A Prairie Courtship
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"That," returned Thorne, "is just where you're wrong. I've no complaint against human nature in general or the way this country's run. My dislikes are concentrated on a few particularly obnoxious people who live in it, of whom you're one. You're a discredit even to the profession which you follow."
"It's not as dangerous to the people I deal with as yours is," Nevis retorted.
"We'll let that pass. I've already stopped here talking with you longer than I care about. Will you pull your buggy out of the way?"
Nevis felt a strong inclination to let the buggy remain where it stood. It was galling to be spoken to in that fashion by a wandering pedler, and even more annoying to be left stranded nine miles from anywhere with a worn-out horse; but a glance at the lean, determined face of the man on the driving-seat of the wagon decided him, and he drew his rig aside. Then Thorne looked down again.
"There's one thing you can do, and that's to unyoke the beast and hobble it, and then strike for Taylor's on your feet," he advised. "The walk will probably do you good, if only by convincing you that it doesn't pay to drive a horse to the verge of exhaustion."
He swung his whip, and the team plunged forward down the declivity with the wagon jolting and rattling behind them. Two or three hours later he pulled up in front of Farquhar's homestead, where, as he informed its owner, he meant to stay the night; and when the dusk was closing in he sat with the others on the stoop.
"Did you meet anybody on the trail?" Mrs. Farquhar asked.
"Nevis," answered Thorne genially. "I believe I insulted him. Anyway, I meant to, but he's tough in the hide, and I'm half afraid I wasn't quite up to my usual form."
"But why did you want to insult him?"
"Well," replied Thorne, with an air of reflection, "I think it was his clothes that irritated me."
"His clothes?" Alison broke in.
Thorne turned to her with a smile.
"Yes," he said; "unreasonable, isn't it? Still, you see, the man was so immaculately neat, from his tie, which was a marvel, to his very elegant pointed shoes. I dare say he'll find them most uncomfortable before he has walked nine miles in them."
"But why should that annoy you?"
"If you mean the thought of his limping across the prairie for miles and getting very hot and dusty, it certainly didn't. If you mean his apparel, too much neatness always acts as a red rag on me, and in this case the manner in which he was got up seemed symbolical. It hinted that only the best of everything would content him, and that he meant to get it, no matter what it cost anybody else. There was his horse, for instance, played out, foul with dust, and thirsty – with a creek close by. He'd driven the poor brute almost to death the last few days sooner than cut out a single visit to any one he wanted to see about the creamery."
"We have got to head him off that scheme," declared Farquhar; and his wife joined in again.
"Haven't you some other grievance against him?"
"If another one is needed, there's Langton's case," answered Thorne."The man's a crank, of course, which is partly why I like him, and he has some eccentric notions about farming; but he has paid Nevis his interest for quite a while, besides buying everything he used from him at double prices, and now the first time the money's not forthcoming he's sold up. Nevis turned him out, with his wife still ailing, and the child."
Mrs. Farquhar started with a flush of indignation in her face.
"It's the first I've heard of it. Why didn't you send us word?"
"Langton's rather out of your district, and the boys have fixed him up. They got a few things together, and he's camped in a tent on Government land. I believe they're going to build him a sod and birchpole house."
"I suppose," interjected Farquhar, "you were somewhere about?"
"That's certain," laughed his wife. "Who went round and got the tent and the other things you mentioned, Mavy?"
"As soon as they heard of it, the boys brought them in."
Alison cast a quick glance at him. He was quite devoid of self-consciousness, and it was evident that he took the thing lightly; but she fancied that there were strong chivalrous impulses in this humorous vagabond which would on due occasion lead him to ride a reckless tilt against overwhelming odds in the cause of the helpless and oppressed. Her heart warmed toward him, as it had done once or twice before, but she said nothing, and it became evident that Mrs. Farquhar shared the thought that was in her mind.
"Mavy," she cautioned, "I'm afraid you'll get yourself hurt some day by doing more than is wise or needful. Nobody could find fault with you for helping Langton, but you should have stopped at that. Insulting men like Nevis just because they dress well, or for other reasons, is apt to lead to trouble."
Then Farquhar broke in, and Alison recognized that he meant to follow his wife's lead.
"It was Langton's misfortune that he wouldn't fall into line," he said. "If he had, he wouldn't have been forced to borrow money from Nevis. For instance, what has the electrical tension in the atmosphere he used to fret about to do with one's harrowing, anyway, unless it brings down rain, and why must he cut his prairie hay two or three weeks after all his neighbors have theirs in?"
"He says he likes it thoroughly ripened," Thorne answered with a laugh. "Still, I can't see why a man should be hounded down because he won't do exactly what everybody else does. What do you think, Miss Leigh?"
