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   Chapter 1 THE BLAKE AFFAIR

Blake's Burden By Harold Bindloss Characters: 14082

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


It was a fine morning and Mrs. Keith sat with a companion, enjoying the sunshine, near the end of Dufferin Avenue, which skirts the elevated ground above the city of Quebec. Behind her rose the Heights of Abraham where the dying Wolfe wrested Canada from France; in front, churches, banks, offices and dwellings, curiously combining the old and the very new, rose tier on tier to the great red Frontenac hotel, at which she was staying. It is a picturesque city that climbs back from its noble river; supreme, perhaps, in its situation among Canadian towns, and still retaining something of the exotic stamp set upon it by its first builders whose art was learned in the France of long ago.

From where she sat Mrs. Keith could not see the ugly wooden wharves. Her glance rested on the flood that flowed towards her, still and deep, through a gorge lined with crags and woods, and then, widening rapidly, washed the shores of a low, green island. Opposite her white houses shone on the Levis ridge, and beyond this a vast sweep of country, steeped in gradations of colour that ended in ethereal blue, rolled away towards the hills of Maine. Quebec was then filled with distinguished guests. British royalty had visited it, with many who belonged to the great world in London and some who aspired to do so. Canada had become fashionable, and in addition to English folk of station, Westerners and Americans of note had gathered in the ancient city. The ceremonies were over, but the company had not all dispersed.

The two ladies were elderly. They had played their part in the drama of life, one of them in a strenuous manner, and now they were content with the position of lookers on. So far, however, nothing had occurred since breakfast to excite their interest, and by and by Mrs. Keith turned to her companion with characteristic briskness.

"I think I'll go to Montreal by the special boat to-night," she said. "The hotel's crowded, the town's full, and you keep meeting people whom you know or have heard about. I came here to see Canada, but find it hard to realize that I'm not in London; I'm tired of the bustle."

Mrs. Ashborne smiled. She had met Margaret Keith by chance in Quebec, but their acquaintance was of several years' standing.

"Tired?" she said. "That is surely a new sensation for you. I've often envied you your energy."

Age had touched Mrs. Keith lightly, though she had long been a childless widow and had silvery hair. Tall and finely made, with prominent nose and piercing eyes, she was marked by a certain stateliness and a decided manner. She was blunt without rudeness, and though often forceful was seldom arrogant. Careless of her dress, as she generally was, Margaret Keith bore the stamp of refinement and breeding.

"Ah!" she said; "I begin to feel I'm old. But will you come to Montreal with me to-night?"

"I suppose I'd better, though the boat takes longer than the train and I hear that the Place Viger is full. I don't know anything about the other hotels; they mightn't be comfortable."

"They'll no doubt be able to offer us all that we require, and I never pamper myself," Mrs. Keith replied. "In fact, it's now and then a relief to do something that's opposed to the luxuriousness of the age."

This was a favourite topic, but she broke off as a man came towards her, carrying one or two small parcels which apparently belonged to the girl at his side. He was a handsome man, tall and rather spare, with dark eyes and a soldierly look. His movements were quick and forceful, but a hint of what Mrs. Keith called swagger somewhat spoiled his bearing. She thought he allowed his self-confidence to be seen too plainly. The girl formed a marked contrast to him; she was short and slender, her hair and eyes were brown, while her prettiness, for one could not have called her beautiful, was of an essentially delicate kind. It did not strike one at first sight, but grew upon her acquaintances. Her manner was quiet and reserved and she was plainly dressed in white, but when she turned and dismissed her companion her pose was graceful. Then she handed Mrs. Keith some letters and papers.

"I have been to the post office and Captain Sedgwick made them search for our mail," she said. "It came some time ago, but there was a mistake through its not being addressed to the hotel."

Mrs. Keith took the letters and gave Mrs. Ashborne an English newspaper, but the girl went on: "The bobcat has torn a hole in the basket and I'm afraid it's trying to get at the mink."

