THE LONG PORTAGE
By HAROLD BINDLOSS
Author of A Prairie Courtship, Winston of the Prairie, etc.
With a Frontispiece in colors by ARTHUR HUTCHINS
New York GROSSET & DUNLAP Publishers
Copyright, 1912, by FREDERICK A. STOKES COMPANY
All rights reserved, including that of translation into foreign languages, including the Scandinavian
Published in England under the title, "The Pioneer"
CHAPTER PAGE I. The Gladwyne Expedition 1 II. The Divide 12 III. The Cache 23 IV. A Painful Decision 35 V. Millicent Gladwyne 47 VI. Nasmyth Tells his Story 58 VII. On the Moors 68 VIII. Gladwyne Receives a Shock 81 IX. Lisle Gathers Information 92 X. Bella's Champion 102 XI. Crestwick Gives Trouble 118 XII. Mrs. Gladwyne's Appeal 129 XIII. A Futile Protest 142 XIV. Lisle Comes to the Rescue 153 XV. Bella's Defeat 165 XVI. Gladwyne Surrenders 177 XVII. A Bad Fall 189 XVIII. A Prudent Decision 200 XIX. Gladwyne Gains a Point 211 XX. Mrs. Gladwyne's Temptation 223 XXI. The Last Afternoon 233 XXII. Startling News 243 XXIII. A Forced March 254 XXIV. Millicent Summons Her Guide 265 XXV. A Reliable Man 276 XXVI. Lisle Turns Autocrat 287 XXVII. An Unpleasant Surprise 298 XXVIII. Clarence Reaches Camp 309 XXIX. A Bold Scheme 321 XXX. The End of the Pursuit 332 XXXI. Lisle Goes To England 343
THE LONG PORTAGE
THE GLADWYNE EXPEDITION
Vernon Lisle was fishing with a determination that did not spring altogether from love of the sport. The water of the British Columbian river in which he stood knee-deep was icy cold; his rubber boots were badly ripped and leaky, and he was wet with the drizzle that drove down the lonely valley. It was difficult to reach the slack behind a boulder some distance outshore, and the arm he strained at every cast ached from hours of assiduous labor; but there was another ache in his left side which was the result of insufficient food, and though the fish were shy he persevered.
A few hundred yards away the stream came roaring down a long declivity in a mad white rapid and then shot across the glassy green surface of the pool below in a raised-up wedge of foam. Wet boulders and outcropping fangs of rock hemmed in the water, and among them lay stranded logs and stream-packed masses of whitened branches. Farther back, ragged cypresses and cedars, half obscured by the drifting haze of spray, climbed the sides of the gorge, and beyond rose the dim, rounded summits of treeless hills. There were streaks of snow on some of them, for winter threatened to close in unusually early.
With a lowering sky overhead and the daylight beginning to fade, it was a desolate picture; one into which the lonely figure of the man in tattered deerskin jacket and shapeless hat somehow fitted. His attire matched the gray-white coloring of rock and boulder; his spare form and agile movements, together with the intentness of his bronzed face and the steadiness of his eyes, hinted at the quickness of observation, the stubborn endurance, and the tireless activity, by which alone life can be maintained in the savage North. He had the alertness of the wild creatures of the waste; and it was needed.
All round him stretched a forbidding wilderness, part of the great desolation which runs north from the warmer and more hospitable thick-forest belt of British Columbia. Indeed, this wilderness, broken by the more level spaces between the Rockies and Lake Winnipeg, runs right across Canada from Labrador to the Pacific on the northern edge of the heavy-timber line. It contains little human life—a few Hudson Bay fur-traders and the half-breed trappers who deal with them—and it is frozen for eight months in the year. There are only two practicable means of traversing it—with dog sledges on the snow, or by canoe on the lakes and rivers in the brief summer.
The water routes are difficult in British Columbia, but Lisle and his two companions had chosen to go by canoe, partly because the question of food is vitally important to men cut off from all source of supply except game, and even that is scarce in places. To transport upon one's back any weight of provisions besides tents, blankets, and other necessaries, through a rugged country is an almost impossible task. The men, accordingly, after relaying part of their stores, had secured an Indian craft and had paddled and poled her laboriously across lakes and up rivers. Now when their provisions were running short, they were confronted with a difficult portage round a thundering rapid.
At length Lisle, securing another trout, waded ashore and glanced with a rueful smile at the dozen this one made. They scarcely averaged half a pound, and he had spent most of a day that could badly be spared in catching them. Plodding back along the shingle with his load, he reached a little level strip beneath a scarp of rock, where a fire blazed among the boulders. A tent stood beneath two or three small, wind-stunted spruces, and a ragged man in long river-boots lay resting on one elbow near the blaze, regardless of the drizzle. He was a few years over thirty, Lisle's age, and he differed from Lisle in that something in his appearance suggested that he was not at home in the wilds. As a matter of fact, Nasmyth was an adventurous English sportsman—which describes him fairly in person and character.
"Not many," he commented, glancing at the trout Lisle laid down. "They'll hardly carry us over to-morrow, and I only got a couple from the canoe with the troll. We've gained nothing by stopping here, and time's precious."
"A sure thing," Lisle agreed, beginning to clean the trout. "We'll tackle the portage as soon as it's light to-morrow. Where's Jake?"
"Gone off to look for a deer," was the answer. "Said he wouldn't come back without one if he camped on the range all night."
Lisle made no comment, but went on dexterously with his work, while Nasmyth watched him with half-amused admiration.
"You're handy at that and at everything else you do," Nasmyth remarked at length. "In fact, you easily beat Jake, though he's a professional packer and, so to speak, to the manner born."
"So am I," said Lisle.
It was growing dark, but the coppery glow of the fire fell upon his face, emphasizing the strong coloring of his weather-darkened skin. On the whole, it was a prepossessing face, clearly cut—indeed, it was a trifle thin—with a hint of quiet determination in the clear gray eyes and firm mouth. He looked capable of resolute action and, when it was needed, of Spartan self-denial. There was no suggestion of anything sensual, or even of much regard for bodily comfort.
"If you don't mind my being a little personal, I'd better own that I suspected the fact you mention, and it puzzled me," Nasmyth replied. "You see, when I first met you at the Empress Hotel, in Victoria, you were dressed and talked like the usual prosperous business man. Trafford, who introduced us, said that you had a good deal of money in some of the Yukon mines."
"Trafford was quite right. The point is that I took a part in locating two of the claims. Before that I followed a good many rough occupations, mostly in the bush. My prosperity's recent."
Nasmyth still looked curious, and Lisle smiled.
"I can guess your thoughts—I don't speak altogether like a bushman? Well, my father was an Englishman, and my mother a lady of education from Montreal; that was why, at the cost of some self-denial on their part, I was sent East to school."
It was an incomplete explanation. He had inherited the Englishman's reticence, which forbade him to point out that his father sprang from an old family of standing and had, for some reason which his son had never learned, quarreled bitterly with his English relatives. Coming to Canada, he had married and taken up the bush life on a small and unremunerative ranch, where he had died and left his widow and his son badly provided for.
"Thank you," responded Nasmyth; and Lisle supposed it was in recognition of the fact that he would hardly have furnished even those few particulars to one whom he regarded as a stranger. "To reciprocate, a few words will make clear all there is to know about me. English public school, Oxford afterward—didn't take a degree. Spend most of my time in the country, though I make a few sporting trips abroad when I can afford it and have nothing better to do. That partly explains this journey. But I haven't tried to force your confidence, nor offered you mine, altogether casually."
"So I supposed," returned Lisle. "It strikes me that since we got near the Gladwyne expedition's line of march we have both felt that some explanation is needed. To go back a little, when I met you in Victoria and you offered to join me in the trip, I agreed partly because I wanted an intelligent companion, but I had another reason. At first I supposed you wished to go because a journey through a rough and little-known country seems to appeal to one kind of Englishman, but I changed my mind when you showed your anxiety to get upon the Gladwyne party's trail."
"You were right. I knew the Gladwynes in England; the one who died was an old and valued friend of mine. I could give you the history of their march, though I hardly think that's needful. You seem remarkably well acquainted with it."
Lisle's face hardened. With the exception of one man, he knew more than anybody else about the fatal journey a party of four had made a year earlier through the region he and Nasmyth were approaching.
"I am," he said. "There's a cause for it; but I'll ask you to tell me what you know."
He threw more branches on the fire and a crackling blaze sprang aloft, forcing up the ragged spruce boughs out of the surrounding gloom.
"This is the survivor's narrative. I heard it from his own lips more than once," began Nasmyth. "I dare say most of it's a kind of story that's not unusual in the North."
"It's one that has been repeated with local variations over and over again. But go on."
"There were two Gladwynes—cousins. George, the elder of the two, was a man of means and position; Clarence, the younger, had practically nothing—two or three hundred pounds a year. They were both sportsmen—George was a bit of a naturalist—and they made the expedition with the idea of studying the scarcer game. Well, their provisions were insufficient; an Indian packer deserted them; they were delayed here and there; and when they reached the river that we are making for they were badly worn out and winter was closing in. Knowing it was dangerous to go any farther, they started down-stream to strike their outgoing trail, but not long afterward they wrecked their canoe in a rapid and lost everything except a few pounds of provisions. To make things worse, George had fallen from a slippery rock at the last portage and badly hurt his leg. After making a few leagues with difficulty, he found he could go no farther, and they held a council. They were already suffering from want of food, but their guide estimated that by a forced march overland they might reach a place where some skin-hunters were supposed to be camped. There was a Hudson Bay post farther away. On coming up they had cached some provisions in two places on opposite sides of the river—they kept crossing to pole through the easiest slack. George accordingly insisted that the others go on; each was to follow a different bank and the first to find the provisions was to try to communicate with the other and hurry back with food. If they were unable to locate the caches they were to leave the river and push on in search of help. They agreed; but deep snow had fallen and Clarence Gladwyne failed to find the cache. He reached the hunters' camp famishing, and they went back with him. He found his cousin dead."
