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   Chapter 22 CHAPTER XX

Lorimer of the Northwest By Harold Bindloss Characters: 19793

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


THE RETURN TO THE PRAIRIE

We were busy during the two days that followed my return, for there was much to be arranged; but at last all was settled satisfactorily. The surveyor had obtained me free transport back to the prairie for two teams that would not be needed, and Harry had promised to take charge of operations in my place. He was young for the position, or would have been considered so in England, but across the Atlantic much of the hard work is done by very young men, and I could trust his discretion, so only one thing remained to prevent my immediate return to Fairmead. I must see Grace before I went, and after considering the subject at length I determined to ride boldly up to the Colonel's ranch and demand an interview. Even if this were refused me I should not be worse off than before, and I had found that often in times of uncertainty fortune follows the boldest move.

I rode out under the starlight from our camp, for if all went well I hoped to turn my back on the mountain province by sunset, and if Harry guessed how I proposed to spend the interval he made no direct reference, though he said with unusual emphasis at parting, "I wish you good luck, Ralph-in everything."

"I'll second that," added Johnston, wringing my hand as I bent down from the saddle, for they had walked beside me down the trail; then I shook the bridle and they vanished into the gloom behind. It may have been mere coincidence, 221 or a conceit of Johnston's playful fancy, for when I dipped into the valley his voice came ringing after me, "Oh, who will o'er the downs so free! Oh, who will with me ride?"

The next line or two was lost in a clatter of hoofs on shingle, and then once more the words rose clearly above the dewy pines, "To win a blooming bride!" More of the ballad followed, for Johnston trolled it lustily as he strode back to the shanty, and the refrain haunted me as I swept on through the cool dimness under the conifers, for the lilt of it went fittingly with the clang of iron on quartz outcrop and the jingle of steel. It also chimed with my own thoughts the while, and the last lines broke from my lips triumphantly when we raced out of the dusky woods into the growing light under a giant rampart of mountains, behind whose peaks a red flush broadened in the east. The mists rolled back like a curtain, the shadows fled, and the snow, throwing off its deathly pallor, put on splendors of incandescence to greet the returning day. Nowhere does dawn come more grandly than in that ice-ribbed wilderness of crag and forest; but as I watched it then I accepted the wondrous spectacle merely as an augury of brighter days for Grace and myself, and for a last time the ballad echoed across the silent bush as I drove the good horse splashing through a ford.

It was afternoon when, much more sedately, for the beast was tired and I had misgivings now, we splashed through another river into sight of Colonel Carrington's dwelling, whose shingled roof was faintly visible among the pines ahead; while once more it seemed that fortune or destiny had been kind to me. A white dress moved slowly among the rough-barked trunks, and because a thick carpet of withered needles deadened the sound of hoofs I came almost upon Grace before she saw me. She was gazing at the ground; the long lashes hid her eyes, but I fancied that 222 a suspicious moisture glistened under them, and there was trouble stamped on her face. Then as I swung myself from the saddle she ran toward me with a startled cry and stopped irresolutely. But I had my arms about her even as she turned half-away, and I said eagerly:

"Something has happened, sweetheart. You must tell me what it is."

She sighed, and, trembling a little, clung more tightly to my arm when, after tethering the horse, we walked slowly side by side through the shadow of the great fir branches.

"I was longing for you so," she said. "As you say, something has happened, and there is no one to whom I can tell my troubles. What I feared has happened, for this morning Geoffrey Ormond asked me to marry him."

"Confusion to him!" I broke out, driving one heel deep into the fir needles; and when Grace checked me, laying both hands on her shoulders, I held her fast as I asked, "And what did you say?"

She smiled faintly as she answered, "This is not the age of savagery, Ralph; your fingers are bruising me. What answer could I give him after my promise to you? I said, 'No.'"

"Then the folly is done with, and there will be an end to his presumption," I answered hotly. But Grace sighed again as she said:

"No, this is not the ending. You are fierce and stubborn and headstrong-and I like to have you so; Geoffrey is cool and quiet and slow, and, I must say it, a chivalrous gentleman. I could not tell him all; but he took my answer gracefully, saying he would respect it in the meantime, but would never give up hope. Ralph, I almost wonder whether you would have acted as becomingly."

