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Title: Hawtrey's Deputy
Author: Bindloss, Harold, 1866-1945
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Hawtrey's Deputy" ***

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[Frontispiece: "In another moment Wyllard's last doubt vanished, and he
sprang forward with a gasp."   (CHAPTER XXVIII.)]



HAWTREY'S DEPUTY


BY

HAROLD BINDLOSS



_Author of "The Impostor," "The Liberationist," etc._



Illustrated by

Cyrus Cuneo



WARD, LOCK & CO., LIMITED

LONDON, MELBOURNE AND TORONTO

1910



CONTENTS.


CHAPTER

      I.--SALLY CREIGHTON
     II.--SALLY TAKES CHARGE
    III.--WYLLARD ASSENTS
     IV.--A CRISIS
      V.--THE OLD COUNTRY
     VI.--HER PICTURE
    VII.--AGATHA DOES NOT FLINCH
   VIII.--THE TRAVELLING COMPANION
     IX.--THE FOG
      X.--DISILLUSION
     XI.--AGATHA'S DECISION
    XII.--WANDERERS
   XIII.--THE SUMMONS
    XIV.--AGATHA PROVES OBDURATE
     XV.--THE BEACH
    XVI.--THE FIRST ICE
   XVII.--DEFEAT
  XVIII.--A DELICATE ERRAND
    XIX.--THE PRIOR CLAIM
     XX.--THE FIRST STAKE
    XXI.--GREGORY MAKES UP HIS MIND
   XXII.--A PAINFUL REVELATION
  XXIII.--THROUGH THE SNOW
   XXIV.--THE LANDING
    XXV.--NEWS OF DISASTER
   XXVI.--THE RESCUE
  XXVII.--IN THE WILDERNESS
 XXVIII.--THE UNEXPECTED
   XXIX.--CAST AWAY
    XXX.--THE LAST EFFORT
   XXXI.--WYLLARD COMES HOME



ILLUSTRATIONS


"In another moment Wyllard's last doubt vanished, and he sprang forward
with a gasp." . . . . . . _Frontispiece_

"She could not raise him wholly, and he cried out once when his injured
leg trailed in the snow."

"Then she turned to Sproatly.  'You can wash up those dishes on the
table.'"

"At length the door opened, and Agatha Ismay, wrapped in a long cloak,
came in."

"'Now,' he said, 'I won't let you fall.'"

"'You!' was all she said."

"In another moment Hawtrey sprang up on the platform, and she felt his
arms about her."

"Then something seemed to crack, and she saw the off-side horse stumble
and plunge."

"'Do you think--that--would have mattered?'"

"'Well,' she said, 'we have driven over as we promised!'"

"Agatha held her hands up ... as the man leaned down, and the next
moment she was strongly lifted."

"'I guess I needn't tell you where that is,' he said, and pointed to
the parallel of latitude that ran across."

"It seemed that he did not immediately notice her."

"'Are these things very much too big for you, Sally?'"

"It shambled forward in a curious manner."

"'I thought you might save Gregory, if I told you.'"

"'I was waiting for you,' she said simply."



HAWTREY'S DEPUTY.


CHAPTER I.

SALLY CREIGHTON.

The frost outside was bitter, and the prairie, which rolled back from
Lander's in long undulations to the far horizon, gleamed white beneath
the moon, but there was warmth and brightness in Stukely's wooden barn.
It stood at one end of the little, desolate settlement, where the trail
that came up from the railroad thirty miles away forked off into two
wavy ribands that melted into a waste of snow.  Lander's consisted then
of five or six frame houses and stores, a hotel of the same material,
several sod stables, and a few birch-log barns; and its inhabitants
considered it one of the most promising places in Western Canada.
That, however, is the land of promise, a promise that is in due time
usually fulfilled, and the men of Lander's were, for the most part,
shrewdly practical optimists.  They made the most of a somewhat grim
and frugal present, and staked all they had to give--the few dollars
they had brought in with them, and their powers of enduring toil--upon
the roseate future.

Stukely had given them, and their scattered neighbours, who had driven
there across several leagues of prairie, a supper in his barn, and a
big rusty stove, which had been brought in for the occasion, stood in
the midst of it.  Its pipe glowed in places a dull red, and Stukely now
and then wondered uneasily whether it was charring a larger hole
through the shingles of the roof.  On one side of the stove the floor
had been cleared; on the other benches, empty barrels, and tables were
huddled together, and such of the guests as were not at the moment
dancing sat upon them indiscriminately.  A keg of hard Ontario cider
had been provided for their refreshment, and it was open to anybody to
ladle up what he wanted with a tin dipper, while a haze of tobacco
smoke drifted in thin blue wisps beneath the big nickelled lamps.  In
addition to the reek of it, the place was filled with the smell of hot
iron which an over-driven stove gives out, and the subtle odours of old
skin coats.

The guests, however, were accustomed to an atmosphere of that kind, and
it did not trouble them.  For the most part, they were lean and spare,
bronzed by frost and snow-blink, and straight of limb, for, though
scarcely half of them were Canadian born, the prairie, as a rule,
swiftly sets its stamp upon the newcomer.  There was also something in
the way they held themselves and put their feet down that suggested
health and vigour, and, in the case of most of them, a certain
alertness and decision of character.  Some hailed from English cities,
a few from those of Canada, and some from the bush of Ontario; but
there was a similarity between them which the cut and tightness of
their store clothing did not altogether account for.  They lived well
if plainly, and toiled out in the open unusually hard.  Their eyes were
steady, their bronzed skin was clear, and their laughter had a
wholesome ring.

A fiery-haired Scot, a Highlander of the Isles, sat upon a barrel-head
sawing at a fiddle, and the shrill scream of it filled the barn.  Tone
he did not aspire to, but he played with Caledonian verve and swing,
and kept the snapping time.  It was mad, harsh music of the kind that
sets the blood tingling and the feet to move in rhythm, though the
exhilarating effect of it was rather spoiled by the efforts of the
little French Canadian who had another fiddle and threw in clanging
chords upon the lower strings.

They were dancing in the cleared space what was presumably a quadrille,
though it bore almost as great a resemblance to a Scottish country
dance, or indeed to one of the measures of Bretonne France, which was,
however, characteristic of the country.  The Englishman has set no
distinguishable impress upon the prairie.  It has absorbed him with his
reserve and sturdy industry, and the Canadian from the cities is
apparently lost in it, too, for theirs is the leaven that works through
the mass slowly and unobtrusively, and it is the Scot and the habitant
of French extraction who have given the life of it colour and
individuality.  Extremes meet and fuse on the wide white levels of the
West.

It was, however, an Englishman who was the life of that dance, and he
was physically a bigger man than most of the rest, for as a rule, at
least, the Colonial born run to wiry hardness rather than solidity of
frame.  Gregory Hawtrey was tall and thick of shoulder, though the rest
of him was in fine modelling, and he had a pleasant face of the English
blue-eyed type.  Just then it was suffused with almost boyish
merriment, and indeed an irresponsible gaiety was a salient
characteristic of the man.  One would have called him handsome, though
his mouth was a trifle slack, and there was a certain assurance in his
manner that just fell short of swagger.  He was the kind of man one
likes at first sight, but for all that not the kind his hard-bitten
neighbours would have chosen to stand by them through the strain of
drought and frost in adverse seasons.

As it happened, the grim, hard-faced Sager, who had come there from
Michigan, was just then talking to Stukely about him.

"Kind of tone about that man--guess he once had the gold-leaf on him
quite thick, and it hasn't all worn off yet," he said.  "Seen more
Englishmen like him, and some folks from Noo York, too, when I took
parties bass fishing way back yonder."

He waved his hand vaguely, as though to indicate the American Republic,
and Stukely agreed with him.  They were also right as far as they went,
for Hawtrey undoubtedly possessed a grace of manner which, however,
somehow failed to reach distinction.  It was, perhaps, just a little
too apparent, and lacked the strengthening feature of restraint.

"I wonder," said Stukely reflectively, "what those kind of fellows done
before they came out here."

He had expressed a curiosity which is now and then to be met with on
the prairie, but Sager, the charitable, grinned.

"Oh," he said, "I guess quite a few done no more than make their folks
on the other side tired of them, and that's why they sent them out to
you.  Some of them get paid so much on condition that they don't come
back again.  Say"--and he glanced towards the dancers--"Dick
Creighton's Sally seems quite stuck on Hawtrey by the way she's looking
at him."

Stukely assented.  He was a somewhat primitive person, as was Sally
Creighton, for that matter, and he did not suppose she would have been
greatly offended had she overheard his observations.

"Well," he said, "I've thought that, too.  If she wants him she'll get
him.  She's a smart girl--Sally."

There were not many women present--perhaps one to every two of the men,
which was, however, rather a large proportion in that country, and none
of their garments were particularly elegant.  The fabric was, for the
most part, the cheapest obtainable, and they had fashioned it with
their own fingers in the scanty interludes between washing, and baking,
and mending their husbands' or fathers' clothes.  Their faces were a
trifle sallow and had lost their freshness in the dry heat of the
stove.  Their hands were hard and reddened, and in figure most of them
were thin and spare.  One could have fancied that in a land where
everybody toiled strenuously their burden was the heavier.  One or two
of them had clearly been accustomed to a smoother life, but there was
nothing to suggest that they looked back to it with regret.  As a
matter of fact, they looked forward, working for the future, and there
was patient courage in their smiling eyes.

Creighton's Sally, who was then tripping through the measure on
Hawtrey's arm, was native born.  She was young and straight--straighter
in outline than the women of the cities--with a suppleness which was
less suggestive of the willow than a rather highly-tempered spring.
She moved with a large vigour which only just fell short of grace, her
eyes snapped when she smiled at Hawtrey, and her hair, which was of a
ruddy brown, had fiery gleams in it.  Anyone would have called her
comely, and there was, indeed, no women in Stukely's barn to compare
with her in that respect, which was a fact she recognised, while every
line and pose of her figure seemed expressive of an effervescent
vitality.

"Oh yes," said Sager reflectively; "she'll get him sure if she sets her
mind on it, and there's no denying that they make a handsome pair.
I've nothing against Hawtrey either: a straight man, a hustler, and
smart at handling a team.  Still, it's kind of curious that while the
man's never been stuck for the stamps like the rest of us, he's made
nothing very much of his homestead yet.  Now there's Bob, and Jake, and
Jasper came in after he did with half the dollars, and they thrash out
four bushels of hard wheat for Hawtrey's three."

Stukely made a little gesture of concurrence, for he dimly realised the
significance of his companion's speech.  It is results which count in
that country, where the one thing demanded is practical efficiency, and
the man of simple, steadfast purpose usually goes the farthest.
Hawtrey had graces which won him friends, boldness of conception, and
the power of application; but he had somehow failed to accomplish as
much as his neighbours did.  After all, there must be a good deal to be
said for the man who raises four bushels of good wheat where his
comrade with equal facilities raises three.

In the meanwhile Hawtrey was talking to Sally, and it was not
astonishing that they talked of farming, which is the standard topic on
that strip of prairie.

"So you're not going to break that new piece this spring?" she said.

"No," said Hawtrey; "I'd want another team, anyway, and I can't raise
the dollars; they're hard to get out here."

"Plenty under the sod," said Sally, who was essentially practical.
"That's where we get ours, but you have to put the breaker in and turn
it over.  You"--and she flashed a swift glance at him--"got most of
yours from England.  Won't they send you any more?"

Hawtrey's eyes twinkled as he shook his head.  "I'm afraid they won't,"
he said.  "You see, I've put the screw on them rather hard the last few
years."

"How did you do that?" said Sally.  "Told them you were thinking of
coming home again?"

There was a certain wryness in her companion's smile, for though
Hawtrey had cast no particular slur upon the family's credit he had
signally failed to enhance it, and he was quite aware that his English
relatives did not greatly desire his presence in the Old Country.

"My dear," he said, "you really shouldn't hit a fellow in the eye that
way."

As it happened, he did not see the girl's face just then, or he might
have noticed a momentary change in its expression.  Gregory Hawtrey was
a little casual in speech, but so far most of the young women he
bestowed an epithet of that kind upon had attached no significance to
it.  They had wisely decided that he did not mean anything.  In another
moment or two the Scottish fiddler's voice broke in.

"Can ye no' watch the music?  Noo it's paddybash!" he cried.

His French Canadian comrade waved his fiddle-bow protestingly.

"Paddybashy!  _V'la la belle chose!_" he said with ineffable contempt,
and broke in upon the ranting melody with a succession of harsh,
crashing chords.

Then it apparently became a contest as to which could drown the other's
instrument, and the snapping time grew faster, until the dancers
gasped, and men with long boots encouraged them with cries and stamped
a staccato accompaniment upon the benches or on the floor.  It was
savage, rasping music, but one player infused into it the ebullient
verve of France, and the other was from the misty land where the
fiddler learns the witchery of the clanging reel and the swing of the
Strathspey.  It is doubtless not high art, but there is probably no
music in the world that fires the blood like this and turns the sober
dance to rhythmic riot.  Perhaps, too, it gains something that gives it
a closer compelling grip amidst the prairie snow.

Hawtrey, at least, was breathless when it ceased, and Sally's eyes
flashed with the effulgence of the Northern night when her partner
found her a resting-place upon an upturned barrel.

"No," she said, "I won't have any cider."  She turned and glanced at
him imperiously.  "You're not going for any more either."

It was, no doubt, not the speech a well-trained English maiden would
have made, but, though Hawtrey smiled rather curiously, it fell
inoffensively from Sally's lips.  Though it is not always set down to
their credit, the brown-faced, hard-handed men as a rule live very
abstemiously in that country, and, as it happened, Hawtrey, who,
however, certainly showed no sign of it, had already consumed rather
more cider than anybody else.  He made a little sign of submission, and
Sally resumed their conversation where it had broken off.

"We could let you have our ox-team to do that breaking with," she said.
"You've had Sproatly living with you all winter.  Why don't you make
him stay and work out his keep?"

Hawtrey laughed.  "Sally," he said, "do you think anybody could make
Sproatly work?"

"It would be hard," the girl admitted, and then looked up at him with a
little glint in her eyes.  "Still, I'd put a move on him if you sent
him along to me."

She was a rather capable young woman, but Hawtrey was very dubious of
her ability to accomplish as much as this.  Sproatly was an Englishman
of good education, though his appearance seldom suggested it, who drove
about the prairie in a waggon vending cheap oleographs and patent
medicines most of the summer, and contrived to obtain free quarters
from his bachelor acquaintances during the winter.  It is a hospitable
country, but there were men round Lander's who when they went away to
work in far-off lumber camps, as they sometimes did, nailed up their
doors and windows to prevent Sproatly getting in.

"Does he never do anything?" Sally added.

"No," said Hawtrey; "at least, never when he can help it.  He had,
however, started something shortly before I left him.  You see, the
house has wanted cleaning the last month or two, and we tossed up for
who should do it.  It fell to Sproatly, who didn't seem quite pleased,
but he got as far as firing the chairs and tables out into the snow.
Then he sat down for a smoke, and he was looking at them through the
window when I drove away."

"Ah," said his companion, "you want somebody to keep the house straight
and look after you.  Didn't you know any nice girls back there in the
Old Country?"

It was spoken naturally, and there was nothing to show that the girl's
heart beat a little more rapidly than usual as she watched her
companion.  His face, however, grew a trifle graver, for she had
touched upon a rather momentous question to such men as him.  There are
a good many of them living in Spartan simplicity upon the prairie,
well-trained, well-connected young Englishmen, and others like them
from Canadian cities.  They naturally look for some grace of culture or
refinement in the woman they would marry, and there are few women of
the station they once belonged to who could face the loneliness and
unassisted drudgery that must be borne by the small wheat-grower's
wife.  There were also reasons why this question had been troubling
Hawtrey in particular of late.

"Oh, yes, one or two," he said.  "I'm not quite sure, however, that
girls of that kind would find things even moderately comfortable here."

There was a certain reflectiveness in his tone, which, since it seemed
to indicate that he had already given the point some consideration,
jarred upon his companion.  She had also an ample share of the Western
farmer's pride, which firmly declines to believe that there is any land
to compare with the one the plough is slowly wresting from the wide
white levels of the prairie.

"We make out well enough," she said with a snap in her eyes.

Hawtrey made a little whimsical gesture.  "Oh, yes," he admitted; "it's
in you.  All you want to beat the wilderness and turn it into a garden
is an axe, a span of oxen, and a breaker plough.  You ought to be proud
of it.  Still, you see, our folks back yonder aren't quite the same as
you."

Sally partly understood him.  "Ah," she said, "they want more, and,
perhaps, they're used to having more than we have; but isn't that in
one way their misfortune?  Is it what folks want, or what they can do,
that makes them of use to anybody else?"

There was a hard truth in her suggestion, but Hawtrey, who seldom
occupied himself with matters of that kind, smiled.

"Oh," he said, "I don't know; but, after all, it wouldn't be worth
while our raising wheat here unless there were folks back East to eat
it, and if some of them only eat it in the shape of dainty cakes that
doesn't affect the question.  Anyway, there's only another dance or
two, and I was wondering whether I could drive you home; I've got
Wyllard's Ontario sleigh."

Sally glanced at him rather sharply.  She had half-expected this offer,
and it is possible would have judiciously led him up to it if he had
not made it.  Now, as she saw that he really wished to drive her home,
she was glad that she had not done so.

"Yes," she said softly, "I think you could."

"Then," said Hawtrey, "if you'll wait ten minutes I'll be back with the
team."



CHAPTER II.

SALLY TAKES CHARGE.

The night was clear and bitterly cold when Hawtrey and Sally Creighton
drove away from Stukely's barn.  Winter had lingered unusually long
that year, and the prairie gleamed dimly white, with the sledge trail
cutting athwart it, a smear of blue-grey, in the foreground.  It
was--for Lander's lay behind them with the snow among the stubble belts
that engirdled it--an empty wilderness the mettlesome team swung
across, and during the first few minutes the cold struck through them
with a sting like the thrust of steel.  A half-moon hung low above it,
coppery red with frost, and there was no sound but the crunch beneath
the runners, and the beat of hoofs that rang dully through the silence
like a roll of muffled drums.

Sleighs like the one that Hawtrey drove are not common on the prairie,
where the farmer generally uses the humble bob-sled when the snow lies
unusually long.  The one in question had, however, been made for use in
Montreal, and bought back East by a friend of Hawtrey's, who was, as it
happened, possessed of some means, which is a somewhat unusual thing in
the case of a Western wheat-grower.  He had also bought the team--the
fastest he could obtain--and when the warmth came back to them Hawtrey
and the girl became conscious of the exhilaration of the swift and easy
motion.  The sleigh was light and narrow, and Hawtrey, who drew the
thick driving robe higher about his companion, did not immediately draw
the mittened hand he had used back again.  The girl did not resent the
fact that it still rested behind her shoulder, nor did Hawtrey attach
any particular significance to the matter.  He was a man who usually
acted on impulse, with singularly easy manners.  How far Sally
understood him did not appear, but she came of folk who had waged a
very stubborn battle with the wilderness, and there was a vein of
somewhat grim tenacity in her.

She was, however, conscious that there was something beneath her feet
which forced her, if she was to sit comfortably, rather close against
her companion; and it seemed expedient to point it out.

"Can't you move a little?  I can't get my feet fixed right," she said.

Hawtrey looked down at her with a smile.  "I'm afraid I can't unless I
get right outside.  Aren't you happy there?"

It was the kind of speech he was in the habit of making, but there was
rather more colour in the girl's face than the stinging night air
brought there, and she glanced at the bottom of the sleigh.

"It's a sack of some kind, isn't it?" she said.

"Yes," said Hawtrey; "it's a couple of three-bushel bags.  Some special
seed wheat Lorton sent to Winnipeg for.  Ormond brought them out from
the railroad.  I promised I'd take them along to him."

"You should have told me.  It's most a league round by Lorton's place,"
said Sally.

"That won't take long with this team.  Have you any great objections to
another fifteen minutes' drive with me?"

Sally looked up at him, and the moonlight was on her face, which was a
very comely one.

"No," she admitted, "I haven't any."

She said it demurely, but there was a just perceptible something in her
voice which might have warned the man had he been addicted to taking
warning from anything, which was, however, not the case.  It was, in
fact, his trouble that he seldom thought about what he did until he was
compelled to face the consequences; and it was, perhaps, to his credit
that he had after all done very little harm, for there was hot blood in
him.

"Well," he said, "I'm not going to grumble about those extra three
miles, but you were asking what land I meant to break this spring.
What put that into your mind?"

"Our folks," said Sally candidly.  "They were talking about you."

This again was significant, but Hawtrey did not notice it.

"I've no doubt they said I ought to tackle the new quarter section?" he
suggested.

"Yes," assented Sally.  "Why don't you do it?  Last fall you thrashed
out quite a big harvest."

"I certainly did.  There, however, didn't seem to be many dollars left
over when I'd faced the bills."

The girl made a little gesture of impatience.  "Oh," she said, "Bob and
Jake and Jasper sowed on less backsetting, and they're buying new teams
and ploughs.  Can't you do what they do, though I guess they don't go
off for weeks to Winnipeg?"

The man was silent.  He had an incentive to work hard which she was not
acquainted with, and he had certainly done so, but the long, iron
winter, when there was nothing that could be done, had proved too much
for him.  It was very dreary sitting alone evening after evening beside
the stove, and the company of the somnolent Sproatly was not much more
cheerful.  Now and then his pleasure-loving nature had revolted from
the barrenness of his lot when he drove home from an odd visit to a
neighbour, stiff with cold, through the stinging frost, and, arriving
in the dark, found the stove had burned out and water frozen hard
inside the house.  These were things his neighbours patiently endured,
but Hawtrey had fled for life and brightness to Winnipeg.

Sally glanced up at him with a little nod.  "You take hold with a good
grip.  Everybody allows that," she said.  "The trouble is you let
things go afterwards.  You don't stay with it."

"Yes," assented Hawtrey.  "I believe you have hit it, Sally.  That's
very much what's the matter with me."

"Then," said the girl with quiet insistence, "won't you try?"

A faint flush crept into Hawtrey's face.  The girl was less than
half-taught, and unacquainted with anything beyond the simple,
strenuous life of the prairie.  Her greatest accomplishments consisted
of some skill in bakery and the handling of half-broken teams; but she
had once or twice given him what he recognised as excellent advice.
There was something incongruous in the situation, but, as usual, he
preferred to regard it whimsically.

"I suppose I'll have to, if you insist.  If ever I'm the grasping owner
of the biggest farm in this district I'll blame you," he said.

Sally said nothing further on that subject, and some time later the
sleigh went skimming down among the birches in a shallow ravine.
Hawtrey pulled the horses up when they reached the bottom of it, and
glanced up at a shapeless cluster of buildings that showed black amidst
the trees.

"Lorton won't be back until to-morrow, but I promised to pitch the bags
into his granary," he said.  "If I hump them up the trail here it will
save us driving round through the bluff."

He got down, and though the bags were heavy he managed to hoist the
first of them on to his shoulders, with Sally's assistance, and then
staggered up the steep foot-trail that climbed the slope with it.  He
was more or less accustomed to carrying bags of grain between store and
waggon, but his mittened hands were numbed, and his joints were stiff
with frost just then, and Sally noticed that he floundered rather
wildly.  In another moment or two, however, he vanished into the gloom
among the trees, and she sat listening to the uneven crunch of his
footsteps in the snow, until there was a sudden crash of broken
branches, and a sound as of something falling heavily down a declivity.
Then there was another crash, and stillness again.

Sally gasped, and clenched her mittened hands hard upon the reins as
she remembered that Lorton's bye trail skirted the edge of a very steep
bank, but she lost neither her collectedness nor her nerve.  Presence
of mind in the face of an emergency is probably as much a question of
experience as of temperament, and, as it happened, she had, like other
women in that country, seen men struck down by half-trained horses,
crushed by collapsing strawpiles, and once or twice gashed by a mower
blade.  This was no doubt why she remembered that the impatient team
would probably move on if she left the sleigh, and she drove them to
the first of the birches before she got down.  Then she knotted the
reins about a branch, and called out sharply.

No answer came out of the shadows, and her heart beat unpleasantly fast
as she plunged in among the trees, keeping below the narrow trail that
went slanting up the side of the declivity, until she stopped, with
another gasp, when she reached a spot where a ray of moonlight came
filtering down.  A limp figure in an old skin coat lay almost at her
feet, and she dropped on her knees beside it in the snow.  Hawtrey's
face showed an unpleasant greyish-white in the faint silvery light.

"Gregory!" she cried hoarsely.

The man opened his eyes, and blinked at her in a half-dazed manner.
"Fell down," he said.  "Think I felt my leg go--and my side's stabbing
me.  Go for somebody."

Sally glanced round, and noticed that the grain bag lay burst open not
far away.  She fancied that he had clung to it after he lost his
footing, which explained why he had fallen so heavily, but that was not
a point of any consequence now.  There was nobody who could help her
within two leagues of the spot, and it was evident that she could not
leave him there to freeze.  Then she noticed that the trees grew rather
farther apart just there, and rising swiftly she ran back to bring the
team.  The ascent was steep, and she had to urge them up it with sharp
cries and blows with her mittened hand amidst the shadowy trunks and
through snapping undergrowth before she reached the spot where Hawtrey
lay.  He looked up at her when at last they stood snorting close beside
him.

"You can't turn them here," he said.

Sally was never sure how she managed it, for the sleigh drove against
the slender trunks, and the fiery beasts, terrified by the snapping of
the undergrowth, were almost unmanageable; but at last they were facing
the descent again, and she stooped and twined her arms about the
shoulders of her companion, who now lay almost against the sleigh.

"It's going to hurt, Gregory, but I have got to get you in," she said.

Then she gasped, for Hawtrey was a man of full stature, and it was a
heavy lift.  She could not raise him wholly, and he cried out once when
his injured leg trailed in the snow.  Still, with the most strenuous
effort she had ever made she moved him a yard or so, and then
staggering fell with her side against the sleigh.  She felt faint with
the pain of it, but with another desperate lift she drew him into the
sleigh, and let him sink down gently upon the bag that still lay there.
His eyes had shut again, and he said nothing now.

[Illustration: "She could not raise him wholly, and he cried out once
when his injured leg trailed in the snow."]

It took only another moment or two to wrap the thick driving robe about
him, and after that she glanced down, with one hand still beneath his
neck.  It was clear that he was quite unconscious of her presence, and
stooping swiftly she kissed his grey face.  Then she settled herself in
the driving seat with only a blanket coat to shelter her from the
stinging frost, and the horses went cautiously down the slope.  She did
not urge them until they reached the level, for the trail that wound up
out of the ravine was difficult, but when the wide white expanse once
more stretched away before them she laid the biting whip across their
backs.

That was quite sufficient.  They were fiery beasts, and when they broke
into a furious gallop the rush of night wind that screamed by struck
her tingling cheeks like a lash of wires.  Then all power of feeling
went out of her hands, her arms grew stiff and heavy, and she was glad
that the trail led smooth and straight to the horizon.  Hawtrey, who
had moved a little, lay, a shapeless figure, across her feet, but he
answered nothing when she spoke to him.

The team went far at the gallop, and the beat of hoofs rose up, dulled
a little, in a wild staccato drumming.  There was an insistent
crunching beneath the runners, and a fine mist of snow beat against the
sleigh, but the girl leaning forward, a tense figure, with nerveless
hands clenched upon the reins, saw nothing but the blue-grey riband of
trail that steadily unrolled itself before her.  At length, however, a
blurred mass, which she knew to be a birch bluff, grew out of the white
waste, and presently a cluster of darker smudges shot up into the shape
of a log-house, sod stables, and strawpile granary.  A minute or two
later, she pulled the team up with an effort, and a man, who flung the
door of the house open, came out into the moonlight.  He stopped, and
apparently gazed at her in astonishment.

"Miss Creighton!" he said.

"Don't stand there," said Sally.  "Take the near horse's head, and lead
them right up to the door."

"What's the matter?" the man asked stupidly.

"Lead the team up," said Sally.  "Jump, if you can."

It was supposed on that part of the prairie that Sproatly had never
moved with much expedition in his life, but that night he sprang
towards the horses at a commanding wave of the girl's hand.  He started
when he saw his comrade lying in the bottom of the sleigh, but Sally
disregarded his hurried questions.

"Help me to get him out," she said, when he stopped the team.  "Keep
his right leg as straight as you can.  I don't want to lift him.  We
must slide him in."

They did it somehow, though the girl was breathless before their task,
which the snow made a little easier, was finished, and the perspiration
started from the man.  Then Sally turned to the latter.

"Get into the sleigh, and don't spare the team," she said.  "Drive over
to Watson's, and bring him along.  You can tell him your partner's
broke his leg, and some of his ribs.  Start right now!"

Sproatly did her bidding, and when the door closed behind him she flung
off her blanket coat and thrust fresh billets into the stove.  Then she
looked for some coffee in the store cupboard, and set on a kettle;
after which she sat down on the floor by Hawtrey's side.  He lay still,
with the thick driving robe beneath him, and though the colour was
creeping back into his face, his eyes were shut, and he was apparently
quite insensible of her presence.  For the first time she was conscious
of a distressful faintness, which, as she had come suddenly out of the
stinging frost into the little overheated room, which reeked with
tobacco smoke and a stale smell of cooking, was not astonishing.  She
mastered it, however, and presently, seeing that Hawtrey did not move;
glanced about her with some curiosity, for this was the first time she
had entered his house.

The room was scantily furnished, and, though very few of the bachelor
farmers in that country live luxuriously, she fancied that Sproatly,
who had evidently very rudimentary ideas on the subject of
house-cleaning, had not brought back all the sundries he had thrown out
into the snow.  It then contained a table, a carpenter's bench, and a
couple of chairs, and there were still smears of dust upon the
uncovered floor.  The birch-log walls had been rudely panelled with
match-boarding half-way up, which was a somewhat unusual luxury, but
the half-seasoned boards had rent with the heat, and exuded streaks of
resin to which the grime and dust had clung.  A pail, which apparently
contained potato peelings, stood amidst a litter of old long boots and
broken harness against one wall, and the floor was black and thick with
grease all round the rusty stove.  A pile of unwashed dishes and
cooking utensils stood upon the table, and the lamp above her head had
blackened the boarded ceiling, and diffused a subtle odour of kerosene.

Sally noticed it all with disgust, and then, seeing that Hawtrey had
opened his eyes, she made a cup of coffee and got him to drink it.
After that he smiled at her.

"Thanks," he said feebly.  "Where's Sproatly?  My side stabs me."

Sally raised one hand.  "You're not to say a word.  Sproatly's gone for
Watson, and he'll soon fix you up.  Now lie quite still, and shut your
eyes again."

The man obeyed her, in so far as that he lay still, but his eyes were
not more than half-closed, and she could not resist the temptation to
see what he would do if she went away.  She had half risen, when he
stretched a hand out and felt for her dress, and she sank down again
with a curious softness in her face.  Then he let his eyes close
altogether, as if satisfied, and by and bye she gently laid her hand on
his.

He did not appear to notice it, and, though she did not know whether he
was asleep or unconscious, she sat beside him, with compassion in her
eyes.  There was no sound but the snapping of the birch billets in the
rusty stove.  She was anxious, but not unduly so, for she knew that men
who live as the prairie farmers do, usually recover from such injuries
as had befallen him more or less readily.  It would also not be very
long before assistance arrived, for it was understood that the man she
had sent Sproatly for had almost gone through a medical course in an
Eastern city before he set up as a prairie farmer.  Why he had suddenly
changed his profession was a point he did not explain, and, as he had
always shown himself willing to do what he could when any of his
neighbours met with an accident, nobody troubled him about the matter.

By and bye Sproatly brought him to the homestead, and he was busy with
Hawtrey for some time.  Then they got him to bed, and Watson came back
to the room where Sally was anxiously waiting.

"His idea about his injuries is more or less correct, but we'll have no
great trouble in pulling him round," he said.  "The one point that's
worrying me is the looking after him.  One couldn't expect him to
thrive upon slabs of burnt salt pork, and Sproatly's bread."

"I'll do what I can," said Sproatly indignantly.

"You!" said the other.  "It would be criminal to leave you in charge of
a sick man."

Sally quietly put on her blanket coat.  "If you can stay that long,
I'll be back soon after it's light," she said.  Then she turned to
Sproatly.  "You can wash up those dishes on the table, and get a brush
and sweep this room out.  If it's not quite smart to-morrow you'll do
it again."

[Illustration: "Then she turned to Sproatly.  'You can wash up those
dishes on the table.'"]

Then, while Sproatly grinned, she went out and drove away through the
bitter frost.



CHAPTER III.

WYLLARD ASSENTS.

Sally, who brought her mother with her, spent a couple of weeks at
Hawtrey's homestead before Watson decided that his patient could be
entrusted to Sproatly's care; but she came back afterwards twice a week
or so with odd baskets of dainties to make sure that the latter, in
whom she had no confidence, was discharging his duties satisfactorily.
She had driven over again one afternoon, when Hawtrey, whose bones were
knitting well, lay talking to another man in his little sleeping room.

There was no furniture in it whatever, beyond the wooden bunk he lay
in, and a deerhide lounge chair he had made during the winter; but the
stovepipe from the kitchen led across part of it, and then up again
into the room beneath the roof above.  It had been one of Sproatly's
duties during the past two weeks to rise and renew the fire when the
cold awakened his comrade soon after midnight.  At present he was
outside the house, whipsawing birch-logs and splitting them into
billets, which was an occupation he cherished a profound dislike for.

Spring had, however, come suddenly, as it usually does on the prairie,
a few days earlier, and the snow was melting fast under a brilliant
sun.  The bright rays that streamed in through the window struck
athwart the glimmering dust motes in the little bare room, and fell,
pleasantly warm, upon the man who lay in the deerhide chair.  He was a
year or two older than Hawtrey, though he had scarcely reached thirty,
a man of tranquil manner, with a rather lean and deeply bronzed face,
of average height, and somewhat spare of figure.  He held a pipe in his
hand, and was then looking at Hawtrey with quiet, contemplative eyes.
They were, indeed, his most noticeable feature, though it was difficult
to say whether their colour was grey or hazel-brown, for they were
singularly clear, and there was something which suggested steadfastness
in their unwavering gaze.  He wore long boots, trousers of old blue
duck, and a jacket of soft deerskin such as the Blackfeet dress; and
there was nothing about him to suggest that he was a man of varied
experience, and of some importance in that country.

Harry Wyllard was native-born, and had in his young days assisted his
father in the working of a little Manitoban farm, when that great grain
province was still, for the most part, a wilderness.  Then a more
prosperous relative on the Pacific slope had sent him to Toronto
University, where after a session or two he had become involved in a
difference of opinion with the authorities.  Though the matter was
never made quite clear, it was generally believed that Wyllard had
quietly borne the blame of a comrade's action, for there was a vein of
eccentric generosity in the lad.  In any case, he left Toronto, and the
relative, who was largely interested in the fur business, next sent him
north to the Behring Sea, in one of his schooners.  The business was
then a remarkably hazardous one, for the skin buyers and pelagic
sealers had trouble all round with the Alaskan representatives of
American trading companies, whose preserves they poached upon, as well
as with the commanders of the gunboats sent up there to protect the
seals.

Men's lives were staked against the value of a fur, edicts were lightly
contravened, and now and then a schooner barely escaped into the
smothering fog with skins looted close aboard forbidden beaches.  It
was a perilous life, and a strenuous one, for they had every white
man's hand against them, as well as fog and gale, and the reefs that
lay in the tideways of almost uncharted waters; but Wyllard made the
most of it.  He kept the peace with jealous skippers who resented the
presence of a man they might command as mate, but whose views they were
forced to listen to when he spoke as supercargo; won the good-will of
sea-bred Indians, and drove a good trade with them; and not
infrequently brought his boat back first to the plunging schooner
loaded with reeking skins.

Then he fell into trouble again when they were hanging off the Eastern
Isles under double reefs, watching for the Russians' seals.  A boat's
crew from another schooner had been cast ashore, and, as they were in
peril of falling into the Russians' hands, Wyllard led a reckless boat
expedition to bring them off again.  He succeeded, in so far that the
wrecked men were taken off the roaring beach through a tumult of
breaking surf, but as they pulled seaward the fog shut down on them,
and one boat, manned by three men, never reached the schooners.  They
blew horns all night, standing off and on, and crept along the smoking
beach next day, though the surf made landing impossible.  Then a sudden
gale drove them off the shore, and, as it was evident that their
comrades must have perished, they reluctantly sailed for other fishing
grounds.  As one result of this, Wyllard broke with his prosperous
relative when he came back to Vancouver.

After that he helped to strengthen railroad bridges among the mountains
of British Columbia, worked in logging camps, and shovelled in the
mines, and, as it happened, met Hawtrey, who, tempted by high wages,
had spent a winter in the Mountain Province after a disastrous harvest.
In the meanwhile, his father had sold out, and taken up virgin soil in
Assiniboia.  He died soon after Wyllard went back to him, and a few
months later the relative in Vancouver also died.  Somewhat to
Wyllard's astonishment, he bequeathed him a considerable property,
which the latter realised and sunk most of the proceeds in further
acres of virgin prairie.  Willow Range was already one of the largest
farms between Winnipeg and the Rockies.

"The leg's getting along satisfactorily?" he said at length.

Hawtrey, who appeared unusually thoughtful, admitted that it was.

"Any way, it's singularly unfortunate that I'm broken up just now," he
added.  "There's the ploughing to commence in a week or two, and,
besides that, I was thinking of getting married."

Wyllard was somewhat astonished at this announcement.  For one thing,
he was more or less acquainted with the state of his friend's finances.
During the next moment or two he glanced meditatively through the open
door into the adjoining room, where Sally Creighton was busy beside the
stove.  The sleeves of her light bodice were rolled up well above the
elbow, and she had pretty, round arms, which were just then partly
immersed in dough.

"I don't think there's a nicer or more capable girl in this part of
Assiniboia," he said.

"Oh, yes," said Hawtrey.  "Anybody would admit that.  Still, since you
seem so sure of it, why don't you marry her yourself?"

Wyllard looked at his comrade rather curiously.  "Well," he said,
"there are one or two reasons that don't affect Miss Sally and only
concern myself.  Besides, it's highly improbable that she'd have me."

He paused to light his pipe, which had gone out, before he looked up
again.  "Since it evidently isn't Sally, have I met the lady?"

"You haven't.  She's in England."

"It's four years, isn't it, since you were over there?"

Hawtrey lay silent a minute, and then made a little confidential
gesture.  "I'd better tell you all about the thing," he said.  "Our
folks were people of some little standing in the county.  In fact, as
they were far from rich, they had just standing enough to embarrass
them.  In most respects they were ultra-conventional with old-fashioned
ideas, and, though there was no open break, I'm afraid I didn't get on
with them quite as well as I should have done, which is why I came out
to Canada.  They started me on the land decently, and twice when we'd
harvest frost and horse-sickness, they sent the draft I asked them for
along.  That is one reason why I'm not going to worry them, though I'd
very much like another now.  You see, there are two girls, as well as
Reggie, who's reading for the Bar."

"I don't think you have mentioned the lady yet."

"She's a connection of some friends of ours.  Her mother, so far as I
understand it, married beneath her--a man her folks didn't like.  He
died, and, when by and bye his wife died, Agatha, who was brought up by
his relations, was often at the Grange.  It's a little, old-fashioned,
half-ruinous place, a mile or two from where we live in the North of
England.  It belongs to her mother's folks, but I think there was still
a feud between them and her father's people, who brought her up to earn
her living.  We saw a good deal of each other, and fell in love as boy
and girl.  Well, when I went back, one winter, after I'd been here two
years, Agatha was at the Grange again, and we decided then that I was
to bring her out as soon as I had a home she could live in to offer
her."

He broke off for a moment, and there was a trace of embarrassment in
his manner when he went on again.  "Perhaps I ought to have managed it
sooner," he added.  "Still, things never seem to go quite as one would
like with me, and you can understand that a dainty, delicate girl
brought up in comfort in England would find it rough out here."

Wyllard glanced round the bare room in which he sat, and into the
other, which was also furnished in a remarkably primitive manner.

"Yes," he assented, "I can quite realise that."

"Well," said his companion, "it's a thing that has been worrying me a
good deal of late, because, as a matter of fact, I'm not much farther
forward than I was four years ago.  In the meanwhile, Agatha, who has
some talent for music, was in a first-class master's hands.  Afterwards
she gave lessons, and got odd singing engagements.  A week ago, I had a
letter from her in which she said that her throat was giving out."

He stopped again for a moment, with trouble in his face, and then
fumbling under his pillow produced a letter, which he carefully folded.

"We're rather good friends," he said.  "You can read that part of it."

Wyllard took the letter, and a suggestion of quickening interest crept
into his eyes as he read.  Then he looked up at Hawtrey.

"It's a brave letter--the kind a brave girl would write," he said.
"Still, it's evident that she's anxious."

There was silence for a moment or two, which was only broken by Sally
clattering about the stove.  Dissimilar in character, as they were, the
two were firm friends, and there had been a day when, as they worked
upon a dizzy railroad trestle, Hawtrey had held his comrade fast when a
plank slipped away.  He had, it was characteristic, thought nothing of
the matter, but Wyllard was one who remembered things of that kind.

"Now," said Hawtrey, "you see my trouble.  This place isn't fit for
her, and I couldn't even go across for some time yet, but her father's
folks have died off, and there's nothing to be expected from her
mother's relatives.  Any way, she can't be left to face the blow alone.
It's unthinkable.  Well, there's only one course open to me, and that's
to raise as many dollars on a mortgage as I can, fit the place out with
fixings brought from Winnipeg, and sow a double acreage with borrowed
capital.  I'll send for her as soon as I can get the house made a
little more comfortable."

Wyllard sat silent a moment or two, and then leaned forward in his
chair.

"No," he said, "there are two other and wiser courses.  Tell the girl
what things are like here, and just how you stand.  She'd face it
bravely.  There's no doubt of that."

Hawtrey looked at him sharply.  "I believe she would, but considering
that you have never seen her, I don't quite know why you should be sure
of it."

Wyllard smiled.  "The girl who wrote that letter wouldn't flinch."

"Well," said Hawtrey, "you can mention the second course."

"I'll let you have $1,000 at bank interest--which is less than any
land-broker would charge you--without a mortgage."

Again Hawtrey showed a certain embarrassment.  "No," he said, "I'm
afraid it can't be done.  I'd a kind of claim upon my people, though it
must be admitted that I've worked it off, but I can't quite bring
myself to borrow money from my friends."

Wyllard, who saw that he meant it, made a gesture of resignation.
"Then you must let the girl make the most of it, but keep out of the
hands of the mortgage man.  By the way, I haven't told you that I've
decided to make a trip to the Old Country.  We'd a bonanza crop last
season, and Martial could run the range for a month or two.  After all,
my father was born yonder, and I can't help feeling now and then that I
should have made an effort to trace up that young Englishman's
relatives, and tell them what became of him."

"The one you struck in British Columbia?  You have mentioned him, but,
so far as I remember, you never gave me any particulars about the
thing."

Wyllard seemed to hesitate, which was not a habit of his.  "There is,"
he said, "not much to tell.  I struck the lad sitting down, played out,
upon a trail that led over a big divide.  It was clear that he couldn't
get any further, and there wasn't a settlement within a good many
leagues of the spot.  We were up in the ranges prospecting then.  Well,
we made camp and gave him supper--he couldn't eat very much--and he
told me what brought him there afterwards.  It seemed to me he'd always
been weedy in the chest, but he'd been working waist-deep in an icy
creek, building a dam at a mine, until his lungs had given out.  The
mining boss was a hard case and had no mercy on him, but the lad, who
seemed to have had a rough time in the Mountain Province, stayed with
it until he played out altogether."

Wyllard's face hardened a little as he mentioned the mining boss, and a
rather curious little sparkle crept into his eyes, but after a pause he
proceeded quietly:

"We did what we could for him.  In fact, it rather broke up the
prospecting trip, but he was too far through," he added.  "He hung on
for a week or two, and one of us brought a doctor out from the
settlements, but the day before we broke camp Jake and I buried him."

Hawtrey made a sign of comprehension.  He was reasonably well
acquainted with his comrade's character, and fancied he knew who had
brought the doctor out.  He also knew that Wyllard had been earning his
living as a railroad navvy or chopper then, and, in view of the cost of
provisions brought by pack-horse into the remoter bush, the reason why
he had abandoned his prospecting trip after spending a week or two
taking care of the sick lad was clear enough.

"You never learned his name?" he asked.

"I didn't," said Wyllard.  "I went back to the mine, but several things
suggested that the name upon their pay-roll wasn't his real one.  He
commenced a broken message the night he died, but the hemorrhage cut
him off in the middle of it.  The wish that I should tell his people
somehow was in his eyes."

He broke off for a moment with a deprecatory gesture, which in
connection with the story was very expressive.

"I have never done it, but how could I?  All I know is that he was a
delicately brought up young Englishman, and the only clue I have is a
watch with a London maker's name on it and a girl's photograph.  I've a
very curious notion that I shall meet that girl some day."

Hawtrey, who made no comment, lay still for a minute or two after this,
but his face suggested that he was considering something.

"Harry," he said presently, "I shall not be fit for a journey for quite
a while yet, and if I went over to England I couldn't get the ploughing
done and the crop in; which, if I'm going to be married, is absolutely
necessary."

There was no doubt about the latter point, for the small Western farmer
has very seldom a balance in hand, and, for that matter, is not
infrequently in debt to the nearest storekeeper.  He must, as a rule,
secure a harvest or abandon his holding, since, as soon as the crop is
thrashed, the bills pour in.  Wyllard made a sign of assent.

"Well," said Hawtrey, "if you're going to England you could go as my
deputy.  You could make Agatha understand what things are like here,
and bring her out to me.  I'll arrange for the wedding to be soon as
she arrives."

His comrade was not a conventional person, but he pointed out several
objections.  Hawtrey over-ruled them, however, and eventually Wyllard
reluctantly assented.

"As it happens, Mrs. Hastings is going over, too, and if she comes back
about the same time the thing might be managed," he said.  "I believe
she's in Winnipeg just now, but I'll write her.  By the way, have you a
photograph of Agatha?"

"I haven't," said Hawtrey.  "She gave me one, but somehow it got
mislaid one house-cleaning.  That's rather an admission, isn't it?"

It certainly occurred to Wyllard that it was.  In fact, it struck him
as a very curious thing that Hawtrey should have lost the picture which
the girl he was in love with had given him.  He sat silent for a moment
or two, and then stood up.

"When I hear from Mrs. Hastings I'll drive round again.  Candidly, the
thing has somewhat astonished me.  I always had a fancy it would be
Sally."

Hawtrey laughed.  "Sally?" he said.  "We're first-rate friends, but I
never had the faintest notion of marrying her."

Wyllard went out to harness his team, and, as it happened, did not
notice that Sally, who had approached the door with a tray in her hands
a moment or two earlier, drew back before him softly.  When he had
crossed the room she set down the tray and leaned upon the table, with
her cheeks burning.  Then, feeling that she could not stay in the
stove-heated room, she went out, and stood in the slushy snow.  One of
her hands was tightly closed, and all the colour had vanished from her
cheeks now.  She, however, contrived to give Hawtrey his supper by and
bye, and soon afterwards drove away.



CHAPTER IV.

A CRISIS.

While Wyllard made arrangements for his journey, and Sally Creighton
went very quietly about her work on the lonely prairie farm, it
happened one evening that Miss Winifred Rawlinson sat uneasily
expectant far back under the gallery of a concert hall in an English
manufacturing town.  She could not hear very well there, but it was the
cheapest place she could obtain, and economy was of some importance to
her.  Besides, by craning her neck a little to avoid the hat of the
rather strikingly dressed young woman in front of her, she could, at
least, see the stage.  The programme which she held in one hand
announced that Miss Agatha Ismay would sing a certain aria from a great
composer's oratorio, and she leaned further forward in her chair when a
girl of about her own age, which was twenty-four, slowly advanced to
the centre of the stage.

She was a tall, well-made, brown-haired girl, with a quiet grace of
movement and a comely face, attired in a long trailing dress of a
shimmering corn-straw tint, but when she stood looking at the audience
Miss Rawlinson noticed a hint of tension in her expression.  Agatha
Ismay had sung at unimportant concerts with marked success, but that
evening there was something very like shrinking in her eyes.

Then a crash of chords from the piano melted into a rippling prelude,
and Winifred breathed easier when her friend began to sing.  Her voice
was sweet and excellently trained, and there was a deep stillness of
appreciation when the clear notes thrilled through the close-packed
hall.  No one could doubt that the first part of the aria was a
success, for half-subdued applause broke out when the voice sank into
silence, and for a few moments the piano rippled on alone; but it
seemed to Winifred that the look of tension was still in the singer's
face, and once more she grew uneasy, for she understood the cause for
it.

"The last bit of the second part's rather trying," said a young man
behind her.  "There's an awkward jump of two full tones that was too
much for our soprano when we tried it at the choral union.  Miss
Ismay's very true in intonation, but I don't suppose most of the rest
would notice it if she shirked a little and left that high sharp out."

Winifred had little knowledge of music, but she was sufficiently
acquainted with her friend's character to be certain that Agatha would
not attempt to leave the sharp in question out.  This was one reason
why she sat rigidly still when the clear voice rang out again.  It rose
from note to note, full and even, but she could see the singer's face,
and there was no doubt whatever that she was making a strenuous effort.
Nobody else, however, seemed to notice it, for Winifred flung a swift
glance round, and then fixed her eyes upon the dominant figure in the
corn-straw dress that the glare of light fell shimmering on.  The sweet
voice was still rising, and she longed that the accompanist would force
the tone to cover it a little, and put the loud pedal on.  He, however,
was gazing at his music, and played on quietly until, with startling
suddenness, the climax came.

The voice sank a full tone, jarring horribly on the theme, rose, and
hoarsely trailed off into silence again.  Then the accompanist glanced
over his shoulder, and struck a ringing chord while he waited for a
sign, and there was a curious stirring among the audience.  The girl in
the shimmering dress stood quite still for a moment with a spot of
crimson in her cheek and a half-dazed look in her eyes, and then,
turning swiftly, moved off the stage.

Then Winifred rose with a gasp, and turned upon the young man next her,
who looked up inquiringly.

"Yes," she said sharply; "can't you let me pass?  I'm going out."

It was about half-past nine when she reached the wet and miry street.
A fine rain drove into her face, and she had rather more than a mile to
walk without an escort, but that was a matter which caused her no
concern.  She was a self-reliant young woman, and accustomed to going
about unattended, while she was also quite aware that the scene she had
just witnessed would bring about a crisis in her and her friend's
affairs.  For all that, she was unpleasantly conscious of the leak in
one rather shabby boot when she stepped down from the sidewalk to cross
the street, and when she opened her umbrella beneath a gas lamp she
pursed up her mouth.  There were a couple of holes in it near where the
ribs ran into the ferrule, which she had not noticed before.  She,
however, plodded on resolutely through the drizzle, until three
striplings who came with linked arms down the pavement of a quieter
street barred her way.  One wore his hat on one side, the one nearest
the kerb flourished a little cane, and the third of them smiled at her
fatuously.

"Oh my!" he said.  "Where's dear Jemima off in such a hurry?"

Winifred drew herself up.  She was little and determined, and, it must
be admitted, not quite unaccustomed to that kind of thing.

"Will you let me pass?" she said.  "There's a policeman at the next
turning."

"There really is," said one of them.  "The Dook has another engagement.
Dream of me, Olivia!"

A beat of heavy feet drew nearer, and the three roysterers disappeared
in the direction of a flaming music-hall, where the second "house" was
probably commencing, while Winifred, who had stepped into the gutter to
avoid the one with the cane, turned as a stalwart, blue-coated figure
moved towards her.

"Thank you, officer," she said; "they've gone."

The man merely raised a hand as if in comprehension, and plodded back
to his post.  Perhaps he felt sorry for young women who have to earn
their living, for he had, at least, appeared promptly when he was
needed; and perhaps he attached no great importance to the matter.
There is a good deal that the policeman knows and accepts with
undisturbed equanimity, which if plainly expressed would, no doubt,
form a somewhat grim commentary on our complex civilisation.

In the meanwhile Winifred went on until she let herself into a house in
a quiet street, and ascending to the second floor entered a simply
furnished room.  It, however, contained a piano; and a little table on
which a typewriter stood amidst a litter of papers occupied the
opposite side of it.  The girl sloughed off her waterproof, and rather
flung than hung it on a peg behind the door, after which she sat down
in a low chair beside the little fire.  She was not a handsome girl,
and it was evident that she did not trouble herself greatly about her
attire.  Her face was too thin, her figure too slight and spare, but
there was usually, even when she was anxious, as she certainly was that
night, a shrewdly whimsical twinkle in her eyes, and though her lips
were set her expression was compassionate.

She was, however, not the person to sit still very long, and in a
minute or two she rose and placed a little kettle on the fire, after
which she took a few scones, a coffee-pot, and a tin of condensed milk
from a cupboard.  When she had spread them out upon a table she
discovered that there was some of the condensed milk upon her fingers,
and it must be admitted that she sucked them.  They were little, stubby
fingers, which somehow looked capable.

"It must have been four o'clock when I had that bun and a cup of tea,"
she said.

She glanced at the table longingly: for she occasionally found it
necessary to place a certain check upon a healthy appetite.  She was,
however, not singular in this respect, since the practice of such
self-denial is, unfortunately, not a very unusual thing in the case of
a good many young women in our cities who work remarkably hard.  Then
she resolutely shook her head.

"I must wait for Agatha," she said, and crossing the room towards the
typewriter table stopped to glance at a little framed photograph that
stood upon the mantel.  It was a portrait of Gregory Hawtrey taken some
years ago, and she apostrophied it with quiet scorn.

"Now you're wanted you're naturally away out yonder," she said.
"You're like the rest of them--despicable!"

This seemed to relieve her feelings, and she sat down before the
machine, which clicked and rattled for several minutes under her stubby
fingers.  Then the clicking ceased with sudden abruptness, and she
prodded the mechanism viciously with a hairpin.  As this appeared
unavailing she used her forefinger, and when at length the carriage
slid along the rod with a clash there was a smear of grimy oil upon her
cheek and her somewhat tilted nose.  The machine, however, gave no
further trouble, and she endeavoured to make up some, at least, of the
time she had spent at the concert.  It was necessary that it should be
made up, but she was also conscious that she was putting off an evil
moment.

At length the door opened, and Agatha Ismay, wrapped in a long cloak,
came in.  She permitted Winifred to take it from her, and then sank
down into a chair.  There was a strained look in her eyes, and her face
was very weary.

[Illustration: "At length the door opened, and Agatha Ismay, wrapped in
a long cloak, came in."]

"You're working late again?" she said.

Winifred nodded.  "It's the men who loaf, my dear," she said.  "When
you undertake the transcription of an author's scrawl at ninepence the
thousand words you have to work unusually hard, especially when, as it
is in this case, the thing's practically unreadable.  Besides, the
woman in it makes me lose my temper.  If I'd had a man of the kind
described to deal with I'd have thrashed him."

She was throwing words about, partly to conceal her anxiety, and partly
with the charitable purpose of giving her companion time to approach
the subject that must be mentioned as she thought best; but she rather
over-did it, and Agatha looked at her sharply.

"Winny," she said, "you know.  You've been there."

Winifred turned towards her quietly, for she could face a crisis.

"Yes," she said, "I have, but you're not going to talk about it until
you have had supper.  Don't move until I make the coffee."

She was genuinely hungry, but while she satisfied her own appetite she
took care that her companion, who did not seem inclined to eat, made a
simple meal.  Then she bundled the plates into a cupboard, and sat down
facing her.

"Well," she said, "you have broken down exactly as that throat
specialist said you would.  The first question is, How long it will be
before you can go on again?"

Agatha laughed, a little harsh laugh.  "I didn't tell you everything at
the time: I've broken down for good."

There was a moment or two's tense silence after that, and then Agatha
made a dejected gesture.  "He warned me that this might happen if I
went on singing, but what could I do?  I couldn't cancel my engagements
without telling people why.  He said I must go to Norway and give my
throat and chest a rest."

They looked at one another, and there was in their eyes the
half-bitter, half-weary smile of those to whom the cure prescribed is
ludicrously impossible.  It was Winifred who spoke first.

"Then," she said, "we have to face the situation, and it's not an
encouraging one.  Our joint earnings just keep us here in decency--we
won't say comfort--and they're evidently to be subject to a big
reduction.  It strikes me as a rather curious coincidence that a letter
from that man in Canada and one from your prosperous friends in the
country arrived just before you went out."

She saw the look in Agatha's eyes, and spread her hands out.

"Yes," she admitted; "I hid them.  It seemed to me that you had quite
enough upon your mind this evening.  I don't know if they're likely to
throw any fresh light upon the question what we're going to do."

She produced the letters from a drawer in her table, and Agatha
straightened herself suddenly in her chair when she had opened the
first of them.

"Oh," she cried, "he wants me to go out to him!"

Winifred's face set hard for a moment, but it relaxed again, and she
contrived to hide her dismay.

"Then," she suggested with a trace of dryness, "I suppose you'll
certainly go.  After all, he's probably not worse to live with than
most of them."

Miss Rawlinson was occasionally a little bitter, but she had, like
others of her kind, been compelled to compete in an overcrowded market
with hard-driven men.  She was, however, sincerely attached to her
friend, and she smiled when she saw the flash in Agatha's eyes.

"Oh," she added, "you needn't try to wither me with your indignation.
No doubt he's precisely what he ought to be, and I dare say it will
ease your feelings if you talk about him again; at least, it will help
you to formulate your reasons for going out to him.  I'll listen
patiently, and try not to be uncharitable."

Agatha fell in with the suggestion.  It was a relief to talk, and she
had also a certain respect, which she would not always admit, for her
companion's shrewdness.  She meant to go, but she desired to ascertain
how a less interested person would regard the course she had decided on.

"I have known Gregory since I was a girl," she said.

Winifred pursed her lips up.  "I understood you met him at the Grange,
and you were only there for a few weeks once a year.  After all, that
isn't a very great deal.  It seems he fell in love with you, which is,
perhaps, comprehensible.  What I don't quite know the reason for is why
you fell in love with him."

"Ah," said Agatha, "you have never seen Gregory."

"I haven't," said Winifred sourly; "I have, however, seen his picture,
and one must admit that he's reasonably good-looking.  In fact, I've
seen quite an assortment of them, but it's, perhaps, significant that
the last was taken some years ago."

Agatha smiled.  "Can a photograph show the clean, sanguine temperament
of a man, his impulsive generosity, and cheerful optimism?"

Miss Rawlinson rose, and critically surveyed the photograph on the
mantel.  "I don't want to be discouraging, but after studying that one
I'm compelled to admit that it can't.  No doubt it's the artist's
fault, but I'm willing to admit that a young girl would be rather apt
to credit a man with a face like that with qualities he didn't
possess."  Then she sat down again with a thoughtful expression.  "The
fact is, you set him up on a pedestal and burned incense to him when
you were not old enough to know any better, and when he came home for a
few weeks four years ago you promised to marry him.  Now it seems he's
ready at last, and wants you to go out.  Perhaps it doesn't affect the
question, but if I'd promised to marry a man in Canada he'd certainly
have to come for me.  Isn't there a certain risk in the thing?"

"A risk?"

Winifred nodded.  "Yes," she said, "rather a serious one.  Four years
is a long time, and the man may have changed.  In a new country where
everything's different it must be a thing they're rather apt to do."

A faint, half-compassionate, half-tolerant smile crept into Agatha's
eyes.  The mere idea that the sunny-tempered, brilliant young man whom
she had given her heart to could have changed or degenerated in any way
seemed absurd to her.  Winifred, however, went on again.

"There's another point," she said.  "If he's still the same, which
isn't likely, there has certainly been a change in you.  You have
learned to see things more clearly, and acquired a different standard
from the one you had then.  One can't help growing, and as one grows
one looks for more.  One is no longer pleased with the same things;
it's inevitable."

She broke off for a moment, and her voice grew gentler.

"Well," she added, "I've done my duty in trying to point this out to
you, and now there's only another thing to say: since you're clearly
bent on going, I'm going out with you."

Agatha looked astonished, but there was a suggestion of relief in her
expression, for the two had been firm friends and had faced a good deal
together.

"Oh," she said, "that gets over the one difficulty."

Winifred made a little whimsical gesture.  "I'm not quite sure that it
does.  The difficulty will probably begin when I arrive in Canada, but
I'm a rather capable person, and I believe they don't pay one ninepence
a thousand words in Winnipeg.  Besides, I could keep the books at a
store or hotel, and at the very worst Gregory could, perhaps, find a
husband for me.  Women, one understands, are after all held in some
estimation in that country.  Perhaps there's a man out there who would
treat even a little, plain, vixenish-tempered person with a turned-up
nose decently."

Crossing the room again she banged the cover down on the typewriter,
and then turned to Agatha with a wide gesture and a suggestion of
haziness in her eyes.

"Anyway, I'm very tired of this one.  It would all be intolerable when
you went away."

Agatha stretched out a hand and drew her down beside her.  She, at
least, no longer feared adverse fortune and loneliness, and she was
filled with a gentle compassion, for she knew how hard a fight this
girl had made, and part at least of what she had borne.

"My dear," she said, "we will go together."

Then she opened the second letter, which she had forgotten in the
meanwhile.

"They want me to stay at the Grange for a few weeks," she said, and
smiled.  "An hour ago I felt crushed and beaten--and now, though my
voice has probably gone for good, I don't seem to mind.  Isn't it
almost bewilderingly curious that both these letters should have come
to sweep my troubles away to-night?"

"No," said her companion; "it's distinctly natural--just what one would
have expected.  You wrote the man in Canada soon after you'd seen the
specialist, and his answer was bound to arrive in the next few days."

"But I certainly didn't write the folks at the Grange."

Winifred's eyes twinkled.  "As it happens, I did, two days ago.  I
ventured to point out their duty to them, and they were rather nice
about it in another letter."

Agatha stretched herself out in the low chair with a little sigh of
content.  "Well," she said, "it probably wouldn't have the least effect
if I scolded you.  I believe I'm horribly worn out, Winny, and it will
be a relief unspeakable to get away.  If I can arrange to give up those
pupils I'll go to-morrow."

