E-text prepared by Al Haines
RANCHING FOR SYLVIA
(Published in England under the Title, The Trustee)
Author of Vane of the Timberlands, Alton of Somasco, Thurston of Orchard Valley, Masters of the Wheatlands, etc.
A. L. Burt Company Publishers New York
I A STRONG APPEAL II HIS FRIENDS' OPINION III A MATTER OF DUTY IV GEORGE MAKES FRIENDS V THE PRAIRIE VI GEORGE GETS TO WORK VII A CATTLE DRIVE VIII CONSTABLE FLETT'S SUSPICIONS IX GEORGE TURNS REFORMER X THE LIQUOR-RUNNERS XI DIPLOMACY XII GEORGE FACES DISASTER XIII SYLVIA SEEKS AMUSEMENT XIV BLAND GETS ENTANGLED XV HERBERT MAKES A CLAIM XVI A FORCED RETIREMENT XVII HERBERT IS PATIENT XVIII BLAND MAKES A SACRIFICE XIX AN OPPOSITION MOVE XX A BLIZZARD XXI GRANT COMES TO THE RESCUE XXII THE SPREAD OF DISORDER XXIII A HARMLESS CONSPIRACY XXIV GEORGE FEELS GRATEFUL XXV A COUNTERSTROKE XXVI THE CLIMAX XXVII A SIGN FROM FLETT XXVIII THE LEADING WITNESS XXIX FLORA'S ENLIGHTENMENT XXX THE ESCAPE XXXI THE REACTION XXXII A REVELATION XXXIII GEORGE MAKES UP HIS MIND
A STRONG APPEAL
It was evening of early summer. George Lansing sat by a window of the library at Brantholme. The house belonged to his cousin; and George, having lately reached it after traveling in haste from Norway, awaited the coming of Mrs. Sylvia Marston in an eagerly expectant mood. It was characteristic of him that his expression conveyed little hint of his feelings, for George was a quiet, self-contained man; but he had not been so troubled by confused emotions since Sylvia married Marston three years earlier. Marston had taken her to Canada; but now he was dead, and Sylvia, returning to England, had summoned George, who had been appointed executor of her husband's will.
Outside, beyond the broad sweep of lawn, the quiet English countryside lay bathed in the evening light: a river gleaming in the foreground, woods clothed in freshest verdure, and rugged hills running back through gradations of softening color into the distance. Inside, a ray of sunlight stretched across the polished floor, and gleams of brightness rested on the rows of books and somber paneling. Brantholme was old, but modern art had added comfort and toned down its austerity; and George, fresh from the northern snow peaks, was conscious of its restful atmosphere.
In the meanwhile, he was listening for a footstep. Sylvia, he had been told, would be with him in two or three minutes; he had already been expecting her for a quarter of an hour. This, however, did not surprise him: Sylvia was rarely punctual, and until she married Marston, he had been accustomed to await her pleasure.
She came at length, clad in a thin black dress that fitted her perfectly; and he rose and stood looking at her while his heart beat fast. Sylvia was slight of figure, but curiously graceful, and her normal expression was one of innocent candor. The somber garments emphasized the colorless purity of her complexion; her hair was fair, and she had large, pathetic blue eyes. Her beauty was somehow heightened by a hint of fragility: in her widow's dress she looked very forlorn and helpless; and the man yearned to comfort and protect her. It did not strike him that she had stood for some moments enduring his compassionate scrutiny with exemplary patience.
"It's so nice to see you, George," she said. "I knew you would come."
He thrilled at the assurance; but he was not an effusive person. He brought a chair for her.
"I started as soon as I got your note," he answered simply. "I'm glad you're back again."
He did not think it worth while to mention that he had with difficulty crossed a snow-barred pass in order to save time, and had left a companion, who resented his desertion, in the wilds; but Sylvia guessed that he had spared no effort, and she answered him with a smile.
"Your welcome's worth having, because it's sincere."
Those who understood Sylvia best occasionally said that when she was unusually gracious it was a sign that she wanted something; but George would have denied this with indignation.
"If it wouldn't be too painful, you might tell me a little about your stay in Canada," he said by and by. "You never wrote, and"—he hesitated—"I heard only once from Dick."
Dick was her dead husband's name, and she sat silent a few moments musing, and glancing unobtrusively at George. He had not changed much since she last saw him, on her wedding-day, though he looked a little older, and rather more serious. There were faint signs of weariness which she did not remember in his sunburned face. On the whole, however, it was a reposeful face, with something in it that suggested a steadfast disposition. His gray eyes met one calmly and directly; his brown hair was short and stiff; the set of his lips and the contour of his jaw were firm. George had entered on his thirtieth year. Though he was strongly made, his appearance was in no way striking, and it was seldom that his conversation was characterized by brilliancy. But his friends trusted him.
"It's difficult to speak of," Sylvia began. "When, soon after our wedding, Dick lost most of his money, and said that we must go to Canada, I felt almost crushed; but I thought he was right." She paused and glanced at George. "He told me what you wished to do, and I'm glad that, generous as you are, he wouldn't hear of it."
George looked embarrassed.
"I felt his refusal a little," he said. "I could have spared the money, and I was a friend of his."
He had proved a staunch friend, though he had been hardly tried. For several years he had been Sylvia's devoted servant, and an admirer of the more accomplished Marston. When the girl chose the latter it was a cruel blow to George, for he had never regarded his comrade as a possible rival; but after a few weeks of passionate bitterness, he had quietly acquiesced. He had endeavored to blame neither; though there were some who did not hold Sylvia guiltless. George was, as she well knew, her faithful servant still; and this was largely why she meant to tell him her tragic story.
"Well," she said, "when I first went out to the prairie, I was almost appalled. Everything was so crude and barbarous—but you know the country."
George merely nodded. He had spent a few years in a wheat-growing settlement, inhabited by well-bred young Englishmen. The colony, however, was not conducted on economic lines; and when it came to grief, George, having come into some property on the death of a relative, returned to England.
"Still," continued Sylvia, "I tried to be content, and blamed myself when I found it difficult. There was always so much to do—cooking, washing, baking—one could seldom get any help. I often felt worn out and longed to lie down and sleep."
"I can understand that," said George, with grave sympathy. "It's a very hard country for a woman."
He was troubled by the thought of what she must have borne for it was difficult to imagine Sylvia engaged in laborious domestic toil. It had never occurred to him that her delicate appearance was deceptive.
"Dick," she went on, "was out at work all day; there was nobody to talk to—our nearest neighbor lived some miles off. I think now that Dick was hardly strong enough for his task. He got restless and moody after he lost his first crop by frost. During that long, cruel winter we were both unhappy: I never think without a shudder of the bitter nights we spent sitting beside the stove, silent and anxious about the future. But we persevered; the next harvest was good, and we were brighter when winter set in. I shall always be glad of that in view of what came after." She paused, and added in a lower voice:
"You heard, of course?"
"Very little; I was away. It was a heavy blow."
"I couldn't write much," explained Sylvia. "Even now, I can hardly talk of it—but you were a dear friend of Dick's. We had to burn wood; the nearest bluff where it could be cut was several miles away; and Dick didn't keep a hired man through the winter. It was often very cold, and I got frightened when he drove off if there was any wind. It was trying to wait in the quiet house, wondering if he could stand the exposure. Then one day something kept him so that he couldn't start for the bluff until noon; and near dusk the wind got up and the snow began to fall. It got thicker, and I could not sit still. I went out now and then and called, and was driven back, almost frozen, by the storm. I could scarcely see the lights a few yards away; the house shook. The memory of that awful night will haunt me all my life!"
She broke off with a shiver, and George looked very compassionate.
"I think," he said gently, "you had better not go on." "Ah!" replied Sylvia, "I must grapple with the horror and not yield to it; with the future to be faced, I can't be a coward. At last I heard the team and opened the door. The snow was blinding, but I could dimly see the horses standing in it. I called, but Dick didn't answer, and I ran out and found him lying upon the load of logs. He was very still, and made no sign, but I reached up and shook him—I couldn't believe the dreadful thing. I think I screamed; the team started suddenly, and Dick fell at my feet. Then the truth was clear to me."
A half-choked sob broke from her, but she went on.
"I couldn't move him; I must have gone nearly mad, for I tried to run to Peterson's, three miles away. The snow blinded me, and I came back again; and by and by another team arrived. Peterson had got lost driving home from the settlement. After that, I can't remember anything; I'm thankful it is so—I couldn't bear it!"
