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Winston of the Prairie By Harold Bindloss Characters: 23923

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

There was warmth and brightness in the cedar-boarded general room of Silverdale Grange, and most of the company gathered there basked in it contentedly after their drive through the bitter night. Those who came from the homesteads lying farthest out had risked frost-nipped hands and feet, for when Colonel Barrington held a levee at the Grange nobody felt equal to refusing his invitation. Neither scorching heat nor utter cold might excuse compliance with the wishes of the founder of Silverdale, and it was not until Dane, the big middle-aged bachelor, had spoken very plainly, that he consented to receive his guests in time of biting frost dressed otherwise than as they would have appeared in England.

Dane was the one man in the settlement who dare remonstrate with its ruler, but it was a painful astonishment to the latter when he said in answer to one invitation, "I have never been frost-bitten, sir, and I stand the cold well, but one or two of the lads are weak in the chest, and this climate was never intended for bare-shouldered women. Hence, if I come, I shall dress myself to suit it."

Colonel Barrington stared at him for almost a minute, and then shook his head. "Have it your own way," he said. "Understand that in itself I care very little for dress, but it is only by holding fast to every traditional nicety we can prevent ourselves sinking into Western barbarism, and I am horribly afraid of the thin end of the wedge."

Dane having gained his point said nothing further, for he was one of the wise and silent men who know when to stop, and that evening he sat in a corner watching his leader thoughtfully, for there was anxiety in the Colonel's face. Barrington sat silent near the ample hearth whose heat would scarcely have kept water from freezing but for the big stove, and disdaining the dispensation made his guests, he was clad conventionally, though the smooth black fabric clung about him more tightly than it had once been intended to do. His sister stood, with the stamp of a not wholly vanished beauty still clinging to her gentle face, talking to one or two matrons from outlying farms, and his niece by a little table turning over Eastern photographs with a few young girls. She, too, wore black in deference to the Colonel's taste, which was somber, and the garment she had laughed at as a compromise left uncovered a narrow strip of ivory shoulder and enhanced the polished whiteness of her neck. A slender string of pearls gleamed softly on the satiny skin, but Maud Barrington wore no other adornment, and did not need it. She had inherited the Courthorne comeliness, and the Barringtons she sprang from on her father's side had always borne the stamp of distinction.

A young girl sat at the piano singing in a thin reedy voice, while an English lad waited with the ill-concealed jealousy of a too officious companion to turn over the music by her side. Other men, mostly young, with weather-bronzed faces, picturesque in embroidered deerskin or velvet lounge jackets, were scattered about the room, and all were waiting for the eight o'clock dinner, which replaced the usual prairie supper at Silverdale. They were growers of wheat who combined a good deal of amusement with a little, not very profitable, farming, and most of them possessed a large share of insular English pride and a somewhat depleted exchequer.

Presently Dane crossed over, and sat down by Colonel Barrington. "You are silent, sir, and not looking very well to-night," he said.

Barrington nodded gravely, for he had a respect for the one man who occasionally spoke plain truth to him. "The fact is, I am growing old," he said, and then added, with what was only an apparent lack of connection, "Wheat is down three cents, and money tighter than ever."

Dane looked thoughtful, and noticed the older man's glance in his niece's direction, as he said, "I am afraid there are difficult times before us."

"I have no doubt we shall weather them as we have done before," said the Colonel. "Still, I can't help admitting that just now I feel--a little tired--and am commencing to think we should have been better prepared for the struggle had we worked a trifle harder during the recent era of prosperity. I could wish there were older heads on the shoulders of those who will come after me."

Just then Maud Barrington glanced at them, and Dane, who could not remember having heard his leader talk in that fashion before, and could guess his anxieties, was a little touched as he noticed his attempt at sprightliness. As it happened, one of the lads at the piano commenced a song of dogs and horses that had little to recommend it but the brave young voice.

"They have the right spirit, sir," he said.

