THE BLACK CREEK STOPPING-HOUSE
NELLIE L. McCLUNG
_To the Pioneer Women of the West, who made life tolerable, and even comfortable, for the others of us; who fed the hungry, advised the erring, nursed the sick, cheered the dying, comforted the sorrowing, and performed the last sad rites for the dead;
The beloved Pioneer Women, old before their time with hard work, privations, and doing without things, yet in whose hearts there was always burning the hope of better things to come;
The godly Pioneer Women, who kept alive the conscience of the neighborhood, and preserved for us the best traditions of the race;
To these noble Women of the early days, some of whom we see no more, for they have entered into their inheritance, this book is respectfully dedicated by their humble admirer,
"Let me live in a house by the side of the road, and be a friend of man."
THE BLACK CREEK STOPPING-HOUSE—
CHAPTER I. The Old Trail II. The House of Bread III. The Sailors' Rest IV. Farm Pupils V. The Prairie Club-House VI. The Counter-Irritant VII. Ladies' Day at the Stopping-House VIII. Shadows of the Night IX. His Evil Genius X. Da's Turn XI. The Blizzard XII. When the Day Broke
THE RUNAWAY GRANDMOTHER
THE RETURN TICKET
THE UNGRATEFUL PIGEONS
YOU NEVER CAN TELL
A SHORT TALE OF A RABBIT
THE ELUSIVE VOTE
THE WAY OF THE WEST
THE BLACK CREEK STOPPING-HOUSE
THE OLD TRAIL.
When John Corbett strolled leisurely into the Salvation Army meeting in old Victoria Hall in Winnipeg that night, so many years ago now, there may have been some who thought he came to disturb the meeting.
There did not seem to be any atmospheric reason why Mr. Corbett or anyone else should be abroad, for it was a drizzling cold November night, and the streets were muddy, as only Winnipeg streets in the old days could be—none of your light-minded, fickle-hearted, changeable mud that is mud to-day and dust to-morrow, but the genuine, original, brush-defying, soap-and-water-proof, north star, burr mud, blacker than lampblack, stickier than glue!
Mr. Corbett did not come to disturb the meeting. His reason for attending lay in a perfectly legitimate desire to see for himself what it was all about, he being happily possessed of an open mind.
Mr. Corbett would do anything once, and if he liked it he would do it again. In the case of the Salvation Army meeting, he liked it. He liked the music, and the good fellowship, and the swing and the zip of it all. More still, he liked the blue-eyed Irish girl who sold War Crys at the door. When he went in he bought one; when he came out he bought all she had left.
The next night Mr. Corbett was again at the meeting. On his way in he bought all the War Crys the blue-eyed Irish girl had. Every minute he liked her better, and when the meeting was over and an invitation was given to the anxious ones to "tarry awhile," Mr. Corbett tarried. When the other cases had been dismissed Mr. Corbett had a long talk with the captain in charge.
Mr. Corbett was a gentleman of private means, though he was accustomed to explain his manner of making a livelihood, when questioned by magistrates and other interested persons, by saying he was employed in a livery stable. When further pressed by these insatiably curious people as to what his duties in the livery stable were, he always described his position as that of "chamber maid." Here the magistrates and other questioners thought that Mr. Corbett was disposed to be facetious, but he was perfectly sincere, and he had described his work more accurately than they gave him credit for. It might have been more illuminative if he had said that in the livery stable of Pacer and Kelly he did the "upstairs" work.
It was a small but well appointed room in which Mr. Corbett worked. It had an unobtrusive narrow stairway leading up to it. The only furniture it contained was several chairs and a round table with a well-concealed drawer, which opened with a spring, and held four packs and an assorted variety of chips! Its one window was well provided with a heavy blind. Here Mr. Corbett was able to accommodate any or all who felt that they would like to give Fortune a chance to be kind to them.
The night after Mr. Corbett had attended the Salvation Army meeting, his "upstairs" room was as dark inside as it always appeared to be on the outside. Two anxious ones, whose money was troubling them, had to be turned away disappointed. Mr. Corbett had left word downstairs that he was going out.
After Mr. Corbett had explained the situation to the Salvation Army captain, the captain took a day to consider. Then Mrs. Murphy, mother of Maggie Murphy who sold War Crys, was consulted. Mrs. Murphy had long been a soldier in the Army, and she had seen so many brands plucked from the burning that she was not disposed to discourage Mr. Corbett in his new desire to "do diff'rent."
Soon after this Mr. Corbett, in his own words, "pulled his freight" from the Brunswick Hotel, where he had been a long, steady boarder, and installed himself in the only vacant room in the Murphy house, having read the black and white card in the parlor window, which proclaimed "Furnished Rooms and Table Board," and regarding it as a providential opportunity for him to see Maggie Murphy in action!
Having watched Maggie Murphy wait on table in the daytime and sell War Crys at night for a week or more, Mr. Corbett decided he liked her methods. The way she poised a tray of teacups on her head proclaimed her a true artist.
At the end of two weeks Mr. Corbett stated his case to Mrs. Murphy and Maggie.
"I've a poor hand," he declared; "but I am willing to play it out if Maggie will sit opposite me and be my partner. I have only one gift— I'm handy with cards and I can deal myself three out of the four aces— but that's not much good to a man who tries to earn an honest living. I am willing to try work—it may be all right for anything I know. If Maggie will take me I'll promise to leave cards alone, and I'll do whatever she thinks I ought to do."
Maggie and her mother took a few days to consider. On one point their minds were very clear. If Maggie "took" him, he could not keep any of the money he had won gambling—he would have to start honest. Mr. Corbett had, fortunately, arrived at the same conclusion himself, so that point was easily disposed of.
"It ain't for us to be hard on anyone that's tryin' to do better," said Maggie's mother, as she rolled out the crust for the dried-apple pies. "He's wasted his substance, and wasted his days, but who knows but the Lord can use him yet to His honor and glory. The Lord ain't like us, havin' to wait until He gets everything to His own likin', but He can go ahead with whatever comes to His hand. He can do His work with poor tools, and it's well for Him He can, and well for us, too."
Maggie Murphy and John Corbett were married.
John Corbett got a job at once as teamster for a transfer company, and Maggie followed her mother's example and put a sign of "Table Board" in the window. They lived in this way for ten years, and in spite of the dismal prognostications of friends, John Corbett worked industriously, and did not show any desire to return to his old ways! When he said he would do what Maggie told him it was not the rash promise of an eager lover, for Mr. Corbett was never rash, and the subsequent years showed that his purpose was honest to fulfil it to the letter.
Maggie, being many years his junior, could not think of addressing him by his first name, and she felt that it was not seemly to use the prefix, so again she followed her mother's example, and addressed him as her mother did Murphy, senior, as "Da."
It was in the early eighties that Maggie and John Corbett decided to come farther west. The cry of free land for the asking was coming to many ears, and at Maggie's table it was daily discussed. They sold out the contents of their house, and, purchasing oxen and a covered wagon, they made the long overland journey. On the bank of Black Creek they pitched their tent, and before a week had gone by Maggie Corbett was giving meals to hungry men, cooking bannocks, frying pork, and making coffee on her little sheet-iron camp-stove, no bigger than a biscuit- box.
The next year, when the railroad came to Brandon, and the wheat was drawn in from as far south as Lloyd's Lake, the Black Creek Stopping- House became a far-famed and popular establishment.
THE HOUSE OF BREAD.
Across the level plain which lies between the valley of the Souris and the valley of the Assiniboine there ran, at this time, three trails. There was the deeply-rutted old Hudson Bay trail, over which went the fabulously heavy loads of fur long ago—grass-grown now and broken with badger holes; there was "the trail," hard and firm, in the full pride of present patronage, defying the invasion of the boldest blade of grass; and by the side of it, faint and shadowy, like a rainbow's understudy, ran "the new trail," strong in the certainty of being the trail in time.
For miles across the plain the men who follow the trail watch the steep outlying shoulder of the Brandon Hills for a landmark. When they leave the Souris valley the hills are blue with distance and seem to promise wooded slopes, and maybe leaping streams, but a half-day's journey dispels the illusion, for when the traveller comes near enough to see the elevation as it is, it is only a rugged bluff, bald and bare, and blotched with clumps of mangy grass, with a fringe of stunted poplar at the base.
After rounding the shoulder of the hill, the thick line of poplars and elms which fringe the banks of Black Creek comes into view, and many a man and horse have suddenly brightened at the sight, for in the shelter of the trees there stands the Black Creek Stopping-House, which is the half-way house on the way to Brandon. Hungry men have smelled the bacon frying when more than a mile away, and it is only the men who follow the trail who know what a heartsome smell that is. The horses, too, tired with the long day, point their ears ahead and step livelier when they see the whitewashed walls gleaming through the trees.
The Black Creek Stopping-House gave not only food and shelter to the men who teamed the wheat to market—it gave them good fellowship and companionship. In the absence of newspapers it kept its guests abreast with the times; events great and small were discussed there with impartial deliberation, and often with surprising results. Actions and events which seemed quite harmless, and even heroic, when discussed along the trail, often changed their complexion entirely when Mrs. Maggie Corbett let in the clear light of conscience on them, for even on the very edge of civilization there are still to be found finger- posts on the way to right living.
