Harold Bindloss.

A Prairie Courtship



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"I'm afraid you started before you were quite ready," she said at length.

The man laughed.

"I might have planted a gramophone on to one of the boys and a few bottles of general-purpose specifics among the rest. They are" – his eyes twinkled humorously – "quite harmless. Anyway, I've no doubt I can unload them on to somebody next time. So far, at least, I haven't any rivals in this neighborhood."

"Then you sell things?"

"Anything to anybody. If I haven't got what the buyer wants I promise to bring it next journey, or bewilder him with an oration until he gives me a dollar for something he has no possible use for. That, however, isn't a thing you can do very frequently, which is why some folks in my profession fail disastrously. They can't realize that if you sell a man what he doesn't want too often he's apt to turn out with a club on the next occasion." He paused and sighed whimsically. "If I hadn't been troubled with a conscience I could have been running a store by now. That is, it must be added, if I had wanted to."

"You find a conscience handicaps you?" Alison inquired, for she was half amused and half interested in him.

"I'm afraid it does. For instance, I came across a man with a badly sprained wrist the other day and he offered me two dollars for anything that would cure it. Now it would have been singularly easy to have affixed a different label to my unrivaled peach-bloom cosmetic and have supplied him with a sure-to-heal embrocation. As it was, I got my supper at his place and recommended cold-water bandages. There was another man I cured of a broken leg, and I resisted the temptation to brace him up with hair-restorer."

"What remedy did you use for the broken leg?"

"Splints," said Thorne dryly, "after I'd set it."

"But isn't that a difficult thing? How did you know how to go about it?"

"Oh, I'd seen it done."

"On the prairie?"

"No," replied Thorne, with a rather curious smile; "in an Edinburgh hospital."

Something in his manner warned her that it might not be judicious to pursue her inquiries any further, though she was, without exactly knowing why, a little curious upon the point. It occurred to her that if he had been a patient in the hospital the injured man would in all probability not have been treated in his sight, while it seemed somewhat strange that he should now be peddling patent medicines in Canada had he been qualifying for his diploma. He, however, said nothing more, and they drove on in silence for a while.

CHAPTER III
THE CAMP IN THE BLUFF

They stopped in a thin grove of birches at midday for a meal which Thorne prepared, and it was late in the afternoon when Alison, who ached with the jolting, asked if Graham's Bluff was very much farther. It struck her that the fact that she had not made the inquiry earlier said a good deal for her companion's conversational powers.

"Oh, yes," he answered casually, "it's most of thirty miles."

Alison started with dismay.

"But – " she said and stopped, for it was evident that her misgivings could not very well be expressed.

"We're not going through to-night," Thorne explained.

"The team have had about enough already, and there's a farmer ahead who'll take us in. If we reach the Bluff by to-morrow afternoon it will be as much as one could expect."

Alison did not care to ask whether the farmer was married, though as there seemed to be singularly few women in the country she was afraid that it was scarcely probable. There was, however, no doubt that she must face the unusual and somewhat embarrassing situation.

"I had no idea it was a two days' drive," she said.

"It's possible to get through in the same day if you start early," Thorne replied. "I've a call to make, however, which is taking me a good many miles off the direct trail. Anyway, if you hadn't come with me you would have had to wait a week at the hotel."

"Do you know Mrs. Hunter?"

"Well," answered Thorne with a certain dryness, "we are certainly acquainted. When you use the other term in England it to some extent implies that you could be regarded as a friend of the person mentioned."

"I wonder whether you like her?" Alison was conscious that the speech was not a very judicious one.

Thorne's eyes twinkled in a way that she had noticed already.

"I must confess that I liked her better when she first came to Canada. She hadn't begun to remodel arrangements at her husband's homestead then. Hunter, I understand, came into some money shortly before he married her, and – " he paused with a little laugh – "most of my friends are poor."

This was not very definite, but it tended to confirm the misgivings concerning her reception which already troubled Alison. She noticed the tact with which the man had refrained from making any inquiries as to her business with Mrs. Hunter. Indeed, he said nothing for the next half-hour, and then, as they reached the crest of a low rise, he pointed to a cluster of what seemed to be ridiculously small buildings on the wide plain below.

"That's as far as we'll go to-night," he said.

