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   Chapter 10 CHAPTER IX

Lorimer of the Northwest By Harold Bindloss Characters: 24309

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


It was some time after the holding up of Carrington Manor before I was able, with Jasper's assistance, to fulfill my promise to Minnie Fletcher. Jasper knew everybody within fifty miles up and down the C. P. R. Line, and at least as far across the prairie, while they all had a good word for him. So when he heard the story he drove us over to Clearwater, where an elevator had been built beside the track, only to find that the agent in charge of it had already a sufficient staff. He, however, informed us that the manager of a new creamery wanted a handy man to drive round collecting milk from the scattered homesteads who could also help at the accounts and clerking. Such a combination might not have been usual in England, but in the Western Dominion one may find University graduates digging trenches and unfortunate barristers glad to earn a few dollars as railroad hands.

"I guess we'll fix him up in that creamery," said Jasper. "The man who runs it was raised not far from the old folks' place in Ontario," and we started forthwith on an apparently endless ride across the frozen prairie. Some of our horses are not much to look at, and others are hard to drive, but the way they can haul the light wagons or even the humble ground sleigh along league after league would surprise those not used to them. We spent one night with a Highland crofter in a dwelling that resembled a burrow, for most of it was underground, but the rammed earth walls kept out the cold and the interior was both warm and 92 clean. We spent another in somewhat grim conviviality at the creamery, for the men whose fathers hewed sites for what are now thriving towns out of the bush of Ontario are rather hard and staunch than sprightly.

Still, the manager did his best for us, and said on parting, "Send him right along. I'll give any friend of yours a show if Jasper will vouch for him. Pay's no great thing as yet, but he can live on it, and if we flourish he'll sail ahead with us."

So we brought Thomas Fletcher out from Winnipeg by joint subscription, and it cost us rather more than we cared about, for he came second class, while at that time Harry and I would have traveled "Colonist," or on opportunity would have earned our passage by tending stock. If we could spare a dollar in those days we wanted it for our land. The old jauntiness had gone out of Fletcher. He looked worn and thinner, with, I fancied, signs of indulgence in alcohol, but he professed his willingness to work hard at anything that would keep a roof over Minnie's head. We drove him across to the creamery, and the manager seemed disappointed when he saw him, while on the journey home Jasper said:

"I've been sizing up that young man. Strikes me he's too much like the trash you British are over-fond of dumping on to us. Why can't your people understand that if a man's a dead failure over there we don't want him? Dare say he's honest, but he's got no sand. Let that fellow sit up and talk over a glass of rye whiskey and a bad cigar and he's right there; set him wrestling with a tough job and he'll double up."

Jasper posed as a judge of character, and I felt inclined to agree with him. Fletcher had not the appearance of a vicious or dishonest man, but I fancied under pressure of circumstances he might become one. 93

We built a new stable and barn that winter, hauling suitable logs-and they were very hard to find-ten miles across the prairie, while Harry nearly lost his hands by frost-bite bringing in one load. Nevertheless, and there is leisure in that season, we drove over now and then to Fletcher's humble dwelling beside the creamery, and were both embarrassed the first time Minnie thanked us with tears in her eyes. Already she was recovering her good looks and spirits, but as Fletcher's pay would be scanty until spring the odd bags of potatoes and flour we brought them were evidently acceptable. We had received help freely when we needed it, and it seemed only fitting that now we should help others in turn; so we did what little we could, and, as transpired later, it brought trouble on us. Also we managed to pay a few visits to other neighbors who lived at any distance within thirty miles, including a few farms of the Carrington group, where, perhaps especially for Harry's sake, they made us welcome, and we went twice to Carrington Manor. The second visit was a memorable one.

It was a still, starlit night with an intense frost and a few pale green streamers shimmering in the north, but the big main room of the Manor with its open fireplace and central stove was very warm and snug. Our team was safely stabled, for owing to the distance we could not well return that night, and since the affair with the cattle thieves Colonel Carrington had so far as in him lay been cordial. He sat beside the glowing birch logs, silent and stern of aspect as usual, with a big shaggy hound which I had seen roll over a coyote with a broken spine curled up against his knee, while the firelight flickered redly across his lean, bronzed face. Opposite sat his sister, who partly resembled him, though in her case the Carrington dignity was softened by a winning sympathy. She was an old maid of a fine but 94 perhaps not common type, white-haired and stately, and in all things gracious.

