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The Gold Trail By Harold Bindloss Characters: 17204

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

Ida Stirling was sitting by an open window of a very artistically-furnished room, with an English newspaper lying on the little table beside her, and The Colonist, which is published in British Columbia, on her knee. She fancied from the writing on the wrapper that Arabella Kinnaird had sent her the former, and there was a paragraph in it which had interested her more than a little.

Trouble, it seemed, had broken out up a muddy African river, and a white officer lying sick of fever at the time had forthwith set off for the scene of it, with a handful of half-drilled black soldiery. They had vanished into the steamy bush, and for several weeks nothing had been heard of them; then, when those acquainted with the country had decided that the little detachment had probably been cut off to a man, half of them had unexpectedly appeared again. They now carried their leader in a hammock, as he had been wounded by several pieces of cast-iron fired out of a gaspipe gun; but they also brought back the dusky gentlemen who had been responsible for the abortive rising. Gregory Kinnaird had, it transpired, blundered into a couple of ambushes, but that, and the fact that he had marched straight through them, did not astonish Ida, who was more or less acquainted with his character. He was, the paper stated, recovering from his injuries, though it judiciously refrained from mentioning whether the authorities applauded or censured him.

It was not an uncommon story in connection with the country in question, but it sent a little thrill through the girl as she read it. The rising from the sick-bed and the blundering into the ambuscades were so characteristic of the man. He had recognized what was expected of him, and had immediately set about doing it, without any consideration for his safety, or, indeed, for that of his men. Gregory Kinnaird was not a man of marked ability, but he was, at least, one who could be relied on to attempt the carrying out of a duty he had undertaken, at any cost to himself, and this is, after all, a good deal to say in the favor of any man.

Ida had thought of him with a certain tenderness during the last half-hour. She liked these simple, downright men, and fancied that the absence of ostentation which usually characterized them was essentially English, though she had certainly met a few in that country who came under quite a different category. They were continually posing; men who could not afford to be natural lest they should give themselves away. Though she liked him, Gregory Kinnaird had, however, passed out of her life. There was a good deal he could have offered her, but, after all, she had almost as much already in Canada, and it had become suddenly clear to her, outside of a London ballroom one evening, that to like the man one would have to live with was by no means going far enough. She also admitted that she could have gone considerably further in the case of the man on whose account she had been somewhat anxiously turning over The Colonist, which she had done regularly during the last few weeks, without, she fancied, her father, who purchased a good many provincial papers, becoming aware of it.

There was, however, once more nothing whatever in it about the adventures of any prospectors, though the paper in question now and then detailed such things at length; and she laid it down with a little sigh of weariness, for two men, in one of whom she was interested, had gone up into the wilderness some time earlier, and nothing apparently had been heard of them since. Gregory Kinnaird had, it seemed, won credit as well as blame, serving the Empire under arms in steamy Africa; but it was, she felt, a sterner and longer fight the men who were up against it-and she liked the expressive phrase-made with savage nature in the west.

After all, the rush on a rebel stockade was soon over, while it seemed to her that the march through the black pine forest, half-fed, with provisions running out, the sleeping in dripping fern or slushy snow, and the staggering along the rangeside under a crushing load for days together, with galled feet and shoulders that bled beneath the pack-straps, was a much more difficult matter. Weston, her camp attendant, had done all these things, and, as very frequently happened, had so far gained nothing by them. She was glad that he had done them, for the pride of a colonizing people was strong in her, but, after all, that was not why she loved him. Indeed, it was rather hard to find a reason for the latter fact. The only thing that mattered was that she admitted it, and now she was wondering, with an almost torturing anxiety, whether there would be any news of him in the next issue of The Colonist.

Laying aside the paper, she looked out on the city, which stretched away before her, with its roofs and spires and towers clear in the evening light, toward the great gleaming river; but, fair as the prospect was, her thoughts sped back to the shadowy forests and towering ranges of the Pacific Slope. As they did so, her eyes grew curiously soft, for when she had last looked upon those snow-barred heights the camp-packer had been at her side. Then she turned with a sudden start and a swift rush of blood to her face as a maid announced, "Mr. Weston."

