Read CHAPTER XIV of The Hound From The North , free online book, by Ridgwell Cullum, on ReadCentral.com.

A STAB IN THE DARK

Mrs. Malling fumbled her glasses out of her pocket and adjusted them on her nose. She had paused in her work to receive her letters, which had just been brought from Lakeville. The girls stood by waiting to learn the news.

The summer kitchen was stifling hot. The great cook-stove, throwing off a fearful heat, helped to heighten the brilliancy of the farm-wife’s complexion, and brought beads of perspiration out upon her forehead. Prudence and Alice looked cool beside “Mother Hephzy,” but then they were never allowed to do any work in the kitchen. Mrs. Malling loved her kitchen better than any part of the house. She had always reigned supreme there, and as long as she could work such would always be the case.

Now she was preparing the midday meal for the threshing gang which was at work in the fields. Great blocked-tin canteens stood about upon the floor waiting to receive the hot food which was to be sent down to the workers. Hephzibah was a woman of generous instincts where the inner man was concerned. The wages she paid were always board wages, but no hired man was ever allowed to work for her and pay for his keep. She invariably insisted that every labourer should be fed from her kitchen, and she took care that his food was the best she could provide.

“Alice, girl,” the old lady said, as she tore open the first letter, “go and see if Andy is hitching-up yet. Tell him that the dinner boxes will be ready in quarter-hour. Maybe you’ll find him in the bean patch, I sent him to gather a peck o’ broad beans. Who’s this from?” she went on, turning to the last page of her letter to look at the signature. “H’m Winnipeg the bank. Guess I’ll read that later.”

Alice ran off to find Andy, and Mrs. Malling picked up another envelope.

“Prudence, my girl,” went on the farm-wife, as soon as Alice’s back was turned, “just open that other,” pointing to a blue envelope. “The postmark reads Ainsley. I take it, it’s from young Robb Chillingwood. Maybe it’s to say as he’ll be along d’rectly.”

Prudence picked the last letter up.

“It is hot in here, mother; I wonder you can stand it.”

Her mother looked up over her spectacles.

“Stand it, child? It’s a woman’s place, is the kitchen. I can’t trust no one at the stove but myself. I’ve done it for over forty summers, an’ I don’t reckon to give it up now. This is from that p’lice feller. He ain’t doing much, I’m thinking. Seems to me he spends most of his time in making up his bills of expenses. Howsum, you look into it. What’s Master Robb say?”

She put her glasses back into their broad old-fashioned case and turned back to the stove. She could never allow anything to keep her long from her cooking. She lifted a lid and stabbed her cooking fork gently into a great boiler full of potatoes. Then she passed round to the other side and shook up the fire.

“Oh, what a shame, mother! Won’t Al be disappointed? Robb can’t come out here, at least not to stay.” Prudence had finished her letter and now looked disappointedly over at her mother.

“And how be that?” asked the old lady, standing with a shovel of anthracite coal poised in her hand.

“He says that the rush of emigrants to the district keeps him at work from daylight to dark. It’s too bad. Poor old Al!”

Mrs. Malling dumped the coal into the stove with a clatter and replaced the circular iron top. She said nothing, and Prudence went on.

“He’s coming out this way on business shortly, and will call over here if possible. But he can’t stay. Says he’s making money now, and is writing to Al and giving her all particulars. I am sorry he can’t come.”

“Well, well; maybe it’s for the best,” said her mother, in a consolatory manner. “Seemingly his coming would only ’a caused bickerings with Hervey, and, good-sakes, we get enough of that now. I’m not one for underhand dealings, but I’m thinking it would be for the best not to say anything to your brother about his coming at all. If he asks, just say he can’t come to stop. I’d sooner keep Hervey under my eye. If he goes off, as he said, you never know what mischief he’ll be getting up to. He just goes into Winnipeg and gets around with them scallywags, and and you never know. I have heard tell though he never lets on as he’s too fond o’ poker. Leastways, I do know as he spends more money than is good for him. Sarah and me was talking only the other day. Sarah’s pretty ’cute, and she declares that he’s got gaming writ in his lines. Maybe it’s so. I’ll not dispute. He won’t have no excuse for leaving now.” And she sighed heavily and took up the vegetables from the stove.

