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   Chapter 5 MRS. KEITH GETS A SURPRISE

Blake's Burden By Harold Bindloss Characters: 18240

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


Harding was taking out a cigar in the vestibule when a man brushed past him wearing big mittens and a loose black cloak such as old-fashioned French-Canadians sometimes use.

"Why, Blake!" he cried. "What have you got on? Have you been serenading somebody?"

"I can't stop," the other answered with a grin. "Open that door for me, quick."

A porter held back the door, but as Blake slipped through Harding seized his cloak.

"Hold on; I want a talk with you. I've been waiting all day."

Blake made an effort to break loose, and as he did so the bob-cat dropped from beneath his arm and fell, spitting and snarling, to the ground. Its fur was torn and matted, tufts were hanging loose, and the creature had a singularly disreputable and ferocious appearance. Blake made an attempt to recapture it, but, evading him easily, it ran along the floor with a curious hopping gait and disappeared among the pillars. Then he turned to his friend with a rueful laugh.

"You see what you've done! It's gone into the rotunda, where everybody is."

Harding looked at him critically. "You seem sober. What made you get yourself up like an Italian opera villain and go round the town with a wild beast under your arm?"

"I'll tell you later. What we have to do now is to catch the thing."

"It's time," said Harding drily. "The circus is beginning."

Men's laughter and women's shrieks rose from the entrance hall, which, in a Canadian hotel, serves as general meeting place and lounge. Somebody shouted orders in French, there was a patter of running feet, and then a crash as of chairs being overturned. Blake sprang in and Harding, who followed, divided between amusement and impatience, looked on at an animated scene. Two porters were chasing the bob-cat which now and then turned upon them savagely, while several waiters, who kept at a judicious distance, tried to frighten it into a corner by flourishing their napkins. Women fled out of the creature's way, men hastily moved chairs and tables to give the pursuers room, and some of the more energetic joined in the chase. At one end of the room Mrs. Keith stood angrily giving instructions which nobody attended to. Millicent, who was close by, looked hot and unhappy, but for all that her eyes twinkled when a waiter, colliding with a chair, went down with a crash and the bobcat sped away from him in a series of awkward jumps.

At length, Blake managed to seize it with his mittened hands and after rolling it in a cloth and giving it to a porter, advanced towards Mrs. Keith, his face red with exertion but contrite, and the cloak, which had come unhooked, hanging down from one shoulder. She glanced at him in a puzzled, half-disturbed manner when he stopped.

"The cat is safe," he said. "The man I gave it to will put it with the other animals. If he holds it firmly, I don't think it can bite him."

"As I'm told you dropped it in the vestibule, I feel I'm entitled to an explanation," Mrs. Keith replied in a formal tone, looking hard at him. "I gave the cat to my maid this morning, sending Miss Graham to see it delivered to a man in the town, and it disappeared. How did it come into your possession?"

"Through no fault of Miss Graham's. I happened to notice your maid trying to carry an awkwardly shaped hamper and Miss Graham looking for a cab. It struck me the thing was more of a man's errand and I undertook it."

"It's curious that you knew what the errand was, unless Miss Graham told you." Mrs. Keith looked sternly at Millicent, who blushed. "I have been led to believe that you made her acquaintance, without my knowledge, on board the steamer by which we came up."

"That," said Blake respectfully, "is not quite correct. I was formally presented to Miss Graham in England some time ago. However, as I saw a car coming along St. Catharine's while your maid was looking for a hack and there was no time to explain, I scribbled a note on a bit of a letter and gave it to a boy, and then took the cat to a taxidermist."

"To a taxidermist! Why?"

"It struck me that he ought to know something about the matter. Anyhow, he was the nearest approach to a vet that I could find."

Mrs. Keith looked at him thoughtfully. "You seem to have a curious way of reasoning. But what did the man say?"

"His first remark was, 'Nom d'une pipe!' and he added something more which I couldn't catch, but when we became friends he promised to engage the services of a dog-fancier friend of his."

"You imagined that a dog-fancier would specialize in cats?"

Millicent's eyes twinkled, but Mrs. Keith's face was serious and Blake's perfectly grave.

"I don't know that I argued the matter out. To tell the truth, I undertook the thing on impulse."

"So it seems. You considered it necessary to make friends with the French-Canadian taxidermist?"

"Not necessary, perhaps." Blake appeared to reflect. "Still, it's a way of mine, and the fellow interested me by the tragic manner in which he broke his pipe when I first showed him the cat. His indignation was superb."

Mrs. Keith gave him a look of rather grim amusement. "I see, but you haven't told me what became of my hamper."

"The hamper was unfortunately smashed. The car was not allowed to stop where I wished to get off and I had to jump. I miscalculated the speed and fell down, after which, as there was a good deal of traffic, a transfer wagon ran over the hamper, luckily without hurting the animal inside. I left it at a basket shop and that explains the cloak. My friend the taxidermist insisted on lending it and his winter gloves to me. One looks rather conspicuous walking through the streets with a bob-cat on one's arm."

Then, to Blake's astonishment, Mrs. Keith broke into a soft laugh.

