LORIMER OF THE NORTHWEST
LORIMER OF THE NORTHWEST
By HAROLD BINDLOSS Author of By Right of Purchase, Etc.
With Frontispiece By ALFRED JAMES DEWEY
A. L. BURT COMPANY
Copyright, 1909, by
FREDERICK A. STOKES COMPANY
All rights reserved
CHAPTER PAGE I. The First Sowing 7 II. The Church Parade 16 III. "The Land of Promise" 25 IV. An Unpleasant Apprenticeship 35 V. A Bid for Fortune 46 VI. The First Crop 56 VII. Harvest Home 66 VIII. Held Up 77 IX. A Reckoning 91 X. A Forward Policy 105 XI. On the Railroad 117 XII. The Unexpected 128 XIII. Advocates of Temperance 138 XIV. The Hired Teamster 151 XV. Under the Shadow of Death 163 XVI. When the Waters Rose 175 XVII. The Return 184 XVIII. The Opening of the Line 195 XIX. A Generous Offer 209 XX. The Return to the Prairie 220 XXI. The Stolen Cattle 231 XXII. A Race with Time 242 XXIII. On the Gold Trail 253 XXIV. The Brink of Eternity 267 XXV. Ormond's Last Journey 280 XXVI. The Trial 291 XXVII. The Road to Dakota 305 XXVIII. The Recall of Adam Lee 316 XXIX. Concerning the Day Spring Mine 326 XXXI. The Deposed Ruler 350 XXXII. The New Ruler of Carrington 362 XXXIII. A Bountiful Harvest 375
LORIMER OF THE NORTHWEST
Fairmead, Western Canada.
It is a still, hot day in autumn, and there is a droning of mosquitoes where I sit by an open window, glancing alternately out across the Assiniboian prairie and somewhat blankly at the bundle of paper before me, ready to begin this story. Its telling will not be an easy matter, but one finds idle hours pass heavily after a life such as mine has been, and since the bronco blundering into a badger-hole fell and broke my leg the surgeon who rode forty miles to set it said that if I was to work at harvest I must not move before—and the harvest is already near. So I nibble the pen and look around the long match-boarded hall, waiting for the inspiration which is strangely slow in coming, while my wife, who was Grace Carrington, smiles over her sewing and suggests that it is high time to begin.
There are many guns on the wall glistening like sardines with oil rubbed well in, and among them the old Winchester which once saved us from starvation in British Columbia. There are also long rows of painted butterflies and moths whose colors pleased Grace's fancy when I caught them in the sloos. Sometimes I wonder whether she really likes that kind of decoration, or merely pinned them to the wall because I caught them for her. Then, and this is my own fancy, the bit of the horse which once saved her life hangs in a place of its own under the heads of the antelopes and the forward half of a crane with which a Winnipeg taxidermist has travestied nature. There are also a few oil paintings and, of course, some furniture, but I am not learned in such matters, and know only that it cost me many dollars when I brought it from Toronto on one of Grace's birthdays, and I have never regretted the investment.
No, there is nothing here that merits much comment, though Fairmead is one of the finest homesteads between the Saskatchewan and the Souris. Then as I gaze with half-closed eyes through the open window the memories awaken and crowd, as it were, upon one another. Far out on the rim of the prairie lies a silvery haze, through which the vault of azure melts into the dusty whiteness of the grasses. Then, level on level, with each slowly swelling rise growing sharper under that crystalline atmosphere the prairie rolls in, broken here by a willow copse and there by a straggling birch bluff, while a belt of cool neutral shadow marks the course of a deep-sunk ravine. At first sight it is all one glaring sweep of white and gray, but on looking closer with understanding eyes one sees the yellow and sage-green of tall reeds in a sloo, the glowing lights of sun-bleached buffalo bones, and a mingling of many colors where there is wild peppermint or flowers among the grass. Then, broad across the foreground, growing tall and green in a few moister places, and in others changing to ochre and coppery red, there ripples, acre after acre, a great sea of grain whose extent is beyond the comprehension of the insular Briton.
That, at least, with its feathery oat tassels and stately heads of wheat, is a picture well worth looking upon, for there are few places in the world where one may see furrows of equal length. It was won hardly, by much privation, and in the sweat of the brow, as well as by the favor of Providence, as Grace would say, and she is right in most things, except when she attempts to instruct me in stock feeding, for we hold on the prairie that it is not fair to place all the burden on Providence. Therefore the settlers who succeed cut down rations and work double tides to help themselves in time of adversity.
Yes, though better men have done more and failed, we worked hard enough for it, Harry Lorraine and I, stinting ourselves often to feed the stock and deal justly with the soil, until at last the ill-fortune turned and the kindly earth repaid us a hundred fold for our trust in it.
Grace partly approves of the foregoing, for she laid by her sewing to read the loose sheets beside me, bending down until her hair, which is bronze-gold with the sun in it, just touched my own. It may be that my eyes are prejudiced, but I have never seen a woman who might compare with her. Neither has her comeliness faded. Instead, it has grown even more refined and stately, for Grace had always a queenly way, since the day when I first met her, the fairest maid—I think so now, though it is long ago—that ever trod the bleak moorlands of eastern Lancashire.
Beyond the wheat and straggling birches I can see the shingled roofs of Harry's dwelling. We have long been partners—all the Winnipeg dealers know the firm of Lorimer & Lorraine, and how they send their wheat in by special freight train. Then there is a stretch of raw breaking, and the tinkle of the binders rises out of a hidden hollow, as tireless arms of wood and steel pile up the sheaves of Jasper's crop—Jasper takes a special pride in forestalling us. The dun smoke of a smudge-fire shows that Harry is in prairie fashion protecting our stock, and I see it drifting eastward across the dusty plain, with the cattle seeking shelter from the mosquitoes under it.
The management of a farm like Fairmead is a serious task, even when there are two to do it, and Grace says there are weighty responsibilities attached. How many toilers in crowded Europe benefit by the cheap flour we send them I do not know, though last year we kept the Winnipeg millers busy; but when, in conjunction with a certain society, we opened new lands and homes for the homeless poor—it was Grace's pet project—all those who occupied them were not thankful. Some also stole their neighbors' chickens, and the said neighbors abused us. Others seemed more inclined to live on one another than to wrest a living from the soil, while once Macdonald of the Northwest Police lodged a solemn protest, "We'll hold ye baith responsible for the depredations o' the wastrels who're disturbing the harmony o' this peaceful prairie."
Still, Harry and I were once poor enough ourselves, and with Grace's help we have done our best to weed out the worthless—Harry attends to this—and encourage the rest. Very many bushels of seed-wheat has Grace given them, and here as elsewhere there are considerably more good than bad, while already a certain society takes to itself the credit of the flourishing Fairmead colony. Harry, however, says that undeserved prosperity has made me an optimist. But the reader will wonder how I, Ralph Lorimer, who landed in Canada with one hundred pounds' capital, became owner of Fairmead and married Grace, only daughter and heiress of Colonel Carrington. Well, that is a long story, and looking back at the beginning of it instead of at the sunlit prairie I see a grimy smoke-blackened land where gaunt chimneys stand in rows, and behind it the bare moors of Lancashire. Then again the memories change like the glasses of a kaleidoscope, and I sigh as I remember comrades who helped us in our necessity and who now, forgotten by all save a few, sleep among the snow-bound ranges, under the bitter alkali dust, and deep in the smoking canyons through which we carried the new steel highway.
Failures, probably their friends called them at home, but in this their friends were wrong. With light jest, or grim silent endurance, they played out the lost game to the bitter end, and laid the foundations of a great country's prosperity, while if fate or fortune has favors for but the few, those who receive them should remember with becoming humility what otherwise they might have been. So the past comes back, struggle, disappointment, and slow success, at last, until it is a relief when Harry Lorraine strides laughing in and Grace fills for him a great polished horn of cider.
"Here's success to your story! Tell them simply how we live and work, and some of us, the best, have died in this land," he says. Then he raises the horn high toward the rafters and I know his meaning. It is a way the forerunners of civilization—axe-man, paddle-man, and railroad shoveler—had, and he did it in memory of one who lies far off among the northern snows. Taking up the weary pen as he and Grace go out together I prepare to follow his counsel, telling the story simply and as it happened from the beginning.
LORIMER OF THE NORTHWEST
THE FIRST SOWING
It was late in autumn, and the heather had faded into dingy brown, though long streaks of golden fern crept winding down, when Grace Carrington first talked with me of the Canadian Dominion on the bleak slopes of Starcross Moor. There was a hollow in the hillside where a few pale-stemmed birches and somber firs formed, as it were, a rampart between the poor, climbing meadows and the waste of gorse and fern, and we two beneath them seemed utterly alone in the moorland solitude.