Winifred made no answer, and kneeling with one elbow resting on the arm
of her companion's chair gazed straight in front of her.  They were
both of them very weary of the long grim struggle, and now a change was
close at hand.



CHAPTER V.

THE OLD COUNTRY.

It was a still, clear evening of spring when Wyllard, unstrapping the
ruchsack from his shoulders, sat down beside a frothing stream in a
dale of Northern England.  On arriving in London a week or two earlier
he had found a letter from Mrs. Hastings, who was then in Paris,
awaiting him, in which she stated that she could not at the moment say
when she would go home again, but that she expected to advise him
shortly.  After answering it he started North, and, obtaining Agatha's
address from Miss Rawlinson, went on again to a certain little town
which stands encircled by towering fells beside a lake in the North
Country.

He had, however, already recognised that his mission was rather a
delicate one, and he decided that it would be advisable to wait until
he heard from Mrs. Hastings before calling upon Miss Ismay.  There then
remained the question, what to do with the next few days.  A
conversation with some pedestrian tourists whom he met at his hotel,
and a glance at a map of the hill-tracks decided him, and remembering
that he had on several occasions kept the trail in Canada for close on
forty miles on end, he bought a Swiss pattern ruchsack, and set out on
foot through the fells.

Incidentally, he saw such scenery as gave him a new conception of the
Old Country, and nearly broke the hearts of his new friends the
tourists, who volunteered to show him the way over what they evidently
considered to be a rather difficult pass.  To their great astonishment
the brown-faced stranger, who wore ordinary tight-fitting American
attire and rather pointed American shoes, went up it apparently without
an effort, and for the credit of the clubs they belonged to, it seemed
incumbent on them to keep pace with him.  They naturally did not know
that he had carried bags of flour and mining tools over very much
higher passes close up to the limit of eternal snow, but after two
days' climbing they were, on the whole, relieved to part company with
him.

A professional guide who overtook them, however, recognised the
capabilities of the man when he noticed the way he lifted his feet and
how he set them down.  This, he decided, was one accustomed to walking
among the heather, but he was wrong; for it was the trick the bushman
learns when he plods through leagues of undergrowth and fallen
branches, or the tall grass of the swamps; and it is a memorable
experience to make a day's journey with such a man.  For the first hour
the thing seems easy, for the pace is never forced, but it also never
slackens down; and as the hours go by the novice, who flounders and
stumbles, grows horribly weary of trying to keep up with that steady,
persistent swing.

Wyllard had travelled since morning along a ridge of fells when he sat
down beside the water and contentedly filled his pipe.  On the one
hand, a wall of crags high above was growing black against the evening
light, and the stream came boiling down clear as crystal among great
boulder stones; but he had wandered through many a grander and more
savage scene of rocky desolation, and it impressed him less than the
green valley in front of him.  He had, at least, never seen anything
like that either on the Pacific slope or in Western Canada.

Early as it was in the season, the meadows between rock and water were
green as emerald, and the hedge-rows, just flushed with verdure, were
clipped and trimmed as though their owner loved them.  There was not a
dead tree in the larch copse which dipped to the stream, and all its
feathery tassels were sprinkled with tiny flecks of crimson and
wondrous green.  Great oaks dotted the meadows, each one perfect in
symmetry.  It seemed that the men who held this land cared for single
trees.  The sleek, tame cattle that rubbed their necks on the level
hedge-top and gazed at him ruminatively were very different from the
wild, long-horned creatures whose furious stampede he had now and then
headed off, riding hard while the roar of hoofs rang through the
dust-cloud that floated like a sea fog across the sun-scorched prairie.
Here, it seemed, all went smoothly; the whole vale was steeped in peace
and tranquillity.

Then he noticed the pale primroses that pushed their yellow flowers up
among the withered leaves, and the faint blue sheen beneath the beech
trunks not far away.  There was a vein of artistic daintiness in this
man, and the elusive beauty of these things curiously appealed to him.
He had seen the riotous, sensuous blaze of flowers kissed by Pacific
breezes, and the burnished gold of wheat that rolled in mile-long
waves; but it seemed to him that the wild things of the English North
were, after all, more wonderful.  They matched its deep peacefulness;
their beauty was chaste, fairy-like, and ethereal.

By and bye a wood pigeon cooed softly somewhere in the shadows, and a
brown thrush perched on a bare oak bough began to sing.  The broken,
repeated melody went curiously well with the rippling murmur of sliding
water, and Wyllard leaned back with a smile to listen, though he could
not remember ever having done anything of that kind before.  His life
had been a strenuous one, spent for the most part in the driving-seat
of great ploughs that rent their ample furrows through virgin prairie,
guiding the clinking binders through the wheat under a blazing sun, or
driving the plunging dories through the clammy fog over short, slopping
seas.  Now, however, the tranquillity of the English valley stole in on
him, and he began to understand how the love of that well-trimmed land
clung to the men out West, who spoke of it tenderly as the Old Country.

Then, for he was in an unusually susceptible mood, he took a little
deerhide case, artistically made by a Blackfoot Indian, from his
pocket, and extracted from it the somewhat faded photograph of an
English girl.  He had got it from the lad he had buried among the
ranges of the Pacific slope, and it had been his companion in many a
desolate camp and on many a weary journey.  The face was delicately
modelled, and there was a freshness in it which is, perhaps, seldom
seen outside the Old Country; but what pleased him more was the
serenity in the clear, innocent eyes.

He was not in love with the picture--he would probably have smiled at
the notion--but he had a curious feeling that he would meet the girl
some day, and that it would then be a privilege only to speak to her.
This was, after all, not so extravagant a fancy as it might appear, for
romance, the mother of chivalry and many graces, still finds shelter in
the hearts of such men as him from the wide spaces of the newer lands.
Shrewd as they are, and practical, they see visions now and then, and,
what is more, prove them to be realities with bleeding hands and toil
incredible.

By and bye he put the photograph back in his pocket, and filled his
pipe again, while it was almost dark before he had smoked it out.  The
thrush had gone, and only the ripple of the water broke the silence,
until he heard footsteps on the stones behind him.  Then, looking
round, he saw a young woman moving towards the river, and he watched
her with a quiet interest, for his perceptions were a little sharper
than usual then, and it seemed to him that she was very much in harmony
with what he thought of as the key-tone of the place.  She was tall and
shapely, and she moved with a quiet grace.  When she stopped a moment,
poised upon a shelf of rock as though considering the easiest way to
the water, her figure fell into reposeful lines, but that was after all
only what he had expected, for he now remembered that he had
half-consciously studied the Englishwomen he had met in the West.

The Western women usually moved, and certainly spoke, with an almost
superfluous vivacity and alertness.  There was in them a feverish
activity, which contrasted with the English deliberation.  The latter
had sometimes exasperated him, but it was becoming comprehensible, and
taking on a more favourable aspect now.  It was, he felt, born of the
tranquillity of this well-trimmed land, a steadfastness that progressed
slowly by system and rule, and he recognised that it would have
troubled his sense of fitness if this girl had clattered down across
the stones hurriedly and noisily.

As yet he could not see her face, but when she went on a little further
it became evident that she desired to cross the river, and was
regarding the row of stepping stones that stretched across it somewhat
dubiously.  One or two had apparently fallen over, or been washed away
by a flood, for there were several rather wide gaps between them,
through which the stream frothed whitely.  As soon as Wyllard noticed
that, he rose and moved towards her.

"You want to get across?" he said.

She was still glancing at the water, but although he did not think she
had seen him or heard his approach, she turned towards him quietly.
Then a momentary sense of astonishment held him almost embarrassed, for
it was her picture he had gazed at scarcely half an hour ago, and he
would have recognised her anywhere.

"Yes," she said.  "It is rather a long way round by the bridge, but
some of the stones seem to have disappeared since I last came this way."

She spoke, as Wyllard had expected, softly and quietly, but he was
first of all a man of action, and, somewhat to her astonishment, he
forthwith waded into the river.  Then he turned and held out his hand
to her.

"It isn't a very long step.  You ought to manage it," he said.

The girl favoured him with a swift glance of scrutiny.  At first she
had supposed him to be one of the walking tourists or climbers who
invaded those valleys at Easter; but they were, for the most part,
young men from the cities, and this stranger's face was darkened by the
sun.  There was also an indefinite suggestion of strength in the pose
of his lean, symmetrical figure, which, though she did not recognise
that fact, could only have come from strenuous labour in the open air.
She, however, noticed that while the average Englishman would have
asked permission to help her, or have deprecated the offer, this
stranger did nothing of the kind.  He stood with the water frothing
about his ankles, holding out his hand.

She had no hesitation about taking it, and while he waded through the
river she stepped lightly from stone to stone until she came to a
rather wider gap, where the stream was deeper.  Then she stopped a
moment, gazing at the sliding froth, until the man's grasp tightened on
her fingers, and she felt his other hand rest upon her waist.

"Now," he said, "I won't let you fall."

[Illustration: "'Now,' he said, 'I won't let you fall.'"]

She was across the gap in another moment, wondering somewhat uneasily
why she had obeyed the compelling pressure, but glad to see that his
face was perfectly unmoved, and that he was evidently quite unconscious
of having done anything unusual.  She crossed without mishap, and when
they stood on the shingle he dropped her hand.

"Thank you," she said.  "I'm afraid you got rather wet."

The man laughed, and he had a pleasant laugh.  "Oh," he said, "I'm used
to it.  Isn't there a village with a hotel in it, a mile or two from
here?"

"Yes," said the girl, "this is the way.  The path goes up to the high
road through the larch wood."

She turned into it, and, though she had not expected this, the man
walked beside her.  Still, she did not resent it.  His manner was
deferential, and she liked his face, while there was, after all, no
reason why he should stay behind when he was going the same way.  He
accompanied her silently for several minutes as they went on through
the gloom of the larches, where a sweet, resinous odour crept into the
still, evening air, and then he looked up as they came to a towering
pine.

"Have you got many of those trees over here?" he asked.

Then a light dawned upon the girl, for, though he had spoken without
perceptible accent, she had been slightly puzzled by something in his
speech and appearance.

"I believe they're not uncommon.  You are an American?" she said.

Wyllard laughed.  "No," he said.  "I was born in Western Canada, but I
think I'm as English as you are, in some respects, though I never quite
realised it until to-night.  It isn't exactly because my father came
from this country, either."

The girl was a trifle astonished at this answer, and still more at the
indefinite something in his manner which seemed to indicate that he
expected her to understand, as, indeed, she did.  Her only dowry had
been an expensive education, and she remembered that the influence of
the isle she lived in had in turn fastened on Saxons, Norsemen,
Normans, and made them Englishmen.  What was more, so far as she had
read, those who had gone out South or Westwards had carried that
influence with them and, under all their surface changes, and sometimes
their grievances against the Motherland, were, in the great essentials,
wholly English still.

"But," she said at random, "how can you be sure that I'm English?"

It was quite dark in among the trees, but she fancied there was a smile
in her companion's eyes.

"Oh," he answered simply, "you couldn't be anything else!"

She accepted this as a compliment, though she fancied that it had not
been his direct intention to pay her one.  His general attitude since
she had met him scarcely suggested such a lack of sense.  She was
becoming mildly interested in this stranger, but she possessed several
essentially English characteristics, and it did not appear advisable to
encourage him too much.  She said nothing further, and it was he who
spoke first.

"I wonder," he said, "if you knew a young lad who went out to Canada
some few years ago.  His name was Pattinson--Henry Pattinson."

"No," said his companion, "I certainly did not.  Besides, the name is
not an uncommon one.  There are a good many Pattinsons in the North."

Wyllard was not astonished at this answer.  He had reasons for
believing that the name the lad he had befriended had enrolled himself
under was not his correct one.  It would, of course, have been easy to
describe him, but Wyllard was shrewd, and noticing that there was now a
restraint in his companion's manner he was not prepared to do that yet.
He was aware that most of the English are characterised by a certain
reserve, and apt to retire into their shells if pressed too hard.  He
did not, however, mean to let this girl elude him altogether.

"It really doesn't matter," he said, "I shall no doubt get upon his
trail in due time."

They reached the high road a minute or two later, and the girl turned
to him.

"Thank you again," she said.  "If you go straight on you will come to
the village in about a quarter of an hour."

Then she turned away and left him standing with his soft hat in his
hand, and, as it happened, he stood quite still for almost a minute
after she had gone.  In due time, however, he reached the inn he had
inquired about, and its old-world simplicity delighted him.  It was
built, feet thick, of slate stone, against the foot of the fell, and
roofed, as he noticed, with ponderous flags.  In Canada, where the
frost was Arctic, they used thin cedar shingles.  The room his meal was
brought him in was panelled with oak that had turned black with age.
Great rough-hewn beams of four times the size that anybody would have
used for the purpose in the West supported the low ceiling, and--for
there was a fire on the wide hearth--the ruddy gleam of burnished
copper utensils pierced the shadows.  The room was large, and there was
only a single candle upon the table, but he felt that a garish light
would somehow be out of harmony with the atmosphere of that interior.

By and bye his hostess appeared to clear the things away, and she was a
little, withered old woman, immaculately neat, with shrewd, kindly
eyes, and a russet tinge in her cheeks.

"There's a good light, and company in the sitting-room," she said.
"We've three young men staying with us.  They've been up the Pike."

"I'd sooner stay here, if I may," said Wyllard.  "I don't quite know
yet if I'll go on to-morrow.  One can get through to Langley Dale by
the Hause, as I think you call it?"

The wrinkled dame said that pedestrians often went that way, and
Wyllard asked a question casually.

"There are some prosperous folks--people of station living round here?

"There's the vicar.  I don't know that he's what you'd call prosperous.
Then there's Mr. Martindale, of Rushyholme, and Little, of the Ghyll."

"Has any of them a daughter of about twenty-four years of age?" and
Wyllard described the girl he had met to the best of his ability.

It was evident that the landlady did not recognise the description, but
she seemed to consider.

"No," she said, "there's nobody like that; but I did hear that they'd a
young lady staying at the vicarage."

Then she changed the subject abruptly, and Wyllard once more decided
that the English did not like questions.

"You're a stranger, sir?" she said.

"I am," said Wyllard.  "I've some business to attend to further on, but
I came along on foot, to see the fells, and I'm glad I did.  It's a
great and wonderful country you're living in.  That is," he added
gravely, "when you get outside the towns.  There are things in some of
them that most make one ill."

Then he stood up.  "That tray's too heavy for you.  Won't you let me
carry it?"

The landlady seemed astonished, but she made it clear that she desired
no assistance, and when she went out Wyllard, who sat down again, took
out the photograph.  He gazed at it steadfastly, and then put it back
into his pocket.

"There's rather more than mere prettiness there, but I don't know that
I want to keep it now," he said.  "It's way behind the original.  She
has grown in the meanwhile--just as one would expect that girl to grow."

Then he lighted his pipe, and smoked thoughtfully until he appeared to
arrive at a decision.

"One can't force the running in this country.  They don't like it," he
said.  "I'll lie by a day or two, and keep an eye on that vicarage."

In the meanwhile his hostess was discussing him with a niece.

"I'm sure I don't know what that man is," she informed the younger
woman.  "He has got the manners of a gentleman, but he walks like a
fell shepherd, and his hands are like a navvy's.  A man's hands now and
then tell you a good deal about him.  Besides, of all things, he wanted
to carry his tray away.  Said it was too heavy for me."

"Oh," said her niece, "he's an American.  There's no accounting for
them."



CHAPTER VI.

HER PICTURE.

Wyllard stayed at the inn three days without seeing anything more of
the girl he had met beside the stream, though he diligently watched for
her.  For one thing, he had long felt it was his duty to communicate
with the relatives of the lad he had befriended, and the fact that he
had found her photograph in the young Englishman's possession made it
appear highly probable that she could assist him in tracing them.
Apart from this, he could not quite analyse his motives for desiring to
see more of her, though he was conscious of the desire.  Her picture
had, however, been a companion to him in his wanderings, and he had,
indeed, now and then found a certain solace in gazing at it, while now
he had seen her in the flesh he was willing to admit that he had never
met any woman who had made the same impression on him.  What he meant
by that he was not quite certain; but it was in the meanwhile as far as
he would go.

It was, of course, open to him to call at the vicarage, but though he
meant to adopt that course as a last resort, there were certain
objections to it.  He did not even know the girl's name, and there was
nobody to say a word for him; while, so far as his experience went, the
English were rather apt to be reticent and reserved to an unknown
stranger.  It seemed to him that, although she might give him the
information he required, their acquaintance would probably terminate
then and there, which was not what he desired.  She would, he decided,
be less likely to stand upon her guard if he could contrive to meet her
casually without pre-arrangement.

On the fourth day fortune favoured him, for he came upon her
endeavouring to open a tottering gate where a stony hill track led off
from the smooth white road.  As it happened, he had received a letter
from Mrs. Hastings that morning, fixing the date of her departure,
which rendered it necessary for him to discharge the duty Hawtrey had
saddled him with as soon as possible.  The Grange, where he understood
Miss Ismay was then staying, lay thirty miles away across the fells,
and he had already decided to start early on the morrow.  That being
the case, it was clear that he must make the most of this opportunity;
but he also realised that it would be advisable to proceed
circumspectly.  Saying nothing, he set his shoulder to the gate, and
lifting it on its decrepit hinges swung it open.

"Thank you," said the girl, and then, remembering that this was the
last thing she had said to him, she smiled, as she added, "It is the
second time you have turned up when I was in difficulties."

In spite of his resolution to proceed cautiously, a twinkle crept into
Wyllard's eyes, and suggested that the fact she had mentioned was not
so much of a coincidence as it probably appeared.  She saw it, and was
about to pass on, when he stopped her with a gesture.  He was, after
all, usually a candid person.

"The fact is, I have been looking out for you the last three days," he
said.

He fancied the girl had taken alarm at this, and spread his hands out
deprecatingly.  "Won't you hear me out?" he added.  "There's a matter I
must put before you, but I won't keep you long."

His companion was a little puzzled, and naturally curious.  It struck
her as somewhat strange that his rather startling admission should have
roused in her very little indignation; but she felt that it would be
unreasonable to suspect this man of anything that savoured of
impertinence.  His manner was reassuring, and she liked his face.

"Well?" she said inquiringly.

The man indicated a big oak trunk that lay just inside the gate.

"If you'll sit down, I'll get through as quick as I can," he said.  "In
the first place, I am, as I told you, a Canadian, come over partly to
see the country, and partly to carry out one or two duties.  In regard
to one of them, I believe you can help me."

His companion's face was expressive of a very natural astonishment.

"I could help you?"

Wyllard nodded.  "I'll explain my reasons for believing it later on,"
he said.  "In the meanwhile, I asked you a question the other night,
which I'll now try to make more explicit.  Were you ever acquainted
with a young Englishman who went to Canada from this country several
years ago?  He would be about twenty then, and had dark hair and eyes.
That, of course, isn't an unusual thing, but there was a rather curious
white mark on his left temple.  If he was ever a friend of yours, that
scar ought to fix it."

"Oh!" said the girl, "that must have been Lance Radcliffe.  I was with
him when the scar was made--ever so long ago.  But you said his name
was Pattinson--and we heard that he was dead."

"I did," said Wyllard gravely.  "Still, I wasn't quite sure of it, and
he's certainly dead.  I buried him."

His companion made a little abrupt movement, and he saw the sudden
softening of her eyes.  There was, however, only a gentle pity in them,
and nothing in her manner suggested the deeper feeling he had
half-expected.  That was also a relief to him.

"Then," she said, "I am sure that his father would like to meet you.
There was some trouble between them--I don't know which was wrong--and
Lance went out to Canada, and never wrote.  By and bye, Major Radcliffe
tried to trace him through a Vancouver banker, and only found that he
had died in the hands of a stranger who had done all that was possible
for him."  She turned to Wyllard with a look which set his heart
beating rather faster than usual.  "You are that man?"

"Yes," said Wyllard simply, "I did what I could for him.  It didn't
amount to very much.  He was too far gone."

Then at her request he told her the story he had told to Hawtrey, and
when he had finished her face was soft again, for it had stirred her
curiously.

"But," she said, "he had no claim on you."

Wyllard lifted one hand as if in expostulation.  "He was dying in the
bush.  Wasn't that enough?"

The girl made no answer for a moment or two.  She had earned her living
for several years, and was, because of it, to some extent acquainted
with the grim realities of life.  She did not know that while there are
certainly hard men in Canada, the small farmers and ranchers of the
West--and, perhaps above all, the fearless free lances who build
railroads and grapple with giant trees in the forests of the Pacific
slope--are, as a rule, distinguished by a splendid charity.  With them
the sick or worn-out stranger is very seldom turned away.  Still,
watching her companion covertly, she understood that this man whom she
had seen for the first time three days ago had done exactly what she
would have expected of him.  Then she proceeded to give him the
information she supposed he desired.

"I saw a good deal of Lance Radcliffe--when I was younger," she said.
"His people still live at Garside Scar, close by Dufton Holme.  I
presume you will call on them?"

Wyllard said that he proposed doing so as he had a watch and one or two
other mementoes that they might like to have, and when she told him how
to reach Dufton Holme by a very round-about railway journey he supposed
it lay somewhere in the dale to which he already purposed going.  Then
she turned to him again.

"There is one point that rather puzzles me," she said.  "How did you
know that I could tell you anything about him?"

The man thrust his hand into his pocket, and took out a little leather
case.

"You are by no means a stranger to me," he said, and quietly handed her
the photograph.  "This is your picture; I found it among the dead lad's
things."

The girl, who started visibly, flashed a very keen glance at him.
There was, however, no doubt that he had not intended to produce any
dramatic effect.  Then she flushed a little.

"I never knew he had it," she said.  "Perhaps he got it from his
sister."  She paused, and then, as though impelled to make the fact
quite clear, added, "I certainly never gave it him."

Wyllard smiled gravely, for he recognised that while she was clearly
grieved to hear of his death, she could have had no particular
tenderness for the unfortunate lad.  He was, however, a little off his
guard just then.

"Well," he said, "perhaps he took it in the first place for the mere
beauty of it, and it afterwards became a companion--something that
connected him with the Old Country.  It appealed in one of those ways
to me."

Again she flashed a sharp glance at him, but he went on unheeding:

"When I found it I meant to keep it merely as a clue, and so that it
could be given up to his relatives some day," he added.  "Then I fell
into the habit of looking at it in my lonely camp in the bush at night,
and when I sat beside the stove while the snow lay deep upon the
prairie.  There was something in your eyes that seemed to encourage me."

"To encourage you?"

"Yes," Wyllard assented gravely; "I think that expresses it.  When I
camped in the bush of the Pacific slope we were either out on the gold
trail--and we generally came back ragged and unsuccessful after
spending several months' wages which we could badly spare--or I was
going from one wooden town to another without a dollar in my pocket and
wondering, how I was to obtain one when I got there.  For a time it
wasn't much more cheerful on the prairie: twice in succession the
harvest failed.  Perhaps Lance Radcliffe felt as I did."

The girl cut him short.  "Why didn't you mention the photograph at
once?"

Wyllard smiled at her.  "Oh," he said, "I didn't want to be
precipitate--your folks don't seem to like that; I've met them out
West.  I think"--and he seemed to consider--"I wanted to make sure you
wouldn't be repelled by what might look like Colonial _brusquerie_.
You see, you have been over snow-barred divides and through great
shadowy forests with me.  We've camped among the boulders by lonely
lakes, and gone down frothing rapids.  I felt--I can't tell you
why--that I was bound to meet you some day."

It was, perhaps, a trifle startling, but the girl now showed neither
astonishment nor resentment.  She felt curiously certain that this
stranger was not posing or speaking for effect.  It did not occur to
him that he might have gone too far, and for a space he leaned against
the gate, saying nothing, while she looked at him with what he thought
of as her gracious English calm.

Pale sunshine fell upon them, though the larches beside the road were
rustling beneath a little cold wind, and the song of the river came up
brokenly out of the valley.  An odour of fresh grass floated about
them, and the dry, cold smell of the English spring was in the air.
Across the valley dim ghosts of hills lighted by evanescent gleams rose
out of the east wind greyness with shadowy grandeur.

Then Wyllard seemed to rouse himself.  "I wonder if I ought to write
Major Radcliffe and tell him what my object is before I call?" he said.
"It would make the thing a little easier."

The girl rose.  "Yes," she assented, "that would, perhaps, be wiser."
Then she glanced at the photograph which was still in her hand.  "It
has served its purpose.  I scarcely think it would be of any great
interest to Major Radcliffe."

She saw his face change as she made it evident that she did not mean to
give the portrait back to him; but there was, at least, one excellent
reason why she would not have her picture in a strange man's hands.

"Thank you," she said, "for the story.  I am glad we have met; but I'm
afraid I have already kept my friends waiting for me."

Then she turned away, and it occurred to Wyllard that he had made a
very indifferent use of the opportunity, since she had neither asked
his name nor told him hers.  It was, however, evident that he could not
well run after her and demand it, and he decided that he could in all
probability obtain it from Major Radcliffe when he called upon him.
Still, he regretted his lack of adroitness as he walked back to the
inn, where he wrote two letters when he had consulted a map and his
landlady.  Dufton Holme, he discovered, was a small village within a
mile or two of the Grange where, as Miss Rawlinson had informed him,
Agatha Ismay was then staying.  One letter was addressed to her, and he
formally asked permission to call upon her with a message from Gregory
Hawtrey.  The other was to Major Radcliffe, and in both he said that an
answer would reach him at the inn which his landlady had informed him
was to be found not far from either of the houses he proposed to visit.

He set out on foot next morning, and after climbing a steep pass
followed a winding track across a waste of empty moor until he struck a
smooth white road, which led past a rock-girt lake and into a deep
valley.  It was six o'clock when he started, and three when he reached
the inn, where he found an answer to one of his letters awaiting him.
It was from Major Radcliffe, who desired an interview with him as soon
as possible.

Within an hour he was on his way to the Major's house, where a
grey-haired man, whose yellow skin suggested long exposure to a
tropical sun, and a little withered lady were waiting for him.  They
received him graciously, but there was an indefinite something in their
manner and bearing which Wyllard, who had read a good deal, recognised,
though he had never been brought into actual contact with it until
then.  He felt that he could not have expected to come across such
people anywhere but in England, unless it was at the headquarters of a
British battalion in India.

He told his story tersely, softening unpleasant details, and making
little of what he had done, and the grey-haired man listened gravely
with an unmoved face, though a trace of moisture crept into the little
lady's eyes.  There was silence for a moment or two when he had
finished, and then Major Radcliffe, whose manner was very quiet, turned
to him.

"You have laid me under an obligation which I could never wipe out,
even if I wished it," he said.  "It was my only son you buried out
there in Canada."

He broke off for a moment, and his quietness was more marked than ever
when he went on again.

"As you have no doubt surmised, we quarrelled," he said.  "He was
extravagant and careless--at least I thought that then--but now it
seems to me that I was unduly hard on him.  His mother"--and he turned
to the little lady with an inclination that pleased Wyllard
curiously--"was sure of it at the time.  In any case, I took the wrong
way, and he went out to Canada.  I made that, at least, easy for
him--and I have been sorry ever since."

He paused again with a little expressive gesture.  "It seems due to
him, and you, that I should tell you this.  When no word reached us I
had inquiries made, through a banker he called upon, who, discovering
that he had registered at a hotel as Pattinson, at length traced him to
a British Columbian silver mine.  He had, however, left it shortly
before my correspondent learned that he had been employed there, and
all the latter could tell me was that an unknown prospector had nursed
him until he died."

Wyllard, who said nothing, took out a watch and the clasp of a
workman's belt from his pocket, and laid them gently on Mrs.
Radcliffe's knee.  He saw her eyes fill, and turned his head away.

"I feel that you may blame me for not writing sooner, but it was only a
very little while ago that I was able to trace you, and then it was
only by a very curious--coincidence," he said presently.

This was the most apposite word that occurred to him, for he did not
consider it advisable to mention the photograph.  It seemed to him that
the girl would not like it.  Nor, though he was greatly tempted, did he
care to make inquiries concerning her just then.  In another moment or
two the Major spoke again.

"If I can make your stay here pleasanter in any way I should be
delighted," he said.  "If you will take up your quarters with us I will
send down to the inn for your things."

Wyllard excused himself, but when the lady urged him at least to dine
with them on the following evening he appeared to consider.

"The one difficulty is that I don't know yet whether I shall be engaged
then," he explained.  "As it happens, I've a message for Miss Ismay,
and I wrote offering to call upon her at any convenient hour.  So far I
have heard nothing from her."

"She's away," Mrs. Radcliffe informed him.  "They have probably sent
your letter on to her.  I had a note from her yesterday, however, and
expect her here to-morrow.  You have met some friends of hers in
Canada?"

"Gregory Hawtrey," said Wyllard.  "I have promised to call upon his
people, too."

He saw Major Radcliffe glance at his wife, and the faint gleam in the
latter's eyes.

"Well," she said, "if you will promise to come I will send word over to
Agatha."

Wyllard agreed to this, and went away a few minutes later.  He noticed
the tact and consideration with which his new friends had refrained
from expressing any sign of the curiosity he fancied they naturally
felt, for Mrs. Radcliffe's face had suggested that she understood the
situation.  The latter was, however, commencing to appear a little more
difficult to him.  It was, it seemed, his task to explain to a girl
brought up among such people delicately what she must be prepared to
face as a farmer's wife in Western Canada.  He was not sure that this
would be easy in itself, but it was rendered much more difficult by the
fact that Hawtrey would expect him to accomplish it without unduly
daunting her.  Her letter had certainly suggested courage, but, after
all, it was as he reflected the courage of ignorance, and he had now
some notion of the life of ease and refinement her English friends led.
He was commencing to feel sorry for Agatha Ismay.



CHAPTER VII.

AGATHA DOES NOT FLINCH.

Next evening Wyllard sat with Mrs. Radcliffe in a big low-ceilinged
room at Garside Scar, looking about him with quiet interest.  He had
now and then spent a day or two in huge Western hotels, but he had
never seen anything quite like that room.  The sheer physical comfort
of its arrangements appealed to him, but after all he was not one who
had ever studied his bodily ease very much, and what he regarded as the
chaste refinement of its adornment had a deeper effect.  Though he had
lived for the most part in the bush and on the prairie, he had been
endued with or had somehow acquired an artistic susceptibility.

The furniture was old, and perhaps a trifle shabby, but it was, as he
noticed, of beautiful design.  Curtains, carpets, tinted walls, formed,
it seemed to him, a harmony of soft colouring, and there were scattered
here and there dainty works of art, little statuettes from Italy, and
wonderful Indian ivory and silver work.  Then a row of low,
stone-ribbed windows pierced the front of the room, and looking out he
saw the trim garden lying in the warm evening light.  Immediately
beneath the windows ran a broad gravelled terrace, which was apparently
raked smooth every day, with a row of urns in which hyacinths bloomed
upon its pillared wall.  From the middle of it a wide stairway led down
to the wonderful velvet lawn, which was dotted with clumps of cupressus
with golden gleams in it, and beyond that clipped yews rose smooth and
solid as a rampart of stone.

It all impressed him curiously--the order and beauty of it, the signs
of loving care.  It gave him a key, he fancied, to the lives the
cultured English led, for there was no sign of strain and fret and
stress and hurry here.  Everything, it seemed, went smoothly with
rhythmic regularity, and though it is possible that a good many
Englishmen would have regarded Garside Scar as a very second-rate
country house, and seen in Major Radcliffe and his wife nothing more
than a somewhat prosy old soldier and a withered lady, old-fashioned in
her dress and views, this Westerner had what was, perhaps, a clearer
vision.  He could imagine the Major standing fast at any cost upon some
minute point of honour, and it seemed to him that his lady might have
stepped down from some old picture with all the graces of an earlier
age and the smell of the English lavender upon her garments.  Then he
remembered that, after all, Englishwomen lived somewhat coarsely in the
Georgian days, and that he had met hard-handed men grimed with dust and
sweat who could also stand fast by a point of honour in Western Canada.
Though the latter fact did not occur to him, he had, for that matter,
done it more than once himself.

Then he recalled his wandering thoughts as his hostess smiled at him.

"You are interested in all you see?" she asked frankly.

"Yes, madam," said Wyllard--and the word rose instinctively to his
lips, for it seemed to him the only fitting way to address her.  "In
fact, I'd like to spend some hours here and look at everything.  I'd
begin at the pictures and work right round."

His companion's smile suggested that she was not displeased.

"But you have been in London?"

"I have," said Wyllard.  "I had one or two letters to folks there from
big flour shippers, and they did all they could to entertain me.
Still, their places were different; they hadn't the--charm--of yours.
It's something which I think could only exist in these still valleys
and in cathedral closes.  It strikes me more because it is something
I've never been accustomed to."

The lady was interested, and fancied that she partly understood his
attitude.

"Your life is necessarily different from ours," she suggested.

Wyllard smiled.  "It's so different that you couldn't realise it.  It's
all strain and effort from early sunrise until after dusk at night.
Bodily strain of aching muscles, and mental stress in adverse seasons.
We scarcely think of comfort, and never dream of artistic luxury.  The
dollars we raise are sunk again in seed and extra teams and ploughs."

"After all, a good many people are driven rather hard by the love of
money here."

"No," said Wyllard gravely, "that's not it exactly.  At least, not with
most of us.  It's rather the pride of wresting another quarter-section
from the prairie, taking--our own--by labour, breaking the wilderness.
You"--and he added this as though to explain that he could hardly
expect her to quite grasp his views--"have never been out West?"

His hostess laughed.  "I have stayed down in the plains through the hot
season in stifling cantonments, and I have once or twice been in Indian
cholera camps.  Besides, I have seen my husband sitting, haggard and
worn with fever, in his saddle holding back a clamorous crowd that
surged about him half-mad with religious fury.  There were Hindus and
Moslems to be kept from flying at each others' throats, and at a
tactless word or sign of wavering either party would have pulled him
down."

"You'll have to forgive me, madam"--and Wyllard's gesture was
deprecatory, though his eyes twinkled.  "The notion that we're the only
ones who really work, or, at least, do anything worth while, is rather
a favourite one out West.  No doubt it's a delusion.  I should have
known that all of us are born like that."

His hostess forgave him readily, if only for the "all of us," which
struck her as especially fortunate.  A few minutes later there were
voices in the hall, and then the door opened, and the girl he had met
at the stepping stones came in.  She was dressed differently, in
trailing garments which, it seemed to him, became her wonderfully, and
he noticed now the shapely delicacy of her hands and the fine, ivory
pallor of her skin.  Then his hostess turned to him.

"I had better present you formally to Miss Ismay," she said.  "Agatha,
this is Mr. Wyllard, who I understand has brought you a message from
Canada."

There was no doubt that Wyllard was blankly astonished, and for a
moment the girl was clearly startled, too.

"You!" was all she said.

[Illustration: "'You!' was all she said."

She, however, held her hand out before she turned to speak to Mrs.
Radcliffe, but it was a slight relief to both when somebody announced
that dinner was ready.

Wyllard sat next to his hostess, and was not sorry that he was only
called upon to take part in casual general conversation, though he
fancied once or twice that Miss Ismay was unobtrusively studying him.
It was also nearly an hour after the meal was over when Mrs. Radcliffe
left them alone in her little drawing-room.

"You have, no doubt, a good deal to talk about, and you needn't join us
until you're ready," she said.  "The Major always reads the London
papers after dinner."

Agatha sat down in a low chair near the hearth, and it first of all
occurred to Wyllard, who took a place opposite her, that she was,
although of full stature, too delicate and dainty, too over-cultivated,
in fact, to marry Hawtrey.  This was rather curious, since he had
hitherto regarded his comrade as a typical, well-educated Englishman;
but it now seemed to him that there was a certain streak of coarseness
in Gregory.  The man, it suddenly flashed upon him, was self-indulgent,
and his careless ease of manner, which he had once liked, was rather
too much in evidence.  In a few moments, however, Agatha turned to him.

"I understand that Gregory is recovering rapidly?" she said.

Wyllard assured her that this was the case, and Agatha said quietly,
"He wants me to go out to him."

Wyllard felt that if a girl of this kind had promised to marry him he
would not have sent for her but have come in person, if he had been
compelled to pledge his last possessions, or crawl to the tideway on
his hands and knees.  For all that, he was ready to defend his friend.

"I'm afraid it's necessary," he said.  "Gregory was quite unfit for
such a journey when I left, and he must be ready to commence the
season's campaign with the first of the spring.  Our summer is short,
you see, and with our one-crop farming it's indispensable to get the
seed in early: in fact, he will be badly behind as it is."

This was not particularly tactful since, without intending it, he made
it evident that he felt his comrade had been to some extent remiss; but
Agatha smiled.

"Oh," she said, "I understand!  You needn't labour the excuse.  But
doesn't the same thing apply to you?"

"It certainly did.  Now, however, things have become a little easier.
My holding's larger than Gregory's, and I have a foreman who can look
after it for me."

"Gregory said that you were a great friend of his."

Wyllard seized this opportunity.  "He is a great friend of mine, and I
like to think it means the same thing.  In fact, it's reasonably
certain that he saved my life for me."

"Ah!" said Agatha; "that is a thing he didn't mention.  How did it come
about?"

Wyllard was glad to tell the story: he was anxious to say all he
honestly could in Hawtrey's favour.

"We were at work on a railroad trestle--a towering wooden bridge, in
British Columbia.  It stretched across a deep ravine with great
boulders and a stream in the bottom of it, and we stood high up on a
staging close beneath the metals.  A fast freight, a huge general
produce train, came down the track, with one of the new big locomotives
hauling it, and when the cars went banging by above us we could hardly
hold on to the bridge.  Still, the construction foreman was a hustler,
and we had to get the spikes in.  I was swinging the hammer when I felt
the plank beneath me slip.  The train, it seems, had jarred the bolt we
had our lashings round loose.  For a moment I felt that I was going
down into the gorge, and then Gregory leaned out and grabbed me.  He
had only one free hand to do it with, and when he felt my weight one
foot swung out from the stringer he had sprung to.  It seemed certain
that I would pull him with me, too.  We hung like that for a space--I
don't quite know how long."

He paused for a moment, apparently feeling the stress of it again, and
there was a faint thrill in his voice when he went on.

"It was then," he said, "I knew just what kind of man Gregory Hawtrey
was.  Anybody else would have let me go; but he held on.  Then I got my
hand on some of the framing, and he swung me on to the stringer."

He saw the gleam in Agatha's eyes.  "Oh!" she said, "that is just what
he must have done.  He was like that always--impulsive, splendidly
generous."

Wyllard felt that he had succeeded, though he knew that there were men
on the prairie who called his comrade slackly careless, instead of
impulsive.  Agatha, however, spoke again.

"But Gregory wasn't a carpenter," she said.

"In those days when dollars were scanty we had to be whatever we could.
There wasn't much specialisation of handicrafts out there then.  The
farmer whose crop was ruined took up the railroad shovel, or borrowed a
saw from somebody and set about building houses, or anything else that
was wanted."

"Of course!" said Agatha.  "Besides, he was always wonderfully quick.
He could learn any game by just watching it awhile.  He did all he
undertook brilliantly."

It occurred to Wyllard that Gregory had, at least, made no great
success of farming; but that occupation, as practised on the prairie,
demands a good deal more than quickness and what some call brilliancy
from the man who undertakes it.  He must, as they say out there,
possess the capacity for staying with it; the grim courage to hold fast
the tighter under each crushing blow, when his teams die, or the grain
shrivels under the harvest frost, or ragged ice hurtling before a
roaring blast does the reaping.  It was, however, evident that this
girl had an unquestioning faith in Gregory Hawtrey, and once more
Wyllard felt compassionate towards her.  He wondered if she would have
retained it had the man spent those four years in England instead of
Canada: for it was clear from the contrast between her and her picture
that she had grown in many ways since she had given her promise to her
lover.  He had said what he could in Hawtrey's favour, but now he felt
that something was due to the girl.

"Gregory told me to explain what things are like out there," he said.
"I think it is because they are so different from what you are
accustomed to that he has waited as long as he has done.  He wanted to
make them as easy as possible for you, and now he would like you to
realise what is before you."

He was almost astonished at the girl's comprehension, for she glanced
round the luxurious room with a faint smile.

"You look on me as part of--this?  I mean it seems to you that I fit in
with my surroundings, and would only be in harmony with them?"

"Yes," said Wyllard gravely, "I think you fit in with them excellently."

Agatha laughed.  "Well," she said, "I was once, to a certain extent,
accustomed to something similar; though, after all, one could hardly
compare the Grange with Garside Scar.  Still, that was some time ago,
and I have earned my living for several years now.  That counts for
something, doesn't it?"

She glanced down at her dress.  "For instance, this is the result of a
good deal of self-denial, though the cost of it was partly worked off
in music lessons, and the stuff was almost the cheapest I could get.  I
sang at concerts--and it was part of my stock-in-trade.  After all, why
should you think me only capable of living in luxury?"

"I didn't quite go that far."

She laughed again.  "Then is Canada such a very dreadful place?  I have
heard of other Englishwomen going out there as farmers' wives.  Do they
all live unhappily?"

"No," said Wyllard; "at least, they show no sign of it, and some of
them and the city-born Canadians are, I think, the salt of this earth.
Probably it's easy to be calm and gracious in such a place as
this--though I naturally don't know since I've never tried it--but when
a woman who toils from sunrise to sunset most of the year keeps her
sweetness and serenity, it's a very different and much finer thing.
But I'll try to answer the other question.  The prairie isn't dreadful;
it's a land of sunshine and clear skies.  Heat and cold--and we have
them both--don't worry one there.  There's optimism in the crystal air.
It's not beautiful like these valleys, but it has its beauty.  It's
vast and silent, and, though our homesteads are crude and new, once you
pass the breaking it's primevally old.  That gets hold of one somehow.
It's wonderful after sunset in the early spring, when the little cold
wind's like wine, and it runs white to the horizon with the smoky red
on the rim of it melting into transcendental green.  When the wheat
rolls across the foreground in ochre and burnished copper waves, it's
more wonderful still.  One sees the fulfilment of the promise, and
takes courage."

"Then," said Agatha, who had scarcely suspected him of a capacity for
such flights as this, "what is there to shrink from?"

"In the case of a small farmer's wife, the constant, never-slackening
strain.  There's no hired assistance; she must clean the house, and
wash, and cook--though it's not unusual for the men to wash the plates."

The girl was evidently not much impressed, for she laughed.

"Does Gregory wash the plates?" she asked.

Wyllard's eyes twinkled.  "When Sproatly won't," he said.  "Still, in a
general way they only do it once a week."

"Ah," said Agatha, "I can imagine Gregory hating it.  As a matter of
fact, I like him for it."

"Then she must bake, and mend her husband's clothes.  Indeed, it's not
unusual for her to mend for the hired man too.  Besides that, there are
always odds and ends of tasks, but the time when you feel the strain
most is in the winter.  Then you sit at night, shivering, as a rule,
beside the stove in an almost empty log-walled room, reading a book you
have probably read three or four times before.  Outside, the frost is
Arctic; you can hear the roofing shingles crackle now and then; and you
wake up when the fire burns low.  There's no life, no company, rarely a
new face, and if you go to a dance or supper somewhere, perhaps once a
month, you ride back on a bob-sled frozen almost stiff beneath the
robes."

"Still," said Agatha, "that does not last."

The man understood her.  "Oh!" he said, "one makes progress--that is,
if one can stand the strain--but, as the one way of doing it is to sow
for a larger harvest and break fresh sod every year, there can be no
slackening down in the meanwhile.  Every dollar must be guarded and
ploughed into the soil again."

He broke off, feeling that he had done all that could reasonably be
expected of him, and Agatha asked one question.

"A woman who didn't slacken could make the struggle easier for the man?"

"Yes," said Wyllard simply, "in every way.  Still, she would have a
great deal to bear."

Agatha's face softened.  "Ah," she said, "she would not grudge the
effort in the case of one she loved."

Then she looked up again with a smile.  "I wonder," she added, "if you
really thought I should flinch."

"When I first heard of it, I thought it quite likely.  Then when I read
your letter my doubts vanished."

He saw he had not been judicious, for there was, for the first time, a
trace of hardness in the girl's expression.

"He showed you that?" she asked.

"One small part of it," said Wyllard.  "I want to say that when I saw
this house, and how you seemed fitted to it, my misgivings about
Gregory's decision troubled me once more.  Now"--and he made a little
impressive gesture--"they have vanished altogether, and they'll never
come back again."

He spoke as he felt.  This girl, he fancied, would feel the strain; but
it seemed to him that she had strength enough to bear it cheerfully.
In spite of her daintiness, she was one who, in time of stress, could
be depended on.  He often remembered afterwards how they had sat
together in the little, luxuriously furnished room, she leaning back,
with the soft light on her delicately tinted face, in her big, low
chair.  In the meanwhile she said nothing, and by and bye he looked up
at her.

"It's curious that I had your photograph ever so long, and never
thought of showing it Gregory," he said.

Agatha smiled.  "I suppose it is," she admitted.  "After all, except
that it might have been a relief to Major Radcliffe if he had met you
sooner, the fact that you didn't show it Gregory doesn't seem of any
particular consequence."

Wyllard was not quite sure of this.  He had thought about this girl
often, and had certainly been conscious of a curious thrill of
satisfaction when he had met her at the stepping-stones a few days
earlier.  That feeling had also suddenly disappeared when he had
learned that she was his comrade's promised wife.  He had, however,
during the last hour or two made up his mind to think no more of her.

"Well," he said, "the next thing is to arrange for Mrs. Hastings to
meet you in London, or, perhaps, at the Grange.  Her husband is a
Canadian, a man of education, who has quite a large homestead not far
from Gregory's.  Her folks are people of station in Montreal, and I
feel sure that you'll like her."

They decided that he was to ask Mrs. Hastings to stay a few days at the
Grange, and then he looked at the girl somewhat diffidently.

"She suggests going in a fortnight," he said.

Agatha smiled at him.  "Then," she said, "I must not keep her waiting."

She rose, and they went back together to join their hostess.



CHAPTER VIII.

THE TRAVELLING COMPANION.

A grey haze, thickened by the smoke of the city, drove out across the
water when the _Scarrowmania_ lay in the Mersey, with her cable hove
short, and the last of the flood tide gurgling against her bows.  A
trumpeting blast of steam swept high aloft from beside her squat
funnel, and the splash of the slowly turning paddles of the couple of
steam tugs that lay alongside mingled with the din it made.  A gangway
from one of them led to the _Scarrowmania's_ forward deck, and a stream
of frowsy humanity that had just been released from overpacked emigrant
boarding-houses poured up it.  There were apparently representatives of
all peoples and languages among that unkempt horde--Britons,
Scandinavians, Teutons, Italians, Russians, Poles--and they moved on in
forlorn apathy, like cattle driven to the slaughter.  One wondered,
from the look of them, how they had raised their passage money, and how
many years' bitter self-denial it had cost them to provide for their
transit to the land of promise.

At the head of the gangway stood the steamboat doctors, for the
_Scarrowmania_ was taking out an unusual number of passengers, and
there were two of them.  They were immaculate in blue uniform, and
looked very clean and English by contrast with the mass of frowsy
aliens.  Beside them stood another official, presumably acting on
behalf of the Dominion Government, though there were few restrictions
imposed upon Canadian immigration then, nor for that matter did anybody
trouble much about the comfort of the steerage passengers.  Though they
have altered all that latterly, each steamer, in a general way, carried
as many as she could hold.

As the stream poured out of the gangway, the doctor glanced at each new
comer's face, and then seizing him by the wrist uncovered it.  Since
this took him two or three seconds, one could have fancied that he
either possessed peculiar powers, or that the test was a somewhat
inefficient one.  Then he looked at the official, who made a sign, and
the man moved on.

In the meanwhile a group of first-class passengers leaning on the
thwart-ship rails close by looked on, with complacent satisfaction with
the fact that they were born in a different station, or
half-contemptuous pity, as their temperament varied.  Among them stood
Mrs. Hastings, Miss Winifred Rawlinson, and Agatha.  The latter noticed
that Wyllard sat on a hatch forward near the head of the gangway, with
a pipe in his hand.  She drew Mrs. Hastings's attention to it.

"Whatever is Mr. Wyllard doing there?" she asked.

Her companion, who was wrapped in furs, for there was a sting in the
east wind, smiled at her.

"That," she said, "is more than I can tell you; but Harry Wyllard seems
to find an interest in what other folks would consider most unpromising
things, and, what's more to the purpose, he's rather addicted to taking
a hand in.  It's a habit that costs him something now and then."

Agatha asked nothing further.  She was interested in Wyllard, but she
was at the moment more interested in the faces of those who swarmed on
board.  She wondered what they had endured in the lands that had cast
them out, and what they might still have to bear.  It seemed to her
that the murmur of their harsh voices went up in a great protest, an
inarticulate cry of sorrow.  While she looked on the doctor held back a
long-haired man who was following a haggard woman shuffling in broken
boots.  He drew him aside, and when, after he had apparently consulted
with the other official, two seamen hustled the man towards a second
gangway that led to the tug, the woman raised a wild, despairing cry.
It, however, seemed that she blocked the passage, and a quartermaster
drove her, expostulating in an agony of terror, forward among the rest.
Nobody appeared concerned about this alien's tragedy, except one man,
but Agatha was not astonished when Wyllard rose and quietly laid his
hand upon the official's shoulder.

A parley appeared to follow, somebody gave an order, and when the alien
was led back again the woman's cries subsided.  Agatha looked at her
companion, and once more a smile crept into Mrs. Hastings's eyes.

"Yes," she said, "I guessed he would feel he had to stand in.  That's a
man who can't see any one in trouble."  Then she added, with a little
whimsical sigh, "He had a bonanza harvest last fall, any way."

They moved aft soon afterwards, and the _Scarrowmania_ was smoothly
sliding seawards with the first of the ebb when Agatha met Wyllard.  He
glanced at the Lancashire sandhills, which were fading into a pale
ochre gleam amidst the haze over the starboard hand, and then at the
long row of painted buoys that moved back to them ahead.

"You're off at last!  The sad grey weather is dropping fast astern," he
said.  "Out yonder, the skies are clear."

"Thank you," said Agatha, "I'm to apply that as I like?  As a matter of
fact, however, our days weren't always grey.  But what was the trouble
when those steerage people came on board?"

Wyllard's manner, as she noticed, was free alike from the complacent
self-satisfaction which occasionally characterises the philanthropist,
and any affectation of diffidence.

"Well," he said, "there was something wrong with that woman's husband.
Nothing infectious, I believe, but they didn't seem to consider him a
desirable citizen.  They make a warning example of somebody with a
physical infirmity now and then.  The man, they decided, must be put
ashore again.  In the meanwhile, somebody else had hustled the woman
forward, and it almost looked as if they'd have taken her on without
him.  The tug was almost ready to cast off."

"How dreadful!" said Agatha.  "But what did you do?"

"Merely promised to guarantee the cost of his passage back if they'd
refer his case to the immigration people at the other end.  It's
scarcely likely that they'll make trouble.  As a rule, they only throw
folks who're certain to become a charge on the community."

"But if he really had any infirmity, mightn't it lead to that?"

"No," said Wyllard drily.  "I would engage to give him a fair start if
it was necessary.  You wouldn't have had that woman landed in Montreal,
helpless and alone, while the man was sent back again to starve in
Poland?"

He saw a curious liquid gleam in Agatha's eyes, and added in a
deprecating manner, "You see, I've now and then limped without a dollar
into a British Columbian mining town."

The girl was a little stirred; but there was another matter that must
be mentioned, though she felt that the time was somewhat inopportune.

"Miss Rawlinson, who had only a second-class ticket, insists upon being
told how it is that she has been transferred to the saloon."

Wyllard's eyes twinkled, but she noticed that he was wholly free from
embarrassment, which was not quite the case with her.

"Well," he said, "that's a matter I must leave you to handle.  Anyway,
she can't go second-class now.  One or two of the steerage exchanged
when they saw their quarters, for which I don't blame them, and they've
filled every room right up."

"You haven't answered the question."

Wyllard waved his hand.  "Miss Rawlinson is your bridesmaid, and I'm
Gregory's best man.  It seems to me it's my business to do everything
just as he'd like it done."

He left her a moment later, and, though she did not know how she was to
explain the matter to Miss Rawlinson, who was of an independent
disposition, it occurred to her that he, at least, had found a rather
graceful way out of the difficulty.  The more she saw of this Western
farmer, the more she liked him.

It was after dinner when she next met him, and, for the wind had
changed, the _Scarrowmania_ was steaming head-on into a glorious
north-west breeze.  The shrouds sang; chain-guy, and stanchion, and
whatever caught the wind, set up a deep-toned throbbing; and ranks of
little, white-topped seas rolled out of the night ahead.  A half-moon
hung low above them, blurred now and then by wisps of flying cloud, and
odd spouts of spray that gleamed in the silvery light leapt up about
the dipping bows.  Wyllard was leaning on the rails, with a cigar in
his hand, when she stopped beside him, and she glanced towards the
lighted windows of the smoke-room not far away.

"How is it you are not in there?" she asked, for something to say.

"I was," said Wyllard.  "It's rather full up, and it seemed they didn't
want me.  They're busy playing cards, and the stakes are rather high.
In a general way, a steamboat's smoke-room is less of a men's lounge
than a gambling club."

"And you object to cards?"

"Oh, no!" said Wyllard.  "They merely make me tired, and when I feel I
want some excitement for my dollars I get it another way.  That one
seems tame to me."

"Which is the one you like?"

The man laughed.  "There are a good many that appeal to me.  Once it
was collecting sealskins off other people's beaches, and there was zest
enough in that, in view of the probability of the dory turning over, or
a gunboat dropping on to you.  Then there was a good deal of very
genuine excitement to be got out of placer-mining in British Columbia,
especially when there was frost in the ranges, and you had to thaw out
your giant-powder.  Shallow alluvial workings have a way of caving in
when you least expect it of them.  After all, however, I think I like
the prairie farming best."

"Is that exciting?"

"Yes," said Wyllard, "if you do it in one way.  The gold's there--that
you're sure of--piled up by nature during I don't know how many
thousand years, but you have to stake high if you want to get much of
it out.  One needs costly labour, teams--no end of them--breakers, and
big gang-plough.  The farmer who has nerve enough drills his last
dollar into the soil in spring, but if he means to succeed it costs him
more than that.  He must give the sweat of his tensest effort, the
uttermost toil of his body--all, in fact, that has been given him.
Then he must shut his eyes tight to the hazards against him, or, and we
can't all do that, look at them without wavering--the drought, the
hail, the harvest frost.  If his teams fall sick, or the season goes
against him, he must work double tides.  Still, it now and then happens
that things go right, and the red wheat rolls ripe right back across
the prairie.  I don't know that any man could want a keener thrill than
the one you feel when you drive the binders in!"

Agatha had imagination, and she could realise something of the toil,
the hazard, and the clean thrill of that victory.

"You have felt it often?" she said.

"Twice we helped to fill a big elevator up," said Wyllard quietly.
"Still, I've been very near defeat."

The girl looked at him thoughtfully.  It seemed that he possessed the
power of acquisition, as well as a wide generosity that came into play
when by strenuous effort success had been attained, which, so far as
her experience went, were things that did not invariably accompany each
other.

"And when the harvest comes up to your expectations, you give your
dollars away," she said.

Wyllard laughed.  "You shouldn't deduce too much from a single
instance.  Besides, that Pole's case hasn't cost me anything yet."

Mrs. Hastings joined them soon afterwards, and when Wyllard strolled
away they spent some time leaning on the rails, and looking at the
groups of shadowy figures on the forward deck.  Their attitude was
dejected and melancholy, but one cluster had gathered round a man who
stood upon the hatch.

"Yes," he said, "you'll have no trouble.  Canada's a great country for
a poor man.  He can sleep beneath a bush all summer, if he can't strike
anything he likes."

This did not appear particularly encouraging, but the orator went on.
"Been over for a trip to the Old Country, and I'm glad I'm going back
again.  Went out with nothing except a good discharge, and they made me
sergeant of Canadian militia: After that armourer to a rifle club.
There's places a blame long way behind the Dominion, and I struck one
of them when we went with Roberts to Afghanistan.  It was on that trip
I and a Pathan rolled all down a hill, him trying to get his knife arm
loose, and me jabbing his breastbone with my bayonet before I got it
into him.  I drove it through to the socket.  You want to make quite
sure of a Pathan."

Miss Rawlinson winced at this.  "Oh," she said, "what a horrible man!"

"It was 'most as tough as when you went after Kiel, and stole the
Scotchman's furs," suggested a Canadian.

The sergeant let the jibe go by.  "Oh," he said, "Louis's bucks could
shoot!  We had them corralled in a pit, and every time one of the boys
from Montreal broke cover he got a bullet into him.  Did any of you
ever hear a dropped man squeal?"

Agatha had heard sufficient, and she and her companions turned away,
but as they moved across the deck the sergeant's voice followed her.

"Oh, yes," he said, "a grand country for a poolman.  In the summer he
can sleep beneath a bush."

For some reason this eulogy haunted Agatha when she retired to her room
that night, and she wondered what awaited all those aliens in the new
land, until it occurred to her that in some respects she was situated
very much as they were.  Then, for the first time, vague misgivings
crept into her mind as she realised that she had cut herself adrift
from all that she had been accustomed to.  She felt suddenly depressed
and lonely.

The depression had, however, almost vanished when, awakening rather
early next morning, she went up on deck.  A red sun hung over the
tumbling seas that ran into the hazy east astern, and they rolled up in
crested phalanxes that gleamed green and incandescent white ahead.  The
_Scarrowmania_ plunged through them with a spray cloud flying about her
dipping bows.  She was a small, old-fashioned boat, and--for she had
some 3,000 tons of railway iron in the bottom of her--she rolled
distressfully.  Her tall spars swayed athwart the vivid blueness of the
morning sky, with the rhythmic regularity of a pendulum.  The girl,
however, was troubled by no sense of sickness; the keen north-wester
that sang amidst the shrouds was wonderfully fresh; and when she met
Wyllard crossing the saloon deck her cheeks were glowing from the sting
of the spray, and her eyes were bright.

"Where have you been?" she asked.

"Down there," said Wyllard, pointing to the black opening in the
fore-hatch that led to the steerage quarters.  "An acquaintance of mine
who's travelling forward asked me to take a look round, and I'm rather
glad I did.  When I've had a word with the chief steward I'm going back
again."

"You have a friend down there?"

"I met the man for the first time yesterday, and rather took to him.
One of your naval petty officers, forcibly retired, who can't live upon
his pension, which is why he's going out to Canada.  Now you'll excuse
me."

"I wonder," said Agatha, "if you would let me go back with you?"

Wyllard looked at her rather curiously.  "Well," he said, with an air
of reflection, "you'll probably have to face a good deal that you don't
like out yonder, and in one way you won't suffer from a little
preparatory training.  This, however, is not a case where sentimental
pity is likely to relieve anybody.  It's the real thing."

"I think I told you at Garside Scar that I haven't lived altogether in
luxury!"

Wyllard, who made no comment, disappeared, and merely signed to her
when he came back.  They reached the ladder that led down into the
gloom beneath the hatch, and Agatha hesitated when a sour and musty
odour floated up to her, apparently out of the depths of the ship.  She
went down, however, and a few moments later stood, half-nauseated,
gazing at the wildest scene of confusion her eyes had ever rested on.
A little light came down the hatchway, and a smoky lamp or two swung
above her head, but half the steerage deck was wrapped in shadow, and
out of it there rose a many-voiced complaining.  Flimsy, unplaned
fittings had wrenched away, and men lay inert amidst the wreckage, with
the remains of their last meal scattered about them.  There were
unwashed tin plates and pannikins, knives, and spoons, sliding up and
down everywhere, and the deck was foul with slops of tea, and trodden
bread, and marmalade.  Now and then, in a wilder roll than usual, a
frowsy, huddled object slid groaning down the slant of slimy planking,
but in every case the helpless passenger was fully dressed.  Steerage
passengers, in fact, seldom take off their clothes.  For one thing, all
their worldly possessions are, as a rule, secreted among their attire,
and for another, most of those hailing from beyond the Danube have
never been accustomed to disrobing.  In the midst of the confusion, two
half-sick steward lads were making wholly ineffective efforts to
straighten up the mess.

Then Agatha made out that a swarm of urchins were huddled together in a
helpless mass, along one side of the horrible place.  The sergeant was
haranguing them, while another man, whom she supposed to be the petty
officer, pulled them to their feet one by one.  A good deal of his
labour was wasted, for the _Scarrowmania_ was rolling viciously, and as
soon as he had got a few upright half of them collapsed again.  Wyllard
glanced towards them compassionately.

"I believe most of them have had nothing to eat since they came on
board, though it isn't the company's fault," he said.  "There's food
enough served out, but before we picked the breeze up the men laid
hands upon it first and half of it was wasted in the scramble.  Then it
seems they pitched these youngsters out of their berths."

"Don't they belong to anybody?" Agatha asked.  "Is there no one to look
after them?"

Wyllard smiled drily.  "I believe one of your charitable institutions
is sending them out, and there seems to be a clergyman, who has a
curate and a lay assistant to help him, in charge.  The assistant won't
be available while this rolling lasts, and the other two very naturally
prefer the saloon.  In a way, that's comprehensible."

He left her, and proceeded to help the man who was dragging the urchins
to their feet.

"Get up!" said the sergeant.  "Get up, and fall in.  Dress from the
left, and number off, the ones who can stand."

It appeared that the lads had been drilled, for they scrambled into a
line that bent and wavered each time the _Scarrowmania's_ bows went
down.  After that, every other lad stepped forward at the word; the
order was, "Left turn!  March, and fall in on deck," and when they
feebly clambered up the ladder Wyllard, who turned to Agatha, pointed
to a door in a bulkhead of rough white wood.

"It should have been locked, but I fancy you can get in that way, and
up through another hatch," he said.  "The single women, and women with
children are in yonder, and if you want to be useful there's a field
for you.  Get as many as possible up on deck."

Agatha left him, and her face was rather white when at last she came up
into the open air, with about a dozen forlorn, draggled women trailing
helplessly after her.  The lads were now sitting down in a double line
on deck, each with a tin plate and a steaming pannikin in front of him.
There were, she fancied, at least a hundred of them, and a man with a
bronzed face and the stamp of command upon him was giving them the
order of the voyage.  He was the one she had already noticed.

