By Right of Purchase
It was a hot September afternoon. Leland wondered vaguely how the harvesting and threshing were progressing in his own far distant country, as he leant on the moss-grown wall of the terrace beneath the old house of Barrock-holme. He had been a week there now as the guest of Lieutenant Denham, whose acquaintance he had originally made out on the wide prairie in Western Canada, and for whom he had a certain liking that was slightly tinged with contempt. The estate would be Jimmy Denham's some day, provided that his father succeeded in keeping it out of the grasp of his creditors. Those who knew the old man well fancied that he might with difficulty accomplish it, for Branscombe Denham of Barrock-holme was not troubled by many scruples, and had acquired considerable proficiency in the evasion of debts.
The mansion stood on the brink of a ravine in the desolate border marshes. Part of it had been built to stand a siege in the days of the Scottish wars. The strong square tower was intact and habitable still; the rest of the low building stretched round three sides of a quadrangle, with a dry moat across the fourth, beyond which lawn and flower-garden lay shielded from the shrewd border winds by tall, lichened walls. Through an archway one could look down, across silver-stemmed birches and dusky firs, upon the Barrock flashing in the depths of the ravine.
Leland found the prospect pleasant as he lounged there, with a cigar in his hand. He was accustomed to his own country, and there was something congenial and, in a fashion, familiar in the sweep of lonely moorlands and bleak Scottish hills which stretched, shining warm in the paling sunlight, along the northern horizon. It reminded him of his own country, which was even more wild and desolate, on the southern border of Western Canada. He had been three months in England, and was already longing to be home again, though he had found what he called the hardness of the North congenial.
It was a land of legends and traditions, of which they were rather proud at Barrock-holme. The grey tower had more than once been beset by the border spears, on whom the dragon's mouth on the wall above had spouted boiling oil. There was an oak on the edge of the ravine which had borne bitter fruit in the days of foray, and – for the men of Barrock-holme could strike back tellingly then – the quadrangle had been filled with Scottish cattle. They were grim, hard men, and what he had heard of their doings appealed to Leland. He himself was in some respects a hard man, and rather primitive. The life of the wardens of Barrock-holme and the moss-troopers was rather more comprehensible to him than the one of which he had had brief glimpses in London.
While he stood there, Jimmy Denham came along the terrace, and stopped beside him.
"You're not going down to join them?" he said, indicating with a little wave of a particularly well-shaped hand the white-clad figures that flitted to and fro across a sunken square of turf beyond the lawn.
"No," said Leland. "I don't play tennis well. In fact, I don't play any of your games. I never had time to learn them."
Denham sat down upon the wall and looked at him languidly. He was a well-favoured young man, tall and fair, with pale blue eyes, and distinguished by a finicking, almost feminine daintiness in dress and person, though he was proficient in most manly sports and a soldier. His friends, however, were aware that his fastidiousness was much less noticeable in his character.
"One can't do everything," he said lazily. "I don't know that I've seen another beginner show quite as good form at billiards as you do. I'll play you fifty with the same allowance as last time. It will be some time yet before dinner."
"Not just now. It seems to me I've had about enough of billiards for one week. To be quite straight, one finds learning your amusements a trifle expensive, and I'm not sure they're worth it. You see, I'm not going to stay here forever, and once I go back, it will probably be a very long while before I take part in any of them again."
Denham laughed with undiminished good-humour. "Well," he said, "though I have taken a little out of you, the acquisition of knowledge is usually more or less costly. There's a couple of hours to put in, anyway. What would you like to do?"
"I don't mind poker, if you'll make it high enough."
Denham saw the little twinkle in his eyes, and languidly shook his head.
"No," he said; "I rather fancy you would have me there. The suggestion's a bit significant, and I have a notion your nerve's too good. Of course, it isn't very sporting to say no, but I really can't afford to face a risk just now."
"Which was probably why you wanted to play billiards with me?"
Denham regarded him reproachfully for a moment or two, and then made a little gesture. "That coming from some people might be considered offensive, but nobody seems to mind how you express yourself, although your observations aren't always particularly delicate. Still, I'm willing to admit that I want fifty pounds rather worse than I generally do."
"I wonder," said Leland, with a trace of dryness, "if you would take it amiss if I offered to lend it to you?"
Jimmy Denham smiled delicately where another man would have grinned. "Not in the least! In fact, I should consider myself distinctly obliged to you."
"Then you shall have a cheque after dinner."
Denham thanked him without effusion. One could almost have fancied that it was he who was conferring the favour. As Leland listened, a little sardonic smile crept into his eyes. He was known in his own country as a shrewd man, and was quite aware that he ran some risk in lending his comrade fifty pounds. But Jimmy had done him one or two kindnesses, and that counted for much with Leland.
"Who is the very pretty girl who has just come into the tennis ground?" he asked.
