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The Gold Trail By Harold Bindloss Characters: 17622

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

Ida Stirling had spent some time in England when, one autumn evening, she descended the wide oak staircase of Scarthwaite Hall at Scarthwaite-in-the-Forest. There was no forest in the vicinity, though long ago a certain militant bishop had held by kingly favor the right of venery over the surrounding moors, and now odd wisps of straggling firs wound up the hollows that seamed them here and there. Nobody seemed to know who first built Scarthwaite Hall, though many a dalesman had patched it afterward and pulled portions of it down. It was one of the ancient houses, half farm and half stronghold, which may still be found in the north country. They were, until a few decades ago, usually in possession of the Statesmen who worked their own land. The Statesmen have gone-economic changes vanquished them-but the houses they inherited from the men who bore pike and bow at Bannockburn and Flodden are for the most part standing yet. They have made no great mark in history, but their stout walls have time and again been engirdled by Scottish spears, and after such occasions there was not infrequently lamentation by Esk and Liddell.

It was clear that Scarthwaite Hall had been built in those days of foray, for one little, ruined, half-round tower rose from the brink of a ravine whose sides the hardiest of moss-troopers could scarcely have climbed. A partly filled-in moat led past the other, and in between stretched the curtain wall which now formed the facade of the house itself. Its arrow slits had been enlarged subsequently into narrow, stone-ribbed windows, and a new entrance made, while the ancient courtyard was girt with decrepit stables and barns. Most of the deep, winding dale still belonged to it, but the last Weston had signally failed to make a living out of it, or to meet his debts. He lived in a little town not far away, and let Scarthwaite for the shooting when he could, which explains how Major Kinnaird had taken it.

Ida looked about her as she came down the stairway. It led into a dark-paneled, stone-arched hall, which, since habitable space was rather scarce at Scarthwaite, served as general living-room. A fire was burning in the big, ancient hearth, and a handful of people were scattered here and there, waiting for dinner, which should have been ready a few minutes earlier. Kinnaird, who appeared a trifle impatient, was standing near his wife and a couple of shooting men, and his daughter was talking to one or two of his neighbors. Ida smiled as one of the latter glanced up at her, and she moved toward him when she reached the foot of the stairway. Ainslie, the owner of some quarries in the vicinity, was a middle-aged man whom she had met once or twice before.

When she had greeted him, she stood still a moment or two, listening to the murmurs of general conversation. Then she saw Kinnaird, who was standing not far from her, take out his watch.

"It's a little too bad of Weston. I shouldn't have waited for anybody else," he said. "As it is, I suppose we'll have to give him a minute or two longer."

The remark was evidently overheard, as perhaps Kinnaird intended. One of the others laughed.

"Ralph Weston was never punctual in his life," he said.

"Considering everything," observed one of the women standing near Ida, "it is rather curious that Weston should have promised to come at all. It must be a trifle embarrassing to dine at one's own place as another man's guest."

"Oh," said the man beside her, "Weston would go anywhere for a good dinner and a good glass of wine."

Ida, as it happened, had not heard what guests Mrs. Kinnaird had expected, and she started at the name. It was a moment or two later when she turned to her companion.

"This house belongs to the man they seem to be waiting for?" she asked.

Ainslie nodded.

"Yes," he said, "I suppose it does."

"Then why doesn't he live in it?"

"It takes a good deal to keep up a place of this kind, and, until Major Kinnaird came, it's some time since anybody seriously attempted it."

"Ah!" said Ida. "Mr. Weston's means are insufficient?"

"It's a tolerably open secret. There are a good many people similarly situated. A small and badly-kept estate is not a lucrative possession."

"Then why don't they keep it up efficiently?"

"Now," said Ainslie, "you're getting at the root of the matter. In my opinion it's largely a question of character. In fact, after the glimpses I've had of the wheat-growers in Dakota, Minnesota, and western Canada, it seems to me that if our people were content to live and work at home as they do out yonder they would acquire at least a moderate prosperity. Still, I'm rather afraid that wouldn't appeal to some of them. As it is, their wants are increasing, and the means of gratifying them steadily going down."

"All this applies to Mr. Weston in particular?"

"I don't think it would be a breach of confidence if I admitted that it does. Perhaps, however, I'm a little prejudiced. Weston doesn't like me. He blames me for encouraging his son in what he calls his 'iconoclastic' notions."

Ida, who was becoming interested, smiled.

"After all," she said, "the comparison isn't very unfavorable to the son. I believe the original iconoclasts were the image-breakers in Byzantium."

"Were they? I didn't know it," said Ainslie. "It's a moral certainty that Weston didn't, either. In fact, I've no doubt he fancies that Darwin and Bradlaugh, and he'd certainly include Cobden, invented them. Anyway, the lad wasn't very much of an iconoclast. He believed in his images, which were not the same as those his father worshiped; and all he wanted was to see them work. I think it hurt him when they didn't, or, at least, when they didn't appear to."

