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   Chapter 6 HARDING GROWS CONFIDENTIAL

Blake's Burden By Harold Bindloss Characters: 14388

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


Next morning Blake and his partner breakfasted at Mrs. Keith's table, and during the afternoon drove up the mountain with her and one or two others. The city was unpleasantly hot and the breeze that swept its streets blew clouds of sand and cement about, for Montreal is subject to fits of feverish constructional activity and on every other block buildings were being torn down and replaced by larger ones of concrete and steel. Leaving its outskirts, the carriage climbed the road which winds in loops through the shade of overhanging trees. Wide views of blue hills and shining river opened up through gaps in the foliage; the air had lost its humid warmth and grew fresh and invigorating.

Reaching the level summit, they dismissed the hacks and found a seat near the edge of a steep, wooded slope. The strip of tableland is not remarkably picturesque, but it is thickly covered with trees, and one can look out across a vast stretch of country traversed by the great river. By and by the party scattered and Mrs. Keith was left with Harding. They were, in many ways, strangely assorted companions, the elderly English lady accustomed to the smoother side of life, and the young American who had struggled hard from boyhood, but they were sensible of a mutual lilting. Mrs. Keith had a trace of the grand manner, which had its effect on Harding; he showed a naive frankness she found attractive. Besides, his talk and conduct were marked by a laboured correctness which amused and pleased her. She thought he had taken some trouble to acquire it.

"So you had to leave your wife at home," she said presently. "Wasn't that rather hard for both of you?"

"It was hard enough," he replied with feeling. "What made it worse was that I hadn't many dollars to leave with her, but I had to go. The man who will take no chances has to stay at the bottom."

"Then, if it's not an impertinence, your means are small?"

"Your interest is a compliment, ma'am, and what you say is true. We had two hundred dollars when we were married. You wouldn't consider that much to begin on."

"No," said Mrs. Keith, whose marriage settlement had made over to her valuable property. "Still, of course, it depends upon what one expects. After all; I think my poorest friends have been happiest."

"We had only one trouble; making the dollars go round," Harding told her with grave confidence. "It was worst in the hot weather when other people could move out of town, and it hurt me to see Marianna looking white and tired. I used to wish I could send her to one of the summer-boarders' farms up in the hills, though I guess she wouldn't have gone without me. She's brave, and when my chance came she saw that I must take it. She sent me off with smiles, but I knew what they cost."

"She will smile more brightly when you come back, and courage to face a hard task is a great gift. So you consider this trip to the North-West your opportunity? You must expect to sell a good deal of paint."

Harding looked up with a sudden twinkle. "I'll own to you, ma'am, that I've another object. The company will pay my commission on any orders I get at the settlements, but this is my venture, not theirs. I'm going up into the wilds to look for a valuable raw material."

"Ah!" said Mrs. Keith. "I suspected something like this. It's difficult to imagine Dick Blake's going into anything so sober and matter of fact as the paint business. Have you known him long?"

"I met him a year ago, and we spent two or three weeks together."

"But was that long enough to learn much about him? Do you know his history?"

Harding gave her a direct glance. "Do you?"

"Yes," she said; "I gather that he has taken you into his confidence."

"Now you set me free to talk. When I asked him to be my partner, he told me why he had left the army. That was the square thing, and it made me keen on getting him."

"Then you were not deterred by what you learned?"

"Not at all. I knew it was impossible that Blake should have done what he was charged with."

"I thought so, but I know him better than you do," Mrs. Keith said gravely. "What made you jump to the conclusion?"

"You shall judge whether I hadn't good reason. I was in one of our lake ports, collecting accounts, and Blake had come with me. It was late at night when I saw my last customer at his hotel, and I had a valise half-full of silver currency and bills. Going back along the waterfront where the second-rate saloons are, I thought that somebody was following me. The lights didn't run far along the street, I hadn't seen a patrol, and as I was passing a dark block a man jumped out. I got a blow on the shoulder that made me sore for a week, but the fellow had missed my head with the sandbag, and I slipped behind a telegraph post before he could strike again. Still, things looked ugly. The man who'd been following came into sight, and I was between the two. Then Blake ran up the street, and I was mighty glad to see him. He had two men to tackle, and one had a sandbag, while I guess the other had a pistol."

