Harold Bindloss.

A Prairie Courtship



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"No," confessed Alison, somewhat ruefully.

"Well," said Thorne, "as I believe I mentioned, I don't think you need worry about the matter. It's very probable that some of the small wheat-growers' wives would be glad to have you."

"But I can't even sew decently."

The man's eyes twinkled.

"In a general way, they're too busy to be fastidious."

There was silence for a little after this and Alison cast one or two swift unobtrusive glances at her companion, who lay smoking opposite her on the other side of the fire. The sun now hung low above the great white waste and the red light streamed in upon them both between the leafless birches. Again she decided that he had a pleasant face and, what was more, in spite of his attire, his whole personality seemed to suggest a clean and wholesome virility.

She had seen that he could be gentle, in the sick child's case, and she suspected that he could be generous, but there was something about him that also hinted at force. Then she remembered some of the men with whom she had been brought into unpleasant contact in the cities – many who bore the unmistakable mark of the beast, the cheap swagger of others, and the inane attempts at gallantries which some of the rest indulged in. They were not all like that, she realized; there were true men everywhere; but now that her first shrinking from the grim and lonely land was lessening it seemed to her that it had, in some respects at least, a more bracing influence on those who lived in it than that other still very dear one on which she had turned her back. Then she realized that she was, after all, appraising its inhabitants by a single specimen. She had yet to learn that they are now and then a little too aggressively proud of themselves in western Canada, though it must be said that the boaster is usually ready to pour out the sweat of tensest effort with ax and saw or ox-team to prove his vaunting warranted.

After a while the sun dipped and it grew chilly as dusk crept up from the hazy east across the leagues of grass. Thorne brought her another blanket to lay over her shoulders, and lying down again relighted his pipe. There was not a breath of wind, and though she could hear the knee-hobbled horses moving every now and then the silence became impressive. She felt impelled to break it presently, for it seemed to her that casual conversation would lessen the probability of the somewhat unusual situation having too marked an effect on either of them.

"How is it that you have so many provisions in your wagon?" she asked.

Thorne laughed.

"I live in it all summer."

"And you drive about selling things? Is it very remunerative?"

"No," admitted Thorne dryly; "I can't say that it is; but, you see, I like it. I'm afraid that I've a rooted objection to staying in one place very long, and while I can get a meal and the few things I need by selling an odd bottle of cosmetic, a gramophone, or a mirror, I'm content." He made a humorous gesture.

"That's the kind of man I am."

Then he stood up.

"It's getting rather late and you'll find the wagon fixed up ready. If you hear a doleful howling you needn't be alarmed. It will only be the coyotes."

He disappeared into the shadows and Alison turned away toward the wagon.

CHAPTER IV
THE FARQUHAR HOMESTEAD

When she reached the wagon Alison found it covered by a heavy waterproof sheet which was stretched across a pole. Loose hay had been strewn between a row of wooden cases and one side of the vehicle and the space beneath the sheeted roof was filled with a faint aromatic odor, which she afterward learned was the smell of the wild peppermint that grows in the prairie grass. When she had spread one blanket on the hay the couch felt seductively soft, and she sank into it contentedly. Tired as she was, however, she did not go to sleep immediately, for it was the first night she had ever spent in the open, and for a time the strangeness of her surroundings reacted on her.

The front of the tent was open, and resting on one elbow she could see the sinking fires still burning red among the leafless trees, and the pale wisps of smoke that drifted among their spectral stems. At the foot of the slope there was a wan gleam of water and beyond that in turn the prairie rolled away, vast and dim and shadowy, with a silver half-moon hanging low above its eastern rim. To one who had lived in the cities, as she had done, the silence was at first so deep as to be almost overwhelming, but by degrees she became conscious that it was broken by tiny sounds. There was a very faint, elfin tinkle of running water, a whispering of grasses that bent to the little cold breeze which had just sprung up, and the softest, caressing rustle of the lace-like birch twigs. Then, as the moon rose higher the vast sweep of wilderness and sky gathered depth of color and became a wonderful nocturne in blue and silver.