The buildings rapidly grew into clearer shape, until Alison recognized that one was a diminutive frame house which looked as though it had been made for dolls to live in. It rose abruptly from the prairie, without sheltering tree or fence or garden; but near it there was a pile of straw and two shapeless structures, which seemed to be composed of soil or sods. Behind them the vast sweep of silvery gray grass was broken by a narrow strip of ochre-tinted stubble.

Presently they reached the lonely homestead and a neatly dressed woman with hard, red hands and a worn face appeared in the doorway when Thorne helped Alison down. The girl felt sincerely pleased to see her.

"I've no doubt you'll take my companion, who's going on toward the Bluff to-morrow, in for the night and let me camp in the barn," said Thorne. "Is Tom anywhere around? I want to see him about a horse he talked of selling."

The woman said that he had gone off to borrow a team of oxen and would not be back until the next day, and then she led Alison into a little roughly match-boarded room with an uncovered floor and very little furniture except the big stove in the middle of it. A child was toddling about the floor and another, a very little girl, lay with a flushed face in a canvas chair. The woman asked Alison no questions, but set about getting supper ready, and after a while Thorne, who had apparently been putting up the team, came in. As he did so the child in the chair held out her hands to him.

"Candies, Mavy," she cried. "Got some candies for me?"

Thorne picked her up and sat down with her on his knee, and taking a parcel out of his pocket he unwrapped and handed some of its contents to her. While she munched the sweetmeats he glanced at her mother interrogatively.

"Yes," declared the woman, "I'm right glad you came. She's been like this three or four days. I don't know what to do with her, or what's the matter."

Thorne looked down at the child before he turned toward his hostess.

"Well," he said, "I have at least a notion. A little feverish, for one thing."

He asked a question or two, and then held the child out to her mother.

"Will you take her while I get a draught mixed? I'm not sure that she'll sit down again in her chair."

The child bore this out, for she would neither sit alone nor go to her mother.

"If Mavy goes out I sure go along with him," she persisted.

The man got rid of her with some difficulty and, going out to where his wagon stood, he came back with a little brass-strapped box in his hand. He asked for some water and disappeared into an adjoining room, out of which there presently rose the clink of glass and a slight rattling. Then he called the woman, who gave the child to Alison, and when she came back somewhat relieved in face she laid out the supper. It much resembled the breakfast Alison had made at the hotel, only that strips of untempting salt pork were substituted for the hard steak.

An hour or two later she was given a very rude bunk filled with straw and a couple of blankets in an unoccupied room, and being tired out, she slept soundly. Lying still when she awakened early the next morning she heard the woman moving about the adjoining room until the outer door opened and a man whose voice she recognized as Thorne's came in.

"I'll go through and look at the kiddie, if I may," he said.

Alison heard him cross the room, and when he came back his hostess evidently walked toward the outer door of the house with him.

"You'll have to be careful of her for a few days, but if you give her the stuff I left as I told you, she'll cause you no trouble then," he said. "I'm sorry I didn't see Tom, but we'll have to get on after breakfast."

"What am I to give you for the medicine?" the woman asked.

Alison, who listened unabashed, heard Thorne's laugh.

"Breakfast," he answered; "that will put us square. I've been selling gramophones and little mirrors by the dozen right along the line, and when I've struck a streak of that kind I don't rob my friends."

Though she did not know exactly why, Alison had expected such an answer, and she remembered with a curious feeling that he had said his friends were poor. She heard the woman thank him, and then a flush crept into her face, for she certainly had not expected the next question.

"Are you going to quit the peddling and take up a quarter-section with the girl?"

"No," laughed Thorne; "I don't know where you got that idea."

"She's your kind," replied his hostess, and this appeared significant to Alison. "I've seen folks like her back in Montreal."

"It's quite likely," said Thorne. "She's going to Mrs. Hunter."

"Mrs. Hunter? Why didn't they send for her? What's her name?"

"I haven't a notion. She walked into Brown's hotel yesterday looking played out and anxious, and said somebody had told her I was going to the Bluff. As I felt sorry for her I started at once."

"Well," responded the woman, "I guess you couldn't help it. It's just the kind of thing you would do."

Thorne apparently went out after this and Alison lay still for a time while her hostess clattered about the room. She was troubled by what she had heard, for although she recognized that she had need of it, there was something unpleasant in the fact that she was indebted to this stranger's charity. He had confessed that he was sorry for her. Rising a little later she breakfasted with the others, and then, when Thorne went out to harness his team, she diffidently asked the woman what she owed her.

