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   Chapter 11 MAUD BARRINGTON'S PROMISE

Winston of the Prairie By Harold Bindloss Characters: 17500

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Daylight had not broken across the prairie when, floundering through a foot of dusty snow, Winston reached the Grange. He was aching from fatigue and cold, and the deerskin jacket stood out from his numbed body stiff with frost, when, leaning heavily on a table, he awaited Colonel Barrington. The latter, on entering, stared at him, and then flung open a cupboard and poured out a glass of wine.

"Drink that before you talk. You look half-dead," he said.

Winston shook his head. "Perhaps you had better hear me first."

Barrington thrust the glass upon him. "I could make nothing of what you told me while you speak like that. Drink it, and then sit still until you get used to the different temperature."

Winston drained the glass, and sank limply into a chair. As yet his face was colorless, though his chilled flesh tingled horribly as the blood once more crept into the surface tissues. Then he fixed his eyes upon his host as he told his story. Barrington stood very straight watching his visitor, but his face was drawn, for the resolution which supported him through the day was less noticeable in the early morning, and it was evident now at least that he was an old man carrying a heavy load of anxiety. Still, as the story proceeded, a little blood crept into his cheeks, while Winston guessed that he found it difficult to retain his grim immobility.

"I am to understand that an attempt to reach the Grange through the snow would have been perilous?" he said.

"Yes," said Winston quietly.

The older man stood very still regarding him intently, until he said, "I don't mind admitting that it was distinctly regrettable!"

Winston stopped him with a gesture. "It was at least unavoidable, sir. The team would not face the snow, and no one could have reached the Grange alive."

"No doubt you did your best--and, as a connection of the family, I am glad it was you. Still--and there are cases in which it is desirable to speak plainly--the affair, which you will, of course, dismiss from your recollection, is to be considered as closed now."

Winston smiled, and a trace of irony he could not quite repress was just discernible in his voice. "I scarcely think that was necessary, sir. It is, of course, sufficient for me to have rendered a small service to the distinguished family which has given me an opportunity; of proving my right to recognition, and neither you, nor Miss Barrington, need have any apprehension that I will presume upon it!"

Barrington wheeled round. "You have the Courthorne temper, at least, and perhaps I deserved this display of it. You acted with commendable discretion in coming straight to me--and the astonishment I got drove the other aspect of the question out of my head. If it hadn't been for you, my niece would have frozen."

"I'm afraid I spoke unguardedly, sir, but I am very tired. Still, if you will wait a few minutes, I will get the horses out without troubling the hired man."

Barrington made a little gesture of comprehension, and then shook his head. "You are fit for nothing further, and need rest and sleep."

"You will want somebody, sir," said Winston. "The snow is very loose and deep."

He went out, and Barrington, who looked after him with a curious expression in his face, nodded twice as if in approval. Twenty minutes later, he took his place in the sleigh that slid away from the Grange, which lay a league behind it when the sunrise flamed across the prairie. The wind had gone, and there was only a pitiless brightness and a devastating cold, while the snow lay blown in wisps, dried dusty and fine as flour by the frost. It had no cohesion, the runners sank in it, and Winston was almost waist-deep when he dragged the floundering team through the drifts. A day had passed since he had eaten anything worth mention, but he held on with an endurance which his companion, who was incapable of rendering him assistance, wondered at. There were belts of deep snow the almost buried sleigh must be dragged through, and tracts from which the wind had swept the dusty covering, leaving bare the grasses the runners would not slide over, where the team came to a standstill, and could scarcely be urged to continue the struggle.

At last, however, the loghouse rose, a lonely mound of whiteness, out of the prairie, and Winston drew in a deep breath of contentment when a dusky figure appeared for a moment in the doorway. His weariness seemed to fall from him, and once more his companion wondered at the tirelessness of the man, as floundering on foot beside them he urged the team through the powdery drifts beneath the big birch bluff. Winston did not go in, however, when they reached the house, and when, five minutes later, Maud Barrington came out, she saw him leaning with a drawn face very wearily against the sleigh. He straightened himself suddenly at the sight of her, but she had seen sufficient, and her heart softened towards him. Whatever the man's history had been he had borne a good deal for her.

The return journey was even more arduous, and now and then Maud Barrington felt a curious throb of pity for the worn-out man, who during most of it walked beside the team; but it was accomplished at last, and she contrived to find means of thanking him alone when they reached the Grange.

Winston shook his head, and then smiled a little. "It isn't nice to make a bargain," he said. "Still, it is less pleasant now and then to feel under an obligation, though there is no reason why you should."

Maud Barrington was not altogether pleased, but she could not blind herself to facts, and it was plain that there was an obligation. "I am afraid I cannot quite believe that, but I do not see what you are leading to."