"Of course!" said Barrington. "They are English lads, but I think a little more is required. Thank God we have not rated the dollar too high, but it is possible we have undervalued its utility, and I fear I have only taught them to be gentlemen."

"That is a good deal, sir," Dane said quietly.

"It is. Still, a gentleman, in the restricted sense, is somewhat of an anachronism on the prairie, and it is too late to begin again. In the usual course of nature I must lay down my charge presently, and that is why I feel the want of a more capable successor, whom they would follow because of his connection with mine and me."

Dane looked thoughtful. "If I am not taking a liberty--you still consider the one apparently born to fill the place quite unsuitable?"

"Yes," said Barrington quietly. "I fear there is not a redeeming feature in Courthorne's character."

Neither said anything further, until there was a tapping at the door, and, though this was a most unusual spectacle on the prairie, a trim English maid in white-banded dress stood in the opening.

"Mr. Courthorne, Miss Barrington," she said.

Now Silverdale had adopted one Western custom in that no chance guest was ever kept waiting, and the music ceased suddenly, while the stillness was very suggestive, when a man appeared in the doorway. He wore one of the Scandinavian leather jackets which are not uncommon in that country, and when his eyes had become accustomed to the light, moved forward with a quiet deliberation that was characterized neither by graceful ease nor the restraint of embarrassment. His face was almost the color of a Blackfeet's, his eyes steady and gray, but those of the men who watched him were turned the next moment upon the Colonel's sister, who rose to receive him, slight, silver-haired, and faded, but still stamped with a simple dignity that her ancient silks and laces curiously enhanced. Then there was a silence that could be felt, for all realized that a good deal depended on the stranger's first words and the fashion of his reception by Miss Barrington and the Colonel.

Winston, as it happened, felt this too, and something more. It was eight years since he had stood before an English lady, and he surmised that there could not be many to compare with this one, while after his grim lonely life an intangible something that seemed to emanate from her gracious serenity compelled his homage. Then as she smiled at him and held out her hand, he was for a moment sensible of an almost overwhelming confusion. It passed as suddenly, for this was a man of quick perceptions, and remembering that Courthorne had now and then displayed some of the grace of by-gone days he yielded to a curious impulse, and, stooping, kissed the little withered fingers.

"I have," he said, "to thank you for a welcome that does not match my poor deserts, madam."

Then Dane, standing beside his leader, saw the grimness grow a trifle less marked in his eyes. "It is in the blood," he said half-aloud, but Dane heard and afterwards remembered it.

In the meanwhile Miss Barrington had turned from the stranger to her niece. "It is a very long time since you have seen Lance, Maud, and, though I knew his mother well, I am less fortunate, because this is our first meeting," she said. "I wonder if you still remember my niece?"

Now, Winston had been gratified by his first success, and was about to venture on the answer that it was impossible to forget; but when he turned towards the very stately young woman in the long black dress whose eyes had a sardonic gleam, and wondered whether he had ever seen anybody so comely or less inclined to be companionable, it was borne in upon him that any speech of the kind would be distinctly out of place. Accordingly, and because there was no hand held out in this case, he contented himself with a little bend of his head. Then he was presented to the Colonel, who was distantly cordial, and Winston was thankful when the maid appeared in the doorway again, to announce that dinner was ready, Miss Barrington laid her hand upon his arm.

"You will put up with an old woman's company tonight?" she said.

Winston glanced down deprecatingly at his attire. "I must explain that I had no intention of trespassing on your hospitality," he said. "I purposed going on to my own homestead, and only called to acquaint Colonel Barrington with my arrival."

Miss Barrington laughed pleasantly. "That," she said, "was neither dutiful nor friendly. I should have fancied you would also have desired to pay your respects to my niece and me."

Winston was not quite sure what he answered, but he drew in a deep breath, for he had made the plunge and felt that the worst was over. His companion evidently noticed the gasp of relief.

"It was something of an ordeal?" she said.

