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   Chapter 18 WITH THE STREAM

Winston of the Prairie By Harold Bindloss Characters: 21585

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

It was Winston's last afternoon at the Grange, and almost unpleasantly hot, while the man whose vigor had not as yet returned to him was content to lounge in the big window-seat listlessly watching his companion. He had borne the strain of effort long, and the time of his convalescence amid the tranquillity of Silverdale Grange had with the gracious kindliness of Miss Barrington and her niece been a revelation to him. There were moments when it brought him bitterness and self-reproach, but these were usually brief, and he made the most of what he knew might never be his again, telling himself that it would at least be something to look back upon.

Maud Barrington sat close by, glancing through the letters a mounted man had brought in, and the fact that his presence put no restraint on her curiously pleased the man. At last, however, she opened a paper and passed it across to him.

"You have been very patient, but no doubt you will find something that will atone for my silence there," she said.

Winston turned over the journal, and then smiled at her. "Is there anything of moment in your letters?"

"No," said the girl, with a little laugh. "I scarcely think there is--a garden party, a big reception, the visit of a high official, and a description of the latest hat. Still, you know, that is supposed to be enough for us."

"Then I wonder whether you will find this more interesting: 'The bears made a determined rally yesterday, and wheat moved back again. There was later in the day a rush to sell, and prices now stand at almost two cents below their lowest level.'"

"Yes," said Maud Barrington, noticing the sudden intentness of his pallid face. "I do. It is serious news for you?"

"And for you! You see where I have led you. Ill or well, I must start for Winnipeg to-morrow."

Maud Barrington smiled curiously. "You and I and a handful of others stand alone, but I told you I would not blame you whether we won or lost. Do you know that I am grateful for the glimpses of the realities of life that you have given me?"

Winston felt his pulses throb faster, for the girl's unabated confidence stirred him, but he looked at her gravely. "I wonder if you realize what you have given me in return? Life as I had seen it was very grim and bare--and now I know what, with a little help, it is possible to make of it."

"With a little help?" said Maud Barrington.

Winston nodded, and his face which had grown almost wistful hardened. "Those who strive in the pit are apt to grow blind to the best--the sweetness and order, and all the little graces that mean so much. Even if their eyes are opened, it is usually too late. You see, they lose touch with all that lies beyond the struggle, and without some one to lead them they cannot get back to it. Still, if I talk in this fashion you will laugh at me, but every one has his weakness now and then--and no doubt I shall make up for it at Winnipeg to-morrow. One can not afford to be fanciful when wheat is two cents down."

Maud Barrington was not astonished. Tireless in his activities and, more curious still, almost ascetic in his mode of life, the man had already given her glimpses of his inner self and the vague longings that came upon him. He never asked her pity, but she found something pathetic in his attitude, for it seemed he knew that the stress and the turmoil alone could be his. Why this was so she did not know, but it was with a confidence that could not be shaken now she felt it was through no fault of his. His last words, however, showed her that the mask was on again.

"I scarcely fancy you are well enough, but if you must go, I wonder whether you would do a good turn to Alfreton?" she said. "The lad has been speculating--and he seems anxious lately."

"It is natural that they should all bring their troubles to you."

Maud Barrington laughed. "I, however, generally pass them on to you."

A trace of color crept into the man's face, and his voice was a trifle hoarse as he said, "Do you know that I would ask nothing better than to take every care you had, and bear it for you?"

"Still," said the girl, with a little smile, "that is very evidently out of the question."

Winston rose, and she saw that one hand was closed as he looked down upon her. Then he turned and stared out at the prairie, but there was something very significant in the rigidity of his attitude, and his face seemed to have grown suddenly careworn when he glanced back at her.

"Of course," he said quietly. "You see, I have been ill, and a little off my balance lately. That accounts for erratic speeches, though I meant it all. Colonel Barrington is still in Winnipeg?"

"Yes," said the girl, who was not convinced by the explanation, very quietly. "I am a little anxious about him, too. He sold wheat forward, and I gather from his last letter has not bought it yet. Now, as Alfreton is driving in to-morrow, he could take you."

Winston was grateful to her, and still more to Miss Barrington, who came in just then, while he did not see the girl again before he departed with Alfreton on the morrow. When they had left Silverdale a league behind, the trail dipped steeply amid straggling birches to a bridge which spanned the creek in a hollow, and Winston glanced up at the winding ascent thoughtfully.

"It has struck me that going round by this place puts another six miles on to your journey to the railroad, and a double team could not pull a big load up," he said.

