill; nothing would stop 'em. Rifles cracking, Nepalese comp'ny busy with the bayonet; and in the thick of it the bugle goes——"
Raising a hand to his mouth, he gave a shrill imitation of the call to cease firing, and then lost his balance and fell over the chair with a crash.
"Leave him to me," said Gardner, seizing the fallen man and with some difficulty lifting him to his feet. After he pushed him through the door there were sounds of a scuffle, and a few minutes later Gardner came back with a bruise on his face.
"He's quiet now, and the bartender will put him to bed," he said.
There was silence for the next few moments, for the group on the veranda had been impressed by the scene; then a man came up the steps. He was dressed in old brown overalls and carried a riding quirt, but Harding recognized him as the man they had met at the hotel in Montreal.
"Have you got Benson here?" he asked.
"Sure," said Gardner. "He's left his mark on my cheek. Why don't you look after the fool? You must have come pretty quietly; I didn't hear you until you were half-way up the steps."
"Light boots," Clarke answered, smiling; "I bought them from you. I don't know that I need hold myself responsible for Benson, but I found he wasn't in when I rode past his place and it struck me that he might get into trouble if he got on a jag."
He turned and nodded to Blake.
"So you have come up here! I may see you tomorrow, but if Benson's all right I'm going home now."
He went into the hotel and soon afterward they heard him leave by another door. An hour later, when Harding and Blake were in their room, the keen young American brought his fist down on the bedpost with vehemence.
"I tell you," he said, "there's something queer about that fellow Clarke—something even Gardner don't know. I don't like that look that's behind his eyes, not in 'em; and the less we see of him, I reckon the better."
THE OCCULT MAN
After breakfast the next morning, Blake and Harding sat on the veranda talking to the farmer. When they mentioned their first objective point, and asked if he could give them any directions for reaching it, he looked thoughtful.
"I only know that it's remarkably rough country; thick pine bush on rolling ground, with some bad muskegs and small lakes," he said. "You would find things easier if you could hire an Indian or two, and a canoe when you strike the river. The boys here seldom go up so far; but Clarke could help you if he liked. He knows that country like a book, and he knows the Indians."
"We're willing to pay him for any useful help," Harding said.
"Be careful," cautioned the farmer. "If you're on a prospecting trip, keep your secret close. There's another bit of advice I might give." He turned to Blake. "If you're a friend of Benson's, take him along with you."
"I suppose I am, in a way, though it's a long time since I met him. But why do you suggest our taking him?"
"I hate to see a man go to pieces as Benson's doing. Clarke's ruining the fellow. He must have got two or three thousand dollars out of him, one way or another, and isn't satisfied with that. Lent him money on mortgage to start a foolish stock-raising speculation, and keeps him well supplied with drink. The fellow's weak, but he has his good points."
"But what's Clarke's object?"
"It isn't very clear. But a man who's seldom sober is easily robbed, and Benson's place is worth something; Clarke sees it's properly farmed. However, you must use your judgment about anything he tells you; I've given you warning."
The farmer rose as he spoke, and when he had left them, Blake sat silent for a while. Though he and Benson had never been intimate friends, it did not seem fitting to leave him in the clutches of a man who was ruining him in health and fortune. He would rather not have met the man at all; but, since they had met, there seemed to be only one thing to be done.