"My sister," said Denham. "I had almost forgotten you had not met Carrie. She is rather pretty, though. While the governor and I are Denhams, she takes after the other side of the family in more ways than one. She has only just come from Town, you know."
Leland did not know. He had merely heard that there was a Carrie Denham; but as he looked down across the moat he was conscious of a sudden interest in the girl. She stood with one hand on the back of a basket-chair, her long white dress flowing in easy lines about her tall and shapely figure. So far as he could see it, her face beneath the big white hat was attractive, too; but it was her pose that vaguely impressed him. There was a suggestion of strength and pride in it that was by no means noticeable in the case of either her father or Jimmy Denham. The appearance of the man with whom she talked was, however, much less pleasing. He was inclined to be portly, his face was coarsely fleshy, with the distinctive stamp of the city on him. He looked out of place in that quaint old pleasance on the desolate border side. He reminded Leland forcibly of the caricatures he had seen of Hebrew usurers.
"And the gentleman?" he asked.
Denham laughed. "You would expect his name to be Moses, or Levy, but, as a matter of fact, it isn't. Anyway, he calls himself Aylmer. A friend of the governor's, and the usual something in the city. Comes down for a week or two at the partridges, ostensibly, at least, though it's quite possible there will be a dog or two, and, perhaps, a keeper, disabled before he goes away. If you care to come down, I'll present you to Carrie. She knows you are here, and is no doubt a trifle curious about you."
If she was, Miss Denham concealed the fact very well, and Leland, who was not readily embarrassed, felt a quite unusual diffidence as she held out a little white hand. He noticed, however, that she looked at him frankly, and that she had a beautiful hand, like the rest of the Denhams. Her face was cold and somewhat colourless, with dusky hair low on the broad forehead, unusually straight brows, and dark eyes; a beautiful face it seemed to him, but one that had a vague suggestion of weariness in it just then. Carrie Denham, he thought, in no way resembled her easy-going brother Jimmy. There was, as he expressed it to himself, more grit in her; and yet he was, without exactly knowing why, rather sorry for her. She was evidently not more than three or four-and-twenty, and he felt there must be a reason for her quietness and reserve, which appeared a trifle unnatural.
She, on her part, saw a tall and wiry rather than stalwart man, some four or five years older than herself, especially straight of limb, holding himself well, whilst his bronzed face, which was otherwise of brown-eyed, English type, showed undoubted force. He was, she fancied, a man accustomed to exert authority, but not exactly what in the most restricted English sense of the word would be called a gentleman. At least, he was evidently one who earned his living, and his hands were curiously brown and hard, while the manner in which he wore his shooting clothes suggested that he seldom wasted much time over his toilet.
"I hope you will find your stay at Barrock-holme pleasant," she said. "In weather like this the birds should lie well. You have not been here long?"
"A week," said Leland.
Jimmy Denham had in the meanwhile passed on. His sister glanced at the fleshy Aylmer, who was about to move the chair for her.
"No," she said in a coldly even voice, "you need not trouble. I am not going to stay here. Have they shown you our dripping-well yet, Mr. Leland?"
Leland, who said he had not seen it, surmised that Miss Denham desired to be rid of her other cavalier; but Aylmer, who protested that he had an absorbing interest in dripping-wells, was not to be shaken off, so they crossed the lawn and went out through the archway together. Then Leland stopped a moment and flashed a questioning glance at Carrie Denham, for the strip of pathway outside the wall was, perhaps, two feet wide, and he could look almost straight down through the tops of the birch trees upon the Barrock flashing in the hollow a hundred and fifty feet below. He was thinking that it would probably go hard with anybody who stumbled there. A railed walk led in the opposite direction.
Carrie Denham, however, met his gaze with a faint, understanding smile, and he followed her in single file until the path grew broader beyond a bend of the wall. Then looking round he saw, as he half-expected, that the passage had apparently been too much for the third of the party. In another moment he met the girl's glance again.
"I hope you were not afraid?" she said.
Leland's eyes twinkled, but he made no disclaimer, which, for no apparent reason, seemed to please her.
"There is, of course, another path," she said.
"So I should surmise!" said Leland. "Do you really wish to show me the well?"
The girl laughed for the first time, and the swift change in her face almost startled the man. The coldness and reserve had gone, and for a moment she was, it seemed to him, subtly alluring.
"Well," she said, "I have to justify myself, and somebody may ask you what you think of it. Under the circumstances, it might be better to go on, although the way is often a little muddy when one gets among the trees."
Leland was fancying that it must have been muddier than usual, or she would not have ventured there, when they reached a spot where a tiny stream came trickling out of a hollow shrouded with sombre firs. A few stones had evidently once been laid in the moss and mire; but some of them had sunk, and the gaps were wide between. Carrie Denham stopped and surveyed them dubiously.