"You'll turn out at the whistle at half-past six," he said.  "Shake
mattresses, roll up blankets, and prepare for berth inspection.  Then,
at the next whistle, you'll fall in on deck stripped to the waist for
washing parade.  Fourth files numbering even are orderlies in charge of
the plates and pannikins."

"And," said the sergeant, "any insubordination will be sharply dealt
with.  Now, when I was with Roberts in Afghanistan----"

Wyllard, who was standing close by, turned to Agatha.

"I don't think we'll be wanted.  You have probably earned your
breakfast."

They went back to the saloon deck, and the girl smiled when he looked
at her inquiringly.

"It was a little horrible, but I hadn't so many to deal with," she
said.  "Do you, and those others expect to bring any order out of that
chaos?"

"No," said Wyllard, "with a little encouragement they'll do it
themselves--that is, the English, Danes, and Germans.  One can trust
them to evolve a workable system.  It's in their nature.  You can trace
most things that tend to wholesome efficiency back to the old Teutonic
leaven.  By and bye, they'll proceed to put some pressure on the
Latins, Slavs, and Jews."

"But is it your business to offer them that encouragement?"

Wyllard laughed.  "Strictly speaking, it isn't in the least, but
unnecessary chaos is rather hateful, and, any way, I'm not the only one
who doesn't seem to like it.  There's the petty officer, and our
friend, the sergeant, who was with Roberts in Afghanistan."

Agatha said nothing further.  She was a little surprised to feel that
she was anxious to keep this man's good opinion, though that was not
exactly why she had nerved herself for the venture into the single
women's quarters.  Leaving him out altogether, it seemed to her that
there was something rather fine in the way the petty officer who was
going out almost penniless to Canada, and the sergeant, had saddled
themselves with the task of looking after those helpless lads.  It was
wholly unpaid labour, for which the men who preferred to remain within
the safe limits of the saloon deck would presumably get the credit.
After all, she decided there were, no doubt, men in every station who
helped to keep the world sweet and clean, and she fancied that her
companion was to be counted among them.  He certainly differed in many
ways from Gregory, but then Gregory was unapproachable.  She did not
remember that it was four years since she had seen the latter, and that
her ideas had been a little unformed then.

During the evening, Mrs. Hastings, with whom he was evidently a
favourite, happened to speak of Wyllard, and the efforts he was making
in the steerage, and Agatha asked a question.

"Does he often undertake this kind of thing?"

"No," said Mrs. Hastings with a smile.  "Any way, not on so large a
scale.  He's very far from setting up as a professional philanthropist,
my dear.  I don't ever remember him offering to point out their duty to
other folks, and I don't think he goes about in search of an
opportunity of benefiting humanity.  Still, as I suggested, when an
individual case thrusts itself beneath his nose, he generally--does
what he can."

"I've heard people say that the individual method only perpetuates the
trouble," said Agatha.

Her companion laughed.  "That," she said, "is a subject I'm not well
posted on, but it seems to me that if other folks only adopted Harry
Wyllard's simple plan, there would be considerably less need for
organised charity."



CHAPTER IX.

THE FOG.

During the next two days the _Scarrowmania_ shouldered her way
westwards through the big, white-topped combers that rolled down upon
her under a lowering sky before a moderate gale.  There were no
luxurious, steam-propelled hotels in the Canadian trade just then, and,
loaded deep with railway metal as she was, she slopped the green seas
in everywhere, and rolled her streaming sides out almost to her bilge.
She also shivered and rattled horribly when her single screw swung
clear and the tri-compound engines ran away.

Wyllard went down to the steerage every now and then, and Agatha, who
contrived to keep on her feet, not infrequently accompanied him.  She
was glad of his society, for Mrs. Hastings was seldom in evidence, and
no efforts could get Miss Rawlinson out of her berth.  The gale,
however, blew itself out at length, and the evening after it moderated
Agatha was sitting near the head of one fiddle-guarded table in the
saloon waiting for dinner, which the stewards had still some difficulty
in bringing in.  Wyllard's place was next to hers, but he had not
appeared yet, nor, as it happened, had the skipper, who, however, did
not invariably dine with the passengers.  One of the two doors which
led from the foot of the branching companion stairway into either side
of the saloon stood open, and presently she saw Wyllard standing just
outside it.

He beckoned to the doctor, who sat at the foot of her table, and the
latter merely raised his brows a trifle.  He was a rather consequential
person, and it was evident to the girl that he resented being summoned
by a gesture.  She did not think anybody else had noticed Wyllard, and
she waited with some curiosity to see what he would do.  He made a sign
with a lifted hand, and she felt that the other would obey it, as, in
fact, he did, though his manner was very far from conciliatory.  By
dint of listening closely, she could hear their conversation.

"I'm sorry," said Wyllard, "to trouble you just now, and I didn't come
in because that would have set everybody wondering what you were wanted
for; but one of those boys forward has been thrown down the ladder, and
has cut his head."

"Ah!" said the doctor.  "I'll see to him--after dinner."

"It's a nasty cut," said Wyllard.  "He's losing a good deal of blood."

"Then I would suggest that you apply to my assistant."

"As I don't know where he is, I have come to you."

The doctor made a sign of impatience.  "Well," he said, "you have told
me, which I think is as far as your concern in the matter goes.  I may
add that I'm not accustomed to dictation on behalf of a steerage
passenger."

Agatha saw Wyllard quietly slip between him and the entrance to the
saloon, but she also saw, as neither of the others apparently did, the
skipper appear a few paces behind them, and glance at them sharply.  He
was usually a silent man, at home in the ice and the clammy fog, but
not a great acquisition in the saloon.

"Something wrong down forward, Mr. Wyllard?  They were making a great
row a little while ago," he said.

"Nothing very serious," said Wyllard.  "One of the boys, however, has
cut his head."

The skipper turned towards the doctor quietly; but Agatha fancied he
had overheard part of the conversation.

"Don't you think you had better go--at once?" he said.

The doctor evidently did, for he disappeared, and Wyllard, who entered
the saloon with the skipper, sat down at Agatha's side.

"How do you do it?" she asked.

"What?" asked Wyllard, attacking his dinner.

"We'll say persuade other folks to see things as you do."

"You evidently mean the skipper, and I suppose you heard something of
what was going on.  In this case, as it happens, I'm indebted to his
prejudices.  He's one of the old type--a seaman first of all--and what
we call bluff, and you call bounce, has only one effect upon men of his
kind.  It gets their backs up."

Agatha fancied that he did not like it, either, but she changed the
subject.

"There really was a row forward," she said.  "What was the trouble
over?  You were, no doubt, somewhere near the scene of it."

Wyllard laughed.  "I sat upon the steerage ladder, and am afraid I
cheered the combatants on.  It was really a glorious row.  They
hammered each other with tin plates, and some of them tried to use
hoop-iron knives, which fortunately doubled up.  They broke quite a few
of the benches, and wrecked the mess table, but so far as I noticed the
only one seriously hurt was a little chap who was quietly looking on."

"And you encouraged them?"

"I certainly did.  It was a protest against dirt, disorder, and the
slothfulness that's a plague to the community.  Isn't physical force
warranted when there's no other remedy?"

A grey-haired Canadian looked up.  "Yes," he said, "I guess it is.  The
first man who pulled his gun in British Columbia was hanged right away,
and they've scarcely had to make an example of another ever since,
though it's quite a while ago."

He paused, and smiled approvingly.  "A mess of any kind worries us, and
we don't take long to straighten it out.  Same feelings in the Germans
and Scandinavians.  I'll say that for them, any way.  Your friends
swept up the steerage?"

"They took the Slavs and Jews, and pitched them down the second hatch
on to the orlop deck.  Things will go smoothly now our crowd are on
top."

"Your crowd?" said Agatha.

The Canadian nodded.  "That's what he meant," he said.  "There are two
kinds of folks you and the rest of them are dumping into Canada.  One's
the kind that will get up and hustle, break land, and build new
homes--log at first, frame and stone afterwards.  They go on from a
quarter-section and a team of oxen to the biggest farm they can handle,
and every fresh furrow they cut enriches all of us.  The other kind
want to sit down in the dirt and take life easily, as they've always
done.  The dirt worries everybody else, and we've no use for them.  By
and bye our Legislature will have to wake up and stop them getting in."

He went on with his dinner after this, but his observations left Agatha
thoughtful.  She was, for one thing, beginning to understand one side
of her companion's character.  He, it seemed, stood for practical
efficiency.  There was a driving force in him that made for progress
and order.  It was apparently his mission to straighten things out.
Some folks of his kind, she reflected, now and then made a good deal of
avoidable trouble; but there was in this man, at least, a
half-whimsical toleration, which rendered that an unlikely thing in his
particular case.  Besides, she had already recognised that she was in
some respects fortunate in having such a man for her companion.

Her deck chair was always set out in the most sheltered and comfortable
place.  If there was anything to be seen, a cargo boat plunging along
forecastle under, or a great iron sailing ship thrashing out to the
westwards, with the spray clouds flying about her hove up weather side,
he almost invariably appeared with a pair of powerful glasses.  She was
watched over, her wishes anticipated, and the man was seldom
obtrusively present when she felt disposed to talk to somebody else.
It struck her that she had thought a good deal about him during the
last few days, and rather less than usual about Gregory, which was
partly why she did not walk up and down the deck with him, as usual,
after dinner that evening.

Three or four days later the _Scarrowmania_ ran into the Bank fog, and
burrowed through it with whistle hooting dolefully at regular
intervals.  Now and then an answering ringing of bells came out of the
clammy vapour, and the half-seen shape of an anchored schooner loomed
up, rolling wildly on grey slopes of sea.  Once, too, a tiny dory, half
filled with lines and buoys, slid by plunging on the wash flung off by
the _Scarrowmania's_ bows, and Agatha understood that the men in her
had escaped death by a hairsbreadth.  They were cod fishers, Wyllard
told her, and he added that there was a host of them at work somewhere
in the sliding haze.  She, however, fancied, now and then, that the fog
had a depressing effect on him, and that when the dory lay beneath the
rail there had been a somewhat unusual look in his face.

Then a breeze came out of the north-west, with the sting of the ice in
it, but the fog did not lift, and the _Scarrowmania_ plunged on through
it with spray-wet decks and the grey seas smashing about her bows.  It
was bitterly cold and clammy, the raw wind pierced to the bone, but the
voyage was, at least, rapidly shortening, and one evening Agatha paced
the deck with Wyllard in a somewhat curious mood.  Perhaps it was
merely the gloom re-acting upon her, for she was looking forward to the
landing with a certain half-conscious shrinking.

They stopped by the rails presently, looking out upon the tumbling seas
that rolled out of the sliding haze tipped with livid froth, and the
dreariness of the surroundings intensified the girl's depression.
There was something unpleasantly suggestive in the sight of the fog
that hid everything, for she had of late been troubled with a
half-apprehensive longing to see what lay before her.  In the
meanwhile, she noticed the look-out standing, a lonely, shapeless
figure, amidst the spray that whirled about the plunging bows.  By and
bye she saw him turn and wave an arm apparently towards the bridge
behind her, and she heard a hoarse, wind-out cry.  What it meant she
could not tell, but in another moment the _Scarrowmania's_ whistle
shrieked again.

Then a grey shape burst out of the vapour, and grew with astonishing
swiftness into dim tiers of slanted sailcloth swaying above a strip of
hull that moved amidst a broad white smear of foam.  It was a brig
under fore-course and topsails, and as Agatha watched her she sank to
her tilted bowsprit, and a big grey and white sea foamed about her bows.

"Aren't we dreadfully near?" she asked.

Wyllard did not answer.  He was gazing up at the bridge, and once more
the whistle hurled out a great warning blast.  It hardly seemed to her
that the two vessels could pass clear of each other.  Then Wyllard laid
a hand upon her shoulder.

"The skipper's starboarding.  We'll go round her stern," he said.

His grasp was reassuring, and she watched the straining curves of
canvas and line of half-submerged hull.  It rose with streaming bows,
swung high above the sea, sank again, and vanished with bewildering
suddenness into a belt of driving fog.  She was not sure that there had
been any peril, but it was certainly over now, and she was rather
puzzled by her sensations when Wyllard had held her shoulder.  For one
thing, she had felt instinctively that she was safe with him.  She,
however, decided not to trouble herself about the reason for this, and
by and bye she looked up at him.  The expression she had already
noticed was once more in his face.

"I don't think you like the fog any more than I do," she said.

"No," said Wyllard, with a quiet forcefulness that almost startled her.
"I hate it."

"Why do you go as far as that?"

"It recalls something that still gives me a very bad few minutes every
now and then.  It has been worrying me again to-night."

"I wonder," said Agatha simply, "if you would care to tell me?"

The man looked down on her with a little wry smile.  "I haven't told it
often, but you shall hear," he said.  "It's a tale of a black failure."
He stretched out a hand and pointed to the sliding fog and ranks of
tumbling seas.  "It was very much this kind of night, and we were
lying, reefed down, off one of the Russians' beaches, when I asked for
volunteers.  I got them--two boats' crews of the finest seamen that
ever handled oar or sealing rifle."

"But what did you want them for?"

"A boat from another schooner had been cast ashore.  It was blowing
tolerably hard, as it usually does where the Polar ice comes down into
the Behring Sea.  They'd been shooting seals from her.  We meant to
bring the men off if we could manage it."

"Wouldn't one boat have been enough?"

"No," said Wyllard drily, "we had three, and I think that was one cause
of the trouble.  There was one from the other schooner.  You see, those
seals belonged to the Russians, and we free-lances could only shoot
them clear off shore.  I'm not sure that the men in the wrecked boat
had been fishing outside the limit."

Agatha did not press for further particulars, and he went on:

"We managed to make a landing, though one boat went up bottom
uppermost," he said.  "I fancy they must have broken or lost an oar
then.  We also got the wrecked men, but we had trouble while we were
getting the boats off again.  The surf was running in savagely, and the
fog shut down solid as a wall.  Any way, we pulled off, and went out
with a foot of water in us, while one of the rescued men took my oar
when I let it go."

"Why had you to let it go?"

Wyllard laughed in a rather grim fashion.

"I got my head laid open with a sealing club," he said.  "Some of the
rest had their scratches, but they managed to row.  For one thing, they
knew they had to.  They had reasons for not wanting to fall into the
Russians' hands.  Well, we cleared the beach, and once or twice as I
tried to bale there was a shout somewhere near us, and the loom of a
vanishing boat.  It was all we could make out, for the sea was slopping
into her, and the spray was flying everywhere.  If there had only been
two boats we'd probably have found out our misfortune, and perhaps have
set it straight.  As it was, we couldn't tell it was the same boat that
had hailed us."

He broke off for a moment, and then added quietly, "Two boats reached
the schooners.  There was a nasty sea running then, and it blew
viciously hard next day.  There were three men in the other."

"Ah," said Agatha, "they were drowned?"

Wyllard made a little forceful gesture.  "I'm not quite sure.  That's
the trouble.  At least, the boat was nowhere on the beach next day, and
it's difficult to see how they could have faced the sea that piled up
when the gale came down.  In all probability, they had an oar short,
and she rolled them out when a comber broke upon her in the darkness."
The girl saw him close one hand tight as he added, "If one only knew!"

"What would have befallen them if they'd got ashore?"

"It's difficult to say.  In a general way, they'd have been handed over
to the Russian authorities.  Still, sealers poaching up there have
simply disappeared."

He stopped again, and glanced out at the gathering darkness.  "Now," he
added, "you see why I hate the fog."

"But you couldn't help it," said Agatha.

"Well," said Wyllard, "I asked for volunteers, and the money that's now
mine came out of those schooners.  It's just possible those men are
living still--somewhere in Northern Asia.  I only know they
disappeared."

Then he abruptly commenced to talk of something else, and by and bye
Agatha went down to the saloon, where Miss Rawlinson, who had not been
much in evidence during the voyage, presently made her appearance.

"Aren't you going into the music-room to play for Mr. Wyllard--as
usual?" she said.

Agatha was almost disconcerted.  She had fallen into the habit of
spending half an hour or longer in the little music-room every evening,
with Wyllard standing near the piano; but now her companion's question
seemed to place a significance upon the fact.

"No," she said, "I don't think I am."

"Then the rest of them will wonder it you have fallen out with him."

"Fallen out with him?"

Winifred laughed.  "They've naturally been watching both of you, and,
in a general way, there's only one decision they could have arrived at."

Agatha flushed a little, but her companion went on:

"I don't mind admitting that if a man of that kind was to fall in love
with me, I'd black his boots for him," she said.  Then she added, with
a whimsically rueful gesture, "Still, it's most unlikely."

Agatha looked at her with a little glint in her eyes.

"He is merely Gregory's deputy," she said, with a sub-conscious feeling
that the epithet was not a remarkably fortunate one.  "In that
connection, I should like to point out that you can estimate a man's
character by that of his friends."

"Oh," said Winifred, "then if Mr. Wyllard's strong points are merely to
heighten Gregory's credit, I've nothing more to say.  Anyway, I'll
reserve my homage until I've seen him.  Perfection among men is scarce
nowadays."

She turned away, and left Agatha thoughtful.  In the meanwhile, Mrs.
Hastings came upon Wyllard in the music-room.  There was just then
nobody else in it.

"You look quite serious," she said.

"I've been thinking about Miss Ismay and Gregory," said Wyllard.  "In
fact, I feel a little anxious about them."

"In which way?"

"Without making any reflections upon Gregory, I somehow feel sorry for
the girl."

Mrs. Hastings nodded.  "As a matter of fact, that's very much what I
felt from the first," she said.  "Still, you see, there's the important
fact that she's fond of him, and it should smooth out a good many
difficulties.  Anyway, what we can call the material ones won't count.
She's evidently rather a courageous person."

The man sat silent a moment or two.  "I wasn't troubling about them,"
he said.  "I was wondering if she really could be fond of him.  It's
some years since she was much in his company."

"Hawtrey is not a man to change."

"That," said Wyllard, "is just the trouble.  I've no doubt he's much
the same, but one could fancy that Miss Ismay has changed a good deal
since she last saw him.  She'll look for considerably more than she was
probably content with then."

"In any case, it isn't your affair."

"In one sense it certainly isn't; but I can't help feeling a little
troubled about the thing.  You see, Gregory is quite an old friend."

"And the girl is going out to marry him," said Mrs. Hastings.

Wyllard rose.  "That," he said, "is quite uncalled for.  I would like
to assure you of it."

He went out, and the lady sat still in a reflective mood.

"If she begins to compare him with Hawtrey, there can be only one
result," she said.

The fog had almost gone next morning, and pale sunshine streamed down
upon a froth-flecked sea.  A bitter wind, however, still came out of
the hazy north, and the _Scarrowmania's_ plates were crusted with ice
where the highest crests of the tumbling seas reached them.  The spray
also froze, and the decks grew slippery, until when darkness came
nobody but the seamen faced the stinging cold.  Agatha felt the engines
stop late that night, and when she went out next morning the decks were
white, and she could see dim ghosts of sliding pines through a haze of
falling snow.  It grew bewilderingly thick at times, but the steamer
slid on through it with whistle hooting, and when at last towards
sunset the snow cleared away Agatha stood shivering under a deck-house,
looking about her with a curiously heavy heart.

A grey haze stretched across the great river, which was also dim and
grey, and odd wisps of pines rose raggedly beneath the white hills that
cut against a gloomy, lowering sky.  Deck-house, boat, and stanchion
dripped, and every now and then the silence was broken by a doleful
blast of the whistle.  Nothing moved on the still, grey water; there
was no sign of life ashore; and they seemed to be steaming into a great
desolation.

By and bye, Wyllard appeared from somewhere, and after a glance at her
face slipped his hand beneath her arm, and led her down to the lighted
saloon.  Then her heart grew a little lighter.  Once more she was
conscious of an unreasoning feeling that she was safe with him.



CHAPTER X.

DISILLUSION.

The long train was speeding smoothly across the vast white levels of
Assiniboia, when Agatha, who sat by a window, looked up as the
conductor strode through the car.  Mrs. Hastings asked him a question,
and he stopped a moment.

"Yes," he said, "we'll be in Clermont inside half an hour."

Then he went on, and Mrs. Hastings smiled at Agatha.

"We're a little late, and Gregory will be waiting for us in the depôt
now," she said.  "No doubt he's got the waggon fixed up right, but I'd
like to feel sure of it.  There's a long drive before us, and I want to
reach the homestead before it's dark."

Agatha said nothing, but a faint tinge of colour crept into her cheeks,
and her companion was glad to see it, for she had noticed that the girl
was looking rather pale and haggard.  This was partly due to the fact
that the strain of the last few months she had spent in England was
commencing to tell on her.  She had borne it courageously, but a
reaction had afterwards set in, and, as it happened, the _Scarrowmania_
had plunged along bows under against fresh north-westerly gales most of
the way across the Atlantic.  There is very little comfort on board a
small, deeply-loaded steamer when she rolls her rails in, and lurches
with thudding screw swung clear over big, steep-sided combers.  In
addition to this, Agatha had scarcely slept during the few days and
nights she had spent in the train.  It takes some time to become
accustomed to the atmosphere of a stove-heated sleeper car, and since
she had landed she had been in a state of not altogether unnatural
nervous tension.

Indeed, she had found it a little difficult to preserve an outward
serenity the previous day, and when at length the great train ran into
the depôt at Winnipeg, where Gregory had arranged to meet them, it was
with a thrill of expectancy and relief that she stood upon the car
platform.  There was, however, no sign of him, and though Wyllard
handed her a telegram from him a few minutes later the fact that he had
not arrived had a depressing effect on her.  Quiet as she usually was,
the girl was highly strung.  It appeared that something had gone wrong
with Hawtrey's waggon while he was driving in to the railroad, and as
the result of it he had missed the Atlantic train.  She could not blame
him for this, but for all that his absence had been an unpleasant shock.

Feeling that her companion's eyes were upon her, she turned, and
looking out of the window found no encouragement in what she saw.  The
snow had gone, and a vast expanse of grass ran back to the horizon; but
it was a dingy, greyish-white, and not green as it had been in England.
The sky was low and grey, too, and the only thing that broke the dreary
monotony of lifeless colour was when the formless, darker smear of a
birch bluff rose out of the empty levels.  Her heart throbbed
unpleasantly fast as the few remaining minutes slipped away, and at
length she started when a dingy mass of something that looked like
buildings lifted itself above the prairie.

"The Clermont elevators," said Mrs. Hastings.  "We'll be in directly."

The mass separated itself into two or three tall component blocks.  A
huddle of little wooden houses grew into shape beneath them, and a
shrill whistle came ringing back above the slowing cars.  Then a willow
bluff, half filled with old cans and garbage, flitted by, a big bell
commenced tolling, and Agatha rose when Mrs. Hastings took up her furs
from a seat close by.  After that, she found herself standing on the
platform of the car, though she did not quite know how she got there,
for she was sensible only of the fact that in another moment or two she
would greet the lover she had last seen four years ago.

In the meanwhile, though she paid them no great attention, the
surroundings had a depressing effect on her.  There was, however, very
little to see; the mass of the great elevators that cut against a
lowering sky, the little cluster of houses, and the sea of churned-up
mire between them and the track.  There also appeared to be no station
except a big water tank and a rather unsightly shed, about which stood
a group of blurred and shapeless figures.  It seemed very cold, and
Agatha shivered as she felt the raw wind strike through her.

Then one of the figures detached itself from the rest and grew clearer.
The man wore an old skin coat spattered with flakes of mire, and his
long boots were covered with clots of the same material.  His fur cap
looked greasy, and the fur had been rubbed off it in patches; but while
she noticed these things it was his face that struck her most, and she
became conscious of an astonishment which was mixed with vague
misgivings as she gazed at it, for it had subtly changed since she had
last seen it.  The joyous sparkle she remembered had gone out of the
eyes.  They were harder, bolder, than they used to be.  The mouth was
slack--it almost looked sensual--and the man's whole personality seemed
to have grown coarser.  Then as she thrust the disconcerting fancies
from her the car stopped.

In another moment Hawtrey sprang up on the platform, and she felt his
arms about her.  That brought the blood to her face, but she felt none
of the thrill she had expected.  Indeed, she was subconsciously
sensible of a certain shrinking from his embrace.  Then, and she
fancied he must have lifted her bodily down, she stood beside the track
with Mrs. Hastings, a man whom she supposed to be the latter's husband,
Winifred, and Wyllard about her.  Another man was also standing close
by, apparently waiting until they noticed him.  He was flecked with
mire all over, his skin coat was very dilapidated, and Agatha fancied
that his boots had never been cleaned.  His hair, which had evidently
been very badly cut, straggled out from under his old fur cap.

[Illustration: "In another moment Hawtrey sprang up on the platform,
and she felt his arms about her."]

In the meanwhile, Gregory was apparently explaining something to Mrs.
Hastings.  "No," he said, "I'm sorry it can't be for another week.
Horribly unfortunate.  It seems they've sent the Methodist on down the
line, and we'll have to wait for the Episcopalian.  He'll be at
Lander's for a few days."

Then Agatha's cheeks flamed, for she recognised that it was her wedding
they were speaking of; but it brought her a curious relief to hear that
it had been deferred.  A moment or two later Gregory turned to her with
questions about her throat, and his people in England, and Winifred
separated herself from the group.  She was standing near her baggage,
which had been flung out beside the track, a little, lonely figure,
while the train went on, when Wyllard strode up to her.

"Feeling rather out of it?  I do, any way," he said.  "Since we appear
superfluous, we may as well make the most of the opportunity,
especially as it will probably save you a long drive.  There's a man
here who wants to see you."

Winifred had felt very forlorn a few moments earlier, but the
announcement Wyllard had just made was reassuring, and she pulled
herself together as he signed to a man standing a little further along
the track.  The latter wore rather neat store clothes, and his manner
was brisk and wholly business-like.  It was a certain relief to the
girl to see that he evidently regarded her less as a personality than
as a piece of commercial machinery, which he had apparently been asked
to make use of.  She had found it easier to get on with men who
confined themselves to that point of view.

"Mr. Hamilton, in charge of the elevator yonder," said Wyllard,
pointing to one of the huge buildings.  "This is Miss Rawlinson."

The elevator man made her the curtest of inclinations, and proceeded to
arrange matters with a rapidity which almost took her breath away.

"Typist and stenographer?" he said.  "Know anything about
account-keeping?"

Winifred admitted that she possessed these abilities, and Hamilton
appeared to reflect for a moment or two.

"Well," he said, "in a fortnight we'll give you a show.  You can start
at--" and he mentioned terms which rather astonished Winifred.  "If you
can keep things straight we may raise you later."

"Won't you want to see any testimonials?" she asked.

"No," said Hamilton.  "I've seen a good many, and I'm inclined to fancy
some of the folks who showed them me must have bought them."  He waved
his hand.  "Mr. Wyllard assures me that you'll do, and in the meanwhile
that's quite enough for me."

It struck Winifred as curious that, while Agatha had written to Hawtrey
on her behalf, it was Wyllard who had secured her the opportunity she
had longed for; but she thanked the elevator man before she turned to
him.

"There's another matter," she said hesitatingly.  "I'll have to live
here?"

Wyllard smiled.  "I've seen to that, though if you don't like my
arrangements you can alter them afterwards.  Mrs. Sandberg will take
you in, and even if she isn't particularly amiable you'll be in safe
hands."

Hamilton laughed.  "Oh, yes," he said.  "She's Scotch--old type
Calvinist at that.  No frivolity about that woman.  Married a
Scandinavian, and was just breaking him in when he was killed back East
along the track."

"We'll consider it as fixed, but in the meanwhile you're to stay with
Mrs. Hastings for the fortnight," said Wyllard.  "Sproatly"--and he
signed to the man in the skin coat--"will you get Miss Rawlinson's
baggage into your waggon?"

The man took off his fur cap.  "If Miss Rawlinson would like to see
Mrs. Sandberg, I'll drive her round," he suggested.  "We'll catch you
up in a league or so.  Gregory has a bit of patching to do on his
off-side trace."

"He might have had things straight for once," said Wyllard half-aloud.

Winifred permitted Sproatly to help her into his waggon--a high,
narrow-bodied vehicle, mounted on tall, spidery wheels, but she had to
hold fast to it while they jolted across the track and through a sea of
mire into the unpaved street of the little town.  She liked her
companion's voice and manner, though she was far from prepossessed by
his appearance.  Two or three minutes later he drew up before a little
wooden house, where they were received by a tall, hard-faced woman, who
frowned at Sproatly.

"Ye'll tak' your patent medicines somewhere else.  I'm wanting none,"
she said.

Sproatly grinned.  "You needn't be afraid of them.  They couldn't hurt
you.  I was talking to a Winnipeg doctor who'd a notion of coming out a
day or two ago.  I told him if he did he'd have to bring an axe along."

Then he explained that Wyllard had sent Winifred there, and the woman
favoured her with a glance of careful scrutiny.

"Weel," she said, "ye look quiet, anyway."  Then she added, as though
further satisfied, "I'll make ye a cup of tea if ye can wait."

Sproatly assured her that this was not the case, and in a few more
minutes the girl, who went into the house, got into the waggon again,
with relief in her face.

"I think I owe Mr. Wyllard a good deal," she said.

Sproatly laughed.  "You're not exactly singular in that respect, but
you had better hold tight.  These beasts are rather less than half
broken."

He flicked them with the whip, and they went across the track at a
gallop, hurling great clods of mud left and right, while the group of
loungers who still stood about the station raised a shout.

"Got any little pictures with nice motters on them?" asked one, and
another flung a piece of information after the jolting waggon.

"There's a Swede down at Branker's wants a bottle that will supple up a
wooden leg," he said.

Sproatly grinned, and waved his hand to them before he turned to his
companion.

"We have to get through before dark, if possible, or I'd stop and sell
them something sure," he said.  "Parts of the trail further on are
simply horrible."

It occurred to Winifred that it was far from excellent as it was, for
spouts of mud flew up beneath the sinking hoofs and wheels, and she was
already getting unpleasantly spattered.

"You think you would have succeeded?" she asked.

"Oh, yes," said Sproatly.  "If I couldn't plant something on to them
when they'd given me a lead like that, I'd be no use in this business.
At present, my command of Western phraseology is my fortune."

"You sell things, then?"

Sproatly pointed to a couple of big boxes in the bottom of the waggon.
"Anything from cough cure to hair restorer, besides a general purpose
elixir that's specially prepared for me.  It's adaptable to any
complaint and season.  All you have to do"--and he lowered his voice
confidentially--"is to put on a different label."

Winifred, who had not felt like it a little earlier, laughed when she
met his eyes.

"What happens to the people who buy it?" she asked.

"Most of them are bachelors, and tough.  They've stood their own
cooking so long that they ought to be, and if anybody's really sick I
hold off and tell him to wait until he can get a doctor.  A sensitive
conscience," he added reflectively, "is quite a handicap in this
business."

"You have always been in it?" asked Winifred, who was amused at him.

"No," said Sproatly, "although you mightn't believe it, I was raised
with the idea that I should have my choice between the Church and the
Bar.  The idea, however, proved--impracticable--which, in some
respects, is rather a pity.  It has seemed to me that a man who can
work off cough cures and cosmetics on to healthy folks with a hide like
leather, and talk a scoffer off the field, ought to have made his mark
in either calling."

He looked at her as if for confirmation of this view, but Winifred, who
laughed again, glanced at the two waggons that moved on, perhaps, two
miles away across the grey-white sweep of prairie.

"Will we overtake them?" she asked.

"We'll probably come up with Gregory.  I'm not sure about Wyllard."

"He drives faster horses?"

"That's not quite the reason.  Gregory has patched up one trace with a
bit of string, and odd bolts are rather addicted to coming out of his
waggon.  Sometimes it makes trouble.  I've known the team leave him
sitting on the prairie, thinking of endearing names for them, and come
home with the pole."

"Does he generally let things fall into that state?"

Sproatly, however, was evidently on his guard.

"Well," he said, "it's certainly that kind of waggon."

Then he flicked the team again, and the jolting rendered it difficult
for Winifred to ask any more questions.  The prairie sod was soft with
the thaw, and big lumps of it stuck to the wheels, which every now and
then plunged into ruts other vehicles had made.

In the meanwhile, Agatha and Hawtrey found it almost as impossible to
sustain a conversation, which was, on the whole, a relief to the girl.
The string-patched trace still held, and the waggon pole was a new one,
but where they were just then the white grass was tussocky and long,
and the trail they occasionally plunged into to avoid it had been
churned into a quagmire.  Hawtrey had packed the thick driving robe
high about his companion, and slipped one arm about her waist beneath
it; but she was conscious that she rather suffered this than derived
any satisfaction from it.  She strove to assure herself that she was
jaded with the journey, which was, in fact, the case, and that the
lowering sky, and the cheerless waste they were crossing, had
occasioned the dejection she felt, which was also possible.  There was
not a tree upon the vast sweep of bleached grass which ran all round
her to the horizon.  It was inexpressibly lonely, a lifeless
desolation, with only the ploughed-up trail to show that man had ever
traversed it; and the raw wind which swept it set her shivering.

She was, however, forced to admit that her weariness and the dreary
surroundings did not quite explain everything.  Even her lover's first
embrace had brought her no thrill, and now the close pressure of his
arm left her quite unmoved.  This was almost disconcertingly curious;
but while she would admit no definite reason for it, there was creeping
upon her a vague consciousness that the man was not the one she had so
often thought of in England.  He seemed different--almost, in fact, a
stranger--though she could not exactly tell where the change in him
began.  His laughter jarred upon her.  Some of the things he said
appeared almost inane, and others were tinged with a self-confidence
that did not become him.  It almost seemed to her that he was shallow,
lacking in comprehension, and once she found herself comparing him with
another man.  She, however, broke off that train of thought abruptly,
and once more endeavoured to find the explanation in herself.
Weariness had induced this captious, hypercritical fit, and by and bye
she would become used to him, she said.

Hawtrey was, at least, not effusive, for which she was thankful, but
when they reached a somewhat smoother surface he commenced to talk of
England.

"I suppose you saw a good deal of my folks when you were at the
Grange?" he said.

"No," said Agatha, "I saw them once or twice."

"Ah!" said the man, with a trace of sharpness, "then they were not
particularly agreeable?"

It seemed to Agatha that he was tactless in suggesting anything of the
kind, but she answered candidly.

"One could hardly go quite so far as that," she said.  "Still, I
couldn't help a feeling that it was rather an effort for them to be
gracious to me."

"They did what they could to make things pleasant when they were first
told of our engagement."

Agatha was too worn-out to be altogether on her guard, which was partly
why she had admitted as much as she had done, though his relatives'
attitude had wounded her, and she answered without reflection.

"I have fancied that was because they never quite believed it would
lead to anything."

She knew this was the truth now, though it was the first time the
explanation had occurred to her.  Gregory's folks, who were naturally
acquainted with his character, had, it seemed, not expected him to
carry his promise out.  She, however, felt that she had been
injudicious when she heard his little harsh laugh.

"I'm afraid they never had a very great opinion of me," he said.

"Then," said Agatha, looking up at him, "it will be our business to
prove them wrong; but I can't help feeling that you have undertaken a
big responsibility, Gregory.  There must be so much that I ought to do,
and I know so little about your work in this country."  She turned, and
glanced with a shiver at the dim, white prairie.  "It looks so
forbidding and unyielding.  It must be very hard to turn it into wheat
fields--to break it in."

It was merely a hint of what she felt, and it was rather a pity that
Hawtrey, who lacked imagination, usually contented himself with the
most obvious meaning of the spoken word.  Things might have gone
differently had he responded with comprehending sympathy.

"Oh," he said, with a laugh that changed her mood, "you'll learn, and I
don't suppose it will matter a great deal if you don't do it quickly.
Somehow or other one worries through."

She felt that this was insufficient, though she remembered that his
haphazard carelessness had once appealed to her.  Now, however, she
realised that to undertake a thing light-heartedly was a very different
matter from carrying it out successfully.  Then it once more occurred
to her that she was becoming absurdly hypercritical, and she strove to
talk of other things.

She did not find it easy, nor, though he made the effort, did Hawtrey.
There was a restraint that he chafed at upon him, for he had when he
first saw her been struck by the change in the girl.  She was graver
than he remembered her, and, it seemed, very much more reserved.  He
had tried and failed, as he thought of it, to strike a spark out of
her.  She did not respond, and he became uneasily conscious that he
could not talk to her as he could, for instance, to Sally Creighton.
There was something wanting in him or her, but he could not at the
moment tell what it was.  Still, he said, things would be different
next day, for the girl was evidently very weary.

In the meanwhile, the creeping dusk settled down upon the wilderness.
The horizon narrowed in, and the stretch of grass before them grew dim.
The trail they now drove into seemed to grow rapidly rougher, and it
was quite dark when they came to the brink of a declivity still at
least a league from the Hastings's homestead.  It was one of the steep
ravines that seam the prairie every here and there, with a birch bluff
on the sides of it, and a little creek flowing through the hollow.

Hawtrey swung the whip when they reached the top, and the team plunged
furiously down the slope.  He straightened himself in his seat with
both hands on the reins, and Agatha held her breath when she felt the
light vehicle tilt as the wheels on one side sank deep in a rut.  Then
something seemed to crack, and she saw the off-side horse stumble and
plunge.  The other beast flung its head up, Hawtrey shouted something,
and there was a great smashing and snapping of undergrowth and fallen
branches as they drove in among the birches.  Then the team stopped,
and Hawtrey, who sprang down, floundered noisily among the undergrowth,
while another thud of hoofs and rattle of wheels grew louder behind
them up the trail.  In a minute or two he came back and lifted Agatha
down.

[Illustration: "Then something seemed to crack, and she saw the
off-side horse stumble and plunge."]

"It's the trace broken.  I had to make the holes with my knife, and the
string's torn through," he said.  "Voltigeur got it round his feet,
and, as usual, tried to bolt.  Anyway, we'll make the others pull up
and take you in."

They went back to the trail together, and reached it just as Hastings
reined in his team.  He got down and walked back with Hawtrey to the
latter's waggon.  It was a minute or two before they reappeared again,
and Mrs. Hastings, who had got down in the meanwhile, drew Hawtrey
aside.

"I almost think it would be better if you didn't come any further
to-night," she said.

"Why?" the man asked sharply.

"I can't help thinking that Agatha would prefer it.  For one thing,
she's rather jaded, and wants quietness."

"You feel sure of that?"

There was something in the man's voice which suggested that he was not
quite satisfied, and his companion was silent a moment.

"It's good advice, Gregory," she said.  "She'll be better able to face
the situation after a night's rest."

"Does it require much facing?" Hawtrey asked drily.

Mrs. Hastings turned from him with a sign of impatience.  "Of course it
does.  Anyway, if you're wise you'll do what I suggest, and ask no more
questions."

Then she got into the waggon, and Hawtrey stood still beside the trail,
feeling unusually thoughtful when they drove away.



CHAPTER XI.

AGATHA'S DECISION.

It was with an expectancy which was slightly toned down by misgivings
that Hawtrey drove over to the homestead where Agatha was staying the
next afternoon.  The misgivings were, perhaps, not unnatural, for he
had been chilled by the girl's reception of him on the previous day,
and her manner afterwards had, he felt, left something to be desired.
Indeed, when she drove away with Mrs. Hastings he had felt himself a
somewhat injured man.

His efforts to mend the harness, and extricate the waggon in the dark,
which occupied him for an hour, had, however, partly helped to drive
the matter from his mind, and when he reached his homestead rather late
that night he went to sleep, and slept soundly until sunrise, which was
significant.  Hawtrey was, at least, a man who never brooded over his
troubles beforehand, and this was, perhaps, one reason why he did not
always cope with them successfully when they could no longer be avoided.

When he had made his breakfast he, however, became sensible of a
certain pique against both Mrs. Hastings and the girl, which led him to
remember that he had no hired man, and that there was a good deal to be
done.  He decided that it might be well to wait until the afternoon
before he called on them, and for several hours he drove his team
through the crackling stubble.  His doubts and irritation grew weaker
as he did so, and when at length he drove into sight of Hastings's
homestead, his buoyant temperament was commencing to reassert itself.
Clear sunshine streamed down upon the prairie out of a vault of
cloudless blue, and he felt that after all any faint shadow that might
have arisen between him and the girl could be readily swept away.

He was, however, a little less sure of this when he saw her.  Agatha
sat near an open window, in a scantily furnished match-boarded room,
and she, at least, as it happened, had not slept at all.  Her eyes were
heavy, but there was a look of resolution in them which seemed out of
place just then, and it struck him that she had lost the freshness
which had characterised her in England.

She rose when he came in, and then, to his astonishment, drew back a
pace or two when he moved impulsively towards her.

"No," she said, with a hand raised restrainingly, "you must hear what I
have to say, and try to bear with me.  It is a little difficult,
Gregory, but it must be said at once."

The man stood still, almost awkwardly, looking at her with
consternation in his face, and for a moment she looked steadily at him.
It was a painful moment, for she was just then gifted with a clearness
of vision which she almost longed to be delivered from.  She saw that
the impression which had brought her a vague sense of dismay on the
previous afternoon was wrong.  The trouble was that he had not changed
at all.  He was what he had always been, and she had merely deceived
herself when she had permitted her girlish fancy to endue him with
qualities and graces which he had, it seemed, never possessed.  There
was, however, no doubt that she had still a duty towards him.

He spoke first with a trace of hardness in his voice.

"Then," he said, "won't you sit down.  This is naturally a
little--embarrassing--but I'll try to listen."

Agatha sank into a seat by the open window, for she felt physically
worn-out, and there was a task she shrank from before her.

"Gregory," she said, "I feel that we have come near making what might
prove to be a horrible mistake."

"We?" said Hawtrey, while the blood rose into his weather-darkened
face.  "That means both of us."

"Yes," said Agatha, with a quietness that cost her an effort.

Hawtrey spread his hands out forcibly.  "Do you want me to admit that
I've made one?"

"Are you quite sure you haven't?"

She flung the question at him sharply in tense apprehension, for, after
all, if the man was sure of himself, there was only one course open to
her.  He leaned upon the table, gazing at her, and as he did so his
indignation melted, and doubts commenced to creep into his mind.

She looked weary, and grave, and almost haggard, and it was a fresh,
light-hearted girl he had fallen in love with in England.  The mark of
the last two years of struggle was just then plain on her, though,
while he did not recognise this, it would pass away again.  He tried to
realise what he had looked for when he had asked her to marry him, and
could not do so clearly; but there was in the back of his mind a
half-formulated notion that it had been a cheerful companion, somebody
to amuse him.  She scarcely seemed likely to do the latter now.  He
was, however, not one of the men who can face a crisis collectedly, and
his thoughts became confused, until one idea emerged from them.  He had
pledged himself to her, and the fact laid a certain obligation upon
him.  It was his part to over-rule any fancies she might be disposed to
indulge in.

"Well," he said stoutly, "I'm not going to admit anything of that kind.
The journey has been too much for you.  You haven't got over it yet."
He lowered his voice, and his face softened.  "Aggy, dear, I've waited
four years for you."

That stirred her, for it was certainly true, and his gentleness had
also its effect.  The situation was becoming more and more difficult,
for it seemed impossible to make him understand that he would in all
probability speedily tire of her.  She now recognised that, but to make
it clear that she could never be satisfied with him was a thing she
shrank from.

"How have you passed those four years?" she asked, to gain time.

For a moment his conscience smote him.  He remembered the trips to
Winnipeg, and the dances to which he had attended Sally Creighton.  It
was, however, evident that Agatha could have heard nothing of Sally.

"I spent them in hard work.  I wanted to make the place more
comfortable for you," he said.  "It is true"--and he added this with a
twinge of uneasiness, as he remembered that his neighbours had done
much more with less incentive--"that it's still very far from what I
would like, but things have been against me."

The speech had a far stronger effect than he could have expected, for
Agatha remembered Wyllard's description of what the prairie farmer had
to face.  Those four years of determined effort and patient endurance,
which was how she pictured them, counted heavily against her in the
man's favour.  It flashed upon her that, after all, there might have
been some warrant for the view she had held of Gregory's character when
he had fallen in love with her.  He was younger then, there must have
been latent possibilities in him, but the years of toil had killed them
and hardened him.  It was for her sake he had made the struggle, and
now it seemed unthinkable that she should renounce him because he came
to her with the dust and stain of it upon him.  For all that, she was
possessed with a curious, sub-conscious feeling that she would involve
them both in disaster if she yielded.  Something warned her that she
must stand fast.

"Gregory," she said, "I seem to know that we should both be sorry
afterwards if I kept my promise."

Hawtrey straightened himself with a smile she recognised.  She had
liked him for it once, for it had then suggested the joyous courage of
untainted youth.  Now, however, it struck her as only hinting at empty,
complacent assurance.  She hated herself for the fancy, but it would
not be driven away.

"Well," he said, "I'm quite willing to face that hazard.  I suppose
this diffidence is only natural, Aggy, but it's a little hard on me."

"No," said the girl sharply, with a strained look in her eyes, "it's
horribly unnatural, and that's why I'm afraid.  I should have come to
you gladly, without a misgiving, feeling that nothing could hurt me if
I was with you.  I wanted to do that, Gregory--I meant to--but I
can't."  Then her voice fell to a tone that had vibrant regret in it.
"You should have made sure--married me when you last came home."

"But I'd nowhere to take you.  The farm was only half-broken prairie,
the homestead almost unhabitable."

Agatha winced at this.  It was, no doubt, true, but it seemed horribly
petty and commonplace.  His comprehension stopped at such details as
these, and he had given her no credit for the courage which would have
made light of bodily discomfort.

"Do you think--that--would have mattered?  We were both very young
then, and we could have faced our troubles and grown up together.  Now
we're not the same.  You let me grow up alone."

[Illustration: "'Do you think--that--would have mattered?'"]

Hawtrey spread his hands out.  "I haven't changed."

He contented himself with that, and Agatha grew more resolute.  There
was no spark of imagination in him, scarcely even a spark of the
passion which, if it had been strong enough, might have swept her away
in spite of her shrinking.  He was a man of comely presence, whimsical,
and quick, as she remembered, at light badinage, but when there was a
crisis to be grappled with he somehow failed.  His graces were on the
surface.  There was no depth in him.

"Aggy," he added humbly, when he should have been dominantly forceful,
"it is only a question of a little time.  You will get used to me."

"Then," and the girl clutched at the chance of respite, "give me six
months from to-day.  It isn't very much to ask, Gregory."

The man wrinkled his brows.  "It's a great deal," he answered slowly.
"I seem to feel that we shall drift further and further apart if once I
let you go."

"Then you feel that we have drifted a little already?"

"I don't know what has come over you, Aggy, but there has been a
change.  I'm what I was, and I want to keep you."

Agatha rose and turned towards him rather white in face.  "Then if you
are wise you will not urge me now."

Hawtrey met her gaze for a moment, and then made a sign of acquiescence
as he turned his eyes away.  He recognised that this was a new Agatha,
one whose will was stronger than his.  Yet he was half-astonished that
he had yielded so readily.

"Well," he said, "if it must be, I can only give way to you, but I must
be free to come over here whenever I wish."  Then a thought seemed to
strike him.  "But you may have to go away," he added, with sudden
concern.  "If I am to wait six months, what are you to do in the
meanwhile?"

The girl smiled wearily.  Now the respite had been granted her, the
question he had raised was not one that caused her any great concern.

"Oh," she said, "we can think of that later, I have borne enough
to-day.  This has been a little hard upon me, Gregory."

"I don't think it has been particularly easy for either of us," said
Hawtrey, with a trace of grimness.  "Anyway, it seems that I'm only
distressing you."  He smiled wryly.  "It's naturally not what I had
expected to do.  I'll come back when I feel I've quite grasped the
situation."

He moved a pace or two nearer, and taking one of her hands swiftly
stooped and kissed her cheek.

"My dear," he said, "I only want to make it as easy as I can.  You'll
try to think of me, favourably."

Then he went out and left her sitting with a troubled face beside the
open window.  A little warm breeze swept into the almost empty room,
and outside a blaze of sunshine rested on the prairie.  It was torn up
with wheel ruts about the house, for the wooden building rose abruptly
without fence or garden from the waste of whitened grass.  Close to it
there stood a birch-log barn or stables, its sides curiously ridged and
furrowed where the trunks were laid on one another, roofed with wooden
shingles that had warped into hollows here and there.  Further away
there rose another long building, apparently of sod, and a great
shapeless yellow mound with a domed top towered behind the latter.  It
was most unlike a trim English rick, besides being bigger, and Agatha
wondered what it could be.  As a matter of fact, it was a not uncommon
form of granary, the straw from the last thrashing flung over a
birch-pole framing.

Behind that there ran a great breadth of knee-high stubble, blazing
ochre and cadmium in the sunlight.  It had evidently extended further
than it did, for a blackened space showed where a fire had been lighted
to destroy it.  Here Hastings, clad in blue duck, with long boots, was
ploughing, plodding behind his horses, which stopped now and then when
the share jarred against a patch of still frozen soil.  Further on two
other men silhouetted in blue against the whitened grass drove spans of
slowly moving oxen that hauled big breaker ploughs, and the lines of
clods that lengthened behind them gleamed in the sunlight a rich
chocolate-brown.  Beyond them the wilderness ran unbroken to the
horizon.

Agatha gazed at it all vacantly, but the newness and strangeness of it
reacted upon her.  She felt very desolate and lonely, and by and bye
remembered that she had still to grapple with a practical difficulty.
She could not stay with Mrs. Hastings indefinitely, and she had not the
least notion where to go or what she was to do.  She was leaning back
in her chair wearily with half-closed eyes when her hostess came in and
looked at her with a smile that suggested comprehension.  Mrs. Hastings
was thin, and seemed a trifle worn, but she had shrewd, kindly eyes.
Just then she wore a plain print dress which was dusted here and there
with flour.

"So you have sent him away?" she said.

It was borne in upon Agatha that she could be candid with this woman
who she fancied had already guessed the truth.

"Yes," she said, "for six months.  That is, we are not to decide on
anything until they have expired.  I felt we must get used to each
other.  It seemed best."

"To you.  Did it seem best to Gregory?"

A flush crept into Agatha's face.  Though his acquiescence had been a
relief to her, she felt that after all he might have made a more
vigorous protest.

"He gave in to me," she said.

Mrs. Hastings looked thoughtful.  "Well," she said, "I believe you were
wise, but that opens up another question.  What are you going to do in
the meanwhile?"

"I don't know," said Agatha wearily.  "I suppose I shall have to go
away--to Winnipeg, most probably.  I could teach, I think."

"How are you and Gregory to get used to each other if you go away?"

Agatha made a little helpless gesture.  "I hadn't looked at it in that
light."

"Are you very anxious to get used to him?"

Agatha shrank from the question; but there was a constraining
kindliness in her companion's eyes.

"I daren't quite think about it yet.  I mean to try.  I must try.  I
seem to be playing an utterly contemptible, selfish part, but I could
not marry him--now!"

Her hostess quietly crossed the room, and sat down by her side.

"My dear," she said, "as I told you, I think you are doing right, and
in some respects I believe I know how you feel.  Everybody prophesied
disaster when I came out to join Allen from a sheltered home in
Montreal, and at the beginning my life here was not easy to me.  It was
all so different, and there were times when I was afraid, and my heart
was horribly heavy.  If it hadn't been for Allen I think I should have
given in and broken down.  He understood, however.  He never failed me."

Agatha's eyes grew misty, and she turned her head away.

"Yes," she said, "that would make it wonderfully easier."

"You must forgive me," said her companion.  "It was tactless, but I
didn't mean to hurt you.  Well, one difficulty shouldn't give us very
much trouble.  Why shouldn't you stay here with me?"

Agatha turned towards her abruptly with a relief in her face from which
it, however, faded again.  She liked this woman, and she liked her
husband, but she remembered that she had no claim on them.

"Oh," she said, "it is out of the question."

"Wait a little.  I'm proposing to give you quite as much as you will
probably care to do.  There are my two little girls to teach, and I
think they have rather taken to you.  I can scarcely find a minute to
do it myself, and, as you have seen, there is a piano which has after
all only a few of the notes broken.  Besides, we have only one
Scandinavian maid who smashes everything that isn't made of indurated
fibre, and I'm afraid she'll marry one of the boys in a month or two.
It was only by sending the kiddies to Brandon and getting Mrs.
Creighton, a neighbour of ours, to look after Allen, who insisted on me
going, that I was able to get to Paris with some Montreal friends.  In
any case, you'd have no end of duties."

"You are doing this out of--charity?"

Mrs. Hastings laughed.  "Allen wrote some friends of his in Winnipeg to
send me anybody out a week or two ago."

The girl's eyes shone mistily.  "Oh," she said, "you have lifted one
weight off my mind."

"I think," said Mrs. Hastings, "the others will also be removed in due
time."

Then she talked cheerfully of other matters, and Agatha listened to her
with a vague wonder, which was, however, not altogether justified, at
her good fortune in falling in with such a friend, for there are in
that country a good many men and women who resemble this farmer's wife
in one respect.  Unfettered by conventions they stretch out an open
hand to the stranger and the outcast.  Toil has brought them charity in
place of hardness, and still retaining, as some of them do, the culture
of the cities, they have outgrown all the petty bonds of caste.  The
wheat-grower and the hired man eat together, his wife or daughter mends
the latter's clothes, and he, as the natural result of it, not
infrequently makes the farmer's cause his own.  Rights are
good-humouredly conceded in place of being fought for, and the sense of
grievance and half-veiled suspicion are exchanged for an efficient
co-operation.  It must, however, be admitted that there are also
farmers of another kind, from whom the hired man has occasionally some
difficulty in extracting his covenanted wages by personal violence.
That, too, fails now and then.

By and bye a team and a jolting waggon swept into sight, and Mrs.
Hastings rose when the man who drove it pulled his horses up.

"It's Sproatly; I wonder what has brought him here," she said, and as
the man who sprang down walked towards the house she gazed at him
almost incredulously.

"He's quite smart," she added.  "I don't see a single patch on that
jacket, and he has positively got his hair cut."

"Is that an unusual thing in Mr. Sproatly's case?" Agatha asked.

"Yes," said Mrs. Hastings.  "It's very unusual indeed.  What is
stranger still, he has taken the old grease-spotted band off his hat,
after clinging to it affectionately for the last twelve months."

Agatha fancied that the soft hat, which fell shapelessly over part of
Sproatly's face, needed something to replace the discarded band; but in
another moment or two he entered the room.  He shook hands with them
both, and then sat down and smiled.

"You are looking remarkably fresh, but appearances are not invariably
to be depended on, and it's advisable to keep the system up to par," he
said.  "I suppose you don't want a tonic of any kind."

"I don't," said Mrs. Hastings resolutely; "Allen doesn't, either.
Besides, didn't you get into some trouble over that tonic?"

"It was the cough cure," said Sproatly with a grin.  "I sold a man at
Lander's one of the large-sized bottles and when he had taken some he
felt a good deal better.  Then he seems to have argued the thing out
like this: if one dose had relieved the cough, a dozen should drive it
out of him altogether, and he took the lot.  He slept for forty-eight
hours afterwards, and when I came across him at the settlement he
attacked me with a club.  The fault, I may point out, was in his logic.
Perhaps you would like some pictures.  I've a rather striking oleograph
of the Deutcher Kaiser.  It must be like him, for two of his subjects
recognised it.  One hung it up in his shanty.  The other asked me to
hold it out, and then pitched a stove billet through the middle of it.
He, however, produced his dollar; said he felt so much better after
what he'd done that he didn't grudge it."

"I'm afraid we're not worth powder and shot," said Mrs. Hastings.  "Do
you ever remember our buying any tonics or pictures from you?"

"I don't, though I have felt that you ought to have done it," and
Sproatly, who paused a moment, turned towards Agatha with a little
whimsical inclination.  "The professional badinage of an unlicensed
dealer in patent medicines may now and then mercifully cover a good
deal of embarrassment.  Miss Ismay has brought something pleasantly
characteristic of the Old Country along with her."

His hostess disregarded the last remark.  "Then if you didn't expect to
sell us anything, what did you come for?"

"For supper," said Sproatly cheerfully.  "Besides that, to take Miss
Rawlinson a drive.  I told her last night it would afford me
considerable pleasure to show her the prairie.  We could go round by
Lander's and back."

"Then you will probably come across her somewhere about the straw-pile
with the kiddies."

Sproatly took the hint, and when he went out Mrs. Hastings laughed.

"You would hardly suppose that was a young man of excellent education?"
she said.  "So it's on Winifred's account he has driven over; at first
I fancied it was on yours."

Agatha was astonished, but she smiled.  "If Winifred favours him with
her views about young men he will probably be rather sorry for himself.
He lives near you?"

"No," said Mrs. Hastings; "in the summer he lives in his waggon, or
under it, I don't know which.  Of course, if he's really taken with
Winifred he will have to alter that."

"But he has only seen her once--you can't mean that he is serious."

"I really can't speak for Sproatly, but it would be quite in keeping
with the customs of the country if he was."

A minute or two later Agatha saw Winifred in the waggon when it
reappeared from behind the strawpile, and Mrs. Hastings turned towards
the window.

"She has gone with him," she said significantly.  "Unfortunately, he
has taken my kiddies too.  If he brings them back with no bones broken
it will be a relief to me."



CHAPTER XII.

WANDERERS.

Agatha had spent a month with Mrs. Hastings when the latter, who was
driving over to Wyllard's homestead with her one afternoon, pulled up
her team while they were still some little distance away from it, and
looked about her with evident interest.  On the one hand, a vast
breadth of torn-up loam ran back across the prairie, which was now
faintly flecked with green.  On the other, ploughing teams were
scattered here and there across the tussocky sod, and long lines of
clods that flashed where the sunlight struck their facets trailed out
behind them.  The great sweep of grasses that rustled joyously before a
glorious warm wind, gleamed almost luminous, and overhead hung a vault
of blue without a cloud in it.  Trailing out across it, skeins and
wisps of birds moved up from the south.

"Harry is sowing a very big crop this year, and most of it on fall
back-set," she said.  "He has, however, horses enough to do that kind
of thing, and, of course, he does it thoroughly."  Then she glanced
towards where the teams were hauling unusually heavy ploughs through
the grassy sod.  "This is virgin prairie that he's breaking, and he'll
probably put oats on it.  They ripen quicker.  He ought to be a rich
man after harvest unless the frost comes, or the market goes against
him.  Some of his neighbours, including my husband, would have sown a
little less and held a reserve in hand."

Agatha remembered what Wyllard had told her one night on board the
_Scarrowmania_, and smiled, for she fancied that she understood the
man.  He was not one to hedge, as she had heard it called, or
cautiously hold his hand.  He staked boldly, but she felt that this was
not only for the sake of the dollars that he might stand to gain.  It
was part of his nature--the result of an optimistic faith or courage
that appealed to her, and sheer love of effort.  She also fancied that
his was no spasmodic, impulsive activity.  She could imagine him
holding on as steadfastly with everything against him, exacting all
that men and teams and machines could do.  It struck her as curious
that she should feel so sure of this; but she admitted that it was the
case.

In the meanwhile he was approaching them, sitting in the driving-seat
of a big machine that ripped broad furrows through the crackling sod.
Four horses plodded wearily in front of it until he thrust one hand
over, and there was a rattle and clanking as he swung them and the
machine round beside the waggon.  Then he got down, and stood smiling
up at Agatha with his soft hat in his hand and the sunlight falling
full upon his weather-darkened face.  It was not a particularly
striking face, but there was something in it, a hint of restrained
force and steadfastness, she thought, which Gregory's did not possess,
and for a moment or two she watched him unobtrusively.  She felt she
could not help it.

He wore an old blue shirt, open at the throat and belted into trousers
of blue duck at the waist, and she noticed the fine symmetry of his
somewhat spare figure.  The absence of any superfluous fleshiness
struck her as in keeping with her view of his character.  The man was
well-endued physically; but apart from the strong vitality that was
expressed in every line of his pose he looked clean, as she vaguely
described it to herself.  There was, at least, an indefinable something
about him that was apparently born of a simple, healthful life spent in
determined labour in the open air.  It became plainer as she remembered
other men she had met upon whom the mark of the beast was unmistakably
set.  Then Mrs. Hastings broke the silence.

"Well," she said, "we have driven over as we promised.  I've no doubt
you will give us supper, but we'll go on and sit down with Mrs. Nansen
in the meanwhile.  I expect you're too busy to talk to us."

[Illustration: "'Well,' she said, 'we have driven over as we
promised!'"]

Wyllard laughed, and it occurred to Agatha that his laugh was wholesome
as well as pleasant.

"I generally am busy," he admitted.  "These beasts have, however, been
at it since sun-up, and they're rather played out now.  I'll talk to
you as long as you like after supper, which will soon be ready.  It's
bad economy to ask too much from them."

Agatha noticed that though the near horse's coat was foul with dust and
sweat he laid his brown hand upon it, and she supposed she must be
fanciful, for it seemed to her that the gentleness with which he did it
was very suggestive.

"I wonder if that's the only reason that influences you," she said.

A twinkle crept into Wyllard's eyes.  "It seems to me a good one as far
as it goes; anyway, I've been driven rather hard myself now and then,
and I didn't like it."

"Doesn't that usually result in making one drive somebody else harder
to make up for it, when one has the opportunity?"

"If it does it certainly isn't logical.  Logic's rather a fine thing
when it's sound."

"Then," Mrs. Hastings broke in, "I'll suggest a proposition: what's to
be the result of all this ploughing if we have harvest frost or the
market goes against you?"

"Quite a big deficit," said Wyllard cheerfully.

"And that doesn't cause you any anxiety?"

"I'll have had some amusement for my money."

Mrs. Hastings turned to Agatha.  "He calls working from sunrise until
it's dark, and afterwards now and then, amusement!"  Then she looked
back at Wyllard.  "I believe it isn't quite easy for you to hold your
back as straight as you are doing, and that off-horse certainly looks
as if it wanted to lie down."

Wyllard laughed.  "It won't until after supper, anyway.  There are two
more rows of furrows still to do."

"I suppose that is a hint," and Mrs. Hastings glanced at Agatha when
the waggon jolted on.

"That man," she said, "is a great favourite of mine.  For one thing,
he's fastidious, though he's fortunately very far from perfect in some
respects.  He has a red-hot temper, which now and then runs away with
him."

"What do you mean by fastidious?"

"It's a little difficult to define, but I certainly don't mean
pernicketty.  Of course, there is a fastidiousness which makes one
shrink from unpleasant things, but Harry's is the other kind.  It
impels him to do them every now and then."

