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   Chapter 16 CHAPTER XIV

Lorimer of the Northwest By Harold Bindloss Characters: 21631

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


Speaking generally, winter is much less severe in British Columbia, especially near the coast, than it is on the prairie, though it is sufficiently trying high up among the mountains, where as a rule little work is done at that season. Still, though the number of the track-layers was largely reduced, the inhabitants of the mining region had waited long enough, and so, in spite of many hardships, slowly, fathom by fathom, we carried the rail-head on.

Now and then for several days together we sat in our log-built shelter while a blinding snowstorm raged outside and the pines filled the valley with their roaring. Then there were weeks of bitter frost, when work was partly suspended, and both rock and soil defied our efforts. One of our best horses died and another fell over a precipice. Hay was hardly to be bought with money, provisions only at an exorbitant cost, and though we received a few interim payments it was, as Johnston said, even chances either way if we kept on top, because every day of enforced idleness cost us many dollars. However, floundering through snow-slush, swinging the axe in driving sleet and rain, or hauling the mossy logs through the mire of a sudden thaw, we persisted in our task, though often at nights we sat inside the shanty, which was filled with steaming garments, counting the cost, in a state of gloomy despondency. Except for the thought of Grace, there were moments when I might have yielded; but we were always an obstinate race, and seeing 152 that I was steadfastly determined to hold out to the last, the others gallantly aided me. Now, when the time of stress is past, I know how much I owe to their loyalty.

At length, however, the winter drew to an end, and the whole mountain region rejoiced at the coming of the spring. A warm wind from the Pacific set the cedars rustling, the sun shone bright and hot, and the open fringe of the forest was garlanded with flowers, while a torrent made wild music in every ravine. I was sitting outside our shanty one morning smoking a pet English briar, whose stem was bitten half-way, and reveling in the warmth and brightness, when the unexpected happened. By degrees, perhaps under the spell of some influence which stirs us when sleeping nature awakens once more to life, I lost myself in reverie, and recalled drowsily a certain deep, oak-shrouded hollow under the Lancashire hills, where at that season pale yellow stars of primroses peeped out among the fresh green of tender leaves. Then the bald heights of Starcross Moor rose up before me, and Grace came lightly across the heather chanting a song, with her hat flung back, and the west wind kissing her face into delicate color, until a tramp of footsteps drew nearer down the track.

A man, who evidently was neither a bush-rancher nor a railroad hand, approached and said with a pure English accent:

"I'm in a difficulty, and it was suggested that Contractor Lorimer might help me. I presume I have the pleasure of addressing him? My name is Calvert."

"I will if I can," I answered, and the stranger continued:

"It's my duty to escort two ladies from the main line into the Lonsdale valley. They have a quantity of baggage, and I have no confidence in the half-starved Cayuse ponies the Indians offered me. The trails are hardly safe just now, and the regular freighters hadn't a beast to spare. It would 153 be a favor if you came with yours, and we should, of course, be glad to recoup you for the time you lose."

His manner was pleasant, money was very scarce then, and as it happened we had been compelled to lay off for a day or two, awaiting material; so I arranged to start with him.

"A little change will be good for you," Harry said, when the man departed. "You have been looking as grim as a hungry bear lately. Jim Lawrence, I dare say, would lend you his sisters' saddles."

The outward journey, made partly under cover of darkness, was arduous, for each torrent came roaring down swollen by melting snow almost bank-full, and portions of the trail had been washed away; but we reached the station settlement in safety, and after a few hours' sleep there we turned out to meet the west-bound train. It came thundering down the valley presently with the sunlight flashing upon burnished metal and the long car windows, and when amid a roar of blown-off steam it rolled into the station, I wondered with mild curiosity what kind of women the new arrivals would be. The next moment my pulse quickened as a gray-haired lady stepped down from the platform of a car, for when my companion hurried forward with uplifted hat I saw that it was Miss Carrington, while fresh and dainty, as though she had not traveled at all, Grace followed her.

Then I remembered that my place was that of hired teamster, and I stood waiting outside the baggage-car until Calvert gave me the brass checks, after which I assisted the man who came with me to cinch a surprisingly heavy load on our two pack-horses. The battered felt hat probably concealed my face, all I had on was homely and considerably the worse for wear, and it was scarcely surprising that they did not recognize me. Presently, leading Jasper's bay 154 horse forward, I stooped and held out my hand for Grace to rest her little foot on, and when she swung herself lightly into the saddle, Calvert said:

"The sooner we start the better, the trails are positively awful. Contractor Lorimer, you will no doubt take especial care of Miss Carrington."