Harry, who was a favorite of hers, knelt with one knee on a wolf-skin rug, turning over a collection of photographs on a low table that she might see, and she smiled at some of his comments. Ormond leaned against the wall behind them interposing whimsical sallies, and casting occasional glances toward Grace and myself. Resigning his commission, he had lately, we understood, purchased land near the Manor. One or two other of the Colonel's subjects also were present. Being lighted with shaded lamps that shed their soft radiance only where it was wanted, portions of the long room remained in shadow, so Grace and I, sitting near one window, could look out between the looped-back curtains across the prairie. High over the sweep of dimly glimmering snow hung a vault of fathomless indigo. It was not such a sky as one sees in England, but rather a clear transparency where the stars, ranged one behind the other, led the gaze back and lost it in infinity, while at intervals a steely scintillation flickered up from horizon to zenith and then back again. Feathery frost-flowers on the window framed the picture like a screen of delicate embroidery.

I do not think either of us said much, but I felt that we had a kindred interest in the spectacle. Within there was warmth and light and life; outside, impressive silence reigned unbroken, with the coldness of the grave. Yet there was one man who, poorly nourished and still more poorly clad, had the courage to cross long leagues of frozen prairie on foot, for presently we heard a knocking at the door, and after an altercation with somebody outside a stranger walked with uneven steps into the room. White crystals sprinkled his old English coat, a most inadequate protection against such weather, while his breath was frozen about the collar, and the fur cap he could scarcely hold in 95 one stiffened hand was of the cheap and rubbishly description that Jew peddlers retail to the new arrival in Winnipeg. His age might have been fifty, but he had been bent by toil or sickness, and his pinched face was a study in itself. Anxiety, suspense, and fierce determination seemed written on it.

"I'm wanting Ralph Lorimer, who came out from England. They told me he was here," he said, and clutched at the table, for, as often happens, the change of temperature had been too much for him.

Then I recollected what Jasper, who had been in to Winnipeg, told me a day or two before. "I looked in at the Tecumseh House, and the clerk mentioned that a wild man from the old country had been asking for you. Wouldn't answer any questions; a lunatic of some sort, the clerk reckoned."

Nevertheless, as I stood up by the window I had no suspicion of the truth, though perhaps Harry had, for, drawing forward a chair, he said: "Feeling dizzy, are you not? Better sit down. But before we answer I should like to know who you are, and what you want with him."

"What has that to do with thee?" was the fierce answer. "I'm wanting Ralph Lorimer, and if he's alive in Canada I'll find him!"

I stepped out into the lamplight, saying: "You need not search far. With your permission, Miss Carrington! Now I am only a guest here. Will you follow me?"

The drawn face twitched, his left hand was clenched, and the other fumbled inside the breast of the threadbare coat as the old man turned to meet me.

"No; here before them all I'll ask thee," he said hoarsely. "I'm Adam Lee of Stoney Clough. Where's my daughter, Minnie Lee, that left her home to follow thee?" 96

The words seemed to break in on the warmth and harmony like a blast of Arctic cold, and sudden silence followed them. Colonel Carrington leaned forward with an angry glitter in his eyes, Miss Carrington watched me in cold surprise, and Grace-well, I do not care to recall her face. Once afterward I saw her look the same, and was thankful that her scornful glance rested on another man. Then, while I stood bolt upright, staring at the speaker, and wondering how I could make the matter plain, others intervened, for Ormond, turning toward Colonel Carrington, said:

"I fancy, sir, this is not the place for-er-such explanations. They might prove embarrassing."

Colonel Carrington glanced at his sister, who followed by the rest had already risen from her chair, beckoning to Grace, but Harry broke in.