"But you were there. That made it equal."

"No," said Harding. "I'd been near knocked out with the sandbag and could hardly keep my feet. Besides, I'd my employers' money in the valise, and it was my business to take care of it."

Mrs. Keith made a sign of agreement. "I beg your pardon. You were right."

"Blake got after the first thief like a panther. He was so quick I didn't quite see what happened, but the man reeled half-way across the street before he fell, and when his partner saw Blake coming for him he ran. Then, when the trouble was over, a patrol came along, and he and Blake helped me back to my hotel. Knowing I had the money, he'd got uneasy when I was late." Harding paused and looked meaningly at his companion. "Later I was asked to believe that the man who went for those two toughs with no weapon but his fists ran away under fire. The thing didn't seem possible."

"And so you trust Blake, in spite of his story?"

"The North-West is a hard country in winter and I may find myself in a tight place before I've finished my search," Harding answered with grave quietness. "But if that happens I'll have a partner I can trust my life to beside me. What's more, Mrs. Harding, who's a judge of character, feels I'm safe with him."

Mrs. Keith was moved; his respect for his wife's judgment and his faith in his comrade appealed to her.

"Though my opinion of Blake is not generally held, I believe you are right," she said. "And now tell me something about your journey."

While they talked, Millicent and Blake sat in the sunshine on the slope of the hill. Beneath them a wide landscape stretched away towards the Ottawa valley, the road to the lonely North, and the girl, who had never left the confines of civilization, felt a longing to see the trackless wilds. The distance drew her.

"Your way lies up yonder," she said. "I suppose you are thinking about it. Are you looking forward to the trip?"

"Not so much as Harding is," Blake replied. "He's a bit of an enthusiast, and I've been in the country before. It's a singularly rough one, and I anticipate our meeting wit

h more hardships than dollars."

"Which doesn't seem to daunt you."

"No," said Blake; "not to a great extent. Hardship is not a novelty to me, and I don't think I'm avaricious. The fact is, I'm a good deal better at spending than gathering."

"It's undoubtedly easier," the girl rejoined. "But while I like Mr. Harding I shouldn't consider him a type of the romantic adventurer."

"You're right in a sense and wrong in another. Harding's out for dollars, and I believe he'll get them if they're to be had. He'll avoid adventures so far as he can, but if there's trouble to be faced, it won't stop him. Then he has left a safe employment, broken up his home, and set off on this long journey for the sake of a woman who is trying to hold out on a very few dollars in a couple of poor rooms until his return. He's taking risks which I believe may be serious in order that she may have a brighter and fuller life. Is there no romance in this?"

What Blake said about his comrade's devotion to his wife appealed to the girl. Marriage had apparently not lessened his tender thought for her, and Millicent wondered whether she was capable of inspiring such a feeling. She had found life hard, and so far had shrunk from the few men who had cultivated her acquaintance. Indeed, she felt contaminated as she remembered the advances made by one.

"On the face of it, looking for openings in the paint business doesn't seem to be a very risky matter," she suggested.

"It depends a good deal on how it's done," Blake answered with a laugh. "With Harding, a business opening is a comprehensive term."

Millicent mused for a moment or two. She liked Blake and he improved upon acquaintance. He had a whimsical humour and a dash of reckless gallantry. It was not to his credit that he had frequented her father's house, and he was supposed to be in disgrace, but she had cause to know that he was compassionate and chivalrous.

"Though you have not been with us long, we shall be duller when you have gone," she told him.

"Well," he said, "in a sense that's nice to hear, but it's with mixed feelings one leaves friends behind." His tone grew serious. "I've lost some good ones."

"I can imagine your making others easily, but haven't you retained one or two? I think, for instance, you could count on Mrs. Keith."

