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The Intriguers, Page 2

Harold Bindloss



  Dusk was falling on the broad river, and the bold ridge behind the citystood out sharp and black against a fading gleam in the western sky. Abig, sidewheel steamer, spotlessly white, with tiers of decks thattowered above the sheds and blazed with light, was receiving the lastof her passengers and preparing to cast off from her moorings. RichardBlake hurried along the wharf and, on reaching the gangplank, stoodaside to let an elderly lady pass. She was followed by her maid and agirl whose face he could not see. It was a few minutes after thesailing time, and as the lady stepped on board a rope fell with asplash. There was a shout of warning as the bows, caught by thecurrent, began to swing out into the stream, and the end of thegangplank slipped along the edge of the wharf. It threatened to fallinto the river, and the girl was not yet on board. Blake leaped uponthe plank. Seizing her shoulder, he drove her forward until a seaman,reaching out, drew her safe on deck. Then the paddles splashed and asthe boat forged out into the stream, the girl turned and thanked Blake.He could not see her clearly, for an overarching deck cast a shadow onher face.

  "Glad to have been of assistance; but I don't think you could havefallen in," he said. "The guy-rope they had on the gangplank mighthave held it up."

  Turning away, he entered the smoking-room, where he spent a while overan English newspaper that devoted some space to social functions andthe doings of people of importance, noticing once or twice, with acurious smile, mention of names he knew. He had the gift of makingfriends, and before he went to India he had met a number of men andwomen of note who had been disposed to like him. Then he had won thegood opinion of responsible officers on the turbulent frontier and hadmade acquaintances that might have been valuable. Now, however, he haddone with all that; he was banished from the world in which they moved,and if they ever remembered him it was, no doubt, as one who had goneunder.

  Shaking off these thoughts, he joined some Americans in a game ofcards, and it was late at night when he went out into the moonlight asthe boat steamed up Lake St. Peter. A long plume of smoke trailedacross the cloudless sky, the water glistened with silvery radiance,and, looking over the wide expanse, he could see dark trees etchedfaintly on the blue horizon. Ahead, the lights of Three Riverstwinkled among square, black blocks of houses and tall sawmill stacks.

  A few passengers were strolling about, but the English newspaper hadmade Blake restless, and he wanted to be alone. Descending to aquieter deck, he was surprised to see the girl he had assisted sittingin a canvas chair near the rail. Nearby stood several large baskets,from which rose an angry snarling.

  "What is this?" he asked, with the careless abruptness which usuallycharacterized him. "With your permission."

  He raised a lid, while the girl watched him with amusement.

  "Looks like a menagerie on a small scale," he remarked. "Are theseanimals yours?"

  "No; they belong to Mrs. Keith."

  "Mrs. Keith?" he said sharply. "The lady I saw at the Frontenac, withthe autocratic manners? It's curious, but she reminds me of somebody Iknew, and the name's the same. I wonder----"

  He broke off, and Millicent Graham studied him as he stood in themoonlight. She did not think he recognized her, and perhaps he washardly justified in supposing that his timely aid at the gangwaydispensed with the need for an introduction, but she liked his looks,which she remembered well. She had no fear of this man's presuming toofar; and his surprise when she mentioned Mrs. Keith, had roused herinterest.

  "Yes," she said; "I believe it was my employer you knew."

  He did not follow this lead.

  "Are you supposed to sit up all night and watch the animals for her?"he asked.

  "Only for an hour or two. The steamboat people refused to have them inthe saloon, and the maid should have relieved me. She was tired,however, with packing and running errands all day, and I thought I'dlet her sleep a while."

  "Then it can't be much of an intrusion if I try to make you morecomfortable. Let me move your chair nearer the deckhouse, where you'llbe out of the wind; but I'll first see if I can find another rug."

  He left her without waiting for a reply, and, returning with a rug,placed her chair in a sheltered spot; then he leaned against therailing.

  "So you are Mrs. Keith's companion," he observed. "It strikes me asrather unfeeling of her to keep you here in the cold." He indicatedthe baskets. "But what's her object in buying these creatures?"

  "Caprice," Millicent smiled. "Some of them are savage, and they cost agood deal. I can't imagine what she means to do with them; I don'tthink she knows herself. One of them, however, has been growling allday, and as it's apparently unwell it mustn't be neglected."

  "If it growls any more, I'll feel tempted to turn yonder hose upon it,or try some other drastic remedy."

  "Please don't!" cried Millicent in alarm. "But you mustn't think Mrs.Keith is inconsiderate. I have much to thank her for; but she getsvery enthusiastic over her hobbies."

  "Do you know whether she ever goes down to a little place inShropshire?"

  "Yes; I have been with her. Once she took me to your old home." Thecolor crept into Millicent's face. "You don't seem to remember me,Lieutenant Blake."

  Blake had learned self-control and he did not start, though he camenear doing so as he recalled a scene in which he had taken part someyears earlier.