In the meanwhile a pleasant warmth was creeping through her wearied body and she began to wonder with a sense of compunction how many blankets Thorne possessed, and where he was. It was at least certain that he was nowhere near the fire, for she had carefully satisfied herself on that point. Then a wild, drawn-out howl drifted up to her across the faintly gleaming prairie and she started and held her breath, until she remembered that Thorne had said there was no reason why she should be alarmed if she heard a coyote. He was, she felt, a man one could believe. The beast did not howl again, but she continued to think of her companion as her eyes grew heavy. There was no doubt that he had a pleasant voice and a handsome face. Then her eyes closed altogether and her yielding elbow slipped down among the hay.

The sun was where the moon had been when she opened her eyes again. Climbing down from the wagon she saw no sign of Thorne. A bucket filled with very cold water, however, stood beneath a tree, where she did not remember having noticed it on the previous evening, and a towel hung close by. A few minutes later she took down the towel and glanced at it dubiously. It was by no means overclean and she wondered with misgivings what the man did with it. It seemed within the bounds of possibility that he dried the plates on it and, what was worse, that he might do so again. In the meanwhile, however, the hair on her forehead was dripping and the water was trickling down her neck, so she shut her eyes tight and applied the towel, after which she concealed it carefully in the wagon.

A quarter of an hour later Thorne appeared and she was relieved upon one point at least. Whether he had slept with blankets or without them, he did not look cold, and his appearance indeed suggested that he had been in the neighboring creek. She was astonished to notice that he had brushed himself carefully and had sewed up the rent in the knee of his overalls. Clothes-brushes, she correctly supposed, were scarce on the Canadian prairie, but it seemed probable that he would require a brush of some kind to clean his horses.

"If you wouldn't mind laying out breakfast I'll make a fire and catch the team," he said. "It's a glorious morning; but once the winter's over we have a good many of them here."

"Yes," assented Alison; "everything is so delightfully fresh."

His eyes rested on her for a moment and she was unpleasantly conscious that her dress was badly creased and crumpled as well as shabby; but he did not seem to notice this.

"That," he said, "is what struck me a minute or two ago."

He busied himself about the fire, and when he strode away through the bluff in search of the horses she heard him singing softly to himself. She recognized the aria, and wondered a little, for it was not one that could be considered as popular music.

They had breakfast when he came back and both laughed when she prepared the flapjacks under his direction. She felt no restraint in this stranger's company. Indeed, she was conscious of a pleasant sense of camaraderie, which seemed the best name for it, though she had hired him to drive her to Mrs. Hunter's and was very uncertain as to whether she could pay him.

He harnessed the team when the meal was over and explained that although Volador was still lame they might contrive to reach Graham's Bluff at sundown by proceeding by easy stages, and Alison tactfully led him on to talk about himself as they drove away. Though there were one or two points on which he was reserved, he displayed very little diffidence, which, however, is a quality not often met with among the inhabitants of western Canada.

"Well," he said with an air of whimsical reflection in answer to one question, "I suppose my chief complaint is an excess of individuality. They beat it out of you with clubs in England, unless you're rich – really rich – when you can, of course, do anything. On the other hand, the man who is merely stodgily prosperous is hampered by more rules than anybody else. This is, I must explain, another notion I've arrived at by observation and not from experience."

"One supposes that a certain amount of uniformity and subordination is necessary to progress," commented Alison.

"Oh, yes," agreed Thorne; "that's the trouble. Progress marches with massed battalions and makes so much dust that it's not always able to see where it's going. Perhaps it's that or the bewildering change of leaders that renders so much countermarching unavoidable."

"Then you prefer to act with the vedettes and skirmishers?"

"No," said Thorne; "not that exactly. Some of us are more like the camp-followers. We collect our toll on the booty and when that's too difficult we live on the country. After all, mine's an ancient if not a very respectable calling. There were always pilgrims, minstrels and pedlers."

"It can't be a luxurious life."

Thorne looked amused.

"Are you quite sure you didn't mean a useful one?"

Alison felt uncomfortable, because this idea had been in her mind.

"I'll answer the question, anyway," continued Thorne. "These people and those in the wheat-growing lands across the frontier work twelve and fourteen hours every day. It's always the same unceasing toil with them – they have no diversions. We go round and carry the news from place to place, tell them the latest stories, and now and then sing to them. We don't tax them too much either – a supper when they're poor – a dollar for a mirror or a bottle of elixir, which it must be confessed most of them have no possible use for."