Swinging low the broad hat, I looked up and saw a faint tinge of crimson mantle in the face of the girl, while again a thrill went through me when she said simply, "Ralph!" for that name had never passed her lips before in my hearing.

Then, while Calvert looked hard at me and the elder lady bowed, she patted the bay horse's neck, saying frankly:

"It's an unexpected pleasure, and I have often been thinking about you, but never expected to meet you here. What a handsome beast you have brought me!"

Grace seldom showed all her feelings, for a sweet serenity characterized her, but this time I fancied that our relative positions both puzzled and troubled her, and I regretted my own stupidity in not asking who the ladies were. Still, I managed to answer that C?sar should be proud of his burden.

That was a memorable journey in various ways. In places, beaten by the hoofs of many pack-horses, the trail was knee-deep in mire, and in others it was lost under beds of treacherous shale. But C?sar was used to the mountains, and I strode beside his head, heeding neither slippery shingle nor plastic mud, for Grace chatted about her English visit, and with such a companion I should have floundered contentedly over leagues of ice and snow.

The valleys were filled with freshness, and the air was balmy with scents, while every bird and beast rejoiced with the vigor of the spring. Now and then a blue grouse broke out drumming from the summit of a stately fir, white-headed 155 eagles and fish-hawks wheeled screaming above the frothing shallows on slanted wing, and silently, like flitting shadows, the little wood-deer leaped across the trail, or amid a crash of undergrowth a startled black bear charged in blind panic through the dim recesses of the bush. Once, too, with a snarl, a panther sprang out from a thicket, and Calvert's rifle flashed; but the only result was that C?sar tried to rear upright. With fear I clutched at his rein, and it was a pretty sight to see the big, rough-coated horse settle down as if ashamed of his fright when the fair rider spoke soothingly to him. All dumb creatures took kindly to Grace, and, though C?sar could show a very pretty temper in ungentle hands, he yielded to the caressing touch of her soft fingers. Then he turned his eyes upon me with a look that seemed an apology for dividing his allegiance, while Grace smiled under lowered lashes, as though she did not wish to meet my gaze. It was a trifling incident, but inwardly I thanked the good horse for it. Later, when we came up out of a roaring ford, through which I carefully led C?sar, with the stream boiling about my waist, into a dim avenue, she looked down at me as she said:

"This is a dream-like country, and I never imagined anything so beautiful. And yet it is familiar. Do you remember what you once said to me at Lone Hollow?"

The question was wholly unnecessary, for I could remember each moment of that night, and any one in touch with nature could understand her comment. It was a great forest temple through which we were marching, where the giant conifers were solemn with the antiquity of long ages, for it had taken probably a thousand years to raise the vaulted roof above us, with its groined arches of red branches and its mighty pillars of living wood. Nature does all things slowly, but her handiwork is very good.

"Yes," Grace continued, "it seems familiar-as though 156 you and I had ridden together through such a country once before; I even seem to know those great redwoods well. I-I think I dreamed it, but there is another intangible memory in which you figured too."

"I could not be in better company," I answered, smiling, though my heart beat. "We are such stuff as dreams are made of, and our little life is rounded with a sleep, you know; and here among the mountains it seems borne in on one forcibly that, as I told you my partner said, man's intellect is feeble and we do not know everything."

Grace sighed, and then, though she answered lightly, there was the same puzzled look on her face that I had seen for a moment at Cypress Hollow. It seemed as if her mind reached forward toward something that eluded its grasp, until we both broke into laughter as a willow-grouse disturbed by the horse's feet rose whirring to a redwood branch and perched there, close within reach, regarding us with an assurance that was ludicrous.

"It thinks it is perfectly safe," I said. "You might shoot until you hit it, or knock it down with a stick, and yet there is no more timorous creature among the undergrowth, unless it has a brood of chicks, when it will attack any one."

At noon we rested for luncheon in an open glade, where bright sunlight beat down upon the boulders of a stream which surged among them, stained green by the drainage from a glacier; and there was merry laughter over the viands Calvert produced from his pack.