Alice returned, and the sound of wheels outside told the farm-wife that the buckboard was ready for the men’s dinner.

The two girls and the old lady portioned out the food into the great canteens, and Andy lifted them on to the buckboard. Then the choreman drove away.

By the time the farm dinner was ready Alice had quite got over her disappointment. Prudence had told her the contents of the letter, and also her mother’s wishes on the subject. Alice was naturally too cheerful to think much of the matter; besides, she was glad that Robb’s business was improving.

Hervey came up from the fields in Andy’s buckboard. He always came home for his dinner, and to-day he brought an atmosphere of unwonted cheerfulness with him. He had spent much thought and consideration upon his relations with George Iredale, and the result of his reflections was displayed in his manner when he returned from the fields. Never in his life had he held such a handful of trumps. His hand needed little playing, and the chances of a cross ruff looked to him remote.

After the meal he went out to the barn, where he smoked for awhile in pensive solitude. He thought long and earnestly, and was so absorbed that he looked up with a start at the sound of his mother’s voice calling to him from the open kitchen window.

“Bestir yourself, Hervey, boy. There’s work to be done down in the fields, which is your share in the day’s doings.”

And the man, removing the pipe from his mouth, forgot to grumble back a rough retort, and answered quite cheerfully

“All right, mother. Is Prudence there?”

“Where should she be, if not?” replied his mother, turning back from the window to tell his sister that she was wanted.

Prudence came out. Hervey watched her as she approached. He could not but admit to himself the prettiness of her trim figure, the quiet sedateness of her beautiful, gentle face. Gazing intently, he failed to observe the faint shadow in the expression of her soft brown eyes. There was no sympathy in his nature, and without sympathy it would have been impossible to read the expression. But Prudence was feeling a little sad and a little hurt. Iredale had not fulfilled his promise. Two days had passed since he had told her that he loved her and had asked her to be his wife; nor, since then, had he been over to the farm, nor had she heard a word from him. Fortunately, she told herself, she had said nothing of what had passed between them, not even to her friend Alice; thus she was spared the sympathy of her friends. She had waited for his coming with a world of eager delight in her heart, and each moment of the day on which he was to have come to see her mother had been one of unalloyed happiness to her. Then as the evening drew on she became anxious. And again as night came, and still no sign from him, her anxiety had given place to alarm. That night she slept little, but she kept her trouble to herself. Alice was all eagerness to ask questions of her friend, but Prudence gave her no opportunity. The next morning a note had arrived. Business detained him, but he would be over at the earliest possible moment. And now the third day was well advanced and he still remained away. She did not doubt him, but she felt hurt and a little rebellious at the thought of his allowing himself to be detained by business. Surely his first duty was to her. It was not like him, she told herself; and she felt very unhappy.

Hervey greeted her with an assumption of kindness, almost of affection.

“Are you busy, Prue? I mean, I want to have a little talk with you. I’ve been working in your interests lately. You may guess in what direction. And I have made a strange discovery. We haven’t hit it off very well, I know, but you must forgive me my shortcomings. I have lived too long in the wilds to be a pleasant companion. Can you spare me a few minutes?”

The dark eyes of the man were quite gentle in their expression, and in the girl’s present state of mind his apparent kindliness had a strong effect upon her. She was surprised, but she smiled up into his face with a world of gratitude. In spite of all, her love for her brother was very deeply rooted. The simplicity of her nature and the life she lived made her an easy victim to his villainous wiles.

“Why, yes, Hervey; as long as you like.”

“Good; I’m going down to the threshing. Will you walk some part of the way with me? Mother has just reminded me that my work must not be neglected. Another two days and we shall be ready for the fall ploughing.”