Winston's eyes twinkled. "Well," he said reflectively, "I don't want you to fancy that last night commits you to any line of conduct in regard to me. I only asked for a truce, you see."

Maud Barrington was a trifle nettled. "Yes?" she said.

"Then, I want to show you how you can discharge any trifling obligation you may fancy you may owe me, which of course would be more pleasant to you. Do not allow your uncle to sell any wheat forward to you, and persuade him to sow every acre that belongs to you this spring."

"But however would this benefit you?" asked the girl.

Winston laughed. "I have a fancy that I can straighten up things at Silverdale, if I can get my way. It would please me, and I believe they want it. Of course a desire to improve anything appears curious in me!"

Maud Barrington was relieved of the necessity of answering, for the Colonel came up just then, but, moved by some sudden impulse, she nodded as if in agreement.

It was afternoon when she awakened from a refreshing sleep, and descending to the room set apart for herself and her aunt, sat thoughtfully still a while in a chair beside the stove. Then, stretching out her hand, she took up a little case of photographs and slipped out one of them. It was a portrait of a boy and pony, but there was a significance in the fact that she knew just where to find it. The picture was a good one, and once more Maud Barrington noticed the arrogance, which did not, however, seem out of place there in the lad's face. It was also a comely face, but there was a hint of sensuality in it that marred its beauty. Then with a growing perplexity she compared it with that of the weary man who had plodded beside the team. Winston was not arrogant, but resolute, and there was no stamp of indulgence in his face. Indeed, the girl had from the beginning recognized the virility in it that was tinged with asceticism and sprang from a simple strenuous life of toil in the wind and sun.

Just then there was a rustle of fabric, and she laid down the photograph a moment too late, as her aunt came in. As it happened, the elder lady's eyes rested on the picture, and a faint flush of annoyance crept into the face of the girl. It was scarcely perceptible, but Miss Barrington saw it, and though she felt tempted, did not smile.

"I did not know you were down," she said. "Lance is still asleep. He seemed very tired."

"Yes," said the girl. "That is very probable. He left the railroad before daylight, and had driven round to several farms before he came to Macdonald's, and he was very considerate. He made me take all the furs, and, I fancy, walked up and down all night long, with nothing on but his indoor clothing, though the wind went through the building, and one could scarcely keep alive a few feet from the stove."

Again the faint flicker of color crept into the girl's cheek, and the eyes that were keen as well as gentle noticed it.

"I think you owe him a good deal," said Miss Barrington.

"Yes,

" said her niece, with a little laugh which appeared to imply a trace of resentment. "I believe I do, but he seemed unusually anxious to relieve me of that impression. He was also good enough to hint that nothing he might have done need prevent me being--the right word is a trifle difficult to find--but I fancy he meant unpleasant to him if I wished it."

There was a little twinkle in Miss Barrington's eyes. "Are you not a trifle hard to please, my dear? Now, if he had attempted to insist on a claim to your gratitude you would have resented it."

"Of course," said the girl reflectively. "Still, it is annoying to be debarred from offering it. There are times, aunt, when I can't help wishing that Lance Courthorne had never come to Silverdale. There are men who leave nothing just as they found it, and whom one can't ignore."

Miss Barrington shook her head. "I fancy you are wrong. He has offended, after all?"

She was pleased to see her niece's face relax into a smile that expressed unconcern. "We are all exacting now and then," said the girl. "Still, he made me promise to give him a fair trial, which was not flattering, because it suggested that I had been unnecessarily harsh, and then hinted this morning that he had no intention of holding me to it. It really was not gratifying to find he held the concession he asked for of so small account. You are, however, as easily swayed by trifles as I am, because Lance can do no wrong since he kissed your hand."

"I really think I liked him the better for it," said the little silver-haired lady. "The respect was not assumed, but wholly genuine, you see, and whether I was entitled to it or not, it was a good deal in Lance's favor that he should offer it to me. There must be some good in the man who can be moved to reverence anything, even if he is mistaken."

"No man with any sense could help adoring you," said Maud Barrington. "Still, I wonder why you believe I was wrong in wishing he had not come to Silverdale?"

Miss Barrington looked thoughtful. "I will tell you, my dear. There are few better men than my brother, but his thoughts, and the traditions he is bound by, are those of fifty years ago, while the restless life of the prairie is a thing of to-day. We have fallen too far behind it at Silverdale, and a crisis is coming that none of us are prepared for. Even Dane is scarcely fitted to help my brother to face it, and the rest are either over-fond of their pleasure or untrained boys. Brave lads they are, but none of them have been taught that it is only by mental strain, or the ceaseless toil of his body, the man without an inheritance can win himself a competence now. This is why they want a leader who has known hardship and hunger, instead of ease, and won what he holds with his own hand in place of having it given him."

