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- Northern Lights, Volume 5. - 5/11 -


youth he had been vain and ambitious and good-looking also.

He asked his question in no impertinent tone, but in the low voice of one who "shall whisper out of the dust." He had not yet recovered from the first impression of his awakening, that the world in which he now stood was not a real world.

She understood, and half in pity and half in conquered repugnance said:

"I come from a camp beyond"--she indicated the direction by a gesture. "I had been fishing"--she took up the basket--"and chanced on you--then." She glanced at the snake significantly.

"You killed it in the nick of time," he said, in a voice that still spoke of the ground, but with a note of half-shamed gratitude. "I want to thank you," he added. "You were brave. It would have turned on you if you had missed. I know them. I've killed five." He spoke very slowly, huskily.

"Well, you are safe--that is the chief thing," she rejoined, making as though to depart. But presently she turned back. "Why are you so dreadfully poor--and everything?" she asked gently.

His eye wandered over the lake and back again before he answered her, in a dull, heavy tone: "I've had bad luck, and, when you get down, there are plenty to kick you farther."

"You weren't always poor as you are now--I mean long ago, when you were young."

"I'm not so old," he rejoined sluggishly--"only thirty-four."

She could not suppress her astonishment. She looked at the hair already grey, the hard, pinched face, the lustreless eyes.

"Yet it must seem long to you," she said with meaning. Now he laughed --a laugh sodden and mirthless. He was thinking of his boyhood. Everything, save one or two spots all fire or all darkness, was dim in his debilitated mind.

"Too far to go back," he said, with a gleam of the intelligence which had been strong in him once.

She caught the gleam. She had wisdom beyond her years. It was the greater because her mother was dead, and she had had so much wealth to dispense, for her father was rich beyond counting, and she controlled his household, and helped to regulate his charities. She saw that he was not of the labouring classes, that he had known better days; his speech, if abrupt and cheerless, was grammatical.

"If you cannot go back, you can go forwards," she said firmly. "Why should you be the only man in this beautiful land who lives like this, who is idle when there is so much to do, who sleeps in the daytime when there is so much time to sleep at night?"

A faint flush came on the greyish, colourless face. "I don't sleep at night," he returned moodily.

"Why don't you sleep?" she asked.

He did not answer, but stirred the body of the snake with his foot. The tail moved; he stamped upon the head with almost frenzied violence, out of keeping with his sluggishness.

She turned away, yet looked back once more--she felt tragedy around her. "It is never too late to mend," she said, and moved on, but stopped; for a young man came running from the woods towards her.

"I've had a hunt--such a hunt for you," the young man said eagerly, then stopped short when he saw to whom she had been talking. A look of disgust came upon his face as he drew her away, his hand on her arm.

"In Heaven's name, why did you talk to that man?" he said. "You ought not to have trusted yourself near him."

"What has he done?" she asked. "Is he so bad?"

"I've heard about him. I inquired the other day. He was once in a better position as a ranchman--ten years ago; but he came into some money one day, and he changed at once. He never had a good character; even before he got his money he used to gamble, and was getting a bad name. Afterwards he began drinking, and he took to gambling harder than ever. Presently his money all went and he had to work; but his bad habits had fastened on him, and now he lives from hand to mouth, sometimes working for a month, sometimes idle for months. There's something sinister about him, there's some mystery; for poverty or drink even--and he doesn't drink much now--couldn't make him what he is. He doesn't seek company, and he walks sometimes endless miles talking to himself, going as hard as he can. How did you come to speak to him, Grace?"

She told him all, with a curious abstraction in her voice, for she was thinking of the man from a standpoint which her companion could not realise. She was also trying to verify something in her memory. Ten years ago, so her lover had just said, the poor wretch behind them had been a different man; and there had shot into her mind the face of a ranchman she had seen with her father, the railway king, one evening when his "special" had stopped at a railway station on his tour through Montana--ten years ago. Why did the face of the ranchman which had fixed itself on her memory then, because he had come on the evening of her birthday and had spoiled it for her, having taken her father away from her for an hour--why did his face come to her now? What had it to do with the face of this outcast she had just left?

"What is his name?" she asked at last.

"Roger Lygon," he answered.

"Roger Lygon," she repeated mechanically. Something in the man chained her thought--his face that moment when her hand saved him and the awful fear left him, and a glimmer of light came into his eyes.

