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 He had been a week there now as the guest of Lieutenant Denham, whose acquaintance he had originally made out on the wide prairie in Western Canada, and for whom he had a certain liking that was slightly tinged with contempt.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.
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."
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