Mrs. Maggie Corbett was a finger-post, and more, for a finger-post merely points the way with its wooden finger, and then, figuratively, retires from the scene to let you think it over; but Maggie Corbett continued to take an interest in the case until it was decided to her entire satisfaction.
Black Creek, on whose wooded bank the Stopping-House stands, is a deep black stream which makes its way leisurely across the prairie between steep banks. Here and there throughout its length are little shallow stretches which show a golden braid down the centre like any peaceful meadow brook where children may with safety float their little boats, but Black Creek, with its precipitous holes, is no safe companion for any living creature that has not webbed toes or a guardian angel.
The banks, which are of a spongy black loam, grow a heavy crop of coarse meadow grass, interspersed in the late summer with the umbrella- like white clusters of water hemlock.
* * * * *
About a mile from the Stopping-House there stood a strange log structure, the present abode of Reginald and Randolph Brydon, late of H.M. Navy, but now farmers and homesteaders. The house was built in that form of architecture known as a "Red River frame," and the corners were finished in the fashion called "saddle and notch."
Whatever can be done to a house to spoil its appearance had been done to this one. There was a "join" in each side, which was intended, and a bulge which was accidental, and when the sailor brothers were unable to make a log lie comfortably beside its neighbor by using the axe, they resorted to long iron spikes, and when these split the logs, as was usually the case, they overcame the difficulty by using ropes.
What had brought the Brydon brothers to Manitoba was a matter of conjecture in the Black Creek neighborhood. Some said they probably were not wanted at home; others, with deeper meaning, said they probably were wanted at home; and, indeed, their bushy eyebrows, their fierce black eyes, the knives which they carried in their belts, and their general manner of living, gave some ground to this insinuation.
The Brydon brothers did not work with that vigor and zeal which brings success to the farmer. They began late and quit early, with numerous rests in between. They showed a delightfully child-like trust in Nature and her methods, for in the springtime, instead of planting their potatoes in the ground the way they saw other people doing it, they sprinkled them around the "fireguard," believing that the birds of the air strewed leaves over them, or the rain washed them in, or in some mysterious way they made a bed for themselves in the soil.
They bought a cow from one of the neighbors, but before the summer was over brought her back indignantly, declaring that she would give no milk. Randolph declared that he knew she had it, for she had plenty the last time he milked her, and that was several days ago—she should have more now. It came out in the evidence that they only took from the cow the amount of milk that they needed, reasoning that she had a better way of keeping it than they had. The cow's former owner exonerated her from all blame in the matter, saying that "Rosie" was all right as a cow; but, of course, she was "no bloomin' refrigerator!"
There was only one day in the week when the Brydon brothers could work with any degree of enjoyment, and that was on Sunday, when there was the added zest of wickedness. To drive the oxen up and down the field in full view of an astonished and horrified neighborhood seemed to take away in large measure from the "beastliness of labor," and then, too, the Sabbath calm of the Black Creek valley seemed to stimulate their imagination as they discoursed loudly and elaborately on the present and future state of the oxen, consigning them without hope of release to the remotest and hottest corner of Gehenna. But the complacent old oxen, graduates in the school of hard knocks and mosquitoes, winked solemnly, switched their tails and drowsed along unmoved.
The sailors had been doing various odd jobs around the house on Sundays ever since they came, but had not worked openly until one particular Sunday in May. All day they hoped that someone would come and stop them from working, or at least beg of them to desist, but the hot afternoon wore away, and there was no movement around any of the houses on the plain. The guardian of the morals of the neighborhood, Mrs. Maggie Corbett, had taken notice of them all right, but she was a wise woman and did not use militant methods until she had tried all others; and she believed that she had other means of teaching the sailor twins the advantages of Sabbath observance.
About five o'clock the twins grew so uproariously hungry they were compelled to quit their labors, but when they reached their house they were horrified to find that a wandering dog, who also had no respect for the Sabbath, had depleted their "grub-box," overlooking nothing but the tea and sugar, which he had upset and spilled when he found he did not care to eat them.
Then it was the oxen's turn to laugh, for the twins' wrath was all turned upon each other. Everything that they had said about the oxen, it seemed, was equally true of each other—each of them had confidently expected the other one to lock the door.
There was nothing to do but to go across to the Black Creek Stopping- House for supplies. Mrs. Corbett baked bread for them each week.
Reginald, with a gun on his shoulder, and rolling more than ever in his walk, strolled into the kitchen of the Stopping-House and made known his errand. He also asked for the loan of a neck-yoke, having broken his in a heated argument with the "starboard" ox.
Mrs. Corbett, with a black dress and white apron on, sat, with folded hands, in the rocking-chair. "Da" Corbett, with his "other clothes" on and his glasses far down on his nose, sat in another rocking-chair reading the life of General Booth. Peter Rockett, the chore boy, in a clean pair of overalls, and with hair-oil on his hair, sat on the edge of the wood-box twanging a Jew's-harp, and the tune that he played bore a slight resemblance to "Pull for the Shore."
Randolph felt the Sunday atmosphere, but, nevertheless, made known his errand.
"The bread is yours," said Mrs. Corbett, sternly; "you may have it, but I can't bake any more for you!"
"W'y not?" asked Reginald, feeling all at once hungrier than ever.
"Of course I am not saying you can help it," Mrs. Corbett went on, ignoring his question. "I suppose, maybe, you do the best you can. I believe everybody does, if we only knew it, and you haven't had a very good chance either, piratin' among the black heathen in the islands of the sea; but the Bible speaks plain, and old Captain Coombs often told us not to be unequally yoked with unbelievers, and I can't encourage Sunday-breakin' by cookin' for them that do it!"
"We weren't breakin', really we were only back-settin'," interposed Reginald, quickly.
"I don't wish to encourage Sabbath-breakin'," repeated Mrs. Corbett, raising her voice a little to prevent interruptions, "by bakin' for people who do it, or neighborin' with people who do it. Of course there are some who say that the amount of work that you and your brother do any day would not break the Sabbath." Here she looked hard at her man, John Corbett, who stirred uneasily. "But there is no mistakin' your meanin', and besides," Mrs. Corbett went on, "we have others besides ourselves to think of—there's the child," indicating the lanky Peter Rockett.
The "child" thus alluded to closed one eye—the one farthest from Mrs. Corbett—for a fraction of a second, and kept on softly teasing the Jew's-harp.
"Now you need not glare at me so fierce, you twin." Mrs. Corbett's voice was still full of Sunday calm. "I do not know which one of you you are, but anyway what I say applies to you both. Now take that look off your face and stay and eat. I'll send something home to your other one, too."
Having delivered her ultimatum on the subject of Sunday work, Mrs. Corbett became quite genial. She heaped Reginald's plate with cold chicken and creamed potatoes, and, mellowed by them and the comfort of her well-appointed table, he was prepared to renounce the devil and all his works if Mrs. Corbett gave the order.
THE SAILORS' REST.
When Reginald reached home he found his brother in a state of mind bordering on frenzy, but when he shoved the basket which Mrs. Corbett had filled for him toward Randolph with the unnecessary injunction to "stow it in his hold," the lion's mouth was effectively closed. When he had finished the last crumb Reginald told him Mrs. Corbett's decree regarding Sunday work, and found that Randolph was prepared to abstain from all forms of labor on all days in the week if she wished it.
That night, after the twins had washed the accumulated stock of dishes, and put patches on their overalls with pieces of canvas and a sail needle, and performed the many little odd jobs which by all accepted rules of ethics belong to Sunday evening's busy work, they sat beside the fire and indulged in great depression of spirits!
"She can't live forever," Reginald broke out at last with apparent irrelevance. But there was no irrelevance—his remark was perfectly in order.
He was referring to a dear aunt in Bournemouth. This lady, who was possessed of "funds," had once told her loving nephews—the twins—that if they would go away and stay away she might—do something for them— by and by. She had urged them so strongly to go to Canada that they could not, under the circumstances, do otherwise. Aunt Patience Brydon shared the delusion that is so blissfully prevalent among parents and guardians of wayward youth in England, that to send them to Canada will work a complete reformation, believing that Canada is a good, kind wilderness where iced tea is the strongest drink known, and where no more exciting game than draughts is ever played.
Aunt Patience, though a frail-looking little white-haired lady, had, it seemed, a wonderful tenacity of life.
"She'll slip her cable some day," Reginald declared soothingly. "She can't hold out much longer—you know the last letter said she was failin' fast."
"Failin' fast!" Randolph broke in impatiently. "It's us that's failin' fast! And maybe when we've waited and waited, and stayed away for 'er, she'll go and leave it all to some Old Cats' 'Ome or Old Hens' Roost, or some other beastly charity. I don't trust 'er—'any woman that 'olds on to life the way she does—'er with one foot in the grave, and 'er will all made and everything ready."
"Well, she can't last always," Reginald declared, holding firmly to this one bit of comfort.
The next news they got from Bournemouth was positively alarming! She was getting better. Then the twins lost hope entirely and decided to treat Aunt Patience as one already dead—figuratively speaking, to turn her picture to the wall.
