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   Chapter 3 THE MODEL

The Gold Trail By Harold Bindloss Characters: 19108

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


The morning broke clear and still across the scented bush, and Miss Kinnaird and Ida Stirling, who had been awakened early by the wonderful freshness in the mountain air, strolled some distance out of camp. For a time they wandered through shadowy aisles between the tremendous trunks, breathing in sweet resinous odors, and then, soon after the first sunrays came slanting across a mountain shoulder, they came out upon a head of rock above the river. A hemlock had fallen athwart it, and they sat down where they could look out upon a majestic panorama of towering rock and snow.

Arabella Kinnaird gazed at it intently when she had shaken some of the dew from the frills and folds of her rather bedraggled skirt.

"It will never be quite the same again," she observed, evidently in reference to the latter, and then waved one hand as though to indicate the panorama, for she was usually voluble and disconnected in her conversation. "This, as I said last night, is wonderful-in fact, it almost oppresses one. It makes one feel so little, and I'm not sure that I like that, though no doubt it does one good."

Her companion smiled.

"Aren't you going to paint it?" she asked.

Miss Kinnaird pursed up her face, which was a trick she had.

"Oh," she said, "I don't know. After all, portraiture is my specialty, and this silent grandeur is a little beyond my interpretation."

She paused, and added the next few words in an authoritative manner, as though she had a truth of some consequence to deliver:

"The difficulty is that you really can't interpret anything until you are quite sure what it means. You see, I'm feverishly restless by temperament, and accustomed to indulge in all kinds of petty, purposeless activities. They are petty, though the major calls them duties-social duties-and being, I'm afraid, a rather frivolous person in spite of my love of art, they appeal to me."

Ida said nothing. It was not necessary, and as a rule not advisable, to encourage Arabella Kinnaird when she commenced, as she sometimes described it, to talk seriously; and she rattled on:

"My dear, I'm all appreciation, and graciously pleased with the wonders that you are showing me; but still this valley strikes me as being short of something. It's too calm and quiet. Even Eden was not complete until man appeared in it, though, as usual, he made trouble shortly afterward. It is a thing he has kept on doing ever since."

Ida laughed.

"I'm not sure you're sticking to historical facts," she said.

"Facts," returned her companion, "don't count for much with me. I deal in impressions; and sometimes I feel full of them. I could astonish everybody if I could get them out; but that, of course, is the difficulty. Feeling, unfortunately, isn't quite the same thing as power of expression. Still, you asked me what I thought about these mountains, and I'm trying to tell you. You have brought it on yourself, you see. The key-tone of this place is an almost overwhelming tranquillity. One rather shrinks from that kind of thing when one is not used to it, and longs to do something to disturb it. It's a natural impulse. When you see a smooth sheet of ice you generally look for a big stone with which to smash it."

She swung around and favored her companion with a glance of critical scrutiny; and there was no reason why Ida Stirling should shrink from it. She sat leaning forward, looking out at the mountains with steady eyes that had a half-smile in them. Her attitude was reposeful and her face quiet; but there was something in both that faintly suggested a decided character.

"I don't think I'm readily disturbed," she said.

"No," answered her companion reflectively, "but the disturbance will no doubt come. You're in harmony with the key-tone of this valley; but too much serenity isn't good for me; and it's probable that nobody ever retains it very long. There's always the disturbing element in a world that's full of men. It was, as I remarked, man who brought trouble into Paradise."

Miss Kinnaird was addicted to talking a good deal of nonsense, and she frequently wearied her listeners; but there was a certain shrewdness in her, and at times she got near the truth. Indeed, her companion afterward decided that she had done so in this case. Ida Stirling had met many rising young men, and some who had made their mark, but none of them had aroused in her the faintest thrill of unrest or passion. So far, the depths of her nature had remained wholly unstirred. One could almost have told it from her laugh as she answered her companion's last observation.

"I thought it was woman's curiosity," she said; and then remembered suddenly that on the previous evening she had certainly been a trifle curious about the strange packer from the railroad gang.

