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   Chapter 7 CHAPTER VI

Lorimer of the Northwest By Harold Bindloss Characters: 17323

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


THE FIRST CROP

Each day brought much the same tasks at Fairmead until the disc-harrows had rent up the clods, and with a seeder borrowed from a neighbor ten miles away we drilled in the grain. While we worked the air above us was filled with the beat of wings, as in skeins, wedges, and crescents the wild fowl, varying from the tiny butter-duck to the brant goose and stately crane, went by on their long journey from the bayous by the sunny gulf to the newly thawn tundra mosses beside the Polar Sea. Legion by legion they came up from the south and passed, though some folded their weary pinions to rest on the way, and for a few short weeks every sloo was dotted with their plumage. Then they went on, and we knew we should see no more of them until the first blasts of winter brought them south again. All this appealed to our sporting instincts, but time was precious then, and though I glanced longingly at Harry's double-barrel, I did not lift it from the wall. Every moment had its duties, and the thought of the mortgage held us to our task.

Then there followed an interlude of building and well-digging, when we sank down some thirty feet or so, and rammed the shaft sides with nigger-head stones, while occasionally some of our scattered neighbors rode twenty miles to lend us assistance. Meantime, a tender flush of emerald crept across the crackling sod, and the birches unfolded their tiny leaves until the bluff shimmered with tender verdure silver inlaid, while the jack-rabbits, which had not as yet 57 wholly put off their winter robes of ermine, scurried, piebald and mottled, through its shadows. Then, while the wheat grew taller, and the air warmer every day, the prairie assumed an evanescent beauty which it presently put off again, for the flush faded from the grasses, and only the birch bluff remained for a refuge filled with cool neutral shadow in a sun-parched land. It was now time for the hay cutting, and we drove the rusty mower here and there across the dazzling plain, upon which willow grove and bluff stood cut off from the levels beneath by glancing vapor, like islands rising out of a shimmering sea. On much of it the grasses grew only to a few inches in length, and we had therefore to seek winter food for our beasts in each dried-up sloo, where they stood sometimes waist-high and even higher. No making was needed; the sun already had done that better than we could, and we merely drove the mower through, after which I went back with the loaded wagon, while Harry rode further out on to the prairie in search of another sloo.

The mosquitoes came down in legions and bit us grievously, until it was necessary to anoint our hair with kerosene. Our dwelling was stifling, so that as a matter of necessity we always cooked outside; but the temperature changed at sundown, and, lying full length on the peppermint-scented hay, we rode home content across the darkening prairie, which faded under the starlight into the semblance of a limitless dusky sea, while the very stillness voiced its own message of infinity. Neither of us would speak at such times. Harry had a turn for emotional sentiment, I knew, but I too could feel that it was good to lie there motionless and silent, and try to grasp its meaning. Then the strained sense of expectancy would fade at the sight of the approaching homestead, or a bronco blundering into a badger-hole would call us back to a work-a-day world. 58

Harvest came, and that year there was neither drought nor untimely frost, and our hearts grew light when the binders piled up a splendid crop. Still, when we proposed to prepare a thanksgiving feast for all our neighbors, Jasper, who had ridden over, grinned as he said, "Better lie low and pay off that mortgage. You're only starting, and they wouldn't expect it of you. Besides, you'll have had your fill of cooking before you have finished with the thrashers."

This proved correct enough, for when the men came in with the thrasher and the homestead vibrated to its hum, others whose harvests were garnered came too, out of good-will, and Harry was cooking and baking all day long. Sometimes for hours together they kept me busy beheading and plucking fowls-we turned a steam jet on them from the engine to make the feathers come off; and it amused me to wonder what Alice would think if she saw me sitting, flecked all over with down, among the feathers, or Harry standing grimed with dust and soot, peeling potatoes by the bucketful beside his field kitchen. When the thrashers departed our larder and our henhouse were empty, and the grocery bill long; but we were only sorry that we could not entertain them more royally, for the men who worked for money at so much the bushel and the men who worked for friendship vied with one another in their labor, and there was no one among them but rejoiced at our success.

Wheat was in good demand at remunerative prices that year, and I remember the day we hauled the last load to the elevators. Winter had set in early, and wrapped in long skin coats we tramped beside the wagons across the waste of crackling sod, while the steam from the horses rose like smoke into the nipping air. We started long before the wondrous green and crimson dawn, for it was nearly a twelve hours' journey to the railway town. We reached it finally, after a tiresome ride; and then for two 59 hours we waited shivering among kicking and biting teams under the gaunt elevators before we could haul in our wagons, and for perhaps fifteen minutes there was a great whirring of wheels. Then they were drawn forth empty, and presently we came out of the office with sundry signed papers readily convertible into coin at Winnipeg, and marched exultant to the hotel, scarcely feeling the frozen earth beneath us in spite of our weariness. No spirituous liquor might be sold there, but for once we meant to enjoy an ample meal which we had not cooked ourselves, served on clean plates and a real white tablecloth.