"And the guide?"
"It's rather an ugly story. You must have heard it."
"I haven't heard the one Gladwyne told in England."
"The guide reached the Hudson Bay post—a longer journey than the one Gladwyne made—in the last stage of exhaustion. He had taken very little food with him—Gladwyne knew exactly how much—and the Hudson Bay agent decided that it was impossible he could have covered the distance on the minute quantity. There was only one inference."
"That he had found the cache?" Lisle's face grew very stern.
"In a way, there was some slight excuse for him. Think of it—a worn-out, famishing man, without blankets or means of making a fire, who had struggled over icy rocks and through leagues of snow, finding a few cans of provisions and a little moldy flour! Even when he had satisfied his hunger, he was, no doubt, unequal to making the return journey to rejoin a man who was probably already dead."
"If that man had found a scrap of food, he would have tried!"
Lisle's voice had a curious ring in it, and Nasmyth looked at him hard.
"You seem convinced."
"I am; I knew him well."
Nasmyth was startled and he showed it, but afterward he looked thoughtful.
"I believe I understand," he said.
For a minute or two there was silence which was broken only by the snapping of the branches on the fire and the hollow roar of the rapid. The latter had a curious, irritating effect on Nasmyth, who hitherto had scarcely noticed the insistent pulsatory clamor. At length Lisle spoke again, laying a strong restraint upon himself.
"Our mutual friend called me Lisle at the Empress Hotel. I don't think he mentioned my first name, Vernon; and as that was the name of Gladwyne's guide I kept it in the background. I was anxious to take you with me; I wanted an Englishman of some standing in the old country whose word would be believed. What was more, I wanted an honest man who would form an unbiased opinion. I didn't know then that you were a friend of Gladwyne's."
Nasmyth made a slight gesture which suggested the acknowledgment of a compliment.
"I'll try to be just—it's sometimes hard." His voice had a throb of pain in it as he went on: "I was the friend of George Gladwyne—the one who perished. I had a strong regard for him."
Something in his expression hinted that this regard had not been shared by the Gladwyne who survived.
"When my father first came out to British Columbia, new to the bush ways," Lisle resumed, "a neighbor, Vernon, was of great help to him—lent him teams, taught him how to chop, and what cattle to raise. He died before my father, and I was named for him; but he left a son, older than I, who grew up like him—I believe he was the finest chopper and trailer I have ever come across. He died, as you have heard, from exposure and exhaustion, a few days after he reached the Hudson Bay post—before he could clear himself."
Lisle broke off for a moment and seemed to have some difficulty in continuing.
"When my father died, Vernon took charge of the ranch, at my mother's request—I was rather young and she meant to launch me in some profession. Vernon had no ambition—he loved the bush—and he tried to give me enough to finish my education while he ran both ranches with a hired man. I think my mother never suspected that he handed her over more than she was entitled to, but I found it out and I've been glad ever since that I firmly prevented his continuing the sacrifice. For all that, I owe him in many ways more than I could ever have repaid." He clenched one hand tight as he concluded: "I can at least clear his memory."
Nasmyth nodded in sympathy.
"You called me an honest man; you have my word—I'll see the right done."
Quietly as it was spoken, Lisle recognized that it was no light thing his companion promised him. In the Dominion, caste stands by caste, and Lisle, having seen and studied other Englishmen of his friend's description, knew that the feeling was stronger in the older country. To expose a man of one's own circle to the contempt and condemnation of outsiders is, in any walk of life, a strangely repugnant thing.
"Well," he said, "to-morrow we'll pull out and portage across the divide to strike the Gladwynes' trail. And now I'll fry the trout and we'll have supper."
They let the subject drop by tacit agreement during the meal, and soon after it was over a shout from the crest of the ridge above, followed by a smashing of underbrush, announced that their packer was making for the camp. Lisle answered, and a cry came down:
"Got a deer, and there are duck on the lake ahead! We'll try for some as we go up!"
Nasmyth's smile betokened deep satisfaction.
"That's a weight off my mind," he declared. "I'll smoke one pipe, and then I think I'll go to sleep. We'll make a start with the first loads as soon as it's light enough."
Dawn was late the next morning; the light crept slowly through bitter rain, and when Lisle and his companions had breakfasted sumptuously for the first time during several days it was with reluctance that they broke camp. Indeed, Nasmyth would have suggested remaining under shelter only that he had come to accept Lisle's decision as final and the latter was eager to push on. The blacktail deer would not last them long; the trout were getting shyer every day with the increasing cold; they were a long distance from the nearest settlement; while winter was rapidly coming on.
Nasmyth shouldered his load with the others, and they set out across a strip of gravel strewn with boulders. Here and there networks of stranded branches had to be floundered through, and the ragged ends rasped their dilapidated boots and bruised their legs. Then, where the bluff rose almost precipitously from the water, they crept along slippery ledges, or waded through the shallower pools, with the white rapid roaring down a few yards outshore of them. There were places where a slip would have meant destruction, but that was nothing unusual and time was too precious to spend in an attempt to climb the ridge which hemmed them in.
The pack-straps hurt Nasmyth's shoulders—one of them had been rubbed raw by previous loads and it smarted painfully until he grew warm with exertion. He was soon wet through; in places the spray drove into his face so that he could hardly see; but he held on with dogged determination, trying to keep up with the others. With the exception of a few hunting trips, his life had been smooth, and now, dressed mostly in rags and aching in every limb, he smiled grimly as he remembered how he had hitherto taken his pleasure. When he had shot partridges, he had, as a rule, been driven to such stubble or turnip fields as lay at any distance from his residence, and he had usually been provided with a pony when he ascended the high moors in search of grouse. Money smoothed out many small difficulties in the older land, but it was powerless in the wilds of the new one, where one must depend on such things as native courage, brute strength, and the capacity for dogged endurance, which are common to all ranks of men. It was fortunate for Nasmyth that he possessed them, but that, as he was discovering, is not quite enough. They are great gifts in the raw, but, like most others, they need exercise and assiduous cultivation for their full development.
On reaching the head of the rapid, they went back for another load, and afterward Jake got into the canoe, while Lisle fixed the end of the tracking-line about his shoulders. Aided by the line, the packer swung the canoe across madly whirling eddies and in and out among foam-lapped rocks, and now and then drove her, half hidden by the leaping froth, up some tumultuous rush. At times Lisle, wading waist-deep and dragged almost off his feet, barely held her stationary—Nasmyth could see his chest heave and his face grow darkly flushed—but in another instant they were going on again. That a craft could be propelled up any part of the rapid would, Nasmyth thought, have appeared absolutely incredible to any one who had not seen it done.
At last, however, the task became too hard for them and after dragging her out they carried her, upside down, in turn. It was difficult for them to see where they were going, and the craft, made from a hollowed log, was by no means so well fitted for the work as the bark or canvas canoe of the more eastern wilds. She was comparatively heavy, and their heads and shoulders were inside of her. Once or twice the portager fell; and the fall is an awkward one, as it is impossible to break it with one's hands, which are occupied in holding the canoe. Still, they made progress, and, launching again above the rapid, they reached a lake at noon, by hard paddling. Here they landed, and Nasmyth dropped down upon a boulder to look about him.
It was a cheerless prospect he saw through the haze of rain. Back into the distance ran a stretch of slate-gray water, flecked and seamed by the white tops of little splashing waves, for a nipping wind blew down the lake. On either side rose low hills, dotted here and there with somber and curiously rigid trees. They were not large, and though from a distance they looked much the same, Nasmyth recognized some as spruce and supposed the other ragged spires to be cedars. In one spot there were some that resembled English larch, and these were almost bare.
Then his companions began to discuss the best means of further progress. With a fresh breeze ahead, Jake advocated poling through the shallows near the beach; and Lisle, with a courtesy which Nasmyth had already noticed, turned toward him when he answered, as if his opinion might be valuable.
"The trouble is that the beach sweeps back off the straight. We'd drive her right up the middle to headwater with the paddle before we'd make two-thirds of the way poling alongshore."
"It would be a good deal harder work, wouldn't it?" Nasmyth ventured, and laughed when he saw Lisle's faint amusement. "I suppose that doesn't count. It's not worth mentioning," he added. "Since you're anxious to get on, what's the use of stopping for dinner? After the breakfast I had, I can hold out some time."
"I want to get through as quickly as I can; that's why I'm not going to rush you unless it's necessary," Lisle answered. "Try to get hold of the fact that a man needs food regularly to keep him in efficient going order."
"Indisputable," Nasmyth agreed. "But he can do without it and work for a while. We've proved it."
"Not without paying," Lisle pointed out. "You can draw upon your reserves, but it takes time and rest to make them good. We may need all ours badly before we're through."
There was a grim hint in his last words which Nasmyth found convincing, and when he had rested he helped to prepare the meal. It was a simple one—cold doughy cakes baked in a frying-pan, extraordinarily tough and stringy venison, with a pint-can each of strong green tea. Their sugar had long ago melted and the condensed milk was exhausted.
Afterward, they shoved the canoe out and paddled doggedly into the driving rain and the strong headwind. The spray from the splashing bows blew into their faces, and the broken water checked them badly. Nasmyth's hands began to blister. To make it worse, there was a raw wound on one of them, the result of a similar day's toil; and his knees chafed sore against the branches in the craft's bottom. There was, however, no respite—the moment they slackened their exertions they would drift to lee—and he held on, keeping awkward stroke with Jake, while Lisle swung the balancing paddle astern.