Then there was silence for a few moments until George rose and gently laid his hand on her shoulder.
"My sympathy's not worth much, Sylvia, but it's yours," he said. "Can I help in any practical way?"
Growing calmer, she glanced up at him with tearful eyes.
"I can't tell you just yet; but it's a comfort to have your sympathy. Don't speak to me for a little while, please."
He went back to his place and watched her with a yearning heart, longing for the power to soothe her. She looked so forlorn and desolate, too frail to bear her load of sorrow.
"I must try to be brave," she smiled up at him at length. "And you are my trustee. Please bring those papers I laid down. I suppose I must talk to you about the farm."
It did not strike George that this was a rather sudden change, or that there was anything incongruous in Sylvia's considering her material interests in the midst of her grief. After examining the documents, he asked her a few questions, to which she gave explicit answers.
"Now you should be able to decide what must be done," she said finally; "and I'm anxious about it. I suppose that's natural."
"You have plenty of friends," George reminded her consolingly.
Sylvia rose, and there was bitterness in her expression.
"Friends? Oh, yes; but I've come back to them a widow, badly provided for—that's why I spent some months in Montreal before I could nerve myself to face them." Then her voice softened as she fixed her eyes on him. "It's fortunate there are one or two I can rely on."
Sylvia left him with two clear impressions: her helplessness, and the fact that she trusted him. While he sat turning over the papers, his cousin and co-trustee came in. Herbert Lansing was a middle-aged business man, and he was inclined to portliness. His clean-shaven and rather fleshy face usually wore a good-humored expression; his manners were easy and, as a rule, genial.
"We must have a talk," he began, indicating the documents in George's hand. "I suppose you have grasped the position, even if Sylvia hasn't explained it. She shows an excellent knowledge of details."
There was a hint of dryness in his tone that escaped George's notice.
"So far as I can make out," he answered, "Dick owned a section of a second-class wheat-land, with a mortgage on the last quarter, some way back from a railroad. The part under cultivation gives a poor crop."
"What would you value the property at?"
George made a rough calculation.
"I expected something of the kind," Herbert told him. "It's all Sylvia has to live upon, and the interest would hardly cover her dressmaker's bills." He looked directly at his cousin. "Of course, it's possible that she will marry again."
"She must never be forced to contemplate it by any dread of poverty," George said shortly.
"How is it to be prevented?"
George merely looked thoughtful and a little stern. Getting no answer, Herbert went on:
"So far as I can see, we have only two courses to choose between. The first is to sell out as soon as we can find a buyer, with unfortunate results if your valuation's right; but the second looks more promising. With immigrants pouring into the country, land's bound to go up, and we ought to get a largely increased price by holding on a while. To do that, I understand, the land should be worked."
"Yes. It could, no doubt, be improved; which would materially add to its value."
"I see one difficulty: the cost of superintendence might eat up most of the profit. Wages are high on the prairie, are they not?"
George assented, and Herbert continued:
"Then a good deal would depend on the man in charge. Apart from the question of his honesty, he would have to take a thorough interest in the farm."
"He would have to think of nothing else, and be willing to work from sunrise until dark," said George. "Successful farming means determined effort in western Canada."
"Could you put your hands upon a suitable person?"
"I'm very doubtful. You don't often meet with a man of the kind we need in search of an engagement at a strictly moderate salary."
"Then it looks as if we must sell out now for enough to provide Sylvia with a pittance."
"That," George said firmly, "is not to be thought of!"
There was a short silence while he pondered, for his legacy had not proved an unmixed blessing. At first he had found idleness irksome, but by degrees he had grown accustomed to it. Though he was still troubled now and then by an idea that he was wasting his time and making a poor use of such abilities as he possessed, it was pleasant to feel that, within certain limits, he could do exactly as he wished. Life in western Canada was strenuous and somewhat primitive; he was conscious of a strong reluctance to resume it; but he could not bear to have Sylvia, who had luxurious tastes, left almost penniless. There was a way in which he could serve her, and he determined to take it. George was steadfast in his devotion, and did not shrink from a sacrifice.
"It strikes me there's only one suitable plan," he said. "I know something about western farming. I wouldn't need a salary; and Sylvia could trust me to look after her interests. I'd better go out and take charge until things are straightened up, or we come across somebody fit for the post."
Herbert heard him with satisfaction. He had desired to lead George up to this decision, and he suspected that Sylvia had made similar efforts. It was not difficult to instil an idea into his cousin's mind.
"Well," he said thoughtfully, "the suggestion seems a good one; though it's rather hard on you, if you really mean to go."
"That's decided," was the brief answer.
"Then, though we can discuss details later, you had better give me legal authority to look after your affairs while you are away. There are those Kaffir shares, for instance; it might be well to part with them if, they go up a point or two."
"I've wondered why you recommended me to buy them," George said bluntly.
Herbert avoided a direct answer. He now and then advised George, who knew little about business, in the management of his property, but his advice was not always disinterested or intended only for his cousin's benefit.
"Oh," he replied, "the cleverest operators now and then make mistakes, and I don't claim exceptional powers of precision. It's remarkably difficult to forecast the tendency of the stock-market."
George nodded, as if satisfied.
"I'll arrange things before I sail, and I'd better get off as soon as possible. Now, suppose we go down and join the others."
HIS FRIENDS' OPINION
On the afternoon following his arrival, George stood thoughtfully looking about on his cousin's lawn. Creepers flecked the mellow brick front of the old house with sprays of tender leaves; purple clematis hung from a trellis; and lichens tinted the low terrace wall with subdued coloring. The grass was flanked by tall beeches, rising in masses of bright verdure against a sky of clearest blue; and beyond it, across the sparkling river, smooth meadows ran back to the foot of the hills. It was, in spite of the bright sunshine, all so fresh and cool: a picture that could be enjoyed only in rural England.
George was sensible of the appeal it made to him; now, when he must shortly change such scenes for the wide levels of western Canada, which are covered during most of the year with harsh, gray grass, alternately withered by frost and sun, he felt their charm. It was one thing to run across to Norway on a fishing or mountaineering trip and come back when he wished, but quite another to settle down on the prairie where he must remain until his work should be done. Moreover, for Mrs. Lansing had many friends, the figures scattered about the lawn—young men and women in light summer attire—enhanced the attractiveness of the surroundings. They were nice people, with pleasant English ways; and George contrasted them with the rather grim, aggressive plainsmen among whom he would presently have to live: men who toiled in the heat, half naked, and who would sit down to meals with him in dusty, unwashed clothes. He was not a sybarite, but he preferred the society of Mrs. Lansing's guests.
After a while she beckoned him, and they leaned upon the terrace wall side by side. She was a good-natured, simple woman, with strongly domestic habits and conventional views.
"I'm glad Herbert has got away from business for a few days," she began. "He works too hard, and it's telling on him. How do you think he is looking?"
George knew she was addicted to displaying a needless anxiety about her husband's health. It had struck him that Herbert was getting stouter; but he now remembered having noticed a hint of care in his face.
"The rest will do him good," he said.
Mrs. Lansing's conversation was often disconnected, and she now changed the subject.
"Herbert tells me you are going to Canada. As you're fond of the open air, you will enjoy it."
"I suppose so," George assented rather dubiously.
"Of course, it's very generous, and Sylvia's fortunate in having you to look after things"—Mrs. Lansing paused before adding—"but are you altogether wise in going, George?"
Lansing knew that his hostess loved romance, and sometimes attempted to assist in one, but he would have preferred another topic.
"I don't see what else I could do," he said.
"That's hardly an answer. You will forgive me for speaking plainly, but what I meant was this—your devotion to Sylvia is not a secret."
"I wish it were!" George retorted. "But I don't intend to deny it."
His companion looked at him reproachfully.
"Don't get restive; I've your best interests at heart. You're a little too confiding and too backward, George. Sylvia slipped through your fingers once before."
George's brown face colored deeply. He was angry, but Mrs. Lansing was not to be deterred.
"Take a hint and stay at home," she went on. "It might pay you better."
"And let Sylvia's property be sacrificed?"
"Yes, if necessary." She looked at him directly. "You have means enough."
He struggled with his indignation. Sylvia hated poverty, and it had been suggested that he should turn the fact to his advantage. The idea that she might be more willing to marry him if she were poor was most unpleasant.
"Sylvia's favor is not to be bought," he said.
Mrs. Lansing's smile was half impatient.
"Oh, well, if you're bent on going, there's nothing to be said. Sylvia, of course, will stay with us."