Grace sat on a lichened boulder with the sunlight upon her, gazing down across the levels of Lancashire. I was just twenty years old, and she seemed the incarnation of all that was fresh and good in early womanhood. Still, it was not only her beauty that attracted me, though she was the well-dowered daughter of a race which has long been famous for fair women, but a certain grave dignity that made her softly spoken wishes seem commands that it would be a pleasure to obey. Grace was nineteen then, and she lived in Western Canada with her widowed father, Colonel Carrington, who had made himself a power in that country. Yet she was English by birth and early training, of the fair-haired, gray-eyed, old Lancashire stock, and had lost nothing by her sojourn on the prairie as youthful mistress of Carrington Manor.
The land which ran west before us was not a pleasant one. Across its horizon hung a pall of factory smoke; and unlovely hamlets, each with its gaunt pit-head gear and stark brick chimney, sprinkled the bare fields between, for hedgerows were scanty and fences of rusty colliery rope replaced them. Yet it was a wealthy country, and bred keen-witted, enterprising men, who, uncouth often in speech and exterior, possessed an energy that has spread their commerce to the far corners of the earth. That day the autumn haze wrapped a mellow dimness round its defects, but Grace Carrington sighed as she turned toward me.
"I shall not be sorry to go home again," she said. "Perhaps I miss our clear sunshine, but here everyone looks careworn in your dingy towns, and there are so many poor. Besides, the monotony of those endless smoky streets oppresses me. No, I should not care to come back to Lancashire."
Now, the words of a young and winsome woman seldom fall lightly on the ears of a young man, and Grace spoke without affectation as one accustomed to be listened to, which was hardly surprising in the heiress of Carrington. As it happened, they wakened an answering echo within me. The love of the open sky had been handed down to me through long generations of a yeoman ancestry, and yet fate had apparently decreed that I should earn my bread in the counting-house of a cotton-mill. It is probable that I should have been abashed and awkward before this patrician damsel in a drawing-room, but here, under the blue lift, with the brown double-barrel—it was my uncle's new hammerless—across my knees, and the speckled birds beneath, I felt in harmony with the surroundings, and accordingly at ease. I was born and bred under the other edge of the moor.
"It does not always rain here, though this has been a wet season, and trade is bad," I said. "Will you tell me about Canada, Miss Carrington?"
Her eyes brightened as she answered: "It is my adopted country, and I love it. Still it is no place for the weak and idle, for as they say out there, we have no room for any but live men and strong. Yet, I never saw a ragged woman nor heard of a hungry child. All summer the settlers work from dawn to dusk under the clear sunshine of the open prairie, paying rent to no one, for each tills his own land, and though there are drawbacks—drought, hail, and harvest-frost—they meet them lightly, for you see neither anxious faces nor bent shoulders there. Our people walk upright, as becomes free men. Then, through the long winter, when the snow lies firm and white, and the wheat crop has been hauled in, you can hear the jingling sleigh teams flit across the prairie from homestead to homestead under the cloudless blue. The settlers enjoy themselves when their work is done—and we have no drunkenness."
She ceased, turning an eager face toward me, and I felt an old longing increase. It was the inborn love of a fertile soil—and that wide sunlit country seemed to call me, for my father had been the last of a long family to hold one of the extensive farms which with their crumbling feudal halls may yet be found in the remoter corners of Lancashire. Then, asking practical questions, I wondered as Grace Carrington answered, because, though she wore the stamp of refinement to her finger-tips, she knew all that concerned the feeding of stock, and the number of bushels that might be thrashed from an acre of wheat. I knew she spoke as one having experience, for I had been taught to till the soil, and only entered the cotton-mill when on my father's death it was found that his weakness for horses and his unlucky experiments had rendered it impossible that I should carry on the farm. So, while unobserved the sun sank low, I listened eagerly; until at last there was a sound of footsteps among the fern, and she ceased, after a glance at her watch. But, like the grain she spoke of, drilled into the black Assiniboian loam, the seed had been sown, and in due time the crop would ripen to maturity.
A man came out from the birches, a handsome man, glancing about him with a look of indolent good humor on his face, and though for a moment Grace Carrington seemed displeased, she showed no sign of it as she rose leisurely to meet him.
"I am sorry you had to come in search of me, Geoffrey," she said; "this is Mr. Lorimer—Captain Ormond. I think you have met before. I lost my way, and he kindly brought me across the moor. I have been telling him about Canada."
The newcomer bowed with an easy indifference, for which, not knowing exactly why, I disliked him, as he said, "Don't remember that pleasure—meet so many people! Canada must be a very nice place; been thinking of going out there myself—drive oxen, grow potatoes, and that kind of thing, you know."
He glanced at Grace, as though seeking her approval of such an act of self-sacrifice; but the girl laughed frankly as she answered, "I can't fancy you tramping behind the plow in a jacket patched with flour-bags, Geoffrey;" while, feeling myself overlooked, and not knowing what to say, I raised my cap and awkwardly turned away. Still, looking back, I caught the waft of a light dress among the fern, and frowned as the sound of laughter came down the wind. These people had been making merry, I thought, at my expense, though I had fancied Miss Carrington incapable of such ungenerous conduct.
In this, however, I misjudged her, for long afterward I learned that Grace was laughing at the stories her companion told of his strange experiences with sundry recruits, until presently the latter said:
"She stoops to conquer, even a raw Lancashire lad. I congratulate you on your judgment, Gracie. There is something in that untrained cub—could recognize it by the steady, disapproving way he looked at me; but I am some kind of a relative, which is presumably a warrant for impertinence."
Now a saving sense of humor tempered Miss Carrington's seriousness, and Geoffrey Ormond joined in her merry laugh. In spite of his love of ease and frivolous badinage, he was, as I was to learn some day, considerably less of a good-natured fool than it occasionally pleased him to appear to be.
Meantime, I strode homeward with the fierce longing growing stronger. I hated the dingy office where I sat under a gas-jet making up the count of yarn; and yet four weary years I had labored there, partly because I had to earn my bread and because my uncle and sole guardian greatly desired I should. It grew dark as I entered the valley which led to his house, for the cotton-spinner now lived ten miles by rail from his mill, and the sighing of the pine branches under a cold breeze served to increase my restlessness. So it was with a sense of relief that I found my cousin Alice waiting in a cosy corner of the fire-lit drawing-room. We had known each other from childhood, and, though for that very reason this is not always the case, we were the best of friends. She would be rich some day, so the men I met in her father's business said; but if Alice Lorimer ever remembered the fact, it made but little difference to her. She was delicate, slight, and homely, with a fund of shrewd common-sense and a very kindly heart, whose thoughts, however, she did not always reveal. Now she sat on a lounge before the fire, with the soft light of a colored lamp falling upon her, while a great embroidered screen shut off the rest of the partly-darkened room.
"I have been waiting for you with the tea so patiently, Ralph," she said. "You look tired and moody—you have been out on the moors too long. See, here is a low chair ready just inside the screen, and here is the tea. Sit down and tell me what is troubling you."
I settled myself in the corner, and answered, looking into the fire:
"You were always kind to me, Alice, and one can talk to you. Something made me unsettled to-day, and I didn't care about the birds, though I got a plump brace for you. Alice, I can't help thinking that these brief holidays, though they are like a glimpse of Paradise after my dingy rooms in that sickening town, are not good for me. I am only a poor clerk in your father's mill, and such things as guns and horses are out of my sphere. They only stir up useless longings. So I return on Monday, and hardly think that I shall come back for a long time."
Alice laughed softly, for she was a shrewd young person, then she laid her little hand restrainingly on my arm, before she said:
"And who has a better right to the bay horse and the new hammerless ejector than the nephew of the man who never uses them? Now, I'm guessing at a secret, but it's probable that your uncle bought that gun especially for you. Ralph, you are getting morbid—and you have not been shooting all day. Did you meet Miss Carrington on the moor again?"
Now in such matters I was generally a blunderer; yet something warned me that my answer would displease her. I could, however, see no way of avoiding it, and when I said as unconcernedly as I could, "Yes, and talked to her about Canada!" Alice for no particular reason stooped and dropped a thread into the fire. Then lifting her head she looked at me steadily when I continued, with some hesitation:
"You know how I was always taught that in due time I should work the lands of Lindale Hall, and how, when we found on my father's death that there was nothing left, I tried the cotton-mill. Well, after four years' trial I like it worse than I did at the beginning, and now I feel that I must give it up. I am going back to the soil again, even if it is across the sea."
Alice made no answer for a few moments; then she said slowly: "Ralph you will not be rash; think it over well. Now tell me if you have any definite plans—you know how I always used to advise you?"
I felt I needed sympathy, and Alice was a faithful confidant, so I opened my heart to her, and she listened with patient interest. It seemed to me that my cousin had never looked so winsome as she sat close beside me with a slight flush of color in her usually pale face where the soft lamplight touched it. So we sat and talked until Martin Lorimer entered unobserved, and when, on hearing a footstep, I looked up I saw that he was smiling with what seemed grim approval as his eyes rested on us, and this puzzled me. Then his daughter started almost guiltily as he said, "I wondered where you two were. Dinner has been waiting, and you never heard the bell."
