Книга или автор
0 читателей оценили
280 печ. страниц
2017 год


The evening was unusually soft and clear, and a warm, gentle breeze kept the dew from settling. Leland strolled out on the terrace above the moat at Barrock-holme. He had spent a fortnight there now, and was beginning to find the easy-going life of its inmates somewhat pleasant, though at first it had caused him contemptuous astonishment. Nobody appeared to have any duties; or, if they had, he surmised that they were seldom attended to. People got up at all hours, and some of them seldom retired before the morning. Whenever he walked over the estate with Jimmy Denham, he noticed many things that pained his eyes. There was land that lay rushy and sour for the need of draining, the roads in the Barrock hollow were so ill-kept and rutted that he wondered how any one could haul a full load along them, and rotting gates and tottering dry-stone walls dotted the entire acreage. At Barrock-holme, waste and short-sighted parsimony that defeated its own object apparently went hand-in-hand. Once he ventured to point out to Jimmy what was in his mind.

"If you put four or five thousand pounds into the land, you would be astonished at what it would give you back," he said.

Jimmy Denham laughed. "The question is, where we would get the four thousand pounds. We are, as you have no doubt noticed, confoundedly hard-up, and a tenant with capital enough to stand a decent rent would think twice before he took a farm from us."

"I guess I wouldn't blame him," said Leland drily. "But what you folks spend personally in a couple of years would set the place on its feet."

"It is very probable," and Jimmy laughed again. "Still, you see, you can't always live as you should in this country. Of course, I could cut the service, and we might let the house to a shooting tenant; that is, the thing is physically practicable. The trouble is that it wouldn't suit me, and the governor would veto it right off if it did. To be candid, there is no particular capacity for hard work and self-denial in any of the family."

Leland made no further suggestions. On the last point, he quite concurred with Jimmy; but his own life hitherto had been one of strenuous endeavour and Spartan simplicity, and it was pleasant to feel the strain relaxed for a month or two.

On the night in question he was quite content with circumstances and his surroundings, as he strolled out on the terrace an hour after dinner with his cigar. There was a clear moon above him, and in the air a faint, astringent smell of falling leaves. The splashing of the Barrock came up musically athwart the birches in the hollow.

As he was strolling up and down the terrace in the evening dress no longer strange to him, he saw Carrie Denham come out from one of the long windows that opened into the old stone gallery. A glance about him showed Aylmer, to whom he felt an intuitive aversion, hovering big and fat in the vicinity. He fancied that the girl saw Aylmer, too, for she came down the staircase at the end of the gallery farthest from him and moved in Leland's direction. She wore a light evening gown, a fleecy white wrap concealing her shoulders and part of her dark hair. Flowing straight to the delicate incurving of waist, it emphasised by suggestion the outline of her shapely figure. Leland felt a little thrill as she came towards him. He surmised that she merely desired to make use of him for the purpose of ridding herself of Aylmer's company, or, perhaps, as an incentive to the latter; but that did not matter. Leland was shrewd enough to be aware of his own disabilities; and, no matter what her motive, she looked ethereally beautiful with the soft moonlight upon her.

"You need not throw the cigar away," she said, when she stopped and seated herself on an old stone bench close to where he stood. "In fact, I should be rather sorry if you did."

"Thank you," said Leland, with a little smile. "It would be a pity. Jimmy gave me two or three of them, and they're unusually good."

"One would fancy that you were not in the habit of throwing anything away?" she half asked, half said.

Again the twinkle flashed in Leland's eyes. "Until I came to England I don't think I ever wasted anything, effort or material, in my life. That is, when I knew what I was doing, at least."

"Ah," said Carrie, "you would soon get into the way of doing it at Barrock-holme. Still, why aren't you playing bridge or billiards? Was the long day on the moors too much for you? I believe you walked home."

"So did Jimmy. It was only four miles. I have quite often ridden sixty in my own country, and, when it's light, I usually begin to work there at four in the morning."

"You are a farmer?"

"Yes, as it's understood out there. Our wheat furrows at Prospect would run straight across four of the biggest holdings on this property, and I've over a thousand cattle on the new range among the willow bluffs. A farm of that kind requires looking after, with wheat at present figures."

"You give all your time to it?"

"Every minute until the snow comes, and we usually begin hauling grain in to the railroad on the bob-sledges then. In summer it's work from sun-up until it's dark, and you go to sleep in ten minutes after you come in."

Carrie Denham's little shudder might have expressed either horror or sympathy.

"Isn't that, in one way, a waste of life? You have no amusement at all?" she asked.