"I agree with Captain Ormond in part," he said, "but this is a serious matter. We have all unfortunately heard the charge, and in fairness to Mr. Lorimer we should hear him refute it. It's either a cruel mistake, sir, or gratuitous malice, and I would stake my last dollar on his honor. A few words will suffice."

It was a kindly thought of Harry's, and the Colonel nodded.

"You will excuse us, Jessy," he said. "Geoffrey, as a matter of fairness he is perfectly right. Now, sir, for the space of two minutes will you restrain your impatience and follow us?"

Adam Lee of Stoney Clough, however, thought differently. I had never seen him before, but I knew him well by reputation; for, though not born there, he was one of the erratic ultra-reformers one may find in many an English industrial town. They have left all regular creeds and parties behind, and look for the regeneration of an iniquitous 97 world by some fantastic new religion, or the subversion of all existing authorities. Some, it is true, live lives of self-denial, and die, worn out by disappointment, of a broken heart, but the rest develop into fanatics of savage bigotry.

"No! I've followed him weary and hungry for many days," he said. "He doesn't leave my sight until he has answered me. Stop! you that sit warm in luxury, pampering your sinful bodies and grinding the poor, you shall hear what one of your kind has done, and judge between us. The tale will be good for you. Shall the rich rob us of our children, as they rob us of our bread?"

He flung out one arm as he spoke, and there was a rude power in voice and gesture that commanded attention. Neither was his accent now altogether that of Lancashire, for Lee, as is not uncommon, would sometimes speak a purer English than the local vernacular. Miss Carrington glanced past him toward the door, irresolute, and Grace leaned forward staring at him as though fascinated, while perhaps I of all the others found the sentiment familiar. It was the same spirit which, trammeled by poverty and ignorance, stirs many a man weary of a hopeless struggle for better things, and blazes into strange coruscations of eloquence in market-square orations and from the platforms of conventicles where men whose religion is a thing of terror worship the jealous God of the Hebrews.

"Nay, sit still and hear." The words fell as though they were an order. "I am a poor man, a maker of shoes for the poor who could not always buy them, and I had one daughter. She was all

I had, and I wrestled with the devil for her that she might escape perdition through the snare of beauty. But the nephew of a rich man cast desiring eyes upon her, and Satan helped him. He might well be strong and comely, for he fed on the finest, while when trade was bad half of us went cold and hungry in Stoney 98 Clough; but he was filled with the wiles of the devil and the lusts of the flesh, so when there were plenty of his own kind to choose among he tempted the poor man's daughter who worked for a pittance in his uncle's mill. Her mother died; they mocked me at the chapel; and I have come four thousand miles to find him, but now and here he shall answer. Ralph Lorimer of Orb Mill, where is Minnie Lee?"

His hand was clear of the threadbare coat now; something glinted in it, and I looked into the muzzle of a pistol. But Geoffrey Ormond, in spite of his surface languidness, was quick of thought and action, and with swift dexterity gripped his right arm from behind. Then, and we were never quite sure how it happened, though the weapon was evidently a cheap Belgian revolver, and perhaps the hammer shook down, there was a ringing crash, a cry from Grace, a tinkle of falling glass, and Adam Lee stood empty-handed, while Ormond, who flung down the smoking weapon, said coolly:

"It is safer with me. These things are dangerous to people who don't understand them, and you may be thankful that, without perhaps intending it, you are not a murderer."

"Thank you, Geoffrey," said Colonel Carrington. "Lee, sit down. I don't know what your religious or political crazes are, and it doesn't matter, but I have rather more power here than an English magistrate, and if you move again, by the Lord I'll send you in irons to Winnipeg for attempted murder. Mr. Lorimer, I am not inclined to thank you, but if you have any explanation you had better give it to him."

Lee, I learned, was a fearless man, with the full courage of his somewhat curious convictions, but there were few who could withstand Colonel Carrington, and, half-dazed, 99 half-savage, he did his bidding, while again every eye in the room was turned upon me.

