HotFreeBooks.com
Masters of the Wheat-Lands
by Harold Bindloss
1  2  3  4  5  6  7     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

MASTERS OF THE WHEAT-LANDS

by

HAROLD BINDLOSS

Author of "Thurston of Orchard Valley," "By Right of Purchase," "Lorimer of the Northwest," etc.

With Four Illustrations by Cyrus Cuneo



A. L. Burt Company Publishers :: New York

All Rights Reserved, Including That of Translation into Foreign Languages, Including the Scandinavian

Copyright, 1910, by Frederick A. Stokes Company Published in England Under the Title, "Hawtrey's Deputy" October, 1910



CONTENTS

CHAPTER PAGE I. Sally Creighton 1 II. Sally Takes Charge 11 III. Wyllard Assents 22 IV. A Crisis 33 V. The Old Country 44 VI. Her Picture 55 VII. Agatha Does Not Flinch 66 VIII. The Traveling Companion 78 IX. The Fog 92 X. Disillusion 104 XI. Agatha's Decision 117 XII. Wanderers 130 XIII. The Summons 143 XIV. Agatha Proves Obdurate 154 XV. The Beach 165 XVI. The First Ice 177 XVII. Defeat 187 XVIII. A Delicate Errand 199 XIX. The Prior Claim 209 XX. The First Stake 223 XXI. Gregory Makes Up His Mind 234 XXII. A Painful Revelation 244 XXIII. Through The Snow 254 XXIV. The Landing 265 XXV. News of Disaster 276 XXVI. The Rescue 287 XXVII. In the Wilderness 299 XXVIII. The Unexpected 308 XXIX. Cast Away 320 XXX. The Last Effort 331 XXXI. Wyllard Comes Home 342



MASTERS OF THE WHEAT-LANDS

CHAPTER I

SALLY CREIGHTON

The frost outside was bitter, and the prairie which rolled back from Lander's in long undulations to the far horizon, gleamed white beneath the moon, but there was warmth and brightness in Stukely's wooden barn. The barn stood at one end of the little, desolate settlement, where the trail that came up from the railroad thirty miles away forked off into two wavy ribands melting into a waste of snow. Lander's consisted then of five or six frame houses and stores, a hotel of the same material, several sod stables, and a few birch-log barns; and its inhabitants considered it one of the most promising places in Western Canada. That, however, is the land of promise, a promise which is in due time usually fulfilled, and the men of Lander's were, for the most part, shrewdly practical optimists. They made the most of a somewhat grim and frugal present, and staked all they had to give—the few dollars they had brought in with them, and their powers of enduring toil—upon the roseate future.

Stukely had given them, and their scattered neighbors, who had driven there across several leagues of prairie, a supper in his barn. A big rusty stove, brought in for the occasion, stood in the center of the barn floor. Its pipe glowed in places a dull red, and now and then Stukely wondered uneasily whether it was charring a larger hole through the shingles of the roof. On one side of the stove the floor had been cleared; on the other, benches, empty barrels and tables were huddled together, and such of the guests as were not dancing at the moment, sat upon the various substitutes for chairs. A keg of hard Ontario cider had been provided for the refreshment of the guests, and it was open to anybody to ladle up what he wanted with a tin dipper. A haze of tobacco smoke drifted in thin blue wisps beneath the big nickeled lamps, and in addition to the reek of it, the place was filled with the smell of hot iron which an over-driven stove gives out, and the subtle odors of old skin coats.

The guests, however, were accustomed to an atmosphere of that kind, and it did not trouble them. For the most part, they were lean, spare, straight of limb and bronzed by frost and snow-blink, for though scarcely half of them were Canadian born, the prairie, as a rule, swiftly sets its stamp upon the newcomer. Also, there was something in the way they held themselves and put their feet down that suggested health and vigor, and, in the case of most of them, a certain alertness and decision of character. Some were from English cities, a few from those of Canada, and some from the bush of Ontario; but there was a similarity among them for which the cut and tightness of their store clothing did not altogether account. They lived well, though plainly, and toiled out in the open unusually hard. Their eyes were steady, their bronzed skin was clear, and their laughter had a wholesome ring.

A fiery-haired Scot, a Highlander, sat upon a barrel-head sawing at a fiddle, and the shrill scream of it filled the barn. To tone he did not aspire, but he played with Caledonian nerve and swing, and kept the snapping time. It was mad, harsh music of the kind that sets the blood tingling, causes the feet to move in rhythm, though the exhilarating effect of it was rather spoiled by the efforts of the little French Canadian who had another fiddle and struck clanging chords from the lower strings.

In the cleared space they were dancing what was presumably a quadrille, though it bore almost as great a resemblance to a Scottish country dance, or indeed to one of the measures of rural France, which was, however, characteristic of the present country.

The Englishman has set no distinguishable impress upon the prairie. It has absorbed him with his reserve and sturdy industry, and apparently the Canadian from the cities is also lost in it, too, for his is the leaven that works through the mass slowly and unobtrusively, while the Scot and the habitant of French extraction have given the life of it color and individuality. Extremes meet and fuse on the wide white levels of the West.

An Englishman, however, was the life of that dance, and he was physically a larger man than most of the rest, for, as a rule, the Colonial born run to wiry hardness rather than to solidity of frame. Gregory Hawtrey was tall and thick of shoulder, though the rest of him was in fine modeling, and he had a pleasant face of the English blue-eyed type. Just then it was shining with boyish merriment, and indeed an irresponsible gayety was a salient characteristic of the man. One would have called him handsome, though his mouth was a trifle slack, and though a certain assurance in his manner just fell short of swagger. He was the kind of man one likes at first sight, but for all that not the kind his hard-bitten neighbors would have chosen to stand by them through the strain of drought and frost in adverse seasons.

As it happened, the grim, hard-faced Sager, who had come there from Michigan, was just then talking about him to Stukely.

"Kind of tone about that man—guess he once had the gold-leaf on him quite thick, and it hasn't all worn off yet," said Sager. "Seen more Englishmen like him, and some folks from Noo York, too, when I took parties bass fishing way back yonder."

He waved his hand vaguely, as though to indicate the American Republic, and Stukely agreed with him. They were right as far as they went, for Hawtrey undoubtedly possessed a grace of manner which, however, somehow failed to reach distinction. It was, perhaps, just a little too apparent, and lacked the strengthening feature of restraint.

"I wonder," remarked Stukely reflectively, "what those kind of fellows done before they came out here."

He had expressed a curiosity which is now and then to be met with on the prairie, but Sager, the charitable, grinned.

"Oh," he responded, "I guess quite a few done no more than make their folks on the other side tired of them, and that's why they sent them out to you. Some of them get paid so much on condition that they don't come back again. Say"—and he glanced toward the dancers—"Dick Creighton's Sally seems quite stuck on Hawtrey by the way she's looking at him."

Stukely assented. He was a somewhat primitive person, as was Sally Creighton, for that matter, and he did not suppose that she would have been greatly offended had she overheard his observations.

"Well," he said, "I've thought that, too. If she wants him she'll get him. She's a smart girl—Sally."

There were not many women present—perhaps one to every two of the men, which was rather a large proportion in that country, and their garments were not at all costly or beautiful. The fabrics were, for the most part, the cheapest obtainable, and the wearers had fashioned their gowns with their own fingers, in the scanty interludes between washing, and baking, and mending their husbands' or fathers' clothes. The faces of the women were a trifle sallow and had lost their freshness in the dry heat of the stove. Their hands were hard and reddened, and in figure most of them were thin and spare. One could have fancied that in a land where everybody toiled strenuously their burden was heavier than the men's. One or two of the women clearly had been accustomed to a smoother life, but there was nothing to suggest that they looked back to it with regret. As a matter of fact, they looked forward, working for the future, and there was patient courage in their smiling eyes.

Creighton's Sally, who was then tripping through the measure on Hawtrey's arm, was native born. She was young and straight—straighter in outline than the women of the cities—with a suppleness which was less suggestive of the willow than a rather highly-tempered spring. She moved with a large vigor which barely fell short of grace, her eyes snapped when she smiled at Hawtrey, and her hair, which was of a ruddy brown, had fiery gleams in it. Anyone would have called her comely, and there were, indeed, no women in Stukely's barn to compare with her in that respect, a fact that she recognized.

"Oh, yes," said Sager reflectively; "she'll get him sure if she sets her mind on it, and there's no denying that they make a handsome pair. I've nothing against Hawtrey either: a straight man, a hustler, and smart at handling a team. Still, it's kind of curious that while the man's never been stuck for the stamps like the rest of us, he's made nothing very much of his homestead yet. Now there's Bob, and Jake, and Jasper came in after he did with half the money, and they thrash out four bushels of hard wheat for Hawtrey's three."

