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   Chapter 6 ANTICIPATIONS

Winston of the Prairie By Harold Bindloss Characters: 18792

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


It was late at night, and outside the prairie lay white and utterly silent under the arctic cold, when Maud Barrington, who glanced at it through the double windows, flung back the curtains with a little shiver, and turning towards the fire sat down on a little velvet footstool beside her aunt's knee. She had shaken out the coils of lustrous brown hair which flowed about her shoulders glinting in the light of the shaded lamp, and it was with a little gesture of physical content she stretched her hands towards the hearth. A crumbling birch log still gleamed redly amidst the feathery ashes, but its effect was chiefly artistic, for no open fire could have dissipated the cold of the prairie, and a big tiled stove, brought from Teutonic Minnesota, furnished the needful warmth.

The girl's face was partly in shadow, and her figure foreshortened by her pose, which accentuated its rounded outline and concealed its willowy slenderness; but the broad white forehead and straight nose became visible when she moved her head a trifle, and a faintly humorous sparkle crept into the clear brown eyes. Possibly Maud Barrington looked her best just then, for the lower part of the pale-tinted face was a trifle too firm in its modeling.

"No, I am not tired, aunt, and I could not sleep just now," she said. "You see, after leaving all that behind one, one feels, as it were, adrift, and it is necessary to realize one's self again."

The little silver-haired lady who sat in the big basket chair smiled down upon her, and laid a thin white hand that was still beautiful upon the gleaming hair.

"I can understand, my dear, and am glad you enjoyed your stay in the city, because sometimes when I count your birthdays I can't help a fancy that you are not young enough," she said. "You have lived out here with two old people who belong to the past too much."

The girl moved a little, and swept her glance slowly round the room. It was small and scantily furnished, though great curtains shrouded door and window, and here and there a picture relieved the bareness of the walls, which were paneled with roughly-dressed British-Columbian cedar. The floor was of redwood diligently polished, and adorned, not covered, by one or two skins brought by some of Colonel Barrington's younger neighbors from the Rockies. There were two basket chairs and a plain redwood table; but in contrast to them a cabinet of old French workmanship stood in one corner bearing books in dainty bindings, and two great silver candlesticks. The shaded lamp was also of the same metal, and the whole room with its faint resinous smell conveyed, in a fashion not uncommon on the prairie, a suggestion of taste and refinement held in check by at least comparative poverty. Colonel Barrington was a widower who had been esteemed a man of wealth, but the founding of Silverdale had made a serious inroad on his finances. Even yet, though he occasionally practiced it, he did not take kindly to economy.

"Yes," said the girl, "I enjoyed it all--and it was so different from the prairie."

There was comprehension, and a trace of sympathy, in Miss Barrington's nod. "Tell me a little, my dear," she said. "There was not a great deal about it in your letters."

Her niece glanced dreamily into the sinking fire as though she would call up the pictures there. "But you know it all--the life I have only had glimpses of. Well, for the first few months I almost lost my head, and was swung right off my feet by the whirl of it. It was then I was, perhaps, just a trifle thoughtless."

The white-haired lady laughed softly. "It is difficult to believe it, Maud."

The girl shook her head reproachfully. "I know what you mean, and perhaps you are right, for that was what Toinette insinuated," she said. "She actually told me that I should be thankful I had a brain since I had no heart. Still, at first I let myself go, and it was delightful--the opera, the dances, and the covered skating-rink with the music and the black ice flashing beneath the lights. The whir of the toboggans down the great slide was finer still, and the torchlight meets of the snowshoe clubs on the mountain. Yes, I think I was really young while it lasted."

"For a month," said the elder. "And after?"

"Then," said the girl slowly, "it all seemed to grow a trifle purposeless, and there was something that spoiled it. Toinette was quite angry and I know her mother wrote you--but it was not my fault, aunt. How was I, a guileless girl from the prairie, to guess that such a man would fling the handkerchief to me?"