"Tell some of the hotel people to take it out at once and see that the basket is sent to be mended."

The girl withdrew and Mrs. Ashborne looked up. "Did I hear aright? She said a bob-cat."

"You did. I am making a collection of the smaller American animals, and a bob-cat is something like a big English ferret. It has high hindquarters and walks with a curious jump, which I suppose is why it got its name. I'm not sure it lives in Canada, and an American got this one for me. I find natural history interesting."

Margaret Keith was known to be eccentric, and her companion laughed. "I should imagine you found it expensive, and aren't some of the creatures savage?"

"Millicent looks after them, and I always beat the sellers down. Fortunately, I can afford to indulge in my caprices, and you can consider this my latest fad if you like. I am subject to no claims, and my means are hardly large enough to make me an object of interest to sycophantic relatives."

"Is your companion fond of attending to wild animals?" Mrs. Ashborne inquired. "I have wondered where you got her. You have had a number, but she is different from the rest."

"I suppose you mean she is too good for the post?" Mrs. Keith suggested. "However, I don't mind telling you that she is Eustace Graham's daughter; you must have heard of him."

"Eustace Graham? Wasn't he in rather bad odour?-only tolerated on the fringe of society? I seem to recollect some curious tales about him."

"Latterly he was outside the fringe; indeed, I don't know how he kept on his feet so long, but he went downhill fast towards the end. A plucker of plump pigeons, an expensive friend to smart young subalterns and boys about town. Cards, bets, loans arranged, and that kind of thing! All the same, he had his good points when I first knew him."

"But after such a life as his daughter must have led, do you consider her a suitable person to take about with you? What do your friends think? They have to receive her now and then."

"I can't say that I have much cause to respect my friends' opinions, and I'm not afraid of the girl's contaminating me," Mrs. Keith replied. "Besides, Millicent, who lost her mother early, lived with her aunts until a few months before her father's death. I expect Eustace felt more embarrassed than grateful when she came to take care of him, but, to do him justice, he would see that none of the taint of his surroundings rested on the girl. He did wrong, but I think he paid for it, and it

is better to be charitable."

She broke off, and glanced down at the big liner with cream-coloured funnel that was slowly swinging across the stream as she resumed: "I must send Millicent to buy our tickets for Montreal. The hotel will be crowded before long with that steamer's noisy passengers."

"Do you know anything about Captain Sedgwick, who brought you your letters?" her companion asked.

"Not much. Distinguished himself somewhere and holds a Government post in a West African colony. Came home on furlough, and seems to have had some part in the state functions here. I'm inclined to think he's a soldier of fortune; a man with a humble beginning, determined to get on."

"Isn't that Mrs. Chudleigh he's now talking to?"

Mrs. Ashborne was short-sighted, but Margaret Keith's eyes were better, and she noticed the stylish woman whom Sedgwick had joined.

"Yes," she said. "A widow, I believe, though one would not suspect it from her clothes. She seems to know some of my friends, but I met her here for the first time a few days ago."

"She married very young and her husband, who died in a few years, left her a good deal of money; he was a merchant in Calcutta. She's too smart and advanced for my taste, but her people have some standing. It looks as if she were attracted by Sedgwick; she's undoubtedly gracious to him."

"Then it's an opportunity he won't miss. The man's an adventurer."

Sedgwick and his companion passed out of sight, and Mrs. Ashborne opened the Morning Post, from which she presently looked up.

"'A marriage-between Blanche Newcombe and Captain Challoner-at Thornton Holme, in Shropshire,'" she read out. "Do you know the bride?"

"I know Bertram Challoner better," Mrs. Keith replied, and was silent for a minute or two, musing on former days. Then she went on: "His mother was an old friend of mine; a woman of imagination, with strong artistic tastes, and Bertram resembles her. It was his father, the Colonel, who forced him into the army, and I'm somewhat astonished that he has done so well."

"They were all soldiers, I understand. But wasn't there some scandal about a cousin?"

