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Winston of the Prairie By Harold Bindloss Characters: 17922

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

The first of the snow was driving across the prairie before a bitter wind, when Maud Barrington stood by a window of the Grange looking out into the night. The double casements rattled, the curtains behind her moved with the icy draughts, until, growing weary of watching the white flakes whirl past, she drew them to and walked slowly towards a mirror. Then a faint tinge of pink crept into her cheek, and a softness that became her into her eyes. They, however, grew critical as she smoothed back a tress of lustrous hair a trifle from her forehead, straightened the laces at neck and wrist, and shook into more flowing lines the long black dress. Maud Barrington was not unduly vain, but it was some time before she seemed contented, and one would have surmised that she desired to appear her best that night.

The result was beyond cavil in its artistic simplicity, for the girl, knowing the significance that trifles have at times, had laid aside every adornment that might hint at wealth, and the somber draperies alone emphasized the polished whiteness of her face and neck. Still, and she did not know whether she was pleased or otherwise at this, the mirror had shown the stamp which revealed itself even in passive pose and poise of head. It was her birthright, and would not be disguised.

Then she drew a low chair towards the stove, and once more the faint color crept into her face as she took up a note. It was laconic, and requested permission to call at the Grange, but Maud Barrington was not deceived, and recognized the consideration each word had cost the man who wrote it. Afterwards she glanced at her watch, raised it with a little gesture of impatience to make sure it had not stopped, and sat still, listening to the moaning of the wind, until the door opened and Miss Barrington came in. She glanced at her niece, who felt that her eyes had noticed each detail of her somewhat unusual dress, but said nothing until the younger woman turned to her.

"They would scarcely come to-night, aunt," she said. Miss Barrington, listening a moment, heard the wind that whirled the snow about the lonely building, but smiled incredulously.

"I fancy you are wrong, and I wish my brother were here," she said. "We could not refuse Mr. Winston permission to call, but whatever passes between us will have more than its individual significance. Anything we tacitly promise, the others will agree to, and I feel the responsibility of deciding for Silverdale."

Miss Barrington went out; but her niece, who understood her smile and that she had received a warning, sat still with a strained expression in her eyes. The prosperity of Silverdale had been dear to her, but she knew she must let something that was dearer still slip away from her, or, since they must come from her, trample on her pride as she made the first advances. It seemed a very long while before there was a knocking at the outer door, and she rose with a little quiver when light steps came up the stairway.

In the meanwhile two men stood beside the stove in the hall until an English maid returned to them.

"Colonel Barrington is away, but Miss Barrington, and Miss Maud are at home," she said. "Will you go forward into the morning-room when you have taken off your furs?"

"Did you know Barrington was not here?" asked Winston, when the maid moved away.

Dane appeared embarrassed. "The fact is, I did."

"Then," said Winston dryly, "I am a little astonished you did not think fit to tell me."

Dane's face flushed, but he laid his hand on his comrade's arm. "No," he said, "I didn't. Now, listen to me for the last time, Winston. I've not been blind, you see, and, as I told you, your comrades have decided that they wish you to stay. Can't you sink your confounded pride, and take what is offered you?" Winston shook his grasp off, and there was weariness in his face. "You need not go through it all again. I made my decision a long while ago."

"Well," said Dane, with a gesture of hopelessness, "I've done all I could, and, since you are going on, I'll look at that trace clip while you tell Miss Barrington. I mean the younger one."

"The harness can wait," said Winston. "You are coming with me."

A little grim smile crept into Dane's eyes. "I am not. I wouldn't raise a finger to help you now," he said, and retreated hastily.

It was five minutes later when Winston walked quietly into Maud Barrington's presence, and sat down when the girl signed to him. He wondered if she guessed how his heart was beating.

"It is very good of you to receive me, but I felt I could not slip away without acknowledging the kindness you and Miss Barrington have shown me," he said. "I did not know Colonel Barrington was away."

The girl smiled a little. "Or you would not have come? Then we should have had no opportunity of congratulating you on your triumphant acquittal. You see, it must be mentioned."

"I'm afraid there was a miscarriage of justice," said Winston quietly. "Still, though it is a difficult subject, the deposition of the man I supplanted went a long way, and the police did not seem desirous of pressing a charge against me. Perhaps I should have insisted on implicating myself, but you would scarcely have looked for that after what you now know of me."

Maud Barrington braced herself for an effort, though she was outwardly very calm. "No," she said, "no one would have looked for it from any man placed as you were, and you are purposing to do more than is required of you. Why will you go away?"

"I am a poor man," said Winston. "One must have means to live at Silverdale!"

"Then," said the girl with a soft laugh which cost her a good deal, "it is because you prefer poverty, and you have at least one opportunity at Silverdale. Courthorne's land was mine to all intents and purposes before it was his, and now it reverts to me. I owe him nothing, and he did not give it me. Will you stay and farm it on whatever arrangement Dane and Macdonald may consider equitable? My uncle's hands are too full for him to attempt it."

