A Prairie Courtshipскачать книгу бесплатно
"Lucy," she observed, "is now and then a little outspoken, but I'm curious as to what she meant when she said that Thorne was not likely to make love to her. Of course, the thing's improbable, anyway, but she spoke as if he had been offered an opportunity."
Alison's face flushed with anger.
"Leaving the fact that she's to marry Winthrop out of the question, the girl must have some self-respect. She would surely never go so far as you suggest."
"Well," smiled her companion, "she might go far enough to place Thorne in an embarrassing position, purely for the sake of the amusement she might derive from it. In fact, when I remember how she laughed, I'm far from sure that she didn't do something of the kind."
Alison sat silent for a minute or two. There was no doubt that she was very angry with Lucy, but she was also troubled by other sensations, among which was a certain envy of the girl's capacity for work that was held of high account in that country. Thorne's attitude and his weary face as he toiled among the sheaves had been very suggestive. He was, she knew, hard-pressed, engaged in a desperate grapple with a task that was generally admitted to be beyond his strength, and she could only stand aside and watch his efforts with wholly ineffective sympathy.
Then she became conscious that Mrs. Farquhar was glancing at her curiously.
"I feel humiliated to-night!" she broke out. "There's so little that seems of the least use to anybody here that I can do; and my abilities scarcely got me food and shelter in England. Isn't it almost a crime that they teach so many of us only fripperies? Were we only made to be taken care of and petted?"
Her companion smiled.
"If it's any consolation, I may point out that we haven't found you useless at the Farquhar homestead, and I can't see why you shouldn't be just as useful presiding over a place of your own. After all, since you raise the question what you were made for, that seems to be the usual destiny, and I haven't found it an unpleasant or ignoble one."
She broke off, and for a minute or two the jolting of the wagon rendered further conversation out of the question.
"There's another point," she added presently; "it's my opinion that an encouraging word from you would do more to brace Mavy for the work in front of him than the offer of half a dozen binders and teams."
Alison made no answer, and they drove on in silence across the waste, which was beginning to grow dim and shadowy.
THE ONLY MEANS
Alison sat one afternoon in the shadow of a pile of sheaves in Farquhar's harvest field. She had a little leisure, and it was unpleasantly hot in the wooden house. There was some sewing in her hand, but even in the shade the light was trying and she leaned back languidly among the warm straw with half-closed eyes. Two men were talking some distance behind her as they pitched up the rustling sheaves, and the tramp of horses' feet among the stubble and the rattle of a binder which she knew Farquhar was driving drew steadily nearer.
Presently another beat of hoofs broke in, and a minute or two later Hall rode past, looking very hot, apparently without seeing her. Then the rattle of the binder ceased and she heard the newcomer greet Farquhar.
"If you've got one of those bent-end-spanners you could let me have I'd be glad," he said. "I've mislaid mine somehow, and there's a loose nut I can't get at making trouble on my binder."
Farquhar sent his hired man for one and Hall referred to the grain.
"So you have made a start. Looks quite a heavy crop. Good and ripe, too, isn't it?"
"We put the binder in yesterday," answered Farquhar. "I'd have done it earlier only that I sent Pete over to Thorne's place for a few days after you left him."
"I was kind of sorry I had to leave. He's surely going to be beaten. I looked in on him yesterday."
Alison became suddenly intent. She drew her light skirt closer about her, for she did not wish it to catch the men's eyes and betray her, as she thought it probable that they would speak to each other unreservedly and she would hear the actual truth about Thorne. When she had questioned Farquhar he had answered her in general terms, avoiding any very definite particulars, and she now strained her ears to catch his reply to Hall.
"I was afraid of it after what Pete told me," he said. "I would have helped him more if I could have managed it, but I can't let a big crop like this stand over when I've bills to meet."
"That," declared Hall, "is just how I'm fixed, though I stayed with him as long as I could. The trouble is that he hasn't been able to hire a man since I left him. There seem to be mighty few of the Ontario boys coming in this season, and so far they've been snapped up farther back along the line."
"Has he tried any of the men who had their crops hailed out west of the creek?"
"They cleared as soon as they saw they had no harvest left. Most of them are out track-grading on the branch line, and I heard the rest went East. Mavy's surely up against it; he was figuring last evening that even if the weather held he'd be most a month behind."
