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Winston of the Prairie By Harold Bindloss Characters: 17903

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

The long train was slackening speed and two whistles rang shrilly through the roar of wheels when Miss Barrington laid down the book with which she had beguiled her journey of fifteen hundred miles, and rose from her seat in a corner of the big first-class car. The car was sumptuously upholstered and its decorations tasteful as well as lavish, but just then it held no other passenger, and Miss Barrington smiled curiously as she stood, swaying a little, in front of the mirror at one end of it, wrapping her furs about her. There was, however, a faint suggestion of regret in the smile, and the girl's eyes grew grave again, for the soft cushions, dainty curtains, gleaming gold and nickel, and equable temperature formed a part of the sheltered life she was about to leave behind her, and there would, she knew, be a difference in the future. Still, she laughed again, as, drawing the little fur cap well down upon her broad white forehead, she nodded at her own reflection.

"One cannot have everything, and you might have stayed there and reveled in civilization if you had liked," she said.

Crossing to the door of the portico she stood a moment with fingers on its handle, and once more looked about her. The car was very cosy, and Maud Barrington had all the average young woman's appreciation of the smoother side of life, although she had also the capacity, which is by no means so common, for extracting the most it had to give from the opposite one. Still, it was with a faint regret she prepared to complete what had been a deed of renunciation. Montreal, with its gayeties and luxuries, had not seemed so very far away while she was carried west amid all the comforts artisans who were also artists could provide for the traveler, but once that door closed behind her she would be cut adrift from it all, and left face to face with the simple, strenuous life of the prairie.

Maud Barrington had, however, made her mind up some weeks ago, and when the lock closed with a little crack that seemed to emphasize the fact that the door was shut, she had shaken the memories from her, and was quietly prepared to look forward instead of back. It also needed some little courage, for, as she stood with the furs fluttering about her on the lurching platform, the cold went through her like a knife, and the roofs of a little prairie town rose up above the willows the train was now crawling through. The odors that greeted her nostrils were the reverse of pleasant, and glancing down with the faintest shiver of disgust, her eyes rested on the litter of empty cans, discarded garments, and other even more unsightly things which are usually dumped in the handiest bluff by the citizens of a springing Western town. They have, for the most part, but little appreciation of the picturesque, and it would take a good deal to affect their health.

Then the dwarfed trees opened out, and flanked by two huge wheat elevators and a great water tank, the prairie city stood revealed. It was crude and repellant, devoid of anything that could please the most lenient eye, for the bare frame houses rose, with their rough boarding weathered and cracked by frost and sun, hideous almost in their simplicity, from the white prairie. Paint was apparently an unknown luxury, and pavement there was none, though a rude plank platform straggled some distance above the ground down either side of the street, so that the citizens might not sink knee-deep in the mire of the spring thawing. Here and there a dilapidated wagon was drawn up in front of a store. With a clanging of the big bell the locomotive rolled into the little station, and Maud Barrington looked down upon a group of silent men who had sauntered there to enjoy the one relaxation the desolate place afforded them.

There was very little in their appearance to attract the attention of a young woman of Miss Barrington's upbringing. They had grave bronzed faces, and wore, for the most part, old fur coats stained here and there with soil, and their mittens and moccasins were not in good repair; but there was a curious steadiness in their gaze which vaguely suggested the slow stubborn courage that upheld them through the strenuous effort and grim self-denial of their toilsome lives. They were small wheat-growers who had driven in to purchase provisions or inquire the price of grain, and here and there a mittened hand was raised to a well-worn cap, for most of them recognized Miss Barrington of Silverdale Grange. She returned their greetings graciously, and then swung herself from the platform, with a smile in her eyes, as a man came hastily and yet as it were with a certain deliberation in her direction.

He was elderly, but held himself erect, while his furs, which were good, fitted him in a fashion which suggested a uniform. He also wore boots which reached half-way to the knee, and were presumably lined to resist the prairie cold, which few men at that season would do, and scarcely a speck of dust marred their lustrous exterior, while as much of his face as was visible beneath the great fur cap was lean and commanding. Its salient features were the keen and somewhat imperious gray eyes and long straight nose, while something in the squareness of the man's shoulders and his pose set him apart from the prairie farmers, and suggested the cavalry officer. He was in fact Colonel Barrington, founder and autocratic ruler of the English community of Silverdale, and he had been awaiting his niece somewhat impatiently. Colonel Barrington was invariably punctual, and resented the fact that the train had come in an hour later than it should have done.

"So you have come back to us. We have been longing for you, my dear," he said. "I don't know what we should have done had they kept you in Montreal altogether."

Maud Barrington smiled, though there was a brightness in her eyes and a faint warmth in her cheek, for the sincerity of her uncle's welcome was evident.

