Harold Bindloss.

A Prairie Courtship



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"What are you doing here?" she asked.

"Resting," replied Nevis, rising to his feet. "I'm going across to Jordan's place. Walking's no doubt healthy, but I'm afraid I'm not fond of it."

He waited to see whether she would take the hint, which he had made as plain as possible, and as he did so a gleam crept into his eyes. Florence had an eye for color and an artistic taste in dress, and she was attired then in filmy draperies of a faint, shimmering green – the color of clear sea-water rippling over sand. They suggested the fine contour of her form and emphasized the shifting tones of burnished copper in her hair and the clearness of her eyes. What she saw in his expression did not appear, but she smiled at him.

"Then if you will get in I can drive you part of the way," she said graciously.

Nevis did not wait for a second invitation and she turned to him when he had taken his place at her side.

"You haven't come back to call on us."

"No," responded Nevis; "I saw your husband at one of the creamery meetings and I'm sorry to own there were one or two matters upon which we couldn't agree."

He watched her to see how she would receive this, but she laughed.

"I'm not responsible for all Elcot's opinions, and I must do him the justice to say that he seldom attempts to force them on me. For all that, I shouldn't wonder if he were right."

Nevis was far too astute to disparage the man he did not like openly to his wife, so he made a sign of assent.

"Yes," he said thoughtfully, "it's possible that he was. In one sense, he generally is. Elcot's what one might call altruistic; he has a finer perception of ethical right than the rest of us, and one could fancy it occasionally makes difficulties for him. Indeed, it's bound to when he rubs against ordinary mortals who're content to look out for what's going to benefit them."

His companion recognized the truth of this, and, as he had expected, it irritated her. Deep down in her nature there was a hidden respect for the quiet, resolute man who, though he seldom proclaimed them, lived in what she now and then considered too strict compliance with his principles. He recognized his duty toward her and had discharged it, in most respects, with a conscientious thoroughness; but that accomplished, he had also recognized his duty to others, and had unwaveringly insisted on fulfilling this in turn. There, as Nevis had cunningly suggested, lay the grievance. It would have been more pleasant for her, and – she confessed this – in many little ways also for him, had she stood alone in his eyes, instead of merely standing first. There was a marked and often inconvenient distinction between the two things. Now and then his point of view appealed to her, but more often her pride received a jar and she thought of him bitterly when he befriended his neighbors, as she tried to convince herself, at her expense. She could, she felt, have loved the man, and perhaps have made an unconditional surrender to him, but he must first be hers altogether and think of nobody else.

Then Nevis interrupted her thoughts with a veiled purpose, and once more touched the tender spot.

"Most of the boys think a good deal of Elcot, and I guess it's natural.

He has given quite a few of them a lift now and then. There's Winthrop and Thorne, for instance – he guaranteed Maverick for a thousand dollars, somebody told me – and now he's putting a good deal more into this creamery scheme. From experience of their habits, I should say he must find that kind of thing expensive now and then. Perhaps, if one might suggest it, that is why he lives as plainly as he does. In a way, it's rather fine of him, though it wouldn't appeal to me."

There was no doubt that any self-denial on her husband's part in which she might be compelled to share did not appeal to Florence either, but she noticed the tact with which Nevis had refrained from supporting his statement by a reference to his loan or the unpaid bills.

"Well," she declared, "I, at least, believe in getting the most one can out of life."

"That," said Nevis, "is my own idea, and it leads up to the question why you haven't gone away yet? Have your husband's benefactions made it impossible?"

He had at last attained his object. Florence had longed for the visit, and had resented the fact that Elcot had not been willing to indulge her in it at any cost. He had certainly given her a check, but, while Toronto is a cheaper place than Montreal, three hundred dollars will not go very far in any Canadian city, at least when one is satisfied with only the best that is obtainable.

"They have certainly helped," she replied curtly.

Nevis recognized that she would not have admitted this had she not been disposed to treat him on a confidential footing, and it was clear that the indignation she had displayed in her answer was directed against her husband and had not been occasioned by his presumption.

"Then," he suggested, "if you really wish to go, there's a way in which it could be managed; though it's an act of self-sacrifice on my part to further such an object."

Florence swallowed the last suggestion and looked at him sharply.

"You mean?"

"I could find you the money – on the same terms as the last." He added the explanation hastily lest her pride should take alarm.

