THE GIRL FROM KELLER'S
By Harold Bindloss
ORIGINAL PREPARER'S NOTE
This text was prepared from an edition, published by Frederick A. Stokes Company, New York, 1917. It was published in England under the title "Sadie's Conquest."
THE GIRL FROM KELLER'S
It was getting dark when Festing stopped at the edge of a ravine on the Saskatchewan prairie. The trail that led up through the leafless birches was steep, and he had walked fast since he left his work at the half-finished railroad bridge. Besides, he felt thoughtful, for something had happened during the visit of a Montreal superintendent engineer that had given him a hint. It was not exactly disturbing, because Festing had, to some extent, foreseen the line the superintendent would take; but a post to which he thought he had a claim had been offered to somebody else. The post was not remarkably well paid, but since he was passed over now, he would, no doubt, be disappointed when he applied for the next, and it was significant that as he stood at the top of the ravine he first looked back and then ahead.
In the distance, a dull red glow marked the bridge, where the glare of the throbbing blast-lamps flickered across a muddy river, swollen by melting snow. He heard the ring of the riveters' hammers and the clang of flung-down rails. The whistle of a gravel train came faintly across the grass, and he knew that for a long distance gangs of men were smoothing the roughly graded track.
In front, everything was quiet. The pale-green sky was streaked along the horizon by a band of smoky red, and the gray prairie rolled into the foreground, checkered by clumps of birches and patches of melting snow. In one place, the figures of a man and horses moved slowly across the fading light; but except for this, the wide landscape was without life and desolate. Festing, however, knew it would not long remain a silent waste. A change was coming with the railroad; in a few years, the wilderness would be covered with wheat; and noisy gasoline tractors would displace the plowman's teams. Moreover, a change was coming to him; he felt that he had reached the trail fork and now must choose his path.
He was thirty years of age and a railroad builder, though he hardly thought he had much talent for his profession. Hard work and stubborn perseverance had carried him on up to the present, but it looked as if he could not go much farther. It was eight years since he began by joining a shovel gang, and he felt the lack of scientific training. He might continue to fill subordinate posts, but the men who came to the front had been taught by famous engineers and held certificates.
Yet Festing was ambitious and had abilities that sprang rather from character than technical knowledge, and now wondered whether he should leave the railroad and join the breakers of virgin soil. He knew something about prairie farming and believed that success was largely a matter of temperament. One must be able to hold on if one meant to win. Then he dismissed the matter for a time, and set off again with a firm and vigorous tread.
Spring had come suddenly, as it does on the high Saskatchewan plains, and he was conscious of a strange, bracing but vaguely disturbing quality in the keen air. One felt moved to adventure and a longing for something new. Men with brain and muscle were needed in the wide, silent land that would soon waken to busy life; but one must not give way to romantic impulses. Stern experience had taught Festing caution, his views were utilitarian, and he distrusted sentiment. Still, looking back on years of strenuous effort that aimed at practical objects, he felt that there was something he had missed. One must work to live, but perhaps life had more to offer than the money one earned by toil.
The red glow on the horizon faded and an unbroken arch of dusky blue stretched above the plain. He passed a poplar bluff where the dead branches cut against the sky. The undergrowth had withered down and the wood was very quiet, with the snow-bleached grass growing about its edge, but he seemed to feel the pulse of returning life. The damp sod that the frost had lately left had a different smell. Then a faint measured throbbing came out of the distance, and he knew the beat of wings before a harsh, clanging call fell from the sky.
He stopped and watched a crescent of small dark bodies plane down on outstretched wings. The black geese were breaking their long journey to the marshes by the Arctic Sea; they would rest for a few days in the prairie sloos and then push on again. Their harsh clamor had a note of unrest and rang through the dark like a trumpet call, stirring the blood. The brant and bernicle beat their way North against the roaring winds, and man with a different instinct pressed on towards the West.
It was a rich land that rolled back before him towards the setting sun. Birch and poplar bluffs broke the wide expanse; there was good water in the winding creeks, a black soil that the wheat plant loved lay beneath the sod, and the hollows held shallow lakes that seldom quite dried up. Soon the land would be covered with grain; already there were scattered patches on which the small homesteaders labored to free themselves from debt. For the most part, their means and tools were inadequate, the haul to the elevators was long, and many would fall an easy prey to the mortgage robber. But things would soon be different; the railroad had come. For all that, Festing resolved that he would not be rash. His pay was good in the meantime, and he would wait.
By and by a cluster of buildings rose out of the grass. A light or two twinkled; a frame house, a sod stable, and straw-covered wheat bins that looked like huge beehives grew into shape. The homestead was good, as homesteads in the back townships went, but Festing knew the land was badly worked. Charnock had begun well, with money in the bank, but luck had been against him and he had got slack. Indeed this was Charnock's trouble; when a job got difficult, he did not stay with it.
Festing crossed the fall back-set, where the loam from the frost-split clods stuck to his boots, passed the sod stable, noting that one end was falling down, and was met on the veranda by Charnock's dogs. They sprang upon him with welcoming barks, and pushing through them, he entered the untidy living-room. Charnock sat at a table strewn with papers that looked like bills, and there was a smear of ink on his chin.
"Hallo!" he said. "Sit down and take a smoke while I get through with these."
Festing pulled a chair into his favorite corner by the stove and looked about when he had lighted his pipe. The room was comfortless and bare, with cracked, board walls, from which beads of resin exuded. A moose head hung above a rack of expensive English guns, a piano stood in a corner, and lumps of the gumbo soil that lay about the floor had gathered among its legs. Greasy supper plates occupied the end of the table, and the boards round the stove were blackened by the distillate that dripped from the joint where the pipe went through the ceiling. These things were significant, particularly the last, since one need not burn green wood, which had caused the tarry stain, and the joint could have been made tight.
Then Festing glanced at Charnock. The latter was a handsome man of about Festing's age. He had a high color and an easy smile, but he had, so to speak, degenerated since he came to Canada. Festing remembered his keenness and careless good-humor when he began to farm, but disappointment had blunted the first, though his carelessness remained. He had been fastidious, but one now got a hint of a coarse streak and there was something about his face that indicated dissipation. Yet Festing admitted that he had charm.
"You don't look happy," he remarked.
"I don't feel particularly happy," Charnock replied. "In fact, the reckoning I've just made looks very like a notice to quit." He threw Festing a paper and swept the others into a drawer. "You might examine the calculations and see if they're right. I'm not fond of figures."
"That was obvious long since. However, if you'll keep quiet for a few minutes——"
Festing studied the paper, which contained a rough statement of Charnock's affairs. The balance was against him, but Festing thought it might be wiped off, or at least pulled down, by economy and well-directed effort. The trouble was that Charnock disliked economy, and of late had declined to make a fight. Festing doubted if he could be roused, but meant to try.
"I see an error of a hundred dollars, but that doesn't make much difference. Things look pretty bad, but I imagine they could be straightened out."
"How long would it take you to put them straight?"
"Three years," said Festing, when he had made a rough calculation. "That is, if I got moderately good crops, but I'd cut out drinks, the pool game, and some other extravagances. You want to keep away from the settlement."
"You'd cut out all that makes life bearable," Charnock replied, and added while his face went hard: "Besides, three years is too long."
Festing thought he understood. The portrait of an English girl hung on the wall behind the stove, and Charnock had already been some time in Canada.
"Anyhow," the latter resumed, "you take much for granted if you count upon a moderately good crop; I haven't got one yet. We're told this is a great country for the small farmer, and perhaps it is, so long as he escapes a dry June, summer hail, rust, and autumn frost. As a matter of fact, I've suffered from the lot!"
"So have others, but they're making good."
"At a price! They sweat, when it's light long enough, sixteen hours a day, deny themselves everything a man can go without, and when the grain is sold the storekeeper or implement dealer takes all they get. When the fellow's sure of their honesty he carried them on, for the sake of the interest, until, if they're unusually lucky, a bonanza crop helps them to wipe off the debt. But do you imagine any slave in the old days ever worked so hard?"
