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   Chapter 24 THE REVELATION

Winston of the Prairie By Harold Bindloss Characters: 20585

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Winston's harvesting prospered as his sowing had done, for by day the bright sunshine shone down on standing wheat and lengthening rows of sheaves. It was in the bracing cold of sunrise the work began, and the first pale stars were out before the tired men and jaded horses dragged themselves home again. Not infrequently it happened that the men wore out the teams and machines, but there was no stoppage then, for fresh horses were led out from the corral or a new binder was ready. Every minute was worth a dollar, and Winston, who had apparently foreseen and provided for everything, wasted none.

Then, for wheat is seldom stacked in that country, as the days grew shorter and the evenings cool, the smoke of the big thrasher streaked the harvest field, and the wagons went jolting between humming separator and granary, until the later was gorged to repletion and the wheat was stored within a willow framing beneath the chaff and straw that streamed from the chute of the great machine. Winston had around him the best men that dollars could hire, and toiled tirelessly with the grimy host in the whirling dust of the thrasher and amid the sheaves, wherever another pair of hands, or the quick decision that would save an hour's delay, was needed most.

As compared with the practice of insular Britain, there were not half enough of them, but wages are high in that country, and the crew of the thrasher paid by the bushel, while the rest had long worked for their own hand on the levels of Manitoba and in the bush of Ontario, and knew that the sooner their toil was over the sooner they would go home again with well-lined pockets. So, generously fed, splendid human muscle kept pace with clinking steel under a stress that is seldom borne outside the sun-bleached prairie at harvest time, and Winston forgot everything save the constant need for the utmost effort of body and brain. It was even of little import to him that prices moved steadily upward as he toiled.

At last it was finished, and only knee-high stubble covered his land and that of Maud Barrington, while, for he was one who could venture fearlessly and still know when he had risked enough, soon after it was thrashed out the wheat was sold. The harvesters went home with enough to maintain them through the winter, and Winston, who spent two days counting his gain, wrote asking Graham to send him an accountant from Winnipeg. With him he spent a couple more days, and then, with an effort he was never to forget, prepared himself for the reckoning. It was time to fling off the mask before the eyes of all who had trusted him.

He had thought it over carefully, and his first decision had been to make the revelation to Colonel Barrington alone. That, however, would, he felt, be too simple, and his pride rebelled against anything that would stamp him as one who dare not face the men he had deceived. One by one they had tacitly offered him their friendship and then their esteem, until he knew that he was virtually leader at Silverdale, and it seemed fitting that he should admit the wrong he had done them, and bear the obloquy, before them all. For a while the thought of Maud Barrington restrained him, and then he brushed that aside. He had fancied with masculine blindness that what he felt for her had been well concealed, and that her attitude to him could be no more than kindly sympathy with one who was endeavoring to atone for a discreditable past. Her anger and astonishment would be hard to bear, but once more his pride prompted him, and he decided that she should at least see he had the courage to face the results of his wrong-doing. As it happened, he was given an opportunity, when he was invited to the harvest celebration that was held each year at Silverdale.

It was a still, cool evening when every man of the community, and most of the women, gathered in the big dining-room of the Grange. The windows were shut now, for the chill of the early frost was on the prairie, and the great lamps burned steadily above the long tables. Cut glass, dainty china and silver gleamed beneath them amidst the ears of wheat that stood in clusters for sole and appropriate ornamentation. They merited the place of honor, for wheat had brought prosperity to every man at Silverdale who had had the faith to sow that year.

On either hand were rows of smiling faces, the men's burned and bronzed, the women's kissed into faintly warmer color by the sun, and white shoulders shone amidst the somberly covered ones, while here and there a diamond gleamed on a snowy neck. Barrington sat at the head of the longest table, with his niece and sister, Dane and his oldest followers about him, and Winston at its foot, dressed very simply after the usual fashion of the prairie farmers. There were few in the company who had not noticed this, though they did not as yet understand its purport.

Nothing happened during dinner, but Maud Barrington noticed that, although some of his younger neighbors rallied him, Winston was grimly quiet. When it was over, Barrington rose, and the men who knew the care he had borne that year never paid him more willing homage than they did when he stood smiling down on them. As usual he was immaculate in dress, erect, and quietly commanding, but in spite of its smile his face seemed worn, and there were thickening wrinkles, which told of anxiety, about his eyes.