"An hour or two after the antelope, or the brent geese in the sloos in fall and spring, when the salt pork runs out. As to the other question, there are people who want the wheat we raise. Some of them want it badly in your own English towns. A man's life was given him to use at what suits him best. It's taking quite a responsibility to fritter it away."

Carrie Denham had naturally heard this sentiment expressed before, though she had never seen it taken seriously among her own friends and family. She glanced at her companion curiously, rather resenting his flinging maxims of that kind at her. It rankled more when she realised that there was nothing about the speaker to suggest the trifler or the prig. As a new sensation, he was undoubtedly interesting.

"And you never take a holiday?" she asked.

"This is the first one, and I mightn't have taken it if several four-bushel bags of wheat hadn't fallen on me in the granary. The doctor we brought out two hundred miles to see me wouldn't let me do anything active when I commenced to crawl round again."

"I think Jimmy said you were quite young when you were left alone."

"I had been three months at McGill – which is to us much the same thing as your Oxford is to you – when the news of my father's death came, and I went back and fought my trustees over what was to be done with the farm. They were two of the cleverest grain and cattle men in Winnipeg, and I was a raw lad, but I beat them. I was to stay at McGill and be educated while they let or sold the place, they said; but I had my way of it and, instead, went back to the prairie where I belonged. Prospect has doubled the acreage it had then."

Carrie Denham listened with slightly languid interest. The narrative had been a bit egotistical, but she could imagine the struggle the lonely lad had waged with the wilderness. She understood already that it was an especially desolate wilderness in which the Prospect farm stood, and Jimmy had told her that Leland had neither brother nor sister. He had made his own way, and had, no doubt, from his point of view, done a good deal with his life; but his outlook was, it seemed to her, necessarily restricted. One should not, however, expect too much from a man born in the wilderness who had had only three months of what could be considered education. She also wondered why he had told her so much, since most of the young men she came across took some trouble to keep their best side uppermost, until it occurred to her that he probably considered the doubling of the acreage of the Prospect farm a very notable achievement. It scarcely seemed to her to warrant the effort. She loved pleasure. Though she was by no means without a sense of duty, the little graces and amenities of life counted for much with her.

Aylmer and two of the other guests came along the terrace, and Leland looked at her with a little inquiring smile.

"Shall I go on talking? I can keep it up if you wish," he said.

"No," said the girl. "You have really done enough in the meanwhile."

She rose and joined the others, and Leland was left wondering exactly what she meant, though it was borne in upon him that she did not object to Aylmer so much when he had a companion. Then he also rose, and strolled along to where a little faded lady of uncertain age, who had shown him some trifling kindness, was sitting alone. She swept her dress aside to let him pass, looking at him with a smile, but he seated himself on the broad-topped wall in front of her.

"Why are you not playing cards, or making love to somebody? Don't you know what you are here for?" she said.

Leland laughed. "I'm afraid I'm not good at either, Mrs. Annersly. You see, I'm from the wilderness."

"Well," said the lady, "there are, I fancy, one or two young women who would be willing to teach you the rules of one game."

"Are you sure they would think it worth while to waste powder and shot on a prairie farmer?"

"They might, if it was understood that he was willing to sell his broad acres and settle down to the simple pleasures of an English country life."

"No, by the Lord!" said Leland. "You will excuse me, madam, but I really meant it."

Mrs. Annersly laughed. "I believe you did. Still, you must remember that there are not many English estates managed like Barrock-holme. In fact, one may observe traces of, at least, a moderate prosperity in parts of this country; but we needn't talk of that. You will notice that a few of the others besides ourselves have sense enough to prefer being outside on such a pleasant night."

Leland looked down across the lawn, conscious that she was watching him meanwhile, and saw Carrie Denham and Aylmer cross it together. The moonlight was upon them, and the silvery radiance that made the girl's beauty more apparent seemed to emphasise the grossness of her companion. In that space of grass and flowers, moated and hemmed in by mouldering walls that had flung back the keen winds of the border for five hundred years, Aylmer looked more out of place than he had done by daylight. Leland, who had read no little English history, could almost have fancied it was filled with memories of the old knightly days when the spears of Ettrick and Liddesdale came pricking across the brown moors and mosses on many such a night; while Aylmer was from the cities, heavy-fleshed, soft of muscle, and sensual, of a wholly modern type.

"Yes," he said drily; "I see two of them."

Mrs. Annersly laughed again. "So does Branscombe Denham, I surmise, but that in all probability does not concern you or me." She stopped, and flashed a swift glance at her companion. Seeing that he made no denial, she changed the subject. "You have been taking billiard lessons from Jimmy Denham. Don't you find it expensive?"