The lad nodded. "The creek is a condemned nuisance. We have either to load light when we are hauling grain in, and then pitch half the bags off at the bottom and come back for them--while you know one man can't put up many four-bushel bags--or keep a man and horses at the ravine until we're through."

Winston laughed. "Now, I wonder whether you ever figured how much those little things put up the price of your wheat."

"This is the only practicable way down," said the lad. "You could scarcely climb up one side where the ravine's narrow abreast of Silverdale."

"Drive round. I want to see it," said Winston. "Call at Rushforth's for a spool of binder twine."

Half an hour later Alfreton pulled the wagon up amid the birches on the edge of the ravine, which just there sloped steep as a railway cutting, and not very much broader, to the creek. Winston gazed at it, and then handed the twine to the hired man.

"Take that with you, Charley, and get down," he said. "If you strip your boots off you can wade through the creek."

"I don't know that I want to," said the man.

"Well," said Winston, "it would please me if you did, as well as cool your feet. Then you could climb up, and hold that twine down on the other side."

The man grinned, and, though Alfreton remembered that he was not usually so tractable with him, proceeded to do Winston's bidding. When he came back there was a twinkle of comprehension in his eyes, and Winston, who cut off the length of twine, smiled at Alfreton.

"It is," he said dryly, "only a little idea of mine."

They drove on, and reaching Winnipeg next day, went straight to Graham the wheat-broker's offices. He kept them waiting some time, and in the meanwhile men with intent faces passed hastily in and out through the outer office. Some of them had telegrams or bundles of papers in their hands, and the eyes of all were eager. The corridor rang with footsteps, the murmur of voices seemed to vibrate through the great building, while it seemed to Alfreton there was a suggestion of strain and expectancy in all he heard and saw. Winston, however, sat gravely still, though the lad noticed that his eyes were keener than usual, for the muffled roar of the city, patter of messengers' feet, ceaseless tinkle of telephone call bells, and whir of the elevators, each packed with human freight, all stirred him. Hitherto he had grappled with nature, but now he was to test his judgment against the keenest wits of the cities, and stand or fall by it, in the struggle that was to be waged over the older nations' food.

At last, however, a clerk signed to them from a doorway, and they found Graham sitting before a littered table. A man sat opposite him with the telephone receiver in his hand.

"Sorry to keep you, but I've both hands full just now. Every man in this city is thinking wheat," he said. "Has he word from Chicago, Thomson?"

"Yes," said the clerk. "Bears lost hold this morning. General buying!"

Just then the door swung open and a breathless man came in. "Guess I scared that clerk of yours who wanted to turn me off," he said. "Heard what Chicago's doing? Well, you've got to buy for me now. They're going to send her right up into the sky, and it's 'bout time I got out before the bulls trample the life out of me."

"Quite sure you can't wait until to-morrow?" asked Graham.

The man shook his head. "No, sir. When I've been selling all along the line! Send off right away, and tell your man on the market to cover every blame sale for me."

Graham signed to the clerk, and as the telephone bell tinkled a lad brought in a message. The broker opened it. "New York lost advance and recovered it twice in the first hour," he read. "At present a point or two better. Steady buying in Liverpool."

"That," said the other man, "is quite enough for me. Let me have the contracts as soon as they're ready."

He went out, and Graham turned to Winston. "There's half-a-dozen more of them outside," he said. "Do you buy or sell?"

Winston laughed. "I want to know which a wise man would do."

"Well," said Graham, "I can't tell you. The bulls rushed wheat up as I wired you, but the other folks got their claws in and worried it down again. Wheat's anywhere and nowhere all the time, and I'm advising nobody just now. No doubt you've formed your own opinion."

Winston nodded. "It's the last of the grapple, and the bears aren't quite beaten yet, but any time the next week or two the decisive turn will come. Then, if they haven't got out, there'll be very little left of them."

"You seem tolerably sure of the thing. Got plenty of confidence in the bulls?"

Winston smiled. "I fancy I know how Western wheat was sown this year better than any statistician of the ring, and it's not the bulls I'm counting on, but those millions of hungry folks in the old country. It's not New York or Chicago, but Liverpool the spark is coming from."

"Well," said Graham, "that's my notion, too, but I've no time for anybody who hasn't grist for me just now. Still, I'd be glad to come round and take you home to supper if you haven't the prejudice, which is not unknown at Silverdale, against eating with a man who makes his dollars on the market and didn't get them given him."