"Another year has gone, and we have met again to celebrate with gratefulness the fulfillment of the promise made when the world was young," he said. "We do well to be thankful, but I think humility becomes us too. While we doubted the sun and the rain have been with us for a sign that, though men grow faint-hearted and spare their toil, seed-time and harvest shall not fail."

It was the first time Colonel Barrington had spoken in quite that strain, and when he paused a moment there was a curious stillness, for those who heard him noticed an unusual tremor in his voice. There was also a gravity that was not far removed from sadness in his face when he went on again, but the intentness of his retainers would have been greater had they known that two separate detachments of police troopers were then riding toward Silverdale.

"The year has brought its changes, and set its mark deeply on some of us," he said. "We cannot recall it, or retrieve our blunders, but we can hope they will be forgiven us and endeavor to avoid them again. This is not the fashion in which I had meant to speak to you tonight, but after the bounty showered upon us I feel my responsibility. The law is unchangeable. The man who would have bread to eat or sell must toil for it, and I, in disregard of it, bade you hold your hand. Well, we have had our lesson, and we will be wiser another time, but I have felt that my usefulness as your leader is slipping away from me. This year has shown me that I am getting an old man."

Dane kicked the foot of a lad beside him, and glanced at the piano as he stood up.

"Sir," he said simply, "although we have differed about trifles and may do so again, we don't want a better one--and if we did we couldn't find him."

A chord from the piano rang through the approving murmurs, and the company rose to their feet before the lad had beaten out the first bar of the jingling rhythm. Then the voices took it up, and the great hall shook to the rafters with the last "Nobody can deny."

Trite as it was, Barrington saw the darker flush in the bronzed faces, and there was a shade of warmer color in his own as he went on again.

"The things one feels the most are those one can least express, and I will not try to tell you how I value your confidence," he said. "Still, the fact remains that sooner or later I must let the reins fall into younger hands, and there is a man here who will, I fancy, lead you farther than you would ever go with me. Times change, and he can teach you how those who would do the most for the Dominion need live to-day. He is also, and I am glad of it, one of us, for traditions do not wholly lose their force and we know that blood will tell. That this year has not ended in disaster irretrievable is due to our latest comrade, Lance Courthorne."

This time there were no musical honors or need of them, for a shout went up that called forth an answering rattle from the cedar paneling. It was flung back from table to table up and down the great room, and when the men sat down, flushed and breathless, their eyes still shining, the one they admitted had saved Silverdale rose up quietly at the foot of the table. The hand he laid on the snowy cloth shook a little, and the bronze that generally suffused it was less noticeable in his face. All who saw it felt that something unusual was coming, and Maud Barrington leaned forward a trifle, with a curious throbbing of her heart.

"Comrades! It is, I think, the last time you will hear the term from me," he said. "I am glad that we have made and won a good fight at Silverdale, because it may soften your most warranted resentment when you think of me."

Every eye was turned upon him, and an expression of bewilderment crept into the faces, while a lad who sat next to him touched his arm reassuringly.

"You'll feel your feet in a moment, but that's a curious fashion of putting it," he said.

Winston turned to Barrington, and stood silent a moment. He saw Maud Barrington's face showing strained and intent, but less bewildered than the others, and that of her aunt, which seemed curiously impassive, and a little thrill ran through him. It passed, and once more he only saw the leader of Silverdale.

"Sir," he said, "I did you a wrong when I came here, and with your convictions you would never tolerate me as your successor."

There was a rustle of fabric as some of the women moved, and a murmur of uncontrollable astonishment, while those who noticed it, remembered Barrington's gasp. It expressed absolute bewilderment, but in another moment he smiled.

"Sit down, Lance," he said. "You need make no speeches. We expect better things from you."

Winston stood very still. "It was the simple truth I told you, sir," he said. "Don't make it too hard for me."