The sun was pouring down with fervid intensity. The yard was very still and quiet. Everything that had leisure was resting drowsily in the trifling shade obtainable. The swine had ceased to make themselves heard and were sleeping upon each other’s abdomens. The fowls were scratching with ruffled feathers in the sandy hollows of the parched earth, which they had made during the hours of morning energy. The pigeons had departed for the day to the shelter of a distant bluff. Even the few horses remaining within the barn were dozing. The dog, Neche, alone seemed restless. He seemed to share with his master the stormy passions of a cruel heart, for, with infinite duplicity, he was lying low, pretending to be occupied with a great beef shin-bone, while his evil eyes watched intently the movements of half-a-dozen weary milch cows, which were vainly endeavouring to reach the shelter of their sheds. But the dog would not have it. With a refinement of torture he would allow them to mouch slowly towards their yard, then, just as they were about to enter, he would fly into a dreadful passion, and, limping vigorously at their heels, would chase them out upon the prairie and then return once more to his bone, only to await his opportunity of repeating the operation.

Hervey and Prudence moved away and passed down the trail. Neche reluctantly left his bone having satisfied himself in a comprehensive survey that no canine interloper was about who could steal his treasure during his absence and followed them. He walked beside the girl without any sign of pleasure. He was a dog that seemed to find no joy in his master’s or mistress’s company. He seemed to have no affection in him, and lived a life of mute protest.

Hervey did not speak for a few minutes. It was Prudence who broke the silence.

“I suppose it is something to do with Leslie’s death that you want to talk to me about. I wondered what your object was when you questioned me so closely upon his dying words. Have you discovered a fresh clue?”

“Something more than a fresh clue.” Hervey had relapsed into his old moroseness.

“Ah!” The girl’s face lit with an almost painful eagerness. For a moment her own immediate troubles were forgotten. A wild feeling surged up in her heart which set the blood tingling in her veins, and she waited almost breathlessly for her brother’s next words.

Hervey displayed no haste. Rather he seemed as though he would gain time.

“That message or advertisement in the paper. Did you ever attempt to fathom its meaning? It was something of a puzzle.”

Prudence gazed up at the dark face beside her. Hervey was looking down upon the dusty trail. His look was one of profound thought. In reality he was calculating certain chances.

“I tried, but failed dismally. To me it conveyed nothing beyond the fact that its author shot Leslie.”

“Just so. But before I tell you what I have discovered you must understand the argument. That line contained a message, a message so significant that once read with understanding the mystery of Grey’s death became one that a child might solve.”

“Yes yes. But the reading of it,” Prudence exclaimed impatiently.

“It is intelligible to me.”

“And ”

It was a different girl to the one we have hitherto seen who awaited the man’s next words. The old, gentle calmness, the patient, even disposition had given place to a world of vengeful thought. There was a look in those usually soft brown eyes which bore a strange resemblance to her brother’s. A moment had arrived in her life when circumstances aroused that other side of her character of which, perhaps, even she had been ignorant. She learned now of her own capacity for hatred and revenge. Some preliminary warnings of these latent passions had been given when Grey had died, but the moment had passed without full realization. Now she felt the ruthless sway of a wave of passionate hatred which seemed to rise from somewhere in her heart and creep over her faculties, locking her in an embrace in which she felt her good motives and love being crushed out of all recognition. There could be no doubt as to the resemblance between these two people in that one touch of nature. Hervey was a long time in answering. He had not only to tell her of his discovery, but there were his personal interests to consider. He wished to re-assure himself of his own advantage.

“See here, Prue, what are you offering or rather, is mother offering to that detective chap if he discovers the murderer of Grey? Let us quite understand one another. I don’t intend to part with my discovery for nothing. I want money as badly as anybody can want it. For a consideration I’ll tell you, and prove to you, who murdered your man. Provided, of course, the consideration is sufficiently large. Otherwise I say nothing.”

For a moment Prudence looked up from beneath her sun-bonnet into her brother’s face. The scorn in her look was withering. She had long since learned the selfish nature of this man, but she had not realized the full depths to which he had sunk until now. He would sell his information. And the thought scorched her brain with its dreadful significance.

“How much will buy you?” she asked at last. And words fail to express the contempt she conveyed in her tone.

Hervey laughed in a hollow fashion.

“You don’t put it nicely,” he said. “Ah, how much will buy me?” he added thoughtfully.