Winston looked down upon her gravely, and Miss Barrington noticed a steadiness in his eyes she had not expected to see. "It was, and I feel guilty because I was horribly afraid," he said. "Now I only wonder if you will always be equally kind to me."

Miss Barrington smiled a little, but the man fancied there was a just perceptible tightening of the hand upon his arm. "I would like to be, for your mother's sake," she said.

Winston understood that while Courthorne's iniquities were not to be brought up against him, the little gentle-voiced lady had but taken him on trial; but, perhaps because it was so long since any woman had spoken kindly words to him, his heart went out towards her, and he felt a curious desire to compel her good opinion. Then he found himself seated near the head of the long table, with Maud Barrington on his other hand, and had an uncomfortable feeling that most of the faces were turned somewhat frequently in his direction. It is also possible that he would have betrayed himself, had he been burdened with self-consciousness, but the long, bitter struggle he had fought alone, had purged him of petty weaknesses and left him the closer grasp of essential things, with the strength of character which is one and the same in all men who possess it, whatever may be their upbringing.

During a lull in the voices, Maud Barrington, who may have felt it incumbent on her to show him some scant civility, turned towards him as she said, "I am afraid our conversation will not appeal to you. Partly because there is so little else to interest us, we talk wheat throughout the year at Silverdale."

"Well," said Winston with a curious little smile, "wheat as a topic is not quite new to me. In fact, I know almost more about cereals than some folks would care to do."

"In the shape of elevator warrants or Winnipeg market margins, presumably?"

Winston's eyes twinkled, though he understood the implication. "No," he said. "The wheat I handled was in 250-pound bags, and I occasionally grew somewhat tired of pitching them into a wagon, while my speculations usually consisted in committing it to the prairie soil, in the hope of reaping forty bushels to the acre and then endeavoring to be content with ten. It is conceivable that operations on the Winnipeg market are less laborious as well as more profitable, but I have had no opportunity or t

rying them."

Miss Barrington looked at him steadily, and Winston felt the blood surge to his forehead as he remembered having heard of a certain venture made by Courthorne which brought discredit on one or two men connected with the affairs of a grain elevator. It was evident that Miss Barrington had also heard of it, and no man cares to stand convicted of falsification in the eyes of a very pretty girl. Still, he roused himself with an effort.

"It is neither wise nor charitable to believe all one hears," he said.

The girl smiled a little, but the man still winced inwardly under her clear brown eyes, that would, he fancied, have been very scornful had they been less indifferent.

"I do not remember mentioning having heard anything," she said. "Were you not a trifle premature, in face of the proverb?"

Winston's face was a trifle grim, though he laughed. "I'm afraid I was; but I am warned," he said. "Excuses are, after all, not worth much, and when I make my defense it will be before a more merciful judge."

Maud Barrington's curiosity was piqued. Lance Courthorne, outcast and gambler, was at least a different stamp of man from the type she had been used to, and, being a woman, the romance that was interwoven with his somewhat iniquitous career was not without its attractions for her.

"I did not know that you included farming among your talents, and should have fancied you would have found it--monotonous," she said.

"I did," and the provoking smile still flickered in Winston's eyes. "Are not all strictly virtuous occupations usually so?"

"It is probably a question of temperament. I have, of course, heard sardonic speeches of the kind before, and felt inclined to wonder whether those who made them were qualified to form an opinion."

Winston nodded, but there was a little ring in his voice. "Perhaps I laid myself open to the thrust; but have you any right to assume I have never followed a commendable profession?"

No answer was immediately forthcoming, but Winston did wisely when, in place of waiting, he turned to Miss Barrington. He had left her niece irritated, but the trace of anger she felt was likely to enhance her interest. The meal, however, was a trial to him, for he had during eight long years lived for the most part apart from all his kind, a lonely toiler, and now was constrained to personate a man known to be almost dangerously skillful with his tongue. At first sight the task appeared almost insuperably difficult, but Winston was a clever man, and felt all the thrill of one playing a risky game just then. Perhaps it was due to excitement that a readiness he had never fancied himself capable of came to him in his need, and, when at last the ladies rose, he felt that he had not slipped perilously. Still, he found how dry his lips had grown when somebody poured him a glass of wine. Then he became sensible that Colonel Barrington, who had apparently been delivering a lengthy monologue, was addressing him.