I retired early that night, and, being young, forgot my perplexities in heavy slumber. The next morning I noticed that Alice's eyes seemed heavy, and I wondered what could be the reason. In after years I mentioned it when Grace and I were talking about old times together, but she only smiled gravely, and said, "I sometimes think your cousin was too good for this world."
The next day was one of those wet Sundays which it is hard to forget. The bleak moor was lost in vapor, and a pitiless drizzle came slanting down the valley, while the raw air seemed filled with falling leaves. A prosperous man with a good conscience may make light of such things, but they leave their own impression on the poor and anxious; so, divided between two courses, I wandered up and down, finding rest nowhere until I chanced upon a large new atlas in my uncle's library. Martin Lorimer was proud of his library. He was a well-read man, though like others of his kind he made no pretense at scholarship, and used the broad, burring dialect when he spoke in his mill. Here I found occupation studying the Dominion of Canada, especially the prairie territories, and lost myself in dreams of half-mile furrows and a day's ride straight as the crow flies across a cattle run, all of which, though I scarcely dared hope it then, came true in its own appointed time.
My uncle had ridden out early, for he was to take part in the new mayor's state visit to church in the manufacturing town, and even Alice seemed out of spirits, so when I left the library there was the weary afternoon to be dragged through somehow. It passed very slowly, and then as I stood by the stables a man from the house at the further end of the valley, where Colonel Carrington was staying, said to our stable lad:
"I mun hurry back. Our folks are wantin' t' horses; maister an' t' Colonel's daughter's going to the church parade. They're sayin' it's a grand turnout, wi' t' firemen, bands, an' t' volunteers, in big brass helmets!"
Neither of them saw me, and presently calling the lad I bade him put the bay horse into the dog-cart.
"He's in a gradely bad temper," said the lad doubtfully. "Not done nothink but eat for a long time now, an' he nearly bit a piece out of me; I wish t' maister would shoot him."
I laughed at the warning, though I had occasion to remember it, and looking for Alice I said, "I am driving in to church to-night. Would you like to come with me?"
Now Alice Lorimer possessed her father's keen perception, and when he kept his temper he was perhaps the shrewdest man I ever met; so when she looked me straight in the face I dropped my eyes, because I really was not anxious for her company, and should not have gone except in the hope of seeing Grace Carrington.
"Have you turned religious suddenly, Ralph?" she asked. "Or have you forgotten you told me yesterday that you did not care to go?"
I made some awkward answer, but Alice smiled dryly, and with a solemn courtesy said:
"Two are company, three are none. Cousin Ralph, I will not go with you. But don't leave the dog-cart behind and come back with the shafts."
I went out with a flushed face, and a sense of relief, angry, nevertheless, that she should read my inmost thoughts, having fancied that my invitation was a stroke of diplomacy. I learned afterward that diplomacy is a mistake for the simple man. With a straightforward "Yes" or "No" he can often turn aside the schemes of the cunning, but on forsaking these he generally finds the other side considerably too clever for him—all of which is a wanton digression from the story.
THE CHURCH PARADE
It was raining hard when I climbed into the dog-cart and rattled away into the darkness, while somewhat to my surprise Robert the Devil, or Devilish Bob, as those who had the care of him called the bay horse, played no antics on the outward journey, which was safely accomplished. So leaving him at the venerable "Swan," I hurried through the miry streets toward the church. They were thronged with pale-faced men and women who had sweated out their vigor in the glare of red furnace, dye-shop, and humming mill, but there was no lack of enthusiasm. I do not think there are any cities in the world with the same public spirit and pride in local customs that one may find in the grimy towns of Lancashire. The enthusiasm is, however, part of their inhabitants' nature, and has nothing to do with the dismal surroundings.
A haze of smoke had mingled with the rain; yellow gas jets blinked through it, though it would not be dark for an hour or so yet; and the grim, smoke-blackened houses seemed trickling with water. Still every one laughed and chattered with good-humored expectancy, even the many who had no umbrellas. It was hard work to reach the church, though I opined that all the multitude did not intend to venture within, and when once I saw my uncle with a wand in his hand I carefully avoided him. Martin Lorimer was a power and well liked in that town, but I had not driven ten miles to assist him. Then I waited among the jostling crowd in a fever of impatience, wondering whether Miss Carrington had yet gone in, until at last I saw the Colonel marching through the throng, which—and knowing the temperament of our people I wondered at it—made way for him. There were others of the party behind, and my heart leaped at the sight of Grace. She was walking beside Captain Ormond, who smiled down at her.
Then, just as the Colonel passed within, a burst of cheering broke out, and in the mad scramble for the entrance Grace, who turned a moment to recover the cloak she dropped, was separated from her companion. He was driven forward in the thickest part of the stream of excited human beings, and fortune had signally favored me. Squeezing through from behind a pillar I reached her side, and grew hot with pride when she slipped her arm through mine, and we were borne forward irresistibly by the surging crowd. Once I saw Ormond vainly trying to make his way back in search of his companion, and I stood so that he could not see her. Half-way down the aisle we met an official who recognized me as a nephew of Martin Lorimer. "I'll find you and the lady seats in the chancel. It will be the only good place left," he said.
I did not care where we went, as long as Grace went with me, and when he ensconced us under an oaken canopy among the ancient carved stalls I longed that the service might last a century, while Grace's quiet "Thank you, I am so interested," filled me with ecstasy.
The church was interesting. There are many cathedrals that could not compare with it; and it was very old. The damp haze had entered the building, and obscuring half the clearstory it enhanced its stateliness, for the great carved pillars and arches led the wandering eye aloft and lost it in a mystery, while far up at the western end above the organ a gilded Gloria caught a stray shaft of light and blazed out of the gloom. I saw Grace's eyes rest on it, and then I followed them down across the sea of faces, along the quaint escutcheons, and over two marble tombs, until she fixed them on her father, who with his party sat in a high-backed pew. The crash of music outside ceased, and with a steady tramp of feet, file by file, men in scarlet uniform moved up the aisle; while before them, led by the sword and gilded mace, came a little homely man, who seemed burdened by his glittering chain, and most uncomfortable. As I knew, he commenced his business career with ten pounds' capital, and could hardly speak plain English, while now his goods were known in every bazaar from Cairo to Singapore. This knowledge fostered a vague but daring hope within me.
I remember little of the service beyond Grace's voice ringing high and clear in the "Magnificat," while for perhaps the first time I caught a glimmer of its full significance, and her face, clean-cut against the shadow where a fretted pinnacle allowed one shaft of light to pass it, looking, I thought, like that of a haloed saint. The rest was all a blurred impression of rolling music, half-seen faces, and gay uniforms, until a tall old man of commanding personality stood high aloft in the carved pulpit, and proclaimed a doctrine that seemed strangely out of place in the busy town. Honest labor brought its own reward in the joy of diligent toil, he said, and the prize of fame or money was a much slighter thing. I could not quite understand this then, for there were many in that district whose daily toil wore body and soul away, so that none of them might hope to live out half of man's allotted span, while a prize for which I would have given my life sat close beside me, and twice that evening the calm proud eyes had smiled gratefully into mine.
Still, there was one drawback. As chance would have it, Minnie Lee, who operated the typewriter in the mill offices, sat just opposite, and would cast mischievous glances toward me. We were good friends in a way, for during two years I had talked to her on business matters every day, and sometimes also indulged in innocent badinage. She was fair-haired and delicately pretty, and was said to be aware of it; but now of all times I did not want those playful smiles directed toward me. However, I hoped that Grace did not see them; and not knowing what else to do, for I could not frown at her, I sought refuge in what proved to be a bewildering chapter of genealogy, until the building trembled as the vast assembly joined in the closing hymn. Long afterward, out on the lone prairie when the stars shone down through the bitter frost, I could hear in fancy Grace's voice rising beside me through the great waves of sound. Then I would remember the song of the speckled thrush singing at sunset after a showery April day through the shadow of a copse.
We reached the street safely, though in that press there was no hope of finding Colonel Carrington, even if I wished it, which I certainly did not, so after some demur and the discussing of other expedients, Grace accepted my offer to drive her home. "I am afraid it can't be helped," she said, I thought with quite unnecessary cruelty.
The dog-cart was ready, and Robert the Devil went well. The long streets rolled behind us, and were lost in the rain; then with a rhythmic drumming of hoofs and a constant splashing from under the whirring wheels, we swept out into the blackness of a treeless plain. I knew the road and did not take the shortest one; and it was rapture to draw the rugs and apron round Grace's waist, and feel the soft furs she wore brushing against me. The ten miles passed in what seemed to be scarcely as many minutes, and the rush through the damp air—for the rain had ceased at last—raised my companion's spirits, and she chatted merrily; then, just as we reached the crest of a steep dip into the Starcross valley, the Devil must take fright at a colored railway light that he had often seen before.
