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   Chapter 21 CHAPTER XIX

Lorimer of the Northwest By Harold Bindloss Characters: 19228

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


It was late in the afternoon of the next day when Harry and I sat figuring in our shanty, while Johnston lay on a heap of cedar twigs sucking at his pipe and encouraging us languidly.

"I never could stand figures, and that's perhaps why I'm poor," he said. "Go on, you are doing famously, and, though Ralph can't add up correctly to save his life, I'll take your word for it."

He formed a characteristic picture of the free lance as he lay there, bronzed and blonde-bearded, with his massy limbs disposed in an attitude of easy grace, awaiting the result with a careless unconcern until Harry flung a long boot at him as a signal for silence.

"As the surveyor told you, Ralph, we can't well lose money on this last venture, even if we wanted to," said Harry at length. "You'll observe I'm almost getting superstitious. Now, on cashing the order, we can repay your loan, keeping back sufficient to meet emergencies, while with the rest one of us could return to Fairmead and plough every available acre for next spring's sowing. Many things suggest that you are the one to go. Johnston and I with the others could get the timber out during the winter-we have worked in the snow before-and I would join you in the spring. That, however, again raises a point that must be settled once for all. Are we to hold on to our first ambition, or turn contractors?" 210

Again there was a silence through which the roar of the river reached us brokenly, and for some minutes I breathed the smell of hot dust and resinous twigs that entered the open doorway.

"I hold on to the first," I said finally.

"And I stand by you," answered Harry.

Simultaneously we glanced at Johnston, who looked up with the same gay indifference he had manifested when we floundered half-fed, knee-deep in slush of snow. "I'll save you unpleasant explanations," he said. "I'm a stormy petrel, and the monotonous life of a farmer would pall on me, so I'll see you through the railroad contract, and then-well, I'll thank you for a space of pleasant comradeship, and go on my way again. The mountain province is sufficiently good for me, and some day I'll find either a gold mine in it, or, more likely, a grave. If not, you can count on a visit whenever I am hard up and hungry."

The words were typical of the man, though their undercurrent of melancholy troubled me; but, for we knew he spoke the truth in regard to the farming, the matter was settled so. I should much have preferred that Harry return to Fairmead, but it was clear that the task most suited me. Perhaps Johnston guessed my reluctance, for he said playfully: "Is not banishment worse than snow slides or the high peak's frost, and what are all the flowers of the prairie to the blood-red rose of the valley that was grafted from Lancastrian stock?"

Thereupon Harry deftly dropped an almost-empty flour bag on his head, and the consultation broke up amid a cloud of white dust.

"This," remarked Johnston, "is the beginning of riches. Two days ago, he would have carefully swept up the fragments to make flapjacks."

Thus it came about that the next morning I boarded the 211 main line express, and traveled first-class with a special pass, while as luck would have it the conductor, who evinced an unusual civility when he glanced at the autograph thereon, was the same man I had worsted the memorable night when I arrived a penniless stranger on the prairie. "If you want anything in these cars, just let me know," he said.

"I will," I answered, thrusting back the wide-brimmed hat as I looked at him. "The last time we traveled together you were not so accommodating. We had a little dispute at Elktail one night in the snow."

"General Jackson!" exclaimed the conductor. "But you didn't travel with that name on your ticket then. Say, it was all a mistake and in the way of business. You won't bear malice?"

He vanished without awaiting an answer, and I leaned back on the cushions chuckling softly, after which, fishing out my pipe, I sank into a soothing reverie. There was no doubt that this kind of traveling had its advantages, and it appeared equally certain that I had earned a few days' luxurious holiday, while, as the blue wreaths curled up, the towering pines outside the windows changed into the gaunt chimneys of smoky Lancashire. Then they dwindled to wind-dwarfed birches, and I was lashing the frantic broncos as they raced the hail for the shelter of a bluff, until once more it seemed to be autumn and a breadth of yellow wheat stood high above the prairie, while the rhythmic beat of wheels changed to the rattle of the elevators lifting in the golden grain. Here, however, roused by a scream of the whistle as the long train swept by a little station, I found that the pipe lay among feathery ashes on my knee, and an hour had passed, while I knew that under the touch of sleep my thoughts had turned mechanically into the old channel.