Agatha made no answer.  She was uneasily conscious that it might not be
advisable to think too much about this man, and in another minute or
two they reached the homestead.  The house was a plain frame building
that had apparently grown out of an older and smaller one of logs, part
of which remained.  It was much the same with the barns and stables,
for while they were stoutly built of framed timber or logs one end of
most of them was lower than the rest, and in some cases consisted of
poles and sods.  Even to her untrained eyes all she saw suggested
order, neatness, and efficiency.  The whole was flanked and sheltered
by a big birch bluff, in which trunks and branches showed up through a
thin green haze of tiny opening leaves, though here and there uncovered
twigs still cut in lace-like tracery against the blue of the sky.

A man whom Wyllard had sent after them took the horses, and when she
got down Agatha commented on what she called the added-to look of the
buildings.

"The Range," said Mrs. Hastings, "has grown rapidly since Harry took
hold.  The old part represents the high-water mark of his father's
efforts.  Of course," she added reflectively, "Harry has had command of
some capital since a relative of his died, but I never thought that
explained everything."

Then they entered the house, and a grey-haired Swedish woman led them
through several match-boarded rooms into a big, cool hall.  She left
them there for awhile, and Agatha was busy for a minute or two with her
impressions of the house.  It was singularly empty by comparison with
the few English homesteads she had seen.  There were neither curtains
nor carpets nor hangings of any kind, but it was commodious and
comfortable.

"What can a bachelor want with a place like this?" she asked.

"I don't know," said Mrs. Hastings; "perhaps it's Harry's idea of
having every thing proportionate.  The Range is quite a big, and
generally a prosperous, farm.  Besides, it's likely that he doesn't
contemplate remaining a bachelor for ever.  Indeed, Allen and I
sometimes wonder how he has escaped so long."

"Is that the right word?" Agatha asked.

"It is," said her companion with a laugh.  "You see, he's highly
eligible from our point of view, but at the same time he's apparently
invulnerable.  I believe," she added drily, "that's the right word,
too."

Then the Swedish housekeeper appeared again, and they talked with her
until she retired to bring the six o'clock supper.  Soon after it was
laid out Wyllard and the men came in.  He was attired as when Agatha
had last seen him, except that he had evidently brushed himself and put
on a store jacket.  He led his guests to the head of the long table,
but the men--and there were a number of them--sat below, and had
evidently no diffidence about addressing question or comment to their
employer.

They ate with a somewhat voracious haste, but that appeared to be the
custom of the country, and Agatha could find no great fault with their
manners or conversation.  The latter was, for the most part, quaintly
witty, and some of them used what struck her as remarkably fitting and
original similes.  Indeed, as the meal proceeded she became curiously
interested in the men and their surroundings.

The windows were open wide, and a sweet, warm air swept into the barely
furnished room.  The spaciousness of the latter impressed her, and she
was pleased with the evident unity between these brown-faced,
strong-armed toilers and their leader.  He sat, self-contained, but
courteous and responsive to all alike, at the head of his table, and
though that is, as she had discovered, in most respects an essentially
democratic country, she felt that there was something almost feudal in
the relations between him and his men.  She could not imagine them
being confined to the mere exaction of so much labour and the
expectation of payment of wages due.  She was also pleased that he had
not changed his dress, which would, she felt, have been a singularly
unfitting action.  In fact, so strong was her interest that she was
almost astonished when the meal was over, though it must be admitted
that most of the men rose and went out in fifteen minutes.  Afterwards
she and Mrs. Hastings talked with the housekeeper for awhile, and an
hour had slipped away when Wyllard suggested that he should show her
the sloo beyond the bluff.

"It's the nearest approach to a lake we have until you get to the
alkali tract," he said.

Agatha went with him through the shadow of the wood, and when at length
they came out of it he found her a seat upon a fallen birch.  The house
and ploughing were hidden now, and they were alone on the slope to a
slight hollow, in which half a mile of gleaming water lay.  Its surface
was broken here and there, by tussocks of grass and reeds, and beyond
it the prairie ran back unbroken, a dim grey waste, to the horizon.
The sun had dipped behind the bluff, and the sky had become a vast
green transparency.  There was no wind now, but a wonderful
exhilarating freshness crept into the cooling air, and the stillness
was only broken by the clamour of startled wildfowl which presently
sank again.  Agatha could see them paddling in clusters about the
gleaming sloo.

"Those are ducks--wild ones?" she asked.

"Yes," said Wyllard; "duck of various kinds.  Most of them the same as
your English ones."

"Do you shoot them?"

Agatha was not greatly interested, but he seemed disposed to silence,
and she felt, for no very clear reason, that it was advisable to talk
of something.

"No," he said, "not often, anyway.  If Mrs. Nansen wants a couple I
crawl down to the long grass with the rifle and get them for her."

"The rifle?  Doesn't the big bullet destroy them?"

"No," said Wyllard.  "You have to shoot their head off or cut their
neck in two."

"You can do that--when they're right out in the sloo?" asked Agatha,
who had learned that it is much more difficult to shoot with a rifle
than a shot-gun, which spreads its charge.

Wyllard smiled.  "Generally; that is, if I haven't been doing much just
before.  It depends upon one's hands.  We have our game laws, but as a
rule nobody worries about them, and, anyway, those birds won't nest
until they reach the tundra by the Polar Sea.  Still, as I said, we
never shoot them unless Mrs. Nansen wants one or two for the pot."

"Why?"

"I don't quite know.  For one thing, they're worn out; they just stop
here to rest."

His answer appealed to the girl.  It did not seem strange to her that
the love of the lower creation should be strong in this man, who had no
hesitation in admitting that the game laws were no restraint to him.
For the most part, at least, when these Lesser Brethren sailed down out
of the blue heavens worn with their journey he gave them right of
sanctuary.

"They have come a long way?" she asked.

Wyllard pointed towards the South.  "From Florida, Cuba, Yucatan;
further than that, perhaps.  In a day or two they'll push on again
towards the Pole, and others will take their places.  There's a further
detachment arriving now."

Looking up, Agatha saw a straggling wedge of birds dotted in dusky
specks against the vault, of transcendental green.  It coalesced, drew
out again, and dropped swiftly, and the air was filled with the rush of
wings; then there was a harsh crying and splashing, and she heard the
troubled water lap among the reeds until deep silence closed in upon
the sloo again.

"I wonder," she said, "why they do it?"

A rather curious smile crept into Wyllard's eyes.  "It's their destiny:
they're wanderers and strangers without a habitation: there's unrest in
them.  After a few months on the tundra mosses to gather strength and
teach the young to fly, they'll unfold their wings to beat another
passage before the icy gales.  Some of us, I think, are like them!"

Agatha could not avoid the personal application.  It would have
appeared less admissible among her friends at The Grange, but she felt
that the constraints of English reticence were out of place in the
wilderness.

"You surely don't apply that to yourself," she said.  "You certainly
have a habitation--the finest, isn't it, on this part of the prairie?"

"Yes," said Wyllard slowly; "I suppose it is.  I've now had a little
rest and quietness, too."

This did not appear to call for an answer, and Agatha sat silent.

"Still," he said, "I have a feeling that some day the call will come,
and I shall have to take the trail again."  He paused, and looked at
her before he added, "It would be easier if one hadn't to go alone, or,
since that would be necessary, if one had at least something to come
back to when the journey was done."

"It would be necessary?" said Agatha, who was rather puzzled by his
steady gaze.

"Yes," he said with a somewhat impressive gravity, "the call will come
from the icy North if it ever comes at all."

There was another brief silence, and Agatha wondered what he was
thinking of until he went on again.

"I remember how I last came back from there.  We were rather late that
season, and out of our usual beat when the gale broke upon us between
Alaska and Asia in the gateway of the Pole.  We ran before it with a
strip of the boom-foresail on her and a jib that blew to ribands every
now and then.  She was a little schooner of ninety tons or so, and for
most of a week she scudded with the grey seas tumbling after her,
white-topped, out of the snow and spume.  They ranged high above her
taffrail curling horribly, but one did not want to look at them.  The
one man on deck had a line about him, and he looked ahead, watching her
screwing round with hove-up bows as she climbed the seas.  If he'd let
her fall off or claw up, the next one would have made an end of her.
He was knee deep half the time in icy brine, and his hands had split
and opened with the frost, but the sweat dripped from him as he clung
to the jarring wheel.  One of those helmsmen--perhaps two--had another
trouble which preyed on them.  They were thinking of the three men they
had left behind.

"Well," he added, "we ran out of the gale, and I had bitter words to
face when we reached Vancouver.  As one result of it I walked out of
the city with four or five dollars in my pocket--though there was a
share due to me.  Then I rode up into the ranges in an open car to mend
railroad bridges in the frost and snow.  It was not the kind of
home-coming one would care to look forward to."

"Ah," said Agatha, "it must have been horribly dreary?"

The man met her eyes.  "Yes," he said, "you--know.  You came here from
far away, I think a little weary, too, and something failed you.  Then
you felt yourself adrift.  There were--it seemed--only strangers round
you, but you were wrong in one respect; you were by no means a stranger
to me."

He had been leaning against a birch trunk, but now he moved a little
nearer, and stood gravely looking down on her.

"You have sent Gregory away?" he said.

"Yes," said Agatha, and, startled as she was, it did not strike her
that the mere admission was misleading.

Wyllard stretched his hands out.  "Then won't you come to me?"

The blood swept into the girl's face.  For the moment she forgot
Gregory, and was only conscious of an unreasoning impulse which
prompted her to take the hands held out to her.  Then she rose and
faced the man, with burning cheeks.

"You know nothing of me," she said.  "Can you think that I would let
you take me--out of charity?"

"Again you're wrong--on both points.  As I once told you, I have sat
for hours beside the fire beneath the pines or among the boulders with
your picture for company.  When I was worn-out and despondent you
encouraged me.  You have been with me high up in the snow on the
ranges, and through leagues of shadowy bush.  That is not all, however,
though it's difficult to speak of such things to you.  There were times
when as we drove the branch line up the gorge beneath the big divide,
all one's physical nature shrank from the monotony of brutal labour.
The pay-days came round, and opportunities were made for us--to forget
what we had borne, and had still to bear, in the snow and the icy
water.  Then you laid a restraining hand on me.  I could not take your
picture where you could not go.  Is all that to count for nothing?"

Then he spread his hands out forcibly.  "As to the other question:
can't you get beyond the narrow point of view?  We're in a big, new
country where the old barriers are down.  We're merely flesh and
blood--red blood--and we speak as we feel.  Admitting that I was sorry
for you--I am--how does that tell against me--or you?  There's one
thing only that counts at all: I want you."

Agatha was stirred, and almost dismayed at the effect his words had on
her.  He had spoken with a force and passion that had nearly swept her
away with it.  The vigour of the new land throbbed in his voice, and,
flinging aside all cramping restraints and conventions, he had, as he
had said, claimed her as flesh and blood.  There was no doubt that her
nature responded, and it was significant that Gregory had faded
altogether out of her mind; but there was, after all, pride in her, and
she could not quite bring herself to look at things from his
standpoint.  All her prejudices and her sense of fitness were opposed
to it.  For one thing, he had taken the wrong way when he had admitted
that he was sorry for her.  She did not want his compassion, and she
shrank from the shadow of the thought that she would marry him--for
shelter.  It brought her a sudden, shameful confusion as she remembered
the haste with which marriages were, it seemed, arranged on the
prairie.  Then, as the first unreasoning impulse which had almost
compelled her to yield to him passed away, she remembered that it was
scarcely two months since she had met him in England.  It was
intolerable that he should think she would be willing to fall into his
arms merely because he had held them out to her.

"It's a little difficult to get beyond one's sense of what is fit," she
said.  "You--I must say it again--can't know anything about me.  You
have woven fancies about that photograph, but you must recognise that
I'm not the girl you have, it seems, created out of them.  In all
probability she's wholly unreal, unnatural, visionary."  She contrived
to smile, for she was recovering her composure.  "Perhaps it's easy
when one has imagination to endow a person with qualities and graces
that could never belong to them.  It must be easy"--and though she was
unconscious of it, there was a trace of bitterness in her
voice--"because I know I could do it myself."

Again the man held his hands out.  "Then," he said simply, "won't you
try?  If you can only feel sure that the person has them it's possible
that he could acquire one or two."

Agatha drew back, disregarding this.  "Then I've changed ever so much
since that photograph was taken."

Wyllard admitted it.  "Yes," he said, "I recognised that; you were a
little immature then.  I know that now--but all the graciousness and
sweetness in you has grown and ripened.  What is more, it has grown
just as I seemed to know it would do.  I saw that clearly the day we
met beside the stepping-stones.  I would have asked you to marry me in
England only Gregory stood in the way."

Then the colour ebbed suddenly out of the girl's face as she remembered.

"Gregory," she said in a strained voice, "stands in the way still.  I
didn't send him away altogether.  I'm not sure I made that clear."

Wyllard started, but he stood very still again for a moment or two.

"I wonder," he said, "if there's anything significant in the fact that
you gave me that reason last?  He failed you in some way?"

"I'm not sure that I haven't failed him; but I can't go into that."

Again Wyllard stood silent awhile.  Then he turned to her with the
signs of a strong restraint in his face.

"Gregory," he said, "is a friend of mine; there is, at least, one very
good reason why I should remember it, but it seems that somehow he
hadn't the wit to keep you.  Well, I can only wait in the meanwhile,
but when the time seems ripe I shall ask you again.  Until then you
have my promise that I will not say another word that could distress
you.  Perhaps I had better take you back to Mrs. Hastings now."

Agatha turned away, and they walked back together silently through the
bluff.



CHAPTER XIII.

THE SUMMONS.

Mrs. Hastings was standing beside her waggon in the gathering dusk when
Agatha and Wyllard joined her, and when the latter had helped them up
she looked down at him severely as she gathered up the reins.

"By this time Allen will have had to put the kiddies to bed," she said.
"Christina, as you might have borne in mind, goes over to Branstock's
every evening.  Anyway, you'll drive across and see him about that team
as soon as you can; come to supper."

"I'll try," said Wyllard with a certain hesitation; and Mrs. Hastings
turned to her companion as they drove away.

"Why did he look at you before he answered me?" she asked, and laughed,
for there was just light enough left to show the colour in Agatha's
cheek.  "Well," she added, "I told Allen he was sure to be the first."

Agatha looked at her in evident bewilderment, but she nodded.  "Yes,"
she said, "of course, I knew it would come.  Everybody knows by now
that you have fallen out with Gregory."

"But, as I told you, I haven't fallen out with him."

"Then you certainly haven't married him, and if you have said 'No' to
Harry Wyllard because you would sooner take Gregory after all, you're a
singularly unwise young woman.  Anyway, you'll have to meet him when he
comes to supper.  Allen's fond of a talk with Harry; I can't have him
kept away."

"I was a little afraid of that," said Agatha quietly.  "What makes the
situation more difficult is that he told me he would ask me again."

Mrs. Hastings appeared thoughtful.  "In that case he will in all
probability do it; but I don't think you need feel diffident about
meeting him, especially as you can't help it.  He'll wait and say
nothing until he considers it advisable."

She changed the subject, and talked about other matters until they
reached the homestead; but as the weeks went by Agatha found that what
she had told her was warranted.

Wyllard drove over every now and then, but she was reassured by his
attitude.  He greeted her with the quiet cordiality which had hitherto
characterised him, and it went a long way towards allaying the
embarrassment she was conscious of at first.  By and bye, however, she
felt no embarrassment at all, in spite of the disturbing possibility
that he might at some future time once more adopt the rôle of lover.
In the meanwhile, she realised that in face of the efforts she made to
think of him tenderly she was drifting further apart from Gregory; and
she had, as it happened, two further offers of marriage before the
wheat had shot up a hand's breadth above the rich black loam.  This was
a matter of regret to her, and, though Mrs. Hastings assured her that
the "boys" would get over it, she was rather shocked to hear that one
of them had shortly afterwards involved himself in difficulties by
creating a disturbance in Winnipeg.

The wheat, however, was growing tall when, at Mrs. Hastings's request,
she drove over with her again to Willow Range.  Wyllard was out when
they reached it, and leaving Mrs. Hastings and his housekeeper together
she wandered out into the open air.  She went through the birch bluff
and towards the sloo, which had almost dried up now, and it was with a
curious stirring of confused feelings that she remembered what Wyllard
had said to her there.  Through them all there ran a regret that she
had not met him four years earlier.

That, however, was a train of thought she did not care to indulge in,
and in order to get rid of it she walked more briskly up a low rise
where the grass was already turning white again, over the crest of it,
and down the side of another hollow.  The prairie rolled just there in
wide undulations as the sea does when the swell of a distant gale
under-runs a glassy calm.  She had grown fond of the prairie, and its
clear skies and fresh breezes had brought the colour to her cheeks and
given her composure, though there were times when the knowledge that
she was no nearer a decision in regard to Gregory weighed upon her like
a chill depressing shadow.  She had seen very little of him, and he had
not been effusive then.  What he felt she could not tell, but it had
been a relief to her when he had ridden away again.  Then for a while
he faded to an unsubstantial, shadowy figure in the back of her mind.

That afternoon the prairie stretched away before her gleaming in the
sunlight tinder a vast sweep of cloudless blue.  She was half-way down
the long slope when a clash and tinkle reached her, and for the first
time she noticed that a cloud of dust hung about the hollow at the foot
of it, where there had been another sloo.  It had, however, evidently
dried up weeks ago, and as there were men and horses moving amidst the
dust she supposed that they were cutting prairie hay, which grows
longer in such places than it does upon the levels.  She went on
another half-mile, and then sat down some distance off, for she had
already walked further than she had intended.  She could now see the
men more clearly, and though it was fiercely hot they were evidently
working at high pressure.  Their blue duck clothing and bare brown arms
appeared among the white and ochre tinting of the grass that seemed
charged with brightness, and the sounds of their activity came up to
her.  She could distinguish the clashing tinkle of the mowers, the
crackle of the harsh stems, and the rattle of waggon wheels.

By and bye a great mound of gleaming grass overhanging two half-seen
horses moved out of the sloo, and she watched it draw nearer until she
made out Wyllard sitting in a depression in the front of it.  She sat
still until he pulled the team up close beside her and looked down with
a smile.

"It's 'most two miles to the homestead.  If you could manage to climb
up I could make you a comfortable place," he said.

Agatha held her hands up with one foot upon a spoke of the wheel as the
man leaned down, and next moment she was strongly lifted and felt his
supporting hand upon her waist.  Then she found herself standing upon a
narrow ledge clutching at the hay while he tore out several big armfuls
of it and flung it back upon the rest.

[Illustration: "Agatha held her hands up ... as the man leaned down,
and the next moment she was strongly lifted."]

"Now," he said, "I guess you'll find that a snug enough nest."

She sank into it with at least a certain sense of physical
satisfaction.  The grass was soft and warm, scented with the aromatic
odours of wild peppermint, and it yielded like a downy cushion beneath
her limbs.  Still, she was just a little uneasy in mind, for she
fancied she had seen a sudden sign of tension in the man's face when he
had for a moment held her on the edge of the waggon.  Unobtrusively she
flashed a glance at him, and was reassured.  He was looking straight
before him with unwavering eyes, and his face was as quiet as it
usually was again.  Neither of them said anything until the team moved
on.  Then he turned to her.

"You won't get jolted much," he said.  "They've been at it since four
o'clock this morning."

"That," said Agatha, "must have meant that you rose at three."

Wyllard smiled.  "As a matter of fact, it was half-past two.  There was
no dew last night, and we started early.  I've several extra teams this
year, and there's a good deal of hay to cut.  Of course, we have to get
it in the sloos or any damp place where it's long.  We don't sow grass,
and we have no meadows like those there are in England."

Agatha understood that he meant to talk about matters of no particular
consequence, as he usually did.  There was, as she had noticed, a vein
of almost poetic imagination in this man, and his idea that she had
been with him through the snow of the lonely ranges and the gloom of
the great forests of the Pacific slope appealed to her, merely as a
pretty fancy, in particular.  He had, however, of late very seldom
given it rein, and sitting close beside him among the yielding hay she
decided that it was wiser to let him talk about his farm.

"But you have a foreman who could see the teams turned out, haven't
you?" she said.

"I had, but he left me three or four days ago.  It's a pity in several
ways, since I've taken up rather more than I can handle this year."

"Then why didn't you keep him?"

There was a certain grimness in Wyllard's laugh.  "Martial was a little
muleish, and I'm afraid I'm troubled with a shortness of temper now and
then.  We had a difference of opinion as to the best way to drive the
mower into the sloo, and he didn't seem to recognise that he should
have deferred to me.  Unfortunately, as the boys were standing by, I
had to insist upon him getting out of the saddle."

He had turned a little further towards her, and Agatha noticed that
there was a bruise upon one side of his face.  After what he had just
told her the sight of it jarred upon her, though she would not admit
that there was any reason why it should do so.  She could not deny that
on the prairie a resort to physical force might be warranted by the
lack of any other remedy, but it hurt her to think of him descending to
an open brawl with one of his men.

Then it occurred to her that the other man had in all probability
suffered more, and this brought her a certain sense of satisfaction
which she admitted was more or less barbarous.  She had made it clear
that Wyllard was nothing to her, but she could not help watching him as
he lay among the hay.  His wide hat set off his bronzed face, which,
though not exactly handsome, was pleasant and reassuring--she felt that
was the best word--to look at.  The dusty shirt and old blue trousers,
as she had already noticed, accentuated the long, clean lines of his
figure, and she realised with a faint sense of anger that his mere
physical perfection, his strength and suppleness, appealed to her.
This was, she recognised, an almost repugnant thing, a feeling to be
judiciously checked, but it would obtrude itself.  After all, in spite
of her fastidiousness, she was endued with most of the characteristics
of flesh and blood.

"You must have a good deal to look after alone," she said.

"Oh yes," said Wyllard; "I'm making my biggest effort this year.  We've
sown at least a third more than I've ever done before, and I've bought
a big bunch of horses, too.  If all goes satisfactorily we should reap
a record harvest, but in the meanwhile the thing's rather a pull.  One
can't let up a minute; there's always something to be done, and a
constant need for supervision."

"Suppose you neglected the latter?"

Wyllard smiled.  "Then I'm 'most afraid there'd be the biggest kind of
smash."

After that they talked of other matters of no great consequence, for
both of them were conscious of the necessity for a certain reticence;
and when they reached the homestead Agatha joined Mrs. Hastings, while
Wyllard pitched the hay off the waggon.  He, however, came in to supper
presently with about half of the others, and they all sat down together
in the long, barely furnished room.  Wyllard seemed unusually animated,
and drew Mrs. Hastings into a bout of whimsical badinage, but he looked
up sharply when, by and bye, a beat of hoofs rose from the prairie.

"Somebody's riding in; I wonder what he wants?" he said.  "I certainly
don't expect anybody."

The drumming of hoofs rang more sharply through the open windows, for
the sod was hard and dry.  Then it broke off, and Agatha saw Wyllard
start as a man came into the room.  He was a little, thick-set man with
a weather-darkened face, dressed in rather old blue serge, and he
looked and walked like a seaman.  In another moment or two he stood
still, looking about him, and Wyllard's lips set tight.  A little
thrill of disconcertion ran through Agatha, for she felt she knew what
this stranger's errand must be.

Then Wyllard rose, and walked towards the man with outstretched hand.

"Sit right down and get some supper.  You'll want it if you have ridden
in from the railroad," he said.  "We'll talk afterwards."

The stranger nodded.  "I'm from Vancouver," he said; "had quite a lot
of trouble tracing you."

He sat down, and Wyllard, who sent a man out to take his horse, went
back to his seat, but he was rather silent during the rest of the meal.
When it was over he asked Mrs. Hastings to excuse him, and leading the
stranger into a smaller room pulled out two chairs and laid a cigar box
on the table.

"Now you can get ahead," he said.

The seaman fumbled in his pocket, and taking out a slip of wood handed
it to his companion.

"That's what I came to bring you," he said quietly.

Wyllard's eyes grew very grave as he gazed at the thing.  It was a slip
of willow which will grow close up to the limits of the eternal ice,
and it bore a rude representation of the British ensign union down,
which signifies "In distress."  Besides this there were one or two
indecipherable words scratched on it, and three common names rather
more clearly cut.  Wyllard recognised every one of them.

"How did you get it?" he asked, in tense suspense.

The sailorman once more felt in his pocket and took out a piece of
paper cut from a chart.  He flattened it out on the table, and it
showed, as Wyllard had expected, a strip of the Kamtchatkan coast.

"I guess I needn't tell you where that is," he said, and pointed to the
parallel of latitude that ran across it.  "Dunton gave it me.  He was
up there late last season well over on the western side.  A
north-easterly gale fell on them, and took most of the foremast out of
her.  I understand they tried to lash on a boom or something as a jury
mast, but it hadn't height enough to set much forward canvas, and that
being the case she wouldn't bear more than a three-reefed mainsail.
Anyway, they couldn't do anything with her on the wind, and as it kept
heading them from the east she sidled away down south through the
Kuriles into the Yellow Sea.  They got ice-bound somewhere, which
explains why Dunton only fetched Vancouver a week ago."

[Illustration: "'I guess I needn't tell you where that is,' he said,
and pointed to the parallel of latitude that ran across."]

"But the message?"

"When they were in the thick of their troubles they hove her to not far
off the beach with ice about, and a Husky came down on them in some
kind of boat."

"A Husky?" said Wyllard, who knew he meant an Esquimaux.

"That's what Dunton called him, but I guess he must have been a
Kamtchadale or a Koriak.  Anyway, he brought this strip of willow, and
he had Tom Lewson's watch.  Dunton traded him something for it.  They
couldn't make much of what he said except that he'd got the message
from three white men somewhere along the beach.  They couldn't make out
how long ago."

"Dunton tried for them?"

"How could he?  She'd hardly look at the wind, and the ice was piling
up on the coast close to lee of him.  He hung on a week or two with the
floes driving in all the while, and then it freshened hard and blew him
out."

He had told his story, and Wyllard, who rose, stood leaning on his
chair-back very grim in face.

"That," he said, "must have been eight or nine months ago."

"It was.  They've been up there since the night we couldn't pick up the
boat."

"It's unthinkable," said Wyllard.  "The thing can't be true."

His companion gravely produced a little common metal watch made in
Connecticut, and worth some five or six dollars.  Opening it he pointed
to a name scratched inside it.

"You can't get over that," he said simply.

Wyllard strode up and down the room, and when he sat down again with a
clenched hand laid upon the table he and the sailorman looked at each
other steadily for a moment or two.  Then the stranger made a little
gesture.

"You sent them," he said, "what are you going to do?"

"I'm going for them."

The sailorman smiled.  "I knew it would be that.  You'll have to start
right away if it's to be done this year.  I've my eye upon a schooner."

He lighted a cigar, and settled himself more comfortably in his chair.
"Well," he said, "I'm coming with you, but you'll have to buy my ticket
to Vancouver.  It cleaned me out to get here.  We'd a difficulty with a
blame gunboat last season, and the boss went back on me.  Sealing's not
what it used to be.  Anyway, we can fix the thing up later.  I won't
keep you from your friends."

Wyllard went out and left him, and though he did not see Mrs. Hastings
just then he came upon Agatha sitting outside the house.  She glanced
at his face when he sat down beside her.

"Ah," she said, "you have had the summons."

Wyllard nodded.  "Yes," he said, "that man was the skipper of a
schooner I once sailed in.  He has come to tell me where those three
men are."

Then he told her quietly what he had heard, and the girl was conscious
of a very curious thrill.

"You are going up there to search for them?" she said.  "Won't it cost
you a great deal?"

She saw his face harden as he gazed at the tall wheat, but his
expression was very resolute.

"Yes," he admitted, "that's a sure thing.  Most of my dollars are
locked up in this crop, and there's need of constant watchfulness and
effort until the last bushel's hauled in to the elevators.  It probably
sounds egotistical, but now I've got rid of Martial I can't put my hand
on any one as fit to see the thing through as I am.  Still, I have to
go for them.  What else could I do?"

"Wouldn't the Provincial Government of British Columbia, or your
authorities at Ottawa take the matter up?"

Wyllard's smile was somewhat grim.  "It wouldn't be wise to give them
an opportunity.  For one thing, they've had enough of sealing cases,
and that isn't astonishing.  We'll say they applied for the persons of
three British subjects who are supposed to be living somewhere in
Russian Asia--and for that matter I couldn't be sure that two of them
aren't Americans--the Russians naturally enquire what the men were
doing there.  The answer is that they were poaching the Russians'
seals.  Then the affair on the beach comes up, and there's a big claim
for compensation and trouble all round.  It seems to me the last thing
those men--they're practically outlaws--would desire would be to have a
Russian expedition sent up on their trail.  They would want to lie
hidden until they could somehow get off again."

"But how have they lived up there?  The whole land's frozen, isn't it,
most of the year?"

"They'd sealing rifles, and the Koriaks make out farther north in their
roofed-in pits.  One can live on seal and walrus meat and blubber."

Agatha shivered.  "But they'd no tents, or furs, or blankets.  It's
horrible to imagine it."

"Yes," said Wyllard, gravely, "that's why I'm going for them."

Agatha sat still a moment.  She could realise the magnitude of the
sacrifice he was making, and in some degree the hazards that he must
face.  It appealed to her with an overwhelming force, but she was also
conscious of a strange dismay.  Then she turned to him with a flush of
colour in her cheeks and her eyes shining.

"Oh," she said, "it's splendid!"

Wyllard smiled.  "What could I do?" he said, "I sent them."

Then somewhat to Agatha's relief Mrs. Hastings came out of the house,
and Wyllard moved away towards the stable to bring out her team.



CHAPTER XIV.

AGATHA PROVES OBDURATE.

It was two days later when Agatha, coming back from a stroll across the
prairie with the two little girls, found Mrs. Hastings awaiting her at
the homestead door.

"I'll take the kiddies.  Harry Wyllard's here, and he seems quite
anxious to see you, though I don't know what he wants," she said.

She flashed a searching glance at the girl, whose face, however,
remained expressionless.  It was, at least, not often that Agatha's
composure broke down.

"Anyway," she added, "you had better go in.  Allen has been arguing
with him the last half-hour, and can't get any sense into him.  It
seems to me the man's crazy; but he might, perhaps, listen to you."

"I think that's scarcely likely," said Agatha quietly.

Her companion made a sign of impatience.  "Then," she said, "it's a
pity.  Anyway, if he speaks to you about his project you can tell him
that it's altogether unreasonable."

She drew aside, and Agatha walked into the room in which she had had
one painful interview with Gregory.  Wyllard, who was sitting there,
rose as she came in, and half-consciously she contrasted him with her
lover.  Then what Mrs. Hastings had once predicted came about, for
Gregory did not bear that comparison favourably.  Indeed, it seemed to
her that he grew coarser and meaner in person and character.  Then she
turned to Wyllard, who stood quietly watching her.

"Nellie Hastings or her husband has been telling you what they think of
my idea?" he said.

Agatha admitted it.  "Yes," she said.  "Their opinion evidently hasn't
much weight with you."

"I wouldn't go quite so far as that, but you might have gone a little
further than you did.  Haven't you a message for me?"  Then he smiled
before he added, "You were sent to denounce my folly--and you can't do
it.  If you trusted your own impulses you would give me your
benediction instead."

Agatha, who was troubled with a sense of regret, noticed that there was
a suggestive wistfulness in his face.

"No," she said slowly, "I can't denounce it.  For one reason, I have no
right of any kind to force my views on you."

"You told Nellie Hastings that?"

It seemed an unwarranted question, but the girl admitted it candidly.

"In one sense I did.  I suggested that there was no reason why you
should listen to me."

Wyllard smiled again.  "Nellie and her husband are good friends of
mine, but sometimes our friends are a little too officious.  Anyway, it
doesn't count.  If you had had that right, you would have told me to
go."

Agatha felt the warm blood rise to her cheeks.  It seemed to her that
he had paid her a great and sincere compliment in taking it for granted
that if she had loved him she would still have bidden him undertake his
perilous duty.

"Ah," she said, "I don't know.  Perhaps I should not have been brave
enough."

It was not a judicious answer.  She quite realised that, but she felt
that she must speak with unhesitating candour.

"After all," she added, "can you be quite sure that this thing is your
duty?"

The man laughed in a rather grim fashion.  "No," he said, "I can't.  In
fact, when I sit down to think I can see at least a dozen reasons why
it doesn't concern me.  In a case of this kind that's always easy.
It's just borne in upon me--I don't know how--that I have to go."

Agatha crossed to the window and sat down.  She knew there was more to
follow, and it seemed advisable to secure whatever there might be in
her favour in a pose of physical ease.  Besides, where she stood the
glare of light flung back by the white and dusty grass outside struck
full upon her face, and she did not want the man to read every varying
expression.  He leaned upon a chair-back looking at her gravely.

"Well," he said, "we'll go on a little further.  It seems better that I
should make what's in my mind quite clear to you.  You see, I and
Captain Dampier start in a week."

Agatha was certainly conscious of a thrill of dismay, but the man
proceeded quietly.  "We may be back before the winter, but it's also
quite likely that we may be ice-nipped before our work is through, and
in that case it would be a year at least before we reach Vancouver.  In
fact, there's a certain probability that all of us may leave our bones
up there.  Now, there's a thing I must ask you.  Is it only a passing
trouble that stands between you and Gregory?  Are you still fond of
him?"

The girl felt her heart beating unpleasantly fast.  It would have been
a relief to assure herself that she was as fond of Gregory as she had
been, but she could not do it.

"That," she said, "is a point on which I cannot answer you."

"We'll let it go at that.  The fact that Gregory sent me over for you
implied a certain obligation.  How far events have cleared me of it I
don't know--and you don't seem willing to tell me.  But I fancy there
is now less cause than there was for me to thrust my own wishes into
the background, and, as I start in another week, the situation has
forced my hand.  I can't wait as I had meant to do, and it would be a
vast relief to know that I had made your future safer than it is before
I go.  Will you marry me at the settlement the morning I start?"

Half-conscious, as she was, of the unselfishness which had prompted
this suggestion, Agatha turned and faced him in hot anger.

"Can you suppose for a moment that I would agree to that?" she asked.

"Wait," said the man gravely.  "Try to look at it quietly.  First of
all, I want you.  You know that--though you have never shown me any
tenderness, you can't doubt it--but I can't stay to win your liking.  I
must go away.  Then, as things stand, your future is uncertain; and as
my wife it would, at least, be safer.  However badly the man I leave in
charge of the Range may manage there would be something saved out of
the wreck, and I would like to make that something yours.  As I said, I
may be away a year, perhaps eighteen months, and I may never come back.
If I don't, the fact that you would bear my name could cause you no
great trouble.  It would lay no restraint on you in any way."

Agatha looked him steadily in the eyes, and spoke as she felt.  "We
can't contemplate your not coming back.  It's unthinkable."

"Thank you," said Wyllard, still with the grave quietness she wondered
at.  "Then I'm not sure that my turning up again would greatly
complicate the thing.  There would, at least, be one way out of the
difficulty.  You wouldn't find the situation intolerable if I could
make you fond of me."

The girl broke into a little, high-strung laugh that had a tinge of
bitterness in it.

"Oh," she said, "aren't you taking too much for granted?  Am I really
to believe you are making this fantastic offer seriously?  Do you
suppose I would marry you--for your possessions?"

"It sounds bloodless?  Perhaps it is in one way, but you wouldn't
always find me that.  Just now, because my hand is forced, I am only
anticipating things.  If I live, you will some day have to choose
between me and Gregory.  In this case he must hold his own if he can."

"Against what you have offered me?"  She flung the question at him.

He looked at her with his face set and the signs of restraint very
plain on it.

"I expect I deserved that.  I wanted to make you safe.  It's the most
pressing difficulty."

The bitterness was still in the girl's eyes.

"So far as I am concerned, you seem to believe it is the only one."
Then her anger seemed to carry her away.  "Oh," she said, "do you
imagine that an offer of the kind you have made me, made as you have
made it, would lead anyone to love you?"

Wyllard smiled.  "When I first saw your picture, and when I saw you
afterwards, I loved your gracious quietness.  Now you seem to have got
rid of it, I love you better as you are.  There is, however, one thing
I must ask again, and it's your clear duty to tell me.  Are you fonder
of Gregory than you feel you ever could be of me?"

Agatha's eyes fell.  She felt she could not look at him just then, nor
could she answer his question honestly as she almost wished to.

"At least, I am bound to him until he releases me."

"Ah," said Wyllard, "that is what I was most afraid of.  All along it
hampered me, and in it you have the reason for my bloodlessness.  It is
another reason why I should go away."

"For fear that you should tempt me from my duty?"

The man's expression changed, and there crept into his eyes a gleam of
the passion that she knew he was capable of.

"My dear," he said, "I seem to know that I could make you break faith
with that man.  You belong to me.  For three years you have been
everywhere with me, but we will let that go.  I must go away, and
Gregory will have a clear field, but the probability is in favour of me
coming back again, and then, if he has failed to make the most of it,
I'll enforce my claim."

He turned and seized one of her hands, holding it strongly against her
will.

"That is my last word.  At least, you will let me think that when I go
up yonder into the mists and snow I shall take your good wishes for my
success away with me."

She lifted her face, which was flushed, and once more looked him
steadily in the eyes.

"They are yours, most fervently," she said.  "It would be intolerable
that you should fail."

He smiled very gravely, and let her hand fall.  "After all," he said,
"one can only do what one can."

Then he went out without another glance at her, and not long afterwards
Mrs. Hastings, who was endued with a reasonable measure of curiosity,
found occasion to enter the room.

"You have said something to trouble Harry?" she began.

Agatha contrived to smile.  "I'm not sure he's greatly troubled.  In
any case, I told him I would not marry him--for the second time."

"He has given up his crazy notion, thee?"

"He never suggested doing that."

Mrs. Hastings made a little sign of compassionate astonishment.

"Oh," she said, "he's mad."

"I believe I told him he was bloodless.  At least, that was how he
interpreted what I said."

Mrs. Hastings laughed.  "Harry Wyllard bloodless!  My dear, can't you
see that the restraint he now and then practises is the sign of a
tremendous vitality?  Still, the man's mad.  Did he tell you that he
means to leave Gregory in charge of Willow Range?"

Agatha was certainly astonished at this, but Mrs. Hastings nodded.
"It's a fact," she said.  "He asked him to meet him here to save time,
and"--she turned towards the window--"there's his waggon now."

She moved towards the door, and then turned again.  "Is there any
blood--red blood we will call it--or even common-sense in you?  You
could have kept that man here if you had wanted."

"No," said Agatha, "I don't think I could.  I'm not even sure that if
I'd had the right I would have done it.  He recognised that."

Mrs. Hastings looked at her very curiously.  "Then," she said, "you
have either a somewhat extraordinary character, or are in love with him
in a way that is beyond most of us.  In any case, I can't help feeling
that you will be sorry for what you have done some day."

Next moment the door closed with a bang, and Agatha was left alone
endeavouring to analyse her sensations during her interview with
Wyllard, which was difficult, for they had been confused and
fragmentary.  She had certainly been angry with him, but the cause for
this was much less apparent, though there were one or two
half-sufficient explanations.  For one thing, it was almost intolerable
to feel that he had evidently taken it for granted that the greater
security she would enjoy as his wife would appeal to her, though there
was a certain satisfaction in the reflection that to leave her
dependent upon Mrs. Hastings caused him concern.  For another thing,
his reserve had been at least perplexing, and it was borne in upon her
that it would have cost her a more determined effort to withstand him
had he spoken with fire and passion.  The restraint, however, had been
evident, and he could not have practised it unless there had been
something to hold in check; and then it became apparent that it was
more important to ascertain his motives than her own.

If the man had been fervently in love with her, why had he not insisted
on that fact, she asked.  Could it have been because he had with the
fantastic generosity, which he was evidently capable of, been willing
to leave his comrade unhandicapped with an open field?  That, however,
seemed too much to expect from any man.  Then there was the other
explanation that he preferred to leave the choice wholly to her lest he
should tempt her too strongly to break faith with Gregory, which
brought the blood to her face as it had done already, since it
suggested that he fancied he had only to urge her sufficiently and she
would yield.  There was, it seemed, no satisfactory explanation at all.
Only the fact remained that he had made her a somewhat dispassionate
offer of marriage, and had left her to decide, which she had done.

As it happened, Wyllard could not just then, at least, have made the
matter very much clearer.  Shrewdly practical, as he was, in some
respects, there were times when he acted blindly, merely doing without
reasoning what he sub-consciously felt was right.  This had more than
once involved him in disaster, but it is, perhaps, fortunate that there
are others like him, for, after all, in the long run the failures of
such men now and then prove better than the dictates of calculating
wisdom.

In any case, Agatha found a momentary relief from her thoughts as she
watched Hawtrey get down from his waggon and approach the house.  The
change in him was plainer than it had ever been, which may have been
because she had now a standard of comparison.  He was tall and
well-favoured, and he moved with a jaunty and yet not ungraceful swing;
but it almost seemed to her that this was merely the result of an empty
self-sufficiency.  There was, she felt, no force behind it which when
the strain came would prove that jaunty bearing warranted.  He was
smiling, and for some reason his smile appeared a trifle inane, while
there was certainly a hint of sensuousness in his face.  It suggested
that the man might sink into self-indulgent coarseness.  She, however,
remembered that she was still pledged to him, and determinedly brushed
these thoughts aside, until she heard his footsteps inside the house,
when she became possessed of a burning curiosity as to what Wyllard had
to say to him, which, however, remained unsatisfied.

In the meanwhile, Hawtrey entered a room where Wyllard sat awaiting him
with a paper in his hand.

"I asked you to drive over here because it would save time," he said.
"I have to go in to the railroad at once.  Here's a draft of the scheme
I suggested.  You had better tell me if there's anything you're not
quite satisfied with."

He threw the paper on the table, and Hawtrey, who took it up, perused
it.

"I'm to farm and generally manage the Range on your behalf," he said.
"My percentage to be deducted after harvest.  I'm empowered to sell out
grain or horses as appears advisable, and to have the use of teams and
implements for my own place when occasion requires it."

He looked up.  "I've no fault to find with the thing, Harry.  It's
generous."

"Then you had better sign it, and we'll get Hastings to witness it in a
minute or two.  In the meanwhile there's a thing I have to ask you.
How do you stand in regard to Miss Ismay?"

Hawtrey pushed his chair back noisily.  "That," he said, "is a subject
on which I'm naturally not disposed to give you any information.  How
does it concern you?

"In this way.  Believing that your engagement must be broken off I
asked Miss Ismay to marry me."

Hawtrey was clearly startled, but in a moment or two he smiled.

"Of course," he said, "she wouldn't.  As a matter of fact, our
engagement isn't broken off.  It's merely extended."

They looked at each other in silence for a moment or two, and there was
a curious hardness in Wyllard's eyes.  Then Hawtrey spoke again.

"In view of what you have just told me why did you want to put me of
all people in charge of the Range?" he said.

"I'll be candid," said Wyllard.  "For one thing, you held on when I was
slipping off the trestle that day in British Columbia.  For another,
you'll make nothing of your own holding, and if you run the Range as it
ought to be run it will put a good many dollars into your pocket,
besides relieving me of a big anxiety.  If you're to marry Miss Ismay,
I'd sooner she was made reasonably comfortable."

Hawtrey looked up with a flush in his face.

"Harry," he said, "this is extravagantly generous."

"Wait," said Wyllard; "there's a little more to be said.  I can't be
back before the frost, and I may be away eighteen months.  While I am
away you will have a clear field--and you must make the most of it.  If
you are not married when I come back I shall ask Miss Ismay again.
Now"--and he glanced at his comrade steadily--"does this stand in the
way of your going on with the arrangement we have arrived at?"

There was a rather tense silence for a moment or two, and then Hawtrey
broke it.

"No," he said; "after all, there is no reason why it should do so.  It
has no practical bearing upon the other question."

Wyllard rose.  "Well," he said, "if you will call Allen Hastings in
we'll get this thing fixed up."

The document was duly signed, and a few minutes later Wyllard drove
away; but Mrs. Hastings contrived to have a few words with Hawtrey
before he did the same.

"I've no doubt that Harry took you into his confidence on a certain
point," she said.

"Yes," admitted Hawtrey; "he did.  I was a little astonished, besides
feeling rather sorry for him.  There is, however, reason to believe
that he'll soon get over it."

"You feel sure of that?" and Mrs. Hastings smiled.

"Isn't it evident?  If he had cared much about her he certainly
wouldn't have gone away."

"You mean you wouldn't?"

"No," said Hawtrey, "there's no doubt of that."

His companion smiled again.  "Well," she said drily, "I would like to
think you were right about Harry; it would be a relief to me."

Hawtrey, who said nothing further, presently drove away, and soon after
he did so Agatha approached Mrs. Hastings.

"There's something I must ask you," she said.  "Has Gregory consented
to take charge of Wyllard's farm?"

"He has," said her companion in her dryest tone.

Agatha's face flushed, and there was a flash in her eyes.

"Oh," she said, "it's almost insufferable!"

Then she turned and left Mrs. Hastings without another word.

She only saw Wyllard once again, and that was when he called at the
homestead early one morning.  He got down from the waggon where Dampier
sat, and shook hands with her and Allen and Mrs. Hastings.  Very few
words were spoken, and she could not remember what she said, but when
he swung himself up again and the waggon jolted away into the white
prairie she went back to the house with her heart beating unpleasantly
fast and a very curious feeling of depression.



CHAPTER XV.

THE BEACH.

For a fortnight after they reached Vancouver Wyllard and Dampier were
very busy.  They had various difficulties to contend with, for while
they would have preferred to slip away to sea as quietly as possible a
British vessel's movements are fenced about with many formalities, and
they did not wish to ship a white man who could be dispensed with.
Wyllard fancied there were sailormen and sealers in Vancouver and down
Puget Sound who would have gone with him, but there was a certain
probability of their discussing their exploits afterwards in the
saloons ashore, which was about the last thing that he desired.  It
appeared essential that he should avoid notoriety as much as possible.

He had further trouble about obtaining provisions and general
necessaries, for considerably more attention than the free-lance
sealers cared about was being bestowed upon the North just then, and he
did not desire to rouse the curiosity of the dealers as to why he was
filling his lazaret up with Arctic stores.  He obviated that difficulty
by dividing his orders among the whole of them, and buying as little as
possible.  Dampier, however, proved an adept at the difficult business,
and eventually the schooner _Selache_ crept out from the Narrows at
dusk one evening under all plain sail, painted a pale green, with her
big main-boom raking at least a fathom beyond her taffrail.  There were
then Wyllard, Dampier, and two other white men on board her.  A week
later she sailed into a deep, rock-walled inlet on the western coast of
Vancouver Island with a settlement at the top of it, where the
storekeeper made no difficulty about selling Wyllard all his flour and
canned goods at higher figures than there was any probability of his
obtaining from the local ranchers.

Then the _Selache_ slid down the inlet again, and lay for several days
in a forest-shrouded arm near the mouth of it, while, when she once
more dropped her anchor off a Siwash rancherie far up on the wild West
coast, she was painted a dingy grey, and her sawn-off boom just topped
her stern.  One does not want a great main-boom in the northern seas,
and a big mainsail needs men to handle it.  Wyllard, however, shipped
several sea-bred Indians who had made wonderful perilous voyages on the
trail of the seal and halibut in open canoes.  All of them had, as it
happened, also sailed in sealing schooners.  Their comrades sold him
furs, and filled part of the hold up with redwood billets and bark for
the stove, for he had not considered it advisable to load too much
Wellington coal.  Then he pushed out into the waste Pacific, and when
once a beautiful big white mail boat reeled by him, driving with
streaming bows into an easterly gale, he sent back a message to his
friends upon the prairie.  It duly reached them, for some three weeks
afterwards Allen Hastings, opening _The Colonist_, which he had ordered
from Victoria as soon as Wyllard sailed, read out to his wife and
Agatha a paragraph in the shipping news:

"_Empress of India_, from Yokohama, reports having passed small grey
British schooner, flying----"  There followed several code letters, the
latitude and longitude, and a line apparently by the water-front
reporter: "No schooner belonging to this city allotted the signal in
question."

Hastings smiled as he laid down the paper.  "No," he said, "that
signal's Wyllard's private code.  Agatha, won't you reach me down my
map of the Pacific?  It's just behind you."

Then he looked round, and noticed the significant smile in his wife's
eyes, for the girl had already turned towards the shelf where he kept
the lately purchased map.

The easterly gale, however, did not last, for the wind came out of the
west and north, and sank to foggy calms when it did not blow wickedly
hard.  This meant that the _Selache's_ course was all to windward, and
though they drove her at it unmercifully under reefed boom-foresail,
main trysail, and a streaming jib or two, with the brine going over her
solid forward, she had made little when each arduous day was done.
They were drenched to the skin continuously, and lashed by stinging
spray.  Cooking except of the crudest kind was out of the question, and
sleep would have been impossible to any but worn-out sailormen.  Even
then, they were often roused in the blackness of the night, when she
lay with her lee rail under, and would not lift it out, to get another
reef in, or crawl out on plunging bowsprit washed by icy seas to haul a
burst jib down.  It was even more trying, glad as they were of the
respite in some respects, to lie rolling wildly on the big smooth
undulations that hove out of the windless calm, while everything in her
banged to and fro, and when the breeze came screaming through the fog
or rain they sprang to make sail again.

Fate seemed dead against them, as it was certain that, if their purpose
was suspected, the hand of every white man they might come across would
be; but they held on over leagues of empty ocean while the season wore
away, until once more the wind freshened easterly, and they ran for a
week under boom-foresail and a jib, with the big grey combers curling
as they foamed by high above her rail.  Then the wind fell, and
Dampier, who got an observation, armed his deep-sea lead, and finding
shells and shoal water came aft to talk to Wyllard with the strip of
Dunton's chart.

Wyllard, who was clad in oilskins, stood, a shapeless figure, by the
wheel, with his face darkened and roughened by cold and stinging brine.
There was an open sore upon one of his elbows, and both his wrists were
raw.  Forward, a white man and two Siwash were standing about the
windlass, and when the bows went up a dreary stretch of slate-grey sea
opened up beyond them beneath the dripping jibs.  Then the bows would
go down again, and all that was visible was the fore-shortened slope of
deck and the breast of the big undulation that hove itself up ahead.
The _Selache_ was carrying everything and lurching over the steep swell
at some four knots an hour.

Dampier stopped near the wheel, and glanced at Wyllard's oilskins.

"You'll have to take them off.  It's stuffed boots and those Indian
seal-gut things or furs from now on," he said.  "That leather cuff's
chewing up your hand."

"We'll cut that out," said Wyllard; "it's not to the point.  Can't you
get on?"

Dampier grinned.  "We're on soundings, and they and Dunton's longitude
most agree.  With this wind we should pick the beach up in the next two
days.  Next question is, where those men were?"

"Where they are," said Wyllard.

"If they've pushed on it's probably a different thing, though if they'd
food yonder I don't quite see why they'd want to push on anywhere.  It
wouldn't be south, anyway.  They'd run up against the Russians there."

"We've decided that already."

"I'm admitting it," said the skipper.  "There's the other choice that
they've gone up north.  It's narrower across to Alaska there, and it's
quite likely they might have a notion of looking out for one of the
steam whalers.  The Koriaks up yonder will have boats of some kind.  If
they're skin ones like those the Huskies have they might sledge them on
the ice."

It was a suggestion that had been made several times already, but both
the men realised that there was in all probability very little to
warrant it.  Wyllard had wasted no time endeavouring to learn what was
known about the desolation on the western shore of the Behring Sea.  He
had bought a schooner and set out at once.  It, however, appeared
almost impossible to him that any three men could haul the skin boats
and supplies they would need far over hummocky ice.

"The point is that we'll have to fix on some course in the next few
days," added his companion.  "Say we run in to make inquiries"--and a
gleam of grim amusement crept into his eyes--"what are we going to
find?  A beach with a roaring surf on it, and if we get a boat through,
a desolate, half-frozen swamp behind it.  It's quite likely there are
people in the country, Koriaks or Kamtchadales, but if there are
they'll probably move up and down after what they get to eat like the
Huskies do, and we can't hang on and wait for them.  Most any time next
month we'll have the ice closing in."

Wyllard said nothing for another minute, and as he stood with hands
clenched on the wheel a little puff of bitter spray splashed upon his
oilskins.  They had been over it all often before, weighing conjecture
after conjecture, and had found nothing in any that might serve to
guide them.  Now, when winter was close at hand, they had leagues of
surf-swept beach to search for three men who might have perished twelve
months earlier.

"We'll stand in until we pick up the beach," he said at length; "then
if there's no sign of them we'll push north as long as we can find open
water.  Now if you'll call Charly I'll let up at the wheel."

Another white man walked aft, and Wyllard, entering the little stern
cabin, the top of which rose some feet above the deck, sloughed off his
wet oilskins and crawled, dressed as he was, into his bunk.  Evening
was closing in, and for awhile he lay blinking at the swinging lamp,
and wondering what the end of that search would be.  The _Selache_ was
a little fore and aft schooner of some ninety-odd tons, wholly
unprotected against ice-chafe or nip, and he knew that prudence
dictated their driving her south under every rag of canvas now.  There
was, however, the possibility of finding some sheltered inlet where she
could lie out the winter, frozen in, and he had, at least, blind
confidence in his men.  The white men were sealers who had already
borne the lash of snow-laden gales, the wash of icy seas, and
tremendous labour at the oar, while the Indians had been born to an
unending struggle with the waters.  All of them had times and times
again looked the King of Terrors squarely in the face.  What was as
much to the purpose, they had been promised a tempting bonus if the
_Selache_ came home successful.

While Wyllard pondered upon these things he went to sleep, and slept
soundly, as he did the next night, though Dampier expected to raise the
beach some time next morning.  His expectation also proved warranted,
and when Wyllard turned out it lay before them, a dingy smear on a
slate-green sea that was cut off from it by a wavy line of livid
whiteness, which he knew to be a fringe of spouting surf.  It had cost
him in several ways more than he cared to contemplate to reach that
beach, and now there was nothing that could excite any feeling except
shrinking in the dreary spectacle.  There was little light in the heavy
sky or on the sullen heave of sea; the air was raw, the schooner's
decks were sloppy, and she rolled viciously as she crept shorewards
with her mainsail peak eased down.  What wind there was blew dead
on-shore, which was not as he would have had it.

He heard the splash of the lead as he and the white man Charly made
their breakfast in the little stern cabin.  Then there was a clatter of
blocks, and on coming out again he found the others swinging a boat
over.  Charly and he and two of the Indians dropped into her, and
Dampier, who had hove the schooner to, looked down on them over her
rail.

"If you knock the bottom out of her put a jacket on an oar, and I'll
try to bring you off," he said.  "If you don't signal I'll stand off
and on with a thimble-header topsail over the mainsail.  You'll start
back right away if you see us haul it down.  When she won't stand that
there'll be more surf than you'll have any use for with the wind dead
on the beach."

Wyllard made a sign of comprehension, and they slid away on the back of
a long sea.  Others rolled up behind them, cutting off the schooner's
hull so that only her grey canvas showed above dim slopes of water, but
there was no curl on any and the beach rose fast.  It looked very
forbidding with the spray-haze drifting over it, and the long wash of
the Pacific weltering among its hammered stones, and when they drew a
little nearer Wyllard stood up with the big sculling oar in his hand.
There was no point to offer shelter, and in only one place could he see
a strip of surf-lapped sand.

"It's a little softer than the boulders, anyway; we'll try it there,"
he said.

The oars dipped again, and in another minute or two the sea that came
up behind them hove them high and broke into a little spout of foam.
The next had a hissing crest, part of which splashed on board, and they
went shorewards like a toboggan down an icy slide on the shoulders of
the third.  To keep her straight while it seethed about them was all
that they could do, but it was also essentially necessary, and for a
moment their hearts were in their mouths when it left them to sink with
a dizzy swing into the hollow.  Then they pulled desperately as another
white-topped ridge came on astern, and went up with it amidst a chaotic
frothing and splashing and a haze of spray.  After that there was a
shock and a crash, and they sprang out knee-deep and held fast to the
boat while the foam boiled into her, floundering and stumbling over
sliding sand.  Still, before the next sea came in they had run her up
beyond its reach, and there did not seem to be much the matter with her
when they hove her over.  Wyllard, however, looked back at the tumbling
surf.

"Dampier was right about that topsail; it won't be quite as easy
getting off," he said.  "You'll stand by, Charly, and watch the
schooner.  If the surf gets steeper you can make some sign.  I'll leave
one of the Siwash on the rise yonder."

Then he walked up the beach, and stopped awhile on the crest of the low
rise a mile or two behind it, gazing out at what seemed to be an empty
desolation.  There were willows in the hollow beneath him, and upon the
slope a few little stunted trees, which he fancied resembled the
juniper he had seen among the ranges of British Columbia, but he could
see no sign of any kind of life.  What was more portentous, the mossy
sod he stood upon was frozen, and there were smears of snow among the
straggling firs upon a rather higher ridge.  Inland, the little breeze
seemed to have fallen dead away, and there was an oppressive silence
which the rumble of the surf accentuated.

He left an Indian on the rise, and going on with the other scrambled
through a half-frozen swamp in the hollow; but when they came back
hours afterwards as the narrow horizon was drawing further in they had
found nothing to show that any man had ever entered that grim, silent
land.  The surf seemed a little smoother, and they reeled out through
it with no more than a few inches of very cold water splashing about
their boots, and pulled across a long stretch of darkening sea towards
the rolling schooner.

Wyllard was a little weary, and more depressed, but it was not until he
sat in the stern cabin with its cheerful twinkling stove and swinging
lamp that he understood how he had shrunk from that forbidding
wilderness.  His consultation with Dampier, who came in by and bye, was
very brief.

"We'll head north for a couple of days, and try again," he said.

He crawled into his berth early, and it was some time after midnight
when he was awakened by being rudely flung out of it.  That fact, and
the slant of deck and sounds above, suggested that the schooner had
been hove down by a sudden gale.  He had, however, grown more or less
accustomed to occurrences of this kind and to sleeping fully dressed,
and in another moment or two he was out of the deck-house.  Then a wind
that seemed sharp as steel drove stinging flakes of snow into his face.
It was very dark, but he fancied that the schooner's rail was in the
sea, which was washing over her to weather, and that some of the others
were struggling to get the mainsail off her.  Then a man whom he
supposed to be Charly ran into him.

"Better come for'ard.  Got to haul outer jib down before it blows
away," he said.

Wyllard staggered after him up to his knees in water, and made out by
the mad banging that some of them had already cast the peak of the
boom-foresail loose.  Then he reached the windlass, and clutched it as
a sea that took him to the waist frothed in over the weather rail.  The
bows lurched out of it viciously, hurling another icy flood back on
him, and he could see a dim white chaos about and beneath them.  Over
it rose the black wedge of the jibs.

He did not want to get out along the bowsprit to stop one of them down.
Indeed his whole physical nature shrank from it, but there are many
things flesh and blood shrink from which must be faced at sea.  Then he
made out that a Siwash was fumbling at the down-haul made fast near his
side, and when his companion's shadowy figure rose up against the
whiteness of the foam he made a jump forward.  Then he was on the
bowsprit, lying upon it while he felt for the foot-rope slung beneath.
He found it, and was cautiously lowering himself when the man in front
of him called out harshly, and he saw a white sea range up ahead.  It
broke short over with a rush and roar, and he clung with hands and feet
for his life as the schooner's dipping bows rammed the seething mass.

She went into it to the windlass.  He was smothered in an icy flood
that seemed bent on wrenching him from his hold, but that was only for
a moment or two, and then he was swung, gasping and streaming with
water, high above the sea again.  It was bad enough merely to hold on,
but that was a very small share of his task, for the big black sail
that cut the higher darkness came rattling down its stay and fell upon
him and his companion bodily.  As it dropped the wind took hold of the
folds of it and buffeted them cruelly.  This was a thing he had once
been accustomed to, but as he clutched at the canvas it seemed to him
incredible that he had not already been flung off headlong from the
reeling spar.  Still, that banging, thrashing canvas must be mastered
somehow, though it was snow-soaked and almost unyielding, and he clawed
at it furiously with bleeding hands while twice the bowsprit raked a
sea and dipped him waist-deep in.  At length the other man flung him
the end of the gasket, and they worked back carefully, leaving the sail
lashed down, and scrambled aft to help the others who were making the
big main-boom fast.  When this was done Wyllard fell against Dampier
and clutched at him.

"How's the wind?" he roared.

"North-east," said the skipper.

They could scarcely hear each other, though the schooner was lurching
over it more easily now with shortened canvas, and Wyllard only made
Dampier understand that he wished to speak to him by thrusting him
towards the deck-house door.  They went in together, and stood
clutching at the table with the lamplight on their tense, wet faces and
the brine that ran from them making pools upon the deck.

"It's hauled round," said the skipper, "the wrong way."

Wyllard made a savage gesture.  "We've had it from the last quarter we
wanted ever since we sailed, and we sailed nearly three months too
late.  We're too close in to the beach for you to heave her to?"

"A sure thing," said the other.  "I was driving her to work off it with
the sea getting up when the breeze burst on us.  She put her rail right
under, and we had to let go most everything before she'd pick it up.
She's pointing somewhere north, jammed right up on the starboard tack
just now, but I can't stand on."

This was evident to Wyllard, and he closed one hand tight.  He wanted
to stand on as long as possible before the ice closed in, but he
realised that to do so would put the schooner ashore.

"Well?" he said sharply.

Dampier made a grimace.  "I'm going out to heave her round.  If we'd
any sense in us we'd square off the boom then, and leg it away across
the Pacific for Vancouver."

"In that case," said Wyllard, "somebody would lose his bonus."

Dampier swung round on him with a flash in his eyes.

"The bonus!" he said.  "Who was it came for you with two dollars in his
pocket after he'd bought his ticket from Vancouver?"

Wyllard smiled at him.  "If you took that up the wrong way I'm sorry.
She ought to work off on the port tack, and when we've open water to
leeward you can heave her to.  When it moderates we can pick up the
beach again."

"That's just what I mean to do."

Then Dampier went out on deck, while Wyllard, flinging off his dripping
clothing, crawled into his bunk and went quietly to sleep.



CHAPTER XVI.

THE FIRST ICE.