But her lover beside her broke into song. He was happy with her. Everything was before him, her beauty, her wealth, herself. He could not dwell upon dismal things; his voice rang out on the sharp sweet evening air:

"'Oh, where did you get them, the bonny, bonny roses That blossom in your cheeks, and the morning in your eyes?' 'I got them on the North Trail, the road that never closes, That widens to the seven gold gates of paradise.' 'O come, let us camp in the North Trail together, With the night-fires lit and the tent-pegs down.'"

Left alone, the man by the reedy lake stood watching them until they were out of view. The song came back to him, echoing across the waters:

"O come, let us camp on the North Trail together, With the night-fires lit and the tent-pegs down."

The sunset glow, the girl's presence, had given him a moment's illusion, had absorbed him for a moment, acting on his deadened nature like a narcotic at once soothing and stimulating. As some wild animal in a forgotten land, coming upon ruins of a vast civilisation, towers, temples, and palaces, in the golden glow of an Eastern evening, stands abashed and vaguely wondering, having neither reason to understand, nor feeling to enjoy, yet is arrested and abashed, so he stood. He had lived the last three years so much alone, had been cut off so completely from his kind--had lived so much alone. Yet to-night, at last, he would not be alone.

Some one was coming to-night, some one whom he had not seen for a long time. Letters had passed, the object of the visit had been defined, and he had spent the intervening days since the last letter had arrived, now agitated, now apathetic and sullen, now struggling with some invisible being that kept whispering in his ear, saying to him, "It was the price of fire, and blood, and shame. You did it--you--you--you! You are down, and you will never get up. You can only go lower still--fire, and blood, and shame!"

Criminal as he was he had never become hardened, he had only become degraded. Crime was not his vocation. He had no gift for it; still the crime he had committed had never been discovered--the crime that he did with others. There were himself and Dupont and another. Dupont was coming to-night--Dupont who had profited by the crime, and had not spent his profits, but had built upon them to further profit; for Dupont was avaricious and prudent, and a born criminal. Dupont had never had any compunctions or remorse, had never lost a night's sleep because of what they two had done, instigated thereto by the other, who had paid them so well for the dark thing.

The other was Henderley, the financier. He was worse perhaps than Dupont, for he was in a different sphere of life, was rich beyond counting, and had been early nurtured in quiet Christian surroundings. The spirit of ambition, rivalry, and the methods of a degenerate and cruel finance had seized him, mastered him; so that, under the cloak of power--as a toreador hides the blade under the red cloth before his enemy the toro--he held a sword of capital which did cruel and vicious things, at last becoming criminal also. Henderley had incited and paid; the others, Dupont and Lygon, had acted and received. Henderley had had no remorse, none at any rate that weighed upon him; for he had got used to ruining rivals, and seeing strong men go down, and those who had fought him come to beg or borrow of him in the end. He had seen more than one commit suicide, and those they loved go down and farther down, and he had helped these up a little, but not enough to put them near his own plane again; and he could not see--it never occurred to him--that he had done any evil to them. Dupont thought upon his crimes now and then, and his heart hardened, for he had no moral feeling; Henderley did not think at all. It was left to the man of the reedy lake to pay the penalty of apprehension, to suffer the effects of crime upon a nature not naturally criminal.

Again and again, how many hundreds of times, had Roger Lygon seen in his sleep--had even seen awake so did hallucination possess him--the new cattle trail he had fired for scores of miles. The fire had destroyed the grass over millions of acres, two houses had been burned and three people had lost their lives; all to satisfy the savage desire of one man, to destroy the chance of a cattle trade over a great section of country for the railway which was to compete with his own--an act which, in the end, was futile, failed of its purpose. Dupont and Lygon had been paid their price, and had disappeared, and been forgotten--they were but pawns in his game--and there was no proof against Henderley. Henderley had forgotten. Lygon wished to forget, but Dupont remembered, and meant now to reap fresh profit by the remembrance.

Dupont was coming to-night, and the hatchet of crime was to be dug up again. So it had been planned. As the shadows fell, Lygon roused himself from his trance with a shiver. It was not cold, but in him there was a nervous agitation, making him cold from head to foot; his body seemed as impoverished as his mind. Looking with heavy-lidded eyes across the prairie, he saw in the distance the barracks of the Riders of


Northern Lights, Volume 5. - 5/11

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