"Then I'm afraid he'll have to give the place up. Nevis will come down on him the day that payment's due."
"Couldn't he raise the money somehow, for a month?" Hall inquired.
"It's scarcely likely. I can't lend him any, with wheat at present figure, and Hunter, who has already guaranteed him a thousand dollars, is very tightly fixed. Besides Mavy couldn't expect anything more from him. It wouldn't be much use going to a bank, either. With the bottom dropping out of the market they're getting scared of wheat, and he has nothing to offer them but a crop that isn't reaped, with Grantly's note calling for most of it."
"Then I guess he has just got to quit. Hunter would no doubt have lent him a binder and a couple of hired men, but he has them busy trying to straighten up his hailed crop and cut patches of it."
"It's a pity," Farquhar assented in a regretful voice. "It will hurt Mavy to give the place up."
The man arrived with the spanner and Alison heard Hall ride away. When the clash and rattle of the binder began again she lay still for a long time beneath the sheaves. The men's conversation had made it clear that Thorne would shortly be involved in disaster, and that alone was painful news, though by comparison with another aspect of the matter it was of minor importance. The man loved her, and it was for that reason he had undertaken this most unfortunate farming venture. Everybody seemed to know it, though he had never told her what was in his mind, and she had been content to wait. Now, however, she had no doubt that she loved him, and he would, it seemed, shortly go away and vanish altogether beyond her reach – at least, unless something should very promptly be done. She knew he would not claim her while he was an outcast and a ruined man.
She closed one hand tight and a flush crept into her face as she made up her mind on one point, and she was thankful while she did so that she was on the Canadian prairie, where the thing seemed easier than it would have done in England. In that new land time-honored prejudices and hampering traditions did not seem to count. Men and women outgrew them there and obeyed the impulses of human nature, which were, after all, elemental and existent long before the invention of what were, perhaps, in the more complex society of other lands, necessary fetters. Thorne, the pedler, farmer, railroad hand, or whatever he might become, should at least know that she loved him and decide with that knowledge before him whether he would go away.
Then, growing a little more collected, she considered the second point. Though Hall and Farquhar had cast considerable doubt upon his ability to help, there was just a possibility that Hunter might hold out a hand, and she would stoop to beg for any favor that might be shown her lover. This latter decision, however, she prudently determined to keep from Thorne in the meanwhile.
By and by she walked quietly back to the house and busied herself as usual, though late in the afternoon she asked Mrs. Farquhar for a horse and the buggy. Her employer did not trouble her with any questions as to why she wanted them, though she favored her with a glance of unobtrusive but very keen scrutiny, and soon after supper the hired man brought the buggy to the door. Then Alison came out from her room, where she had spent some time carefully comparing the two or three dresses she had clung to when she had parted with the rest in Winnipeg, one after another. She had attired herself in the one that became her best, for she felt that there must be nothing wanting in the gift she meant to offer her lover. She recognized that this was what her intention amounted to. What other women did with more reserve, veiling their advances in disguises which were after all so flimsy that nobody except those who wished could be deceived, she would do with imperious openness.
The days were now rapidly growing shorter, and when she reached Thorne's homestead the sun hung low above the verge of the great white plain. The man was not in sight, which struck her as strange, as there would be light enough to work for some time yet, but she was not astonished that he had evidently not heard her approach, because she had driven slowly for the last mile, almost repenting of her rashness and wondering whether she should not turn and go back again. Once she had set about it, the thing she had undertaken appeared increasingly difficult. Indeed, she knew that had the man been less severely pressed nothing would have driven her into the action she contemplated. It was only the fact that he was face to face with disaster, beaten down, desperate, that warranted the sacrifice of her reserve and pride.
Getting down at length, she left the horse, which was a quiet one, and walked toward the house. The door stood open when she reached it, and looking in she saw the man sitting at a table, on which there lay a strip of paper covered with figures. His face was worn and set, and every line of his slack pose was expressive of dejection. He did not immediately see her, and a deep pity overwhelmed her and helped to sweep away her doubts and hesitation as she glanced round the room. It was growing shadowy, but it looked horribly comfortless, and the few dishes that were still scattered about the table bore the remnants of a singularly uninviting meal. There was a portion of a loaf, blackened outside, sad and damp within; butter that had liquefied and partly congealed again in discolored streaks; a morsel of half-cooked pork reposing in solid fat; and a can of flavored syrup, black with flies. She wondered how any one coming back oppressed with anxiety from a day of exhausting toil could eat such fare. Then she noticed a small heap of tattered garments, which he evidently had no leisure to mend, lying on the floor, and while it brought her no sense of repulsion, the sight of them further troubled her. These were things which jarred on the beneficent, home-making instincts which suddenly awoke within her nature, and they moved her to a compassionate longing to care for and shelter the lonely man.