"Let her live as long as she likes," Reginald declared, "if she's so jolly keen on it!"
When they decided to trust no more to the deceitfulness of woman they turned to another quarter for help, for they were, at this time, "uncommonly low in funds."
It was Randolph who got the idea, one day when he was sitting on the plow handle lighting his pipe.
"Wot's the matter with us gettin' out Fred for our farm pupil? He's got some money—they say he married a rich man's daughter—and we've got the experience!"
"He's only a 'alf-brother!" said Reginald, at last, reflectively.
"That don't matter one bit to me," declared Randolph, generously, "I'll treat him just the same as I would you!"
Reginald shrugged his shoulders eloquently.
"What about his missus?" asked Reginald, after a silence.
"She can come," Randolph said, magnanimously. "We'll build a piece to the house."
The more they talked about it the more enthusiastic they became. Under the glow of this new project they felt they could hurl contempt on Aunt Patience and her unnatural hold on life.
"I don't know but what I would rather take 'elp from the livin' than the dead, anyway," Reginald said, virtuously, that night before they went to bed.
"They're more h'apt to ask it back, just the same," objected Randolph.
"I was just goin' to say," Reginald began again, "that I'd just as soon take 'elp from the livin' as the dead, especially when there ain't no dead!"
They began at once to write letters to their long-neglected brother Fred, enthusiastically setting forth the charms of this new country. They dwelt on the freedom of the life, the abundance of game, and the view! They made a great deal of the view, and certainly there was nothing to obstruct it, for the prairie lay a dead level for ten miles north of them, only dotted here and there with little weather-bleached warts of houses like their own, where other optimists were trying to make a dint in the monotony.
The letters which went east every mail were splendid productions in their way, written with ease and eloquence, and utterly untrammeled by any regard for facts.
Their brother responded just as they hoped he would, and the twins were greatly delighted with the success of their plan.
Events of which the twins knew nothing favored their project and made Fred and his wife glad to leave Toronto. Evelyn Grant had bitterly estranged her father by marrying against his wishes. So the proposal from Randolph and Reginald that they come West and take the homestead near them seemed to offer an escape from much that was unpleasant. Besides, it was just at the time when so many people were hearing the call of the West.
At the suggestion of his brothers, Fred sent in advance the money to build a house on his homestead. But the twins, not wishing to make any mistake, or to have any misunderstanding with Fred, built it right beside their own. Fred sent enough money to have a frame building put up but the twins decided that logs were more romantic and cheaper. It was a remarkable structure when they were through with it, stuck against their own house, as if by accident, and resembling in its irregularity the growth of a freak potato. Cables were freely used; binder twine served as hinges on the doors and also as latches.
They gave as a reason for sticking the new part against their own irregularly that they intended to use the alcoves for verandahs!
They agreed to put in Fred's crop for him—for a consideration; to put up hay; to buy oxen. Indeed, so many kindly offices did they agree to perform for him that Fred had advanced them, in all, nearly two thousand dollars.
The preparations were watched with great interest by the neighbors, and the probable outcome of it all was often a topic of conversation at the Black Creek Stopping-House.
June in Manitoba, when the tender green of grass and leaf is bathed in the sparkling sunshine; when the first wild roses are spilling their perfume on the air, and the first orange lilies are lifting their glad faces to the sun; when the prairie chicken, intent on family cares, runs cautiously beside the road, and the hermit thrushes from the thickets drive their sweet notes into the quiet evening. It is a time to remember lovingly and with sweet gratitude; a time when the love of the open prairie overtakes us, and binds us fast in golden fetters. There is no hint of the cruel winter that is waiting just around the corner, or of the dull autumn drizzle closer still; there is nothing but peace and warmth and beauty.
As the old "Cheyenne," the only sidewheeler on the Assiniboine, churning the muddy water into creamy foam, made its way to the green shore at Curry's Landing, Fred and Evelyn Brydon, standing on the narrow deck, felt the grip of the place and the season. Even the captain's picturesque language, as he directed the activities of the "rousters" who pulled the boat ashore, seemed less like profanity and more like figure of speech.
The twins had made several unfruitful journeys to the Landing for their brother and his wife, for they began to go two days before the "Cheyenne" was expected, and had been going twice a day since, all of which had been carefully entered in their account book!
Their appearance as they stood on the shore, sneering at the captain's directions to his men from the superior height of their nautical experience, was warlike in the extreme, although they were clothed in the peaceful overalls and smock of the farmer and also had submitted to a haircut at the earnest instigation of Mrs. Corbett, who threatened to cut off all bread-making unless her wishes were complied with!
Evelyn, who had never seen her brothers-in-law, looked upon them now in wonder, and she could see their appearance was somewhat of a surprise to Fred, who had not seen them for many years, and who remembered them only as the heroes of his childhood days.
They greeted Fred hilariously, but to his wife they spoke timidly, for, brave as they were in facing Spanish pirates, they were timid to the point of flight in the presence of women.
As they drove home in the high-boxed wagon, the twins endeavored to keep up the breezy enthusiasm that had characterized their letters. They raved about the freedom of the West; they went into fresh raptures over the view, and almost deranged their respiratory organs in their praises of the air. They breathed in deep breaths of the ambient atmosphere, chewed it up with loud smacks of enjoyment, and then blew it out, snorting like whales. Evelyn, who was not without a sense of humor, would have enjoyed it all, and laughed at them, even if she could not laugh with them, if she could have forgotten that they were her husband's brothers, but it is very hard to see the humorous in the grotesque behavior of those to whom we are "bound by the ties of duty," if not affection.
A good supper at the Black Creek Stopping-House and the hearty hospitality of Mrs. Corbett restored Evelyn's good spirits. She noticed, too, that the twins tamed down perceptibly in Mrs. Corbett's presence.
Mrs. Corbett insisted on Fred and his wife spending the night at the Stopping-House.
"Don't go to your own house until morning," she said. "Things look a lot different when the sun is shining, and out here, you see, Mrs. Fred, we have to do without and forget so many things that we bank a lot on the sun. You people who live in cities, you've got gas and big lamps, and I guess it doesn't bother you much whether the sun rises or doesn't rise, or what he does, you're independent; but with us it is different. The sun is the best thing we've got, and we go by him considerable. Providence knows how it is with us, and lets us have lots of the sun, winter and summer."
Evelyn gladly consented to stay.
Mrs. Corbett, observing Evelyn's soft white hands, decided that she was not accustomed to work, and the wonder of how it would all turn out was heavy upon her kind Irish heart as she said goodbye to her next morning.
A big basket of bread and other provisions was put into the wagon at the last minute. "Maybe your stove won't be drawin' just right at the first," said Maggie Corbett, apologetically. As she watched Evelyn's hat of red roses fading in the distance she said softly to herself: "Sure I do hope it's true that He tempers the wind to the shorn lamb, tho' there's some that says that ain't in the Bible at all. But it sounds nice and kind anyway, and yon poor lamb needs all the help He can give her. Him and me, we'll have to do the best we can for her!"
Mrs. Corbett went over to see her new neighbor two or three days after. In response to her knock on the rough lumber door, a thin little voice called to her to enter, which she did.
On the bare floor stood an open trunk from which a fur-trimmed pale pink opera cloak hung carelessly. Beside the trunk in an attitude of homesickness huddled the young woman, hair dishevelled, eyes red. Her dress of green silk, embroidered stockings and beaded slippers looked out of place and at variance with her primitive surroundings.
When Mrs. Corbett entered the room she sprang up hastily and apologized for the untidiness of her house. She chattered gaily to hide the trouble in her face, and Mrs. Corbett wisely refrained from any apparent notice of her tears, and helped her to unpack her trunks and set the house to rights.
Mrs. Corbett showed her how to make a combined washstand and clothes press out of two soap boxes, how to make a wardrobe out of the head of the bed, and set the twin sailors at the construction of a cookhouse where the stove could be put.
When Mrs. Corbett left that afternoon it was a brighter and more liveable dwelling. Coming home along the bank of Black Creek, she was troubled in mind and heart for her new neighbor.
"This is June," she said to herself, "and wild roses are crowdin' up to her door, and the meadow larks are sittin' round all over blinkin' at the sun, and she has her man with her, and she ain't tired with the work, and her hands ain't cracked and sore, and she hasn't been there long enough to dislike the twins the way she will when she knows them better, and there's no mosquitoes, and she hasn't been left to stay alone, and still she cries! God help us! What will she do in the long drizzle in the fall, when the wheat's spoilin' in the shock maybe, and the house is dark, and her man's away—what will she do?"
Mrs. Brydon spent many happy hours that summer at the Stopping-House, and soon Mrs. Corbett knew all the events of her past life; the sympathetic understanding of the Irish woman made it easy for her to tell many things. Her mother had died when she was ten years old, and since then she had been her father's constant companion until she met Fred Brydon.
She could not understand, and so bitterly resented, her father's dislike of Fred, not knowing that his fond old heart was torn with jealousy. She and her father were too much alike to ever arrive at an understanding, for both were proud and quick-tempered and imperious, and so each day the breach grew wider. Just a word, a caress, an assurance from her that she loved him still, that the new love had not driven out the old, would have set his heart at rest, but with the cruel thoughtlessness of youth she could see only one side of the affair, and that her own.
