Harold Bindloss.

A Prairie Courtship



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CHAPTER XVII
A COMPROMISE

Thorne was driving Alison home from Graham's Bluff one afternoon about a week after Winthrop's escape when a couple of horsemen became visible on the crest of a low rise. The girl glanced at them from under her white parasol, which shone dazzlingly in the fierce sunlight, and then fixed her eyes on her companion.

"They're coming this way, aren't they?" she asked.

"They seem to be," replied Thorne. "One of them looks like the corporal, and I shouldn't wonder if he wanted a word with me."

He saw the girl's slight start, but was not greatly flattered, as he could not be sure whether it resulted from concern on his behalf or mere annoyance. He knew what she thought of Winthrop.

"There's no cause for alarm," he added with a laugh. "I haven't done anything particularly unlawful for some time."

He had half expected Alison to explain that she was not alarmed at all, but she disappointed him, and he wondered whether there was any significance in this. He had already discovered that she did not invariably reveal exactly what she felt.

"What can he want?" she asked.

"It probably concerns Winthrop. I don't think I told you that they almost caught him a little while ago, though he got away again."

"You didn't. Was that because you were afraid you could not trust me?"

A tinge of deeper color crept into her companion's face, and she decided rightly that this was due to displeasure. In the encounters which were not altogether infrequent between them she now and then delivered a galling thrust, but this, he thought, was striking below the guard.

"What a question, Miss Leigh!"

"It wouldn't have been unnatural if you had considered it wiser to be reticent. What happened on the last occasion would have justified it."

"If you are referring to Nevis's visit to Mrs. Calvert, I should be quite willing to leave you to outwit him again. The way you secured the letter was masterly. Still, in view of the opinions you expressed about Winthrop, I don't understand why you did it, and, so far as I can remember, you haven't explained the thing."

"I meant his visit to the Farquhar homestead when I told him about Lucy; but I'll try to answer you. For one reason, I wanted to make amends for my previous – rashness."

Alison paused at the word, as she remembered that Lucy had suggested that what she now termed rashness was jealousy.

"Well," laughed Thorne, "you were certainly rash, but I feel inclined to wonder whether you were anything else. Your hesitation just now was – significant."

Alison recognized that she had a quick-witted antagonist.

"I believe I have already admitted that I was prejudiced against Winthrop."

"That," returned Thorne, "is, perhaps, from your point of view, no more than natural. In fact, I'm not sure I could say he was right in everything he has done." He paused a moment. "But, I shouldn't like to think that your prejudice extends to Lucy."

Alison had not expected this, and she wondered with some resentment exactly what he meant to imply.

"Of course," he added, "some of her ideas and some of the things she says might jar on you, but that doesn't count for very much, after all.

The girl's staunch all through, and the way she has stuck to Winthrop in his trouble and the way she has run the farm would compel the respect of any one who understood what she has had to put up with."

Alison wondered whether he wished to reassure her concerning Lucy's devotion to her lover, which, as she remembered, the girl herself had already done; but she scarcely fancied that he would adopt such a course as this. It would, at least, be very much out of harmony with his usual conduct.

"I venture to believe that Lucy and I will be good friends in the future," she said.

Slaney and the trooper were now rapidly approaching, and a minute or two later Thorne pulled up and turned to the corporal, who reined in his horse close beside the wagon.

"You have something to say to me?" he asked.

"Yes," replied Slaney; "it's this: Do you know where Jake Winthrop is?"

"No," answered Thorne; "on the whole, I'm glad I don't. What's more, I haven't the least suspicion."

They looked at each other steadily, and it struck Alison that the little gesture Slaney made was a striking testimonial to her companion's character. It indicated that the corporal had no hesitation in taking the word of the man with whom he was at variance. Though she and Thorne occupied the same seat they were far enough apart for her to see his face, and as he sat with his broad hat tilted back, smiling down at Slaney, she recognized that in spite of the old blue duck he wore there was a virile grace in every line of his figure. In addition to this, by contrast with the smartly uniformed corporal, he looked, as she felt it could most fittingly be described, thoroughbred, and there was something in his half-whimsical manner that curiously pleased her.

"I guess you heard what happened up the track?" Slaney next inquired.

"I did. Rather amusing in some respects, wasn't it? I understand that you and the trooper sat out most of the night watching an empty shack."

"Well," asserted Slaney grimly, "there was nothing very amusing about the giant-powder. I tell you the man meant to drop it into the fire."