Festing knitted his brows. He felt that Charnock must be answered, and he was not a philosopher.
"Canada's a pretty hard country, and the man without much capital who undertakes to break new soil must have nerve. But he has a chance of making good, and a few years of self-denial do a man no harm. In fact, I expect he's better for it afterwards. A fool can take life easily and do himself well while his dollars last."
Charnock smiled sourly. "I've heard something of this kind before! You're a Spartan; but suppose we admit that a man might stand the strain, what about a woman?"
"That complicates the thing. I suppose you mean an Englishwoman?"
"I do. An Englishwoman of the kind you used to know at home, for example. Could she live on rancid pork, molasses, and damaged flour? You know the stuff the storekeepers supply their debtors. Would you expect a delicately brought-up girl to cook for you, and mend and wash your clothes, besides making hers? To struggle with chores that never end, and be content, for months, with your society?"
Festing pondered. Life on a small prairie farm was certainly hard for a woman; for a man it was bracing, although it needed pluck and resolution. Festing had both qualities, perhaps in an unusual degree, and his point of view was essentially practical. He had grappled with so many difficulties that he regarded them as problems to be solved and not troubles to complain about. He believed that what was necessary or desirable must be done, no matter how hard it was. One considered only the best way of removing an obstacle, not the effort of mind and body it cost. Still, he could not explain this to Charnock; he was not a moralizer or clever at argument.
Then half-consciously he fixed his eyes on the portrait which he had often studied when the talk flagged. The girl was young, but there was something in the poise of her head that have her an air of distinction. Festing did not know if distinction was quite what he meant, but could not think of a better term. She looked at one with steady eyes; her gaze was frank and fearless, as if she had confidence in herself. Yet it was not an aggressive confidence, but rather a calm that sprang from pride—the right kind of pride. In a way, he knew nothing about her, but he was sure she would disdain anything that was shabby and mean. He was not a judge of beauty, but thought the arch of her brows and the lines of nose and mouth were good. She was pretty, but in admitting this one did not go far enough. The pleasure he got from studying her picture was his only romantic weakness, and he could indulge it safely because if he ever saw her it would be when she had married his friend.
The curious thing was that she had promised to marry Charnock. Bob was a good sort, but he was not on this girl's level, and if she raised him to it, would probably feel uncomfortable there. He was slack and took the easiest way, while a hint of coarseness had recently got more marked. Festing was not fastidious, but he lived with clear-eyed, wiry men who could do all that one could expect from flesh and blood. They quarreled about their wages and sometimes struck a domineering boss, but they did their work, in spite of scorching heat and biting frost. Raging floods, snowslides, and rocks that rolled down the mountain side and smashed the track never daunted them. Their character had something of the clean hardness of finely tempered steel. But Charnock was different.
"So you think of quitting?" Festing said at length.
"I'm forced to quit; I'm in too deep to get straight. It's possible that the man I owe most money might give me time, but it would only mean that I'd slave for another year or two and come down after all. I don't see why I should sweat and deny myself for somebody else's benefit, particularly as I'm not fond of doing so for my own."
"Then you have made a plan?"
Charnock laughed. "I'd a notion of applying for a railroad job. The pay's pretty good, and I daresay you could put me on the track."
"I could. The trouble is that somebody else might afterwards put you off. However, if you'd like to try—"
"I'll wait a bit. I don't know that it's prudent to plunge into things."
"It is, if you plunge in and stop in until you struggle out with what you want. Come up to the track and ask for me when you decide to let the farm go."
"On the whole, I think not," said Charnock, whose look got somewhat strained. "You see, I expect an offer of another post though nothing's been fixed yet. We'll let the matter drop in the meantime. Are you going to the Long Lake picnic?"
Festing looked at him with surprise. "Certainly not! Did you ever know me leave my job to go to a picnic?"
"It might be better if you did! My opinion is you think too much about your job."
"You think too little about yours," Festing rejoined. "Anyhow, what amusement do you think I'd get from lounging round Long Lake all day?"
"The ducks ought to be plentiful and I'd lend you a gun. In fact, I'll lend you my second team, if you'll drive the Marvin girls over."
"No, thanks," said Festing firmly. "Somebody left Flora Marvin on my hands at the supper, and I imagine she got very tired. She certainly looked tired; the girls about the settlement don't hide their feelings. But who's going with you, since you want the other team?"
"I promised to take Sadie Keller."
"Sadie Keller?" Festing exclaimed and paused, rather awkwardly. "Well, of course, I don't see why you shouldn't take her, if she wants to go."
Charnock looked at him with amusement. "As she's the chief organizer of the picnic, Sadie does want to go. For that matter, it was her suggestion that I should bring you."
"I won't be there; for one thing, I'm too busy," Festing declared, and soon afterwards got up. "It's time I started back to camp."
Leaving the homestead, he walked thoughtfully across the plain. Charnock had his faults, but he was his friend and was now in trouble. However, as he had not the pluck to face his difficulties, Festing did not see how he could help. Then he did not like Bob's taking Miss Keller to the picnic, because he had met and thought her dangerous. It was not that she had tried to flirt with him, although she had done so; he felt that if he had played up, it might have been difficult afterwards to let the matter drop. Sadie was not a silly coquette. She had a calculating bent, ambition, and a resolute character. She would not flirt with anybody who was, so to speak, not worth powder and shot.
Festing did not know how Miss Keller rated his value, but he was satisfied to remain a bachelor, and had perhaps allowed her to understand this, because she had since treated him with cold politeness. Now it looked as if she had thrown Bob some favor, which was ominous, because Sadie had generally an object. Of course, if Bob were free and content to marry a girl from the settlement, Sadie would not be a bad choice. She certainly had some virtues. But Bob was not free, and it was unthinkable that a man who had won the love of the girl whose portrait Festing knew should be satisfied with another of Sadie's type.
Then Festing pulled himself up. He could not warn Bob to be cautious, or interfere with the girl's plans, supposing that she had made some. Besides, it was Charnock's affair, not his. By and by he dismissed the matter and thought about a troublesome job that must be undertaken in the morning.
The picnic at Long Lake was an annual function, held as soon as the weather got warm enough, to celebrate the return of spring. Winter is long and tedious on the high Western plains, where the frost is often Arctic and little work can be done, and after sitting by the red-hot stove through the dark, cold months, the inhabitants of the scattered homesteads come out with joyful hearts to greet the sunshine. There is, however, no slow transition. Rushing winds from the North-west sweep the sky, the snow vanishes, and after a week or two, during which the prairie trails are impassable, the bleached grass dries and green blades and flowers spring from the steaming sod.
Moreover, the country round Long Lake has some beauty. To the east, it runs back, bare and level, with scarcely a tree to break the vast expanse; but to the west low undulations rise to the edge of the next tableland. Sandhills mark the summits, but the slopes are checkered with birches and poplars, and creeks of clear water flow through the hollows in the shadow of thick bluffs. There are many ponds, and here and there a shallow lake shines amidst the sweep of grass. The clear air and the distance the view commands give the landscape a distinctive charm. One has a sense of space and freedom; all the eye rests upon is clean-cut.
It was a bright morning when Charnock drove up to the door of Keller's hotel. The street was one-sided, and for the most part of its length, small, ship-lap-board houses boldly fronted the prairie. A few had shallow verandas that relieved their bareness, but the rest were frankly ugly, and in some the front was carried up level with the roof-ridge, giving them a harsh squareness of outline. A plank sidewalk, raised a foot or two above the ground, ran along the street, where the black soil was torn by wagon wheels.
There was nothing attractive about the settlement, and Charnock had once been repelled by its dreariness. He, however, liked society, and as the settlement was the only center of human intercourse, had acquired the habit of spending time there that ought to have been devoted to his farm. He enjoyed a game of pool, and to sit on the hotel veranda, bantering the loungers, was a pleasant change from driving the plow or plodding through the dust that rolled about the harrows. For all that, he knitted his brows as his light wagon lurched past the Chinese laundry and the poolroom in the next block. The place looked mean and shabby in the strong sunlight, and, with feelings he had thought dead re-awaking, he was conscious of a sharp distaste. There was a choice he must shortly make, and he knew what it would cost to take the line that might be forced on him.