Stukely made a little gesture of concurrence, for he dimly realized the significance of his companion's speech. It is results which count in that country, where the one thing demanded is practical efficiency, and the man of simple, steadfast purpose usually goes the farthest. Hawtrey had graces which won him friends, boldness of conception, and the power of application; but he had somehow failed to accomplish as much as his neighbors did. After all, there must be a good deal to be said for the man who raises four bushels of good wheat where his comrade with equal facilities raises three.

In the meanwhile Hawtrey was talking to Sally, and it was not astonishing that they talked of farming, which is the standard topic on that strip of prairie.

"So you're not going to break that new piece this spring?" she asked.

"No," answered Hawtrey; "I'd want another team, anyway, and I can't raise the money; it's hard to get out here."

"Plenty under the sod," declared Sally, who was essentially practical. "That's where we get ours, but you have to put the breaker in and turn it over. You"—and she flashed a quick glance at him—"got most of yours from England. Won't they send you any more?"

Hawtrey's eyes twinkled as he shook his head. "I'm afraid they won't," he replied. "You see, I've put the screw on them rather hard the last few years."

"How did you do that?" Sally inquired. "Told them you were thinking of coming home again?"

There was a certain wryness in the young man's smile, for though Hawtrey had cast no particular slur upon the family's credit he had signally failed to enhance it, and he was quite aware that his English relatives did not greatly desire his presence in the Old Country.

"My dear," he said, "you really shouldn't hit a fellow in the eye that way."

As it happened, he did not see the girl's face just then, or he might have noticed a momentary change in its expression. Gregory Hawtrey was a little casual in speech, but, so far, most of the young women upon whom he bestowed an epithet indicative of affection had attached no significance to it. They had wisely decided that he did not mean anything.

The Scottish fiddler's voice broke in.

"Can ye no' watch the music? Noo it's paddy-bash!" he cried.

His French Canadian comrade waved his fiddle-bow protestingly.

"Paddybashy! V'la la belle chose!" he exclaimed with ineffable contempt, and broke in upon the ranting melody with a succession of harsh, crashing chords.

Then began a contest as to which could drown the other's instrument, and the snapping time grew faster, until the dancers gasped, and men who wore long boots encouraged them with cries and stamped a staccato accompaniment upon the benches or on the floor. It was savage, rasping music, but one player infused into it the ebullient nerve of France, and the other was from the misty land where the fiddler learns the witchery of the clanging reel and the swing of the Strathspey. It is doubtless not high art, but there is probably no music in the world that fires the blood like this and turns the sober dance to rhythmic riot. Perhaps, too, amid the prairie snow, it gains something that gives it a closer compelling grip.

Hawtrey was breathless when it ceased, and Sally's eyes flashed with the effulgence of the Northern night when her partner found her a resting-place upon an upturned barrel.

"No," she declared, "I won't have any cider." She turned and glanced at him imperiously. "You're not going for any more either."

It was, no doubt, not the speech a well-trained English maiden would have made, but, though Hawtrey smiled rather curiously, it fell inoffensively from Sally's lips. Though it is not always set down to their credit, the brown-faced, hard-handed men as a rule live very abstemiously in that country, and, as it happened, Hawtrey, who certainly showed no sign of it, had already consumed rather more cider than anybody else. He made a little bow of submission, and Sally resumed their conversation where it had broken off.

"We could let you have our ox-team to do that breaking with," she volunteered. "You've had Sproatly living with you all winter. Why don't you make him stay and work out his keep?"

Hawtrey laughed. "Sally," he said, "do you think anybody could make Sproatly work?"

"It would be hard," the girl admitted, and then looked up at him with a little glint in her eyes. "Still, I'd put a move on him if you sent him along to me."

She was a capable young woman, but Hawtrey was dubious concerning her ability to accomplish such a task. Sproatly was an Englishman of good education, though his appearance seldom suggested it. Most of the summer he drove about the prairie in a wagon, vending cheap oleographs and patent medicines, and during the winter contrived to obtain free quarters from his bachelor acquaintances. It is a hospitable country, but there were men round Lander's who, when they went away to work in far-off lumber camps, as they sometimes did, nailed up their doors and windows to prevent Sproatly from getting in.

"Does he never do anything?" Sally added.

"No," Hawtrey assured her, "at least, never when he can help it. He had, however, started something shortly before I left him. You see, the house has needed cleaning, the last month or two, and we tossed up for who should do it. It fell to Sproatly, who didn't seem quite pleased, but he got as far as firing the chairs and tables out into the snow. Then he sat down for a smoke, and he was looking at them through the window when I drove away."

"Ah," commented Sally, "you want somebody to keep the house straight and look after you. Didn't you know any nice girls back there in the Old Country?"

She spoke naturally, and there was nothing to show that the girl's heart beat a little more rapidly than usual as she watched Hawtrey. His face, however, grew a trifle graver, for she had touched upon a momentous question to such men as he. Living in Spartan simplicity upon the prairie, there are a good many of them, well-trained, well-connected young Englishmen, and others like them from Canadian cities. They naturally look for some grace of culture or refinement in the woman they would marry, and there are few women of the station to which they once belonged who could face the loneliness and unassisted drudgery that must be borne by the small wheat-grower's wife. There were also reasons why this question had been troubling Hawtrey in particular of late.

"Oh, yes, of course, I knew nice girls in England, one or two," he answered. "I'm not quite sure, however, that girls of that kind would find things even moderately comfortable here."

A certain reflectiveness in his tone, which seemed to indicate that he had already given the matter some consideration, jarred upon Sally. Moreover, she had an ample share of the Western farmer's pride, which firmly declines to believe that there is any land to compare with the one the plow is slowly wresting from the wide white levels of the prairie.

"We make out well enough," she asserted with a snap in her eyes.

Hawtrey made an expressive gesture. "Oh, yes," he admitted, "it's in you. All you want in order to beat the wilderness and turn it into a garden is an ax, a span of oxen, and a breaker plow. You ought to be proud of your energy. Still, you see, our folks back yonder aren't quite the same as you."

Sally partly understood him. "Ah," she replied, "they want more, and, perhaps, they're used to having more than we have; but isn't that in one way their misfortune? Is it what folks want, or what they can do, that makes them of use to anybody else?"

There was a hard truth in her suggestion, but Hawtrey, who seldom occupied himself with matters of that kind, smiled.

"Oh," he said, "I don't know; but, after all, it wouldn't be worth while for us to raise wheat here unless there were folks back East to eat it, and, if some of them only eat in the shape of dainty cakes, that doesn't affect the question. Anyway, there will be but another dance or two, and I was wondering whether I could drive you home; I've got Wyllard's Ontario sleigh."

Sally glanced at him rather sharply. She had half-expected this offer, and it is possible would have judiciously led him up to it if he had not made it. Now, as she saw that he really wished to drive her home, she was glad that she had not deliberately encouraged the invitation.

"Yes," she answered softly, "I think you could."

"Then," said Hawtrey, "if you'll wait ten minutes I'll be back with the team."



CHAPTER II

SALLY TAKES CHARGE

The night was clear and bitterly cold when Hawtrey and Sally Creighton drove away from Stukely's barn. Winter had lingered unusually long that year, and the prairie gleamed dimly white, with the sledge trail cutting athwart it, a smear of blue-gray in the foreground. It was—for Lander's lay behind them with the snow among the stubble belts that engirdled it—an empty wilderness that the mettlesome team swung across, and during the first few minutes the cold struck through the horses with a sting like the thrust of steel. A half moon, coppery red with frost, hung low above the snow-covered earth, and there was no sound but the crunch beneath the runners, and the beat of hoofs that rang dully through the silence like a roll of muffled drums.

Sleighs like the one that Hawtrey drove are not common on the prairie, where the farmer generally uses the humble bob-sled when the snow lies unusually long. It had been made for use in Montreal, and bought back East by a friend of Hawtrey's, who was possessed of some means, which is a somewhat unusual thing in the case of a Western wheat-grower. This man also had bought the team—the fastest he could obtain—and when the warmth came back to the horses Hawtrey and the girl became conscious of the exhilaration of the swift and easy motion. The sleigh was light and narrow, and Hawtrey, who drew the thick driving-robe higher about Sally, did not immediately draw the mittened hand he had used back again. The girl did not resent the fact that it still rested behind her shoulder, nor did Hawtrey attach any particular significance to the fact. He was a man who usually acted on impulse. How far Sally understood him did not appear, but she came of folk who had waged a stubborn battle with the wilderness, and there was a vein of grim tenacity in her.

She was, however, conscious that there was something beneath her feet which forced her, if she was to sit comfortably, rather close against her companion; and it seemed expedient to point it out.