Miss Kinnaird made no reply to this; but in a moment she stretched out a pointing hand.

"Now," she said, "the disturbing element is obtruding itself."

Farther down the river there was a flash of something white amidst the pale green shimmer of the flood. Ida rose, but her companion beckoned her to sit down again.

"Oh," she said, a trifle impatiently, "don't be prudish. He's ever so far off, and I've never had an opportunity to study anybody swimming."

It was, of course, Weston, who supposed himself far enough from camp not to be troubled by spectators, swimming with a powerful side-stroke upstream. Ida sat down again, and both of them watched him as he drew a little nearer. So many times every minute his left arm swept out into the sunlight as he flung it forward with far-stretched palm. It fell with the faintest splash, and there was a little puff of spray as his head dipped and the water washed across his lips. Then the white limbs flashed amidst the green shining of the river, and the long, lithe form contracted, gleaming as a salmon gleams when it breaks the surface with the straining line. The still river rippled, and a sun-bronzed face shot half-clear again. Miss Kinnaird watched the swimmer's progress with open appreciation.

"Dancing," she said didactically, "isn't to be compared with that! It's the essence of rhythmic movement! I must certainly study swimming. I wish he'd come right on."

Ida was not sure that she agreed with her; and, just then, Weston, swinging suddenly around, went down into the green depths, and, shooting up with white shoulders high above the water, swept away again down-stream. Miss Kinnaird rose as he did so, and turned back toward the camp.

"That packer is rather fine, considered as a muscular animal," she said.

Ida smiled at this, somewhat sardonically.

"In your country you wouldn't think of regarding him as anything else. Doesn't being an artist emancipate one from the conventional point of view?"

"No," replied Miss Kinnaird reflectively, "it doesn't, that is, when you do not paint for your living-which, of course, alters everything."

Then her eyes twinkled as she favored her companion with a passable imitation of her father's didactic tone and manner.

"As the major says, social distinctions are necessary safeguards, and cannot lightly be disregarded. If they were not, they could not have existed as long as they have."

She laughed.

"In the case of a man who has inherited his station and his possessions," she added, "it is a very natural and comfortable creed."

"Ah," said Ida, "my father worked in a sawmill."

She spoke quietly, but there was something in her voice that warned her companion that there were subjects upon which they might have a clash of opinion. In the east there is pride of possession; but the pride of achievement, which is, perhaps, more logical, is more common in the west.

It was an hour later when Weston laid breakfast before them; and Ida, who regarded him unobtrusively with careful attention, decided that Arabella Kinnaird was right. The packer, with his lean, symmetrical litheness, his pleasant English face, his clear eyes, and his clean, bronzed skin, was certainly well-favored physically, and she began to wonder whether her companion could not have gone further in her comments; until she remembered again that the commencement of a good many troubles is probably woman's curiosity.

The canoes were launched after breakfast, and it was afternoon when they pitched camp beside a still, blue lake. Then Major Kinnaird strolled away with a trout-rod to a neighboring rapid, and Mrs. Kinnaird went to sleep in a hammock. Her daughter got out her sketch-book, and sitting down among the boulders bade Ida summon Weston. He came, and stood looking at them inquiringly, picturesque in his wide hat and his fringed deerskin jacket. Miss Kinnaird pursed up her face.

"I want to make a sketch of you. You have rather a good head," she said.

Weston gazed at her a moment in astonishment, and then a twinkle crept into his eyes. Her matter-of-fact brusqueness, which made it perfectly plain that his views in the matter did not count, might have roused a sense of opposition in some men, but he had acquired a wide toleration in western Canada.

"Shall I stand here, miss?" he asked.

"No," said the girl, "a little farther to the right, where the sunlight falls upon the trunks behind you; but you mustn't look wooden. That will do. Still, you'll have to take off that jacket. It's frippery."

