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Winston of the Prairie By Harold Bindloss Characters: 17877

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

A year of tireless effort and some anxiety had passed since Winston had seen the first load of flour sent to the east, when he and Graham sat talking in their Winnipeg office. The products of the St. Louis mills were already in growing demand, and Graham appeared quietly contented as he turned over the letters before him. When he laid down the last one, however, he glanced at his companion somewhat anxiously.

"We have got to fix up something soon," he said. "I have booked all the St. Louis can turn out for six months ahead, and the syndicate is ready to take the business over, though I don't quite know whether it would be wise to let them. It seems to me that milling is going to pay tolerably well for another year, and if I knew what you were wanting, it would suit me better."

"I told you I wanted thirty thousand dollars," said Winston quietly.

"You've got them," said Graham. "When the next balance comes out you'll have a good many more. The question is, what you're going to do with them now they're yours?"

Winston took out a letter from Dane and passed it across to Graham.

"I'm sorry to tell you the Colonel is getting no better," it ran. "The specialist we brought in seems to think he will never be quite himself again, and, now he has let the reins go, things are falling to pieces at Silverdale. Somebody left Atterly a pile of money, and he is going back to the old country. Carshalton is going too, and, as they can't sell out to any one we don't approve of, the rest insisted on me seeing you. I purpose starting to-morrow."

"What happened to Colonel Barrington?" asked Graham.

"His sleigh turned over," said Winston, "Horse trampled on him, and it was an hour or two before his hired man could get him under shelter!"

"You would be content to turn farmer again?"

"I think I would," said Winston, "At least, at Silverdale."

Graham made a little grimace. "Well," he said resignedly, "I guess it's human nature, but I'm thankful now and then there's nothing about me but my money that would take the eye of any young woman. I figure they're kind of useful to wake up a man so he'll stir round looking for something to offer one of them, but he's apt to find his business must go second when she has got it and him, and he has to waste on house fixings what would give a man a fair start in life. Still, it's no use talking. What have you told him?"

Winston laughed a little. "Nothing," he said. "I will let him come, and you shall have my decision when I've been to Silverdale."

It was next day when Dane arrived at Winnipeg, and Winston listened gravely to all he had to tell him.

"I have two questions to ask," he said. "Would the others be unanimous in receiving me, and does Colonel Barrington know of your mission?"

"Yes to both," said Dane. "We haven't a man there who would not hold out his hand to you, and Barrington has been worrying and talking a good deal about you lately. He seems to fancy nothing has gone right at Silverdale since you left it, and others share his opinion. The fact is, the old man is losing his grip tolerably rapidly."

"Then," said Winston quietly, "I'll go down with you, but I can make no promise until I have heard the others."

Dane smiled a little. "That is all I want. I don't know whether I told you that Maud Barrington is there. Would to-morrow suit you?"

"No," said Winston. "I will come to-day."

It was early next morning when they stepped out of the stove-warmed car into the stinging cold of the prairie. Fur-clad figures, showing shapeless in the creeping light, clustered about them, and Winston felt himself thumped on the shoulders by mittened hands, while Alfreton's young voice broke through the murmurs of welcome.

"Let him alone while he's hungry," he said. "It's the first time in its history they've had breakfast ready at this hour in the hotel, and it would not have been accomplished if I hadn't spent most of yesterday playing cards with the man who keeps it, and making love to the young women!"

"That's quite right," said another lad. "When he takes his cap off you'll see how one of them rewarded him, but come along, Winston. It--is--ready."

The greetings might, of course, have been expressed differently, but Winston also was not addicted to displaying all he felt, and the little ring in the lads' voices was enough for him. As they moved towards the hotel he saw that Dane was looking at him.

"Well?" said the latter, "you see they want you."

That was probably the most hilarious breakfast that had ever been held in the wooden hotel, and before it was over, three of his companions had said to Winston, "Of course you'll drive in with me!"

"Boys," he said, as they put their furs on, and his voice shook a trifle, "I can't ride in with everybody who has asked me unless you dismember me."

Finally Alfreton, who was a trifle too quick for the others, got him into his sleigh, and they swept out behind a splendid team into the frozen stillness of the prairie. The white leagues rolled behind them, the cold grew intense, but while Winston was for the most part silent, and apparently preoccupied, Alfreton talked almost incessantly, and only once looked grave. That happened when Winston asked about Colonel Barrington.

The lad shook his head. "I scarcely think he will ever take hold again," he said. "You will understand me better when you see him."

They stopped a while at mid-day at an outlying farm, but Winston glanced inquiringly at Alfreton when one of the sleighs went on. The lad smiled at him.

"Yes," he said. "He is going on to tell them we have got you."

"They would have found it out in a few more hours," said Winston. Alfreton's eyes twinkled. "No doubt they would," he said dryly. "Still, you see, somebody was offering two to one that Dane couldn't bring you, and you know we're generally keen about any kind of wager!"

