Harold Bindloss.

A Prairie Courtship



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CHAPTER V
THORNE GIVES ADVICE

It was early in the evening when they drove into sight of the Hunter homestead, and as they approached it Alison glanced about her with some curiosity. Long rows of clods out of which rose a tangle of withered grass tussocks stretched across the foreground. Thorne told her that this was the breaking, land won from the prairie too late for sowing in the previous year. Farther on, they skirted another stretch of more friable and cleaner clods, shattered and mellowed by the frost, and then they came to a space of charred stubble. Beyond that, a waste of yellow straw stood almost knee-high, and Thorne said that as the latter had no value on the prairie it was generally burned off to clear the ground for the following crop. He added that wheat was usually grown on the same land for several years without any attempt at fertilization.

Alison, however, knew nothing of farming, and it was the house at which she gazed with most interest. It stood not far from a broad shallow lake with a thin birch bluff on one side of it, a commodious two-storied building with a wide veranda. It was apparently built of wood, but its severity of outline was relieved by gaily picked-out scroll-work and lattice shutters; and in front of the entrance somebody had attempted to make a garden. The stables and barns behind it were new frame buildings, and there were wire fences stretching back from these. After her experience of the last few days, Alison had not expected to see anything like it in western Canada.

Then she began to wonder whether Florence Hunter's life in the West had made much change in her. She recollected her as a pretty but rather pallid girl, with a manner a little too suggestive of self-confidence, and a look of calculating tenacity in her eyes. Alison had continued to treat her as a friend after she had incurred the hostility of Mrs. Leigh, but she realized that it was chiefly Florence's courage and resourcefulness that had impressed her, and not her other qualities. She had not seen Florence's husband.

A few minutes later Thorne drove up to the front of the house, and Alison saw a woman, who hitherto had been hidden by one of the pillars, lying in a canvas chair on the veranda with a book in her hand. The sunlight that streamed in upon her called up fiery gleams in her red hair and shimmered on her long dress of soft, filmy green. Alison promptly decided that the latter had come from New York or Montreal. There was no doubt that Florence Hunter's appearance was striking, though her expression even in repose seemed to indicate a dissatisfied, exacting temperament. At length she heard the rattle of wheels, for she rose.

"Alison, by all that's wonderful!" she cried.

There was astonishment in the exclamation, but Alison could not convince herself that there was any great pleasure, and it was with a certain sense of constraint that she permitted Thorne to help her down. He walked with her up to the veranda, and acknowledged Mrs.

Hunter's casual greeting by lifting his hat.

"Sit down," said the latter to Alison, pointing to another chair. "Where have you sprung from?"

"From Winnipeg. I came out to earn my living, and nobody seemed to want me there."

Florence laughed.

"You earn your living! It's clear that something very extraordinary must have happened; but we'll talk of that after supper. So you decided to come to me?"

It was, Alison realized, merely a question and nothing more.

"I'm afraid I was a little presumptuous," she replied. "There is, of course, no reason why you should have me."

Her companion looked at her with a curious smile.

"You are still in the habit of saying things of that kind? I suppose it runs in the family."

Alison winced, for she remembered that her mother could on occasion be painfully rude.

"You haven't said anything to convince me that I was wrong."

"Was it necessary?" Florence asked languidly. "I was never very effusive, as you ought to know. Of course, you'll stay here as long as it pleases you."

The invitation was clear enough, but there was no warmth in it; and Alison was relieved when a man came up the steps. He was rather short in stature, and there was nothing striking in his appearance. He had a quiet brown face and very brown hands, and he had evidently been working, for he wore long boots, a coarse blue shirt, and blue duck overalls. He shook hands with Thorne cordially, and then turned toward Alison.

"My husband," said Florence. "Miss Leigh, Elcot; I used to know her in England. She has just arrived."

Alison noticed that Hunter favored her with a glance of grave scrutiny, but he did not seem in the least astonished, nor did he glance at his wife. This indicated that he was in the habit of accepting without question anything that the latter did. Then he held out his hand.

"I'm very glad to see you, and we'll try to make you comfortable," he said with a smile which softened the girl's heart toward him. Then he turned to his wife.

"Is supper ready? I want to haul in another load of wood before it's dark."

"It should have been ready now. I don't know what they're doing inside," was the careless reply.

It occurred to Alison that her hostess might have gone to see, but she was half annoyed with Thorne when she noticed his badly dissembled grin. Then Hunter inquired if she had had a comfortable journey.