"Ah," said Ida, "that's rather too involved for me."

"Well," returned her companion, "we'll leave Weston out. I'm not sure about what he believes in, and it's probable that, he doesn't know himself, except that it's everything as it used to be. His wife was High Church, with altruistic notions, and it's no secret that she made things rather uncomfortable for her husband; but when she took the lad in hand she succeeded perhaps too well. You see, he wanted to apply her principles; and altruism leads to trouble when its possessor comes across formulas that don't stand for anything."

Just then there was a rattle of wheels outside, and a minute or two later a little full-fleshed man, with a heavy face, in conventional dress, entered the hall. He greeted those who stood about, when he had shaken hands with Kinnaird.

"Sorry I'm a little behind," he apologized. "Had to post over. I told Walters at the George to keep me the black mare. Instead, he let that waterworks chief navvy fellow have her. The horse he gave me would hardly face Scarside Rise."

One or two of the guests smiled, for the navvy in question was a rather famous engineer who had had a difference of opinion with Weston over certain gravel he desired to quarry on the Scarthwaite estate. Then Mrs. Kinnaird stepped forward, and they went in to dinner.

It was not yet dark outside, but the table was lighted; and Ida, who sat not far from Weston, watched him closely. She had at first been startled by the likeness between him and the man she had met in Canada, but she was now conscious of an increasing dissimilarity. There was a suggestion of grossness in the face of Major Kinnaird's guest, which had certainly not been a characteristic of Weston the packer. The older man's expression was petulant and arrogant; that of the one who had served her as camp attendant had been, as a rule, good-humoredly whimsical. Nor did she like the half-contemptuous inattention that Weston displayed when one or two of the others addressed him. In several cases he merely looked up and went on with his dinner as though it were too much trouble to answer. Ida felt reasonably sure that his manners would not have been tolerated in most of the primitive logging camps of western Canada. It became evident, however, that there were topics in which he took some interest, when a man who sat near turned to him.

"We were in the meadows by Ghyllfoot this afternoon, and they were looking very sour and rushy," he said. "They were drained once, weren't they?"

"They were," replied Weston, sharply. "It's stiff land. In my father's time, Little used to grow good wheat there. Still, even tile drains won't last forever. The soil gets in."

"You're correct about the wheat," said another man. "Little's nephew still talks about it. They used to grind it at the Ramside mills. Wouldn't it be worth while to have the meadows redrained, if only for the grass?"

Ida, who was watching him, fancied that this was a sore point with Weston, for he momentarily forgot his dinner.

"No," he answered curtly. "I took some trouble to make young Little understand it when he came to me with a nonsensical proposition not long ago. Like the rest of them, he's always wanting something. I asked him where he thought the money was coming from."

Ida was not surprised at this, though she knew that in western Canada the smaller settlers as a rule stripped themselves of every comfort, and lived in the most grim simplicity, that they might have more to give the land.

Then, as the man did not answer, Weston solemnly laid down his fork, with the manner of one making a painful sacrifice.

"There is a good deal of nonsense talked about farming in these days," he observed authoritatively. "You can put a fortune into drains and fences and buildings, but it's quite another matter to get two or three per cent, upon it back. In the old days I hadn't a horse in the stables worth less than sixty guineas, and my father thought nothing of giving twice as much. The other things were to match." He looked down the table with a flush of indignation in his heavy face. "Now, Walters at the George gives a navvy the horse I hired. Still, what can you expect when they pile up the taxes on us, and open new doors continually to the foreigners? We grew wheat at Scarthwaite, and it was ground at Ramside mill. The last time I looked in, Harvey had his stores full of flour from Minneapolis and Winnipeg. I asked him whether he didn't feel ashamed of having any hand in that kind of thing."

Ida could not check a smile. In Weston's case, at least, the reason why western wheat had displaced the local product was tolerably plain. This full-fleshed man differed, she fancied, in most essentials from the lean farmers who drove the half-mile furrows, or ripped up their patches of virgin sod with plodding oxen on the vast expanses of the prairie. While he indulged his senses and bought sixty-guinea horses, they rose at four or earlier, and, living on pork and flour and green tea, worked in grim earnest until it was dark. Blizzard and hail and harvest frost brought them to the verge of ruin now and then but could not drive them over it. They set their lips, cut down the grocery bill, and, working still harder, went on again. A good many of them had, as she knew, come from England.

Then Weston appeared to remember his dinner, and made a little vague gesture which seemed to indicate that there was no more to be said.

"I don't want to hear about drains and deeper tillage while we let every foreigner pour his wheat and chilled beef into our market. It's nonsense," he asserted.

Some one started another topic; and an hour or so later most of the little party strolled out on the terrace in front of the house. It was almost dark now, but the evening was no more than pleasantly cool, and Ida sat down on an old stone seat.