The suspicion of a flush crept into Weston's face; but, after all, a loose blue shirt and duck trousers are considered dress enough in the bush of the Pacific Slope, and he discarde

d the offending jacket. Miss Kinnaird, however, was not quite satisfied.

"Can't you take up that ax and look as if you were ready to use it?" she said. "Oh, no! That is far too much like a waxwork! Hold up your head a little! Now, don't move any more than you can help! I think that will do."

Weston stood as he was for the best part of an hour. He felt inclined to wonder why he did it, as he had not found shoveling gravel anything like so difficult. Then Miss Kinnaird informed him that, as she desired to make a study of the background, she would not keep him any longer; and he strolled away to the waterside, where, after stretching himself wearily, he lay down and took out his pipe. He had not been there long when Ida, who came out from among the trees, sat down on one of the boulders not far from him.

"You must have been horribly cramped, but it didn't strike Miss Kinnaird, or she wouldn't have kept you there so long," she said.

"No," answered Weston, reflectively, "I don't think it would strike Miss Kinnaird. She's English, isn't she?"

"Of course. But aren't you English, too?"

Weston's eyes twinkled.

"I am. Still, I don't want you to think that it's merely because Miss Kinnaird comes from the same country that I do that I didn't expect her to realize that to stand posed for an hour or so is apt to cramp one."

Ida laughed. It evidently was clear to him that Miss Kinnaird regarded him as a packer and nothing else, and had decided that he had probably grown used to physical discomfort. Ida was, however, rather pleased to see that he accepted the fact good-humoredly and did not resent it. She was in no way astonished that he should answer her as he had, for, in the west, a man may speak naturally to any young woman who addresses him, without feeling called on to remember the distinctions of caste.

"I wonder," she said, "whether you would tell me what caused the trouble you were mixed up in two or three nights ago."

Weston's face grew slightly flushed, for he was still in certain respects somewhat ingenuous; but he told her simply what had led up to the affray.

"After all you could hardly blame the boys," he added. "They had had a hard day, and it was not the first time Grenfell had done them out of their supper."

"Still, he had spoiled your supper, too," said Ida. "If you couldn't blame them, why did you interfere?"

It was rather a difficult question. Weston could not very well tell her, even had he quite realized it, that there was in him a vein of rudimentary chivalry that had been carefully fostered by his mother. The males of the Weston line had clung to traditions, but they had for the most part been those of the Georgian days, when very little refinement of sentiment was expected from the country gentleman. The traditions Agnes Weston had held by, however, went back to an earlier age. She had been High Church and imaginative, a woman of impracticable as well as somewhat uncomfortable ideals, and finding her husband proof against them she had done what she could with her son. The result was a somewhat happy one, for in the Kid, as his comrades termed him, her fantasies and extravagances had been toned down by the very prosaic common sense of the Weston male line. They were full-fleshed, hard-riding Englishmen who lived on beef and beer. Though Weston was naturally not aware of it, there were respects in which Ida Stirling was like his mother. Ida, however, usually kept her deeper thoughts to herself, which Mrs. Weston had seldom done, but she shaped her life by them, and they were wholesome.

"Well," he said diffidently, "it was quite a humiliating situation for the old man. He was a person of some consequence once-a rather famous assayer and mineralogist-and I think he felt it."

"That is not what I asked you," said Ida, with a trace of dryness.

Weston spread out his hands as though to excuse himself.

"Then," he said, "they were all against him, and I think Jake-I mean the big chopper-would have forced the stuff down his throat. It was horribly burnt. There are," and he hesitated, "things one really has to do."

His companion nodded. She liked his diffidence, which, while very evident, was wholly genuine, and the faint color in his face gave him an appearance of boyish candor.

"Even when the odds against you are quite steep?" she said. "In the case we are discussing the result was no doubt that bruise on your face." Then she changed the subject. "If he was a famous mineralogist, why is he cooking in a railroad camp?"

"Everybody knows," said Weston. "The usual trouble-whisky."

The girl made a little gesture of comprehension that had in it also a hint of disgust, and then seeing that he would say nothing further until she gave him a lead she spoke again.