The evenness of tone and entire absence of embarrassment was significant. It also pointed to the fact that there was a closer confidence between Maud Barrington and her aunt than often exists between mother and daughter, and the elder lady stroked the lustrous head that rested against her knee with a little affectionate pride.

"My dear, you know you are beautiful, and you have the cachet that all the Courthornes wear. Still, you could not like him? Tell me about him."

Maud Barrington curled herself up further. "I think I could have liked him, but that was all," she said. "He was nice to look at and did all the little things gracefully; but he had never done anything else, never would, and, I fancy, had never wanted to. Now a man of that kind would very soon pall on me, and I should have lost my temper trying to waken him to his responsibilities."

"And what kind of man would please you?"

Maud Barrington's eyes twinkled, but the fact that she answered at all was a proof of the sympathy between herself and the questioner. "I do not know that I am anxious any of them should," she said. "But since you ask, he would have to be a man first: a toiling, striving animal who could hold his own amidst his fellows wherever he was placed. Secondly, one would naturally prefer a gentleman, though I do not like the word, and one would fancy the combination a trifle rare, because brains and birth do not necessarily tally, and the man educated by the struggle for existence is apt to be taught more than he ever would be at Oxford or in the army. Still, men of that stamp forget a good deal, and learn so much that is undesirable, you see. In fact, I only know one man who would have suited me, and he is debarred by age and affinity--but, because we are so much alike, I can't help fancying that you once knew another."

The smile on Miss Barrington's face, which was still almost beautiful as well as patient, became a trifle wistful.

"There are few better men than my brother, though he is not clever," she said, and dropped her voice a little. "As to the other, he died in India--beside his mountain gun--long ago."

"And you have never forgotten? He must have been worth it--I wonder if loyalty and chivalric faith belong only to the past," said the girl, reaching up a rounded arm and patting her aunt's thin hand. "And now we will be practical. I fancied the head of the settlement looked worried when he met me, and he is not very proficient at hiding his feelings."

Miss Barrington sighed. "I am afraid that is nothing very new, and with wheat steadily falling and our granaries full, he has cause for anxiety. Then the fact that Lance Courthorne has divided your inheritance and is going to settle here has been troubling him."

"The first is the lesser evil," said the girl, with a little laugh. "I wore very short frocks when I last saw Lance in England, and so far as I can remember he had the face of an angel and the temper of a devil. But did not my uncle endeavor to buy him off, and--for I know you have been finding out things--I want you to tell me all about him."

"He would not take the money," said Miss Barrington, and sat in thoughtful silence a space. Then, and perhaps she had a reason, she quietly recounted Courthorne's Canadian history so far as her brother's agents had been able to trace it, not omitting, dainty in thought and speech as she was, one or two incidents which a mother might have kept back from her daughter's ears. Still, it was very seldom that Miss Barrington made a blunder. There was a faint pinkness in her face when she concluded, but she was not surprised when, with a slow, sinuous movement, the girl rose to her feet. Her cheeks were very slightly flushed, but there was a significant sparkle in her eyes.

"Oh," she said, with utter contempt. "How sickening! Are there men like that?"

There was a little silence, emphasized by the snapping in the stove, and if Miss Barrington had spoken with an object she should have been contented. The girl was imperious in her anger, which was caused by something deeper than startled prudery.

"It is," said the little white-haired lady, "all quite true. Still, I must confess that my brother and myself were a trifle astonished at the report of the lawyer he sent to confer with Lance in Montana. One would almost have imagined that he had of late been trying to make amends."

The girl's face was very scornful. "Could a man with a past like that ever live it down?"

"We have a warrant for believing it," said Miss Barrington quietly, as she laid her hand on her companion's arm. "My dear, I have told you what Lance was, because I felt it was right that you should know; but none of us can tell what he may be, and if the man is honestly trying to lead a different life,

all I ask is that you should not wound him by any manifest suspicion. Those who have never been tempted can afford to be merciful."