Winston laughed, an

d held up a lean brown hand. "All I ever had until less than a year ago, I earned with that. I'll be ready for you."

He went out with Alfreton, and noticed that the lad ate little at lunch. When the meal was over, he glanced at him with a smile through the cigar smoke.

"I think it would do you good to take me into your confidence," he said.

"Well," said Alfreton, "it would be a relief to talk, and I feel I could trust you. Still, it's only fair to tell you I didn't at the beginning. I was an opinionated ass, you see."

Winston laughed. "I don't mind in the least, and we have most of us felt that way."

"Well," said the lad, "I was a little short of funds, and proud of myself, and when everybody seemed certain that wheat was going down forever, I thought I saw my chance of making a little. Now I've more wheat than I care to think of to deliver, the market's against me. If it stiffens any further, it will break me; and that's not all, you see. Things have gone tolerably badly with the folks at home, and I fancy it took a good deal of what should have been the girls' portion to start me at Silverdale."

"Then," said Winston, "it's no use trying to show you how foolish you've been. That is the usual thing, and it's easy; but what the man in the hole wants to know is the means of getting out again."

Alfreton smiled ruefully. "I'm tolerably far in. I could just cover at to-day's prices if I pledged my crop, but it would leave me nothing to go on with, and the next advance would swamp the farm."

"Well," said Winston quietly, "don't buy to-day. There's going to be an advance that will take folks' breath away, but the time's not quite ripe yet. You'll see prices knocked back a little the next day or two, and then you will cover your sales to the last bushel."

"But are you sure?" asked the lad, a trifle hoarsely. "You see, if you're mistaken, it will mean ruin to me."

Winston laid his hand on his shoulder. "If I am wrong, I'll make your losses good."

Nothing more was said on that subject, but Alfreton's face grew anxious once more as they went up and down the city. Everybody was talking wheat, which was not astonishing, for that city, and the two great provinces to the west of it, lived by the trade in grain, and before the afternoon had passed they learned that there had been a persistent advance. The lad's uneasiness showed itself, but when they went back to the hotel about the supper hour Winston smiled at him.

"You're feeling sick?" he said. "Still, I don't fancy you need worry."

Then Graham appeared and claimed him, and it was next morning when he saw Alfreton again. He was breakfasting with Colonel Barrington and Dane, and Winston noticed that the older man did not appear to have much appetite. When the meal was finished he drew him aside.

"You have covered your sales, sir?" he asked.

"No, sir," said Barrington. "I have not."

"Then I wonder whether it would be presumption if I asked you a question?"

Barrington looked at him steadily. "To be frank, I fancy it would be better if you did not. I have, of course, only my own folly to blame for believing I could equal your natural aptitude for this risky amusement which I had, and still have, objections to. I was, however, in need of money, and seeing your success, yielded to the temptation. I am not laying any of the responsibility on you, but am not inclined to listen to more of your suggestions."

Winston met his gaze without embarrassment. "I am sorry you have been unfortunate, sir."

Just then Dane joined them. "I sat up late last night in the hope of seeing you," he said. "Now, I don't know what to make of the market, but there were one or two fellows who would have bought my estimated crop from me at a figure which would have about covered working expenses. Some of the others who did not know you were coming in, put their affairs in my hands too."

"Sell nothing," said Winston quietly.

It was an hour later when a messenger from Graham found them in the smoking-room, and Colonel Barrington smiled dryly as he tore up the envelope handed him.

"'Market opened with sellers prevailing. Chicago flat!'" he read.

Dane glanced at Winston somewhat ruefully, but the latter's eyes were fixed on Colonel Barrington.

"If I had anything to cover I should still wait," he said.

"That," said Dane, "is not exactly good news to me."

"Our turn will come," said Winston gravely.

That day, and during several which followed it, wheat moved down, and Dane said nothing to Winston, about what he felt, though his face grew grimmer as the time went on. Barrington was quietly impassive when they met him, while Alfreton, who saw a way out of his difficulties, was hard to restrain. Winston long afterwards remembered that horrible suspense, but he showed no sign of what he was enduring then, and was only a trifle quieter than usual when he and Alfreton entered Graham's office one morning. It was busier than ever, while the men who hastened in and out seemed to reveal by attitude and voice that they felt something was going to happen.

"In sellers' favor!" said the broker. "Everybody with a few dollars is hammering prices one way or the other. Nothing but wheat to be heard of in this city. Well, we'll simmer down when the turn comes, and though I'm piling up dollars, I'll be thankful. Hallo, Thomson, anything going on now?"