The arrangement was a natural one, as Sylvia was a relative of hers; but George failed to notice that her expression grew thoughtful as she glanced toward where Sylvia was sitting with a man upon whom the soldier stamp was plainly set. George followed her gaze and frowned, but he said nothing, and his companion presently moved away. Soon afterward he crossed the lawn and joined a girl who waited for him. Ethel West was tall and strongly made. She was characterized by a keen intelligence and bluntness of speech. Being an old friend of George's, she occasionally assumed the privilege of one.
"I hear you are going to Canada. What is taking you there again?" she asked.
"I am going to look after some farming property, for one thing."
Ethel regarded him with amusement.
"Sylvia Marston's, I suppose?"
"Yes," George answered rather shortly.
"Then what's the other purpose you have in view?"
"I'm not sure I have another motive."
"So I imagined. You're rather an exceptional man—in some respects."
"If that's true, I wasn't aware of it," George retorted.
"It's hardly worth while to prove my statement; we'll talk of something else. Has Herbert told you anything about his business since you came back? I suppose you have noticed signs of increased prosperity?"
"I'm afraid I'm not observant, and Herbert isn't communicative."
"Perhaps he's wise. Still, the fact that he's putting up a big new orchard-house has some significance. I understand from Stephen that he's been speculating largely in rubber shares. It's a risky game."
"I suppose it is," George agreed. "But it's most unlikely that Herbert will come to grief. He has a very long head; I believe he could, for example, buy and sell me."
"That wouldn't be very difficult. I suspect Herbert isn't the only one of your acquaintances who is capable of doing as much."
Her eyes followed Sylvia, who was then walking across the grass. Sylvia's movements were always graceful, and she had now a subdued, pensive air that rendered her appearance slightly pathetic. Ethel's face, however, grew quietly scornful. She knew what Sylvia's forlorn and helpless look was worth.
"I'm not afraid that anybody will try," George replied.
"Your confidence is admirable." laughed Ethel; "but I mustn't appear too cynical, and I've a favor to ask. Will you take Edgar out with you?"
George felt a little surprised. Edgar was her brother, a lad of somewhat erratic habits and ideas, who had been at Oxford when George last heard of him.
"Yes, if he wants to go, and Stephen approves," he said; for Stephen, the lawyer, was an elder brother, and the Wests had lost their parents.
"He will be relieved to get him off his hands for a while; but Edgar will be over to see you during the afternoon. He's spending a week or two with the Charltons."
"I remember that young Charlton and he were close acquaintances."
"That was the excuse for the visit; but you had better understand that there was a certain amount of friction when Edgar came home after some trouble with the authorities. In his opinion, Stephen is too fond of making mountains out of molehills; but I must own that Edgar's molehills have a way of increasing in size, and the last one caused us a good deal of uneasiness. Anyway, we have decided that a year's hard work in Canada might help to steady him, even if he doesn't follow up farming. The main point is that he would be safe with you."
"I'll have a talk with him," George promised; and after a word of thanks Ethel turned away.
A little later she joined Mrs. Lansing, who was sitting alone in the shadow of a beech.
"I'm afraid I've added to George's responsibilities—he has agreed to take Edgar out," she said. "He has some reason for wishing to be delivered from his friends, though I don't suppose he does so."
"I've felt the same thing. Of course, I'm not referring to Edgar—his last scrape was only a trifling matter."
"So he contends," laughed Ethel. "Stephen doesn't agree with him."
"Well," said Mrs. Lansing, "I've often thought it's a pity George didn't marry somebody nice and sensible."
"Would you apply that description to Sylvia?"
"Sylvia stands apart," Mrs. Lansing declared. "She can do what nobody else would venture on, and yet you feel you must excuse her."
"Have you any particular exploit of hers in your mind?"
"I was thinking of when she accepted Dick Marston. I believe even Dick was astonished."
"Sylvia knows how to make herself irresistible," said Ethel, strolling away a few moments later, somewhat troubled in mind.
She had cherished a half-tender regard for George, which, had it been reciprocated, might have changed to a deeper feeling. The man was steadfast, chivalrous, honest, and she saw in him latent capabilities which few others suspected. Still, his devotion to Sylvia had never been concealed, and Ethel had acquiesced in the situation, though she retained a strong interest in him. She believed that in going to Canada he was doing an injudicious thing; but as his confidence was hard to shake, he could not be warned—her conversation with him had made that plainer. She would not regret it if Sylvia forgot him while he was absent; but there were other ways in which he might suffer, and she wished he had not chosen to place the management of his affairs in Herbert's hands.
In the meanwhile, her brother had arrived, and he and George were sitting together on the opposite side of the lawn. Edgar was a handsome, dark-haired lad, with a mischievous expression, and he sometimes owned that his capacity for seeing the humorous side of things was a gift that threatened to be his ruin. Nevertheless, there was a vein of sound common sense in him, and he had a strong admiration for George Lansing.
"Why do you want to go with me?" the latter asked, pretending to be a bit stern, but liking the youngster all the while.
"That," Edgar laughed, "is a rather euphemistic way of putting it. My washes have not been consulted. I must give my relatives the credit for the idea. Still, one must admit they had some provocation."
"It strikes me they have had a good deal of patience," George said dryly. "I suppose it's exhausted."
"No," replied Edgar, with a confidential air; "it's mine that has given out. I'd better explain that being stuffed with what somebody calls formulae gets monotonous, and it's a diet they're rather fond of at Oxford. Down here in the country they're almost as bad; and pretending to admire things I don't believe in positively hurts. That's why I sometimes protest, with, as a rule, disastrous results."
"Disastrous to the objectionable ideas or customs?"
"No," laughed the lad; "to me. Have you ever noticed how vindictive narrow-minded people get when you destroy their pet delusions?"
"I can't remember ever having done so."'
"Then you'll come to it. If you're honest it's unavoidable; only some people claim that they make the attack from duty, while I find a positive pleasure in the thing."
"There's one consolation—you won't have much time for such proceedings if you come with me. You'll have to work in Canada."
"I anticipated something of the sort," the lad rejoined. Then he grew serious. "Have you decided who's to look after your affairs while you are away? If you haven't, you might do worse than leave them to Stephen. He's steady and safe as a rock, and, after all, the three per cent. you're sure of is better than a handsome dividend you may never get."
"I can't give Herbert the go-by. He's the obvious person to do whatever may be needful."
"I suppose so," Edgar assented, with some reluctance. "No doubt he'd feel hurt if you asked anybody else; but I wish you could have got Stephen."
He changed the subject; and when some of the others came up and joined them, he resumed his humorous manner.
"I'm not asking for sympathy," he said, in answer to one remark. "I'm going out to extend the bounds of the empire, strengthen the ties with the mother country, and that sort of thing. It's one of the privileges that seem to be attached to the possession of a temperament like mine."
"How will you set about the work?" somebody asked.
"With the plow and the land-packer," George broke in. "He'll have the satisfaction of driving them twelve hours a day. It happens to be the most effective way of doing the things he mentions."
Edgar's laughter followed him as he left the group.
After dinner that evening Herbert invited George into the library.
"Parker has come over about my lease, and his visit will save you a journey," he explained. "We may as well get things settled now while he's here."
George went with him to the library, where the lawyer sat at a writing-table. He waited in silence while Herbert gave the lawyer a few instructions. A faint draught flowed in through an open window, and gently stirred the litter of papers; a shaded lamp stood on the table, and its light revealed the faces of the two men near it with sharp distinctness, though outside the circle of brightness the big room was almost dark.
It struck George that his cousin looked eager, as if he were impatient to get the work finished; but he reflected that this was most likely because Herbert wished to discuss the matter of the lease. Then he remembered with a little irritation what Ethel said during the afternoon. It was not very lucid, but he had an idea that she meant to warn him; and Edgar had gone some length in urging that he should leave the care of his property to another man. This was curious, but hardly to be taken into consideration, Herbert was capable and exact in his dealings; and yet for a moment or two George was troubled by a faint doubt. It appeared irrational, and he drove it out of his mind when Herbert spoke.
"The deed's ready; you have only to sign," he said, indicating a paper. Then he added, with a smile: "You quite realize the importance of what you are doing?"
The lawyer turned to George.
"This document gives Mr. Lansing full authority to dispose of your possessions as he thinks fit. In accordance with it, his signature will be honored as if it were yours."
Parker's expression was severely formal, and his tone businesslike; but he had known George for a long while, and had served his father. Again, for a moment, George had an uneasy feeling that he was being warned; but he had confidence in his friends, and his cousin was eminently reliable.
