Harold Bindloss.

A Prairie Courtship



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"I had thought of that."

"I believe it's necessary. We can't let Mavy be turned out now, and if he won't ask a favor of a man who would grant it willingly if he could, somebody must do it for him."

Then she laid her hand caressingly on the girl's shoulder.

"I haven't been so pleased for a very long while. Keep a good courage. We'll find some means of outwitting Nevis."

CHAPTER XXVI
OPEN CONFESSION

It was about the middle of the afternoon when Alison reached the Hunter homestead, and she was slightly astonished when, on inquiring for Florence, a maid informed her that the latter was busy and could not be with her for some minutes. Alison had imagined from what she had seen on previous visits that in the warm weather Florence invariably spent her afternoons reclining in a canvas chair on the veranda. A couple of chairs stood on it when she arrived, and after the maid had gone she drew one back into the shadow, and sitting down looked out across the great stretch of grain in front of the house.

All round the edge of it there were scattered men and teams, but they were moving very slowly, and almost every minute the clatter of one or another of the binders ceased and she saw stooping figures busy in front of the machine. Though she could not make out exactly what they were doing, the state of the harvest-field seemed to explain why the delays were unavoidable. Great patches of the wheat lay prone; the part that stood upright looked tangled and torn, and there were wide stretches from which it had partially disappeared, leaving only ragged stubble mixed with crumpled straw. Alison had, however, seen other crops that had been wholly wiped out by the scourging hail. She waited about a quarter of an hour before Florence appeared, looking rather hot and dressed with unusual plainness.

"You'll have to excuse me for keeping you, but I'm glad you came," she said. "I've been busy since seven o'clock this morning, and now that I've a little leisure it's a relief to sit down."

A gleam of amusement crept into Alison's eyes, and her companion evidently noticed it.

"It is rather a novelty in my case," she laughed. "On the other hand, there's no doubt that the exertion is necessary. The waste that has been going on in this homestead is positively alarming."

It cost Alison an effort to preserve a becoming gravity. Florence, who had presided over the place for several years, spoke as if the fact she mentioned, which had been patent to those who visited her for a considerable time, had only dawned upon her very recently.

"You are trying to set things straight?" she suggested.

"It threatens to prove a difficult task, but I'm making the attempt while I feel equal to it; and there's a certain interest even in looking into household accounts. For instance, I had an idea this morning that promised to save me three or four dollars a month, but when I mentioned it to Elcot he only grinned.

There are one or two respects in which I'm afraid he's a little extravagant."

Alison laughed outright. The idea that Florence, who had hitherto squandered money with both hands, should trouble herself about the saving of three dollars and complain of her self-denying husband's extravagance was irresistibly amusing.

"When did the desire to investigate affairs first get hold of you?" she asked.

"I believe that it was when I came back from Toronto," answered Florence thoughtfully. "Afterward we had the hail, and it became clear at once that there would have to be some cutting down of our expenses." Her face grew suddenly anxious as she glanced toward the grain. "That," she added, "ought to explain why the subject's an interesting one to me."

Alison was somewhat puzzled. There were signs of a change in her companion, who hitherto had, so far at least as she had noticed, taken only a very casual interest in her husband's affairs.

"Yes," she replied, "it does. I was very sorry when I heard about it."

Florence made a little abrupt gesture, as though in dismissal of the topic.

"What brought you over? You haven't been very often."

It was difficult to answer offhand, and Alison proceeded circuitously.

"You and I were pretty good friends in England, weren't we?"

"Of course," assented Florence. "You stood by me when your mother turned against me, and I've always had an idea that you suffered for it. We'll admit the fact. What comes next?"

Her manner was abrupt, but that was not infrequently the case, and Alison, who was fighting for her lover, was not readily daunted.

"Well," she said, "I have never troubled you for any favors in return."

Florence regarded her in a rather curious fashion.

"No," she admitted, "you haven't. You made no claim on me, as, perhaps, you were entitled to do, when you first came out here. In fact, I have once or twice felt slightly vexed with you because you went to Mrs. Farquhar."

Alison smiled as she remembered that her companion had not shown the least desire to prevent her doing the thing she now resented.

"Then there's a favor that I must ask at last; but first of all I'd better tell you that I'm going to marry Leslie Thorne."

"Mavy Thorne!" Florence gazed at her in open wonder. "I heard a whisper or two that seemed to point to the possibility of your doing something of the kind, but I resolutely refused to believe it."