Daylight broke on a frothing sea, across which there scudded wisps of
smoke-like drift and thin showers of snow, before they hove her to.
Then, with two little wet rags of canvas set she lay almost head on to
the big combers, and met their onslaught with a hove-up weather bow.
Having little way upon her, she lurched over instead of ramming them,
and though now and then one curled on board across her rail it was not
often that there was much heavy water upon her slanted deck.

All round the narrow circle a leaden sky met the sea.  To weather the
combers were bitten into it in cleancut serrations, but to leeward the
dim horizon was blurred by flying spray, save when the snow whirled
down in thicker wisps and blotted it out altogether.  It was bitterly
cold, and the spray stung the skin like half-spent pellets from a gun.
There was, however, only one man exposed to it in turn, and he had
little to do but brace himself against the savage buffeting of the wind
as he clutched the wheel.  The _Selache_, for the most part, steered
herself, lifting buoyantly while the froth came sluicing aft from her
tilted bows, falling off a little with a vicious leeward roll when a
comber bigger than usual smote her to weather, and coming up again
streaming to meet the next.  Sometimes she forged ahead in what is
called at sea, by courtesy, a "smooth," and all the time shroud and
stay to weather gave out tumultuous harmonies, and the slack of every
rope to leeward blew out in unyielding curves.

In the meanwhile, three of the white men lay sleeping or smoking in the
little cabin, which was partly raised above and partly sunk beneath the
after-deck.  It was a reasonably strong structure, but it worked, and
sweated, as they say at sea, and the heat of the stove had further
opened up the seams of it.  Moisture dripped from the beams overhead,
moisture trickled up and down the slanting deck, there were great
globules of it on the bulk-heading, and everything, including the men's
clothes and blankets, was wet.  They lay in their bunks from necessity,
because it was a somewhat laborious matter to sit, and said very little
since it was difficult to hear anything amidst the cataclysm of
elemental sound.  Indeed, it became at length almost a relief to turn
out into inky darkness or misty daylight dimmed by flying spray to take
a trick at the jarring wheel.

For three days this continued, and then, when the gale broke and a
little pale sunshine streamed down on the tumbling sea, changing the
grey combers to flashing white and green, they gave her a double-reefed
mainsail, part of the boom-foresail, and a jib or two, and thrashed her
slowly back to the northwards on the starboard tack.  Still, more than
one of them glanced over the taffrail longingly as she gathered way.
She was fast, and with a little driving and that breeze over her
quarter she would bear them south towards warmth and ease at some two
hundred miles a day, while the way they were going it would be a fight
for every fathom with bitter, charging seas, and there lay ahead of
them only cold and peril and toil incredible.

There are times at sea when human nature revolts from the strain the
over-taxed body must bear, the leaden weariness of worn-out limbs, and
the sub-conscious effort to retain warmth and vitality in spite of the
ceaseless lashing of the icy gale.  Then, as aching muscles grow lax,
the nervous tension becomes more insupportable, unless, indeed, utter
weariness breeds indifference to the personal peril each time the decks
are swept by a frothing flood, or a slippery spar must be clung to with
frost-numbed and often bleeding hands.  That is, at least, on board the
sailing ships where man must still, with almost brutal valour, pit all
the feeble powers of flesh and blood against the forces of the elements.

They knew this, and it was to their credit that they obeyed when
Dampier gave the word to put the helm up and trim the sheets over.
Their leader, however, stood a little apart with a hard-set face, and
he looked forward over the plunging bows, for he was troubled by a
sense of responsibility such as he had not felt since he had, one night
several years ago, asked for volunteers.  He realised that an account
of these men's lives might be demanded from him.

It was a fortnight later, and they had twice made a perilous landing
without finding any sign of life on or behind the hammered beach, when
they ran into the first of the ice.  The grey day was almost over, and
the long heave ran sluggishly after them faintly wrinkled here and
there, when creeping through a belt of haze they came into sight of
several blurrs of greyish white that swung with the dim, green swell.
The _Selache_ was slowly lurching over it with everything aloft to the
topsails then.  Dampier glanced at the ice disgustedly.

"Earlier than I expected," he said.  "Anyway, it's a sure thing there's
plenty more where that came from."

"Big patch away to starboard!" cried a man in the foremast shrouds.

Dampier turned to Wyllard.  "What are you going to do?"

"What's most advisable?"

The skipper laughed grimly.  "Well," he said, "that's quite simple.
Get out of this, and head her south just as soon as we can, but I guess
that's not quite what you mean."

"No," admitted Wyllard.  "I meant for the next few hours or so.  In a
general way, we're still pushing on."

"Then I'm not worrying much about pushing her through.  That ice is
light and scattered, and as she's going it won't hurt her much if she
plugs some in the dark.  It's what we're going to do the next two weeks
I'm not sure about.  If there's ice we mayn't fetch the creek the chart
shows where we'd figured on laying her up in.  It's still most a
hundred miles to the north of us.  The other inlet I'd fixed on is way
further south."

This brought them back to the difficulty they had grappled with at many
a council.  The men they were in search of might have gone either north
or south; or they might, though this seemed less likely, have gone
inland, if, indeed, any of them survived.

"If we only knew how they'd headed," said Wyllard quietly.  "Still,
right or not, I'm for pushing on."

Then Charly, who held the wheel, broke in.

"I guess it's north," he said.  "They'd have no use for fetching up
among the Russians, and there's nobody else until you get to Japan.  No
white men, any way.  Besides, from the Behring Sea to the Kuriles is
quite a long way."

"If you were dumped down ashore there, which way would you go?" Dampier
asked.

"If I'd a wallet full of papers certifying me as a harmless traveller,
it would be south just as hard as I could hit the trail.  Guess I'd
strike somebody out prospecting, or surveying, and they'd set me along
to the Kuriles.  Still, if I'd been sealing, I wouldn't head that way.
No, sir.  That's dead sure."

There was a reason for this certainty, right or wrong, in the minds of
the sealermen.  How many of the skins they brought home were obtained
in open water where they could fish without molestation they alone
knew; but they were regarded in certain quarters as poachers and
outlaws, who deserved no mercy.  They had their differences with the
Americans who owned the Prbyloffs, but the latter, it was admitted, had
bought the islands, and might reasonably be considered to have some
claim upon the seals which frequented them.  The free-lances bore their
execrations and reprisals more or less resignedly, though that did not
prevent them occasionally exchanging compliments with oar butts or
sealing clubs, but the Muscovite was a grim, mysterious figure they
feared and hated.

"Then you'd have tried up north?" Wyllard suggested.

"Sure," said the helmsman.  "If I'd a boat and a rifle, and it was
summer, I'd have pushed across for Alaska.  You can eat birds and
walrus, and a man might eat a fur-seal if he'd had nothing else for a
week, though I've struck nothing that has more smell than the
holluschack blubber.  If it was winter, I'd have tried the ice.  The
Huskies make out on it for weeks together, and quite a few of the steam
whaler men have trailed an odd hundred or two miles over it one time or
another.  They hadn't tents and dog-teams either."

Wyllard's face grew grave.  He had naturally considered both courses,
and had decided that they were out of the question.  Seas do not freeze
up solid, and that three men should transport a boat, supposing that
they had one, over leagues of ice appeared impossible.  An attempt to
cross the narrow sea, which is either wrapped in mist or swept by
sudden gales, in any open craft would clearly only result in disaster,
but admitting that he felt that had he been in those men's place he
would have headed north.  There was one question which had all along
remained unanswered, and that was how they had reached the coast from
which they had sent their message.

"Anyway," he said, "we'll stand on, and run into the creek we've fixed
on, if it's necessary."

In the meanwhile, dusk had closed down on them, and it had grown
perceptibly colder.  The haze crystallised on the rigging, the rail was
white with rime, and the deck grew slippery, but they left everything
on her to the topsails, and she crept on erratically through the
darkness, avoiding the faint spectral glimmer of the scattered ice.
The breeze abeam propelled her with gently leaning canvas at some four
knots to the hour, and now and then Wyllard, who hung about the deck
that night, fancied he could hear a thin, sharp crackle beneath the
slowly lifting bows.

Next day the haze thickened, and there seemed to be more ice about, but
the breeze was fresher, and there was, at least, no skin upon the
ruffled sea.  They took the topsails off her, and proceeded cautiously,
with two men with logger's pikepoles forward, and another in the eyes
of the foremast rigging.  As it happened, they struck nothing, and when
night came the _Selache_ lay rolling in a heavy, portentous calm.
Dampier and one or two of the others declared their certainty that
there was ice near them, but, at least, they could not see it, though
there was now no doubt about the crackling beneath the schooner's side.
It was a somewhat anxious night for most of them, but a breeze that
drove the haze aside got up with the sun, and Dampier expected to reach
the creek before darkness fell.

He might have done it but for the glistening streak on the horizon,
which presently crept in on them, and resolved itself into detached
grey-white masses, with openings of various sizes in and out between
them.  The breeze was freshening, and the _Selache_ going through it at
some six knots, when Dampier came aft to Wyllard, who was standing
rather grim in face at the wheel.  There was a moderately wide opening
in the floating barrier close ahead of him.  The rest of the crew stood
silent watching the skipper, for they were by this time more or less
acquainted with Wyllard's temperament.

"You can't get through that," said Dampier, pointing to the ice.

Wyllard looked at him sourly, and the white men, at least, understood
what he was feeling.  So far, he had had everything against him--calm,
and fog, and sudden gale--and now, when he was almost within sight of
the end of the first stage of his journey, they had met the ice.

"You're sure of that?" he said.

Dampier smiled.  "It would cost too much, or I'd let you try."  He
called to the man perched high in the foremast shrouds, and the answer
came down:

"Packed right solid a couple of miles ahead."

Wyllard lifted one hand, and let it suddenly fall again.

"Lee, oh!  We'll have her round," he said, and spun the wheel.

The rest of them breathed more easily as they jumped for the sheets,
and with a great banging and thrashing of sailcloth she shot up to
windward, and turned as on a pivot.  Then, as she gathered way on the
other tack, they glanced at their leader, for her bows were pointing to
the south-east again.  They felt that was not the way he was going.

In the meanwhile, Wyllard turned to.  Dampier with a little wry smile.

"Baulked again!" he said.  "It would have been a relief to have rammed
her in.  With this breeze we'd have picked that creek up in the next
six hours."

"Sure!" said Dampier, who glanced at the swirling wake.

"Then, if we can't get through it we can work her round.  Stand by to
flatten all sheets in, boys."

They did it cheerfully, though they knew it meant a thrash to windward
along the perilous edge of the ice, and, for the sea was getting up,
she flung the spray all over her forward half as she smashed the
growing combers with her bows.  Soon the windlass was caked with
glistening ice, and long spikes of it hung from her rail, while the
slippery crystals gathered thick on deck.  Then lumps and floes of ice
detached themselves from the parent mass, and sailed out to meet her,
crashing on one another, while it seemed to the men who watched him
that Wyllard tried how closely he could shave them before he ran the
schooner off with a vicious drag at the wheel.  None of them, however,
cared to say a word to him.

They brought her round when she had stretched out on the one tack a
couple of miles, and standing in again close-hauled found the ice
thicker than ever.  Then she came round once more, and until the early
dusk fell Wyllard stood at the jarring helm or high up in the forward
shrouds.  Then he called Dampier aside.

"We can't work along the edge in the dark?" he said.

"Well," said Dampier drily, "it wouldn't be wise.  We could stand on as
she's lying until half through the night, and then come round and pick
up the ice again a little before sun-up."

Wyllard made a sign of acquiescence.  "Then," he said, "don't call me
until you're in sight of it.  A day of this kind takes it out of one."

He moved aft heavily towards the deck-house, and Dampier watched him
with a smile of comprehension, for he was a man who had also in his
time made many fruitless efforts, and quietly faced defeat.  After all,
it is possible that when the final reckoning comes some failures will
count.

For several hours the _Selache_ stretched out close-hauled into what
they supposed to be open water, and they certainly saw no ice.  Then
they hove her to, and when the wind fell light brought her round and
crept back slowly upon the opposite tack.  Wyllard had gone to sleep in
the meanwhile, and daylight was just breaking when he next went out on
deck.  There was scarcely an air of wind, and the heavy calm seemed
portentous and unnatural.  The schooner lay lurching on a sluggish
swell, with the frost wool thick on her rigging, and a belt of haze
ahead of her.  On the edge of it, the ice glimmered in the growing
light, but in one or two places stretches of blue-grey water seemed to
penetrate it, and Dampier, who strode aft when he saw Wyllard, said he
fancied there must be an opening somewhere.

"By the thickness of it, that ice has formed some time, and as we've
seen nothing but a skin it must have come from further north," he
added.  "It gathered up under a point or in a bay most likely, until a
shift of wind broke it out, and the stream or breeze set it down this
way.  That seems to indicate that there can't be a great deal of it,
but a few days' calm and frost would freeze it solid."

"Well?" said Wyllard impatiently.

"It lies between us and the inlet, and it's quite clear that we can't
stay where we are.  Once we got nipped, there'd probably be an end of
her.  We have got to get into that inlet at once or make for the other
further south."

Wyllard smiled.  "It all leads back to the same point.  We must get
through the ice.  The one question is--how's it to be done?"

"With a working breeze I'd stand into the biggest opening, but as
there's none we'll wait until it clears a little, and then send a boat
in.  The sun may bring the wind."

They made breakfast in the meanwhile, but the wind did not come, and it
was some hours later when a pale coppery disc became visible and the
haze grew thinner.  Then they swung a boat out hastily, for it would
not be very long before the light died away again, and two white men
and an Indian dropped into her.  They pulled across half a mile of
sluggishly heaving water, crept up an opening, and presently vanished
among the ice.  Soon afterwards the low sun went out, and wisps of
ragged cloud crept up from the westwards, while smears of vapour
blurred the horizon, and the swell grew steeper.  There was no wind at
all, but blocks and canvas banged and thrashed furiously at every roll,
until they lowered the mainsail and lashed its heavy boom to the big
iron crutch astern.  The boat remained invisible, but its crew had been
given instructions to push on as far as possible if they found clear
water, and Dampier, who did not seem uneasy about her, paced up and
down the deck while the afternoon wore away.



CHAPTER XVII.

DEFEAT.

A grey dimness was creeping in upon the schooner when a little bitter
breeze sprang up from westwards, and Dampier bade them get the mainsail
on to her.

"I don't like the look of the weather, and I'm beginning to feel that
I'd like to see that boat," he said.  "Anyhow, we'll get way on her."

It was a relief to hoist the mainsail.  The work put a little warmth
into them, and the white men, at least, had been conscious of a growing
uneasiness about their comrades in the boat.  The breeze had, however,
freshened before they set it, and there were white caps on the water
when the _Selache_ headed for the ice.  It had somewhat changed its
formation when they approached it, for big masses had become detached
from it and were moving out into the open water, while the opening had
become perceptibly narrower.  The light was now fading rapidly, and
Wyllard took the wheel when Dampier sent the man there forward.

"Get the cover off the second boat, and see everything clear for
hoisting out," he said to him, and then called to Wyllard.  "We're
close enough.  You'd better heave her round."

She came round with a thrashing of canvas, stretched out seawards, and
came back again with her deck sharply slanted and little puffs of
bitter spray blowing over her weather rail, for there was no doubt that
the breeze was freshening fast.  Then Dampier sent a man up into the
foremast shrouds, and looked at Wyllard afterwards.

"I'd heave a couple of reefs down if I wasn't so anxious about that
blamed boat," he said.  "As it is, I want to be ready to pick her up
just as soon as we see her, and it's quite likely she'd turn up when
we'd got way off the schooner, and the peak eased down."

Wyllard fancied that he was right as he glanced over the rail at the
dimness that was creeping in on them.  It was blowing almost fresh now,
and the _Selache_ was driving very fast through the swell, which
commenced to froth here and there.  It is, as he knew from experience,
always hard work, and often impossible, to pull a boat to windward in
any weight of breeze, which rendered it advisable to keep the schooner
under way.  If the boat drove by them while they were reefing it might
be difficult to pick her up afterwards in the dark.  He was now
distinctly anxious about her.  At length, just as the light was dying
out, the man in the shrouds sent down a cry.

"I see them, sir," he said.

Dampier turned to Wyllard with a gesture of relief.  "That's a weight
off my mind.  I wish we had a reef in, but"--and he glanced up at the
canvas--"she'll have to stand it.  Anyway, I'll leave you there.  We
want to get that second boat lashed down again."

This, as Wyllard recognised, was necessary, though he would sooner have
had somebody by him, and the rest of them ready to let the mainsheet
run, for he was a little to windward of the opening, and surmised that
he would have to run the schooner down upon the boat.  It was a few
moments later when he saw her emerge from among the ice, and the men in
her appeared to be pulling strenuously.  They were, perhaps, half a
mile off, and the schooner was sailing very fast and heading for the
ice.  Then he lost sight of her again, for a thin shower of whirling
snow suddenly obscured the light.  Dampier called to him.

"You'll have to run her off," he said.  "Boys, slack out your sheets."

There was a clatter of blocks, and when Wyllard pulled his helm up it
taxed all his strength.  The _Selache_ swung round, and he gasped with
the effort to control her as she drove away furiously into the
thickening snow.  She was carrying far too much canvas, but they could
not heave her to and take it off her now.  The boat must be picked up
first, and the veins rose swollen to Wyllard's forehead as he struggled
with the wheel.  There is always a certain possibility of bringing a
fore-and-aft rigged vessel's mainboom over when she is running hard,
and this is rather apt to result in disaster to her spars.  So fast was
she travelling that the sea piled up in a big white wave beneath her
quarter, and, cold as it was, the sweat of tense effort dripped from
Wyllard as he forecasted what he had to do.  First of all, he must hold
her straight before the wind without letting her fall off to leeward,
which would bring the booms crashing over; then he must run past the
boat, which he could no longer see, and round the schooner up with
fore-staysail aback to leeward of her, to wait until she drove down on
them.

This would not have been difficult in a moderate breeze, but the wind
was freshening furiously and the schooner was horribly pressed with
sail.  He thought of calling the others to lower the mainsail peak, but
with the weight of wind there was in the canvas he was not sure that
they could haul the gaff down.  Besides, they were busy securing the
boat, which must be made fast again before they hove the other in, and
it was almost dark now.  In view of what had happened in the same
waters one night four years ago, the desire to pick the boat up while
there was a little light left became an obsession.

In the meanwhile, the swell was rapidly whitening and getting steeper.
The _Selache_ hove herself out of it forward as she swung up with
streaming bows.  It almost seemed to Wyllard that he must overrun the
boat before he noticed her, but at length he saw Dampier swing himself
on to the rail.  He stood there clutching at a shroud, and presently
turned towards Wyllard, swinging up an arm.

"Right ahead!" he shouted.  "Let her come up a few points before you
run over them."

Wyllard put his helm down a spoke or two, which was easy, and then as
the bows swung high again there was a harsh cry from the man who stood
above Dampier in the shrouds.

"Ice!" he roared.  "Big pack of it right under your weather bow."

Dampier shouted something, but Wyllard did not hear what he said.  He
was only conscious that he had to decide what he must do in the next
few seconds.  If he let the _Selache_ come up to avoid the boat, there
was the ice ahead, and at the speed she was travelling it would
infallibly crush her bows in, while if he held her straight there was
the boat close in front of her.  To swing her clear of both by going to
leeward he must bring the mainsail and boom-foresail over with a
tremendous shock, but that seemed preferable, and with his heart in his
mouth he pulled his helm up.

He fancied he cried out in warning, but was never sure of it, though
three men came running to seize the mainsheet.  The schooner fell off a
little, swinging until the boom-foresail came over with a thunderous
bang and crash.  She rolled down, heaving a wide strip of wet planking
out of the sea, and now for a moment or two there were great breadths
of canvas swung out on either hand.  Then the ponderous mainboom went
up high above his head, and he saw three shadowy figures dragged aft as
they tried in vain to steady it.  The big mainsail was bunched up, a
vast, portentous shape above him, and then he set his lips, and pulled
up the helm another spoke as it swung.  He never quite knew what
happened after that.  There was a horrible crash, and the schooner
appeared to be rolling over bodily.  The spokes he clung to desperately
reft themselves from his grasp, the deck slanted until one could not
stand upon it, and something heavy struck him on the head.  He dropped,
and Dampier flung himself upon the wheel above his senseless body.

Then there was mad confusion, and a frantic banging of canvas as the
schooner came up beam to the wind, with her rent mainsail flogging
itself to tatters.  Its ponderous boom was broken, and the
mainmast-head had gone, but it was not the first time the sealermen had
grappled with somewhat similar difficulties, and Dampier kept his head.
He had the boat to think of, and she was somewhere to windward, hidden
in the sudden darkness and the turmoil of the quickly rising sea, but
in the meanwhile the schooner counted most of all.  His crew could
scarcely hear him through the uproar the thundering canvas made, and
the screaming of the wind, but the orders were given, and from habit
and the custom of their calling they knew what they must be.

They hauled a jib down, backed the fore-staysail, and got the
boom-foresail sheeted in, but they let the rent mainsail bang, for it
could do no more damage than it had already done.  Then a man sprang up
on the rail with a blue light in his hand, and as the weird radiance
flared in a long streak to leeward a cry rose from the water.  In
another few moments a blurred object, half hidden in flying spray,
drove down upon the schooner furiously on the top of a sea, and then
there was sudden darkness as the man flung down the flare.

Another harsh and half-heard cry rose out of the obscurity.  An
indistinguishable object plunged past the schooner's stern, there was a
crash to leeward as she rolled, and a man standing up in the boat
clutched her rail.  He was swung out of it as she rolled back again,
but he crawled on to the rail with a rope in one hand, and after
jamming it fast round something sprang down with the hooks of the
lifting tackles which one of the rest had given him.  Then, while two
more men scrambled up, there was a clatter of blocks, but a shattered
sea struck the boat as they hove her dear, and when she swung in the
brine poured out through the rents in her.  Dampier waved an arm as
they dropped her on the deck, and they heard him faintly.

"Boys," he said, "you have got to cut that mainsail down."

They did it somehow, hanging on to the mast-hoops, buffeted and now and
then enveloped by the madly flogging canvas, floundering below amidst a
raffle of fallen gear, while the bitter spray lashed them, and the
broken boom held up by the clew ring banged savagely to and fro.  After
that they trimmed her fore-staysail over, and there was by contrast a
curious quietness as Dampier jammed his helm up, and the schooner swung
off before the sea.  Then somebody lighted a lantern, and Charly
stooped over Wyllard, who lay limp and still beside the wheel.  His
face showed grey in the feeble light, save where a broad red stain had
spread across it.  Dampier cast a glance at him.

"Get him below, and into his bunk, two of you," he said.

They did it with difficulty, for the _Selache_ lurched viciously each
time a white-topped sea came up upon her quarter, and as soon as it
seemed advisable to leave the deck Dampier went down.  Wyllard lay in
his bunk, with his eyes half-open, but there was no expression in them,
and his face was almost colourless except for the broad smear of blood.
It was oozing fast from a laceration in his scalp, but Dampier, who
noticed his chilliness, did not in the meanwhile trouble about that.
He stripped off the senseless man's long boots, and unshipping a hot
fender iron from the stove laid it against his feet.  Afterwards he
contrived to get some whisky down his throat, and then set to work to
wash the scalp wound, dropping into the water a little of the
permanganate of potash, which is freely used at sea.  When that was
done he applied a rag dipped in the same fluid, and seeing no result of
his efforts went back on deck.  He was anxious about his patient, but
not unduly so, for he had discovered long ago that men of his
description are apt to recover from more serious injuries.  By and bye,
he said, Wyllard's brain, which had evidently been rudely jarred by the
shock, would resume its functions.

It was blowing very hard when he stood near the wheel.  A steep sea was
already tumbling after the schooner, but she was, at least, heading out
from where they supposed the ice to be, and he let her go, keeping her
away before it, and heading a little south of east.  When morning came
the sea was very high, and the faint light further dimmed by snow, but
it seemed to him just safe, and no more, to run, and they held on while
the big combers came up astern and forged by, ridged with foam, high
above her rail.

She was travelling very fast, to the eastwards, under boom-foresail and
one little jib, with her mainmast broken short off where the bolts of
the halliard blocks had traversed it, and Dampier realised that because
of that every knot she made then could not by any means be recovered
that season.  He wondered, with a little uneasiness, what Wyllard would
say when he came to himself again.  In the meanwhile he said nothing,
but lay like a log in his bunk, only that there was now a little warmth
in him.

Next day the breeze moderated somewhat, and they let her come up a
little, heading further south; while on the morning after that Wyllard
showed signs of returning consciousness.  Dampier, however, kept away
from him, partly to allow his senses to readjust themselves, and partly
because he rather shrank from the coming interview.  At length, when
dusk was falling, Charly came up to say that Wyllard, who seemed quite
sensible, insisted on seeing him, and Dampier went down with some
misgivings into the little cabin.  The lamp was lighted, and when he
sat down Wyllard, who raised himself feebly on his pillow, turned a
pallid face to him.

"Charly tells me you picked the boat up," he said.

"We did," said Dampier.  "She had three or four planks on one side
ripped out of her."

Wyllard's faint grimace implied that this did not matter, and Dampier
braced himself for the question he dreaded.  He had to face it in
another moment.

"How's she heading?"

"A little south of east."

Wyllard's face hardened.  It was still blowing moderately fresh, and by
the heave of the vessel and the wash of water outside he could guess
how fast she was travelling.  Except for the latter sound, however,
there was for a moment or two an almost oppressive silence in the
little cabin.  Then Wyllard spoke again.

"You have been running to the eastwards since I was struck down?" he
said.

Dampier nodded.  "Three days," he said.  "Just now the breeze is on her
quarter."

He winced under Wyllard's gaze, and spread his hands out deprecatingly.

"Now," he added, "what else was there I could do?  She wrung her
masthead off when you jibed her and there's not stick enough left to
set any canvas that would shove her to windward, I might have hove her
to, but the first time the breeze hauled easterly she'd have gone up on
the beach or among the ice with us.  I had to run!"

Wyllard closed a feeble hand.  "Dunton was crippled, too.  It's almost
incredible."

"In one way, it looks like that, but, after all, a jibe's quite a
common thing with a fore-and-after.  If you run her off to lee when
she's going before it her mainboom's bound to come over.  Of course,
nobody would run her off in a wicked breeze unless he had to, but you'd
no choice with the ice in front of you."

Wyllard lay very still for almost a minute.  It was clear to him that
his project must be abandoned for that season, which meant that at
least six months must elapse before he could even approach the
Kamtchatkan coast again.

"Well," he said at length, "what do you mean to do?"

"If the breeze holds we could pick up one of the Aleutians in a few
days, but I'm keeping south of them.  There'll probably be ugly ice
along the beaches, and I've no fancy for being cast ashore by a strong
tide when the fog lies on the land.  With westerly winds I'd sooner
hold on for Alaska.  We could lie snug in an inlet there, and, it's
quite likely, get a cedar that would make a spar.  I can't head right
away for Vancouver with no mainsail."

This was clear to Wyllard, who made a feeble gesture.  "If the wind
comes easterly?"

Dampier pursed his face up.  "Then unless I could fetch one of the
Kuriles we'd sure be jammed.  She won't beat to windward, and there'd
be all Kamtchatka to lee of us.  The ice is packing up along the north
of it now, and the Russians have two or three settlements to the south.
We don't want to run in and tell them what we're after."

A faint smile crept into Wyllard's eyes.  "No," he said, "not after
that little affair on the beach.  Since it's very probable that the
vessel they send up to the seal islands would deliver stores along the
coast, the folks in authority would have a record of it.  They'd call
the thing piracy--and, in a sense, they'd be justified."

He said nothing more for a little, and then looked up again wearily.

"I wonder," he said, "how that boat's crew ever got across to
Kamtchatka.  It was north of the islands where the man brought Dunton
the message."

Dampier understood that he desired to change the subject, for this was
a question they had often discussed already.

"Well," he said, "I still hold by my first notion.  They were blown
ashore on the beach we'd just left, and made prisoners.  Then a supply
schooner or perhaps a steamer came along, and they sent them off in her
to be handed over to the authorities.  The vessel put in somewhere.
We'll say she was lying in an inlet with a boat astern, and somehow
they cut that boat loose in the dark, and got away in her."

He broke off for a moment, and then looked at his companion
significantly.

"You can find quite a few points where that idea seems to fail," he
added.  "They were in Kamtchatka, but I'm beginning to feel that we
shall never know any more than that."

Wyllard made a little weary gesture of concurrence, but before he
closed them Dampier saw no sign that he meant to abandon his project in
his eyes.  In another few minutes he seemed to sink into sleep, and
Dampier, who went up on deck, paced to and fro awhile before he stopped
by the wheel and turned to the helmsman.

"You can let her come up a couple of points.  We may as well make a
little southing while we can," he said.

Charly, who was steering, looked up with suggestive eagerness.  "Then
he's not going for the Aleutians?"

"No," said Dampier drily.  "I was kind of afraid of that, but I choked
him off.  Anyway, this year won't see us back in Vancouver."  He
paused, with a little jarring laugh.  "We're going to stay up here
until we find out where those men left their bones.  The man who has
this thing in hand isn't the kind that lets up."

Charly made no answer, but his face hardened as he put his helm down a
spoke or two.

Next day the wind fell lighter, but for a week it still held westerly,
and after that it blew moderately fresh from the south.  Crippled as
she was, the _Selache_ would lie a point or two south of east when they
had set an old cut down fore-staysail on what was left of her mainmast,
and the hearts of her crew grew a little lighter as she crawled on
across the Pacific.  They had no wish to be blown back to the frozen
North.  The days were, however, growing shorter rapidly, and the sun
hung low in the southern sky when at length she crept into one of the
many inlets that indent the coast of Southern Alaska.  There was just
wind enough to carry her in round a long, foam-lapped point, and soon
afterwards they let the anchor go in four fathoms in a sheltered arm,
with a river mouth not far away.  There was no sign of life anywhere
about it, and the ragged cedars that crept close down to the beach
stood out in sombre spires against the gleaming snow.

The cold was not particularly severe when she crept in, but when
Dampier went ashore next morning to pick a log that they could hew a
mast out of the temperature suddenly fell, and that night the drift ice
from the river mouth closed in on them.  When the late daylight broke
she was frozen fast, and they knew it would be several months before
she moved again.  It was then before the gold rush, and in winter
Alaska was practically cut off from all communication with the south.
No man would have attempted to traverse the tremendous snow-wrapped
desolation of almost impassable hills and trackless forests that lay
between them and the nearest of the commercial factories on the north,
or the canneries on the other hand.  Besides, the canneries were shut
up in winter time.  They were prisoners, and could only wait with what
patience they could muster until the thaw set them free again.



CHAPTER XVIII.

A DELICATE ERRAND.

There was sharp frost outside, and the prairie was white with a thin
sprinkle of snow, when a little party sat down to supper in the
Hastings homestead one Saturday evening.  Hastings sat at the head of
the table, his wife at the foot with her little daughters, Agatha,
Sproatly, and Winifred between them.  The latter two had just driven
over from the railroad settlement, as they did now and then, which
explained why the meal, which is usually served early in the evening,
had been delayed an hour or so.  The two hired men, whom Mrs. Hastings
had not kept waiting, had gone out to some task in the barn or stables.

By and bye Sproatly took a bundle of papers out of his pocket and laid
them on the table.  There had been a remarkable change in his
appearance of late, for he now wore store clothes, and the skin coat he
had taken off when he came in was, as his hostess had noticed, a new
one.  It occurred to her that there was a certain significance in this,
though Sproatly had changed his occupation some little time ago, and
now drove about the prairie on behalf of certain makers of agricultural
implements.

"I called for your mail and Gregory's before we left," he said.  "I had
to go round to see him, which is partly what made us so late, though
Winifred couldn't get away as soon as she expected.  They've floods of
wheat coming in to the elevators, and I understand that the milling
people can't take another bushel in."

Mrs. Hastings glanced at Agatha, who understood what she meant, for
Sproatly had hitherto spoken of Winifred circumspectly as Miss
Rawlinson.  Hastings, however, took the papers which Agatha handed him,
and laid them aside.

"We'll let them wait until supper's over.  I don't expect any news
that's particularly good," he said.  "The bottom's apparently dropping
out of the wheat market."

"Hamilton can't get cars enough, and we'll have to shut down in another
day or two unless they turn up," said Winifred.  "It's much the same
all along the line.  The Winnipeg traffic people wired us they haven't
an empty car in the yards.  Why do you rush the grain in that way?
It's bound to break the market."

Hastings smiled rather drily.  "Well," he said, "a good many of us have
bills to meet.  For another thing, they've had a heavy crop in
Manitoba, Dakota, and Minnesota, and I suppose some folks have an idea
they'll get in first before the other people swamp the Eastern markets.
I think they're foolish.  It's a temporary scare.  Prices will stiffen
by and bye."

"That's what Hamilton says, but I suppose the thing is natural.  Men
are very like sheep, aren't they?"

Hastings laughed.  "Well," he admitted, "we are, in some respects.
When prices break a little we generally rush to sell.  One or two of my
neighbours are, however, holding on, and it's hardly likely that very
much of my wheat will be flung on to a falling market."

"We have been getting a good deal from the Range."

There was displeasure in Hastings's face.  "Gregory's selling largely
on Harry's account?"

"They've been hauling wheat in to us for the last few weeks," said
Winifred.

Hastings, as Agatha noticed, glanced at his wife significantly, but she
interposed and forbade any further conversation of the kind until
supper was over, while when the table had been cleared Hastings opened
his papers.  The rest sat expectantly silent, while he turned them over
one after another.

"No," he said, "there's no news of Harry, and I'm afraid it's scarcely
possible that we'll hear anything of him this winter."

Agatha was conscious that Mrs. Hastings's eyes were upon her, and she
sat very still, though her heart was beating a little faster than
usual.  Hastings, however, went on again.

"The _Colonist_ has a line or two about a barque from Alaska, which put
into Victoria short of stores," he said.  "She was sent up to an A.C.C.
factory, and had to clear out before she was ready.  The ice, it seems,
was closing in unusually early.  A steam whaler at Portland reports the
same thing, and from the news brought by a steamer from Japan all
communication with North-Eastern Asia is already cut off."

None of the others said anything for a moment or two, and Agatha,
leaning back in her chair, glanced round the room.  There was not much
furniture in it, but, though this was unusual on the prairie, door and
double casements were guarded by heavy hangings.  The big brass lamp
overhead shed down a cheerful light, the birch billets in the stove
snapped and crackled noisily, and its pipe, which was far too hot to
touch, diffused a drowsy heat.  One could lounge beside it contentedly,
knowing that the stinging frost was drying the snow to dusty powder
outside.  That heightened the contrast, for Agatha pictured the little
schooner bound fast in the Northern ice, and then two or three
travel-worn men crouching in a tiny tent buffeted by an Arctic gale.
She could see the poles bend, and the tricings strain.

After that, with a sudden transition, her thoughts went back to the
early morning when Wyllard had driven away, and every detail of the
scene rose up clearly in her mind.  She saw him and the stolid Dampier
sitting in the waggon, with nothing in their manner to suggest that
they were setting out upon a very perilous venture, and she felt his
hand close tight upon her fingers, as it had done just before the
waggon jolted away from the homestead.  She could once more see it
growing smaller and smaller on the white prairie, until it dipped
behind the crest of a low rise, and the sinking beat of hoofs died
away.  Then, at least, she had realised that he had started on the
first stage of a journey which might lead him through the ice-bound
gates of the North to the rest that awaits the souls of the sailormen.
She could not, however, imagine him shrinking.  Gripping helm, or
hauling in the sled traces, he would gaze with quiet eyes steadfastly
ahead, even if they saw only the passage from this world to the next.
Once more, as it had done that morning, a curious thrill ran through
her, and there was pride as well as regret in it.  Then she became
conscious that Hastings was speaking.

"What took you round by the Range, Jim?" he asked.

"Collecting," said Sproatly.  "I sold Gregory a couple of binders
earlier in the season, but, as it happened, I couldn't get a dollar out
of him."  He laughed.  "Of course, if it had been anybody else I'd have
stayed until he handed over, but I couldn't press Gregory too hard
after quartering myself upon him as I did last winter, though I'm
rather afraid my employers wouldn't appreciate that kind of delicacy."

Mrs. Hastings looked thoughtful.  "Gregory should have been able to
pay.  He thrashed out a moderately good crop."

"About two-thirds of what it should have been, and I've reason for
believing that he has been putting up a mortgage.  Interest's heavy.
There's another matter.  I wonder if you've heard that he's getting rid
of two of Harry's hands?  I mean Pat and Tom Moran."

"You're sure of that?" Hastings asked somewhat sharply.

"Tom told me."

Mrs. Hastings leaned forward suddenly in her chair.  "Then," she said,
"I'm going to drive across on Monday, and have a few words with
Gregory.  Did Moran tell you that Harry had decided to keep the two of
them on throughout the year?"

"He wasn't very explicit, but he seemed to feel he had a grievance
against Gregory.  Of course, in a way, you can't blame Gregory.  He's
in charge, and it isn't in him to carry out Harry's policy.  This fall
in wheat is getting on his nerves, and in any case he'd probably have
held his hand and cut down the crop next year."

"I do blame him," and Mrs. Hastings turned to Agatha.  "You will
understand that in a general way there's not much that can be done when
the snow's upon the ground, and as one result of it the hired man
prefers to engage himself for the year.  To secure himself from being
turned adrift when harvest's over he will frequently make a concession
in wages.  Now I know Harry intended to keep those two men on, and Tom
Moran, who has a little half-cleared ranch back somewhere in the bush
of Ontario, came out here tempted by higher wages.  I understand he had
to raise a few dollars or give the place up, and he left his wife
behind.  A good many of the little men can't live upon their holdings
all the while.  Well, I'm going over on Monday to tell Gregory he has
got to keep them, and you're coming with me."

Agatha said nothing.  In the first place, she knew that if Mrs.
Hastings had made her mind up she would gain nothing by objecting, and
in addition to this she was conscious of a certain desire to go.  It
appeared in some respects an unreasonable wish, but she felt deep down
in her that if Wyllard had let the men understand that he would not
dismiss them the promise, implied or explicit, must be redeemed.  He
would not have attempted to release himself from it--she was sure of
that--and it appeared intolerable to her that another should be
permitted to do anything that would unfavourably reflect on him.  Then,
somewhat to her relief, Hastings started another topic.

"You have sold quite a few binders and harrows one way or another,
haven't you, Jim?" he said.

Sproatly laughed.  "I have," he said.  "As I told the Company's Western
representative some time ago, a man who could sell patent medicine to
the folks round here could do a good trade in anything.  He admitted
that my contention sounded reasonable, but I didn't wear store clothes
then, and he seemed very far from sure of me.  Anyway, he gave me a
show, and now I've got two or three quite complimentary letters from
the Company.  They've added a few dollars to my salary, and hint that
it's possible they may put me in charge of an implement store."

"And you're satisfied?"

"Well," said Sproatly, with an air of reflection, "in some respects, I
suppose I am.  In others, the thing's galling.  You have to report who
you've called upon, and, if you couldn't do business, why they bought
somebody else's machines.  If you can't get a farmer to take you in you
have to put up at a hotel.  There's no more camping in a birch bluff
under your waggon.  Besides, you have to wear store clothes."

Hastings glanced at Winifred, and Agatha fancied she understood what
was in his mind.

"Some folks would sooner sleep in a hotel," he said, with a twinkle in
his eyes.

"Then," said Sproatly, decisively, "they don't know very much.  They're
the kind of men who'd spend an hour every morning putting their clothes
on, and they haven't found out that there's no comfort in any garment
until you've had to sew two or three flour bag patches on to it.  Then
think of the splendid freeness of the other thing.  You make your
supper when you want, and just how you like it, when you put up in a
bluff, and no tea tastes as good as the kind you drink with the wood
smoke in it out of a blackened can.  You can hear the little birch
leaves and the grasses whispering about you when you lie down at night,
and you drive on in the glorious freshness--just when it pleases
you--when morning comes.  Now the Company have the whole route and
programme plotted out for me.  They write me letters demanding most
indelicately why I haven't done this and that."

Winifred looked at him sharply.  "Civilisation," she said, "implies
responsibility.  You can't live just how you like without it being
detrimental to the community."

"Oh yes," said Sproatly with a rueful gesture, "it implies no end of
giving up.  You have to fall into line, and that's why I kept outside
it just as long as I could.  I don't like standing in a rank, and," he
glanced down at his clothing, "I've an inborn objection to wearing
uniform."

Agatha laughed as she caught Hastings's eye.  She fancied that Sproatly
would be sorry for his candour afterwards, but she understood what he
was feeling to some extent.  It was a revolt against cramping customs
and conventionalities, and she partly sympathised with it, though she
knew that such revolts are dangerous.  Even in the West, those who
cannot lead must march in column with the rank and file or bear the
consequences of their futile mutiny.  It is a hard truth that no man
can live as he pleases.

"Restraint," said Winifred, "is a wholesome thing, but it's one most of
the men I have met are singularly deficient in.  That's why they can't
be left alone but must be driven, as they are, in companies.  It's
their own fault if they now and then find it a little humiliating."

There was a faint gleam in her eyes at which Sproatly apparently took
warning, for he said no more upon that subject, and they talked about
other matters until he took his departure an hour or two later.  It was
next afternoon when he appeared again, and Mrs. Hastings smiled at
Agatha as he and Winifred drove away together.

"Thirty miles is a long way to drive in the frost.  I suppose you have
noticed that she calls him Jim?" she said.  "Anyway, there's a good
deal of very genuine ability in that young man.  He isn't altogether
wild."

"His appearance rather suggested it when I first met him," said Agatha
with a laugh.  "Was it a pose?"

"No," said her companion reflectively.  "I think one could call it a
reaction, and it's probable that some very worthy people in the Old
Country are to blame for it.  Sproatly is not the only young man who
has suffered from having too many rules and conventions crammed down
his throat.  In fact, they're rather plentiful."

Agatha said nothing further, for the little girls appeared just then,
and it was not until the next afternoon that she and Mrs. Hastings were
alone together again.  Then as they drove across the prairie wrapped in
the heavy waggon robes her companion spoke of the business they had in
hand.

"Gregory must keep those men," she said.  "There's no doubt that Harry
meant to do it, and it would be horribly unfair to turn them loose now
when there's absolutely nothing going on.  Besides, Tom Moran is a man
I'm specially sorry for.  As I told you, he left a young wife and a
very little child behind him when he came out here."

"One would wonder why he did it," said Agatha.  "He had to.  There
seems to be a notion in the Old Country that we earn our dollars
easily, but it's very wrong.  We'll take that man's case as an example.
He has a little, desolate holding up in the bush of Ontario, a hole
chopped out of the forest studded all over with sawn-off fir-stumps,
with a little, two-roomed log shack on it.  In all probability there
isn't a settlement within two or three leagues of the spot.  Now, as a
rule, a place of that kind won't produce enough to keep a man for
several years after he has partially cleared it, and unless he can earn
something in the meanwhile he must give it up.  Moran, it seems, got
heavily into debt with the nearest storekeeper, and had to choose
between selling the place up or coming out here where wages are higher.
Well, you can probably imagine what it must be to the woman who stayed
behind in the desolate bush, seeing nobody for weeks together, though
I've no doubt that she'd bear it uncomplainingly believing that her
husband would come back with enough to clear the debt."

Agatha could imagine it, and a certain indignation against Gregory
crept into her heart.  She had once liked to think of him as pitiful
and chivalrous, and now, it seemed, he was quite willing that this
woman should make her sacrifice in vain.

"But why have you taken the trouble to impress this on--me?" she asked.

Her companion smiled.  "I want you to plead that woman's cause.
Gregory may do what you ask him gracefully.  That would be much the
nicest way out of it."

"The nicest way?"

"Yes," said Mrs. Hastings, with a trace of dryness, "there is another
one.  Gregory is going to keep Tom Moran, anyway.  Harry has one or two
friends in this neighbourhood who feel it more or less of an obligation
on them to maintain his credit."

Agatha felt the blood rise to her face, but it was not her companion
she was angry with.  It was an unpleasant thing to admit, but she
fancied that Gregory might yield to judicious pressure when he would
not be influenced by either compassion or a sense of equity.  It also
flashed upon her that had Mrs. Hastings believed that she still
retained any tenderness for the man she would not have spoken as she
had done.  The whole situation was horribly embarrassing, but there was
courage in her.

"Well," she said simply, "I will speak to him."

They said nothing more until they approached the Range, and as they
drove by the outbuildings Agatha glanced about her curiously.  It
occurred to her that the homestead did not look quite the same as it
had done when Wyllard had been there.  A waggon stood near the
strawpile without one wheel.  A door of the barn hung awkwardly open in
a manner which suggested that it needed mending, and the snow had blown
inside the building.  There was a gap in the side of one sod and pole
structure which should evidently have been repaired, and all this and
several other things she noticed jarred upon her.  They suggested
slackness and indifference.  Then she saw Mrs. Hastings purse her lips
up.

"There is a change in the place already," she said.

They got down in another minute or two, and when they entered the house
the grey-haired Swedish woman greeted them moodily.  She seemed to
notice the glance Mrs. Hastings cast around her, and her manner became
deprecatory.

"I can't keep things straight now.  It is not the same," she said.

Mrs. Hastings asked if Hawtrey was in, and hearing that he was turned
to Agatha.  "Go along and talk to him.  I've something to say to Mrs.
Nansen," she said.



CHAPTER XIX.

THE PRIOR CLAIM.

It was with confused feelings among which a sense of repugnance
predominated that Agatha walked towards Hawtrey's room.  She was not
one of the women who take pleasure in pointing out another person's
duty, for while she had discovered that this task is apparently an easy
one to some people she was quite aware that a duty usually looks much
more burdensome when it is laid upon one's self.  Indeed, she was
conscious just then that one might be shortly thrust upon her which she
would find it very hard to bear, and she became troubled with a certain
compunction as she remembered how she had of late persistently driven
all thought of it out of her mind.

There was no doubt that she was still pledged to Gregory, and that she
had loved him once.  Both facts must be admitted, and it seemed to her
that if he insisted she must marry him.  Deep down in her there was an
innate sense of right and honesty, and she realised that the fact that
he was not the man she had once imagined him to be did not release her.
In the meanwhile, it was clear that if he was about to commit a cruel
and unjustifiable action she was the one person of all others whose
part it was to restrain him.

The colour was a little plainer in her face than usual when she quietly
entered the room where he lay, pipe in hand, in a lounge chair, and,
for it seemed that he did not immediately notice her, his attitude of
languid ease irritated her.  There were, as she had seen, several
things which should evidently have had some claim on his attention
outside.  A litter of letters and papers lay upon a little table at his
side, but the fact that he could not reach them as he lay was
suggestive.  Then he rose, and came forward with outstretched hand.

[Illustration: "It seemed that he did not immediately notice her."]

"I didn't hear you," he said.  "This is a pleasure I scarcely
anticipated."

Agatha sat down in the chair he drew out for her near the stove, and he
seemed to notice that she glanced at the papers on the table, for he
laughed.

"Bills, and things of that kind.  They've been worrying me for a week
or two," he said.  Then he seized the litter, and bundling it together
flung it into an open drawer, which he shut with a snap.  "Anyway,
that's the last of them for to-day.  I'm awfully glad you drove over."

Agatha smiled.  The action was so characteristic of the man.  She had
once found no fault with Gregory's careless habits, and his way of
thrusting a difficulty into the background and making light of it had
appealed to her.  It had suggested his ability to straighten out the
trouble when it appeared advisable.  Now, she said, she would not be
absurdly hypercritical, and he had, as it happened, given her the lead
that she desired.

"I should have fancied that you would have had to give them more
attention as wheat is going down," she said.

Hawtrey looked at her with an air of reproach.  "It must be nearly
three weeks since I have seen you, and now you expect me to talk of
farming."  He made a whimsically rueful gesture.  "If you quite
realised the situation it would be about the last thing you would ask
me to do."

Agatha was a little astonished to remember that three weeks had
actually elapsed since she had last met him, and they had only
exchanged a word or two then.  He had certainly not obtruded himself
upon her, for which she was grateful.

"Nobody is talking about anything except the fall in prices just now,"
she persisted.  "I suppose it affects you, too?"

The man, who seemed to accept this as a rebuff, looked at her rather
curiously, and then laughed.

"It must be admitted that it does.  In fact, I've been acquiring
parsimonious habits and worrying myself about expenses lately.  They
have to be kept down somehow, and that's a kind of thing I never took
kindly to."

"You feel it a greater responsibility when you're managing somebody
else's affairs?" suggested Agatha, who was still waiting her
opportunity.

"Well," said Hawtrey, in whom there was, after all, a certain honesty,
"that's not quite the only thing that has some weight with me.  You
see, I'm not altogether disinterested.  I get a certain percentage--on
the margin--after everything is paid, and I want it to be a big one.
Things are rather tight just now, and the wretched mortgage on my place
is crippling me."

It had slipped out before he quite realised what he was saying, and he
saw the girl's look of astonishment and concern.  She now realised what
Sproatly had meant.

"You are in debt, Gregory?  I thought you had, at least, kept clear of
that," she said.

"So I did--for a while.  In any case, if Wyllard stays away, and I can
run this place on the right lines, I shall, no doubt, get out of it
again."

She was vexed that he had said this, for it was clear to her that if
Wyllard did not return until another crop was gathered in it would be
because he was held fast among the Northern ice in peril of his life.
Then another thought struck her.  She had never quite understood why
Gregory had been willing to undertake the management of the Range, in
view of the probability of Wyllard having plainly told him what he had
said to her, but he had made that point clear by admitting that he had
been burdened with a load of debt, which suggested the question why he
had incurred the latter.  The answer appeared in another moment or two,
as she remembered having heard Mrs. Hastings or somebody else say that
he had spent a good many dollars upon his house and furnishings for it.
It brought her a sudden sense of confusion, for as one result of that
expenditure he had been forced into doing what she fancied must have
been a very repugnant thing, and she had never even crossed his
threshold.

"When did you borrow that money?" she asked sharply.

There was no doubt that the man was embarrassed, and her heart softened
towards him for his hesitation.  It was to further her comfort he had
laid that load upon himself, and he was clearly unwilling that she
should recognise it.  That counted for a good deal in his favour.

"Was it just before I came out?" she asked again.

Hawtrey made a little sign of expostulation.  "You really mustn't worry
me about these matters, Aggy.  A good many of us are in the
storekeepers' or mortgage-jobbers' hands, and there's no doubt that if
I have another good year at the Range I shall clear off the debt."

Agatha turned her face away from him for a moment or two.  The thing
the man had done laid a heavy obligation on her, and she remembered
that she had only found fault with him.  Even then, however, stirred as
she was, she was conscious that all the tenderness she had once felt
for him had gone.  The duty, however, remained, and with a little
effort she turned to him again.

"Oh!" she said, "I'm so sorry."

Hawtrey smiled.  "I really don't think I deserve a very great deal of
pity.  As I have said, I'll probably come out all right next year if I
can only keep expenses down."

Then Agatha remembered the task she had in hand.  It was a very
inauspicious moment to set about it, but that could not be helped, and
even for the man's own sake she felt that she must win him over.

"There is one way, Gregory, in which I don't think it ought to be
done," she said.  "Yon took over Wyllard's obligations when you took
the farm, and I think you should keep the two Morans on."

Hawtrey started.  "Ah!" he said, "Mrs. Hastings has been setting you
on; I partly expected it."

"She told me," Agatha admitted.  "Unless you will look at the thing as
I do, I could almost wish she hadn't.  The thought of that woman shut
up in the woods all winter only to find that what she must have to bear
has all been thrown away troubles me.  Wyllard promised to keep those
men on, didn't he?"

"There was no regular engagement so far as I can make out."

"Still, Moran seems to have understood that he was to be kept on."

"Yes," admitted Hawtrey, "he evidently does.  If the market had gone
with us I'd have fallen in with his views.  As it hasn't, every man's
wages count."

Agatha was conscious of a little thrill of repugnance.  Of late
Gregory's ideas had rather frequently jarred on hers.

"Does that release you?"

Hawtrey did not answer this.

"I'll keep those men on if you want me to," he said.

Agatha winced at this.  She had discovered that she must not look for
too much from Gregory, but to realise that he had practically no sense
of moral obligation, and could only be influenced to do justice by the
expectation of obtaining her favour positively hurt her.

"I want them kept on, but I don't want you to do it for that reason,"
she said.  "Can't you grasp the distinction, Gregory?"

A trace of darker colour crept into Hawtrey's face, but while she was a
little astonished at this he looked at her steadily.  He had not
thought much about her during the last month, but now the faint scorn
in her voice had stirred him.

"Now," he said, "there are just three reasons, Aggy, why you should
have troubled yourself about this thing.  You are, perhaps, a little
sorry for Moran's wife, but as you haven't even seen her that can
hardly count for much.  The next is, that you don't care to see me
doing what you regard as a shabby thing; perhaps it is a shabby thing
in some respects, but I feel it's justifiable.  Of course, if that's
your reason there's a sense in which, while not exactly
complimentary--it's consoling."

He broke off, and looked at her with a question in his eyes, and it
cost Agatha an effort to meet them.  She was not prudish or over
conscious of her own righteousness, but once or twice after the shock
of her disillusionment in regard to him had lessened she had dreamed of
the possibility of enduing him little by little with some of the
qualities she had once fancied he possessed, and, as she vaguely
thought of it, rehabilitating him.  Now, however, the thing seemed
impossible, and, what was more, the desire to bring it about had gone.
Hateful as the situation was becoming, she was honest, and she could
not let him credit her with a motive that had not influenced her.

In the meanwhile, her very coldness and aloofness stirred desire in the
man, and she shrank as she saw a spark of passion kindling in his eyes.
It was merely passion, she felt, for she recognised that there was a
strain of grossness in him.

"No," she said, "that reason was not one which had any weight with me."

Hawtrey's face hardened.  "Then," he said grimly, "we'll get on to the
third.  Wyllard's credit is a precious thing to you; sooner than
anything should cast a stain on it you would beg a favour from--me.
You have set him up on a pedestal, and it would hurt you if he came
down.  Considering everything, it's a remarkably curious situation."

Agatha grew a trifle pale.  Gregory was horribly right, for she had no
doubt now that he had merely thrust upon her a somewhat distressing
truth.  It was to save Wyllard's credit, and for that alone she had
undertaken this most unpalatable task.  She did not answer, and Hawtrey
stood up.

"Wyllard has his faults, but there's this in his favour--he keeps a
promise," he said.  "One has a certain respect for a person who never
goes back upon his word.  Well, because I really think he would like
it, I'll keep those men."

He paused for a moment, as if to let her grasp the drift of this, and
then turned to her with something that startled her in his voice and
manner.  "The question is--are you willing to emulate his example?"

Agatha shrank from the glow in his eyes.  "Oh!" she broke out, "you
cannot urge me now--after what you said."

Hawtrey laughed harshly.  "Well," he said, "I'll come for my answer
very shortly.  It seems that you and Wyllard attach a good deal of
importance to a moral obligation--and I must remind you that the time
agreed upon is almost up."

Agatha sat very still for perhaps half a minute, while a sense of
dismay crept over her.  There was no doubt that Gregory's retort was
fully warranted.  She had, as she admitted, insisted upon him carrying
out an obligation which would cost him something, not because she took
pleasure in seeing him do what was honourable, but to preserve the
credit of another man, and now it was with intense repugnance she
recognised that there was apparently no escaping from the one she had
incurred.  The man's attitude was perfectly natural and logical.  She
had promised to marry him, and he had saddled himself with a load of
debt on her account, but the slight pity and tenderness she had felt
for him a few minutes earlier had utterly gone.  Indeed, she felt she
almost hated him.  His face had grown hard and almost brutal, and there
was a look she shrank from in his eyes.

Then she rose.

"Do you wish to speak to Mrs. Hastings?" she asked.

Hawtrey smiled rather grimly.  "No," he said, "if she'll excuse me, I
don't think I do.  If you tell her you have been successful, she'll
probably be quite content."

Agatha went out without another word, and Hawtrey lighted his pipe and
stretched himself out in his chair, when he heard the waggon drive away
a few minutes later.  He did not like Mrs. Hastings, and had a
suspicion that she had no great regard for him, but he was conscious of
a somewhat grim satisfaction.  There was, though it seldom came to the
surface, a taint of crude brutality in his nature, and it was active
now.  When Agatha had first come out the change in her had been a shock
to him, and it would not have cost him very much to let her go.  Since
then, however, her coldness and half-perceived disdain had angered him,
and the interview which was just over had left him in an unpleasant
mood.  Though this was, perhaps, the last thing he would have expected,
it had stirred him to desire.  It was consoling to feel that he could
exact the fulfilment of her promise from the girl.  His face grew
coarser as he assured himself of it, but he had, as it happened, never
realised the shiftiness and instability of his own character.  It was
his misfortune that the impulses which swayed him one day had generally
changed the next.

This became apparent when, having occasion to drive in to the elevators
on the railroad a week later, he called at a store to make one or two
purchases.  The man who kept it laid a package on the counter.

"I wonder if you'd take this along to Miss Creighton as a favour," he
said.  "She wrote for the things, and Elliot was to take them out, but
I guess he forgot; anyway, he didn't call."

Hawtrey told the clerk to put the package in his waggon.  He had
scarcely seen Sally since his recovery, and he suddenly remembered
that, after all, he owed her a good deal, and that she was very pretty.
Besides, one could talk to Sally without feeling the restraint that
Agatha's manner usually laid on him.  Then the storekeeper laid an open
box upon the counter.

"I guess you're going to be married by and bye," he said.

Hawtrey was thinking of Sally then, and the question irritated him.

"I don't know that it concerns you, but in a general way it's
probable," he said.

"Well," said the storekeeper good-humouredly, "a pair of these mittens
would make quite a nice present for a lady.  Smartest thing of the kind
I've ever seen here; choicest Alaska fur."

Hawtrey bought a pair, and the storekeeper took a fur cap out of
another box.

"Now," he said, "this is just the thing she'd like to go with the
mittens.  There's style about that cap; feel the gloss of it."

Hawtrey bought the cap, and smiled as he swung himself up into his
waggon.  Gloves are not much use in the prairie frost, and mittens,
which are not divided into finger-stalls, will within limits fit almost
anybody.  This, he felt, was fortunate, for he was not quite sure that
he meant to give them to Agatha.

It was bitterly cold, and the pace the team made was slow, for the snow
was loose and too thin for a sled of any kind, which, after all, is not
very generally used upon the prairie.  As the result of this, night had
closed down and Hawtrey was frozen almost stiff when at last a birch
bluff rose out of the waste in front of him.  It cut black against the
cold blueness of the sky and the spectral gleam of snow, but when he
had driven a little further a stream of ruddy orange light appeared in
the midst of it.  A few minutes later he pulled his team up in front of
a little log-built house, and getting down with difficulty saw the door
open as he approached it.  Sally stood in the entrance silhouetted
against a blaze of cheerful light.

"Oh!" she said.  "Gregory!"

Hawtrey recognised the thrill in her voice, and took both her hands, as
he had once been in the habit of doing.

"Will you let me in?" he asked.

The girl laughed in a rather strained fashion.  She had been a little
startled, and was not quite sure yet as to how she should receive him;
but in the meanwhile Hawtrey drew her in.

"The old folks are out," she said.  "They've gone over to Elliot's for
supper.  He's bringing us a package."

Hawtrey, who explained that he had got it, let her hands go, and sat
down somewhat limply.  He had come suddenly out of the bitter frost
into the little, brightly-lighted, stove-warmed room.  In another few
moments, however, the comfort and cheeriness of it appealed to him.

"This looks very cosy after my desolate room at the Range," he said.

"Then if you'll stay I'll make you supper.  I suppose there's nothing
to take you home?"

"No," said Hawtrey, with a significant glance at her, "there certainly
isn't, Sally.  As a matter of fact, I often wish there was."

He saw her sudden uncertainty, which was, however, not tinged with
embarrassment, and feeling that he had gone far enough in the meanwhile
he went out to put up his team.  When he came back there was a cloth on
the table, and Sally was busy about the stove.  He sat down and watched
her attentively.  In some respects, he thought, she compared favourably
with Agatha.  She had a nicely moulded figure, and a curious lithe
gracefulness of carriage which was suggestive of a strong vitality,
while Agatha's bearing was usually characterised by a certain rather
frigid repose.  This and the latter's general manner had a somewhat
inciting effect on him when he was in her presence, but he now and then
remembered it afterwards with resentment.  Then Sally's face was at
least as comely in a different way, and there was no reserve in it.
She was what he thought of as human, frankly flesh and blood.  Her
quick smile was, as a rule, provocative, and never chilled one as
Agatha's quiet glances sometimes did.

"Sally," he said, "you've grown prettier than ever."

The girl turned partly round towards him with a slow, sinuous movement
that he found seductively graceful.

"Now," she said, "you oughtn't to say those things to me."

Hawtrey laughed; he was usually sure of his ground with Sally.

"Why shouldn't I, when it's just what you are?"

"For one thing, Miss Ismay wouldn't like it."

The man's face hardened.  "I'm not sure she'd mind.  Anyway, Miss Ismay
doesn't like a good many things I'm in the habit of doing."

Sally, who had watched him closely, turned away again, but a little
thrill of exultation ran through her.  It had been with dismay she had
first heard him speak of his marriage, which was, perhaps, not
altogether astonishing, and she had fled home in an agony of anger and
humiliation.  That state of mind had, however, not lasted long, and
when it became evident that the wedding was, at least, postponed
indefinitely, she commenced to wonder whether it was quite impossible
that Hawtrey should come back to her.  She felt that he belonged to her
although he had never given her any very definite claim in him.  She
was a trifle primitive and passionate, but she was determined, and now
he had done what she had almost expected him to do, she meant to keep
him.

"You have fallen out?" she said, and contrived to keep the anxiety she
was conscious of out of her voice.

The question, and more particularly the form of it, rather jarred upon
Hawtrey, but he answered it.

"Oh no," he said.  "As a matter of fact, Sally, you can't fall out
nicely with everybody.  Now when we fell out you got delightfully
angry--I don't know if you were more delightful then or when you
graciously agreed to make it up again."  He laughed.  "I almost wish I
could make you a little angry now."