It was, however, a moment or two before the man came in, and she was then mistress of herself, and it was reassuring to know that if there was anything dramatic in his appearance at that particular time he was evidently unaware of it. In fact, he entered the room as though he had left it just on the previous day, and, taking her hand, merely held it for perhaps a second longer than was absolutely necessary. Then he sat down and inquired after her health and Stirling's, at which Ida, who could not help it, laughed. She did not like effusiveness, but this conventional formality seemed to her singularly out of place, until she remembered that she had once or twice already found the matter-of-fact quietness with which the man made his appearance and went away again almost disconcerting. If this had been the result of affectation it would have been provocative, but, as Ida was aware, it seldom occurred to the man that anybody else was greatly interested in his doings. She felt, however, that he might have made an exception of her.

"Where have you come from now?" she asked.

Weston named a hotel of repute in that city, and, though this was not the information Ida had desired, she favored him, unobserved, with a glance of careful scrutiny. He was attired for once like a prosperous man, in garments that became him, and, as she had noticed already, he possessed the knack of wearing anything just as it should be worn, which, as far as her observation went, was the particular characteristic of some Englishmen.

"Then you are not at Lemoine's this time?"

"No," said Weston, with a whimsical twinkle in his eyes. "You see, we have at last succeeded in finding the mine."

Ida started. She regretted this, but she was human, and she knew that the man loved her. It seemed only reasonable to expect that he would proceed to make that fact clear to her now that he had found the mine, but she was a little puzzled about his smile. It indicated rather too much self-possession for a man on the verge of a proposal, and she did not know that since he entered the house he had been endeavoring to impose a due restraint upon himself.

"Oh," she said hastily, "I'm very glad. You found the mine?"

"No," replied Weston, gravely, "Grenfell found it."

"Where is he? Have you brought him with you?"

"I haven't," said Weston, and she noticed the sudden dropping of his voice, "Grenfell's dead. He-went on-the night before we struck the lode up there in the bush."

"Before you struck the lode? But you said he found it."

"Yes," admitted Weston, quietly, "I think he did."

He told her the story in a few forceful words, and when he had finished, her eyes grew a trifle hazy. She had sympathy and intuition, and the thought of the worn-out man lying still forever beside the gold he so long had sought affected her curiously. Weston, who felt his heart throb painfully fast as he watched her, nodded.

"Yes," he said, "it was rather pitiful, and there was a certain ghastly irony in the situation; but, after all, as he once admitted, there was very little that gold could have given him."

Ida sat silent a moment or two. She was sorry for Grenfell, but he had, as his comrade said, gone on, and she was more concerned about the results of his discovery to those who were

left behind.

"The lode," Weston added, "is all that he described it."

It cost Ida an effort to sit perfectly calm while she waited for his next observation. It was, as she recognized, only his stubborn British pride which had prevented him from declaring what he felt for her earlier, and now the obstacle that had counted for most with him had suddenly been removed. As it happened, however, he said absolutely nothing.

"Then you and Devine and that storekeeper are prosperous men?" she asked.

Weston laughed in a rather curious fashion, and when he spoke it was as if he felt that an explanation of his attitude were due from him.

"No," he said, "not yet. In fact, so far we're nothing more than three remarkably rash adventurers-little men of no account-who have set ourselves up against the big professional company jobbers. We have won the first round, but that was fought with nature. It's comparatively easy to face weariness and wet and frost when one is used to it, but to fence with the money handler is quite a different matter. To cry our wares in the market is a thing to which we're wholly new."

He had said all that was required to make the situation reasonably clear to a girl of her understanding. The battle was less than half won, and it seemed that he would not claim her unless he came out victor, which was, in some respects, as she would have it. Though she now and then chafed at it, she loved the man's pride, and what he could win by force she would not have him purchase with the money that she could give him. She fancied, however, that if she chose to exert her strength she could sweep away all the resolutions he had formed; and she made a little of her power felt as she turned and looked at him.

"You feel that you must fight this thing out with such weapons as you have?" she asked. "I suppose you wouldn't allow your friends to provide you with more efficient ones? I know I have suggested as much already, and you would not listen, but it would make success so much easier."

It was not remarkably explicit, but Weston, to some extent at least, understood what she had implied, and he gazed at her with a curious kindling in his eyes. She leaned forward in her chair, wonderfully alluring, with a suggestive softness in her face, and he felt his resolution deserting him. It was clear to the girl, who watched every change of his expression, that the issue of the moment was in her hands, and had he told her that the rest of the struggle he was engaged in would be fought out in the snow-bound ranges where men not infrequently died, she would have exerted all her strength. As it was, however, and because of her pride in him, she suddenly determined that she would let him win his spurs. Though it was beyond defining, there was a subtle change in her manner when she leaned back in her chair.

"I think," said Weston, "the first course you mentioned is the only one open to me."