"Richard Blake?" said Mrs. Keith, making room for Millicent Graham, her companion, who rejoined them. "It's getting an old story, and I always found it puzzling. So far as one could judge, Dick Blake should have made an excellent officer; his mother, the Colonel's sister, was true to the Challoner strain, his father a reckless Irish sportsman."

"But what was the story? I haven't heard it."

"After Blake broke his neck when hunting, the Colonel brought Dick up and, as a matter of course, sent him into the army. He became a sapper, and, entering the Indian service, met his cousin, Bertram, who was in the line, somewhere on the frontier. They were both sent with an expedition into the hills, and there was a night attack. It was important that an advanced post should be defended, and Dick had laid out the trenches. In the middle of the fight an officer lost his nerve, the position was stormed, and the expedition terribly cut up. Owing to the darkness and confusion there was a doubt about who had led the retreat, but Dick was blamed and made no defence. In spite of this, he was acquitted at the inquiry, perhaps because he was a favourite and Colonel Challoner was well known upon the frontier, but the opinion of the mess was against him. He left the service and the Challoners never speak of him."

"I once met Lieutenant Blake," Millicent broke in with a flush in her face. "Though he only spoke a word or two to me, he did a very chivalrous thing; one that needed courage and coolness. I find it hard to believe he could be a coward."

"So do I," Mrs. Keith agreed. "Still I must say that I haven't seen him since he was a boy."

"I met him once," said Mrs. Ashborne. "There was a man in the hotel yesterday who strongly reminded me of him, but I think he must have left last night."

"I have forgotten my letters, but I know from whom they come, and they'll no doubt give me some news of the wedding," Mrs. Keith remarked, and while she opened them Millicent sat looking down on the glistening river with her thoughts far away.

She was reconstructing a scene from the past, and she could picture with vivid distinctness the small, untidy drawing-room of a London flat, in which she sat, alone and half-dismayed, one evening soon after she had joined her father. A few beautiful objects of art were scattered amongst the shabby furniture; there were stains of wine on the fine Eastern rug, an inlaid table was scraped and damaged, and one chair had a broken leg. All she saw spoke of neglect and vanished prosperity. Hoarse voices and loud laughter came from an adjoining room and a smell of cigar smoke accompanied them. Sitting at the piano, she restlessly turned over some music and now and then played a few bars to divert her troubled thoughts. Until a few weeks before she had led a peaceful life in the country, and the finding her father of such doubtful character and habits had been a painful surprise.

She was interrupted by the violent opening of the door and a group of excited men burst into the room. They were shouting with laughter at a joke which made her blush, and one dragged a companion in by the arm. Another, breaking off from rude horse-play, came towards her with a drunken leer. She shrank from his hot face and wine-laden breath as she drew back, wondering how she could reach her father, who stood in the doorway trying to restrain his guests. Then a young man sprang forward, with disgust and anger in his brown face, and she felt that she was safe. He looked clean and wholesome by contrast with the rest and his movements were swift and athletic.

Millicent could remember him very well, for she had often thought of Lieutenant Blake with gratitude. Just as the tipsy gallant stretched out his hand to seize her, the electric light went out; there was a brief scuffle in the darkness, the door banged, and when the light flashed up again only Blake and her father were in the room. Afterwards her father told her with a look of shame in his handsome, dissipated face, that he had been afraid of something of the kind happening and she must leave him. Millicent refused, for worn as he was by many excesses, his health was breaking down and when he fell ill she nursed him until he died. She had not seen Lieutenant Blake since.

By and by Mrs. Keith's voice broke in upon her recollections. "It's possible we may see Bertram and the new Mrs. Challoner. She is going out with him, but they are to travel by the Canadian Pacific route and spend some time in Japan before proceeding to his Indian station." Referring to the date of her letter she resumed, "They may have caught the boat that has just come in; she's one of the railway Empresses, and there's an Allan liner due to-morrow. Now I think we'll go to the hotel and try to get a list of the passengers."

She rose and they walked slowly back along the avenue.

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