I knew we were in for a struggle, and got both hands on the reins; but two men would hardly have held him. The next moment, with a mad rattle of wheels and red sparks flashing under the battering hoofs, we went flying into the long dark hollow, while I think I prayed that the Devil might keep his footing on the loose stones of a very bad road. One lurch flung Grace against the guard-rail, the next against my shoulder, and I remember feeling when the little hand fastened on my arm, that I would gladly have done battle with ten wild horses were she also not in jeopardy. Fresh drizzle lashed our faces, the wind screamed past, the wheels seemed to leave the ground alternately, and a light rushed up toward us from below, while with my teeth hard set I wondered what would happen when we reached the sharp bend at the bottom.
I got the Devil around it somehow, and then breathed easier, for the steep slope of Starcross Brow rose close ahead, and I knew no horse was ever foaled which could run away up that. So, trusting to one hand, I slipped my arm round Grace's waist, and, thrilled at the touch of her damp hair on my neck, "I'll hold you safe; we are near the end, and the danger will soon be past," I said.
It turned out so, for though Robert the Devil charged the hill gallantly, Starcross Brow proved too much for him, and, with a sigh of relief, Grace drew herself away. "I must thank you, Mr. Lorimer. You drive well," she said.
Then I thought that if she had been like Minnie, or even cousin Alice, I might have ventured to replace the protecting arm, but there was something about Grace Carrington that made one treat her, as it were, with reverence. When we drew up in front of Starcross House a carriage with flashing lamps stood in the drive; I had seen those lights coming down the opposite side of the valley. After Grace had thanked me with a quiet friendliness as I helped her down, a group turned to meet us at the door. The first was a tall, thin-faced man of commanding presence with a long gray moustache, and he stared hard at me with a haughtiness that I fancied was tinctured with contempt, while Captain Ormond stood behind him, smiling languidly and lifted a warning finger unobserved to Grace. There was something forbidding about Colonel Carrington, and to the last few men liked him. I remember Harry Lorraine once comparing him to Coriolanus—"Steeped in pride to the backbone," said Harry, "but it's a clean pride, and there's a good deal of backbone about him."
"I am glad to see you safe, Grace," he commenced. "We were rather anxious about you. But where have you been, and how did we pass you?"
I never saw Grace either confused or taken by surprise, and when she explained quietly her father looked down at me from the top step as he said, "I thank you, sir, but I did not catch the name. May I ask who it is to whom we are so much indebted? Neither do I quite understand yet how we got here before you."
There was nothing in the words, but the glance and tone conveyed the idea that he regretted the debt, while the whimsical look on Ormond's face aided in stirring me, for we had democratic notions in that part of Lancashire.
"Ralph Lorimer, assistant cashier in the Orb Mill," I said. "It was a slight service, and I did not consider the shortest way best;" while before the Colonel could answer I raised my hat to Grace, and, taking Robert the Devil's head, turned him sharply around. Still, as I climbed into the dog-cart I saw that the burly master of Starcross House was chuckling at something, and I drove away feeling strangely satisfied with myself, until I began to wonder whether after all to walk twice off the field defiantly before the enemy was not another form of cowardice. Alice met me on the threshold—for she heard the wheels—with a query as to why the Satanic Robert was in such a state; but for several reasons I did not fully enlighten her.
My uncle did not return that night, and I left for town the next morning. In the afternoon I sought an interview with him in his private office. It was with some trepidation that I entered, because Martin Lorimer was frank of speech and quick in temper, and I knew he was then busy with the details of a scheme that might double the output of his mill. He thrust the papers away and leaned forward on his desk, a characteristic specimen of his race, square in jaw and shoulder, with keenness and power stamped on his wrinkled face.
"Well, Ralph, what is it now?" he asked. "Johnson of Starcross has been telling me some tale about your running away with an heiress and giving his answer to Colonel Carrington. I'm not altogether sorry. I do not like that man. There is also a reason why he doesn't like me."
"It has nothing to do with that, sir," I answered awkwardly. "You know I have never asked questions about the family money; and you have been very kind to me. But the fact is I can't stand the mill, and I'm thinking of asking for whatever remains of my share and going out to Canada."
Martin Lorimer smote the desk suddenly with his fist, and there was angry bewilderment in his eyes.
"Hast gone mad altogether, lad?" he asked.
I met his gaze steadily. "No," I answered. "I can't help longing for a life in the open air; and there is room in Canada for poor people like me."
Then, thrusting his square jaw forward, he said: "Thy father left four hundred pounds in all. It is now five, under my stewardship. Shall I ask the cashier to make out a statement? Thy father had whims and fancies, or it would have been four thousand. Tom Lorimer could never see which side of his bread was buttered. He was born a fool, like thee."
Flinging back my head I rose facing him. But he thundered, "Stop! You ought to know my meaning. He was an open-handed gentleman, and my well-loved brother. If you take your share of the five hundred, what is going to educate your brother Reggie and your sister Aline? I presume you know the fees they charge at both those schools? And did you ever ask whether I had plans for thee?"
I was silent a moment. For the first time it struck me with sudden shame that Martin Lorimer had already most generously done his best to start his brother's orphans well in life. Then I answered slowly:
"I beg your pardon. I recognize your goodness; but I know I should never be successful in the mill. I'm sorry, but that is only the simple truth. Let Reggie and Aline keep all, except enough for a third-class passage to Winnipeg. This is not a rash whim. It has taken me three years to make up my mind."
"Then there's an end of the matter," said Martin Lorimer. "Stubbornness is in the family, and you are your father's son. An archangel would hardly have moved poor Tom! Well, lad, you shall not go penniless, nor third-class, if it's only for the credit of the name; and you can't go until spring. I thank thee for telling me; but I'm busy, and we'll talk again. Hast told thy cousin Alice about it?"
His eyes had lost their angry flash before I went out, and something in his change of tone revealed the hard bargain-maker's inner self.
Minnie Lee smiled over the typewriter as I passed her room, and I went in to tell her about it. I felt I must talk to some one; and, if not gifted with much sense, she was a sympathetic girl. She listened with a pretty air of dismay, and said petulantly, "So I shall lose my only friend in this dreary mill! Don't they pay high wages for my work in Montreal and Winnipeg? Well, if you hear of a situation you can send straight back for me."
Then a door slammed, and I saw a frown on my uncle's face as, perhaps attracted by the sound of voices, he glanced into the room on passing. Still, it was some time afterward before I learned that he had heard the last words; and, remembering them eventually when recalled by events, Minnie's careless speech proved an unfortunate one for both of us.
"THE LAND OF PROMISE"
It was a dismal afternoon in early spring when I lounged disconsolately about the streets of Winnipeg. The prairie metropolis had not then attained its present magnitude, but it was busy and muddy enough; for when the thaw comes the mire of a Western town is indescribable. Also odd showers of wet snow came down, and I shivered under my new skin coat, envying the busy citizens who, with fur caps drawn low down, hurried to and fro. One and all wore the stamp of prosperity, and their voices had a cheerful ring that grated on me, for I of all that bustling crowd seemed idle and without a purpose. So, feeling utterly forlorn, a stranger in a very strange and, at first sight, a forbidding land, I trudged up and down, waiting for the evening train which was to bear me west, and pondering over all that had happened during the past few weeks.
There was the parting with my uncle, who laid a strong hand on my shoulder and lapsed into the speech of the country as he said, "I need not tell thee to set thy teeth and hang on through the first few years, lad. Thy father played out a losing game only too staunchly; and it's stey work at the beginning. I mind when I started the mill—but that's an old story. It's the man who can grin and bear it, coming up smiling after each fall, who wins in the end. And thou hast all the world before thee. Still, remember there are staunch friends behind thee here in Lancashire."
I think his fingers shook a little, but Martin Lorimer was not addicted to much display of sentiment, and with a cough he hurried away; though I remember that the old cashier, who had served him since he started, putting a sealed envelope in my hand, said:
"It's a draft for one hundred pounds on the Bank of Montreal, and it's a secret; but I'm not debiting the estate with it. Thou'rt a gradely fool for thy trouble, Ralph Lorimer. But I knew thy father, and, like him, thou mun go thy own way. Well, maybe it's for the best; and good luck go with thee."
Next came my farewell from cousin Alice, who blushed as, laying before me a fine Winchester repeating rifle, which must have cost her some trouble to obtain in England then, she said:
"It's only a little keepsake, but I thought you would like it—and you will remember your cousin when you use it. Ralph, you have chosen to work out your own destiny, and for many a night your uncle fumed over it until at last he said that the child who fought for scraps in the gutter grew to be worth any two of the spoon-fed. You know how fond he is of forcible simile, and he frowned when I suggested that Canada was not a gutter. Still, it is too late to consider whether you did well, and I ask, as a last favor, if you are ever unfortunate, if only for the sake of old times, you will let us know. And now I wish you all prosperity. Good-bye, Ralph dear, and God bless you."
Her eyes were dim, and she looked so small and fragile that I stooped and kissed her, while though she drew herself suddenly away with the crimson mantling upward from her neck, I felt that whatever happened I had a friend for life in Alice Lorimer.