"Yes," she said, "I have come back. It was very pleasant in the city, and they were all kind to me, but I think, henceforward, I would sooner stay with you on the prairie."

Colonel Barrington patted the hand he drew through his arm, and there was a very kindly smile in his eyes as they left the station and crossed the track towards a little, and by no means very comfortable, wooden hotel. He stopped outside it.

"I want to see the horses put in and get our mail," he said. "Mrs. Jasper expects you and will have tea ready."

He disappeared behind the wooden building, and his niece standing a moment on the veranda watched the long train roll away down the faint blur of track that ran west to the farthest verge of the great white wilderness. Then with a little impatient gesture she went into the hotel.

"That is another leaf turned down, and there is no use looking back, but I wonder what is written on the rest," she said.

Twenty minutes later she watched Colonel Barrington cross the street with a bundle of letters in his hand. She fancied that his step was slower than it had been, and that he seemed a trifle preoccupied and embarrassed, but he spoke with quiet kindliness when he handed her into the waiting sleigh, and the girl's spirits rose as they swung smoothly northwards behind two fast horses across the prairie. It stretched away before her, ridged here and there with a dusky birch bluff or willow grove under a vault of crystalline blue. The sun that had no heat in it struck a silvery glitter from the snow, and the trail swept back to the horizon a sinuous blue-gray smear, while the keen, dry cold and sense of swift motion set the girl's blood stirring. After all, it seemed to her, there were worse lives than those the Western farmers led on the great levels under the frost and sun.

Colonel Barrington watched her with a little gleam of approval in his eyes. "You are not sorry to come back to this and Silverdale?" he said, sweeping his mittened hand vaguely round the horizon.

"No," said the girl, with a little laugh. "At least, I shall not be sorry to return to Silverdale. It has a charm of its own, for while one is occasionally glad to get away from it, one is even more pleased to come home again. It is a somewhat purposeless life our friends are leading yonder in the cities. I, of course, mean the women."

Barrington nodded. "And some of the men! Well, we have room here for the many who are going to the devil in the old country for the lack of something worthwhile to do, though I am afraid there is considerably less prospect than I once fancied there would be of their making money."

His niece noticed the gravity in his face, and sat thoughtfully silent for several minutes while with the snow hissing beneath it the sleigh dipped into and swung out of a hollow.

Colonel Barrington had founded the Silverdale settlement ten years earlier and gathered about him other men with a grievance who had once serv

ed their nation, and the younger sons of English gentlemen who had no inclination for commerce, and found that lack of brains and capital debarred them from either a political or military career. He had settled them on the land, and taught them to farm, while, for the community had prospered at first when Western wheat was dear, it had taken ten years to bring home to him the fact that men who dined ceremoniously each evening and spent at least a third of their time in games and sport, could not well compete with the grim bushmen from Ontario, or the lean Dakota plowmen who ate their meals in ten minutes and toiled at least twelve hours every day.

Colonel Barrington was slow to believe that the race he sprang from could be equaled and much less beaten at anything, while his respect for and scrupulous observance of insular traditions had cost him a good deal, and left him a poorer man than he had been when he founded Silverdale. Maud Barrington had been his ward, and he still directed the farming of a good many acres of wheat land which she now held in her own right. The soil was excellent, and would in all probability have provided one of the Ontario men with a very desirable revenue, but Colonel Barrington had no taste for small economies.

"I want to hear all the news," said the girl. "You can begin at the beginning--the price of wheat. I fancied, when I saw you, it had been declining."

Barrington sighed a little. "Hard wheat is five cents down, and I am sorry I persuaded you to hold your crop. I am very much afraid we shall see the balance the wrong side again next half-year."

Maud Barrington smiled curiously. There was no great cause for merriment in the information given her, but it emphasized the contrast between the present and the careless life she had lately led when her one thought had been how to extract the greatest pleasure from the day. One had frequently to grapple with the problems arising from scanty finances at Silverdale.

"It will go up again," she said. "Is there anything else?"

Barrington's face grew a trifle grim as he nodded. "There is, and while I have not much expectation of an advance in prices, I have been worrying over another affair lately."

His niece regarded him steadily. "You mean Lance Courthorne?"

"Yes," said Barrington, who flicked the near horse somewhat viciously with the whip. "He is also sufficient to cause any man with my responsibilities considerable anxiety."

Maud Barrington looked thoughtful. "You fancy he will come to Silverdale?"

Barrington appeared to be repressing an inclination towards vigorous speech with some difficulty, and a little glint crept into his eyes. "If I could by any means prevent it, the answer would be, No. As it is, you know that, while I founded it, Silverdale was one of Geoffrey Courthorne's imperialistic schemes, and a good deal of the land was recorded in his name. That being so, he had every right to leave the best farm on it to the man he had disinherited, especially as Lance will not get a penny of the English property. Still, I do not know why he did so, because he never spoke of him without bitterness."