"From what I know of Winthrop, I'm inclined to believe he did. In fact, in my opinion, it would be considerably wiser of Nevis if he left that man alone. I'm not sure he has a very good case against him, anyway; though, of course, that's no concern of yours or mine. You can't pick up his trail?"

"That's a cold fact," declared the corporal. "I guess you wouldn't mind getting down and walking along a few yards with me?"

"It's not worth while. I've no objections to Miss Leigh's hearing what you have to say, and I'm afraid Volador wouldn't stand unless I kept the reins. The flies are bothering him, and he doesn't seem quite easy when you're in the neighborhood." Thorne paused and laughed. "In a way, that's not astonishing."

Slaney disregarded the last observation.

"Then," he said, "I'm not the man to make useless trouble – anyway, unless it's going to give me a shove up toward promotion – but you're worrying me. The fact is, wherever I pick up Winthrop's trail I strike yours too. Now there was a night some while back when we ran one of you down close to the frontier."

Thorne saw Alison glance sharply at the corporal, and he smiled.

"Why should I ride for the frontier with the police after me?"

"That's what I don't exactly know, but I have my views. I want to say that we picked up a black plug hat when we were coming back along the trail. The point is that the thing was new. Then we found a brown duck jacket with a tear in it, but I figured the tear had been made quite lately."

"I don't think you could prove very much from that."

"Well," said Slaney, "I could try. It would look bad if I put the other matter of the horse Winthrop found near your homestead alongside it. Now I'll ask you right out – Are you going to mix yourself up with Jake's affairs any more?"

"In return, I'd like to hear whether you have any notion of carrying your investigations further?" Thorne parried.

They looked rather hard at each other, and then Slaney smiled.

"I guess it will depend a good deal on your answer; that is, unless Nevis gets hold of the thing."

"Then it's my intention to drop Jake Winthrop now. There's very little probability of his wanting any further assistance that I could render him."

"Well, let it go at that," replied Slaney simply. "I guess it will save you trouble. Good-day to you."

He rode away, and Alison turned to her companion when they drove on again.

"One could have imagined that you and the corporal were making a bargain," she suggested.

Thorne laughed.

"Well," he admitted, "I'm afraid it was quite illegal, but it amounted to something very much like that. The bargain, however, is only a provisional one. If Nevis chances on the truth, he may upset it by forcing Slaney's hand."

"But, after all, you gave each other only a vague hint. It would be difficult even to reproach the corporal if, as you say, he went back on it."

"Oh, yes," assented Thorne dryly. "Still, I haven't the least reason for believing that probable."

Alison made no comment, though the attitude of both men appealed to her. They were enemies in some respects, and yet once the indefinite understanding had been arrived at neither seemed to have the slightest fear that the other would violate it. They were, she remembered, men who lived in the open, who broke and rode wild horses, and who faced exposure and strenuous toil. Why this should be conducive to reliability of character was not very clear, but it apparently had that result. Then she remembered what the corporal had mentioned.

"You have been doing something to help Winthrop to escape since the night you let him have the horse?"

Thorne admitted it, and when she pressed him for the story he told it whimsically; but this time Alison felt no anger. A few plain words spoken by Lucy Calvert had obviated that, for it was now quite clear that the man had been prompted by mere chivalrous pity and lust of excitement, and had no desire to win the girl's favor.

"That was splendid!" she exclaimed.

Thorne smiled, though he looked at her in a somewhat curious fashion. Then at her request he related how Winthrop had held off the police. As it happened, he could tell a story with dramatic force, and both the brief narratives had their effect on Alison. She had imagination, and could picture the man who now sat beside her smashing furiously through the tangled bluff in the blackness of the night, and the other sitting grimly resolute beside the stove with the stick of giant-powder in his hand. After all, they were, she realized, the doings of primitive men; but charity that did not stop to count the cost, and steadfast, unflinching valor, were rudimentary too, and all the progress of a complex civilization had evolved nothing finer. Man could add nothing to them. They were perfect gifts to him, though there was reason for believing that they were not distributed broadcast.

Then they chatted about other matters, and Alison was almost sorry when the Farquhar homestead and its barns and stables rose, girt about with a sweep of tall green wheat, out of the prairie. Thorne stayed for supper, and he was standing beside his team with Farquhar an hour afterward when the latter suddenly made an excuse and moved away as his wife came out of the doorway. Thorne grinned at this, and there was still a gleam of amusement in his eyes when his hostess stopped beside him. He indicated the retreating Farquhar with a wave of his hand.

