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   Chapter 8 CHAPTER VII

Lorimer of the Northwest By Harold Bindloss Characters: 19899

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


HARVEST HOME

It was a bitter night when Harry and I rode into the red glow of light that beat out through the windows of Lone Hollow, the furthest outlying farm of the Carrington group, where, now that the last bushel of his wheat had been sold in Winnipeg, Raymond Lyle was celebrating a bounteous harvest. Round about it, drawn up in ranks, stood vehicles-or rigs, as we call them-of every kind, for it seemed as if the whole country-side had driven in. Most of them were of better make than those we and the majority of the poorer settlers used, and it was hard not to covet when we managed to find a stall for our beasts.

When one has wasted precious time that in the whole season can scarcely be made up again, by riding behind oxen at the exhilarating pace of some two miles an hour, or hauling in grain with half-tamed horses which jib at every hill, it is easy to realize the advantages of an efficient team, and any of those we saw in the Lone Hollow stables would have saved us many dollars each year. Even in the West the poor man is handicapped from the beginning, and must trust to ready invention and lengthened hours of labor to make up for the shortcomings of indifferent tools.

Lyle, who had heard the trampling of hoofs, met us at the door. "It was kind of you to come, and I hope you will enjoy yourselves," he said. "We have tried to make things homely, but, as you know, this isn't England."

We shook off our wrappings and entered the long lamp-lit 67 hall, partly dazed by the sudden glare and warmth after the intense cold. It certainly was different from anything I had seen at home, for here in place of paint and gilding the decoration was in harmony with the country, bizarre and bountiful, with a beauty that was distinctly its own. Few oat-heads grown from English furrows might compare with the pale golden tassels that drooped in graceful festoons from the wall, while among the ruddier wheat-ears and bearded barley, antelope heads peeped out beside the great horns of caribou which the owner of Lone Hollow had shot in the muskegs of the north. Rifles and bright double-bitted axes of much the same pattern as those with which our forbears hewed through Norman mail caught the light of the polished brass lamps and flashed upon the wainscot, while even an odd cross-cut saw had been skillfully impressed into the scheme of ornamentation. But there was nothing pinchbeck or tawdry about them. Whirled high by sinewy hands, or clenched in hard brown fingers while a steady eye stared down the barrel, that a bridge might span a ravine where no bridge had been, or venison help to cut down the grocery bill and leave the more for the breaking of virgin soil, that steel had played its part in the opening up of a wide country. Yet, the suggestion of strict utility even enhanced its effectiveness, and I remembered with a smile the trophies of weapons stamped out by the gross in Birmingham which I had seen adorning our suburban villas at home.

The majority of the guests were English-one could see that at a glance, and the mother country had small reason to be ashamed of her outland sons. The clear skin showed through the snow-blink's tan, and the eyes were bright with a steadfastness that comes from gazing into wide distance. Sun, wind, and snow, the dust of parched earth and the stinging smoke of the drifts, had played their part in hardening 68 them, but still, a little deeper in color, a little stronger in limb, they were the same men one finds dwelling in many an English home. Standing beside a great open hearth, on which to aid the stove a huge pile of birch logs crackled joyously, the representative of an alien race drew a cunning bow across the strings of a dingy violin. He sprang from Gallic stock, a descendant of the old coureurs who for two centuries wandered in search of furs across the wilderness, even as far as the northern barrens, before the Briton came to farm. It was a waltz he played-at least, that was the time; but the music seemed filled with the sighing of limitless pines, and the air was probably known in France three hundred years ago. Still, weather-beaten men, and fair women who were considerably less numerous, swept light-heartedly round to it, and when, declining refreshment then, we found a corner, Harry and I sat staring with all our eyes at the scene before us.

After the monotonous labor of the past two years the swish of light dresses and the rhythmic patter of feet, with the merry faces and joyous laughter, moved me strangely. All this seemed to belong to a different world from the one in which we had been living, and I wondered whether any of those dainty daughters of Carrington would deign to dance with me. They might have been transplanted like English roses from some walled garden at home, and their refined beauty had grown to a fuller blossom on the prairie. Still, I knew they would have faded in the dry heat of the dwellings in an Eastern town.