"Why?"

Florence laughed.

"Oh, in half a dozen ways it's ludicrous. If you really mean it, you are as absurd as he is."

Alison rose with an air of quiet dignity.

"If you are quite convinced of that, there is nothing more to be said. You couldn't expect me to appreciate your attitude."

Her companion laid a restraining hand on her arm as she was about to move away.

"Sit down! If I vexed you, I'm sorry; but you really shouldn't be so quick in temper. Besides, you shouldn't have flung the news at me in that startling fashion. After all, I've no doubt he has something to recommend him. Most of them have a few good qualities which now and then become evident when you don't expect them."

She paused and looked up at Alison with a smile in which there was a hint of tenderness.

"For instance, it has been dawning on me of late that there's a good deal that's rather nice in Elcot. Now try to be reasonable, and tell me what the trouble is."

Alison's indignation dissipated. It was, after all, difficult to be angry with Florence, and she supplied her with a brief account of how Thorne was situated. Her companion listened with more interest than she had fancied her capable of displaying, and when Alison stopped she made a sign of comprehension.

"You want me to ask Elcot to send him over some of our men? I wish I could – I almost feel I owe you that – but it's difficult. Elcot's trying desperately to save the remnant of his crop. He has been very badly hit."

Alison sat silent in tense anxiety. She could not urge Florence to do anything that would clearly be to her husband's detriment, and she did not see how Hunter could help Thorne without neglecting his own harvest. Then her companion turned to her again.

"I quite realize that Thorne will be turned out unless he clears off the loan, but you haven't mentioned the name of the creditor who wishes to ruin him."

"It's Nevis."

An ominous sparkle crept into Florence's eyes, and her face grew hard.

"Then I'll try to explain it all to Elcot to-night, and if he can drive off Nevis by any means that won't cost him too great a sacrifice I think you can count on its being done."

Alison felt inclined to wonder why the mention of Nevis's part in the affair had had such an effect on her companion, but that, after all, did not seem a very important point, and when she drove away half an hour later she was in an exultant mood. When she had gone, Florence supervised the preparations for the men's supper, and after the meal was over she stopped Hunter as he was going out again through the veranda.

"If you can wait for a few minutes I have something to tell you," she said. "To begin with, Alison Leigh is going to marry Thorne."

Hunter did not look much astonished.

"I think Mavy has made a wise choice, but I'm very much afraid there's trouble in front of them," he said.

"That," returned Florence, "is exactly what I meant to speak about. Alison was here this afternoon, and she mentioned it to me. I want to save them as much as I can."

Hunter's face remained expressionless. It was the first time, so far as he could remember, that Florence had concerned herself about any other person's difficulties.

"Well," he asked gravely, "how do you propose to set about it?"

"In the first place, I thought I'd mention it to you."

A dry smile crept into Hunter's eyes.

"Then you'd better give me all the particulars in your possession. I have some idea as to the cause of the trouble, but I haven't been over to Mavy's place for some time, and he has sent no word to me."

Florence told him what she knew, and when she had finished he gazed at her reflectively.

"You want me to send him all the men and binders I can spare? That's the only useful course."

Florence hesitated, and when she spoke her manner was unusually diffident.

"I feel it's rather shabby to promise a favor and then hand on the work to you, but in this case I'm helpless. I should like you to get Thorne out of his trouble, if it's only on Alison's account; but on the other hand I don't want you to increase your own difficulties by sending men away. You stand first with me."

Hunter made no allusion to the last assurance.

"It seems very likely that what the boys are now doing will in the end come to much the same thing as changing a dollar and getting about ninety cents back for it, which naturally prevents me from feeling that I would be making very much of a sacrifice in discontinuing the operation."

"I don't quite understand how that could be. Even if the hail has almost spoiled the crop, you have the men, and it won't cost you any more if you keep them busy saving as much of it as is possible."

"That," explained Hunter, "is partly why I'm doing so, and the other reason is that I must have something that will keep me occupied just now. On the other hand, before I can get anything for the wheat it must be thrashed and hauled in to the elevators. Now, thrashing is usually done by contract – at so much the bushel – in this country, and I've reason to believe that the thrasher boys will charge me considerably more than the average rate. Considering the state of the crop, they'll have to do a great deal of work for a very little wheat. Besides, that little's damaged and would bring less than the market price, which is a particularly low one this year. Then there's the cost of haulage, which is an item, because it would entail keeping the hired men on, and I've the option of paying them off as soon as harvest's over."