"Did you never do anything else?" Alison inquired; "that is, in Canada?"

"Oh, yes," replied her companion. "I was clerk in an implement store which I walked out of at its proprietor's request after an attack of injudicious candor. You see, a rather big farmer came in one day and spent most of the morning examining our seeders and pointing out their defects. Then he inquired why we had the assurance to demand so much for our implement when he could buy a very much better one several dollars cheaper. I asked him if he was sure of that, and when he said he was I suggested that it would be considerably wiser to go right away and buy it instead of wasting his time and mine. The proprietor desired to know how we expected him to make a living if we talked to customers like that, and I pointed out that we couldn't do so anyway by answering insane questions."

Alison laughed delightedly. She felt that this was not mere rodomontade, but that the man was perfectly capable of doing as he had said.

"Had you any more experiences of the same kind?" she asked.

"I was shortly afterward projected out of a wheat broker's office."

"Projected?"

Thorne grinned.

"I believe that describes it. You see, they were three to one; but I took part of the office fittings along with me. I must own that I lost my temper and insulted them."

"But why did you do so?"

"Well," answered Thorne reflectively, "I like the Colonial, and especially the Westerner, though he's rather fond of insisting on his superiority over the rest of mankind. One gets used to this, but it now and then grows galling when he compares himself with the folks who come out from the old country. On the day in question the trouble arose from a repetition of the usual formula that if it wasn't for the ocean they'd have the whole scum of Europe coming over. I, however, shook hands with the man who said it not long afterward, and he told me that after I had gone, which was how he expressed it, they sat down and laughed until they ached, thinking what the wheat broker, who was out on business, would say when he saw his office."

Alison was genuinely amused and she ventured another question.

"Did you leave your situations in England in the same fashion?"

The man's face darkened for a moment.

"As it happened, I hadn't any."

Alison turned the conversation into what promised to be a safer channel, and they drove along very slowly all morning. When they set out again after a lengthy stop at noon Thorne asked her if she would mind walking for a while, as Volador was becoming very lame. He added that he would make for an outlying homestead, where they would find entertainment, instead of Graham's Bluff, and that they should reach Mrs. Hunter's on the following day.

It was six o'clock in the evening when they arrived at a frame house which stood, roofed with cedar shingles, in the shelter of a big birch bluff. There was a very rude sod-built stable, a small log barn, and a great pile of straw, which appeared to be hollow inside and used as a store of some kind. A middle-aged man with a good-humored look met them at the door, and his wife greeted Alison in a kindly fashion when Thorne explained the cause of their visit. Indeed, Alison was pleased with the woman's face and manner, though, like many of the small wheat-growers' wives, she looked a little worn and faded. Though the men toil strenuously on the newly broken prairie, the heavier burden not infrequently falls to the woman's share.

Farquhar, their host, went out to work after supper but came back a little before dusk, and when they sat out on the stoop together, Thorne got his banjo and sang twice at Mrs. Farquhar's request; once some amusing jingle he had heard in Winnipeg, and afterward "Mandalay."

The song was not new to Alison, but she fancied that she had never heard it rendered as Maverick Thorne sang it then. It was not his voice, though that was a fine one, but the knowledge that had given him power of expression, which held her tense and still. This man knew and had indulged in and probably suffered for the longing for something that was strange and different from all that his experience had touched before. He was one of the free-lances who could not sit snugly at home; and in her heart Alison sympathized with him.

She had never seen the glowing, sensuous East and South, but the new West lay open before her in all its clean, pristine virility. A vast sweep of sky that was duskily purple eastward stretched overhead, a wonderful crystalline bluish green, until it changed far off on the grassland's rim to a streak of smoky red. Under it the prairie rolled back like a great silent sea. There was something that set the blood stirring in the dew-chilled air, and the faint smell of the wood smoke and the calling of the wild fowl on a distant sloo intensified the sense of the new and unfamiliar. One could be free in that wide land, she felt; and as she thought of the customs, castes, and conventions to which one must submit at home, she wondered whether they were needed guides and guards or mere cramping fetters. They seemed to have none of them in western Canada.