  "It would have been inexcusable if I had forgotten you," he respondedwith a smile. "Still, I couldn't quite place you until a few momentsago, when you faced the light. But you were wrong in one thing: I'm nolonger Lieutenant Blake."

  She appreciated the frankness which had prompted this warning, and shesaw that she had made a tactless blunder, but she looked at himsteadily.

  "I forgot," she said; "forgive me. I heard of--what happened inIndia--but I knew that there must have been some mistake." Shehesitated for a moment. "I think so now."

  Blake made a sudden movement, and then leaned back against the railing.

  "I'm afraid that an acquaintance which lasted three or four minutescould hardly enable you to judge: first impressions are often wrong,you know. Anyway, I don't complain of the opinion of gentlemen whoknew more about me."

  Millicent saw that the subject must be dropped.

  "At our first meeting," she said, "I had no opportunity for thankingyou; and you gave me none tonight. It's curious that, while I've metyou only twice, on both occasions you turned up just when you wereneeded. Is it a habit of yours?"

  Blake laughed.

  "That's a flattering thing to hint. The man who's always on hand whenhe's wanted is an estimable person."

  He studied her with an interest which she noticed but could not resent.The girl had changed and gained something since their first meeting,and he thought it was a knowledge of the world. She was, he felt,neither tainted nor hardened by what she had learned, but her freshchildish look which suggested ignorance of evil had gone and could notcome back. Indeed, he wondered bow she had preserved it in herfather's house. This was not a matter he could touch upon; butpresently she referred to it.

  "I imagine," she said shyly, "that on the evening when you came to myrescue in London you were surprised to find me--so unprepared; soincapable of dealing with the situation."

  "That is true," Blake answered with some awkwardness. "A bachelordinner, you know, after a big race meeting at which we had backedseveral winners! One has to make allowances."

  Millicent smiled rather bitterly.

  "You may guess that I had to make them often in those days; but it wason the evening we were speaking of that my eyes were first opened, andI was startled. But you must understand that it was not by my father'swish that I came to London and stayed with him--until the end. Heurged me to go away; but his health had broken down and he had no oneelse to care for him. When he was no longer able to get about,everybody deserted him, and he felt it."

  "I was truly sorry to hear of his death," Blake said. "Your fa
ther wasonce a very good friend to me. But, if I may ask, how was it he letyou come to his flat?"

  "I forced myself upon him. My mother died long ago, and her unmarriedsisters took care of me. They lived very simply in a small secludedcountry house: two old-fashioned Evangelicals, gentle but austere,studying small economies, giving all they could away. In winter weembroidered for missionary bazaars; in summer we spent the days in aquiet, walled garden. It was all very peaceful, but I grew restless;and when I heard that my father's health was failing I felt that I mustgo to him. My aunts were grieved and alarmed, but they said they darenot hinder me if I thought it my duty."

  Stirred by troubled memories and perhaps encouraged by the sympathy heshowed, she had spoken on impulse without reserve, and Blake listenedwith pity. The girl, brought up, subject to wholesome Puritanicalinfluences, in such surroundings as she had described, must havesuffered a cruel shock when suddenly plunged into the society of therakes and gamblers who frequented her father's flat.

  "Could you not have gone back when you were no longer needed?" he asked.

  "No," she said; "it would not have been fair. I had changed since Ileft my aunts. They were very sensitive, and I think the differencethey must have noticed in me would have jarred on them. I should havebrought something alien into their unworldly life. It was too late toreturn; I had to follow the path I had chosen."

  Blake mused a while, watching the lights of Three Rivers fade asternand the broad white wake of the paddles stream back across the glassysurface of the lake. The girl must have learned much of human failingssince she left her sheltered home, but he thought the sweetness ofcharacter which could not be spoiled by knowledge of evil was greatlyto be admired. He was, however, a man of action and not a philosopher.

  "Well," he said, "I appreciate your letting me talk to you; but it'scold and getting late, and you have sat on deck long enough. I'll seethat somebody looks after the animals."

  Millicent felt dubious, though she was sleepy and tired.

  "If anything happened to her pets, Mrs. Keith would not forgive me."

  "I'll engage that something will happen to some of them very soonunless you promise to go to your room," Blake laughed. Then he calleda deckhand. "What have you to do?"

  "Stand here until the watch is changed."

  "Then, you can keep an eye on these baskets. If any of the beastsmakes an alarming noise, send to my room, the second, forward, portside. Look me up before we get to Montreal."

  "That's all right, sir," replied the man.

  Blake turned to Millicent and held out his hand as she rose.

  "Now," he said, "you can go to rest with a clear conscience."

  She left him with a word of thanks, wondering whether she had beenindiscreet, and why she had told him so much. She knew nothing to hisadvantage except one chivalrous action, and she had not desired toarouse his pity, but he had an honest face and had shown anunderstanding sympathy which touched her, because she had seldomexperienced it. He had left the army with a stain upon his name; butshe felt very confident that he had not merited his disgrace.