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   Chapter 19 ILLUMINATION

The Gold Trail By Harold Bindloss Characters: 19106

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


It was three or four months later when Ida was carried swiftly westward through the London streets toward twelve o'clock one night. The motor purred and clicked smoothly, slinging bright beams of light in front of it as it twisted eel-like through the traffic. The glass that would have sheltered Ida from the cool night breeze was down, but she scarcely noticed the roar of the city or the presence of Arabella and Mrs. Kinnaird.

She was thinking of that afternoon at Scarthwaite, and wondering, as she had done somewhat frequently since then, what had impelled her to speak in that impulsive fashion. It had not been, as she now recognized, merely a desire to justify Clarence Weston in the eyes of his English relatives, for she had felt reasonably sure that this was a thing beyond accomplishment while he remained a railroad-hand or a bush chopper. The other explanation was that she had spoken to reassure herself; but that, as she would have admitted, seemed scarcely necessary, for in this respect he did not need an advocate. There was the third alternative, that the attitude of Weston and his daughter toward the absent man had fanned her dislike of shams into a blaze of downright rage, and that she had merely ridden a somewhat reckless tilt against her pet aversions.

One thing, at least, was certain. Weston had not called on her, to ask for any further information about his son; and, for that matter, she would have been astonished had he done so. She realized now that there was truth in what Clarence Weston said when he told her that the failures were soon forgotten. That, however, was a matter that depended largely on one's point of view, and she could not regard him as a failure.

There was in Ida Stirling a vein of wholesome simplicity which made for clearness of vision, and she seldom shrank from looking even an unwelcome truth squarely in the face. That Clarence Weston was probably shoveling railroad gravel did not count with her, but she was reasonably sure that the fact that she was a young woman with extensive possessions would have a deterrent effect on him. She once or twice had felt a curious compelling tenderness for him when in his presence, but reflection had come later, and she could not be sure that she loved him well enough to marry him, should he offer her the opportunity. During the last few months she had become more uncertain on this point, for her English visit was having an effect on her that she had not expected.

In the meanwhile the insistent clamor of the city was forcing itself on her attention, until at length she became engrossed by it. The theaters had just been closed, and the streets resounded with the humming of motors, the drumming of hoofs and the rattle of wheels. They also were flooded with what seemed to her garish light, for she had swept through many a wooden town lying wrapped in darkness beside its railroad track. The hansoms and motors came up in battalions, and in most of them she could see men of leisure in conventional white and black and lavishly dressed women, while the sidewalks streamed with a further host of pleasure-seekers. She wondered when these people slept, or when they worked, if indeed in one sense some of them worked at all. Even in the winter they had nothing like this in Montreal, and the contrast between it and the strenuous, grimly practical activity of the Canadian railroad camp or the lonely western ranch was more striking still. There men rose to toil with the dawn, and slept when the soft dusk crept up across solemn pines or silent prairie. These men, however, saw and handled the results of their toil, great freight-trains speeding over the trestles they had built, vast bands of cattle, and leagues of splendid wheat. After all, the genius of London is administrative and not constructive, and it is the latter that appeals most directly to the Colonial. One can see the forests go down or the great rocks rent, but the results that merely figure in the balance-sheet are less apparent.

There was another matter that claimed Ida's attention. She would meet Gregory Kinnaird at the dance, and she had seen a good deal of him during the last few months. He was not formal like his father, and in most respects she liked the man; and there was no doubt whatever that he neglected no opportunity for enjoying her company. Indeed, he had of late drawn rather close to her, and she wondered a little uneasily how far this approachment was to go. London, she was conscious, was getting hold of her, and there was, after all, a good deal it had to offer that strongly appealed to her.