She said "Thank you!" when Thorne laid down his banjo, and felt that the spoken word had its limits, though she was careful not to look at him directly just then, and soon afterward she retired. This house was larger and much better furnished than the one she had last slept in, though she supposed that it would have looked singularly comfortless and almost empty in England. There was, for one thing, neither a curtain at a window nor a carpet on the floor.

When she joined the others at breakfast the next morning her host informed Thorne that if they could wait until noon he could lend him a horse to replace the lame Volador. He had, he explained, sent his hired man off with a team on the previous day for a plow which was being repaired by a smith who lived at a distance, and he had some work for the second pair that morning. The men went out together when breakfast was over, and Mrs. Farquhar sat down opposite Alison after she had cleared the table.

"Thorne tells me you are going to Mrs. Hunter's, though you don't know yet whether you will stay with her or not," she said.

It occurred to Alison that this was a tactful way of expressing it, though she was not sure that the delicacy was altogether Thorne's, for she had no doubt that her hostess had once been accustomed to a much smoother life in the Canadian cities.

"No," she replied, "I really can't tell until I get there."

"Then, in case you don't decide to stay, we should be glad to have you here."

Alison was astonished, but in spite of her usual outward calm there was a vein of impulsiveness in her, and she leaned forward in her chair.

"I don't suppose you know that I am quite useless at any kind of housework," she said. "I can't wash things, I can't cook, and I can scarcely sew."

Mrs. Farquhar smiled.

"When I first came out here from Toronto it was much the same with me, and there was nobody to teach me. It's fortunate that men are not very fastidious in this part of Canada. In any case I had, perhaps, better mention that while I would be glad to pay you at the usual rate and you would be required to help, you would live with us as one of the family. I want a companion. With my husband at work from sunup until dark, it's often lonely here. Besides, the arrangement would give you an opportunity for learning a little and finding out how you like the country."

Alison thought hard for a few moments. What she was offered was a situation as a servant, but she decided that it would be more pleasant here than she supposed it must generally be in England. She felt inclined to like this woman, and her husband's manner was reassuring. There was no doubt that they would treat her well.

"I'm afraid that in a little while you would be sorry you had suggested it," she said.

"The question is, would you like to try?"

"I'm quite sure of that," declared Alison impulsively. "I don't suppose you know what it is to be offered a resting-place when you arrive, feeling very friendless and forlorn, in a new country."

Mrs. Farquhar smiled.

"Then if you don't care to stay with Mrs. Hunter you must come straight back here. It would, perhaps, be better if you went to her in the first instance."

"But don't you want any references?"

"I don't think I do. In this case, your face is sufficient, and from experience we don't attach any great importance to vouchers of the other kind. Harry sometimes says that when a man is found to be insufferable in the old country they give him a walletful of letters of introduction, crediting him with all the virtues, and send him out to us. Besides, even if you were really quite dreadful, your friends wouldn't go back on you when I wrote to them."

Alison laughed, and as the hired man appeared at noon with Farquhar's team she drove away with Thorne soon after dinner. When they had left the house behind she turned to him.

"You have been talking about me to Mrs. Farquhar," she said.

"Yes," admitted Thorne with a smile, "I must confess that I have. Is there any reason why you should be angry?"

"I'm not," Alison informed him. "But why did you do it?"

"I'm far from sure that you will like Mrs. Hunter. In fact, I'd be a little astonished if you did; and if you were a relative of mine I'd try to make you stay with Mrs. Farquhar."

"I wonder whether that means that Mrs. Hunter doesn't like you?"

Thorne laughed good-humoredly.

"Oh, I'm much too insignificant a person to count either way. Mrs. Hunter is what you might call grande dame."

"Have you any of them in western Canada?"

"Well," answered Thorne, with an air of whimsical reflection, "there are certainly not many, and in spite of it the country gets along pretty well. We have, however, quite a few women of excellent education and manners who don't seem to mind making their children's dresses and washing their husband's clothes. Anyway, if she's at home, you can form your own opinion of Florence Hunter in an hour or two."

"Is she often away?"

"Not infrequently. Every now and then she goes off to Winnipeg, Toronto, or Montreal."

"But what about her husband? Can he leave his farm?"

"Hunter," Thorne replied dryly, "invariably stays at home."

His manner made it clear that he intended to say no more on that subject, and they talked about other matters while the wagon jolted on across the sunlit prairie.



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