At last she ran away and was married to the young man, whom her father had never allowed her to bring to see him, and the proud old man was left alone in his dreary mansion, brooding over what he called the heartlessness of his only child.
Mrs. Corbett, with her quick understanding, was sorry for both of them, and at every opportunity endeavored to turn Evelyn's thoughts towards home. Once, at her earnest appeal, after she had got the young woman telling her about how kind her father had been to her when her mother died, Evelyn consented to write him a letter, but when it was finished, with a flash of her old imperious pride, she tore it across and flung the pieces on the floor, then hastily gathered them up and put them in the stove.
One half sheet of the letter did not share the fate of the remainder, for Mrs. Corbett intercepted it and hastily hid it in her apron pocket. She might need it, she thought.
THE PRAIRIE CLUB-HOUSE.
The tender green of the early summer deepened and ripened into the golden tinge of autumn as over the Black Creek Valley the mantle of harvest was spread.
Only a small portion of the valley was under cultivation, for the oldest settler had been in only for three years; but it seemed as if every grain sowed had fallen upon good soil and gave promise of the hundredfold.
Across John Corbett's ten acres of wheat and forty acres of oats the wind ran waves of shadow all day long, and the pride of the land-owner thrilled Maggie Corbett's heart over and over again.
Not that the lady of the Stopping-House took the time to stand around and enjoy the sensation, for the busy time was coming on and many travellers were moving about and must be fed. But while she scraped the new potatoes with lightning speed, or shelled the green peas, all of her own garden, her thoughts were full of that peace and reverent gratitude that comes to those who plant the seed and see it grow.
It was a glittering day in early August; a light shower the night before had washed the valley clean of dust, and now the hot harvest sun poured down his ripening rays over the pulsating earth. To the south the Brandon Hills shimmered in a pale gray mirage. Over the trees which sheltered the Stopping-House a flock of black crows circled in the blue air, croaking and complaining that the harvest was going to be late. On the wire-fence that circled the haystack sat a row of red-winged blackbirds like a string of jet beads, patiently waiting for the oats to ripen and indulging in low-spoken but pleasant gossip about all the other birds in the valley.
Within doors Mrs Corbett served dinner to a long line of stoppers. Many of the "boys" she had not seen since the winter before, and while she worked she discussed neighborhood matters with them, the pleasing sizzle of eggs frying on a hot pan making a running accompaniment to her words.
The guests at Mrs. Corbett's table were a typical pioneer group— homesteaders, speculators, machine men journeying through the country to sell machinery to harvest the grain not yet grown; the farmer has ever been well endowed with hope, and the machine business flourishes.
Mrs. Corbett could talk and work at the same time, her sudden disappearances from the room as she replenished the table merely serving as punctuation marks, and not interfering with the thread of the story at all.
When she was compelled by the exigencies of the case to be present in the kitchen, and therefore absent in the dining-room, she merely elevated her voice to overcome distance, and dropped no stitch in the conversation.
"New neighbor, is it, you are sayin', Tom? 'Deed and I have, and her the purtiest little trick you ever saw—diamond rings on her, and silk skirts, and plumes on her hat, and hair as yalla as gold."
"When she comes over here I can't be doin' my work for lookin' at her. She was brought up with slathers of money." This came back from the "cheek of the dure", where Mrs. Corbett was emptying the tea leaves from the teapot. "But the old man, beyant, ain't been pleased with her since she married this Fred chap—he wouldn't ever look at Fred, nor let him come to the house, and so she ran away with him, and no one could blame her either for that, and now her and the old man don't write at all, at all—reach me the bread plate in front of you there, Jim—and there's bad blood between them. I can see, though, her and the old man are fond o' one another!"
"Is her man anything like the twin pirates?" asked Sam Moggey from Oak Creek; "because if he is I don't blame the old man for being mad about it." Sam was helping himself to another quarter of vinegar pie as he spoke.
Mrs. Corbett could not reply for a minute, for she was putting a new bandage on Jimmy MacCaulay's finger, and she had the needle and thread in her mouth.
"Not a bit like them, Sam," she said, as soon as she had the bandage in place, and as she put in quick stitches; "no more like them than day is like night—he's only a half-brother, and a lot younger. He's a different sort altogether from them two murderin' villains that sits in the house all day playin' cards. He's a good, smart fellow, and has done a lot of breakin' and cleanin' up since he came. What he thinks of the other two lads I don't know—she never says, but I'd like fine to know."
"Sure, you'll soon know then, Maggie," said "Da" Corbett, bringing in another platter of bacon and eggs and refilling the men's plates. "Don't worry."
In the laugh that followed Maggie Corbett joined as heartily as any of them.
"Go 'long with you, Da!" she cried; "sure you're just as anxious as I am to know. We all think a lot of Fred and Mrs. Fred," she went on, bringing in two big dishes of potatoes; "and if you could see that poor, precious lamb trying to cook pork and beans with a little wisp of an apron on, all lace and ribbons, and big diamonds on her fingers, you'd be sorry for her, and you'd say, 'What kind of an old tyrant is the old man down beyant, and why don't he take her and Fred back?' It's not wrastlin' round black pots she should be, and she's never been any place all summer only over here, for they've only the oxen, and altho' she never says anything, I'll bet you she'd like a bit of a drive, or to get out to some kind of a-doin's, or the like of that."
While Mrs. Corbett gaily rattled on there was one man at her table who apparently took no notice of what she said.
He was a different type of man from all the others. Dark complexioned, with swarthy skin and compelling black eyes, he would be noticeable in any company. He was dressed in the well-cut clothes of a city man, and carried himself with a certain air of distinction.
Happening to notice the expression on his face, Mrs. Corbett suddenly changed the conversation, and during the remainder of the meal watched him closely with a puzzled and distrustful look.
When the men had gone that day and John Corbett came in to have his afternoon rest on the lounge in the kitchen, he found Maggie in a self- reproachful mood.
"Da," she began, "the devil must have had a fine laugh to himself when he saw the Lord puttin' a tongue in a woman's head. Did ye hear me to-day, talking along about that purty young thing beyant, and Rance Belmont takin' in every word of it? Sure and I never thought of him bein' here until I noticed the look on that ugly mug of his, and mind you, Da, there's people that call him good-lookin' with that heavy jowl of his and the hair on him growin' the wrong way on his head, and them black eyes of his the color of the dirt in the road. They do say he's just got a bunch of money from the old country, and he's cuttin' a wide swath with it. If I'd kept me mouth shut he'd have gone on to Brandon and never knowed a word about there being a purty young thing near. But I watched him hitchin' up, and didn't he drive right over there; and I tell you, Da, he means no good."
"Don't worry, Maggie," John Corbett said, soothingly. "He can't pick her up and run off with her. Mrs. Fred's no fool."
"He's a divil!" Maggie declared with conviction. "Mind you, Da, there ain't many that can put the comaudher on me, but Rance Belmont done it once."
Mr. Corbett looked up with interest and waited for her to speak.
"It was about the card-playin'. You know I've never allowed a card in me house since I had a house, and never intended to, but the last day Rance Belmont was here—that was away last spring, when you were away— he begins to play with one of the boys that was in for dinner. Right in there on the sewin'-machine in plain sight of all of us I saw them, and I wiped me hands and tied up me apron, and I walked in, and says I, 'I'll be obliged to you, Mr. Belmont, to put them by,' and I looked at him, stiff as pork. 'Why, certainly, Mrs. Corbett,' says he, smilin' at me as if I had said somethin' pleasant. I felt a little bit ashamed, and went on to sort of explain about bein' brought up in the Army and all that, and he talked so nice about the Army that you would have thought it was old Major Morris come back again from the dead, and pretty soon he had me talkin' away to him and likin' him; and says he, 'I was just going to show Jimmy here a funny trick that can be done with cards, but,' says he, 'if Mrs. Corbett objects I wouldn't offend her for the world!' Now here's the part that scares me, Da—me, Maggie Murphy, that hates cards like I do the divil; says I to him, 'Oh, go on, Mr. Belmont; I don't mind at all!' Now what do you think of that, Da?"
John Corbett sat thinking, but he was not thinking of what Maggie thought he was thinking. He was wondering what trick it was that Rance Belmont had showed Jimmy Peters!
When Fred Brydon made the discovery that his two brothers spent a great deal of their time in the pleasant though unprofitable occupation of card-playing with two or three of the other impecunious young men of the neighborhood, he remonstrated with them on this apparent waste of time. When he later discovered that they were becoming so engrossed in the game that they had but little time to plant, sow or reap, or do any of the things incidental to farm life, he became very indignant indeed.
The twins naturally resented any such interference from their farm pupil. They told him that he was there to learn farming, and not to give advice to his elders.
Nearly everyone agrees that card playing is a pleasant and effective way of killing time for people who wait for a long delayed train at a lonely wayside station. This is exactly the position in which the twins found themselves. So, while Aunt Patience, of Bournemouth, tarried and procrastinated, her loving nephews across the sea, thinking of her night and day, waited with as good grace as they could and played the game!
Unlike the twins, Fred Brydon liked hard work, and applied himself with great energy to the work of the farm, determined to disprove his angry father-in-law's words that he would never make a success of anything.