"I understand it all," she said. "It was a prank one would expect you to play. Though it's a very long time since I saw you, you haven't changed, Dick. Now take that ridiculous cloak off and come back and talk to me."

When Blake returned Millicent had gone and Mrs. Keith noticed the glance he cast about the room.

"I sent Miss Graham away," she said. "You have been here some days. Why didn't you tell me who you were?"

"I'll confess that I knew you. You have changed much less than I have, but I wasn't sure you would be willing to acknowledge me."

"Then you were very wrong. One may be forgiven a first offence and I never quite agreed with the popular opinion about what you were supposed to have done. It wasn't like you; there must have been something that did not come out."

"Thank you," Blake said quietly.

She gave him a searching glance. "Can't you say something for yourself?"

"I think not," he answered. "The least said, the soonest mended."

"But for the sake of others."

"So far as I know, only one person was much troubled about my disgrace. I'm thankful my father died before it came."

"Your uncle felt it very keenly. He was furious when the first news arrived and refused to believe you were to blame. Then when Major Allardyce wrote he scarcely spoke for the rest of the day and it was a long time before he recovered from the blow; I was staying at Sandymere. He loved you, Dick, and I imagined he expected you to do even better than his son."

Blake mused for a few moments, and Mrs. Keith could not read his thoughts. Then he said, "Bertram is a very good fellow and has brains. Why should his people think less of him because he likes to paint? But I've been sorry for the Colonel; more sorry than I've felt for myself."

There was a softness that appealed to Mrs. Keith in his dark-blue eyes. She had been fond of Dick Blake in his younger days and firmly believed in him. Now she could not credit his being guilty of cowardice.

"Well," she said, "you have, I trust, a long life before you, and if you have been at fault, you must make amends. There are people who would be glad to see you reinstated."

He made a sign of grave dissent. "That can't happen, in the way you mean. I closed the door of the old life against my return with my own hands, and you don't gain distinction, as the Challoners think of it, in business."

"What business have you gone into?"

Blake's eyes gleamed humorously. "At present I'm in the paint line."

"Paint!" Mrs. Keith exclaimed.

"Yes, but not common paint. We use the highest grade of lead and the purest linseed oil. Varnish also of unapproachable quality, guaranteed to stand exposure to any climate. There's nothing to equal our products in North America."

"Do you seriously mean that you are going about selling these things?"

"Well," said Blake drily, "I'm trying to do so, and I booked an order for two kegs yesterday, but it isn't to be paid for until arrival, when I shall not be here. Can't I induce you to give us a trial? Your house must need painting now and then, and we'll ship you the stuff to Liverpool in air-tight drums. Once you have tried it you'll use nothing else."

Mrs. Keith laughed. "Dick, you're a marvel and I'm glad adversity hasn't soured you; but you won't make enough to keep you in neckties at any business y

ou take up. It's ludicrous to think of your running about with paint samples, but there's something pathetic in it that spoils my amusement." Her face softened and she changed her tone. "I'm a rather rich old woman, Dick, and your mother was a very dear friend of mine. You must let me help you to something better."

"Thank you," he answered with a flush. "But you can't give me money. It's curious that several of my friends have wanted to do so-first the Colonel, then Bertram, and now you. Not flattering, is it? Suggests that you doubt my talents, or that I look like a deserving object of charity."

"You're incorrigible. It was the Blakes' misfortune that they could never be serious, but I admire your pluck."

"We have our failings, but I'm boring you and I'll come back by and by if you'll allow me. My American partner has been waiting for a word with me since this morning."

"And you kept him waiting? That was a true Blake. But go to the man and then tell the hotel people to give you places at my table. I want to see your friend."

"He'll feel as honoured as I do," Blake said, and left her.

Harding was leaning back in his chair in the smoking-room with a frown on his face when Blake joined him. He had a nervous alert look and was dressed with fastidious neatness.

"You have come along at last," he remarked in an ironical tone. "Feel like getting down to business or shall we put it off again?"

"Sorry I couldn't come earlier," Blake replied. "Somehow or other I couldn't get away. Things kept turning up to occupy me."

"It's a way they seem to have. Your trouble is that you're too diffuse; you spread yourself out too much. You want to fix your mind on one thing and that will have to be business as soon as we leave here."

"I dare say you're right. My interest's apt to wander; but if you take advantage of every opportunity that offers, you get most out of life. Concentration's good, but if you concentrate on a thing and then don't get it, you begin to think what a lot of other things you've missed."

Harding made a gesture of resignation. "Guess you must be humoured; I'll wait until you're through. That's a nice girl you stole the bob-cat from, but if she were a sister of mine, I'd choke off that army man who's been trotting round after her most of the day."

"What's the matter with Captain Sedgwick?"

"He has a greedy eye. He'll play any game he goes into for his own hand. Not an unusual plan, but there's generally a code of rules and if it's going to pay him, Sedgwick will break them. Anyhow, as it looks as if Mrs. Chudleigh had him earmarked, why can't he let the girl alone?"

Blake, who had taken a protective interest in Millicent, was somewhat disturbed, but would not admit it.

