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   Chapter 19 CHAPTER XVII

Lorimer of the Northwest By Harold Bindloss Characters: 18139

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


THE RETURN

It was James Lawrence, the English rancher, and Miss Carrington who told me what happened to those we left behind after the fateful moment when the canoe first slipped clear of the shingle bank. Lawrence accompanied the party on their return journey, and it was he who suggested sending Grace and Miss Carrington across in the canoe. The river ran high that morning, and he felt dubious about the ford, because several pack-horses had already been drowned there.

The first intimation he had of anything wrong was a cry from the girl, and he saw a strip of water widen between the canoe and the bank. He ran his hardest, but made little headway, for thorny bushes and fern formed thickets along the bank, while when he reached the boulders he felt that he had come too late, because no swimmer could then overtake the canoe, even if he escaped destruction in the first rapid immediately below. Nevertheless, after a glance at the drawn face of the girl, which haunted him long afterward, as with the first shock of terror on her she labored helplessly at the paddle, he would even have made the hopeless attempt but that Colonel Carrington, who of all the trio had retained his common sense, intervened. It was not without reason that the Colonel had earned the reputation of being a hard man.

"Come back! Stop him! Geoffrey, are you mad?" he roared; and Lawrence, who had now recovered his wits, flung himself upon a man who, stripping himself to the 185 waist as he ran, floundered at breakneck speed among the boulders. They went down together heavily, and the next moment the runner had him by the throat, hissing through his teeth, "Let go, you fool, before I murder you!"

Lawrence was strong, however, and held fast half-choked for a moment or two, until the Colonel's cry reached them again:

"Get up, Geoffrey, you lunatic! Follow, and head them off along the bank!"

The shouts and the confusion had startled his restive horse, and by the time he had mounted the pair were on their feet again stumbling over the boulders or smashing through the undergrowth in a desperate race, with the horse blundering behind them and the canoe ahead. They might possibly have overtaken it except for the rapid, Lawrence said, but it swept like a toboggan down that seething rush, and, as realizing that it was almost hopeless, they held on, there was a clatter on the opposite slope, and they saw me break out at headlong gallop from the woods. They halted when I crawled into the canoe, for we were beyond all human help from that bank now; and, flinging himself from the saddle, Colonel Carrington stood with clenched hands and quivering lips, staring after us, so Lawrence said, out of awful eyes.

"Bravo!" he gasped at length. "He'll reach the gravel-spit. Another two good strokes-they're almost in the eddy;" but the next words were frozen on his lips, for the backwash from a boulder swept away the bows of the canoe, and the words that followed came hoarse and brokenly, "My God-he's too late!"

Colonel Carrington was right, for, as held still and spellbound they watched, the canoe leaped down the entrance rapid and was lost in the mist of the black ca?on. The Colonel said nothing further, though he groaned aloud, and 186 Lawrence did not care to look at him; but Ormond's face was ashy until a livid fury filled it as he turned upon the rancher.

"Confusion to you! Why must you stop me then?" he demanded.

"You would only have drowned yourself in the rapid and done nobody any good," Lawrence said.

"I wish to heaven I had," answered Ormond, with cold deliberateness. "As it is, you have helped that man to rob me again, even at the last, and I would give all I have to change places now with him."

Then, while Lawrence wondered what he meant, though when I heard the story I fully understood, the head of my horse rose for an instant out of the tumbling waters, sank, and rising, went down again, while a tremor ran through the Colonel's rigid frame, and he leaned against a hemlock with great beads of sweat on his forehead. The poor beast had doubtless been mangled against a boulder, and the sight was horribly suggestive.

"A very grim man," said Lawrence, when he narrated what happened; "but I felt most cruelly sorry for him. Didn't say very much-his sort never do; but he was in mortal anguish, and I knew how he would miss the girl."

Colonel Carrington was, nevertheless, the first to master his feelings, and his voice was steady once more when he turned to Ormond.

"Geoffrey, you will go back and send my sister round with the Indian by Tomlinson's crossing. Then you will return and overtake us in the ravine yonder. We are going to follow the crest of the ca?on to-to-see what we can find."

It was a stiff climb up the ravine, trying in places to a mountaineer, but the old man held close behind his companion, and Lawrence wondered at him. He also felt 187 sorry for Ormond, whose task it was to overtake them, but when at last they hurried breathless through the pinewoods toward the edge of the chasm above the fall, the latter, looking like a ghost, came panting up with them. Then, standing on the dizzy brink, Colonel Carrington gazed down at the spout of green water and the whirling spray, which were dwarfed by the distance.

"That is the greatest danger, that and the whirlpool. Anything would swing round in the eddy, would it not?" he said. "Now, I want only the truth-you understand these rivers-could any white man take a canoe down there and through the pool safely?" and Lawrence, who dare not prevaricate with that gaze upon him, answered reluctantly, "I do not think so."

