Harold Bindloss.

A Prairie Courtship



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CHAPTER I
A COLD WELCOME

It was falling dusk and the long emigrant train was clattering, close-packed with its load of somewhat frowsy humanity, through the last of the pine forest which rolls westward north of the Great Lakes toward the wide, bare levels of Manitoba, when Alison Leigh stood on the platform of a lurching car. A bitter wind eddied about her, for it was early in the Canadian spring, and there were still shattered fangs of ice in the slacker pools of the rivers. Now and then a shower of cinders that rattled upon the roof whirled down about her and the jolting brass rail to which she clung was unpleasantly greasy, but the air was, at least, gloriously fresh out there and she shrank from the vitiated atmosphere of the stove-heated car. She had learned during the past few years that it is not wise for a young woman who must earn her living to be fastidious, but one has to face a good many unpleasantnesses when traveling Colonist in a crowded train.

A gray sky without a break in it hung low above the ragged spires of the pines; the river the track skirted, and presently crossed upon a wooden bridge, shone in the gathering shadow with a wan, chill gleam; and the bare rocky ridges that flitted by now and then looked grim and forbidding. Indeed, it was a singularly desolate landscape, with no touch of human life in it, and Alison shivered as she gazed at it with a somewhat heavy heart and weary eyes. Her head ached from want of sleep and several days of continuous jolting; she was physically worn out, and her courage was slipping away from her. She knew that she would need the latter, for she was beginning to realize that it was a rather hazardous undertaking for a delicately brought up girl of twenty-four to set out to seek her fortune in western Canada.

Leaning upon the greasy rails, she recalled the events which had led her to decide on this course, or, to be more accurate, which had forced it on her. Until three years ago, she had led a sheltered life, and then her father, dying suddenly, had left his affairs involved. This she knew now had been the fault of her aspiring mother, who had spent his by no means large income in an attempt to win a prominent position in second-rate smart society, and had succeeded to the extent of marrying her other daughter well. The latter, however, had displayed very little eagerness to offer financial assistance in the crisis which had followed her father's death.

In the end Mrs. Leigh was found a scantily paid appointment as secretary of a woman's club, while Alison was left to shift for herself, and it came as a shock to the girl to discover that her few capabilities were apparently of no practical use to anybody. She could paint and could play the violin indifferently well, but she had not the gift of imparting to others even the little she knew. A graceful manner and a nicely modulated voice appeared to possess no market value, and the unpalatable truth that nothing she had been taught was likely to prove more than a drawback in the struggle for existence was promptly forced on her.

She faced it with a certain courage, however, for her defects were the results of her upbringing and not inherent in her nature, and she forthwith sought a remedy.

In spite of her mother's protests, her sister's husband was induced to send her for a few months' training to a business school, and when she left the latter there followed a three-years' experience which was in some respects as painful as it was varied.

Her handwriting did not please the crabbed scientist who first engaged her as amanuensis. Her second employer favored her with personal compliments which were worse to bear than his predecessor's sarcastic censure; and she had afterward drifted from occupation to occupation, sinking on each occasion a little lower in the social scale. In the meanwhile her prosperous sister's manner became steadily chillier; her few influential friends appeared desirous of forgetting her; and at last she formed the desperate resolution of going out to Canada. Nobody, however, objected to this, and her brother-in-law, who was engaged in commerce, sent her a very small check with significant readiness, and by some means secured her a position as typist and stenographer in the service of a business firm in Winnipeg.

For the last three days she had lived on canned fruit and crackers in the train, not because she liked that diet, but because the charges at the dining-stations were beyond her means. She had now five dollars and a few cents in her little shabby purse. That, however, did not much trouble her, for she would reach Winnipeg on the morrow, and she supposed that she would begin her new duties immediately. She was wondering with some misgivings what her employers would be like, when a girl of about her own age appeared in the doorway of the vestibule.

"Aren't you coming in? It's getting late, and I'm almost asleep," she said.

