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   Chapter 2 MILLICENT RENEWS AN ACQUAINTANCE

Blake's Burden By Harold Bindloss Characters: 13693

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


Dusk was falling on the broad river, and the bold ridge behind the city stood out sharp and black against a fading gleam in the western sky, when Richard Blake hurried along the wharf. Close at hand a big, sidewheel steamer, spotlessly white, with tiers of decks that towered above the sheds and blazed with light, was receiving the last of her passengers, and on reaching the gangway Blake stood aside to let an elderly lady pass. She was followed by her maid and a girl whose face he could not see. It was a few minutes after the sailing time, and as the lady stepped on board a rope fell with a splash. There was a shout of warning as the bows, caught by the current, began to swing out into the stream, and the end of the gangway slipped along the edge of the wharf. It threatened to fall into the river, the girl was not on board yet, and Blake leaped upon the plank. Seizing her shoulder, he drove her forward until a seaman, reaching out, drew her safe on deck. Then the paddles splashed and as the boat forged out into the stream, the girl turned and thanked Blake. He could not see her clearly, because an over-arching deck cast a shadow upon her face.

"Glad to have been of assistance, but I don't think you could have fallen in," he said. "The guy-rope they had on the gangway might have held it up."

Turning away, he entered the smoke-room, where he spent a while over an English newspaper that devoted some space to social functions and the doings of people of importance, noticing once or twice, with a curious smile, mention of names he knew. He had the gift of making friends, and before he went to India had met a number of men and women of note who had been disposed to like him. Then he had won the good opinion of responsible officers on the turbulent frontier and made acquaintances that might have been valuable. Now, however, he had done with all that; he was banished from the world they moved in, and if they ever remembered him it was, no doubt, as one who had gone under.

Shaking off these thoughts, he joined some Americans in a game of cards, and it was late at night when he went out into the moonlight as the boat steamed up Lake St. Peter. A long plume of smoke trailed across the cloudless sky, the water glistened with silvery radiance, and, looking over the wide expanse, he could see dark trees etched faintly on the blue horizon. Ahead the lights of Three Rivers twinkled among square, black blocks of houses and tall sawmill stacks.

A few passengers were strolling about, but the English newspaper had made him restless and to wish to be alone, so, descending to a quieter deck, he was surprised to see the girl he had assisted sitting in a canvas chair near the rail. Close by stood several large baskets from which there rose an angry snarling.

"What is this?" he asked with the careless abruptness which usually characterized him. "With your permission." He raised a lid, while the girl watched him with amusement.

"Looks like a menagerie on a small scale," he remarked. "Are these animals yours?"

"No," she answered; "they belong to Mrs. Keith."

"Mrs. Keith?" he said sharply. "The lady I saw at the Frontenac with the autocratic manners and a Roman nose? It's curious, but she reminds me of somebody I knew and the name's the same. I wonder--"

He broke off, and Millicent Graham studied him as he stood in the moonlight. She did not think he recognized her and perhaps he was hardly justified in supposing that his timely aid at the gangway dispensed with the need for an introduction, but she liked his looks, which she remembered well. She had no fear of this man's presuming too far; he had a humorous, good-natured air and his surprise when she mentioned Mrs. Keith had roused her interest.

"Yes," she said; "I believe it was my employer you knew."

He did not follow this lead, but asked: "Are you supposed to sit up all night and watch the animals for her?"

"Only for an hour or two. The steamboat people refused to have them in the saloon, and the maid should have relieved me. She was tired, however, with packing and running errands all day, and I thought I'd let her sleep a while."

"Then it can't be much of an intrusion if I try to make you more comfortable. Let me move your chair nearer the deckhouse, where you'll be out of the wind; but I'll first see if I can find another rug."

He left her without waiting for a reply and, returning with a rug, placed her chair in a sheltered spot, after which he leaned against the rails.

"So you are Mrs. Keith's companion," he remarked. "It strikes me as rather unfeeling of her to keep you here in the cold." He indicated the baskets. "But what's her object in buying these creatures?"

"Caprice," said Millicent, smiling. "Some of them are savage, and they cost a good deal. I can't imagine what she means to do with them, and I don't think she knows. One of them, however, has been growling all day, and as it's apparently unwell it mustn't be neglected."

"If it growls any more, I'll feel tempted to turn yonder hose upon it or try some other drastic remedy."

"Please don't!" cried Millicent in alarm. "But you mustn't think Mrs. Keith is inconsiderate. I have much to thank her for, but she gets very enthusiastic over her hobbies."

"Do you know if she ever goes down to a little place in Shropshire?"

"She does; I have been with her. Once she took me to your old home." Then the colour crept into Millicent's face. "You don't seem to remember me, Lieutenant Blake."

Blake, who had learned self-control, did not start, though he came near doing so as he recalled a scene he had taken part in some years earlier. He had just risen from a dining-table, where the talk had been of favourite dancers and the turf, and the wine had circulated too freely, and entered a small drawing-room with several men whom his host was assisting in a career of dissipation. As they came in a girl rose from the piano and on seeing her Blake felt a sense of awkwardness and shame. She looked very fresh and pretty, untainted, he thought, by her surroundings, and the annoyance in her father's face suggested that he had not expected to find her there. Blake saw that she shrank from his noisy companions in alarm. One of them, who had drunk too deep, not noticing that she was startled and imagining that she was a fit subject for rough gallantry, pursued her as she tried to escape, but Blake with a quick movement reached a switch and cut off the light. Next moment he seized the offender and hustled him out of the room. He had saved an awkward situation and was afterwards thanked by the man he had roughly handled.