Scarthwaite faced toward the west, and she looked out across a deep, green valley toward the sweep of upland and heather moor that cut black and solemn against a paling saffron glow. It was very still, though now and then a bleating of sheep rang sharply out of the wisps of mist that streaked the lower meadows. Perhaps it was the stillness or the scent of the firs that climbed the hollow of the ghyll behind the house that reminded Ida of the man who had strolled with her through the shadow of the giant redwoods of the Pacific Slope. In any case, she was thinking of him when Arabella Kinnaird stopped for a moment at her side and glanced toward Weston, who stood not far away.

"You heard that man's name. Did you notice a resemblance to anybody we have met?" she inquired.

"Yes," said Ida. "Of course, it may be accidental."

Her companion laughed.

"I don't think it is. In view of what I once told you on the subject, it's a matter I mean to investigate."

She moved away; but it was Ida who first was afforded an opportunity of deciding the question, for a few minutes later Ainslie strolled toward her. When he sat down beside her, she indicated the waste, of climbing pasture, which ran up, interspersed with gorse bushes and clumps of heather, to the dusky moor.

"Not a sign of cultivation," she said. "I suppose that grass is never broken up? How much foundation is there for Mr. Weston's views?"

Ainslie laughed.

"I'm afraid I'm hardly competent to decide, but there are people who agree with him. Still, I think it's reasonably certain that a good deal of the higher land that now carries a few head of sheep would grow oats and other things. It's largely a question of economics. Somebody would have to spend a good deal of money and labor on it first, and the result, which wouldn't be very apparent for two or three years, would be a little uncertain then. It depends on how much the man who undertook it wanted back to make the thing worth while."

"They are content with food, and sometimes very indifferent shelter, in western Canada."

"There," said Ainslie, "you have the thing in a nutshell. You have, no doubt, formed some idea of Weston's wants, which are rather numerous. In fact, some of us seem to consider it the correct thing to cultivate them. The more wants you have the greater man you are."

Ida smiled a little as she remembered a man of considerable importance in the wheat-lands of Assiniboia, whom she had last seen sitting, clad in blue shirt and very old trousers, on a huge machine which a double span of reeking horses hauled through the splendid grain. He had driven it since sunrise, and it was dusk of evening then, and his wants were, as she knew, remarkably simple. He bore his share of the burden under a burning sun, but it seemed to her that, had Weston been in his place, he would have ridden around that farm with a gloved hand on his hip, and would have raised it only now and then, imperiously, to direct the toilers. Then she thought of another man, who was like him in some respects, and was then, in all probability, plodding through the lonely bush.

"You mentioned a son," she said. "What became of him?"

"He went out to Canada. Quarreled with his father. As I believe I suggested, the lad was at heart a rebel." Ainslie smiled rather dryly. "A good many of us are. He wouldn't see that his mother's ideas were apt to get him into trouble when he tried to apply them."

Ida sat silent for a few moments. There was no longer any doubt in her mind that Weston who had turned his back on Scarthwaite was identical with Weston the camp-packer.

"Do you remember what they quarreled over?" she asked at length.

"Yes," said Ainslie, who was inclined to wonder at her interest in the subject, "it was water-finding. It's a thing of which you probably have never heard."

"I have," said Ida. "Won't you go on?"

"Well," continued Ainslie, "there was a tenant on this estate who was rather more badly off than the rest of them. He had a piece of upland with rock under it, and in a dry season-though we don't often get one-it was with the greatest trouble he got water enough for his stock. He asked young Weston to find him a likely spot to drive a well. The lad was walking over one parched meadow with the hazel twig in his hand, when his father came upon the procession-everybody belonging to the farm was out with him. Weston, I heard, went purple when he saw what was going on, and, from his point of view, his indignation was perhaps comprehensible. His son was openly, before one of the tenants and a parcel of farm-hands, making use of a superstitious device in which no sane person could believe. Weston, as I remember it, compared him to a gipsy fortune-teller, and went on through the gamut of impostor, mountebank and charlatan, before he commanded him to desist on the moment. I don't quite know what came next, though something was said about a lifted riding-crop, but within the week Clarence started for Canada."

"He abandoned the attempt to find water?"

Ainslie smiled.

"The farmer dug a well in that meadow, and I believe he uses it still. He held a lease, and Weston couldn't get rid of him."

He looked rather hard at Ida, and was slightly astonished at the sparkle in her eyes.

"I'm afraid I've been somewhat talkative," he said.

"No," Ida assured him, and he saw that she was stirred. "Thank you for telling me."

He moved away; and by and by Arabella Kinnaird and one of the other women approached the seat. Arabella left her companion a moment, and made a little whimsical gesture as she met Ida's gaze.

"I've been throwing away a good many blandishments on Weston," she observed. "He appears prudently reticent on the subject of his relations, and if he has any in Canada, it's evident that he isn't proud of them. Still, I haven't abandoned the amiable intention of extorting a little more information from him."

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