Alison turned, and with inward repugnance followed her into the long car. It was brilliantly lighted by big oil lamps, and it was undoubtedly warm, for there was a stove in the vestibule, but the frowsy odors that greeted her were almost overwhelming after the fresh night air. An aisle ran down the middle of the car, and already men and women and peevish children were retiring to rest. There was very little attempt at privacy, and a few wholly unabashed aliens were partially disrobing wherever they could find room for the operation. Some lay down upon boards pulled forward between two seats, some upon little platforms that let down by chains from the roof, and the car was filled with the complaining of tired children and a drowsy murmur of voices in many languages.

Alison sat down and glanced round at the passengers who had not yet retired. In one corner were three young Scandinavian girls, fresh-faced and tow-haired, of innocent and wholesome appearance, going out, as they had unblushingly informed her in broken English, to look for husbands among the prairie farmers. She was afterward to learn that such marriages not infrequently turned out well. Opposite them sat a young Englishman with a hollow face and chest, who could not stand his native climate, and had been married, so Alison had heard, to the delicate girl beside him the day before he sailed. They were going to Brandon on the prairie, and had not the faintest notion what they would do when they got there.

Close by were a group of big, blonde Lithuanians, hardened by toil, in odoriferous garments; a black-haired Pole; a Jewess whose beauty had run to fatness; and her greasy, ferret-eyed husband. Farther on a burly Englishman, who had evidently laid in alcoholic refreshment farther back down the line, was crooning a maudlin song. There was, however, an interruption presently, for a man's head was thrust out from behind a curtain which hung between the roof and one of the platforms above.

"Let up!" he said.

The song rose a little louder in response, and a voice with a western intonation broke in.

"Throw a boot at the hog!"

"No, sir," replied the man above; "he might keep it; and I guess they're most used to heaving bottles where he comes from."

The words were followed by a scuffling sound which seemed to indicate that the speaker was fumbling about the shelf for something, and then he added:

"This will have to do. Are you going to sleep down there, sonny?"

The Englishman paused to inform anybody who cared to listen that he would go to sleep when he wanted and that it would take a train-load of Canadians like the questioner, whose personal appearance he alluded to in vitriolic terms, to prevent him from singing when he desired; after which he resumed the maudlin ditty. Immediately there was a rustle of snapping leaves, as a volume of the detective literature that is commonly peddled on the trains went hurtling across the car. It struck the woodwork behind the singer with a vicious thud, and he stood up unsteadily.

"Now," he said, "I mean to show you what comes of insulting me."

He moved forward a pace or two, fell against a seat in an attempt to avoid a toddling child, and, grabbing at his disturber's platform, endeavored to clamber up to it. The chains rattled, and it seemed that the light boards were bodily coming down when he felt with one hand behind the curtain, part of which he rent from its fastenings. Then his hand reappeared clutching a stockinged foot, and a bronzed-faced man in shirt and trousers dropped from a neighboring resting-place.

"You get out!" thundered the Englishman. "Teach you to be civil when I've done with him. Gimme time, and I'll settle the lot of you, and the sausages" – he presumably meant the Lithuanians – "afterward."

The man above contrived to kick him in the face with his unembarrassed foot, but he held on persistently to the other, and a general fracas appeared imminent when the conductor strode into the car. The latter had very little in common with the average English railway guard, for he was a sharp-tongued, domineering autocrat, like most of his kind.

"Now," he demanded, "what's this circus about?"

The Englishman informed him that he had been insulted, and firmly intended to wipe it out in blood. The conductor looked at him with a faint grim smile.

"Go right back to your berth, and sleep it off," he advised.

He stood still, collectedly resolute, clothed with authority, and the Englishman hesitated. He had doubtless pluck enough, and his blood was up, but he had also the innate, ingrained capacity for obedience to duly constituted power, which is not as a rule a characteristic of the Westerner. Then the conductor spoke again:

"Get a move on! I'll dump you off into the bush if you try to make trouble here."

It proved sufficient. The singer let the captive foot go and turned away; and when the conductor left, peace had settled down upon the clattering car. The little incident had, however, an unpleasant effect on Alison, for this was not the kind of thing to which she had been accustomed. It was a moment or two before she turned to her companion.

"I shall be very glad to get off the train to-morrow, Milly – and I suppose you will be quite as pleased," she said.

The girl blushed. She was young and pretty in a homely fashion, and had informed Alison, who had made her acquaintance on the steamer, that she was to be married to a young Englishman on her arrival at Winnipeg.