The fact that the twins were playing for money gave Fred some uneasy moments, and the uncomfortable suspicion that part of his money was being used in this way kept growing upon him.
He did not mention any of these things to Evelyn, for he knew it was hard for her to keep up friendly relations with Reginald and Randolph, and he did not want to say anything that would further predispose her against them.
However, Evelyn, with some of her father's shrewdness, was arriving at a very correct estimate of the twins without any help from anyone.
The twins had enjoyed life much better since the coming of their brother and his wife. They quite enjoyed looking out of the fly-specked window at their brother at work with the oxen in the fields. Then, too, the many flattering remarks made by their friends in regard to their sister-in-law's beauty were very grateful to their ears.
One day, in harvest time, when something had gone wrong with their binder, and Fred had sent to Brandon for a new knotter, the twins refused to pay for it when it came, telling him that he could pay for it himself. Fred paid for it and worked all afternoon without saying anything, but that evening he came into their part of the house and told them he wanted a detailed statement of how his money had been spent.
The twins were thoroughly hurt and indignant. Did he think they had cheated him? And they asked each other over and over again, "Did anybody ever hear of such ingratitude?"
The next day Evelyn made a remark which quite upset them. She told them that if Fred did all the work he should have more than half the crop.
The twins did not like these occurrences. Instinctively they felt that a storm was coming. They began to wonder what would be the best way to avoid trouble.
The prairie-dwellers have a way of fighting a prairie fire which is very effective. When they see the blue veil of smoke lying close to the horizon, or the dull red glare on the night sky, they immediately start another fire to go out and meet the big fire!
Some such thought as this was struggling in the twins' brains the day that Rance Belmont came over from the Stopping-House, and in his graceful way asked Mrs. Brydon to go driving with him, an invitation which Fred urged her to accept. When the drive was over and Rance came in to the twins' apartments, and on their invitation had a game with them and lost, they were suddenly smitten with an idea. They began to see how it might be possible to start another fire!
LADIES' DAY AT THE STOPPING-HOUSE.
The glory of the summer paled and faded; the crimson and gold of the harvest days had fled before the cold winds of autumn, and now the trees along the bank of the creek stood leafless and bare, trembling and swaying as if in dread of the long winter that would soon be upon them. The harvest had been cut and gathered in, and now, when the weather was fine, the industrious hum of the threshing-machine came on the wind for many miles, and the column of blue smoke which proclaimed the presence of a "mill" shot up in all directions.
At the Black Creek Stopping-House the real business of the year had begun, for every day heavily-loaded wheat wagons wound slowly over the long trail on their way to Brandon, and the Stopping-House became the foregathering place of all the farmers in the settlement. At noon the stable yard presented a lively appearance as the "boys" unhitched their steaming teams and led them to the long, straggling straw-roofed stables. The hay that John Corbett had cut on the meadows of Black Creek and stacked beside the stables was carried in miniature stacks which completely hid the man who carried them into the mangers, while the creaking windlass of the well proclaimed that the water-troughs were being filled. The cattle who foraged through the straw stack in the field near by always made the mistake of thinking that they were included in the invitation, much to the disgust of Peter Rockett, the chore boy, who drove them back with appropriate remarks.
Inside of the Stopping-House the long dining-room, called "the room," was a scene of great activity. The long oilcloth-covered table down the centre of the "room" was full of smoking dishes of potatoes and ham and corned beef, and piled high with bread and buns; tin teapots were at each end of the table and were passed from hand to hand. There were white bowls filled with stewed prunes and apricots and pitchers of "Goldendrop" syrup at intervals down the table.
Table etiquette was fairly well observed—the person who took the last of the potatoes was in duty bound to take the dish out to the kitchen and replenish it from the black pot which stood on its three legs on the back of the kitchen stove. The same rule applied to the tea and the bread. Also when one had finished his meal the correct plan of procedure was to gather up his plate, knife and fork and cup and saucer and carry them out to the kitchen, where Mrs. Corbett or Peter Rockett hastily washed them to be ready for the next one.
When entering the Black Creek dining-room with the purpose of having a meal there were certain small conventions to be observed. If a place was already set, the newcomer could with impunity sit down and proceed with the order of business; if there was no place set, but room for a place to be set, the hungry one came out to the kitchen and selected what implements he needed in the way of plate and knife and proceeded to the vacancy; if there was not a vacant place at the table, the newcomer retired to the window and read the Northern Messenger or the War Cry, which were present in large numbers on the sewing-machine. But before leaving the table conversation zone, it was considered perfectly legitimate to call out in a loud voice: "Some eat fast, some eat long, and some eat both ways," or some such bright and felicitous remark. It was a bitter cold day in November—one of those dark, cold days with a searching wind, just before the snow comes. In Mrs. Corbett's kitchen there was an unusual bustle and great excitement, for the women from the Tiger Hills were there—three of them on their way to Brandon. Mrs. Corbett said it always made her nervous to cook for women. You can't fool them on a bad pudding by putting on a good sauce, the way you can a man. But Mrs. Corbett admitted it was good to see them anyway.
There was Mrs. Berry and her sister, Miss Thornley, and Mrs. Smith. They had ridden fifteen miles on a load of wheat, and had yet another fifteen to go to reach their destination. In spite of a long, cold and very slow ride, the three ladies were in splendid condition, and as soon as they were thawed out enough to talk, and long before their teeth stopped chattering, they began to ask about Mrs. Corbett's neighbor, young Mrs. Brydon, in such a way, that, as Mrs. Corbett afterwards explained to Da Corbett, "you could tell they had heard something."
"Our lads saw her over at the Orangemen's ball in Millford, and they said Rance Belmont was with her more than her own man," said Mrs. Berry, as she melted the frost from her eyebrows by holding her face over the stove.
"Oh, well," Mrs. Corbett said, "I guess all the young fellows were makin' a lot of her, but sure there's no harm in that."
Miss Thornley was too busy examining her feet for possible frostbites to give in her contribution just then, but after she had put her coldest foot in a wash-basin of water she said, "I don't see how any woman can go the length of her toe with Rance Belmont, but young Mrs. Brydon went to Brandon with him last week, for my sister's husband heard it from somebody that had seen them. I don't know how she can do it."
Mrs. Corbett was mashing potatoes with a gem-jar, and without stopping her work she said: "Oh, well, Miss Thornley, it's easy for you and me to say we would not go out with Rance Belmont, but maybe that's mostly because we have never had the chance. He's got a pretty nice way with him, Rance has, and I guess if he came along now with his sorrel pacer and says to you, 'Come on, Miss Thornley,' you would get on that boot and stocking in two jiffies and be off with him like any young girl!"
Miss Thornley mumbled a denial, and an angry light shone in her pale blue eyes.
Mrs. Smith was also full of the subject, and while she twisted her hair into a small "nub" about the size, shape and color of a peanut, she expressed her views.
"It ain't decent for her to be goin' round with Rance Belmont the way she does, and they say at the dance at Millford she never missed a dance. Since Rance has got his money from England he hasn't done a thing but play cards with them twins and take her round. I don't see how her man can put up with it, but he's an awful easy-goin' chap—just the kind that wouldn't notice anything wrong until he'd come home some night and find her gone. I haven't one bit of respect for her."
"Oh, now, Mrs. Smith, you're too hard on her. She's young and pretty and likes a good time." Mrs. Corbett was giving her steel knives a quick rub with ashes out of deference to the lady stoppers. "It's easy enough for folks like us," waving her knife to include all present, "to be very respectable and never get ourselves talked about, for nobody's askin' us to go to dances or fly around with them, but with her it's different. Don't be hard on her! She ain't goin' to do anything she shouldn't."
But the ladies were loath to adopt Mrs. Corbett's point of view. All their lives nothing had happened, and here was a deliciously exciting possible scandal, and they clung to it.
"They say the old man Grant is nearly a millionaire, and he's getting lonely for her, and is pretty near ready to forgive her and Fred and take them back. Wouldn't it be awful if the old man should come up here and find she'd gone with Rance Belmont?"
Mrs. Berry looked anxiously around the kitchen as if searching for the lost one.
"Oh, don't worry," declared Mrs. Corbett; "she ain't a quitter. She'll stay with her own man; they're happy as ever I saw two people."
"If she did go," Miss Thornley said, sentimentally, "if she did go, do you suppose she'd leave a note pinned on the pin-cushion? I think they mostly do!"
When the ladies had gone that afternoon, and while Mrs. Corbett washed the white ironstone dishes, she was not nearly so composed and confident in mind as she pretended to be.
"Don't it beat the band how much they find out? I often wonder how things get to be known. I do wish she wouldn't give them the chance to talk, but she's not the one that will take tellin'—too much like her father for that—and still I kind o' like her for her spunky ways. Rance is a divil, but she don't know that. It is pretty hard to tell what ought to be done. This is surely work for the Almighty, and not for sinful human beings!"
That night Mrs. Corbett took her pen in hand. Mrs. Corbett was more at home with the potato-masher or the rolling-pin, but when duty called her she followed, even though it involved the using of unfamiliar tools.