"Minnie Lee was certainly employed in my uncle's mill in Lancashire," I said slowly, "but on my word of honor nothing ever passed between us that all the world might not hear. She married a former clerk there, one Thomas Fletcher, secretly, and at present lives with him at the Willow Lake creamery. I met her for the first time in Canada at the Elktail hotel, where she was a waitress, and at her request helped to find her husband the situation. She promised to write home, but evidently did not do so."

"It is perfectly true," said Harry. "I was present at that meeting. If our visitor has any doubts on the subject he has only to ride over there and see."

Lee gasped for breath, recovered himself, and strode toward me with fingers trembling and his eyes blood-shot.

"Is it true?" he said. "I know thy vain pride in an honor that can stoop to steal the honor of the poor; it is only women to whom thy kind tell lies. Here, before these witnesses, tell me again, is it Gospel true?"

He seemed half-crazed by excitement and over-fatigue, while his relief was evidently tempered by a fear that we might yet be bent on duping him; but I pitied him in all sincerity, for whatever were his foibles it was evident that this broken-down wreck of humanity with the warped intellect loved his daughter, and as I wondered what would most quickly set his mind at rest Harry said stiffly:

"We do not lie to any one, and we are poor men, too. At least we work for a bare living harder than many English poor. On his friend's word as-well, in deference to your prejudices, we'll say an honest man-Mr. Lorimer has told you nothing but the truth. You will find Mrs. Fletcher safe and well at the Willow Lake creamery." 100

"Then I'm going there now," was the answer. "I thank thee for the story. No, I don't want the pistol. It was the devil tempted me to bring it, but it was only to force the truth from him, and it went off of itself."

"You are somewhat premature," said Colonel Carrington. "We haven't quite done with you. As I said, I hold myself responsible for the peace of Carrington, and though I am inclined to believe it was an accident, you can't ride twenty miles hungry at midnight. You came here without my invitation, and you have customs of your own, but you'll certainly get lost and frozen on the prairie if you leave this house before to-morrow morning."

They stood facing each other, a curious contrast, the pinched and bowed cobbler and the army officer, but there was the same stubborn pride in both; for with a quaint dignity, which in some measure covered its discourtesy, the former made answer in the tongue of the spinning country:

"I thank thee, but I take no favors from the rich. Thou and the others like thee have all the smooth things in this life, though even they cannot escape the bitterness that is hidden under them. Well, maybe thou'lt find a difference in the next. Good night to thee."

He marched out, and we heard the door crash to.

"I dare say he is right," the Colonel said, with a curious smile. "At times I almost hope we will. An interesting character, slightly mad, I think; heard of such people, but I never met them."

This was evidently true, for the lot of Colonel Carrington had not been cast among the alleys of a spinning town where the heavens are blackened by factory smoke, and as the silver value changes in the East there is hunger among the operatives. In such places the mind of many a thinking man, worn keen as it were by poor living, sickened by foulness and monotony, makes fantastic efforts to reach 101 beyond its environment, and occasionally hurries its owner to the brink of what some call insanity, and perhaps is not so.

Then one lonely and pathetic figure, with bent head and shambling gait, grew smaller down the great white waste of prairie.

"I am very sorry for him," Grace said, "but the poor old man will never reach Willow Lake on foot, even if he could find the way. He must have walked many miles already, and he will be frozen before morning. Some one must go after him."

"If you will allow us, Miss Carrington, I think we had better take our leave and drive him there on our homeward way. I am sorry that all this happened under your roof," I said. "Harry, we must hurry before we lose him;" and Colonel Carrington answered coldly.

"I am inclined to agree with you."

Brief leavetakings followed. Miss Carrington was cordial, but, and it may have been exaggeration of sentiment, I dare not look at Grace with the shadow of such a charge hanging over me. Neither, I think, did the Colonel shake hands with me; and when the sleigh sped hissing down the beaten trail Harry said:

"Ralph, you almost make one angry. Of course, she is too high for you; but there was no reason you should look like a convicted felon when we took the trouble to demonstrate your innocence. Confusion to Thomas Fletcher and all his works, I say! Why should that invertebrate wastrel have turned up to plague us so?"