"Not very," she answered. "You see, I traveled Colonist."

"How dreadful!" Florence exclaimed.

Her husband smiled at Alison.

"It depends," he said. "It's good enough if you can wait until after the steamboat train. I used to travel that way myself once upon a time; I had to do it then."

"Elcot," his wife explained, "is one of the most economically minded men living. He grudges every dollar unless it's for new implements."

Hunter did not contradict her. He and Thorne left the veranda, and soon after they returned from leading the team to the stable, a trim maid appeared to announce that supper was ready. Hunter led Alison into a big and very simply furnished room. A long table ran down one side, and half a dozen men attired much as Hunter was took their places about the uncovered lower half of it. There was a cloth on the upper portion, with a gap of several feet between its margin and the nearest of the teamsters' seats. It occurred to Alison, who had been told that the hired man generally ate with his employer on the prairie, that this compromise was rather pitiful, though she did not know that Hunter had once or twice had words with his wife on the question. As the meal, which was bountiful, proceeded, he now and then spoke to the men; but Florence confined her attention to Alison, until at length she addressed Thorne.

"To what do we owe the pleasure of seeing you?" she inquired.

"In the first place, I came to bring Miss Leigh; she hired me."

Thorne laid a very slight stress upon the hired. It seemed to indicate that he recognized his station in relation to a guest of the house, and Alison felt a little uncomfortable. For one thing, though that did not quite account for her uneasiness, she remembered that she had not paid him.

"Then," he added, "I called in the usual course of business. I have for disposal a few tablets of very excellent English soap, a case of peach-bloom cosmetic, and one or two other requisites of the kind."

Alison regretted that she laughed, but she felt that Florence's attitude toward the man had rendered the thrust admissible, and she saw a faint smile in Hunter's eyes. Her hostess, however, was equal to the occasion.

"If they're not as rubbishy as usual, I'll buy a few things and give them to the maids. Is that the whole of your stock?"

"I've a box of new gramophone records."

Florence looked at her husband, and Alison fancied that she had noticed and meant to punish him for his smile.

"You'll buy them, Elcot."

"You haven't tried the other lot," Hunter protested. "Besides, the instrument seemed to have contracted bronchitis when I last had it out."

"It will do to amuse the boys when the nights get dark," replied Florence. Then she turned to Alison. "One could hardly get a dollar out of him with a lever."

"Doesn't it depend on the kind of lever you use?" Alison asked.

Thorne grinned, but Florence answered unhesitatingly.

"Oh, in the case of the average man it doesn't matter, so long as it's strong enough and you have a fulcrum. We'll admit that the type can be generous, but it's only when it throws a reflected luster on themselves. Otherwise judicious pressure is necessary."

"Are you going to camp with us to-night?" Hunter asked Thorne.

"No," answered the latter. "I have some business at the Bluff, and I want to get off again early to-morrow."

In a few more minutes the teamsters rose, and Hunter, making excuses to Alison, went out with them. Florence looked after them, and then turned to the girl with a disdainful lifting of her brows.

"Cormorants," she commented. "They've been very slow to-night. Eight minutes is about their usual limit. I don't think they even look at their food – it just goes down. I have once or twice suggested to Elcot that he is wasting his money by giving them the things he does. It's difficult, though, to make him listen to reason."

Alison said nothing, and after a while Florence rose.

"We'll have a talk on the veranda while they clear away."

She pointed to a chair when they reached the veranda, and then sank languidly into one close by.

"Tell me all about it," she said.

It was not a pleasant task to Alison, for it entailed the mention of her father's death and an account of the difficulties that had followed, but she spoke for a few minutes, and her companion casually expressed her sympathy.

"I can understand why you came out," she added with a bitter laugh. "When I first met you I was earning just enough to keep me on the border line between respectability and – the other thing – that is by the exercise of the most unpleasant self-denial. What I should have done without the extra twelve pounds your mother's guild paid me for playing the piano twice a week at the working girls' club I don't like to think. That is why I made no complaint when they added to my duties the teaching of a class on another evening and the collecting of the subscriptions to the sewing society. Your mother, I heard, informed the committee that in her opinion twelve pounds was a good deal too much, and I believe she added that such a rate of payment was apt to make a young woman of my class far too independent."

Alison's cheeks burned, for she knew that Florence had been correctly informed; but she had no thought of mentioning that she had expostulated with her mother on the subject.