Maud Barrington laughed somewhat curiously. "You are a very wise woman, aunt, but you are a little transparent now and then," she said. "At least he shall have a fair trial without prejudice or favor--and if he fails, as fail he will, we shall find the means of punishing him."

"We?" said the elder lady, a trifle maliciously.

The girl nodded as she moved towards the doorway, and then turned a moment with the folds of the big red curtain flung behind her. It forced up the sweeping lines of a figure so delicately molded that its slenderness was scarcely apparent, for Maud Barrington still wore a long somber dress that had assisted in her triumphs in the city. It emphasized the clear pallor of her skin and the brightness of her eyes, as she held herself very erect in a pose which, while assumed in mockery, had yet in it something that was almost imperial.

"Yes," she said. "We. You know who is the power behind the throne at Silverdale, and what the boys call me. And now, good-night. Sleep well, dear."

She went out, and Miss Barrington sat very still gazing with eyes that were curiously thoughtful into the fire. "Princess of the Prairie--and it fits her well," she said and then sighed a little. "And if there is a trace of hardness in the girl it may be fortunate. We all have our troubles--and wheat is going down."

In the meanwhile, late as it was, Colonel Barrington and his chief lieutenant, Gordon Dane, sat in his log-walled smoking-room talking with a man he sold his wheat through in Winnipeg. The room was big and bare. There were a few fine heads of antelope upon the walls, and beneath them an armory of English-made shotguns and rifles, while a row of silver-mounted riding crops, and some handled with ivory, stood in a corner. All these represented amusement, while two or three treatises on veterinary surgery and agriculture, lying amidst English stud-books and racing records, presumably stood for industry. The comparison was significant, and Graham, the Winnipeg wheat-broker, noticed it as he listened patiently to the views of Colonel Barrington, who nevertheless worked hard enough in his own fashion. Unfortunately it was rather the fashion of the English gentleman than that common on the prairie.

"And now," he said, with a trace of the anxiety he had concealed in his eyes, "I am open to hear what you can do for me."

Graham smiled a little. "It isn't very much, Colonel. I'll take all your wheat off you at three cents down."

Now Barrington did not like the broker's smile. It savored too much of equality, and, though he had already unbent as far as he was capable of doing, he had no great esteem for men of business. Nor did it please him to be addressed as "Colonel."

"That," he said coldly, "is out of the question. I would not sell at the last market price. Besides, you have hitherto acted as my broker."

Graham nodded. "The market price will be less than what I offered you in a week, and I could scarcely sell your wheat at it to-day. I was going to hold it myself, because I can occasionally get a little more from one or two millers who like that special grade. Usual sorts I'm selling for a fall. Quite sure the deal wouldn't suit you?"

Barrington lighted a fresh cigar, though Graham noticed that he had smoked very little of the one he flung away. This was, of course, a trifle, but it is the trifles that count in the aggregate upon the prairie, as they not infrequently do elsewhere.

"I fancy I told you so," he said.

The broker glanced at Dane, who was a big, bronzed man, and, since Barrington could not see him, shook his head deprecatingly.

"You can consider that decided, Graham," he said. "Still, can you as a friendly deed give us any notion of what to do? As you know, farming, especially at Silverdale, costs money, and the banks are demanding an iniquitous interest just now, while we are carrying over a good deal of wheat."

Graham nodded. He understood why farming was unusually expensive at Silverdale, and was, in recollection of past favors, inclined to be disinterestedly friendly.

"If I were you, I would sell right along for forward delivery at a few cents under the market."

"It is a trifle difficult to see how that would help us," said Barrington, with a little gesture of irritation, for it almost seemed that the broker was deriding him.

"No!" said the man from Winnipeg, "on the contrary, it's quite easy. Now I can predict that wheat will touch lower prices still before you have to make delivery, and it isn't very difficult to figure out the profit on selling a thing for a dollar and then buying it, when you have to produce it, at ninety cents. Of course, there is a risk of the market going against you, but you could buy at the first rise, and you've your stock to dole out in case anybody cornered you."

