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I have seen very handsome girls whose grandmother was a full-blooded Stony Indian of Alberta.
Well, it is unlikely that I shall ever know anything now about Dick Harding's marriage, or the girl he married. He was an unfortunate chap. I thought of his well-set head and pale face he had what women call an interesting face and I guessed that he had been sent by hard fate to one of those places of unremitting toil and desperate loneliness in Canada when he was too young. Many such places there are where no marriage can be surprising made by a civilised lad overcome and struggling to escape from the utter depression of his solitude.
It's an unnatural condition for the young; and the dangers of such an existence are quite unrealised by the parents who dispatch their sons hopefully to the wildest parts of the Empire, and then when they make some such marriage as poor Dick Harding's are "" extremely upset" about it, as Milbanke said.
I did not do all this moralising at once, I may admit. Nor did my thoughts arrange themselves in the neat sequence in which I have presented them. As a matter of fact, I am not philosophical enough for that; and besides, I was knocking about a good deal, shooting in one place and another, and having a pretty good time.
When at length I got a letter from David I happened to be in Northumberland, and the very last thing I desired was to leave the place I was in. A week's frost and a full moon had brought the woodcock into a wood of oak and holly that nearly covered a hillside, and had several springs in it, an ideal place for cock.
I don't believe I would have left that spot at that time for any one else in the world, and probably not for David if it had not been for something in his letter which made me think he was not well.
"I don't want to spoil your sport, and Northumberland to here is a good long way to go.
THE LAST NIGHT.
But still I'm selfish enough to want you, old chap!"
I marched off to the postoffice in the village to send my reply, and on the way made up my mind to go in two days' time, so as not to miss the shoot on the morrow. Having decided this, I picked up the stumpy official pencil in the post-office and wrote my wire"Will be with you to-morrow. Bill."
Why I did this, or rather why the pencil did it, I had not the least idea at this time. I walked on pondering, and honestly a bit surprised. Was I going dotty -or was the stumpy pencil a kind of planchette that wrote by its own
volition? It had all the marks of a post-office pencil, and was chained up by the head to its desk.
However, it did not occur to me to disobey the pencil, and therefore all that remained was to go back and prepare for an early start.
They all said I was mad to lose this shoot, and I was a good deal inclined to agree with them. However, I set off in the freezing dark of the next morning, for I had to get by a branch line to Newcastle by way of a start; then to London, and from Charing Cross into Kent. I missed the last connection from Paddock Wood; but it didn't matter, as I got a car and motored the last twenty miles.
It was perfectly dark and still freezing when I arrived at the Red House. The hall was empty and quiet and and quiet and brightly lit. David's man, Simpson, whom I had known for ten years, asked me to come straight to the smokingroom, and there I found David looking rather a wreck in his big chair. But he brightened up when I came in, and said
"Oh, it's all right. I thought you'd come. I was jolly glad to get your wire yesterday, Bill. But I hope I haven't upset the best part of your shooting
"Her cousin, that Mrs Ibbotson, wanted some one to go to the Riviera with, so she carried off Joey. off Joey. Hilda wasn't a bit pleased. Look here, your dinner must be ready by this time. Do you mind my not coming in?"
"I dined on the train, David, and I don't want anything now but a drink, and turn in. I'm dead with sleep."
I said this because I thought it would save time, and get him to bed. I didn't like the look of his shining tired eyes, and his voice sounded weak.
"All right! The drinks will be in this minute. I'm glad you've not forgotten Patsy. She and her affairs are occupying me a good deal."
"What about that donkey she was so set on ↑ "
"Oh, I got a first-class little donkey from old Sivyer. She rides it from morning till night -never wants to do anything else; perfectly happy as long as she has the donkey. Only Hilda doesn't like it."
"But why not?
"She don't like anything that Patsy does now, Bill. That's my trouble. She has turned against the child, hates the sight of her." "Oh, Lord!
Nothing. No reason at all. Same old thing."
When he said same old thing" in that dejected voice, I knew it was jealousy in some
form or another of Hilda's. There is really nothing to be said at such moments. David went on quietly.
"She says the child has a bad nature, is as cold as a stone, and very suspicious. It's a fact that she has a sort of dislike to religious teaching of any kind, but at her age it's absurd to take that seriously. Joey talked a lot of nonsense to Hilda about the child's being a pagan, and a cold-blooded Red Indian, and goodness and goodness knows what! Joey began the mischief, I think; and then when the poor creature was in a sort of disgrace with them both, I had to be kind to her, and-well, that finished the case. Hilda declares she won't have her under our roof any longer, which is simply, you know-just think of that!"
"Look here, David," I said, suddenly seeing my way, "there is nothing in the world to bother about. Let Patsy go to school, where she'll be a great deal happier than here, with other children of her own age and all that sort of thing. It's the best that could possibly happen, as far as she is concerned."
of Hilda's jealousies to blow over. But I was sure we could hit on some plan.