Perhaps it was said to gain time; and, if so, I took the bait and answered with bitterness: 223

"He has been trained and polished and accustomed to the smooth side of life. Is it strange that he has learned a little courtesy? Again I say, confound him! I am of the people, stained with the soil, and roughened by a laborer's toil; but, Grace, you know I would gladly give my life to serve you."

"You are as God and your work have made you," was the quiet answer; and, drawing closer to me, she added, "And I would not have you otherwise. Don't lapse into heroics, Ralph. What you did that day in the ca?on will speak better than words for you. Instead you must listen while I tell you the whole story. As it was with you and your cousin, Geoffrey and I-we are distantly related too-were always good friends. He was older, and, as you say, polished, and in many ways I looked up to him, while my father was trustee for him under a will, and when he joined the army my father continued, I understand, to manage his property. Still-and I know now that I must have been blind-I never looked upon Geoffrey as-as a possible husband until twelve months ago. Since then my eyes have been opened, and I understand many things-most of all that my father wished it, for he has told me so, and that Geoffrey is heavily interested financially in his ventures. I know that he has sunk large sums of money in the mine, and they have found no ore, while I heard a chance whisper of a mortgage on Carrington. Yet Geoffrey has never even hinted to me that he was more than a small shareholder. My father has grown aged and worn lately, though only those who know him well could tell he was carrying a heavy load of anxiety. He has always been kind to me, and it hurt, horribly, to refuse to meet his wishes when he almost pleaded with me."

The scent of summer seemed to have faded out of the air, the golden rays that beat in between the great trunks lost their brightness, and only one way of escape from the 224 situation presented itself to me as again the refrain of the ballad jingled through my memory. It was also a way that suited me. If Grace and I could not be married with the Colonel's consent, we could without it; and I thanked Providence that she need suffer no actual hardships at Fairmead now, while with her advice and encouragement the future looked brilliant. We could reach the flag station in two hours if we started at once. And then, with a chill, I remembered my promise to the Colonel, and that I stood, as it were, on a parole of honor. Yet a rash promise seemed a small thing to wreck two lives; and, saying nothing, I set my teeth tightly as I remembered hearing my father once say long ago, "I am thankful that, if we have our failings, none of us has ever broken a solemn promise." Martin Lorimer too-and some called him keen, in distinction to scrupulous-I remembered, accepted a draft he had been clearly tricked into signing, and duly met it at maturity, though, when the affair was almost forgotten, he made the man who drew it suffer. And so the inward struggle went on, until there were beads of perspiration on my forehead and Grace said, "Ralph, you look deathly. Are you ill?"

I did not answer, and was afterward thankful that perhaps fate intervened to save me, for I almost felt that Grace would have yielded to pressure then. There were footsteps in the forest, and, as instinctively we drew back behind a fir, Colonel Carrington walked savagely down an open glade. He passed close to us, and, believing himself alone in that solitude, had thrown off the mask. His face was drawn and haggard, his hands were clenched, and for once I read fear of something in his eyes; while Grace trembled again as she watched him, and neither of us spoke until he vanished among the firs.

"Ralph," she said quietly, "twice I have seen him so when he did not know it. Perhaps it was meant that this should 225 happen, for now I know that even were there no other obstacle I could not leave him. Sweetheart, could you expect the full duty to her husband from the woman who had signally failed in her duty to others?"

"No," I answered with a groan. "But is there no hope in the present?-nothing that I can do?"

She drew my face down toward her as she answered, "Only work and wait, sweetheart," and her voice sank to a low whisper. "Heaven forgive me if I wrong him in telling you. But there are no secrets between us, and you saw his face. I fear that inadvertently he has lost much of Geoffrey's money in rash ventures, as well as his own. Geoffrey would never trouble about finance, and insisted on leaving his property in his hands, while, though my father is fond of speculation and control, I am afraid he is a poor business man."

