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   Chapter 15 THE ROCK POOL

The Gold Trail By Harold Bindloss Characters: 18160

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Ida was quietly gracious to Weston during the week that followed his opposition to her wishes at the portage. This was not so much because she knew she had been wrong in insisting on his taking her down the fall, for, after all, that matter was a trifling one, but it was more because she was pleased by the part that he had played. The man, it seemed, had preferred to face her anger rather than to allow her to run any personal risk, and afterward had undertaken a very laborious task to prevent her from discovering why he had borne it. This was as far as she would go, though she was aware that it left something to be explained.

In any case, there was a subtle change in her manner toward Weston. She had never attempted to patronize him, but now she placed him almost on the footing of an intimate acquaintance. It was done tactfully and naturally, but Mrs. Kinnaird noticed it, and took alarm. Why she should do so was not very clear, for Stirling certainly had not encouraged her to put herself to any trouble on his daughter's account, but perhaps it was because Ida was going to England, and she had a well-favored son. It is also possible that, being a lady of conventional ideas, she acted instinctively and could not help herself. That a young woman of extensive possessions should encourage a camp-packer was, from her point of view, unthinkable.

For this reason, perhaps, it was not astonishing that there was for some little time a quiet battle between the two. When Ida desired to go fishing, Mrs. Kinnaird suggested something else, or contrived that the packer should be busy. Failing this, she patiently bore discomforts from which she usually shrank, and put her companions to a good deal of trouble by favoring them with her company. The major naturally did not notice what was going on, and she did not enlighten him; nor did Weston, for that matter; while Arabella stood aside and looked on with quiet amusement. It is probable that had Ida stooped to diplomacy, she would have been beaten, but, as it was, her uncompromising imperiousness stood her in good stead.

In any case, she went up the river alone with Weston on several occasions, in spite of Mrs. Kinnaird, and one morning the two sat together among the boulders beside a pool not far above the fall. There had been heavy rain, and the stream, which had risen, swirled in an angry eddy along the rock that rose close in front of them from that side of the pool. A great drift-log, peeled white, with only stumps of branches left, had jammed its thinner top on a half-submerged ledge, and the great butt, which was water borne, every now and then smote against the rock. The pines along the river were still wet, and the wilderness was steeped in ambrosial odors. Ida sat with thoughtful eyes regarding the endless rows of trunks, through which here and there a ray of dazzling sunlight struck; but her whole attention was not occupied with that great colonnade.

"I think you were right when you said that the bush gets hold of one," she said. "I sometimes feel that I don't want to go back to the cities at all."

Weston smiled, though there was something curious in his manner. It seemed to suggest that he was trying to face an unpleasant fact.

"Well," he said, "I told you that would probably be the case. In one way it's unfortunate, because I suppose you will have to go. You belong to civilization, and it will certainly claim you."

"And don't you?"

Weston made a little whimsical gesture.

"In the meanwhile, I don't quite know where I belong. It's perplexing."

Ida noticed the "in the meanwhile." It had, she fancied, a certain significance, and hinted that by and by he expected to be more sure of his station.

"You don't wish to go back?" she asked.

"No," said Weston decisively. "Anyway, not to the packed boarding-house and the flour-mill. Even in winter, when these rivers are frozen hard and the pines stand white and motionless under the Arctic frost, this is a good deal nicer."

"You're getting away from the point," said Ida, laughing. "I meant to England."

Weston leaned forward a little, looking at her with a curious expression in his eyes.

"For three or four months in the year England is the most beautiful country in the world," he said. "We haven't your great pines and foaming rivers, but, even in the land from which I come in the rugged north, every valley is a garden. It's all so smooth and green and well cared for. One could fancy that somebody loved every inch of it-once you get outside the towns. I said the dales were gardens-in summer they're more like Paradise."

It was evident that the exile's longing for the old land was awake within him, and Ida nodded sympathetically.

"Won't you go on?" she begged.

"Ah!" said Weston. "If I could make you see them-the wonderful green of the larch woods, the bronze of the opening oaks, and the smooth velvet pastures between the little river and the gleaming limestone at the foot of the towering fell! All is trimmed and clipped and cared for, down to the level hedgerows and the sod on the roadside banks, and every here and there white hamlets, with little old-world churches, nestle among-the trees. You see, it has grown ripe and mellow, while your settlements are crude and new."

The girl sat silent a brief space. She had read of the old country, and seen pictures of it, and it seemed to her that his term, a garden, described parts, at least, of it rather efficiently.

Then, though he had already assured her that he meant to stay in the bush, she wondered whether he never longed to gather a flower of that trim garden. In fact, it suddenly became a question of some moment to her.

"You will go back to it some day?"

"No," said Weston, with a little wry smile; "I don't think so. After all, why should I?"

Ida was sensible of a certain satisfaction, but she desired to make more sure.

"There must be somebody you would wish to see, or somebody who would care to see you?"