"Well," said Florence, "it was not your fault, and I'm sorry for you. I suppose you had – difficulties – with some of your employers? No doubt one or two of them tried to make love to you?"

Alison made a little gesture of disgust.

"Oh," laughed Florence, "I know. You probably flared out at the offender, and either got your work found fault with or lost your situation. I didn't. After all, a smile costs nothing, though it's a little difficult now and then. In my case, it led to shorter hours, higher wages, an occasional Saturday afternoon trip to the country. I got what I could, and in due time it was generally easy to turn round upon and get rid of the provider. Still, it was just a little humiliating with a certain type of man, and it was a relief when Elcot took me out of it. I try to remember that I owe him that when he gets unusually wearisome, though one must do him the justice to admit that he never refers to it."

Alison sat silent, shrinking from her companion. She had faced a good many unpleasant things during the past few years, but they had wrought but little change in her nature. The part her hostess had played would have been a wholly hateful one to her.

"Where did you come across Thorne?" Florence asked.

Alison told her, and she looked thoughtful.

"When was that? I supposed you had come straight from the station."

"Four days ago," answered Alison unhesitatingly, though she would have much preferred not to mention it.

"Four days! And you have been driving round the country since then with Thorne?"

Alison felt her face grow hot, but her answer was clear and sharp.

"Of course; I couldn't help it. We should have been here earlier, only a horse went lame. In any case, after what you have told me, I cannot see why you should adopt that tone."

Florence raised her brows.

"My dear," she said, "I was a working woman of no account in England when I first met you – but things are rather different now. It doesn't exactly please me that a guest of mine should indulge in an escapade of this description. Doesn't it strike you as hardly fitting?"

Hunter, who had come up the steps unobserved, stopped beside them just then.

"Rubbish!" he said curtly. "It was unavoidable. I've had a talk with Leslie; he told me exactly what delayed him."

Florence waved her hand.

"Oh," she replied, "let it go at that. I couldn't resist the temptation of sticking a pin or two into Alison. What has brought you back?"

"We broke the wagon pole. It didn't seem worth while to put in a new one to-night."

He moved away and left them, and Alison turned to her companion.

"Did he mean Mr. Thorne by Leslie?"

"Of course."

"But isn't his name Maverick?"

"Did you call him that?"

"I can't remember, though I suppose I must have done so. Some of the others certainly did."

Florence looked amused.

"I suppose you haven't an idea what a maverick is?"

Alison said that she had none at all, and her companion proceeded to inform her.

"It's a steer that won't feed and follow tamely with the herd, but goes off or gets wild and smashes things, and generally does what's least desirable. As you have spent some days with him you will no doubt understand why they have fixed the name on Thorne."

Alison glanced at her with a sparkle in her eyes.

"I can only say this. I have met a few men one could look up to – after all, there are good people in the world – but I haven't yet come across one who showed more tact and considerate thoughtfulness than Maverick Thorne."

Florence was evidently amused at this – indeed, to be sardonically amused at something seemed her favorite pose.

"I shouldn't like to disturb that kind of optimism – and here he is; I'll leave you to talk to him. As it happens, Elcot looks rather grumpy, and the mail-carrier has just brought out a sheaf of my bills from Winnipeg which he hasn't seen yet."

She sailed away with a rustle of elaborate draperies, and Thorne sat down.

"I'm going on to the bluff in half an hour," he informed her.

Alison was conscious of a certain hesitation, but there was something to be said.

"How much do I owe you?" she asked.

"Half a dollar."

Alison flushed.

"Why didn't you say four or five dollars?"

"Since you evidently mean to insist on an answer, there are several reasons for my modesty. For one thing, you would have to borrow the money from Mrs. Hunter, which I don't think you would like to do. For another, if you were a Canadian I'd say – nothing – but as you're not used to the country yet you wouldn't care to accept a favor from a stranger."

"But it would be a favor in any case."

"Then you can get rid of the obligation by giving me half a dollar."

The girl looked at him sharply as she laid the silver coin in his hand, but he met her gaze with a whimsical smile.

"Thank you," he said. "I suppose you are going back to Mrs. Farquhar?"

"Yes," replied Alison impulsively. "I believe I am; but I may wait for a few days."

"I think you're wise. You wouldn't find things very pleasant here."

"Why?"

"If you'll permit me to mention it, you're too pretty."

Alison straightened herself suddenly in her chair.

"You don't like Mrs. Hunter, but does that justify you in saying what you have? You can't mean that she would be – jealous?"

"That's exactly what I do mean."

