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   Chapter 30 A DIFFICULT QUESTION

Blake's Burden By Harold Bindloss Characters: 15550

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


On the evening after Mrs. Chudleigh's visit, Challoner sent for Blake, who had just returned from an afternoon's shooting with Foster. The Colonel was sitting in a big leather chair near a good fire, but he had a heavy rug wrapped about him.

"Had you good sport?" he asked. "You must have found it very cold standing about the covers."

"We made a fair bag. The air was raw, but nothing unusual."

"I can't keep warm; I've been shivering all day. It looks as if I'd got a chill waiting outside Croxleigh gorse, but that is not what I want to talk about." His tone grew sharper. "It's curious that I wasn't told Mrs. Chudleigh came here yesterday; had you anything to do with keeping the information from me?"

"I'm afraid I must own up, sir. I thought it might disturb you, if you knew."

"Your intentions were, no doubt, good, but please remember in future that I can't permit things that concern me to be taken out of my hands. I believe I'm still capable of managing my affairs."

It struck Blake that his uncle looked ill, which might account for his asperity, and he made an apologetic answer.

"You may as well tell me what she said," Challoner resumed.

"As a matter of fact, she didn't say very much," Blake answered with a twinkle. "I did most of the talking, but you must guess her object; she seems a persistent lady."

"Then what did you say?"

"I tried to show her that she was helpless to make any trouble so long as I stuck to my guns, and I think she recognized it. Anyhow, Foster mentioned that she told his wife this morning she was afraid she couldn't stay as long as she had expected. I suppose this means she's ready to leave the field as soon as she can do so without exciting curiosity."

Challoner looked much relieved, but when Blake left him he grew thoughtful. His nephew's demonstration with the chessmen had lifted a weight off his mind, but he was troubled by a doubt about the absolute correctness of his explanation. Moreover, when he dwelt upon it, the doubt gathered strength, but there was nothing that he could do; Dick obviously meant to stick to his story, and Bertram could not be questioned. Another matter troubled him; Dick, whom he had meant to provide for, would not allow it, and though Challoner admired his independence he thought Dick was carrying it too far.

In the meanwhile, Blake sought Miss Challoner and said, "I don't think my uncle's looking fit. Mightn't it be better to send for Dr. Onslow?"

"He wouldn't be pleased," Miss Challoner answered dubiously "Still, he sometimes enjoys a talk with Onslow, who's a tactful man. If he looked in, as it were, casually--"

"Yes," said Blake; "we'll give him a hint. I'll send the groom with a note at once."

The doctor came and left without expressing any clear opinion, but when he returned next day he ordered Challoner to bed and told Blake he feared a sharp attack of pneumonia. His fears were justified, for it was some weeks before Challoner was able to leave his room. During his illness he insisted on his nephew's company whenever the nurses would allow it, and when he began to recover, again begged him to remain at Sandymere. He had come to lean upon the younger man and entrusted him with all the business of the estate, which he was no longer able to attend to.

"Dick," he said one day when Blake thought he was too ill to perceive that he was casting a reflection on his son, "I wish my personal means were larger, so I could give Bertram enough and leave Sandymere to you; then I'd know the place would be in good hands. On the surface, you're a happy-go-lucky fellow, but that's deceptive. In reality, you have a surprising grip of things-however, you know my opinion of you. But you won't go away, Dick?"

The nurse interrupted them, and Blake was glad he had written to Harding stating his inability to rejoin him. A week or two later he received a cable message: "No hurry."

When spring came he was still at Sandymere, for Challoner, who got better very slowly, would not let him go, and saw Millicent frequently. At first he felt that this was a weakness, since he had nothing to offer her except a tainted name, but his love was getting beyond control and his resistance feebler. After all, he thought, the story of the Indian disaster must be almost forgotten, and Harding had a good chance of finding the oil. If the latter had not already started for the North, he would do so soon, but Blake had had no news from him since his cabled message.

Then, after a quiet month, things began to happen, for one afternoon when Challoner had driven over to Hazlehurst with his nephew, Foster came in from the station, bringing a newspaper. The party was sitting in the conservatory; Mrs. Keith talking to Challoner, Millicent and Blake standing close by, but there were no other guests, and Mrs. Chudleigh had left some weeks earlier. Foster sat down near the Colonel.

