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   Chapter 3 THE COUSINS

Blake's Burden By Harold Bindloss Characters: 16867

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


Dinner was over at the Windsor in Montreal, and Mrs. Keith, who found the big hotel rather noisy and uncomfortably warm, was sitting with Mrs. Ashborne in the square between it and St. Catharine's Street. A cool air blew uphill from the river and the patch of grass with its fringe of small, dusty trees had a certain picturesqueness in the twilight. Above it the wooded crest of the mountain rose darkly against the evening sky; lights glittered behind the network of thin branches and fluttering leaves along the sidewalk, and the dome of the cathedral bulked huge and shadowy across the square. Down hill, towards St. James's, rose towering buildings, with the rough-hewn front of the Canadian Pacific depot prominent among them, and the air was filled with the clanging of street cars and the tolling of locomotive bells. Once or twice, however, when the throb of the traffic momentarily subsided, music rose faint and sweet from the cathedral, and Mrs. Keith, who heard the uplifted voices and knew what they sang, turned to listen. She had heard them before, through her open window in the early morning when the city was silent and its busy toilers slept, and now it seemed to her appropriate that the voices could not be wholly drowned by its hoarse commercial clamour.

The square served as a cool retreat for the inhabitants of crowded tenements and those who had nowhere else to go, but Margaret Keith was not fastidious about her company. She was interested in the unkempt emigrants who, waiting for a Westbound train, lay upon the grass, surrounded by their tired children, and she had sent Millicent down the street to buy fruit to distribute among the travellers; she liked to watch the French Canadian girls who slipped quietly up the broad cathedral steps. They were the daughters of the rank and file, but their movements were graceful and they were tastefully dressed. Then the blue-shirted, sinewy men, who strolled past, smoking, roused her curiosity. They had not acquired their free, springy stride in the cities; these were adventurers who had met with strange experiences in the frozen North and the lonely West. Some of them had hard faces and a predatory air, but that added to their interest. Margaret Keith liked to watch them all and speculate about their mode of life; that pleasure could still be enjoyed, though as she sometimes told herself with humorous resignation, she could no longer take a very active part in things.

By and by, however, something that appealed to her in a more direct and personal way occurred, for a man came down the steps of the Windsor and crossed the well-lighted street with a very pretty English girl. He carried himself well and had the look of a soldier, his figure was finely proportioned, but his handsome face suggested sensibility rather than decision of character and his eyes were dreamy. His companion, so far as Mrs. Keith could judge by her smiling glance as she laid her hand upon his arm when they left the sidewalk, was proud of and much in love with him.

"Whom are you looking at so hard?" Mrs. Ashborne inquired.

"Bertram Challoner and his bride," said Mrs. Keith. "They're coming towards us yonder."

Then a curious thing happened, for a man who was crossing the street seemed to see the Challoners and, turning suddenly, stepped back behind a passing cab. They had their backs to him when he went on, but he looked round, as if to make sure he had not been observed before he entered the hotel.

"That was strange," said Mrs. Ashborne. "It looked as if the fellow didn't want to meet our friends. Who can he be?"

"How can I tell?" Mrs. Keith rejoined. "I think I've seen him somewhere, but that's all I know."

Looking round as Millicent joined them, she noticed her puzzled expression. The girl had obviously seen the stranger's action, but Mrs. Keith did not wish to pursue the subject then. Next moment Challoner came up and greeted her heartily, while his wife spoke to Mrs. Ashborne.

"We only arrived this afternoon and must have missed you at dinner," he said. "We may go West to-morrow, though we haven't decided yet. I've no doubt we shall see you again to-night or at breakfast."

After a few pleasant words the Challoners passed on, and Mrs. Keith looked after them thoughtfully.

"Bertram has changed in the last few years," she said. "I heard he had malaria in India, which perhaps accounts for it, but he shows signs of his mother's delicacy. She was not strong, and I always thought he had her highly-strung nervous temperament, though he must have learned to control it in the army."

"He couldn't have got in unless the doctors were satisfied with him," said Mrs. Ashborne.

"That's true, but both mental and physical traits have a way of lying dormant while we're young and of developing later. Bertram has shown himself a capable officer, but to my mind, he looked more like a soldier when he was at Sandhurst than he does now."

A few minutes later Mrs. Chudleigh came out of the hotel with Sedgwick and stopped to speak to Mrs. Keith.

"I came up by the last train and heard that you were here. Captain Sedgwick travelled with me, but he's going on to Toronto to-morrow. I suppose you have seen the Challoners? Such a number of English people in the town! But isn't this a curious place to spend the evening?"

"It's cool," said Mrs. Keith. "I like fresh air."

Mrs. Chudleigh, glanced towards Millicent, who was distributing a basket of peaches among a group of untidy, emigrant children.