"It would have been inexcusable if I had forgotten you," he answered with a smile. "Still, I couldn't quite place you until a few moments ago, when you faced the light. But you w

ere wrong in one thing; I'm no longer Lieutenant Blake."

She appreciated the frankness which had prompted this warning and saw that she had made a tactless blunder, but she looked at him steadily.

"I forgot," she said; "forgive me. I heard of-what happened in India-but I felt that there must have been some mistake." She hesitated for a moment. "I think so now."

Blake made a sudden movement, and then leaned back against the rails. "I'm afraid that an acquaintance which lasted three or four minutes could hardly enable you to judge; first impressions are often wrong, you know. Anyhow, I don't complain of the opinion of gentlemen who knew more about me."

Millicent saw that the subject must be dropped and resuming, said: "At our first meeting I had no opportunity of thanking you, and you gave me none to-night. It's curious that while I've only met you twice, on both occasions you turned up just when you were needed. Is it a habit of yours?"

"That's a flattering thing to hint. The man who's always on hand when he's wanted is an estimable person."

"It's not quite what I meant," she answered, laughing. "What struck me most was that you don't seem to like gratitude."

"One ought to like it. It's supposed to be rare, but, on the whole, I haven't found that so."

He studied her with an interest which she noticed but could not resent. The girl had changed and gained something since their first meeting, and he thought it was a knowledge of the world. She was, he felt, neither tainted nor hardened by what she had learned, but her fresh childish look which suggested ignorance of evil had gone and could not come back. Indeed, he wondered how she had preserved it in her father's house. This was not a matter he could touch upon, but by and by she referred to it.

"I imagine," she said shyly, "that on the evening when you came to my rescue in London you were surprised to find me-so unprepared; so incapable of dealing with the situation."

"That is true," Blake answered with some awkwardness. "A bachelor dinner, you know, after a big race meeting at which we had backed several winners! One has to make allowances."

Millicent smiled rather bitterly. "You may guess that I had to make them often in those days, but it was on the evening we were speaking of that my eyes were first opened, and I was startled. But you must understand that it was not by my father's wish I came to London and stayed with him-until the end. He urged me to go away, but his health had broken down and he had no one else to care for him. When he was no longer able to get about everybody deserted him, and he felt it."

Blake was stirred to compassion. Graham had, no doubt, suffered nothing he had not deserved, but the man had once been a social favourite, and it was painful to think of his dying alone in poverty. His extravagance and the shifts by which he evaded his creditors were known, and Blake could imagine how hard he would be pressed when he lay sick and helpless. It must have been a harrowing experience for a young girl to nurse him and at the same time to grapple with financial difficulties.

"I was truly sorry to hear of his death," he said. "Your father was once a very good friend to me. But, if I may ask, how was it he let you come to his flat?"

"I forced myself upon him," Millicent answered, with a grateful glance. "My mother died long ago and her unmarried sisters took care of me. They lived very simply in a small secluded country house; two old-fashioned Evangelicals, gentle but austere, studying small economies, giving all they could away. In winter we embroidered for missionary bazaars; in summer we spent the days in a quiet, walled garden. It was all very peaceful, but I grew restless, and when I heard that my father's health was failing I felt I must go to him. My aunts were grieved and alarmed, but they said they dare not hinder me if I thought it my duty."

Stirred by troubled memories and perhaps encouraged by the sympathy he showed, she had spoken on impulse without reserve, and Blake listened with pity. The girl, brought up, subject to wholesome Puritanical influences, in such surroundings as she had described, must have suffered a cruel shock when suddenly plunged into the society of the rakes and gamblers who frequented her father's flat.

"Could you not have gone back when you were no longer needed?" he asked.

"No," she said; "it would not have been fair. I had changed since I left my aunts. They were very sensitive, and I think the difference they must have noticed in me would have jarred on them. I should have brought something alien into their unworldly life. It was too late to return; I had to follow the path I had chosen."

Blake mused a while, watching the lights of Three Rivers fade astern and the broad white wake of the paddles stream back across the glassy surface of the lake. The girl must have learned much of human failings since she left her sheltered home, but he thought the sweetness of character which could not be spoiled by knowledge of evil was greatly to be admired. He was, however, a man of action and not a philosopher.

"Well," he said, "I appreciate your letting me talk to you, but it's cold and getting late, and you have sat on deck long enough. I'll see that somebody looks after the animals."

Millicent felt dubious, though she was sleepy and tired. "If anything happened to her pets, Mrs. Keith would not forgive me."

"I'll engage that something will happen to some of them very soon unless you promise to go to your room," Blake said, laughing. Then he called a deckhand. "What have you to do?"

"Stand here until the watch is changed."

"Then you can keep an eye on these baskets. If any of the beasts inside them makes an alarming noise, send to my room; the second, forward, port side. Look me up before we get to Montreal."

"That's all right," said the man, and Blake held out his hand to Millicent as she rose.

"Now," he said, "you can go to rest with a clear conscience."

She left him with a word of thanks, wondering whether she had been indiscreet, and why she had told him so much. She knew nothing to his advantage except one chivalrous action, and she had not desired to arouse his pity, but he had an honest face and had shown an understanding sympathy which touched her, because she had seldom experienced it. He had left the army with a stain upon his name, but she shrank from judging harshly and felt that he had not merited his disgrace. Then she forgot him and went to sleep.

Blake stayed on deck some time, thinking about her, but presently decided that this was an unprofitable occupation. He was a marked man, with a lonely road to travel, and, though he found some amusement by the way it led him apart from the society of women of the kind he most cared for.

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