By HAROLD BINDLOSS
THE sun had set, and the rugged fells stood out, blue and sharp, against an orange glow, when Festing sat on the terrace of Annet's creeper-covered house. The air was scented with the smell of firs, and a beck splashed in the shadow across the lawn. Festing had lately arrived from Canada, and Annet was the father of a friend whom he had left farming on the Western plains. Annet, however, was not like his son. He was marked by a humorous, philosophic calm, while Bob was always in a hurry and severely practical. Bob's sister, Alice, was tying up some flowers at the end of the terrace, and Festing hoped she was too far off to hear.
"If I didn't know that Bob is nothing of a humorist, I should have thought his letter a rather bad joke," Annet remarked. "I imagined my duty ended with giving him good advice, and money when he extended his farm; but this last request——" He paused, and resumed with a twinkle: "His dividing the responsibility between us hints that he doesn't trust my judgment altogether, but one feels that you are, so to speak, rather young for the job."
"It isn't that, sir," Festing objected. "I know how the Western farmers live, and in consequence——"
"You know better what is required? Well, I don't resent Bob's want of confidence, and he thoughtfully sent a list of the necessary qualifications. Beauty, he remarks, is not essential, but he insists on intelligence, pluck, and good temper. He would not object to a little money, but does not demand it. The girl, however, must not be afraid of work."
Festing laughed. "The thing sounds ridiculous, but it wouldn't strike one as quite so absurd in Canada. You see, in the prairie provinces marriage is something of a problem for a large number of well-educated young Englishmen who are breaking new soil. They work hard and live frugally, but they have the tastes and traditions of their kind. There are not many women, and the girls who could manage a homestead well might jar, while young Englishwomen of the type they knew at home would be daunted by the hardships and discomforts."
"I do see," said Annet. "Well, Bob was never given to romantic sentiment, and seems at least to know what he wants. On the whole, I think one of Alice's mountaineering friends is indicated. They're not easily daunted or remarkably conventional, and physical strength and resolution are useful things, although it's possible for a young woman to have too much of them."
"I hope Miss Annet doesn't know what I've undertaken."
Annet's eyes twinkled. "She knows what Bob asked me, but not, I think, that he leaves you to approve my choice. Still, she may guess. However, we'll talk of it again, when you come back from your walking tour. In the meantime Alice will tell you where to go."
Festing felt some embarrassment when he joined Miss Annet. He had rashly undertaken to find his friend a wife, and the matter now looked much more difficult than it did in Canada. In fact, it looked preposterous as he walked up and down the English lawn with Alice, who told him where to go and what he ought to see. Afterwards he remembered that she planned his tour, and the time he was to spend at certain places, with marked exactness.
He started next morning, and a day or two later toiled up a long ridge in a hollow between two mountains. The ridge had been an ancient moraine, for curiously-marked stones broke through the mossy grass, and its surface was very rough. Festing, however, had lived among the snow-capped rocks of the Pacific slope, and the climb was not hard to him.
It was a lowering day, with gleams of sunshine that lighted up lichened rock and emerald moss, and vanished. Above, streaks of gauzy mist crept about the hollows in the great black crags. Festing had seen stupendous rocks in Canada, but these fissured English buttresses that rose from the gravel screes were imposing, and he would not like to get lost among them in the mist. There was, however, not much mist, and he had a map, while Alice had given him careful directions and told him where to stop the night.
The ridge ended at the foot of a gap between the crags and the top of a shaly hill, and when Festing stopped for breath two girls came round a corner. The first carried a heavy rucksack, but came down the loose scree with a light, agile tread. Her figure was silhouetted against the sky, and Festing remarked its grace and fine poise as she balanced herself upon the slippery stones. She wore no hat, and her light hair was ruffled by the wind. Her head was tilted back, and exertion had brought a warm colour to her face. It was an attractive face, but Festing thought he had looked at her long enough, and glanced at her companion. The other girl looked tired, and hesitated until the first turned round.