She wrote a lengthy letter to Mr. Robert Grant, care of The Imperial Lumber Company, Toronto, Ontario:
"Dear and respected sir," Mrs. Corbett wrote, "I take my pen in hand to write you a few things that maybe you don't know but ought to know, and to tell you your daughter is well, but homesick sometimes hoping that you are enjoying the same blessings as this leaves us at present. Your daughter is my neighbor and a blessed girl she is, and it is because I love her so well that I am trying to write to you now, not being handy at it, as you see; also my pen spits. As near as I can make out you and her's cut off the same cloth; both of you are touchy and quick, and, if things don't suit you, up and coming. But she's got a good heart in her as ever I see. One day she told me a lot about how good you were to her when her mother died, and about the prayer her mother used to tell her to say: 'Help papa and mamma and Evelyn to be chums.' When she came to that she broke right down and cried, and says she to me, 'I haven't either of them now!' If you'd a-seen her that day you'd have forgot everything only that she was your girl. Then she sat down and wrote you a long letter, but when she got done didn't she tear it up, because she said you told her you wouldn't read her letters. I saved a bit of the letter for you to see, and here it is. We don't any of us see what made you so mad at the man she got—he's a good fellow, and puts up with all her high temper. She's terrible like yourself, excuse me for saying so and meaning no harm. If she'd married some young scamp that was soaked in whiskey and cigarettes you'd a-had something to kick about. I don't see what you find in him to fault. Maybe you'll be for telling me to mind my own business, but I am not used to doing that, for I like to take a hand any place I see I can do any good, and if I was leaving my girl fretting and lonely all on account of my dirty temper, both in me and in her, though for that she shouldn't be blamed, I'd be glad for someone to tell me. If you should want to send her a Christmas present, and she says you never forgot her yet, come yourself. It's you she's fretting for. You can guess it's lonely for her here when I tell you she and me's the only women in this neighborhood, and I keep a stopping-house, and am too busy feeding hungry men to be company for anyone.
"Hoping these few lines will find you enjoying the same blessings,
The writing of the letter took Mrs. Corbett the greater part of the afternoon, but when it was done she felt a great weight had been lifted from her heart. She set about her preparations for the evening meal with more than usual speed.
Going to the door to call Peter Rockett, she was surprised to see Rance Belmont, with his splendid sorrel pacer, drive into the yard. He came into the house a few minutes afterwards and seemed to be making preparations to stay for supper.
A sudden resolve was formed in Mrs. Corbett's mind as she watched him hanging up his coat and making a careful toilet at the square looking- glass which hung over the oilcloth-covered soap box on which stood the wash-basin and soap saucer. She called to him to come into the pantry, and while she hurriedly peeled the potatoes she plunged at once into the subject.
"Rance," she began, "you go to see Mrs. Brydon far too often, and people are talking about it."
Rance shrugged his shoulders.
"Now, don't tell me you don't care, or that it's none of my business, though that may be true."
"I would never be so lacking in politeness, however true it might be!" he answered, rolling a cigarette.
Mrs. Corbett looked at him a minute, then she broke out, "Oh, but you are the smooth-tongued gent!—you'd coax the birds off the bushes; but I want to tell you that you are not doing right hanging around Mrs. Brydon the way you do."
"Does she object?" he asked, in the same even tone, as he slowly struck a match on the sole of his boot.
"She's an innocent little lamb," Mrs. Corbett cried, "and she's lonely and homesick, and you've taken advantage of it. That poor lamb can't stand the prairie like us old pelters that's weatherbeaten and gray and toughened—she ain't made for it—she was intended for diamond rings and drawing-rooms, and silks and satins."
Rance Belmont looked at her, still smiling his inexplicable smile.
"I can supply them better than she is getting them now," he said.
Mrs. Corbett gave an exclamation of surprise.
"But she's a married woman," she cried, "and a good woman, and what are you, Rance? Sure you're no mate for any honest woman, you blackhearted, smooth-tongued divil!" Mrs. Corbett's Irish temper was mounting higher and higher, and two red spots burned in her cheeks. "You know as well as I do that there's no happiness for any woman that goes wrong. That woman must stand by her man, and he's a good fellow, Fred is; such a fine, clean, honest lad, he never suspects anyone of being a crook or meanin' harm. Why can't you go off and leave them alone, Rance? They were doin' fine before you came along. Do one good turn, Rance, and take yourself off."
"You ask too much, Mrs. Corbett. I find Mrs. Brydon very pleasant company, and Mr. Fred does not object to my presence."
"But he would if he knew how the people talk about it."
"That is very wrong of them, and entirely unavoidable," Rance answered, calmly, "But the opinion of the neighbors has never bothered me yet," he continued; "why should it in this instance?"
Mrs. Corbett's eyes flashed ominously.
"Do you know what I'd do if it was my girl you were after?" she asked, pausing in her work and fixing her eyes on him.
"Something very unpleasant, I should say, by the tone of your voice— and, by the way, you are pointing your potato knife at me—"
Mrs. Corbett with an effort controlled her temper.
"I believe, Mrs. Corbett, you would do me bodily injury. What a horrible thought, and you a former officer in the Salvation Army!" Rance was smiling again and enjoying the situation. "What a thrilling headline it would make for the Brandon Sun: 'The Black Creek Stopping-House scene of a brutal murder. Innocent young man struck down in his youth and beauty.' You make me shudder, Mrs. Corbett, but you look superb when you rage like that; really, you women interest me a great deal. I am so fond of all of you!"
"You're a divil, Rance!" Mrs. Corbett repeated again. "But you ain't goin' to do that blessed girl any harm—she's goin' to be saved from you some way."
"Who'll do it, I wonder?" Rance seemed to triumph over her.
"There is One," said Maggie Corbett, solemnly, "who comes to help when all other help fails."
"Who's that?" he asked, yawning.
Maggie Corbett held up her right hand.
"It is God!" she said slowly. Rance laughed indulgently. "A myth—a name—a superstition," he sneered; "there is no God any more."
"There is a God," she said, slowly and reverently, for she was Maggie Murphy now, back to the Army days when God walked with her day by day, "and He can hear a mother's prayer, and though I was never a mother after the flesh, I am a mother now to that poor girl in the place of the one that's gone, and I'm askin' Him to save her, and I've got me answer. He will do it."
There was a gleam in her eyes and a white glow in her face that made Rance Belmont for one brief moment tremble, but he lighted another cigarette and with a bow of exaggerated politeness left the room.
The days that followed were anxious ones for Mrs. Corbett. Many stoppers sat at her table as the Christmas season drew near, and many times she heard allusions to her young neighbor which filled her with apprehension. She had carefully counted the days that it would take her letter to reach its destination, and although there had been time for a reply, none came.
SHADOWS OF THE NIGHT.
It was a wind-swept, chilly morning in late November, and Evelyn Brydon, alone in the silent little house, stood at the window looking listlessly at the dull gray monochrome which stretched before her.
The unaccustomed housework had roughened and chapped her hands, and the many failures in her cooking experiments, in spite of Mrs, Corbett's instructions, had left her tired and depressed, for a failure is always depressing, even if it is only in the construction of the things which perish.
This dark morning it seemed to her that her life was as gray and colorless as the bleached-out prairie—the glamor had gone from everything.
She and Fred had had their first quarrel, and Fred had gone away dazed and hurt by the things she had said under the stress of her anger. He was at a loss to know what had gone wrong with Evelyn, for she had seemed quite contented all the time. He did not know how the many little annoyances had piled up on her; how the utter loneliness of the prairie, with its monotonous sweep of frost-killed grass, the deadly sameness, and the perpetual silence of the house, had so worked upon her mind that it required but a tiny spark to cause an explosion.
The spark he had supplied himself when he had tried to defend his brothers from her charges. All at once Evelyn felt herself grow cold with anger, and the uncontrolled hasty words, bitterer than anything she had ever thought, utterly unjust and cruel, sprang to her lips, and Fred, stung to the quick with the injustice of it, had gone away without a word.
It was with a very heavy heart that he went to his work that day; but he had to go, for he was helping one of the neighbors to thresh, and every dry day was precious, and every man was needed.
All day long Evelyn went about the house trying to justify herself. A great wave of self-pity seemed to be engulfing her and blotting out every worthier feeling.
The prairie was hateful to her that day, its dull gray stretches cruel and menacing, and a strange fear of it seemed to possess her.
All day she tried to busy herself about the house, but she worked to no purpose, taking up things and laying them down again, forgetting what she was going to do with them; strange whispering voices seemed to sound in the room behind her, trying to tell her something—to warn her—and it was in vain that she tried to shake off their influence. Once or twice she caught a glimpse of a black shadow over her shoulder, just a reflecting vanishing glimpse, and when she turned hastily round there was nothing there, but the voices, mocking and gibbering, were louder than ever.
She wished Fred would come. She would tell him that she hadn't meant what she said.
As the afternoon wore on, and Fred did not make his appearance, a sudden deadly fear came over her at the thought of staying alone. Of course the twins occupied the other half of the house, and to-night, at least, she was glad of their protection.
Suddenly it occurred to her that she had heard no sound from their quarters for a long time. She listened and listened, the silence growing more and more oppressive, until at last, overcoming her fears, she went around and tried the door. Even the voices of her much- despised brothers-in-law would be sweet music to her ears.