It was with a certain shrinking he stopped his team in front of the hotel. The bare windows were open and the door was hooked back, so that one could see into the hall, where a row of tin wash-basins stood on a shelf. Dirty towels were scattered about, and the boarded floor was splashed. The veranda, on to which the hall opened, was strewn with cigar-ends and burnt matches, and occupied by a row of cheap wooden chairs. Above the door was painted The Keller House. The grocery in the next block, and the poolroom, bore the same owner's name.
When Charnock stopped, a man without a coat and with the sleeves of his fine white shirt rolled up came out. He as rather an old man and his movements were slack; his face was hard, but on the whole expressionless.
"Hallo!" he said. "Late again! The others have pulled out a quarter of an hour since."
"I saw them," Charnock answered with a languid hint of meaning. "Didn't want to join the procession and thought they might load up my rig if I got here on time."
Keller looked hard at him, as if he understood, and then asked: "Want a drink before you start?"
"No, thanks," said Charnock, with an effort; and Keller, going to the door, shouted: "Sadie!"
A girl came out on the veranda. She was a handsome girl, smartly dressed in white, with a fashionable hat that had a tall plume. Her hair and eyes were black, the latter marked by a rather hard sparkle; her nose was prominent and her mouth firm. Her face was colorless, but her skin had the clean smoothness of silk. She had a firmly lined, round figure, and her manner was easy and confident. Sadie Keller was then twenty-one years of age.
"I thought you had forgotten to come, Bob," she said with a smile.
"Then you were very foolish; you ought to have known me better," Charnock replied, and helped her into the wagon.
"Well, you do forget things," she resumed as he started the team.
"Not those I want to remember. Besides, if you really thought I had forgotten, you'd have been angry."
"How d'you know I'm not angry now?"
Charnock laughed. "When you're angry everybody in the neighborhood knows."
This was true. Sadie was young, but there was something imperious about her. She had a strong will, and when it was thwarted was subject to fits of rage. Reserve was not among her virtues, and Charnock's languid carelessness sometimes attracted and sometimes annoyed her. It marked him as different from the young men she knew and gave him what she called tone, but it had drawbacks.
"Let me have the reins; I want to drive," she said, and added as the horses trotted across the grass beside the torn-up trail: "You keep a smart team, but they're too light for much work about the farm."
"That's so. Still, you see, I like fast horses."
"They have to be paid for," Sadie rejoined.
"Very true, but I don't want to talk about such matters now. Then I've given up trying to make the farm pay. When you find a thing's impossible, it's better to let it go."
Sadie did not reply. She meant to talk about this later, but preferred to choose her time. Her education had been rudimentary, but she was naturally clever. She liked admiration, but was not to be led into foolishness by vanity. Sadie knew her value. It had for some time been obvious that a number of the young farmers who dealt at the store and frequented the hotel did so for her sake, and she was willing to extend her father's trade. In fact, she helped to manage both businesses as cleverly as she managed the customers. Her charm was largely physical, but she used it with caution. One might indulge in banter, and Sadie had a ringing laugh that young men liked, but there were limits that few who knew her overstepped. One or two had done so, but had been rebuked in a way they wished to forget. Sadie had the tricks of an accomplished coquette, but something of the heart of a prude.
The settlement got indistinct, and crossing a low rise, they drove past a birch bluff where the twigs were breaking into tiny points of green. Then they forded a creek and skirted a shallow lake, from which a flock of ducks rose and flew North in a straggling wedge. Sandhills gleamed on the ridges, tall cranes stalked about the hollows, and when the team, laboring through the loose soil, crossed an elevation one could see the plain roll back into the far distance. It was sharp-cut to the horizon; only the varying color that changed from soft blue to white and yellow in the foreground helped the eye to gage its vast extent. The snow had bleached the grass, which glittered like silver in the strong sunlight.
A boisterous wind from the North-west drove white-edged clouds across the sky, but the air was soft with a genial warmth that drew earthy smells from the drying sod. In places, an emerald flush had begun to spread across the withered grass and small flowers like crocuses were pushing through. The freshness and hint of returning life reacted on Charnock, and stirred his blood when he glanced at his companion. He felt her physical allurement as he had not felt it before, but now and then he resolutely looked away. Sadie had shown him marked favor, but there was much he might lose.
She would not have charmed him when he first came to the prairie with romantic hopes and vague ambitions. He had been fastidious then, and the image of a very different girl occupied his heart. Even now he knew the other stood for all that was best in life; for tender romances, and sweetness, and high purpose. Helen had gracious qualities he had once half-reverently admired. She loved pictures and books and music, and was marked by a calm serenity that was very different from Sadie's restless force. But it looked as if he had lost her, and Sadie, who could break a horse and manage a hotel, was nearer his level. Yet he hesitated; he must choose one of two paths, and when he had chosen could not turn back.
"You don't talk much," Sadie remarked at length. "Guess you must be thinking about your mortgage."
"I was, in a way. It was rather useless and very rude. However, I won't think of it again until somebody makes me."
"That's a way of yours. You think too late."
"I'm afraid I sometimes do so," Charnock admitted. "Anyhow, to-day, I'm not going to think at all."
Sadie noted the reckless humor with which he began to talk, but she led him on, and they engaged in cheerful banter until Long Lake began to gleam among the woods ahead. Charnock skirted the trees and pulled up where a number of picketed teams and rigs stood near the water's edge. Farther along, a merry party was gathering wood to build a fire, and Charnock did not find Sadie alone again for some hours after he helped her down.
In summer, Long Lake has no great beauty and shrinks, leaving a white saline crust on its wide margin of sun-baked mud, but it is a picturesque stretch of water when the snow melts in spring and the reflections of the birches quiver on the smooth belt along its windward edge. Farther out, the shadows of flying clouds chase each other across the flashing surface. Two or three leaky canoes generally lie among the trees, and in the afternoon Charnock dragged one down, and helping Sadie on board, paddled up the lake.
As they crept round a point flocks of ducks left the water and the air throbbed with a beat of wings that gradually died away. The fire, round which the others sat, was out of sight, and the rustle of the tossing birches emphasized the quietness. Charnock let the canoe drift, and Sadie looked up at him from her low seat among the wagon robes he had brought.
"What are you going to do about your farm?" she asked.
"I don't know yet, and don't see why I should bore you with my troubles."
"Pshaw!" said Sadie. "You want to put the thing off; but you know you can't."
Charnock made a gesture of humorous resignation. "Very well! I expect I won't be able to carry on the farm."
"No," said Sadie, thoughtfully, "I don't think you could. There are men who would be able, but not you."
"I dare say you're right, but you're not flattering," Charnock rejoined with a smile.
Sadie gave him a steady look. "Your trouble is you laugh when you ought to set your lips and get busy. One has got to hustle in Canada."
"I have hustled. In fact, it's hustling that has brought me low. If I hadn't spent my money trying to break fresh land, I wouldn't have been so deep in debt."
"And you'd have had more time to loaf about the settlement?"
"On the whole, I don't think that's kind. If I hadn't come to the settlement, I wouldn't have seen you, and that's about the only comfort I have left."
A touch of color crept into Sadie's face, but her thoughtful look did not change.
"Well," she said, "I'd surely have liked you to make good, and don't know that we mightn't have got the mortgage held over; but it wouldn't have been much use. You'd have started again and then got tired and not have stayed with it." She spread out her hands impatiently. "That's the kind of man you are!"
"I'm afraid it's true," Charnock admitted. "But I hope you like me all the same."
Sadie was silent for a few moments, but her color was higher and Charnock mused. He supposed she meant she could have persuaded her father to come to his help, and it looked as if she well knew his failings. Still he felt rather amused than resentful.