"Harry remembered that he'd want the wagon to-morrow, and there's a bolt loose," he explained. "It didn't seem to occur to him until he noticed you. I suppose one could call it a coincidence."

"Have you any different ideas on the subject?" Mrs. Farquhar inquired.

"Since you ask the question, it looks rather like collusion."

"Well," laughed Mrs. Farquhar, "I certainly wanted a little talk with you. To begin with, I should like to point out that we have had a good deal of your company lately."

"That's a fact. Perhaps I'd better say that quite apart from the pleasure of spending an evening with you and Harry there's another reason."

"The thing has been perfectly obvious for some time; indeed, it has had my serious consideration. You see, I hold myself responsible for Alison to some extent."

"You feel that you stand in loco parentis– I believe that's the correct phrase – but in one way it doesn't seem to apply. Nobody would believe you were old enough to be her mother."

Mrs. Farquhar glanced at him in half-amused impatience, but his manner swiftly changed.

"It's my intention to marry Alison as soon as things permit," he added. "Anyway, that is what I should like to do, but whether I'll ever get any farther is, of course, another matter. It's one on which I'd be glad to have your opinion; and that suggests a question. Can my views have been perfectly obvious to Alison?"

His companion looked thoughtful.

"That's a little difficult to answer; though I feel inclined to say that they certainly ought to have been. On the other hand, it's possible that she may believe you merely saw in her what we'll call an intellectual equal – somebody you would have more in common with than you would, for example, with Lucy. This seems the more likely because I don't think that marriage in itself has any great attraction for her. Indeed, I'm inclined to fancy that it was rather a shock to her to discover how it is regarded by some people in this country. It's unfortunate that she fell in with one hasty suitor who was anxious to marry her offhand immediately on her arrival. That being the case, it strikes me that you had better proceed cautiously and avoid anything that may suggest a too materialistic point of view."

Thorne made a gesture of comprehensive repudiation.

"I'm thankful that nobody could call me smugly practical. But, it must be admitted that, as she is situated, marriage seems to be her only vocation in this country."

"If you let her see that you think that, you may as well give up your project." Mrs. Farquhar hesitated a moment. "Have you ever tried to formulate what you expect from Alison?"

Thorne's smile made it evident that he guessed what was in her mind.

"I can at least tell you what I don't expect. I've no hankering for a house and domestic comforts – in my experience they're singularly apt to pall on one. I don't want a woman to mend my clothes and prepare me tempting meals – that way of looking at the thing strikes one as almost unthinkable, and there never was a banquet where the fare was half as good as what you turn out of the blackened spider in the birch bluff. I want Alison, with her English graces and English prejudices; her only, and nothing else."

"That is a sentiment which would no doubt appeal to her; but one has to be practical; and you would in any case have to do a good deal before you got her. She couldn't, for instance, dress in flour-bags and live in the wagon. Nor do I think that Bishop would feel equal to entertaining a married couple during the winter."

"The point of all this is that you want to be satisfied that I can give up my vagabond habits?" suggested Thorne. "Well, I must try to convince you, though I want to say that it was a willing sacrifice. Haven't I gone into harness – yoked myself down to a house and land, with a mortgage on both of them; haven't I slept for several months now under at least a partly shingled roof? If any more proof is wanted, haven't I come to terms with Corporal Slaney and given up the excitement of bluffing the police; and haven't I decided, as far as it's possible for me, to leave Nevis unmolested? Aren't all these things foreign to my nature?"

Mrs. Farquhar laughed.

"Mavy," she asked, "do you find living in some degree of comfort, and devoting your intelligence to a task that will probably pay you, so very intolerable?"

Thorne smiled and made a little, confidential gesture.

"I must confess that I don't find it quite as unpleasant as I had expected. But you haven't given me your opinion on the point that concerns me most."

"Then," said Mrs. Farquhar, with an air of reflection, "while Alison has naturally not said anything to me on the subject, I don't think you need consider your case as altogether desperate."

She smiled at Thorne, who swung himself up into his wagon and drove away.

