Harold Bindloss.

A Prairie Courtship



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A man of whom she made inquiries gave her a few hasty directions, and walking out of the station she presently boarded a street-car and was carried through the city until she alighted in front of a big hardware store. Being sent to an office at the back of it she noticed that the smart clerk looked at her in a curious fashion when she asked for the manager by name.

"He's not here," he said. "Won't be back again."

Alison leaned against the counter with a sudden presage of disaster.

"How is that?" she asked.

"Company went under a few days ago. Creditors selling the stock up. I'm acting for the liquidator."

Alison felt physically dizzy, but she contrived to ask another question or two, and then went out, utterly cast down and desperate, into the steadily falling rain. She was alone in the big western city, with very little money in her purse and no idea as to what she should do.

She stood still for several minutes until she remembered having heard that accommodation of an elementary kind was provided in buildings near the station where emigrants just arrived could live for a time, at least, free of charge, though they must provide their own food. As she knew that every cent was precious now, she turned back on foot along the miry street.

CHAPTER II
MAVERICK THORNE

Alison slept soundly that night. The blow had been so heavy and unexpected that it had deadened her sensibility, and kindly nature had her way. Besides, the very hard berth she occupied was at least still, and she was not kept awake by the distressful vibration that had disturbed her in the Colonist car. Awakening refreshed in the morning, she sallied out to purchase provisions for the day, and was unpleasantly astonished at the cost of them. She had yet to learn that a dollar goes a very little way in a country where rents and wages are high.

Returning to the emigrant quarters which were provided with a cooking-stove, she made a frugal breakfast, and then after a conversation with an official who gave her all the information in his power, she spent the day offering her services at stores and hotels and offices up and down the city. Nobody, however, seemed to want her. It was, she learned, a time of general bad trade, for the wheat harvest, on which that city largely depends, had failed the previous year.

Day followed day with much the same result, until Alison, who never looked back upon them afterward without a shiver, had at last parted with most of her slender stock of garments to one of the Jew dealers who then occupied a row of rickety wooden shacks near the station at Winnipeg. He gave her remarkably little for them; and one night she sat down dejectedly in the emigrant quarters to grapple with the crisis. By and by a girl who had traveled in the same car and had spoken to her now and then sat down beside her.

"Nothing yet?" she asked.

"No," said Alison wearily; "I have heard of nothing that I could turn my hands to."

"Then," advised her companion, "you'll just have to do the same as the rest of us.

You're almost as good-looking as I am." She lowered her voice a little. "I dare say you have noticed that those Norwegians have gone?"

Alison had noticed that, and also that two or three lean and wiry men with faces almost blackened by exposure to the frost had been hanging about the emigrant quarters for a day or two preceding the disappearance of the girls. The blood crept into her cheeks as she remembered it, but her companion laughed, somewhat harshly.

"Oh," she explained, "they're married and gone off to farm; but what I want to tell you is that I'm going to follow their example to-morrow. It's quite straight. We're to be married in the morning. He says he's got a nice house, and he looks as if he'd treat me decently." She laid her hand on Alison's arm, and seemed to hesitate. "A neighbor, another farmer, came in with him – and he hasn't found anybody yet."

Alison shrank from her, white in face now, with an almost intolerable sense of disgust, but in another moment or two the blood surged into her cheeks, and her companion made a half-ashamed gesture.

"Oh, well," she said, "I think you're foolish, but I won't say any more about it. Besides, I had only a minute or two. Charley's waiting in the street for me now."

She withdrew somewhat hastily, and Alison sat still, almost too troubled to be capable of indignation, forcing herself to think. One thing was becoming clear; she must escape from Winnipeg before the unpleasant suggestion was made to her again, perhaps by some man in person, and go on farther West. After all, she had one friend, the one her mother had persecuted, living somewhere within reach of a station which she had discovered was situated about three hundred miles down the line, and Florence might take her in, for a time at least. She decided to set out and try to find her the next day. Rising with sudden determination, she walked across to the station to make inquiries about the train, and as she reached it a man strode up to her. It was evident that he meant to speak, and as there was just then no official to whom she could appeal, she drew herself up and faced him resolutely. He was a young man, neatly dressed in store clothes, though he did not look like an inhabitant of the city, and he had what she could not help admitting was a pleasant expression.

"You're Miss Leigh," he said, taking off his wide gray hat, and his intonation betrayed him to be an Englishman.