"That's a charming picture, isn't it? Miss Graham fits the part very well, but I suppose you're responsible."

There was a sneer in her tone and Sedgwick broke in: "Miss Graham's a very nice girl; you can see that she's sorry for the dirty little beggars. They don't look as if they'd had a happy time, and a liner's crowded steerage isn't a luxurious place."

"Since you feel so pitiful, it would be more to the purpose if you gave them something," Mrs. Chudleigh rejoined.

"A good idea!" said Sedgwick coolly. "I'll carry it out."

He crossed the grass and scattered a few small coins among the children, who clustered round him, after which he stood talking to Millicent, while Mrs. Chudleigh watched him with an impatience she did not try to hide.

"It's a new role for Sedgwick," she remarked. "When he has finished, we are going into the cathedral to hear the music. I'm fond of churches, and we spent the afternoon in Notre Dame."

Mrs. Ashborne said it was worth seeing and conversation languished for the next three or four minutes, after which Mrs. Chudleigh moved forward imperiously and took Sedgwick away. Mrs. Keith turned to her companion with an amused expression.

"I daresay you noticed that he didn't mind keeping her waiting."

"I thought he meant to flout her when he acted on her suggestion, and I half expected something of a scene," said Mrs. Ashborne. "The woman has a temper."

Mrs. Keith smiled. "The man is a fortune hunter, but he's taking the right way. She's used to admiration, and her other suitors have, no doubt, deferred to her. It's a change to be defied instead of courted, and though it makes her angry I imagine it strengthens his hold. If he shows his is the firmer hand, she'll give in."

"You're taking it for granted that she's in love with him."

"It looks like it," Mrs. Keith replied. "He has his attractions and has done one or two dashing things of the kind that catches the public eye. However, I have some English letters to write, and I think we'll go in."

Next evening, about an hour before sunset, Challoner and his wife leaned upon the rails of a wooden gallery built out from the rock on the summit of the green mountain that rises close behind Montreal. It is a view-point that visitors frequent, and they gazed with appreciation at the wide landscape. Wooded slopes led steeply down to the stately colleges of McGill and the rows of picturesque houses along Sherbrook Avenue; lower yet, the city, shining in the clear evening light, spread across the plain, dominated by its cathedral dome and the towers of Notre Dame. Green squares with trees in them checkered the blocks of buildings; along its skirts, where a haze of smoke hung about the wharves, the great river gleamed in a broad silver band. On the farther bank the plain ran on again, fading from green to grey and purple until it melted into the distance a

nd the hills on the Vermont frontier cut, faintly blue, against the sky.

"How beautiful this world is!" Challoner exclaimed. "I have seen grander sights and there are more picturesque cities than Montreal-I'm looking forward to showing you the work of the Moguls in India-but happiness such as I've had of late casts a glamour over everything. It wasn't always so with me; I've had my bad hours when I was blind to beauty."

Though Blanche Challoner was very young and much in love, she ventured a smiling rebuke.

"You shouldn't wish to remember them; I'm afraid, Bertram, there's a melancholy strain in you, and I don't mean to let you indulge in it. Besides, how could you have had bad hours? You have been made much of and given everything you could wish for since you were a boy. Indeed, I sometimes wonder how you escaped from being spoiled."

"When I joined it, I hated the army; that sounds like high treason, doesn't it? However, I got used to things and made art my hobby instead of my vocation. You won't mind if I confess that a view of this kind makes me long to paint?"

"Oh! no; I intend to encourage you. You mustn't waste your talent. When we stay among the Rockies we will spend the days in the most beautiful places we can find and I shall take my pleasure in watching you at work. But didn't your fondness for sketching amuse the mess?"

"I used to be chaffed about it and repaid my tormentors by caricaturing them. On the whole, they were very good-natured."

"I expect they admired the drawings; they ought to have done. You have talent. Indeed, I never quite understood why you became a soldier."

"I think it was from a want of moral courage; you have seen that determination is not among my virtues," Challoner replied. "It's as much to the purpose that you don't know my father very well. Though he's fond of pictures, he looks upon artists and poets as a rather effeminate and irresponsible set, and I must own that he has met one or two unfavourable specimens. Then he couldn't imagine the possibility of a son of his not being anxious to follow the family profession, and, knowing how my defection would grieve him, I let him have his way. There has always been a Challoner fighting or ruling in India since John Company's time."

"They must have been fine men by their portraits. There's one of a Major Henry Challoner I fell in love with. He was with Outram, wasn't he? You have his look, though there's a puzzling difference. I think these men were bluffer and blunter than you are. You're gentler and more sensitive; in a way, finer drawn."

"My sensitiveness has not been a blessing," said Challoner soberly.