She shivered all through, and said nothing for a few moments, while I tried to soothe her; then she added slowly:

"I must stand beside h

im in this trouble; and if the worst comes I do not ask you to leave me-it would be wrong and foolish, and I know you too well. But, though I have read how many women have done such things, I will never marry Geoffrey. It would be a crime to myself and to him, and he is far too good for such treatment. Sweetheart, I must leave you, and it may be so very long before we meet again; but I hope brighter days will dawn for us yet. You will help me to do what I ought, dearest?"

Ten minutes later I rode through the woods at a breakneck gallop, reviling fate and all things incoherently, until, as the horse reeled down an incline amid a mad clatter of sliding shale, Ormond, of all men, must come striding up the trail with an air of tranquil calm about him. There is a certain spice of barbarism, I suppose, in most of us, and in my frame of mind the mere sight of his untroubled face filled me with bitterness. It seemed that, in spite of 226 her refusal, he felt sure of Grace; and something suggested that a trail hewn at Government expense was free to the wealthy well-born and the toiler alike, and I would not swerve a foot to give him passage. So only a quick spring saved him from being ridden down, while I laughed harshly over my shoulder when his voice followed me: "Why don't you look ahead, confound you?"

It was possibly well that I had trouble with the teams in the stock car on the railroad journey, and that work in plenty awaited at Fairmead, for the steady tramp behind the plough stilts served to steady me. After three weeks' endurance, the man I had hired to help mutinied, and stated plainly that he had no intention of either wearing himself to skin and bone or unmercifully overworking dumb cattle, but I found satisfaction in toiling on alone, often until after the lingering darkness fell, for each fathom of rich black clod added to the long furrow seemed to lessen the distance that divided me from Grace. Then little by little a measure of cheerfulness returned, for sun, wind, and night dew had blended their healing with the smell of newly-turned earth, a smell I loved on the prairie, for it told that the plough had opened another channel into treasure locked fast for countless ages. So hope was springing up again when I waited one morning with my wagon beside the railroad track to welcome my sister Aline.

I could scarcely believe my eyes when she stepped down from the car platform, for the somewhat gawky maiden, as I used to term her in our not altogether infrequent playful differences of opinion, when similar compliments were common, had grown into a handsome woman, fair-skinned, but ruddy of color, as all of us were, and I was embarrassed when to the envy of the loungers she embraced me effusively. The drive home across the prairie was a wonder to her, and it touched me to notice how she rejoiced in its breadth and 227 freedom, for the returning luster in her eyes and the somewhat too hollow face told their own tale of adversity.

"It is all so splendid," she said vaguely. "A poor lunch, you say; it is ever and ever so much better than my usual daily fare," and her voice had a vibration that suggested tearfulness. "This is almost too good to be true! I have always loved the open space and sun, and for two weary years I lived in a dismal room of a dismal house in a particularly dismal street, where there was nothing but mud and smoke, half-paid work, and sickening drudgery. Ralph, I should ten times over sooner wash milk-pans or drive cattle in a sunlit land like this."

I laughed approvingly as she ceased for want of breath, realizing that Aline had much in common with myself; while the rest of the journey passed very cheerfully, and her face was eager with curiosity when I handed her down at the house. She looked around our living room with disdainful eyes.

"It is comfortable enough, but, Ralph, did you ever brush it? I have never seen any place half so dirty."

I had not noticed the fact before. Indeed, under pressure of work we had usually dispensed with small comforts, superfluous cleanliness I fear among them, and Fairmead was certainly very dirty, though it probably differed but little from most bachelors' quarters in that region. The stove-baked clods of the previous ploughing still littered the floor; the dust that was thick everywhere doubtless came in with our last thrashing; and the dishes I had used during the last few weeks reposed unwashed among it. But Aline was clearly a woman of action.

"You shockingly untidy man!" she said severely. "Carry my trunk into my room, quick. I am going to put on an old dress, and make you help me clean up first thing. Tired?-after lounging on soft cushions-when I tramped 228 miles of muddy streets carrying heavy books every day. You won't get out of it that way. Go away, and bring me some water-bring lots of it."

