Harold Bindloss.

A Prairie Courtship



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"The aneroid has gone up; I looked at it."

"It's gone up too much and too suddenly," said Hunter. "That sometimes means a bad outbreak from the north."

Florence was moved by a sudden impulse. The man was bronzed and toughened by labor, but there was, as she had noticed since she came home, a jaded look in his face.

"Elcot," she asked, "do you think I oughtn't to have gone away?"

The man seemed to consider this.

"No," he answered, "I don't think that, so long as you were able to manage it with the little help I could give you." He paused a moment, and looked puzzled, for there was a suspicion of heightened color in Florence's face. "On the whole, I'm glad you went, if you enjoyed the visit."

"You don't seem very sure. Wasn't it rather dull for you here?"

It was, so far as he could remember, the first time she had displayed any interest on this point, and he smiled.

"Oh, I had the place to look after, as usual. It's fortunate that it occupies a good deal of my attention."

Florence leaned forward suddenly.

"Elcot, won't you tell me exactly how much you mean by that?"

It was a moment or two before Hunter answered.

"Well," he said gravely, "since you have suggested it, perhaps I better had, though it means the dragging in of questions we've talked over quite often already. I took up farming because I couldn't stand the cities and it seemed the thing I was most fitted for. On that point I haven't changed my opinions. Where I did wrong was in marrying you." He checked her with a lifted hand as she was about to speak. "If you had never met me, you would probably have taken the next man with means who came along."

"Yes," admitted Florence, meeting his gaze. "I think that's true. Having gone so far, hadn't you better proceed?"

"I'm trying to look at it from your standpoint; I've never been sorry on my own account."

Florence laughed in a strained fashion.

"That's a little difficult to believe. Still, one must do you the justice to own that you have, at least, never mentioned your regrets."

"I don't think I've often mentioned my expectations either. That's one reason I'm speaking now. You seem – approachable – to-night."

"I suppose they were not fulfilled?"

"If they were not, it was my own fault. I took you out of the environment you were suited to and content with."

"I wasn't," Florence declared sharply. "Things were horribly unpleasant to me then. I was struggling desperately to earn a living, and had to put up with a good deal from most disagreeable people."

Again a faint, grim smile crept into her husband's eyes.

"After all, perfect candor is a little painful now and then; but let me go on. At least, I brought you into an environment with which you were not content. The kind of life I led was irksome to you; you could not help me in it; even to hear me talk of what I did each day was burdensome to you.

I couldn't speak of my plans for the future, or the difficulties that must be met and faced continually. For a while I felt it badly."

"Yes," Florence acknowledged, "it must have been hard on you, Elcot."

"It could be borne, but there was another side of the matter. It was clear that you were longing for company, stir, gaiety – and I could not give them to you. As I've often said, I'm not rich enough to make a mark in any of the cities, unless I went into business, for which I've neither the training nor inclination, and most of my money is sunk in the land here. It's difficult to sell a farm of this size for anything like its value unless wheat is dear. Besides, the friends you would wish to make wouldn't take to me. That is certain; I lived among people of their description before I met you. I couldn't in any way have helped you to make yourself a leading place in the only kind of society that would satisfy you. All this has stood between us – no doubt it was unavoidable – but it made the troubles I could share with no one a little worse to bear, and my few successes of less account to me. After all, since I could, at least, send you to the cities now and then, it was fortunate that I had my farm." He stopped a moment and added deprecatingly: "Whether you will be able to get away next winter is more than I know. As I said, the outlook is far from promising in the meanwhile."

Florence did not answer immediately. At last, she could clearly grasp the man's point of view. Indeed, she realized that during the few years they had lived together she had taken all he had to offer and had given practically nothing in return. She felt almost impelled to tell him that her last visit to the cities had brought her very little pleasure, and that she would be willing to spend the next winter with him at the lonely homestead; but she could not do so. A surrender of any kind was difficult to her, and she had by degrees built up a barrier of reserve between them that could not immediately be thrown down. Besides, there was in the background the memory of Nevis's loan.

"Things may look better by and by," she said lamely.