By and by the motor stopped before a house with balconies and ponderous pillars, and she and her companions went up the ample stairway and into several uncomfortably crowded, flower-bedecked rooms. Ida, however, was getting used to the lights and the music, the gleam of gems, the confused hum of voices, and the rustle of costly draperies, and, though she admitted that she liked it all, they no longer had the same exhilarating effect on her. She danced with one or two men, and then, as she sat alone for a moment, Gregory Kinnaird crossed the room toward her. His face was a little more serious than usual. As a rule, he took things lightly.

"I think this is mine," he said, as the orchestra recommenced. "Still, perhaps you have had enough? I can find you a nice cool place where we can talk."

She went with him, because it certainly was uncomfortably warm where she was, and, besides, she was impelled by a certain curiosity to ascertain just how they stood. He passed through one supper-room into another, and then drew back a heavy curtain from an open window.

"It's quiet, anyway," he said, and they passed out on to a little balcony where, late in the year as it was, a row of potted shrubs cut them off from view.

Below, there were dusky, leafless trees, among which a few big lights gleamed, and the roar of the city came up across them brokenly. Ida sat down, and a ray of light fell upon her companion, who leaned against the rails. Gregory Kinnaird was well-favored physically, and bore the stamp of a military training. He was, she understood, captain of a rather famous regiment, and she liked his direct gaze, which did not detract from his easy suavity of manner. However, he appeared somewhat unusually diffident that evening.

"You like all this?" he asked, with a little wave of his hand which, she fancied, was intended to indicate the distant roar of the city as well as the music and dancing in the rooms behind her.

"Yes," she said with a smile, for he appeared to take it for granted, as others had done, that they had no brilliant social functions in Montreal. "I think I do; but when you have so much of it, the thing seems a little aimless, doesn't it?"

"Aimless?" inquired Kinnaird, who appeared to ponder over this until a light broke in on him. "Well," he admitted, "I suppose it is. Still, what else could half of them do?"

Ida laughed good-humoredly; and the man made a little expostulatory gesture.

"I generally avoid any discussions of that kind. They never lead to anything," he said. "I was wondering whether you could learn to like London as well as Montreal?"

"I don't know," replied Ida, in her most matter-of-fact manner.

"Oh," said her companion, "it seems a senseless question, but I want to explain. I have been offered an opportunity to go away-to do something-very soon. I should be away two years, at least; and as the notice is a short one, I have practically to make up my mind to-night."

It almost appeared that he had expected Ida to show some sign of interest, or, perhaps, concern, but none was perceptible.

"Where are you going?" she asked.

"To a colony in tropical Africa. They want somebody to hammer a native levy into shape and keep the niggers in some kind of order."

"Don't they have fever there?"

"I believe it isn't a particularly salubrious place," said Kinnaird, smiling, "but that kind of thing affects only some constitutions, and it makes promotion quicker."

Ida, who had perused a good many works of travel, knew a little about the fevers that afflict the country in question. In fact, she fancied that she knew more than the man did; but his careless indifference to the personal hazard pleased her. She noticed that he had spoken naturally, as he felt, without any idea of producing an effect on her.

"What is the result of that kind of work?" she asked.

"The result?" queried Kinnaird, with a puzzled air. "A battalion of thick-headed niggers with some slight knowledge of civilized drill, and, perhaps, a few stockades blown up in the bush."

Then, as he saw the half-veiled amusement in her eyes, a light seemed to break in on him.

"If one managed the thing efficiently, it would, perhaps, lead to the offer of a second-rate semi-administrative post somewhere else in the tropics, though I believe the emoluments are not what one could call liberal."

"That is all?"

"Yes," said Kinnaird. "I'm afraid one couldn't expect anything further."

Ida smiled rather curiously. She liked the man, but it was clear that his mental capacity had its limits. Though she would not have had him expatiate on the fact, she had expected him to realize that his mission was to uphold the white man's supremacy, and establish tranquillity, commerce and civilization in a barbarous land. It was, however, evident that he did not understand this. He was going out, as he said, to drill thick-headed niggers,

and would, in all probability, content himself with doing that.

