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   Chapter 5 CHAPTER IV

Lorimer of the Northwest By Harold Bindloss Characters: 18346

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


AN UNPLEASANT APPRENTICESHIP

By this time the sun was high, and, fastening the skin coat round my shoulders with a piece of string, I trudged on, rejoicing in the first warmth and brightness I had so far found in Canada. But it had its disadvantages, for the snow became unpleasantly soft, and it was a relief to find that the breeze had stripped the much thinner covering from the first of the swelling rises that rolled back toward the north. Here I halted a few minutes and surveyed my adopted country.

Behind lay the roofs of Elktail, some of them tin-covered and flashing like a heliograph; in front a desolate wilderness where the gray-white of frost-bleached grasses was streaked by the incandescent brightness of sloppy snow. There was neither smoke nor sign of human presence in all its borders-only a few dusky patches of willows to break the vast monotony of white and blue. And somewhere out on those endless levels, thirty miles to the north, lay the homestead of the man who might not give me employment even if I could find the place, which, remembering Jasper's directions, seemed by no means certain. However, the first landmark at least was visible, a sinuous line of dwarfed trees low down on the horizon; and gathering my sinking courage I struck out for it. Slowly the miles were left behind-straggling copse, white plateau, and winding ravine-until it was a relief to find an erection of sod and birch-poles nestling in a hollow. The man who greeted me in the 36 doorway was bronzed to coffee color by the sun-blink on snow, and his first words were: "Walk right in, and make yourself at home!"

He was thin, hard, and wiry; the gray slouch hat and tattered deerskin jacket became him; while, if he had not the solidity of our field laborers, he evidently had nothing of their slowness, and with natural curiosity I surveyed him. There were many in Lancashire and Yorkshire who might beat him at a heavy lift, but few who could do so in a steady race against time from dawn to dusk, I thought. Then somewhat awkwardly I explained my business, and, mentioning Jasper, asked if he would lend me a horse, whereupon he called to the cheerful, neatly-dressed woman bustling about the stove:

"Hurry on that dinner, Jess!"

Next, turning to me, he added: "You're welcome to the horse, but it will be supper-time before you fetch Coombs' homestead, and you mayn't get much then. So lie right back where you are until dinner's ready, and tell us the best news of the Old Country. Jess was born there."

It was characteristic treatment, and though the meal was frugal-potatoes, pork, green tea, flapjacks and drips, which is probably glucose flavored with essences-they gave me of their best, as even the poorest settlers do. One might travel the wide world over to find their equal in kindly hospitality. Perhaps the woman noticed my bashfulness, for she laughed as she said:

"You're very welcome to anything we have. New out from England, I see, and maybe we're rough to look at. Still, you'll learn to like us presently."

In this, however, she was wrong. They were not rough to look at, for though it was plain to see that both toiled hard for a bare living there was a light-hearted contentment about them, and a curious something that seemed akin to 37 refinement. It was not educational polish, but rather a natural courtesy and self-respect, though the words do not adequately express it, which seems born of freedom, and an instinctive realization of the brotherhood of man expressed in kindly action. Hard-handed and weather-beaten, younger son of good English family or plowman born, as I was afterward to find, the breakers of the prairie are rarely barbaric in manners or speech, and, in the sense of its inner meaning, most of them are essentially gentlemen.

It was with a lighter heart and many good wishes that I rode out again, and eventually reached Coombs' homestead, where a welcome of a different kind awaited me. The house was well built of sawn lumber, and backed by a thin birch bluff, while there was no difficulty in setting down its owner as an Englishman of a kind that fortunately is not common. He was stout and flabby in face, with a smug, self-satisfied air I did not like. Leaning against a paddock rail, he looked me over while I told him what had brought me there. Then he said, with no trace of Western accent, which, it afterward appeared, he affected to despise:

"You should not have borrowed that horse, because if we come to terms I shall have to feed him a day or two. Of course you would be useless for several months at least, and with the last one I got a premium. However, as a favor I'll take you until after harvest for your board."

"What are the duties?" I asked cautiously. And he answered:

"Rise at dawn, feed the working cattle, and plow until the dinner-hour-when you learn how. Then you could water the stock while you're resting; plow, harrow, or chop wood until supper; after that, wash up supper dishes, and-it's standing order-attend family prayers. In summer you'll continue hay cutting until it's dark." 38

Now the inhabitants of eastern Lancashire and the West Riding are seldom born foolish, and Jasper had cautioned me. So it may have been native shrewdness that led to my leaving the draft for one hundred pounds intact at the Winnipeg office of the Bank of Montreal and determining to earn experience and a living at the same time as promptly as possible. Also, though I did not discover it until later, this is the one safe procedure for the would-be colonist. There is not the slightest reason why he should pay a premium, because the work is the same in either case; and as, there being no caste distinction, all men are equal, hired hand and farmer living and eating together, he will find no difference in the treatment. In any case, I had no intention of working for nothing, and answered shortly:

"I'll come for ten dollars a month until harvest. I shall no doubt find some one to give me twenty then."

