Read CHAPTER XI of A Mating in the Wilds , free online book, by Ottwell Binns, on ReadCentral.com.

A FOREST FIRE

Sir James Yardely sat in the shelter of his tent looking anxiously at Gerald Ainley.

“Then you have not found my niece, Ainley?”

“No, Sir James! But I have news of her, and I am assured she is alive.”

“Tell me what gives you that assurance.”

Ainley thereupon described the search he had made, and produced the swastiki brooch, explaining the circumstances under which he had found it, and then gave an account of the meeting with the half-breed and of the latter’s declaration that he had seen Helen going up the main river in a canoe with a white man.

“But why on earth should Helen go up there?” asked Sir James wonderingly.

“I cannot say, Sir James! I can only guess, and that is that Miss Yardely knew that we were making for the old Fort Winagog, and mentioned it to her rescuer who was probably journeying that way. Anyhow I went up to the Fort. The Indians there had not seen nor heard of any white girl in the neighbourhood, but I gave them instructions to look for her, promising a reward if she were found, then I hurried back here by the shorter route in the hope that possibly Miss Yardely might have returned in the meantime.”

Sir James stared through the tent-door at the wild landscape before him. His face showed a lightening of his anxiety, though it was clear that the turn of events puzzled him.

“I can’t understand it,” he said. “Why shouldn’t Helen have made her way straight back here?”

“Can’t say, Sir James! Possibly the man who helped her doesn’t know the country, and of course Miss Yardely is quite ignorant of it.”

“And here she is, lost in the wilderness, careering round the compass with heaven knows what come-by-chance fellow!” commented Sir James, adding quickly, “Ainley, she has got to be found!”

“Yes, Sir James!”

“This unfortunate affair has upset me. It has quite disarranged my plans. We have lost five days here, and I shall be compelled to curtail my journey. I have decided to cut out the visits to the posts north of this, and to work across to the Peace River, and so southward.”

“You are going back?” cried Ainley in some consternation. “You are going to leave Miss Yardely ”

“No, my dear fellow,” interrupted Sir James, anticipating the conclusion of his subordinate’s sentence. “I am not going to leave her to her fate. I am going to leave you to find her. I have thought the matter out very carefully. I shall leave four Indians with you, and shall establish a camp at this point, so that in the event of Helen returning here you will not miss her by any chance. I shall send a messenger to Rodwell, at Fort Malsun, instructing him to send you down an outfit that will last the winter if necessary, and you will have carte blanche to follow your own plans, only you must understand, Ainley, my niece must be found. Even though you have to comb this country through with a dust-comb she must be found.”

“She shall be, Sir James,” answered Ainley with conviction.

“It is, of course, just possible that the man with whom your half-breed saw her was making north to the post at Lobstick Creek, and it will be as well to make an early inquiry there.”

“Yes, Sir James, I have thought of that.”

“By the way, did you get any description of the man whom my niece was with?”

“Yes. You remember that man who was at Fort Malsun, and who departed quietly one night?”

“You mean that fellow whom you knew at Oxford, and who has since gone under?”

“That is the man, Sir James; I am convinced of it, from the half-breed’s description.”

A look of anxiety came on the great man’s face. “A discharged convict, wasn’t he, Ainley?”

“Yes, Sir James. He is of good family, and I fancy he is wealthy, for he succeeded to the estate whilst he was in prison, and came out here I imagine, because the old country was impossible to him.”

“What was the crime that knocked him out of things?”

“Forgery!”

“Um!” was the reply. “Things might have been worse. Possibly the fellow will remember that he used to be a gentleman.”

“Possibly,” agreed the younger man.

“Anyhow, you know exactly who you have to look for and that ought to make your task much easier. Rodwell will instruct all the Indians who show up at Fort Malsun to keep a bright look-out and no doubt in a few days you will get track of her. But as I said just now, she must be found, at all costs she must be found!”