"Can't you move a little? I can't get my feet fixed right," she said.

Hawtrey looked down at her with a smile. "I'm afraid I can't unless I get right outside. Aren't you happy there?"

It was the kind of speech he was in the habit of making, but there was rather more color in the girl's face than the stinging night air brought there, and she glanced at the bottom of the sleigh.

"It's a sack of some kind, isn't it?" she asked.

"Yes," Hawtrey answered, "it's a couple of three-bushel bags. Some special seed Lorton sent to Winnipeg for. Ormond brought them out from the railroad. I promised I'd take them along to him."

"You should have told me. It's most a league round by Lorton's place," Sally returned with reproach in her voice.

"That won't take long with this team. Have you any great objections to another fifteen minutes' drive with me?"

Sally looked up at him, and the moonlight was on her face, which was unusually pretty in the radiance of the brilliant night.

"No," she admitted, "I haven't any."

She spoke demurely, but there was a perceptible something in her voice which might have warned the man, had he been in the habit of taking warning from anything, which, however, was not the case. It was one of his weaknesses that he seldom thought about what he did until he was compelled to face the consequences; and it was, perhaps, to his credit that he had after all done very little harm, for there was hot blood in him.

"Well," he responded, "I'm not going to grumble about those extra three miles, but you were asking what land I meant to break this spring. What put that into your mind?"

"Our folks," Sally replied candidly. "They were talking about you."

This again was significant, but Hawtrey did not notice it.

"I've no doubt they said I ought to tackle the new quarter section," he suggested.

"Yes," assented Sally. "Why don't you do it? Last fall you thrashed out quite a big harvest."

"I certainly did. There, however, didn't seem to be many dollars left over when I'd faced the bills."

The girl made a little gesture of impatience. "Oh, Bob and Jake and Jasper sowed on less backsetting," she said, "and they're buying new teams and plows. Can't you do what they do, though I guess they don't go off for weeks to Winnipeg?"

The man was silent. He had an incentive for hard work about which she was ignorant, and he had certainly done much, but the long, iron winter, when there was nothing that could be done, had proved too severe a test for him. It was very dreary sitting alone evening after evening beside the stove, and the company of the somnolent Sproatly was not cheerful. Now and then his pleasure-loving nature had revolted from the barrenness of his lot when, stiff and cold, he drove home from an odd visit to a neighbor, and arriving in the dark found the stove had burned out and water had frozen hard inside the house. These were things his neighbors patiently endured, but Hawtrey had fled for life and brightness to Winnipeg.

Sally glanced up at him with a little nod. "You take hold with a good grip. Everybody allows that," she observed. "The trouble is you let things go afterwards. You don't stay with it."

"Yes," assented Hawtrey. "I believe you have hit it, Sally. That's very much what's the matter with me."

"Then," said the girl with quiet insistence, "won't you try?"

A faint flush crept into Hawtrey's face. Sally was less than half-taught, and unacquainted with anything beyond the simple, strenuous life of the prairie. Her greatest accomplishments consisted of some skill in bakery and the handling of half-broken teams; but she had once or twice given him what he recognized as excellent advice. There was something incongruous in the situation, but, as usual, he preferred to regard it whimsically.

"I suppose I'll have to, if you insist. If ever I'm the grasping owner of the biggest farm in this district I'll blame you," he answered.

Sally said nothing further on that subject, and some time later the sleigh went skimming down among the birches in a shallow ravine. Hawtrey pulled the horses up when they reached the bottom of the ravine, and glanced up at a shapeless cluster of buildings that showed black amid the trees.

"Lorton won't be back until to-morrow, but I promised to pitch the bags into his granary," he said. "If I hump them up the trail here it will save us driving round through the bluff."

He got down, and though the bags were heavy, with Sally's assistance he managed to hoist the first of them on to his shoulders. Then he staggered with it up the steep foot-trail that climbed the slope. He was more or less accustomed to carrying bags of grain between store and wagon, but his mittened hands were numbed, and his joints were stiff with cold. Sally noticed that he floundered rather wildly. In another moment or two, however, he vanished into the gloom among the trees, and she sat listening to the uneven crunch of his footsteps in the snow, until there was a sudden crash of broken branches, and a sound as of something falling heavily down a declivity. Then there was another crash, and stillness again.

Sally gasped, and clenched her mittened hands hard upon the reins as she remembered that Lorton's by-trail skirted the edge of a very steep bank, but she lost neither her collectedness nor her nerve. Presence of mind in the face of an emergency is probably as much a question of experience as of temperament, and, like other women in that country, she had seen men struck down by half-trained horses, crushed by collapsing strawpiles, and once or twice gashed by mower blades. This was no doubt why she remembered that the impatient team would probably move on if she left the sleigh, and therefore drove the horses to the first of the birches before she got down. Then she knotted the reins about a branch, and called out sharply.

No answer came out of the shadows, and her heart beat unpleasantly fast as she plunged in among the trees, keeping below the narrow trail that went slanting up the side of the declivity, until she stopped, with another gasp, when she reached a spot where a ray of moonlight filtered down. A limp figure in an old skin coat lay almost at her feet, and she dropped on her knees beside it in the snow. Hawtrey's face showed an unpleasant grayish-white in the faint silvery light.

"Gregory," she cried hoarsely.

The man opened his eyes, and blinked at her in a half-dazed manner. "Fell down," he said. "Think I felt my leg go—and my side's stabbing me. Go for somebody."

Sally glanced round, and noticed that the grain bag lay burst open not far away. She fancied that he had clung to it after he lost his footing, which explained why he had fallen so heavily, but that was not a point of any consequence now. There was nobody who could help her within two leagues of the spot, and it was evident that she could not leave him there to freeze. Then she noticed that the trees grew rather farther apart just there, and rising swiftly she ran back to bring the team. The ascent was steep, and she had to urge the horses, with sharp cries and blows from her mittened hand, among shadowy tree trunks and through snapping undergrowth before she reached the spot where Hawtrey lay. He looked up at her when at last the horses stood close beside him.

"You can't turn them here," he told her faintly.

Sally was never sure how she managed it, for the sleigh drove against the slender trunks, and the fiery beasts, terrified by the snapping of the undergrowth, were almost unmanageable; but at last they were facing the descent again, and she stooped and twined her arms about the shoulders of Hawtrey, who now lay almost against the sleigh.

"It's going to hurt, Gregory, but I have got to get you in," she warned him.

Then she gasped, for Hawtrey was a man of full stature, and it was a heavy lift. She could not raise him wholly, and he cried out once when his injured leg trailed in the snow. Still, with the most strenuous effort she had ever made she moved him a yard or so, and then staggering fell with her side against the sleigh. She felt faint with the pain of it, but with another desperate lift she drew him into the sleigh, and let him sink down gently upon the bag that still lay there. His eyes had shut again, and he said nothing now.

It required only another moment or two to wrap the thick driving-robe about him, and after that, with one hand still beneath his neck, she glanced down. It was clear that he was quite unconscious of her presence, and stooping swiftly she kissed his gray face. She settled herself in the driving-seat with only a blanket coat to shelter her from the cold, and the horses went cautiously down the slope. She did not urge them until they reached the level, for the trail that wound up out of the ravine was difficult, but when the wide white expanse once more stretched away before them she laid the biting whip across their backs.

That was quite sufficient. They were fiery animals, and when they broke into a furious gallop the rush of night wind struck her tingling cheeks like a lash of wires. All power of feeling went out of her hands, her arms grew stiff and heavy, and she was glad that the trail led smooth and straight to the horizon. Hawtrey, who had moved a little, lay helpless across her feet. He did not answer when she spoke to him.

The team went far at the gallop. A fine mist of snow beat against the sleigh, but the girl leaning forward, a tense figure, with nerveless hands clenched upon the reins, saw nothing but the blue-gray riband of trail that steadily unrolled itself before her. At length a blurred mass, which she knew to be a birch bluff, grew out of the white waste, and presently a cluster of darker smudges shot up into the shape of a log-house, sod stables, and straw-pile granary. A minute or two later, she pulled the team up with an effort, and a man, who flung the door of the house open, came out into the moonlight. He stopped, and gazed at her in astonishment.

"Miss Creighton!" he said.

"Don't stand there," cried Sally. "Take the near horse's head, and lead them right up to the door."

"What's the matter?" the man asked stupidly.

"Lead the team up," ordered Sally. "Jump, if you can."

It was supposed that Sproatly had never moved with much expedition in his life, but that night he sprang towards the horses at a commanding wave of the girl's hand. He started when he saw his comrade lying in the bottom of the sleigh, but Sally disregarded his hurried questions.

"Help me to get him out," she said, when he stopped the team. "Keep his right leg as straight as you can. I don't want to lift him. We must slide him in."