"We'll let that go," she resumed. "I want you to quit joking and listen. We're going to have a boom at the settlement as soon as the railroad's opened, and I and the old man can hardly manage the store and hotel. We've got to have help; somebody the boys like and we can trust. Well, if you took hold the right way——"
She stopped, but Charnock understood. Keller was often ill and was getting old. He could not carry on his rapidly extending business much longer, and Charnock might presently take his place. But this was not all, and he hesitated.
"Do you think I'm fit for the job?" he asked.
"You could do it if you tried."
Charnock smiled. "It's comforting to feel somebody trusts me, and I see advantages in the plan. You keep the books, I think. It's very nice in the little back office when the lamps are lit and the store is shut. We could make up the bills together."
Sadie blushed, and he thought he had not seen her look so attractive. She was remarkably pretty, although there was now something about her that puzzled him. It was something elusive that acted like a barrier, keeping him away. Yet he knew the girl was fond of him; if he wanted her, he had but to ask, and it was not on this account he hesitated. He thought of a creeper-covered house in England; a house that had an air of quiet dignity. He remembered the old silver, the flowers in the shady rooms, and the pictures. The girl who moved about the rooms harmonized with her surroundings; her voice was low and clear, she had a touch of stateliness. Well, he was ruined, and she was far away, but Sadie was close by, waiting for him. For a moment he set his lips, and then, while his nerves tingled, banished the disturbing doubts.
Dropping the paddle, he leaned forward, put his hand on the girl's waist, and drew her towards him. He felt her yield, and heard her draw a fluttering breath. Her head drooped so that he could not see her face; she was slipping into his arms, and then, in the moment of surrender, he felt her body stiffen. She put her hands on his shoulder and pushed him back; the canoe lurched and he had some trouble to prevent a capsize. The water splashed against the rocking craft, and Sadie, drawing away, fixed her eyes on him. She was breathless, but rather from emotion than effort.
"Don't do that again!" she said.
Charnock saw she meant it, which was strange. Sadie knew and sometimes used her power of attraction, but it was obvious that she was angry. It looked as if he had chosen the wrong moment, and he felt worse baffled and disappointed than he had thought possible.
"I won't," he said as carelessly as he could. "You nearly threw us both into the water."
"I guess that's what I meant to do," she answered fiercely.
"Well, I expect I'd have been able to pull you out. Suppose I ought to say I'm sorry; but I'm not. In fact, Sadie, I don't quite understand—"
"No," she said, "you don't understand at all! That's the trouble."
Charnock took out his tobacco pouch and began to make a cigarette. Sadie's cold dignity was something new and he thought she could not keep it up. If she did not break out in passionate anger, she would soon come round. As he finished the cigarette she turned to him with flashing eyes.
"Put that tobacco away or I'll throw it in the lake! Do you think you can kiss me when you like?"
"I wish I could," said Charnock. "As a matter of fact, I haven't kissed you yet. But I'm sorry if you're vexed."
For a moment Sadie hesitated and then fixed him with a fierce, scornful gaze.
"Oh," she said, "you're cheap, and you'd make me as cheap as you! You want things for nothing; they must be given, where other men would work and fight. But you can't amuse yourself by making love to me."
Charnock felt humiliated. If he had really offended her, she could have rebuked him with a look or sign. Her unnecessary frankness jarred.
"Very well; I must ask you to forget it. Of course, I was wrong, but I'll try not to vex you again. What are we going to do now?"
"Paddle back to the others as quick as you can."
Throwing his cigarette into the water, Charnock turned the canoe. It was a relief to be energetic, because Sadie's demand for speed stung him. He glanced at her now and then, but she gave no sign of relenting; her face was whiter than usual and her look was strained. Getting angry, he drove the canoe down the lake with a curling wave at her bow, until the paddle snapped in a savage stroke and he flung the haft away. For a moment, he hoped Sadie would laugh, but she did not.
"Now you'll have to paddle with your hands until you pick up the broken blade," she said.
Charnock did so and afterwards awkwardly propelled the craft towards the camp fire. He thought Sadie might have suggested their landing and walking back, but she was silent and calmly watched his clumsy efforts. He was glad when they reached the beach where the others were and he helped her out. An hour or two later he drove her home, but she did not talk. Her anger had gone, but she seemed strangely distant. After helping her down at the hotel he waited a moment.
"Can't we make this up and be friends again?" he asked.
She gave him a curious steady glance. "Not now. It looks as if you didn't know me yet."
Then she left him, and Charnock drove home in a thoughtful mood. He had some idea about what she meant and had been rather surprised by the pride she had shown. Sadie had certainly led him on; but she was not altogether the girl he had thought.
For two or three weeks after the picnic Charnock did not meet Sadie. The rebuff he had got did not rankle much, and was rather provocative than daunting, but he understood why she had told him he made her cheap. She meant to keep her caresses for her husband or declared lover, and if he wanted her, he must pay the regular price. This was very proper, from her point of view, but from his the price was high.
Sadie was pretty, capable, and amusing, but he was not sure he would like to see her every day, in his house and at his table. Besides, the house would really be hers, and Sadie would not forget this. She was determined and liked her own way. He had promised to marry another girl, of a very different stamp, but his conscience was clear on that point. It was better for Helen's sake that he should give her up, because he was on the edge of ruin and she was much too good for him. Irresolution, however, was perhaps his greatest failing, and now he must decide, he wavered and thought about what he had lost.
There were days when he would not admit that all was lost, and harnessing his team in the early morning, drove the gang-plow through the soil until the red sunset faded off the plain. In his heart, he knew the fight was hopeless; Festing, for example, in his place, might perhaps make good, but he had not the stamina for the long struggle. All the same, he worked with savage energy until his mood changed and he went off to hunt sandhill cranes. He would sooner have gone to the poolroom, but there was a risk of his meeting Sadie at the settlement.
In the meantime the days got warmer and a flush of vivid green spread across the grass. The roaring wind that swept the tableland drove clouds that never broke across the dazzling sky, and where there were belts of plowed land the harrows clanked across the furrows amidst a haze of blowing dust. The ducks and geese had gone, and red lilies began to sway above the rolling waves of grass. Farmer and hired man worked with tense activity, but Charnock's efforts were spasmodic and often slack.
In the meantime, trade was brisk at the settlement, and Keller found his business made demands on him that he could hardly meet. It was rapidly growing, and his strength got less. Indeed, he would have sold out but for Sadie. The girl was clever and had tone; he wanted her to find life smooth and taste pleasure her mother had not enjoyed. The latter had helped him in a hard fight when dollars were very scarce, and died, worn out, just before the tide turned. Since then he had schemed and sweated to make her child's future safe.
Now he thought he had done so, but it had been a struggle, and he knew he had held on too long. Keeping store in a wheat-growing district was not a simple matter of selling groceries; one was in reality a banker. Bills were not often paid until the crop was harvested, farmers began without much money, and one must know whom to trust. Indeed, one often financed a hustler who had no capital, and kept an honest man who had lost a crop on his feet; but the risk was great, and one felt the strain when there was rust and autumn frost.
One bright afternoon Keller stood on the sidewalk in front of the store. He was not old, but his hair was gray and his face was pinched. It was rather a hard face, for Keller's glance was keen and his lips were generally firmly set. Yet he was liked by his customers. Now he was breathing hard because he had helped a farmer to put a heavy bag of flour in his wagon. The farmer drove away and a cloud of dust the team stirred up blew down the street. The fronts of the wooden houses were cracking in the hot sun; there was not a tree to relieve the bare ugliness of the place, and the glare was dazzling. Keller at first imagined this was why he could not see the wagon well, but after a few moments he knew better.
He went into the store with a staggering step, and the rank smell of cheese and salt-pork nauseated him. The room felt very hot and was full of flies that buzzed in a tormenting cloud round his head. He wanted quietness and made his way to the dark back office, where he dropped into a chair.