They kept it up for several hours, and then, toward evening, the rain ceased and the clouds rolled aside. A wonderful yellow light shone behind the bordering hills, and the twisted, wind-battered cedars on their crests stood out against it in hard, fretted tracery. The wind dropped; the short, white waves smoothed down; the water, heaving gently, gleamed with a coppery glare, and the paddle blades seemed to splash up liquid fire. Then the shores closed in ahead, and, landing on a shingle beach, they made camp in the mouth of a gap among the hills. Supper was prepared and eaten, and afterward Jake took up his rifle.
"I saw some ducks in the next bay," he explained.
He strolled out of camp, and Nasmyth smiled at Lisle.
"Except when he advised you to pole, that's about all he has said to-day."
This was correct. The packer was a taciturn inhabitant of the wilds who seldom indulged in an unnecessary remark. There was, however, no moroseness about him; the man was good-humored in his quiet way, and his usual ruminative calm was no deterrent from apparently tireless action. For the most part, he lived alone in the impressive stillness of the bush, where he had a few acres of partly cleared land which failed to provide him with a living. For that reason, he periodically left his tiny log house and packed for some survey expedition, or went down to work for a few months at a sawmill. Capable of most determined labor, wonderfully proficient with his hands, he asked no more from life than a little plain food and indifferent shelter. No luxury that civilization could offer would have tempted him to desert the wilds.
Lisle filled his pipe with leisurely content. He shared Jake's love for the wilderness, and he found it strangely pleasant to rest in camp after a day's persistent toil. Besides, he usually enjoyed his evening chat with Nasmyth, for, widely different as their training and mode of life had been, they had much in common. Then, too, there was something in the prospect spread out before them that impelled tranquillity. The clump of wet cedars among which they had camped distilled a clean, aromatic smell; and there was a freshness in the cool evening air that reinvigorated their tired bodies. Above the low hilltops the sky glimmered with saffron and transcendental green, and half the lake shone in ethereal splendor; the other half was dim and bordered with the sharply-cut shadows of the trees. Except for the lap of water upon the pebbles and the wild cry of a loon that rang like a peal of unearthly laughter out of a darkening bay, there was nothing to break the deep stillness of the waste.
Lisle pointed to the gap in the hills, which was filling with thin white mist.
"That's the last big portage the Gladwynes made," he remarked. "They came in by a creek to the west, and they were badly played out when they struck this divide; the struggle to get through broke them up." He paused before he added: "What kind of men were they?"
"George wasn't effusive; he was the kind of man you like better the longer you know him. If I were told that he ever did a mean thing, I wouldn't believe it. His last action—sending the others on—was characteristic."
"They didn't want to go," Lisle interposed quietly.
His companion nodded.
"I believe that's true. I like to think so."
There was something curious in his tone, which Lisle noticed.
"From the beginning," Nasmyth went on, "George behaved very generously to Clarence."
"It was Clarence that I meant to ask about more particularly."
Nasmyth looked thoughtful, and when he answered, it struck Lisle that he was making an effort to give an unbiased opinion.
"Clarence," he said, "is more likable when you first meet him than George used to be; a handsome man who knows how to say the right thing. Makes friends readily, but somehow he never keeps the best of them. He's one of the people who seem able to get whatever they want without having to struggle for it and who rarely land in any difficulty."
Again a grudging note became apparent, as though the speaker were trying to subdue faint suspicion or disapproval, and Lisle changed the subject.
"Had George Gladwyne any immediate relatives?"
"One sister, as like him as it's possible for a woman to be. He wasn't greatly given to society; I don't think he'd ever have married. His death was a crushing blow to the girl—they were wonderfully attached to each other—but I've never seen a finer display of courage than hers when Clarence cabled the news."
He broke off, as if he felt that he had been talking with too much freedom, and just then the report of a rifle came ringing across the water.
"That's a duck's head shot off. Jake doesn't miss," he said.
Lisle nodded. He could take a hint; and he had no doubt that Nasmyth was right regarding the shot, though it is not easy to decapitate a swimming duck with a rifle. He began to talk about the portage; and soon after Jake returned with a single duck they went to sleep.
It was clear and bright the next morning and they spent the day carrying their loads a few miles up the hollow which pierced the height of the divide. Part of it was a morass, fissured with little creeks running down from the hills whose tops rose at no great elevation above the opening. This was bad to traverse, but it was worse when they came to a muskeg where dwarf forest had once covered what was now a swamp. Most of the trees had fallen as the soil, from some change in the lake's level, had grown too wet. They had partly rotted in the slough, and willows had afterward grown up among them.
Now and then the men laid down their loads and hewed a few of the still standing trunks, letting them fall to serve as rude bridges where the morass was almost impassable, but the real struggle began when they went back for the canoe. At first they managed to carry her on their shoulders, wading in the bog, but afterward she must be dragged through or over innumerable tangles of small fallen trunks and networks of rotten branches that had to be laboriously smashed. It was heroic labor—sometimes they spent an hour making sixty yards—and Lisle's face grew anxious as well as determined. Game had been very scarce; the deer would not last them long; and disastrous results might follow a continuance of their present slow progress. When, utterly worn out, they made camp on slightly firmer ground toward four o'clock in the afternoon, Lisle strode off heavily toward the bordering hills, while Jake pushed on to prospect ahead. Nasmyth, who was quite unable to accompany either, prepared the supper and awaited their reports with some anxiety.
Lisle came back first and shook his head when Nasmyth asked if he had found a better route on higher ground.
"Not a slope we could haul along," he reported. "That way's impracticable."
It was nearly dark when Jake came in.
"It's not too bad ahead," he informed them.
They were not greatly reassured, because Jake's idea of what was really bad was alarming. Nasmyth glanced at his companion with a smile.
"Is it any better than this?" he asked.
"A little," answered Jake. "An old trail runs in."
"Gladwyne's trail?" exclaimed Nasmyth. "The one we're looking for?"
"Why, yes," drawled Jake, as if it were scarcely worth mentioning. "I guess it is."
Nasmyth turned to Lisle.
"I was lucky when I lighted on you as a companion for this trip. You have been right in your predictions all along, and now you're only out in striking the trail a day before you expected."
"I know the bush," returned Lisle. "It's been pretty easy so far—but, for several reasons, I wish the next week or two were over."
Nasmyth looked troubled. One could have imagined that misgivings which did not concern his personal safety were creeping into his mind.
"So do I," he confessed, and turning toward the fire he busied himself with Jake's supper.
There was no change in the work the next morning, but in the afternoon it became evident that another party had made that portage ahead of them. The soil was a little drier and where the small trees grew more thickly they could see that a passage had been laboriously cleared. In the swampy hollows, which still occurred, trunks had here and there been flung into the ooze. This saved them some trouble and they made better progress, but both Lisle and Nasmyth became silent and grave as the signs of their predecessors' march grew plainer. By nightfall they had reached the second camping-place, which told an eloquent story of struggle with fatigue and exhaustion. Lisle, stopping in the gathering dusk, glanced around the old camp site.
"A good place to pitch the tent, but I think I'd rather move on a little," he said.
Nasmyth made a sign of comprehension.
"Yes," he agreed. "I couldn't sleep soundly here. Everything about us is too plain a reminder; I've no doubt you feel it as I do. A firm and trusted friend lay, famishing, beside that fire, in what extremity of weakness and suffering I dare not let myself think. It's possible he cut those branches yonder."
Lisle's face expressed emotion sternly held in check.
"That was Vernon's work—no Englishman new to the country could have slashed them off so cleanly. But look at this small spruce stump. He was the better chopper, but it's significant that he used three or four strokes where I would have taken one."
Even the laconic Jake appeared relieved when they forced their way a little farther through the tangled undergrowth, until finding a clear space they set up the tent.
They spent the greater part of a week on the portage, crossing here and there a little lake; and then came out one evening on a river that flowed, green and tranquil, beneath a ridge of hills. Here they camped; and on rising with a shiver in the raw and nipping dawn the next morning, Nasmyth found Lisle busy at the fire. Jake was cutting wood some distance off, for the thud of his ax rang sharply through the stillness.
"I was awake—thinking—a good deal last night; in fact, I've been restless ever since we struck the Gladwynes' trail," Nasmyth began. "Now, I understand that an uninterrupted journey of about sixteen days would take us well on our way toward civilization. You say you apprehend no difficulty after that?"
"No." Lisle waited, watching his companion in an intent fashion.
"Then, considering everything, mightn't it be better to waste no time, and push straight on?"
"And leave the work that brought me here—I believe that brought us both here—undone?"
"You'll forgive me if I don't express myself very fortunately. What I feel is this—Gladwyne's story is a tragic one, but it's twelve months old. In a way, it's forgotten; the wounds it made have healed."
"Is such a man as the one you have described forgotten in a year?" Lisle asked with a hardening expression.
Nasmyth, being a man of simple and, for the most part, wholesome ideas, was in a quandary. His feelings were generous, but he shrank from putting them into words. Moreover he was just and was not wholly convinced that the course he wished to recommend was right.
"Well," he contended, "there are faithful hearts that never quite forget—with them the scar remains; but it's fortunate that the first keen pain does not last. Is it decent—I almost think that's the right word—to reopen the wound?"
He paused and spread out one hand as if in expostulation.
"Your late comrade has gone beyond your help; you told me he had left no relatives; and you have only yourself to consider. Can you do any good by bringing this sorrowful tale of disaster up again?"
"Are you pleading for your English friends, anxious to save them pain at my expense? Can't you understand my longing to clear my dead partner's name?"
A trace of color crept into Nasmyth's face.
"I suppose I deserve that, though it wasn't quite the only thing I meant. I've an idea that you are somehow going to lay up trouble for yourself by persevering in this search."