The words did not cost him as great an effort as they would have a moment or two earlier. He felt that in the meanwhile something had snapped and the tension had suddenly slackened. This was a vast relief to him, and he had recovered a good deal of his composure when the girl spoke again.

"Still," she said, "you evidently have no great liking for the market-place."

"I'm afraid I haven't," admitted Weston, with a little laugh. "After all, when one has seen how some of these mining syndicates and mortgage companies get in their work, a certain prejudice against such things isn't quite unnatural."

"Ah," said Ida, who had now decided that the conversation must be kept within safe limits, "you don't, however, mind using the shovel."

Weston was quite ready to follow the lead she had given him.

"What are we to do when we come out here?" he asked, with an air of whimsical reflection. "Half of us have no professions, and we haven't a trade. They bring us up to take life easily, and then, when some accident pitches us out into the Colonies, it's rather a shock to discover that nobody seems to have any use for us. As a matter of fact, I don't blame your sawmill bosses, your railroad men and your ranchers, considering that it takes several years to learn how to chop a tree, and that to keep pace with an average construction gang is a liberal education."

Ida laughed. The further they got away from the crisis now the better she would be pleased.

"I fancy there's still a notion in the old country that the well-brought-up young Englishman excels at anything he cares to undertake, even if it's only manual labor," she said.

"Oh, yes," laughed Weston, "I've heard it. Let them keep such notions over yonder if it pleases them. One naturally likes to think we're as good as the rest, and perhaps we're warranted, but it seems to me that the man of equal muscle raised to swing the ax and shovel is going to beat the one who's new to it every time."

"But the pride of caste!" said Ida. "Doesn't that count? Doesn't success even at such things as track-laying or chopping trees depend on moral as well as physical strength?"

"I think with most of us courage is largely a matter of experience," said Weston. "We learn to know what can't hurt us and to avoid the things that can. As to the other kind, the man who hazards his life and limbs in half-propped wild-cat adits, or running logs down the rapids, is hardly likely to be less cool in a tight place than the one who has never been accustomed to anything of the kind."

He was evidently expatiating on this subject merely because he felt that it was safe ground, but Ida, who partly agreed with what he said, felt that, after all, there was probably something in the insular English notion that he was too proud to uphold. This man, at least, possessed a courage that made him willing to carry the fight into the market-place with wholly unaccustomed weapons, and a pride that impelled him to lay a stern restraint upon his passion. She fancied that there were men in Canada who would not have been deterred by her money had they wished to marry her, and, for that matter, one or two in England had delicately permitted the fact to become apparent. In the meanwhile she had decided that he should have his wish. It would perhaps be possible to offer support in some shape later on, if it became apparent that he was badly beaten.

"I suppose it is not a very easy matter to dispose of an undeveloped mine?" she inquired.

Weston smiled rather dryly.

"It can be done without much trouble if you're content to give the thing away, but it's rather different if you wish to sell it. In fact, until the last week I'd no idea how hard the latter was."

"Then you have been here a week?"

There was a hint of reproach in her tone, and Weston, who understood her to mean that she was a little astonished that he had not presented himself earlier, realized that here was an opportunity that he might have profited by had he only succeeded in selling the mine. As it was, he let it pass, for he felt that if once he let himself go he would probably say a good deal more than was advisable.

"Yes," he said, with a laugh. "Still, at the rate I'm progressing, several months will hardly see me through."

Ida had formed a reasonably accurate notion of what was in his mind, and she was half vexed with him and half pleased. He was, at least, consistent, and meant to persist in the attitude he had adopted; but it was significant that he evidently was afraid to venture an inch outside his defenses. After all, she decided that it was probably advisable that he should remain behind them in the meanwhile. It was, however, more or less of a relief to her when her father came in. He did not appear in the least astonished to see Weston, and shook hands with him as though it were the most natural thing to find him sitting there.

"Business in this city?" he asked.

"Yes," said Weston, "I've been endeavoring to sell a mine."

"Then you struck the lode?"

"I've been abusing Miss Stirling's good-nature with an account of how we did it."

Stirling made a little gesture that might have meant anything, but Ida was pleased with the fact that he expressed no astonishment. It seemed to her that he had expected Weston to succeed, and she knew that he was very seldom wrong in his estimate of any man's character. She made some excuse and left them together; and when the door closed behind her Stirling turned to Weston.

"If you'll come along to my room I'll give you a cigar," he said. "Then, if you feel like it, you can tell me about the thing."

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