"But it makes you lovable," Blanche declared. "There must have been a certain ruthlessness about those old Challoners which you couldn't show. After all, their pictures suggest that their courage was of the unimaginative, physical kind."

A shadow crept into Challoner's face, but he banished it.

"I am happy in having a wife who won't see my faults." Then he added humorously: "After all, however, that's not good for one."

Blanche gave him a tender smile, but he did not see it, for he was gazing at a man who came down the steps from the neighbouring cable railway. The newcomer was about thirty years of age, of average height, and strongly made. His face was deeply sunburned and he had eyes of a curious dark-blue with a twinkle in them and dark lashes, though his hair was fair. As he drew nearer, Blanche was struck by something that suggested the family likeness of the Challoners. He had their firm mouth and wide forehead, but by no means their somewhat austere expression. He looked as if he went careless through life and could be readily amused. Then he saw Bertram, and, starting, made as if he would pass the entrance to the gallery, and Blanche turned her surprised glance upon her husband. Bertram's hand was tightly closed on the glasses he held and his face was tense and flushed, but he stepped forward with a cry of "Dick!"

The newcomer moved towards him, and Blanche knew he was the man who had brought dishonour upon her husband's family.

"This is a fortunate meeting," Bertram said, and his voice was cordial, though rather strained. Then he turned to his wife. "Blanche, here's my cousin, Dick Blake."

Blake showed no awkwardness. Indeed, on the whole he looked amused, but his face grew graver as he fixed his eyes on Mrs. Challoner.

"Though I'm rather late, you'll let me wish you happiness," he said. "I believe it will be yours. Bertram's a very good fellow; I have much to thank him for."

There was a sincerity and a hint of affection in his tone which touched Blanche. She had been prepared to suspend her judgment and be charitable, but she found that she pitied the man. He had failed in his duty in time of stress, but he had suffered for it and it must be hard to be an outcast. Blake saw her compassion and was moved by it.

"But how did you come here?" Bertram asked. "Where have you been since--"

He stopped abruptly and Blake laughed. "Since you surreptitiously said good-bye to me at Peshawur? Well, after that I went to Penang and from there to Queensland. Stayed a time at a pearl-fishing station among the Kanakas, and then came to England for a few months."

"But how did you manage?" Bertram inquired with some diffidence. "It raises a point you wouldn't let me talk about at Peshawur, but I've often felt guilty because I didn't insist. Travelling about as you have done is expensive."

"Not to me," Blake rejoined with a twinkle. "I've turned adventurer and I have the Blake gift of getting along without money." He added in an explanatory aside to Blanche: "For two or three generations we kept open house, and a full stable in Ireland, on a revenue derived from rents which were rarely paid, and if I hadn't been too young when a disaster gave the creditors their chance, I'd have given them a sporting run."

"But what did you do when you left England?" Bertram broke in.

"Went to East Africa; after that to this country where I tried my hand at prairie farming. Found it decidedly monotonous and sold the homestead at a profit. Then I did some prospecting, and now I'm here on business."

"On business!" Bertram exclaimed. "You could never be trusted to get proper value for a shilling."

"I've learned to do so lately, and that's not going far. If you're in commerce in this country, you must know how to put down fifty cents and take up a dollar's worth. Anyhow, I'm here to meet an American whose acquaintance I made farther West. He's a traveller in paints and varnishes and a very enterprising person as well as an unusually good sort. But I've told you enough about myself; I want your news."

Blanche, who had been watching him, thought it cost her husband an effort to fall in with his cousin's casual mood. Blake, however, seemed quite at ease, and she was growing interested in him. He reminded her of the Challoner portraits in the dark oak gallery at Sandymere, but she thought him lighter, more brilliant, and, in a sense, more human than those stern soldiers. Then she remembered his Irish father, which explained something. They talked a while about English friends and relatives; and then Blake said rather abruptly-

"And the Colonel?"

"Well," said Bertram. "I heard that you saw him, Dick."

"I did, for half an hour. I felt it was my duty, though the interview was hard on both. He was fair, as he always was, and tried to hide his feelings. I couldn't blame him because he failed."

Bertram looked away, and Blake's face was troubled. There was a hint of emotion in his voice as he went on, turning to Blanche-

"Whatever he may think of me, Colonel Challoner is a man I have a sincere respect for, and I owe him more than I can ever repay. He brought me up after my father's death and started me, like a son, in an honourable career." Then his tone grew lighter. "It's one of my few virtues that I don't forget my debts."

He made as if he would leave them. "And now I've kept you some time. My American friend hasn't turned up yet and I may be here a few days. Where are you staying? I'll look you up before I leave."

"We go West to-morrow morning. Come down and have dinner with us at the Windsor," Bertram said, and when Mrs. Challoner seconded the request they went up the steps to the platform from which the cable train started.

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