"Ah!" he said, "I owe a good deal to her. A little charity, such as she shows, goes a very long way."

Millicent did not answer, and he watched her as she sat looking out into the distance with grave brown eyes. Her face was gentle; he thought there was pity for him in it and felt strongly drawn to her, but he remembered that he was a man with a tainted name and must travel a lonely road. She was conscious of his scrutiny, but took no offence at it.

"Perhaps we had better change our place," she said by and by. "The sun is rather strong now the wind has gone."

Some of the others joined them, and soon afterwards they walked down the winding road to the city; when they sat outside the hotel after dinner Blake asked Harding if he had enjoyed the afternoon.

"I did," said Harding with earnestness. "I'd only one regret; that Mrs. Harding wasn't here to share it with me. Your friends are charming ladies of a stamp Marianna and I so far haven't had much chance to meet." Then his face grew very resolute as he added: "But she shall have her opportunity. If things go right with us she'll get her share of all that's best in life-and, with that at stake, we have to make things right."

Two days later Harding got some letters he had been waiting for, and as there was now nothing to keep them in Montreal, Blake said good-bye to Mrs. Keith next morning. Though she was gracious to him he felt a strong sense of disappointment at finding her alone, but when he was going out he met Millicent in the hall. She wore her hat and the flush of colour in her face indicated that she had been walking fast.

"I'm glad I didn't miss you, but I had an errand to do," she said. "You are going now; by the Vancouver express?"

"Yes," said Blake, stopping beside a pillar; "I was feeling rather gloomy until I saw you. Harding's at the station, and it's depressing to set off on a long journey feeling that nobody minds your going."

"Mrs. Keith will mind," said Millicent. "I'm sure she was very friendly and gave you her good wishes."

Blake looked at her with a smile. "Somehow they didn't seem enough. I think I wanted yours."

She coloured, but met his glance. "Then," she said, "you have them. I haven't forgotten what happened one evening in London, and I wish you a safe journey and success."

"Thank you," he answered with feeling. "It will be something to remember that you have wished me well." Then as his eyes rested upon her he forgot that he was a marked man. She looked very fresh and desirable; there was a hint of regret and pity in her face and a trace of shyness in her manner. "I suppose I can't ask you to think of me now and then; it would be too much," he went on. "But won't you give me something of yours, some trifle to keep as a memento."

Millicent hesitated and then took a tiny bunch of flowers from the lace at the neck of her white dress. "Will these do?" she asked, and added with a smile: "They won't last very long."

"They will last a long time, well taken care of, but what you said had a sting. Did you mean that you wouldn't give me anything more enduring?"

"No," she said shyly, "not that altogether. I think I meant that they would last as long as you might care to remember our acquaintance."

Blake bowed. "My memory's good. When I come back I will show you your gift as a token."

"But I shall be in England then."

"I bore that in mind. It is not very far off, and I'm a wanderer."

"Well," she said with faint confusion, "unless you hurry you will miss your train. Good-bye and good fortune!"

He took the hand she gave him and held it a moment. "I wonder whether your last wish will ever be realized, If so, I shall come to thank you, even in England."

Then he turned and went out with hurried steps, wondering what had led him to break through the reserve he had prudently determined to maintain. What he had said might mean nothing, but it might mean much. He had seen Millicent Graham for a few minutes in her father's house, and afterwards met her every day during the week spent in Montreal, but brief as their friendship had been, he had yielded to her charm. Had he been free to seek her love he would eagerly have done so, but he was not free. He was an outcast, engaged in a desperate attempt to repair his fortune. Miss Graham knew this, and had probably taken his remarks for what they were worth as a piece of sentimental gallantry, but something in her manner suggested a doubt and the trouble was that he did not wish her to regard them in this light. It looked as if he had made a fool of himself, but he had promised to show her the flowers again some day, and he carefully placed them in his pocket book.

The train was ready to start when he found Harding impatiently waiting him on the platform and a few moments later the long cars were swiftly rolling west.

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