The Colonel's thin face twitched. "I thank you. No other possible landing place or foothold, is there? And it would take a day to go back to Tomlinson's and portage a canoe. Well, we'll go on to the end in a last hope that they have got through."

Now climbing is difficult in that region, because where the mountain slopes do not consist of almost precipitous snow-ground rock, they are clothed with forest and dense undergrowth, and it was therefore some time before the three had traversed the league or so that divided the summit from the outlet valley. Neither when they got there did they find the canoe, because when I helped Grace ashore I did not care where it went, and, once on terra firma she fainted suddenly, and then lay for a time sobbing on my shoulder in a state of nervous collapse. As she said, though a brave one, she was after all only a woman, and what had happened would have tested the endurance of many a man. At last, however, I managed to help her up a ravine leading down to the river, after which she leaned heavily on my arm as we plodded through the forest until we reached a 188 small rancher's shanty, where, as the owner was absent, I took the liberty of lighting his stove and preparing hot tea. Then I left Grace to dry her garments.

We must have spent several hours at the ranch, for Grace was badly shaken, and I felt that rest was needful for both of us, while, when I returned to the cabin after drying myself in the sun, she lay back in a hide-chair sleeping peacefully. So while the shadows of the firs lengthened across the clearing I sat very still, until with a light touch I ventured to rouse her. She woke with a gasp of horror, looked around with frightened eyes, then clung to me, and I knelt beside the chair with my arms about her, until at last with a happy little laugh she said:

"Ralph, I have lost my character, and you know I am a coward at heart; but, and until to-day I should not have believed it, it is so comforting to know I have a-I have you to protect me." Then she laid her hand on my brow, adding gently, "Poor forehead that was wounded in my service! But it is getting late, Ralph, and my father will be feverishly anxious about me."

Grace was right in this, because, long before we borrowed the rancher's Cayuse pony and set out again, Colonel Carrington and the others reached the bank of the river, and saw only a broad stretch of muddy current racing beneath the rigid branches of the firs. Then after they had searched the few shingle bars-the one we landed on was by this time covered deeply-the old man sat down on a boulder apart from the rest, and neither dare speak to him, though Lawrence heard him say softly to himself:

"My daughter-my daughter! I would to God I might join her."

They turned homeward in solemn silence, though perhaps a last spark of hope burned in the Colonel's breast that by some wholly unexpected chance we had reached it before 189 they did, because Lawrence said he seemed to make a stern effort to restrain himself when they saw only Miss Carrington sitting dejectedly near the window. Thereupon Lawrence was glad to escape, and Ormond, who rode out to gather the miners for a systematic search, left them mercifully alone.

Afterward the old man brokenly narrated what had passed, and then there was a heavy silence in the room, out of which the sunlight slowly faded, unti

l, as Miss Carrington told me, the ticking of a nickeled clock grew maddening. At last she rose and flung the window open wide, and the sighing of the pines drifted in mournfully with a faint coolness that came down from the snow. Meantime, Colonel Carrington paced with a deadly regularity up and down, neither speaking nor glancing at her, until he started as a faint beat of horse hoofs came out of the shadows.

"Only Geoffrey returning!" he said bitterly. "But I have been listening, listening every moment for the last hour. It is utterly hopeless, I know, and we must bear the last black sorrow that has fallen upon us; but yet I cannot quite believe her dead."

The tramp of hoofs grew nearer, and the Colonel leaned out through the open casement with the hand that gripped its ledge quivering.

"That is an Indian pony, not Geoffrey's horse, and a man on foot is leading it," he said. "They are coming this way; I will meet them."

Miss Carrington, however, laid a restraining grasp upon him, and very slowly the clock ticked off the seconds until, when two figures came out through the thinning forest into the clearing, the Colonel's face grew white as death. For a moment he choked for breath, and his sister sobbed aloud when he recovered himself, for she too had seen.

"I thank a merciful Providence-it is Grace," he said. 190

I lifted Grace from the pony's back, led her toward the house, and saw the old man fold his arms about her. Then I heard her happy cry, and while for a time they forgot all about me, I stood holding the pony's rein and thinking. My first impulse was to go forward and claim her before them, but that was too much like taking advantage of her father's relief. Also, I felt that some things are sacred, and the presence of any stranger would be an intrusion then, while it seemed hardly fitting to forthwith demand such a reward for what any other should doubtless have done gladly. So, trusting that Grace would understand, I turned away, determined to call on the Colonel the next morning, and, though I am not sure that the result would otherwise have been different, I afterward regretted it. Now I know that any excess of delicacy or consideration for others which may cause unnecessary sorrow to those nearest us is only folly.

No one called me back, or apparently noticed me, and though with much difficulty I reached the ranch, and was hospitably entertained there, I never closed my eyes all night. I returned to the Colonel's dwelling as early as possible the next morning, and was at once received by him. The events of the preceding day had left their impression even on him, and for once his eyes were kindly, while it was with perceptible emotion he grasped my hand.