The explanation, which was not quite out of keeping with the customs of the younger men at Silverdale, did not content Winston, but he said nothing. So far his return had resembled a triumph, and while the sincerity of the welcome had its effect on him, he shrank a little from what he fancied might be waiting him.

The creeping darkness found them still upon the waste, and the cold grew keener when the stars peeped out. Even sound seemed frozen, and the faint muffled beat of hoofs unreal and out of place in the icy stillness of the wilderness. Still, the horses knew they were nearing home, and swung into faster pace, while the men drew fur caps down, and the robes closer round them as the draught their passage made stung them with a cold that seemed to sear the skin where there was an inch left uncovered. Now and then a clump of willows or a birch bluff flitted out of the dimness, grew a trifle blacker, and was left behind, but there was still no sign of habitation, and Alfreton, too chilled at last to speak, passed the reins to Winston, and beat his mittened hands. Winston could scarcely grasp them, for he had lived of late in the cities, and the cold he had been sheltered from was numbing.

For another hour they slid onwards, and then a dim blur crept out of the white waste. It rose higher, cutting more blackly against the sky, and Winston recognized with a curious little quiver the birch bluff that sheltered Silverdale Grange. Then as they swept through the gloom of it, a row of ruddy lights blinked across the snow, and Winston felt his heart beat as he watched the homestead grow into form. He had first come there an impostor, and had left it an outcast, while now it was amid the acclamations of those who had once looked on him with suspicion he was coming back again.

Still, he was almost too cold for any definite feeling but the sting of the frost, and it was very stiffly he stood up, shaken by vague emotions, when at last the horses stopped. A great door swung open, somebody grasped his hand, there was a murmur of voices, and partly dazed by the change of temperature he blundered into the warmth of the hall. The blaze of light bewildered him, and he was but dimly sensible that the men who greeted him were helping him to shake off his furs, while the next thing he was sure of was that a little white-haired lady was holding out her hand.

"We are very glad to see you back," she said, with a simplicity that yet suggested stateliness. "Your friends insisted on coming over to welcome you, and Dane will not let you keep them waiting too long. Dinner is almost ready."

Winston could not remember what he answered, but Miss Barrington smiled at him as she moved away, for the flush in his face was very eloquent. The man was very grateful for that greeting, and what it implied. It was a few minutes later when he found himself alone with Dane, who laughed softly as he nodded to him.

"You are convinced at last?" he said. "Still, there is a little more of the

same thing to be faced, and, if it would relieve you, I will send for Alfreton, who has some taste in that direction, to fix that tie for you. You have been five minutes over it, and it evidently does not please you. It's the first time I've ever seen you worry about your dress."

Winston turned, and a curious smile crept into his face as he laid a lean hand that shook a little on the toilet table.

"I also think it's the first time these fingers wouldn't do what I wanted them. You can deduce what you please from that," he said.

Dane only nodded, and when they went down together laid a kindly grasp upon his comrade's arm as he led him into the great dining-room. Every man at Silverdale was apparently there, as were most of the women, and Winston stood still a moment, very erect with shoulders square, because the posture enabled him to conceal the tremor that ran through him when he saw the smiling faces turned upon him. Then he moved slowly down the room towards Maud Barrington, and felt her hand rest for a second between his fingers, which he feared were too responsive. After that, everybody seemed to speak to him, and he was glad when he found himself sitting next to Miss Barrington at the head of the long table, with her niece opposite him.

He could not remember what he or the others talked about during the meal, but he had a vague notion that there was now and then a silence of attention when he answered a question, and that the little lady's face grew momentarily grave when, as the voices sank a trifle, he turned to her.

"I would have paid my respects to Colonel Barrington, but Dane did not consider it advisable," he said.

"No," said Miss Barrington. "He has talked a good deal about you during the last two days, but he is sleeping now, and we did not care to disturb him. I am afraid you will find a great change in him when you see him."

Winston asked no more questions on that topic until later in the evening, when he found a place apart from the rest by Miss Barrington's side. He fancied this would not have happened without her connivance, and she seemed graver than usual when he stood by her chair.

"I don't wish to pain you, but I surmise that Colonel Barrington is scarcely well enough to be consulted about anything of importance just now," he said.

Miss Barrington made a little gesture of assent. "We usually pay him the compliment, but I am almost afraid he will never make a decision of moment again."

"Then," said Winston slowly, "you stand in his place, and I fancy you know why I have come back to Silverdale. Will you listen for a very few minutes while I tell you about my parents and what my upbringing has been? I must return to Winnipeg, for a time at least, to-morrow."

Miss Barrington signed her willingness, and the man spoke rapidly with a faint trace of hoarseness. Then he looked down on her.