"Ah," said Weston, "the failures are soon forgotten over yonder. Perhaps it's fortunate that it happens so."

A shadow crept into his face.

"No," he added, "unless it is as a successful man, it is scarcely likely that I shall go back again."

Ida glanced at him covertly, with thoughtful eyes. Though his attire was neater than it had been when she had seen him on other occasions, he still wore the bush packer's usual dress. There was, however, a subtle grace in his manner, and, though he was by no means a brilliant conversationalist, there was something in his voice and the half-whimsical tricks of fancy which now and then characterized him that made a wide distinction between him and the general hired hand. Once more it seemed to her that when he had called the old country a garden it was a somewhat apt description, for this man had evidently been subjected to careful training and pruning in his youth. He was, she felt, one who had grown up under a watchful eye.

"Well," she said, with a little laugh, "perhaps you are wise. One could almost fancy that the old land is overcrowded, and even on the richest soil one needs light and air."

Weston's smile showed that he could understand her train of thought.

"I certainly think that some of us are hardier for transplanting," he replied. "It is easier to make a vigorous growth out in the open, in the wind and the sun. Besides, over yonder every one is pinched and trimmed back to the same conventional pattern. They sacrifice too much for uniformity."

"Still," said Ida, once more harping on the idea that troubled her, "there are only wild flowers in the wilderness. One understands that we have nothing like your peerless English blooms."

Weston looked at her with a little gleam in his eyes.

"Oh," he said, "one must be honest, and even for the credit of the old land I can't admit that. It couldn't be, when you have your sunlight and your crystal skies. It always seems to me that strength is essential to perfect grace, and one finds both, and sweetness unexcelled, out here in Canada."

He rose, and, taking up the rod, straightened the gut trace.

"There is a big trout rising in the slack," he said. "I think you could cast from the bank."

Ida took the rod from him, and a little thrill of satisfaction ran through her as she poised herself upon a jutting stone at the water's edge. He had spoken vaguely, and she would have resented any undue explicitness, but she had watched his face, and it had set her doubts at rest. If any English girl had ever looked upon this man with favor, which seemed probable, it was evident that he had long ago forgotten her; and she fancied that if he had once been stirred to passion he was not a man who would lightly forget. Then she set about casting for the trout, which rose again; for, in view of her encounters with Mrs. Kinnaird, it seemed advisable to take a few fish back with her, if only to show how she had spent the time.

At the third cast there was a splash and a sudden silvery gleam, and a tightening of th

e line. Then the reel clinked furiously, a bright shape flashed through the froth of the eddy, and went down, after which the line ripped athwart the surface of the pool. Weston, who whipped up the net, waded in knee-deep.

"Keep the butt down!" he called. "Reel in! Take up every inch of slack."

The fish broke the surface and went down again, and a flush of crimson crept into Ida's face as she stood quivering while the line went round the pool. Then the strain eased a little, and she spun the reel, until the fish, showing a gleaming side in the swing of the eddy, made a rush again.

"Hold on this time," said Weston. "It's making for the drift-log. There are branches under it."

The rod bent, but the moving line led straight toward the drift-log, until, in a moment, it stopped suddenly. Ida turned to the man with a gasp.

"It's in under those branches," she said.

Weston, glancing at the line, threw down the net, for, though he scarcely had expected this, the fish evidently had not snapped the gut trace, which was now entangled among the broken branches.

"Give me some slack when I call," he said.

It was rather a long jump, but he managed to reach the butt of the log, and he scrambled along it toward its thinner top, which stretched out along the side of the rock. There was deep water under it, and the eddy swung fiercely toward the rapid which swept on to the fall; but the trunk provided a tolerably safe pathway to one accustomed to the bush, and he reached a spot where a snapped-off branch projected into the river. Then, stripping off his jacket, he lay down and crawled along the branch. As he lowered one arm and shoulder into the water, it seemed to Ida that the log rolled a little, and when he raised himself again, with the water dripping from him, she called out to warn him.

"The log's not safe," she said.

It was not evident that Weston heard her through the roar of the short rapid above the fall, for he lowered himself once more. Ida was quite sure that the trunk tilted a little now, but when he turned a wet face toward her, in her eagerness she forgot that the thing might be perilous. Weston did not notice that he was disturbing the equilibrium of the tree.

"Let your reel run!" he cried.

He groped around among the branches, with a good deal of the upper part of his body under water, and when at length he emerged there was a big, gleaming fish in one hand. Ida saw him jerk its head back, with his fingers in its gills, and then, standing upright, he hurled it toward her.

"It beats the major's largest one!" he announced.