"I am indebted to you for life, and you acted with discernment as well as gallantry," he said. "You have an old man's fervent thanks, and if he can ever repay such a service you may rely on his gratitude."

I do not know why, for they were evidently sincere enough, but the words struck me unpleasantly. They seemed to emphasize the difference between us, and there was only one favor I would ever ask of him.

"You can return it now with the greatest honor it is 191 in your power to grant any living man," I answered bluntly. "I ask the promise of Miss Carrington's hand."

I feel sure now that there was pity in his eyes for a moment, though I scarcely noticed it then, and he answered gravely:

"I am sorry. You have asked the one thing impossible. When Miss Carrington marries it will be in accordance with my wishes and an arrangement made with a dead kinsman long ago."

I think he would have continued, but that I broke in: "But I love her, and she trusts me. Ever since I came to this country I have been fighting my way upward with this one object in view. We are both young, sir, and I shall not always be poor-" but here he stopped me with a gesture, repeating dryly, "I am sorry for you."

He paced the long room twice before he again turned toward me, saying with a tone of authority, "Sit down there. I am not in the habit of explaining my motives, but I will make an exception now. My daughter has been brought up luxuriously, as far as circumstances permitted, and in her case they permitted it in a measure even on the prairie-I arranged it so. She has scarcely had a wish I could not gratify, and at Carrington Manor her word was law. I need hardly say she ordered wisely."

I bent my head in token of comprehension and agreement as the speaker paused, and then, with a different and incisive inflection, he continued:

"And what would her life be with you? A constant battle with hardship and penury on a little prairie farm, where with her own hands she must bake and wash and sew for you, or, even worse, a lonely waiting in some poor lodging while you were away months together railroad building. Is this the lot you would propose for her? Now, and there is no reason I should explain why, after my death there will 192 be little left her besides an expensive and occasionally unprofitable farm, and so I have had otherwise to provide for her future!"

"There are, however, two things you take for granted," I interposed again; "that I shall never have much to offer her-and in this I hope you may be wrong-and Miss Carrington's acquiescence in your plans."

The old grim smile flickered in the Colonel's eyes as he answered: "Miss Carrington will respect her father's wishes-she has never failed to do so hitherto-and I do not know that there is much to be made out of such railroad contracts as your present one."

This was certainly true enough, and I winced under the allusion before I made a last appeal.

"Then suppose, sir, that after all fortune favored me, and there was some reason why what you look for failed to come about-all human expectation, human life itself, is uncertain-would you then withhold your consent?"

He looked at me keenly a moment, saying nothing, and it was always unpleasant to withstand the semi-ironical gaze of Colonel Carrington, though I had noticed a slight movement when quite at random I alluded to the uncertainty of life. Then he answered slowly:

"I think in that case we could discuss all this again, though it would be better far for you to consider my refusal as definite. Now I have such confidence in my daughter's obedience that on the one condition that you do not seek to prejudice her against me I do not absolutely forbid your seeing Miss Carrington-on occasion-but you must write no letters, and you may take it as a compliment that I should tell you I have acted only as seemed best in her interest. Neither should it be needful to inform you that she will never marry without my consent. And now, reiterating 193 my thanks, I fail to see how anything would be gained by prolonging this interview."

I knew from his face that this was so, and that further words might be a fatal mistake, and I went out hurriedly, forgetting, I am afraid, to return his salutation, though when I met his sister she glanced at me with sympathy as she pointed toward another door. When I entered this Grace rose to meet me. The time we spent in the ca?on had drawn us closer together than many months of companionship might have done, and it was with no affectation of bashful diffidence that she beckoned me to a place beside her on the casement logs, saying simply, "You have bad news, sweetheart. Tell me everything."

Her father had exacted no promise about secrecy. Indeed, if the arrangement mentioned compromised a prospective husband, as I thought it did, Grace was doubtless fully acquainted with it; and I told her what had passed. Then she drew herself away from me.

"And is there nothing to be added? Have you lost your usual eloquence?" she said.

"Yes," I continued, "I was coming to it. It is this: while I live I will never abandon the hope of winning you; and, with such a hope, whatever difficulty must be grappled with first, I know that some day I shall do it."

"And," said Grace, with a heightened color, and her liquid eyes shining, "is there still nothing else?" And while I glanced at her in a bewildered fashion she continued, "Do you, like my father, take my consent for granted? Well, I will give it to you. Ralph, while you are living, and after, if you must go a little before I do, I will never look with favor upon any man. Meantime, sweetheart-for, as he said, I will not resist my father's will, save only in one matter-you must work and I must wait, trusting in what 194 the future may bring. And so-you must leave me now; and it may be long before I see you. Go, and God bless you, taking my promise with you."

She laid her little hand in mine, and I bent down until the flushed face was level with my own. When I found myself in the open air again, I strode through the scented shadows triumphantly. The Colonel's opposition counted as nothing then. I was sanguine and young, and I knew, because she had said it, that until I had worsted fortune Grace Carrington would wait for me.

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