“Yes, Sir James! I shall spare no effort to that end, and I may say that, if possible, I am even more anxious about her than you.”

A half-smile came on the great man’s face, as he nodded: “I understand, Ainley; I am not blind. It was for that reason I decided that you should have charge of the search-party, seeing that you have er extra inducements. Find my niece, bring her back to me, and then we can talk over the matter. And now you had better go and think out your plans carefully. I shall have to leave here in the morning, but now that I know Helen is alive, I shall go with a comparatively easy heart.”

Gerald Ainley went to his own tent with a smile on his face. For the furtherance of his ultimate plans things could scarcely have fallen out better. It was true that Helen yet remained to be found; but he was to be left to find her, and was to have a free hand in the matter. After a week or two in the wilderness Helen would be glad enough to meet with an old friend bringing deliverance, and the intimacy of daily travel together would inevitably bring her to his arms. His brow darkened a little as he thought of her present protector. Then it cleared again. Helen was very proud. Circumstances for the present had thrown her into Stane’s company, but she was the last person in the world to forget that Stane was an ex-convict, and as he thought of that, all apprehension of possible complications in that quarter vanished instantly.

Had he known all, or had he even at that moment been granted a vision of the camp by the great deadfall, he would scarcely have been so complacent of mind. For at the very time when he was congratulating himself on the opportunity opening out before him, Helen Yardely was seated on a log by the side of the man whom he hated. There was a high colour in her face and she was laughing a little nervously as she looked at the astonished face of the sick man who had been her rescuer and was now her patient.

“Miss Yardely,” cried Stane, “do you really mean what you say?”

“Of course I do,” replied the girl lightly.

“And Gerald Ainley with another man camped within two miles of here two nights ago?”

“I should say the distance to the lake is even less than that,” replied Helen with a little laugh.

“And you let them go without a sign.”

“I hid myself in the bushes,” replied the girl, gaily.

“But do you realize that they were probably, searching for you?”

“Yes! And I was afraid that they might find me. I even put out the fire that they should not discover our camp and come up to investigate. When I saw them going away yestermorning I could have clapped my hands for gladness.”

Stane looked at her incredulously. Here was something that was beyond him.

“Why why did you let them go?” he cried sharply.

“You wish I had revealed myself?” she asked with compunction, misunderstanding his question. “You think I ought to have brought them up here?”

“That was for yourself to decide,” he answered quietly, adding with a little laugh. “I am well content with things as they are. But I am curious to know why you let deliverance from the hardships of this situation pass by on the other side.”

“Oh,” replied Helen in some confusion, “I remembered that you did not like Gerald Ainley!”

“But,” he protested, “there was yourself to think of.”

“Yes,” was the reply, given with laughter, “and I was doing so if you only knew it.”

“How? I cannot see it.”

“You forget my pride as amateur surgeon and nurse,” she retorted. “I like to see the end of things that I begin, and if I had brought Mr. Ainley up here he would have wanted to take me away, and leave you with the Indian.” She broke off, and looked at him with a gay smile. “Perhaps you would have preferred ”

“No! No!” he interrupted protestingly.

“And there is another reason quite as selfish as the last. You see, Mr. Stane, I have been delicately reared; boarding-school, Newnham the usual round you know! London in the season, Scotland in the autumn, and the shires for the hunting months. It is an inane sort of life, as I have always felt, pleasant enough at first, but inane for all that, and after a time rather a bore. Can you understand that?”

“Yes,” he said, with a nod, “I think I can.”