There was silence for a moment, and during it Florence's resentment against her husband grew stronger. She was anxious for the visit, but had he been poor she would have given it up more or less willingly. That, however, was not the case, for, as her companion had cunningly hinted, he was at least rich enough to bestow his favors on men like Winthrop, the absconder, and the pedler Thorne. Now she blamed him for driving her into borrowing from the man at her side.

"I should be glad to have it on those conditions," she said at length.

She pulled up the horse presently while Nevis took out a fountain-pen and his pocketbook, and when she drove on again she held a check of his in her hand. Twenty minutes later he looked around at her as the horse plodded more slowly up a slight rise.

"I think I'll get out here," he said. "It's only half a mile to Jordan's place; you can see the house from the top."

There was not a great deal in the words, but Florence grasped their hidden significance. They conveyed a delicate suggestion that it might not be desirable for her to be seen in his company, and she was quite aware that to fall in with it would imply that there was already something in their relations that must be kept concealed from their neighbors' gaze. For a moment she felt inclined to insist on driving him up to the homestead door, and then the feel of his check in her hand restrained her. She stopped the horse and smiled when he got down.

"Thank you again," she said.

"That's a little superfluous," returned the man. "It's a business deal; but if you can spare a few minutes when you are in Toronto you might manage to write a line. After all, I can, perhaps, ask that much."

"I won't promise," Florence laughed. "Still, it's possible that I may make the effort."

She drove away and Nevis climbed the rise feeling very well satisfied. He had got a firmer hold on Hunter now and he meant to break ground for the next attack by picking up Winthrop's trail. In this also, fortune favored him, for when he drew up his hired rig outside Farquhar's house on the following evening he found that both he and his wife were out. Alison was in, however, and when she said that they would probably reach home shortly he got down and sat a while talking with her on the stoop, which in the summer frequently serves the purpose of a drawing-room at a prairie homestead. Alison had met him once or twice before and was sensible of a slight dislike toward the man, though she could not deny that he was an amusing companion. By and by a girl drove along the trail two or three hundred yards away in a wagon, and he gazed rather hard at her.

"She recognized you, didn't she?" he questioned. "I can't quite fix her."

"Lucy Calvert," Alison informed him.

"It's rather curious that I haven't seen her before, as I should certainly have remembered it, though I had once or twice a deal with her father."

Alison was conscious of a slight irritation, which, indeed, any reference to the girl in question usually aroused in her.

"Then," she said, "if Lucy has any say in the matter you are scarcely likely to do any further business with the family."

Nevis raised his eyebrows.

"I wonder what you mean?"

"Only that it's generally supposed Miss Calvert was to have married Winthrop. Whether she still intends to do so is more than I know."

She was puzzled by the sudden intentness of the man's face and for no particular cause half regretted the speech.

"It's the first time I've heard of it," he said thoughtfully. Then he smiled. "Anyway, she can't be very wise if she's anxious to marry him."

Alison, who had watched him closely, fancied that his smile was meant to cover his interest in the information she had given him. She also noticed how quickly he changed the subject, and they talked about other matters until at last, as Farquhar did not make his appearance, he stood up.

"I'll look in another time," he told her. "It's getting late, and I'm due at the bluff to-night."

Soon after he had driven away Farquhar turned up with his wife and Thorne, and Alison noticed the frown on the latter's face when she informed Mrs. Farquhar of Nevis's visit.

"I'm astonished that you have him here at all," he broke out.

"Why shouldn't I?" his hostess asked.

"That question," returned Thorne, "strikes me as a little superfluous, considering that he's an utterly unscrupulous, scoundrelly vampire. Still, I dare say you can forgive him a good deal for the sake of his appearance."

Mrs. Farquhar laughed.

"The last, I suppose, is after all his chief offense."

Alison saw that this shot had reached its mark by the way Thorne drew down his brows. The man, as she had heard, had a quick temper, but she was not displeased that he should obviously resent the fact that Nevis had spent half an hour in her company. Then, remembering that Winthrop was a friend of Thorne's, she felt a little guilty, and when later on they all sauntered out across the prairie, she drew him aside.

"There's something I think I should mention," she said. "I told Nevis that Miss Calvert was to have married Winthrop. He seemed unusually interested."

Thorne started and looked hard at her.

"What on earth made you do that?" he asked sharply. "Did he lead up to it?"

"No," replied Alison with some reluctance, "I don't think he did. So far as I can remember, I volunteered the information."

There was no doubt about the man's displeasure.