"Go to the hotel," he ordered the clerk who entered after him. "Tell Jake to give you a big glass of the special whisky. Be quick, but don't run and spill the stuff."
The clerk came back in a few minutes, and Keller pulled himself together when he had drained the glass, though his forehead was damp with sweat.
"Now where's the list of the truck Gascoyne got?" he said. "I'll look it up."
"Sure you feel all right?" the clerk inquired.
"Get the list," said Keller. "Take that glass away."
He picked up a pen, but put it down when he found his hand shook, and told the clerk to charge the goods. When the latter had gone, he sat still for some minutes and then opened a book of accounts. He had had another warning, sharper than the last, and had better put things straight while he could. With this object he worked later than usual, and when he returned to the hotel called Sadie into his private room. The girl sat down, and he studied her, leaning his elbow heavily on the table.
Sadie had a strained look and had been quiet for the last week or two except when she was angry. This indicated that her nerves were on edge, and Keller thought he knew why.
"I guess we've got to have a talk," he said. "I've put it off, but now's the time."
Sadie waited calmly. She had courage and knew she must be frank with her father. He did not, as a rule, say much, but he noted things and understood.
"Well," he resumed, "I've built up a pretty good business here, but I'll have to quit and leave you some day, and reckon you won't be satisfied to stop at the hotel all your life. You're smart and a looker, and I guess you want to go out and see the world. That's all right, and you'll be able, as far as dollars count; but I can't go with you and you can't go alone."
Sadie shivered. Keller's face was pinched, and she knew his health was not good, although she did not know how bad it really was.
"I couldn't leave you, anyway, and hope you'll be with me a long time yet."
"It's possible," said Keller. "All the same, I can't keep my grip on the business long and want a man to help. But I'm not going to trust a stranger or a hired man. You see where this leads?"
Sadie saw and made a vague gesture, though her glance was level.
"Very well. The man who carries on my business must be your husband. Now there are three or four of the boys in the settlement who could be taught to run the store and hotel, but I allow you don't want me to choose from them. Have I got that right?"
"Yes," said Sadie with quiet calm, although her heart beat. "None of them would suit."
Keller knitted his brows and his look was grave. "They're good boys, and if you had taken one of that bunch, I'd have been satisfied. I reckon the trouble is they're my kind and belong where I do, while you mean to go higher. Well, that's right; I've put up the dollars to give you a good time, but you can't get where you want on your own feet." He paused with a dry smile. "I allow you're smart enough to figure this out."
"I have," said Sadie. "There's much I don't know and couldn't learn here. If I'm to move up, my husband must help."
"Then I only know two men round the settlement who could help. Festing's my choice."
A wave of color flushed Sadie's white skin, but her voice was quiet. "He isn't mine. I allow, in some ways, he's the better man, but that doesn't count."
Keller looked hard at her. "I used to think your head would guide you, not your heart; but it seems you're like the rest—well, I was a very poor man when your mother married me! Now I like Charnock and he has tone; but if you take him, there's a risk—"
"I know the risk."
"It's plain! I'd stop the thing right now if you were a different girl, but you know what you want and how to keep it when it's got. It looks as if you had made up your mind?"
Sadie's hands moved nervously. She made a sign of agreement, but did not speak, and Keller went on:
"Anyhow, you'd better understand what you're up against. Sometimes you'll have to hustle Charnock and sometimes hold him tight. You must keep him off the liquor, and maybe stop him getting after other girls. Then when you sell out the business, you'll hold the dollars."
For a moment Sadie turned her head and then got up and stood by her father's chair. Her look was strained but resolute as she put her hand on his arm.
"I know all that! Bob has plenty of faults, but he's the man I love."
Keller took and pressed her hand. He had some misgivings, but he knew his daughter.
"We all like Charnock, and though I wouldn't trust him far, I can trust you. I think you've got that right and won't forget. Very well, since you want Charnock I'll get him for you."
Sadie stooped and kissed him and then went out. She was moved, but there was nothing to be said. Her father was not a sentimentalist, but he had never failed her and would not do so now. When she sat down in her room, however, her face was grave. Her courage was high, but she felt half afraid. Although she loved Bob Charnock, life with him might be difficult. He was older than she and knew much more, but she must lead him and be firm where he was weak. It was a hard task for an ignorant girl, but she resolved to carry it out.
Next morning Keller went down the street and entered a wooden building filled with gaudily painted mowers and plows. He was not the man to waste time when he had made a plan, and moreover felt that he had not much time to lose. Finding the implement dealer in his office, he sat down, breathing rather hard.
"You don't look very spry this morning," the dealer remarked.
"I don't feel so bright. The boys have been rushing me the last week or two. Say, trade is booming now!"
"It surely is. I could sell more machines than I've got, but I've got a lot of money standing out, and after the bad harvest last fall, don't know who to trust."
They compared notes about their customers, and presently the dealer remarked: "Charnock was in a few days ago, asking about a new wagon, a mower, and some small tools."
"Ah!" said Keller, rather sharply. "Then it looks as if he meant to hold on! He reckoned, not long since, that he'd have to quit. But what did you tell him?"
"To come again. I'd like to keep Bob Charnock up, but guess it's dangerous. Owes me a pile. How does he stand with you?"
Keller supplied the information, and the other looked thoughtful. "Didn't know it was quite so bad as that. I allow I'd better not let him have the goods."
"Well, I reckon he's trying the new man at Concord. Smith said he met him there yesterday."
The dealer frowned. He hated to think of a customer going to somebody else. In fact, this was, for a debtor, an unpardonable offense.
"Charnock's trouble is that he's not quite straight. Ought to have stayed with me, told me how he was fixed, and let me see what I could do. If he's going to deal with the new man, I'd better pull him up and try to get my money back."
"You can't get it," said Keller dryly. "He can't pay now, and if you let him go on until harvest, you'll have a crowd of others with long bills fighting for what's left."
"Looks like that," the dealer agreed. "Well, I'd have liked to keep him going if he'd stayed with me, but I can't stand for losing the dollars he owes. What are we going to do about the thing?"
Keller explained his plans, and after some argument the other agreed. The decision they came to would bring Charnock's farming to an end, but Keller left the office with some doubts. His scheme was going to succeed, but he wondered whether he had indulged Sadie too far. Much depended on her firmness, and she might find the job harder than she thought; but on the whole he imagined she would be equal to the strain.
A week later, Charnock sat, one afternoon, in the saddle of his gang-plow, tearing a row of furrows through the dusty sod. The sweating horses moved leisurely, and he did not urge them as he moodily watched the tangled grass part before the shares and vanish beneath the polished surface of the turned-up clods. He was breaking new soil, doing work that would be paid for in the future, and knew the reward of his labor might never be his. When he reached the end of the plowing he stopped and let the horses rest while he looked about.
One side of the long furrows gleamed in the strong light, and another team was moving towards him from the opposite end. The sun was hot, but the wind was fresh, and thin clouds of dust blew across the plain. Still the belt he was plowing was good soil; the firm black gumbo that holds the moisture the wheat plant needs. There was something exhilarating in the rushing breeze and glow of light, but Charnock frowned and wondered why he had worked so long. He had no real hope, and admitted that he had continued his spasmodic efforts because he could not face defeat.
For all that, he had not been fighting entirely for his farm. He wanted to keep his freedom; to break through trammels that were getting tighter, and try to regain something that he had lost. Sometimes he felt desperate, but now and then saw an elusive ray of hope. If he could hold out until harvest and reap a record crop——
Then his hired man, driving the other plow, waved his arm, and Charnock saw a rig lurch across a rise amidst a cloud of sand. It was the mail-carrier going his round, but he would not have come that way unless he had letters, and Charnock waited until the man arrived.
"Here's your lot," he said, taking out three or four envelopes.