It was a simple banquet, but we felt like feasting kings, and though since then we have both sat at meat among railroad magnates, deputations from Ottawa, and others great in the land, we never enjoyed one like it. Harry, forgetting he was in Western Canada, tried to slip a silver half-dollar into the waitress' hand, who dropped it on the floor, perhaps because in that region wages are such that the hireling is neither dependent on nor looks for a stranger's generosity. I stooped to raise the coin and hand it her, and then started as for the first time our eyes met, while a wave of color suffused the face of the girl who stepped backward, for it was Minnie Lee.

"Harry," I said, stretching out my hand to her. "This is the lady I told you about. You remember the letter. Now go along, and settle matters with the proprietor. Sit down, Minnie, I want to talk to you. Tell me how you came here, and why you left England, won't you?"

The girl had lost her pink-and-white prettiness. Her face was pale, and she was thinner than before, while there was a hard, defiant look in her eyes. Besides, she seemed ill at ease and startled when I drew out a chair for her, and I too was singularly ill at ease. We had the long room to ourselves, however, for on the prairie meals are served at a 60 definite hour, and usually despatched in ten minutes or so. Few men there waste time lounging over the table.

"I hardly knew you, Ralph-you have changed so much," she said, and I only nodded, for I was impatient to hear her story; and she had surely changed far more than I. The Minnie I used to know was characterized by a love of mischief and childish vanity, but the present one wore rather the air of a woman with some knowledge of life's tragedy.

"It's almost an old story now," she said bitterly. "Father had a craze for religion, mother was always sighing, and there was no peace at home for me. Then I met Tom Fletcher again-you remember him-and when he took me to concerts and dances I felt at last that I had begun to live. The endless drudgery in the mill, the little house in the smoky street, and the weary chapel three times each Sunday, were crushing the life out of me. You understand-you once told me you felt it all, and you went out in search of fortune; but what can a woman do? Still, I dare not tell father. All gaiety was an invention of the devil, according to him. We were married before the registrar-Tom had reasons. I cannot tell you them; but we were married," and she held up a thin finger adorned by a wedding-ring.

I remembered Fletcher as a good-looking clerk with a taste for betting and fanciful dress, who had been discharged f

rom the Orb mill for inattention to his duties, and I wondered that Minnie should have chosen him from among her many other admirers of more sterling character.

"I said nothing to any one," she continued. "Tom was disappointed about something on which he had counted. He'd got into trouble over his accounts, too. There had been a scene with father, who said I was a child of the devil, and when Tom told me there was false accusation against him, and nobody must know we were going, we slipped away 61 quietly. I was too angered to write to father, and it might have put the police on Tom. Tom was innocent, he said. We had very little money, work was hardly to be had-and our child died soon after we settled in Winnipeg."

"Go on," I said gently, and she clenched her hands with a gesture that expressed fierce resentment as well as sorrow as she added:

"The poor little innocent thing had no chance for its life-we were short of even bare necessities, for Tom could pick up only a few dollars now and then-and I think that all that was good in me died with it. So when he found work watching the heater of a store a few hours each night, and the wages would not keep two, I had to go out and earn my bread here-and I sometimes wish I had never been born."

I made no answer for a space. There was nothing I could say that might soften such trouble as was stamped on her face; although I remembered having heard Jasper say that a weight clerk was wanted at the new elevator further down the line. Then, blundering as usual, I said:

"Do you know, Minnie, they blame me at home for bringing you out here, and I heard that your father had sworn to be revenged upon me?"

There was sullen fury in the girl's eyes-she was very young after all-but she kept herself in hand, and answered bitterly:

"It was like their lying tongues. Envy and malice, and always some one's character to be taken away. No; it was Tom-and Tom, God help us both, has lost his head and drinks too much when he can. But I must not keep you, Ralph Lorimer, and henceforward you have nothing to do with me."

A voice called "Minnie," and I had only time to say, "Perhaps I can find some better work for him; and you 62 will write home and tell them the truth for your own and my sake, won't you?" before she hurried away.

Then Harry and I walked down to the freight-siding, where the big box cars hauled out ready from under the elevators were waiting. Two huge locomotives were presently coupled on, there followed a clanging of bells, and we watched the twinkling tail-lights grow dimmer across the prairie. Part of our harvest, we knew, was on board that train, starting on the first stage of its long journey to fill with finest flour the many hungry mouths that were waiting for it in the old land we had left behind. The lights died out in a hollow far away on the prairie's rim, and Harry slipped his arm through mine, perhaps because his heart was full. With much anxiety, ceaseless toil, and the denying ourselves of every petty luxury, we had called that good grain forth from the prairie, and the sale of it meant at least one year free from care.