Just then there was a disturbance at the rear of the room, and a man, who shook

off the grasp of one that followed him, came in. He moved forward with uneven steps, and then, resting his hand on a chair back, faced about and looked at Winston. The dust was thick upon his clothes, but it was his face that seized and held attention. It was horribly pallid, save for the flush that showed in either cheek, and his half-closed eyes were dazed.

"I heard them cheering," he said. "Couldn't find you at your homestead. You should have sent the five hundred dollars. They would have saved you this."

The defective utterance would alone have attracted attention, and, with the man's attitude, was very significant, but it was equally evident to most of those who watched him that he was also struggling with some infirmity. Western hospitality has, however, no limit, and one of the younger men drew out a chair.

"Hadn't you better sit down, and if you want anything to eat we'll get it you," he said. "Then you can tell us what your errand is."

The man made a gesture of negation, and pointed to Winston.

"I came to find a friend of mine. They told me at his homestead that he was here," he said.

There was an impressive silence, until Colonel Barrington glanced at Winston, who still stood quietly impassive at the foot of the table.

"You know our visitor?" he said. "The Grange is large enough to give a stranger shelter."

The man laughed. "Of course he does; it's my place he's living in."

Barrington turned again to Winston, and his face seemed to have grown a trifle stern.

"Who is this man?" he said.

Winston looked steadily in front of him, vacantly noticing the rows of faces turned towards him under the big lamps. "If he had waited a few minutes longer, you would have known," he said. "He is Lance Courthorne."

This time the murmurs implied incredulity, but the man who stood swaying a little with his hand on the chair, and a smile in his half-closed eyes, made an ironical inclination.

"It's evident you don't believe it or wish to. Still, it's true," he said.

One of the men nearest him rose and quietly thrust him into the chair.

"Sit down in the meanwhile," he said dryly. "By and by, Colonel Barrington will talk to you."

Barrington thanked him with a gesture, and glanced at the rest. "One would have preferred to carry out this inquiry more privately," he said, very slowly, but with hoarse distinctness. "Still, you have already heard so much."

Dane nodded. "I fancy you are right, sir. Because we have known and respected the man who has, at least, done a good deal for us, it would be better that we should hear the rest."

Barrington made a little gesture of agreement, and once more fixed his eyes on Winston. "Then will you tell us who you are?"

"A struggling prairie farmer," said Winston quietly. "The son of an English country doctor who died in penury, and one who from your point of view could never have been entitled to more than courteous toleration from any of you."

He stopped, but, for the astonishment was passing, there was negation in the murmurs which followed, while somebody said, "Go on!"

Dane stood up. "I fancy our comrade is mistaken," he said. "Whatever he may have been, we recognize our debt to him. Still, I think he owes us a more complete explanation."

Then Maud Barrington, sitting where all could see her, signed imperiously to Alfreton, who was on his feet next moment, with Macdonald and more of the men following him.

"I," he said, with a little ring in his voice and a flush in his young face, "owe him everything, and I'm not the only one. This, it seems to me, is the time to acknowledge it."

Barrington checked him with a gesture. "Sit down, all of you. Painful and embarrassing as it is, now we have gone so far, this affair must be elucidated. It would be better if you told us more."

Winston drew back a chair, and when Courthorne moved, the man who sat next to him laid a grasp on his arm. "You will oblige me by not making any remarks just now," he said dryly. "When Colonel Barrington wants to hear anything from you he'll ask you."

"There is little more," said Winston. "I could see no hope in the old country, and came out to this one with one hundred pounds a distant connection lent me. That sum will not go very far anywhere, as I found when, after working for other men, I bought stock and took up Government land. To hear how I tried to do three men's work for six weary years, and at times went for months together half-fed, might not interest you, though it has its bearing on what came after. The seasons were against me, and I had not the dollars to tide me over the time of drought and blizzard until a good one came. Still, though my stock died, and I could scarcely haul in the little wheat the frost and hail left me, with my worn-out team, I held on, feeling that I could achieve prosperity if I once had the chances of other men."

He stopped a moment, and Macdonald poured out a glass of wine and passed it across to him in a fashion that made the significance of what he did evident.

"We know what kind of a struggle you made by what we have seen at Silverdale," he said.

Winston put the glass aside, and turned once more to Colonel Barrington.