"He certainly would be interested, and I'm very much afraid you have made trouble. But you haven't told me why you did it."

"I spoke on the spur of the moment – without thinking."

"Without thinking clearly," Thorne corrected. "For all that, it's possible you had a kind of subconscious motive. You can't deny that you are prejudiced against Winthrop."

Alison was sensible of a certain relief, and she smiled at him. The man had shown some insight, but he had not gone quite far enough in his surmises, for it was not Winthrop but Lucy Calvert against whom she was prejudiced.

"What have I done?" she asked. "If it's any harm, I'm sorry."

Her companion's face relaxed. He never cherished his anger long.

"Well," he explained, "I'm afraid you have put Nevis on Winthrop's trail, though the thing's not certain. After all, it's possible that there's another reason for his interest."

"And that is?"

"He's a man with a weakness for pretty faces, which will probably get him into trouble by and by, though he's generally supposed to be a clever – philanderer. It's not quite the thing to abuse any one you don't like when he's absent, but in spite of that I can't help saying that he's absolutely unprincipled and should be avoided by every self-respecting woman."

Again Alison smiled. He had spoken strongly, though he had carefully picked his words, and she had little difficulty in following the workings of his mind, which on the whole were amusing. He had meant the speech as a warning to her.

"I suppose Miss Calvert could be called good-looking?" she suggested.

"That," answered Thorne, with a trace of sharpness, "is not quite the point. She's a girl who has a good deal to contend with and is making a very plucky fight. Whether she's wise in being as fond of Winthrop as she seems to be is another matter; one that doesn't concern us. Anyway, she has difficulties enough without it. It's not easy for two women to make a living out of a farm of the kind they're running when it's burdened with a heavy debt."

Alison could forgive him a good deal for his chivalrous pity, though the fact that it was Lucy Calvert who had excited it still somewhat irritated her. It seemed, however, that he had a little more to say.

"In any case," he added, "I'm glad you told me."

Then he turned back toward the others and she had no opportunity for further speech with him. She noticed, however, that he seemed unusually thoughtful during the rest of the evening.

CHAPTER XIV
WINTHROP'S LETTER

After breakfast the next morning Alison sat sewing in a thoughtful mood. She now genuinely regretted having given Nevis the information about Lucy Calvert, and in addition to this Thorne's reserve on the previous evening somewhat troubled her. He had not thought fit to tell her what he meant to do, but she was convinced that he would do something, and the most obvious course would be to warn Lucy against any attempt which Nevis might make to trace her lover. It was possible that the man might cunningly entrap her into some admission that would be of assistance to him. On the other hand, Alison realized that Thorne's task was not so simple as it appeared on the face of it. Though quick-witted, he was, she suspected, by no means subtle, and she supposed that he would find it difficult to put Lucy on her guard without betraying the part that she had played in the matter. She was quite sure that nothing would induce him to let this become apparent.

It was, however, necessary that Lucy should be warned as soon as possible, and Alison decided that as she was the one who had made the trouble it was she who should set it right. This would be only an act of justice, besides which it would give her an opportunity for forming a clearer opinion of Lucy than she had as yet been able to do. As the result of it all, she obtained Mrs. Farquhar's permission to visit the Calvert homestead, which was not very far away, during the afternoon.

In the meanwhile Nevis had been considering how he could best make use of the information she had supplied him, and his mind was still occupied with the question when he drove across the prairie that afternoon. It was a fiercely hot day, and the wide grassland, which had turned dusty white again, was flooded with dazzling light. The usual invigorating breeze was still, and Nevis's horse had fallen to a walk, pursued by a cloud of flies, when he made out the mail-carrier plodding slowly down the rut-marked trail in front of him. Nevis was quite aware that a prairie mail-carrier is usually more or less acquainted with the affairs of every farmer in the district he visits, and he pulled up when he overtook him.

"What's the matter with your horse?" he asked. "Isn't it stipulated that you should keep one?"

"That's so," assented the man. "The trouble is that you can't get a horse that won't go lame on a round like this. I had to leave him at Stretton's an hour ago."

"Going far?" Nevis asked.

"Round by Mrs. Calvert's to the ravine."

Nevis decided that he was fortunate, but he carefully concealed any sign of satisfaction.

"I can give you a lift as far as the first place, if you like to get in."

The man was glad to do so, and Nevis presently handed him a cigar.

"Do you get letters for all the farms every round?"