"No," said Winston, and his voice trembled a little. "Your friends would resent it."

"Then," said the girl, "why have they urged you to stay?"

"A generous impulse. They would repent of it by and by. I am not one of them, and they know it, now, as I did at the beginning. No doubt they would be courteous, but you see a half-contemptuous toleration would gall me."

There was a little smile on Maud Barrington's lips, but it was not in keeping with the tinge in her cheek and the flash in her eyes.

"I once told you that you were poor at subterfuge, and you know you are wronging them," she said. "You also know that even if they were hostile to you, you could stay and compel them to acknowledge you. I fancy you once admitted as much to me. What has become of the pride of the democracy you showed me?"

Winston made a deprecatory gesture. "You must have laughed at me. I had not been long at Silverdale then," he said dryly. "I should feel very lonely now. One man against long generations. Wouldn't it be a trifle unequal?"

Maud Barrington smiled again. "I did not laugh, and this is not England, though what you consider prejudices do not count for so much as they used to there, while there is, one is told quite frequently, no limit to what a man may attain to here, if he dares sufficiently."

A little quiver ran through Winston, and he rose and stood looking down on her, with one brown hand clenched on the table and the veins showing on his forehead.

"You would have me stay?" he said.

Maud Barrington met his eyes, for the spirit that was in her was the equal of his. "I would have you be yourself--what you were when you came here in defiance of Colonel Barrington, and again when you sowed the last acre of Courthorne's land, while my friends, who are yours too, looked on wondering. Then you would stay--if it pleased you. Where has your splendid audacity gone?"

Winston slowly straightened himself, and the girl noticed the damp the struggle had brought there on his forehead, for he understood that if he would stretch out his hand and take it what he longed for might be his.

"I do not know, any more than I know where it came from, for until I met Courthorne I had never made a big venture in my life," he said. "It seems it has served its turn and left me--for now there are things I am afraid to do."

"So you will go away and forget us?"

Winston stood very still a moment, and the girl, who felt her heart beating, noticed that his face was drawn. Still, she could go no further. Then he said very slowly, "I should be under the shadow always if I stay, and my friends would feel it even more deeply than I would do. I may win the right to come back again if I go away."

Maud Barrington made no answer, but both knew no further word could be spoken on that subject until, if fate ever willed it, the man returned again, a

nd it was a relief when Miss Barrington came in with Dane. He glanced at his comrade keenly, and then seeing the grimness in his face, quietly declined the white-haired lady's offer of hospitality. Five minutes later the farewells were said, and Maud Barrington stood with the stinging flakes whirling about her in the doorway, while the sleigh slid out into the filmy whiteness that drove across the prairie. When it vanished, she turned back into the warmth and brightness with a little shiver and one hand tightly closed.

The great room seemed very lonely when, while the wind moaned outside, she and her aunt sat down to dinner. Neither of them appeared communicative, and both felt it a relief when the meal was over. Then Maud Barrington smiled curiously as she rose and stood with hands stretched out towards the stove.

"Aunt," she said. "Twoinette has twice asked me to go back to Montreal, and I think I will. The prairie is very dreary in the winter."

It was about this time when, as the whitened horses floundered through the lee of a bluff where there was shelter from the wind, the men in the sleigh found opportunity for speech.

"Now," said Dane quietly, "I know that we have lost you, for a while at least. Will you ever come back, Winston?"

Winston nodded. "Yes," he said. "When time has done its work, and Colonel Barrington asks me, if I can buy land enough to give me a standing at Silverdale."

"That," said Dane, "will need a good many dollars, and you insisted on flinging those you had away. How are you going to make them?"

"I don't know," said Winston simply. "Still, by some means it will be done."

It was next day when he walked into Graham's office at Winnipeg, and laughed when the broker who shook hands passed the cigar box across to him.

"We had better understand each other first," he said; "You have heard what has happened to me and will not find me a profitable customer to-day."

"These cigars are the best in the city, or I wouldn't ask you to take one," said Graham dryly. "You understand me, any way. Wait until I tell my clerk that if anybody comes round I'm busy."

A bell rang, a little window opened and shut again, and Winston smiled over his cigar.

"I want to make thirty thousand dollars as soon as I can, and it seems to me there are going to be opportunities in this business. Do you know anybody who would take me as clerk or salesman?"

Graham did not appear astonished. "You'll scarcely make them that way if I find you a berth at fifty a month," he said.

"No," said Winston. "Still, I wouldn't purpose keeping it for more than six months or so. By that time I should know a little about the business."

"Got any money now?"

"One thousand dollars," said Winston quietly.

Graham nodded. "Smoke that cigar out, and don't worry me. I've got some thinking to do."