"It's as safe as going downstairs; the trouble is, you will wear pretty boots," she said, with a laugh. "But give me your sack; I'll feel satisfied when I get you over the top."
"If it's as hard going down, you'll have to carry me," the other rejoined, as she handed the bag to her companion. Then she made an abrupt movement as she saw Festing, and they went on.
Festing met them at the bottom of the gap, from which a rough track wound upwards at the back of the crags. It was very steep, and he thought one or two of the pitches would require some agility to climb.
"If you're going up, perhaps you had better let me take the bag," he said.
The first girl gave him a swift glance. He liked the level way she looked at him, and somehow felt that she was satisfied. She was frank, but had a certain touch of dignity.
"Yes, thanks," she answered. "You can put the thing down at the top."
Festing knew her voice, because he had heard her laughing and talking in the garden of the hotel he had left. It was an attractive voice, rather deep, but soft, with a little trill when it rose. Presently he heard the crash of a displaced stone, and, looking back, saw the tired girl clinging to the rock near the middle of an awkward pitch. The spot was hardly dangerous, but it was possible for one to fall, and he scrambled down.
"Can I help you?" he asked.
"If you don't mind," said the other girl, who was some yards off, and added: "Let him, Jessie."
Festing had some trouble in getting her up, for the track led across big stones sticking out from a nearly precipitous slope. His companion, who stopped for breath now and then, said nothing, but the other girl gave him some instructions from behind. They got up, and he found himself on a small, level space with crags on three sides. It was rather like the top of a table, only that a large cairn stood in the middle. Below was a valley that looked profoundly deep, and the storm-torn tops of rugged mountains rose all round. The wind was fresh, and the air got cold as a trail of mist drifted past. Festing felt hungry, and looked at the cairn, which was the only shelter. He thought the light-haired girl was amused.
"I expect you meant to lunch here," she remarked. "If so, you needn't go away. I don't know if that's very gracious, since the mountain doesn't belong to us."
Festing, who said he would like to stop, arranged some stones to make a seat, and, opening his packet of food, put it down before the girls.
"You may see something there you would like."
The tired girl took a sandwich, and then looked at her companion.
"The watercress and eggs!" she said.
"She means you got the lunch we ordered," the other explained. "When we asked for it this morning, they found somebody else had taken the packet. It's obvious that we stayed at the same hotel."
"We did," Festing agreed. "I heard you laugh."
She looked rather hard at him, and he liked her calm gaze, but she said: "Well, shall we change the packets, or pool our lunch?"
"Pool it, I think," said Festing. "Variety's nice."
While they ate, he asked about the mountains, and she told him their names, but seemed puzzled by his ignorance, and by and by said: "I suppose you generally climb in Wales or Scotland?"
"The Alps, then?"
Festing, who, had bitten off a large piece of cake, shook bis head, and the girl looked surprised. "But you have climbed—you have balance, and know how to step on a loose stone."
"I used to wander about the mountains of British Columbia on business."
"But it's a desolate country," said the tired girl. "What was your business?"
"Looking for silver mines. Before that, I helped survey the line for a new railroad."
"Ah!" said the other girl. "Did you find a mine?"
"We found a number, but only one where the ore was worth smelting."
"Did you smelt it?"
"No," said Festing. "You see, I knew something about mining, so I sold the claim and went east to the plains. Perhaps the best place to dig for silver is in the black wheat-soil. But how would you get up the gully yonder?"
They talked about mountains, moraines, and glaciers, while the wind wailed round the cairn and loosened little stones that tinkled down the screes. Festing found both his companions charming, but particularly the one with the light hair. She was frank and quietly humorous, but he thought her frankness had limits; her steady glance hinted at pride and an inner reserve. But this did not matter. He had been of some small help, and one could be unconventional on the lonely mountain top; but they would soon go down, and, if they met again, his companions would pass him with a distant bow, or perhaps without. Presently the tired one said—
"You are to be envied for having nothing to do for three or four months. Are you going to spend all your holiday in the mountains?"