"No," replied his companion; "I'm quite glad I don't; guess I'd use up two horses if I did. It saves me a league or two when I can cut out some of my visits."

"Yes," agreed Nevis, who had a purpose in pursuing the topic. "One can understand that. It's the people back from the trail who will give you most trouble. It must be a morning's ride to Boyton's or Walthew's; and Mrs. Calvert's is almost as much off your round. Do you have to go there often?"

The question was asked casually, with no show of interest, and the mail-carrier evidently suspected nothing.

"Most every trip the last few weeks," he replied.

Nevis felt that the scent was getting hot. He made a sign of sympathy.

"That's rough on you; anyway, if you have to pack out any weight," he said. "Some of these people get a good many implement catalogues and circulars from Winnipeg, no doubt?"

"In Mrs. Calvert's case it's one blamed letter takes me most a league off the trail."

Nevis asked no more questions; they did not seem necessary. He had discovered that somebody wrote to Mrs. Calvert or her daughter once a week, and he had no trouble in deciding who it must be. He also remembered that letters bore postmarks, and he had a strong desire to ascertain where Winthrop was then located.

"If you like, I'll hand that letter in," he offered. "I'm calling on Mrs. Calvert anyway, and you can go straight to the next place if you give it to me."

The man hesitated a moment, and then shook his head.

"I'm sorry it can't be done," he said. "It's safer to stick to the regulations, and then if you have any trouble nobody can turn round on you."

Nevis was too wise to urge the point, though he meant, if it could by any means be managed, to get the letter into his hands.

"Well," he assented, "I guess you're right in that."

They drove on to the Calvert homestead, which was rudely built of birch logs sawed in a neighboring bluff, and Nevis sprang down first when an elderly woman with a careworn face appeared in the doorway. The mail-carrier, who followed him more slowly, stood still a moment fumbling in his bag until the woman spoke to him.

"Got something to-day, Steve?"

"I've got it all right," was the answer. "Letter for Lucy. The trouble is to find the thing."

Nevis, standing nearer the house, waited until the man took out an envelope. Then he stretched out his hand, as though willing to save him the trouble of walking up to the door, but the mail-carrier either did not notice the action or was too punctilious in the execution of his duty to deliver the letter to him.

"Here it is, Mrs. Calvert," he said. "Thank you, Mr. Nevis."

He strode away and Nevis turned to the woman with a smile.

"May I come in?" he asked. "I'll leave the horse here; he'll stand quietly."

Mrs. Calvert made no objections, though he noticed that she laid the envelope on a table across the room when he sat down.

"It's two or three years since I was in this house," he began.

"Three," corrected the woman.

"I suppose it is," acknowledged Nevis, who seemed to reflect. "I got on with your husband pleasantly, and I'm sorry in several ways that our connection has been broken off. I don't think the thing was any fault of mine."

Mrs. Calvert did not answer at once. Winthrop was not a great favorite of hers, and although she had made no attempt to turn Lucy against him she had on the other hand not altogether sympathized with the latter's views concerning her present visitor. She remembered that her husband had liked the man, and there was no doubt that the goods he supplied were of excellent quality. Nevis was certainly not scrupulous, and he had treated some of those who dealt with him with harshness, but he at least never descended to any petty trickery over the sale of a machine. For one thing, he was too clever; he recognized that it was not worth his while.

"Well," he added, "I don't like for old friends to leave me, and I decided to look you up again. Will you want a new binder or a back-set plow this fall?"

"We'll want a binder," answered his hostess, who was a woman of somewhat yielding nature. "Still, I guess we'll get it from Grantly."

"His things are good enough, though he stands out for the top price," responded Nevis, who was too wise to disparage openly a rival's goods. "Just now, however, I'm rather loaded up, and the orders aren't coming along, so I'm making a special cut. I'll knock an extra four dollars off the list figure for the binder, and wait for the money until you have hauled in your wheat."

Nobody would have suspected that he did not care in the least whether he secured the order or not, or that he had long ago decided that any business he was likely to do with the woman was not worth his attention. She, however, appeared to consider the offer.

"It's cheap, and that's a fact," she said. "It's most a pity I can't buy the thing from you."

"I suppose that trouble over Winthrop has turned Miss Calvert against me?"

"You have got it," was the answer. "Lucy's mad with you. She runs this place, and she deals with Grantly."

This was the lead Nevis had been waiting for, and he seized upon it.



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