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Lorimer of the Northwest By Harold Bindloss Characters: 15409

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

It was late in autumn, and the heather had faded into dingy brown, though long streaks of golden fern crept winding down, when Grace Carrington first talked with me of the Canadian Dominion on the bleak slopes of Starcross Moor. There was a hollow in the hillside where a few pale-stemmed birches and somber firs formed, as it were, a rampart between the poor, climbing meadows and the waste of gorse and fern, and we two beneath them seemed utterly alone in the moorland solitude.

Grace sat on a lichened boulder with the sunlight upon her, gazing down across the levels of Lancashire. I was just twenty years old, and she seemed the incarnation of all that was fresh and good in early womanhood. Still, it was not only her beauty that attracted me, though she was the well-dowered daughter of a race which has long been famous for fair women, but a certain grave dignity that made her softly spoken wishes seem commands that it would be a pleasure to obey. Grace was nineteen then, and she lived in Western Canada with her widowed father, Colonel Carrington, who had made himself a power in that country. Yet she was English by birth and early training, of the 8 fair-haired, gray-eyed, old Lancashire stock, and had lost nothing by her sojourn on the prairie as youthful mistress of Carrington Manor.

The land which ran west before us was not a pleasant one. Across its horizon hung a pall of factory smoke; and unlovely hamlets, each with its gaunt pit-head gear and stark brick chimney, sprinkled the bare fields between, for hedgerows were scanty and fences of rusty colliery rope replaced them. Yet it was a wealthy country, and bred keen-witted, enterprising men, who, uncouth often in speech and exterior, possessed an energy that has spread their commerce to the far corners of the earth. That day the autumn haze wrapped a mellow dimness round its defects, but Grace Carrington sighed as she turned toward me.

"I shall not be sorry to go home again," she said. "Perhaps I miss our clear sunshine, but here everyone looks careworn in your dingy towns, and there are so many poor. Besides, the monotony of those endless smoky streets oppresses me. No, I should not care to come back to Lancashire."

Now, the words of a young and winsome woman seldom fall lightly on the ears of a young man, and Grace spoke without affectation as one accustomed to be listened to, which was hardly surprising in the heiress of Carrington. As it happened, they wakened an answering echo within me. The love of the open sky had been handed down to me through long generations of a yeoman ancestry, and yet fate had apparently decreed that I should earn my bread in the counting-house of a cotton-mill. It is probable that I should have been abashed and awkward before this patrician damsel in a drawing-room, but here, under the blue lift, with the brown double-barrel-it was my uncle's new hammerless-across my knees, and the speckled birds beneath, I felt in harmony with the surroundings, and accordingly 9 at ease. I was born and bred under the other edge of the moor.

"It does not always rain here, though this has been a wet season, and trade is bad," I said. "Will you tell me about Canada, Miss Carrington?"

Her eyes brightened as she answered: "It is my adopted country, and I love it. Still it is no place for the weak and idle, for as they say out there, we have no room for any but live men and strong. Yet, I never saw a ragged woman nor heard of a hungry child. All summer the settlers work from dawn to dusk under the clear sunshine of the open prairie, paying rent to no one, for each tills his own land, and though there are drawbacks-drought, hail, and harvest-frost-they meet them lightly, for you see neither anxious faces nor bent shoulders there. Our people walk upright, as becomes free men. Then, through the long winter, when the snow lies firm and white, and the wheat crop has been hauled in, you can hear the jingling sleigh teams flit across the prairie from homestead to homestead under the cloudless blue. The settlers enjoy themselves when their work is done-and we have no drunkenness."

She ceased, turning an eager face toward me, and I felt an old longing increase. It was the inborn love of a fertile soil-and that wide sunlit country seemed to call me, for my father had been the last of a long family to hold one of the extensive farms which with their crumbling feudal halls may yet be found in the remoter corners of Lancashire. Then, asking practical questions, I wondered as Grace Carrington answered, because, though she wore the stamp of refinement to her finger-tips, she knew all that concerned the feeding of stock, and the number of bushels that might be thrashed from an acre of wheat. I knew she spoke as one having experience, for I had been taught to till the soil, and only entered the cotton-mill when on my father's 10 death it was found that his weakness for horses and his unlucky experiments had rendered it impossible that I should carry on the farm. So, while unobserved the sun sank low, I listened eagerly; until at last there was a sound of footsteps among the fern, and she ceased, after a glance at her watch. But, like the grain she spoke of, drilled into the black Assiniboian loam, the seed had been sown, and in due time the crop would ripen to maturity.