Then he turned toward her again.

"What it leads to doesn't matter very much. I've been getting away from the point," he said. "You see, I don't know whether I'm going at all, at the moment. It depends a good deal on what you have to say to me."

Ida started a little, though she had expected something of this kind. Still, she recovered her serenity quickly, and in a moment she looked at him inquiringly with calm eyes.

"I didn't mean to say anything for some while yet, but this thing has forced my hand," he said. "You see, I must let them know during the next day or two whether I'm going."

He broke off for a moment, and his manner became diffident.

"Miss Stirling," he added, "I think I fell in love with you the second or third time I saw you, if not the first, and as I have seen you rather often since then, you can, perhaps, imagine what I feel now. I'm afraid there is no very strong reason why you should look kindly on such a man as I am, but I came here to-night to ask if you would marry me."

Ida quietly met his gaze. The man was well-favored physically, honest, courteous and considerate, and in many ways she liked him. Indeed, she wondered with a certain uneasiness how far she had allowed the latter fact to become apparent, for it was quite another matter to marry him, as she now realized.

"Is this offer quite spontaneous?" she asked.

Kinnaird flushed a little, but she thought the more of him for the candor with which he answered her.

"In the first place, I believe my mother put the thing into my head," he admitted. "After that, it got hold of me-and I was rather glad that my people were apparently satisfied that it did. It promised to save trouble, for I should naturally have gone on with it if they had done their utmost to thwart me."

He broke off abruptly, and Ida met his gaze.

"Thank you," she said. "The honesty of that admission would have counted a good deal in your favor had the thing been possible."

The man straightened himself and clenched one hand.

"Ah!" he said. "Then it's quite out of the question?"

Ida saw the blood rise into his face, and noticed the sudden hardness in his eyes. Her answer evidently had hurt him more than she expected, and she felt sorry for him. The man's quietness and control and the absence of any dramatic protestation had a favorable effect on her, and she was almost certain that she could have married him had she met him a year earlier. In the meanwhile, however, she had met another man, dressed in old blue duck, with hands hard and scarred; and the well-groomed soldier became of less account as she recalled the man she had left in the mountains. Then Kinnaird turned to her again.

"Can't you give me a chance?" he said. "If it's necessary, I'll wait; and in the meanwhile I may do something worth while out yonder, if that's any inducement."

"I'm very sorry," replied Ida. "I'm afraid it wouldn't be."

She looked him steadily in the eyes, and he had sense enough to recognize that no words of his would move her. Though it was not an easy matter, he retained his self-control.

"Well," he admitted, "it hurts, but I must bear it. And I want to say that I'm glad in several ways that I met you." Then the blood crept into his face again. "I should, at least, like you to think kindly of me, and I'm rather afraid appearances are against me. Because that is so, there's a thing that I should like you to understand. I'd have been proud to marry you had you been a beggar."

"Thank you," said Ida, who saw that he meant it. "I'm more sorry than ever, but the thing is-out of the question."

Kinnaird gravely held out his arm, but she intimated by a little sign that she did not wish to go back with him, and in a moment the curtains swung to behind him, and he had gone.

Ida became conscious that she was growing cold; but she sat quite still for at least five minutes, thinking hard, and wondering why she felt so sorry to give up Gregory Kinnaird. It was a somewhat perplexing thing that one could be really fond of an eligible man and yet shrink from marrying him, and there was no doubt whatever that the one she had just sent away had in several respects a good deal to offer her.

She admitted that London was, as she expressed it, getting hold of her. She supposed that its influence was insidious, for she no longer looked on its frivolities with half-amused contempt, as she had at first. She realized the vast control that that city had over so much of the rest of the world, and that when some of the men with whom she had lightly laughed and chatted pulled the strings, new industries sprang up far away in the scorching tropics or on the desolate prairie, and new laws were made for hosts of dusky people. It was certainly a legitimate bargain Kinnaird had suggested. She had wealth sufficient for them both, and he could offer her the entry into a world where wealth well directed meant power, and this she undoubtedly desired to possess. There was a vein of ambition in this girl whose father had risen to affluence from a very humble origin, and while she listened to Gregory Kinnaird she had felt that she could rise further still.