They did it somehow, though the girl was breathless before their task was finished, and the perspiration started from the man. Then Sally turned to Sproatly.

"Get into the sleigh, and don't spare the team," she said. "Drive over to Watson's, and bring him along. You can tell him your partner's broke his leg, and some of his ribs. Start right now!"

Sproatly did her bidding, and when the door closed behind him she flung off her blanket coat and thrust plenty of wood into the stove. She looked for some coffee in the cupboard, and put on a kettle, after which she sat down on the floor by Hawtrey's side. He lay still, with the thick driving-robe beneath him, and though the color was creeping back into his face, his eyes were shut, and he was apparently quite unconscious of her presence. For the first time she was aware of a distressful faintness, which, as she had come suddenly out of the stinging frost into the little overheated room that reeked with tobacco smoke and a stale smell of cooking, was not astonishing. She mastered her dizziness, however, and presently, seeing that Hawtrey did not move, glanced about her with some curiosity, for it was the first time she had entered his house.

The room was scantily furnished, and, though very few of the bachelor farmers in that country live luxuriously, she fancied that Sproatly, who had evidently very rudimentary ideas on the subject of house-cleaning, had not brought back all the sundries he had thrown out into the snow. It contained a table, a carpenter's bench, and a couple of chairs. There were still smears of dust upon the uncovered floor. The birch-log walls had been rudely paneled half-way up, but the half-seasoned boards had cracked with the heat, and exuded streaks of resin to which the grime and dust had clung. A pail, which contained potato peelings, stood amid a litter of old long-boots and broken harness against one wall. The floor was black and thick with grease all round the rusty stove. A pile of unwashed dishes and cooking utensils stood upon the table, and the lamp above her head had blackened the boarded ceiling.

Sally noticed it all with disgust, and then, seeing that Hawtrey had opened his eyes, she made a cup of coffee and persuaded him to drink it. After that he smiled at her.

"Thanks," he said feebly. "Where's Sproatly? My side stabs me."

Sally raised one hand. "You're not to say a word," she cautioned. "Sproatly's gone for Watson, and he'll soon fix you up. Now lie quite still, and shut your eyes again."

Hawtrey obeyed her injunction to lie still, but his eyes were not more than half-closed, and she could not resist the temptation to see what he would do if she went away. She had half risen, when he stretched out a hand and felt for her dress, and she sank down again with a curious softness in her face. Then he let his eyes close altogether, as if satisfied, and by and by she gently laid her hand on his.

He did not appear to notice it, and, though she did not know whether he was asleep or unconscious, she sat beside him, watching him with compassion in her eyes. There was no sound but the snapping of the birch billets in the rusty stove. She was anxious, but not unduly so, for she knew that men who live as the prairie farmers do usually more or less readily recover from such injuries as had befallen him. It would not be very long before assistance arrived, for it was understood that the man for whom she had sent Sproatly had almost completed a medical course in an Eastern city before he became a prairie farmer. Why he had suddenly changed his profession was a point he did not explain, and, as he had always shown himself willing to do what he could when any of his neighbors met with an accident, nobody troubled him about the matter.

By and by Sproatly brought Watson to the homestead, and he was busy with Hawtrey for some time. Then they got him to bed, and Watson came back to the room where Sally was anxiously waiting.

"Hawtrey's idea about his injuries is more or less correct, but we'll have no great trouble in pulling him round," he said. "The one point that's worrying me is the looking after him. One couldn't expect him to thrive upon slabs of burnt salt pork, and Sproatly's bread."

"I'll do what I can," said Sproatly indignantly.

"You!" replied Watson. "It would be criminal to leave you in charge of a sick man."

Sally quietly put on her blanket coat. "If you can stay a few hours, I'll be back soon after it's light," she said. She turned to Sproatly. "You can wash up those dishes on the table, and get a brush and sweep this room out. If it's not quite neat to-morrow you'll do it again."

Sproatly grinned as she went out. A few moments later the girl drove away through the bitter frost.



CHAPTER III

WYLLARD ASSENTS

Sally, who returned with her mother, passed a fortnight at Hawtrey's homestead before Watson decided that his patient could be entrusted to Sproatly's care. Afterwards she went back twice a week to make sure that Sproatly, in whom she had no confidence, was discharging his duties satisfactorily. With baskets of dainties for the invalid she had driven over one afternoon, when Hawtrey, whose bones were knitting well, lay talking to another man in his little sleeping-room.

There was no furniture in the room except the wooden bunk in which he lay, and a deerhide lounge chair he had made. The stove-pipe from the kitchen led across part of one corner, and then up again into the room beneath the roof above. It had been one of Sproatly's duties since the accident to rise and renew the fire soon after midnight, and when Sally arrived he was outside the house, whip-sawing birch-logs and splitting them, an occupation he profoundly disliked.

Spring had come suddenly, as it usually does on the prairie, and the snow was melting fast under a brilliant sun. The bright rays that streamed in through the window struck athwart the glimmering dust motes in the little bare room, and fell, pleasantly warm, upon the man who sat in the deerhide chair. He was a year or two older than Hawtrey, though he had scarcely reached thirty. He was a man of average height, and somewhat spare of figure. His manner was tranquil and his lean, bronzed face attractive. He held a pipe in his hand, and was looking at Hawtrey with quiet, contemplative eyes, that were his most noticeable feature, though it was difficult to say whether their color was gray or hazel-brown, for they were singularly clear, and there was something which suggested steadfastness in their unwavering gaze. The man wore long boots, trousers of old blue duck, and a jacket of soft deerskin such as the Blackfeet dress so expertly; and there was nothing about him to suggest that he was a man of varied experience, and of some importance in that country.

Harry Wyllard was native-born. In his young days he had assisted his father in the working of a little Manitoban farm, when the great grain province was still, for the most part, a wilderness. A prosperous relative on the Pacific slope had sent him to Toronto University, where after a session or two he had become involved in a difference of opinion with the authorities. Though the matter was never made quite clear, it was generally believed that Wyllard had quietly borne the blame of a comrade's action, for there was a vein of eccentric generosity in the lad. In any case, he left Toronto, and the relative, who was largely interested in the fur business, next sent him north to the Behring Sea. The business was then a hazardous one, for the skin buyers and pelagic sealers had trouble with the Alaskan representatives of American trading companies, upon whose preserves they poached, as well as with the commanders of the gunboats sent up north to protect the seals.

Men's lives were staked against the value of a fur, edicts were lightly contravened, and now and then a schooner barely escaped into the smothering fog with skins looted on forbidden beaches. It was a perilous life, and a strenuous one, for every white man's hand was against the traders; there were rangers in fog and gale, and the reefs that lay in the tideways of almost uncharted waters; but Wyllard made the most of his chance. He kept the peace with jealous skippers who resented the presence of a man they might command as mate, but whose views they were forced to listen to when he spoke as supercargo. He won the good-will of sea-bred Indians, and drove a good trade with them; he not infrequently brought his boat loaded with reeking skins back first to the plunging schooner.

He fell into trouble again when they were hanging off the Eastern Isles under double reefs, watching for the Russians' seals. A boat's crew from another schooner had been cast ashore, and, as the men were in peril of falling into the Russians' hands, Wyllard led a reckless expedition to rescue them. He succeeded, in so far that the wrecked sailors were taken off the beach through a tumult of breaking surf; but as the relief crews pulled seaward the fog shut down on them, and one boat, manned by three men, never reached the schooners. The vessels blew horns all night, and crept along the smoking beach next day, though the surf made landing impossible. Then a sudden gale drove them off the shore, and, as it was evident that their comrades must have perished, they reluctantly sailed for other fishing grounds. As one result of this, Wyllard broke with his prosperous relative when he went back to Vancouver.

After that he helped to strengthen railroad bridges among the mountains of British Columbia. He worked in logging camps, and shoveled in the mines, and, as it happened, met Hawtrey, who, tempted by high wages, had spent a winter in the Mountain Province. Wyllard's father, who had taken up virgin soil in Assiniboia, died soon after Wyllard went back to him, and a few months later the relative in Vancouver also died. Somewhat to Wyllard's astonishment, his kinsman bequeathed him a considerable property, most of the proceeds of which he sank in acres of virgin prairie. Willow Range was now one of the largest farms between Winnipeg and the Rockies.

"The leg's getting along satisfactorily?" Wyllard inquired at length.

Hawtrey, who appeared unusually thoughtful, admitted that it was.

"Anyway, it's singularly unfortunate that I'm disabled just now," he added. "There's the plowing to begin in a week or two, and besides that I was thinking of getting married."