"The outlook is sufficient to cause us some anxiety," he said. "We are holding large stocks, and I can see no prospect of anything but a steady fall in wheat. It is however, presumably a little too soon to ask your opinion."

"Well," said Winston, "while I am prepared to act upon it, I would recommend it to others with some diffidence. No money can be made at present by farming, but I see no reason why we should not endeavor to cut our losses by selling forward down. If caught by a sudden rally, we could fall back on the grain we hold."

There was a sudden silence, until Dane said softly, "That is exactly what one of the cleverest brokers in Winnipeg recommended."

"I think," said Colonel Barrington, "you heard my answer. I am inclined to fancy that such a measure would not be advisable or fitting, Mr. Courthorne. You, however, presumably know very little about the practical aspect of the wheat question."

Winston smiled. "On the contrary, I know a great deal."

"You do?" said Barrington sharply, and while a blunderer would have endeavored to qualify his statement, Winston stood by it.

"You are evidently not aware, sir, that I have tried my hand at farming, though not very successfully."

"That at least," said Barrington dryly, as he rose, "is quite creditable."

When they went into the smaller room, Winston crossed over to where Maud Barrington sat alone, and looked down upon her gravely. "One discovers that frankness is usually best," he said. "Now, I would not like to feel that you had determined to be unfriendly with me."

Maud Barrington fixed a pair of clear brown eyes upon his face, and the faintest trace of astonishment crept into them. She was a woman with high principles, but neither a fool nor a prude, and she saw no sign of dissolute living there. The man's gaze was curiously steady, his skin clear and brown, and his sinewy form suggested a capacity for, and she almost fancied an acquaintance with, physical toil. Yet he had already denied the truth to her. Winston, on his part, saw a very fair face with wholesome pride in it, and felt that the eyes which were coldly contemptuous now could, if there was a warrant for it, grow very gentle.

"Would it be of any moment if I were?" she said.

"Yes," said Winston quietly. "There are two people here it is desirable for me to stand well with, and the first of them, your aunt, has, I fancy, already decided to give me a fair trial. She told me it was for my mother's sake. Now, I can deal with your uncle, I think."

The girl smiled a little. "Are you quite sure? Everybody does not find it easy to get on with Colonel Barrington. His code is somewhat Draconic, and he is rather determined in his ways."

Winston nodded. "He is a man, and I hope to convince him I have at least a right to toleration. That leaves only you. The rest don't count. They will come round by and by, you see."

The little forceful gesture, with which he concluded, pleased Maud Barrington. It was free from vanity, but conveyed an assurance that he knew his own value.

"No friendship that is lightly given is worth very much," she said. "I could decide better in another six months. Now it is perhaps fortunate that Colonel Barrington is waiting for us to make up his four at whist."

Winston allowed a faint gesture of dismay to escape him. "Must I play?"

"Yes," said the girl, smiling. "Whist is my uncle's hobby and he is enthusiastic over a clever game."

Winston groaned inwardly. "And I am a fool at whist."

"Then it was poker you played?" and again a faint trace of anger crept into the girl's eyes.

Winston shook his head. "No," he said. "I had few opportunities of indulging in expensive luxuries."

"I think we had better take our places," said Maud Barrington, with unveiled contempt.

Winston's forehead grew a trifle hot, and when he sat down Barrington glanced at him. "I should explain that we never allow stakes of any kind at Silverdale," he said. "Some of the lads sent out to me have been a trifle extravagant in the old country."

He dealt out the cards, but a trace of bewildered irritation crept into his eyes as the game proceeded, and once or twice he appeared to check an exclamation of astonishment, while at last he glanced reproachfully at Winston.