"How do those French-Canadians learn to play like that?" said Harry. "No one taught them; inherited it, I suppose. I know that air; it's very old, and he's taking liberties with it masterfully; now it's like the cypress singing in the big coulée. Of course, it wasn't learned in one generation, but why does a waltz of that kind unsettle one 69 so, with a suggestion of ancient sorrow sighing through its gladness? But I'm forgetting, and vaporing again. We are ox-drivers, you and I."

I nodded silently, for I had not the gift of ready speech, and it was Harry who most often put my thoughts into words for me. Then I grew intent as he said:

"There she is. Who!-Miss Carrington-is there any one else to look at when she is in the room?"

Grace floated past us dressed as I had somewhere seen her before and could not recall it, though the memory puzzled me. Neither do I know what she wore, beyond that the fabric's color was of the ruddy gold one sees among the stems of ripening grain, while wheat ears nestled between her neck and shoulder, and rustled like barley rippling to the breeze, as with the music embodied in each movement of her form she whirled by us on Ormond's arm. He looked as he did when I last saw him, placidly good-humored, with the eyeglass dangling this time loosely by its cord.

Then I drew in my breath as the music ceased, and Raymond Lyle approached us, saying: "As usual, men are at a discount, but you have not had a dance, and most of the others have. Come, and I'll find you partners. Ah, if you are not tired, Miss Carrington, will you take pity on an old friend of yours? I have many duties, and you will excuse me."

He withdrew quickly, and Grace smiled. "One must never be too tired to dance with an old friend at a prairie feast," she said, running her pencil through the initials on a program which had traveled several hundred miles from Winnipeg. Then I felt uncomfortable, for I guessed the letters R. L. represented my host, who had good-naturedly made way for me. It was a kindly thought, but Raymond Lyle, who was a confirmed bachelor living under his self-willed sister's wing, had evidently guessed my interest and 70 remembered the incident of the jibbing team. It was a square dance, and Harry with a laughing damsel formed my vis-à-vis, but having eyes only for my partner I saw little but a moving mixture of soft colors and embroidered deerskin, for some of the men were dressed in prairie fashion. I felt her warm breath on my neck, the shapely form yielding to my arm, and it was small wonder that I lost myself in the glamour of it, until with the crash of a final chord from the piano the music stopped.

"And you have not danced for four years!" she said as I led her through the press. "Well, it has all come back to you, and out here there is so much more than dancing for a man to do. Yes, you may put down another, there toward the end, and fill in the next one two. I have been looking forward to a quiet talk with you."

I was left alone with pulses throbbing. There was very little in what she said, but her face showed a kindly interest in our doings, and it was no small thing that the heiress of Carrington should place me on the level of an old friend. Harry was chatting merrily with his late partner, who seemed amused at him, and this was not surprising, for Harry's honest heart was somewhat strangely united with a silver tongue, and all women took kindly to him. I found other partners and he did the same, so it was some time before we met again, and I remember remarking that all this gaiety and brightness seemed unreal after our quarters at Fairmead, and ended somewhat lamely:

"I suppose it's out of mere pity she danced with me. As you said, we are of the soil, earthy, and a princess of the prairie is far beyond our sphere. Yet she seemed genuinely pleased to see me. If it were even you, Harry!"

He laughed as he pointed to a large mirror draped in cypress, saying, "Look into that. You are slow at understanding certain matters, Ralph. Not seen the whole of 71 your noble self in a glass for two years? Neither have I. And it hasn't dawned upon you that you came out in the transition stage-a grub, or shall we say a chrysalis? No, don't wrinkle your forehead; it's only an allegory. Now you have come out of the chrysalis-see?"

Part of this was certainly true, for at Coombs' we had the broken half of a hand-glass to make our simple toilet, and at Fairmead a whole one of some four inches diameter which cost two bits, tin-backed, at the store, and I remember saying that it was an extravagance. Now I stared into the long glass, standing erect in my one gala garment of fringed deerskin.