He saw the angry color mantle in the face of the girl, and raised his hand in expostulation.

"Wait a little; I want to explain. First of all, she wouldn't have the slightest cause for jealousy. You're not the kind to give her one, and Elcot Hunter is one of the best and straightest men I know. In fact, that's partly what is troubling me."

"Why should it trouble you?" Alison interrupted.

Thorne appeared to reflect, and, indignant with his presumption as she was, the girl admitted that he did it very well.

"If you urge me for a precise answer, I'm afraid I'll have to confess that I don't quite know. Anyway, because Hunter is the sort of man I have described, he'd try to make things pleasant for you, and there's no doubt that his wife would resent it. Whether she's fond of him at all, or not, I naturally can't say, but she expects him to be entirely at her beck and call, and I don't think she'd tolerate any little courtesies he might show you."

Alison sat silent for a moment or two when he stopped, looking at him with perplexed eyes, though she felt that he was right.

"It's curious, isn't it?" she said at length. "Florence must have had a very unpleasant time in England, where she had to practise the strictest self-denial. One would have thought it would have made her content and compassionate now that she has everything that she could wish for."

"No," responded Thorne, "in a way, it's natural. That kind of life often has the opposite effect. Those who lead it have so much to put up with that if once they escape it makes them determined never even to contemplate doing the least thing they don't like again."

"Oh," declared Alison impulsively, "I shouldn't care to think that."

"Well," said Thorne, with unmoved gravity, "I don't know whether you have had as much to face as you say that she has, though one or two things seem to suggest it, but it certainly hasn't spoiled you."

Then he rose.

"As I want to reach the bluff to-night, I'll get my team harnessed."

Alison watched him go down the steps with a somewhat perplexing sense of regret. She had met the man only four days ago, but she felt that she was parting from a friend.

A few minutes later Florence Hunter called her into the house; and she stayed with her a week before she went to Mrs. Farquhar. She admitted that Florence had given her no particular cause for leaving, but she at least made no objections when Alison acquainted her with her decision.

CHAPTER VI
THORNE CONTEMPLATES A CHANGE

Alison had spent a few days with Mrs. Farquhar without finding the least reason to regret the choice she had made, when one evening Farquhar helped her and his wife into his wagon in front of the little hotel at Graham's Bluff, where he had passed the last half-hour in conversation with an implement dealer. When they had taken their places he drove cautiously down the wide, unpaved street, which was seamed with ruts. On either side of it, straggling and singularly unpicturesque frame houses, destitute of paint or any attempt at adornment, rose abruptly from the prairie, though here and there the usual plank sidewalk ran along the front of them. Alison was convinced that she had rarely seen a more uninteresting place, though she had discovered that its inhabitants were not only quite satisfied with it, but firmly believed in its roseate future. This seemed somewhat curious, as a number of them had come there from the cities, but she did not know then that the optimistic assurance with which they were endued is common in the West, and that it is, as a rule, in due time justified.

Turning a corner, they came out into a wider space from which a riband of rutted trail led out into the wilderness. Farquhar pulled up his team. Close in front of them, a crowd had gathered about a wagon, and a man who stood upon a box in it seemed to be addressing the assembly. Alison could not see his face, and his voice was, for the most part, drowned by bursts of laughter, but he was waving his hands to emphasize his remarks, and this and his general attitude reminded her of the itinerant auctioneers she had now and then seen in the market-place of an English provincial town, though the crowd and the surroundings were in this case very different.

The prairie, which was dusty white, stretched back to the soft red glow of the far horizon, and overhead there was a wonderful blue transparency. The light was still sharp, and the figures of the men stood out with a curious distinctness. Most of them were picturesque in wide, gray hats and long boots, with blue shirt and jacket hanging loose above the rather tight, dust-smeared trousers, though there were some who wore black hats and spruce store clothes. These, however, looked very much out of place.

"Thorne's pitching it to the boys in great style to-night," chuckled Farquhar. "We'll get a little nearer; I like to hear him when he has a good head of steam up."

He started the team, but Alison was sensible of a slight shock of displeasure. She was aware that Thorne sold things, because he had told her so, but she had never seen him actively engaged in his profession, and this kind of thing seemed extremely undignified. She had got rid of a good many prejudices during the past few years, and was, for that matter, in due time to discard some more; but it hurt her to see a friend of hers – and she admitted that she regarded him as such – playing the part of mountebank to amuse the inhabitants of a forlorn prairie town.



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