Then he looked up and saw her, and she flushed at the swift elation in his face, which, however, almost immediately grew hard again. It was as though he had yielded for a moment to some pleasurable impulse, and had then, with an effort, repressed it and resumed his self-control.
"Come in," he invited, rising with outstretched hand, and she suddenly recalled how she had last crossed that threshold in his company. There had been careless laughter in his eyes then, he had moved and spoken with a joyous optimism, and now there was plain upon him the stamp of defeat. Even physically the man looked different.
She sat down when he drew her out a chair, but he remained standing, leaning with one hand on the table.
"Is Mrs. Farquhar outside?"
"No; I drove across alone."
He looked at her with a hint of astonishment and something that suggested a natural curiosity as to the cause for the visit, which she now found it insuperably difficult to explain.
"You haven't been at work this evening?" she asked.
"No," replied Thorne. "I rode in to the railroad early yesterday and I've just got back after calling at two or three farms west of the creek. It seemed possible that I might be able to hire a couple of men I'd wired for back along the line, but I found that somebody else had got hold of them at another station. As a matter of fact, I had expected it."
"Then you must have made the journey almost without a rest!"
"Volador's dead played out," answered Thorne. "I had to do something, though it seemed pretty useless in any case."
"Ah!" Alison exclaimed softly; "then you mean to go on?"
"Until I'm turned out, which will no doubt happen very shortly."
"I suppose that will hurt you?"
He looked at her for a moment with his face awry and signs of a sternly repressed longing in his eyes.
"Yes," he answered, "it will hurt me more than anything I could have had to face. In fact, the thought of it has been almost unbearable; but it's now clear that I shall have to go through with it."
This was satisfactory to Alison in some respects, and she was quick to sympathize.
"It must be very hard to give up the farm on which you have spent so much earnest work."
"Yes," assented Thorne, with something in his tone that suggested half-contemptuous indifference to the sacrifice; "it won't be easy to give up even the farm."
Then for the first time it occurred to him that there was an unusual hint of strain in her manner, and that he had never seen her dressed in the same fashion before. She did not look daintier, for daintiness was not quite the quality he would have ascribed to her, but more highly cultivated, farther beyond the reach of a ruined farmer, though there was a strange softness – it almost seemed tenderness – shining in her eyes. He gripped the table hard and his face grew stern as he gazed at her. He felt that it was almost impossible that he would ever have the strength to let her go.
"What will you do then?" she asked with what seemed a merciless persistency.
"Go away," declared Thorne. "Strike west and vanish out of sight. I've no doubt somebody will hire me to load up railroad ballast or herd cattle." He smiled at her harshly. "After all, it will be a relief to my few friends. They may be a little sorry – but my absence will save their making excuses for me."
Alison looked up at him steadily, though there was a flush of color in her cheeks.
"You must be just to them," she said. "Why should they invent excuses – when you have made such a fight with so much against you? Besides, you are wrong when you say they might be – a little sorry. Can you believe that it would be easy to let you go away?"
Thorne frowned as he met her gaze. He did not know what to make of this, but there was a suggestiveness in her voice that was almost too much for him.
"Is there any one who would have much difficulty in doing that?" he asked with a quietness that cost him a determined effort.
"Yes," murmured Alison, with suddenly lowered eyes; "there is at least one person who would feel it dreadfully."
He gazed at her, straining to cling to the resolution that had almost deserted him, though his face was firmly set.
"It is quite true," she added, with flaming cheeks. "I must say it. I mean myself."
He drew back a pace and stood very still, as though afraid to trust himself.
"Don't make it all unbearable!" he cried at length. "There's only one course open to me. It's hard enough already."
Alison faced him with a new steadiness.
"Oh," she exclaimed, "you can only look at it from your point of view – can't you understand yet that there is another? If you had meant to go away you should have gone – some time ago."