When I came back from the well, with a filled cask in the wagon, she had already put on a calico wrapper and both doors and windows were open wide, and I hardly recognized the dwelling when we had finished what Aline said was only the first stage of the proceedings. Then I lighted the stove, and, returning after stabling the horses, found her waiting at the head of a neatly-set table covered with a clean white cloth, which she had doubtless brought with her, for such things were not included in the Fairmead inventory. The house seemed brighter for her presence, though I sighed as I pictured Grace in her place, and then reflected that many things must be added before Fairmead was fit for Grace. I had begun to learn a useful lesson in practical details. Aline noticed the sigh, and plied me with questions, until when, for the nights were getting chilly, we sat beside the twinkling stove, I told her as much as I thought it was desirable that she should know. Aline was two years my junior, and I had no great confidence as yet in her wisdom.

She listened with close attention, and then said meditatively: "I hope that some day you will be happy. No, never mind explaining that you must be-marriage is a great lottery. But why, you foolish boy, must you fall in love with the daughter of that perfectly awful man! There was some one so much nicer at home, you know, and I feel sure she was very fond of you. Alice is a darling, even if she has not much judgment in such matters. Oh, dear me, what am I saying now!"

"Good Lord!" I said, startled by an idea that hitherto had never for a moment occurred to me. "I beg your 229 pardon; but you are only a young girl, Aline. Of course you must be mistaken, because-it couldn't be so. I am as poor as a gopher almost, and she is a heiress. Don't you realize that it's utterly unbecoming for any one of your years to talk so lightly of these matters."

Aline laughed mischievously. "Are you so old and wise already, Ralph?" she asked. "Brotherly superiority won't go very far with a girl who has earned her own living. As you say, I should not have told you this, but you must have been blinder than a mole-even your uncle saw it, and I am quite right." She looked me over critically before she continued, as though puzzled: "I really cannot see why she should be so, and I begin to fancy that a little plain speaking will be good for my elder brother."

I checked the exclamation just in time, and stared at her while I struggled with a feeling of shame and dismay. It was not that I had chosen Grace, but it was borne in on me forcibly that besides wounding the feelings of the two persons to whom I owed a heavy debt of gratitude, I must more than once, in mock heroic fashion, have made a stupendous fool of myself. Such knowledge was not pleasant, though perhaps the draught was beneficial, and if plain speaking of that kind were wholesome there was more in store, for hardship had not destroyed Aline's inquisitorial curiosity, nor her fondness for comments, which, if winged with mischief, had truth in them. Thus, to avoid dangerous subjects, I confined my conversation to my partners and railroad building.

"That is really interesting," she vouchsafed at length. "Ralph, you haven't sense enough to understand women; but axes, horses, and engines, you know thoroughly. I'm quite anxious to see this Harry, and wonder whether I could tame him. Young men are always so proud of themselves, 230 and one finds amusement in bringing them to a due sense of their shortcomings, though I am sorry to say they are not always grateful."

Then I laughed as I fancied the keen swordplay of badinage that would follow before she overcame either Johnston or Harry, if they ever met, and I almost wondered at her. This slip of a girl-for after all, she was still little more-had faced what must have been with her tastes a sufficiently trying lot, but it had not abated one jot of her somewhat caustic natural gaiety, and there was clearly truth in my partner's saying: "One need not take everything too seriously."

When with some misgivings I showed Aline her room she pointed out several radical defects that needed immediate remedy, and I left her wondering whether I must add the vocation of a carpenter to my already onerous task, and most of that night I lay wide awake thinking of what she had told me. When I rose early the next morning, however, my sister was already down and prepared an unusually good breakfast while I saw to the working beasts, though she unhesitatingly condemned the whole of the Fairmead domestic utensils and crockery.

"I am breaking you in gently," she said with a patronizing air. "You have used those cracked plates since you came here? Then they have lasted quite long enough, and you cannot fry either pork or bacon in a frying-pan minus half the bottom. Before you can bring a wife here you will need further improvement; yes, ever and ever so much, and I hope she will be grateful to me for civilizing you."

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