"Chicago buying," said the clerk. "Now it's Liverpool! Sellers holding off. Wanting a two-eighths more the cental."

The telephone bell tinkled again, and there was a trace of excitement in the face of the man who answered it. "Walthew has got news ahead of us," he said. "Chicago bears caved in. Buying orders from Liverpool broke them. Got it there strong."

Winston tapped Alfreton's shoulder. "Now is the time. Tell him to buy," he said. "We'll wait outside until you've put this deal through, Graham."

It was twenty minutes before Graham came out to them. "I'll let you have your contracts, Mr. Alfreton, and my man on the market just fixed them in time," he said. "They're up a penny on the cental in Liverpool now, and nobody will sell, while here in Winnipeg they're falling over each other to buy. Never had such a circus since the trade began."

Alfreton, who seemed to quiver, turned to his companion, and then forgot what he had to tell him. Winston had straightened himself, and his eyes were shining, while the lad was puzzled by his face. Still, save for the little tremor in it his voice was very quiet.

"It has come at last," he said. "Two farms would not have covered your losses, Alfreton, if you had waited until to-morrow. Have supper with us, Graham--if you like it, lakes of champagne."

"I want my head, but I'll come," said Graham, with a curious smile. "I don't know that it wouldn't pay me to hire yours just now."

Then Winston turned suddenly, and running down the stairway shook the man awaiting him by the arm.

"The flood's with us now," he said. "Find Colonel Barrington, and make him cover everything before he's ruined. Dane, you and I, and a few others, will see the dollars rolling into Silverdale."

Dane found Barrington, who listened with a grim smile to what he had to tell him.

"The words are yours, Dane, but that is all," he said. "Wheat will go down again, and I do not know that I am grateful to Courthorne."

Dane dare urge nothing further, and spent the rest of that day wandering up and down the city, in a state of blissful content, with Alfreton and Winston. One of them had turned his losses into a small profit, and the other two, who had, hoping almost against hope, sown when others had feared to plow, saw that the harvest would repay them beyond their wildest expectations. They heard nothing but predictions of higher prices everywhere, and the busy city seemed to throb with exultation. The turn had come, and there was hope for the vast wheat lands it throve upon.

Graham had much to tell them when they sat down to the somewhat elaborate meal Winston termed supper that night, and he nodded approvingly when Dane held out his glass of champagne and touched his comrade's.

"I'm not fond of speeches, Courthorne, and I fancy our tastes are the same," he said. "Still, I can't let this great night pass without greeting you as the man who has saved not a few of us at Silverdale. We were in a very tight place before you came, and we are with you when you want us from this time, soul and body, and all our possessions."

Alfreton's eyes glistened, and his hand shook a little as he touched the rim of Winston's goblet.

"There are folks in the old country who will bless you when they know," he said. "You'll forget it, though I can't, that I was once against you."

Winston nodded to them gravely, and, when the glasses were empty, shook hands with the three.

"We have put up a good fight, and I think we shall win, but, while you will understand me better by and by, what you have offered me almost hurts," he said.

"What we have given is yours. We don't take it back," said Dane.

Winston smiled, though there was a wistfulness in his eyes as he saw the faint bewilderment in his companions' faces.

"Well," he said slowly, "you can do a little for me now. Colonel Barrington was right when he set his face against speculation, and it was only because I saw dollars were badly needed at Silverdale, and the one means of getting them, I made my deal. Still, if we are to succeed as farmers we must market our wheat as cheaply as our rivals, and we want a new bridge on the level. Now, I got a drawing of one, and estimates for British Columbia stringers, yesterday, while the birches in the ravine will give us what else we want. I'll build the bridge myself, but it will cheapen the wheat-hauling to everybody, and you might like to help me."

Dane glanced at the drawing laid before him, but Alfreton spoke first. "One hundred dollars. I'm only a small man, but I wish it was five," he said.

"I'll make it that much, and see the others do their share," said Dane, and then glanced at the broker with a curious smile.

"How does he do it--this and other things? He was never a business man!"

Graham nodded. "He can't help it. It was born in him. You and I can figure and plan, but Courthorne is different--the right thing comes to him. I knew the first night I saw him, you had got the man you wanted at Silverdale."

Then Winston stood up wineglass in hand. "I am obliged to you, but I fancy this has gone far enough," he said. "There is one man who has done more for you than I could ever do. Prosperity is a good thing, but you, at least, know what he has aimed at stands high above that. May you have the Head of the Silverdale community long with you!"

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