Winston took up a journal, and laid it down again twenty minutes later. "Well," he said, "you think it's too big a thing?"

"No," said Graham. "It depends upon the man, and it might be done. Knowing the business goes a good way, and so does having dollars in hand, but there's something that's born in one man in a thousand that goes a long way further still. I can't tell you what it is, but I know it when I see it."

"Then," said Winston, "you have seen this thing in me?"

Graham nodded gravely. "Yes, sir, but you don't want to get proud. You had nothing to do with the getting of it. It was given you. Now, we're going to have a year that will not be forgotten by those who handle wheat and flour, and the men with the long heads will roll the money in. Well, I've no use for another clerk, and my salesman's good enough for me, but if we can agree on the items I'll take you for a partner."

The offer was made and accepted quietly, and when a rough draft of the arrangement had been agreed upon, Graham nodded as he lighted another cigar.

"You may as well take hold at once, and there's work ready now," he said. "You've heard of the old St. Louis mills back on the edge of the bush country. Never did any good. Folks who had them were short of money, and didn't know how they should be run. Well, I and two other men have bought them for a song, and, while the place is tumbling in, the plant seems good. Now, I can get hold of orders for flour when I want them, and everybody with dollars to spare will plank them right into any concern handling food-stuffs this year. You go down to-morrow with an engineer, and, when you've got the mills running and orders coming in we'll sell out to a company, if we don't want them."

Winston sat silent a space turning over a big bundle of plans and estimates. Then he said, "You'll have to lay out a pile of money."

Graham laughed. "That's going to be your affair. When you want them the dollars will be ready, and there's only one condition. Every dollar we put down has got to bring another in."

"But," said Winston, "I don't know anything about milling."

"Then," said Graham dryly, "You have got to learn. A good many men have got quite rich in this country running things they didn't know much about when they took hold of them."

"There's one more point," said Winston. "I must make those thirty thousand dollars soon or they'll be no great use to me, and when I have them I may want to leave you."

"That's all right," said Graham. "By the time you've done it, you'll have made sixty for me. We'll go out and have some lunch to clinch the deal if you're ready."

It might have appeared unusual in England, but it was much less so in a country where the specialization of professions is still almost unknown, and the man who can adapt himself attains ascendency, and on the morrow Winston arrived at a big wooden building beside a pine-shrouded river. It appeared falling to pieces, and the engineer looked disdainfully at some of the machinery, but, somewhat against his wishes, he sat up with his companion most of the night in a little log hotel, and orders that occasioned one of Graham's associates consternation were mailed to the city next morning. Then machines came out by the carload, and men with tools in droves. Some of them murmured mutinously when they found they were expected to do as much as their leader, who was not a tradesman, but these were forth-with sent back again, and the rest were willing to stay and earn the premium he promised them for rapid work.

Before the frost grew arctic, the building stood firm, and the hammers rang inside it night and day until, when the ice had bound the dam and lead, the fires were lighted and the trials under steam began. It cost more than water, but buyers with orders from the East were clamoring for flour just then. For a fortnight Winston snatched his food in mouthfuls, and scarcely closed his eyes, while Graham found him pale and almost haggard when he came down with several men from the cities in response to a telegram. For an hour they moved up and down, watching whirring belt and humming roller, and then, whitened with the dust, stood very intent and quiet while one of them dipped up a little flour from the delivery hopper. His opinions on, and dealings in, that product were famous in the land. He said nothing for several minutes, and then brushing the white dust from his hands turned with a little smile to Graham.

"We'll have some baked, but I don't know that there's much use for it. This will grade a very good first," he said. "You can book me the thousand two eighties for a beginning now."

Winston's fingers trembled, but there was a twinkle in Graham's eyes as he brought his hand down on his shoulder.

"Gentlemen," he said, "I was figuring right on this when I brought the champagne along. It was all I could do, but Imperial Tokay wouldn't be good enough to rinse this dust down with, when every speck of it that's on you means dollars by the handful rolling in."

It was a very contented and slightly hilarious party that went back to the city, but Winston sat down before a shaded lamp with a wet rag round his head when they left him, and bent over a sheaf of drawings until his eyes grew dim. Then he once more took up a little strip of paper that Graham had given him, and leaned forward with his arms upon the table. The mill was very silent at last, for of all who had toiled in it that day one weary man alone sat awake, staring, with aching eyes, in front of him. There was, however, a little smile in them, for roseate visions floated before them. If the promise that strip of paper held out was redeemed, they might materialize, for those who had toiled and wasted their substance that the eastern peoples might be fed would that year, at least, not go without their reward. Then he stretched out his arms wearily above his head.

"It almost seems that what I have hoped for may be mine," he said. "Still, there is a good deal to be done first, and not two hours left before I begin it to-morrow."

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