"I don't want to be offensive; but can't you see that by urging me to let the thing drop you are casting grave doubts upon the honor of a man of your own caste and kind, one with whom you are closely acquainted? Are you afraid to investigate, to look for proofs of Clarence Gladwyne's story?"
Nasmyth looked him steadily in the eyes.
"For the sake of one or two others, I think I am. Your belief in the guide, Vernon, has had its effect on me."
"Then," said Lisle, "I have no fear of putting my belief to the test; I came up here for that purpose, and I mean to call upon you as my witness. As you said of George Gladwyne, the man I owe so much to never did a shabby thing. That he should have deserted a starving comrade is clean impossible!"
"I suppose there's no help for it," responded Nasmyth, with a gesture of acquiescence. "We have said enough. Since you insist, I'll stand by my promise."
The thudding of the ax ceased, and they heard Jake returning with the wood. Lisle set out the simple breakfast, and when they had eaten they launched the canoe and floated swiftly down the smooth green river all that day. They had accomplished the worst half of the journey; henceforward their way lay down-stream, and with moderate good fortune they need have no apprehension about safely reaching the settlements, but they were both silent and ill at ease. Lisle was consumed with fierce impatience; and Nasmyth shrank from what might shortly be revealed to him. Scarcely a word was spoken when they lay in camp that night.
The next day they came to the head of a long and furiously-running rapid. Rocks encumbered its channel; the stream boiled fiercely over sunken ledges, dropping several feet here and there in angry falls; and in one place, where the banks narrowed in, a white stretch of foaming waves ran straight down the middle. Here they unloaded and spent the day laboriously relaying their stores and camp-gear over the boulders and ragged ledges between a wall of rock and the water. It was a remarkably difficult traverse. In places they had to hoist the leader up to some slippery shelf he could not reach unassisted and to which he dragged his companions up in turn; in others deep pools barred their way, and in skirting them they were forced to cling to any indifferent handhold on the rock's fissured side. As they toiled on, badly hampered by their loads, the same thought was in the minds of two of the men—a wonder as to how Gladwyne's exhausted party had crossed that portage, unless the water had been lower. It was not difficult to understand how the famishing leader had fallen and lamed himself.
When at last, toward the end of the afternoon, the stores had been deposited on the banks of the pool below, Lisle sat down and filled his pipe.
"It would take us most of two days to portage the canoe, and we might damage her badly in doing so," he said. "The head of the rapid's impossible, but with luck we might run her down the rest in about ten minutes. The thing seems worth trying, though I wouldn't have risked it with the stores on board."
"Suppose you swamped or upset her?" Nasmyth suggested.
"It's less likely, since she'd go light, with only two of us paddling."
Nasmyth considered. The sight of the rapid was not encouraging, but he shrank from the intense effort that would be needed to transport the craft by the way they had come. Eventually it was decided to leave Jake below, ready to swim out with the tracking-line and seize the canoe if any mishap befell, and Lisle and Nasmyth went back to the head of the rapid. They dragged the canoe round the worst rush with infinite difficulty; and then Nasmyth set his lips and braced himself for the mad descent when his companion thrust her off.
A few strokes of the paddle drove them out into the stream, and then their task consisted in holding her straight and swinging her clear of the rocks that showed up through the leaping foam, which was difficult enough. Seen from the water, the prospect was almost appalling, though it was blurred and momentarily changing. Nasmyth's eyes could hardly grasp salient details—he had only a confused impression of flying spray, rushing green water that piled itself here and there in frothy ridges, flitting rocks, and trees that came furiously speeding up toward him. He had an idea that Lisle once or twice shouted sharp instructions and that he clumsily obeyed, but he could not have told exactly what he did. He only knew that now and then he paddled desperately, but more often he knelt still, gazing fascinated at the mad turmoil in front of him.
At last there was an urgent cry from Lisle and he backed his paddle. The canoe swerved, a foaming wave broke into her, and in another moment Nasmyth was in the water. He was dragged down by the swirling stream, and when he rose he dimly saw the canoe a few yards in front of him. He failed to reach her—she was traveling faster than he was—and, though he could swim well, he grew horribly afraid. It struck him that there was a strong probability of his being driven against a boulder with force enough to break his bones or of being drawn down and battered against the stony bottom. Still, he struck out for a line of leaping froth between him and the bank and was nearing it when Lisle grasped his shoulder and thrust him straight down-stream. Scarcely able to see amid the turmoil, confused and bewildered, he nevertheless realized that it was not desirable to attempt a landing where he had intended. Yielding to the guiding impulse, he floundered down-stream, until Lisle again seized him and drove him shoreward, and a few moments later he stood up, breathless, in a few feet of slacker water. He waded to the bank, and then turned to Lisle, who was close behind.
"Thanks," he gasped. "I owe you something for that."
"Pshaw!" disclaimed the other. "I only pulled you back. You'd have got badly hammered if you'd tried to cross that ledge. I'd noticed the inshore swirl close below it when we were packing along the bank, and remembered that we could land in it."
"But you had hold of the canoe. I saw you close beside her."
"I only wanted her to take me past the ledge," Lisle explained. "I'd no notion of going right through with her. Now we'll make for camp."
On arriving there as darkness closed down, they found that Jake had recovered the craft. The paddles had gone, but he could make another pair in an hour or two. They had a few dry things to put on, and as they lay beside the fire after supper they were sensible that the slight constraint both had felt for the last two days had vanished. Neither would have alluded to the feeling which had replaced it, nor, indeed, could have clearly expressed his thoughts, but mutual liking, respect and confidence had suddenly changed to something stronger. During the few minutes they spent in the water a bond, indefinite, indescribable, but not to be broken, had been forged between the two.
The next morning it was clear and cold, and they made good progress until they landed late in the afternoon. Then, after scrambling some distance over loose gravel, Lisle and Nasmyth stopped beside a slight hollow in a wall of rock. A few large stones had been rudely placed on one another to form a shelter; there were still some small spruce branches, which had evidently been used for a roof, scattered about; and the remains of a torn and moldering blanket lay near by. In another place was a holed frying-pan and a battered kettle.
Nasmyth gravely took off his shapeless hat, and stood glancing about him with a fixed expression.
"This," he said quietly, "is where my friend died—as you have heard, they afterward took his body out. There are few men who could compare with that one; I can't forget him."
There was nothing to be done, and little that could be said; and they turned away from the scene of the tragedy, where a man, who to the last had thought first of his companions, had met his lonely end. Launching the canoe, they sped on down-river, making a few easier portages, and four days later they landed on the bank of a turbulent reach shut in by steep, stony slopes. There was a little brushwood here and there, but not a tree of any kind.
"It was on this beach that Gladwyne made one cache," said Lisle. "If there had been a cypress or a cedar near, he'd have blazed a mark on it. As it is, we'd better look for a heap of stones."
They searched for some time without finding anything, for straight beach and straight river presented no prominent feature which any one making a cache would fix upon as guide. Lisle directed Nasmyth's attention to this.
"There was deep snow when Vernon came down the gorge, on this side," he pointed out. "It doesn't follow that he was with the others when they buried the stores—he might have been carrying up a load—and it's possible they couldn't give him a very exact description. If I'm right in this, he'd have a long stretch of beach to search, and a man's senses aren't as keen as usual when he's badly played out."
Nasmyth made no comment, but his expression suggested that he would not be disappointed if they failed to strike the cache. Shortly afterward, however, Jake called out, and on joining him they saw a cross scratched on a slab of slightly projecting rock. Even with that to guide them, it was some time before they came upon a few stones roughly piled together and almost hidden in a bank of shingle.
"First of all, I want you to notice that this gravel has slipped down from the bluff after the cache was made," Lisle said to Nasmyth. "With snow on the ground and the slab yonder covered, it would be almost impossible to locate it." He turned to Jake. "How long would you say it was since the rain or frost brought that small stuff down?"
Jake glanced at the young brushwood growing higher up the slope. It was shorter than that surrounding it, and evidently covered the spot which the mass of debris had laid bare in its descent.
"Part of one summer and all the next," he answered decidedly.
"Tell us how you figured it out."
Jake climbed the bank and returned with two or three young branches which he handed to Lisle.
"The thing's plain enough to you." He turned toward Nasmyth. "No growth except in the summer—they'd had a few warm months to start them, but they don't fork until the second year. See these shoots?"
"As winter was beginning when the Gladwyne party came down, that small landslide must have taken place some time before then," declared Lisle.
They set to work and carefully moved aside the stones. First they uncovered three cans of preserved meat, and then a small flour bag which had rotted and now disclosed a hard and moldy mass inside. There was also another bag which had evidently contained sugar; and a few other things. All examined them in silence, and then sat down grave in face.
"It's unfortunate that nobody could positively state whether this cache has been opened or not since it was made, but there are a few points to guide us," said Lisle. "Do you know what kind of food civilized men who've been compelled to work to exhaustion on insufficient rations, helped out by a little fish or game, generally long for most?"
"No," answered Nasmyth, with a feeble attempt at levity. "I've now and then remembered with regret the kind of dinner I used to get in England."
"You have scarcely felt the pinch," Lisle informed him. "The two things are farinaceous stuff and sugar. No doubt, it will occur to you that Vernon might have taken a can or two of meat; but that's not likely."
"If you're right about the longing for flour and sweet-stuff, it's a strong point," Nasmyth declared. "Where did you learn the fact?"
Lisle looked at Jake, and the packer smiled in a significant manner.
"He's right," he vouched. "We know."
"Then," continued Lisle, indicating the sugar bag, which had been wrapped in a waterproof sheet, "can you imagine a starving man, in desperate haste, making up this package as it was when we found it?"