Now all of that had faded into the past that I had left behind across the sea, and henceforward I knew there must be no more glancing back. I had chosen my own path, and must press forward with eyes turned steadfastly ahead, although at present I could see no further than the prairie station that I would reach some time before dawn the next day. A wheat-grower's dwelling thirty miles back from the railroad was registered as wanting assistance, the immigration officer said. Slowly, with more snow and a freshening of the bitter wind, the afternoon wore itself away, and I was glad when that evening I boarded the west-bound train. It was thronged with emigrants of many nationalities, and among them were Scandinavian maidens, tow-haired and red-cheeked, each going out to the West to be married. Their courtship would be brief and unromantic, but, as I was afterward to learn, three-fourths of the marriages so made turned out an unqualified success. Still, I found a corner in the smoking end of a long Colonist car, and, with the big bell clanging and a storm of voices exchanging farewells in many tongues, the great locomotive hauled us out into the whirling snow.
Thick flakes beat on the windows, and icy draughts swept through the car, while the big stove in a boxed-in corner hummed with a drowsy roar. With half-closed eyes I leaned back against the hard maple while the preceding scenes of the long journey rolled like a panorama before me. Twelve days it took the ancient steamer, which swarmed like a hive, to thrash through mist and screaming gale across the Atlantic, while fifteen hundred emigrants below wished themselves dead. Then there followed an apparently endless transit in the lurching cars, where we slept as best we could on uncushioned seats and floor, through dark pine forests, with only an occasional tin-roofed hamlet to break the monotony. After that there were wooden cities in Ontario very much like the hamlets of a larger growth; and when at last sickened by the vibration, we sped out on to the long-expected prairie, the prospect was by no means inviting. Spring, I was told, was very late that year, and the plains rolled before us to the horizon a dreary white wilderness streaked by willow-swale, with at first many lonely lakes rippling a bitter steely-blue under the blasts, while crackling ice fringed their shores. Then several of my companions, who were young and romantic Britons with big revolvers strapped about them under their jackets, grew suspiciously quiet, and said no more about the strange adventures they had looked for in the West. There was nothing romantic about this land, which lacked even the clear skies Grace Carrington spoke of. It looked a hard country, out of which only a man with the power of stubborn endurance could wrest a living.
So with a rhythmic beat of whirring wheels, and now and again a clash of couplings as we slid down some hollow of the track, we rolled on through the night, while the scream of wind grew louder outside the rattling cars. I was nearly asleep when there came a sudden shock, and the conductor's voice rang out warning us to leave the train. At slackened speed we had run into a snow block, and the wedge-headed plow was going, so he said, to plug the drifts under a full pressure, and butt her right straight through.
Shivering to the backbone, I dropped from the platform into two feet of snow, and after floundering through it I halted among a group of excited men behind the two huge locomotives. For a newcomer it was a striking scene. The snow had ceased, and watery moonlight lit up the great white plain, in the midst of which, with the black smoke of the engines drifting across under a double column of roaring steam, stood the illuminated train. There was nothing else to show that man had ever been there before, except the spectral row of telegraph posts that dwindled in long perspective to the horizon. Ahead a billowy drift which filled a hollow rose level with the wedge-shape framing on the snow-plow front. They run both better plows and more luxurious Colonist cars now.
"Will they get through?" I asked a tall man in fur robes with whom I had chatted.
"Oh, yes, you just bet they will," he answered cheerfully. "Jim Grant and Number Sixty are a very bad pair to beat; he'll either jump the track or rush her through it. He's backing her out now for the first lead."
With a clang of the bell to warn us off the line, the coupled engines slowly shoved the long train back the way they had come. Then the roar of blown-off steam grew still, and with loud blasts from the funnels that rapidly quickened they swept again down the slight grade like snorting giants, the huge head-lamp casting a blaze of radiance before them. It went out suddenly; I heard the thud of a soft but heavy shock, and long waves of whiteness curled up, while above it there was a hurling aloft of red sparks from the twin funnels. Then the tail-light glimmered more brightly as it returned again, and we looked into the steep hollow with rammed-back slopes out of which the engines backed slowly.
"She'll do it sure next time," said the passenger. "Grant's going right back to Winnipeg to get on speed enough;" and under an eddying blast of steam the massive locomotives charged past us once more, while I felt a thrill as I watched them, and envied Grant, the engineer. It was something to hold that power in the hollow of one's hand. Thick white powder whirled aloft like smoke before them, a filmy wavy mass that seemed alive rolled aside, while presently the whistle boomed in triumph, and there was an exultant shout from the passengers, for steam had vanquished the snow, and the road lay open before us. Blundering down the gap they had made I climbed on board the train, colder than ever. As my new friend seemed a native of the neighborhood, I asked him whether he knew the farmer to whom I was going to offer my services.
He laughed as he answered: "I ought to. Beat me badly over a deal in stock he did. Old Coombs is a Britisher, and a precious low-grade specimen. Dare say he'll take you, but stick him for half as much again as he offers you, and bargain ex harvest—you'll get double wages anywhere then—see? How does this great country strike you—don't think much of it?—well, go slow and steady and it will grow on you. It's good enough for me, and I was raised on the best land in Ontario."
This was not encouraging, but I knew that most beginnings are unpleasant, and I went shivering to sleep until in the gray twilight of what might have been a mid-winter dawn a blast of the whistle awakened me and the brakes began to scream. The train ran slowly past an edifice resembling a sod stable with one light in it, stopped, and the conductor strode into the car. Even now the Western railroad conductor is a personage, but he might have been an emperor then, and this particular specimen had lorded it over the Colonist passengers in a manner that for several days had made me long to rebuke him. It was foolish, of course, but I was as yet new to the ways of the country, and I fear we were always a somewhat combative family.
"Any one for Elktail? Jump off; we can't wait all night with the west-bound mail," he said. "Say you," looking at me, "you had an Elktail ticket. Why aren't you getting off?"
"It's Vermont I am bound for," I answered sleepily. "You will see it on my ticket if you look in your wallet;" but this, of course, the magnate refused to do, and when another hoot of the whistle announced the engineer's impatience he called a brakeman, saying:
"You are bound for Elktail, and we've no time for fooling. Won't get off? Well, we'll soon put you," and, grasping my shoulder, he hustled me toward the platform of the car.
Now, though Martin Lorimer sometimes gave way to outbreaks of indignation, he was fond of impressing the fact on me that if forced into a quarrel one should take the first steps deliberately. Also, even then I remembered that Coombs' homestead lay almost as near Elktail, and a happy thought struck me. So I offered but little resistance until, as we stood on the platform, the brakeman or some one waved a lantern; then, while with a shock of couplings the cars commenced to move, I gripped the guard-rail with one hand and held the other ready, for I had determined if I left that train before I reached Vermont the conductor should certainly leave it too.
"Off with you!" he shouted, and shook me by the shoulder; but I seized him by the waist—the cars were moving faster now—and then flung myself off backward into the snow. I fell softly for as it happened the conductor fell under me, and, profiting by experience hardly earned in several colliery disputes, I took the precaution of sitting on him before he could get up.
"It won't be my fault if you get hurt because you don't keep still," I said.
Then there was a roar of laughter close by, and staring breathless down the track I saw the tail-light of the train grow dimmer across the prairie until it stopped and came swinging toward us again.
"I'd rather have lost five dollars than missed that," said my new friend, rubbing his hands. "Not bad for a raw Britisher—put the boss conductor off his own train and held up the Vancouver mail! Say, what are you going to do with him, sonny?"
"He can get up, and learn to be civil," I answered grimly; and when the man did so, sullenly, the other said:
"Well, I don't want any mess-up with the brakeman, so we may as well walk out now that they're coming back for him. Only one man in this shanty, and he wouldn't turn out unless it were a director. Leave your baggage where they dumped it—can't move it until daylight—and come along with me!"
I did so somewhat regretfully, for I felt just then that if this was the way they welcomed the emigrant in that country it would be a relief to do battle with the whole of them. Afterward I learned that when one understands his ways, which is difficult to do at first, there are many good qualities in the Western railroad-man. Still, I always wondered why the friendless newcomer should be considered a fair mark for petty hostility, especially by those who formerly were poor themselves—all of which applies only to city-bred men who hold some small office, for those who live by hard labor in forest and prairie would share their last crust with the stranger.
We trudged away from the station, with a square block of wooden houses rising nakedly in front of us from the prairie, and two gaunt elevators flanking it to left and right beside the track, which is one's usual first impression of a Western town. The rambling wooden building which combined the callings of general store and hotel was all in darkness, for the owner expected no guests just then, and would not have got up for any one but my companion if he had. So, after pounding long on the door, a drowsy voice demanded, with many and vivid expletives, who was there, and then added:
"Oh, it's you, Jasper; what in the name of thunder are you making all that row about? And what are you doing waking up a man this time o' night! Hold on! You're an obstinate man, and I guess you'll bust my door unless I let you in."
The speaker did so, and when he had ushered us into a long bare room with a stove still twinkling in the midst of it, he explained that his subordinates would not serve an ambassador before the regulation breakfast hour, and lighting a kerosene lamp immediately withdrew. Jasper, however, took it all as a matter of course, and when, rolled in his long coat, he stretched himself on a settee and went to sleep, I followed suit. Still they gave us a good breakfast—porridge, steak, potatoes, corn-cakes and molasses—at which I wondered, because I had not discovered as yet that there is no difference on the prairie between any of the three meals of the day.