"In short," said Florence in a troubled voice, "it would probably be more profitable to let the whole crop rot as it stands."

"I'm afraid that's the case," Hunter agreed.

Florence sat silent for almost a minute watching him covertly. It once more struck her that he looked very jaded, and she was touched by the weariness in his face. Then, though the occasion seemed most inopportune, she was carried away by a sudden impulse which compelled her to mention Nevis's loan.

"Elcot," she blurted out, "I have made things worse for you all along – and now there's another trouble I have brought upon you."

For a minute or two she poured out disjointed sentences, and though the man listened gravely, almost unmoved in face, she found the making of that confession about the most difficult thing she had ever done.

"How much did you borrow?" he inquired.

She told him; and raising himself a little from his leaning posture he looked down upon her with an embarrassing quietness.

"I was half afraid there might be something of that kind in the background," he said at length. "There's one point I must raise. Presumably, you wouldn't allow a man who was to all intents and purposes a stranger to lend you money?"

He spoke as if the matter were open to doubt, and Florence found the situation rapidly becoming intolerable, but it was to her credit that she recognized that half-measures would be useless then.

"No," she acknowledged.

"Then I must ask exactly what kind of interest you took in the man, and how far your acquaintance with him went?"

Florence's face burned, but she roused herself to answer him.

"He was amusing," she said slowly, picking her words. "He came here once or twice when you were out, and on a few occasions I met him by accident on the prairie and at the settlement. I suppose I was – pleasant – to him, but nobody could have called it more than that. Then there was a change in his attitude."

"It was to be expected," Hunter interposed dryly. "Do you wish me to understand that you were astonished?"

Florence rose and turned on him with hot anger in her eyes.

"Yes!" she exclaimed, "I was astonished and – you must believe it – horribly mortified! He tried to make me feel that I was in his power!"

She paused and clenched one hand tight before she cried:

"What can I do to convince you? I hate the man! I want you to crush and humble him!"

Hunter greeted this outbreak with a smile, but he made no answer; and growing calmer in a few moments she looked at him again.

"What are you going to do about it, Elcot?" she asked.

"In the first place, those two notes of yours must be paid when they fall due. After that I shall act – as appears advisable."

Florence sat down with relief in her face.

"Raising the money will be another difficulty," she said. "I will give up my allowance until it is paid off."

"That," replied Hunter, with undiminished dryness, "will no doubt have to be done."

He turned away from her and leaned heavily on the balustrade for a minute or two, apparently watching the hired men toiling among his ruined wheat. Then he slowly looked around again.

"Well," he observed, "I'm glad you have told me about the thing; but I'm somewhat surprised that you didn't realize that you could have disarmed Nevis – and freed yourself – by mentioning it earlier."

"I was ashamed – though there was in one sense no reason why I should be. It would have looked – so suggestive."

Hunter interrupted her with a little bitter laugh.

"No; when I asked you what interest you took in Nevis it wasn't quite what I meant. I merely thought your answer might throw some light on his views, which I wanted to be sure of. You are too dispassionate, and too much alive to your own benefit, to make much of a sacrifice for the sake of any man."

Florence winced at this, but she rose and laid her hand on his arm.

"Try me, Elcot," she begged. "I know I'm fond of ease and luxury – perhaps it's because I had so little of them before I married you, but now you must give me nothing for the next twelve months. Cut the household expenses down by half and send everybody but one maid away."

"I'm afraid you'll have to be prepared for something of the kind," replied Hunter quietly. "In the meanwhile, I'll take the boys and the binders over to Thorne's place in the morning."

He moved away toward his ruined crop without another word, but Florence did not resent the attitude he had adopted. Indeed, his uncompromising directness had appealed to her in his favor. When, soon after their marriage, she had by various means made it plain that he was expected to keep his distance and leave her largely to her own devices it had been a relief that he had fallen in with her views without protest, though it had been evident that it had grievously hurt him. Then his forbearance and apparent content with the situation had by degrees grown galling, and now, when at last he seemed inclined to assert himself, she was not displeased. It had, as she had admitted to Alison, begun to dawn on her that she had somehow never recognized her husband's good qualities, and that there were unexpected possibilities in the simple farmer. Besides this, she was seized with a fit of wholly genuine penitence.