"I know that," he answered. "I've left matters in Herbert's hands on other occasions, with fortunate results. Will you give me a pen?"
The lawyer watched him sign with an inscrutable face, but when he laid down the pen, Herbert drew back out of the strong light. He was folding the paper with a sense of satisfaction and relief.
A MATTER OF DUTY
On the evening before George's departure, Sylvia stood with him at the entrance to the Brantholme drive. He leaned upon the gate, a broad-shouldered, motionless figure; his eyes fixed moodily upon the prospect, because he was afraid to let them dwell upon his companion. In front, across the dim white road, a cornfield ran down to the river, and on one side of it a wood towered in a shadowy mass against a soft green streak of light. Near its foot the water gleamed palely among overhanging alders, and in the distance the hills faded into the grayness of the eastern sky. Except for the low murmur of the stream, it was very still; and the air was heavy with the smell of dew-damped soil.
All this had its effect on George. He loved the quiet English country; and now, when he must leave it, it strongly called to him. He had congenial friends, and occupations in which he took pleasure—sport, experiments in farming, and stock-raising. It would be hard to drop them; but that, after all, was a minor trouble. He would be separated from Sylvia until his work should be done.
"What a beautiful night!" she said at length. Summoning his resolution, he turned and looked at her. She stood with one hand resting on the gate, slender, graceful, and wonderfully attractive, the black dress emphasizing the pure whiteness of her face and hands. Sylvia was an artist where dress was concerned, and she had made the most of her somber garb. As he looked at her a strong temptation shook the man. He might still discover some excuse for remaining to watch over Sylvia, and seize each opportunity for gaining her esteem. Then he remembered that this would entail the sacrifice of her property; and a faint distrust of her, which he had hitherto refused to admit, seized him. Sylvia, threatened by poverty, might yield without affection to the opportunities of a suitor who would bid high enough for her hand; and he would not have such a course forced upon her, even if he were the one to profit.
"You're very quiet; you must feel going away," she said.
"Yes," George admitted; "I feel it a good deal."
"Ah! I don't know anybody else who would have gone—I feel selfish and shabby in letting you."
"I don't think you could stop me."
"I haven't tried. I suppose I'm a coward, but until you promised to look after matters, I was afraid of the future. I have friends, but the tinge of contempt which would creep into their pity would be hard to bear. It's hateful to feel that you are being put up with. Sometimes I thought I'd go back to Canada."
"I've wondered how you stood it as long as you did," George said incautiously.
"Aren't you forgetting? I had Dick with me then." Sylvia paused and shuddered. "It would be so different now."
George felt reproved and very compassionate.
"Yes," he said, "I'm afraid I forgot; but the whole thing seems unreal. It's almost impossible to imagine your living on a farm in western Canada."
"I dare say it's difficult. I'll confess I'm fond of ease and comfort and refinement. I like to be looked after and waited on; to have somebody to keep unpleasant things away. That's dreadfully weak, isn't it? And because I haven't more courage, I'm sending you back to the prairie."
"I'm quite ready to go."
"Oh, I'm sure of that! It's comforting to remember that you're so resolute and matter-of-fact. You wouldn't let troubles daunt you—perhaps you would scarcely notice them when you had made up your mind."
The man smiled, rather wistfully. He could feel things keenly, and he had his romance; but Sylvia resumed:
"I sometimes wonder if you ever felt really badly hurt?"
"Once," he said quietly. "I think I have got over it."
"Ah!" she murmured. "I was afraid you would blame me, but now it seems that Dick knew you better than I did. When he made you my trustee, he said that you were too big to bear him malice."
The blood crept into George's face.
"After the first shock had passed, and I could reason calmly, I don't think I blamed either of you. You had promised me nothing; Dick was a brilliant man, with a charm everybody felt. By comparison, I was merely a plodder."
Sylvia mused for a few moments.
"George," she said presently, "I sometimes think you're a little too diffident. You plodders who go straight on, stopping for nothing, generally gain your object in the end."
His heart beat faster. It looked as if she meant this for a hint.
"I can't thank you properly," she continued; "though I know that all you undertake will be thoroughly carried out. I wish I hadn't been forced to let you go so far away; there is nobody else I can rely on."
He could not tell her that he longed for the right to shelter her always—it was not very long since the Canadian tragedy—but silence cost him an effort. At length she touched his arm.
"It's getting late, and the others will wonder where we are," she reminded him.
They went back to the house; and when Sylvia joined Mrs. Lansing, George felt seriously annoyed with himself. He had been deeply stirred, but he had preserved an unmoved appearance when he might have expressed some sympathy of tenderness which could not have been resented. Presently Ethel West crossed the room to where he was rather moodily standing.
"I believe our car is waiting, and, as Edgar won't let me come to the station to-morrow, I must say good-by now," she told him. "Both Stephen and I are glad he is on your hands."
"I must try to deserve your confidence," George said, smiling. "It's premature yet."
"Never mind that. We're alike in some respects: pretty speeches don't appeal to us. But there's one thing I must tell you—don't delay out yonder, come back as soon as you can."
She left him thoughtful. He had a high opinion of Ethel's intelligence, but he would entertain no doubts or misgivings. They were treasonable to Herbert and, what was worse, to Sylvia.
Going to bed in good time, he had only a few words with Sylvia over his early breakfast in the morning. Then he was driven to the station, where Edgar joined him; and the greater part of their journey proved uneventful.
Twelve days after leaving Liverpool they were, however, awakened early one morning by feeling the express-train suddenly slacken speed. The big cars shook with a violent jarring, and George hurriedly swung himself down from his upper berth. He had some difficulty in getting into his jacket and putting on his boots, but he pushed through the startled passengers and sprang down upon the track before the train quite stopped. He knew that accidents were not uncommon in the wilds of northern Ontario.
Ragged firs rose, dripping, against the rosy glow in the eastern sky, with the narrow gap, hewed out for the line, running through their midst. Some had been stripped of their smaller branches by fire, and leaned, dead and blackened, athwart each other. Beneath them, shallow pools gleamed in the hollows of the rocks, which rose in rounded masses here and there, and the gravel of the graded track was seamed by water channels. George remembered having heard the roar of heavy rain and a crash of thunder during the night, but it was now wonderfully still and fresh, and the resinous fragrance of the firs filled the chilly air.
Walking forward, clear of the curious passengers who poured from the cars, he saw a lake running back into the woods. A tall water-tank stood on the margin with a shanty, in which George imagined a telegraph operator was stationed, at its foot. Ahead, the great locomotive was pouring out a cloud of sooty smoke. When George reached it he waited until the engineer had finished talking to a man on the line.
"What are we stopping for? Has anything gone wrong?" he asked.
"Freight locomotive jumped the track at a wash-out some miles ahead," explained the engineer. "Took the fireman with her; but I don't know much about it yet. Guess they'll want me soon."
George got the man to promise to take him, and then he went back until he met Edgar, to whom he related what he had heard.
"I'm not astonished," remarked the lad, indicating one of the sleepers. "Look at that—the rail's only held down by a spike or two; we fasten them in solid chairs. They're rough and ready in this country."
It was the characteristic hypercritical attitude of the newly-arrived Englishman; and George, knowing that the Canadians strongly resent it, noticed a look of interest in the eyes of a girl standing near them. She was, he imagined, about twenty-four years of age, and was dressed in some thin white material, the narrow skirt scarcely reaching to the tops of her remarkably neat shoes. Her arms were uncovered to the elbows; her neck was bare, but this displayed a beautiful skin; and the face beneath the turned-down brim of the big hat was attractive. George thought she was amused at Edgar's comment.
"Well," he said, "while we put down a few miles of metals they'd drive the track across leagues of new country and make a start with the traffic. They haven't time to be particular, with the great western wheat-land waiting for development."
The girl moved away; and when word went around that there would be a delay of several hours, George sat down beside the lake and watched the Colonist passengers wash their children's clothes. It was, he thought, rather a striking scene—the great train standing in the rugged wilderness, the wide stretch of gleaming water running back among the firs, and the swarm of jaded immigrants splashing bare-footed along the beach. Their harsh voices and hoarse laughter broke discordantly on the silence of the woods.
After a while an elderly man, in badly-fitting clothes and an old wide-brimmed hat, sauntered up with the girl George had noticed, and stopped to survey the passengers.
"A middling sample; not so many English as usual," he remarked. "If they keep on coming in as they're doing, we'll get harvest hands at a reasonable figure."