“When a man chooses the methods of Judas it seems to me there need be no picking or choosing of words. What do you want? How much?”

His answer came swiftly. He spoke eagerly, and his tone was quite different from that which his companion was used to. It was as if some deep note in his more obscure nature had been struck, and was now making itself heard above the raucous jangling of discord by which his life was torn. His words were almost passionate, and there was a ring of truth in them which was astonishing, coming from such a man.

“Look here, Prue, I want to get away from here. I want to get out upon the world again, alone, to make my life what I choose. I can’t stand this place; the quiet surroundings; the people with whom I come in contact. It isn’t living; it’s existence, and a hellish one at that. Look around; prairie nothing but prairie. In the winter, snow, endless snow; in the summer, the brown, scorched prairie. The round of unrelieved, monotonous labour. Farming; can mind of man conceive a life more deadly? No no! I want to get away from it all; back to the life in which I was my own master, unfettered by duties and distasteful labours for which I am responsible to others. From the beginning my life has been a failure. But that was not originally my fault. I worked hard, and my ideals were sound and good. Then I met with misfortune. My life was my own to make or mar after that; what I chose to do with it was my own concern. But here I do not live. I want the means to get away; to make a fresh start in different surroundings. Sooner or later I must go, or I shall become a raving maniac. You can help me in this, even as I can help you in the cause in which you are now spending and wasting a lot of money. Get mother to give me fifteen thousand dollars, not only as the price of my information, but also to help me, as your brother, to make another start. I am not wanted here, neither do I want to remain.”

He ceased speaking. The truth had died out of his tone when he mentioned the money, and his words were the specious wheedling of one who knows the generous kindliness of those with whom he is dealing. But Prudence gave no heed to anything but that which found an answering chord in the passionate emotion which swayed her. Hervey’s appeal to get away drew from her some slight proportion of sympathetic understanding, but her main feeling was a desire to learn the truth which he had discovered.

“Yes, yes; but the clue discovery.”

“First, the money. First, you must show me that you will do this thing for me.”

“I can only answer for myself. I can promise nothing in mother’s name.”

“Yes, but for yourself. You have an interest in the farm.”

“Yes, I will give you all I have all all if you can prove to me, and in a court of law, who was the man who shot Leslie Grey. I have saved nearly everything I have made out of creamery. It is not as large a sum as you require, but I can raise the rest from mother. You shall have all you ask if you can tell me this thing. But bear this in mind, Hervey, you will have to prove your words. I give you my word of honour that the money will be forthcoming when you have accomplished this thing.”

Prudence spoke earnestly. But there was caution in what she said. She did not trust her brother. And though she was ready to pay almost anything for the accomplishment of her purpose, she was not going to allow herself to be tricked.

Hervey didn’t like these stipulations. He had calculated to extort a price for his information only. The proving of his charge was a matter which would entail time and trouble, and something else which he did not care to contemplate; besides, he wanted to get away. His recollection of his recent interview with Iredale was still with him. And he remembered well the rancher’s attitude. It struck him that George Iredale would fight hard to prove his innocence. He wondered uncomfortably if he could establish it. No, he must make a better bargain than the girl offered.

“See here, Prue, this is a matter of business. There is no sentiment in it as far as I am concerned. Your conditions are too hard. You pay me half the money down when I give you the story. You can pay the rest when I have carried out your further conditions. It is only fair. Establishing a case in the law courts is a thing that takes time. And, besides, I have known guilty people to get off before now. I can convince you of the truth of my case. A jury is different.”

Prudence thought for a moment. They were already within earshot of the thresher. And the droning of the machine and the jerky spluttering of the traction engine sounded pleasantly in the sultry atmosphere. The dog hobbled lazily at her heels, nor did he show the least sign of interest in his surroundings. The wagons loaded with bountiful sheaves were drawing up to the thresher from half-a-dozen directions, whilst those already emptied were departing for fresh supplies. Everywhere was a wondrous peace; only in those two hearts was an ocean of unrest.