"My dear sir! Still, you have ridden a long way," he said, laying his finger on a king.

Winston laughed to hide his dismay. "I am sorry, sir. It was scarcely fair to my partner. You would, however, have beaten us, any way."

Barrington gravely gathered up the cards. "We will," he said, "have some music. I do not play poker."

Then, for the first time, Winston lost his head in his anger. "Nor do I, sir."

Barrington only looked at him, but the farmer felt as though somebody had struck him in the face, and, as soon as he conveniently could, bade Miss Barrington good-night.

"But we expected you would stay here a day or two. Your place is not ready," she said.

Winston smiled at her. "I think I am wise. I must feel my way."

Miss Barrington was won, and, making no further protest, signed to Dane. "You will take Mr. Courthorne home with you," she said. "I would have kept him here, but he is evidently anxious to talk over affairs with some one more of his age than my brother is."

Dane appeared quite willing, and, an hour later, Winston sat, cigar in hand, in a room of his outlying farm. It was furnished simply, but there were signs of taste, and the farmer who occupied it had already formed a good opinion of the man whose knowledge of his own profession astonished him.

"So you are actually going to sell wheat in face of the Colonel's views?" he said.

"Of course!" said Winston simply. "I don't like unpleasantness, but I can allow no man to dictate my affairs to me."

Dane grinned. "Well," he said, "the Colonel can be nasty, and he has no great reason for being fond of you already."

"No?" said Winston. "Now, of course, my accession will make a difference at Silverdale, but I would consider it a friendly act if you will let me know the views of the colony."

Dane looked thoughtful. "The trouble is that your taking up the land leaves less for Maud Barrington than there would have been. Barrington, who is fond of the girl, was trustee for the property, and after your--estrangement from your father--everybody expected she would get it all."

"So I have deprived Miss Barrington of part of her income?"

"Of course," said Dane. "Didn't you know?"

Winston found it difficult to answer. "I never quite realized it before. Are there more accounts against me?"

"That," said Dane slowly, "is rather a facer. We are all more or less friends of the dominant family, you see."

Winston laid down his cigar and stood up. "Now," he said, "I generally talk straight, and you have held out a hand to me. Can you believe in the apparent improbability of such a man as I am in the opinion of the folks at Silverdale getting tired of a wasted life and trying to walk straight again? I want your answer, yes or no, before I head across the prairie for my own place."

"Sit down," said Dane with a little smile. "Do you think I would have brought you here if I hadn't believed it? And, if I have my way, the first man who flings a stone will be sorry for it. Still, I don't think any of them will--or could afford it. If we had all been saints, some of us would never have come out from the old country."

He stopped and poured out two glasses of wine. "It's a long while since I've talked so much," he said. "Here's to our better acquaintance, Courthorne."

After that they talked wheat-growing and horses, and when his guest retired Dane still sat smoking thoughtfully beside the stove. "We want a man with nerve and brains," he said. "I fancy the one who has been sent us will make a difference at Silverdale."

It was about the same time when Colonel Barrington stood talking with his niece and sister in Silverdale Grange. "And the man threw that trick away, when it was absolutely clear who had the ace--and wished me to believe that he forgot!" he said.

His face was flushed with indignation, but Miss Barrington smiled at her niece. "What is your opinion, Maud?"

The girl moved one white shoulder with a little gesture of disdain. "Can you ask--after that! Besides, he twice willfully perverted facts while he talked to me, though it was not in the least necessary."

Miss Barrington looked thoughtful. "And yet, because I was watching him, I do not think he plays cards well."

"But he was a professional gambler," said the girl.

The elder lady shook her head. "So we--heard," she said. "My dear, give him a little time. I have seen many men and women--and can't help a fancy that there is good in him."

"Can the leopard change his spots?" asked Colonel Barrington, with a grim smile.

The little white-haired lady glanced at him as she said quietly, "When the wicked man----"

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