Neither of them spoke for a few minutes, and it seemed to Florence that the room grew perceptibly colder, while once or twice a little puff of air struck with a sudden chill upon her face. Then there was a sharp drumming, which ceased again abruptly, upon the shingled roof, and she followed Hunter when he strode out on the veranda. An impenetrable darkness now overhung most of the sky, and there was a wild beat of hoofs as three or four invisible horses dashed across the paddock. Florence knew that the beasts were young, and understood that they were valuable. Her husband moved toward the steps.

"I'll put them into the stable, or, if I can't manage that, turn them out on the prairie," he said. "I'm afraid of the new fence. They're not accustomed to it yet, and there are two barbed strands in it."

"Take one of the hired men with you," Florence called after him, but he made no answer, and the next moment a mad beat of hoofs once more broke out as the uneasy horses galloped furiously back across the fenced-in space.

CHAPTER XX
HAIL

The air had grown very still again when Florence leaned on the veranda balustrade, gazing into the darkness, which was now intense. The brief shower of heavy rain had wet the grass, and waves of warm moisture charged with an odor like that of a hothouse seemed to flow about her and recede again, leaving her almost shivering in her gauzy dress, for between whiles it was by contrast strangely cold. She could hear Hunter calling to the horses, which apparently broke away from him now and then in short, savage rushes, but she could see nothing of him or them. Presently the sharp cries of one of the hired men broke in, and Florence, who felt her nerves tingling, became conscious of an unpleasant tension.

Then for a second, or part of it, the figures of moving men and beasts became visible, etched hard and black against an overwhelming brightness, as a blaze of lightning smote the prairie. The glare of it was dazzling, and when it vanished Florence was left gripping the balustrade, bewildered and wrapped in an intolerable darkness. After that a drumming of hoofs and a hoarse cry broke upon her ears, but both were drowned and lost in a deafening crash of thunder. It rolled far back into the distance in great reverberations, and while her light skirt fluttered about her in an icy draught another sound emerged from them as they died away.

It grew nearer and louder in a persistent, portentous crescendo, for at first it suggested the galloping of a squadron of horse, then a regiment, and at length the furious approach of a division of cavalry. Holding fast to the balustrade, she could even imagine that there were mingled with it the crash of jolting wheels and a clamor of wild voices as of a host behind pressing onward to the onslaught. The din was scarcely drowned by a tremendous rumbling that twice filled the air; and there was forced upon her a vague perception of the fact that it was a very real attack upon the things that enabled her to have the ease she loved. Wheat and cattle, stables and homestead must, it almost seemed, go down, and there were, as sole and pitiful defense, two men somewhere out in the darkness exposed to the outbreak of elemental fury. There was now no sign of her husband or his companion. It was quite impossible to hear any sound they made, and she stood quivering, until, loosing her hold of the balustrade with an effort, she ran down the steps.

"Elcot!" she cried.

No answer reached her. She knew it was useless to call, but an overmastering fear came upon her as she remembered the mad flight of the terrified horses, and she ran on a few paces over the wet grass, crying out again. Then she was beaten back, gasping, with her hands raised in a futile attempt to shield her face and her dress driven flat against her, as a merciless shower of ice broke out of the darkness. It swept the veranda like the storm of lead from a volley, only it did not cease; crashing upon the balustrade and lashing the front of the house, while the very building seemed to rock in the savage blast. She staggered back before it, too dazed and bewildered to notice where she was going, until she struck the wall and cowered against the boards. There was a narrow roof above her, but it did not keep off much of the wind-driven hail, and she could not be sure that the whole of it was now standing. The veranda was wrapped in darkness, for the lamp had blown out.

She never remembered how long she stood there. For a time, every sense was concentrated on an effort to shelter her face from the hail which fell upon her thinly covered arms and shoulders like a scourge of knotted wire. Then, faint and breathless, she crept forward toward where she supposed the door must be, and staggered into the unlighted room. She struck a chair, and sank into it, to sit shivering and listening appalled to the cataclysm of sound.

Then a terror which had been driven out of her mind for the last few minutes crept back. Elcot was out amid the rush of hurtling ice; and she knew him well enough to feel certain that he would stay in the paddock until the horses were secured. She could picture him trying to guide the maddened beasts out between the slip-rails, heading them off from the perilous fence they rushed down upon at a terror-stricken gallop, or, perhaps, lying upon the hail-swept grass with a broken limb. It was horrible to contemplate, and she became conscious of a torturing anxiety concerning the safety of the man for whose comfort she had scarcely spared a thought since she married him.