"All he thinks about!" Edgar commented, in a lowered voice. "That's the uncivil old fellow who smokes the vile leaf tobacco; he drove me out of the car once or twice. It's hard to believe he's her father; but in some ways they're alike."
"I can't help feeling sorry for them," the girl replied. "Look at those worn-out women, almost too limp to move. It's hot and shaky enough in our cars; the Colonist ones must be dreadful."
"Good enough for the folks who're in them; they're not fastidious," said the man.
They strolled on, and George felt mildly curious about them. The girl was pretty and graceful, with a stamp of refinement upon her; the man was essentially rugged and rather grim. Suddenly, however, a whistle blast rang out, and George hurried toward the engine. It was beginning to move when he reached it but, grasping a hand-rail, he clambered up. The cab was already full of passengers, but he had found a place on the frame above the wheels when he saw the girl in the light dress running, flushed and eager, along the line. Leaning down as far as possible, he held out his hand to her.
"Get hold, if you want to come," he called. "There's a step yonder."
She seized his hand and smiled at him when he drew her up beside him.
"Thanks," she said. "I was nearly too late."
"Perhaps we had better make for the pilot, where there'll be more room," George suggested, as two more passengers scrambled up.
They crept forward, holding on by the guard-rail, while the great engine began to rock as it gathered speed. The girl, however, was fearless, and at length they reached the front, and stood beneath the big head-lamp with the triangular frame of the pilot running down to the rails at their feet. The ledge along the top of it was narrow, and when his companion sat down George felt concerned about her safety. Her hat had blown back, setting free tresses of glossy hair; her light skirt fluttered against the sooty pilot.
"You'll have to allow me," he said, tucking the thin fabric beneath her and passing an arm around her waist.
He thought she bore it well, for her manner was free from prudish alarm or coquettish submission. With sound sense, she had calmly acquiesced in the situation; but George found the latter pleasant. His companion was pretty, the swift motion had brought a fine warmth into her cheeks, and a sparkle into her eyes; and George was slightly vexed when Edgar, appearing round the front of the engine, unnoticed by the girl, surveyed him with a grin.
"Is there room for me?" he asked. "I had to leave the place where I was, because my fellow passengers didn't seem to mind if they pushed me off. A stranger doesn't get much consideration in this country."
The girl looked up at him consideringly and answered, through the roar of the engine:
"You may sit here, if you'll stop criticizing us."
"It's quite fair," Edgar protested, as he took his place by her side. "I've been in Canada only three days, but I've several times heard myself alluded to as an Englishman, as if that were some excuse for me."
"Are you sure you haven't been provoking people by your superior air?"
"I didn't know I possessed one; but I don't see why I should be very humble because I'm in Canada."
The girl laughed good-humoredly, and turned to George.
"I'm glad I came. This is delightful," she said.
It was, George admitted, an exhilarating experience. The big engine was now running at top speed, rocking down the somewhat roughly laid line. Banks of trees and stretches of gleaming water sped past, The rails ahead came flying back to them. The sun was on the firs, and the wind that lashed George's face was filled with their fragrance. Once or twice a tress of his companion's hair blew across his cheek, but she did not appear to notice this. He thought she was conscious of little beyond the thrill of speed.
At length the engine stopped where the line crossed a lake on a high embankment. A long row of freight-cars stood near a break in the track into which the rails ran down, and a faint cloud of steam rose from the gap.
George helped the girl down, anticipating Edgar, who seemed anxious to offer his assistance, and they walked forward until they could see into the pit. It was nearly forty feet in depth, for the embankment, softened by heavy rain, had slipped into the lake. In the bottom a huge locomotive lay shattered and overturned, with half a dozen men toiling about it. The girl stopped with a little gasp, for there was something strangely impressive in the sight of the wreck.
"It's dreadful, isn't it?" she exclaimed.
Then the men who had come with them gathered round.
"Where's the fireman?" one of them asked. "He was too late when he jumped. Have they got him out?"
"Guess not," said another. "See, they're trying to jack up the front of her."
"Aren't you mistaken about the man?" George asked, looking at the first speaker meaningly.
"Why, no," replied the other. "He's certainly pinned down among the wreck. They'll find him before long. Isn't that a jacket sleeve?"
He broke off with an exclamation, as Edgar drove an elbow hard into his ribs; but it was too late. The girl looked around at George, white in face.
"Is there a man beneath the engine? Don't try to put me off."
"I'm afraid it's the case."
"Then why did you bring me?" she cried with a shudder. "Take me away at once!"
George explained that he had forgotten the serious nature of the accident. He hastily helped her up and turned away with her, but when they had gone a little distance she sat down on a boulder.
"I feel badly startled and ashamed," she exclaimed. "I was enjoying it, as a spectacle, and all the time there was a man crushed to death." Then she recovered her composure. "Go back and help. Besides, I think your friend is getting into trouble."
She was right. The man Edgar tried to silence had turned upon him, savage and rather breathless.
"Now," he said, "I'll fix you mighty quick. Think I'm going to have a blamed Percy sticking his elbow into me?"
Edgar glanced at the big and brawny man, with a twinge of somewhat natural uneasiness; but he was not greatly daunted.
"Oh, well," he retorted coolly, "if that's the way you look at it! But if you're not in a desperate hurry, I'll take off my jacket."
"What did you prod him for, anyway?" another asked.
"I'm sorry I didn't jab him twice as hard; though I'd have wasted my energy," Edgar explained. "The fellow has no sense, but that's no reason why he should be allowed to frighten a pretty girl."
His antagonist looked as if a light had suddenly dawned on him.
"Is that why you did it?"
"Of course! Do you think I'd attack a man of nearly twice my weight without some reason?"
The fellow laughed.
"We'll let it go at that. You're all right, Percy. We like you."
"Thanks," said Edgar; "but my name isn't Percy. Couldn't you think of something more stylish for a change?"
They greeted this with hoarse laughter; and George, arriving on the scene, scrambled down into the pit with them to help the men below. It was some time later when he rejoined the girl, who was then gathering berries in the wood. She saw that his face and hands were grimy and his clothes were soiled.
"I heard that you found the unfortunate man. It was very sad," she said. "But what have you been doing since?"
"Shoveling a ton or two of gravel. Then I assisted in jacking up one side of the engine."
"Why? Did you enjoy it?"
George laughed; he had, as it happened, experienced a curious pleasure in the work. He was accustomed to the more vigorous sports; but, after all, they led to no tangible results, and in this respect his recent task was different—one, as he thought of it, could see what one had done. He had been endowed with some ability of strictly practical description, though it had so far escaped development.
"Yes," he responded. "I enjoyed it very much."
The girl regarded him with a trace of curiosity.
"Was that because work of the kind is new to you?"
"No," George answered. "It isn't altogether a novelty. I once spent three years in manual labor; and now when I look back at them, I believe I was happy then."
She nodded as if she understood.
"Shall we walk back?" she suggested.
They went on together, and though the sun was now fiercely hot and the distance long, George enjoyed the walk. Once they met a ballast train, with a steam plow mounted at one end of it, and a crowd of men riding on the open cars; but when it had passed there was nothing to break the deep silence of the woods. The dark firs shut in the narrow track except when here and there a winding lake or frothing river filled a sunny opening.
Soon after George and his companion reached the train, the engine came back with a row of freightcars, and during the afternoon the western express pulled out again, and sped furiously through the shadowy bush.
GEORGE MAKES FRIENDS
It was nearing midnight when George walked impatiently up and down the waiting-room in Winnipeg station, for the western express was very late, and nobody seemed to know when it would start. George was nevertheless interested in his surroundings, and with some reason. The great room was built in palatial style, with domed roof, tessellated marble floor, and stately pillars: it was brilliantly lighted; and massively-framed paintings of snow-capped peaks and river gorges adorned the walls. An excursion-train from Winnipeg Beach had just come in, and streams of young men and women in summer attire were passing through the room. They all looked happy and prosperous: he thought the girls' light dresses were gayer and smarter than those usually seen among a crowd of English passengers; but there was another side to the picture.
Rows of artistic seats ran here and there, and each was occupied by jaded immigrants, worn out by their journey in the sweltering Colonist cars. Piles of dilapidated baggage surrounded them, and among it exhausted children lay asleep. Drowsy, dusty women, with careworn faces, were huddled beside them; men bearing the stamp of ill-paid toil sat in dejected apathy; and all about each group the floor, which was wet with drippings from the roof, was strewn with banana skins, crumbs, and scraps of food. There had been heavy rains, and the atmosphere was hot and humid. It was, however, the silence of these newcomers that struck George most. There was no grumbling among them—they scarcely seemed vigorous enough for that—but as he passed one row he heard a woman's low sobbing and the wail of a fretful child.