"Yes," she replied; "Jim will be there waiting; I got a telegram at Montreal. It's four years since I've seen him."

The words were simple, but there was something in the speaker's voice and eyes which stirred Alison to half-conscious envy. It was not that marriage in the abstract had any attraction for her, for the thought of it rather jarred on her temperament, and it was, perhaps, not altogether astonishing that she had of late been brought into contact chiefly with the seamy side of the masculine character. Still, lonely and cast adrift as she was, she envied this girl who had somebody to take her troubles upon his shoulders and shelter her, and she was faintly stirred by her evident tenderness for the man.

"Four years!" she said reflectively. "It's a very long time."

"Oh," declared Milly, "it wouldn't matter if it had been a dozen now. He's the same – only a little handsomer in his last picture. Except for that, he hasn't changed a bit – I read you some of his letters on the steamer."

Alison could not help a smile. The girl's upbringing had clearly been very different from her own, and the extracts from Jim's letters had chiefly appealed to her sense of the ludicrous; but now she felt that his badly expressed devotion rang true, and her smile slowly faded. It must, she admitted, be something to know that through the four years, which had apparently been ones of constant stress and toil, the man's affection had never wavered, and that his every effort had been inspired by the thought that the result of it would bring his sweetheart in England so much nearer him, until at last, as the time grew rapidly shorter, he had, as he said, worked half the night to make the rude prairie homestead more fit for her.

"I suppose he wasn't rich when he went out?"

"No," replied Milly. "Jim had nothing until an uncle died and left him three or four hundred pounds. When he came and told me of it I made him go."

"You made him go?" exclaimed Alison, wondering.

"Of course! There was no chance for him in England; I couldn't keep him, just to have him near me – always poor – and I knew that whatever he did in Canada he would be true to me. The poor boy had trouble. His first crop was frozen, and his plow oxen died – I think I told you he has a little farm three or four days' ride back from the railroad." The girl's face colored again. "I sold one or two things I had – a little gold watch and a locket – and sent him the money. I wouldn't tell him how I got it, but he said it saved him."

Alison sat silent for the next moment or two. She was touched by her companion's words and the tenderness in her eyes. Alison's upbringing had in some respects not been a good one, for she had been taught to shut her eyes to the realities of life, and to believe that the smooth things it had to offer were, though they must now and then be schemed for, hers by right. It was only the last three years that had given her comprehension and sympathy, and in spite of the clearer insight she had gained during that time, it seemed strange to her that this girl with her homely prettiness and still more homely speech and manners should be capable of such unfaltering fidelity to the man she had sent to Canada, and still more strange that she should ever have inspired him with a passion which had given him power to break down, or endurance patiently to undermine, the barriers that stood between them. Alison had yet to learn a good deal about the capacities of the English rank and file, which become most manifest where they are given free scope in a new and fertile field.

"Well," she said, conscious of the lameness of the speech, "I believe you will be happy."

Milly smiled compassionately, as though this expression of opinion was quite superfluous; and then with a tact which Alison had scarcely expected she changed the subject.

"I've talked too much about myself. You told me you had something to do when you got to Winnipeg?"

"Yes," was the answer; "I'm to begin at once as correspondent in a big hardware business."

"You have no friends there?"

"No," replied Alison; "I haven't a friend in Canada, except, perhaps, one who married a western wheat-grower two or three years ago, and I'm not sure that she would be pleased to see me. As it happens, my mother was once or twice, I am afraid, a little rude to her."

It was a rather inadequate description of the persecution of an inoffensive girl who had for a time been treated on a more or less friendly footing and made use of by a certain circle of suburban society interested in parochial philanthropy in which Mrs. Leigh had aspired to rule supreme. Florence Ashton had been tolerated, in spite of the fact that she earned her living, until an eloquent curate whose means were supposed to be ample happened to cast approving eyes on her, when pressure was judicially brought to bear. The girl had made a plucky fight, but the odds against her were overwhelmingly heavy, and the curate, it seemed, had not quite made up his mind. In any case, she was vanquished, and tactfully forced out of a guild which paid her a very small stipend for certain services; and eventually she married a Canadian who had come over on a brief visit to the old country. How Florence had managed it, Alison, who fancied that the phrase was in this case justifiable, did not exactly know, but she had reasons for believing that the girl had really liked the curate and would not readily forgive her mother.