Thorne closed his hands firmly.
"I'm afraid you are right; but I believed that I might make a success of this farming venture."
The girl laughed with open scorn.
"Dare you believe that would have mattered so very much to me? Do you think I didn't know why you turned farmer, and why you have since then done things that none of your neighbors would have been capable of?"
"It seemed necessary," explained Thorne, still with the same expressive quietness. "I did so because I wanted you, and that is exactly what makes defeat so bitter now."
"And you imagined that you had hidden your motive? Can you believe that a man could change his whole mode of life and take up a burden he had carefully avoided, as you have done, without having the woman on whose account he did it understand why? Are we so blind or utterly foolish? Don't you know that our perceptions and intuitions are twice as keen as yours?"
"Then you understood what my object was all along – and it didn't strike you as absurd and impossible?"
Alison smiled at him.
"Why should it seem absurd that I should love you, Mavy?"
He came no nearer, but stood still, looking at her with elation and trouble curiously mingled in his face, and she realized that the fight was but half won. He had of late sloughed off his wayward carelessness and she knew that there had always been a depth of resolute character beneath it. He was a man who would do what he felt was the fitting thing, even though it hurt him.
"Well," he said, speaking slowly in a tense voice, "ever since I first saw you I longed that this should come about. It was what I worked for, and nothing would have been too hard that brought me nearer you, but it's almost a cruelty that I should have succeeded – now."
"Why?" asked Alison, bracing herself for another effort, for the strain was beginning to tell. "Is what you have won of no value to you?"
Thorne spread out his hands as if in desperation.
"It is because it is so precious that I shrink from involving you in the disaster that is hanging over me. I am a ruined, discredited man, and in a few more weeks I will be driven out of my homestead without a dollar. It will be three or four years at least before I can struggle to my feet again."
"Is that so very dreadful, Mavy?" Alison smiled. "I almost think that in the things that count the most many of you are, after all, more bound by traditions than we are. Your wildest flight was the driving about the prairie with a load of patent medicines, and now your imagination is bounded by a homestead and household comforts. You could teach a woman to love you, and then go away, driven by some fantastic point of honor, because you could not realize that her views might be wider than yours."
"I could hardly suppose that you would care to live in a wagon."
"I did it once – and it was not so very dreadful. I really think, if it were needful, I could do it again."
She leaned forward toward him.
"It would be very much worse, Mavy, if you went away and left me behind."
At length he came toward her and seized both her hands.
"Dear," he cried, "I have tried to do what I felt I ought – and now I'm not sorry that I find I'm not strong enough. I can't tell you how I want you – but I'm afraid you could not face what you would have to bear with me."
"Try!" said Alison simply.
He drew her to him with an exultant laugh.
"I've done what I could, and it seems I've failed. Now let Nevis turn me out and I'll almost thank him. After all, there are many worse places than a camp beside the wagon in the birch bluff."
Alison was not at all convinced that it would end in that, and indeed she did not mean it to if she could help it; but in another moment she felt his arms about her and his lips hot upon her face, and it was half an hour later when they left the homestead together. The sun had dipped, and the vast dim plain stretched away before them under a vault of fading blue, but she drove very slowly while Thorne walked beside the buggy for almost a league.
As a result of this, it was very late when she reached the homestead, and she was relieved when Mrs. Farquhar came out alone as she got down. The light fell upon the girl's face as she approached the doorway, and her companion flashed a smiling glance at her.
"I suppose you have been to Thorne's place?"
"Yes," answered Alison quietly. "I am going to marry him."
Mrs. Farquhar kissed her.
"It's very good news. Still, from what I know of Mavy and how he's situated, I'm a little astonished that you were able to arrange it."
"Why do you put it that way?" Alison asked with a start.
Her companion laughed.
"My dear, I'm only glad that you had sense enough not to let him go. That man would be afraid of even a cold air blowing on you. Anyway, you have got the one husband I would most gladly have given you to."
Then she drew Alison into the house and called to Farquhar.
"Harry, take the horse in, and it isn't necessary for you to hurry back."
She drew Alison out a chair and sat down close beside her.
"The first thing you have to do is to drive over and see Florence Hunter. Her husband's the only person who can pull Mavy out of this trouble."скачать книгу бесплатно