Charnock's hand shook as he opened the first, it was large and had an official look, and he found a number of unpaid accounts inside. Besides these, there was a lawyer's letter, stating that certain dealers had instructed him to recover payment of the debts Charnock owed. He crushed the letter in his clenched hand and the veins stood out on his forehead, while his face got red. The blow he feared had fallen and he was ruined; but when the shock began to pass he felt a faint relief. It was something to be free from doubt and anxiety, and there were consolations. Now he was beaten, the line he must take was plain, and it had some advantages.
"You can quit plowing and put the teams in the stable," he said to the hired man.
"Quit now!" exclaimed the other. "What about the machines?"
"Let them stop," said Charnock. "It seems they belong to my creditors, who can look after them. I'm going to Concord and don't know when I'll be back."
He went off towards the homestead and half an hour later drove away across the plain.
FESTING COMMITS THEFT
The air was sharp and wonderfully invigorating when Festing stopped for a few moments, one evening, outside Charnock's homestead. A row of sandhills glimmered faintly against the blue haze in the east, but the western edge of the plain ran in a hard black line beneath a blaze of smoky red. It was not dark, but the house was shadowy, and Festing noticed a smell of burning as he entered.
The top was off the stove in Charnock's room, and the flame that licked about the hole showed that the floor was strewn with torn paper. Charnock was busy picking up the pieces, and when he threw a handful into the stove a blaze streamed out and the light shone upon the wall. Festing noted that the portrait that had hung there had gone, and looking round in search of it, saw a piece of the broken frame lying on the stove. It was half burned and a thin streak of smoke rose from its glowing end. Festing remarked this with a sense of anger.
"What are you doing, Bob?" he asked.
"Cleaning up," Charnock answered, with a hoarse laugh, as he sat down among the litter. "Proper thing when you mean to make a fresh start! Suppose you take a drink and help."
A whisky bottle and a glass stood on the table, and Festing thought Charnock had taken some liquor, although he was not drunk. Stooping down, he began to pick up the papers, which, for the most part, looked like bills. There were, however, a few letters in a woman's hand, and by and by he found a bit of riband, a glove, and a locket that seemed to have been trampled on.
"Are these to be burned?" he asked.
"Yes," said Charnock. "Don't want them about to remind me——Burn the lot."
Festing, with some reluctance, threw them into the stove. He was not, as a rule, romantic, but it jarred him to see the things destroyed. They had, no doubt, once been valued for the giver's sake; dainty hands had touched them; the locket had rested on somebody's white skin. They were pledges of trust and affection, and he had found them, trampled by Charnock's heavy boots, among the dust and rubbish.
"You'd get on faster if you used a brush," he suggested.
"Can't find the brush. Confounded thing's hidden itself somewhere. Can't remember where I put anything to-night. Suppose you don't see a small lace handkerchief about?"
Festing said he did not, and Charnock made a gesture of resignation. "Looks as if I'd burned it with the other truck, but I got that from Sadie, and there'll be trouble if she wants to know where it's gone. She may want to know some time. Sadie doesn't forget."
"Did Sadie give you the locket?"
"She did not," said Charnock. "You're a tactless brute. But there's something else I want, and I don't know where it can have got."
He upset a chair as he turned over some rubbish near the table, under which he presently crawled, while Festing looking about, noted a small white square laying half hidden by the stove. Picking it up, he saw it was the portrait of the English girl, and resolved with a thrill of indignation that Charnock should not burn this. He felt that its destruction would be something of an outrage.
He glanced at Charnock, but the latter's legs alone stuck out from under the table, and as it was obvious that he could not see, Festing dusted the portrait and put it in his pocket. By and by Charnock crept out and got upon his feet. It was dark now, but the glow of the burning paper flickered about the room and touched his face. His hair was ruffled, his eyes were dull, and his mouth had a slack droop. Festing felt some pity for the man, though he was also sensible of scornful impatience. The smell of burned paper disturbed him with its hint of vanished romance. Putting the lid on the stove, he took the lamp from Charnock's unsteady hand, and, when he had lighted it, found a brush and set to work. Presently Charnock made a vague sign of relief as he looked at the swept floor.
"All gone!" he remarked. "There was something I couldn't find. Suppose I burned it, though I don't remember."
"There's nothing left," said Festing, who felt guilty. "Why did you destroy the things?"
Charnock sat down and awkwardly lighted his pipe. "Wanted to begin again with what they call a clean slate. Besides, the stove's the best place for bills that bother you."
"You can't get rid of the debts by burning the bills."
"That's true," said Charnock with a grin. "Unfortunately obvious, in fact! However, I cut up my account book."
"I don't see how that would help."
"My creditors can now amuse themselves by finding out how I stand."
Festing frowned impatiently. "A rather childish trick! It doesn't strike me as humorous."
"You're a disgustingly serious fellow," Charnock rejoined. "But you might be a bit sympathetic, because I've had a nasty knock. My creditors have come down on me, and I'm going to be married."
Festing smiled. He had some sense of humor, and Charnock's manner seemed to indicate that he felt he was confronted with two misfortunes.
"You must have known your creditors would pull you up unless you came to terms with them, but one would expect you to please yourself about getting married."
"I'm not sure your joke's in good taste," Charnock answered sullenly. "But in a way, one thing depended on the other. Perhaps I oughtn't to have said so, but I'm upset to-night. Though I did expect to be pulled up, it was a knock."
"No doubt. Are you going to marry Sadie?"
"I am. Have you any reason to disapprove?"
"Certainly not," said Festing. "Sadie's rather a friend of mine."
In a sense, this was true. When Festing first came to the prairie from a mountain construction camp, where he had not seen a woman for twelve months, he had felt Sadie's charm. Moreover, he imagined that the girl liked him and consciously used her power, although with a certain reserve and modesty. For all that, he fought against his inclination and conquered without much effort. Marriage had not much attraction for him, but if he did marry, he meant to choose a wife of a different type.
"Sadie's a very good sort," Charnock resumed. "She knows what we are, and doesn't expect too much; not the kind of girl to make ridiculous demands. In fact, Sadie can make allowances."
Festing thought this was doubtful praise, although it bore out his opinion of the girl. For all that, Sadie might not be so willing to make allowances for her husband as for a lover of whom she was not quite sure.
"Perhaps that kind of thing has advantages," he said. "But I don't know—"
"I do know," said Charnock; "I've tried the other way. The feeling that you're expected to keep on a high plane soon gets tiresome; besides, it isn't natural. It's better to be taken for what you are."
"I suppose so," Festing assented. "Anyway, if Sadie's satisfied——"
Charnock grinned, although there was a touch of color in his face.
"You're not given to flattery, but might use a little tact. I've had a knock and am not quite sober, so I can't argue the point. Then it isn't your business if Sadie's satisfied or not."
"That's so. But what are you going to do when your creditors turn you out?"
"Everything's arranged. I'm going to help Keller at the hotel and store."
Festing got up. "Well, I've stopped longer than I meant. I wish you good luck!"
"We'll have a drink," said Charnock, reaching for the bottle with an unsteady hand. Then he paused and gave Festing a suspicious look. "It's curious about that portrait! I used to see you gazing at it, and don't remember that I picked it up."
"No, thanks," said Festing, refusing the glass. "I think you've had enough. In fact, it might have been better when you were wiping the slate clean if you had put the bottle in the stove."
He went out and walked back to the camp in the moonlight, thinking hard. He was angry with Charnock, but vaguely sorry. Bob had some virtues and was throwing himself away, although, when one came to think of it, this was only true to some extent. What one meant was that he was throwing away his opportunities of rising to a higher plane; while Bob was satisfied with his present level Sadie was good enough for him, perhaps too good. Life together might be hard for both, and there was a touch of pathos in his burning all the tender tokens that bound him to the past, though it was ominous that he kept the whisky. He could, however, get as much liquor as he wanted at the hotel; that is, if Sadie allowed it, but there was some comfort in the thought that the girl was clever and firm.