"Well," said Milly, "if ever you want a friend you must come to Jim and me; and, after all, you may want one some day." She paused, and glanced at Alison critically. "Of course, so many girls have to work nowadays, but you don't look like it, somehow."

This was true. Although Alison's attire was a little faded and shabby, its fit was irreproachable, and nobody could have found fault with the color scheme. She possessed, without being unduly conscious of it, an artistic taste and a natural grace of carriage which enabled her to wear almost anything so that it became her. In addition to this, she was, besides being attractive in face and feature, endued with a certain tranquillity of manner which suggested to the discerning that she had once held her own in high places. It was deceptive to this extent that, after all, the places had been only very moderately elevated.

"I'm afraid that's rather a drawback than anything else," she said in reference to Milly's last observation. "But it's a little while since you told me that you were sleepy."

They climbed up to two adjoining shelves they drew down from the roof, and though this entailed a rather undignified scramble, Alison wished that her companion had refrained from a confused giggle. Then they closed the curtains they had hired, and lay down, to sleep if possible, on the very thin mattresses the railway company supplies to Colonist passengers for a consideration. An attempt at disrobing would not have been advisable, but, after all, a large proportion of the occupants of the car were probably more or less addicted to sleeping in their clothes.

There was a change when Alison descended early in the morning, in order at least to dabble her hands and face in cold water, which would not have been possible a little later. Even first-class Pullman passengers have, as a rule, something to put up with if they desire to be clean, and Colonist travelers are not expected to be endued with any particular sense of delicacy or seemliness. As a matter of fact, a good many of them have not the faintest idea of it. It was chiefly for this reason that Alison retired to the car platform after hasty ablutions, and, though it was very cold, she stayed there until the rest had risen.

The long train had run out of the forest in the night, and was now speeding over a vast white level which lay soft and quaggy in the sunshine, for the snow had lately gone. Here and there odd groves of birches went streaming by, but for the most part there were only leafless willow copses about the gleaming strips of water which she afterward learned were sloos. In between, the white waste ran back, bleached by the winter, to the far horizon. It looked strangely desolate, for there was scarcely a house on it, but, at least, the sun was shining, and it was the first brightness she had seen in the land of the clear skies.

Most of the passengers were partly dressed, for which she was thankful, when she went back into the car; and after one or two of them had kept her waiting she was at length permitted to set on the stove the tin kettle which was the joint property of herself and her companion. Then they made tea, and after eating the last of their crackers and emptying the fruit can, they set themselves to wait with as much patience as possible until the train reached Winnipeg.

The sun had disappeared, and a fine rain was falling when at last the long cars came clanking into the station amid the doleful tolling of the locomotive bell. Alison, stepping down from the platform, noticed a man in a long fur coat and a wide soft hat running toward the car. Then there was a cry and an outbreak of strained laughter, and she saw him lift her companion down and hold her unabashed in his arms. After that Milly seized her by the shoulder.

"This is Jim," she announced. "Miss Alison Leigh. I told her that if ever she wanted a home out here she was to come to us."

The man, who had a pleasant, bronzed face, laughed and held out his hand.

"If you're a friend of Milly's we'll take you now," he said. "She ought to have one bridesmaid, anyway. Come along and stay with her until you get used to the country."

Milly blushed and giggled, but it was evident that she seconded the invitation, and once more Alison was touched. The offer was frank and spontaneous, and she fancied that the man meant it. She explained, however, that she was beginning work on the morrow; and Jim, giving her his address, presently turned away with Milly.

After that Alison felt very desolate as she stood alone amid the swarm of frowsy aliens who poured out from the train. The station was cold and sloppy; everything was strange and unfamiliar. There was a new intonation in the voices she heard, and even the dress of the citizens who scurried by her was different in details from that to which she had been accustomed. In the meanwhile Jim and Milly had disappeared, and as she had been told that the railroad people would take care of her baggage until she produced her check, she decided to proceed at once to her employers' establishment and inform them of her arrival.



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