Sally had moved a little nearer to take a kettle off the stove, and she
looked down on him with her eyes shining in the lamplight.  She
realised that she would have to fight Miss Ismay for this man; but
there was this in her favour, that she appealed directly to one side of
his nature, as Agatha, even if she had loved him, would not have done.

"Would you?" she said.  "Dare you try?"

"I might if I was tempted sufficiently."

She leaned upon the table still looking at him mockingly, and she was
probably aware that her pose and expression were wholly provocative.
Indeed, she could not have failed to recognise the meaning of the
sudden tightening of his lips, though she did not in the least shrink
from it.  She had not the faintest doubt of her ability to keep him at
a due distance if it appeared necessary.

"Oh," she said, "you only say things."

Hawtrey laughed, and stooping down picked up a package he had brought
from the store.

"Well," he said, "after all, I think I'd rather try if I can please
you."  He opened the package.  "Are these things very much too big for
you, Sally?"

[Illustration: "'Are these things very much too big for you, Sally?'"]

The girl's eyes glistened at the sight of the mittens he held out.
They were very different from the kind she had hitherto been in the
habit of wearing, and when he carelessly took out the fur cap she broke
into a little cry of delight.  In the meanwhile Hawtrey watched her
with a rather curious expression.  He was not quite sure he had meant
Sally to have the things when he had purchased them, but he was quite
contented now.  The one gift he had somewhat diffidently offered Agatha
since her arrival in Canada had been almost coldly laid aside.

In another few minutes Sally laid out supper, and as she waited upon
him daintily or filled his cup Hawtrey thrust the misgivings he had
felt further behind him.  Sally, he thought with a little dry smile,
could certainly cook.  When the meal was over he sat talking about
nothing in particular for almost an hour, and then stood up.  It
occurred to him that Sally's mother would be back before very long, and
she was a person he had no great liking for.

"Well," he said, "I must be getting home.  Won't you let me see you
with that cap on?"

Sally, who betrayed no diffidence, put on the cap, and stood before a
little dingy mirror with both hands raised while she pressed it down
upon her gleaming hair.  Then she flashed a smiling glance at him.  It
was quite sufficient, and as she turned again Hawtrey slipped forward
as softly as he could.  She swung round, however, with a flush in her
face and a forceful, restraining gesture.

"Don't spoil it all, Gregory," she said sharply.

Hawtrey, who saw that she meant it--which was a cause of some
astonishment to him--dropped his hand.

"Oh," he said, "if you look at it in that way I'm sorry.  Good-night,
Sally!"

She let him go, but she smiled when he drove away; and half an hour
later she showed the cap and mittens to her mother with significant
candour.  Mrs. Creighton, who was a severely practical person, nodded.

"Well," she said, "he only wants a little managing if he bought you
these, and nobody could say you ran after him.  I wouldn't, anyway;
some of them don't like it."



CHAPTER XX.

THE FIRST STAKE.

A fortnight had slipped by since the evening Hawtrey had spent with
Sally, when Winifred and Sproatly once more arrived at the Hastings
homestead.  The girl was looking a trifle jaded, and it appeared that
the manager of the elevator, who had all along treated her with a good
deal of consideration, had insisted upon her going away for a few days
now the pressure of business which had followed the harvest had
slackened.  Sproatly, as usual, had driven her in from the settlement.

When the evening meal was over they drew their chairs close up about
the stove, and Hastings thrust fresh birch billets into it, for there
was a bitter frost.  Mrs. Hastings installed Winifred in a canvas
lounge and wrapped a shawl about her.

"You haven't got warm yet, and you're looking quite worn out," she
said.  "I suppose Hamilton has still been keeping you at work until
late at night?"

"We have been very busy since I was last here," Winifred admitted, and
then turned to Hastings.  "Until the last week or so there has been no
slackening in the rush to sell.  Everybody seems to have been throwing
wheat on to the market."

Hastings looked thoughtful.  "A good many of the smaller men have been
doing so, but I think they're foolish.  They're only helping to break
down prices, and I shouldn't wonder if one or two of the big,
long-headed buyers saw their opportunity in the temporary panic.  In
fact, if I'd a pile of dollars lying in the bank I'm not sure that I
wouldn't send along a buying order and operate for a rise."

His wife shook her head at him.  "No," she said; "you certainly
wouldn't while I had any say in the matter.  You're rather a good
farmer, but I haven't met one yet who made a successful speculator.
Some of our friends have tried it--and you know where it landed them.
I expect those broker and mortgage men must lick their lips when a nice
fat woolly farmer comes along.  It must be quite delightful to shear
him."

Hastings laughed.  "I should like to point out that most of the farmers
in this country are decidedly thin, and have uncommonly little wool on
them."  Then he turned to the rest.  "I feel inclined to tell you how
Mrs. Hastings made the expenses of her Paris trip; it's an example of
feminine consistency.  She went round the neighbourhood and bought all
the wheat anybody had left on hand up, or, at least, she made me do it."

His wife, who had, as it happened, means of her own, nodded.  "That was
different," she said; "anyway, I had the wheat, and I--knew--it would
go up."

"Then why shouldn't other folks sell forward, for instance, when they
know it will go down?  That's not what I suggested doing, but the
point's the same."

"They haven't got the wheat."

"Of course; they wouldn't operate for a fall if they had.  On the other
hand, if their anticipations proved correct, they could buy it for less
than they sold at before they had to deliver."

"That," said Mrs. Hastings severely, "is pure gambling.  It's sure to
land one in the hands of the mortgage jobber."

Hastings smiled at the others.  "As a matter of fact, it not
infrequently does, but I want you to note the subtle distinction.  The
thing's quite legitimate if you've only got the wheat in a bag.  In
such a case you must naturally operate for a rise."

"There's a good deal to be said for that point of view," observed
Sproatly.  "You can keep the wheat if you're not satisfied, but when
you try the other plan the margin that may vanish at any moment is the
danger.  I suppose Gregory has still been selling the Range wheat,
Winifred?"

"I believe we have sent on every bushel."

Sproatly exchanged a significant glance with Hastings, whose face once
more grew thoughtful.

"Then," said the latter drily, "if he's wise he'll stop at that."

Mrs. Hastings changed the subject, and drew her chair closer in to the
stove, which snapped and crackled cheerfully.

"It must be a good deal colder where Harry is," she said with a shiver.

She flashed a swift glance at Agatha, and saw her expression change,
but Sproatly broke in again.

"It was bad enough driving in from the railroad this afternoon," he
said.  "Winifred was almost frozen, which is why I didn't go round by
Creighton's for the pattern mat--I think that's what he said it
was--Mrs. Creighton borrowed from you.  I met him at the settlement a
day or two ago."

Mrs. Hastings said that he could bring it another time, and while the
rest talked of something else Winifred turned to Agatha.

"It really was horribly cold, and I almost fancied one of my hands was
frost-nipped," she said.  "As it happens, I can't buy mittens like your
new ones."

"My new ones?" said Agatha.

"The ones Gregory bought you."

Agatha laughed.  "My dear, he never gave me any."

Winifred pursed her face up.  "Well," she persisted, "he certainly
bought them and a fur cap, too.  I was in the store when he did it,
though I don't think he noticed me.  They were lovely mittens--such a
pretty brown fur."

Just then Mrs. Hastings, unobserved by either of them, looked up and
caught Sproatly's eye.  His face became suddenly expressionless, and he
looked away.

"When was that?" asked Agatha.

"A fortnight ago, anyway."

Agatha sat silent, and was rather glad when Mrs. Hastings asked
Winifred a question.  She desired no gifts from Gregory, but since he
had bought the cap and mittens she wondered what he could have done
with them.  It was rather disconcerting to feel that, while he
evidently meant to hold her to her promise, he must have given them to
somebody else.  She had, as it happened, never heard of his
acquaintance with Sally Creighton, but it struck her as curious that
although the six months' delay he had granted her had lately expired,
he had neither sent her any word nor called at the homestead.

A few minutes later Mrs. Hastings took up a basket of sewing she had
been engaged in, and moved towards the door.  Sproatly, who rose as she
approached him, drew aside his chair, and she handed the basket to him.

"You can carry it if you like," she said.

Sproatly took the basket, and followed her into another room, where he
sat it down.

"Well?" he said, with a twinkle in his eyes.

Mrs. Hastings regarded him thoughtfully.  "I wonder if you know what
Gregory did with those mittens?"

"I'm rather pleased that I can assure that I don't."

"Do you imagine that he kept them?"

"I'm afraid I haven't an opinion on that point."

"Still, if I said that I felt certain he had given them to somebody you
would have some idea as to who it would probably be?"

"Well," said Sproatly reluctantly, "If you insist upon it, I must admit
that I could make a guess."

Mrs. Hastings smiled in a manner which suggested comprehension.  "So
could I," she said.  "I shouldn't wonder if we both guessed right.  Now
you may as well go back to the others."

Sproatly, who made no answer, turned away, and he was talking to Agatha
when, half an hour later, a waggon drew up outside the door.  In
another minute or two he leaned forward in amused expectation as Sally
walked into the room.

"I'm going on to Lander's, and just called to bring back the mat you
lent us," she said to Mrs. Hastings.  "Sproatly was to have come for
it, but he didn't."

Sproatly, who said he was sorry, fixed his eyes on her.  It was clear
to him that Agatha did not understand the situation, but he rather
fancied from her expression that Sally was filled with an almost
belligerent satisfaction.  She was then wearing a very smart fur cap,
and she carried a pair of new fur mittens which she had just stripped
off in one hand.  Sproatly, who glanced at them, noticed that Winifred
did the same.  Then Mrs. Hastings spoke.

"I don't think you have met Miss Ismay, Sally," she said.

Sally merely said that she had not, and Sproatly became more sure that
the situation was an interesting one, when Mrs. Hastings formally
presented her.  It was clear to him that Agatha was somewhat puzzled by
Sally's attitude.

As a matter of fact, Agatha, who said that she must have had a cold
drive, was regarding the new arrival with a curiosity she had not
expected to feel when she first came in.  Miss Creighton, she admitted,
was comely, though she was clearly somewhat primitive and crude.  The
long skin coat she wore hid her figure, but her pose was too virile,
and there was a look which puzzled Agatha in her eyes.  It was almost
openly hostile, and there was a suggestion of triumph in it.  Agatha,
who could find no possible reason for this, resented it.

In the meanwhile Sally remained standing, and, as she said nothing
further, there was a somewhat awkward silence.  She was the dominant
figure in the room, and the others became sensible of a certain slight
constraint and embarrassment as she gazed at Agatha with unwavering
eyes.  In fact, it was rather a relief to them when at length she
turned to Mrs. Hastings.

"I can't stop.  It wouldn't do to leave the team in this frost," she
said.

This was so evident that they let her go, and Mrs. Hastings, who went
with her to the door, afterwards sat down beside Sproatly a little
apart from the rest.

"I've no doubt you noticed those mittens," she said softly.

"I did," Sproatly admitted.  "I think you can rely upon my discretion.
If you hadn't wanted this assurance I don't suppose you'd have said
anything upon the subject.  It, however, seems very probable that
Winifred noticed them, too."

"Does that mean you're not sure that Winifred's discretion is equal to
your own?"

Sproatly's eyes twinkled.  "In this particular case the trouble is that
she's animated by a sincere attachment to Miss Ismay, and has, I
understand, a rather poor opinion of Gregory.  Of course, I don't know
how far your views on that point coincide with hers."

"Do you expect me to explain them to you?"

"No," said Sproatly, "I'm only anxious to keep out of the thing.
Gregory, as it happens, is a friend of mine, and, after all, he has his
strong points.  I should, however, like to mention that Winifred's
expression suggests that she's thinking of something."

His companion smiled.  "Then I must endeavour to have a word or two
with her."

She left him with this, and not long afterwards she and Winifred went
out together, while when the others were retiring she detained Agatha
for a minute or two in the empty room.

"Haven't the six months Gregory gave you run out yet?" she asked.

Agatha said they had, but it was evident that she had attached no
particular significance to the fact that Sally had worn a new fur cap.

"He hasn't been over to see you since."

The girl, who admitted it, looked troubled, and Mrs. Hastings laid a
hand upon her shoulder.

"My dear," she said, "if he does come you must put him off."

"Why?" Agatha asked, in a low, strained voice.

"For one thing, because we want to keep you," and Mrs. Hastings looked
at her with a very friendly smile.  "Are you very anxious to make it up
with Gregory?"

A little shiver ran through the girl.  "Oh," she said, "I can't answer
you that.  I must do what is right."

Then, somewhat to her astonishment, her companion drew her a little
nearer, stooped and kissed her.

"Most of us, I believe, have that wish, but the thing is often horribly
complex," she said.  "Anyway, you must put Gregory off again if it's
only for another month or two.  I fancy you will not find it remarkably
difficult."

She turned away with that, but her manner had been so significant that
Agatha, who did not sleep very well that night, decided that if it was
possible she would act on her advice.

In the meanwhile, it happened that a little very dapper gentleman who
was largely interested in the land-agency and general mortgage business
was spending the evening with Hawtrey in Wyllard's room at the Range.
He had driven round by Hawtrey's homestead earlier in the afternoon,
and had deduced a good deal from the state of it, though this was a
point he kept to himself.  Now he lay in a lounge chair beside the
stove smoking one of Wyllard's cigars and unobtrusively watching his
companion.  There was a roll of bills in his pocket which the latter
had very reluctantly parted with.

"In view of the fall in wheat it must have been rather a pull for you
to pay me that interest," he said.

"It certainly was," Hawtrey admitted with a somewhat rueful smile.
"I'm sorry it had to be done."

"I don't quite see how you made it," persisted the other man.  "What
you got for your wheat couldn't have done much more than cover working
expenses."

Hawtrey laughed.  He was quite aware that his companion's profession
was not one that was regarded with any great favour by the prairie
farmers, but he was never particularly cautious, and he rather liked
the man.

"As a matter of fact, it didn't, Edmonds," he said.  "You see, I
practically paid you out of what I get for running this place.  The red
wheat Wyllard raises generally commands a cent or two a bushel more
from the big milling people than anything put on the market round here."

Edmonds made a sign of agreement.  He had without directly requesting
him to do so led Hawtrey into showing him round the Range that
afternoon, and having of necessity a practical knowledge of farming he
had been impressed by all that he had noticed.  The farm, which was a
big one, had evidently been ably managed until a little while ago, and
he felt the strongest desire to get his hands on it.  This, as he
admitted, would have been out of the question had Wyllard been at home,
but with Hawtrey, upon whom he had a certain hold, in charge, the thing
appeared by no means impossible.

"Oh, yes," he said.  "I suppose he was reasonably liberal over your
salary."

"I don't get one.  I take a share of the margin after everything is
paid."

Edmonds carefully noted this.  He was not sure that such an arrangement
would warrant one in regarding Hawtrey as Wyllard's partner, but he
meant to gather a little more information upon that point by and bye.

"If wheat keeps on dropping there won't be any margin at all next year,
and that's what I'm inclined to figure on," he said.  "There are,
however, ways a man with nerve could turn it to account."

"You mean by selling wheat down."

"Yes," said Edmonds, "that's just what I mean.  Of course, there is a
certain hazard in the thing.  You can never be quite sure how the
market will go, but the signs everywhere point to still cheaper wheat
next year."

"That's your view?"

Edmonds smiled, and took out of his pocket a little bundle of market
reports.

"Other folks seem to share it in Winnipeg, Chicago, New York, and
Liverpool.  You can't get behind these stock statistics, though, of
course, dead low prices are apt to cut the output."

Hawtrey read the reports with evident interest, and, as it happened,
they were all in the same pessimistic strain, though he was not aware
that his companion had carefully selected them with a view to the
effect he fancied they would produce.  Edmonds, who saw the interest in
his eyes, leaned towards him confidentially when he spoke again.

"I don't mind admitting that I'm taking a hand in a big bear
operation," he said.  "It's rather outside my usual business, but the
thing looks almost certain."

Hawtrey glanced at him with a gleam in his eyes.  There was no doubt
that the prospect of acquiring dollars by an easier method than toiling
in the rain and wind appealed to him.

"If it's good enough for you it should be safe," he said.  "The trouble
is that I've nothing to put in."

"Then you're not empowered to lay out Wyllard's money.  If that was the
case it shouldn't be difficult to pile up a bigger margin than you're
likely to do by farming."

Hawtrey started, for the idea had already crept into his mind.

"In a way, I am, but I'm not sure that I'm warranted in operating on
the market with it."

"Have you the arrangement you made with him in writing?"

Hawtrey opened a drawer, and Edmonds betrayed no sign of the
satisfaction he felt when he was handed a somewhat informally worded
document.  He perused it carefully, and it seemed to him that it
constituted his companion a partner in the Range, which was
satisfactory.  Then he looked up thoughtfully.

"Now," he said, "while I naturally can't tell what Wyllard
contemplated, this paper certainly gives you power to do anything you
think advisable with his money.  In any case, I understand that he
can't be back until well on in next year."

"I shouldn't expect him until late in the summer, anyway."

There was silence for a moment or two, and during it Hawtrey's face
grew a trifle hard.  It was unpleasant to look forward to the time when
he would be required to relinquish the charge of the Range, and of late
he had been wondering how he could make the most of the situation in
the meanwhile.  Then his companion spoke again.

"It's almost certain that the operation I suggested can only result one
way, and it appears most unlikely that Wyllard would raise any trouble
if you handed him several thousand dollars over and above what you had
made by farming.  I can't imagine a man objecting to that kind of
thing."

Hawtrey sat still with indecision in his eyes for half a minute, and
Edmonds, who was too wise to say anything, leaned back in his chair.
Then Hawtrey turned to the drawer again with an air of sudden
resolution.

"I'll give you a cheque for a couple of thousand dollars, which is as
far as I care to go just now," he said.

He took a pen, and Edmonds watched him with quiet amusement as he
wrote.  As a matter of fact, Hawtrey was in one respect, at least,
perfectly safe in entrusting the money to him.  Edmonds had deprived a
good many prairie farmers of their possessions in his time, but he
never stooped to any crude trickery.  He left that to the smaller fry.
Just then he was playing a deep and cleverly thought-out game.

He pocketed the cheque Hawtrey gave him, and then discussed other
subjects for half an hour or so until he rose.

"You might ask them to get my team out.  I've some business at Lander's
and have ordered a room there," he said.  "I'll send you a line when
there's any change in the market."



CHAPTER XXI.

GREGORY MAKES UP HIS MIND

Wheat was still being flung on to a lifeless market when Hawtrey walked
out of the mortgage jobber's place of business in the railroad
settlement one bitter afternoon.  He had a big roll of paper money in
his pocket, and was feeling particularly pleased with himself, for
prices had steadily fallen since he had joined in the bear operation
Edmonds had suggested, and the result of it had proved eminently
satisfactory.  This was why he had just given the latter a further
draft on Wyllard's bank, with instructions to sell wheat down on a
considerably more extensive scale.  He meant to operate in earnest now,
which was exactly what the broker had anticipated, but in this case he
had decided to let Hawtrey operate alone.  Indeed, being an astute and
far-seeing man he had gone so far as to hint that caution might be
advisable, though he had at the same time been careful to show Hawtrey
only those market reports which had a distinctly pessimistic tone.
Edmonds was rather disposed to agree with the men who looked forward to
a reaction before very long.

Hawtrey glanced about him as he strode down the street.  It was wholly
unpaved, and rutted deep, but the drifted snow had partly filled the
hollows up, and it did not look very much rougher than it would have
done if somebody had recently driven a plough through it.  A rude plank
sidewalk ran along both sides of it, raised a foot or two above the
ground that foot-passengers might escape the mire of the thaw in
spring, and immediately behind the sidewalk squat, weatherbeaten, frame
houses, all of much the same pattern, rose abruptly.  In some of them,
however, the fronts were carried up as high as the ridge of the
shingled roof, giving them an unpleasantly square appearance.  Here and
there a dilapidated waggon stood with lowered pole before a store, but
it was a particularly bitter afternoon, and there was nobody in the
street.  The place looked desolate and forlorn, with a leaden sky
hanging over it and an icy wind sweeping through the streets.

Hawtrey, however, was used to that, and strode along briskly until he
reached the open space which divided the little wooden town from the
unfenced railroad track.  It was strewn with fine dusty snow, and the
huge bulk of the grain elevators towered high above it against the
lowering sky.  As it happened, a freight locomotive was just hauling a
long string of wheat cars out of a side-track amidst a discordant
tolling of its bell.  It stopped presently, and though Hawtrey could
not see anything beyond the big cars he fancied by the shouts which
broke out that something unusual was going on.  He was expecting Sally,
who was going East to Brandon by a train due in an hour or two.

When the shouts grew a little louder he walked round in front of the
locomotive which stood still with the steam blowing noisily from a
valve, and as soon as he had done so he saw the cause of the commotion.
A pair of vicious, half-broken bronchos were backing a light waggon
away from the locomotive on the other side of the track, and a
fur-wrapped figure sat stiffly on the driving seat.  Hawtrey called out
and ran suddenly forward as he saw that it was Sally.

Just then one of the horses lifted its fore hoofs off the ground, and
being jerked back by the pole plunged and kicked furiously, until its
companion flung up its head and the waggon went backwards with a run.
Then they stopped, and there was a further series of resounding crashes
against the front of the vehicle.  Hawtrey was within a pace or two of
it when Sally recognised him.

"Keep off," she said, "you can't lead them.  They don't want to cross
the track, but they've got to if I pull the jaws off them."

This was more forcible than elegant, and the shrill harshness of the
girl's voice jarred upon Hawtrey, though he was getting accustomed to
Sally's phraseology.  He, however, recognised that she would not have
his help, even if it would have been of much avail, which was doubtful,
and he reluctantly moved back towards the group of loungers who were
watching her.

"I guess you've no call to worry about her," said one of them.  "She's
holding them on the lowest notch, and it's a mighty powerful bit
fixing.  Besides, that girl could drive anything that goes on four
legs."

"Sure," said one of the others.  "She's a daisy."

Hawtrey was a little annoyed to notice that in place of being
embarrassed by it Sally evidently rather enjoyed the situation, though
several of the freight train and station hands had now joined the group
of loungers and were cheering her on.  He had already satisfied himself
that she had not a trace of fear.  In another moment or two, however,
he forgot his slight sense of disconcertion, for Sally, sitting tense
and strung up on the driving seat with a glow in her cheeks and a snap
in her eyes, was wholly admirable.  There was lithe grace, virility,
and resolution in every line of her fur-wrapped figure.  It is possible
that her appearance would have been less effective in a drawing room,
but in the waggon she was in her place and in harmony with her
surroundings.  Lowering sky, gleaming snow, fur-clad men, and even the
big, dingy locomotive, all fitted curiously into the scene, and she
made an imposing central figure as she contended with the half-tamed
team.  Hawtrey was conscious of a stirring of his physical nature as he
watched her.

The struggle lasted for several minutes during which the horses plunged
and kicked again, until Sally stood boldly erect a moment while the
waggon rocked to and fro, a tall, straight figure with a tress of
loosened hair streaming out beneath her fur cap, as she swung the
stinging whip.  Then it seemed that the team had had enough, for as she
dropped lightly back into the seat they broke into a gallop, and in
another moment the waggon, jolting horribly as it bounced across the
track, vanished behind the locomotive.  Gregory heard a shout of
acclamation as he turned and hurried after it.

Sally, however, drove right through the settlement and back outside it
before she could check the horses, and she had just pulled them up in
front of the wooden hotel when Hawtrey reached it.  He stood beside the
waggon holding up his hand to her, and Sally, who laughed, dropped
bodily into his arms, which was, as he recognised, a thing that Agatha
certainly would not have done.  He set her down upon the sidewalk, and
when a man came out to take the team they went into the hotel together.

"It was the locomotive that did it," she explained.  "They were most
too scared for anything, but I hate to be beaten by a team.  Ours know
too much to try, but I got Haslem to drive me in.  I dropped him at
Norton's, who'll bring him on."

"He oughtn't to have left you with them," said Hawtrey severely.

Sally laughed.  "Well," she said, "I'd quit driving if I couldn't
handle any team you or Haslem could put the harness on."

In a general way, the hotels in the smaller prairie settlements offer
one very little comfort or privacy.  As a rule they contain two general
rooms, in one of which the three daily meals are served with a
punctuality which is as unvarying as the menu.  The traveller who
arrives a few minutes too late for one must wait until the next is
ready.  The second room usually contains a rusty stove, and a few
uncomfortable benches; and there are not infrequently a couple of rows
of very small match-boarded cubicles on the floor overhead.  The
Occident was, however, a notable exception.  For one thing, the
building was unusually large, and its proprietor had condescended to
study the requirements of his guests, who came for the most part from
the outlying settlements.  There were two rooms above the general
lounge, one of which was reserved for the wives or daughters of the
farmers who drove in long distances to purchase stores or clothing.  In
the other, dry-goods travellers were permitted to display their wares,
and, though this was very unusual in that country, any privileged
customer who wished to leave by a train, the departure of which did not
synchronize with the hotel arrangements, was occasionally supplied with
a meal.

It was getting dusk when Hawtrey and Sally entered the first of the two
rooms, where the proprietor's wife was just lighting the big lamp.  She
smiled at the man, who was, as it happened, a favourite of hers.

"Go right along, and I'll bring your supper up in a minute or two," she
said.  "I guess you'll want it after your drive."

Hawtrey strode on down a short corridor towards the second room, but
Sally stopped behind him a moment.

"Is Hastings in town?" she asked.  "I thought I saw his new waggon
outside."

"His wife is," said the other woman.  "She and Miss Ismay drove in to
buy some things."

Sally asked no further questions.  It was evident that Mrs. Hastings
would not start home until after supper, and as the regular hotel meal
would be ready in about half an hour it seemed certain that she would
come back to the hotel very shortly.  That left Sally very little time,
for she had no desire that Hawtrey should meet either Mrs. Hastings or
Agatha until she had carried out the purpose she had in hand.  It was
at Gregory's special request she had permitted him to drive in to see
her off, and she meant to make the most of the opportunity.  She had
long ago regretted her folly in running away from his homestead when he
lay helpless, but things had changed considerably since then.

She said nothing about what she had heard to Hawtrey when she entered
the second room.  It was cosily warm and brightly lighted, and the
little table was laid out for two with a daintiness very uncommon on
the prairie.  It was a change for Sally to be waited on and have a meal
set before her which she had not made with her own fingers, and she
sank into a chair with a smile of appreciation.

"It's real nice, Gregory," she said.  "Supper's never quite the same
when you've had to stand over the stove ever so long getting it ready."
She sighed whimsically.  "When I have to do that after working hard all
day I don't want to eat it."

The man felt compassionate.  Sally, as he was aware, had to work
unusually hard at the little desolate homestead where she and her
mother perforce undertook a good many duties that do not generally fall
to a woman's share.  Creighton, who was getting an old man, was of
grasping nature, and only hired assistance when it was indispensibly
necessary.

"Well," he said, "I'm not particularly fond of cooking either."

Sally glanced at him with a provocative smile, for he had given her a
lead.  "Then," she said, "why don't you get somebody else to do it for
you?"

This was, as the man recognised, almost painfully direct, but there was
no doubt that Sally looked very pretty with the faint flush of colour
in her cheeks and the tantalising light in her eyes.

"As a matter of fact, that's a thing I've been thinking over rather
often the last few months," he said, and laughed.  "It's rather a pity
you don't seem to like cooking, Sally."

Sally appeared to consider this.  "Oh," she said, "it depends a good
deal on who it's for."

Hawtrey became suddenly serious for a moment or two.  There was no
doubt that he would at one time have considered it impossible that he
should marry a girl of Sally's description, and even now he had
misgivings.  He had, however, almost made up his mind, and he was not
exactly pleased that the proprietor's wife came in with the meal just
then, and stayed to talk awhile.

When she went out he watched Sally with close and what he fancied was
unobtrusive attention while she ate, and though he was sensible of the
indelicacy of this, he was once more relieved to find that she did
nothing that was actually repugnant to him.  After all, there was a
certain daintiness about the girl, and her frank appreciation of the
good things set before her only amused him.  She was certainly much
more amusing than Agatha had been since she came out to Canada, and her
cheerful laughter had a pleasant ring.  When at length the meal was
over she bade him draw her chair up to the stove.

"Now," she said, and pointed to another chair across the room, "you can
sit yonder and smoke.  I know you want to."

Hawtrey remembered that Agatha did not like tobacco smoke, and had
always been inclined to exact a certain conventional deference which he
had grown to regard as rather out of place upon the prairie.

"That's a very long way off," he objected.

Sally showed no sign of conceding the point as he had expected, and he
took out his pipe.  He wanted to think, for once more instincts deep
down in him stirred in faint protest against what he almost meant to
do.  There were also several points that required practical
consideration, and among them were his financial difficulties, though
these did not trouble him so much as they had done a few months
earlier.  For a minute or two neither of them said anything, and then
Sally spoke again.

"You're worrying about something, Gregory?" she said.

Hawtrey admitted it.  "Yes," he said, "I am.  My place is a poor one,
and when Wyllard comes home I shall have to go back to it again.
Things would be so much easier for me just now if I had the Range."

The girl looked at him steadily with reproach in her eyes.

"Oh," she said, "your place is quite big enough if you'd only take hold
and run it as it ought to be run.  You could surely do it, Gregory, if
you tried."

The man's resistance grew feebler, as it usually did when his prudence
was at variance with his desires.  Sally's words were in this case
wholly guileless, as he recognised, and they stirred him.  He said
nothing, however, and she spoke again.

"Isn't it worth while, though there are things you would have to give
up?" she said.  "You couldn't go away and waste your dollars in
Winnipeg every now and then."

Hawtrey laughed.  "No," he admitted; "I suppose if I meant to make
anything of the place that couldn't be done.  Still, you see, it's
horribly lonely sitting by oneself beside the stove in the long winter
nights.  I wouldn't want to go to Winnipeg if I had only somebody to
keep me company."

He turned towards her suddenly with decision in his face, and Sally
lowered her eyes.

"Don't you think you could get anybody if you tried?" she asked.

"The trouble," said Hawtrey gravely, "is that I have so little to offer
them.  It's a poor place, and I'm almost afraid, Sally, that I'm rather
a poor farmer.  As you have once or twice pointed out, I don't stay
with things.  Still, it might be different if there was any particular
reason why I should."

He rose, and crossing the room, stood close beside her chair.  "Sally,"
he added, "would you be afraid to take hold and see what you could make
of the place and me?  Perhaps you could make something, though it would
probably be very hard work, my dear."

The blood surged into the girl's face, and she looked up at him with
open triumph in her eyes.  It was her hour, and Sally, as it happened,
was not afraid of anything.

"Oh!" she said; "you really want me?"

"Yes," said Hawtrey quietly; "I think I have wanted you for ever so
long, though I did not know it until lately."

"Then," she said, "I'll do what I can, Gregory."

Hawtrey bent his head and kissed her with a deference he had not
expected to feel, for there was something in the girl's simplicity and
the completeness of her surrender which, though the thing seemed
astonishing, laid a restraint on him.  Then, as he sat down on the arm
of her chair with a hand upon her shoulder, he was more astonished
still, for she quietly made it clear that she expected a good deal from
him.  For one thing, he realised that she meant him to take and keep a
foremost place among his neighbours, and, though Sally had not the gift
of clear and imaginative expression, it became apparent that this was
less for her own sake than his.  She was, with somewhat crude
forcefulness, trying to rouse a sense of responsibility in the man, to
incite him to resolute action and wholesome restraint, and, as he
remembered what he had hitherto thought of her, a salutary sense of
confusion crept upon him.

She seemed to recognise it, for at length she glanced up at him sharply.

"What is it, Gregory?  Why do you look at me like that?" she asked.

Hawtrey smiled in a rather curious fashion.  Hitherto she had made her
appeal through his senses to one side of his nature only.  There was no
doubt on that point, but now it seemed there were in her qualities he
had never suspected.  She had desired him as a husband, but it was
becoming clear that she would not be content with the mere possession
of him.  Sally, it seemed, had wider ideas in her mind, and, though the
thing seemed almost ludicrous, she wanted to be proud of him.

"My dear," he said, "I can't quite tell you--but you have made me
rather badly ashamed.  In some respects, I'm afraid it's a very rash
thing you are going to do."

She looked at him with candid perplexity, and then appeared to dismiss
the subject with a smile.

"There is so much I want to say, and it mayn't be so easy--afterwards,"
she said.  "It's a pity the train starts so soon."

"We can get over that difficulty, anyway," said Hawtrey.  "I'll come on
as far as I can with you, and get back from one of the way stations by
the Pacific express."

Sally made no objections, and drawing a little closer to him she talked
on in a low voice earnestly.



CHAPTER XXII.

A PAINFUL REVELATION.

A sprinkle of snow was driving down the unpaved street before the
bitter wind, when Mrs. Hastings came out of a store in the settlement
and handed Sproatly, who was waiting close by, several big packages.

"You can put them into the waggon, and tell Jake we'll want the team as
soon as supper's over," she said.  "We're going to stay with Mrs.
Ormond to-night, and I don't want to get there too late."

Sproatly took the parcels, and Mrs. Hastings turned to Agatha, who
stood a pace or two behind her with Winifred.

"Now," she said, "if there's nothing else you want to buy we'll go
across to the hotel."

They reached it a few minutes later, and were standing in a big and
rather comfortless room when Sproatly rejoined them.

"This place is quite shivery," said Mrs. Hastings.  "They generally
have the stove lighted in the little room along the corridor.  Go and
see, Jim."

Sproatly went out, and, as it happened, he was wearing gum-boots, which
make very little noise.  He proceeded along a dark corridor, and then
stopped abruptly when he had almost reached a partly-open door, for he
could see into a lighted room.  Hawtrey was sitting near the stove
inside it on the arm of Sally's chair.

Then, though he was not greatly astonished, Sproatly drew back a pace
or two into the shadow, for it became evident that there were only two
courses open to him.  He could judiciously announce his presence by
making the door rattle, and then go in and mention as casually as
possible that Mrs. Hastings and Agatha were in the hotel.  He felt that
he ought to do it, but there was the difficulty that he could not warn
Hawtrey without embarrassing Sally.  Sproatly pursed his face up in
honest perplexity as it became evident that the situation was a
delicate one, and then decided on the alternative.  He would go back
quietly, and keep Mrs. Hastings out of the room if it could be done.

"I think you would be just as comfortable where you are," he informed
her when he joined the others.

"I'm rather doubtful,"  said Mrs. Hastings.  "Wasn't the stove lighted?"

"Yes," said Sproatly, "I fancy it was."

"But I sent you to make sure."

"The fact is I didn't go in," said Sproatly, uneasily.  "There's
somebody in the room already."

"Any of the boys would go out if they knew we wanted it."

"Oh yes," said Sproatly.  "Still, you see, it's only a small room, and
one of them has been smoking."

Mrs. Hastings flashed a keen glance at him, and then smiled in a manner
he did not like.  It suggested that while she yielded to his objections
in the meanwhile she had by no means abandoned the subject.

"Well," she said, "what shall we do until supper?  This stove won't
draw properly, and I don't feel inclined to sit shivering here."

Then Sproatly was seized by what proved to be a singularly unfortunate
inspiration.

"It's really not snowing much, and we'll go down to the depôt and watch
the Atlantic express come in," he suggested.  "It's one of the things
everybody does."

This was, as a matter of fact, correct.  There are not many amusements
open to the inhabitants of the smaller settlements along the railroad
track, and the arrival of the infrequent trains is a source of
unflagging interest to most of them.  Mrs. Hastings fell in with the
suggestion, and Sproatly was congratulating himself upon his diplomacy
when Agatha stopped as they reached the door of the hotel.

"Oh," she said, "I've only brought one of my mittens."

"I'll go back for the other," said Sproatly promptly.

"You don't know where I left it."

"Then I'll lend you one of mine.  It will certainly go on," the man
persisted.

Agatha objected to this, and Sproatly, who fancied that Mrs. Hastings
was watching him, let her go, after which he and the others moved out
into the street.  Agatha in the meanwhile ran back to the room they had
left, and, finding the mitten, had reached the head of the stairway
when she heard voices behind her in the corridor.  She recognised them,
and turned in sudden astonishment, standing, as it happened, in the
shadow, though not far away a stream of light from the door of the room
shone out into the corridor.  Next moment Hawtrey and Sally approached
the door, and as the light fell upon them the blood surged into
Agatha's face, for she remembered the embarrassment in Sproatly's
manner, and that he had done all he could to prevent her going back for
the mitten.  Then Hawtrey spoke to Sally, and there was no doubt
whatever that he called her "My dear."

Agatha stood still a moment filled with burning indignation, and they
were almost upon her before she turned and fled precipitately down the
stairway.  She felt that this was horribly undignified, but she could
not stay and face them.  When she overtook the others she had, however,
at least recovered her outward composure, and they went on together
towards the track.  As yet she was only sensible of anger at the man's
treachery.  It possessed her too completely for her to be conscious of
anything else.

Cold as it was, there were a good many loungers in the station, and
Sproatly, who spoke to one or two of them, led his party away from the
little shed they hung about, and walked briskly up and down beside the
track until a speck of blinking light rose out of the white wilderness.
It grew rapidly larger, until they could make out a trail of smoke
behind it, and the roar of wheels rose in a long crescendo.  Then a
bell commenced to toll, and the blaze of a big lamp beat into their
faces as the great locomotive came clanking into the station.

It stopped, and the light from the long car windows fell upon the
groups of watching fur-clad men, while here and there a shadowy object
that showed black against it leaned out from a platform.  There was,
however, no sign of any passengers for the train until at the last
moment two figures appeared hurrying along beneath the cars.  They drew
nearer, and Agatha set her lips tight as she recognised them, for the
light from a vestibule shone into Hawtrey's face as he half lifted
Sally on to one of the platforms and sprang up after her.  Then the
bell tolled again, and the train slid slowly out of the station with
its lights flashing upon the snow.

Agatha turned away abruptly and walked a little apart from the rest.
The thing, she felt, only admitted of one explanation, and she did not
wish her companions to see her face for the next minute or two.
Sproatly's diplomacy had had a most unfortunate result, and she was
sensible of an almost intolerable disgust.  She had kept faith with
Gregory, at least, as far as it was possible to her, and he had utterly
humiliated her.  The affront he had put upon her was almost unbearable.

In the meanwhile, Mrs. Hastings walked up to Sproatly, who, feeling
distinctly uncomfortable, had drawn back judiciously into the shadow.

"Now," she said, "I understand.  You, of course, anticipated this."

"I didn't," said Sproatly with a decision which carried conviction with
it.  "I certainly saw them at the hotel, but how could I imagine that
they had anything of the kind in view?"

He broke off for a moment, and waved his hand.  "After all," he added,
"what right have you to think it now?"

Mrs. Hastings laughed somewhat harshly.  "Unfortunately, I have my
eyes, but I'll admit that there's a certain obligation on me to make
quite certain before going any further.  That's why I want you to
ascertain where he checked his baggage to."

"I'm afraid that's more than I'm willing to undertake.  Do you consider
it advisable to set the station agent wondering about the thing?
Besides, once or twice in my career appearances have been rather badly
against me, and I'm not altogether convinced yet."

Mrs. Hastings let the matter drop, and they went back rather silently
to the hotel, while as soon as supper was over she bade Sproatly get
their waggon out and drove away with Agatha.  She said very little to
the girl during the long, cold journey, and they had no opportunity of
private conversation when they reached the homestead where they were to
spend the night, which was, as it happened, a relief to Agatha.  She
hated herself for the thought in her mind, but everything seemed to
warrant it, and it would not be driven out.  She had heard what Gregory
had called Sally at the hotel, and the fact that he must have bought
his ticket and checked his baggage earlier in the afternoon when there
was nobody about, and then had run down with Sally at the last moment,
evidently in order to escape observation, was very significant.

She drove home next day, and on the following morning a man who was
driving in to Lander's brought Mrs. Hastings a note from Sproatly.  It
was very brief, and ran:

"Gregory arrived same night by Pacific train.  It is evident he must
have got off at the next station down the line."

Mrs. Hastings showed it to her husband.

"I'm afraid we have been too hasty.  What am I to do with this?" she
said.

Hastings smiled.  "Since you ask my advice, I'd put it into the stove."

"But it clears the man.  Isn't it my duty to show it to Agatha?"

"Well," said Hastings reflectively, "I'm not sure that it is your duty
to put ideas into her mind when you can't be quite certain that she has
entertained them."

"I should be greatly astonished if she hadn't," said the lady drily.

Hastings made a little whimsical gesture.  "Oh," he said, "you'll no
doubt do what you think wisest.  In a general way, when you come to me
for advice you have made your mind up, and only expect me to tell you
that you're right."

Mrs. Hastings thought over the matter for another hour or two.  For one
thing, Agatha's quiet manner puzzled her, and she did not know that the
girl had spent one night in an agony of anger and humiliation, and had
then become sensible of a relief that she was ashamed of.  There was,
however, no doubt that while she blamed herself for it, and in some
degree for what had happened, she did feel relief.  She was sitting
alone for the time being beside the stove in a shadowy room while the
light died off the snowy prairie outside, when Mrs. Hastings came
softly in and sat down beside her.

"My dear," she said, "it's rather difficult to speak of, but that
little scene at the station must have hurt you."

Agatha looked at her quietly and searchingly, but there was only
sympathy in her face, and she leaned forward impulsively.

"Oh," she said, "it hurt me horribly, because I feel it was my fault.
I was the cause of it."

"How could that be?"

"If I had only been kinder to him he would, perhaps, never have thought
of her.  I must have made it clear that he jarred upon me.  I drove
him"--and Agatha turned her face away, while her voice grew a trifle
strained--"into that woman's arms.  No doubt she was ready to make the
most of the opportunity."

Mrs. Hastings decided that the girl's scorn and disgust which had
prompted the last outbreak were perfectly natural, but they were, as it
happened, not quite warranted.

"In the first place," she said, "I think you had better read this note."

Agatha took it from her, and there was light enough left to show that
the blood had crept into her face when she laid it down again.  For
almost a minute she sat very still.

"It is a great relief to know that I was wrong--in one respect, but you
must not think I hated this girl because Gregory had preferred her to
me," she said at length.  "When the first shock had passed, there was
an almost horrible satisfaction in feeling that he had released me--at
any cost.  I suppose I shall always be ashamed of that."

She broke off a moment, and her voice was very quiet when she went on
again.

"Still," she added, "what Sproatly says does not alter the case so very
much after all.  It can't free me of my responsibility.  If I hadn't
driven him, Gregory would not have gone to her."

"You consider that in itself a very dreadful thing?"

Agatha looked at her with suddenly lifted head.  "Of course," she said.
"Can you doubt it?"

Her companion laughed, though there was a little gleam in her eyes, for
this was an opportunity she had been waiting for.

"Then," she said, "you spoke like an Englishwoman--of station--just out
from the Old Country--but I'm going to try to disabuse you of one
impression.  Sally, to put it crudely, is quite good enough for
Gregory.  In fact, if she had been my daughter I'd have kept him away
from her.  To begin with, once you strip Gregory of his little surface
graces, and his clean English intonation, how does he compare with the
men you meet out here?  What does his superiority consist of?  Is he
truer or kinder than you have found most of them to be?  Has he a finer
courage, or a more resolute endurance--a greater capacity for labour,
or a clearer knowledge of the calling by which he makes his living?"

Agatha did not answer.  She could not protest that Gregory possessed
any of these qualities, and her companion went on again.

"Has he even a more handsome person?  I could point to a dozen men
between here and the railroad, whose clean, self-denying life has set a
stamp on them that Gregory will never wear.  To descend to perhaps the
lowest point of all, has he more money?  We know he wasted what he
had--probably in indulgence--and there is a mortgage on his farm.  Has
he any sense of honour?  He let Sally believe he was in love with her
before you even came out here, and of late, while he still claimed you,
he has gone back to her.  Can't you get away from your point of view,
and realise what kind of man he is?"

Agatha turned her head away.  "Ah!" she said, "I realised him--several
months ago.  They were rather painful months to me.  But you are quite
sure he was in love with Sally before I came out?"

"Well," said Mrs. Hastings, "his conduct suggested it."  Then she laid
a caressing hand on the girl's shoulder.  "You tried to keep faith with
him.  Tried desperately, I think.  Did you succeed?"

Agatha contrived to meet her companion's eyes.  "At least, I would have
married him."

"Then," said Mrs. Hastings, "I can forgive Gregory even his treachery,
and you have no cause to pity him.  Sally's simple--primitive, you
would call her--but she's clever and capable in all practical things,
She will bear with Gregory when you would turn from him in dismay, and
when it's necessary she will not shrink from putting a little judicious
pressure on him in a way you could not have done.  It may sound
incomprehensible, but that girl will lead or drive Gregory very much
further than he could have gone with you.  She doesn't regard him as
perfection, but she loves him."

She broke off, and there was for several minutes a tense silence in the
little shadowy room.  It had grown almost dark, and the square of the
window glimmered faintly with the dim light flung up by the snow.

Then Agatha turned slowly in her chair.  "Thank you," she said in a low
voice.  "You have taken a heavy weight off my mind."

She paused a moment, and then added, "You have been a good friend all
along.  It was supreme good fortune that placed me in your hands."

Mrs. Hastings patted her shoulder, and then went out quietly, and
Agatha lay still in her chair beside the stove.  It snapped and
crackled cheerfully, but save for that there was a restful quietness,
and the room was cosily warm, though she could hear a little icy wind
wail about the building.  It swept her thoughts away to the frozen
North, and she realised what it had cost her to keep faith with Gregory
as she pictured a little snow-sheeted schooner hemmed in among the
floes, and two or three worn-out men hauling a sled painfully over the
ridged and furrowed ice.  The man who had gone up into that great
desolation had been endued with an almost fantastic sense of honour,
and now he might never even know that she loved him.  She admitted that
she had loved him several months ago.



CHAPTER XXIII.

THROUGH THE SNOW.

Next morning, the mail-carrier, who drove up to the homestead
half-frozen and white all over out of a haze of falling snow, brought
Agatha a note from Gregory.  It was brief, and she read it with a smile
of half-amused contempt, though she admitted that, considering
everything, he had handled the somewhat embarrassing situation
gracefully.  This, however, was only what she had expected of him, and
she recognised that it was equally characteristic of the man that he
had written releasing her from her engagement instead of coming
himself.  Gregory, as she realised now, had always taken the easiest
way, and it was evident that he had not even the courage to face her.
She quietly dropped his note--it did not seem worth while to fling
it--into the stove.

She could forgive him for choosing Sally.  Though she was very human in
most respects, that scarcely troubled her, but she could not forgive
him for persisting in his claim to her while he was philandering--and
this seemed the most fitting term--with her rival.  Had he only been
honest, she would not have let Wyllard go away without some assurance
of her regard which would have cheered him on his perilous journey, and
it was clear to her that he might never come back again.  Her face grew
hard when she thought of it, and she had thought of it of late very
frequently.  For that, at least, she felt she almost hated Gregory.

A month passed drearily, with Arctic frost outside on the prairie, and
little to do inside the homestead except to cook and gorge the stove,
and endeavour to keep warmth in one.  Water froze solid inside the
building, stinging draughts crept in through the double windows, and
there were evenings when Mrs. Hastings and Agatha, shivering close
beside the stove, waited anxiously for the first sign of Hastings and
the hired man, who were bringing back a sled loaded with birch logs
from a neighbouring bluff.  It was only a couple of miles away, but men
sent out to cut fuel in the awful cold snaps in that country have now
and then sunk down in the snow with the life frozen out of them.  There
were other days when the wooden building seemed to rock beneath the
buffeting of the icy hurricane, and it was a perilous matter to cross
the narrow open space between it and the stables through the haze of
shirling snow.

The weather, however, moderated a little by and bye, and one afternoon
soon after it did so Mrs. Hastings drove off to Lander's with the one
hired man they kept through the winter.  Her husband, who insisted upon
her taking him, had set out earlier for the bluff, and as the
Scandinavian maid had recently been married, Agatha was left in the
house with the little girls.

It was bitterly cold, even inside the dwelling, but Agatha was busy
baking, and she failed to notice that the frost had once more become
almost Arctic, until she stood beside a window as evening was closing
in.  A low, dingy sky hung over the narrowing sweep of prairie which
stretched back, gleaming lividly, into the creeping dusk, but a few
minutes later a haze of snow whirled across it and cut the dreary scene
in half.  Then the light died out suddenly, and she and the little
girls drew their chairs close up to the stove.  The house was very
quiet, but she could hear the mournful wailing of the wind about it,
and now and then the soft swish of driven snow upon the walls and
roofing shingles.

The table was laid for supper, and a kettle was singing cheerfully upon
the stove, but there was no sign of the others, and by and bye Agatha
commenced to feel a little anxious.  Mrs. Hastings, she fancied, would
stay the night at Lander's if there was any unfavourable change in the
weather, which seemed to be the case, but she wondered what could be
detaining Hastings.  It was not very far to the bluff, and as he could
not have continued chopping in the darkness it seemed to her that he
should have reached the homestead already.

He did not come, however, and she grew more uneasy as the time slipped
by, while the wail of the wind grew louder and the stove crackled more
noisily, until at last one of the little girls rose with a cry, and she
fancied she heard a dull beat of hoofs.  It grew plainer until she was
sure of it, but soon after that the sound ceased abruptly, and she
could not hear the rattle of flung down logs which she had expected.
This struck her as curious, since she knew that Hastings generally
unloaded the sled before he led the team to the stable.  She waited a
moment or two, but except for the doleful wind nothing broke the
silence now, and when it became oppressive she moved towards the door.

The wind tore it from her grasp when she opened it, and flung it
against the wall with a jarring crash, while a fine powder that stung
the skin unbearably drove into her face.  For a few moments she could
see nothing but a filmy, whirling haze, and then, as her eyes became
accustomed to the change of light, she dimly made out the blurred white
figures of the horses standing still, with the load of birch logs
rising a shapeless mass behind them.  There seemed to be nobody with
them, and though she twice called sharply no answer came out of the
sliding snow.  Then she recognised the significant fact that the team
had come home alone.

It was difficult to close the door, and before she accomplished it her
hands had stiffened and grown almost useless, and the hall was strewn
with snow, but it was very evident that there was something for her to
do.  It cost her three or four minutes to slip on a blanket skirt, and
soft hide moccasins, with gum boots over them, and then, muffled
shapeless in her furs, she reassured the little girls, and opened the
door again.  When she had contrived to close it, the cold struck
through her to the bone as she floundered towards the team.  There was
nobody she could look to for assistance, but that could not be helped,
and it was evident to her that some misfortune had befallen Hastings.

The first thing necessary was to unload the sled, and, though the
birches seldom grow to any size in a prairie bluff, some of the logs
were heavy.  She was gasping with the effort when she had flung a few
of them down, after which she discovered that the rest were held up by
one or two stout poles let into sockets.  Try as she would, she could
not get them out, and then she remembered that Hastings kept a whipsaw
in a shed close by.  She contrived to find it, and attacked the poles
in breathless haste, working clumsily with mittened hands, until there
was a crash and rattle as she sprang clear.  Then she started the team,
and the rest of the logs rolled off into the snow.

That was one difficulty overcome, but the next appeared more serious.
She must find the bluff as soon as possible, and in the snow-filled
darkness she could not tell where it lay.  Even if she could have seen
anything of the kind, there was no landmark on the desolate level waste
between it and the homestead.  She, however, remembered that she had
one guide.  Hastings and his hired man had of late hauled a good many
loads of birch logs in, and as this had made a worn-out trail it seemed
to her just possible that she might trace it back to the bluff.  No
great weight of snow had fallen as yet.

Before she set out she had a struggle with the team, for the beasts had
evidently no intention of making another journey if they could help it,
but at length she swung them into the narrow riband of trail, and
plodded away into the darkness at their heads.  It was then she first
clearly realised what she had undertaken.  Very little of her face was
left bare between her fur-cap and collar, but every inch of uncovered
skin tingled as though it had been lashed with thorns or stabbed with
innumerable needles.  The air was thick with a fine powder that filled
her eyes and nostrils, the wind buffeted her, and there was an awful
cold--the cold that taxes the utmost strength of mind and body of those
who are forced to face it on the shelterless prairie.

Still she struggled on, feeling with half-frozen feet for the
depression of the trail, and grappling with a horrible dismay when she
failed to find it for moments together.  Indeed, she was never sure to
what extent she guided the team, and how far they headed for the bluff
from mere force of habit, but as the time went by, and there was
nothing before her but the whirling snow, she grew feverishly
apprehensive.  The trail was becoming fainter and fainter, and now and
then she could find no trace of it for several minutes.

The horses, however, floundered on, blurred shapes as white as the haze
they crept through, and at length she felt that they were dipping into
a hollow.  Then a faint sense of comfort crept into her heart as she
remembered that a shallow ravine which seamed the prairie ran through
the bluff.  She called out, and started at the faintness of her voice.
It seemed such a pitifully feeble thing.  There was no answer, nothing
but the soft fall of the horses' hoofs and the wail of the wind, but
the latter was reassuring, for the volume of sound suggested that it
was driving through a bluff close by.

A few minutes later she cried out again, and this time she felt the
throbbing of her heart, for a faint sound came out of the whirling
haze.  She pulled the horses up, and as she stood still listening, a
blurred object appeared almost in front of them.  It shambled forward
in a curious manner, stopped, and moved again, and in another moment or
two Hastings lurched by her with a stagger and sank down into a huddled
white heap on the sled.  She turned back towards him, and he seemed to
look up at her.

[Illustration: "It shambled forward in a curious manner."]

"Turn the team," he said.

Agatha did it, and sat down beside him when the horses moved on again.

"A small birch I was chopping fell on me," he said.  "I don't know if
it smashed my ankle, or if I twisted it wriggling clear--the thing
pinned me down.  It's badly nipped, any way."

He spoke disconnectedly and hoarsely, as if in pain, and Agatha, who
noticed that one of his gum boots was almost ripped to pieces, realised
part of what he must have felt.  She knew that nobody held fast
helpless could have withstood that cold for more than a very little
while.

"Oh," she said, "it must have been dreadful!"

"I found a branch," Hastings added.  "It helped me, but I fell over
every now and then.  Headed for the homestead.  Don't think I could
have made it if you hadn't come for me."  He broke off abruptly, and
turned to her.  "You mustn't sit down.  Walk--keep warm--but don't try
to lead the team."

Agatha struggled forward as far as the near horse's shoulder.  The
beasts slightly sheltered her, and it was a little easier walking with
a hand upon a trace.  It was a relief to cling to something, for the
wind that flung the snow into her face drove her garments against her
limbs, so that now and then she could scarcely move.  Indeed, when her
strength commenced to flag, every yard of that journey was made with
infinite pain and difficulty.  At times she could scarcely see the
horses, and again she stumbled along beside them for minutes, blinded,
breathless, and half-dazed.  She did not know how Hastings was faring,
but she half-consciously recognised that if once she let the trace go
the sled would slip away from her and she would sink down to freeze.

At length, however, a dim mass crept out of the white haze ahead, and a
moment later a man laid hold of her.  He told her that Mrs. Hastings
was with him, and that the homestead was close at hand.  Agatha learned
afterwards that they had reached it a little earlier, and had
immediately set out in search of her and Hastings.  In the meanwhile
she floundered on beside the horses with another team dimly visible in
front of her until a faint ray of light streamed out into the snow.
Then the teams stopped, and she had only a hazy recollection of
staggering into a lighted room in the homestead and sinking into a
chair.  What they did with Hastings she did not know, but by and bye
his wife who went with her to her room kissed her before she went out
again.

Nobody could have faced the snow next morning, and it was some days
later when Watson, who had attended Hawtrey after his accident, was
brought over.  He did what he could, but it was several weeks before
Hastings could use his injured foot again.  Before he recovered news
was sent him of some difficulty in the affairs of a small creamery at a
settlement further along the line, in which he and his wife held an
interest, and Mrs. Hastings went East to make inquiries respecting it.
She took Agatha with her, and one evening after she had finished the
business she had in hand they left a little way station by the Pacific
train.

The car they entered was empty except for two people who sat close
together near the middle of it.  A big lamp overhead shed down a
brilliant light, and Agatha started when one of the two looked round as
she approached them.  In another moment she stood face to face with
Hawtrey, who had risen, while Sally gazed up at her with a rather
curious expression in her eyes.  Agatha, however, was perfectly
composed now, and felt no sympathy with Hawtrey, who was visibly
confused.  She was not astonished that he found the situation a
somewhat difficult one.

"You have been to Winnipeg?" she said.

"No," said Hawtrey, with evident relief that she had chosen a safe
topic, "only to Brandon.  Sally has some friends there, and she spends
a day or two with them once or twice each winter.  Brandon's quite a
lively place after the prairie.  I went in last night to bring her
back."  He turned to his companion.  "I think you have met Miss Ismay?"

Agatha was conscious that Sally's eyes were fixed upon her, and that
Mrs. Hastings was watching them all with quiet amusement, but she was a
little astonished when the girl suggestively moved some wraps from the
seat opposite her.

"Yes," she said, "I have.  If Miss Ismay doesn't mind, I should like to
talk to her."

Hawtrey's relief was evident, and Agatha glanced at him with a smile
that was half-contemptuous.  He had carefully kept out of her way since
he had written her the note, and now it seemed only natural that if
there was anything to be said he should leave it to Sally.

"I think I'll go along for a smoke," he said, and retired precipitately.

Mrs. Hastings looked after him, and laughed in a manner at which Sally
seemed to wince.

"He doesn't seem anxious to talk to me," she said.  "You can come along
to the next car by and bye, Agatha."

Then she moved away, and Agatha who sat down opposite Sally looked at
her quietly.

"Well?" she said.

Sally made a little deprecatory gesture, "I've something to say, but
it's hard.  To begin with, are you very angry with me?"

"No," said Agatha.  "I think I really am a little angry with Gregory,
but not altogether because he chose you."

Sally seemed to consider this for a moment or two before she looked up
again.

"Well," she said, "not long ago, I wanted to hate you, and I guess I
most succeeded.  It made things easier.  Still, I want to say that I
don't hate you now." She hesitated a moment.  "I'd like you to forgive
me."

Agatha smiled.  "In most respects I can do that willingly."

Sally seemed disconcerted by her quiet ease of manner and perfect
candour.  It was evidently not quite what she had looked for.

"Then you were never very fond of him?" she suggested.

"No," said Agatha reflectively, "since you have compelled me to say it,
I don't think now that I ever was really fond of him, though I don't
know how I can make that quite clear to you.  It was only when I came
out here I--realised--Gregory.  It was not the actual man I fell in
love with in England."

Sally turned her face away, for Agatha had, as it happened, made her
meaning perfectly plain.  Somewhat to the latter's astonishment, she
showed no sign of resentment when she looked round again.

"Then," she said, "it is way better that you didn't marry him."  She
paused, and seemed to search for words to express herself with.  "I
knew all along all there was to know about Gregory--except that he was
going to marry you, and it was some time before I heard that--and I was
ready to take him.  I was fond of him."

Agatha's heart went out to her.  "Yes," she said simply, "it is a very
good thing that I let him go."  Then she smiled.  "That, however,
doesn't quite describe it, Sally."

Her companion flushed.  "I couldn't have said that, but you don't quite
understand yet.  I said I knew all there was to know about him--and you
never did.  You made too much of him in England, and when you came out
here you only saw the things you didn't like in him.  Still, they
weren't the only ones."

Agatha started at this, for she realised that part of it was certainly
true, and she could admit the possibility of the rest being equally
correct.  After all, Gregory might possess a few good qualities that
she had never discovered.

"Perhaps I did," she admitted.  "I don't think it matters now."

"They're all of them mixed," persisted Sally.  "One can't expect too
much, but you can bear with a good deal when you're fond of any one."

Agatha sat silent awhile, for she was troubled by a certain sense of
probably wholesome confusion.  It seemed to her that Sally had the
clearer vision.  Love had given her discernment as well as charity,
and, not expecting perfection, it was the man's strong points she fixed
her eyes upon.

"Yes," she said at length, "I am glad you look at it that way, Sally."

The girl laughed.  "Oh!" she said, "I've only seen one man on the
prairie who was quite white all through, and I had a kind of notion
that he was fond of you."

Agatha sat very still, but it cost her an effort.

"You mean?" she said at length.

"Harry Wyllard."

Agatha made no answer, and Sally changed the subject, "Well," she said,
"after all, I want you to be friends with me."

"I think you can count on that," said Agatha with a smile, and in
another minute or two she rose to rejoin Mrs. Hastings.



CHAPTER XXIV.

THE LANDING.

The ice among the inlets on the American side of the North Pacific
broke up unusually early when spring came round again, and several
weeks before Wyllard had expected it the _Selache_ floated clear.  Her
crew had suffered little during the bitter winter, for Dampier had kept
them busy splicing gear and patching sails, and they had fitted her
with a new mainmast hewn out of a small cedar.  None of them had been
trained as carpenters, but men who keep the sea for months in small
vessels are necessarily handy at repairs, and they had all used axe and
saw to some purpose in their time.  In any case, Wyllard was satisfied
when they thrashed the _Selache_ out of the inlet under whole mainsail
in a fresh breeze, and when evening came he sat smoking near the wheel
in a contemplative mood as the climbing forests and snow-clad heights
dropped back astern.

He wondered what his friends were doing upon the prairie, and whether
Agatha had married Gregory yet.  It seemed to him that this was, at
least, possible, for she was one to keep a promise, and it was
difficult to believe that Gregory would fail to press his claim.  His
face grew grim as he thought of it, though this was a thing he had done
more or less constantly during the winter.  He fancied that he might
have ousted Gregory if he had remained at the Range, for Agatha had,
perhaps unconsciously, shown him that she was, at least, not quite
indifferent to him, but that would have been to involve her in a breach
of faith which she would probably have always looked back on with
regret, and in any case he could not have stayed.  He knew he would
never forget her, but it was, he admitted, not impossible that she
might forget him.  He also realised, though this was not by comparison
a matter of great consequence, that the Range was scarcely likely to
prosper under Gregory's management, but that could not be helped, and
after all he owed Gregory something.  It never occurred to him that he
was doing an extravagant thing in setting out upon the search he had
undertaken.  He only felt that the obligation was laid upon him, and,
being what he was, he could not shrink from it.