Before we turned away, straight as the crow flies a cavalcade came clattering up out of the silent prairie, while, after a jingle of harness, merry clear-pitched voices filled the station, and something within me stirred at the sound. There was no trace of Western accent here, though the prairie accent is rarely unpleasant, for these were riders from Carrington who spoke pure English, and were proud of it. Two, with a certain courtliness which also was foreign to that district, helped an elderly lady down from a light carriage luxuriously hung on springs, which must have been built specially at the cost of many dollars, and the rest led their well-groomed horses toward the store stables, or strolled beside the track jesting with one another. None of them wore the skin coats of the settlers. Some were robed in furs, and others in soft-lined deerskin, gaily fringed by Blackfoot squaws, which became them; but except for this they were of the British type most often met with gripping 63 the hot double-barrel when the pheasants sweep clattering athwart the wood, or sitting intent and eager with tight hand on the rein outside the fox cover.

Still, no one could say they had suffered by their translation to a new country, which was chiefly due to Colonel Carrington. He had been successful hitherto at wheat-growing on an extensive scale, and though few of the settlers liked him they could not help admiring the bold far-seeing way in which he speculated on the chances of the weather, or hedged against a risky wheat crop by purchasing western horses. Still, not content with building up the finest property thereabout, he aspired to rule over a British settlement, and each time that he visited the old country at regular intervals several young Englishmen of good family and apparently ample means returning with him commenced breaking virgin prairie. They were not all a success as farmers, the settlers said, and there were occasional rumors of revolt; but if they had their differences with the grim autocrat they kept them loyally to themselves, and never spoke in public of their leader save with respect. Now it was evident that his daughter was expected; they had come to escort her home in state, and no princess could have desired a finer bodyguard. They were the pick of the old country's well-born youth when they came out, and now they had grown to a splendid manhood in the wide spaces of the prairie.

Though they answered our greetings with good fellowship, I am afraid we regarded them a little enviously, for the value of some of their horses would have sown us a crop, and even Harry seemed unkempt beside them. We lived and dressed very plainly at Fairmead that year. Then amid a grinding of brakes, with lights flashing, a long train rolled in, and the group stood, fur cap in hand, about the platform of a car from which a dainty figure looked down at them. 64 It was Grace Carrington, and as I stood a little apart from the rest my heart leaped at the sight of her. Yet, either from bashfulness or foolish pride, I would not move a step nearer.

"What a picture!" said Harry softly. "A princess of the prairie and her subjects doing homage to her! Ralph, I say, you must not stare at the girl like that. But, by Jove, she's smiling this way-yes, she is really beckoning you!"

It was true, for a stripling who wore his deerskin jacket as though it were the dolman of a cavalry officer strode forward, and inclining his head said:

"If you are Mr. Lorimer, Miss Carrington desires to speak with you."

For some reason I drew Harry with me. It may have been that I felt the company of a comrade of my own kind would be comforting in that assembly; and then I forgot everything as, fixing her bright eyes on me, Grace held out her hand.

"It was kind of you to meet me, and this is an unexpected pleasure," she said. "You must come over to Carrington and tell me where you have settled. Oh stay, Raymond, this is Mr. Lorimer-he was kind to me in England, and I want you to invite him to your approaching festivities. You will come, won't you, and bring your friend-very pleased to see you Mr. Lorraine, too; then I shall have an opportunity for talking with you."

"Delighted, of course, to please you," said a tall bronzed man of maturer years, bowing. "Met Mr. Lorimer already; pulled my wagon up most kindly when the team was stalled in a ravine. If I'd known you were from the old country would have ridden over already to ask you."

Further introductions followed, all effected in a queenly way, and with a last pleasant glance toward us Grace moved toward the carriage, while I fancied that some of the 65 younger among her bodyguard regarded us jealously. Harry and I stood silent until the cavalcade vanished into the dimness, and then, while the last beat of hoofs died away, the blood surged through every artery as he said:

"Wasn't she splendid! When she held out her hand to me I felt that I ought to go down on one knee and kiss it, and all that kind of thing, you know. Ralph, you stalked up like a bear; must have been dazed by too much brightness, because you never even raised your hat. Well, one can understand it; but I think some of the others would have liked to cut your big solid throat for you."

Harry was both enthusiastic and impressionable, though I did not think so then, and the whole scene could scarcely have lasted five minutes, but it filled my mind for days afterward, and I can recall it clearly still.

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