“Most of the men of our set have something to do! Either they are in the army, or in Parliament, or managing estates, but the women well, they live a butterfly life. There seems to me no escape for them. Do what they will, unless they become suffragettes and smash windows or smack fat policemen, their life drifts one way. Charity? it ends in a charity ball. Politics? it means just garden-parties or stodgy week-ends at country houses, with a little absurd canvassing of rural labourers at election times. Sometimes I used to consider it, and with that bus-driver of Stevenson’s who drove to the station and then drove back, cry ‘My God is this life!’ There was nothing real anywhere. Nobody ever expected a woman in our set to do anything worth doing.” She broke off, and gave a little laugh, then continued: “Now I have my chance to prove I’m something better than a doll, and I’m not going to be robbed of it by Gerald Ainley, my uncle, or any one else! This camp depends on me for a time at least, and I’m going to make good; and prove myself for my own satisfaction. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” answered Stane, his eyes shining with admiration.

“That is what I meant when I said that if you only knew it, I was thinking of myself. It would strike some people as a little mad. I know some women who in a situation like this would have sat down and just cried themselves to death.”

“So do I. Lots of them.”

“I don’t feel that way. I feel rather like a man I know at home who was brought up on the sheltered life system, nursery governess, private tutor, etc., who when he came of age just ran amok, drank, fought with the colliers on his own estate, and then enlisted in an irregular corps and went to fight the Spaniards in Cuba, just to prove to himself that he wasn’t the ninny his father had tried to make him. He shocked his neighbours thoroughly, but he’s a man today, listened to when he speaks and just adored by the miners on his estate.... I want to make good, and though Mrs. Grundy would chatter if she knew that I had deliberately chosen to remain and nurse a sick man in such conditions, I don’t care a jot.”

“You needn’t worry about Mrs. Grundy,” he laughed. “She died up here about 1898, and was buried on the road to the Klondyke.”

Helen Yardely joined in his laughter. “May she never be resurrected though I am afraid she will be. Where there are half-a-dozen conventional women Mrs. Grundy is always in the midst. But I’m free of her for the time, and I’m just going to live the primitive life whilst I’m here. I feel that I have got it in me to enjoy the life of the woods, and to endure hardships like any daughter of the land, and I’m going to do it. Not that there is much hardship about it now! It is just an extended pic-nic, and I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.”

Stane smiled. “I am very glad you feel like that,” he said. “I myself shall be much happier in mind and I count myself lucky to have fallen in such capable hands!”

“Capable!” she looked at her scratched and rather grimy hands. “A kitchen-maid’s are more capable! But I can learn, and I will, however much I bungle. Now, as the universal provider, I am going out to look at my snares.”

She rose, and left the tent, and he heard her pass into the wood singing to herself. A thoughtful look came on Stane’s face, and presently gave place to a smile. “Happy in these circumstances!” he murmured to himself. “What a treasure of a girl!”

And there was no question that Helen Yardely was happy. She radiated gladness as she made her way towards the lake carrying an express rifle in the crook of her arm. Except for the barking of squirrels, and the distant cry of waterfowl the land was very still, the silence that of an immense solitude. But it affected her not at all, she was not even conscious of loneliness, and she hummed gaily to herself as she went along the path which now was beginning to define itself.

As she reached the lakeside, however, her song was suddenly checked, and she looked round sniffing the air thoughtfully. There was a fire somewhere, for there was the smell of burning spruce in the atmosphere. She thought of her own camp-fire, and looked back in the direction of it. Never before had the aromatic odour reached her so far away, and she was a little puzzled that it should do so now. There was little movement in the air, and in order to discover the direction of it she wet her hand and held it up, and as one side grew cooler than the other, looked southward. The slight wind was blowing from that quarter towards the camp and not away from it, so it could not be her own fire, which thus filled the air with odour. There was another encampment somewhere in the neighbourhood.

Having reached that conclusion, she looked about her carefully for any revealing column of smoke, and found none. She examined the shore of the lake expecting to discover a canoe or canoes beached there, but there was nothing of the sort to be seen. For a time she stood there frankly puzzled, wondering what was the explanation of the smell of fire which was in the air, but the reason for which did not appear. Then, after searching the lake bank once more, she gave up the problem and addressed herself to the task which had brought her from the camp. There was nothing in her snares, but as she approached a large patch of water-reeds, a flock of wild geese rose into the air, “honking” in alarm.