Coombs stared, surveyed me ironically from head to heel again, and, after offering five dollars, said very reluctantly:

"Seven-fifty, and it's sinful extravagance. Put the horse in that stable and don't give him too much chop. Then carry in those stove billets, and see if Mrs. Coombs wants anything to get supper ready."

I was tired and sleepy; but Coombs evidently intended to get the value of his seven-fifty out of me-he had a way of exacting the utmost farthing-and after feeding the horse, liberally, I carried fourteen buckets of water to fill a tank from the well before at last supper was ready. We ate it together silently in a long match-boarded room-Coombs, his wife, Marvin the big Manitoban hired man, and a curly-haired brown-eyed stripling with a look of good breeding about him. Mrs. Coombs was thin and angular, with a pink-tipped nose; and in their dwelling-the only place I ever saw it on the prairie-she and her 39 husband always sat with several feet of blank table between themselves and those who worked for them. They were also, I thought, representatives of an unpleasant type-the petty professional or suddenly promoted clerk, who, lacking equally the operative's sturdiness and the polish of those born in a higher station, apes the latter, and, sacrificing everything for appearance, becomes a poor burlesque on humanity. Even here, on the lone, wide prairie, they could not shake off the small pretense of superiority. When supper was finished-and Coombs' suppers were the worst I ever ate in Canada-the working contingent adjourned after washing dishes to the sod stable, where I asked questions about our employer.

"Meaner than pizon!" said Marvin. "Down East, on the 'lantic shore, is where he ought to be. Guess he wore them out in the old country, and so they sent him here."

Then the young lad stretched out his hand with frank good-nature. "I'm Harry Lorraine, premium pupil on this most delectable homestead. You're clearly fresh out from England, and I'm sure we'll be good friends," he said. "Coombs? Well, Jim Marvin is right. I've set him down in my own mind as a defaulting deacon, or something of the kind. Did my guardian out of a hundred and fifty as premium, with duck, brant-goose, and prairie-chicken shooting thrown in-and he sees I've never time to touch a gun. However, I'm learning the business; and in spite of his quite superfluous piety he can farm, in a get-all-you-can-for-nothing kind of way."

"He can't, just because of that same," broke in the prairie-born. "I'm sick of this talking religion, but you'll see it written plain on furrow and stock that when the Almighty gives the good soil freely He expects something back, and not a stinting of dumb beasts and land to roll up money in the bank. Take all and give nothing don't pan 40 out worth the washing, and that man will get let down of a sudden some cold day. Hallo! here's the blamed old reprobate coming."

Coombs slid through the stable with a cat-like gait and little eyes that noticed everything, while Harry leaned against a stall defiantly sucking at his pipe, and I wondered whether I was expected to be

working at something.

"Idleness does not pay in this country, Lorimer," he said, with a beatific air. "Diligence is the one road to success. There is a truss of hay waiting to go through the cutter. Harry, I notice more oats than need be mixed with that chop."

He went out, and Harry laughed as he said, "Always the same! Weighs out the week's sugar to the teaspoonful. But you look tired. If you feed I'll work the infernal chopper."

So for a time I fed in the hay, while Harry swung up and down at the wheel, slender and debonair in spite of his coarse blue garments, with merry brown eyes. He was younger than I, and evidently inferior in muscle; but, as I know now, he had inherited a spirit which is greater than mere bodily strength. No man had a truer comrade than I in Harry Lorraine, and the friendship which commenced in the sod stable that night when I was travel-worn and he cut the hay for me will last while we two remain on this earth, and after, hallowed in the survivor's memory, until-but, remembering Coombs, I know that silence is often reverence, and so leave Grace's clean lips to voice the eternal hope.

We went back for family prayers, when Coombs read a chapter of Scripture; and he read passably well, though, for some reason, his tone jarred on me, while Harry fidgeted uneasily. Now I think it would jar even more forcibly. A hard life face to face with wild nature, among fearless, 41 honest men, either by land or sea, induces, among other things, a becoming humility. There are times, out on the vast prairie, when, through glories of pearl and crimson, night melts into day, or up in the northern muskegs, where the great Aurora blazes down through the bitter frost, when one stands, as it were, abashed and awe-stricken under a dim perception of the majesty upholding this universe. Then, and because of this, the man with understanding eyes will never be deceived by complacent harangues on sacred things from such as Coombs who never lend a luckless neighbor seed-wheat, and oppress the hireling. Much better seemed Jasper's answer when Harry once asked him for twenty acres' seed: "Take half that's in the granary, if you want it. Damnation! why didn't you come before?"

We retired early, Harry and I, to sleep in the same room, with the rusty stove-pipe running through it; and we rose, I think, at four o'clock; while an hour later the feet of the big plow-oxen were trampling the rich loam where the frost had mellowed the fall back-setting. We worked until nine that night, and I had words with Coombs when he gave me directions about plowing. We do not get our land for nothing in Lancashire, and so learn to work the utmost out of every foot of it. However, I do not purpose to dilate upon either disc-harrows or breaking prairie, nor even the cutting of wild hay-which harsh and wiry product is excellent feeding-for all these matters will be mentioned again. Still, as spring and summer rolled away, I gathered experience that saved me a good deal of money, and I felt at least an inch less round the waist and another broader round the shoulders.