After a while the girl he had met on the train appeared and intimated by a smile that he might join her. They found an unoccupied seat, and a smartly-attired young man who was approaching it stopped when he saw them.
"Well," he said coolly, "I guess I won't intrude."
George felt seriously annoyed with him, but he was reassured when his companion laughed with candid amusement. Though there was no doubt of her prettiness, he had already noticed that she did not impress one most forcibly with the fact that she was an attractive young woman. It seemed to sink into the background when one spoke to her.
"It was rather tedious waiting in the hotel," she explained. "There was nobody I could talk to; my father is busy with a grain broker."
"Then he is a farmer?"
"Yes," said the girl, "he has a farm."
"And you live out in the West with him?"
"Of course," she said, smiling. "Still, I have been in Montreal, and England." Then she turned and glanced at the jaded immigrants. "One feels sorry for them; they have so much to bear."
George felt that she wished to change the subject, and he followed her lead.
"I feel inclined to wonder where they all go to and how you employ them. Your people still seem anxious to bring them in."
"Yes," she replied thoughtfully, "It's rather a difficult question. Of course, we pay high wages—people who say they must dispense with help and can't carry out useful projects would like to see them lower—but there's the long winter when, out West at least, very few men can work. Then what the others have earned in summer rapidly melts."
"But what do the Canadian farm-hands and mechanics think? It wouldn't suit them to have wages broken down."
West had come up a few moments earlier.
"It doesn't matter," he laughed; "they won't be consulted. It's the other people who pull the strings, and they're adopting a forward policy—rush them all in; it's their lookout when they get here. That's my opinion; though I'll own that I know remarkably little about western Canada."
"You won't admit he's right," George said to the girl.
She looked grave.
"Sometimes," she answered, "I wonder."
Then she turned to West.
"You don't seem impressed with the country," she said.
"As a rule, I try to be truthful. The country strikes me as being pretty mixed, full of contrasts. There's this place, for instance; one could imagine they had meant to build a Greek temple, and now it looks more like a swimming-bath. After planning the rest magnificently, why couldn't they put on a roof that wouldn't leak?"
"It has been an exceptionally heavy rain," the girl reminded him.
"Just so. But couldn't somebody get a broom and sweep the water out? Our unimaginative English folk could rise as far as that."
She laughed good-humoredly, and her father sauntered up to them.
"Any news of the train yet?" he asked.
"No, sir," said Edgar. "In my opinion, any attempt to extract reliable information from a Canadian railroad-hand is a waste of time. No doubt, it's so scarce that it hurts them to part with it."
The Westerner looked at him with a little hard smile. He was tall and gaunt and dressed in baggy clothes, but there was a hint of power in his face, which was lined, and deeply bronzed by exposure to the weather.
"Well," he retorted, "what do you expect, Percy, if you talk to them like that? But I want to thank you and your partner for taking care of my girl when she went to see the wreck. Fellow on the cars told me—said you were a gritty pup!"
Edgar looked confused, but the man drew an old skin bag out of his pocket.
"It's domestic leaf; take a smoke."
"No, thanks," said Edgar quickly. "I've no doubt it's excellent, but I really prefer the common Virginia stuff."
"Matter of habit," replied the other. "I don't carry cigars; they're expensive. Going far West?"
"We get off at Sage Butte."
"It's called Butte. I'm located in that district."
"Then I wonder if you knew an Englishman named Marston?" George interposed.
"I certainly did; he died last winter. Oughtn't to have come out farming; he hadn't the grip."
George felt surprised. He had always admired Marston, who had excelled in whatever he took in hand. It was strange and disconcerting to hear him disparaged.
"Will you tell me what you mean by that?" he asked.
"Why, yes. I've nothing against the man. I liked him—guess everybody did—but the contract he was up against was too big for him. Had his first crop frozen, and lost his nerve and judgment after that—the man who gets ahead here must have the grit to stand up against a few bad seasons. Marston acted foolishly; wasted his money buying machines and teams he could have done without, and then let up when he saw it wouldn't pay him to use them right off; but that was part his wife's fault. She drove him pretty hard—though, in some ways, I guess he needed it."
George frowned. Sylvia, he admitted, was ambitious, and she might have put a little pressure upon Marston now and then; but that she should have urged him on toward ruin in her eagerness to get rich was incredible.
"I think you must be mistaken about his wife," he remarked.
"Well," drawled the Canadian, "I'm not always right."
Then a bell tolled outside, an official shouted the names of towns, and there was a sudden stir and murmur of voices in the great waiting-room. Men seized their bags and bundles, women dragged sleepy children to their feet, and a crowd began to press about the outlet.
"Guess that's our train. She's going to be pretty full," said the Canadian.
The party joined a stream of hurrying passengers, and regretted their haste when they were violently driven through the door and into a railed-off space on the platform, where shouting railroad-hands were endeavoring to restrain the surging crowd. Nobody heeded them; the immigrants' patience was exhausted, and they had suddenly changed from a dully apathetic multitude waiting in various stages of dejection to a savage mob fired by one determined purpose. Near by stood a long row of lighted cars, and the immigrants meant to get on board them without loss of time. There were two gates, guarded by officials who endeavored to discriminate between the holders of first and second class tickets, but the crowd was in no mood to submit to the separation.
It raged behind the barrier, and when one gate was rashly pushed back a little too far, a clamorous, jostling mass of humanity stormed the opening. Its guardians were flung aside, helpless, and the foremost of the mob poured out upon the platform, while the pressure about the gap grew insupportable. Women screamed, children were reft away from their mothers, panting men trampled over bags and bundles torn from their owners' hands, and George and the elderly Canadian struggled determinedly to prevent the girl's being badly crushed. Edgar had disappeared, though they once heard his voice, raised in angry protest.
They were forced close up to the outlet, when there was a check. More officials had been summoned; somebody had dropped a heavy box which obstructed the passage, and a group of passengers began a savage fight for its recovery. George seized a man who was jostling the girl and thrust him backward; but the next moment he was struck by somebody, and he saw nothing of his companions when, after being violently driven to and fro, he reached the gate. A woman with two screaming children clinging to her appeared beside him, and he held a man so that she might pass. He was breathless, and almost exhausted, but he secured her a little room; and then the pressure suddenly slackened. The crowd swept out like a flood from a broken dam, and in a few more moments George stood, gasping, on the platform amid a thinner stream of running people. There was no sign of the Canadian or his daughter; the cars were besieged; and George waited until Edgar joined him, flushed and disheveled.
"I suppose I was lucky in getting through with only my jacket badly torn," said the lad, "I wondered why the railroad people caged up their passengers behind iron bars, but now I know."
"I don't think this kind of thing is altogether usual. Owing to the accident, they've no doubt had two trainloads to handle instead of one. But the platform's emptying; shall we look for a place?"
They managed to enter a car, though the stream of passengers, pouring in by the two vestibules, met within in dire confusion, choking up the passage with their baggage. Order was, however, restored at last; and, with the tolling of the bell, and a jerk that flung those unprepared off their feet, the great express got off.
"Nobody left behind," Edgar announced, after a glance through the window. "I can't imagine where they put them all; though I've never seen a train like this. But what has become of our Canadian friends?"
George said he did not know, and Edgar resumed:
"I'm rather taken with the girl—strikes me as intelligent as well as fetching. The man's a grim old savage, but I'm inclined to think he's prosperous; when a fellow says he can't afford cigars I generally suspect him of being rich. It's a pity that stinginess is one of the roads to affluence."
The car, glaringly lighted by huge lamps, was crowded and very hot, and after a while George went out on to the rear platform for a breath of air. The train had now left the city, and glancing back as it swung around a curve, he wondered how one locomotive could haul the long row of heavy cars. Then he looked out across the wide expanse of grass that stretched away in the moonlight to the dim blur of woods on the horizon. Here and there clumps of willows dotted the waste, but it lay silent and empty, without sign of human life. The air was pleasantly fresh after heavy rain; and the stillness of the vast prairie was soothing by contrast with the tumult from which they had recently escaped.