"I haven't been here for a long while, but I don't like to turn back," she said.
"Or the men who do?"
She flashed a little, swift glance at him, but his face was expressionless. "That goes without saying."
Leland glanced down at her little bronze shoes. "Of course, there is usually a way; but the trouble is that I am a stranger. If I were in my own country, I should suggest a very simple means of getting you over."
The girl looked at him with something in her eyes that suggested ironical appreciation of his boldness, but her only action was to shake her head.
"It is just as well you are not," she said. "We are a little less primitive here."
"Then," said Leland, "I guess we must try the other way."
He plunged boldly into the mossy quagmire, into which he sank well above his ankles, and held out his hand to her. She noticed as she sprang from stone to stone how hard it was and how firm his grasp. It seemed to her that what this man took hold of he would not easily let go, an impression she remembered afterwards.
She crossed dry-shod, and Leland did not seem in the least concerned at the water squishing in his shoes. There was then a scramble up the hillside under the shadowy firs until they reached the well, which Leland promptly decided was not very much to look at. It lay at the head of a little green hollow, a wall of fissured limestones sprinkled with mosses and tufted with hartstongue fern from the midst of which the water splashed drip by drip into a shallow basin. Carrie Denham turned and glanced at him with a trace of somewhat chilly amusement in her face.
"You are no doubt wondering if I haven't wasted your time," she said. "Still, now you are here, you may as well notice that the water has rather curious properties. If you will pull out one of these sticks, for instance, you will see what is happening to them."
Leland stooped and drew out a slender birch branch, whose feathery twigs were changing into what looked very like silver lace. The stem was also crusted with a white deposit, and it cost him a little effort to snap it across. Then he looked up at his companion with a smile as he saw that the interior was still soft.
"Do you know that you strike me as being very like this twig?" he said, and she noticed for the first time his Western accent and modulation. "The hardness is all outside."
"Whatever made you say that?"
Leland met her half-indignant gaze gravely. "Well," he said with a little deprecatory gesture, "I have seen you laugh."
"Ah," said Carrie, "there was a time when I laughed rather more frequently than I do now. I should, however, like to point out that the stick had not been in quite long enough."
Leland still looked at her with a quizzical expression. "I think I know what you mean," he said. "Still, I should scarcely have fancied you would have felt it yet. Anyway, that's not the question; and, perhaps, it wouldn't do for me to make you stop here. There will be other people wanting to talk to you."
They turned back together, this time taking the easier way. As they passed along a tall hedge, Leland heard a rustling on its other side and darted impulsively through, leaving his astonished companion without a word. Following through a gap, she came upon him as he picked up a rabbit from the grass. The little creature's eyes were protuding in an agony of strangulation, and a thin brass wire hung from its red-smeared fur. Then Leland either saw or heard her, for he turned his back to the hedge, and flung over his shoulder what seemed to her rather too like a command.
"Go back!" he said. "This is not a thing for you to see."
Carrie Denham went back, though she was more accustomed to do what pleased her, and make others do it, than to do what she was told. It was a minute or two before Leland joined her, grim in face, an ominous sparkle in his eyes.
"It was only half-choked, so I put it back in a burrow," he said. "It would have pleased me to hang the brute who set that wire."
Carrie Denham watched him with interest. "I believe it is the usual way of catching them."
"Then," said Leland grimly, "there must be something very wrong with the folks who allow that abominable cruelty to go on. The little beast might have struggled there for hours in horrible pain before it choked itself in its agony."
The girl fancied that abominable was not the adjective he had wanted to employ, but she said nothing further on the subject, though there remained with her the picture of him holding the little furry creature with womanly gentleness while he slackened the torturing wire. It was made even more impressive when, on suggesting hanging for the man who had laid the snare, something in his face and voice left her with the conviction that he would on due occasion be capable of carrying out his suggestion. He was, she decided, altogether different from the men she usually saw. When he left her in the quadrangle, she contrived to fall in with her brother.
"Who is he?" she asked.
"Charley Leland," said Jimmy with his nearest approach to a grin.
"I know that already."
"I can't tell you very much more, and no doubt you'll find out what you want to know for yourself. I spent a month shooting round his place in Western Canada, and made him promise if ever he came over he'd look in upon me here. Then I met him in London a few weeks ago."
"What does he do out there?"
"Farm, on a lordly scale. I forget how many thousand acres he has under wheat, and how many steers he owns; but he's rather a famous man in Assiniboia. His father was, I believe, an Englishman, but he died when Leland was young, and the farm and the stock-run have doubled in the hands of the son. That's about all, except that I rather like the man. He has his strong points, but needs handling. I fancy any one who roused him would see the devil."
Carrie Denham asked no more questions, but went somewhat thoughtfully to her room. On the whole she felt a mild interest in Charley Leland.