"Here's a paragraph that may be of interest; it wasn't in the morning papers." he remarked. "I believe I've heard Miss Graham and Mrs. Chudleigh mention a Captain Sedgwick."

"Yes," said Millicent; "we both knew him, but what has he been doing?"

"He seems to have got into trouble, but I'll read you the account."

The interest he had roused was obvious. Challoner leaned forward with an intent face, Blake dropped the match with which he was lighting a cigarette, while Mrs. Keith fixed her eyes eagerly on Foster. Millicent was the least concerned, and she wondered at the others' air of tension while Foster unfolded his paper.

"'Telegraphic news has been received of a disaster to a small British force in Western Africa,' he read. 'Captain Sedgwick left his headquarters at Ambolana with a detachment of native troops to demand guarantees of good behaviour from the headman of a fortified village near the French frontier. The expedition was ambushed in thick jungle, but, escaping after heavy loss, made a stand against large numbers at a place which appears to lie outside the British boundary. Here Sedgwick again suffered some loss before a body of French black troops appeared upon the field. Further details are anxiously waited, since the affair, which is complicated by a doubt about the headman's suzerainty, may lead to strong representations from France.'"

"It looks as if your friend will get a wigging," Foster remarked to Millicent as he laid down the paper. "As I understand it, the Government doesn't thank too zealous officers who make trouble with our neighbours, unless there's some substantial gain. There can't be any in this case, because the French had to rescue the fellow."

"Then I'm sorry for Captain Sedgwick," Millicent replied. "I met him in Quebec, but only saw him for a few weeks." She turned to Blake. "The news seems to have made some impression on you."

"It has, in a way," Blake admitted with embarrassment, because he did not wish his interest to be noticed. "As it happens, I've heard a good deal about the man."

Then Mrs. Keith beckoned the girl. "I think I left my outdoor spectacles in my room; would you mind getting them?"

Millicent went away and Mrs. Keith led Foster to talk about something else, because she saw that his wife's curiosity was aroused. It was undesirable that any one should guess that the news had its importance to Challoner. Prudence prevented her saying anything to her old friend alone before he left, but she gave him a look which was expressive of relief and satisfaction. As they drove home Challoner turned to Blake.

"I'll know more about the matter in a day or two," he said. "Greythorpe's coming down."

"In my opinion, Sedgwick has ruined himself," Blake replied. "No influence could get him the appointment now."

This view was taken

by Greythorpe when he sat talking with Challoner a few evenings afterwards.

"You were right about Captain Sedgwick," he remarked. "The man came near getting us into serious difficulties. I suppose you have read the newspaper account?"

"Yes. You have more complete information?"

Greythorpe nodded. "The other was accurate, so far as it went. The fellow played a bold stroke, making the usual excuse; the necessity for putting an end to the depredations and barbarities of a native headman."

"To do him justice, I daresay the excuse was good."

"It's possible, but Sedgwick's motive was not humanitarian. He knew that if he could seize the headman's stronghold and effectively occupy the surrounding country, we should stay there and after a protest or two the French would have to acquiesce. As it happened, he bungled the business, and, worst of all, had to be extricated by the people he meant to outwit. They led him politely but very firmly across the frontier, and now it's our part to express our regret and promise to avoid any fresh aggression."

"What will you do with Sedgwick?"

"He'll have to be reprimanded, and after this we can't trust him with independent authority. He's too venturesome, though I'll admit that it would have been different if he had succeeded. Still, he has his talents, and I daresay we'll find him useful in a subordinate post. I'm inclined to sympathize with your friend Mrs. Chudleigh."

Challoner made no answer to this, and they talked about matters until Blake came in, when Greythorpe left them alone together.

"He agrees with you about the African affair," said the Colonel. "Sedgwick is, so to speak, done for and will be kept in the background after this."

"It's more important that Mrs. Chudleigh is disposed of," Blake replied. "As she can't help the man, she'll no longer have any motive for troubling us, and I don't think she would do so out of malice. That sets me free, and as you're getting strong again I ought to go back to Canada as soon as I can."

"If you feel you must go, I'll have to consent."

"I've a duty to my partner. It's probable that he has already set off, but I know where to find him and there'll be plenty to do. For one thing, as transport is expensive, we'll have to relay our supplies over very rough country and that means making the same stage several times, while I don't suppose Harding will have been able to buy very efficient boring plant."