Lighting his pipe, George leaned contentedly on the rail. Then remembering what the Canadian had said, he thought of his old friend Marston, a man of charm and varied talents, whom he had long admired and often rather humbly referred to. It was hard to understand how Dick had failed in Canada, and harder still to see why he had made his plodding comrade his executor; for George, having seldom had occasion to exert his abilities, had no great belief in them. He had suffered keenly when Sylvia married Dick, but the homage he had offered her had always been characterized by diffidence, springing from a doubt that she could be content with him; and after a sharp struggle he succeeded in convincing himself that his wound did not matter if she were happier with the more brilliant man. He had entertained no hard thoughts of her: Sylvia could do no wrong. His love for her sprang rather from respect than passion; in his eyes she was all that a woman ought to be.
In the meanwhile his new friends were discussing him in a car farther back along the train.
"I'm glad I had that Englishman by me in the crowd," the man remarked. "He's cool and kept his head, did what was needed and nothing else. I allow you owe him something for bringing you through."
"Yes," said the girl; "he was quick and resolute." Then reserving the rest of her thoughts, she added: "His friend's amusing."
"Percy? Oh, yes," agreed her father. "Nothing to notice about him—he's just one of the boys. The other's different. What that fellow takes in hand he'll go through with."
"You haven't much to form an opinion on."
"That doesn't count. I can tell if a man's to be trusted when I see him."
"You're generally right," the girl admitted. "You were about Marston. I was rather impressed by him when he first came out."
Her father smiled.
"Just so. Marston had only one trouble—he was all on top. You saw all his good points in the first few minutes. It was rough on him that they weren't the ones that are needed in this country."
"It's a country that demands a great deal," the girl said thoughtfully.
"Sure," was the dry reply. "The prairie breaks the weak and shiftless pretty quick; we only have room for hard men who'll stand up against whatever comes along."
"And do you think that description fits the Englishman we met?"
"Well," said her father, "I guess he wouldn't back down if things went against him."
He went out for a smoke, and the girl considered what he had said. It was not a matter of much consequence, but she knew he seldom made mistakes, and in this instance she agreed with him. As it happened, George's English relatives included one or two clever people, but none of them held his talents in much esteem. They thought him honest, rather painstaking, and good-natured, but that was all. It was left for two strangers to form a juster opinion; which was, perhaps, a not altogether unusual thing. Besides, the standards are different in western Canada. There, a man is judged by what he can do.
After a hot and tedious journey, George and his companion alighted one afternoon at a little station on a branch line, and Edgar looked about with interest when the train went on again. A telegraph office with a baggage-room attached occupied the middle of the low platform, a tall water-tank stood at the end, and three grain elevators towered high above a neighboring side-track. Facing the track, stood a row of wooden buildings varying in size and style: they included a double-storied hotel with a veranda in front of it, and several untidy shacks. Running back from them, two short streets, thinly lined with small houses, led to a sea of grass.
"Sage Butte doesn't strike one as a very exhilarating place," George remarked. "We'll stroll round it, and then see about rooms, since we have to stay the night."
They left the station, but the main street had few attractions to offer. Three stores, with strangely-assorted, dusty goods in their windows fronted the rickety plankwalk; beyond these stood a livery stable, a Chinese laundry, and a few dwelling-houses. Several dilapidated wagons and buggies were scattered about the uneven road. In the side street, disorderly rows of agricultural implements surrounded a store, and here and there little board dwellings with wire mosquito-doors and net-guarded windows, stood among low trees. Farther back were four very small wooden churches. It was unpleasantly hot, though a fresh breeze blew clouds of dust through the place.
"I've seen enough," said Edgar. "The Butte isn't pretty; we'll assume it's prosperous, though I haven't noticed much sign of activity yet. Let's go to the hotel."
When they reached it, several untidy loungers sat half asleep in the shade of the veranda, and though they obstructed the approach to the entrance none of them moved. Passing behind them, George opened a door filled in with wire-mesh, and they entered a hot room with a bare floor, furnished with a row of plain wooden chairs. After they had rung a bell for several minutes, a man appeared and looked at them with languid interest from behind a short counter.
"Can you put us up?" George inquired.
"Sure," was the answer.
The man flung down a labeled key, twisted round his register, which was fitted in a swivel frame, and handed George a pen.
"We want two rooms," Edgar objected.
"Can't help that. We've only got one."
"I suppose we'd better take it. Where can one get a drink?"
"Bar," replied the other, indicating a gap in a neighboring partition.
"They're laconic in this country," Edgar remarked.
"Ever since I arrived in it, I've felt as if I were a mere piece of baggage, to be hustled along anyway without my wishes counting."
"You'll get used to it after a while," George consoled him.
Entering the dark bar, Edgar refreshed himself with several ice-cooled drinks, served in what he thought were unusually small glasses. He felt somewhat astonished when he paid for them.
"Thirst's expensive on the prairie," he commented.
"Pump outside," drawled the attendant. "It's rather mean water."
They went upstairs to a very scantily furnished, doubled-bedded room. George, warned by previous experience, glanced around.
"There's soap and a towel, anyway; but I don't see any water," he remarked. "I'll take the jar; they'll have a rain-tank somewhere about."
Edgar did not answer him. He was looking out of the open window, and now that there was little to obstruct his view, the prospect interested him. It had been a wet spring, and round the vast half-circle he commanded the prairie ran back to the horizon, brightly green, until its strong coloring gave place in the distance to soft neutral tones. It was blotched with crimson flowers; in the marshy spots there were streaks of purple; broad squares of darker wheat checkered the sweep of grass, and dwarf woods straggled across it in broken lines. In one place was the gleam of a little lake. Over it all there hung a sky of dazzling blue, across which great rounded cloud-masses rolled.
Edgar looked around as George came in with the water.
"That's great!" he exclaimed, indicating the prairie; and then, turning toward the wooden town, he added: "What a frightful mess man can make of pretty things! Still, I've no doubt the people who built the Butte are proud of it."
"If you talk to them in that style, you'll soon discover their opinion," George laughed; "but I don't think it would be wise."
Soon afterward a bell rang for supper, and going down to a big room, they found seats at a table which had several other occupants. Two of them, who appeared to be railroad-hands, were simply dressed in trousers and slate-colored shirts, and when they rested their elbows on the tablecloth, they left grimy smears. George thought the third man of the party, who was neatly attired, must be the station-agent; the fourth was unmistakably a newly-arrived Englishman. As soon as they were seated, a very smart young woman came up and rattled off the names of various unfamiliar dishes.
"I think I'll have a steak; I know what that is," Edgar told her.
She withdrew, and presently surrounded him with an array of little plates, at which he glanced dubiously before he attacked the thin, hard steak with a nickeled knife which failed to make a mark on it. When he made a more determined effort, it slid away from him, sweeping some greasy fried potatoes off his plate, and he grew hot under the stern gaze of the girl, who reappeared with some coffee he had not ordered.
"Perhaps you had better take it away before I do more damage, and let me have some fish," he said humbly.
"Another time you'll say what you want at first. You can't prospect right through the menu," she rebuked him.
In the meanwhile George had been describing his companions on the train to one of the men opposite.
"He told me he was located in the district, but I didn't learn his name, and he didn't get off here," he explained. "Do you know him?"
"Sure," said the other. "It's Alan Grant, of Poplar, 'bout eighteen miles back. Guess he went on to the next station—a little farther, but it's easier driving, now they're dumping straw on the trail."
"Putting straw on the road?" Edgar broke in. "Why are they doing that?"
"You'll see, if you drive out north," the man answered shortly. Then he turned to his better-dressed companion. "What are you going to do with that carload of lumber we got for Grant?"
"Send the car on to Benton."
"She's billed here."
"Can't help that—the road's mistake. Grant ordered all his stuff to Benton. What he says goes."
This struck George as significant—it was only a man of importance whose instructions would be treated with so much deference. Then the agent turned to Edgar.
"What do you think of this country?"
"The country's very nice. So far as I've seen them, I can't say as much for the towns; they might be prettier."
"Might be prettier?" exclaimed the agent. "If they're not good enough for you, why did you come here?"
"I'm not sure it was a very judicious move. But, you see, I didn't know what the place was like; and, after all, an experience of this kind is supposed to be bracing."
The agent ignored Edgar after this. He talked to George, and elicited the information that the latter meant to farm. Then he got up, followed by two of the others, and the remaining man with the English appearance turned to George diffidently.
"Do you happen to want a teamster?" he asked.
"I believe I'll want two," was the answer. "But I'm afraid I'll have to hire Canadians."