Then one Saturday evening, when the northwest blazed with orange and saffron flame, I lay among the tussocks of whispering grass reading for the third or fourth time a few well-worn letters from Cousin Alice. Acre by acre 42 the tall wheat, changing from green to ochre, rippled before me; and, had its owner's hand been more open, it would have been a splendid crop. Marvin, Harry, and I had plowed for and sown it, because Coombs despised manual labor, and confined himself chiefly to fault-finding. It struck me that if we could do this for another we could do even more for ourselves. My agreement expired at harvest, and already the first oats were yellowing. Coombs' voice roused me from a pleasant reverie, wherein I sat once more with Alice beside the hearth in England.

"It's not dark yet, and there's the wire waiting for the paddock fence," he said. "I regret to see you addicted to loafing. And Mrs. Coombs has no water left for the kitchen."

Saying nothing, I smiled a little bitterly as I marched away to carry in water, and then the lady, whose thin face seemed sourer than usual that evening, set me to wash the supper dishes. All went well until I had the misfortune to break a stove-cracked plate, when looking at me contemptuously she said:

"How very clumsy! Do you know you have cost me two dollars already by your breakages? No-the handle always toward a lady! But what could be expected? You were never brought up."

Now the frying-pan or spider I held out had stood with its handle over an open lid of the range, so, though nettled, I still held it turned from her, and answered shortly:

"Not to wash dishes, madam, though my up-bringing has nothing to do with the case."

With an impatient gesture she reached over and grasped the hot handle, then dropped it with a cry just as the door opened and Coombs came in. This did not displease me, for if a quarrel must come it comes best quickly, and I listened unmoved while the mistress of the homestead said: 43

"Walter, I think you had better get rid of this man. He not only breaks my crockery, but set a cruel trap to burn my fingers, and I do not choose to be insulted by a hired hand."

"Have you anything to say before I turn you out on the prairie?" asked Coombs pompously; and remembering many an old grievance I answered with cheerful readiness:

"Nothing of much moment, beyond that I warned Mrs. Coombs, and it was an accident. But it is cooler without, and we can discuss it better there."

He followed in evident surprise, and I chuckled when he even walked after me into the stable, for already I guessed that if I left before the harvest I might have trouble about my wages. So far, in spite of several requests, Coombs had paid me nothing. It is also possible that a penniless newcomer of peaceful disposition might have been victimized, but I had learned in several industrial disputes, argued out with clog and brickbat as well as upon barrelhead platforms, that there are occasions when ethical justice may well be assisted by physical force. Besides, I was a Lingdale Lorimer, and would have faced annihilation rather than let any man rob me of my right.

"I am afraid Mrs. Coombs is prejudiced against me, and it might save unpleasantness if you paid me my wages and I left this place to-night," I said; and read in Coombs' face that this was by no means what he desired. Wages are high at harvest and labor scarce, while any one with a knowledge of working land was a god-send at seven dollars a month. But Coombs was equal to the emergency.

"I regret to see so much dishonesty in one so young," he said. "Our bargain was until after harvest, and I'll neither pay you a dollar nor give up your boxes if you go before. Let this be a lesson, if I overlook it, to confine yourself to the truth." 44

I forget what I answered-we were always a hot-blooded race-but I fancy that several adjectives and the word hypocrite figured therein; while Coombs, shaken out of his usual assumption of ironical courtesy, made a serious mistake when he tried bullying. As he strode toward me, fuming like an irate turkey cock, in an absurdly helpless attitude, I grasped his shoulder and backed him violently against a stall. Then, and whether this was justifiable I do not know, though I know that otherwise not a cent would I ever have got, I took out his wallet, which, as he had been selling stock in Brandon, contained a roll of dollar bills, and counted out the covenanted hire.

"Now I'm going to borrow your spare horse to carry my box," I said. "It will be sent back from Jasper's to-morrow, and if you venture to interfere I shall be compelled to hurt you. Let this also be a lesson to you-never try to bluff an angry man and put your hands up like that."

I think he swore, I am sure he groaned distressfully when I went out with what was due to me. Meeting Harry I told him the story.

"I don't think my guardians care much about me, and I'm coming with you," he said. "Good evening, Mrs. Coombs, you may make dusters of any old clothes I leave. I am going away with Mr. Lorimer, and henceforward I am afraid you will have to trust Marvin, who'll certainly eat the sugar, or do your own plate washing."

So twenty minutes later, while Marvin stood chuckling on the threshold and waved his hat to us, we marched out in triumph, leading Coombs' steed which made an efficient pack-horse. It was dawn the next day when aching and footsore we limped into Jasper's. He lay back in his hide chair laughing until there were tears in his eyes when we told him the tale at breakfast, then smote me on the back as he said: 45

"I'd have given a good deal to see it-the cunning old rascal! Got your full wages out of him?-well, I guess you broke the record. What shall you do now?-stay right where you are. It's a bonanza harvest, and I'll keep my promise; fifteen dollars a month, isn't it? Mr. Lorraine! oh yes, I know him-offer you the same. Then when harvest's over we'll talk again."

Needless to say, we gladly accepted the offer.

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