Festing dismissed the matter, and when he reached his shack at the bridge put the portrait on the table and sat down opposite. He felt that he knew this girl, whom he had never met, very well. Something in her look had cheered him when he had difficulties to overcome; he felt that they were friends. She was calm and fearless and would face trouble with the level glance he knew, although now and then, when the lamp flickered in the draught, he had thought she smiled. They had been companions on evenings when Charnock wanted to read the newspaper or the talk had flagged. Sometimes the window and door were open and the smell of parched grass came in; sometimes the stove was red-hot and the house shook in the icy blast. Festing admitted that it was not altogether for Charnock's society he had visited the homestead.
Then he began to puzzle about a likeness to somebody he knew. He had remarked this before, but the likeness was faint and eluded him. Lighting his pipe, he tried to concentrate his thoughts, and by and by made an abrupt movement. He had it! When he was in British Columbia, engaged on the construction of a section of the railroad that was being built among the mountains, he met a young Englishman at a mining settlement. The lad had been ill and was not strong enough to undertake manual labor, which was the only occupation to be found in the neighborhood. Moreover, he had lost his money, in consequence, Festing gathered, of his trusting dangerous companions.
Festing, finding that he had been well educated and articled to a civil engineer, got him a post on the railroad, where he helped the surveyors. Dalton did well and showed himself grateful, but when Festing went to the prairie he lost touch with the lad. The latter wrote to him once or twice, but he was too busy to keep up the correspondence. Now he knew it was something in Dalton's face he found familiar in the portrait. The girl had a steady level glance, and the lad looked at one like that. Indeed, it was his air of frankness that had persuaded Festing to get him the post.
But this led him nowhere. He did not know the girl's name, and if it was the same as the lad's, it would not prove that they were related. He pushed back his chair and got up. It looked as if he was in some danger of becoming a romantic fool, but he put the portrait carefully away, Soon after he had done so a man came in, and sitting down, lighted a cigarette.
"I wanted to see you, Festing, but hadn't a chance all day," he said. "Probably you haven't heard that I've got orders where to send the staff when the bridge is finished, as it will be soon."
Festing looked up sharply. Kerr was his superior in the company's service, but they were on good terms.
"I haven't heard. I'm anxious to know."
Kerr told him, and Festing's face hardened.
"So Marvin and I go on to the next prairie section! Since they want the best men on the difficult work in the mountains, it means that we're passed over."
"It does, in a sense," Kerr agreed.
"Then I think I know why you came," said Festing, who pondered for a few moments. He had courage and decision, and it was his habit to face a crisis boldly. "Now," he resumed, "I'm going to ask your opinion of my prospects if I stay on the road?"
"Your record's good. You're sure of a post, so long as there's any construction work going on."
"A post of a kind! Not the best kind, where a man would have a chance of making his mark?"
"Well," said Kerr, "I think that's what I meant. The headquarters bosses don't know us personally, and judge by a man's training and the certificates he's got. Of course, in spite of this, talent will find its way, and sometimes one gets there by a stroke of luck."
Festing smiled, rather bitterly. "I have no marked talent, and haven't found it pay to trust to luck. In fact, my only recommendations are a kind of practical ability and a capacity for hard work. I got on the road by doing chores and fought my way up."
"You are practical," Kerr agreed. "It's your strong point, but I've thought it sometimes kept you back."
He paused when Festing looked at him with surprise, but resumed in a thoughtful voice: "When your job's in front of you, you see what must be done, and do it well; there's not a man on my section does that kind of thing better. Still, I'm not sure you always see quite far enough. You miss what lies ahead and sometimes, so to speak, what's lying all round. Concentration's good, but one can concentrate too much. However, I didn't come to find fault, but to let you know how matters are."
"Thanks. I'm going to look ahead and all round now, and the situation strikes me as much like this: If I'm content with a second or third best post, I can stop; if I want to go as far as my power of concentration may take me and find a place where I can use my independent judgment, I'd better quit. Have I got that right?"
"It's what I tried to hint. You can count on my recommendation when it's likely to be of use, but you said something that was rather illuminating. You want to use your judgment?"
Festing laughed. "I don't know that I've thought much about these matters, but I am an individualist. You get up against useless rules, empty formalities, and much general stupidity in organized effort, and good work is often wasted. When you see things that demand to be done, you want to begin right there and get at the job. If you wait to see if it's yours or somebody else's, you're apt not to start at all."
"Your plan has drawbacks now and then," Kerr remarked. "But what are you going to do about the other matter?"
Festing was silent for a few moments. He had to make a momentous choice, but had known that he must do so and did not hesitate.
"I'm going to quit and try farming. After all, I don't know very much about railroad building; up to now I've got on rather by determination than knowledge. Then, if I stop with you, I'll come up against a locked door whenever I try to push ahead."
"There are locked doors in other professions."
"That's so; but in a big organization you must knock and ask somebody to let you through, and unless you have a properly stamped ticket, they turn you back. When the job's your own you beat down the door."
"I've seen farmers who tried that plan left outside with badly jarred hands. Frost and rust and driving sand are difficult obstacles."
"Oh, yes," said Festing. "But they're natural obstacles; you know what you're up against and can overcome them, if you're stubborn enough. What I really mean is, you don't trust to somebody else's good opinion; whether you fail or not depends upon yourself."
"Well," said Kerr, getting up, "I think you're making the right choice, but hope you won't forget me when you leave us. You'll have a friend in the company's service as long as I'm on the road."
He went out and Festing lighted his pipe. Now he had come to a decision, there was much that needed thought; but, to begin with, he knew of a suitable piece of land. Living in camp, he had saved the most part of his pay, and had inherited a small sum from an English relative. In consequence, he could buy the land, build a comfortable wooden house, and have something over to carry him on until he sold his first crop.
He resolved to buy the land and set the carpenters to work, but could not leave the railroad for a month, when it would be rather late to make a start. Then he had worked without a break for twelve years, for the most part at camps where no amusement was possible, and resolved to take a holiday. He would go back to England, where he had a few friends, although his relatives were dead. This was, of course, an extravagance; but after the self-denial he had practised there was some satisfaction in being rash. Lighting another pipe, he abandoned himself to pleasant dreams of his first holiday.
A RASH PROMISE
A few days before he started for England, Festing went over to Charnock's homestead, which was shortly to be sold. The evenings were getting light, and although Festing had finished his day's work before he left the bridge, the glow of sunset flooded Charnock's living-room. The strong red light searched out the signs of neglect and dilapidation, the broken boots and harness that needed mending, the dust sticking to the resin-stains on the cracked walls, and the gumbo soil on the dirty floor. As Charnock glanced up a level ray touched his face and showed a certain sensual coarseness that one missed when the light was normal. Festing, however, knew the look, and although he had not remarked it when he first met Charnock, thought it had always been there.
The change he had noted in his friend was only on the surface. Charnock had not really deteriorated in Canada; the qualities that had brought him down had been overlaid by a spurious grace and charm, but it now looked as if moral slackness might develop into active vice. On the whole, he thought Sadie would have trouble with Bob, but this was not his business.
"I've come to say good-bye," he remarked. "I won't see you again until my return, and expect you'll be married then."
"Yes," said Charnock, shortly. "I suppose you have made some plans for your trip. Where are you going to stop in England?"
Festing told him and he looked surprised. "I didn't know you had friends in that neighborhood. Will you be with them some time?"
"A month, anyway. Then I may come and go."
Charnock pushed his chair back out of the light. "Well, this makes it easier; there's something I want to ask. We are friends and I've let you give me good advice, though I haven't always acted on it. I don't know if this gives me a claim."
"If there's anything I can do——"
"There is," said Charnock, who hesitated for a few moments. "I want you to go and see Helen Dalton. She's the girl I ought to have married, and doesn't live very far from your friends."
"Ah!" said Festing with a start. "It was her portrait you meant to burn?"
Charnock gave him a sharp glance. "Just so. I imagine I did burn it, because I couldn't find it afterwards."
There was silence for a few moments while Festing wondered whether the other suspected him. Bob had an air of frankness, but was sometimes cunning. This, however, was not important, and Festing was strongly moved by the thought that he might see the girl.