It was toward noon when I left the cars at a station looking down upon a broad reach of sunlit river which 212 wound past maples, willows, and a few clearings through a deep valley. Martin Lorimer and Alice met me on the platform, and his greeting was hearty.

"We have watched every train since we last saw you," he said. "Alice, though she won't own it, has been anxious, too. Never spent such an interesting time as I did up yonder, and we're going to make it pleasant for you here. Of course, you'll stay with us a week or two?"

The old man's face fell as I answered that time was pressing, and I must return the following day, while for some reason Alice turned her face aside, but she laughed pleasantly.

"Your uncle has been talking of nothing else the last two days," she said. "I am glad I did not leave him with those wild men in the rejoicing city. Some of them, however, seemed very nice. Meanwhile, I think lunch is waiting for us."

We reached the pretty chalet hotel, which was hardly completed then, though it is a famous resort now, and it was a new experience, after faring hardly on doughy flapjacks and reistit pork of our own cooking, to sit at a well-ordered table covered with spotless linen. Still better did it seem to see Alice smiling upon me across the flowers in the glasses and sparkling silver, and Martin Lorimer's cheery face as, while he pressed the good things upon me, we chatted of old times and England. It is only through adversity and hardship that one learns to appreciate fully such an interlude.

My uncle had, however, not yet recovered his strength, and when later his eyes grew heavy Alice whispered that he usually slept in the heat of the afternoon, and I was glad to follow her into a garden newly hewn out of the forest. We sat there in scented shadow under the branches of giant redwoods, with the song of rippling water in our ears, and I remember taking Alice into my confidence about the mysterious 213 loan. She listened with interest, and once more I noticed how ill she looked.

"You have more good friends than you think, Ralph; and it was of service to you, was it not?"

"Yes," I answered with emphasis. "Of the greatest service! Perhaps it saved us from ruin, but at first I almost decided not to touch it."

Alice laughed, a clear laugh that mingled musically with the call of a wood pigeon in the green dimness above.

"You need hardly tell me that-all great men have their weaknesses; but seriously, Ralph, don't you think if the good friend desired to keep it a secret it is hardly fair to try to find him out? No, from what you tell me, I hardly think you will unravel the mystery while the donor-lender, I mean-lives. Besides, even if you never do, you can repay it by assisting some hard-pressed comrade in distress. Yes, I should fancy the person who lent it would prefer that way. However, I want to tell you about your sister Aline. She has grown into a handsome young woman, too handsome almost to fight her own way unprotected in the world, but she is like yourself in some respects, and will neither live with us nor let your uncle help her. She is teaching now-do you know what women are paid for teaching in some private schools? And I don't think she is happy. The last time I saw her I almost cried afterward, though she would only tell me that she was choking for sunlight and air. Even her dress was worn and shabby. Ralph, you know how old friends we are, and I have been wondering-you really must be sensible-whether I could help her through you?"

Something stung me to the quick, and I clenched one hand savagely, for in the grim uphill battle I had nearly forgotten Aline. It was so long since I had seen her, and when each day's hard work was done we were almost too tired to think. Still, my brow was crimson with shame when I remembered 214 that my sister went, it might be, scantily fed, while what plans I made were all for my own future and Grace.

"That is my part," I answered hotly. "She should have written frankly to her brother."

Alice stopped me. "You do not understand women, Ralph, and she knew that you too were struggling. Neither do I see how you can help her now, and it would be a favor to me. It is beyond the power of any vigorous man with a task for every moment to realize what it means to sit still weak and helpless and know that even wealth cannot bring respite from constant pain. Active pleasure, work and health have been denied me by fate, and my life cannot be a long one. It may be very short, though your uncle will not allow himself to believe it, and I long to do a little good while I can. Ralph, won't you help me


With a shock, I realized that she spoke only the plain truth. Indeed, her thin eager face contracted then, and ever afterward I was glad that moved by some impulse I stooped and reverently kissed the fragile hand.