"Nothing," was the uncompromising reply.

"But – " Alison began, and the woman checked her.

"We're not running a hotel. You can stop right now."

Alison realized that expostulation would be useless, and this, as a matter of fact, was in one respect a relief to her, for just then there were but two silver coins in her possession. A few minutes later Thorne helped her into the wagon and they drove away.

The prairie was flooded with sunlight, and it was no longer monotonously level. It stretched away before her in long, billowy rises, which dipped again to vast shallow hollows when the team plodded over the crest of them, and here and there little specks of flowers peeped out among the whitened grass or there was a faint sprinkling of tender green. The air was cool yet, and exhilarating as wine. Alison, refreshed by her sound sleep, rejoiced in it, and it was some time before she spoke to her companion.

"I felt slightly embarrassed," she said. "That woman would let me pay nothing for my entertainment. She can't have very much, either."

"She hasn't," replied Thorne. "Her husband had his crop hailed out last fall. Still, you see, that kind of thing is a custom of the country. They're a hospitable people, and, in a general way, when you are in need of a kindness, you're most likely to get it from people who are as hard up as you are." He paused with a whimsical smile. "One can't logically feel hurt at the other kind for standing aside or shutting their eyes, but when they proceed to point out that if you had only emulated their virtues you would be equally prosperous, it becomes exasperating, especially as it isn't true. So far as my observation goes, it isn't the practice of the stricter virtues that leads to riches."

"Why didn't you say your experience?" Alison inquired. "It's the usual word."

"It would suggest that I had tried the thing, and I'm afraid that I've only watched other people. To get knowledge that way is considerably easier. But I presume I was taking too much for granted in supposing that you had – any reason for agreeing with my previous observation."

Alison felt that this was a question delicately put, so that if it pleased her she could avoid a definite reply. She did not in the least resent it, and something urged her to take this stranger into her confidence.

"If you mean that I don't know what it is to be poor you are wrong," she confessed. "At the present moment I'm unpleasantly close to the end of my resources."

"But you said that you were going to Mrs. Hunter's."

"I don't know whether she will take me in. I shouldn't be astonished if she didn't."

The man saw the warmth in her face and looked at her thoughtfully.

"Well," he said, "you have courage, and that goes quite a way out here. I don't think you need be unduly anxious, in any case."

He flicked the team with his whip and by and by they reached a straggling birch bluff on the crest of a steeper slope. A rutted trail led between the trees, and as the team moved a little faster down the dip the wagon jolted sharply. Then one of the beasts stumbled, plunged, and recovered itself again, and Thorne, seizing Alison's arm as she was almost flung from her seat, pulled them up and swung himself down. Looking over the side she saw him stoop and lift one of the horse's feet. It was a few minutes before he came back again.

"A badger hole," he explained. "Volador fell into it. An accident of that kind makes trouble now and then."

He drove slowly for the next few miles, but, so far as Alison noticed, the horse showed no sign of injury, and it was midday when they stopped for a meal beside a creek which wound through a deep hollow. On setting out again, however, the horse began to flag and Thorne, who got down once or twice in the meanwhile, was driving at a walking pace when they reached a birch bluff larger than the last one. He pulled the team up and springing to the ground looked at Alison a few minutes later.

"Volador's going very lame," he said. "It would be cruelty to drive him much farther."

Alison was conscious of a shock of dismay. Sitting in the wagon on the crest of the rise she could look down across the birches upon a vast sweep of prairie, and there was no sign of a house anywhere on it. It almost seemed as if she must spend the night in the bluff.

"What is to be done?" she asked.

"Can you ride?"

Alison said she had never tried, and the man's expression hinted that the expedient he had suggested was out of the question.

"Do you think you could walk sixteen miles?" he asked.

"I'm afraid I couldn't," Alison confessed, though if the feat had appeared within her powers she would gladly have attempted it.

"Then you'll have to camp here in the wagon, though I can fix it up quite comfortably."

He held up his hand.

"You may as well get down, and we'll set about making supper."

She was glad that he spoke without any sign of diffidence or hesitation, which would have suggested that he expected her to be embarrassed by the situation, though this was undoubtedly the case. It seemed to her that his manner implied the possession of a certain amount of tact and delicacy. For all that, she looked out across the prairie with her face turned away from him when she reached the ground.