A puff of spray that blew into his face disturbed his meditations, and
when by and bye a little tumbling sea splashed in over the weather bow,
he rose and helped the others to haul a reef in the mainsail down.
That accomplished, he went below and lugged out a well-worn chart,
while the _Selache_ drove away to the westwards over a white-flecked
sea.  This time she carried fresh southerly breezes with her most of
the way across the Pacific, and plunged along hove down under the last
rag they dare set upon her with the big combers surging up abeam, until
at length they ran into the clammy fog close in with the Kamtchatkan
beaches.  Then the wind dropped, and they were baffled by light and
fitful airs, while it became evident that there was ice about.

The day they saw the first big mass of it gleaming broad across their
course on a raw green sea, Dampier got an observation, and they held a
brief council in the little cabin that evening.  The schooner was hove
to then, and lay rolling with banging blocks and thrashing canvas on a
sluggish heave of sea.

"Thirty miles off shore," said Dampier.  "If it had been clear enough
we'd have seen the top of the big range quite a way further out to sea.
Now, it's drift ice ahead of us, but it's quite likely there's a solid
block along the beach.  Winter holds on a long while in this country.
I guess you're for pushing on as fast as you can?"

Wyllard nodded.  "Of course," he said, "you'll look for an opening, and
work her in as far as possible.  Then, if it's necessary, Charly and I
and another man will take the sled and head for the beach across the
ice.  If there's a lane anywhere I would, however, probably take the
smallest boat.  We might haul her a league or two, anyway, on the sled
if the ice wasn't very rough."

He looked at Charly, who made a little sign.

"Well," he said simply, "I guess I'll have to see you through.  Now
we've made a sled for her I'd take the boat, anyway.  We're quite
likely to strike a big streak of water when the ice is breaking up."

"There's one other course," said Dampier; "the sensible one, and that's
to wait until it has gone altogether.  Seems to me I ought to mention
it, though it's not likely to appeal to you."

Wyllard laughed.  "From all appearances we might wait a month.  I don't
want to stay up here any longer than is strictly necessary."

"You'll head north?"

"That's my intention."

"Then," said Dampier, pointing to the chart before them, "as you should
make the beach in the next day or two I'll head for the inlet here.  As
it's not very far you won't have to pack so many provisions along, and
I'll give you, say, three weeks to turn up in.  If you don't, I'll
figure that there's something wrong, and do what seems advisable."

They agreed to that, and when next morning a little breeze came out of
the creeping haze, they sailed her slowly shorewards among the drifting
ice until, at nightfall, an apparently impenetrable barrier stretched
gleaming faintly ahead of them.  Wyllard retired soon afterwards, and
slept soundly.  All his preparations had been made during the winter,
and when at length morning broke he breakfasted before he went out on
deck.  The boat was already packed with provisions, sleeping-bags, a
tent, and two light sled frames, on one of which it seemed possible
that they might haul her a few miles.  She was very light and small,
and had been built for such a purpose as they had in view.

In the meanwhile the schooner lay to with backed forestaysail, tumbling
wildly on a dim, grey sea.  Half a mile away the ice ran back into a
dingy haze, and there was a low, grey sky to weather.  Now and then a
fine sprinkle of snow slid across the water before a nipping breeze.
As Wyllard glanced to windward Dampier strode up to him.

"I guess you'd better put it off," he said.  "I don't like the weather;
we'll have wind before long."

Wyllard only smiled, and Dampier made a little gesture.

"Then," he said, "I'd get on to the ice just as soon as you can.
You're still quite a way off the beach."

Wyllard shook hands with him.  "We should make the inlet in about nine
days, and if I don't turn up in three weeks you'll know there's
something wrong.  If there's no sign of me in another week you can take
her home again."

Then Dampier, who said nothing further, bade them swing the boat over,
and when she lay heaving beneath the rail Wyllard and Charly and one
Indian dropped into her.  It was only a preliminary search they were
about to engage in, for they had decided that if they found nothing
they would afterwards push further north or inland when they had
supplied themselves with fresh stores from the schooner.

They gazed at her with somewhat grim faces as they pulled away, and
Wyllard, who loosed his oar a moment to wave his fur cap when Dampier
stood upon her rail, was glad when a fresher rush of the bitter breeze
forced him to fix his attention on his task.  The boat was heavily
loaded, and the tops of the grey seas splashed unpleasantly close about
her gunwale.  She was running before them, rising sharply, and dropping
down out of sight of all but the schooner's canvas into the hollows,
and though this made rowing easier he was apprehensive of difficulties
when he reached the ice.

His misgivings proved warranted as they closed with it, for it
presented an almost unbroken wall against the face of which the sea
spouted and fell in frothy wisps.  There was no doubt as to what would
happen if the frail craft was hurled upon that frozen mass, and
Wyllard, who was sculling, fancied that before she could even reach it
there was a probability of her being swamped in the upheaval where the
backwash met the oncoming sea.  Charly looked at him dubiously.

"It's a sure thing we can't get out there," he said.

Wyllard nodded.  "Then," he said, "we'll pull along the edge of it
until we find an opening or something to make a lee.  The sea's higher
than it seemed to be from the schooner."

"We've got to do it soon," said Charly.  "There's more wind not far
away."

Wyllard dipped his oar again, and they pulled along the edge of the ice
for an hour cautiously, for there were now little frothing white tops
on the seas.

It was evident that the wind was freshening, and at times a deluge of
icy water slopped in over the gunwale.  The men were further hampered
by their furs, and the stores among their feet, and the perspiration
dripped from Wyllard when they approached a ragged, jutting point.  It
did not seem advisable to attempt a landing on that side of it, and
when a little snow commenced to fall he looked at his companions.

"I guess we've got to pull her out," said Charly.  "Dampier's heaving a
reef down; he sees what's working up to windward."

Wyllard could just make out the schooner, which had apparently followed
them, a blurr of dusky canvas against a bank of haze, and then, as the
boat slid down into a hollow, there was nothing but the low-hung,
lowering sky.  It was evident to him that if they were to make a
landing it must be done promptly.

"We'll pull round the point first, anyway," he said.

A shower of fine snow that blotted out the schooner broke upon them as
they did it, and the work was arduous.  They were pulling to windward
now, and it was necessary to watch the seas that ranged up ahead and
handle her circumspectly while the freshening breeze blew the spray all
over them.  They had to fight for every fathom, and once or twice she
nearly rolled over with them, while the icy water grew steadily deeper
inside her.  Then it became apparent by degrees that, as they could not
have reached the schooner had they attempted it, they were pulling for
their lives, and that the one way of escape open to them was to find an
opening of some kind round the point.  Its ragged tongue was horribly
close to lee of them lapped in a foaming wash when the snow cleared for
a minute or two, and they saw that Dampier had driven the _Selache_
further off the ice.  She was hove to now, and there was a black figure
high up in her shrouds.

Just then, however, a bitter rush of wind hurled the spray about them,
and the boat fell off almost beam on to the sea, in spite of all that
they could do.  The icy brine washed into her, and it seemed almost
certain that she would swamp or roll over before they could get way on
her.  Still, pulling desperately, they drove her round the point.
Then, as gasping and dripping they made their last effort, a sea rolled
up ahead, and Wyllard had a momentary glimpse of an opening not far
away as she swung up with it.  He shouted to his companions, but could
not tell whether they heard and understood him, for after that he was
only conscious of sculling savagely until another sea broke into her
and she struck.  There was a crash, and she swung clear with the
backwash, with all one side smashed in.  Then she swung in again just
beyond a tongue of ice over which the froth was pouring tumultuously,
and the Indian jumped from the bow.  He had the painter with him, and
for half a minute he held her somehow, standing in the foam, while they
hurled a few of the carefully made-up packages in her as far on to the
ice as possible.  Then, as Wyllard, who seized one sled frame, jumped,
she rolled over.  He landed on his hands and knees, but in another
moment he was on his feet, and he and the Indian clutched at Charly,
who drove towards them amidst a long wash of foam.

They dragged him clear, and as he stood up dripping without his cap a
sudden haze of snow whirled about them.  There was no sign of the
schooner, and they could scarcely see the broken ice some sixty yards
away.  They had made the landing, wet through, with about half their
stores, and it was evident that their boat would not carry them across
the narrowest lane of water, even if they could have recovered her,
which it scarcely seemed worth while to attempt.  The sea rumbled along
the edge of the ice, and they could not tell if the latter extended as
far as the beach.  They looked at one another until Wyllard spoke.

"We have got the hand-sled, and some, at least, of the things," he
said.  "The sooner we start for the beach the sooner we'll get there."

It was a relief to load the sled, and when that was done they set off
in the hide traces across the ice with the snow whirling about them.
It was arduous work apart from the hauling of the load, for the ice was
rough and broken, and covered for the most part with softening snow.
They had only gum-boots with soft hide moccasins under them, for
snow-shoes are only used in Eastern Canada, and it takes one a long
while to learn to walk on them.  Sometimes they sank almost knee-deep,
sometimes they slipped and scrambled on uncovered ledges, but they
pushed on with the sled bouncing and sliding unevenly behind them until
the afternoon had almost gone.

Then they set up the saturated tent behind a hummock, and crouched
inside it upon a ground sheet while Charly boiled a kettle on the
little oil blast stove, and the wind that screamed about it hurled the
snow upon the straining canvas.  It, however, stood the buffeting, and
when they had eaten a very simple meal Charly put the stove out and the
darkness was only broken down when one of them struck a match to light
his pipe.  They had only a strip of rubber sheeting between them and
the snow, for the water had got into the sleeping bags, and their
clothes dried upon them with the heat of their bodies.  They said
nothing for awhile, and Wyllard was half-asleep when Charly spoke.

"I've been thinking about that boat," he said.  "Though I don't know
that we could have done it, we ought to have tried to pull her out."

"Why?" asked Wyllard.  "She'd have been all to pieces, anyway."

"I'm figuring it out like this.  If Dampier wasn't up in the shrouds
when we made the landing he'd sent somebody.  We could see him up
against the sky, but we'd be much less clear to him low down with the
ice and the surf about us.  Besides, it was snowing quite fast then.
Well, I don't know what Dampier saw, but I guess he'd have made out
that we hadn't hauled the boat up, anyway.  The trouble is that with
the wind freshening and it getting thick he'd have to thrash the
schooner out and lie to until it cleared.  When he runs in again it's
quite likely that he'll find the boat and an oar or two.  Seems to me
that's going to worry him considerable."

Wyllard, drowsy as he was getting, agreed with this view of the matter.
He realised that it would have been quite impossible for Dampier to
have sent them any assistance, and it was merely a question whether
they should retrace their steps to the edge of the ice next morning and
make him some signal.  Against this there was the strong probability
that he would not run in if the gale and snow continued, and the fact
that it was desirable to make the beach as soon as possible in case the
ice broke up before they reached it.  What was rather more to the
purpose, he was quietly determined on pushing on.

"It can't be helped," he said simply.  "We'll start for the beach as
soon as it's daylight."

Charly made no answer, and the brawny, dark-skinned Siwash, who spoke
English reasonably well, only grunted.  Unless it seemed necessary, he
seldom said anything at all.  Bred to the sea, and living on the seal
and salmon, as he had done, an additional hazard or two or an extra
strain on his tough body did not count for much with him.  He had been
accustomed to sleep wet through with icy water, and crouch for hours
with numbed hands clenched on the steering-paddle while the long sea
canoe scudded furiously over the big combers before bitter gale or
driving snow.  Wyllard, who rolled over, pulled a wet sleeping-bag
across him, and after that there was silence in the little rocking tent.

In the meanwhile, Charly's deductions had been proved correct, for when
the breeze freshened Dampier climbed into the shrouds.  He had noticed
the ominous blackness to windward, and knew what it meant, which was
why he had hauled a reef in the schooner's mainsail down, and now kept
her out a little from the ice.  As the light faded he found it very
difficult to see the boat against the white wash of the seas that
recoiled from the ice, but when the snow was whirling about him he
decided that she was in some peril unless her crew could pull her round
the point.  It was evident that this would be a difficult matter,
though he had only an occasional glimpse of her now.  He waved an arm
to the helmsman, who understood that he was to run the schooner in;
there was a rattle of blocks as the booms swung out, and as the
_Selache_ sped away before the rapidly freshening breeze it seemed to
Dampier that he saw the boat hurled upon the ice.  Then a blinding haze
of snow shut out everything, and he came down with a run.

He stood for several minutes gazing forward grim in face beside the
wheel, but he could see nothing except the filmy whiteness and the tops
of the seas that had steadily been getting steeper.  The schooner was
driving furiously down upon the ice, but it was evident to him that to
send Wyllard any assistance was utterly beyond his power.  He could
have hove the schooner to while he got the bigger boat over, and two
men might have pulled her towards the ice with the breeze astern of
them, but it was perfectly clear that they could neither have made a
landing nor have pulled her back again.  It was also, though this
appeared of less consequence, uncertain whether he and the other man
could have brought the schooner round or have got more sail off her,
which would, as he recognised, very soon have to be done.  Still, he
stood on while the snow grew thicker until they heard the wash of the
sea upon the ice close to lee of them, and then it was a hard-clenched
hand he raised in sign to the helmsman.

"On the wind.  Haul lee sheets!" he said.

She came round a little, heading off the ice, and when she drove away
with the foam seething white beneath one depressed rail and the spray
whirling high about her plunging bows, there was a curious tense look
in the white men's faces as they gazed into the thickening white haze
to lee of her.

They thrashed her out until Dampier decided that there was sufficient
water between him and the ice, and then stripped most of the sail off
her, and she lay to until next morning, when they once more got sail on
her and ran in again.  The breeze had fallen a little, it was rather
clearer, and they picked up the point, though it had somewhat changed
its shape.  Then they got a boat over, and the two men who went off in
her found a few broken planks, a couple of oars, and Charly's cap
washing up and down in the surf.  They had very little doubt as to what
that meant.



CHAPTER XXV.

NEWS OF DISASTER.

When the boat reached the schooner Dampier went off with one of the
men, and contrived to make a landing on the ice with difficulty only to
find it covered with a trackless sheet of slushy snow.  Though he
floundered shorewards a mile or two there was nothing except the
shattered boat to suggest what had befallen Wyllard and his companions,
but the skipper, who retraced his steps with a heavy heart, had little
doubt in his mind.  After that he waited two days, until a strong
breeze blew him off the ice, which was rapidly breaking up, and then
stood out for open water, where he hove the _Selache_ to for a week or
so.  Then he proceeded northwards to the inlet fixed upon.

He was convinced that this was useless, but as the opening was almost
clear of ice he sailed the schooner in, and spent a week or two
scouring the surrounding country.  He found it a desolation, still
partly covered with slushy snow, out of which ridges of volcanic rock
rose here and there.  On two of these spots a couple of days' march
from the schooner, he made a depôt of provisions, and raised a beacon
of piled-up stones beside them.  At times when it was clear he could
see the top of a great range high up against the Western sky, but those
times were rare.  For the most part, the wilderness was swept by rain
or wrapped in clammy fog.

There was, however, no sign of Wyllard, and at length Dampier, coming
back jaded and dejected from another fruitless search, after the time
agreed upon had expired, shut himself up alone for a couple of hours in
the little cabin.  He was certain now that Wyllard and his companions
had been drowned while attempting to make a landing on the ice, since
they would have joined him at the inlet as arranged had this not been
the case.  The distance was by no means great, and there were no
Russian settlements on that part of the coast.  He sat very still, with
a clenched hand upon the little table, and a set face, balancing
conjecture against conjecture, and then regretfully decided that there
was only one course open to him.  It was dark when he went up on deck
again, but the men were sitting smoking about the windlass forward.

"You can heave some of that cable in, boys," he said.  "We'll clear out
for Vancouver at sun-up."

They said nothing, but they shipped the levers, and Dampier went back
to the cabin, for the clank of the windlass and the ringing of the
cable jarred upon him.

Early next morning the _Selache_ stood out to sea, and once they had
left the fog and rain which hung about the coast behind, she carried
fine weather with her across the Pacific.  On reaching Vancouver,
Dampier had some trouble with the authorities, to whom it was necessary
to report the drowning of three of his crew, but he was more fortunate
than he expected, and after placing the schooner in the hands of a
broker for sale, he left the city one evening on the Atlantic train.
Three days later, he was driving across the prairie towards the
Hastings homestead, and, as it happened, its inmates were sitting
together in the big general room after supper, when the waggon he had
hired swung into sight over the crest of a rise.

It was a still, hot evening, and as the windows were open wide a faint
beat of hoofs came up across the tall wheat and dusty prairie before
the waggon topped the rise.  Hastings, who lay in a cane chair near the
window, with his pipe in his hand, looked up as he heard it.

"Somebody driving in," he said.  "I shouldn't be astonished if it's
Gregory.  He talked about coming over the last time I saw him."

"If he wants to talk about a deal in wheat, he can stay away," said
Mrs. Hastings with a certain dryness.  "If all one hears is true, he
has lost quite a few of Harry's dollars on the market lately."

Hastings looked somewhat troubled at this.  "I'd sooner think it was
his own dollars he'd thrown away."

"That's quite out of the question.  He hasn't any."

"Well," said Hastings, with an air of reflection, "I'll get Sproatly to
make inquiries.  He'll probably be along with Winifred this evening,
and if he finds that Gregory is getting in rather deep I'll have a word
or two with him.  Anyway, I can't have him wasting Harry's money, and I
have some right to protest as one of the executors."

Agatha started at the last word.  It had an ominous ring, and she
fancied that Hastings had noticed the effect it had on her, for he
seemed to glance at her curiously.  Turning from him, she rose and
walked quietly towards the window.

The wheat stretched across the foreground, tall and darkly green, and
beyond it the white grass ran back to the rise, which cut sharp against
a red and smoky glow.  The sun had dipped some little time ago, and
already there was a wonderful exhilarating coolness in the air.
Somehow the sight reminded her of another evening, when she had looked
out across the prairie from a seat at Wyllard's table, almost a year
ago.

In the meanwhile, a waggon was drawing nearer down the long slope of
the rise, and the beat of hoofs which grew steadily louder in a sharp
staccato made the memories clearer.  She had heard Dampier riding in
the night Wyllard had received his summons, and now she wondered who
the approaching stranger was, and what his business could be.  She did
not know why, but she scarcely thought it was Gregory.

Presently Hastings looked round again.  "It's the team Bramfield hires
out at the settlement," he said.  "None of our friends would get him to
drive them in.  There seems to be two men in the waggon.  Bramfield
will be one.  I can't make out the other."

Mrs. Hastings, who was evidently becoming curious about the unexpected
guest, walked forward in turn, and they stood watching the waggon until
Agatha made a little abrupt movement.

"It's Captain Dampier," she said.

Then she stood tensely still, with lips slightly parted, and a strained
look in her eyes, while Hastings gazed at the waggon for another moment
or two.

"Yes," he said, and his voice was harsh, "it's Dampier.  The other
man's surely Bramfield.  Harry's not with him."

Once more he glanced at Agatha, who turned away, and sat down in the
nearest chair.  She said nothing, and there was an oppressive silence,
through which the beat of hoofs and rattle of wheels rang more
distinctly.

In another few minutes Dampier came in, while his companion drove off
to the stables.  He shook hands with Agatha and Mrs. Hastings
diffidently.

"You remember me?" he said.

"Of course," said Mrs. Hastings, with a trace of sharpness.  "Where's
Harry?"

The skipper spread a hard hand out, and sat down heavily.

"That," he said, "is what I have to tell you.  He asked me to."

"He asked you to?" said Agatha, and though her voice was strained there
was relief in it.

The skipper made a little gesture, which seemed to beseech her patience.

"Yes," he said, "if--anything went wrong--he told me I was to come here
to Mrs. Hastings."

Agatha turned her head away, but Mrs. Hastings saw the laces which hung
beneath her neck sharply rise and fall.

"Then," she said, "something has gone wrong?"

"About as wrong as it could," and Dampier quietly met her gaze.
"Wyllard and two other men are drowned."

He broke off abruptly, and Mrs. Hastings fancied she saw Agatha shiver,
but in another moment or two the girl turned slowly round with a drawn
white face.  It was, however, Hastings who spoke, almost sternly.

"Go on," he said.

"I'm to tell you all?"

This time it was Agatha who broke in.

"Yes," she said with a curious quietness that struck the rest as being
strained and unnatural, "you must tell us all."

Dampier, who appeared to shrink from his task, commenced awkwardly, but
he gained coherence and force of expression as he proceeded.  At least,
he made them understand something of the grim resolution which had
animated Wyllard.  He pictured, in terse seaman's words, the little
schooner plunging to windward over long phalanxes of icy seas, or
crawling white with snow through the blinding fog.  His companions saw
the big combers tumbling ready to break short upon the dipping bows out
of the dark, and half-frozen men struggling for dear life with folds of
madly thrashing sail.  The pictures were, however, necessarily somewhat
blurred and hazy, for after all only an epic poet could fittingly
describe the things that must be done and borne at sea, and epic
poets--it is, perhaps, a pity--are not bred in the forecastle.  When he
reached the last scene he gained almost dramatic power, and Agatha's
face grew strangely white and tense.  She saw the dim figures pulling
in the flying spray beneath the wall of ice.

"We ran her in," he added, "with the snow blinding us.  It was working
up for a heavy blow, and as we'd have to beat her out we couldn't take
sail off her.  We stood on until we heard the sea along the edge of the
ice, and then there was nothing to do but jam her on the wind and
thrash her clear.  There was only a plank or two of the boat, an oar,
and Charly's cap, when we came back again!"

"After all, though the boat was smashed, they might have got out,"
Hastings suggested.

"Well," said Dampier simply, "it didn't seem likely.  The ice was sharp
and ragged, and there was a long wash of sea.  A man's not tough enough
to stand much of that kind of hammering."

Agatha's face grew a little whiter, but Dampier, who had paused, went
on again.

"Anyway," he said, "they didn't turn up at the inlet as we'd fixed, and
that decided the thing.  If Wyllard had been alive, he surely would
have done."

"Isn't it just possible that he might have fallen into the hands of the
Russians?" asked Hastings.

"I naturally thought of that, but so far as the chart shows there isn't
a settlement within leagues of the spot.  Besides, supposing the
Russians had got him, how could I have helped him?  They'd have sent
him off in the first place to one of the bigger settlements in the
South, and if the authorities couldn't have connected him with any
illegal sealing they'd no doubt have managed to send him across to
Japan by and bye.  In that case, he'd have got home without any
trouble."

He paused, and it was significant that he turned to Agatha with a
little deprecatory gesture.

"No," he added, "there was nothing I could do."

It was evident that Agatha acquitted him, but she asked a question.

"Captain Dampier," she said, "had you any expectation of finding those
three men when you sailed the second time?"

"No," said the bronzed sailorman, with an impressive quietness, "I
hadn't any, and I don't think Wyllard had either.  Still, he meant to
make quite certain."  He spread a hard hand out forcibly.  "He felt he
had to."

He gazed at Agatha, and saw comprehension in her eyes.

"Yes," she said, "and when you have said that, as you have done, you
could have said very little more of any man."

Then she turned her head away from them, and once more there was for a
few moments a heavy silence in the room.  It cost the girl a painful
effort to sit still, apparently unmoved, but there was strength in her,
and she would not betray her distress.  She felt that the latter must
be quietly grappled with.  It was almost overwhelming, horribly acute,
but there was mingled with it a faint consolatory thrill of pride, for
it was clear that the man who had loved her had done a splendid thing.
He had given all that had been given him--and she knew she would never
forget that phrase of his--willingly, and it seemed to her that the
gifts he had been entrusted with were rare and precious
ones--steadfast, unflinching courage, compassion, and the fine sense of
honour which had sent him out on that forlorn hope.  He had gone down,
unyielding and undismayed--she felt curiously sure of that--amidst the
blinding snow, but this was his vindication which had crowned him with
immortal laurels.

Then Mrs. Hastings rose, and set food before Dampier, while by and bye
Sproatly and Winifred arrived and were told the story.  After that
Dampier, who seemed to be a man of tact, stood up.  He had already,
when asked by Mrs. Hastings, promised to stay with them a day or two.

"Well," he said, "it seems to me you'll naturally want to talk over
things.  If you'll excuse me, I'll take a stroll across the prairie."

He went out, and Hastings who lighted his pipe lay back in his chair
and looked at the rest.

"Harry's friends are numerous, but we're, perhaps, the nearest, and, as
Dampier said, we have to consider things," he said.  "To begin  with,
there's a certain possibility that he has escaped, after all."

He saw the little abrupt movement that Agatha made, and went on rather
more quickly.

"Gregory, of course, has control at the Range until we have proof of
Harry's death, though the latter made a proviso that if there was no
word of the party within eighteen months after he had sailed, or within
six months of the time Dampier had landed him, we could assume it,
after which the will he handed me would take effect," he added.  "This,
it is evident, leaves Gregory in charge for some months yet, but it
seems to me it's our duty to see he doesn't fling away Harry's
property.  I've reasons for believing that he has been doing it lately."

He looked at Sproatly, who sat silent a moment or two.

"I'm rather awkwardly placed," the latter said at length.  "You see,
there's no doubt that I'm indebted to Gregory."

Winifred turned to him with impatience in her eyes.  "Then," she said
severely, "you certainly shouldn't have been, and it ought to be quite
clear that nobody wishes you to do anything that would hurt him."  She
looked at Hastings.  "In case the will takes effect, who does the
property go to?"

Hastings appeared embarrassed.  "That," he objected, "is a thing I'm
not warranted in telling you in the meanwhile."

A suggestive gleam crept into Winifred's eyes, but it vanished and her
manner became authoritative when she turned back to Sproatly.

"Jim," she said, "you will tell Mr. Hastings all you know."

Sproatly made a gesture of resignation.  "After all," he admitted, "I
think it's necessary.  Gregory, as I've told you already, put up a big
mortgage on his place, and in view of the price of wheat and the state
of his crop, it's evident that he must have had some difficulty in
meeting the interest, unless--and one or two things suggest this--he
paid it with Harry's money.  Of course, as Harry gave him a share,
there's no reason why he shouldn't do this so long as he does not
overdraw that share.  There's no doubt, however, that he has lost a
good deal of money on the wheat market."

"Has he lost any of Harry's?" Mrs. Hastings asked.

Sproatly hesitated.  "I'm afraid it's practically certain."

Then Winifred broke in.  "Yes," she said, "he has lost a great deal.
Hamilton knows almost everything that's going on, and I got it out of
him.  He's a friend of Wyllard's, and seems very vexed with Gregory."

The others said nothing for a moment or two, and then Mrs. Hastings
spoke again.

"In a general way," she said, "most of us don't keep much in the bank,
and that expedition must have cost Harry a good deal.  How would
Gregory get hold of the money before harvest?"

"Edmonds, who holds his mortgage, would let him have it," said Sproatly.

"But wouldn't he be afraid of Gregory not being able to pay if the
market went against him?"

Sproatly looked very thoughtful.  "The arrangement Wyllard made with
Gregory would, perhaps, give Edmonds a claim upon the Range if Gregory
borrowed any money in his name.  I almost think that's what he's
scheming for.  The man's cunning enough for anything.  I don't like
him."

Then Hastings stood up with an air of resolution.  "Yes," he said, "I'm
most afraid you're quite correct.  Anyway, I'll drive over in a day or
two and have a talk with Gregory."

After that they separated, for Hastings strolled away to join Dampier,
and Sproatly and Winifred walked out on to the prairie.  When they had
left the house the man turned to his companion.

"Why did you insist upon me telling them what I did?" he asked.

"Oh!" said Winifred, "I had several reasons.  For one thing, when I
first came out feeling very forlorn and friendless, it was Wyllard who
sent me to the elevator, and they really treat me very decently."

"They?" said Sproatly with resentment in his face.  "If you mean
Hamilton, it seems to me that he treats you with an excess of decency
that there's no occasion for."

Winifred laughed.  "In any case, he doesn't drive me out here every two
or three weeks, though"--and she glanced at her companion
provocatively--"he once or twice suggested that he would like to."

"I suppose you pointed out his presumption?"

"No," said Winifred with an air of reflection, "I didn't go quite so
far as that.  After all, the man is my employer; I had to handle him
tactfully."

"He won't be your employer a week after the implement people open their
new depôt," said Sproatly resolutely.  "Anyway, we're getting away from
the subject.  Have you any more reasons for concerning yourself about
what Gregory does with Wyllard's property?"

"I've one; I suppose you don't know who he has left at least a part of
it to?"

Sproatly started as an idea crept into his mind.

"I wonder if you're right?" he said.

"I feel reasonably sure of it," and Winifred smiled.  "In fact, that's
partly why I don't want Gregory to throw any more of Wyllard's money
away.  In the meanwhile, you have done all I expect from you."

"Then Hastings is to go on with the thing?"

"Hastings," Winifred assured him, "will fail--just as you would.  This
is a matter which requires to be handled delicately--and effectively."

"Then who is going to undertake it?"

Winifred laughed.  "Oh," she said, "a woman, naturally.  I'm going back
by and bye to have a word or two with Mrs. Hastings."



CHAPTER XXVI.

THE RESCUE.

Winifred's views were shortly proved correct, for Hastings, who drove
over to the Range a day or two after her visit, came back rather
disturbed in temper after what he described as a very unsatisfactory
interview with Hawtrey.

"I couldn't make the man hear reason," he informed his wife.  "In fact,
he practically told me that the thing was no concern of mine.  I
assured him that it concerned me directly as one of the executors of
Harry's will, and I'm afraid I afterwards indulged in a few
personalities.  I expect that blamed mortgage broker has got a very
strong hold on him."

Mrs. Hastings looked reflective.  "You have never told me anything
about the will."

"If I haven't, it wasn't for want of prompting," said Hastings drily.
"Still, the will was sealed, and handed me by Harry on the express
understanding that it was not to be opened until we had proof that he
was dead or the six months mentioned had expired.  If he turned up it
would, of course, be handed back to him.  He made me promise solemnly
that I would not offer the least hint as to its provisions to anybody."

Mrs. Hastings made a gesture of resignation.  "In that case I suppose I
must be content, but he might have made an exception of--me.  Anyway, I
think I see how we can put what appears to be a little necessary
pressure upon Gregory."  Then she turned again to her husband rather
abruptly.  "After all, is it worth while for me to trouble about the
thing?"

Hastings was taken off his guard.  "Yes," he said decidedly, "if you
can put any pressure on Gregory I guess it would be very desirable to
do it as soon as possible."

"Then you think that Harry may turn up, after all?"

"I do," said Hastings gravely; "I don't know why.  In any case it's
highly desirable--for several reasons--that Gregory shouldn't fling his
property away."

Mrs. Hastings smiled.  "Well," she said, "I'll think over it.  I'll
probably get Agatha to see what she can do in the first place."

She saw a trace of uncertainty in her husband's face, which was,
however, what she had expected.

"As you like," he said.  "Something must be done, but on the whole I'd
rather you didn't trouble Agatha about the matter; it would be wiser."

Mrs. Hastings asked no more questions.  She fancied she understood the
situation, and she had Agatha's interests at heart, for she had grown
very fond of the girl.  There was certainly one slight difficulty in
the way of what she meant to do, but she determined to disregard it,
though she admitted that it might cause Agatha some embarrassment
afterwards.  During the afternoon she found the latter alone, and sat
down beside her.

"My dear," she said, "I wonder if I may ask whether you are quite
convinced that Harry's dead?"

She felt that the question was necessary, though it seemed rather a
cruel one, and she saw signs of tension in the girl's expression.

"No," said the latter very quietly; "I can't quite bring myself to
believe it."

"Then, since you heard what Sproatly said, you would be willing to do
anything that appeared possible to prevent Gregory throwing Harry's
dollars away?"

"Yes," said Agatha, "I have been thinking about it."  A little sparkle
of disdainful anger crept into her eyes.  "Gregory seems to have been
acting shamefully."

"Then as he won't listen to Allen, we must get Sally to impress that
fact on him."

"Sally?" said Agatha in evident astonishment.

Mrs. Hastings smiled.  "I don't think you understand Sally as well as I
do.  Of course, like the rest of us, she falls a long way short of
perfection, and--though it's a difficult subject--there's no doubt that
her conduct in leading Gregory on while he was still engaged to you was
hardly quite correct.  After all, however, you owe her something for
that."

"It isn't very hard to forgive her for it," said Agatha quietly.

"Well, I want you to realise Sally.  Right or wrong, she's fond of the
man.  Of course, I've told you this already, but I must try to make it
clear how that fact bears upon the business in hand.  Sally certainly
fought for him, and there's no doubt that one could find fault with
several things she did; but the point is that she's evidently
determined on making the most of him now she has got him.  In some
respects, at least, she's absolutely straight--one hundred cents to the
dollar is what Allen says of her--and although you might perhaps not
have expected this, I believe it would hurt her horribly to feel that
Gregory was squandering money that didn't strictly belong to him."

"Then you mean to make her understand what he is doing?"

"No," said Mrs. Hastings; "I want you to do it.  I've reasons for
believing that your influence would go further with her than mine.  For
one thing, I fancy she is feeling rather ashamed of herself."

Agatha looked thoughtful.  She had certainly not credited Sally with
possessing any fine sense of honour, but she was willing to accept her
companion's assurance.

"The situation," she pointed out, "is rather a delicate one.  You wish
to expose Gregory's conduct to the girl he is going to marry, though,
as you admit, the explanation will probably be painful to her.  Can't
you understand that the course suggested is a particularly difficult
and repugnant one--to me?"

"I've no doubt of it," said Mrs. Hastings.  "Still, I think it must be
adopted--for several reasons.  In the first place, I fancy that if we
can pull Gregory up now we will save him from involving himself
irretrievably.  After all, perhaps, you owe him the effort.  Then I
think that we all owe something to Harry, and we can, at least,
endeavour to carry his wishes out.  He laid down what was to be done
with his possessions in a will, and he never could have anticipated
Gregory dissipating them as he is doing."

The last reason, as she had foreseen, proved irresistible to Agatha,
and she made a sign of concurrence.

"If you will drive me over I will do what I can," she said.

Now she had succeeded Mrs. Hastings lost no time, and they set out for
the Creightons' homestead next day, while soon after they reached it
she tactfully contrived that Sally should be left alone with Agatha.
They stood outside the house together when the latter turned to her
companion.

"Sally," she said, "there is something that I must tell you."

Sally glanced at her face, and then walked quietly forward until the
log barn hid them from the house.  Then she sat down upon a pile of
straw in its shadow and signed to Agatha that she should take a place
beside her.

"Now," she said sharply, "you can go on; it's about Gregory?"

Agatha, who found it very difficult to begin, though she had been well
primed by Hastings on the previous evening, sat down amidst the straw,
and looked about her for a moment or two.  It was a hot afternoon,
dazzlingly bright, and almost breathlessly still.  In front of her the
dark green wheat rolled waist-high, and beyond it the vast sweep of
whitened grass rolled back to the sky-line flooded with light.  Far
away a team and a waggon slowly moved across it, but that was the only
sign of life, and no sound from the house reached them to break the
heavy stillness.

Then she nerved herself to the effort, and spoke quietly for several
minutes before she glanced at her companion.  It was very evident that
the latter had understood all that she had said, for she sat very still
with a hard, set face.

"Oh!" she said, "if I'd thought you'd come to tell me this because you
were vexed with me, I'd know what to do."

This was what Agatha had dreaded.  It certainly looked as if she had
come to triumph over her rival's humiliation, but Sally made it clear
that she acquitted her of that intention.

"Still," she said, "I know that wasn't the reason, and I'm not mad
with--you.  It hurts"--and she made a little abrupt movement--"but I
know it's true."  Then she turned to Agatha suddenly.  "Why did you do
it?"

"I thought you might save Gregory, if I told you."

[Illustration: "'I thought you might save Gregory, if I told you.'"]

"That was all?" and Sally looked at her with incredulous eyes.

"No," said Agatha simply, "that was only part.  It did not seem right
that Gregory should go against Wyllard's wishes, and gamble the Range
away on the wheat market."

She admitted it without hesitation, for she realised now exactly what
had animated her to seek this painful interview.  She was fighting
Wyllard's battle, and that fact sustained her.

Sally winced.  "Yes," she said, "I guess you had to tell me.  He was
fond of you.  One could be proud of that.  Harry Wyllard never did
anything low down and mean."

Agatha did not resent her candour.  Although this was a thing she would
scarcely have credited a little while ago, she saw that the girl felt
the contrast between her lover's character and that of the man whose
place he had taken, and regretted it.  Then Agatha's eyes grew a trifle
hazy.

"Wyllard, they think, is dead," she said, in a low, strained voice.
"You have Gregory still."

Sally looked at her with unveiled compassion, and Agatha did not shrink
from it.

"Yes," she said, with a simplicity that became her, "and Gregory must
have someone to--take care of him.  I must do it if I can."

There was no doubt that Agatha was stirred.  This half-taught girl's
quiet acceptance of the burden that many women must carry once more
made her almost ashamed.

"We will leave it to you," she said.

Then it became evident that there was another side to Sally's
character, for her manner changed, and the suggestive hardness crept
back into her eyes.

"Well," she said, "I'd most been expecting something of this kind when
I heard that man Edmonds was going to the Range.  He has got a pull on
Gregory, but he's surely not going to feel quite happy when I get hold
of him."

She rose in another moment, and, saying nothing further, walked back
towards the house, in front of which they came upon Mrs. Hastings.
Sally looked at the latter significantly.

"I'm going over to the Range after supper," she said.

Mrs. Hastings drove away with Agatha, and said very little to her
during the journey, but an hour after they had reached the homestead
she slipped quietly into the girl's room, and found her lying in a big
chair, sobbing bitterly.  She sat down close beside her, and laid a
hand upon her shoulder.

"I don't think Sally could have said anything to trouble you like
this," she said.

It was a moment or two before Agatha turned a wet, white face towards
her, and saw gentle sympathy in her eyes.  There was, she felt, no
cause for reticence.

"No," she said, "it was the contrast between us.  She has Gregory."

Mrs. Hastings made a sign of comprehension.  "And you have lost
Harry--but I think you have not lost him altogether.  We do not know
that he is dead--but even if it is so, it was all that was finest in
him he offered you.  It is yours still."

She broke off, and sat silent a moment or two before she went on again.

"My dear, it is, perhaps, cold comfort, and I am not sure that I can
make what I feel quite clear.  Still, Harry was only human, and it is
almost inevitable that, had it all turned out differently, he would
have said and done things that would have offended you.  Now he has
left you a purged and stainless memory--one I think which must come
very near to the reality.  The man who went up there--for an idea, a
fantastic point of honour--sloughed off every taint of the baseness
that hampers most of us in doing it.  It was a man changed and uplifted
above all petty things by a high chivalrous purpose, who made that last
grim journey."

Agatha realised the truth of this.  Already Wyllard's memory had become
etherealised, and she treasured it as a very fine and precious thing.
Still, though he now wore immortal laurels, that would not content her
when all her human nature cried out for his bodily presence.  She
wanted him, as she had grown to love him, in the warm, erring flesh,
and the vague, splendid vision was cold and far remote.  There was a
barrier greater than that of crashing ice and bitter water between them.

"Oh!" she said.  "I have felt that.  I try to feel it always--but just
now it's not enough."

Then she turned her face away with a bitter sob, and Mrs. Hastings who
stooped and kissed her went out quietly.  She knew what had come about,
and that the girl had broken down at last, after months of strain.

In the meanwhile, it happened that Edmonds, the mortgage broker, drove
over to the Range, and found Hawtrey waiting him in Wyllard's room.  It
was early in the evening, and he could see the hired men busy outside
tossing prairie hay from the waggons into the great barn.  They were
half-naked and grimed with dust, but Hawtrey, who was dressed in store
clothes, had evidently taken no share in their labours.  When Edmonds
came in he turned to him with anxiety in his face.

"Well?" he said sharply.

"Market's a little stiffer," said Edmonds.

He sat down and stretched out his hand towards the cigar-box on the
table, while Hawtrey waited until he had picked one out with very
evident impatience.

"Still moving up?" he asked.

Edmonds nodded.  "It's the other folks' last stand," he said.  "With
the wheat ripening as it's doing, the flood that will pour in before
the next two months are out will sweep them off the market.  I was half
afraid from your note that this little rally had some weight with you,
and that as one result of it you meant to cover now."

"That," admitted Hawtrey, "was in my mind."

"Then," said his companion, "it's a pity."

Hawtrey leaned upon the table with hesitation in his face and attitude.
He had neither the courage nor the steadfastness to make a gambler, and
every fluctuation of the market swayed him to and fro.  He had a good
deal of wheat to deliver by and bye, and, for prices had fallen
steadily until a week or two ago, he could still secure a very
desirable margin if he bought in against his sales now.  Unfortunately,
however, he had once or twice lost heavily in an unexpected rally, and
he greatly desired to recoup himself.  Then, he had decided, nothing
would tempt him to take part in another deal.

"If I hold on and the market stiffens further I'll be awkwardly fixed,"
he said.  "Wyllard made a will, and in a few months I'll have to hand
everything over to his executors.  There would naturally be
unpleasantness over a serious shortage."

Edmonds smiled.  He had handled his man cleverly, and had now a
reasonably secure hold upon him and the Range, but he was far from
satisfied.  If Hawtrey made a further loss he would in all probability
become irretrievably involved.

"Then," he pointed out, "there's every reason why you should try to get
straight."

Hawtrey admitted it.  "Of course," he said.  "You feel sure I could do
it by holding on?"

His companion seldom answered a question of this kind.  It was apt to
lead to unpleasantness afterwards.

"Well," he said, "Beeman, and Oliphant, and Barstow are operating for a
fall.  One would fancy that you were safe in doing what they do.  When
men of their weight sell forward figures go down."

This was correct, as far as it went, but Edmonds was quite aware that
the gentlemen alluded to usually played a very deep and obscure game.
He had also reasons for believing that they were doing it now.  It was,
however, evident that his companion's hesitation was vanishing.

"It's a big hazard, but I feel greatly tempted to hang on," he said.

Edmonds, who disregarded this, sat smoking quietly.  Since he was
tolerably certain as to what the result would be, he felt it was now
desirable to let Hawtrey decide for himself, in which case it would be
impossible for the latter to reproach him afterwards.  Wheat, it seemed
very probable, would fall still further when the harvest commenced, but
he had reasons for believing that the market would rally first.  In
that case Hawtrey, who had sold forward largely, would fall altogether
into his hands, and he looked forward with very pleasurable
anticipation to enforcing his claim upon the Range.  In the meanwhile
he was unobtrusively watching his companion's face, and it had become
evident that in another moment or two Hawtrey would adopt the course
suggested, when there was a rattle of wheels outside.  Edmonds, who saw
a broncho team and a waggon appear from behind the barn, realised that
he must decide the matter now.

"As I want to reach Lander's before it's dark I'll have to get on," he
said carelessly.  "If you'll give me a letter to the broker, I'll send
it on to him."

Next moment a clear voice rose up somewhere outside.  "I guess you
needn't worry," it said, "I'll go right in."

Then, while Gregory started, Sally walked into the room.

Edmonds was disconcerted, but he made her a little inclination, and
then sat down again, quietly determined to wait, for he fancied there
was hostility in the swift glance she flashed at him.

"That's quite a smart team you were driving, Miss Creighton," he said.

Sally, who disregarded this, turned to Hawtrey.

"What's he doing here?" she asked.

"He came over on a little matter of business," said Hawtrey.

"You have been selling wheat again?"

Hawtrey looked embarrassed, for her manner was not conciliatory.
"Well," he admitted, "I have sold some."

"Wheat you haven't got?"

Hawtrey did not answer, and Sally sat down.  Her manner suggested that
she meant to thoroughly investigate the matter, and Edmonds, who would
have greatly preferred to get rid of her, decided that as this appeared
impossible he would appeal to her cupidity.  The Creightons were
somewhat grasping folks, and he had heard of her engagement to Hawtrey.

"If you will permit me I'll try to explain," he said.  "We'll say that
you have reason for believing that wheat will go down and you tell a
broker to sell it forward at a price a little below the actual one.  If
other people do the same it drops faster, and before you have to
deliver you can buy it in at less than you sold it at.  A good many
dollars can be picked up that way."

"It looks easy," Sally admitted, with something in her manner which led
him to fancy he might win her over.  "Of course, prices have been
falling.  Gregory has been selling down?"

"He has.  In fact, there's already a big margin to his credit," said
Edmonds unsuspectingly.

"That is, if he bought in now he'd have cleared--several thousand
dollars?"

Edmonds told her exactly how much, and then started in sudden
consternation with rage in his heart, for she turned to Hawtrey
imperiously.

"Then you'll write your broker to buy in right away," she said.

There was an awkward silence, during which the two men looked at one
another until Edmonds spoke.

"Are you wise in suggesting this, Miss Creighton?" he asked.

Sally laughed harshly.  "Oh yes," she said, "it's a sure thing.  And I
don't suggest.  I tell him to get it done."

She turned again to Hawtrey, who sat very still looking at her with a
flush in his face.  "Take your pen and give him that letter to the
broker now."

There was this in her favour that Hawtrey was to some extent relieved
by her persistence.  He had not the nerve to make a successful
speculator, and he had already felt uneasy about the hazard he would
incur by waiting.  Besides, although prices had slightly advanced, he
could still secure a reasonable margin if he covered his sales.  In any
case, he did as she bade him, and in another minute or two he handed
Edmonds an envelope.

The latter, who rose, took it from him quietly, for he was one who
could face defeat.

"Well," he said, with a gesture of resignation, "I'll send the thing
on.  If Miss Creighton will excuse me, I'll tell your man to get out my
waggon."

Then he went out, and Sally turned to Hawtrey with the colour in her
cheeks and a flash in her eyes.

"It's Harry Wyllard's money," she said.



CHAPTER XXVII.

IN THE WILDERNESS.

A bitter wind was blowing when Wyllard stood outside the little tent
the morning after he had made a landing on the ice, watching the grey
daylight break amidst a haze of sliding snow.  He was to leeward of the
straining canvas which partly sheltered him, but the raw cold struck
through him to the bone, and he was stiff and sore from his exertions
during the previous day.  Most of his joints ached unpleasantly, and
his clothing had not quite dried upon him with the warmth of his body.
He was also conscious of a strong desire to crawl back into the tent
and go to sleep again, but that was one it would clearly not be wise to
indulge in, since they were, he fancied, still some distance off the
beach, and the ice might commence to break up at any moment.  It
stretched away before him, seamed by fissures and serrated ridges here
and there, for a few hundred yards, and then was lost in the sliding
snow, and as he gazed at it all his physical nature shrank from the
prospect of the journey through the frozen desolation.

Then with a little shiver he crawled back into the tent where his two
companions were crouching beside the cooking lamp.  The feeble light of
its sputtering blue flame touched their faces which were graver than
usual, but Charly turned and looked up as he came in.

"Wind's dropping," said Wyllard curtly.  "We'll start as soon as you
have made breakfast.  We must try to reach the beach to-night."

Charly made no answer, though the dusky-skinned Siwash grunted, and in
a few more minutes they silently commenced their meal.  It was promptly
finished, and they struck the tent, and packed it with their sleeping
bags and provisions upon the sled, and then, taking up the traces, set
out across the ice.  The light had grown a little clearer now, and the
snow was thinning, but it still whirled about them, and lay piled in
drawn-out wreaths to lee of every hummock or ragged ridge.  They
floundered through them knee-deep, and in the softer places the weight
upon the traces grew unpleasantly heavy.  That, however, was not a
thing any of them felt the least desire to complain of, and it was
indeed a matter of regret to them that they were not harnessed to a
heavier burden.  There was a snow-wrapped desolation in front of them,
and they had lost a number of small comforts and part of their
provisions in making a landing.  Whether the latter could by any means
be replaced they did not know, and in the meanwhile it certainly did
not seem very probable.

This was, however, an excellent reason for pushing on as fast as
possible, and they stumbled and floundered forward until late in the
afternoon, while the ice became more rugged and broken as they
proceeded.  The snow had ceased, but the drifts which stretched across
their path were plentiful, and they were in the midst of one when it
seemed to Wyllard who was leading that they were sinking much deeper
than usual.  The snow was over the top of his long boots, the sled
seemed very heavy, and he could hear his comrades floundering savagely.
Then there was a cry behind him, and he was jerked suddenly backwards
for a pace or two until he flung himself down at full length clawing at
the snow.  After that he was drawn back no further, but the strain upon
the trace became almost insupportable, and there was still a furious
scuffling behind him.

In a moment or two, however, the strain slackened, and looking round he
saw Charly waist-deep in the snow.  The latter struggled out with
difficulty holding on by the trace, but the sled had vanished, and it
was with grave misgivings that Wyllard scrambled to his feet.  Then,
saying nothing, they hauled with all their might, and after a tense
effort that left them gasping dragged the sled back into sight.  Part
of its load, however, had been left behind in the yawning hole.

Charly went back a pace or two cautiously until he once more sank to
the waist, and they had some trouble in dragging him clear.  Then he
sat down on the sled, and Wyllard stood still looking at the holes in
the snow.

"Did you feel anything under you?" he asked at length in a jarring
voice.

"I didn't," said Charly simply.  "It was only the trace saved me from
dropping through altogether, but if I'd gone a little further I'd have
been in the water.  Kind of snow bridge over a crevice.  We broke it
up, and the sled fell through."

Wyllard turned and flung the tent, their sleeping bags, and the few
packages which had not fallen out off the sled, after which he hastily
opened one or two of them.  His companions looked at them with
apprehension in their eyes until he spoke again.

"The provisions may last a week or so, if we cut down rations," he said.

He could not remember afterwards if anybody suggested it, and he
fancied that the same idea occurred to all of them at once, but in
another moment or two they set about undoing the traces from the sled,
and making them secure about their bodies.  Then for half an hour they
made perilous attempt after attempt to recover the lost provisions, and
signally failed.  The snow broke through continuously beneath the
foremost man, but it did not break away altogether, and they could not
tell what lay beneath it when they had drawn him out of the hole.  When
it became evident that the attempt was useless they held a brief
council sitting on the sled.

"I guess we don't want to go back," said Charly.  "It's quite likely
we've crossed a good many of these crevices, and the snow's getting
soft.  Besides, Dampier will have hauled off and headed for the inlet
by now."

He spoke quietly, though his face was grim, and then pausing a moment
waved his hand.  "It seems to me," he added, "we have got to fetch the
inlet while the provisions last."

"Exactly," said Wyllard.  "Since the chart shows a river between us and
it, the sooner we start the better.  If the thaw holds, the stream will
break up the ice on it."

The Indian, who made no suggestion, grunted what appeared to be
concurrence, and they silently set to work to reload the sled.  That
done, they took up the traces and floundered on again into the
gathering dimness and a thin haze of driving snow.  Darkness had fallen
when they made camp again, and sat, worn-out and aching in every limb,
about the sputtering lamp inside the little, straining tent.  The meal
they made was a very frugal one, and they lay down in the darkness
after it, for half their store of oil had been left behind in the
crevice.  They said very little, for the second disaster had almost
crushed the courage out of them, and it was very clear to all that it
would only be by a strenuous effort they could reach the inlet before
their provisions quite ran out.  They slept, however, and rising in a
stinging frost next morning set out again on the weary march, but it
was slow travelling, and at noon they left the tent and poles behind.

"In another few days," said Wyllard, "we'll leave the sled."

They made the beach that afternoon, though the only sign of it was the
fringe of more ragged ice and the white slope beyond the latter.  A
thin haze hung about them heavy with frosty rime, and they could not
see more than a quarter of a mile ahead.  When darkness fell they
scraped out a hollow beneath what seemed to be a snow-covered rock, and
sat upon their sleeping bags about the cooking lamp.  Then, having
eaten, they huddled close together with part of their aching bodies
upon the sled in a bitter frost, but none of them slept much that night.

The morning broke clear and warmer, and Wyllard, climbing to the summit
of the rock, had a brief glimpse of the serrated summits of a great
white range that rose out of a dingy greyness to the west and south.
It, however, faded like a vision while he watched it, and turning he
looked out across the rolling wilderness that stretched away to the
north.  Nothing broke its gleaming monotony, and there was no sign of
life anywhere in the vast expanse.  By and bye it narrowed, and when he
clambered down the haze was creeping in again.

They set out after breakfast, breaking through a thin crust of snow,
which rendered the march almost insuperably difficult, and they had
painfully made a league or two by the approach of night.  The snow had
grown softer, and the thawing surface would not bear the sled, which
sunk in the slush beneath.  Still, they floundered on for a while after
darkness fell, and then lay down in a hollow, packed close together,
while a fine rain poured down on them.

Somehow they slept, and, though this was more difficult, got upon their
feet again when morning came, for of all the hard things the wanderer
in rain-swept bush or frozen wilderness must bear there is none that
tests his powers more than the bracing himself for another day of
effort in the early dawn.  Comfortless as the night's lair has been,
the jaded body craves for such faint warmth as it afforded, and further
rest, the brain is dull and heavy, and the aching limbs appear
incapable of supporting the weight on them.  Difficulties loom
appallingly large in the faint creeping light, courage fails, and the
will grows feeble.  Wyllard and his companions felt all this, but it
was clear to them that they could not dally, with their provisions
running out, and staggering out of camp after a very scanty meal they
hauled the sled through the slush they churned up for an hour or so.
Then they stopped, gasping, the Indian slipped out of the traces, and
Charly, who nodded, cast them loose from him.

"We've hauled that thing about far enough," he said.

Wyllard stood looking at them for a moment or two with a furrowed face
and a hand that the frost had split tightly clenched.  It was evident
that they could haul the hampering load no further, and he was troubled
by an almost insupportable weariness.  Then he made a little unwilling
sign of concurrence.

"In that case," he said, "you have to decide what you'll leave behind."

They discussed it for some minutes, partly because it furnished an
excuse for sitting upon the sled, though none of them had much doubt as
to the result of the council.  It was unthinkable that they should
sacrifice a scrap of the provisions.  Then, when each man had lashed a
light load upon his shoulders with a portion of the cut-up traces, they
set out again, and it rained upon them heavily all that day.

During the four following days they were buffeted by a furious wind,
but the temperature had risen, and the snow was melting fast, and
splashing knee-deep through slush and water they made progress.  While
he stumbled along with the pack-straps galling his shoulders, Wyllard
was conscious of little beyond the unceasing pain in his joints and the
leaden heaviness of his limbs; but the recollection of that march
haunted him like a horrible nightmare long afterwards, when each
sensation and incident emerged from the haze of numbing misery.  He
remembered that he stormed at and almost fought with Charly, who lagged
behind now and then in a fit of languid dejection, and that once he
fell heavily, and was sensible of a certain half-conscious regret that
he was still capable of going on when the Indian dragged him to his
feet again.  They rarely spoke to one another, and noticed nothing
beyond the strip of white waste, through which uncovered brown patches
commenced to break, immediately in front of them, except when they
crossed some low elevation and looked down upon the stretch of dull
grey water not far away on one hand.  The breeze, at least, had swept
the ice away, and that was reassuring, because it meant that Dampier
would be at the inlet when they reached it, though now and then a
horrible fear that their strength would fail them or their provisions
run out first crept in.

Their faces had already grown gaunt and haggard, and each scanty meal
had been further cut down to the smallest portion which would keep life
and power of movement within them.  Still, though the weight of it
hampered him almost intolerably, Wyllard clung to the one rifle that
they had saved from the disaster at the landing and a dozen cartridges.
This was a folly which he and Charly had once virulent words about.

At length they came one evening to a river which flowed across their
path, and lay down beside it, feeling that the end was not far away.
Except in the eddies and shallows, the ice had broken up, and the
stream swirled by between in raging flood, thick with heavy masses
which it had brought down from its higher reaches.  They crashed upon
the gleaming spurs that here and there projected from the half-thawn
fringe, and smashed with a harsh crackling among the boulders, and
there was no doubt as to what would befall the stoutest swimmer who
might attempt the passage.  So far as Wyllard afterwards remembered,
none of them said anything when they lay down among the wet stones, but
with the first of the daylight they started up stream.  The river was
not a large one, and it seemed just possible that they might find a
means of crossing higher up, though they afterwards admitted that this
was a good deal more than they expected.

During the afternoon the ground rose sharply, and the stream flowed out
of a deep ravine which they followed.  The rocks, as far as Wyllard
could remember, were of volcanic origin, and some of them had crumbled
into heaps of ragged debris.  The slope of the ravine became a talus it
was almost impossible to scramble along, and they were forced back upon
the boulders and the half-thawn ice in the slacker pools.

Still, they made some progress, and when evening drew near found a
little clearer space between rock and river.  The Indian had in the
meanwhile wrenched his foot or knee, and when at length they stopped to
make camp among the rocks it was some little time before he overtook
them.  Then he said that he had found the slot of some animal which he
fancied had gone up the ravine.  What the beast was he did not seem to
know, but he assured them that it was, at least, large enough to eat,
and that appeared to be of the most importance then.  He would not,
however, take the rifle.  Nothing would compel him to drag himself
another rod that night, he said, and the others, who had noticed how he
limped, accepted his statement.  He sat down among the stones with an
expressionless face, and Charly decided that it was Wyllard's part to
try to pick up the trail.

"You could beat me every time at trailing or shooting when we went
ashore on the American side, and I'm not sorry to let it go at that
now," he said.

Wyllard smiled very grimly, "And I've carried this rifle a week on top
of my other load.  You can't shoot when you're dead played out."

Then they called in the Indian and left it to him, and saying nothing
he gravely pointed to Wyllard.

Charly grinned for the first time in several days.

"Well," he said, "in this case I guess I've no objections to let it be
as he suggests."

Wyllard, who said nothing further, took up the rifle and strode very
wearily out of camp.  There was, he fancied, scarcely an hour's
daylight left, and already the dimness seemed a little more marked down
in the hollow.  He, however, found the slot again, and as there was a
wall of rock on one side of him up which he did not think a beast of
any kind could scramble he pushed on up stream beside the ice.  There
was nothing except this to guide him, but he was a little surprised to
feel that his perceptions which had been dull and dazed the last few
days were growing clearer.  He noticed the different sounds the river
made, and picked out the sharp crackle of ice among the stones, though
he had hitherto only been conscious of a hoarse, pulsating roar.  The
rocks also took distinctive shapes instead of looming in blurred masses
before his heavy eyes, and he found himself gazing with strained
attention into each strip of deeper shadow.  Still, though he walked
cautiously, there was no sign of any life in the ravine.  He was
horribly weary, and now and then he set his lips as he stumbled noisily
among the stones, but he pushed on beside the water while the deep
hollow grew dimmer and more shadowy.



CHAPTER XXVIII.

THE UNEXPECTED.

By and bye Wyllard felt a troublesome dizziness creeping over him, and
he sat down upon a boulder with the rifle across his knees.  He had
eaten very little during the last few days, which had been spent in
arduous exertion, and now the leaden weariness which he had fought
against since morning threatened to overcome him.  In addition to this,
he was oppressed by a black dejection, which, though his mind had never
been clearer, reacted upon his failing physical powers, for it was now
unpleasantly evident that he and his companions could not reach the
inlet while their provisions held out.  There was no longer any doubt
that he had involved them in disaster, and the knowledge that he had
done so was very bitter.

He sat still awhile with haggard face and set lips, gazing up the
ravine, for, although he scarcely fancied that either of the others had
expected anything else, he shrank from going back as empty-handed as
when he had left them.  The light was getting very dim, but he could
still see the ice fringe upon the pool in front of him, and a mass of
rock that rose black against the creeping dusk not very far away.
Beyond it on the one side there seemed to be a waste of stones amidst
which a few wreaths of snow still gleamed lividly.  Then a wall of rock
scarcely distinguishable in the shadow shut in the hollow.

The latter was filled with the hoarse roar of the river and the sharp
crash and crackle of stream-driven ice, but by and bye the worn-out man
started as he caught another faint sound which suggested the clink of a
displaced stone.  His hands closed hard upon the rifle, but he sat very
still, listening with strained attention until he heard the sound
again.  Then a thrill ran through him, for he was quite certain of its
meaning.  A stone had rolled over higher up the gorge, and he rose and
moved forward cautiously, keeping the detached rock between him and the
upper portion of the ravine.  Once or twice a stone clattered noisily
beneath his feet, and he stopped for a moment or two, wondering with
tense anxiety whether the sound could be heard at any distance through
the roar of the river.  This was a very much grimmer business than
crawling through the long grass for a shot at the prairie antelope,
when in case of success it had scarcely seemed worth while to pack the
tough and stringy venison back to the homestead.

By and bye he heard the clatter of a displaced stone again, and this
time it was so distinct and near that it puzzled him.  The wild
creatures of the waste were, he knew, always alert, and their
perception of an approaching danger was wonderful.  It seemed strange,
since he had heard it, that the beast he was creeping in upon could
apparently not hear him, but he realised that he must face the hazard
of its doing so, for in another few minutes it would be too dark to
shoot.  He had almost reached the rock by this time, and he shifted his
grasp on the rifle, holding it thrust forward in front of him while
crouching low he looked down for a spot on which to set his foot each
time he moved.  It would, he knew, be useless to go any further if a
stone turned over now.  None did, however, and he crept, strung up to
highest tension, into the deeper gloom behind the rock.

A little pool ran in close beneath the latter from the river, but it
was covered with ice and slushy snow, and treading very cautiously he
crept across it, and held his breath as he moved out from behind the
stone.  Then he stopped suddenly, for a man stood face to face with him
scarcely a stone's throw away.  His fur-clad figure cut sharply against
a gleaming bank of snow, and he held a gun in his hand.  Though the
light had almost gone, it was evident to Wyllard that he was a white
man.

They stood very still for several seconds gazing at one another, and
then the stranger dropped the butt of his weapon and called out
sharply.  Wyllard, who failed to understand him, did not move, and he
spoke again.  What he said was still unintelligible, but Wyllard, who
had fallen in with a few Germans from Minnesota on the prairie, fancied
that he recognised the language.  He made a sign that it was still
beyond his comprehension, and the stranger tried again.  This time it
was French he spoke.

"You can come forward, comrade," he said.

He did not seem to be hostile, and Wyllard, who tossed his rifle into
the hollow of his left arm, moved out to meet him a pace or two.

"You are Russian?" he said, in the language the other had used, for
French of a kind is freely spoken in parts of Canada.

The man laughed.  "That afterwards," he answered.  "It is said so.  My
name is Overweg--Albrecht Overweg.  As to you, it appears you do not
understand Russian."