In the meanwhile Hunter climbed into the seat of a binder which he drove slowly through the tangled grain, and Florence, still lingering on the veranda, noticed the carefulness with which he and his men stooked the sheaves of wheat which might never be sold. The rows of black shadows behind them lengthened rapidly, until at last they coalesced and the stubble lay dim, while the western face of the grain along which the binders crept alone glowed with a coppery radiance as the red sun dipped. Then a wonderful exhilarating coolness crept into the air, and there was a stillness not apparent earlier through which the clash and clatter of the machines rang harshly distinct. They moved on with the bent figures which grew dimmer toiling behind them for another half-hour, and then while the others trooped off to the stables Hunter walked slowly toward the house. Florence noticed the suggestive slackness of his bearing and her heart smote her, for she knew it was not mere physical weariness which had crushed the vigor out of the man. When he came up the steps she turned to him.

"Is the wheat looking no better?"

"No," answered Hunter simply; "It's looking worse. I'm going in to write a letter – to the bank."

He strode on and disappeared into the house, but Florence, who presently saw a light stream out from one of the windows, sat still, though the dew was getting heavy and it was chilly now.

CHAPTER XXVII
A HELPING HAND

Lucy Calvert came over as often as she was able; but at length she was compelled to discontinue her visits to Thorne. Soon after she had done so, there was a welcome change in the almost torrid weather, and grass and grain lay still under a faintly clouded sky when he toiled among the sheaves one clear, cool afternoon. The binder which flung them out moved along the edge of the oats in front of him, and another man was busy among the crackling stubble a pace or two behind, for a neighbor had driven across to help him on the previous evening, and the station-agent had at last sent him out a man from the railroad settlement. They had been at work since early morning, but each time Thorne glanced at the oblong of standing grain he realized more clearly the futility of what he was doing.

The belt of knee-high stubble, which shone, a sweep of warm ochre tinting, against the white and gray of the parched grass beyond it, was widening steadily as the crop went down before the binder, but he had a good deal yet to cut, and there was another oblong of untouched grain running back from a deserted wooden shack some distance away. Thorne had followed the custom of the country, sowing oats on the newly broken land and wheat on that which had been worked before, though in the latter case he had agreed to pay a share of the proceeds to the owner of the soil. He had secured an option of purchasing this second holding, but it was quite out of the question that he should exercise it now, and a very simple calculation convinced him that at his present rate of progress less than half the crop would be ready when Grantly's note fell due.

There was no doubt that his activity was illogical, as it was obvious that the result of every hour's strenuous labor would only be to put so much more money into Nevis's pocket, but he could not force himself to give up the fight until the last moment. He still clung to a faint expectation that something might transpire to lessen the odds against him. He admitted that there was nothing to warrant this view, but in spite of it he toiled on savagely, and the stooked sheaves rose before him in lengthening golden ranks as he floundered with bowed shoulders and busy arms through the crackling stubble. The soil beneath the straw was dry and parched, and the dust which rose from it crept into his eyes and nostrils. Now and then he gasped, but he worked on with no slackening of effort, for that part of the crop was heavy and the sheaves were falling thick and fast in the wake of the machine. At length, however, it stopped at a corner, and Thorne straightened his aching back when the man who drove it got down.

"She wants a drop of oil," he explained, and looking round him pointed out across the prairie. "Seems as if Shafter was through with his harvest, and I guess he has to sell. Some of the storekeepers have been putting the screw on him."

Thorne gazed toward the spot he indicated and saw two or three teams and wagons etched upon the horizon where a low rise ran up to meet the sky. They were so far off that they appeared stationary, and it was only when one of the binder's arms hid the first of them a moment or two later that he could see they moved. Then as he watched the others a hot fit of resentment and envy came upon him. It was clear that Shafter, who had plowed unusually early, had cut and thrashed his grain, for stacking is seldom attempted in that country, where very few farmers have any money in hand and storekeepers generally look for payment once the crop is in. In the latter case it is put on the market as soon as possible, though now and then the last of it is hauled in on the bob-sleds across the snow. Shafter, at least, could clear off his liabilities, and though Thorne did not grudge the man this satisfaction, the sight of his loaded wagons crawling slowly to the elevators was bitter to him. He could have done what Shafter was doing, and so escaped from Nevis's clutches, had he only been allowed a little longer time.



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