"No," admitted Nasmyth; "it's most improbable."
Somewhat to his astonishment, the usually taciturn Jake broke in.
"You're wasting time! Vernon never struck this cache—he told the folks at the post so. Worked with him once trail-cutting—what that man said goes!"
"You never told me you knew Vernon!" exclaimed Lisle.
"Quite likely," Jake drawled. "It didn't seem any use till now."
For the first time since they landed, Nasmyth laughed—he felt that something was needed to relieve the tension.
"If people never talked unless they had something useful to say, there would be a marvelous change," he declared.
Lisle disregarded this, but he was a little less grave when he resumed:
"There's another point to bear in mind. Two of Gladwyne's party left him; and of those two which would be the more likely to succumb to extreme exertion, exposure, and insufficient food?"
"Against the answer you expect, there's the fact that Vernon made the longer journey," Nasmyth objected.
"It doesn't count for much. Was Clarence Gladwyne accustomed to roughing it and going without his dinner? Would you expect him to survive where you would perish, even if you had a little more to bear?"
"No," confessed Nasmyth; "he's rather a self-indulgent person."
"Then, for example, could you march through a rough, snow-covered country on as little food as I could?"
"No, again," answered Nasmyth. "You would probably hold out two or three days longer than I could."
"Vernon was a stronger and tougher man than I am," Lisle went on. "Now, without finding definite proof, which I hardly expected, there is, I think, strong presumptive evidence that Vernon's story is correct."
"Yes," agreed Nasmyth, and added gravely: "Will you ever find the proof?"
"I think there's a way—it may be difficult; but I'm going right through with this."
"What's your next move?"
"I've willingly laid my partner's story open to the only tests we can impose. Now I'm going to do the same with Clarence Gladwyne's."
Nothing more was said, and turning away from the cache, they went back to the canoe.
A PAINFUL DECISION
Two days passed uneventfully, though Nasmyth was conscious of a growing uneasiness during them; and then one evening they landed to search another beach. They had less difficulty here, for small cedars and birches crept down to the waterside and Jake found an ax-blaze on one. After that, it was easy to locate the cache, and there were signs that it had been either very roughly made, or afterward opened and reclosed in careless haste. Lisle had no hesitation in deciding upon the latter, and Jake was emphatic in his brief assurance on the point.
On removing the covering stones, they found very little beneath them, but every object was taken out and Lisle, measuring quantities and guessing weights, carefully enumerated each in his notebook. Neither he nor Nasmyth said anything of import then; both felt that the subject was too grave to be lightly discussed; and walking back silently along the shingle, they pitched the tent and prepared supper. After the meal, Jake, prompted by an innate tact, sauntered away down the beach, and the other two, lounging beside the fire, took out their pipes. A full moon hung above the lonely gorge, which was filled with the roar of the river, and the shadows of the cedars lay black upon the stones.
Some minutes passed before a word was spoken; and then Nasmyth looked up.
"Well?" he said briefly.
Lisle moved a little, so that he could see his companion's face.
"In the first place," he explained, "Clarence Gladwyne came down this bank. One could locate the cache by the blazed tree, even with snow upon the ground—and it has been opened. Apart from the signs of this, no party of three men would have thought it worth while to make a cache of the few things we found."
"Mightn't it have been opened by some Indian?"
"It's most unlikely, because he would have cleaned it out. A white prospector would certainly have taken the tobacco."
Nasmyth knit his brows. He was deeply troubled, because there were respects in which the matter would hardly bear discussion, though he recognized that it must now be thrashed out.
"Well," he admitted reluctantly, "what we have discovered has its significance; but it isn't conclusive."
His companion took out from a pocket the palm and wrist portion of a fur glove. It was badly rotted, and the rest had either fallen away or been gnawed by some animal, but a button with a stamp on it remained.
"Jake found that and gave it to me," he said. "There's enough left to show that it had finger-stalls, and there are none on the mittens we use in cold weather. The thing's English, and with a little rubbing I expect you'll find the maker's name on that button. When the party went up it was warm weather, but we know there was sharp frost when Gladwyne came back. A buttoned glove doesn't drop off one's hand, and even if it had done so Gladwyne would have noticed and picked it up. It seems to me he took it off to open one of the provision bags and couldn't find it afterward because he'd trodden it into the snow."
Nasmyth could doubt no longer, and his face grew red.
"The hound!" he broke out. "He had a hand frost-bitten—one finger is different from the others yet."
Lisle said nothing; he could understand and sympathize with what was going on in his companion's mind and the latter was filled with bitterness and humiliation. A man of his own kind and station in life, one with whom he fished and shot, had broken faith with his starving comrade and with incredible cowardice had left him to perish. Even this was not the worst; though Nasmyth had always taken the personal courage of his friends for granted. He was not a clever man and he had his faults, but he shaped his life in accordance with a few simple but inflexible rules. It was difficult for him to understand how one could yield to a fit of craven fear; but there was a fact which made Gladwyne's transgression still blacker.
"This thing hits hard," he said at length. "The man should have gone back, if he had known it meant certain death."
Lisle filled his pipe and smoked in silence for several minutes during which the eery cry of a loon rang about the camp. It roused Nasmyth to an outbreak of anger.
"I hate that unearthly noise!" he exclaimed vehemently. "The thing seems to be gloating; it's indecent! When I think of that call it will bring back the long portage and this ghostly river! I wish I'd never made the journey, or that I could blot the whole thing out!"
"It can't be done," Lisle replied. "It's too late. You have learned the truth of what has been done here—but the results will work themselves out. Neither you nor I can stop them; they have to be faced."
"The pity of it is that the innocent must suffer; they've borne enough already."
"There's a point I don't quite understand," declared Lisle. "Whatever the Hudson Bay agent thought, he'd have kept it to himself if he'd been allowed—I've met him. It was Gladwyne who laid the whole blame on Vernon; he forced the agent to bear him out. Why should he have taken so much trouble? His own tale would have cleared him."
Nasmyth looked irresolute; and then he answered reluctantly:
"There's a fact I haven't told you yet—Clarence came into the family property on George's death; a fine old place, a fairly large estate. The sister doesn't count, though she got her brother's personal property—the land goes down in the male line."
Lisle dropped his pipe.
"Now I understand! Gladwyne profits, my dead partner bore the shame. But do you believe the man meant to let his cousin die?"
"No," Nasmyth answered sharply, "that's unthinkable! But I blame him almost as much as if he had done so. Besides his duty to George, he had a duty to himself and to the family—the honorable men and women who had kept the name clean before him. Knowing he would inherit on George's death, there was only one way open—he should have gone back, at any cost. Instead, to clear himself of the faintest trace of ugly suspicion, he lays the blame upon an innocent man."
Lisle did not reply to this. He felt that had the grim choice been imposed upon his companion, the man would have taken the course he had indicated.
"You said that George Gladwyne was a naturalist," he remarked. "Was he a methodical man?"
"Eminently so," replied Nasmyth, wondering where the question led. He had already been astonished at Lisle's close reasoning and the correctness of his deductions.
"Then he would have made notes on his journey and no doubt have kept some kind of diary. Did the rescue party recover it?"
"They did. It was given to George's sister."
"Damaged by snow or water, badly tattered?"
"It was," assented Nasmyth. "I've had the book in my hands. I suppose it's natural that you should guess its condition, but I don't see what it points to."
Lisle smiled grimly.
"One wouldn't be astonished to find some leaves missing from a tattered book."
"You're right again." Nasmyth started. "Several had gone."
"I think I can tell which part of the journey they related to. A methodical man would make a note of the stores cached, and the lists would be conclusive evidence if anybody afterward opened the caches and enumerated their contents, as we have done. If everything put into the one on the bank Vernon followed remained there, it would prove that he couldn't have found it. On the other hand, if the one on Gladwyne's side of the river—"
"Of course!" Nasmyth broke in. "You needn't labor the point; it's plain enough." He stopped for a few moments before he went on again. "I'm convinced; but without that list of Gladwyne's you still haven't proof enough to place your account of the affair beyond dispute. What are you going to do?"
"I'm going to England—it's my father's country, and I meant to visit it some day. Whether I shall find out anything more there or not I don't know."
"Then you must stay with me. That's a point I insist upon. But I must make my situation clear—though I've been drawn into this matter against my will, you have my promise, and if ever the time for action comes, I'll stand by you. But I'll take no part in trapping Clarence Gladwyne into any admission, nor will I countenance any charge against him unless some chance supplies you with indisputable evidence."
"Thanks," said Lisle; "I'm agreeable. You stand neutral until I call on you."
"There are two more questions, and then we'll let the subject drop. Why didn't you make this search earlier? Why didn't Gladwyne rearrange the caches afterward? He went back, you know."
"They're easily answered. It was some time before I heard of Vernon's death and met the Hudson Bay man in Victoria—I'd been away in the North. Gladwyne had the rescue party with him when he went back; he couldn't replace the provisions in the cache on this side without their knowing it, and I don't suppose he could have crossed the river to the other cache. Now we'll talk of something else."
They started again the next morning, and instead of leaving the river for the Hudson Bay post, which stood farther back into the wilderness, they held on down-stream, though they afterward regretted this when their provisions once more grew scanty. There was now sharp frost at nights; fangs of ice stretched out behind the boulders and crackling sheets of it gathered in the slacker eddies along the bank. What mattered more was that the portages were frequent, and carrying the canoe over rock coated with frozen spray became dangerous as well as difficult, and Nasmyth working on short rations began to feel the strain. It was only since he had entered that inhospitable region that he had ever been compelled to go without his dinner; and now breakfast and supper were sternly curtailed. When they were stopped for two days by a blinding snowstorm he grew anxious, and his uneasiness had increased when some time afterward they made their evening meal of a single flapjack each. He could readily have eaten a dozen of the thin, flat cakes. The duck they had shot every now and then since crossing the divide had gone; they had not seen a trout since the cold set in; and there did not appear to be any salmon in the river.