CHAPTER XVIII
NEVIS'S VISITOR

Florence Hunter had lately returned from Toronto and was sitting on the veranda toward the middle of the afternoon in an unusually thoughtful mood. Among other reasons for this, there was the fact that she had spent a good deal of money while she was away, and she was far from sure that she had received its full value. Most of the people she had met in Toronto appeared to be endued with irritatingly respectable, old-fashioned views, and as a result of it they could not be induced to forget that she was a married woman separated for a few weeks from a self-sacrificing husband. Indeed, one or two of them went so far as to condole with her for his absence, and their general attitude imposed on her an unwelcome restraint. There was certainly one exception, but this man had no tact, and the lady who stood sponsor for her openly frowned at his too marked devotion, while some of the others laughed. Florence at length got rid of him summarily, and then half regretted it when nobody else aspired to fill his place.

It had, further, occurred to her in Elcot's absence that he had a number of strong points, after all. He was quiet and steadfast, not to be moved from his purpose by anger or cajolery, and though this was sometimes troublesome, there was no doubt that he was a man who could be relied upon. She had nothing to fear, except, perhaps, her own imprudence, while she was in his care. Then, although she would hardly have expected it before she went away, she found the spacious wooden house pleasantly cool and quiet after the stir and rush of life in the hot city, and Elcot's unobtrusive regard for her comfort soothing. He never fussed, but when she wanted anything done he was almost invariably at hand. She determined to be more gracious to him in the future, for she was troubled with a slightly uncomfortable feeling that he might have had something to complain of in this respect in the past.

On the whole, her thoughts were far from pleasant, and in addition to this the temperature, which was a good deal higher than usual, had a depressing effect on her. There was no breeze that afternoon, and the air was still and heavy; the white prairie flung back a trying light, even on to the shaded veranda, and she felt restless, captious and irritable. At length, however, she took up a book and endeavored to become engrossed in it. She so far succeeded that she did not hear a buggy drive up, and it was with a start that she straightened herself in her chair as Nevis walked quietly on to the veranda.

"I never expected you!" she exclaimed.

The man smiled in a deprecatory fashion.

"I heard at the station that you arrived yesterday."

Florence frowned at this. The inference was too obvious; he evidently wished to imply that it would have been unnatural had he delayed his visit.

"Well," she said, "you startled me. Do you generally walk into places that way – like a pickpocket?"

Nevis laughed, and when he sat down rather close to her, uninvited, she favored him with a gaze of careful and undisguised scrutiny. Florence could be openly rude upon occasion, and though his visits hitherto had afforded her some satisfaction, she now felt that she would have been better pleased had he stayed away. He was, as usual, tastefully dressed; there was no doubt that his clothes became him; but somehow it struck her that, although she had not realized this earlier, the man looked cheap, which on consideration seemed the best word for it.

"I suppose you enjoyed yourself while you were away?" he began.

"No," replied Florence; "on the whole, I don't think I did."

She broke off and added irritably:

"Why do you always come at this time? If you drove over in the evening you would find Elcot at home."

She was genuinely provoked by her companion's smile. It so tactlessly implied that she did not mean what she had said. His signal lack of delicacy jarred on her now, though she remembered with faint wonder that she had on previous occasions found a relish in his conversation.

"Well," he answered, "for one reason, I generally call here when I'm going to the bluff. It's convenient to get there for supper."

Florence was annoyed at the opening words. The hint that there was a stronger reason which he had not mentioned was so crude that it savored of mere impertinence. Somehow she felt disappointed in the man. She had, as she realized at length, expected clever compliments from him, firmly finished, subtle boldness that would be just sufficiently apparent to convey a pleasurable thrill, and, with the latter exception, a wholly respectful homage. As to what he had expected she was far from clear, but that was a point of much less account. The polish, however, seemed suddenly to have been rubbed off him, and there was nothing into which she cared to look beneath. Even Elcot would have been capable of something more skilful than his too familiar inanities. What had brought about this change in the way she regarded him she did not know, but there was no doubt that she felt all at once disillusioned. She was in her caprices essentially variable.

"Your supper is evidently a matter of importance to you," she said.

Nevis looked at her sharply.

"Not more than it is to most other men. In return, I wonder if I might point out that you don't seem quite as amiable as usual to-day?"

Florence laughed.

"As a matter of fact, I'm not. Nobody could feel very pleasant at this temperature; and I'm disappointed – with several things." She leaned back languidly in her chair with an air of weariness. "When that happens it's a relief to be disagreeable to anybody who comes along. Besides, you're not in the least entertaining this afternoon."



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