“Very well. If you can convince me, it shall be as you say. You shall have the money. The rest shall remain until after the jury’s verdict. I am not prepared to give you the money I have saved for any tale you choose to concoct. Now let me have your story. You have shown me too much of your sordid craving to make me a ready believer.”

“You will believe me before I have finished, Prue,” the man retorted, with a bitter laugh. “You will find corroboration for what I have to tell in your own knowledge of certain facts.”

“So much the better for you. Go on.”

In spite of her cautious words Prudence waited with nerves tingling and with rapidly beating heart for her brother’s story. She did not know herself. She did not understand the feelings which swayed her. Hervey had an easier task than either of them believed. Of late she had dwelt so long so intently upon the matter under discussion that she was ready to believe almost anything which offered a solution to the ghastly mystery. But she did not know this. Hervey told his story with all the cunning of a man who appreciates the results which attach to the effect of his words. He lost no detail which could further his ends.

“Grey, on his deathbed, alluded to the notice in the paper. He did so in answer to your question as to who had shot him?”

“Yes.”

“He was perfectly conscious?”

“Yes.”

“Some time before he died you and he had discussed this notice, and he told you he was meditating a coup in which that notice had afforded him his principal clue.” The girl nodded, and Hervey went on. “Grey was a Customs officer. All his works centred round contraband. No other work came into his sphere of operations. Very well, the clue which that notice afforded had to do with some illicit traffic. The question is, What was the nature of that traffic? Here is the obvious solution. ‘Yellow booming.’ What traffic is known by such a title as ‘Yellow’ in this country? There is only one. Traffic in Chinese! The smuggling of Chinese across the border. And this traffic was booming. Operations were being successfully carried out. Where? The rest is easy. Somewhere in Grey’s district. ‘Slump in Grey’ could only mean, under the circumstances, that Grey’s supervision was avoided; that the work was carried out in spite of him. You know everybody knows that Chinese are smuggled into Canada at many points along the border, and that opium is brought in at the same time. Thus the poll tax and the opium tax are avoided by men who make a living out of this traffic. The profit is worth the risk. There is a fortune in smuggling opium. The authorities are endeavouring to put it down. It is well known that our cities are swarming with Chinese for whom no poll tax has been paid. And yet the legitimate importation of opium does not increase. Rather has it decreased in consequence of the prohibitive tax imposed upon it. Still, these Chinese must have their opium. This then was the coup poor Grey meditated. He had discovered a hotbed of opium smuggling. If he succeeded in rounding the smugglers up, it meant a great deal to his future prospects. Is that all plain?”

“Yes, yes; go on.”

The girl’s eyes were gleaming strangely. She followed every word her brother said with an intentness which boded well for the result of his efforts. The careful array of arguments was speciously detailed. Now she waited for what was still to come without any attempt at concealing her impatience. For the time everything was forgotten while she learned of the murderer of her first love. The peaceful scene about her was set before eyes which no longer gazed with intelligence upon their surroundings. She was back in the farm parlour listening to Leslie’s story of his hopes his aspirations. Every detail of that evening was brought vividly back to her memory. She remembered, too, that that was the night on which Hervey had returned. There was a significance in the thought that was not lost upon her.

Hervey had come to a stand, and Prudence placed herself before him. Neche squatted beside her, and as he sat his head reached up to her waist.

“Very well. The question alone remains, who along the border in this part of the country is smuggling Chinese? And having found your man, did he insert the notice in question?”

“Yes and you ”

“Chance pointed out the man to me. And I have ascertained the rest.”

“And who is the murderer of Leslie?”

There was an impressive pause. Hervey gazed down into the eager upturned face. The dog beside the girl moved restlessly, and as he moved he made a curious whining noise. His nose was held high in the air, and his greenish eyes looked up towards the spotless sun-bonnet.

“The owner of Lonely Ranch. George Iredale!”

Hervey turned abruptly away. Neche had moved a little way back along the trail and stood looking about him. Then out on the still air rang a piercing, hysterical laugh. And Prudence stretched out her arm and clutched at the barbed-wire fence-post as though her mirth had overcome her.

Hervey looked sharply round upon her. Neche gave a low growl, the noise seemed to have offended him; then he limped off down the trail back to the house.