"A little too bull-necked," Harry remarked smiling, "but, except for Raymond Lyle, the stiffest-framed man in the room. Solid and slow from shoulders to ankles; head-shall we say that of a gladiator, or a prize-fighter? Good gracious, Ralph, remember you're in a ball ro

om, not trying on your trousseau."

His remarks were not exactly flattering, but for the first time I felt glad to stand a strong man among those who had other advantages behind them, though I fumed inwardly when presently I heard Harry's partner say:

"What a curious man your friend is! I saw him standing before the big glass actually admiring himself."

And Harry had the mendacity to assure her that this was a favorite habit of mine.

Afterward I chatted for a time with the giver of the feast. We had much in common, for he was a stalwart plainly spoken man whose chief concern was the improvement of his holding, and from what he said it was clear that taking season by season his bank account increased but little, while he mentioned that several of his neighbors lost a certain sum yearly. There are two ways of farming in the West, and it seemed that after all Harry and I had chosen 72 the better, the creeping on from acre to acre, living frugally, and doing oneself whatever is needed, then investing each dollar hardly saved in better implements.

Nevertheless, I saw that the men of Carrington who followed the other plan, spending and hiring freely, were doing a good work for the country, because even if they lost a small sum each year most of them could afford it, and their expenses would have been much greater at home. They helped to maintain a demand for good horses and the product of clever workmen's skill; they supported the storekeepers of the wooden towns; and the poorer settlers could always earn a few dollars by working for them. So it dawned upon me that it is well for the nation that some are content to take their pleasure, as these men did, in an occupation that brought them small profit, sinking their surplus funds for the benefit of those who will follow them. Neither does the mother country lose, because she reaps the fruit of their labors in the shape of cheap and wholesome food.

At last the conversation drifted around to the founder of Carrington.

"An austere man," said Lyle, "and he's somewhat different from the rest of us-ready to gather in wherever he can, very hard to get ahead of at a deal; but if he is keen it's all for the sake of his daughter. There are two things Carrington is proud of, one is this settlement, and the other his heiress. He's not exactly an attractive personage, but there are whispers that some painful incident in her mother's life soured him, and one learns to respect him. His word is better than most other men's bond, and if his will is like cast iron his very determination often saves trouble in the end."

Silence succeeded, for bold chords of music held the assembly still, and I saw Harry seated at the piano, which apparently had escaped serious damage in its long transit 73 across the prairie. This was a surprise, for I had not suspected Harry of musical proficiency. There was power in his fingers, hardened as they were, and when the ringing prelude to an English ballad filled the room more than his partner felt that he could call up a response to his own spirit from the soul of the instrument. The lad beside him also sang well, perhaps because he was young and sentiment was strong within him, but sturdy labor under the open heaven seems inimical to the development of hypercritical cynicism, and the men who at home would probably have applauded that song with an indulgent smile listened with kindling eyes and then made the long room ring with their bravos. Here, far away from the land that bred them, they were Britons still, and proud of their birthright.

Then Grace Carrington sang, and I would have given years of my life for Harry's skill, which seemed a bond between them as she smiled gratefully upon him. The words were simple, as became the work of a master who loved the open, and the music flowed with them like the ripple of a glancing water; so a deeper silence settled upon all, and I was back in England where a sparkling beck leaped out from the furze of Lingdale and sped in flashing shallows under the yellow fern, while somewhere beyond the singer's voice I could almost hear the alders talking to the breeze. When it ceased the sound grew louder, but it was only a bitter blast that came from the icy Pole moaning about the homestead of Lone Hollow.

Raymond Lyle stepped forward to express the wish of the rest, and Grace bent her fair head to confer with Harry, who nodded gravely, after which she stood still, while a stately prelude that was curiously familiar awoke old memories. Then the words came, and from the lips of others they might have seemed presumptuous or out of place, but Grace Carrington delivered them as though they were a 74 message which must be hearkened to, and there was an expectant hush when the first line, "A sower went forth sowing," rang clearly forth. Later some of those about me breathed harder, and I saw that big Raymond's eyes were hazy, while one hard brown hand was clenched upon his knee, as in sinking cadence we heard again, "Within a hallowed acre He sows yet other grain."

