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   Chapter 31 HARDING STRIKES OIL

Blake's Burden By Harold Bindloss Characters: 12252

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


Next evening Millicent accompanied Mrs. Keith to Sandymere in a troubled mood. Dinner was a trying function, because she sat next to Foster, who talked in a humorous strain and expected her to appreciate his jokes. She found it hard to smile at the right moment and noticed that Blake was unusually quiet. It was his last evening in England.

When they went into the drawing-room Challoner engaged her in conversation for a time and she was afterwards asked to sing. An hour passed before Blake had an opportunity of exchanging a word with her, and then Miss Challoner was sitting close by.

"They'll make you sing again if you stop here," he said softly.

She understood that he wanted her to himself and thrilled at something in his voice, but instead of complying she asked: "Don't you wish me to?"

"Yes, of course," he answered lamely and was silent for a few moments. Then he resumed: "You're interested in Eastern brasswork, I think?"

"I hardly know," said Millicent. "I haven't seen much of it."

She was vexed with herself for her prudish weakness. An opportunity that might never be repeated was offered her, and she could not muster the courage to seize it. Blake, however, did not seem daunted.

"You said you were delighted with the things my uncle showed you when you were last here and a friend has just sent him a fresh lot from Benares." He gave her an appealing look. "It struck me you might like to see them."

"Yes," said Millicent with forced calm; "I really think I would."

"Will you give me the key of the Indian collection?" Blake asked Challoner.

"Here it is," said the Colonel, who turned to Mrs. Keith. "That reminds me, you haven't seen my new treasures yet. Dryhurst has lately sent me some rather good things; among others there's a small Buddha, exquisitely carved. Shall we go and look at them?"

Mrs. Keith felt angry with him for a marplot, but she said: "Wouldn't it be better to wait until I'm here in the daylight? If I try to examine anything closely with these spectacles, they strain my eyes."

"I've had a new lamp placed in front of the case," Challoner persisted, and Mrs. Keith found it hard to forgive him for his obtuseness.

"Very well," she said in a resigned tone, and when Millicent and Blake had gone out walked slowly to the door with Challoner.

They were half way up the staircase which led rather sharply from the hall when she stopped and turned to her companion.

"It's obvious that you have recovered," she said.

"I certainly feel much better, but what prompted your remark?"

"These stairs. You don't seem to feel them, but if you expect me to run up and down, you'll have to make them shallower and less steep. I've been up twice since I came; Hilda insisted on my seeing the new decorations in the west wing, and I must confess to a weakness in my knee."

Challoner gave her a sharp glance and then said, "I'm sorry. Mrs. Foster mentioned something about your not walking much; I should have remembered."

"It's the weather; I find the damp troublesome. If you don't mind, I think we'll go down."

Challoner gave her his arm, and Millicent, standing in the picture gallery, noticed their return. She suspected that this was the result of some manoeuvre of Mrs. Keith's intended for her advantage, and tried to summon her resolution. The man she loved would sail next day, believing that his poverty and the stain he had not earned must stand between them, unless she could force herself to give him a hint to the contrary. This was the only sensible course, but she timidly shrank from it.

Blake unlocked a glass case and taking out two shelves laid them on a table. "There they are," he said with a rather nervous smile. "I've no doubt the things are interesting, and if our friends come up they can look at them. But it wasn't Benares brassware that brought me here."

"Was it not?" Millicent asked with a fluttering heart.

"Certainly not! One couldn't talk with Foster enlarging upon the only rational way of rearing pheasants, and you know I'm going away first thing to-morrow."

"Yes; I know," said Millicent, and then looked up at him with sudden courage. "I'm sorry."

"Truly sorry; you mean that?" He gave her a very keen glance while he knitted his brows.

"Yes," she said recklessly; "I mean it. You ought to know I do."

He laid his hand on her shoulder, holding her a little away from him. "I came up here in a state of horrible indecision, torn different ways by a sense of the duty I owed you and my selfish longing. Even if nothing had been said to make it harder for me, I can't tell how the struggle would have ended."

"Why should there be a struggle?" she asked him.

His grasp tightened and his eyes were steadily fixed upon her face. "You're very young and beautiful and, though I love you, I'm a broken man."

"Then it's through no fault of yours."

"The consequences are the same and, apart from this, I have nothing to offer. Can you wonder, my dear, that I was afraid? I come to you a beggar, with everything to gain."

"Ah!" she said, "all I have to give is yours; I think it was yours before you asked for it."

"Then you are not afraid?"

She looked at him with a happy smile. "What should I fear? Aren't you able to take care of me? It must be for my sake that you are so timid and I love you for it, but I think this must be the first time you ever hesitated long. Where has your usual recklessness gone?"

"It's coming back." He passed his arm about her waist, drawing her strongly to him. "We'll laugh at cold-blooded prudence and take our chances. It's a wide world, and we'll find a nook somewhere if we go out and look for it. All my care will be to smooth the trail for your dear, pretty feet."

They spent a time in happy talk, and Blake murmured when Millicent protested that they must go back, while she feared that her lover's exultant air would betray them as they entered the drawing-room.

"Where's the key?" Challoner asked.

"I'm afraid I forgot it, sir," Blake confessed. "Very sorry, but I'm not even sure I put the things away."

