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Blake's Burden By Harold Bindloss Characters: 14817

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

Blake, who had known hardship, enjoyed an excellent dinner and the society of his cousin's wife, whose good opinion he rapidly gained. He would not have blamed her had she treated him with cold politeness, but instead of this she was gentle and quietly cordial. She had seen his affection for her husband, and made him feel that he had her sympathy, without being openly pitiful. He was quick to appreciate her tact, and it had its effect on him. After dinner Mrs. Keith took Blanche away, and the men found a quiet corner in the rotunda, where they sat talking for a time. At length Blake glanced at his watch.

"I have an appointment to keep and must go in a few minutes. Make my excuses to your wife; I shall not see her again. It would be better, because there's no reason why she should be reminded of anything unpleasant now. She's a good woman, Bertram, and I'm glad she didn't shrink from me. It would have been a natural thing, but I believe she was sorry and anxious to make all the allowances she could."

Challoner was silent for a few moments, his face showing signs of strain.

"I don't deserve her, Dick; the thought of it troubles me. She doesn't know me for what I really am."

"Rot!" Blake exclaimed. "It's your misfortune that you're a sentimentalist with a habit of exaggerating things; but if you don't indulge in your weakness too much, you'll go a long way. You showed the true Challoner pluck when you smoked out that robbers' nest in the hills and the pacification of the frontier valley was a very smart piece of work. When I read about the business I never thought you would pull it off with the force you had. It must have impressed the authorities, and you'll get something better than your major's commission before long. I understand that you're already looked upon as a coming man."

It was a generous speech, but it was justified, for Challoner had shown administrative as well as military skill in the affairs his cousin mentioned. He, however, still looked troubled, and his colour was higher than usual.

"Dick," he said, "I wish you would let me give you a lift in the only way I can. You know you had never any idea of economy, and I'm afraid you must find it hard to get along."

"No," said Blake curtly; "it's impossible. Your father made me a similar offer and I couldn't consent. I suppose I have the Blakes' carelessness about money, but what I get from my mother's little property keeps me on my feet." He laughed as he went on: "It's lucky that your people, knowing the family failing, arranged matters so that the principal could not be touched. Besides, I've a plan for adding to my means."

Bertram dropped the subject. Dick was often rather casual and inconsequent, but there was a stubborn vein in him. When he took the trouble to think a matter out he was apt to prove immovable.

"Anyway, you will let me know how you get on."

"I think not. What good would it do? The Challoners gave me a fair start and I disappointed them. While I'm grateful, it's better that they should have nothing more to do with me. Think of your career, keep your wife proud of you-she has good reason for being so, and let me go my way and drop out of sight again. I'm a common adventurer and have been mixed up in matters that fastidious people would shrink from, which may happen again. Still, I manage to get a good deal of pleasure out of the life, which suits me in many ways." He rose, holding out his hand. "Good-bye, Bertram. We may run across each other somewhere again."

"I'll always be glad to do so," Challoner said with feeling. "Be sure I won't forget you, Dick."

Blake turned away, but when he left the hotel his face was sternly set. It had cost him something to check his cousin's friendly advances and break the last connexion between himself and the life he once had led, but he knew it must be broken, and felt no pang of envious bitterness. For many years Bertram had been a good and generous friend, and Blake sincerely wished him well.

The Challoners left by the Pacific Express next morning, and during the evening Captain Sedgwick stood talking to Millicent, who had stopped a few moments in passing, near a pillar in the entrance hall of the hotel. It was characteristic of him that he wore evening dress, though a number of the other guests did not, but it displayed his fine, symmetrical figure. He was a handsome, soldierly man, with a boldness of manner which sometimes passed for dash and sometimes prejudiced fastidious people against him. Now he was watching Millicent, whom he admired, with a smile.

"I didn't know you and Mrs. Keith were leaving the Frontenac until you had gone," he said, and his tone suggested that he wished to explain why he had not accompanied them. "You didn't give me an opportunity of speaking to you until just now, but I noticed that you looked disturbed at dinner."

"I daresay I did," Millicent answered ruefully.