"Now," he said presently, handing down a big box, "if you will open that and fill the kettle at the creek down there among the trees, I'll bring some branches to make a fire."

She moved away with the kettle, and when she came back the horses had disappeared and she could hear the thud of her companion's ax some distance away in the bush. When he reappeared with an armful of dry branches she had laid out a frying-pan, an enameled plate or two, a bag of flour, a big piece of bacon, which, however, seemed to be termed pork in that country, and a paper package of desiccated apples. She was looking at them somewhat helplessly, for she knew very little about cooking. Thorne made a fire between two birches which he hewed down for the purpose, and laid several strips of pork in the frying-pan, which she heard him call a spider. These he presently emptied out on to a plate laid near the fire, after which he poured some water into a basin partly filled with flour.

"Flapjacks are the usual standby in camp," he informed her. "If I'd known we would be held up here I'd have soaked those apples. Do you mind sprinkling this flour with a pinch or two of the yeast-powder in yonder tin, though it's a thing a sour-dough would never come down to."

"A sour-dough?" inquired Alison, doing as he requested.

"An old-timer," explained Thorne, who splashed himself rather freely as he proceeded to beat up the flour and water. "Sour-dough has much the same significance as unleavened bread, only that our pioneers kept on eating it more or less regularly in the land of promise. For all that, I wouldn't wish for better bread than the kind still made with a preparation of sour potatoes and boiled-down hops stirred in with the flour. In this operation, however, the great thing is to whip fast enough."

He splashed another white smear upon his jacket, and rubbed it with his hand before he poured some of the mixture into the hot spider, out of which he presently shook what appeared to be a very light pancake. Three or four more followed in quick succession, and then he poured water on to the green tea and handed Alison a plate containing two flapjacks and some pork. She found them palatable. Even the desiccated apples, which from want of soaking were somewhat leathery, did not come amiss, and the flavor of the wood smoke failed to spoil the strong green tea. Then Thorne poured a little hot water over the plates, and as there was no vessel that would hold them, she overruled his objections when she volunteered to go down and wash them thoroughly in the creek. When she came back she found that he had made up a clear fire and spread out a blanket as a seat for her.

"You are satisfied now?" he asked.

Alison smiled. She was astonished to find herself so much at ease with him.

"Yes," she answered; "I felt that I could at least wash the plates. In a way, it wasn't altogether my fault that I could do nothing else. You see, I was never taught to cook."

"Isn't that rather a pity?" Thorne suggested.

"It's more," said Alison with what was in her case unusual warmth. "It's an injustice. Still, there are thousands of us brought up in that way yonder, and when some unexpected thing brings disaster we are left to wonder what use we are to anybody. I suppose," she added, "the answer must be – none."

Thorne expressed no opinion on this point, but presently took out his pipe.

"You won't mind?" he asked. "I suppose they taught you something?"

"Yes," answered Alison; "accomplishments. I can play and sing indifferently, and paint simple landscapes if there are no figures in them – because figures imply serious study. I can follow a French conversation if they don't speak fast, and read Italian with a dictionary. Before any of these things will bring a girl in sixpence she must do them excellently, and they seem very unlikely to be of the least service in this part of Canada."

She was angry with herself for the outbreak as soon as she had spoken, as it seemed absurd that she should supply a stranger with these personal details; but the longing to utter some protest against the half-education which had been merely a handicap during the last three bitter years was too much for her. Thorne, however, made a sign of sympathetic comprehension.

"Yes," he assented, "that kind of thing's rather a pity. Did you never learn anything – practical?"

"Shorthand," replied Alison. "I can generally, though not always, read what I've written, if it hasn't exceeded about eighty words a minute. Then I can type about two-thirds as fast as one really ought to, and can keep simple accounts so long as neatness is not insisted on. I naturally had to learn all this after I left home. It seems to me that to bring up English girls in such a way is downright cruelty."

Thorne laughed.

"It's not remarkably different in our case. There's a man in a town not far along the line who used to shine at the Oxford Union and is now uncommonly glad to earn a few dollars by his talents as an auctioneer; that's how they estimate oratory on the prairie. There's another who devoted most of his time at Cambridge to physical culture, and as the result of it he gets pretty steady employment on the railroad track as a ballast shoveler."

Then he changed his tone.

"Have you any idea as to what you will do if you don't stay with Mrs. Hunter?"



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