"Madam," he said, "I have told you everything, partly from respect for those who only by a grim sacrifice did what they could for me, and that you may realize the difference between myself and the rest at Silverdale. I want to be honest now at least, and I discovered, not without bitterness at the time, that the barriers between our castes are strong in the old country."

Miss Barrington smiled a little. "Have I ever made you feel it here?"

"No," said Winston gravely. "Still, I am going to put your forbearance to a strenuous test. I want your approval. I have a question to ask your niece to-night."

"If I withheld it?"

"It would hurt me," said Winston. "Still, I would not be astonished, and I could not blame you."

"But it would make no difference?"

"Yes," said Winston gravely. "It would, but it would not cause me to desist. Nothing would do that, if Miss Barrington can overlook the past."

The little white-haired lady smiled at him. "Then," she said, "if it is any comfort to you, you have my good wishes. I do not know what Maud's decision will be, but that is the spirit which would have induced me to listen in times long gone by!"

She rose and left him, and it may have been by her arranging that shortly afterwards Winston found Maud Barrington passing through the dimly-lighted hall. He opened the door she moved towards a trifle, and then stood facing her, with it in his hand.

"Will you wait a moment, and then you may pass if you wish," he said. "I had one great inducement for coming here to-night. I wonder if you know what it is?"

The girl stood still and met his gaze, though, dim as the light was, the man could see the crimson in her cheeks.

"Yes," she said, very quietly.

"Then," said Winston, with a little smile, though the fingers on the door quivered visibly, "I think the audacity you once mentioned must have returned to me, for I am going to make a very great venture."

For a moment Maud Barrington turned her eyes away. "It is the daring venture that most frequently succeeds."

Then she felt the man's hand on her shoulder, and, that he was compelling her to look up at him.

"It is you I came for," he said quietly. "Still, for you know the wrong I have done, I dare not urge you, and have little to offer. It is you who must give everything, if you can come down from your station and be content with mine."

"One thing," said Maud Barrington, very softly, "is, however, necessary."

"That," said Winston, "was yours ever since we spent the night in the snow."

The girl felt his grip upon her shoulder grow almost painful, but her eyes shone softly when she lifted her head again.

"Then," she said, "what I can give is yours--and it seems you have already taken possession."

Winston drew her towards him, and it may have been by Miss Barrington's arranging that nobody entered the hall, but at last the girl glanced up at the man half-shyly as she said, "Why did you wait so long?"

"It was well worth while," said Winston. "Still, I think you know."

"Yes," said Maud Barrington softly. "Now, at least, I can tell you I am glad you went away--but if you had asked me I would have gone with you."

It was some little time later when Miss Barrington came in and, after a glance at Winston, kissed her niece. Then she turned to the man. "My brother is asking for you," she said. "Will you come up with me?"

Winston followed her, and hid his astonishment when he found Colonel Barrington lying in a big chair. His face was haggard and pale, his form seemed to have grown limp and fragile, and the hand he held out trembled.

"Lance," he said, "I am very pleased to have you home again. I hear you have done wonders in the city, but you are, I think, the first of your family who could ever make money. I have, as you will see, not been well lately."

"I am relieved to find you better than I expected, sir," said Winston quietly. "Still, I fancy you are forgetting what I told you the night I went away."

Barrington nodded, and then made a little impatient gesture. "There was something unpleasant, but my memory seems to be going, and my sister has forgiven you. I know you did a good deal for us at Silverdale, and showed yourself a match for the best of them in the city. That pleases me. By and by, you will take hold here after me."

Winston glanced at Miss Barrington, who smiled somewhat sadly.

"I am glad you mentioned that, sir, because I purpose staying at Silverdale now," he said. "It leads up to what I have to ask you."

Barrington's perceptions seemed to grow clearer, and he asked a few pertinent questions before he nodded approbation.

"Yes," he said, "she is a good girl--a very good girl, and it would be a suitable match. I should like somebody to send for her."

Maud Barrington came in softly, with a little glow in her eyes and a flush on her face, and Barrington smiled at her.

"My dear, I am very pleased, and I wish you every happiness," he said. "Once I would scarcely have trusted you to Lance, but he will forgive me, and has shown me that I was wrong. You and he will make Silverdale famous, and it is comforting to know, now my rest is very near, that you have chosen a man of your own station to follow me. With all our faults and blunders, blood is bound to tell."

Winston saw that Miss Barrington's eyes were a trifle misty, and he felt his face grow hot, but the girl's fingers touched his arm, and he followed, when, while her aunt signed approbation, she led him away. Then when they stood outside she laid her hands upon his face and drew it down to her.

"You will forget it, dear, and he is still wrong. If you had been Lance Courthorne I should never have done this," she said.

"No," said the man gravely. "I think there are many ways in which he is right, but you can be content with Winston the prairie farmer?"

Maud Barrington drew closer to him with a little smile in her eyes. "Yes," she said simply. "There never was a Courthorne who could stand beside him."

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