"Oh!" he said, "our army men aren't ascetics, but I dare say the fellow's a harmless philanderer, and you're a bit of a Puritan."

"I'm married and don't forget it," snapped Harding. "Marianna-that's Mrs. Harding-is living in a two-room tenement, making her own dresses and cooking on a gasoline stove, so's to give me my chance of finding the gum. And I'm here in an expensive hotel, where I've made about five dollars commission in three days and written our people several folios about the iniquities of the Canadian tariff, which is all I've done. We have got to pull out as soon as possible. Did you get any information from the Hudson's Bay man?"

"I learned something about our route through the timber-belt and the kind of camp outfit we'll want; the temperature's often fifty below in winter. Then I was in Revillons', looking at their cheaper furs, and in a store where they supply especially light hand-sledges, snowshoes, and patent cooking cans. We must have these things good, and I estimate they'll cost six hundred dollars."

"Six hundred dollars will make a big hole in our capital."

"I'm afraid so, but we can't run the risk of freezing to death, and we may have to spend all winter in the wilds."

"That's true; I don't go back until I find the gum."

Harding's tone was resolute, and when he leaned forward, musing, with knitted brows, Blake, knowing his story, gave him a sympathetic glance. He had entered the paint factory when a very young man and had studied chemistry in his scanty spare time with the object of understanding his business better. He found the composition of varnishes an interesting subject, and as the best gums employed came from the tropics and were expensive he began to experiment with the exudations from American trees. His employers hinted that he was wasting his time, since the limits to the use of these products were already known, but Harding continued, trying to test a theory that the texture and hardness of the gums might depend upon climatic temperature. By chance a resinous substance which had come from the far North fell into his hands, and he found that when combined with an African gum it gave astonishing results. Before this happened, however, his employers had sent him out on the road, and as they were sceptical about his discovery and he would not take them fully into his confidence, they merely promised to keep his place open for a time. Now he was going to search for the gum at his own expense.

"We'll order the outfit in the morning," he said presently, glancing towards a man who sat across the room. "Do you think that fellow Clarke can hear? I've a notion that he's been watching us."

"Does it matter?"

"You must bear in mind that we have a valuable secret, and I understand he lives somewhere in the country we are going through."

As he spoke the Hudson's Bay agent came in with the sawmiller, who said to the man whom Harding suspected of listening, "That was good stuff you gave me a dose of. It fixed my ague, though I had the shakes bad last night."

Clarke rose and strolled with them to a seat nearer where Blake and Harding sat. "It's a powerful drug and must be used with discretion. If you feel you need it, I'll give you another dose. It's an Indian remedy and I learned the secret up in the timber-belt, but I spent some time experimenting before I was satisfied about its properties."

Sedgwick, who was passing, stopped and lighted a cigar. "Then you get on with Indians?"

"I do," Clarke said shortly. "It isn't difficult when you grasp their point of view."

"Then your experience doesn't tally with mine and I know something about the primitive races. Their point of view is generally elusive."

"I can credit it." Clarke's tone was sneering. "You people don't try to understand them; you can't come down to it. Standing firm on your colour prejudice and official traditions, you expect the others to agree with you. It's an indefensible policy." He turned to the Hudson's Bay agent. "You ought to know something about the matter. On the whole, the Hudson's Bay treat the Indians well; there was a starving lad you picked up suffering from snow-blindness near Jack-pine river and sent back safely to his tribe."

"That's so, but I can't tell how you knew. I don't remember having talked about the thing; and my clerk has never left the factory. There wasn't another white man within a week's journey."

"I heard, all the same. You had afterwards some better furs than usual brought in."

The agent looked surprised. "Some of these people are grateful, but although I've been in the country twelve years I don't pretend to understand them."

"They understand you. The proof of it is that you can keep your factory open in a district where furs are rather scarce and have had very few mishaps. You can take that as a compliment."

There was something significant in Clarke's tone which Blake remarked, while Sedgwick, feeling that he was being left out, strolled on.

"Then you know the Jack-pine?" the agent asked.

"Pretty well, though it's not easy to reach. I came down it one winter from the Wild-goose hills. I'd put in the winter with a band of Stonies."

"The Northern Stonies? Did you find them easy to get on with?"

"They knew some interesting things," Clarke answered drily. "I went there to study."

"Ah!" said the agent. "What plain folk, for want of a better name, call the occult. But it's fortunate there's a barred door between white men and the Indian's mysticism."

"It has been opened to a white man once or twice."

"Just so. He stepped through into the darkness and never came out again. There was an instance I could mention."

"Civilized folk would have no use for him afterwards," Harding broke in. "We want sane, normal men on this continent. Neurotics, hoodoos and fakirs are worse than a plague; there's contagion in their fooling."

"How would you define them? Those who don't fit in with your ideas of the normal?"

"I know a clean, straight man when I meet him and that's enough for me."

"I imagine that cleverer people are now and then deceived," said Clarke, who moved away.

"That's a man I want to keep clear of," Harding remarked to Blake. "There's something wrong about him; he's not wholesome." He rose. "It's a fine night; let's walk up the mountain."

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