"How did you learn my name?" Alison asked chillingly.

"I made inquiries," he confessed. "The fact is, I asked Miss Carstairs to get me an introduction, and to tell the truth I wasn't very much astonished when she said you wouldn't hear of it."

Alison recognized now that the man was the one her companion had alluded to as her prospective husband's neighbor, and for a moment she felt that she could have struck him. That feeling, however, passed. There was a hint of deference in his attitude; he met the one indignant glance she flashed at him, which was somehow reassuring, and since she could not run away ignominiously she stood her ground.

"That's why I thought I'd make an attempt to plead my cause in person," he added.

"What do you want?" Alison asked in desperation, though she was quite aware that this was giving him a lead.

The man's gesture seemed to beseech her forbearance.

"I'm afraid it will sound rather alarming, but in the first place I'd better – clear the ground. The plain truth is that I want a wife."

"Oh," cried Alison, "how dare you say this to me!"

"Well," he answered quietly, "the fact that I expected you to look at it in that way was one of the things that influenced me. A self-respecting girl with any delicacy of feeling would naturally resent it; but I'm not sure yet that it's altogether an insult I'm offering you. Let me own that I've been here some little time, and that I've spent a good deal of it in watching you." He raised his hand as he saw the indignation in her eyes. "Give me a minute or two, and then if you think it justified you can be angry. I want to say just this. We live in a pretty primitive fashion on our hundred-and-sixty-acre holdings out on the prairie, and conventions don't count for much with us. What is more to the purpose, we are forced to make some irregular venture of this kind if we think of marrying. Now, I have a comparatively decent place about two hundred miles from here, and my wife would not have to work as hard as you would certainly have to do in a hotel or store. That's to begin with. To go on, I don't think I've ever been unkind to any one or any thing, and, though it must seem a horrible piece of assurance, I said the day I saw you get out of the train that you were the girl for me. I would do what I could, everything I could, to make things smooth for you."

Alison felt that, strange as it seemed, she could believe him. The man did not look as if he would be unkind to any one. What was more, he was apparently a man of some education.

"Now," he added, "what I should like to do is this. I'd find you quarters in a decent boarding-house, and just call and take you round to show you the city for an hour or two each afternoon. I'd try to satisfy you as to – we'll say my mode of life and character, and you could, perhaps, form some idea of me. I don't want to form any idea of you – I've done that already. Then if my offer appears as repugnant as I'm afraid it does now, I'd try to take my dismissal in good part; and I think I could find you a post in a creamery on the prairie, if you would care for it."

He broke off, and Alison wondered at herself while he stood watching her anxiously. Her anger and disgust had gone. She could see the ludicrous aspect of the situation, but that was not her clearest impression, for she felt that this most unconventional stranger was, after all, a man one could have confidence in. Still, she had not the least intention of marrying him.

"Thank you," she said quietly. "What you suggest is, however, quite out of the question."

The man's face fell, and she felt, extraordinary as it seemed, almost sorry that she had been compelled to hurt him; but once more he took off his soft hat.

"Well," he said, "I suppose I must accept that, and – though I don't know if it's a compliment – I shall go back alone. There's just another matter. If you have any knowledge of business I could have you made clerk at the creamery."

Urgent as her need was, Alison would not entertain the proposal. She felt that it would be equally impossible to accept a favor from or to live near him.

"No," she replied; "it is generous of you, but I am going West to-morrow."

The man, saying nothing further, turned away, and she thought of him long afterward with a feeling of half-amused good-will. It was the first offer of marriage she had ever had, made in a deserted, half-lighted station by a man to whom she had never spoken until that evening. She was to learn, however, that the strangeness of any event naturally depends very largely on what one has been accustomed to, and that one meets with many things which at least appear remarkable when one ventures out of the beaten track.

She went on with the west-bound train the next afternoon, and early in the morning alighted at a wayside station which consisted of one wooden shanty and a big water-tank. A cluster of little frame houses stood beneath the huge bulk of two grain elevators beyond the unfenced track, which ran straight as the crow flies across a bare, white waste of prairie. As the train sped out along this and grew smaller and smaller Alison stood forlornly beside the half-empty trunk which contained the remnant of her few possessions. She had then just two dollars in her pocket. It was a raw, cold morning, for spring was unusually late that year, and a bitter wind swept across the desolate waste. In a minute or two the station-agent came out of the shanty and looked at her with obvious curiosity.