"I'm afraid not," Festing answered naïvely. "As it happens, I have something to do. In fact, I rashly undertook a troublesome job for a friend."
"Friends have a way of putting things like that on you, if you're not careful," said the other.
Then it got suddenly cold and very damp, and the light-haired girl rose with a little cry of annoyance. The valley below was filled with mist, which overflowed and streamed across the mountain tops, and the wind began to roar among the gullies. The fog got thicker, and Festing understood the risk of going down, since a few yards in the wrong direction might lead one over the edge of a precipice.
"We must wait and see if it will clear," the girl remarked.
They waited for an hour, and then, when it began to rain, she got up resolutely.
"We must start," she said. "It's too far to go back, but if we can get down the big scree, our stopping-place is only three or four miles from the bottom." Then she looked at Festing doubtfully. "The mist is getting thicker; I don't know what we ought to do with you."
Festing asked if he might go with them, and they set off, the light-haired girl leading. For a time they scrambled downhill among big stones, and he had an uncomfortable feeling that he might find himself stepping over a crag. The stones were undisturbed and not scratched by nails, but the girl went on with the fearless confidence and grace of a mountain deer, and he helped her companion as well as he could. At length the big stones ended, and a smooth slope of gravel ran down into the mist. It looked nearly perpendicular, but a path a few inches wide, which the mountain sheep had made, crossed it obliquely. Festing's nerve was good, but he hesitated.
"I suppose it's safe?" he said.
"It's not really dangerous," the girl replied. "If you can help Jessie——"
He did his best, sometimes walking in front of the girl, so that she could put her hand on his shoulder, sometimes ploughing through the scree below the path and steadying her. In places the gravel, loosened by their feet, slipped away, and they heard the stones tinkle far down in the mist, and once a long, smooth slab dropped nearly straight into what seemed to be a bottomless pit. They left the scree, however, where huge broken rocks clung to the slope, and soon afterwards the light-haired girl stopped abruptly. Festing, looking down, saw the fissured face of a crag close beneath.
"Rather a near thing, wasn't it?" he said.
"We must try back, farther to the right. Take care of Jessie," she answered, and a curious look of confidence passed between them.
She found a sheep path that brought them down to rough pasture, and he helped the other girl along the side of a stony beck. It was raining hard, but the mist got thinner, and at length a few scattered buildings appeared across the fields. The light-haired girl stopped and thanked Festing.
"The path to the hotel turns off here; we are stopping at the farm," she said.
Festing hesitated. He would have liked to tell her he had been directed to the farm; but it might look too marked, and he took the indicated track. He spent the evening in a dreary billiard-room, smoking and thinking of his companions. Both had charm, but there was something curiously attractive in the pluck and confidence of the one who had brought them down. She had dignity and a candour that was inspired by fearlessness—a girl one could trust and respect, the kind of partner one liked to have in a difficult place. Still, this had nothing to do with him; he did very well as a bachelor, and had promised to find Bob a wife. Now, this girl—— But Festing frowned impatiently. Bob was a good sort, but she was too good for him. Besides, they were strangers, and he did not know her name.
Then he thought about his life on the wind-swept plains. The big wheat farm prospered. Hitherto he had been content to let his work absorb him, body and mind. The days were not long enough for what one had to do, but, when one came to think of it, the bitter winter nights were lonely. One smoked and read old newspapers beside the red-hot stove, while the blizzard raged across the snowy waste, or in the intense silence the shiplap boards cracked in the Arctic frost. After all, there was much that he had missed. But this sort of thing was folly! He had done well enough, and was not a sentimentalist.