"You were always somebody's good angel, cousin," I said; "but I am her brother, and this time I can help. I am going back to the farm at Fairmead, and, if she is longing for open air, do you think she would come and keep house for me?"

Alice blushed as she drew away the white fingers, but she showed her practical bent by a cross-examination, and eventually she agreed that though there were objections the plan might be feasible.

"You write to her by the next mail," she said, "and I will write too-no, it would be better if I waited a little. Why? You must trust my discretion-even your great mind cannot grasp everything. Now I want you to tell me all about Miss Carrington." 215

Alice had a way with her that unlocked the secrets of many hearts, and the shadows had lengthened across the lawn before the narrative was finished. I can still picture her lying back on the lounge with hands clasped before her, a line of pain on her brow, and the humming birds flashing athwart the blossoms of the arrowhead that drooped above her. Then, glancing straight before her toward the ethereal snows, she said with a sigh:

"I can see trouble in store for both of you, but I envy her. She has health and strength, and a purpose to help her to endure. Ralph, there is always an end to our trials if one can wait for it, and you both have something to wait for. Hold fast, and I think you will win her-and you know who will wish you the utmost happiness."

Presently we went down together to the boulders of the river, and watched the steelhead salmon pass on in shadowy battalions as they forced their way inland against the green-stained current, while Alice, whose store of general knowledge was surprising, said meditatively:

"Theirs is a weary journey inland from the sea, over shoal, against white rapid, and over spouting fall, toward the hidden valleys among the glaciers-and most of them die, don't they, when they get there? There's a symbol of life for you, but I sometimes think that, whether it's men or salmon, the fighters have the best of it."

We talked of birds and fishes, and of many other things, while once a big blue grouse perched on a fir bough and looked down fearlessly within reach of her, though when the wrinkles of pain had vanished Alice seemed happy to sit still in the warm sunshine speaking of nothing at all. Still, even in the silence, the bond of friendship between us was drawn tighter than it ever had been, and I knew that I felt better and stronger for my cousin's company.

It was some time after dinner, and the woods were darkening, 216 when Martin Lorimer and I sat together on the carved veranda. There was wine on the table before us, and the old man raised his glass somewhat hurriedly, though his face betokened unmistakable surprise when again I mentioned the loan. Then he lit a very choice cigar, and when I had done the same he leaned forward looking at me through the smoke, as changing by degrees into the speech of the spinning country, he said:

"You'll listen and heed well, Ralph. You went out to Canada against my will, lad, and I bided my time. 'He'll either be badly beaten or win his footing there, and either will do him good,' I said. If you had been beaten I should have seen to it that my only brother's son should never go wanting. Nay, wait 'til I have finished, but it would not have been the same. I had never a soft side for the beaten weakling, and I'm glad I bided. Now, when you've proved yourself what Tom's son should be, this is what I offer thee. There's the mill; I'm old and done, and while there's one of the old stock forward I would not turn it over to be moiled and muddled by a limited company. Saving, starving, scheming, I built it bit by bit, and to-day there's no cotton spun in Lancashire to beat the Orb brand. There'll be plenty of good men under thee, and I'm waiting to make thee acting partner. Ay, it's old and done I'm growing, and, Ralph Lorimer, I'm telling thee what none but her ever guessed before-I would have sold my soul for a kind word from thy mother."

For a time, almost bewildered by the splendid offer, I stared blankly into the eddying smoke, while my thoughts refused to concentrate themselves, and I first wondered why he had made it to me. Now I know it was partly due to the staunch pride of race and family that once held the yeomen of the dales together in foray and feud, and partly to a fondness for myself that I had never wholly realized. 217 Then it became apparent that I could not accept it. Grace would pine in smoke-blackened Lancashire, as she had told me, and I knew that the life of mill and office would grow intolerable, while the man who acted as Martin Lorimer's partner would have small respite from it. There was Harry also, who had linked his future with my great project. But the offer was tempting after the constant financial pressure, and for another minute the words failed me.