Though it was difficult, she contrived to shut the door and window, and to relight the lamp, and then she glanced round the room. Elcot's paper had fallen to pieces and had been scattered here and there, while a long pile of hail lay melting on the floor. She could understand now why she felt bruised all over except where the fullness of her dress had protected her, for she had never seen hail like this in England. The jagged lumps were of all shapes, and most of them seemed the size of hazelnuts. Then she became conscious that her hair was streaming about her face and that her dress clung saturated to her limbs. This, however, appeared of no moment, for her anxiety about her husband was becoming intolerable.

Nerving herself for an effort, she moved toward the door. It was flung back upon her when she lifted the latch, and she staggered beneath the blow. Then, panting hard, she forced it to again and went back limply to her chair. It was utterly impossible for her to face that hail. She had the will to do so, and she was no coward, but the flesh she had pampered and shielded failed her, which was in no way astonishing. Wheat-growers, herders, police troopers, and, unfortunately, patient women learn that the body must be sternly brought into subjection to the mind by long repression before one can face wind-driven ice, snow-laden blizzard, or the awful cold which now and then descends upon the vast spaces of western Canada.

In a few more minutes the uproar subsided. The drumming on the walls and roof suddenly ceased and the wind no longer buffeted the house. The tumult receded in gradations of sinking sound, until at last there was silence, except for the drip from the veranda eaves. It was shortly broken by quick footsteps and Florence turned toward the door as Hunter came in.

His face showed where the hail had beaten it, for his hat had gone; the water ran from him, and one hand was bleeding. He looked limp and exhausted, but what struck her most was the sternness of his expression.

"Are you hurt?" she asked.

Hunter glanced down at his reddened hand.

"Nothing to speak of. I got a rip from the fence somehow, and one leg's a little stiff; one of the horses must have kicked me. Guess I'll know more about it to-morrow."

"And the horses?"

"We managed to get them out. But what were you doing outside? Your dress is dripping."

Florence hesitated. It seemed extraordinary that while she had seldom felt the least diffidence in dealing as appeared expedient with any of the men she had known, she was unable to inform her husband that she had been driven into the storm by anxiety for his safety; but somehow she could not get the words out. She recognized that it had never occurred to him that she could have been actuated by any motive of this kind, though she was forced to own that, considering everything, this was no more than natural. The thought brought a half-bitter smile into her eyes.

"I was on the steps when the hail began, and I could scarcely get back into the house," she said. "Can it have done very much harm?"

Hunter made a gesture of dejection.

"That's a point I'm most afraid to investigate, and it can't be done to-night. In the meanwhile, hadn't you better get those wet things off?"

His preoccupied manner indicated that he was in no mood for conversation, and Florence left him standing moodily still. It was some minutes before he felt chilly and went upstairs to change his clothes, but he came back almost immediately and took some papers and a couple of account books from a bureau. After this he lighted his pipe and sat down to make copious extracts, with a view to discovering how he stood. He had no great trouble in ascertaining his liabilities, for he was a methodical man, but it was different when he came to consider what he had to set off against them. He had counted on his wheat crop to leave him a certain surplus, but it now seemed unfortunately probable that there would be no harvest at all that year. Admitting this, he busied himself with figures in an attempt to discover how far it might be possible to convert what promised to be a crushing disaster into a temporary defeat, and several hours slipped by before any means of doing so occurred to him. His expenses had been unusually heavy, there were many points to consider and balance against each other, and a gray light was breaking low down on the rim of the prairie when at length he rose and thrust the books back into the bureau. The night's labor had at least convinced him that if he were to hold his own during the next twelve months it could be only by persistent effort and stern economy, and he had misgivings as to how his wife would regard the prospect of the latter.

On going out on to the veranda a few minutes later he was astonished to hear footsteps behind him, and when he turned and waited Florence came out of the doorway.

"I heard you moving and I came down," she said. "Are you going to look at the wheat?"

"Yes," replied Hunter. "I'm afraid there won't be very much of it to see."

The light was growing a little clearer and Florence noticed the weariness of his face. He seemed to hold himself slackly and she had never seen him fall into that dejected attitude. The man was, however, physically jaded, for a day of severe labor had preceded the struggle in the paddock and the hours he had spent in anxious thought, and he had, as he was quite aware, a heavy blow to face.