Wyllard was somewhat astonished at this announcement. For one thing, he was more or less acquainted with the state of his friend's finances. During the next moment or two he glanced meditatively through the open door into the adjoining room, where Sally Creighton was busy beside the stove. The sleeves of the girl's light bodice were rolled up well above the elbow, and she had pretty, round arms, which were just then partly immersed in dough.

"I don't think there's a nicer or more capable girl in this part of Assiniboia," he remarked.

"Oh, yes," agreed Hawtrey. "Anybody would admit that. Still, since you seem so sure of it, why don't you marry her yourself?"

Wyllard looked at his comrade curiously. "Well," he said, "there are several reasons that don't affect Miss Sally and only concern myself. Besides, it's highly improbable that she'd have me." Before he looked up again he paused to light his pipe, which had gone out. "Since it evidently isn't Sally, have I met the lady?" he asked.

"You haven't. She's in England."

"It's four years, isn't it, since you were over there?"

Hawtrey lay silent a minute, and then made a little confidential gesture.

"I'd better tell you all about the thing," he said. "Our folks were people of some little standing in the county. In fact, as they were far from rich, they had just standing enough to embarrass them. In most respects, they were ultra-conventional with old-fashioned ideas, and, though there was no open break, I'm afraid I didn't get on with them quite as well as I should have done, which is why I came out to Canada. They started me on the land decently, and twice when we'd harvested frost and horse-sickness, they sent along the draft I asked them for. That is one reason why I'm not going to worry them, though I'd very much like another now. You see, there are two girls, as well as Reggie, who's reading for the Bar."

"I don't think you have mentioned the lady yet."

"She's a connection of some friends of ours. Her mother, so far as I understand it, married beneath her—a man her family didn't like. The father and mother died, and Agatha, who was brought up by the father's relations, was often at the Grange, a little, old-fashioned, half-ruinous place, a mile or two from where we live in the North of England. The Grange belongs to her mother's folks, but I think there was still a feud between them and her father's people, who had her trained to earn her living. We saw a good deal of each other, and fell in love, as boy and girl will. Well, when I went back, one winter, after I'd been here two years, Agatha was at the Grange again, and we decided then that I was to bring her out as soon as I had a home to offer her."

Hawtrey broke off for a moment, and there was a trace of embarrassment in his manner when he went on again. "Perhaps I ought to have managed it sooner," he added. "Still, things never seem to go quite as one would like with me, and you can understand that a dainty, delicate girl reared in comfort in England would find it rough out here."

Wyllard glanced round the bare room in which he sat, and into the other, which was also furnished in a remarkably primitive manner.

"Yes," he assented, "I can quite realize that."

"Well," said Hawtrey, "it's a thing that has been worrying me a good deal of late, because, as a matter of fact, I'm not much farther forward than I was four years ago. In the meanwhile, Agatha, who has some talent for music, was in a first-class master's hands. Afterwards she gave lessons, and got odd singing engagements. A week ago, I had a letter from her in which she said that her throat was giving out."

He stopped again for a moment, with trouble in his face, and then fumbling under his pillow produced a letter, which he carefully folded.

"We're rather good friends," he observed. "You can read that part of it."

Wyllard took the letter, and a suggestion of quickening interest crept into his eyes as he read. Then he looked up at Hawtrey.

"It's a brave letter—the kind a brave girl would write," he commented. "Still, it's evident that she's anxious."

For a moment or two there was silence, which was broken only by Sally clattering about the stove.

Dissimilar in character, as they were, the two men were firm friends, and there had been a day when, as they worked upon a dizzy railroad trestle, Hawtrey had held Wyllard fast when a plank slipped away. He had thought nothing of the matter, but Wyllard was one who remembered things of that kind.

"Now," said Hawtrey, after a long pause, "you see my trouble. This place isn't fit for her, and I couldn't even go across for some time yet. But her father's folks have died off, and there's nothing to be expected from her mother's relatives. Any way, she can't be left to face the blow alone. It's unthinkable. Well, there's only one course open to me, and that's to raise as much money on a mortgage as I can, fit the place out with fixings brought from Winnipeg, and sow a double acreage with borrowed capital. I'll send for her as soon as I can get the house made a little more comfortable."

Wyllard sat silent a moment or two, and then leaned forward in his chair.

"No," he objected, "there are two other and wiser courses. Tell the girl what things are like here, and just how you stand. She'd face it bravely. There's no doubt of that."

Hawtrey looked at him sharply. "I believe she would, but considering that you have never seen her, I don't quite know why you should be sure of it."

Wyllard smiled. "The girl who wrote that letter wouldn't flinch."

"Well," said Hawtrey, "you can mention the second course."

"I'll let you have $1,000 at bank interest—which is less than any land-broker would charge you—without a mortgage."

Again Hawtrey showed a certain embarrassment. "No," he replied, "I'm afraid it can't be done. I had a kind of claim upon my people, though it must be admitted that I've worked it off, but I can't quite bring myself to borrow money from my friends."

Wyllard who saw that he meant it, made a gesture of resignation. "Then you must let the girl make the most of it, but keep out of the hands of the mortgage man. By the way, I haven't told you that I've decided to make a trip to the Old Country. We had a bonanza crop last season, and Martial could run the range for a month or two. After all, my father was born yonder, and I can't help feeling now and then that I should have made an effort to trace up that young Englishman's relatives, and tell them what became of him."

"The one you struck in British Columbia? You have mentioned him, but, so far as I remember, you never gave me any particulars about the thing."

Wyllard seemed to hesitate, which was not a habit of his.

"There is," he said, "not much to tell. I struck the lad sitting down, played out, upon a trail that led over a big divide. It was clear that he couldn't get any further, and there wasn't a settlement within a good many leagues of the spot. We were up in the ranges prospecting then. Well, we made camp and gave him supper—he couldn't eat very much—and afterwards he told me what brought him there. It seemed to me he had always been weedy in the chest, but he had been working waist-deep in an icy creek, building a dam at a mine, until his lungs had given out. The mining boss was a hard case and had no mercy on him, but the lad, who had had a rough time in the Mountain Province, stayed with it until he played out altogether."

Wyllard's face hardened as he mentioned the mining boss, and a curious little sparkle crept into his eyes, but after a pause he proceeded quietly:

"We did what we could for the boy. In fact, it rather broke up the prospecting trip, but he was too far gone. He hung for a week or two, and one of us brought a doctor out from the settlements, but the day before we broke camp Jake and I buried him."

Hawtrey made a sign of comprehension. He was reasonably well acquainted with his comrade's character, and fancied he knew who had brought the doctor out. He knew also that Wyllard had been earning his living as a railroad navvy or chopper then, and, in view of the cost of provisions brought by pack-horse into the remoter bush, the reason why he had abandoned his prospecting trip after spending a week or two taking care of the sick lad was clear enough.

"You never learned his name?" Hawtrey asked.

"I didn't," answered Wyllard. "I went back to the mine, but several things suggested that the name upon the pay-roll wasn't his real one. He began a broken message the night he died, but the hemorrhage cut him off in the middle of it. The wish that I should tell his people somehow was in his eyes."

Wyllard broke off for a moment with the deprecatory gesture, which in connection with the story was very expressive.

"I have never done it, but how could I? All I know is that he was a delicately brought up young Englishman, and the only clew I have is a watch with a London maker's name on it and a girl's photograph. I've a very curious notion that I shall meet that girl some day."

Hawtrey, who made no comment, lay still for a minute or two, but his face suggested that he was considering something.

"Harry," he said presently, "I shall not be fit for a journey for quite a while yet, and if I went over to England I couldn't get the plowing done and the crop in; which, if I'm going to be married, is absolutely necessary."

There was no doubt about the truth of the statement, for the small Western farmer has very seldom a balance in hand, and for that matter, is not infrequently in debt to the nearest storekeeper. He must, as a rule, secure a harvest or abandon his holding, since as soon as the crop is thrashed the bills pour in. Wyllard made a sign of assent.

"Well," Hawtrey went on, "if you're going to England you could go as my deputy. You could make Agatha understand what things are like here, and bring her out to me. I'll arrange for the wedding to be soon as she arrives."

Wyllard was not a conventional person, but he pointed out several objections. Hawtrey overruled them, however, and eventually Wyllard reluctantly assented.

"As it happens, Mrs. Hastings is going over, too, and if she comes back about the same time the thing might be managed," he said. "I believe she's in Winnipeg just now, but I'll write to her. By the way, have you a photograph of Agatha?"

"I haven't," Hawtrey answered. "She gave me one, but somehow it got mislaid on house-cleaning. That's rather an admission, isn't it?"

It occurred to Wyllard that it certainly was. In fact, it struck him as a very curious thing that Hawtrey should have lost the picture which the girl with whom he was in love had given him. He sat silent for a moment or two, and then stood up.