"Madam," said Leland, "Jimmy Denham is rather a friend of mine."

"Of course. He is also my relative – which is, however, no great advantage to him. Besides, I am a privileged person, an encumbrance the Denhams are scarcely likely to get rid of in the present state of their affairs, which is, perhaps, a little unfortunate for everybody. My tongue is supposed to be dipped in wormwood, nobody expects anything pleasant from me, and the weak points in the Denhams constitute my special hobby. As you have probably noticed, they have a good many."

Leland looked at her gravely. "You couldn't expect me to admit it, and, if I did, you wouldn't be pleased with me. In different ways they have all of them been kind to me."

"Have you asked yourself why?"

"I certainly haven't," said Leland, a trifle sharply.

"Well," said the lady, with an air of reflection, "there is usually a reason for most things, though it is, perhaps, a little clearer in Aylmer's case. They have been somewhat attentive to him, too. Branscombe Denham is one of the most improvident of men, and in that respect Jimmy is very like him; but, while the strength of the whole family is in the girls, there is one thing to their credit: they all stand by one another through thick and thin. I fancy there is very little Carrie would stop at if it was necessary to save the old man, or, perhaps, Jimmy, from disaster."

She turned her head a bit. As it happened, Carrie Denham and Aylmer crossed the lawn again just then, and Leland, following the direction of Mrs. Annersly's glance, felt that she wished to call his attention to them.

"Yes," she said, "unless something unexpected turns up, I should not be astonished if they married her to that man."

Leland looked at her, a slight flush in his grim face. "It would be almost indecent for several reasons, to say nothing of his age; but Miss Denham has surely a will of her own."

Though he seldom manifested the tenderness and pity in his nature until an opportunity for helpful action came his way, his face grew softer as he watched the pair. His life had of necessity been hard and lonely. Perhaps, in some degree at least, from ignorance of them, he had grown up with an impersonal, chivalrous respect for all women. Love as between man and woman was a thing still remote from him. On the desolate prairie, a woman was scarcely ever even seen. It was a man's country. As his eyes followed the strolling couple, he was conscious of a longing to offer the girl the protection of his strength against Aylmer.

Then the lady, who had been watching him closely, spoke again. "She decidedly has a will, and, what is more, a tolerably large share of the family pride," she said. "Still, she will probably marry her companion. Branscombe Denham is usually at his wits' end for money, and Jimmy, I am very much afraid, has been getting into difficulties again. Carrie is in one sense an excellent daughter. She knows her duty, and is scarcely likely to flinch from doing it."

"But is there nobody else, no young man of good character and family, available?"

"What do you know against the character of the man yonder?"

"Nothing," said Leland tersely. "Nothing at all, except that he carries it about with him. You can see it in his face. If I had a sister, I should feel tempted to kick a man of that kind for looking at her."

Mrs. Annersly smiled as she answered his previous question. "Young men of the kind you mention, with any means, are not to be met with every day. What's more, they also naturally prefer a girl with money, and, at least, there would in their case be a tying up of property in the settlements. The happy man does not, as a rule, consider it necessary to contribute anything to the bride's family."

Leland turned sharply, and looked at her with a portentous sparkle in his eyes. "Isn't it a horribly unpleasant thing you are suggesting?"

"That is, after all, largely a matter of opinion."

Leland sat still a moment watching the two figures on the lawn with a curious blending of compassion and disgust. Then he rose and looked down on his companion.

"Madam," he said, "I wonder if I might ask you why you thought fit to tell me this?"

"One should never ask for a woman's reasons, and I think I have informed you already that my tongue is dipped in wormwood."

Leland made a little impatient gesture. "Is it Aylmer's money alone that counts with them, or his station, if he has any?"

"One would certainly imagine that it was his means."

Leland left her presently. As she watched him stride along the terrace, her shrewd, faded face grew gentle.

"If I have read that man aright, there may be results," she said. "In that case, I almost fancy Carrie will have much to thank me for."

Then she rose and, crossing the quadrangle, sought the card-room. It was an hour later when she came upon Carrie Denham sitting alone.

"I have been talking to Mr. Leland, and am rather pleased with him," she said to the girl. "He is a curious compound of simplicity and forcefulness. They must live like anchorites out there."

Carrie Denham laughed. "I thought that type was distinctly out of date now. It probably has its disadvantages."

"Still," said Mrs. Annersly with an air of reflection, "he would scarcely jar as much on one's self-respect as the people one would meet as the wife of the other sort of man."