After breakfast the next morning, Lisle concluded that it would be wise to risk a day looking for a deer, so he invited Nasmyth to take his rifle and the two set out. It cost them some trouble to climb the low bluff above the river through a horrible tangle of fallen trunks. The trees were getting larger and the branches of those the wind had brought down lay spread about them or were resting on the standing growth in networks which Nasmyth would have thought it impossible to traverse had he been alone. Lisle scrambled through, however, and he had no choice except to follow. Where the timber was thinner, the slope was covered with sharp-edged stones which further damaged his already dilapidated boots; and when at last they came out upon a comparatively bare, rocky tableland, a bitter wind met them in the teeth. It drove a little fine snow before it, but Lisle plodded steadily on, explaining that any deer which might be in the neighborhood would have gone down into the sheltered valleys. He had no doubt they would find one of the valleys, for they were generally numerous.
It was an hour before they reached one, and Nasmyth was conscious of an unpleasant pain in his side and a headache which he supposed resulted from want of food. For all that, he scrambled after his companion down an almost impossible descent, where trees of increasing size grew up among outcropping rock and banks of stones. When he reached the bottom he found himself in a deep rift filled with densely-matted underbrush, through which a swift stream flowed. Its banks promised a slightly easier road, though now and then they had to wade through the water, which was icy cold. Noon came and they had seen no sign of life, except two or three willow-grouse which they failed to dislodge from cover; but Lisle held on, his course running roughly in a line with the river.
It was toward three o'clock, and a little snow was sifting down between the somber branches overhead, when Lisle, stopping, raised a warning hand and pointed to an opening in the trees. The light was dim among the rows of trunks, and for a few seconds Nasmyth gazed down the long colonnade, seeing nothing. Then Lisle pointed again, impatiently, and he made out something between a gray trunk and a thicket. Sportsman as he was, he had not the bush-man's eye, and he would never have supposed that formless object to be a deer. It moved, however; a prong of horn appeared; and waiting for nothing further he pitched up his rifle.
It was a long shot, standing; he guessed the range in a deceptive light; but he found himself strangely steady as he squeezed the trigger. He was desperately hungry and weak from want of food; the deer must not escape. Yet he was in no rash haste; for two or three seconds the tiny foresight trembled slightly upon the mark, while the pressure on the trigger increased. Then there was a flash; he heard no report but the smoke blew into his eyes. Almost simultaneously, a train of red sparks leaped out from somewhere close at his side and there was a sharp snapping in the bush ahead.
"You got your shot in!" cried Lisle. "I think I missed him on the jump. Come on; we must pick up the trail!"
It was easy to find; the deer had been too badly hit to bound across each obstacle as cleanly as usual, and broken twigs and scattering withered leaves showed which way it had gone. Besides, there were red splashes here and there. It was, however, a difficult matter to follow the trail. Fallen trees and dense thickets barred the way, and they had to cross the creek every now and then. Nasmyth rapidly got breathless and before long he was badly distressed, but he held on behind his companion. Once or twice he was held fast for a moment or two, and breaking free, found he had badly ripped his garments on the ragged branches. Still, it was unthinkable that they should let the deer escape.
As he struggled forward, he remembered that the days were rapidly shortening, and he shrank from the prospect of retracing his way to camp in the dark. It occurred to him that it was a compliment and a mark of very fine courtesy that Lisle had left the first shot to him. In return for this, he must endeavor to be present to assist when he was wanted.
The deer was still invisible, but it was not very far ahead, for at times the snapping of a stick or a rustle of disturbed underbrush came sharply out of the woods. The light was getting dimmer and the snow was falling more thickly.
At last the hunted creature left the valley and after a desperate scramble the men reached the summit of the ridge above. Here the tableland between them and the river was covered with straggling bush, and though the undergrowth was thin they could see nothing but the long rows of shadowy trunks. Lisle, however, picked up the trail, and they followed it as rapidly as possible until, when Nasmyth was lagging some distance behind, there was a shout in front of him and his companion's rifle flashed. Making a last effort, he broke into a run and presently came to the brink of a steep descent covered with thick brush and scattered trees, with a wide reach of palely gleaming water at the foot of it. It was the kind of place one would have preferred to climb down cautiously, but there was a sharp snapping and crackling below and Nasmyth knew that a hard-pressed deer will frequently take to the water. If it crossed the river, it would escape; and that could not be contemplated.
Holding his rifle up, he plunged madly down the descent, smashing through matted bushes, stumbling over slippery stones. Once or twice he collided with a slender tree and struck his leg against some ridge of rock; but he held on, gasping, and the water rapidly grew nearer. He had almost reached it when a dim shape broke out from a thicket at the bottom of the slope. There were still some cartridges in his rifle cylinder, but he was slipping and sliding down an almost precipitous declivity at such a rate that it was impossible to stop and shoot. Indeed, in another moment he fell violently into a brake and had some difficulty in smashing through it, but when he struggled free he saw shingle and boulders in front of him and Lisle bounding across them a few yards behind the deer. He reached the stones, wondering why Lisle did not fire; and then he saw man and deer plunge into the water together.
A few seconds later he was waist-deep in the swift icy current, savagely endeavoring to drag the animal toward the bank, while Lisle stood near him, breathing hard, with a red hunting-knife in his hand.
"Steady!" gasped Lisle. "You can't do it that way! Help me throw the beast on his side. Now heave!"
They got the deer out, and Nasmyth sat down limply. All the power seemed to have gone out of him; he did not want to move, though he was filled with exultation, for they now had food. It was a minute or two before he noticed that Lisle had left him; and then he saw him coming back with his rifle.
"I dropped the thing," Lisle explained. "Couldn't snap a fresh shell in; guess I bent the slide. I took the knife to finish it."
"In another moment or two you'd have been too late."
"I don't know. It wouldn't have been decided until we'd reached the other side."
"You would have swum across?" Nasmyth asked in astonishment.
"Sure," said Lisle simply. "Anyway, I'd have tried."
Nasmyth glanced at the river. It was broad, icy cold, and running fast, and he could hardly imagine a worn-out and half-fed man safely swimming it. Lisle, however, called upon him to assist in an unpleasant operation which, when Nasmyth had killed a deer at home, had been judiciously left to the keepers or gillies. After that, he was directed to light a fire on a neighboring point, from which it could be seen some way up the river, and by and by Jake arrived in the canoe. Then they made camp, and after a feast on flesh so tough that only hungry men could have eaten more than a few morsels of it they went to sleep.
In a few more days they left the river, abandoning the canoe and tent and a portion of their gear. Ascending to higher levels, they crossed a rugged waste, which, fortunately for them, was thinly timbered; but there was keen frost, and snow in places, and Nasmyth suffered a good deal during this portion of the journey. At last, however, they descended to a sheltered valley in which the firs grew tall, and Jake agreed with Lisle that it would form the best road to the settlements.
Nasmyth was longing for civilization when he lay awake late one night, wrapped in a single blanket, beside the sinking fire. Dark columnar trunks rose about him, touched with the uncertain red radiance now and then cast upon them when little puffs of bitter wind stirred the blaze, and he could see the filmy wreaths of smoke eddy among the branches. He was cold and overtired; the day's march had been a long one; his shoulders ached cruelly after carrying a heavy load, and every joint was sore. Besides, his bed was unpleasantly hard, and he envied his companions, who had long ago sunk into heavy slumber. For the last hour he had been thinking over the discoveries he had made on the journey, which he devoutly wished he had never undertaken; the thought of them had troubled him on other bitter nights. Lisle was not the man to let the matter drop; he was much more likely to follow it up with dogged persistence to the end; and Nasmyth, who was to some extent pledged to assist him, saw trouble ahead.
In spite of this, he was beginning to get drowsy when a faint and yet strangely melodious chiming broke through the whispering of the firs. It seemed to come from above him, falling through the air, and he roused himself to listen, wondering if he were quite awake. The musical clash he had first heard had ceased, but for a while he thought he could distinguish the tolling of a single bell; then in varying notes the peal broke out again.
There was something ethereal in the clear tones. The last time he had heard anything like them he was sitting one Sunday morning on a shady lawn while the call of the bells came softly up to him across the English woods. He glanced at his comrades, but they showed no sign of hearing, and raising himself on one elbow he lay and listened, until the music, growing fainter and fainter, died away. Then, puzzled and half convinced that his imagination had played him some fantastic trick, he went to sleep.
He mentioned the occurrence diffidently at breakfast the next morning, expecting incredulous laughter; but Lisle, without making a comment, glanced at Jake questioningly.
"No," responded Jake. "Nothing to bring them up so far."
"You couldn't have been mistaken?" Lisle asked Nasmyth.
"I thought I must be; but the more I listened, the clearer it got."
"Go and see," Lisle said, addressing Jake, and when they had finished breakfast the packer strode away.
"We'll wait a bit," advised Lisle. "I'm a little worried about provisions again. It's still a long march to the nearest wagon trail."
Nasmyth failed to understand how the delay would improve their position, but believing that his companion was somewhat dubious about his tale he restrained his curiosity. In half an hour Jake came back and nodded to Lisle.
"Quite a bunch of them," he reported. "I struck the fellow's trail."
"What was it I heard?" Nasmyth asked.
"Cow-bells," Lisle explained, laughing. "In this country, they generally put them on any cattle that run loose in the timber. Some adventurous rancher has located up here, though I hadn't expected to find one so far north. Anyway, it's a relief; he'll no doubt be able to let us have something to eat."