Cha

lloner rang a bell and gave an order to a servant. Then he asked Millicent: "Did you see the Buddha?"

"No," she said. "I don't think so."

"Or the brass plate with the fantastic serpent pattern round the rim?"

"I'm afraid I didn't," Millicent owned with a trace of confusion.

Challoner looked hard at Blake, and then his eyes twinkled.

"Well," he said pointedly, "perhaps it wasn't to be expected."

There was a moment's silence. Millicent looked down with the colour in her face; Blake stood very straight, smiling at the others. Then he said, "We are all friends here, and I'm proud to announce that Millicent has promised to marry me as soon as I return from Canada." He bowed to Mrs. Keith and the Colonel. "As you have taken her guardian's place, madam, and you, sir, are the head of the house, I should like to think we have your approval."

"How formal, Dick!" said Mrs. Keith with a laugh. "I imagine my consent is very much a matter of form, but I give it with the greatest satisfaction."

Challoner got up and took Millicent's hand. "My dear, I am very glad, and I think Dick has shown great wisdom. I wish you both all happiness."

Mrs. Foster and her husband offered their congratulations, and for the next hour they discussed Blake's future plans, after which they were interrupted by the entrance of a servant with a small silver tray.

"Telegram, sir, for Mr. Blake," he said. "Hopkins was at the post office, and they gave it him."

Blake took the envelope and looked at Miss Challoner for permission to open it. When he had done so, he started and gave the form to Millicent.

"Oh, Dick!" she cried with sparkling eyes. "Isn't this very good."

"I believe so." Blake turned to the others. "After the good feeling you have shown towards us, I daresay you'll be interested to hear my partner's latest news." He read out: "'Come. Struck it. Tell Challoner.'"

He turned to Mrs. Keith. "This should set me firmly on my feet and may make me rich." Then he addressed Challoner. "But I don't understand the last of it. Why does he wish you to know?"

The Colonel chuckled. "I sent Mr. Harding five hundred pounds to buy anything he needed for his prospecting, and told him to give me an option on a good block of shares in the new syndicate at par. You're very independent, Dick, but I can't see why you should object to your relatives putting money into what looks like a promising thing."

"I've no doubt it was mainly through your help Harding found the oil," Blake said gratefully.

Soon after this the Fosters rose to go, but they waited sympathetically in the hall while Millicent lingered with Blake in the drawing-room.

"Dick," she said, blushing, "you made a rash statement, I didn't quite promise to marry you as soon as you came back."

"Then it was understood," Blake answered firmly.

"I can't let you off."

"Well," she said; "if it will bring you home any quicker, dear! But how long must you stay?"

"I can't tell; there may be much to do and, if Harding needs me, I must see it out, but I won't delay a minute more than's needful. You know we may have to live in Canada?"

"Yes," she said shyly; "I won't object. Where you are will be home."

Then Foster opened the door. "The car's waiting, and it's coming on to rain."

Millicent went out with him; and Blake, who sailed next day, found, on reaching the timber belt, that, as he had predicted, there was much to be done. After some months' hard work, Harding, who was confident that the oil would pay handsomely, left him in charge while he set off for the cities to arrange about pipes and plant and the raising of capital. It was early winter when he returned, satisfied with what he had accomplished, and Blake saw that he would be able to visit England in a few weeks.

He was sitting in their office shack one bitter day when a sledge arrived with supplies, and the teamster brought him a telegram. His face grew grave as he opened it and read-

"Bertram killed in action.-Challoner."

"This sets you free, doesn't it?" Harding remarked after expressing his sympathy.

"I can't tell," Blake answered. "I haven't thought of it in such a light. I was very fond of my cousin."

"But the action must have been in India," Harding resumed after a while. "Didn't you tell me Captain Challoner was coming home?"

"He gave up a good appointment when he found his regiment was to be sent to a station where there was a likelihood of some fighting. I think I can guess the reason."

Shortly before Blake left the camp he received further news by mail and some English newspapers. Bertram had been shot when leading an attack upon a fort among the frontier hills, and the accounts agreed that he had shown exceptional gallantry.

On reaching England, Blake found Millicent at the station. Mrs. Keith, she told him, had given up her London house and taken one near Sandymere. Then she looked thoughtful when he asked about his uncle.

"I'm afraid you will see a marked change in him," she said. "He has not been well since you left, and the news of Bertram's death was a shock."

She was with him when he met Challoner, who looked very frail and forlorn.

"It's a comfort to see you back, Dick; you are all I have now," he said, and went on with a break in his voice: "After all, it was a good end my boy made-a very daring thing! The place was supposed to be unassailable by such a force as he had, but he stormed it. In spite of his fondness for painting, he was true to strain."

Some time later Blake said to Millicent, "You heard what he told me, dear? The secret must still be kept; I can't speak."

"No," said Millicent, "not while your uncle lives. It's hard, when I want everybody to know what you are."

He kissed her. "I daresay it's natural that you should be prejudiced in my favour, but I like it."

"Oh!" she answered, smiling, "I've no doubt you have some faults, but you're very staunch. You must do what you think right, Dick, and I'll try to be content. One reason for my loving you is that you are brave enough to take this generous part."

THE END

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