When it was finished, my companion, who gave me directions as to how to find Coombs' homestead, added:
"Remember what I told you about harvest, and, if you strike nothing better, when the wheat is ripe come straight back to me. I'm Long Jasper of Willow Creek, and every one knows me. I like your looks, and I'll give you double whatever Coombs pays you. Guess he'll have taught you something, and I'm not speculating much when I stake on that. You'll fetch Jackson's crossing on the flat; go in and borrow a horse from him. Tell him Jasper sent you. Your baggage? When the station agent feels energetic he'll dump it into his shed, but I guess there's nothing that would hurry him until he does. Now strike out; it's only thirty miles, and if you go on as you've begun you'll soon feel at home in this great country!"
I thanked him sincerely and departed; and, as I passed the station, I saw that the agent evidently had not felt energetic yet, for my two boxes lay just where they had been flung out beside the track. As a preliminary experience it was all somewhat daunting, and the country forbidding, raw, even more unfinished than smoke-blackened Lancashire, and very cold; but I had found that every one seemed contented, and many of them proud of that new land, and I could see no reason why I too should not grow fond of it. At least I had not seen a hungry or a ragged person since I landed in Canada. Besides, Carrington Manor was less than fifty miles away, though it was evident now that a great gulf lay between Ralph Lorimer, the emigrant seeking an opportunity to learn his business as farm-servant, and the heiress of Carrington.
AN UNPLEASANT APPRENTICESHIP
By this time the sun was high, and, fastening the skin coat round my shoulders with a piece of string, I trudged on, rejoicing in the first warmth and brightness I had so far found in Canada. But it had its disadvantages, for the snow became unpleasantly soft, and it was a relief to find that the breeze had stripped the much thinner covering from the first of the swelling rises that rolled back toward the north. Here I halted a few minutes and surveyed my adopted country.
Behind lay the roofs of Elktail, some of them tin-covered and flashing like a heliograph; in front a desolate wilderness where the gray-white of frost-bleached grasses was streaked by the incandescent brightness of sloppy snow. There was neither smoke nor sign of human presence in all its borders—only a few dusky patches of willows to break the vast monotony of white and blue. And somewhere out on those endless levels, thirty miles to the north, lay the homestead of the man who might not give me employment even if I could find the place, which, remembering Jasper's directions, seemed by no means certain. However, the first landmark at least was visible, a sinuous line of dwarfed trees low down on the horizon; and gathering my sinking courage I struck out for it. Slowly the miles were left behind—straggling copse, white plateau, and winding ravine—until it was a relief to find an erection of sod and birch-poles nestling in a hollow. The man who greeted me in the doorway was bronzed to coffee color by the sun-blink on snow, and his first words were: "Walk right in, and make yourself at home!"
He was thin, hard, and wiry; the gray slouch hat and tattered deerskin jacket became him; while, if he had not the solidity of our field laborers, he evidently had nothing of their slowness, and with natural curiosity I surveyed him. There were many in Lancashire and Yorkshire who might beat him at a heavy lift, but few who could do so in a steady race against time from dawn to dusk, I thought. Then somewhat awkwardly I explained my business, and, mentioning Jasper, asked if he would lend me a horse, whereupon he called to the cheerful, neatly-dressed woman bustling about the stove:
"Hurry on that dinner, Jess!"
Next, turning to me, he added: "You're welcome to the horse, but it will be supper-time before you fetch Coombs' homestead, and you mayn't get much then. So lie right back where you are until dinner's ready, and tell us the best news of the Old Country. Jess was born there."
It was characteristic treatment, and though the meal was frugal—potatoes, pork, green tea, flapjacks and drips, which is probably glucose flavored with essences—they gave me of their best, as even the poorest settlers do. One might travel the wide world over to find their equal in kindly hospitality. Perhaps the woman noticed my bashfulness, for she laughed as she said:
"You're very welcome to anything we have. New out from England, I see, and maybe we're rough to look at. Still, you'll learn to like us presently."
In this, however, she was wrong. They were not rough to look at, for though it was plain to see that both toiled hard for a bare living there was a light-hearted contentment about them, and a curious something that seemed akin to refinement. It was not educational polish, but rather a natural courtesy and self-respect, though the words do not adequately express it, which seems born of freedom, and an instinctive realization of the brotherhood of man expressed in kindly action. Hard-handed and weather-beaten, younger son of good English family or plowman born, as I was afterward to find, the breakers of the prairie are rarely barbaric in manners or speech, and, in the sense of its inner meaning, most of them are essentially gentlemen.
It was with a lighter heart and many good wishes that I rode out again, and eventually reached Coombs' homestead, where a welcome of a different kind awaited me. The house was well built of sawn lumber, and backed by a thin birch bluff, while there was no difficulty in setting down its owner as an Englishman of a kind that fortunately is not common. He was stout and flabby in face, with a smug, self-satisfied air I did not like. Leaning against a paddock rail, he looked me over while I told him what had brought me there. Then he said, with no trace of Western accent, which, it afterward appeared, he affected to despise:
"You should not have borrowed that horse, because if we come to terms I shall have to feed him a day or two. Of course you would be useless for several months at least, and with the last one I got a premium. However, as a favor I'll take you until after harvest for your board."
"What are the duties?" I asked cautiously. And he answered:
"Rise at dawn, feed the working cattle, and plow until the dinner-hour—when you learn how. Then you could water the stock while you're resting; plow, harrow, or chop wood until supper; after that, wash up supper dishes, and—it's standing order—attend family prayers. In summer you'll continue hay cutting until it's dark."
Now the inhabitants of eastern Lancashire and the West Riding are seldom born foolish, and Jasper had cautioned me. So it may have been native shrewdness that led to my leaving the draft for one hundred pounds intact at the Winnipeg office of the Bank of Montreal and determining to earn experience and a living at the same time as promptly as possible. Also, though I did not discover it until later, this is the one safe procedure for the would-be colonist. There is not the slightest reason why he should pay a premium, because the work is the same in either case; and as, there being no caste distinction, all men are equal, hired hand and farmer living and eating together, he will find no difference in the treatment. In any case, I had no intention of working for nothing, and answered shortly:
"I'll come for ten dollars a month until harvest. I shall no doubt find some one to give me twenty then."
Coombs stared, surveyed me ironically from head to heel again, and, after offering five dollars, said very reluctantly:
"Seven-fifty, and it's sinful extravagance. Put the horse in that stable and don't give him too much chop. Then carry in those stove billets, and see if Mrs. Coombs wants anything to get supper ready."
I was tired and sleepy; but Coombs evidently intended to get the value of his seven-fifty out of me—he had a way of exacting the utmost farthing—and after feeding the horse, liberally, I carried fourteen buckets of water to fill a tank from the well before at last supper was ready. We ate it together silently in a long match-boarded room—Coombs, his wife, Marvin the big Manitoban hired man, and a curly-haired brown-eyed stripling with a look of good breeding about him. Mrs. Coombs was thin and angular, with a pink-tipped nose; and in their dwelling—the only place I ever saw it on the prairie—she and her husband always sat with several feet of blank table between themselves and those who worked for them. They were also, I thought, representatives of an unpleasant type—the petty professional or suddenly promoted clerk, who, lacking equally the operative's sturdiness and the polish of those born in a higher station, apes the latter, and, sacrificing everything for appearance, becomes a poor burlesque on humanity. Even here, on the lone, wide prairie, they could not shake off the small pretense of superiority. When supper was finished—and Coombs' suppers were the worst I ever ate in Canada—the working contingent adjourned after washing dishes to the sod stable, where I asked questions about our employer.
"Meaner than pizon!" said Marvin. "Down East, on the 'lantic shore, is where he ought to be. Guess he wore them out in the old country, and so they sent him here."
Then the young lad stretched out his hand with frank good-nature. "I'm Harry Lorraine, premium pupil on this most delectable homestead. You're clearly fresh out from England, and I'm sure we'll be good friends," he said. "Coombs? Well, Jim Marvin is right. I've set him down in my own mind as a defaulting deacon, or something of the kind. Did my guardian out of a hundred and fifty as premium, with duck, brant-goose, and prairie-chicken shooting thrown in—and he sees I've never time to touch a gun. However, I'm learning the business; and in spite of his quite superfluous piety he can farm, in a get-all-you-can-for-nothing kind of way."
"He can't, just because of that same," broke in the prairie-born. "I'm sick of this talking religion, but you'll see it written plain on furrow and stock that when the Almighty gives the good soil freely He expects something back, and not a stinting of dumb beasts and land to roll up money in the bank. Take all and give nothing don't pan out worth the washing, and that man will get let down of a sudden some cold day. Hallo! here's the blamed old reprobate coming."
Coombs slid through the stable with a cat-like gait and little eyes that noticed everything, while Harry leaned against a stall defiantly sucking at his pipe, and I wondered whether I was expected to be working at something.