Wyllard drew a little nearer, and sat down upon a boulder.  Now the
tension had somewhat slackened his weariness had once more become
almost insupportable, and he felt that he might need his strength and
senses.  In the meanwhile he was somewhat bewildered by the encounter,
for it was certainly astonishing to fall in with a man who spoke three
civilised languages and wore spectacles in that desolate wilderness.

"No," he said, "it is almost the first time I have heard it."

"Ah," said the other, "there is a certain significance in that
admission, my friend.  It is permissible to inquire where you have come
from, and what you are doing here?"

Wyllard, who had no desire to give him any information upon the latter
point, pointed towards the east.

"That is where I come from.  As to my business, at the moment you will
excuse me.  It is perhaps not a rudeness to ask what is yours?"

The stranger laughed.  "Caution, it seems, is necessary; and to the
east, where you have pointed, there is only the sea.  I will, however,
tell you my business.  It is the science, and not"--he seemed to add
this with a certain significance--"in any way connected with the
administration of the country."

Wyllard was conscious of a vast relief on hearing this, but as he was
not quite sure that he could believe it, he felt that prudence was
still advisable.  In any case, he could not let the stranger go away
until he had learned whether there were any more white men with him.
He sat still, thinking rather hard for a moment or two.

"You have a camp somewhere near?" he asked at length.

"Certainly," said the other.  "You will come back with me, or shall I
come to yours?"

"There are several of you?"

"Besides myself, two Kamtchadales."

"Then," said Wyllard, "I will come with you.  I have left two comrades
a little further down the ravine.  Will you wait until I bring them?"

The stranger made a sign of assent, and sitting down upon a ledge of
rock took out a cigar.  Wyllard now felt more sure of him, since it was
evident that had he meditated any treachery he would naturally have
preferred him to make the visit unattended.  In any case, it seemed
likely that he would have something to eat in his camp.

Wyllard plodded back down the ravine, and when he reappeared with the
others Overweg was still sitting there in the gathering darkness.  He
greeted them with a wave of his hand, and rising, silently led the way
up the hollow until they came into sight of a little tent that
glimmered beneath a rock.  There was a light inside it, and two dusky
figures were silhouetted against the canvas.  When the party reached
it, Overweg drew the flap back, and the light shone upon his face as he
signed them to enter.  Wyllard standing still a moment looked at him
steadily, and then seeing the little smile in his eyes quietly went in.

After that Overweg called to one of the Kamtchadales, who came in and
busied himself about the cooking lamp, while his guests sat down with a
sense of luxurious content among the skins that were spread upon the
ground sheet.  After the raw cold outside the tent was very snug and
warm.  They said little, however, and Overweg made no attempt at
conversation until the Kamtchadale laid out a meal, when he watched
them with a smile while they ate voraciously.  He had stripped his furs
off, and sat with his knees drawn up on one of the skins, a little,
plump, round-faced man, with tow-coloured hair, and eyes that gleamed
shrewdly behind his spectacles.

"Shall I open another can?" he asked at length.

"No," said Wyllard.  "We owe you thanks enough already.  Provisions are
evidently plentiful with you."

Overweg nodded.  "I have a base camp two or three days' journey back,"
he said.  "It is possible that I shall make a depôt.  We brought our
stores up from the south with dog sleds before the snow grew soft, but
it is necessary for me to push on further.  My business, you
understand, is the scientific survey; to report upon the natural
resources of the country."

He paused, and his manner changed a little when he went on again.  "I
have," he added, "to this extent taken you into my confidence, and I
invite an equal candour.  Two things are evident.  You have made a long
journey, and your French is not that one hears in Paris."

"First of all," said Wyllard, "I must ask again are you a Russian?"

Overweg spread his hands out with a little whimsical gesture.  "My
name, which I have told you, is not Sclavonic, and it may be admitted
that I was born in Bavaria.  In the meanwhile, it is true that I have
been sent on a mission by the Russian Government."

"I wonder," said Wyllard reflectively, "how far you consider your duty
towards your employers goes."

Overweg's eyes twinkled.  "It covers all that can be ascertained about
the geological structure and the fauna of the country, especially the
fauna that produce marketable furs.  At present I am not convinced that
it goes very much further."

It was clear to Wyllard that he was to a large extent in this man's
hands already, since he could not reach the inlet without provisions,
and Overweg could, if he thought fit, send back a messenger to the
Russian authorities.  He was one who could think quickly and make a
momentous decision, and he realised that if he could not win the man's
sympathy there must be open hostility between them.  It seemed possible
that he might obviate any necessity for the latter.

"In that case I think I may tell you what has brought me here," he
said.  "If you have travelled much in Kamchatka you can, perhaps, help
me.  To begin with, I sailed from Vancouver, in Canada, going on for a
year ago."

It took him some time to make his errand clear, and then Overweg looked
at him in a rather curious fashion.

"It is," he said, "a tale that in these days one finds some little
difficulty in believing.  Still, it must be admitted that I am
acquainted with one fact which appears to substantiate it."

Then as he saw the blood rise to Wyllard's forehead he broke off with a
little soft laugh.

"My friend," he added, "is it permitted to offer you my felicitations?
The men who would attempt a thing of this kind are, I think, singularly
rare."

"The fact?" said Wyllard, impatiently.

"There is a Kamtchadale in my base camp who told me of a place where a
white man was buried some distance to the west of us.  He spoke of a
second white man, but nobody, I understand, knows what became of him."

Wyllard straightened himself suddenly.  "You will send for that
Kamtchadale?"

"Assuredly.  The tale you have told me has stirred my curiosity.  As my
path lies west up the river valley, we can, if it pleases you, go on
for a while together."

Wyllard, who thanked him, turned to Charly with a faint sigh of relief.

"It seems that we shall not bring those men back, but I think we may
find out where they lie," he said.  Charly made no comment, for this
was the most he had expected, and a few minutes later there was silence
in the little tent when the men lay down to sleep among the skins.

They started at sunrise next morning, and followed the river slowly by
easy stages until the man sent back to Overweg's base camp overtook
them with another Kamtchadale.  Then they pushed on still further
inland, and it was a week later when one evening their guide led them
up to a little pile of stones upon a lonely ridge of rock.  There were
two letters very rudely cut on one of them, and Wyllard, who stooped
down beside it, took off his cap when he rose.

"There's no doubt that Jake Leslie lies here," he said, and looked at
Overweg.  "Your man is sure it was only one white man who buried him?"

Overweg spoke to the Kamtchadale, who answered him.

"There was only one white man," he said.  "It seems he went inland
afterwards--at least a year ago."

Then Wyllard turned to Charly, and his face was very grave.  "That
makes it certain that two of them have died.  There was one left, and
he may be dead by this time."  He spread his hands out with a forceful
gesture.  "If one only knew!"

Charly made no answer.  He was not a man of education or much
imagination, but like others of his kind he had alternately borne many
privations in the wilderness, logging, prospecting, trail-cutting about
the remoter mines, and at sea.  As one result of this there crept into
his mind some recognition of what the outcast who lay at rest beside
their feet had had to face--the infinite toil of the march, the black
despair, the blinding snow, and Arctic frost.  He met his leader's gaze
with a look of comprehending sympathy.

By what grim efforts and primitive devices their comrade, had clung to
life so long as he had done it seemed very probable that they would
never know, but they clearly realised that though some might call it an
illegal raid, or even piracy, it was a work of mercy this outlaw who
had borne so much had undertaken when he was cast away.  In the word to
swing the boats over and face the roaring surf in the darkness of the
night he had heard the clear call of duty, and had fearlessly obeyed.
His obedience had cost him much, but as the man who had come so far to
search for him looked down upon the little pile of stones that had been
raised above his bones in the desolate wilderness, there awoke within
him a sure recognition of the fact that this was not the end.  That, at
least, was unthinkable.  His comrade, sloughing off the half-frozen,
suffering flesh, had gone on to join the immortals--with his duty done.

It was with a warmth at his heart and a slight haziness in his eyes
that Wyllard turned away at length, but when he put on his fur cap
again he was more determined than ever to carry out the search.  There
were many perils and difficulties to be faced, but he felt that he must
not flinch.

"One man went inland," he said to Overweg.  "I must go that way, too."

The little spectacled scientist looked at him curiously.

"Ah," he said, "the road your comrade travelled is a hard one.  You
have seen what it leads to."

Then Wyllard did what is in the case of such men as he was a somewhat
unusual thing, for he gave another a glimpse of the feelings he
generally kept hidden deep in him.

"No," he said, quietly, "the hard road leads further--where we do not
know--but one feels that the full knowledge will not bring sorrow when
it is some day given to those who have the courage to follow."

Overweg spread his hands out.  "It is not the view of the materialists,
but it is conceivable that the materialists may be wrong.  In this
case, however, it is the concrete and practical we have to grapple
with, my friend.  You say you are going inland to search for that man,
and for awhile I go that way, but though I have my base camp there is
the question of provisions if you come with me."

They discussed the matter until Wyllard suggested that he could replace
any provisions his companion supplied him with from the schooner, to
which Overweg agreed, and they afterwards decided to send the Siwash
and one of the Kamtchadales on to the inlet with a letter to Dampier.
The two started next day when they found a place where the river was
with difficulty fordable, and the rest pushed on slowly into a broken
and rising country seamed with belts of thin forest here and there.
They held westwards for another week, and then one evening made their
camp among a few stunted and straggling firs.  The temperature had
risen in the day-time, but the nights were cold, and when they had
eaten their evening meal they were glad of the shelter of the tent.  A
small fire of resinous branches was sinking into a faintly glowing mass
close outside of it.

The flap was, however, drawn back, and Wyllard, who lay facing the
opening, could see a triangular patch of dim blue sky with a sharp
sickle moon hanging low above a black fir branch.  The night was clear
and still, but now and then there was a faint elfin sighing among the
stunted trees that died away again.  He was then, while still
determined, moodily discouraged, for they had seen no sign of human
life during the journey, and his reason told him that he might search
for years before he found the bones of the last survivor of the party.
Still, he meant to search while Overweg was willing to supply him with
provisions.

By and bye he saw Charly sharply raise his head and gaze towards the
opening.

"Did you hear anything outside?" he asked.

"It would be the Kamtchadales," said Wyllard.

"They went back a mile or two to lay some traps."

"Then," said Wyllard, decisively, "it couldn't have been anything."

Charly did not appear satisfied, and it seemed to Wyllard that Overweg
was also listening, but there was deep stillness outside now, and he
dismissed the matter from his mind.  A few minutes later it, however,
seemed to him that a shadowy form appeared out of the gloom among the
firs and faded into it again.  This struck him as very curious, since
if it had been one of the Kamtchadales he would have walked straight
into camp, but he said nothing to his companions, and there was silence
for a while until Charly rose softly to his feet.

"Get out as quietly as you can," he said, as he slipped by Wyllard, who
crept after him to the entrance.

When he reached it his companion's voice rang out with a startling
vehemence.

"Stop right now!" he cried, and after a pause, "Nobody's going to hurt
you.  Walk right ahead."

Then Wyllard felt his heart beat furiously, for a dusky, half-seen
figure materialised out of the gloom, and grew into sharper form as it
drew nearer to the sinking fire.  The thing was wholly unexpected,
almost incredible, but it was clear that the man could understand
English, and his face was white.  In another moment Wyllard's last
doubt vanished, and he sprang forward with a gasp.

"Lewson--Tom Lewson," he said.

Then Charly thrust the man inside the tent, and when somebody lighted a
lamp he sat down stupidly and looked at them.  His face was gaunt and
furrowed, and almost blackened by exposure to the frost, his hair was
long, and tattered garments of greasy skins hung about him.  There was
also something that suggested bewildered incredulity in his eyes.

"It's real?" he said, slowly and haltingly.  "You have come at last?"

They assured him that this was the case, and for a moment or two the
man's face worked and he made a hoarse sound in his throat.

"Lord," he said, "if I'm dreaming I don't want to wake."

Charly leaned forward and smote him on the shoulder.

"Shall I hit you like I did that afternoon in the Thompson House on the
Vancouver water front?" he asked.

Then the certainty of the thing seemed to dawn upon the man, for he
quivered, and his eyes half closed.  After that he straightened himself
with an effort.

"I should have known, and I think I did," he said.  "Something seemed
to tell me that you would come for us when you could."

Wyllard's face flushed, but he said nothing, and it was Charly who
asked the next question.

"The others are dead?"

Lewson made a little expressive gesture.  "Hopkins was drowned in a
crevice of the ice.  I buried Leslie back yonder."

He broke off abruptly, as though speech cost him an effort, and Wyllard
turned to Overweg.

"This is the last of the men I was looking for," he said.

Overweg quietly nodded.  "Then you have my felicitations--but it might
be advisable if you did not tell me too much," he said.  "Afterwards I
may be questioned by those in authority."



CHAPTER XXIX.

CAST AWAY.

Tom Lewson had been an hour in camp before he commenced the story of
his wanderings, and at first he spoke slowly and falteringly, lying
propped up on one elbow, with the lamplight on his worn face.

"We broke an oar coming off the beach that night, and it kind of
crippled us," he said.  "Twice she nearly went back again in the surf,
and I don't quite know how we pulled her off.  Anyway, one of us was
busy heaving out the water that broke into her.  It was Jake, I think,
and he seemed kind of silly.  Once we saw a boat hove up on a sea, but
we lost her in the spray, and a long while after we saw the schooner.
Just then a comber that broke on board most hove us over, and when we
had dodged the next two there wasn't a sign of her.  After that we knew
that we were done, and we just tried to keep her head-to and ease her
to the seas."

He stopped a moment, and looked round at the others with troubled eyes,
as though trying to marshal uncertain memories, for this was a simple
sailorman, who contented himself with the baldest narrative.  Still,
two of those who heard him could fill in the things he had not
mentioned--the mad lurching of the half-swamped boat, the tense
struggle with the oars each time a big frothing comber forged out of
the darkness, and the savage desperation of the drenched and
half-frozen men cast away with the roaring surf to lee of them and
their enemies watching upon the hammered beach.

"It blew hard that night," he added.  "Somehow she lived through it,
but there wasn't a sign of the island when morning came.  Nothing but
the combers and the flying haze.  Guess the wind must have shifted a
few points and drove us by the end of it.  Then we found Jake had his
head laid open by a sealing club.  The sea was getting longer, and as
we were too played out to hold her to it we got her away before it, and
somehow she didn't roll over.  I think it was next day, though it might
have been longer, when we fetched another island.  She just washed up
on it, and one of the others pulled me out.  There wasn't a sign of
anybody on the beach, but there were plenty of skinned holluschackie
seals on the slope behind it, and that was fortunate for us."

"You struck nobody on the island?" enquired Wyllard.

"We didn't," said Lewson simply.  "The Russians must have sent a vessel
to take off the killers after the last drive of the season a day or two
before, for the holluschackie were quite fresh, and perhaps it was
blowing hard and the surf getting steep, for they'd left quite a few of
their things behind them.  Anyway, that was how we figured it.  We
found the shacks the killers lived in, and we made out that winter in
one of them."

It occurred to Wyllard that this was a thing very few men except
sealers could have done had they been cast ashore without stores or
tools to face the awful winter of the north.

"How did you get through?" he asked.

"Well," said Lewson, "we had a rifle, and the ca'tridges weren't
spoilt.  The killers hadn't taken their cooking outfit, and by and bye
we got a walrus in an open lane among the ice.  They'd left some gear
behind them, but we were most of two days cutting and heaving the beast
out with a parbuckle under him.  There was no trouble about things
keeping in that frost.  Besides, we'd the holluschackie blubber to
burn, and there was a half-empty bag or two of stores in one of the
shacks.  No, we hadn't any great trouble in making out."

"You had to stay there until the ice broke up?" said Charly.

"And after.  The boat was gone, and we couldn't get away.  She broke up
in the surf, and we burned what we saved of her.  At last a schooner
came along, and we hid out across the island until she'd gone away.  It
was blowing fresh, and hazy, and she just shoved a new gang of killers
ashore.  There was an Okotsk Russian with them, but he made no trouble
for us.  He was white, anyway, and it kind of seemed to me he didn't
like one of the other men who got hurt that night on the beach."

"Then some of them did get badly hurt?" Wyllard broke in.

Lewson laughed, a little, almost silent laugh, which nevertheless
sounded strangely grim.

"Well," he said, "from what that Russian told us--and we got to
understand each other by and bye--one of the killers had his ribs
broke, and it seems that another would go lame for life.  Besides,
among other things, there was a white man got his face quite smashed.
I saw him after with his nose flattened way out to starboard, and one
eye canted.  He was a boss of some kind.  They called him Smirnoff."

Overweg looked up sharply.  "Ah," he said, "Smirnoff.  A man with an
unsavoury name.  I have heard of him."

"Anyway," Lewson went on, "we killed seals all the open season with
that Russian, and I've no fault to find with him.  In fact, I figure if
he could have fixed it he'd have left us on the island that winter, but
when a schooner came to take the killers off and collect the skins
Smirnoff was on board of her.  That"--and an ominous gleam crept into
Lewson's eyes--"was the real beginning of the trouble."

"He had us hauled up before him--guess the other man had to tell him
who we were--and when I wouldn't answer he slashed me with a
sled-dog-whip across the face."

Lewson clenched a lean brown fist.  "Yes," he added, hoarsely, "I was
whipped--but they should have tied my hands first.  It was not my fault
I didn't have that man's life.  It was most a minute before three of
them pulled me off him, and he was considerably worse to look at then."

There was silence for a minute or two, and Wyllard, who felt his own
face grow a trifle warm, saw the suggestive hardness in Charly's eyes.
Lewson was gazing out into the darkness, but the veins were swollen on
his forehead and his whole body had stiffened.  Then he spread his
hands out.

"We'll let that go.  I can't think of it.  They put us on board the
schooner, and by and bye she ran into a creek on the coast.  We were to
be sent somewhere to be dealt with, and we knew what that meant, with
what they had against us.  Well, they went ashore to collect some skins
from the Kamtchadales, and at night we cut the boat adrift.  We got off
in the darkness, and if they followed they never trailed us.  Guess
they figured we couldn't make out through the winter that was coming
on."

So far the story had been more or less connected and comprehensible.
It laid no great tax on Wyllard's credulity, and, indeed, all that
Lewson described had come about very much as Dampier had once or twice
suggested; but it seemed an almost impossible thing that the three men
should have survived during the years that followed.  Lewson, as it
happened, never made that matter very clear.  He sat silent for almost
a minute before he went on again.

"We hauled the boat out, and hid her among the rocks, and after that we
fell in with some Kamtchadales going north," he said.  "They took us
along, I don't know how far, but they were trapping for furs, and by
and bye--I think it was months after--we got away from them.  Then we
fell in with another crowd, and went on further north with them.  They
were Koriaks, and we lived with them a long while--a winter and a
summer anyway.  It was more, perhaps--I can't remember."

He broke off with a vague gesture, and sat looking at the others
vacantly with his lean face furrowed.

"We must have been with them two years--but I don't quite know.  It was
all the same up yonder--ever so far to the north."

It seemed to Wyllard that he had seldom heard anything more expressive
in its way than this sailorman's brief and fragmentary description of
his life in the wilderness.  He had heard from steam whaler skippers a
little about the tundra that fringes the Polar Sea, the vast desolation
frozen hard in summer a few inches below the surface, on which nothing
beyond the mosses ever grew.  It was easy to understand the
brain-crushing sameness and monotony of an existence chequered only by
times of dire scarcity on those lonely shores.

"How did you live?" he asked.

"There were the birds in summer, and fish in the rivers.  In winter we
killed things in the lanes in the ice, though there were weeks when we
lay about the blubber lamp in the pits.  They made pits and put a roof
on them.  I don't know why we stayed there, but Jake had always a
notion that we might get across to Alaska--somehow.  We were way out on
the ice one day when Jim fell into a crevice, and we couldn't get him
out."

He broke off, and sat still awhile as one dreaming.  "I can't put
things together, but at last we came south, Jake and I, and struck the
Kamtchadales again.  We could talk to them, and one of them told us
about a schooner lying in an inlet by a settlement.  The Russians had
brought her there from the islands, and she must have been a sealer.
Jake figured it was just possible we might run away with her and push
across for the Aleutians or Alaska."

Charly looked up suddenly.  "She--was--a sealer--Hayson's _Seminole_.
I was in Victoria when we heard that the Russians had seized her."

Wyllard turned to Overweg, who nodded when he asked a question in
French.

"Yes," he said, "I believe the vessel lies in the inlet still.  They
have used her now and then.  It is understood that they were warranted
in seizing her, but I think there was some diplomatic pressure brought
to bear on them, for they sent her crew home."

Then Lewson went on again.  "Food was scarce that season, and we got
most nothing in the traps," he said.  "Besides, there were Russians out
prospecting, and that headed us off.  We figured that some of the
Kamtchadales who traded skins to the settlements would put them on our
trail.  When we went to look for the boat she'd gone, but we hadn't
much notion of getting off in her, though another time--I don't
remember when--we gave two Kamtchadales messages we'd cut on slips of
wood.  Sometimes the schooners stood in along the coast."

Wyllard nodded.  "Dunton of the _Cypress_ got your message," he said.
"He was in difficulties then, but he afterwards sent it me."

"Well," said Lewson, "there isn't much more to it.  We hung about the
beach awhile, and then went north before the winter.  Jake played out
on the trail.  By and bye he had to let up, and in a day or two I
buried him."

He spread his hands out, and his voice grew hoarse.  "After that it
didn't seem to matter what became of me, but I kept the trail somehow,
and found I couldn't stay up yonder.  That's why I started south with
some of them before the summer came.  Now I'm here--talking
English--talking with white men--but it doesn't seem the same as it
should have been--without the others."

He broke off, and said no more that night, but Wyllard translated part
of his story for the benefit of Overweg.  The latter made a little
expressive gesture.

"The thing, it seems incredible," he commented.  "This man, who has so
little to tell, knows things which would make a trained explorer
famous."

"It generally happens that way," said Wyllard with a dry smile.  "The
men who know can't tell."

Overweg made a sign of assent, and then changed the subject.

"What will you do now?"

"Start for the inlet where we expect to find the schooner at sunrise.
I want to say"--and Wyllard hesitated--"that you have laid an
obligation on me which I can never repay; but I can, at least, replace
the provisions you have supplied me with."

"That goes for nothing," said the other with a smile.  "I have,
however, drawn upon my base camp rather heavily, and should be glad of
any stores from the schooner that you could let me have.  The
difficulty is that I do not wish to go too far towards the beach."

They arranged a rendezvous a day or two's march from the inlet, and in
another half-hour all of them were fast asleep.

When the first of the daylight came Wyllard set off with his two
companions, and since it was evident that Dampier must have now lain in
the inlet awaiting them a considerable time, they marched fast for
several days.  Then to their consternation they came upon the Siwash
lying beside a river badly lame.  It appeared that in climbing a
slippery ridge of rock the knee he had injured had given way, and he
had fallen some distance heavily, after which the Kamtchadale finding
him helpless had disappeared with most of the provisions.  None of the
party ever learned what had become of him, but they realised in the
meanwhile that the situation was now a rather serious one.  Charly, who
looked at Wyllard when he had heard the Indian's story, explained it
concisely.

"I'm worrying about the boat we left on the edge of the ice," he said.
"I've had a notion all along it was going to make trouble.  Dampier
would see the wreckage when he ran in, and I guess it would only mean
one thing to him.  He'd make quite certain he was right when he didn't
find us at the inlet."  He paused and pointed towards the distant sea.
"You have got to push right on with Lewson as fast as you can while I
try to bring the Siwash along."

Wyllard started in the next few minutes, and afterwards never quite
forgot the strain and stress of that arduous march.  The journey he had
made with Overweg had been difficult enough, but they had then, at
least, traversed rising ground from which most of the melting snow had
drained away.  Now, however, as they approached the more level littoral
there were wide tracts of mire and swamp to be painfully floundered
through, while every ravine and hollow was swept by a frothing torrent,
and they had often to search for hours for a place where it was
possible to cross.  To make things worse, they were drenched with
bitter rain half the time, and trails of dingy mist obscured their
path, but they toiled on stubbornly through every obstacle, though it
was only by the tensest effort that Wyllard kept pace with his
companion.  The gaunt, long-haired Lewson seemed proof against physical
weariness, and there was seldom any change in the expression of his
grim, lined face.  Now and then Wyllard felt a curious shrinking as he
glanced at it, for its fixed look suggested what this man had borne in
the awful solitudes of the frozen north.

Slowly, with infinite toil, they crossed the weary leagues, lying at
night with a single skin between them and the soil, for they travelled
light; and Wyllard was limping painfully with his boots worn off his
feet, when at length one morning they came into sight of a low
promontory which rose against a stretch of grey, lifeless sea.  His
heart throbbed fast as he realised that behind it lay the inlet into
which Dampier had arranged to bring the _Selache_.  He glanced at
Lewson, who said nothing, and they plodded forward faster than before.

The misty sun was high in the heavens when at length they reached the
foot of the steep rise, and Wyllard gasped heavily as they crept up the
ascent.  He was making a severe muscular effort; but it was the nervous
tension that troubled him most, for he knew that he would look down
upon the inlet from the summit.  He blamed himself bitterly for not
sending on a messenger to Dampier when he fell in with Overweg, which,
in his eagerness to follow up the clue the latter had given him, he had
at first omitted to do.  There had certainly been difficulties in the
way, for the increase in the scientist's party had made additional
packers necessary, and Wyllard felt that he could not reasonably compel
him to leave the camp comforts he had evidently been accustomed to
behind.  In spite of that, he had been at fault in not disregarding
every objection, and he realised it now.

Somehow he kept pace with Lewson, but he closed one hand tight as he
neared the top.  When he reached it he stopped suddenly, and his face
set hard as he looked down, standing very still.  Beneath him lay a
strip of dim, green water, with a fringe of soft, white surf at the
foot of the promontory, while beyond the latter there stretched away an
empty expanse of slowly heaving sea.  There was nothing else, however;
no schooner in the inlet, no boat upon the beach.

In another moment or two they went down the slope savagely at a
stumbling run, and then stopped, gasping by the water's edge, and
looked at one another.  There were marks in the sand which showed them
where a boat had been drawn up not very long ago.  The _Selache_ had
evidently been there, and had sailed away again.

Then Wyllard sat down limply upon the shingle, for all the strength
seemed to suddenly melt out of him, and it was several minutes before
he looked up.  Lewson was still standing, a shapeless, barbaric figure
in his garments of skins, with a dark lined face that had scarcely
changed, gazing out to sea.  The hide moccasins he wore had chafed
through, and Wyllard noticed that the blood was trickling from one of
his feet.

"Well?" he said, harshly.

Wyllard laid a stern restraint upon himself.  Their case looked
desperate, but it must, at least, be grappled with.

"We must go back and meet the rest," he said.  "That first--what is to
come afterwards I don't quite know."  Then a faint gleam of resolution
crept into his eyes.  "The schooner the Russians seized lies in an
inlet down the coast."

Lewson made a sign of comprehension.  "There are four of us.  There
will be birds by and bye.  I can trap things."

Then he flung himself down near his comrade, and for an hour neither of
them said anything.  Wyllard, at least, was worn-out physically, and
limp from the last few hours' mental strain, while Lewson very seldom
said more than was absolutely necessary.  Then they made a very frugal
meal, and long afterwards Wyllard was haunted by the memory of that
dreary afternoon during which he lay upon the shingle watching the slow
pulsations of the dim, lifeless sea.

They set out again early next morning, and, as it happened, found a
little depôt of provisions that Dampier had made, but it was several
days before they met Charly and the Indian, and another week had passed
before Overweg reached the place appointed.  He listened to Wyllard's
story gravely, and then appeared to consider.

"You have some plans?" he asked.

Wyllard admitted that this was the case, and Overweg smiled behind his
spectacles.

"It is, perhaps, better that you do not tell me what they are," he
said.  "There is, however, one thing I can do.  You say you left some
stores you could not carry at the depôt, which I will take, for
provisions are now not plentiful with me, but there are still a few
things you have not which are almost necessary at my base camp,
and"--he spread his hands out--"after all, if I have to go south a
little earlier than I intended it is not a great matter."

He wrote on a strip of paper which he handed to Wyllard.  "You will
take these, and nothing else.  I may add that Smirnoff is stationed at
the inlet where the schooner lies."

Wyllard thanked him, and then looked him in the eyes.  "There is a long
journey before us, and you have only my word that I will take nothing
but these things."

Overweg nodded quietly.  "Yes," he said, "it is, however, perhaps
permissible to assure you that it is sufficient for me."

Very little more was said, and in another half-hour Wyllard and his
companions were ready to set out.  He and the little spectacled
scientist grasped each other's hands, and then Wyllard abruptly turned
away.  A few minutes later he turned again, and looking back saw
Overweg standing upon the ridge where he had left him silhouetted
against a low, grey sky.  He raised his cap once, and Wyllard, who
answered him, swung round once more, and strode on faster towards the
south.  He knew that his regard for this stranger who had fallen across
his path would remain unchanged while his life should last.



CHAPTER XXX.

THE LAST EFFORT.

It was after a long and arduous journey which had left its mark on all
of them that Wyllard and his companions lay among the boulders beside a
sheltered inlet waiting for the dusk to fall one lowering evening.
They were cramped and aching, for they had scarcely moved during the
last hour; their garments were badly tattered, and their half-covered
feet were bleeding.  They were, as they recognised, a pitiful company
to seize a vessel, with three knives and one rifle between them, but
there was resolution in their haggard faces.

Close in front of them the green water lapped softly among the stones.
The breeze was light off shore, and the tide, which was just running
ebb, rippled against the bows of a little schooner lying some thirty
yards from the bank.  She had been seized for illegal sealing some
years earlier, and it was evident that she had been very little used
since then.  The paint was peeling from her cracked and weathered side,
her gear was frayed and bleached with frost and rain, and only very
hard-pressed men would have faced the thought of going to sea in her.
Wyllard and his companions were, however, very hard-pressed indeed, and
they preferred the hazards of a voyage in the crazy vessel to falling
into the Russians' hands.  It was also clear that they had no choice.
It must be either one thing or the other.

Some little distance up-stream a low rise cut against the dingy sky.
It shut off all view of the upper part of the inlet, which wound in
behind it, but Wyllard and his companions had cautiously climbed the
slope earlier in the afternoon, and lying flat upon the summit had
looked down upon the little wooden houses that clustered above the
beach.  He had then decided that this part of the inlet would dry out
at about half-ebb, and as the schooner's boat, which he meant to seize,
lay upon the shingle it was evident that he must carry out his plans
within the next three hours.

These were very simple.  There was nobody on board the schooner, which
lay in deeper water, and he fancied that it would be possible to swim
off to her and slip the cable; but they must have provisions, and there
was, so far as he could see, only one way of obtaining them.  A
building which stood by itself close beside the beach was evidently a
store, for he had seen two men carrying bags and cases out of it under
the superintendence of a third in some kind of uniform, and it appeared
to be unguarded.  Wyllard, who had reasons for surmising that the few
settlements on the coast were under strict official control, fancied
that the store contained Government supplies, and had arranged that
Charly and Lewson should break into it as soon as darkness fell, and
pull off to the schooner with anything they could find inside.  Whether
they would succeed in doing this he did not know, and he admitted to
himself that it scarcely seemed probable, but he could think of no
other plan, and the attempt must be made.

In the meanwhile a thin haze drove across the crest of the rise, the
breeze freshened slightly, and the little ripples lapped more noisily
along the shingle.  There was evidently a good deal of fresh water
coming down the inlet, and it was in a fever of impatience he watched
the schooner strain at her cable.  That evening had already seemed the
longest he had ever spent in his life.  By and bye it commenced to
rain, and little streams of chilly water trickled about the weary men,
but they lay still, with lips tight set, in tense suspense.  What
Lewson had had to face in the awful icy wastes to the north of them
Wyllard could scarcely imagine, and Lewson could not tell, but he and
his two other comrades had borne things almost beyond endurance since
he commenced his search, and now there was far too much at stake for
him to increase the odds against them by any undue precipitancy.  He
was then in a dangerous mood, but he had laid his plans with grim,
cold-blooded caution, and he meant to adhere to them.

At length, and very slowly, the light faded, until the beach grew
shadowy, and the schooner's spars and rigging showed dim and blurred
against a dusky background.  The rise that shut off the settlement was
lost in drifting haze, and the dull rumble of the surf on the outer
beach came up more sharply through the gathering darkness.  The
measured beat of its deep pulsations almost maddened Wyllard as he lay
and listened, for if all went right he would be sliding out over the
long heave with every sail piled on to the crazy schooner in another
hour or two.

At length, when there was only a faint gleam of water sliding by below,
he rose stiffly to his feet, and Lewson stretched out a hand for the
rifle that lay among the stones.  There was a sharp click as he jerked
the lever, and then he laughed, a little jarring laugh, as the magazine
snapped back.

"They'll treat us as pirates if they get hands on us--and I've been
lashed in the face--with a sled-dog-whip," he said.

Charly said nothing as he loosened the long seaman's knife in his belt,
and Wyllard made no remonstrance, for there is, as he recognised, a
point beyond which prudence does not count.  After what Overweg had
once or twice told him, it was unthinkable that they should fall into
Smirnoff's hands.

Then Lewson and Charly melted away into the darkness, and Wyllard and
the Siwash walked quietly down to the water's edge, a little up-stream
of the schooner, as the stream was running strong.  They, however,
stripped off nothing, for it was evident that none of the rags they
left behind could be replaced, and they knew from experience that when
the first shock is over a man swimming in icy water is kept a little
warmer by his clothing.  For all that, the cold struck through Wyllard
like a knife when he flung himself forward and swung his left hand out,
and it was perhaps a minute before he was clearly conscious of anything
beyond the physical agony and the mental effort to retain control of
his faculties.  Then he made out the schooner, a vague, blurred shape a
little down-stream of him, and he swam furiously, his face dipping
under each time his left hand came out.

He drew level with her, clutched at her cable, a foot short, and was
driven against her bows.  Then the stream swept him onward, gasping,
and clawing savagely at her slippery side, until his fingers found a
hold.  It was merely the rounded top of a bolt, but with a desperate
effort he clutched the bent iron that led up from it to one of the
dead-eyes of the mainmast-shrouds.  He could not, however, draw himself
up any further, and he hung on, wondering when his strength would fail
him, until the Siwash, who had already crawled up the cable, leaned
down from above and seized his shoulder.  In another moment or two he
reached the rail, and went staggering across the deck, dripping, and
half dazed.

Action was, however, imperatively necessary, and he braced himself for
the effort.  The schooner was lying with her anchor up-stream, but he
did not think it would be possible to heave her over it and break it
out unless he waited until the others arrived, and it would then be a
lengthy and, what was more to the purpose, a noisy operation.  The
anchor must be sacrificed, but there was the difficulty that he could
hardly expect to find a shackle on the cable in the dark.  Running
forward with the Siwash, he pulled a chain stopper out, and then
shipping the windlass levers found with vast relief that it would work.
It would make a horribly distinct clanking, he knew, but that could not
be helped, and the next thing was to discover if the end of the chain
was made fast below, for it is very seldom that a skipper finds it
necessary to pay all his cable out.

Dropping into the darkness of the locker beneath the forecastle, he was
more fortunate than he could reasonably have expected to be, for as he
crawled over the rusty links he felt a shackle.  It appeared to be of
the usual harp-pattern with a cottered pin, and he called out sharply
to the Siwash, who presently flung him an iron bar and a big spike.
Then he struck one of the two or three sulphur matches he had carefully
treasured, and when the sputtering blue flame went out set to work to
back the pin out in the dark.  He smashed his knuckles and badly
bruised his hands, but he succeeded, and knew that he had shortened the
chain by two-thirds now.

Then he scrambled up on deck again and hurried aft, for the vessel's
kedge had been laid out astern to prevent her swinging.  There was a
heavy hemp warp attached to it, and it cost them some time to heave
most of it over, after which they proceeded to get the mainsail on to
her.  It was covered with a coat, and Wyllard cut himself as he slashed
through the tiers in savage impatience.  Then he and the Siwash toiled
at the halliards desperately, for the task of raising the heavy gaff
was almost beyond their powers.

There was no grease on the mast-hoops, the blocks had evidently not
been used for months, and several times they desisted a moment or two,
gasping, breathless, and utterly exhausted.  Still, foot by foot they
got the black canvas up, and then, leaving the peak hanging, ran
forward to the boom-foresail, which was smaller and lighter.  They set
that, cast two jibs and the staysail loose, and let them lie, and
Wyllard sat down feeling that the thing they had done would, if
attempted in cold blood, have appeared almost impossible.

It was done, however, and now he must wait until the boat appeared.
There was no sign of her, and as he gazed up the inlet, seeing only the
dim glimmer of the water and the sliding mist, the suspense became
almost intolerable.  Minute slipped by after minute, and still nothing
loomed out of the haze.  The canvas rustled and banged above him, there
was a growing splashing beneath the bows, and the schooner strained
more heavily at her cable.  Everything was ready, only his comrades did
not appear.  He clenched his hands and set his lips as he waited, and
wondered at the Siwash who sat upon the rail, a dim, shapeless figure,
impassively still.

At length his heart throbbed furiously, for a faint splash of oars came
out of the darkness, and they both ran forward to the windlass.  The
sharp clanking it made drowned the splash of oars, but in another
minute or two there was a crash as the boat drove alongside, and Charly
scrambled up with a rope while Lewson hurled sundry bags and cases
after him.  Then he climbed on deck in turn, and Charly commenced a
breathless explanation.

"It's all we could get.  There's nobody on our trail," he said.

The last fact was most important, and Wyllard cut him short.  "Get the
jibs and staysail on to her."

The new arrivals did it while the cable clanked and rattled as the
schooner drove astern, but at the first heave the rotten staysail tore
off the hanks, and one jib burst as they ran it up its stay.  Then for
an anxious moment or two the cable jammed, and the anchor brought the
schooner up.  All four flung themselves upon the windlass levers, and
after a furious effort the chain came up again and ran out faster,
fathom by fathom, rattling horribly, until the end of it shot suddenly
over the windlass.  Then there was another check as the schooner
brought up by the kedge swung suddenly across the stream.

Her banging canvas filled, she listed over, and it was evident to all
of them that if the kedge started she would forthwith drive ashore.
Its warp ripped out of the water tense with strain, and she was
swinging on it heading for the beach when; Wyllard flung himself upon
the wheel.

"Hang on to every inch or break it!" he roared.  "Out main-boom; box
your jib and staysail up to weather!"

They did it, amidst a great clatter of blocks and thrashing of canvas,
in desperate haste, while Wyllard wrenched up his helm, and the
schooner, straining on the warp, fell away with her bows down-stream.
He was quivering all through, and the sweat of effort dripped from him
when he swung up an arm to Lewson, who was standing at the bollard the
warp was made fast to.

"Now," he cried hoarsely, "let her go!"

The rope fell with a splash, the schooner lurched forward and drove
away down the inlet with the stream running seaward under her, while
Wyllard felt a trifle dazed from sheer revulsion of feeling.  The
rumble of the surf was growing louder, the deck slanted slightly
beneath him, and if they could keep her off the beach for the next few
minutes there was freedom before them.  He hazarded a glance astern,
but could see no sign of a boat up the inlet.  They had done a thing
which even then appeared almost incredible.

The breeze came down fresher, the gurgle at the bows grew louder, and
the deck commenced to heave with a slow and regular rise and fall.
Then a long, shadowy point girt about with spectral surf slipped by,
and they were out in open water.  They ran her out for an hour or two
and then, though the peak of the mainsail burst to tatters as they
hauled her on a wind, let her stretch away northwards following the
trend of coast.

"We'll stand on as she's lying until we find a creek or river mouth.
We must have water," Wyllard said.

An hour later he called Charly to the wheel, and sitting down in the
shelter of the rail soon afterwards went to sleep, though this was
about the last thing he had contemplated doing.  It was grey dawn when
he opened his eyes again, and stood up, aching all over and very cold,
to see that the schooner was tumbling over a little spiteful sea with
the hazy loom of land not far away from her.  Then he glanced at the
gear and canvas, and was almost appalled, while Charly, who was busy
close by, saw his face and grinned.

"You don't want to look at her too much," he said.  "We took a swig on
the peak-halliards a little while ago, and had to let up before we
pulled the gaff off her.  Boom-foresail's worse, and the jibs are
dropping off her, while the water just pours in through her topsides
when she puts another lee plank down."

Wyllard made a little expressive gesture, and leaned upon the rail.  He
realised then something of the nature of the task he had undertaken.
They had no anchor, no fresh water, no fuel for cooking, and, so far as
he was aware, very few provisions, while it seemed to him that the
weathered, worn-out gear would not hold the masts in the vessel in any
weight of breeze.  Still, the thing must be attempted, and there was
one want, at least, that could be supplied.

"Anyway," he said, "we'll beat her in.  When we come abreast of the
first creek you and Tom and the Siwash will go ashore."

It was afternoon when they sighted one, and they took most of the
canvas off the vessel before three of them pulled away in the boat,
leaving Wyllard at the helm.  It was blowing moderately fresh off
shore, and it was with feverish impatience he watched them toiling at
the oars, two of them pulling while the third man sculled.  Then they
disappeared behind a point, and an anxious hour went by before the
boat, which now showed a very scanty strip of side above the tumbling
foam, crept out from the beach again.  Having no breakers, they had
brought the water off in bulk, sitting in it as they pulled, and it was
fortunate that the boat lurched off shore easily before the little
splashing seas.  They lost some of the water before they hove it into
the big and very rusty tank, and then they held a consultation when
they had swung the boat in and the schooner was running off to the east
again.

"We've about stores enough to last two weeks--that is, if you don't
expect too much," Lewson pointed out.  "There's an American stove in
the deck-house, and while we can't find anything meant to burn in it
there's an axe down forward, and we could cut out cabin floorings, or a
beam or two, without taking too much stiffening out of her."

Wyllard, who had inspected the stores, fancied that a fortnight was the
very longest that could be counted on, though they ate no more than
would keep a modicum of strength in them.  From their kind and quality
he surmised that they had been intended for the officials in charge of
the settlement.

"How did you get them, Tom?" he asked.

"The thing," said Lewson quietly, "was simple.  It was dark and hazy,
and raining quite hard, and the first thing we did was to run the boat
down and leave her nearly afloat.  Then we crawled back, and lay by
listening outside that store.  We were figuring how we were to break it
in when two men came along.  They went in and came out with a bag or
two, and as they left the door open we figured they were coming back
for more.  We humped out a moderate load, and had just got it down to
the boat when we saw those men, or two others, in the haze.  I was for
lying by, but Charly would get out then."

Charly laughed drily.  "He wanted to take the rifle and go back to look
for Smirnoff.  I'd no use for any trouble of that kind, and I shoved
the boat off while he was seeing how many ca'tridges there were in the
magazine.  He waded in and grabbed the boat when he saw I was sure
going, but I shoved her away from him.  Then it kind of struck him he
had to get in or swim."

Lewson's expression grew very grim.  "That's the thing that hurts the
most--to go away before I got even with that man," he said.  "Still, I
may get over it if I try to think of him with his nose smashed hard to
starboard."

Wyllard made a sign of impatience.  He felt that, after all, there was
perhaps something to be said for Smirnoff's point of view.

"There is just one plan open to us, and that's to drive her across to
the eastward as fast as we can," he said.  "We might, perhaps, pick up
an Alaska C.C. factory before the provisions quite run out if this
breeze and the gear hold up.  Failing that, we must try for one of the
Western Aleutians."

The others concurred in this, and very fortunately the breeze kept to
the west and south, for Wyllard had very grave doubts as to whether he
could have thrashed the schooner to windward through a steep head sea.
Indeed, on looking back on that voyage and remembering the state of the
vessel, it seemed to him that he and his companions had only escaped as
by a miracle.  In any case, they hove her to one misty evening in a
deep inlet behind a promontory, and Wyllard, who sculled up it alone in
the growing darkness, badly startled the agent of an A.C.C. factory
when he appeared, ragged, haggard, and wet with rain, in the doorway of
a big, stove-warmed room.

The agent, however, was, as he admitted, out for business, and when
Wyllard produced a wad of paper money stained by wet and perspiration
he appeared quite willing to part with certain provisions.  He was also
told that no questions would be answered, and when he had given Wyllard
supper the latter sculled away in the darkness leaving him none the
wiser.  Half an hour later the schooner slipped out to sea again.

The rest was by comparison easy.  They had the coast of Alaska and
British Columbia close aboard, and they crept southwards in fine
weather, once running off their course when the smoke of a steamer
crept up above the horizon.  Then they ran for the northern tongue of
Vancouver Island in a strong breeze of wind, and Wyllard, who had
already decided that the vessel would scarcely fetch five hundred
dollars and that it would be better if all trace of her disappeared,
pulled his wheel over suddenly as she was scraping by a surf-swept reef.

In another minute she was on hard and fast, and they had scarcely got
the boat over when the masts went with a crash.  A quarter of an hour
later they were thrown up on the beach, and before they set out on a
long march through the bush there was very little to be seen of the
vessel.

Three or four days afterwards they reached a little wooden town, and
Wyllard, who slipped into it alone in the dusk, bought clothing for
himself and his companions, who put it on in the bush.  Then they went
into the town together, and slept that night in a wooden hotel.

Their troubles were over, and, what was more, Wyllard, who pledged the
rest to secrecy, fancied that what had become of the schooner would
remain a mystery.



CHAPTER XXXI.

WYLLARD COMES HOME.

Harvest had commenced at the Range, and the clashing binders were
moving through the grain when Hawtrey sat one afternoon in Wyllard's
room at the Range.  It was then about five o'clock, and every man
belonging to the homestead was toiling bare-armed and grimed with dust
among the yellow oats, but Hawtrey sat at a table gazing at the litter
of papers in front of him with a troubled face.  He wore a white shirt
and store clothes, which was distinctly unusual in case of a Western
farmer at harvest time, and Edmonds, the mortgage jobber, leaned back
in a big chair quietly watching him.

The latter had, as it happened, called at a singularly inconvenient
time, and Hawtrey was anxious to get rid of him before the guests he
expected arrived.  It was Sally's birthday, and since she took pleasure
in simple festivities of any kind he had arranged to celebrate it at
the Range.  He was, however, sufficiently acquainted with his
companion's character to realise that it was most unlikely that he
would take his departure before he had accomplished the purpose which
had brought him there.  This was to collect several thousand dollars.

It was quite clear to Hawtrey that he was in an unpleasantly tight
place.  Edmonds held a bond upon his homestead, teams, and implements
as security for a short date loan, repayment of which was due, and he
was to be married to Sally in a month or so.

"Can't you wait a little?" he asked at length.

"I'm afraid not," was the uncompromising reply.  "Money's tight this
fall, and things have gone against me.  Besides, you could pay me off
if you wanted to."

Edmonds turned towards an open window, and glanced at the great stretch
of yellow grain that ran back across the prairie.  Dusty teams and
binders with flashing wooden arms moved half-hidden along the edge of
it, and the still, clear air was filled with a clash and clatter and
the rustle of flung-out sheaves.

There was no doubt that money could be raised upon that harvest field.
Indeed, Hawtrey fancied that his companion would be quite content to
take a bond for the delivery of so many thousand bushels in repayment
of the loan, but while he had already gone further than he had at one
time contemplated doing, this was a course he shrank from suggesting.
After all, the grain was Wyllard's, and there was the difficulty that
Wyllard might still come back, while if he failed to do this an absence
of another few months would entitle his executors to presume him dead.
In either case, Hawtrey would be required to account for his property.

"No," he said, "I can't take--that way."

There was a trace of contempt in the mortgage jobber's smile.  "You of
course understand just how you're fixed, but it seemed to me from that
draft of the arrangement with Wyllard that you have the power to do
pretty much what you like.  Anyway, if you gave me a bond on as much of
that grain as would wipe out the loan at present figure, it would only
mean that you would have Wyllard's trustees for creditors instead of
me, and it's probable that they wouldn't be as hard upon you as I'm
compelled to be.  As things stand, you have got to square up or I throw
your place on the market."

Hawtrey's face betrayed his dismay, and his companion fancied that he
would yield to a little further pressure.  He had not said anything
about the mortgage to Sally, and it would be singularly unpleasant to
be turned out upon the prairie within a month or two of his marriage,
for he could not count upon being left in possession of the Range much
longer.

"I'm only entitled to handle Wyllard's money on--his--account," he
objected.

Edmonds appeared to reflect.  "So far as I can remember there was
nothing of that kind stated in the draft of the arrangement.  It
empowered you to do anything you thought fit with the money, but it's
altogether your own affair.  I can, of course, get my dollars back by
selling your homestead up, and I have to decide if that must be done or
not before I leave."

He had very little doubt as to what the decision would be.  Hawtrey
would yield, and afterwards it would not be difficult to draw him into
some unwise speculation with the object of getting the money back,
which he imagined that Hawtrey would be desperately anxious to do.  As
the result of this, he expected to get such a hold upon the Range that
he would be master of the situation when the property fell into the
hands of Wyllard's trustees.  That Hawtrey would be disgraced as well
as ruined naturally did not count with him.

The latter took up one of the papers, and read it through with
vacillation in his eyes.  Then he rose, and stood leaning on the table
while he gazed at the teams toiling amidst the grain.  There was wealth
enough yonder to release him from his torturing anxieties, and after
all, he felt, something must turn up before the reckoning was due.  It
was not in his nature to face a crisis, and with him a trouble seemed
less formidable if it could only be put off a little.  Edmonds, who
knew with what kind of man he had to deal, said nothing further, and
quietly reached out for another cigar.

In the meanwhile, though neither of the men were aware of this, Sally
had just got down from her waggon on the other side of the house, and
another couple of teams were already growing larger upon the sweep of
whitened prairie.  As she entered the homestead she met Mrs. Nansen,
and the latter informed her that Hawtrey was busy with Edmonds in
Wyllard's room.  Sally's eyes sparkled when she heard it, and her face
grew hard.

"That man!" she said.  "Well, I guess I'll go right in to them."

In another minute she opened the door, and answered the mortgage
jobber's somewhat embarrassed greeting with a frigid stare.  Having
some experience of Sally's uncompromising directness, he was inclined
to fancy that the game was up, but he said nothing further, and she
fixed her eyes on Hawtrey.

"What's this man doing here again?" she asked.  "You promised me you
would never make another deal with him."

Hawtrey flushed.  Had he fancied it would have been the least use he
would have made some attempt to get Sally out of the room, but he was
unpleasantly sure that unless she was fully satisfied first it would
only result in failure.  Besides, driven to desperation, as he was, he
had a half-conscious feeling that she might provide him with some means
of escape.  Sally had certainly saved him once already, and,
humiliating as it was, he fancied that she did not expect too much from
him.  She might be very angry, but Sally's anger was, after all, less
difficult to face than Agatha's quiet scorn.

"I haven't made another deal.  It's--a previous one," he said lamely.

Sally swung round on Edmonds.  "You have come here for money?  You may
as well tell me.  I won't leave you with Gregory until you do."

It was quite evident that she would make her promise good, and Edmonds
nodded.

"Yes," he said; "about 3,000 dollars."

"And Gregory can't pay you?"

Edmonds reflected rapidly, and decided to take a bold course.  He was
acquainted with Hawtrey's habit of putting things off, and fancied that
the latter would seize upon the first loophole of escape from an
embarrassing situation.  That was why he gave him a lead.

"Well," he said, "there is a way in which he could do it if he wished.
He has only to fill in a paper and hand it me."

He had, however, not sufficiently counted on Sally's knowledge of his
victim's affairs, or her quickness of wit, for she turned to Hawtrey
with a commanding gesture.

"Where are you going to get 3,000 dollars from?" she asked.

The blood crept into Hawtrey's face, for this was a thing he could not
tell her; but a swift suspicion flashed into her mind as she looked at
him.

"Perhaps it could be--raised," he said.

"To pay his mortgage off?" and Sally swung round on Edmonds now.

"Yes," the latter admitted; "he can easily do it."

Then the girl turned to Hawtrey.  "Gregory," she said with harsh
incisiveness, "there's only one way you could get that money--and it
isn't yours."

Hawtrey said nothing, but he could not meet her gaze, and when he
turned from her she looked back at the mortgage jobber.

"If you're gone before I come back there'll sure be trouble," she
informed him, and sped swiftly out of the room.

Then Hawtrey sat down limply in his chair, and Edmonds laughed in a
jarring manner.  The game was up, but, after all, if he got his 3,000
dollars he could be satisfied, for he had already extracted a good many
from Hawtrey one way or another.

"If I were you I'd marry that girl right away," he said.  "You'd be
safer if you had her to look after you."

Hawtrey let the jibe pass.  For one thing, he felt that it was
warranted, and just then his anxiety was too strong for anger.

In the meanwhile, Sally ran out of the house to meet Hastings, who had
just handed his wife down from their waggon, and drew him a pace or two
aside.

"I'm worried about Gregory," she said; "he's in trouble--big trouble.
Somehow we have got to raise 3,000 dollars.  Edmonds is inside with
him."

Hastings did not seem greatly astonished.  "Ah!" he said, "I guess it's
over that mortgage of his.  It would be awkward for you and Gregory if
Edmonds took the homestead and turned him out."

Sally's face grew rather white, but she met his gaze steadily.

"Oh," she said, "that's not what I would mind the most."

Hastings reflected a moment or two.  He fancied that this was a very
difficult admission for the girl to make, and that she had made it
suggested that Hawtrey might become involved in more serious
difficulties.  He had also a strong suspicion of what they were likely
to be.

"Sally," he said quietly, "you are afraid of Edmonds making him do
something you would not like?"

Though she did not answer directly he saw the shame in the girl's face,
and remembered that he was one of Wyllard's trustees.

"I must raise those dollars--now--and I don't know where to get more
than five hundred from.  I might manage that," she said.

"Well," said Hastings, "you want me to lend you them, and I'm not sure
that I can.  Still, if you'll wait a few minutes I'll see what I can
do."

Sally left him, and he turned to his wife, whose expression suggested
that she had overheard part of what was said and had guessed the rest.

"You mean to raise that money?  After all, we are friends of his, and
it may save him from letting Edmonds get his grip upon the Range," she
said.

Hastings made a sign of reluctant assent.  "I don't quite know how I
can do it personally, in view of the figure wheat is standing at, and I
don't think much of any security that Gregory could offer me.  Still,
there is, perhaps, a way in which it could be arranged, and it's one
that, considering everything, is more or less admissible.  I think I'll
wait here for Agatha."

Agatha was in the waggon driven by Sproatly close behind them, and when
he had handed her and Winifred down Hastings, who walked to the house
with them, drew her into an unoccupied room, while Mrs. Nansen took the
rest into the big general one.

"I'm afraid that Gregory's in rather serious trouble.  Sally seems very
anxious about him," he said.  "It's rather a delicate subject, but I
understand that in a general way you are on good terms with both of
them?"

Agatha met his somewhat embarrassed gaze with a smile.  She fancied
that what he really wished to discover was whether she still felt any
bitterness against Gregory and blamed him for pledging himself to Sally.

"Yes," she said, "Sally and I are good friends, and I am very sorry to
hear that Gregory is in any difficulty."

Hastings still seemed embarrassed, and she was becoming puzzled by his
manner.

"Once upon a time you would have done anything possible to make things
easier for him," he said.  "I wonder if I might ask if to some extent
you have that feeling still?"

"Of course.  If he is in serious trouble I should be glad to do
anything within my power to help him."

"Even if it cost, we will say, about six hundred English pounds?"

Agatha gazed at him in bewildered astonishment.  "There are some twenty
dollars in my possession which your wife handed me not long ago."

"Still, if you had the money, you would be glad to help him--and would
not regret it afterwards?"

"No," said Agatha decisively; "if I had the means, and the need was
urgent, I should be glad to do what I could."  Then she laughed.  "I
can't understand in the least how this is to the purpose."

"If you will wait for the next two or three months I may be able to
explain it to you," said Hastings.  "In the meanwhile, there are one or
two things I have to do."

Agatha sat still when he left her, wondering what he could have meant,
but feeling that she would be willing to do what she had assured him.
His suggestion that it was possible that she still cherished any sense
of grievance against Gregory because he was going to marry Sally,
however, brought a little scornful smile into her eyes.  It was
singularly easy to forgive Gregory that, for she now saw him as he
was--shallow, careless, shiftless, a man without depth of character.
He had a few surface graces, and on occasion a certain half-insolent
forcefulness of manner which in a curious fashion was almost becoming.
There was, however, nothing beneath the surface.  When he had to face a
crisis he collapsed like a pricked bladder, which was the first simile
she could think of, though she admitted that it was not a particularly
elegant one.  He was, it seemed, quite willing that a woman should help
him out of the trouble he had involved himself in, for she had no doubt
that Sally had sent Hastings on his somewhat incomprehensible errand.

Then a clear voice came in through the window, and turning towards it
she saw that a young lad clad in blue duck was singing as he drove his
binder through the grain.  The song was a very simple one which had
some vogue just then upon the prairie, but her eyes grew suddenly hazy
as odd snatches of it reached her through the beat of hoofs, the clash
of the binder's arms, and the rustle of the flung-out sheaves.

  "My Bonny lies over the ocean,
  My Bonny lies far over the sea."


Then he called to his horses, and it was a few moments before she heard
again--

  "Bring back my Bonny to me."


A quiver ran through her as she leaned upon the window frame.  There
was a certain pathos in the simple strain, and she could fancy that the
lad, who was clearly English, as an exile felt it, too.  Once more as
the jaded horses and clashing machine grew smaller down the edge of the
great sweep of yellow grain, his voice came faintly up to her with its
haunting thrill of longing and regret--

  "Bring back my Bonny to me."


This in her case was more than anyone could do, and as she stood
listening a tear splashed upon her closed hands.  The man, by
comparison with whom Gregory appeared a mere lay figure, was in all
probability lying still far up in the solitudes of the frozen North,
with his last grim journey done.  This time, however, he had not
carried her picture with him.  Gregory was to blame for that, and it
was the one thing she could not forgive him.

She leaned against the window for another minute, struggling with an
almost uncontrollable longing, and looking out upon the sweep of golden
wheat and whitened grass with brimming eyes, until there was a rattle
of wheels, and she saw Edmonds drive away.  In another minute she heard
voices in the corridor, and it became evident that Hastings was
speaking to his wife.

"I've got rid of the man, and it's reasonable to expect that Gregory
will keep clear of him after this," he said.

"Don't you mean that Agatha did it?"

It was Mrs. Hastings who asked the question, and Agatha became intent
as she heard her name.  She did not, however, hear the answer, and Mrs.
Hastings spoke again.

"Allen," she said, "you don't keep a secret badly, though Harry pledged
you not to tell.  Still, all that caution was a little unnecessary.  It
was, of course, just the kind of thing he would do."

"What did he do?" Hastings asked, and Agatha heard his wife's soft
laugh, for they were just outside the door now.

"Left the Range, or most of it, to Agatha in case he didn't come back
again."

They went on, and Agatha, turning from the window, sat down limply with
the blood in her face and her heart beating horribly fast.  Wyllard's
last care, it seemed, had been to provide for her, and that fact
brought her a curious sense of solace.  In an unexplainable fashion it
took the bitterest sting out of her grief, though how far he had
succeeded in his intentions did not seem to matter in the least.  It
was sufficient to know that amidst all the haste of his preparation he
had not forgotten her.

Then, becoming a little calmer, she understood what had been in
Hastings's mind during the interview that had puzzled her, and was glad
that she assured him of her willingness to sacrifice anything that
might be hers if it was needed to set Gregory free.  It was, she felt,
what Wyllard would have done with the money.  He had said that Gregory
was a friend of his, and that, she knew, meant a good deal to him.

It was, however, evident that she must join the others if she did not
wish her absence to excite undesirable comment, and going out she came
face to face with Sally in the corridor.  The girl stopped, and saw the
sympathy in her eyes.

"Yes," she said impulsively, "I've saved him.  Edmonds has gone.
Hastings bought him off, and, though I don't quite know how, you helped
him.  He stayed behind to wait for you."

Agatha smiled.  The vibrant relief in her companion's voice stirred
her, and she realised once more that in choosing this half-taught girl,
at least, Gregory had acted with wholly unusual wisdom.  It was with a
sense of half-contemptuous amusement at her folly she remembered how
she had once fancied that Gregory was marrying beneath him.  Sally was
far from perfect, but when it was a matter of essentials the man was
not fit to brush her shoes.

"My dear," she said, "I really don't know exactly what I--have--done,
but if it amounts to anything it is a pleasure to me."

Then they went together into the big general room where Gregory was
talking to Winifred somewhat volubly.  Agatha, however, fancied from
his manner that he had, at least, the grace to feel ashamed of himself.
Supper, she heard Mrs. Nansen say, would be ready very shortly, and
feeling in no mood for general conversation she sat near a window
looking out across the harvest field until she heard a distant shout,
and saw a waggon appear on the crest of the rise.  Then, to her
astonishment, two of the binders stopped, and she saw a couple of men
who sprang down from them run to meet the waggon.  In another moment or
two more of the teams stopped, and a faint clamour of cries went up,
while here and there little running figures straggled up the slope.
Then her companions clustered about her at the window, wondering, and
Winifred turned to Hastings.

"What are they shouting for?" she asked.  "They are all crowding about
the waggon now."

Agatha felt suddenly dazed and dizzy, for she knew what the answer to
that question must be even before Mrs. Hastings spoke.

"It's Harry coming back," she said, and gasped.

In another moment they streamed out of the house, and Agatha found it
scarcely possible to follow them, for the sudden revulsion of feeling
had almost overpowered her.  Still, she reached the door, and saw the
waggon drawn up amidst a cluster of struggling men, and by and bye
Wyllard, whom they surrounded, break out as if by force from the midst
of them.  She stood on the threshold waiting him, and in the midst of
her exultation a pang smote her as she saw how gaunt and worn he was.
He came straight towards her, apparently regardless of the others, and
clasping the hands she held out drew her into the house.

"So you have not married Gregory yet?" he said, and laughed
triumphantly when he saw the answer in her shining eyes.

"No," she said softly, "it is certain that I will never marry him."

Wyllard drew her back still further with a compelling grasp.

"Why?" he asked.

Agatha looked up at him, and then turned her eyes away.

"I was waiting for you," she said simply.

[Illustration: "'I was waiting for you,' she said simply."]

Then he took her in his arms and kissed her before he turned, still
with her hand in his, to face the others who were now flocking back to
the house, and in another moment or two they went in together amidst a
confused clamour of good wishes.



THE END.





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