Some time had elapsed before we got the horses harnessed, because they objected strenuously, and several branching trails crossed the prairie, so we spent a much longer time than I liked in driving through the bitter cold before we found my late accuser sitting under a copse of willows, and apparently awaiting his death. As the settlers say 102 when it freezes on the prairie, you can't fool with that kind of cold. Harry for some reason swore profanely.

"Get in, and we'll take you straight to Willow Lake," he said, lifting the unfortunate man, who already had almost lost the use of his limbs, and who answered with his teeth chattering:

"You two are very good; I couldn't drag myself further; walked there from Elktail to-day, and I felt main drowsy. What brought thee after me? From one of thy sort I never expected it."

"I don't care what you expected," said Harry briefly, "so you needn't trouble to tell me. Get into these furs here before you freeze to death; another half-hour would have made an end of you."

The team already had traveled far that day, but they responded gallantly to Harry's encouragement. The cold bit deep, however, and I could scarcely move a limb when, toward midnight, with a hiss of runners and a jingle of bells, we came into sight of Fletcher's shanty by Willow Lake. As luck would have it a light still shone in the window, and he opened the door when Harry and I made shift to draw some wrappings over the team. It grieved me to leave the poor beasts waiting there, for I found it difficult even to speak.

"It's Mr. Lorimer, Minnie," Fletcher shouted; and before I could intervene a woman's shape filled the lighted door, while Harry said softly, "Confound it! I hoped to have got out before the play commenced."

"We have brought you a visitor, Minnie," I said. "You must not be surprised. There's nothing too strange to happen in a new country. Harry, help me with him;" and between us we half carried Lee inside, for all the strength had gone out of him. The hot room reeled about me, and there was a drumming in my head, but with an 103 effort, I said, "It's your father, Minnie. You forgot the letter, and he came over to Carrington in search of me."

She dropped the stove-iron in her hand with a startled cry. Fletcher blinked at us stupidly, and the old man sat down with one elbow on the table and his head drooping forward limply, while for a moment or two afterward no one moved, and the ticking of a nickeled clock almost maddened me. Then the woman came forward timidly with the word "Father" on her lips, and Lee, groaning as though in pain, checked her with a gesture. "Who is this man here, lass?" he said.

"My husband, Thomas Fletcher; you ought to remember him. We were married before I left home," she said.

Harry coughed, while Lee said hoarsely: "I thank the Lord for it; lass, thou hast acted cruelly, but we'll say no more of that. I've left all I had to find thee, and now I'm only glad."

There were tears in Minnie's eyes as she leaned over him with one arm round his shoulder, but I fancied there was a flash of resentment in them too.

"If you had listened that night before you said what you did, all might have been different," she answered. "But I'm so glad to see you, and hungry for news. How did you leave mother, and the shop? I don't care to hear about the chapel."

"Thy mother is dead. The Lord took her," the old man answered solemnly, though as yet the warmth brought only pain to him. "I'll hear no word against the chapel. Nay," as the woman straightened herself with a cry, "she grieved sorely; but it was the typhoid, and to the last she would hear no ill of thee. The shop, I sold it; and maybe there's harness to mend, and saddles, that will earn my bread in this country. I'm an old broken man, and a little will content me. A weary time of struggle and black shame 104 I've suffered for thee; but now there's nought that matters when I find thee so."

"We must go," I said. "Our team is freezing and we can't afford to lose it;" and Minnie, touching her father, said, "You should thank Mr. Lorimer. Forty miles at least he has driven to-day, and there's another fifteen before him;" but ere he could turn I bundled Harry out of the door, and two minutes later we were flying across the prairie.

"I'm sorry for the old man," said Harry. "Fletcher didn't look delighted, and perhaps it's not to be wondered at. As to Minnie, she'll probably cry over him all night; but I hardly fancy she has quite forgiven him. It's not a nice thing, either, when you think of it. And I suppose it cost the old fanatic a fearful wrench to give up what he considered his mission to reform that benighted town. Lord, what fools-it's true-we mortals are."

I was too drowsy and cold to answer, and how we got the team into the stables or even found Fairmead I do not remember; but we probably did it by force of habit, and it was high noon the next day before we awakened.

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