They reached the man's log house an hour later, and spent the day with him, enjoying a much needed rest. The next morning he supplied them with provisions and told them how to find a trail down to a wagon road; and, setting out, they safely reached a settlement in regular communication with the cities.
It was the settlement Lisle had expected to come to, and he found a bundle of correspondence awaiting him there. Before he opened it, however, he and Nasmyth supplied themselves with such clothing as they could obtain at the local store, and then demanded a bath at the little wooden hotel. They had some trouble in obtaining it, but Nasmyth was firm, and eventually he sat down to supper, clad in a blue shirt with scarlet trimmings, extremely tight-fitting clothes and daintily-pointed shoes.
"I think I'd have done better if I'd stuck to my rags, or else bought a pair of what that fellow called river-Jacks' boots," he commented ruefully.
Lisle was similarly attired, but he was too busy with his meal to sympathize with him, and some time after it was over Nasmyth, strolling into the private room which they had obtained as a signal concession, found him writing at a littered table. Sitting down, he watched him for a while with some slight wonder. For a number of weeks, he had seen his companion handling heavy loads, cooking, and hauling canoes round rapids with the skill of a professional packer. It was hard to disassociate him from the ranges and the bush; but now, with the pile of letters before him, he had suddenly become a business man. Nasmyth saw him answer a couple in a swift, decided manner which showed that he was at home in his present occupation. It was one of the quick character-changes which, while common in the West, are apt to bewilder the more stereotyped Englishman.
"Are you coming to England with me?" Nasmyth asked at length.
"No; I'm sorry I can't," answered Lisle, pausing, pen in hand. "This Gladwyne matter will probably take time and I have none to spare now. There have been some unexpected developments in my affairs. I don't know when I can get away."
Nasmyth was conscious of some relief. His companion would have to defer the prosecution of plans that threatened to cause trouble in England, which was something to be thankful for, though he had a strong sympathy for the man.
"Has it ever struck you that you might have less difficulty if you could be content with proving half of what you claim?" he asked. "It's the more important part—I mean that your late comrade failed to find the cache."
"Half a truth is not much use—Gladwyne realized that. To declare you haven't done the wrong is a good deal less effective than pointing to the guilty man."
"I suppose that's correct," Nasmyth agreed. "But, after all, unless you can get hold of a list of the provisions cached—and it has most likely been destroyed—there's only one way of substantiating your views."
"Exactly. Gladwyne's confession will place the matter beyond all doubt."
"Do you think you will ever get it?"
Lisle's expression hardened.
"Well," he said, "I'm going to try."
Nasmyth abandoned all attempt to daunt or dissuade him.
"Anyway," he resumed, "when you come over you must stay with me. I'm sorry we'll have to part company to-morrow. I start east by the first train."
He strolled out into the moonlight and the keen frosty air. The little wooden town was soon left behind, and sauntering down the rough wagon road beneath towering firs, he saw the great hill summits glitter white against the sky. It was a wonderful country; the grandest he had ever traversed; but it demanded a good deal from the man who ventured into its wilds, and he was not sorry that he was turning his back on it.
Then, as he thought of the land he was bound for and recalled the tragic story of Gladwyne's journey, he once more grew troubled. He realized the immutable sequence of cause and effect—each action had its result which must be faced however much one repented and regretted it. The deed, once done, could not be altered and, what was worse, its consequences reached out to others. Then he wondered whether Clarence had ever repented, and admitted, with a recurrence of his indignation against the man, that it was far from probable. Clarence was one who took life lightly, and although his means had been small until he came into his cousin's possessions, he had somehow succeeded in getting what is often considered the best out of it. Self-denial in any shape was unknown to him.
The next morning Nasmyth took the train for Montreal, and about a fortnight later alighted at a little station in the north of England as the early dusk was closing in. It was a quiet evening and the soft moistness of his native air struck him as something pleasantly familiar after the keener, drier atmosphere of the Dominion. He was glad to be back again, but when he looked around, the trap waiting in the wet road outside the railings was not his own. Neither did it belong to Clarence, whom he had partly expected; but on the whole Nasmyth was glad of that. He had not looked forward to the first meeting with Clarence with any pleasure.
In another moment, a girl came along the platform through the groups of local passengers, who respectfully made way for her. She was tall, and her long outer garment failed to conceal her grace of movement and fine poise, though in the fading light her face was almost invisible beneath a large hat. The sight of her sent a thrill of satisfaction through the man; it was seldom that Millicent Gladwyne's appearance was unwelcome to her friends. She approached him with outstretched hand.
"I drove over for you. Clarence couldn't come; he was suddenly called up to town," she began. "It would have been rather lonely for you to spend the first evening by yourself at the Lodge. You will come to us?"
"Thoughtful as ever," smiled Nasmyth, with a little bow which was respectful as well as friendly. "I needn't ask how you are; the way you walked along the platform was a testimony to our Border air."
She laughed, softly and musically.
"It is more needful to inquire how you have stood your adventures?"
"I believe I'm thinner; but that isn't astonishing, everything considered. I suppose Clarence is getting on pretty satisfactorily?"
"Clarence? Oh, yes!" There was a hint of uncertainty in her voice which Nasmyth noticed. "He has been in town a good deal of late. But come along; the horse—he's a new one—is rather restive. They'll send on your things."
"The remnant of my outfit's contained in one small bag," laughed Nasmyth; "the rest's scattered about the hillsides of British Columbia. I was a picturesque scarecrow when I reached the settlements."
They moved away along the platform, and on reaching the trap he got up beside her and handed her the reins.
"I want to look about, if you don't mind," he explained.
"I really think the prospect's worth it," she replied. "Besides, Riever's fresh and needs humoring."
She shook the whip, and as they clattered away down the steep, twisting road, Nasmyth glanced with satisfaction to left and right. He had seen wilder and grander lands, but none of them appealed to him like this high, English waste. On one hand dim black hills rose out of fleecy mist; on the other a leafless birch wood, close by, stood out in curiously fragile and delicate tracery against a paling saffron glow, though overhead the sky was barred with motionless gray cloud. A sharp smell of peat-smoke followed them as they clattered past a low white cottage with a yellow glow in one window; and then the earthy scent of rotting leaves replaced it as they plunged into the gloom of an oak wood beneath the birches. A stream splashing down a hollow made faint music in the midst of it. When they had emerged from the shadow and climbed a steep rise, wide moors stretched away in front, rising and falling in long undulations, streaked with belts of mist. The crying of restless plovers came out of the gathering dimness.
"All this is remarkably nice; though I don't think I should have appreciated it quite so much if I'd been alone," Nasmyth said at length.
Millicent laughed lightly. She had known him since her childhood and was quite aware that he had not intended to pay her a labored compliment; they were too good friends for that. Once, indeed, he had desired a closer bond, but he had quietly acquiesced when with gentle firmness she had made it clear that she was not for him. Submission had not been easy, but he had long admitted her right to more than he could offer. In this, however, he was to some extent mistaken, because the gifts he could bring—a staunch honesty, faithfulness, and a genial nature—are not to be despised.
"Well," she replied, "I love these moors and dales, as of course you know, and I've become more of a stay-at-home than ever during the past year." There was a slight regretfulness in her voice which had its meaning for him. "I'm never satisfied with the drawings," she went on, "though I've made so many of them."
Nasmyth made a sign of comprehension. She had undertaken to finish and illustrate her brother's roughed-out work, a book on the fauna of the Border, and she had brought to it a fine artistic skill and patience, as well as a love of the wild creatures of the waste. It was, perhaps, a curious occupation for a young woman, but she had devoted herself to it with characteristic thoroughness.
"He wanted it to be as complete and accurate as possible," she added simply.
Her companion felt compassionate. In some respects, it was almost a pity that Millicent could not forget.
"You got my letter—the one in which I said I meant to pick up and follow out his trail?" he asked.
"Yes. I knew it would be difficult. Indeed, I was anxious about you; the wilderness has claimed so much from me. But did you—"
"I succeeded," Nasmyth answered quietly.
The nod she gave him was expressive. It meant that she had expected him to succeed; he was a man who did what he said.
"I think George should never have made that journey," she resumed. "Fond of the open as he was, he hadn't the physical stamina. He never spared himself; he was apt to overestimate his powers."
It was spoken with a grave regretfulness that troubled Nasmyth and yet stirred him to strong appreciation of her character. With all her love for her brother, she could face the truth.
"I've learned that he bore everything with the fortitude one would expect from him—doing his share always with the rest," Nasmyth said. "We got through a little earlier, and had better weather; but I saw enough to convince me that the difficulties George had to contend with would have killed any ordinary man."
"They did not kill Clarence."
Nasmyth once more burned with anger against the transgressor.
"No," he replied in a strained tone; "Clarence escaped."
She flashed a sharp glance at him, and he felt glad that it was too dark for her to see his face.
"You must tell me the whole story to-night," she requested.
Her companion made no answer. With the reserve that must be maintained on several points, the story would be difficult to relate; and it could not fail to be painful to her. The horror she would feel if she ever learned that her brother might have been saved had his cousin shown more resolution was a thing he dare not contemplate, and he wondered if the shock the knowledge must bring could be spared her. This depended upon Lisle, whom he had promised to assist. Nasmyth could foresee nothing but trouble, and he was silent for a while as they drove on across the lonely moor.
NASMYTH TELLS HIS STORY
Dinner was over, and Millicent's elderly companion had discreetly left them alone, when the girl led Nasmyth into her drawing-room. It was brightly lighted and was tastefully decorated in delicate colors, and a wood fire was burning on the hearth; but, for the first time that he could remember, Nasmyth felt ill at ease in it. He was fresh from the snow-covered rocks and shadowy woods and the refinement and artistic luxury of his surroundings rather jarred on him. The story he had to relate dealt with elemental things—hunger, toil, and death—it would sound harsher and more ugly amid the evidences of civilization.