"I should be distressed to think there was any serious cause for it."

Millicent laughed. "Mrs. Keith believes it's serious enough, and I'm in disgrace. One of the animals bit the bob-cat, and now the creature's missing."

"A catastrophe! But does the absurd old woman hold you responsible for her ferocious pets?"

"I was told to see that her maid took the unfortunate animal to a veterinary surgeon. Judkins was frankly mutinous, the hotel porters were busy with some baggage, and there was not a cab on the rank. I told her to put the basket down while she looked for a hack near the station; and then crossed the street as I saw one coming. When I got back the basket had gone, but a boy gave me a note on a scrap of torn paper. It said, 'Don't worry; the beast is in safe hands. You'll get it back to-night.'"

"Most mysterious!" Sedgwick remarked. "But it's unpleasant to think you should have to suffer from the foibles of the creature's owner."

Millicent felt that he was too intimate for their brief acquaintance, and that in keeping her behind the pillar, where the semi-privacy of their position suggested confidential relations, he was hardly showing good taste. Indeed, she realized that there was often something lacking in his manners, though he had a certain charm and was much sought after at the hotel.

"I must go," she said. "Mrs. Keith wants me."

Sedgwick moved aside with a bow which Millicent thought need not have been made, and afterwards crossed the floor to the lounge where Mrs. Chudleigh was waiting. She was a rather striking, high-coloured woman, with eyes that had a hard sparkle, and, when her face was in repose, unusually firm lips. She wore the latest and most pronounced type of dinner dress with a few jewels of value, but they gave her no air of ostentation.

"I thought you were never coming," she said impatiently. "Why did you stay talking to that girl so long?"

"Miss Graham? She's amusing and hasn't many acquaintances in the hotel. I'm inclined to think her employer keeps a tight hand on her."

"She's pretty in an unformed way, which is more to the purpose," Mrs. Chudleigh rejoined. "I heard the old woman abusing the manager because one of her ridiculous pets is missing. But this is of no consequence. You were going to tell me about your African plans."

"There are good reasons why I should do so. I haven't forgotten that my advancement is largely due to you."

Mrs. Chudleigh laughed

. "If you hint as much in public, it may come to a sudden end. You ought to know that promotion is now made on merit."

"I'm modest. My merit's an uncertain quantity, but there's no doubt about your influence. I'd sooner trust to it."

The remark was justified. He had shown courage and ability in controlling rebellious tribes and settling disputes with French officials on the frontier of the African colony, but Mrs. Chudleigh had worked well for him. She had many friends, men of importance in political and military circles were to be met in her London drawing-room, but she was clever and those she obtained favours from did not always realize how far they had yielded to her powers of persuasion.

"Never mind that," she said. "Give me an opportunity and I'll exert my powers; I'm fond of using them. Moving other people's hands and making up their minds for them is a fascinating game, but I must have something to act upon."

"I understand; we're both ambitious. Well, I'm in charge of a strip of frontier territory, but so far I've had the veto of a cautious and vacillating superior to contend with. The climate, however, is breaking down his health, and he can't keep his post much longer; I want full control. Now to the north of my malaria-haunted district there's a belt of dry and valuable country, inhabited by industrious Mohammedans. The French have their eye upon it, but our people know its worth. Though our respective spheres of influence are badly defined, neither side has found an excuse for occupying the coveted region."

"Ah!" said Mrs. Chudleigh. "You intend to make an excuse."

"If I can, but it will have to be a good one. That is, we must give the French no reasonable grounds for objecting; but when we enter the country in question we stay there."

"It's risky. If you get into difficulties or the French are clever enough to spoil your game, you'll be disgraced."

"That's a hazard I recognize. If I fail, our authorities will disown me, but it can't be allowed to count."

Mrs. Chudleigh admired his daring, which was what had first attracted her. His shortcomings were not hidden, he now and then offended her more cultivated taste, but he could boldly seize an opportunity and she thought he would go a long way. There was force in him.

"But the excuse?" she asked.