Ida laid down her rod and scrambled toward the fish; but there was a splashing sound as she bent over it, and when she looked around sharply she saw the big pine slide out into the stream. Weston stood with his back toward her, apparently gazing at the rock, until he suddenly leaped forward and clutched at it. She could not see what he clung to, but the surface was uneven, and he evidently had found a foothold. Then, while a thrill of horror ran through her, she glanced at the pine and saw it whirl out into the rapid. Twice the top of it, which swung clear, came down with a splash, and then it plunged wildly into spray about the fall. She did not care to watch what became of it, and she clenched her hands hard as she looked around again.

Weston was clinging to the rock, and his face, which was turned partly toward her, was set and grim. In a moment he moved forward a little, feeling with outstretched hand for a fresh hold, while one foot splashed in the swirling water. Ida held her breath as she watched him. He swung suddenly forward a yard or so, and then, with a wild scramble, found a foothold. Ida, who was conscious that her heart was beating painfully fast, wondered what kept him from falling. There was not a crevice or a cranny that she could see; but she could not see anything very well, except the tense figure stretched against the stone and the set, white face. Dark pines and foaming water had faded into insignificance.

He moved again, and crept forward with agonizing slowness, until at length he stopped and gazed at the wall of rock still in front of him. That part of it was very smooth and overhung a little between where he was and the steeply sloping strip of shingle on which the girl stood. The stream swirled past furiously, and it was evident to Ida that if he lost his hold it must sweep him down the rapid and over the fall.

She was never sure how long he clung there, but his white face and the poise of his strung-up figure impressed themselves indelibly on her memory. Strain was expressed in every line of his body and in his clutching hands. Then the strength and decision that was in her asserted itself, and she overcame the numbing horror that had held her powerless. Snatching up her rod, she turned to him resolutely.

"You must jump!" she called.

Weston looked at the slender point of the rod she held out, and somewhat naturally hesitated. It was some distance from him, but in another moment the girl was wading out from the shingle. Her skirt trailed in the water which swirled by her, but, though the shingle dropped steeply, it afforded her a foothold, and she stretched out the rod a little farther.

"Jump!" she cried commandingly. "Jump right now!"

The man flung up his hands. As a matter of fact, there was not room for him to jump at all. Ida braced herself for an effort as he lurched down from the rock. There was a great splash and a wrench that almost dragged her off her feet; then he was close beside her, waist-deep in the stream. He did not stop, but clutched her by the shoulder and drove her before him up the shingle. Then he sat down, gasping, while the water ran from him; and she moved back a pace or two and leaned on a boulder, with her face almost as white as his.

"You must be very wet. I thought the river had us both," he said.

Ida laughed, a rather harsh and foolish laugh, for now that the tension had slackened she felt curiously shaken. The man turned and looked back at the pool.

"No," he said, "I don't think I ever could have got out of there alone."

Then he scrambled in a half-dazed fashion to his feet, and raised a hand to where his hat should have been. The hat was, however, a long way down the river by this time; and when Ida noticed his astonishment at not finding it on his head, she once more broke into strained laughter. After that she pulled herself together with an effort.

"You won't mind? I can't help it," she said. "Didn't you know your hat was gone?"

Weston looked at her more steadily than perhaps he should have done. There was something in her face that suggested that the last few moments had almost unnerved her. This, as he could realize, was not altogether unnatural; and then a sudden thrill that set his nerves tingling ran through him, as their eyes met. The events of the past minute had shown them, in part, at least, how they stood toward each other, and for the moment they could not hide it. Then Weston recovered the self-command that was rapidly deserting him.

"I don't think that matters," he said, apparently referring to the hat. "I want to thank you, Miss Stirling. It's quite clear that I owe a good deal to your quickness and nerve."

There were signs that his formal tone had cost him an effort, but the fact that, slightly dazed as he was, he had forced himself to make it, and had called her Miss Stirling, was significant, and Ida fell in with the course he had adopted. It was difficult for both of them, but she recognized that the matter must be passed over as lightly and as speedily as possible.

"You shouldn't have gone out on that log at all," she said. "You must have seen it wasn't safe."

Weston laughed, though the signs of struggle were still on his face.

"Did you notice that?" he asked.

"I didn't," said Ida, and then a curious little thrill of anger ran through her. The man's attitude was only what should be expected of him in view of the difference between their stations, but, after all, it seemed to her that he had almost too much self-control.

"That is, not at first," she added. "Afterward I did notice it, and I called to you. You didn't hear?"

"No," said Weston, "I didn't hear you."

He looked at her steadily; and the girl, who felt the impulsive desire to wound him too strong for her, made a little gesture.

"I am rather ashamed of it, but the next moment I quite forgot that there was any danger," she said. "You see I was so intent upon the fish."

"Then," said Weston, very quietly, "I don't think you could blame me."

He stooped, and, picking up the rod, set about taking it to pieces with a curious deliberation. Then he glanced at the girl.

"I can only offer you my thanks, Miss Stirling, but they're very sincere," he said. "Don't you think it would be better if we went back to camp?"

Ida rose and returned with him through the scented bush, but neither said anything further, for the same restraint was upon both of them.

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