"You fancy we could find one in such a man as Lance has been?"

Miss Barrington looked grave. "I believe the prodigal was afterwards a better as well as a wiser man than the one who stayed at home, and I am not quite sure that Lance's history is so nearly like that of the son in the parable as we have believed it to be. A residence in the sty is apt to leave a stain which I have not found on him, though I have looked for it."

The eyes of the two women met, and, though nothing more was said, each realized that the other was perplexed by the same question, while the girl was astonished to find her vague suspicions shared. While they sat silent, Colonel Barrington came in.

"I am glad to see you looking so much better, Maud," he said, with a trace of embarrassment. "Courthorne is still resting. Now, I can't help feeling that we have been a trifle more distant than was needful with him. The man has really behaved very discreetly. I mean in everything."

This was a great admission, and Miss Barrington smiled. "Did it hurt you very much to tell us that?" she asked.

The Colonel laughed. "I know what you mean, and if you put me on my mettle, I'll retract. After all, it was no great credit to him, because blood will tell, and he is, of course, a Courthorne."

Almost without her intention, Maud Barrington's eyes wandered towards the photograph, and then looking up she met those of her aunt, and once more saw the thought that troubled her in them.

"The Courthorne blood is responsible for a good deal more than discretion," said Miss Barrington, who went out quietly.

Her brother appeared a trifle perplexed. "Now, I fancied your aunt had taken him under her wing, and when I was about to suggest that, considering the connection between the families, we might ask him over to dinner occasionally, she goes away," he said.

The girl looked down a moment, for realizing that her uncle recognized the obligation he was under to the man he did not like, she remembered that she herself owed him considerably more, and he had asked for something in return. It was not altogether easy to grant, but she had tacitly pledged herself, and turning suddenly she laid a hand on Barrington's arm.

"Of course, but I want to talk of something else just now," she said. "You know I have very seldom asked you questions about my affairs, but I wish to take a little practical interest in them this year."

"Yes?" said Barrington, with a smile. "Well, I am at your service, my dear, and quite ready to account for my stewardship. You are no longer my ward, except by your own wishes."

"I am still your niece," said the girl, patting his arm. "Now, there is, of course, nobody who could manage the farming better than you do, but I would like to raise a large crop of wheat this season."

"It wouldn't pay," and the Colonel grew suddenly grave. "Very few men in the district are going to sow all their holding. Wheat is steadily going down."

"Then if nobody sows there will be very little, and shouldn't that put up the prices?"

Barrington's eyes twinkled. "Who has been teaching you commercial economy? You are too pretty to understand such things, and the argument is fallacious, because the wheat is consumed in Europe; and even if we have not much to offer, they can get plenty from California, Chile, India, and Australia."

"Oh, yes--and Russia," said the girl. "Still, you see, the big mills in Winnipeg and Minneapolis depend upon the prairie. They couldn't very well bring wheat in from Australia."

Barrington was still smiling with his eyes, but his lips were set. "A little knowledge is dangerous, my dear, and if you could understand me better, I could show you where you were wrong. As it is, I can only tell you that I have decided to sell wheat forward and plow very little."

"But that was a policy you condemned with your usual vigor. You really know you did."

"My dear," said the Colonel, with a little impatient gesture, "one can never argue with a lady. You see--circumstances alter cases considerably."

He nodded with an air of wisdom as though that decided it, but the girl persisted. "Uncle," she said, drawing closer to him with lithe gracefulness, "I want you to let me have my own way just for once, and if I am wrong, I will never do anything you do not approve of again. After all, it is a very little thing, and you would like to please me."

"It is a trifle that is likely to cost you a good deal of money," said the Colonel dryly.

"I think I could afford it, and you could not refuse me."

"As I am only your uncle, and no longer a trustee, I could not," said Barrington. "Still, you would not act against my wishes?"

His eyes were gentle, unusually so, for he was not as a rule very patient when any one questioned his will, but there was a reproach in them that hurt the girl. Still, because she had promised, she persisted.

"No," she said. "That is why it would be ever so much nicer if you would just think as I did."

Barrington looked at her steadily. "If you insist, I can at least hope for the best," he said, with a gravity that brought a faint color to the listener's cheek.

It was next day when Winston took his leave, and Maud Barrington stood beside him, as he put on his driving furs.

"You told me there was something you wished me to do, and, though it was difficult, it is done," she said. "My holding will be sown with wheat this spring."

Winston turned his head aside a moment, and apparently found it needful to fumble at the fastenings of the furs, while there was a curious expression in his eyes when he looked round again.

"Then," he said, with a little smile, "we are quits. That cancels any little obligation which may have existed."

He had gone in another minute, and Maud Barrington turned back into the stove-warmed room very quietly. Her lips were, however, somewhat closely set.

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