"I guess you've got off at the right place?" he said in a manner which made the words seem less of a statement than an inquiry.

Alison asked him if he knew a Mr. Hunter who lived near Graham's Bluff, and how it was possible to reach his homestead.

"I know Hunter, but the Bluff is quite a way from here," the man replied. "The boys drive in now and then, and a freighter goes through with a wagon about once a fortnight."

He saw the girl's face fall, and added, as though something had suddenly struck him:

"There's a man in the settlement who said he was going that way to-day or to-morrow, and it's quite likely that he'd drive you over. Guess you had better ask for Maverick Thorne at the hotel."

Alison thanked him and, crossing the track, made for the rude frame building he indicated. Her thin boots were very muddy before she reached it, for there was no semblance of a street and the space between the houses and elevators was torn up and deeply rutted by wagon wheels. She now understood why a high plank sidewalk usually ran, as she had noticed, along the front of the buildings in the smaller prairie towns.

It was with a good deal of diffidence that she walked into the hotel and entered a long and very barely furnished room which just then was occupied by a group of men.

Several of them wore ordinary city clothes and were, she supposed, clerks or storekeepers in the little town; but the rest had weather-darkened faces and their garments were flecked with sun-dried mire and stained with soil, while the dilapidated skin coats thrown down here and there evidently belonged to them. Some were just finishing breakfast and the others stood lighting their pipes about a big rusty stove. The place reeked of the smell of cooking and tobacco smoke, and looked very comfortless with its uncovered walls and roughly boarded floor. There was, however, no bar in it, and it was consoling to see a very neat maid gathering up the plates.

"Is Mr. Maverick Thorne here just now?" she asked the girl.

She was unpleasantly conscious that the men had gazed at her with some astonishment when she walked in, and it was clear that they had heard her inquiry, because several of them smiled.

"Quit talking, Mavy. Here's a lady asking for you," said one, and a man who had been surrounded by a laughing group moved toward her.

She glanced at him apprehensively, for after her recent experience she was signally shy of seeking a favor from any of his kind. He was a tall man, bronzed and somewhat lean, as most of the inhabitants of the prairie seemed to be, and the state of his attire was not calculated to impress a stranger in his favor. His long boots were caked with mire and the fur was coming off the battered cap he held in one hand; his blue duck trousers were rent at one knee and a very old jacket hung over his coarse blue shirt. Still, his face was reassuring and he had whimsical brown eyes.

"Mr. Thorne?" she said.

The man made her a respectful inclination, which was not what she had expected.

"At your command," he replied.

She stood silent a moment or two, hesitating, and he watched her unobtrusively. He saw a jaded girl in a badly creased and somewhat shabby dress who nevertheless had an air of refinement about her which he immediately recognized. Her face was delicately pretty and cleanly cut, though it was weary and a little anxious then, and she had fine hazel eyes. Still, the red-lipped mouth was somehow determined and there was a hint of decision of character in the way she looked at him from under straight-drawn brows. Her hair, as much as he could see of it, was neither brown nor golden, but of a shade between, and he decided that the contrast between the warm color in her cheeks and the creamy whiteness of the rest of her face was a little more marked than usual, as indeed it was, for Alison was troubled with a very natural embarrassment just then.

"I want to go to Graham's Bluff," she said. "The man at the station told me that you were driving there."

He did not answer immediately, and she awaited his reply in tense anxiety. It was evident that she could not stay where she was, even if she had been possessed of the means to pay for such rude accommodation as the place provided, which was not the case. In the meanwhile it occurred to the man that she looked very forlorn in the big, bare room, and something in her expression appealed to him. He was, as it happened, a compassionate person.

"Well," he replied, "I could take you, though as I've a round to make it will be quite a long drive. I had thought of starting this afternoon, but we had perhaps better get off in the next hour or so."

He turned to the girl who was gathering up the plates.

"Won't you try to get this lady some breakfast, Kristine?"

The girl said that she would see what she could do, but Alison was not aware until afterward that it was only due to the fact that the man was a favorite in the place that food was presently set before her. The average Westerner gets through his breakfast in about ten minutes; and as a rule the traveler who arrives at a prairie hotel a few minutes after a meal is over must wait with what patience he can command until the next is ready.