"I did my best, Miss Carrington," he said, "but as yet they're a primitive people among these mountains-and it's not to be wondered at, with that huge rampart between them and civilization. 'Something nice for a lady?' the storekeeper said. 'Guess I've just got it.' And he planked down a salmon-fed reistit ham and this bottle of ancient candy, with the dead flies thrown in. Still, one can't

help 157 admiring them for the way they've held on, growing stuff they cannot sell, building stores where few men come to buy, and piling up low-grade ore that won't pay its pack-freight to the smelter. Also I've seen work that three men spent a year over which a hydraulic monitor would have done in a few days, while the rocks seem bursting with riches and the valleys with fertility; but they can get neither produce out nor mining plant in. Their greatest hero now is a certain enterprising director, and they'd decline an angel's visit at any time for that of a railroad builder."

"I sometimes wish I had been born a man, with work of that kind to do," said Grace, with a fire in her eyes. "We hear of the old romance and lost chivalry, but there was never more than in these modern days, only it has changed its guise. If we haven't the knight in armor or the roystering swashbuckler, we have the man with the axe and drill; and is it not a task for heroes to drive the level steel road through these tremendous mountains? You are smiling, Mr. Calvert. I read the papers-Colonial and British, all I can come across-and I know that some day England will need all her colonies. You cannot deny that this is a sensible question: Which is the better for an English gentleman, to use all the strength and valor that is entrusted him-we are taught there will be a reckoning when he must account for them-subduing savage Nature, that the hungry may eat cheaper bread, or lounging about a racecourse, shooting driven pheasants-I know it needs high skill-or wasting precious hours in the reeking smoke-room of his club? If I had a brother I should sooner see him working as a C. P. R. track-shoveler."

"Grace has strong opinions," said the old lady. "I think she is right, in a measure."

Calvert bowed. "It's in the Carrington blood. Miss Grace, I once heard one of your father's old comrades say 158 that the Colonel could keep no officers because he wore them out, and he might have ended as General but that he reversed the positions and wanted to instruct the War Office. However, you mustn't be too hard on the poor loungers; they eat the things the other fellows grow, and some of them subscribe the money to make the new railroads go-they don't always get dividends on it either. Besides,"-and there was a twinkle in his eyes-"you are making my new friend uncomfortable. He is a railroad builder. Are you working for philanthropic notions, Mr. Lorimer?"

"No," I answered soberly; and the rest of the party laughed as I added: "Only to pay back what I owe; and we are making slow progress in that direction. Still, the work has its fascination, and it will last and be useful after we are gone."

Then, while Calvert spoke to Miss Carrington, Grace turned toward me with a sudden look of interest.

"You are not exactly prospering, I gather," she said, "and I am very sorry. Please commence when you left Fairmead and tell me all the story."

I did so-perhaps not very clearly, for she asked many questions during the course of the narrative; and her eyes sparkled at the story of our profitless struggle in the coulée.

"Flour-poor thirds; whose brand?-local pork-and doubtless the cheapest tea, you lived on. I manage the affairs of the Manor, and may I ask what your grocery list came to? How much maize and oats for the horses? Thank you. It was just as one might have expected. No, I have never been disappointed in either Harry Lorraine or you."

She dragged the particulars from me-and no one, much less Ralph Lorimer, could refuse to answer Grace Carrington-with a skill that came from practical knowledge 159 of such details, before I even guessed what she wished to arrive at. Then she laughed at my confusion.

"You have no need to blush. Starved yourselves and fed the cattle. It was well done. And didn't the new partner grumble?"

"No," I answered, glad to change the subject. "Johnston never grumbled at anything in his life, I think. It was he who managed the commissariat."

"Do you realize, Mr. Lorimer, that you are in many ways a lucky man?" she added. "I understand perfectly what it means to lose a crop and carry out an unprofitable contract. But it is in reference to your comrades I speak. Fearless, loyal partners are considerably better than the best of gear with half-hearted help, and it is evident that you have them."

"Yes," I said. "No man ever had better; and it is quite true what you say. With a loyal partner a man may do very much, and, if he is sure of himself, with a higher mind to show him the way, he might reach out toward the heavens and-"

Here I stopped abruptly. Wild thoughts were crystallizing into words I might not speak, and I grew hot with the struggle to check them, while I fancied that Grace blushed before she turned her face away. I know my brow was furrowed and my fingers trembled, so that it was a relief presently to hear her musical laugh.

"You are not an orator," she said, turning around calmly; "and perhaps it is as well. It is not orators who are wanted in this country. Your eloquent beginning too suddenly breaks away. But don't you think we are in the meantime drifting into idle sentiment? And you have asked me neither where I am going nor about Colonel Carrington."

It was true; the first would have seemed presumptuous 160 and I did not care greatly about the redoubtable Colonel's health.