"It's rather a pity, but I'm afraid men of that kind generally have to pay," replied Alison. "That is, unless they're very strong and fortunate, and then they lead. What was supposed to be a craze of theirs becomes a desirable custom, and the others humbly copy them."
"And if the others won't?" questioned Farquhar.
"Even then, it's perhaps just as well there are a few men with the courage of their convictions who will couch the lance in the face of any opposition that can be brought against them, and ride right home. There must be something in their fancies, and the stir they make clears the air. Stagnation's unwholesome."
Mrs. Farquhar regarded her severely.
"You shouldn't encourage him. It's quite superfluous. He'd charge a locomotive any day with pleasure," she said.
"Well," laughed Thorne, "you will no doubt be consoled to hear that I've come into line. There are now one hundred and sixty acres of virgin prairie recorded in my name, and I believe a carload of sawed lumber and general fixings will arrive at the station in the next few days. When they do, I'll borrow your wagon and hired man to haul them out, though I'll have to camp in a tent until I get my first crop in."
Farquhar and his wife looked astonished, and both laughed when he gravely reproached them for not believing that he would carry out the project which he had already mentioned. Then the two men strolled away toward the barn together, and Alison was left with Mrs. Farquhar. The prairie was wrapped in shadow now, and a half-moon was rising above its eastern rim. It was very still, and there was a wonderful freshness in the chilly air. Looking out upon the vast sweep of dusky grass, it seemed to Alison that this wide country gave one clearness of vision and breadth of character.
"Does Thorne really mean to turn farmer?" she asked at length.
"It looks as if he does," answered Mrs. Farquhar. "Why shouldn't he?"
"I can't think of any reason," replied Alison. "Still, it isn't what I should have anticipated. What can have influenced him?"
"I have a suspicion that he means to get married. He couldn't expect his wife to set up housekeeping in a wagon, though, for that matter, I don't know whether he lives in the vehicle or camps on the ground beside it."
Alison knew, however, and on the whole she was glad that it was too dark for her companion to see her face clearly. It was, for no very ostensible reason, not exactly pleasant to think of Thorne's getting married at all. The idea of his being willing to contemplate marriage, so to speak, in the abstract, as the men who went to Winnipeg for their wives did, was repugnant to her, and the alternative possibility that he had somebody in particular in view already afforded her no great consolation.
"I suppose he wouldn't have very much trouble if that was his idea," she said with a trace of disdain.
"No," responded Mrs. Farquhar; "there would be very little trouble in Leslie Thorne's case. Whatever that man may lack it won't be the love of women."
It occurred to Alison that there was truth in this. She could even confess that the man's light-hearted manner, his whimsical generosity and his daring appealed to her.
"He doesn't seem to get on very well with Florence Hunter," she said reflectively.
Mrs. Farquhar laughed.
"I think I may tell you a secret which Mavy has never guessed. He could have got on a good deal better with Mrs. Hunter had he been anxious to, and she hasn't forgiven him because he didn't realize it."
Alison started, and a warmth crept into her face, but her hostess proceeded:
"I don't mean very much by that. Mrs. Hunter merely wished to – annex – him; to command his respectful homage, which he was quite ready to pay her as Elcot's wife, though that wasn't quite what she intended. There's an unpleasant streak in that woman's nature."
Alison sat silent a moment or two, for she was forced to confess that this sounded correct.
"But Florence can have no complaint against her husband," she objected. "He seems to indulge her and treat her generously."
"That's half the trouble," was the answer. "Some day she'll wear his patience out, and then he'll take the other way – and they'll get on better afterward. However, that's a matter that doesn't concern us." She paused a moment, with a smile. "Anyway, I'm glad you decided to come to me."
"Thank you," said Alison quietly.
She had never regretted her choice. The work she had undertaken was certainly not what she had expected to do when she came to Canada, and she smiled as she remembered the indignation her mother had expressed concerning it in her last letter; but her duties were not unpleasant, and she was growing fond of the unassuming but very sensible people with whom she dwelt. Their view was narrowed by no prejudices, and they disdained pretense; they toiled with cheerful courage and were as cheerfully willing to hold out an open hand to the stranger and the unfortunate. The latter fact was once more made evident when Farquhar, followed by Thorne, strolled up to the door.
"I think I'll start off at sunup and drive over to see how Langton's getting on," he said. "I couldn't very well be back the same night, but you'll have Miss Leigh with you."
"Of course," assented his wife, smiling. "It was only yesterday that you declared you didn't know how you were going to get through with the sowing. I suppose you'll want to take a few things along with you?"
Thorne produced a strip of paper and handed it to her.
"I can't always trust my memory," he explained.
They went into the house, where a light was already burning, and Mrs. Farquhar glanced at the paper with a smile.
"Well," she said, "I suppose I can manage to let you have about half of what you ask for." Then she turned to Alison. "As soon as he mentioned the matter I expected this."