In any case, Alison was astonished when porridge and maple syrup, a thin hard steak and a great bowl of potatoes, besides strong green tea and a dish of desiccated apricots stewed down to pulp, were laid in front of her. It was most unlike an English breakfast, but she was to learn that there is very little difference between any of the three daily meals served in that country. Its inhabitants, who rise for the most part at sunup, do not require to be tempted by dainties, which is fortunate, since they could not by any means obtain them, and in a land where the liquor prohibition laws are generally applied and men work twelve and fourteen hours daily, morning appetizers are quite unnecessary.

In the meanwhile Thorne and his companions had disappeared, for which Alison was thankful, though they left an acrid reek of tobacco smoke behind them; but when Kristine presently demanded fifty cents she realized with a fresh pang of anxiety that she had now just a dollar and a half in her possession, and she scarcely dared contemplate what might happen if Florence Hunter should not be disposed to welcome her. Besides this, there was the unpleasant possibility that the man might expect more than she could pay him for driving her to Graham's Bluff, and it was with some misgivings that she rose when he appeared an hour later to intimate that the team was ready.

Going out with him she saw two rough-coated horses apparently endeavoring to kick in the front of a high, four-wheeled vehicle, until they desisted and backed it violently into the side of the hotel. There are various rigs, as they term them – buckboards, sulkies and the humble bob-sleds – in use in that country, but the favorite one is the narrow, general-purpose wagon mounted on tall slender wheels, which will carry a moderate load though light enough to go reasonably fast.

Thorne helped Alison up, and as he swung himself into the vehicle several loungers hurled laughing questions at him.

"Aren't you going to trade that man the gramophone? You'd get him sure in half an hour," called one.

"Webster wants a tonic that will fix his wooden leg," cried another; and a third suggested that a Chinaman in the vicinity was open to purchase some hair-restorer. Alison did not know then that, probably because he wears only one tail of it, a Chinaman's hair usually grows without the least assistance three feet long.

Thorne smiled at them and then, calling to Kristine, who was standing near the door, he leaned down and handed her a bottle which he took from an open case.

"I guess you haven't much use for anything of this kind, but that elixir will make your cheeks bloom like peaches if you rub it in," he informed her. "I sold some round Stanbury down the line not long ago and there wasn't an unmarried girl near the place when I next came along."

"There was only two before, and one of them was cross-eyed," said a grinning man.

Thorne, without answering this, told Alison to hold fast and flicked the horses with the whip. They plunged forward at a mad gallop, scattering clods of half-dried mud, and the wagon bounced violently into and out of the ruts. It seemed to leap into the air when the wheels struck the rails as they crossed the track, and then Thorne's arms grew rigid and there was a further kicking and plunging as he pulled the team up outside the little station shed. A man who appeared from within condescended to hand Alison's light trunk up, which she did not know then was a very great favor, and in another moment or two they were flying out across the white waste of prairie.

It ran dead level, like a frozen sea, to where it met the crystalline blueness that hung over it, for the grasses which had lain for months in the grip of the iron frost shone in the sunlight a pale silvery gray. There was not a trail of smoke or a house on it, only here and there a formless blur that was in reality a bluff of straggling birches or a clump of willows, and, to complete the illusion, when Alison looked around by and by, the houses had sunk down beneath the rim and only the bulk of the wheat elevators rose up like island crags against the sky.

It was, however, warm at last, and a wonderful fresh breeze which had the quality of an elixir in it rippled the whitened grass. Alison felt her heart grow lighter. The vast plain was certainly desolate, but it had lost its forbidding grimness. It had no limit or boundary; one felt free out there and cares and apprehensions melted in the sunshine that flooded it. She began to understand why she had seen no pinched and pallid faces in this new land. Its inhabitants laughed whole-heartedly, looked one in the eyes, and walked with a quick, jaunty swing. They seemed alert, self-confident, optimistic and quaintly whimsical. It was hard to believe there was not some nook in it that she could fill.

In the meanwhile she was becoming more reassured about her companion. She decided that his age was twenty-six and that he had a pleasant face. His eyes were clear and brown and steady, his nose and lips clearly cut, and there was a suggestive cleanness about his deeply bronzed skin which was the result of a simple and wholesome life led out in the wind and the sun. Alison was puzzled, however, by something in both his manner and his voice that hinted at a careful upbringing and intelligence. It certainly was not in keeping with his clothes or his profession, which was apparently that of a pedler. She had already noticed the nerve and coolness with which he controlled the half-broken team.



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