She knew that she had will and charm enough to secure, with the aid of her father's money, almost what place she would, and for a few moments she saw before her dazzling possibilities, and then, with the resolution that was part of her nature, she turned her eyes away. After all, though a high position with the power and pride of leading was a thing to be desired, life, she felt, had as much to offer in different ways; and she recalled a very weary man limping, gray in face, up the steep range. The picture was very plainly before her as she sat there shivering a little, and her heart grew soft toward the wanderer. She knew at last why nothing that Kinnaird could have said or offered would have moved her, and she looked down at the lamps that blinked among the leafless boughs with a great tenderness shining in her eyes. The stir of the city fell faintly on unheeding ears, and she was conscious only of a longing for the stillness of the vast pine forest through which she had wandered with Weston at her side.

Then she rose abruptly and went back into the lighted room. Though she danced once or twice, and talked to a number of people who, perhaps fortunately, did not seem to expect her to say anything very intelligent, she was glad when Mrs. Kinnaird sent for her, and they and Arabella drove away together. The elder lady troubled her with no questions; but soon after they reached home she came into the room where Ida sat, and as she left the door open the girl saw Gregory go down the stairway with a letter in his hand. He met his sister near the foot of it, and his voice, which seemed a trifle strained, came up to Ida clearly.

"I'll just run out and post this. I've told those people that I'll go as soon as they like," he said.

Then Mrs. Kinnaird quietly closed the door before she crossed the room and sat down near the girl.

"It's rather hard to bear," she said. "Perhaps I feel it the more because Arabella will leave me soon."

The woman's quietness troubled Ida, and her eyes grew hazy.

"Oh," she said, "though it isn't quite my fault, how you must blame me. It's most inadequate, but I can only say that I'm very sorry."

"I suppose what you told Gregory is quite irrevocable?" inquired her companion.

Ida saw the tense anxiety in the woman's eyes, and her answer cost her an effort.

"Yes, quite," she said. "I wish I could say anything else."

"I can't blame you, my dear. I blame only myself," said Mrs. Kinnaird. "I'm afraid I brought this trouble on Gregory, and it makes my share of it harder to bear. Still, there is something to be said. I wanted Gregory to marry you because I wanted him near me, but I can't have you think that I would have tried to bring about a match between him and any girl with money. My dear," and she leaned forward toward her companion, "I am fond of you."

Ida made a gesture of comprehension and sympathy, and the little quiet lady went on again.

"There is just another thing," she said. "Gregory will have very little-a few hundred a year-but it would not have been a dreadfully one-sided bargain. He had, after all, a good deal to offer."

Ida raised a hand in protest.

"Oh," she said, "I know."

"Still," continued Mrs. Kinnaird, "I want you to feel quite sure that he loved you. Without that nothing else would have counted. You will believe it, won't you? It is due to my son."

She rose with a little sigh.

"Things never go as one would wish them to."

Ida was very sorry for her, but there was so little that could be said.

"I shall always think well of Gregory," she answered. "You will try to forgive me?"

Then an impulsive restless longing came over her with the knowledge that she had brought this woman bitter sorrow.

"I will go home," she broke out. "It will hurt you to see me near you when Gregory has gone away. There are friends of ours-Mrs. Claridge and her daughter, you met them-leaving for Paris on Wednesday, and they sail for New York in a week or two."

It was a relief to both of them to discuss a matter of this kind, and, before Mrs. Kinnaird left her, all had been arranged. Still, it was not Montreal and its winter amusements that Ida thought of then, but the shadowy bush, and the green river that stole out from among the somber pines.

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