"What brought you out here?" she inquired.

Weston had been asked the same question several times before, and had never answered it. In fact, he did not know why he did so now.

"I quarreled with my people. In one respect, anyway, I don't regret it. It's rather a beautiful country."

He sat, with his wide hat tilted back and the sun on his face, looking out upon the blue lake between the towering pines. Their shadows floated in it, and tremendous slopes of rock ran up toward the gleaming snow on the farther side. The bush lay very silent under the scorching sun, and it was filled with the heavy odors of the firs, in which there was a clogging, honey-like sweetness.

"It's a little difficult to understand why you seem to be content with track-grading. One would fancy it to be unusually hard work," said the girl.

"Oh, yes," agreed Weston, laughing. "Still, you see, I don't intend to remain a track-grader indefinitely."

"No?" said Ida, inquiringly. "What do you mean to do?"

Weston saw that she was interested, and he was still young enough to be willing to discuss his own plans and projects-though for that matter one comes across older men who can talk of nothing else.

"This country is full of gold and silver," he said. "Other men strike it now and then, and I really don't see why I shouldn't."

"When they do, haven't they usually to sell it for almost nothing to somebody who gets up a company? Besides, do you know anything about prospecting?"

Weston laughed.

"A little. It's my one dissipation; and it's rather an expensive one. You have to work for months to save enough to buy a camp outfit and provisions, and if you mean to stay any time in the ranges you have to hire a horse. Then you come back in rags with a bagful of specimens that prove to be of no use at all; and you go to work again."

"You have done that often?"

"Three or four times."

"Then," asked Ida, "isn't it foolish to go back again?"

Weston looked at her a moment hesitatingly, and then made a little gesture of deprecation.

"It sounds absurd, of course, but I have a fancy that if I keep it up long enough I shall strike gold. You see I'm a water-finder, anyway."

"A water-finder?"

Weston nodded.

"It's an old English idea. Water evidently used to be scarcer there, and even now there are places where good wells aren't plentiful. You go along with a hazel twig, and it dips when you cross water running underground. That is, if you have the gift in you. Anybody can't do it. You think that quite foolish, don't you?"

Ida really did, though she did not seem to admit it.

"Have you ever tried the gift out here?" she asked.

"On the prairie, quite often. A good deal of it is burnt up and dry. I generally found water."

"You turned the-power-to account? I mean-you made-money out of it?"

There was a sudden change in Weston's face.

"No," he said, "I never took a cent."

"But why?"

"Well," replied the man slowly, "my mother had some old-world belief, and she said it was a special gift. She knew I had it. She said a thing of that kind should never be used for money."

"But haven't all those who claimed special powers-priests, magicians, medicine-men-always been willing to sell them?"

Her companion's eyes twinkled.

"Well, I dare say they have. Still, you see, it's possible that they never really had the gifts they claimed at all. Now I-can-find water, and I have a notion that I can find the precious metals too. Quite absurd, isn't it?"

Ida thought it was, but the quiet confidence behind his whimsical manner appealed to her. He was, it seemed, a man of simple character and few ideas, but she knew that he had nerve and vigor, and, after all, the western Dominion is the land of strenuous, all-daring, simple men. Besides, she had watched the resolution flash into his young face when he stood facing the angry crowd of track-graders with the ax in his hand, and she had seen very much the same tenacity and steadfastness stamped on the faces of successful men. Her father was one, and he was a man who had scarcely been educated, and was certainly devoid of any complexity of character. Stirling had made his mark by smashing down opposition, and, when that was not possible, grimly holding on and bearing the blows dealt him. There was, as she recognized, something to be said in favor of that kind of man.

Then Kinnaird came up through the bush with his rod and a few troutlings, dry-shod and immaculate in a jacket that fitted him like a uniform, and Ida went back to camp with him. She fancied, however, that her father or Weston, who sat still and filled his pipe again, would have come back with a heavy fish, or at least thorn-rent and dripping wet.

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