"You have a good deal to tell me," Millicent suggested at length.
He stood still a moment, looking at her. She had already seated herself, and the sweeping lines of her pose suggested vigor and energy held in quiet control. Her face was warm in coloring, bearing signs of exposure to wind and sun, but it was chastely molded in a fine oval with the features firmly lined. Her hair was dark, though there were bronzy gleams in it, and her eyes, which were deeply brown, had a sparkle in them. As a whole, her appearance indicated a sanguine, optimistic temperament, but there was also an indefinite something which spoke of due balance and repose. Nasmyth was more convinced than ever that he had not met any other woman fit to compare with her. Her age, as he knew, having given her many birthday presents, was twenty-four.
"Yes," he said, in answer to her remark, "but it's curious that I can't fix my mind upon the subject here. The night's mild; shall we go out on to the veranda?"
"Wait until I get a wrap. I understand."
"You always do that," Nasmyth declared.
She joined him outside in another minute and seated herself in the chair he drew out. The house was small and irregularly built, and a glass roof supported on light pillars stretched along part of the front. A half-moon hung above a ridge of dark fir wood, a tarn gleamed below, and here and there down a shadowy hollow there was a sparkle of running water. On the other side of the dale the moors stretched away, waste and empty, toward the half-seen hills. The loneliness of the prospect reminded Nasmyth of Canada, and the resemblance grew more marked when the crying of plover rose from the dim heath—it brought back the call of the loon. Still, he did not wonder why Millicent, an orphan with ample means, lived alone except for her elderly companion on the desolate Border.
"You don't mind, I know," he said as he lighted a cigar.
"I can make that concession willingly," she answered with a smile. "I suppose I'm old-fashioned, because I go no farther."
"Keep so," advised Nasmyth. "Of course, that's unnecessary; but I never could make out why women should want to smoke. From my point of view, it isn't becoming."
He was putting off a task from which he shrank, and she indulged him.
"One retains one's prejudices in a place like this," she said. "I felt sadly left behind when I was last in London; and the few visits I made in the home counties a little while ago astonished me. Nobody seemed to stay at home; the motors were continually whirling them up to town and back; the guests kept coming and going. There was so much restlessness and bustle that I was glad to be home again."
"It has struck me," returned Nasmyth with an air of sage reflection, "that we who live quietly in the country are the pick of the lot. Sounds egotistical, doesn't it? But if we don't do much good—and I'm afraid I don't, anyway—neither do we do any harm."
"I'm not sure that that's a great deal to be proud of."
"I didn't include you," Nasmyth assured her. "There have been wholesome changes in the village since you grew up and made your influence felt. And that leads to a question: How does Clarence get on with his tenants and the rank and file? George understood them, but they're difficult folks to handle."
"He's away a good deal—I'm afraid there has been some friction now and then." The girl's manner suddenly changed. "But that's beside the point. Aren't you wasting time?"
"I am almost afraid to begin. You will find the story trying."
She turned toward him, and the moonlight showed her face was reassuringly quiet.
"I expect that; but your fears are groundless. You needn't hesitate on my account."
Nasmyth knew that she was right; Millicent was not one to flinch from pain. With an effort, he began his story at the portage over the divide, and, possessed by vivid memories, he made her see the desolate region they had laboriously traversed. Because her imagination was powerful, she could picture the brother she had loved toiling with desperate purpose and failing strength through muskeg and morass. Then, when she quietly insisted, he described Gladwyne's last camp. She saw that, too: the hollow beneath the dark rock, with the straggling cedars on the ridge above. Next he outlined the journey down the first few rapids, saying little about the caches, and at last, with considerable relief, he came to a stop. Millicent sat silent for several minutes, during which he did not look at her.
"Thank you," she said at length. "I have tried often to imagine it, and failed; but it is quite clear now. Clarence would never give me more than the barest details—I think he hated to speak of it."
"In a way, he was wise," replied Nasmyth. He understood the man's reluctance. "Now don't you think it would be better if you tried to drive the thing out of your mind? It can't be altered—there's a danger in dwelling too much upon one's grief."
She looked up at him, though her eyes were dim with tears.
"It can't be driven out. There were only the two of us; we had so much in common—there was such trust between us."
Nasmyth nodded in comprehension and sympathy.
"Now that I've told you," he said quietly, as he rose, "I think I'll go. I am sure you'd rather be alone."
"No," she answered, motioning to him to sit down. "Please stay." She seemed to rouse herself with an effort. "Of course, there was only one thing George could do when he was lamed—send them on. But Clarence, who was with him, never made his fortitude and cheerfulness so clear as you have done. You even mentioned the exact words he said now and then—how did you hear of them?"
"From my companion, a young Canadian. He had the whole thing by heart; got it from the Hudson Bay agent. George's guide told the agent."
"Did your companion also teach you how to tell the story?"
Nasmyth smiled. He saw that she was desirous of changing the subject and he was glad of it.
"Anyway, he made me see it at the time; pointed out the full significance of things—a broken branch, a scratch on a rock. A rather striking man in several ways. But you shall see him; he's coming over to stay with me by and by." He paused a moment. "I understand that Clarence has been having some trouble."
"It hardly amounts to that. But things are not the same as they were"—in spite of her courage she faltered—"when George held control. The tenants don't take to Clarence; I think he was not well advised in increasing rents here and there. Indeed, that was a little puzzling, because he was once so liberal."
"In small matters; it's his own money now." Nasmyth could not repress this show of bitterness.
"Whose money was it in his extravagant days?"
"That's a question I've thought over and failed to find an answer to. I've no doubt most of what he gets is now being spent in town, though in my opinion as much as possible ought to go back to the locality in which it was produced. Why don't you impress that on him?"
Millicent, as he knew, could judiciously offer sound advice where it was needed. She was young, but, having been left an orphan early, she had long enjoyed her brother's close companionship and confidence, and the man's wide knowledge and thoughtfulness had had its effect in molding her character. Still, in this case, she did not respond.
"It would be better for his tenants and the neighborhood generally if Clarence married; he can afford it now," Nasmyth went on.
Again the girl was silent, and he wondered whether he had thoughtlessly made a serious blunder. It had been supposed among their friends that she would marry Clarence some day, though, so far as it was known, there was no definite understanding between them, and for a while the man's attitude had strengthened the idea. Indeed, when he had succeeded to George's possessions, every one had expected an announcement, which had not been made. What Millicent thought, or what she had looked for all along, did not appear.
"I think you are right in one thing," she said, very calmly, at length. "If he would stay here, as George did and his neighbors do, it would be better for everybody, including himself."
Nasmyth made a sign of agreement. Their intimate friends remained for the greater portion of the year on their estates, understanding the needs of their tenants and dependents and enjoying their good opinion, which was naturally increased by the fact that their expenses were chiefly incurred in the neighborhood. There were others who, as the small farmer recognized, returned as little as possible to the soil, squandering revenues raised by the stubborn labor of others in doubtful pleasures elsewhere and, when they brought their friends home, on luxuries despatched from town. These things made for bitterness.
An unfortunate persistence in his hobby drove Nasmyth into a second blunder.
"We're in accord on that point," he assured her. "It's a pity the land passed out of your hands. However, as there's no male succession, it might, after all, come back to you."
She bore it very calmly.
"You wouldn't have me speculate on such a thing?"
Then as if to find a safer topic she went on with a thrill of anger in her tone:
"I'll tell you of an incident I witnessed two or three days ago, which annoyed me seriously. I'd just met old Bell—you know how lame he is—driving some sheep along the road. It has been a wet, cold year; Bell lost his hay, the oats are dreadfully poor, and his buildings are in very bad repair."
"They were a disgrace to any estate when I last saw them," Nasmyth broke in. "Besides, the sour land near the river should have been tile-drained long ago."
"So Bell has urged; but he can't get Marple to spend a penny—I'm glad that man's new to this part of the country and doesn't belong to us. Well, just after I met Bell, Marple's big motor came along. He had Batley with him and the Crestwicks, who were down before. I think you met them?"
"I did," assented Nasmyth. "In Canada they'd call them a mighty tough crowd; they're about the limit here."
"I turned round after the car had passed," Millicent went on. "Marple was driving, as fast as usual, and he made no attempt to pull up. Bell, who didn't hear, tried to jump and fell into the ditch; most of the sheep were scattered across the moor, but two or three got right in front of the car and at the last moment Marple had to stop. One of the women laughed, she had a very shrill voice and she explained that the old man looked so funny in the ditch; Marple shouted to Bell—something about the damage to his tires—and I could see the others smiling at what he said. That was worse than the words he used. Then they went on, leaving the old man to gather up his sheep; he hadn't a dog with him. That kind of thing leaves its mark!"
"Distinctly so," Nasmyth agreed. "Still, Marple and his lot are exceptions. Wasn't Clarence rather thick with them?"
"Yes," she answered. "I've been rather disturbed about him."
Nasmyth did not know what this meant. He thought she would hardly have made such an admission had she contemplated marrying the man; and, if not, it was somewhat difficult to see why he should cause her serious concern. He knew, however, that Millicent could not look on unmoved when her friends left the right path; he could think of two or three whom she had helped and gently checked from further straying. This reflection was a relief to him, because he was determined that she should not marry Clarence if he could prevent it. If necessary, he would tell her the part the man had played in Canada, though he shrank from doing so.
"Marple and his acquaintances are not the people one would have expected Clarence to associate with," he continued. "Still, in my opinion, he's doing worse in making a friend of that fellow Batley. I could never understand the connection—the man strikes me as an adventurer. Has he spent much time here since I've been away?"