"I am awaiting thy answer, lad," said Martin Lorimer.

Then I stood up before him as I said slowly: "You are generous, uncle-more than generous, and it grieves me that the answer can only be-no. Give me a few moments to explain why this must be so. I could never settle down to the shut-in life; and half-hearted work would only be robbery. You would demand his best from your partner, wouldn't you?"

"I should; brain and body," said the old man, grimly watching me with hawk-like eyes, for there was a steely underside to his character.

I leaned one elbow on the back of a chair as I continued: "I could not give it. Besides, I have set my heart on winning my own fortune out of the prairie-I am in honor bound to my partner Lorraine in this, and-I can never leave Canada until the lady I hope to marry some day goes with me. You saw her at the opening ceremony-Miss Carrington."

Martin Lorimer smote the table, which, when excited, was a favorite trick of his.

"Thy wife!" he said stupidly. "Art pledged to marry Miss Carrington of all women, lad? And does she care for thee?"

"I trust so," I answered slowly, as I watched the frown deepen on the old man's face. I dreaded the next question, which came promptly: 218

"And what does the iron-fisted Colonel say as to thee for a son-in-law?"

It took me at least five minutes to explain, and I felt my anomalous position keenly during the process, while, when the story was finished, Martin Lorimer laughed a harsh dry laugh.

"Ralph, thou'rt rash and headstrong and a condemned fool besides," he said. "Thee would never have made a partner in the Orb mill. Thou'rt Tom's bairn all through, but I like thy spirit. Stand up there, straight and steady, so, while I look at thee. Never a son of my own, lad; thou'rt the last of the Lingdale folk, and I had set my heart on thee. Ay, I'm the successful spinner, and I paid for my success. It's hard to keep one's hands clean and be first in the business; but there's no one better knows the sign; and travel, and maybe Miss Carrington, has put that sign on thee. Once I hoped-it's past and done with, I'm foolish as well as old; but as that can never be, I'm only wishing the best of luck to thee."

He gulped down a glass of the red wine and wiped his forehead, while his voice had a hard note in it as he continued: "Her father's a man of iron, but there's iron, too, in thee. I had my part in the people's struggle when Lancashire led the way, and then after a trick at the election I hated him and all his kind. I've a better reason since for hating him. We can beat them in brain and muscle, our courage is as good as theirs, and yet, if you weld the two kinds together, there's not their equal in the world. He's proud of his robber forbears, but there was one of thine drew a good bow with the archers at Crecy. Ralph, thy news has stirred me into vaporing, and the man who built the Orb mill is prating like a child. Ay, I'm grieved to the heart-and I'm glad. Fill up thy glass to the brim, lad-here's God bless her and thee." 219

There followed a clink of glasses, and some of the wine was spilt. I could see the red drops widen on the snowy tablecloth, and then Martin Lorimer gripped my hand in a manner that showed no traces of senile decay, saying somewhat huskily as he turned away:

"I want time to think it over, but I'll tell thee this. Hold fast with both hands to thy purpose, take the thrashings-and wait, and if ever thou'rt hard pressed, with thy back right on the wall, thou'lt remember Martin Lorimer-or damn thy mulishness."

They gave me the same advice all round, and perhaps it was as well, for of all the hard things that fall to the lot of the man who strives with his eyes turned forward the hardest is to wait. Still, it was something to have won Martin Lorimer's approval, for I had hitherto found him an unsympathetic and critical man, who bore in his person traces of the battle he had fought. There were those who called him lucky; but these had lain softly and fared well while he starved and wrought, winning his way by inches until he built up out of nothing the splendid trade of the Orb mill.

None of us was talkative that evening, but fervent good wishes followed me when I went out with the east-bound train the next day, and until the dusky pines hid her, closing round the track, I saw cousin Alice's slight figure with her face turned toward the departing train.

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