"That," said Dane thoughtfully, "appears quite sensible. Of course, it's a speculation, but presumably we couldn't be much worse off than we are. Have you any objections to the scheme, sir?"

Barrington laid down his cigar, and glanced with astonished severity at the speaker. "Unfortunately, I have. We are wheat growers and not wheat stock jugglers. Our purpose is to farm, and not swindle and lie in the wheat pits for decimal differences. I have a distinct antipathy to anything of the kind."

"But, sir," said Dane, and Barrington stopped him with a gesture.

"I would," he said, "as soon turn gambler. Still, while it has always been a tradition at Silverdale that the head of the settlement's lead is to be followed, that need not prevent you putting on the gloves with the wheat-ring blacklegs in Winnipeg."

Dane blushed a little under his tan, and then smiled as he remembered the one speculative venture his leader had indulged in, for Colonel Barrington was a somewhat hot-tempered and vindictive man. He made a little gesture of deprecation as he glanced at Graham, who straightened himself suddenly in his chair.

"I should not think of doing so in face of your opinion, sir," he said. "There is an end to the thing, Graham!"

The broker's face was a trifle grim. "I gave you good advice out of friendship, Colonel, and there are men with dollars to spare who would value a hint from me," he said. "Still, as it doesn't seem to strike you the right way, I've no use for arguing. Keep your wheat--and pay bank interest if you want any help to carry over."

"Thanks," said Dane quietly. "They charge tolerably high, but I've seen what happens to the man who meddles with the mortgage-broker."

Graham nodded. "Well, as I'm starting out at six o'clock, it's time I was asleep," he said. "Good-night to you, Colonel."

Barrington shook hands with Graham, and then sighed a little when he went out. "I believe the man is honest, and he is a guest of mine, or I should have dressed him down," he said. "I don't like the way things are going, Dane, and the fact is we must find accommodation somewhere, because now I have to pay out so much on my ward's account to that confounded Courthorne it is necessary to raise more dollars than the banks will give me. Now, there was a broker fellow wrote me a very civil letter."

Dane, who was a thoughtful man, ventured to lay his hand upon his leader's arm. "Keep yourself and Miss Barrington out of those fellows' clutches at any cost," he said.

Barrington shook off his hand, and looked at him sternly. "Are you not a trifle young to adopt that tone?" he said.

Dane nodded. "No doubt I am, but I've seen a little of mortgage jobbing. You must try to overlook it. I did not mean to offend."

He went out, and, while Colonel Barrington sat down before a sheaf of accounts, sprang into a waiting sleigh. "It's no use, we've got to go through," he said to the lad who shook the reins. "Graham made a very sensible suggestion, but our respected leader came down on him, as he did on me. You see, one simply can't talk to the Colonel, and it's unfortunate Miss Barrington didn't marry that man in Montreal."

"I don't know," said the lad. "Of course, there are not many girls like Maud Barrington, but is it necessary she should go outside Silverdale?"

Dane laughed. "None of us would be old enough for Miss Barrington when we were fifty. The trouble is, that we spend half our time in play, and I've a notion it's a man, and not a gentleman dilettante, she's looking for."

"Isn't that a curious way of putting it?" asked his companion.

Dane nodded. "It may be the right one. Woman is as she was made, and I've had more than a suspicion lately that a little less refinement would not come amiss at Silverdale. Anyway, I hope she'll find him, for it's a man with grit and energy, who could put a little desirable pressure on the Colonel occasionally, we're all wanting. Of course, I'm backing my leader, though it's going to cost me a good deal, but it's time he had somebody to help him."

"He would never accept assistance," said the lad thoughtfully. "That is, unless the man who offered it was, or became by marriage, one of the dynasty."

"Of course," said Dane. "That's why I'm inclined to take a fatherly interest in Miss Barrington's affair. It's a misfortune we've heard nothing very reassuring about Courthorne."

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