A man came out from the birches, a handsome man, glancing about him with a look of indolent good humor on his face, and though for a moment Grace Carrington seemed displeased, she showed no sign of it as she rose leisurely to meet him.

"I am sorry you had to come in search of me, Geoffrey," she said; "this is Mr. Lorimer-Captain Ormond. I think you have met before. I lost my way, and he kindly brought me across the moor. I have been telling him about Canada."

The newcomer bowed with an easy indifference, for which, not knowing exactly why, I disliked him, as he said, "Don't remember that pleasure-meet so many people! Canada must be a very nice place; been thinking of going out there myself-drive oxen, grow potatoes, and that kind of thing, you know."

He glanced at Grace, as though seeking her approval of such an act of self-sacrifice; but the girl laughed frankly as she answered, "I can't fancy you tramping behind the plow in a jacket patched with flour-bags, Geoffrey;" while, feeling myself overlooked, and not knowing what to say, I raised my cap and awkwardly turned away. Still, looking back, I caught the waft of a light dress among the fern, and frowned as the sound of laughter came down the wind. These people had been making merry, I thought, at my 11 expense, though I had fancied Miss Carrington incapable of such ungenerous conduct.

In this, however, I misjudged her, for long afterward I learned that Grace was laughing at the stories her companion told of his strange experiences with sundry recruits, until presently the latter said:

"She stoops to conquer, even a raw Lancashire lad. I congratulate you on your judgment, Gracie. There is something in that untrained cub-could recognize it by the steady, disapproving way he looked at me; but I am some kind of a relative, which is presumably a warrant for impertinence."

Now a saving sense of humor tempered Miss Carrington's seriousness, and Geoffrey Ormond joined in her merry laugh. In spite of his love of ease and frivolous badinage, he was, as I was to learn some day, considerably less of a good-natured fool than it occasionally pleased him to appear to be.

Meantime, I strode homeward with the fierce longing growing stronger. I hated the dingy office where I sat under a gas-jet making up the count of yarn; and yet four weary years I had labored there,

partly because I had to earn my bread and because my uncle and sole guardian greatly desired I should. It grew dark as I entered the valley which led to his house, for the cotton-spinner now lived ten miles by rail from his mill, and the sighing of the pine branches under a cold breeze served to increase my restlessness. So it was with a sense of relief that I found my cousin Alice waiting in a cosy corner of the fire-lit drawing-room. We had known each other from childhood, and, though for that very reason this is not always the case, we were the best of friends. She would be rich some day, so the men I met in her father's business said; but if Alice Lorimer ever 12 remembered the fact, it made but little difference to her. She was delicate, slight, and homely, with a fund of shrewd common-sense and a very kindly heart, whose thoughts, however, she did not always reveal. Now she sat on a lounge before the fire, with the soft light of a colored lamp falling upon her, while a great embroidered screen shut off the rest of the partly-darkened room.

"I have been waiting for you with the tea so patiently, Ralph," she said. "You look tired and moody-you have been out on the moors too long. See, here is a low chair ready just inside the screen, and here is the tea. Sit down and tell me what is troubling you."

I settled myself in the corner, and answered, looking into the fire:

"You were always kind to me, Alice, and one can talk to you. Something made me unsettled to-day, and I didn't care about the birds, though I got a plump brace for you. Alice, I can't help thinking that these brief holidays, though they are like a glimpse of Paradise after my dingy rooms in that sickening town, are not good for me. I am only a poor clerk in your father's mill, and such things as guns and horses are out of my sphere. They only stir up useless longings. So I return on Monday, and hardly think that I shall come back for a long time."