"Idleness does not pay in this country, Lorimer," he said, with a beatific air. "Diligence is the one road to success. There is a truss of hay waiting to go through the cutter. Harry, I notice more oats than need be mixed with that chop."
He went out, and Harry laughed as he said, "Always the same! Weighs out the week's sugar to the teaspoonful. But you look tired. If you feed I'll work the infernal chopper."
So for a time I fed in the hay, while Harry swung up and down at the wheel, slender and debonair in spite of his coarse blue garments, with merry brown eyes. He was younger than I, and evidently inferior in muscle; but, as I know now, he had inherited a spirit which is greater than mere bodily strength. No man had a truer comrade than I in Harry Lorraine, and the friendship which commenced in the sod stable that night when I was travel-worn and he cut the hay for me will last while we two remain on this earth, and after, hallowed in the survivor's memory, until—but, remembering Coombs, I know that silence is often reverence, and so leave Grace's clean lips to voice the eternal hope.
We went back for family prayers, when Coombs read a chapter of Scripture; and he read passably well, though, for some reason, his tone jarred on me, while Harry fidgeted uneasily. Now I think it would jar even more forcibly. A hard life face to face with wild nature, among fearless, honest men, either by land or sea, induces, among other things, a becoming humility. There are times, out on the vast prairie, when, through glories of pearl and crimson, night melts into day, or up in the northern muskegs, where the great Aurora blazes down through the bitter frost, when one stands, as it were, abashed and awe-stricken under a dim perception of the majesty upholding this universe. Then, and because of this, the man with understanding eyes will never be deceived by complacent harangues on sacred things from such as Coombs who never lend a luckless neighbor seed-wheat, and oppress the hireling. Much better seemed Jasper's answer when Harry once asked him for twenty acres' seed: "Take half that's in the granary, if you want it. Damnation! why didn't you come before?"
We retired early, Harry and I, to sleep in the same room, with the rusty stove-pipe running through it; and we rose, I think, at four o'clock; while an hour later the feet of the big plow-oxen were trampling the rich loam where the frost had mellowed the fall back-setting. We worked until nine that night, and I had words with Coombs when he gave me directions about plowing. We do not get our land for nothing in Lancashire, and so learn to work the utmost out of every foot of it. However, I do not purpose to dilate upon either disc-harrows or breaking prairie, nor even the cutting of wild hay—which harsh and wiry product is excellent feeding—for all these matters will be mentioned again. Still, as spring and summer rolled away, I gathered experience that saved me a good deal of money, and I felt at least an inch less round the waist and another broader round the shoulders.
Then one Saturday evening, when the northwest blazed with orange and saffron flame, I lay among the tussocks of whispering grass reading for the third or fourth time a few well-worn letters from Cousin Alice. Acre by acre the tall wheat, changing from green to ochre, rippled before me; and, had its owner's hand been more open, it would have been a splendid crop. Marvin, Harry, and I had plowed for and sown it, because Coombs despised manual labor, and confined himself chiefly to fault-finding. It struck me that if we could do this for another we could do even more for ourselves. My agreement expired at harvest, and already the first oats were yellowing. Coombs' voice roused me from a pleasant reverie, wherein I sat once more with Alice beside the hearth in England.
"It's not dark yet, and there's the wire waiting for the paddock fence," he said. "I regret to see you addicted to loafing. And Mrs. Coombs has no water left for the kitchen."
Saying nothing, I smiled a little bitterly as I marched away to carry in water, and then the lady, whose thin face seemed sourer than usual that evening, set me to wash the supper dishes. All went well until I had the misfortune to break a stove-cracked plate, when looking at me contemptuously she said:
"How very clumsy! Do you know you have cost me two dollars already by your breakages? No—the handle always toward a lady! But what could be expected? You were never brought up."
Now the frying-pan or spider I held out had stood with its handle over an open lid of the range, so, though nettled, I still held it turned from her, and answered shortly:
"Not to wash dishes, madam, though my up-bringing has nothing to do with the case."
With an impatient gesture she reached over and grasped the hot handle, then dropped it with a cry just as the door opened and Coombs came in. This did not displease me, for if a quarrel must come it comes best quickly, and I listened unmoved while the mistress of the homestead said:
"Walter, I think you had better get rid of this man. He not only breaks my crockery, but set a cruel trap to burn my fingers, and I do not choose to be insulted by a hired hand."
"Have you anything to say before I turn you out on the prairie?" asked Coombs pompously; and remembering many an old grievance I answered with cheerful readiness:
"Nothing of much moment, beyond that I warned Mrs. Coombs, and it was an accident. But it is cooler without, and we can discuss it better there."
He followed in evident surprise, and I chuckled when he even walked after me into the stable, for already I guessed that if I left before the harvest I might have trouble about my wages. So far, in spite of several requests, Coombs had paid me nothing. It is also possible that a penniless newcomer of peaceful disposition might have been victimized, but I had learned in several industrial disputes, argued out with clog and brickbat as well as upon barrelhead platforms, that there are occasions when ethical justice may well be assisted by physical force. Besides, I was a Lingdale Lorimer, and would have faced annihilation rather than let any man rob me of my right.
"I am afraid Mrs. Coombs is prejudiced against me, and it might save unpleasantness if you paid me my wages and I left this place to-night," I said; and read in Coombs' face that this was by no means what he desired. Wages are high at harvest and labor scarce, while any one with a knowledge of working land was a god-send at seven dollars a month. But Coombs was equal to the emergency.
"I regret to see so much dishonesty in one so young," he said. "Our bargain was until after harvest, and I'll neither pay you a dollar nor give up your boxes if you go before. Let this be a lesson, if I overlook it, to confine yourself to the truth."
I forget what I answered—we were always a hot-blooded race—but I fancy that several adjectives and the word hypocrite figured therein; while Coombs, shaken out of his usual assumption of ironical courtesy, made a serious mistake when he tried bullying. As he strode toward me, fuming like an irate turkey cock, in an absurdly helpless attitude, I grasped his shoulder and backed him violently against a stall. Then, and whether this was justifiable I do not know, though I know that otherwise not a cent would I ever have got, I took out his wallet, which, as he had been selling stock in Brandon, contained a roll of dollar bills, and counted out the covenanted hire.
"Now I'm going to borrow your spare horse to carry my box," I said. "It will be sent back from Jasper's to-morrow, and if you venture to interfere I shall be compelled to hurt you. Let this also be a lesson to you—never try to bluff an angry man and put your hands up like that."
I think he swore, I am sure he groaned distressfully when I went out with what was due to me. Meeting Harry I told him the story.
"I don't think my guardians care much about me, and I'm coming with you," he said. "Good evening, Mrs. Coombs, you may make dusters of any old clothes I leave. I am going away with Mr. Lorimer, and henceforward I am afraid you will have to trust Marvin, who'll certainly eat the sugar, or do your own plate washing."
So twenty minutes later, while Marvin stood chuckling on the threshold and waved his hat to us, we marched out in triumph, leading Coombs' steed which made an efficient pack-horse. It was dawn the next day when aching and footsore we limped into Jasper's. He lay back in his hide chair laughing until there were tears in his eyes when we told him the tale at breakfast, then smote me on the back as he said:
"I'd have given a good deal to see it—the cunning old rascal! Got your full wages out of him?—well, I guess you broke the record. What shall you do now?—stay right where you are. It's a bonanza harvest, and I'll keep my promise; fifteen dollars a month, isn't it? Mr. Lorraine! oh yes, I know him—offer you the same. Then when harvest's over we'll talk again."
Needless to say, we gladly accepted the offer.
A BID FOR FORTUNE
We returned the horse with a note of sarcastic thanks, and flattered ourselves that we had heard the last of the matter. Several days later, however, when, grimed with oil and rust, I was overhauling a binder, a weather-beaten man wearing a serviceable cavalry uniform rode in, and explaining that he was a sergeant of the Northwest Police added that he had come in the first case to investigate a charge of assault and robbery brought against one Ralph Lorimer by Coombs. I told him as clearly as I could just what had happened, and I fancied that his face relaxed, while his eyes twinkled suspiciously as he patted the fidgeting horse, which did not like the binder.
Then sitting rigidly erect, the same man who afterward rode through an ambush of cattle-stealing rustlers who were determined to kill him, he said, "I'm thinking ye acted imprudently—maist imprudently, but I'm not saying ye could have got your wages otherwise oot o' Coombs. Weel, I'll take Jasper's security for it that ye'll be here, and away back to report to my superior. Don't think ye'll be wanted at Regina, Mr. Lorimer. Good-morning til ye, Jasper."
"Get down, Sergeant Angus," said Jasper, grasping his rein. "If you have run all decent whiskey off the face of the prairie, I've still got some hard cider to offer you. Say, don't you think you had better ride round and lock up that blamed old Coombs?"