The door was locked and there was no response to her knocks.
An old envelope stuck in a sliver in the door bore the entry in lead- pencil, "Gone Duck Shooting to Plover Slough," for it was the custom of the twins to faithfully chronicle the cause of their absence and their probable location each time they left home, to make it easy to find them in the event of a cablegram from Aunt Patience's solicitors!
Evelyn turned away and ran back to her own part of the house. She hastily barred the door.
The short autumn day was soon over. The sun broke out from the dull gray mountain of clouds and threw a yellow glare on the colorless field. She stood by the window watching the light as it faded and paled and died, and then the shades of evening quickly gathered. Turning again to replenish the fire, the darkness of the room startled her. There was a shadow under the table like a cave's mouth. Unaccustomed sounds smote her ear; the logs in the house creaked uncannily, and when she walked across the floor muffled footfalls seemed to follow her.
She put more wood in the stove and tried to shake off the apprehensions which were choking her. She lit the lamp and hastily drew down the white cotton blind and pinned it close to keep out the great pitiless staring Outside, which seemed to be peering in at her with a dozen white, mocking, merciless faces.
In the lamp's dim light the shadows were blacker than ever; the big packing-box threw a shadow on the wall that was as black as the mouth of a tunnel in a mountain.
She noticed that her stock of wood was running low, and with a mighty effort of the will she opened the door to bring in some from a pile in the yard. Stopping a minute to muster up her courage, she waited at the open door. Suddenly the weird cry of a wolf came up from the creek bank, and it was a bitter, lonely, insistent cry.
She slammed the door, and coming back into the room, sank weak and trembling into a chair. A horror grew upon her until the beads of perspiration stood upon her face. Her hands grew numb and useless, and the skin of her head seemed stiff and frozen. Her ears were strained to catch any sound, and out of the silence there came many strange noises to torment her overstrained senses.
She thought of Mrs. Corbett at the Stopping-House, and tried to muster courage to walk the distance, but a terrible fear held her to the spot.
The fire died out, and the room grew colder and colder, but huddled in a chair in a panic of fear she did not notice the cold. Her teeth chattered; spots of light danced before her tightly-shut eyes. She did not know what she was afraid of; a terrible nameless fear seemed to be clutching at her very heart. It was the living, waking counterpart of the nightmare that had made horrible her childhood nights—a gripping, overwhelming fear of what might happen.
Suddenly something burst into the room—the terrible something that she had been waiting for. The silence broke into a thousand screaming voices. She slipped to the floor and cried out in an agony of terror.
There was a loud knocking on the door, and then through the horrible silence that followed there came a voice calling to her not to be afraid.
She staggered to the door and unbarred it, and heard someone speak again in blessed human voice.
The door opened, and she found herself looking into the face of Rance Belmont, and her fear-tortured eyes gave him a glad welcome.
She seized him by the arm, holding to him as a child fear-smitten in the night will hold fast to the one who comes in answer to his cries.
Rance Belmont knew how to make the most, yet not too much, of an advantage. He soothed her fears courteously, gently; he built up the fire; he made her a cup of tea; there was that strange and subtle influence in all that he said and did that made her forget everything that was unpleasant and be happy in his presence.
A perfect content grew upon her; she forgot her fears—her loneliness— her quarrel with Fred; she remembered only the happy company of the present.
Under the intoxication of the man's presence she ceased to be the tired, discouraged, irritable woman, and became once more the Evelyn Grant whose vivacity and wit had made her conspicuous in the brightest company.
She tried to remind herself of some of the unpleasant things that neighborhood gossip said of Rance Belmont—of Mrs. Corbett's dislike of him—but in the charm of his presence they all faded into vague unrealities.
There was flattery, clever, hidden flattery, which seemed like adoration, in every word he spoke, every tone of his voice, every glance of his coal-black eyes, that seemed in some way to atone for the long, gray, monotonous days that had weighed so heavily upon her spirits.
"Are you always frightened when you are left alone?" he asked her. Every word was a caress, the tone of his voice implying that she should never be left alone, the magnetism of his presence assuring her that she would never be left alone again.
"I was never left alone in the evening before," she said. "I thought I was very brave until to-night, but it was horrible—it makes me shudder to think of it."
"Don't think!" he said gently.
"Fred thought the twins would be here, I know, or he would not have stayed away," Evelyn said, wishing to do justice to Fred, and feeling indefinitely guilty about something.
"The twins are jolly good company,—oh, I say!" laughed Rance, in tones so like her brothers-in-law that Evelyn laughed delightedly. It was lovely to have someone to laugh with.
"But where are the heavenly twins to-night?"
"I suppose they saw a flock of ducks going over, or heard the honk-honk of wild geese," she answered. "It does not take much to distract them from labor—and they have a soul above it, you know."
Rance Belmont need not have asked her about the twins; he had met them on their way to the Plover Slough and had given Reginald the loan of his gun; he had learned from them that Fred, too, was away.
"But if dear Aunt Patience will only lift her anchor all will yet be well, and the dear twins will not need to be bothered with anything so beastly as farm-work." His tone and manner were so like the twins that Evelyn applauded his efforts. Then he told her the story of the cow, and of how the twins, endeavoring to follow the example of some of the Canadians whom they had seen locking their wagon-wheels with a chain when going down the Souris hill, had made a slight mistake in the location of the chain and hobbled the oxen, with disastrous results.
When he looked at his watch it was nine o'clock.
"I must go," he said, hastily rising; "it would hardly do for me to be found here!"
"What do you mean?" she asked in surprise.
"What do you suppose your husband would say if he came home and found me here?"
Evelyn flushed angrily.
"My husband has confidence in me," she answered proudly. "I don't know what he thinks of you, but I know what he thinks of me, and it would make no difference what company he found me in, he would never doubt me. I trust him in the same way. I would believe his word against that of the whole world."
She held her handsome head high when she said this.
Rance Belmont looked at her with a dull glow in his black eyes.
"I hope you are right," he said, watching the color coming in her face.
"I am right," she said after a pause, daring which she had looked at him defiantly. He was wise enough to see he had made a false move and had lost ground in her regard.
"I think you had better go," she said at last. "I do not like that insinuation of yours that your presence here might be misconstrued. Yes, I want you to go. I was glad to see you; I was never so glad to see anyone; I was paralyzed with fear; but now I am myself again, and I am sure Fred will come home."
There was a sneering smile on his face which she understood and resented.
"In that case I had better go," he said.
"That is not the reason I want you to go. I tell you again that Fred would not believe that I was untrue to him. He believes in me utterly." She drew herself up with an imperious gesture and added: "I am worthy of his trust."
Rance Belmont thought he had never seen her so beautiful.
"I will not leave you," he declared. "Forgive me for speaking as I did. I judged your husband by the standards of the world. I might have known that the man who won you must be different from other men. It was only for your sake that I said I must go. I care nothing for his fury. If it were the fury of a hundred men I would stay with you; just to be near you, to hear your sweet voice, to see you, is heaven to me."
Evelyn sprang to her feet indignantly as he arose and came towards her.
Just at that moment the door opened, and Fred Brydon, having heard the last words, stood face to face with them both!
HIS EVIL GENIUS.
When Fred Brydon went to his work that morning, smarting from the angry words that Evelyn had hurled at him, everyone he met noticed how gloomy and burdened he seemed to be; how totally unlike his former easy good- nature and genial cheerfulness was his strange air of reserve.
They thought they knew the cause, and told each other so when he was not listening.
When he came into the kitchen to wash himself at noon he heard one of the men say to another in an aside: "He'll be the last one to catch on."
He paid no particular attention to the sentence at the time, but it stuck in his memory.
The day was fine and dry, and the thresher was run at the top of its speed. One more day would finish the stacks, and as this was the last threshing to be done in the neighborhood, the greatest effort was put forth to finish it before the weather broke.
They urged him to stay the night—they would begin again at daylight— the weather was so uncertain.
He thought, of course, that the twins were safely at home, and Evelyn had often said that she was not afraid to stay. He had consented to stay, when all at once the weather changed.
The clouds had hung low and heavy all day, but after sundown a driving wind carrying stray flakes of snow began to whistle around the stacks. The air, too, grew heavy, and a feeling of oppression began to be evident.
The pigs ran across the yard carrying a mouthful of straw, and the cattle crowded into the sheds. Soon the ground was covered with loose snow, which began to whirl in gentle, playful eddies. The warmth of the air did not in any way deceive the experienced dwellers on the plain, who knew that the metallic whistle in the wind meant business.
The owner of the threshing machine covered it up with canvas, and all those who had been helping, as soon as they had supper, started to make the journey to their homes. It looked as if a real Manitoba blizzard was setting in.
In spite of the protestations of all the men, Fred did not wait for his supper, but set out at once on the three-mile walk home.
Evelyn's hasty words still stung him with the sense of failure and defeat. If Evelyn had gone back on him what good was anything to him?
Walking rapidly down the darkening trail, his thoughts were very bitter and self-reproachful; he had done wrong, he told himself, to bring her to such a lonely place—it would have been better for Evelyn if she had never met him—she had given up too much for his sake.