"Yes," said the girl, while a little flush crept into her face. "I was sorry for the old man. It was a painful story."

Colonel Barrington nodded. "It is one that is best forgotten--and you do not know it all. Still, the fact that the man may settle among us is not the worst. As you know, there was every reason to believe that Geoffrey intended all his property at Silverdale for you."

"I have much less right to it than his son, and the colonial cure is not infrequently efficacious," said Miss Barrington. "Lance may, after all, quiet down, and he must have some good qualities."

The Colonel's smile was very grim. "It is fifteen years since I saw him at Westham, and they were not much in evidence then. I can remember two little episodes, in which he figured, with painful distinctness, and one was the hanging of a terrier which had in some way displeased him. The beast was past assistance when I arrived on the scene, but the devilish pleasure in the lad's face sent a chill through me. In the other, the gardener's lad flung a stone at a blackbird on the wall above the vinery, and Master Lance, who I fancy did not like the gardener's lad, flung one through the glass. Geoffrey, who was angry, but had not seen what I saw, haled the boy before him, and Lance looked him in the face and lied with the assurance of an ambassador. The end was that the gardener who was admonished cuffed the innocent lad. These, my dear, are somewhat instructive memories."

"I wonder," said Maud Barrington, glancing out across the prairie which was growing dusky now, "why you took the trouble to call them up for me?"

The Colonel smiled dryly. "I never saw a Courthorne who could not catch a woman's eye, or had any undue diffidence about making the most of the fact, and that is partly why they have brought so much trouble on everybody connected with them. Further, it is unfortunate that women are not infrequently more inclined to be gracious to the sinner who repents, when it is worth his while, than they are to the honest man who has done no wrong. Nor do I know that it is only pity which influences them. Some of you take an exasperating delight in picturesque rascality."

Miss Barrington laughed, and fearlessly met her uncle's glance. "Then you don't believe in penitence?"

"Well," said the Colonel dryly, "I am, I hope, a Christian man, but it would be difficult to convince me that the gambler, cattle-thief, and whisky-runner who ruined every man and woman who trusted him will be admitted to the same place as clean-lived English gentlemen. There are, my dear, plenty of them still."

Barrington spoke almost fiercely, and then flushed through his tan, when the girl looking into his eyes smiled a little. "Yes," she said, "I can believe it, because I owe a good deal to one of them."

The ring in the girl's voice belied the smile, and the speech was warranted, for, dogmatic, domineering, and vindictive as he was apt to be occasionally, the words he had used applied most fitly to Colonel Barrington. His word at least had never been broken, and had he not adhered steadfastly to his own rigid code, he would have been a good deal richer man than he was then. Nor did his little shortcomings which were burlesqued virtues, and ludicrous now and then, greatly detract from the stamp of dignity which, for speech was his worst point, sat well upon him. He was innately conservative to the backbone, though since an ungrateful Government had slighted him, he had become an ardent Canadian, and in all political questions aggressively democratic.

"My dear, I sometimes fancy I am a hypercritical old fogy!" he said, and sighed a little, while once more the anxious look crept into his face. "Just now I wish devoutly I was a better business man."

Nothing more was said for a little, and Miss Barrington watched the crimson sunset burn out low down on the prairie's western rim. Then the pale stars blinked out through the creeping dusk, and a great silence and an utter cold settled down upon the waste. The muffled thud of hoofs, and the crunching beneath the sliding steel seemed to intensify it, and there was a suggestion of frozen brilliancy in the sparkle flung back by the snow. Then a coyote howled dolefully on a distant bluff, and the girl shivered as she shrank down further amidst the furs.

"Forty degrees of frost," said the Colonel. "Perhaps more. This is very different from the cold of Montreal. Still, you'll see the lights of Silverdale from the crest of the next rise."

It was, however, an hour before they reached them, and Miss Barrington was almost frozen when the first square loghouse rose out of the prairie. It and others that followed it flitted by, and then, flanked by a great birch bluff, with outlying barns, granaries, and stables, looming black about it against a crystalline sky, Silverdale Grange grew into shape across their way. Its rows of ruddy windows cast streaks of flickering orange down the trail, the baying of dogs changed into a joyous clamor, when the Colonel reined in his team, half-seen men in furs waved a greeting, and one who risked frostbite with his cap at his knee handed Miss Barrington from the sleigh and up the veranda stairway.

She had need of the assistance, for her limbs were stiff and almost powerless, and she gasped a little when she passed into the drowsy warmth and brightness of the great log-walled hall. The chilled blood surged back tingling to her skin, and swaying with a creeping faintness she found refuge in the arms of a gray-haired lady who stooped and kissed her gently. Then the door swung to, and she was home again in the wooden grange of Silverdale, which stood far remote from any civilization but its own on the frozen levels of the great white plain.

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