"The point is," David went on, that I don't know how much longer my time is, and this child must be provided for. If anything happens to me, I want her to be taken straight back to her parents, not left here to be arranged for by-by other peeple. I have left her an annuity in my will, so she won't be quite poor. But the Hardings are at their own place in Vancouver Island, and that's a deuce of a long way off. Will you give me leave to name you in my will as the person who will undertake to see this child safe back to Vancouver Island, with the parents she never ought to have been taken away from?
This was a facer. At the groan I gave, David burst out laughing.
"Poor old Bill! It's a sin to take advantage of you, but now I feel safe. You must mean to do it, or you couldn't emit a noise like that! Well, now you know the worst, we may as well both go to bed. Old Hunter, my solicitor, will be here to-morrow morning to talk over talk over the arrangements with us. Good fellow, Hunter, and sensible. You know it's best to have a thing of this kind in black and white."
"David, you have neither heart nor conscience. I'll tell you in the morning more plainly what I think of you, and old Hunter can hear it too, if he
likes. Good night! You needn't come along. I remember the room, if it's the same one that I was in before."
By the time we had mounted the stairs, though ever so slowly, he was breathing hard. I wished he would go to his room, where I could see Simpson waiting for him; but he said he wanted to make sure that Hilda was all right, and had left no lights burning.
By this I knew that she must be in one of her worst frames of mind, for it was always a bad symptom when Hilda went off to sleep at the other end of the house, and then instead of sleeping would read half the night, and sometimes roam about the house.
I knew David hated these tricks of hers, but, of course, he couldn't cure them. One might as well argue with the hind-leg of a donkey as with Hilda; and whenever she was worked up about anything, or couldn't have her own way entirely, this was the line she took up at night.
He went down the long passage past my door, and after a while I heard his steps returning, so I knew he would soon be in bed. I had never seen him look so ill before; and what he thought of his own case was only too plain, poor old David! But I wouldn't give up hope. It might be just a bad turn that wouldn't last long. The main thing was to give him all the comfort one could, and promise anything he wanted, to set his mind at
rest. The thought of a tendays' journey across land and ocean with Patsy was staggering. I admit that. But I wouldn't look at it too closely; it might never have to come off.
The last thing I can remember that passed across my mind that night was a half-stupefied wonder at Hilda. How extraordinary that she could be so self-involved in her jealous fancies and delusions as to take no notice at all of David's state of health! Simpson was anxious enough; I could see it in his faceI fell asleep.
I don't know how many hours it lasted, but I slept like a log. When I woke up, it was still black night, and the house was on fire.
I was instantly aware of that, although my room was untouched, but there was a rustling and crackling sound from the other side of the wall apparently, and there was a dry, peculiar smell that no one could possibly mistake. The first thing I did was to shut my window, so as to make no draught on opening the door to get out, and from the window I could see a cloud of sparks fly out into the dark, apparently from the roof, but no flames.
I slipped into an overcoat and a pair of boots, and waiting for nothing else, went out to waken David.
The passage when I stepped into it was thick with smoke and choking. It came down in puffs from the other end where I knew Hilda must be sleeping, be
cause David had gone that couldn't drive, but he knew way to her room. It occurred the way, so off we went through to me that she must be in the night to the little reddanger at this moment, but I roofed town ten miles away deliberately chose first to look where the fire-engine dwelt; after David. Outside his door and having woken up the fireI met Simpson with a candle, brigade with tremendous clangonly half-dressed, but quite self- ing of the bell, we were amazed possessed, and sniffing curiously. at the speed with which those That's right," I said. "Get good fellows got under weigh him warmly dressed. You'll and left us behind. have time, I think, and a chill might give him his death. I'll go on and wake up the house."
"Excuse me, sir," said Simpson decidedly, "but you don't know the rooms where the servants sleep, and I do. But if you would just help the master to dress, while I hurry round
"Right," I said, opening the door; and what about waking Mrs Trent ? "
"Damn her!" Simpson replied aloud, as he hurried off. 66 I'll see to it."
As gently as I could, I roused David. Of course, any kind of shock was the worst thing possible for his heart. He knew this quite as well as I did, and kept as cool as a cucumber; the few hours' sleep had worked a difference in him, for he seemed much stronger than on the evening before.
"Have you seen Hilda? was his only question.
And I told him Simpson had gone to call her. That trusty man reappeared in the shortest possible time, and appealed to me to help him get out the car and go for the fire-engine. David's chauffeur was down with flu, it seemed. Simpson
"They're wonderful, that's what they are," Simpson averred. "To the right here, sir! Next turn, right again. We shan't be long behind them. P'raps it won't be much of a fire, after all, if it don't get beyond that wing and the swing-door. But to think of a man in the state of 'ealth he's in, having his house set afire over his 'ead with such deliberate foolishness!"
She very nearly did it once before, and that didn't satisfy her," Simpson went on, with concentrated bitterness. "Reading in bed, of course, instead of sleeping like a Christian! she'd use the electric light for it, that would be safe enough. But no! She must be off with herself to the blue room, and then she must have the bed dragged out of its place to somewhere else, so that the light overhead is useless, and she takes a great branch candlestick with three lights and planks it down by the head of the bed to read by, and thenO Lord!"
"Went off to sleep, I suppose,