Alice laughed softly, for she was a shrewd young person, then she laid her little hand restrainingly on my arm, before she said:

"And who has a better right to the bay horse and the new hammerless ejector than the nephew of the man who never uses them? Now, I'm guessing at a secret, but it's probable that your uncle bought that gun especially for you. Ralph, you are getting morbid-and you have not been shooting all day. Did you meet Miss Carrington on the moor again?" 13

Now in such matters I was generally a blunderer; yet something warned me that my answer would displease her. I could, however, see no way of avoiding it, and when I said as unconcernedly as I could, "Yes, and talked to her about Canada!" Alice for no particular reason stooped and dropped a thread into the fire. Then lifting her head she looked at me steadily when I continued, with some hesitation:

"You know how I was always taught that in due time I should work the lands of Lindale Hall, and how, when we found on my father's death that there was nothing left, I tried the cotton-mill. Well, after four years' trial I like it worse than I did at the beginning, and now I feel that I must give it up. I am going back to the soil again, even if it is across the sea."

Alice made no answer for a few moments; then she said slowly: "Ralph you will not be rash; think it over well. Now tell me if you have any definite plans-you know how I always used to advise you?"

I felt I needed sympathy, and Alice was a faithful confidant, so I opened my heart to her, and she listened with patient interest. It seemed to me that my cousin had never looked so winsome as she sat close beside me with a slight flush of color in her usually pale face where the soft lamplight touched it. So we sat and talked until Martin Lorimer entered unobserved, and when, on hearing a footstep, I looked up I saw that he was smiling with what seemed grim approval as his eyes rested on us, and this puzzled me. Then his daughter started almost guiltily as he said, "I wondered where you two were. Dinner has been waiting, and you never heard the bell."

I retired early that night, and, being young, forgot my perplexities in heavy slumber. The next morning I noticed that Alice's eyes seemed heavy, and I wondered what 14 could be the reason. In after years I mentioned it when Grace and I were talking about old times together, but she only smiled gravely, and said, "I sometimes think your cousin was too good for this world."

The next day was one of those wet Sundays which it is hard to forget. The bleak moor was lost in vapor, and a pitiless drizzle came slanting down the valley, while the raw air seemed filled with falling leaves. A prosperous man with a good conscience may make light of such things, but they leave their own impression on the poor and anxious; so, divided between two courses, I wandered up and down, finding rest nowhere until I chanced upon a large new atlas in my uncle's library. Martin Lorimer was proud of his library. He was a well-read man, though like others of his kind he made no pretense at scholarship, and used the broad, burring dialect when he spoke in his mill. Here I found occupation studying the Dominion of Canada, especially the prairie territories, and lost myself in dreams of half-mile furrows and a day's ride straight as the crow flies across a cattle run, all of which, though I scarcely dared hope it then, came true in its own appointed time.

My uncle had ridden out early, for he was to take part in the new mayor's state visit to church in the manufacturing town, and even Alice seemed out of spirits, so when I left the library there was the weary afternoon to be dragged through somehow. It passed very slowly, and then as I stood by the stables a man from the house at the further end of the valley, where Colonel Carrington was staying, said to our stable lad:

"I mun hurry back. Our folks are wantin' t' horses; maister an' t' Colonel's daughter's going to the church parade. They're sayin' it's a grand turnout, wi' t' firemen, bands, an' t' volunteers, in big brass helmets!" 15

Neither of them saw me, and presently calling the lad I bade him put the bay horse into the dog-cart.

"He's in a gradely bad temper," said the lad doubtfully. "Not done nothink but eat for a long time now, an' he nearly bit a piece out of me; I wish t' maister would shoot him."

I laughed at the warning, though I had occasion to remember it, and looking for Alice I said, "I am driving in to church to-night. Would you like to come with me?"

Now Alice Lorimer possessed her father's keen perception, and when he kept his temper he was perhaps the shrewdest man I ever met; so when she looked me straight in the face I dropped my eyes, because I really was not anxious for her company, and should not have gone except in the hope of seeing Grace Carrington.

"Have you turned religious suddenly, Ralph?" she asked. "Or have you forgotten you told me yesterday that you did not care to go?"

I made some awkward answer, but Alice smiled dryly, and with a solemn courtesy said:

"Two are company, three are none. Cousin Ralph, I will not go with you. But don't leave the dog-cart behind and come back with the shafts."

I went out with a flushed face, and a sense of relief, angry, nevertheless, that she should read my inmost thoughts, having fancied that my invitation was a stroke of diplomacy. I learned afterward that diplomacy is a mistake for the simple man. With a straightforward "Yes" or "No" he can often turn aside the schemes of the cunning, but on forsaking these he generally finds the other side considerably too clever for him-all of which is a wanton digression from the story.

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