"When I hear from Mrs. Hastings, I'll drive around again. Candidly, the thing has somewhat astonished me. I always had a fancy it would be Sally."

Hawtrey laughed. "Sally?" he replied. "We're first-rate friends, but I never had the faintest notion of marrying her."

Wyllard went out to harness his team, and he did not notice that Sally, who had approached the door with a tray in her hands a moment or two earlier, drew back before him softly. When he had crossed the room she set down the tray and, with her cheeks burning, leaned upon the table. Then, feeling that she could not stay in the stove-heated room, she went out, and stood in the slushy snow. One of her hands was tightly closed, and all the color had vanished from her cheeks. However, she contrived to give Hawtrey his supper by and by, and soon afterwards drove away.



CHAPTER IV

A CRISIS

While Wyllard made arrangements for his journey, and Sally Creighton went very quietly about her work on the lonely prairie farm, it happened one evening that Miss Winifred Rawlinson sat uneasily expectant far back under the gallery of a concert-hall in an English manufacturing town. In her back seat Miss Rawlinson could not hear very well, but it was the cheapest place she could obtain, and economy was of some little importance to her. Besides, by craning her neck a little to avoid the hat of the strikingly dressed young woman in front of her, she could, at least, see the stage. The programme which she held in one hand announced that Miss Agatha Ismay would sing a certain aria from a great composer's oratorio. Miss Rawlinson leaned further forward in her chair when a girl of about her own age, which was twenty-four, slowly advanced to the center of the stage.

The girl on the stage was a tall, well-made, brown-haired girl, with a quiet grace of movement and a comely face. She was attired in a long trailing dress of a shimmering corn-straw tint. Agatha Ismay had sung at unimportant concerts with marked success, but that evening there was something very like shrinking in her eyes.

A crash of chords from the piano melted into a rippling prelude, and Winifred breathed easier when her friend began to sing. The voice was sweet and excellently trained, and there was a deep stillness of appreciation when the clear notes thrilled through the closely-packed hall. No one could doubt that the first part of the aria was a success, for half-subdued applause broke out when the voice sank into silence, and for a few moments the piano rippled on alone; but it seemed to Winifred that there was a look of tension in the singer's face, and she grew uneasy, for she understood the cause for it.

"The last bit of the second part's rather trying," remarked a young man behind her. "There's an awkward jump at two full tones that was too much for our soprano when we tried it at the choral union. Miss Ismay's voice is very true in intonation, but I don't suppose most of the audience would notice it if she shirked a little and left that high sharp out."

Winifred had little knowledge of music, but she was sufficiently acquainted with her friend's character to be certain that Agatha would not attempt to leave out the sharp in question. This was one reason why she sat rigidly still when the clear voice rang out again. It rose from note to note, full and even, but she could see the singer's face, and there was no doubt whatever that Agatha was making a strenuous effort. Nobody else, however, seemed to notice it, for Winifred flung a swift glance around, and then fixed her eyes upon the dominant figure in the corn-straw dress. The sweet voice was still rising and the interested listener hoped that the accompanist would force the tone to cover it a little, and put on the loud pedal. The pianist, however, was gazing at his music, and played on until, with startling suddenness, the climax came.

The voice sank a full tone, rose, and hoarsely trailed off into silence again. Then the accompanist glanced over his shoulder, and struck a ringing chord while he waited for a sign. There was a curious stirring in the audience. The girl in the shimmering dress stood quite still for a moment with a spot of crimson in her cheek and a half-dazed look in her eyes. Then, turning swiftly, she moved off the stage.

Winifred rose with a gasp, and turned upon the young man next her, who looked up inquiringly.

"Yes," she said sharply; "can't you let me pass? I'm going out."

It was about half-past nine when she reached the wet street. A fine rain drove into her face, and she had rather more than a mile to walk without an escort, but that was a matter which caused her no concern. She was a self-reliant young woman, and accustomed to going about unattended. She was quite aware that the scene she had just witnessed would bring about a crisis in her own and her friend's affairs. For all that, she was unpleasantly conscious of the leak in one shabby boot when she stepped down from the sidewalk to cross the street, and when she opened her umbrella beneath a gas lamp she pursed up her mouth. There were holes in the umbrella near where the ribs ran into the ferrule; she had not noticed them before. She, however, resolutely plodded on through the drizzle, until three young fellows who came with linked arms down the pavement of a quieter street barred her way. One wore his hat on one side, the one nearest the curb flourished a little cane, and the third smiled at her fatuously.

"Oh my!" he jeered. "Where's dear Jemima off to in such a hurry?"

Winifred drew herself up. She was little and determined, and, it must be admitted, not quite unaccustomed to that kind of thing.

"Will you let me pass?" she asked angrily. "There's a policeman at the next turning."

"There really is," said one of the youths. "The Dook has another engagement. Dream of me, Olivia!"

A beat of heavy feet drew nearer, and the three roysterers disappeared in the direction of a flaming music-hall, where the second "house" was probably beginning. Winifred, who had stepped into the gutter to avoid the roysterer with the cane, turned as a stalwart, blue-coated figure moved towards her.

"Thank you, officer," she said, "they've gone."

The policeman merely raised a hand as if in comprehension, and plodded back to his post. Winifred went on until she let herself into a house in a quiet street, and ascending to the second floor entered a simply furnished room, which, however, contained a piano, and a table on which a typewriter stood amid a litter of papers. The girl took off her water-proof and sat down in a low chair beside the little fire. She was not a handsome girl, and it was evident that she did not trouble herself greatly about her attire. Her face was too thin and her figure too slight and spare, but there was usually, even when she was anxious, as she certainly was that night, a shrewdly whimsical twinkle in her eyes, and though her lips were set, her expression was compassionate.

She was not the person to sit still very long, and in a minute or two she rose to place a little kettle on the fire. She took a few scones, a coffee-pot, and a tin of condensed milk from a cupboard. When she had spread them out upon a table she discovered that there was some of the condensed milk upon her fingers, and it must be admitted that she sucked them. They were little, stubby fingers, which somehow looked capable.

"It must have been four o'clock when I had that bun and a cup of tea," she remarked, half aloud.

She glanced at the table longingly, for she occasionally found it necessary to place a certain check upon a healthy appetite. The practice of such self-denial is unfortunately, not a very unusual thing in the case of many young women who work hard in the great cities.

"I must wait for Agatha," she said, with a resolute shake of the head. Crossing the room toward the typewriter table she stopped to glance at a little framed photograph that stood upon the mantel. It was a portrait of Gregory Hawtrey taken years before, and she apostrophized it with quiet scorn.

"Now you're wanted you're naturally away out yonder," she declared accusingly. "You're like the rest of them—despicable!"

This seemed to relieve her feelings, and she sat down before the typewriter, which clicked and rattled for several minutes under her stubby fingers. The clicking ceased with sudden abruptness, and she prodded the carriage of the machine viciously with a hairpin. As this appeared unavailing, she used her forefinger, and when at length it slid along the rod with a clash there was a smear of grimy oil upon her cheek and her nose. The machine gave no further trouble, and she endeavored to make up some of the time that she had spent at the concert. It was necessary that it should be made up, but she was conscious that she was putting off an evil moment.

At last the door opened, and Agatha Ismay, wrapped in a long cloak, came in. She permitted Winifred to take her wrap from her, and then sank down into a chair. There was a strained look in her eyes, and her face was very weary.

"You're working late again," she observed.

Winifred nodded. "It's the men who loaf, my dear," she replied. "When you undertake the transcription of an author's scrawl at ninepence the thousand words you have to work hard, especially when, as it is in this case, the thing's practically unreadable. Besides, the woman in it makes me lose my temper. If I'd had a man of the kind described to deal with I'd have thrashed him."

She was talking at random, partly to conceal her anxiety, and partly with the charitable purpose of giving her companion time to approach the subject that must be mentioned; but she rather overdid her effort to appear at ease. Agatha looked at her sharply.

"Winny," she said, "you know. You've been there."

Winifred turned towards her quietly, for she could face a crisis.

"Yes," she confessed, "I have, but you're not going to talk about it until you have had supper. Don't move until I make the coffee."

She was genuinely hungry, but while she satisfied her own appetite she took care that her companion, who did not seem inclined to eat, made a simple meal. Then she put the plates into a cupboard and sat down facing Agatha.

"Well," she said, "you have broken down exactly as that throat specialist said you would. The first question is, how long it will be before you can go on again?"

Agatha laughed, a little harsh laugh. "I didn't tell you everything at the time: I've broken down for good," she answered.

There was a moment of tense silence, and then Agatha made a dejected gesture. "The specialist warned me that this might happen if I went on singing, but what could I do? I couldn't cancel my engagements without telling people why. The physician said I must go to Norway and give my throat and chest a rest."