"He may have done better than you imagined," Challoner remarked. "A man as capable as he seems to be would somehow get hold of what was needful."

Blake was surprised at this, because his uncle understood their financial difficulties; but he said, "There's a fast boat next Saturday. I think I'll go by her."

"Wait another week, to please me," Challoner urged him. "You have had a dull time since I've been ill, and now I'd like you to get about. I shall miss you badly, Dick."

Blake agreed. He felt that he ought to have sailed earlier, but the temptation to remain was strong. He now met Millicent every day, and it might be a very long time before he returned to England. He feared that he was laying up trouble for himself, but he recklessly determined to make the most of the present, and, in spite of his misgivings, the next eight or nine days brought him many delightful hours. Now she knew he was going, Millicent abandoned the reserve she had sometimes shown. She was sympathetic, interested in his plans, and, he thought, wonderfully charming. They were rapidly drawn closer together, and the more he learned of her character, the stronger his admiration grew. At times he imagined he noticed a tender shyness in her manner, and though it delighted him he afterwards took himself to task. He was not acting honourably; he had no right to win this girl's love, as he was trying to do, but there was the excuse that she knew his history and it had not made her cold to him.

In the meanwhile, Mrs. Keith, who had grown very fond of her companion and entirely approved of her, looked on with observant eyes and made opportunities for throwing the two together. One afternoon a day or two before Blake's departure she called Millicent into her room and asked her abruptly: "Have you ever thought about your future?"

"Not often since I have been with you," Millicent answered. "Before that it used to trouble me."

"Then I'm afraid you're imprudent. You have no relations you could look to for help, and while my health is pretty good I can't, of course, live for ever. I might leave you something, but it would not be much, because my property is earmarked for a particular purpose."

Millicent wondered where this led, but Mrs. Keith went on: "As you have found out, I'm a frank old woman and not afraid to say what I think. Well, considering how attractive you are, there's a way out of the difficulty, and I believe it's the best one. You ought to marry; it's your true vocation."

"I'm not sure," said Millicent, blushing. "Besides it mightn't be possible. I owe everything to your generosity, but you have brought me into a station where I must stand comparison with girls who have more advantages."

"You mean they have more money? Well, it's not to be despised, but I've met men who didn't attach too much importance to it. They had the sense to see there were other things of greater value, and while I don't often flatter people, you're not poor in this respect. But if you liked a man who was far from rich, would you marry him?"

"It would depend," Millicent replied, while her colour deepened. "Why do you ask? I can't give you a general answer."

"Then give me a particular one; I want to know."

The girl was embarrassed, but she had learned that her employer was not to be put off easily.

"I suppose his being poor wouldn't daunt me, if I loved him enough."

"Then we'll suppose something else. If he had done something to be ashamed of?"

Millicent looked up with a flash in her eyes. "People are so ready to believe the worst. He did nothing that he need blush for-that's impossible." Then she saw the trap into which her generous indignation had led her, but instead of looking down in confusion she boldly faced Mrs. Keith. "Yes," she added, "if he loved me, I would marry him in spite of what people are foolish enough to think."

"And you would not regret it." Mrs. Keith laid her hand on the girl's arm with a caressing touch. "My dear, if you value your happiness, you will tell him so. Remember that he is going away in a day or two."

"How can I tell him?" Millicent cried with burning face. "I only-I mean you tricked me into telling you."

"It shouldn't be difficult to give him a tactful hint, and that wouldn't be a remarkably unusual course," Mrs. Keith rejoined with amusement. "The idea that a proposal comes quite spontaneously is to some extent a convention nowadays. I don't suppose you need reminding that we dine at Sandymere to-morrow."

Millicent made no reply, and as she seemed rather overwhelmed by her employer's frankness, the latter took pity on her.

"You might ask Foster for the review he promised me, but you can send it up instead of coming back," she said, and added as Millicent turned away: "Think over what I told you."

The recommendation was superfluous, because Millicent thought of nothing else. She knew Blake was her lover and believed she understood why he had not declared himself. Now he might go away without speaking if she let him. Mrs. Keith's blunt candour left her no excuse for shirking the truth; she loved the man, but it was hateful to feel that she must make the first advances and reveal her tenderness for him. She said she could not do so and yet vacillated, for the alternative was worse.

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