"He has invested some money in a new mine in the Lonsdale district," she said; and there was a slight cloud on her brow as she continued: "The Manor farm has lately cost us, through bad seasons, more than we made from it. So, while Foster takes charge, we are going to live in a ranch up here this summer, in order that my father may assist in the development of the mine. He is practically the leading partner, and until your railroad is finished there will be serious transportation difficulties. I hope you will come to see us often."

"Time is up!" said Calvert.

I helped Grace into the saddle, and the rest of the perfect afternoon passed like a happy dream. Even if alone, at that season the mere sounds and scents of reawakening Nature would have elated me; but then I strode on, holding C?sar's rein, lost in the golden glamour of it all, until snow peak and solemn forest seemed but a fitting background for the slender figure swaying to the horse's stride, while the pale, calm face brought into the shadowy aisles a charm of its own. Once-and I could not help myself-a few lines written by a master who loved Nature broke from me, and for a moment Grace seemed startled. It was a passage from the first home-coming of Queen Guinevere.

"Shall we thank Providence for a good conceit of ourselves?" she said lightly, a little later. "You are hardly a Lancelot, Sir Railroad Builder; and she-is it a compliment to compare me with Arthur's faithless Queen?"

Thereupon I lapsed into silence, feeling like one who has blundered on the edge of a precipice; and Grace was silent too, for the day drew toward its close, and a red glare of sunset came, slanting in among the massy trunks, striking strange glints of color from her hair, while winsome and 161 graceful to the tiny foot in the stirrup, her lissom shape was outlined against it. Then for a while we left the woods, and rode down the hillside under the last of the afterglow, which blazed, orange, green and crimson, along the heights of eternal snow, calling up ruby flashes from the ragged edge of a glacier, while Grace seemed lost in wonder and awe. I do not think there are any sunsets in the world like those of British Columbia.

"It is unearthly-majestic!" she said half to herself. "And once I almost felt inclined to sympathize with a Transatlantic scribbler, who compared the Revelation to what he termed a wholesale jewelry show. He was a townsman who had never crossed the Rockies-and if there are glories like this on earth, what must the everlasting city be?"

The weird fires paled and faded, and the peaks were coldly solemn under their crown of snow, while a little breeze awoke strange harmonies among the cedars, and there was no more talking. Perhaps we were physically tired, though that day's march was a very slight task for me, but I felt that after what we had seen silence became me best. It was dark long before we rode into Cedar Crossing, and Grace was worn-out when I helped her from the saddle. Miss Carrington apparently found some difficulty in straightening herself, and when Calvert had installed them in the one second-rate hotel, after a visit to an acquaintance there, I sat smoking beneath a hemlock most of the night keeping guard over it. This was, of course, palpably absurd; but I was young, and from early ages many others have done much the same, while, though it seems the fashion to despise all sentiment now, it is probable that future generations will show traces of equal foolishness.

We finished the journey on the third day, but I did not see Colonel Carrington. He was busy at the mine, and it was not worth while wasting precious time in the really 162 comfortable ranch he had hired, awaiting his return for the mere pleasure of exchanging greetings with him, while Grace was far too tired to entertain anybody.

Calvert looked awkward when he shook hands with me. "I don't quite know how to put it," he said, "but you will understand we can't take you away several days from your work gratuitously, and all transport is charged to the Syndicate. Being a trained engineer, I'm working manager, and, as a matter of business, what do I owe you?"

"Nothing!" I answered shortly. "I could take no payment for assisting Miss Carrington. If you like, you can send five dollars to the Vancouver hospital."

"I trust we'll be friends" said Calvert. "Hope I didn't offend you. Meant it in the best of faith. I'm coming round to see you, and whenever you have leisure you must look upon my quarters yonder as your own."

I rode back wondering whether the work had suffered during my absence, though I knew my partners would not complain, and when I reached camp Harry said:

"I hardly thought we'd set up as packers, but in the meantime all is fish that comes to our net. I'm getting quite a mercenary character. You had a long journey-how much did you get?"

"Nothing," I answered, "except a gift of five dollars for the Vancouver hospital. It was Miss Carrington."

Harry made no articulate comment at first, though his whistle, which from any one else would have been impertinence, was eloquent, while some moments elapsed before he spoke.

"Then it's Colonel Carrington who is running the Day Spring mine. I've heard the free prospectors talking about the new Syndicate. They opine there's nothing in it, and that somebody is going to be hard hit."

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