They looked at each other, and there was in their eyes the half-bitter, half-weary smile of those to whom the cure prescribed is ludicrously impossible. It was Winifred who spoke first.

"Then," she commented, "we have to face the situation, and it's not an encouraging one. Our joint earnings just keep us here in decency—we won't say comfort—and they're evidently to be subject to a big reduction. It strikes me as a rather curious coincidence that a letter from that man in Canada and one from your prosperous friends in the country arrived just before you went out."

She saw the look in Agatha's eyes, and spread her hands out.

"Yes," she admitted; "I hid them. It seemed to me that you had quite enough upon your mind this evening. I don't know whether the letters are likely to throw any fresh light upon the question what we're going to do."

She produced the letters from a drawer in her table, and Agatha straightened herself suddenly in her chair when she had opened the first of them.

"Oh," she cried, "he wants me to go out to him!"

Winifred's face set hard for a moment, but it relaxed again, and she contrived to hide her dismay.

"Then," she suggested, "I suppose you'll certainly go. After all, he's probably not worse to live with than most of them."

Miss Rawlinson was occasionally a little bitter, but, like others of her kind, she had been compelled to compete in an overcrowded market with hard-driven men. She was, however, sincerely attached to her friend, and she smiled when she saw the flash in Agatha's eyes.

"Oh," she added, "you needn't try to wither me with your indignation. No doubt he's precisely what he ought to be, and I dare say it will ease your feelings if you talk about him again; at least it will help you to formulate your reasons for going out to him. I'll listen patiently, and try not to be uncharitable."

Agatha fell in with the suggestion. It was a relief to talk, and she had a certain respect, which she would not always admit, for her friend's shrewdness. She meant to go, but she desired to ascertain how a less interested person would regard the course that she had decided on.

"I have known Gregory since I was a girl," she said.

Winifred pursed up her lips. "I understood you met him at the Grange, and you were only there for a few weeks once a year," she replied. "After all, that isn't a very great deal. It seems he fell in love with you, which is, perhaps, comprehensible. What I don't quite know the reason for is why you fell in love with him."

"Ah," responded Agatha, "you have never seen Gregory."

"I haven't," admitted Winifred sourly; "I have, however, seen his picture. One must admit that he's reasonably good-looking. In fact, I've seen quite an assortment of photographs, but it's, perhaps, significant that the last was taken some years ago."

Agatha smiled. "Can a photograph show the clean, sanguine temperament of a man, his impulsive generosity, and cheerful optimism?"

Miss Rawlinson rose, and critically surveyed the photograph on the mantel.

"I don't want to be discouraging, but after studying that one I'm compelled to admit that it can't. No doubt it's the artist's fault, but I'm willing to admit that a young girl would be rather apt to credit a man with a face like that with qualities he didn't possess." She sat down again with a thoughtful expression. "The fact is, you set him up on a pedestal and burned incense to him when you were not old enough to know any better, and when he came home for a few weeks four years ago you promised to marry him. Now it seems he's ready at last, and wants you to go out to the new country. Perhaps it doesn't affect the question, but if I'd promised to marry a man in Canada he'd certainly have to come for me. Isn't there a certain risk in the thing?"

"A risk?"

Winifred nodded. "Yes," she said, "rather a serious one. Four years is a long time, and the man may have changed. In a new country where life is so different, it must be a thing they're rather apt to do."

A faint, half-compassionate, half-tolerant smile crept into Agatha's eyes. The mere idea that the sunny-tempered, brilliant young man to whom she had given her heart could have changed or degenerated in any way seemed absurd to her. Winifred, however, went on again.

"There's another point," she said. "If he's still the same, which isn't likely, there has certainly been a change in you. You have learned to see things more clearly, and have acquired a different standard from the one you had then. One can't help growing, and as one grows one looks for more. One is no longer pleased with the same things; it's inevitable."

She broke off for a moment, and her voice became gentler.

"Well," she added, "I've done my duty in trying to point this out to you, and now there's only another thing to say: since you're clearly bent on going, I'm going with you."

Agatha looked astonished, but there was a suggestion of relief in her expression, for the two had been firm friends and had faced a good deal together.

"Oh!" she exclaimed, "that gets over the one difficulty!"

Winifred made a little whimsical gesture.

"I'm not quite sure that it does. The difficulty will probably be when I arrive in Canada, but I'm a rather capable person, and I believe they don't pay ninepence a thousand words in Winnipeg. Besides, I could keep the books at a store or a hotel, and at the very worst Gregory could, perhaps, find a husband for me. Women, I hear, are held in some estimation in that country. Perhaps there's a man out there who would treat decently even a little, plain, vixenish-tempered person with a turned-up nose."

Crossing the room again she banged the cover down on the typewriter, and then turned to Agatha with a suggestion of haziness in her eyes.

"Anyway, I'm very tired of this country. It would be intolerable when you went away."

Agatha stretched out a hand and drew the girl down beside her. She no longer feared adverse fortune and loneliness, and she was filled with a gentle compassion, for she knew how hard a fight Winifred had made, and part at least of what she had borne.

"My dear," she said, "we will go together."

Then she opened the second letter, which she had forgotten while they talked.

"They want me to stay at the Grange for a few weeks," she announced, and smiled. "An hour ago I felt crushed and beaten—and now, though my voice has probably gone for good, I don't seem to mind. Isn't it curious that both these letters should have come to sweep my troubles away to-night?"

"No," answered Winifred, "it's distinctly natural—just what one would have expected. You wrote to the man in Canada soon after you'd seen the specialist, and his answer was bound to arrive in the next few days."

"But I certainly didn't write the folks at the Grange."

Winifred's eyes twinkled. "As it happens, I did, two days ago. I ventured to point out their duty to them, and they were rather nice about it in another letter."

With a little sigh of contentment Agatha stretched herself out in the low chair. "Well," she said, "it probably wouldn't have the least effect if I scolded you. I believe I'm horribly worn out, Winny, and it will be a relief unspeakable to get away. If I can arrange to give up those pupils I'll go to-morrow."

Winifred made no answer. Kneeling with one elbow resting on the arm of Agatha's chair, she gazed straight in front of her. Both of the girls were very weary of the long, grim struggle, and now a change was close at hand.



CHAPTER V

THE OLD COUNTRY

It was a still, clear evening of spring when Wyllard, unstrapping the rucksack from his shoulders, sat down beside a frothing stream in a dale of Northern England. On his arrival in London a week or two earlier he had found awaiting him a letter from Mrs. Hastings, who was then in Paris, in which she said that she could not at the moment say when she would go home again, but that she expected to advise him shortly.

After answering the letter Wyllard started North, and, obtaining Agatha's address from Miss Rawlinson, went on again to a certain little town, which, encircled by towering fells, stands beside a lake in the North Country. He had already recognized that his mission was rather a delicate one, and he decided that it would be advisable to wait until he heard from Mrs. Hastings before calling upon Miss Ismay. There remained the question, what to do with the next few days. A conversation with several pedestrian tourists whom he met at his hotel, and a glance at a map of the hill-tracks decided him. Remembering that he had on several occasions kept the trail in Canada for close on forty miles, he bought a Swiss pattern rucksack, and set out on foot through the fells.

Incidentally, he saw scenery that gave him a new conception of the Old Country. He astonished his new friends, the tourists, who volunteered to show him the way over what they considered a difficult pass. To their great astonishment the brown-faced stranger, who wore ordinary tight-fitting American attire and rather pointed American shoes, went up the mountainside apparently without an effort, and for the credit of the clubs to which they belonged it was incumbent on them to keep pace with him. They did not know that he had carried bags of flour and mining tools over very much higher passes, close up to the limit of eternal snow, but they did know that he set them a difficult pace, and after two days' climbing they were relieved to part company with him.

A professional guide who overtook them recognized the capabilities of the man when he noticed the way in which he lifted his feet and how he set them down. This, the guide decided, was a man accustomed to walking among the heather, but he was wrong; for it was the trick the bushman learns when he plods through leagues of undergrowth and fallen branches, or the tall grass of the swamps; and it is a memorable experience to make a day's journey with such a man. For the first hour the thing seems easy, as the pace is never forced, but the speed never slackens; and as the hours go by the novice, who flounders and stumbles, grows horribly weary of trying to keep up with the steady, persistent swing.

Wyllard had traveled since morning along a ridge of fells when he sat down beside the water and contentedly filled his pipe. On the one hand, a wall of crags high above was growing black against the evening light, and the stream, clear as crystal, came boiling down among great boulders. But the young man had wandered through many a grander and more savage scene of rocky desolation, and it impressed him less than the green valley in front of him. He had never seen anything like that either on the Pacific slope or in Western Canada.