"I can't tell you exactly what it will be, but there's an unruly tribe between us and the territory we want, and they're inclined to give trouble." He paused with a meaning smile. "It may be necessary to subjugate them, and, if we enter their country, we'll no doubt find ourselves compelled to move farther north. Something, however, must be left to chance. When one is ready to act, an occasion often presents itself."

"And the benefit to England?"

"Can't be doubted. We'll have pushed the frontier back and opened up trade. It's a region that's rich in useful products, and as soon as it is ours new factories will spring up wherever there's a suitable spot along the rivers. I've already thought out a route for a light railway."

Mrs. Chudleigh was satisfied. She believed in Colonial expansion, but her views were honest in a sense. Where her country stood to gain, the rights of small native races did not count, and she argued, with some reason, that they were better off under civilized rule; but she would have intrigued for no scheme that did not further British interests.

"I daresay," she answered thoughtfully, "something can be done."

"I'm content with that, and perhaps we have said enough. Those rubies of yours are very fine, but they owe a good deal to their background. How they gleam on the satiny whiteness they rest upon!"

This was a transgression, but it was one that she could pardon. The man's taste was defective, but he had charm and she let him lead her into intimate personal talk.

In the meanwhile, a group of men were engaged in conversation at the opposite end of the hall. One was a sawmill owner; another served the Hudson's Bay Company in the northern wilds; the third was a young, keen-eyed American, quick in his movements and concise in speech.

"You're in lumber, aren't you?" he said, taking a strip of wood from his pocket and handing it to the mill owner. "What would you call this?"

"Cedar, sawn from a good log."

"That's so, red cedar. You know something about that material?"

"I ought to, considering how much of it I've cut." The lumber man held up his right hand, from which the two middle fingers were missing. "Lost those twenty years ago when I worked in my first, one-horse mill, and I could show you a number of other scars."

"Very well," the American took out another strip. "The same stuff, sir. How would you say it had been treated?"

The sawmiller carefully examined the piece of wood. "It's not French polish, but I haven't seen varnish as good as this. Except that it's clear and shows the grain, it's more like some rare old Japanese lacquer."

"It is varnish. Try to scrape it with your knife."

The other failed to make a mark on it, and the American looked at him with a smile.

"What would you think of it as a business proposition?"

"If not too dear, it ought to drive every other high-grade varnish off the market. Do you make the stuff?"

"We're not ready to sell it yet; can't get hold of the raw material in quantities, and we're not satisfied about the best flux. I'll give you my card."

He did so, and it bore the address of a paint and varnish factory in Connecticut, with the words, "Represented by Cyrus P. Harding," at the bottom.

"Well," said the lumber man, "you seem to have got hold of a good thing, Mr. Harding, but if you're not open to sell it, what has brought you over here?"

"I'm looking round; we deal in all kinds of paints and miss no chance of a trade. Then I'm going way up North-West. Is there anything doing in my line there?"

"Not much," said the Hudson's Bay man. "You may sell a few kegs along the railroad track, but as soon as you leave it you'll find no paint required. The settlers use logs or shiplap and leave them in the raw. The trip won't pay you."

"Anyhow, I'll see the country and find out something about the coniferous gums."

"They're soft and resinous. Don't you get the material you make good varnish of from the tropics?"

Harding laughed. "You people don't know your own resources. There's most everything a white man needs right on this American continent, if he'll take the trouble to look for it. Lumber changes some of its properties with the location in which it grows, I guess. We have pines in Florida, but when you get right up to their northern limit you'll find a difference."

"There's something in that," the sawmiller agreed.

"If you're going up to their northern limit, you'll see some of the roughest and wildest country on this earth," remarked the Hudson's Bay agent. "It's almost impossible to get through in summer unless you stick to the rivers and to cross it in winter with the dog-sledges is pretty tough work."

"So I've heard," said Harding. "Now I'm going to take a smoke. Will you come along?"

They declined, and when he left them one smiled at the other.

"They're smart people across the frontier, but to send a man into the northern timber-belt looking for paint trade openings or resin they can make varnish of is about the limit to commercial enterprise."

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