The man's face fell. He looked anxious, and George remembered having seen a careworn woman tearfully embracing him before their steamer sailed. Her shabby clothes and despairing face had roused George's sympathy.
"Well," said the man dejectedly, "that's for you to decide; but I've driven horses most of my life, and until I get used to things I'd be reasonable about the pay. I was told these little places were the best to strike a job in; but, so far as I can find out, there's not much chance here."
George felt sorry for him. He suddenly made up his mind.
"What are farm teamsters getting now?" he asked a man who was leaving an adjacent table.
"Thirty dollars a month," was the answer.
"Thanks," said George, turning again to the Englishman. "Be ready to start with us to-morrow. I'll take you at thirty dollars; but if I don't get my value out of you, we'll have to part."
"No fear of that, sir," replied the other, in a tone of keen satisfaction.
When they got outside, Edgar looked at George with a smile.
"I'm glad you engaged the fellow," he said; "but considering that you'll have to teach him, were you not a little rash?"
"I'll find out by and by." George paused, and continued gravely: "It's a big adventure these people make. Think of it—the raising of the passage money by some desperate economy, the woman left behind with hardly enough to keep her a month or two, the man's fierce anxiety to find some work! When I saw how he was watching me, I felt I had to hire him."
"Just so," responded Edgar. "I suppose I ought to warn you that doing things of the kind may get you into trouble some day; but cold-blooded prudence never did appeal to me." He took one of the chairs in front of the building and filled his pipe before he continued: "We'll sit here a while, and then we might as well stroll across the plain. The general-room doesn't strike me as an attractive place to spend the evening in."
An hour later they left the tall elevators and straggling town behind, and after brushing through a belt of crimson flowers, they followed the torn-up black trail that led into the waste. After a mile or two it broke into several divergent rows of ruts, and they went on toward a winding line of bluff across the short grass. Reaching that, they pushed through the thin wood of dwarf birch and poplar, skirting little pools from which mallard rose: and then, crossing a long rise, they sat down to smoke on its farther side. Sage Butte had disappeared, the sun had dipped, and the air was growing wonderfully fresh and cool. Here and there a house or barn rose from the sweep of grass; but for the most part it ran back into the distance lonely and empty. It was steeped in strong, cold coloring, but on its western rim there burned a vivid flush of rose and saffron. Edgar was impressed by its vastness and silence.
"This," he said thoughtfully, "makes up for a good deal. Once you get clear of the railroad, it's a captivating country."
"Have you decided yet what you're going to do in it?"
"It's too soon," Edgar rejoined. "The family idea was that I should stay about twelve months, and then go back and enter some profession. Ethel seems quite convinced that a little roughing it will prove beneficial. I might, however, stop out and try farming, which is one reason why you can have my services for nothing for a time. Considering what local wages are, don't you think you're lucky?"
"That," laughed George, "remains to be seen."
"Anyhow, there's no doubt that Sylvia Marston scores in securing you on the same favorable terms. It has struck me that she's a woman who gets things easily."
"She hasn't always done so. Can you imagine, for instance, what two years on a prairie farm must have been to a delicate, fastidious girl, brought up in luxury?"
"I've an idea that Sylvia would manage to avoid a good many of the hardships."
"Sylvia would never shirk a duty," George declared firmly.
Edgar refilled his pipe.
"I've been thinking about Dick Marston," he said. "After the way he was generally regarded at home, it was strange to hear that Canadian's opinions; but I've a notion that this country's a pretty severe touchstone. I mean that the sort of qualities that make one popular in England may not prove of much use here."
"Dick lost his crop; that accounts for a good deal," George said shortly.
Edgar, knowing how staunch he was to his friends, changed the subject; and when the light grew dim they went back to the hotel. Breakfasting soon after six the next morning, they took their places in a light, four-wheeled vehicle, for which three persons' baggage made a rather heavy load, and drove away with the hired man. The grass was wet with dew, the air invigoratingly cool, and for a time the fresh team carried them across the waste at an excellent pace. When he had got used to the frantic jolting, Edgar found the drive exhilarating. Poplar bluffs, little ponds, a lake shining amid tall sedges, belts of darkgreen wheat, went by; and while the horses plunged through tall barley-grass or hauled the vehicle over clods and ruts, the same vast prospect stretched away ahead. It filled the lad with a curious sense of freedom: there was no limit to the prairies—one could go on and on, across still wider stretches beyond the horizon.
By and by, however, they ran in among low sandy hills, dotted with dwarf pines here and there, and the pace slackened. The grass was thin, the wheels sank in deep, loose sand, and the sun was getting unpleasantly hot. For half an hour they drove on; and then the team came to a standstill, necked with spume, at the foot of a short, steep rise. Edgar alighted and found the heat almost insupportable. There was glaring sand all about him, and the breeze which swept the prairie was cut off by the hill in front.
"You'll have to help the team," George told him, as he went to the horses' heads.
Edgar and the hired man each seized a wheel and endeavored to start the vehicle, while the horses plunged in the slipping sand. They made a few yards, with clouds of grit flying up about them, and afterward came to a stop again. Next they tried pushing; and after several rests they arrived, breathless and gasping, at the crest of the rise. There was a big hollow in front, and on the opposite side a ridge which looked steeper than the last one.
"How much do you think there is of this?" Edgar inquired.
"I can't say," George answered. "I know of one belt that runs for forty miles."
Even walking downhill was laborious, for they sank ankle-deep, but it was very much worse when they faced the ascent. Short as the hill was, it took them some time to climb; and, with the hired man's assistance, Edgar carried a heavy trunk up the last part of it. Then he sat down.
"I'm not sure I can smoke, but I intend to try," he said. "If you mean to rush the next hill right off, you will go without me." He turned to the hired man. "What do you think of these roads, Grierson?"
"I've seen better, sir," the other answered cautiously. "Perhaps the hills don't go on very far."
Edgar ruefully glanced ahead at scattered pines, clumps of brush, and ridges of gleaming sand.
"It's my opinion there's no end to them! Hauling a load of wheat through this kind of country must be a bit of an undertaking."
After a short rest, they toiled for an hour through the sand; and then rode slowly over a road thickly strewn with straw, which bore the wheels. It led them across lower ground to a strong wire fence, where it forked: one branch skirting the barrier along the edge of a muskeg, the other running through the enclosed land. Deciding to take the latter, George got down at the entrance, which was barred by several strands of wire, firmly fastened.
"Half an hour's work here," Edgar commented. "Driving's rather an arduous pastime in western Canada."
They crossed a long field of barley, a breadth of wheat, and passed an empty house; then wound through a poplar wood until they reached the grass again. It was long and rank, hiding the ruts and hollows in the trail; but after stopping a while for dinner in the shadow of a bluff, they jolted on, and in the afternoon they reached a smoother track. Crossing a low rise, they saw a wide stretch of wheat beneath them, with a house and other buildings near its margin.
"That," said George, "is Sylvia's farm."
Half an hour later, they drove through the wheat, at which George glanced dubiously; and then, traversing a belt of light sandy clods partly grown with weeds, they drew up before the house. It was double-storied, roomy, and neatly built of wood; but it was in very bad repair, and the barn and stables had a neglected and half-ruinous look. Implements and wagons which had suffered from exposure to the weather, stood about outside. Edgar noticed that George's face was grave.
"I am afraid we have our work cut out," he said. "We'll put up the team, and then look round the place and see what needs doing first."
GEORGE GETS TO WORK
It was an oppressive evening, after a day of unusual heat. Edgar sat smoking outside the homestead. He had been busy since six o'clock that morning, and he felt tired and downcast. Massed thunder-clouds brooded over the silent prairie, wheat and grass had faded to dingy green and lifeless gray, and Edgar tried to persuade himself that his moodiness was the effect of the weather. This was partly the case, but he was also suffering from homesickness and a shrinking from what was new and strange.
The wooden house had a dreary, dilapidated look; the weathered, neglected appearance of barns and stables was depressing. It was through a neighboring gap in the fence that Marston's team had brought their lifeless master home; and Edgar had seen enough to realize that the man must have grown slack and nerveless before he had succumbed. The farm had broken down Marston's strength and courage, and now another man, less gifted in many ways, had taken it in charge. Edgar wondered how he would succeed; but in spite of a few misgivings he had confidence in George.
After a while the latter, who had been examining Marston's farming books, came out, looking grave; he had worn a serious air since their arrival.
"There'll have to be a change," he said. "Dick's accounts have given me something to think about. I believe I'm beginning to understand now how his money went."