Early as it was in the season, the meadows between rock and water were green as emerald, and the hedge-rows, just flushed with verdure, were clipped and trimmed as if their owner loved them. There was not a dead tree in the larch copse which dipped to the stream, and all its feathery tassels were sprinkled with tiny flecks of crimson and wondrous green. Great oaks dotted the meadows, each one perfect in symmetry. It seemed that the men who held this land cared for single trees. The sleek, tame cattle that rubbed their necks on the level hedge-top and gazed at him ruminatively were very different from the wild, long-horned creatures whose furious stampede he had now and then headed off, riding hard while the roar of hoofs rang through the dust-cloud that floated like a sea fog across the sun-scorched prairie. Here, in the quiet vale, all was peace and tranquillity.

Wyllard noticed the pale primroses that pushed their yellow flowers up among the withered leaves, and he took account of the faint blue sheen beneath the beech trunks not far away. There was a vein of artistic feeling in him, and the elusive beauty of these things curiously appealed to him. He had seen the riotous, sensuous blaze of flowers kissed by Pacific breezes, and the burnished gold of wheat that rolled in mile-long waves; but it seemed to him that the wild things of the English North were, after all, more wonderful. They harmonized with the country's deep peacefulness; their beauty was chaste, fairy-like and ethereal.

By and by a wood pigeon cooed softly somewhere in the shadows, and a brown thrush perched on a bare oak bough began to sing. The broken, repeated melody went curiously well with the rippling murmur of sliding water, and Wyllard, though he could not remember ever having done anything of that sort before, leaned back with a smile to listen. His life had been a strenuous one, passed for the most part in the driving-seat of great plows that rent their ample furrows through virgin prairie, guiding the clinking binders through the wheat under a blazing sun, or driving the plunging dories through the clammy fog over short, slopping seas. Now, however, the tranquillity of the English valley stole in on him, and he began to understand how the love of that well-trimmed land clung to the men out West, who spoke of it tenderly as the "Old Country."

Then, for he was in an unusually susceptible mood, he took from his pocket a little deerhide case, artistically made by a Blackfoot Indian, and removed from it the faded photograph of an English girl. He had obtained the photograph from the lad who had died among the ranges of the Pacific slope, and it had been his companion in many a desolate camp and on many a weary journey. The face was delicately modeled, and there was a freshness in it which is seldom seen outside the Old Country; but what pleased him most was the serenity in the clear, innocent eyes.

He was not in love with the picture—he would probably have smiled at the notion—but he had a curious feeling that he would meet the girl some day, and that it would then be a privilege merely to speak to her. This was, after all, not so extravagant a fancy as it might appear, for romance, the mother of chivalry and many graces, still finds shelter in the hearts of men who dwell in the wide spaces of the newer lands. Shrewd and practical as these men are, they see visions now and then, and, what is more, with bleeding hands and toil incredible prove them to be realities.

By and by Wyllard put the photograph back into his pocket, and filled his pipe again. It was almost dark before he had smoked it out. The thrush had gone, and only the ripple of the water broke the silence, until he heard footsteps on the stones behind him. Looking around, he saw a young woman moving towards the river. He watched her with a quiet interest, for his perceptions were sharper than usual, and it seemed to him that she was very much in harmony with what he thought of as the key-tone of the place. She was tall and shapely, and she moved with grace. When, poised upon a shelf of rock as if considering the easiest way to the water, she stopped for a moment, her figure fell into reposeful lines, but that was after all only what he had expected, for he had half-consciously studied the Englishwomen whom he had met in the West.

The Western women usually moved, and certainly spoke, with an almost superfluous vivacity and alertness. There was in them a feverish activity, which contrasted with the English deliberation, which had sometimes exasperated him. Now he felt that this slowness of movement was born of the tranquillity of the well-trimmed land, and he realized that it would have troubled his sense of fitness if this girl had clattered down across the stones hurriedly and noisily.

At first he could not see her face, but when she went on a little further it became evident that she desired to cross the river, and was regarding the row of stepping stones somewhat dubiously. One or two had fallen over, or had been washed away by a flood, for there were several wide gaps between them, through which the stream frothed whitely. As soon as Wyllard noticed her hesitation, he rose and moved towards her.

"You want to get across?" he asked.

She was still glancing at the water, and although he was sure that she had not seen him or heard his approach, she turned towards him quietly. Then a momentary sense of astonishment held him in an embarrassed scrutiny, for it was her picture at which he had gazed scarcely half an hour before, and he would have recognized the face anywhere.

"Yes," she answered. "It is rather a long way around by the bridge, but some of the stones seem to have disappeared since I last came this way."

She spoke, as Wyllard had expected, softly and quietly. Because he was first of all a man of action, Wyllard forthwith waded into the river. Then he turned and held out his hand to her.

"It isn't a very long step. You ought to manage it," he said.

The girl favored him with a swift glance of uncertainty. At first she had supposed him to be one of the walking tourists or climbers who usually invaded the valleys at Easter; but they were, for the most part, young men from the cities, and this stranger's face was darkened by the sun. There was also an indefinite suggestion of strength in the poise of his lean, symmetrical figure, which could only have come from strenuous labor in the open air. She noticed that while the average Englishman would have asked permission to help her, or would have deprecated the offer, this stranger did nothing of the kind. He stood with the water frothing about his ankles, holding out his hand.

She had no hesitation about accepting Wyllard's aid, and, while he waded through the river, she stepped lightly from stone to stone until she came to a wide gap, where the stream was deep. She stopped a moment, gazing at the foaming water, until the man's hand tightened on her fingers, and she felt his other hand rest upon her waist.

"Now," he assured her, "I won't let you fall."

She was on the other side of the gap in another moment. Wondering uneasily why she had obeyed the compelling pressure, but glad to see that the stranger's face was perfectly unmoved, and that he was evidently quite unconscious of having done anything unusual, she crossed without mishap. When they stood on the shingle he dropped her hand.

"Thank you," she said. "I'm afraid you got rather wet."

The man laughed, and he had a pleasant laugh. "Oh," he replied, "I'm used to it." There was a little silence and he asked: "Isn't there a village with a hotel in it, a mile or two from here?"

"Yes," the girl answered, "this is the way. The path goes up to the highroad through the larch wood."

She turned into the path, and, though she had not expected him to accompany her, the man walked beside her. Still she did not resent it. His manner was deferential, and she liked his face, while there was, after all, no reason why he should stay behind when he was going the same way. He walked beside her silently for several minutes as they went on through the gloom of the larches, where a sweet, resinous odor crept into the still evening air, and then he looked up as they came to a towering pine.

"Have you many of those trees over here?" he asked.

A light dawned upon the girl, for, though he had spoken without a perceptible accent, she had been slightly puzzled by something in his speech and appearance.

"I believe they're not uncommon. You are an American?"

Wyllard laughed. "No," he replied. "I was born in Western Canada, but I think I'm as English as you are, in some respects, though I never quite realized it until to-night. It isn't exactly because my father came from this country, either."

The girl was astonished at this answer, and still more at the indefinite something in his manner which seemed to indicate that he expected her to understand, as, indeed, she did. Her only dowry had been an expensive education and she remembered that the influence of the isle she lived in had in turn fastened on Saxons, Norsemen, Normans, and made them Englishmen. What was more, so far as she had read, those who had gone out South or Westwards had carried that influence with them, and, under all their surface changes, and sometimes their grievances against the Motherland, were, in the great essentials, wholly English still.

"But," she remarked at random, "how can you be sure that I'm English?"

It was quite dark in among the trees, but she fancied there was a smile in her companion's eyes.

"Oh," he answered simply, "you couldn't be anything else!"

She accepted this as a compliment, though she knew that it had not been his intention to flatter her. His general attitude since she had met him scarcely suggested such, a lack of good taste. She was becoming mildly interested in the stranger, but she possessed several essentially English characteristics, and it did not appear advisable to encourage him too much. She said nothing further, and it was he who spoke first.

"I wonder," he said, "if you knew a young lad who went out to Canada a few years ago. His name was Pattinson—Henry Pattinson."

"No," the girl answered quickly. "I certainly did not. But the name is not an uncommon one. There are a good many Pattinsons in the North."

Wyllard was not surprised by this answer. He had reasons for believing that the name under which the lad he had befriended had enrolled himself was not the correct one. It would, of course, have been easy to describe the boy, but Wyllard was shrewd, and noticing that there was now a restraint in the girl's manner he could not speak prematurely. He was aware that most of the English are characterized by a certain reserve, and apt to retire into their shells if pressed too hard. He did not, however, mean to let this girl elude him altogether.

1  2  3  4  5  6  7     Next Part
Home - Random Browse