Instantly the rifle was at her shoulder, and as she fired, a gander jerked in the air, and then fell like a stone back into the reeds. It took her some time to retrieve it, and when she had done so, she looked round again. The sound of her rifle in that great stillness would travel a long way, and if there had been any traveller camped in the neighbourhood he must have heard it! But there was no one to be seen anywhere, though the smell of fire was as strong as ever. Puzzled, she returned to the camp, looked at her own fire which was burning low and which could not possibly be the explanation of that which was perplexing her, and without saying anything to her companion about it, turned in for the night.

She awoke early to find a wind humming in the tree-tops and immediately there impinged upon her nostrils the odour of burning wood. She rose instantly and dressing hastily went to the tent and looked in. Stane was still sleeping, and without awakening him she hurried down to the lakeside, very conscious that the smell of fire was much stronger than on the previous night. When she reached the shore she looked southward in the direction from which the wind was blowing. As she did so, for one brief moment her heart seemed to stop and a great fear leaped up within her.

Up the lake-side the shore was hidden under rolling clouds of smoke, the dark green of the woods was shrouded by the same bluish veil, and the air seemed full of distant crackling. Out of the veil of smoke as she watched broke a long leaping tongue of yellow flame, and the air blowing towards her seemed hot as a furnace. Her face paled before the terror in front. Though she had never seen the like before, on the way up to Fort Malsun, she had seen the blackened patches where such fires had been. She had heard stories of men surprised by them, and she knew that the forest full of dry deadfall and resinous trees, was on fire. Her first thought was for the sick man who was in her care. The camp was directly in the line of fire, and, if the wind kept up, must inevitably burn. She would have to get him away. But how?

The question was beating in her brain as she hurried back, and through the reiteration of it she became conscious of moving life about her. A weasel almost crossed her foot without a glance at her, and she saw others moving in front of her. Small wood-mice swarmed, fleeing from the terror they could not see; and a great timber-wolf followed by a couple of cubs fled by without more than a sidelong look. The squirrel in the trees screeched alarm and once she caught sight of a big, dark lumbering body crashing through the undergrowth to the left of her, and divined that it was a bear. All the creatures of the wood had taken the alarm and were fleeing before the fiery horror against which none could stand.

When she reached the camp she went straight to the tent. Stane was awake, lifted up on one elbow, an anxious look upon his face. As his eyes saw her pallor, he knew that a fear which in the last few moments had come to him was not groundless.

“Ah!” he cried, “the timber is on fire! I thought I could smell it.”

“Yes,” she answered, “and the wind is driving the fire this way.”

“How far away?” he inquired calmly.

“Two or three miles.”

“You will have to go, Miss Yardely,” he answered quickly. “The fire travels quickly in such timber as this. You must not mind me ”

“You want me to run away and leave you to die,” cried the girl. “I shall do nothing of the kind. I would sooner die myself! I could never respect myself again. There must be some way out of this difficulty, only I don’t know it. But you are used to the ways of this wilderness. You must tell me what to do, and quickly, and I will do it. Oh if we only had a canoe!”

“We haven’t,” he answered thoughtfully, “but the next best thing, we could make, and ”

“What is that?”

“A raft!”

“A raft?” she echoed, hope lighting her face.

“Yes. If by any means you could get me down to the lake-side, I could instruct you in the construction. But how you are going to do that ”

“I shall carry you,” interrupted the girl. “It will be very painful for you, but there is no other way.”

“But how ?”

“On my back! I am strong, thank Heaven! And as we have no time to waste I will make arrangements at once. I’ll take our things down to the shore, and then come back for you. You don’t mind being left for a little while?”

“Of course not.”

“There’ll be no breakfast this morning, but I can’t help that. A forest fire is no help to housekeeping.”

She forced a little laugh as she spoke the words, but once outside the tent, a look of deepest anxiety clouded her beautiful face.