"Still," he said, "until Courthorne crossed my path, I had done no wrong, and I was in dire need of the money that tempted me to take his offer. He made a bargain with me that I should ride his horse and personate him, that the police troopers might leave him unsuspected to lead his comrades running whisky, while they followed me. I kept my part of the bargain, and it cost me what I fancy I can never recover, unless the trial I shall shortly face will take the stain from me. While I passed for him your lawyer found me, and I had no choice between being condemned as a criminal for what Courthorne had in the meanwhile done, or continuing the deception. He had, as soon as I had left him, taken my horse and garments, so that if seen by the police they would charge me. I could not take your money, but, though Courthorne was apparently drowned, I did wrong when I came to Silverdale. For a time the opportunities dazzled me; ambition drew me on, and I knew what I could do."

He stopped again, and once more there was a soft rustle of dresses, and a murmur, as those who listened gave inarticulate expression to their feelings. Moving a little, he looked steadily at Maud Barrington and her aunt, who sat close together.

"Then," he said, very slowly, "it was borne in upon me that I could not persist in deceiving you. Courthorne, I fancied, could not return to trouble me, but the confidence that little by little you placed in me rendered it out of the question. Still, I saw that I could save some at least at Silverdale from drifting to disaster, and there was work for me here which would go a little way in reparation, and now that it is done I was about to bid you good-by, and ask you not to think too hardly of me."

There was a moment's intense silence until once more Dane rose up, and pointed to Courthorne sitting with half-closed eyes, dusty, partly dazed by indulgence, and with the stamp of dissolute living on him, in his chair. Then he glanced at Winston's bronzed face, which showed quietly resolute at the bottom of the table.

"Whatever we would spare you and ourselves, sir, we must face the truth," he said. "Which of these men was needed at Silverdale?"

Again the murmurs rose up, but Winston sat silent, his pulses throbbing with a curious exultation. He had seen the color creep into Maud Barrington's face, and her aunt's eyes, when he told her what had prompted him to leave Silverdale, and knew they understood him. Then, in the stillness that followed, the drumming of hoofs rose from the prairie. It grew louder, and when another sound became audible too, more than one of those who listened recognized the jingle of accoutrements. Courthorne rose unsteadily, and made for the door.

"I think," he said, with a curious laugh, "I must be going. I don't know whether the troopers want me or your comrade."

A lad sprang to his feet, and as he ran to the door called "Stop him!"

In another moment Dane had caught his arm, and his voice rang through the confusion as everybody turned or rose.

"Keep back all of you," he said. "Let him go!"

Courthorne was outside by this time, and only those who reached the door before Dane closed it heard a faint beat of hoofs as somebody rode quietly away beneath the bluff, while as the rest clustered together, wondering, a minute or two later, Corporal Payne, flecked with spume and covered with dust, came in. He raised his hand in salutation to Colonel Barrington, who sat very grim in face in his chair at the head of the table.

"I'm sorry, sir, but it's my duty to apprehend Lance Courthorne," he said.

"You have a warrant?" asked Barrington.

"Yes, sir," said the corporal.

There was intense silence for a moment. Then the Colonel's voice broke through it very quietly.

"He is not here," he said.

Payne made a little deprecatory gesture. "We know he came here. It is my duty to warn you that proceedings will be taken against any one concealing or harboring him."

Barrington rose up very stiffly, with a little gray tinge in his face, but words seemed to fail him, and Dane laid his hand on the corporal's shoulder.

"Then," he said grimly, "don't exceed it. If you believe he's here, we will give you every opportunity of finding him."

Payne called to a comrade outside, who was, as it happened, new to the force, and they spent at least ten minutes questioning the servants and going up and down the house. Then as they glanced into the general room again, the trooper looked deprecatingly at his officer.

"I fancied I heard somebody riding by the bluff just before we reached the house," he said.

Payne wheeled round with a flash in his eyes. "Then you have lost us our man. Out with you, and tell Jackson to try the bluff for a trail."

They had gone in another moment, and Winston still sat at the foot of the table and Barrington at the head, while the rest of the company were scattered, some wonderingly silent, though others talked in whispers, about the room. As yet they felt only consternation and astonishment.

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