"May I go with you?" she asked hesitatingly.

"Why?"

The question was not encouraging, nor was his manner, and Florence felt reluctant to explain that her request had been prompted by a desire to share his troubles. She was conscious that a statement to this effect would probably appear somewhat astonishing, as she had never offered to do anything of the kind hitherto.

"If you must have a reason, I'm as anxious to see what damage the hail has done as you are. It can't very well affect you without affecting me."

"Yes," agreed Hunter, "that's undoubtedly the case. I'm afraid you'll have to put up with me and the homestead for the next twelve months. It's quite likely that there'll be very few new dresses, either."

Florence endeavored to keep her patience. It was not often that she felt in a penitent mood, and he did not seem disposed to make it any easier for her.

"Do you suppose new dresses are a matter of vital importance to me?" she asked.

"Well," answered Hunter, "since you put the question, several things almost lead me to believe it."

He turned abruptly toward the steps.

"If you are coming with me, we may as well go along."

They crossed the wet paddock together, and now and then Florence glanced covertly at her husband's face. It was set and anxious, but there was no sign of surrender in it. She had, however, not expected to see the latter, for she knew that Elcot was one who could, when occasion demanded it, make a very stubborn fight.

At length they stopped and stood looking out across what at sunset had been a vast sea of tall, green wheat. Now it had gone down, parts of it as before the knife of a reaper, while the rest lay crushed and flung this way and that, as though an army had marched through it. Lush blades and half-formed ears were smashed into the mire and the odd clusters of battered stalks that stood leaning above the tangled chaos only served to heighten the suggestion of widespread ruin.

Florence watched her husband, but she did not care to speak, for there are times when expressions of sympathy are superfluous. When he walked slowly forward along the edge of the grain she followed him, without noticing that her thin shoes were saturated and her light skirt was trailing in the harsh wet grass. The ground rose slightly, and stopping when they reached the highest point he answered her inquiring glance.

"It looks pretty bad," he said. "Some of it – a very little – may fill out and ripen and we might get the binders through it, but the thing's going to be difficult."

"Will this hit you very hard, Elcot?"

Hunter turned and looked at her with gravely searching eyes, and she shrank from his gaze while a warmth crept into her face.

"Oh," she broke out indignantly, "I'm not thinking – now – of what I might have to do without. Still, I suppose it was only natural that you should suspect it."

The man's gesture seemed to imply that this was after all a matter of minor importance, and it jarred on her.

"Well," he answered, "I guess I can weather the trouble, though it will mean a long, stiff pull and a general whittling down of expenses. I spent most of last night figuring on the latter, and I've got my plans worked out, though it was troublesome to see where I was to begin."

Florence's heart smote her. Her allowance was a liberal one, but she knew it would only be when every other expedient had failed that he would think of touching that. It would have been a relief to tell him he could begin with it, but she remembered Nevis's loan. The thought of that loan was becoming a burden, and she felt that it must be wiped off somehow at any cost.

"Yes," she sympathized, "it must have been difficult. You don't spend much money unnecessarily, Elcot."

He did not answer, and she glanced at his hands, which were hard and roughened like those of a workman. There was an untended red gash which the fence had made across the back of one. Another glance at his clothing carried her a little farther along the same line of thought, for his garments were old and shabby and faded by the weather.

"Anyway," he said, apparently without having heeded her last observation, "I'm thankful I have no debts just now."

It was an unconscious thrust, but Florence winced, for it wounded her, and she began to see how Nevis had with deliberate purpose strengthened the barrier between her and her husband. What was more, she determined that the man should regret it. Why she had ever encouraged him she did not know, but there was no doubt that she was anxious to get rid of him now. She would have made an open confession about the loan then and there, but the time was singularly inopportune. It was out of the question that she should add to her husband's anxiety.

"After all, it doesn't often hail," she encouraged him. "Another good year will set you straight again."

The man seemed lost in thought, but he looked up when she spoke.

"We can make a bid for it," he replied. "I must have bigger and newer machines. Like most of the rest, I've been too afraid of launching out and have clung to old-fashioned means. There will have to be a change and a clearance before next season."



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