Then after the last note died away and there was only the moaning of the wind, he said simply, "Thank you, Miss Carrington. I am glad you sang it at the Lone Hollow harvest home."

"I would never have played it here for any one else," said Harry presently. "These things are not to be undertaken casually, but she-well, I felt they had to listen, and I did the best that was in me. I think it was her clean-hearted simplicity."

It was some time afterward when I led Grace out and spent a blissful ten minutes swinging through the mazes of a prairie dance, before we found a nook under dark spruce branches from the big coulée, where Grace listened with interest while I told her of our experiences in the Dominion. The background of somber sprays enhanced her fair beauty, and her dress, which, though there was azure about it, was of much the same color, melted into the festoon of wheat stalks below. The French-Canadian was playing another of his weird waltzes, and it may have been this that reminded me, for now I remembered how I had seen her so before.

"You will not laugh, I hope, when I tell you that all this seems familiar," I said hesitatingly. "Sometimes in a strange country one comes upon a scene that one knows perfectly, and we feel that, perhaps in dreams, we have seen it all before. Why it is so, I cannot tell, but once in fancy I saw you with a dress exactly like the one you are wearing 75 now, and the tall wheat behind you. Of course, it sounds ridiculous, but, as Harry says, we do not know everything, and you believe me, don't you?"

Grace's face grew suddenly grave, and there was a heightened color in it as she answered: "Your friend is a philosopher, besides a fine musician, and I quite believe you. I have had such experiences-but I think these fancies, if fancies they are, are best forgotten. Still, tell me, did you dream or imagine anything more?"

"Yes," I said, still puzzled as a dim memory came back, "I saw your father too. He seemed in trouble, and I was concerned in it. This I think was on the prairie, but there were tall pines too; while across the whole dream picture drove an alternate haze of dust and snow."

Grace shivered as though the relation troubled her, and was silent until she said with a smile:

"It must be that ghostly music. Louis of Sapin Rouge has missed his vocation. We will talk no more of it. You once did me a kindness; I wonder whether you would repeat it."

"I would go to the world's end," I commenced hotly, but stopped abashed as she checked me with a gesture, though I fancied that she did not seem so displeased at my boldness as she might have been. Then she answered, smiling:

"I thought you were too staid and sensible for such speeches, and they hardly become you, because of course you do not mean it. It is nothing very serious. There are signs of bad weather, and my aunt is not strong, so, as Miss Lyle presses us, we shall stay here until to-morrow noon, and I want you to ride over and tell my father. He might grow uneasy about me-and for some reason I feel uneasy about him, while, as he has been ailing lately, I should not like for him to venture across the prairie. It seems 76 unfair to ask you, but you are young and strong; and I should like you to meet him. He has his peculiarities, so our neighbors say, but he has ever been a most indulgent parent to me, and he can be a very firm friend. You will do this, as a favor, won't you?"

She gave me her hand as she rose, and, mastering a senseless desire to do more than this, I bowed over it and hurried away, feeling that hers was the favor granted, for Ormond and many others would gladly have ridden fifty miles through a blizzard to do her bidding. It was for this reason that I made my excuses to our host quietly, and Harry laughed as he said: "I'll ride over with the others for you when the dance is finished, but that won't be until nearly dawn. The length of these prairie festivities is equaled only by their rarity. But beware, Ralph. You are a poor wheat-grower, and too much of those bright eyes is not good for you."

I was glad of the skin coat and fur cap before I even reached the stables, and Jasper's horse made trouble when I led him out. He knew the signs of the weather and desired to stay there, because they were not promising. Now, though winter is almost Arctic in that region, the snow-fall is capricious and generally much lighter than that further east, though it can come down in earnest now and then. Thus, swept by the wind, the grass was bare on the levels, or nearly so, and there was no passage for steel runners, while our poor wagon, which would have carried us much more snugly swathed in wrappings, had broken down, as when wanted it usually did. So, shivering to the backbone, I swung myself into the saddle and hardened my heart to face the bitter ride.

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