He noticed through the drifting storm that there was something ahead of him on the trail, and, quickening his steps, he was surprised to overtake his two brothers leisurely returning from their duck hunt.
"Why did you two fellows leave when you knew I was away? You know that Evelyn will be frightened to be left there all alone."
Instantly all his own troubles vanished at the thought of his wife left alone on the wide prairie.
His brothers strongly objected to his words.
"We don't 'ave to stay to mind 'er, do we?" sneered Reginald.
"Maybe she ain't alone, either," broke in Randolph, seeing an opportunity to turn Fred's wrath in another direction.
"What are you driving at?" asked Fred in surprise.
"Maybe Rance Belmont has dropped in again to spend the evenin'—he usually does when you're away!"
"You lie!" cried Fred, angrily.
"We ain't lyin'," declared Randolph. "Everybody knows it only you."
The words were no sooner said than Fred fell upon him like a madman. Randolph roared lustily for help, and Reginald valiantly strove to save him from Fred's fury. But they retreated before him as he rained his blows upon them both.
Then Reginald, finding that he was no match for Fred in open conflict, dodged around behind him, and soon a misty dizziness in his head told Fred that he had been struck by something heavier than hands. There was a booming in his ears and he fell heavily to the road.
The twins were then thoroughly frightened. Here was a dreadful and unforeseen possibility.
They stood still to consider what was to be done.
"It was you done it, remember," said Randolph to Reginald.
"But I done it to save you!" cried Reginald, indignantly, "and you can't prove it was me. People can't tell us apart."
"Anyway," said Reginald, "everybody will blame it on Rance Belmont if he is killed—and see here, here's the jolly part of it. I'll leave Rance's gun right beside him. That'll fix the guilt on Rance!"
"Well, we won't go home; we'll go back and stay in the shootin'-house at the Slough, and then we can prove we weren't home at all, and there'll be no tracks by mornin', anyway."
The twins turned around and retraced their steps through the storm, very hungry and very cross, but forgetting these emotions in the presence of a stronger one—fear.
But Fred was not killed, only stunned by Reginald's cowardly blow. The soft flakes melting on his face revived him, and sitting up he looked about him trying to remember where he was. Slowly it all came to him, and stiff and sore, he got upon his feet. There were no signs of the twins, but to this Fred gave no thought; his only anxiety was for Evelyn, left alone on such a wild night.
When he entered his own house with Rance Belmont's words ringing in his ears, he stood for a moment transfixed. His brother's words which he had so hotly resented surged over him now with fatal conviction; also the words he had heard at the threshing, "He'll be the last one to catch on," came to him like the flash of lightning that burns and uproots and destroys.
His head swam dizzily and lights danced before his eyes. He stood for a moment without speaking. He was not sure that it wasn't all a horrible dream.
If he had looked first at Evelyn, her honest face and flashing eyes would have put his unworthy suspicions to flight. But Rance Belmont with his fatal magnetic presence drew his gaze. Rance Belmont stood with downcast eyes, the living incarnation of guilt. It was all a pose, of course, but Rance Belmont, with his deadly gift of being able to make any impression he wished, made a wonderful success of the part he had all at once decided to play.
Looking at him, Fred's smouldering jealousy burst into flame.
There was an inarticulate sound in his throat, and striding forward he landed a smashing blow on Rance Belmont's averted face.
"Oh, Fred!" Evelyn cried, springing forward, "for shame!—how could you!—how dare you!—"
"Don't talk to me of shame!" Fred cried, his face white with anger.
"Don't blame her," Rance said in a low voice. He made no attempt to defend himself.
In her excitement Evelyn did not notice the sinister significance of his words and what they implied. She was conscious of nothing only that Fred had insulted her by his actions, and her wrath grew as terrible as her husband's.
She caught him by the shoulder and compelled him to look at her.
"Fred," she cried, "do you believe—do you dare to believe this terrible thing?"
She shook him in her rage and excitement.
Rance Belmont saw that Fred would be convinced of her innocence if he did not gain his attention, and the devil in him spoke again, soft, misleading, lying words, part truth, yet all false, leaving no chance for denial.
"Don't blame her—the fault has all been mine," he interposed again.
In her blind rage again Evelyn missed the significance of his words. She was conscious of one thought only—Fred had not immediately craved her pardon. She shook and trembled with uncontrollable rage.
"I hate you, Fred!" she cried, her voice sounding thin and unnatural. "I hate you! One minute ago I believed you to be the noblest man on earth; now I know you for an evil-minded, suspicious, contemptible, dog!—a dog!—a cur! My father was right about you. I renounce you forever!"
She pulled the rings from her finger and flung them against the window, cracking the glass across. "I will never look on your face again, I hope. This is my reward, is it, for giving up everything for you? I boasted of your trust in me a minute ago, but you have shamed me; you have dragged my honor in the dust, but now I am free—and you may believe what you please!"
She turned to Rance Belmont.
"Will you drive me to Brandon to-night?" she asked.
She put on her coat and hat without a word or a look at the man, who stood as if rooted to the ground.
Then opening the door she went out quickly, and Rance Belmont, with something like triumph on his black face, quickly followed her, and Fred Brydon, bruised in body and stricken in soul, was left alone in his desolate house.
The wind was whistling down the Black Creek Valley, carrying heavy flakes of snow that whirled and eddied around them, as Rance Belmont and Evelyn made their way to the Stopping-House. The stormy night accorded well with the turmoil in Evelyn's brain. One point she had decided—she would go back to her father, and for this purpose she asked her companion if he would lend her one hundred dollars. This he gladly consented to do.
He was discreet enough to know that he must proceed with caution, though he felt that in getting her separated from her husband and so thoroughly angry with him that he had made great progress. Now he believed that if he could get her away from the Stopping-House his magnetic influence over her would bring her entirely under his power.
But she had insisted on going in to the Stopping-House to see Mrs. Corbett and tell her what she was going to do. It was contrary to Evelyn's straightforwardness to do anything in an under-handed way, and she felt that she owed it to Mrs.
Corbett, who had been her staunch friend, to tell her the truth of the story, knowing that many versions of it would be told.
Mrs. Corbett was busy setting a new batch of bread, and looked up with an exclamation of surprise when they walked into the kitchen, white with snow. It staggered Mrs. Corbett somewhat to see them together at that late hour, but she showed no surprise as she made Mrs. Brydon welcome.
"I am going away, Mrs. Corbett," Evelyn began at once.
"No bad news from home, is there?" Mrs. Corbett asked anxiously.
"No bad news from home, but bad news here. Fred and I have quarrelled and parted forever!"
Mrs. Corbett drew Evelyn into the pantry and closed the door. She could do nothing, she felt, with Rance Belmont present.
"Did you quarrel about him?" she asked, jerking her head towards the door.
Evelyn told her story, omitting only Rance Belmont's significant remarks, which indeed she had not heard.
Mrs. Corbett listened attentively until she was done.
"Ain't that just like a man, poor, blunderin' things they are. Sure and it was just his love for you, honey, that made him break out so jealous!"
"Love!" Evelyn broke in scornfully. "Love should include trust and respect—I don't want love without them. How dare he think that I would do anything that I shouldn't? Do I look like a woman who would go wrong?"
"Sure you don't, honey!" Mrs. Corbett soothed her, "but you know Rance Belmont is so smooth-tongued and has such a way with him that all men hate him, and the women like him too well. But what are you goin' to do, dear? Sure you can't leave your man."
"I have left him," said Evelyn. "I am going to Brandon now to-night in time for the early train. Rance Belmont will drive me."
Something warned Mrs. Corbett not to say all that was in her heart, so she temporized.
"Sure, if I were you I wouldn't go off at night—it don't look well. Stay here till mornin'. The daylight's the best time to go. Don't go off at night as if you were doin' something you were ashamed of. Go in broad daylight."
"What do I care what people say about me?" Evelyn raged again. "They can't say any worse than my husband believes of me. No—I am going—I want to put distance between us; I just came in to say good-bye and to tell you how it happened. I wanted you and Mr. Corbett to know the truth, for you have been kind friends to me, and I'll never, never forget you."
"I'd be afraid you'd never get to Brandon tonight, honey." Mrs. Corbett held her close, determining in her own mind that she would lock her in the pantry if there was no other way of detaining her. "Listen to the wind—sure it's layin' in for a blizzard. I knew that all day. The roads will be drifted so high you'd never get there, even with the big pacer. Stay here tonight just to oblige me, and you can go on in the morning if it's fit."
Meanwhile John Corbett had been warning Rance Belmont that the weather was unfit for anyone to be abroad, and the fact that George Sims, the horse trader from Millford, and Dan Lonsbury, had put in for the night, made a splendid argument in favor of his doing the same. Rance Belmont had no desire to face a blizzard unnecessarily, particularly at night, and the storm was growing thicker every minute. So after consulting with Evelyn, who had yielded to Mrs. Corbett's many entreaties, he agreed to remain where he was for the night. Evelyn went at once to the small room over the kitchen, which Mrs. Corbett kept for special guests, and as she busied herself about the kitchen Mrs. Corbett could hear her pacing up and down in her excitement.