There was less hard cider in the homestead when Sergeant Angus Macfarlane rode out again, and our presence was never requested by the Northwest Police. Nevertheless, it became evident that either Coombs or his wife was of inquiring as well as revengeful disposition, and had read some of the letters I left about, for some time later, when the snowdrifts raced across the prairie I received the following epistle from Martin Lorimer:
* * * * *
"I return the last letter sent your cousin, and until the present cloud is lifted from your name I must forbid your writing her. Neither do I desire any more communications from you. We all have our failings, and there is much I could have forgiven you, but that you should have used your position in the mill to ruin that foolish girl Minnie Lee is more than I can overlook. The story has roused a very bitter feeling, even among my own hands, who are not particularly virtuous, and now that we are on the eve of the elections some of the other side's pettifoggers are using it freely. Still, I should gladly have faced all that, but for my own shame, knowing it is true. Her father is a half-mad religious fanatic of some sort; he came in to call down vengeance upon me, and I laughed at him, as I insulted the first man who told me, for his trouble. Then I remembered how by chance I once heard her arrange to meet you in Winnipeg. I understand the father is going out especially to look for you, and you had better beware of him. Further, I have a letter from a man called Coombs who brings a charge of robbery against you, saying it appeared his duty to advise me. This I returned endorsed, 'A lie,' because none of the Lingdale Lorimers ever stole anything back to the time of Hilary, who was hanged like a Jacobite gentleman for taking despatches sword in hand from two of Cumberland's dragoons. If you are ever actually in want you can let me know. If not, I am sorry to say it, I do not wish to hear from you."
Hot with rage I flung down the letter, and, though how it got there never transpired, a tiny slip of paper fluttered out from it, on which I read the words, "There is a shameful story told about you, Ralph, but even in spite of my dislike at mentioning it I must tell you that I do not believe a word of it. Go on, trust in a clean conscience, and the truth will all come out some day."
"God bless her for her sweet charity," I said; then sat staring moodily across the frozen prairie until Harry touched me on the arm.
"I hope you have no bad news from home," he said.
I have suffered at times from speaking too frankly, but I had full trust in Harry, and told him all, adding as I held out the letter:
"He ought to know me better; it's cruel and unjust. I'll write by the next mail to Winnipeg and send back the confounded money he gave me when I came out. Read that!"
Harry did so leisurely, wrinkling his brows; then he said: "I think I sympathize with your uncle—no, wait a little. That letter was written by a man who would much more gladly have defended you—you can recognize regret running through every line of it—forced to believe against his wish by apparently conclusive evidence. Otherwise, he would have ended with the first sentences. I should like him from this letter, and should be pleased to meet your cousin. In any case, apart from the discourtesy, you can't send the money back; from what you told me you are not certain even that it was a present. Better write and explain the whole thing, then if he doesn't answer leave it to time."
I can still see Harry standing wrapped in his long fur coat looking down at me with kindly eyes. In due time I learned that he gave me very good counsel, though it was much against my wishes that I followed it.
We worked hard for Jasper that harvest from the clear cold dawning until long after the broad red moon swung up above the prairie. Day by day the tinkling knives of the binders rasped through the flinty stems, and the tossing wooden arms caught up the tall wheat that went down before them and piled it in golden sheaves upon the prairie. This one machine has done great things for the Western Dominion, for without it when wheat is cheap and labor dear many a crop that would not pay for the cutting would rot where it grew. Jasper, however, possessed one of the antiquated kind which bound the sheaves with wire, and occasionally led to wild language when a length of springy steel got mixed up with the thrasher. Every joint and sinew ached, there were times when we were almost too tired to sleep, but—and this was never the case with Coombs—wherever the work was hardest the master of the homestead did two men's share, and his cheery encouragement put heart into the rest.
Then, drawn by many sturdy oxen, the big thrasher rolled in, and the pace grew faster still. The engine, like others in use thereabout, shed steam and hot water round it from every leaky joint, and kept Harry busy feeding it with birch billets and liquid from the well. There were sheaves to pitch to the separator, grain bags to be filled and hauled to the straw-pile granary, while between times we drove wagon-loads of chaff and straw bouncing behind the bronco teams to complete that altogether western structure. Its erection is simple. You drive stout birch poles into the sod, wattle them with willow branches, and lash on whatever comes handiest for rafters; then pile the straw all over it several fathoms thick, and leave the wind and snow to do the rest. When it has settled into shape and solidity it is both frost and rain proof, and often requires a hay-knife to get into it.
So, under a blue cloud of wood smoke, and amid blinding fibrous dust, panting men, jolting wagons, and the musical whir of the separator, the work went on, until the thrashers departed, taking their pay with them. Then, in the light box-wagons which first rolled across the uneven prairie on groaning wheels, and then slid in swift silence on runners over the snow, we hauled the grain to the railroad forty miles away. It was done at last, and Harry and I sat by the stove one bitter night considering our next move, when Jasper came in shaking the white crystals from his furs. He saw we were plotting something, and laughed as he said:
"Making up your bill? We'll square it at the fifteen dollars to the day you hauled in the last load. Now I heard you talking of taking up land, and I've been thinking some. Nothing to earn a dollar at before the spring, and it will cost you considerable to board at Regina or Brandon. Is there anything the matter with stopping here? If you are particular we'll make it a deal and cut in three the grocery bill. Meantime you can chop building lumber ready to start your house in spring. No, it isn't any favor; I'll be mighty glad of your company."
It was a frank offer; we accepted it as frankly, and lived like three brothers while the prairie lay white and silent month after month under the Arctic frost. Also we found that a young Englishman who lived twenty miles to the west was anxious to dispose of his homestead and one hundred and sixty acres of partly broken land at a bargain. We rode over to make inquiries, and learned that he had lost several successive crops. Jasper, however, said this was because he spent most of his time in shooting, while the man who wished to succeed in that region must start his work in grim earnest and stay right with it. Now he was going out to a berth in India, and would take the equivalent of four hundred pounds sterling for the buildings and land, with the implements and a team of oxen thrown in—at least one hundred and fifty pounds down, and the rest to run at eight per cent. on mortgage. It was dirt cheap at the money, but there was no one to buy it, he said, and Jasper, who acted as our adviser, agreed with this.
"Got to make a plunge some time, and risking nothin' you never win," he said. "Figuring all round, it will fit you better than breaking virgin prairie, and you'll pay a pile of that mortgage off if you get a good crop next fall. Then one of you can take up the next quarter-section free land. More working beasts? I'll trade you my kicking third team at a valuation, and you can pay me after harvest. If the crop fails? Well, I'll take my chances."
We spent one night in calculations beside the glowing stove while the shingles crackled above us under the bitter cold, and found that by staking everything we could just manage it.
"I dare say I could raise a last hundred from my admiring relatives by hinting that without it I had serious thoughts of returning home," said Harry. "I don't know why, but they're particularly anxious to keep me away."
There was a ring of bitterness in his tone, and when in due time Harry got money he did not seem by any means grateful for it. It was long afterward before he told me much about his affairs, and even then I did not understand them fully, though it seemed probable that somebody had robbed him of his patrimony. Nobody, however, troubles about his comrade's antecedents in the West, where many men have a somewhat vivid history. The new land accepts them for what they are in the present, leaving the past to the mother country. So a bargain was made, and the vendor received his first instalments; and as that winter sped I looked forward, half-fearful, half-exultant, to what the coming year should bring. Our feet at least were set on the long road which leads to success, and it was well that we could not see the flints and thorns that should wound them cruelly.
It was a clear spring morning, one of those mornings which on the wide grass-lands fill one's heart with hope and stir the frost-chilled blood, when Harry and I stood beside our teams ready to drive the first furrow. A warm breeze from the Pacific, crossing the snow-barred Rockies, set the dry grasses rippling; and the prairie running northward league after league was dappled with moving shadow by the white cloudlets that scudded across the great vault of blue. Behind us straggling silver-stemmed birches sheltered the little log-house of Fairmead, which nestled snugly among them, with its low sod-built stable further among the slender branches behind. Trees are scarce in that region, and the settlers make the most of them. The white prairie was broken by a space of ashes and black loam, with a fire still crackling in crimson tongues among the stubble at the further end of it. Straw is worth nothing there, so a little is cut with the ear, and the rest burned off in spring, while the grasses growing and rotting for countless centuries have added to the rich alluvial left by some inland sea which covered all the prairie when the world was young. Nature, as those who love her know, is never in a hurry, and very slowly, little by little, working on through forgotten ages, she had stored her latent wealth under the matted sod against the time when the plowshare should convert it into food for man and beast. There is no wheat soil on the surface of the earth to beat that of Assiniboia and Manitoba.
Harry leaned on the plow-stilts with a smile on his handsome sun-bronzed face, and I smiled at him, for we were young and hope was strong within us.
"Ralph, I feel a hankering after some old heathen ceremonial, a pouring of wine upon it, or a garlanded priest to bless the fruitful earth," he said, "but we put our trust in science and automatic binders now, and disregard the powers of infinity until they smite the crop down with devastating hail. Well, here's the first stroke for fortune. Get up! Aw there, Stonewall!"