When he was getting breakfast next morning, he saw the girls walk up the dale. He thought he knew which way they were going, and, if he hurried, might overtake them, but with an effort dismissed the plan. After waiting an hour, he resumed his journey, and some days later returned to the creeper-covered house. In the evening he sat on the terrace with Annet, who presently remarked—
"Bob's absurd request has one redeeming feature—he doesn't ask us to send the girl out, so to speak, on approval! He prefers to come home and look at her when he finds it convenient, if we are both satisfied. Bob doesn't express himself very happily, but one knows what he means."
"He said he didn't want to waste time," Festing agreed.
"Just so," said Annet, with a twinkle. "Bob is a painfully practical fellow. Well, I think I know somebody who might suit, and Alice will take you to see her."
Festing knitted his brows. "I'd sooner she didn't. The fact is, the thing begins to look much worse than I thought. However, I promised——"
"And feel you must make good? Well, go and talk to Alice."
When Festing joined Alice, she said: "As I'm going to take you to a tennis party, I hope you play well? "
"I don't," said Festing. "Haven't touched a racket since I was sixteen."
"That's rather a pity; but I dare say we can find you somebody nice to talk to between the games."
Festing looked hard at her, wondering how much she knew, but she resumed: "You haven't told me how you enjoyed your tour among the high fells."
He related his adventures, and, without quite intending it, began to talk about the girl who walked like a mountain deer. He thought Alice looked amused, but it was not until afterwards he saw that she had led him on with tactful questions.
"You waited behind when they started again next morning?" she remarked. "Well, I suppose that was the proper thing."
Next afternoon she took Festing to a small country house. A larch wood rolled up the hill behind it, a tarn gleamed in the red heath one saw across the lawn, and white-clad figures moved about the net upon the sunny grass. One was marked by a curious grace, and, when she looked round, Festing felt his heart beat. It was the girl who walked like a deer. By and by she left the others, and Alice beckoned.
"Maud," she said, "I want to present Mr. Festing, who's a friend of Bob's from Canada. He doesn't play tennis much, and if you're not in the next game——" Then she smiled at Festing rather curiously. "Miss Kenrick."
She left them, and an embarrassing suspicion dawned on Festing as he remembered one of Annet's remarks; but when they reached a bench in the shade, he began to talk about the mountains.
"It looks as if you were behind us all the day after we met," Miss Kenrick said.
"That's so," Festing agreed. "In fact, I waited when I saw you start." He paused, and added naïvely: "I really wanted to hurry on, but didn't think I ought——"
She laughed, the frank laugh with the little trill, but changed the subject. "So you know Bob Annet? He was a friend of ours before he went to Canada, but that is some time since. How is he getting on, and what is he like now?"
Festing braced himself. Miss Kenrick was obviously Annet's choice, and, as he had rashly given his promise, he must do his best for Bob.
"Bob's a very good fellow, and the right man for Canada. Nothing tires him; I think he revels in difficulties. He has had a few bad setbacks, but he's the kind of fellow that trouble nerves. He's cool, steady as a rock, and essentially practical."
"Yes," she agreed, "Bob was like that. But I suppose he has some faults?"
Festing pondered. He was Bob's friend, but the girl ought to be warned.
"He has certainly no weaknesses, but perhaps one's useful virtues can be too marked. It's curious, but I'm beginning to see that now. I mean that in Canada there's a risk of getting too absorbed in one's work—thinking only of one's crop and the dollars it will bring. One misses something—but I'm getting sentimental."
Maud Kenrick smiled. "You don't like sentiment? But go on—I'm not bored."
"Well," said Festing thoughtfully, "England has taught me something, and made me dissatisfied. I'm afraid we're rather a materialistic lot on the plains. You see, life has graces we can't enjoy, and, perhaps, foolishly despise. It's well to rely upon oneself, but at times one gets lonely—horribly lonely in the bitter winter nights. Even the farm books pall; you begin to feel you want something more."
"Are you describing Bob Annet's feelings now, or yours?"
Festing made an abrupt movement. "I believe I'm talking about my own."
The girl smiled. "Romance calls to everybody, but many will not hear. After all, I suppose some of the prairie farmers do fall in love."
"Now and then. Still, there are not many girls on the plains, and the life is very hard for a woman. To begin with, she must be a good cook and housekeeper, and know how to drive a team."
"Useful qualifications, but perhaps they don't cover all the ground."
"They don't," said Festing, colouring. "Well, I've admitted that we're a horribly utilitarian lot. In fact, one learns in England that one's views about many things—— But I'm talking nonsense."
"No," said Maud. "You have told me what you feel; now tell me what you do."
Festing, who was on surer ground, did his best. He wanted her to understand something of the strain and effort the Western farmers bore and made. He told her of their anxiety about the June rain, and how they watched the clear green sky in autumn, when early frosts nip the ripening wheat. But it was the work that stood out sharpest, and he made her see the dusty men guiding the big gasolene tractors that tore the clods apart in spring, or tramping down the half-mile furrow behind the sweating teams. He showed her the mowers clattering through the wild grass in the dried-up sloos, while thunderclouds that did not break rolled across the sky before the boisterous wind; and, last, the rows of binders advancing through the golden grain.
It was a clean, brave life he pictured, and she saw, though he did not, the romance of this stubborn conquest of the wilderness. It seemed that Bob Annet was among the pioneers, but she was not thinking of him. Something in Festing's voice and lean, brown face fixed her attention. He would go far—farther than Bob—when something that was now awakening was fully roused. There was a power in romance that exceeded the strength of many horses and gasolene ploughs.
"You have pleaded well for the utilitarian," she said, getting up. "After all, other people trust the man who relies upon himself."
"But I wasn't defending the utilitarian," he answered awkwardly. "I think I was trying to get hold of something elusive that lies behind our practical point of view."
"Perhaps it's worth while to persist; a clearer light may dawn on you some day. But we have moralised long enough, and I'm wanted for the next game."
She went away, and when Alice came up and asked what he thought of her, he answered emphatically that he found her charming.
"Maud is charming, but that doesn't go quite far enough, if you grasp what I mean."
"I think I do," Festing replied, with a steady look. "Did you know she was stopping at the farm in the dale?"
"I did know," said Alice, who met his glance.
Festing got embarrassed, and she laughed.
"Bob really is ridiculous," she said, and left him wondering what she meant.
After this he met Maud Kenrick once or twice a week, and was half relieved and half embarrassed because Annet said nothing about Bob's request. Still, the old man's eyes sometimes twinkled when Festing came home with Alice from a tennis party. At length Festing went up to him one evening on the terrace.
"There's something I must tell you, sir," he remarked. "In fact, I ought to have done so before."
"Ah!" said Annet. "I expect it's about Maud Kenrick. Have you decided yet if she would suit Bob?"
"I'm afraid I haven't been fair to Bob. If Miss Kenrick's willing, I mean to marry her myself."
"Well," said Annet, smiling, "I'm not surprised by this resolve. In fact, it would be a good thing if you can carry it out."
Next day Festing found Maud alone on a shady lawn, and began to talk with awkward eagerness, until she interrupted with a look that steadied him. There was faint amusement in it, and something else.
"Then you are no longer speaking for your friend? Whose cause are you pleading now?"
"My own," said Festing.
"Very well," she answered quietly. "What have you to offer besides a share in your work and the prairie farm? "
Festing told her, and she gave him a frank but tender smile.
"Ah," she said, "these things are worth much, but I'm not sure you knew their value not long ago."
"I'm learning," Festing rejoined. "I owe that to you. Perhaps, if you help, I'll see clearer yet. But I know I can't go on alone."
Maud gave him her hand. "Then we must go together—I with my romantic dreams, which you will turn into realities." Then she blushed and laughed, the laugh with the trill. "There are advantages in marrying a practical man."