"Why do you want me to go?" he asked.
"In order that you can tell her how I was situated. I want her to know why I was forced to give her up."
"But you have written and stated your reasons."
"Of course. But I've no talent for explanation, and in a letter you say too little or too much; probably I didn't say enough. Then you can't tell how far the person written to will understand, and questions rise. But will you go?"
Festing wanted to go, although he saw his task might be embarrassing. He had been some time in Western Canada, where people are frank and do not shrink from dealing with delicate matters. Then Charnock was his friend.
"It will be an awkward job, but you can indicate the line you think I ought to take."
"The line is plain. You will tell Helen what it means to lose one's crop, and try to make her understand the struggle I've had—how the weather was against me, and the debts kept piling up until I was ruined. You can describe the havoc made by drought, and frost, and cutting sand. Then there's the other side of the matter; the hardships a woman must bear on the plains when money's scarce. The loneliness, the monotonous drudgery, the heat, the Arctic cold."
"Miss Dalton looks as if she had pluck. She wouldn't be easily daunted."
"Do you think I don't know? But when you meet her you'll see that the life we lead is impossible for a girl like that."
"It looks as if you wanted me to be your advocate," Festing remarked rather dryly. "I'm to make all the excuses for you I can, and prove that you were justified in breaking your engagement. I doubt if I'm clever enough—"
Charnock stopped him. "No! Perhaps I used excuses, but my object is not to clear myself." He paused and colored. "We'll admit that Helen lost nothing when I gave her up; but a girl, particularly a young, romantic girl, feels that kind of thing, and it might hurt worse if she thought she had loved a wastrel. I want her to feel that I broke my engagement for her sake, when nothing else was possible. That might soften the blow, and I really think it's true."
"How much of it is true?" Festing asked bluntly.
"Ah," said Charnock, "you're an uncompromising fellow. You meant that if you'd had my debts and difficulties, you could have made good?"
"I might; but we both know two or three other men whom I'd have backed to do so."
"For all that, you'll admit that the thing was impossible for me?"
Festing knitted his brows. "I believe you could have overcome your difficulties; that is, if you had really made an effort and faced the situation earlier. But since you hadn't nerve enough, I dare say it was impossible."
"You forget one thing; I hadn't time. At the best, it would have taken me three or four years to get straight, and as you haven't much imagination, I suppose you don't realize what Helen's trials would have been in the meanwhile. An engaged girl's situation isn't easy when her lover is away. She stands apart, forbidden much others may enjoy, and Helen would have had to bear her friends' contemptuous pity for being bound to a man who had turned out a failure or worse."
"I expect that's true," Festing agreed. "However, there's another difficulty. Suppose I persuade Miss Dalton that you made a plucky fight and only gave her up when you were beaten? She may refuse to let you go, and insist on coming out to help."
Charnock started, but with a rather obvious effort recovered his calm. "You must see your suggestion's stupid. Helen can't come out; I'm going to marry Sadie."
"I forgot," said Festing. "Well, since you urge me, I'll do what I can, although I don't like the job."
He left the homestead shortly afterwards, but felt puzzled as he walked across the plain. When he suggested that Miss Dalton might resolve to join and help her lover, Charnock had looked alarmed. This was strange, because although Festing had, for a moment, forgotten Sadie, it was ridiculous to imagine that Bob had done so. Then why had he started. There were, however, one or two other things that disturbed Festing, who felt that he had made a rash promise. But the promise had been made, and he must do his best to carry it out.
He had a fine voyage, and a week after his arrival in the Old Country walked up and down the terrace of a house among the hills in the North of England. His host was an old friend of the family who had shown Festing some kindness when he was young, and his daughter, Muriel, approved her father's guest. She liked the rather frank, brown-skinned, athletic man, whom she had joined on the terrace. He was a new and interesting type; but although she was two or three years the younger and attractive, their growing friendship was free from possible complications. Muriel, as Festing had learned, was going to marry the curate.
After the roar of activity at the bridge, where the hammers rang all day and often far into the night, he found his new surroundings strangely pleasant. In Canada, he had lived in the wilds; on the vast bare plains, and among snowy mountains where man grappled with Nature in her sternest mood. Thundering snowslides swept away one's work, icy rocks must be cut through, and savage green floods threatened the half-built track when the glaciers began to melt. Every day had brought a fresh anxiety, and now he welcomed the slackening of the strain. The struggle had left its mark on him; one saw it in his lean, muscular symmetry, his quiet alertness, and self-confidence. But he could relax, and found the English countryside had a soothing charm.
The sun was low and rugged hills cut against the pale-saffron sky. The valley between was filled with blue shadow, but in the foreground a river twinkled in the fading light. Feathery larches grew close up to the house, and a beck splashed in the gloom among their trunks. Farther off, a dog barked, and there was a confused bleating of sheep, but this seemed to emphasize the peaceful calm.
"It's wonderfully quiet," Festing remarked. "I can't get used to the stillness; I feel as if I was dreaming and would wake up to hear the din of the rivers and the ballast roaring off the gravel cars. However, I have some business to do to-morrow that I'm not keen about. Can one see Knott Scar from here?"
"It's the blue ridge, about six miles off. The dark patch on its slope is a big beech wood."
"Then do you know the Daltons?"
"Oh, yes," said Muriel. "Helen Dalton is a friend of mine. Although the Scar's some way off, I see her now and then. But are you going there?"
"I am; I wish it wasn't needful," Festing answered rather gloomily.
"Ah!" said Muriel, giving him a sharp glance. "Helen was to have married a man in Canada, but the engagement was broken off. Do you know him?"
"I do. That's why I'm going to the Scar. I've promised to explain matters as far as I can."
Muriel studied his disturbed face with a twinkle of amusement. "Well, I'm sorry for Helen; it must have been a shock. For all that, I thought the engagement a mistake."
"Then you have seen Charnock?"
"Once. He's a friend of some people Helen used to stay with in the South, but I met him at the Scar. Handsome, and charming, in a way, but I thought him weak."
"What are Miss Dalton's people like?"
"Don't you want to know what Helen is like?"
"No," said Festing. "I know her already; that is, I've seen her picture."
Muriel, glancing at him keenly, did not understand his look, but replied: "Helen lives with her mother and aunt, but it's hard to describe them. They are not old, but seem to date back to other times. In fact, they're rather unique nowadays. Like very dainty old china; you'd expect them to break if they were rudely jarred. You feel they ought to smell of orris and lavender."
"Ah," said Festing. "I was a fool to promise Charnock. I've never met people like that, and am afraid they'll get a jar to-morrow."
"I don't think you need be afraid," Muriel replied. "They're not really prudish or censorious, though they are fastidious."
"And is Miss Dalton like her mother and aunt?"
"In a way. Helen has their refinement, but she's made of harder stuff. She would wear better among strains and shocks."
Festing shook his head. "Girls like her ought to be sheltered and kept from shocks. After all, there's something to be said for Charnock's point of view. Your delicate English grace and bloom ought to be protected and not rubbed off by the rough cares of life."
"I don't know if you're nice or not," Muriel rejoined with a laugh. "Anyway, you don't know many English girls, and your ideas about us are old-fashioned. We are not kept in lavender now. Besides, it isn't the surface bloom that matters, and fine stuff does not wear out. It takes a keener edge and brighter polish from strenuous use. And Helen is fine stuff."
"So I thought," said Festing quietly, and stopped at the end of the terrace. The bleating of sheep had died away, and except for the splash of the beck a deep silence brooded over the dale. The sun had set and the landscape was steeped in soft blues and grays, into which woods and hills slowly melted.
"It's remarkably pleasant here," he said. "Not a sign of strain and hurry; things seem to run on well-oiled wheels! Perhaps the greatest change is to feel that one has nothing to do."
"But you had holidays now and then in Canada."
"No," said Festing. "Anyhow I've had none for a very long time. Of course there are lonely places, and in winter the homesteads on the plains are deadly quiet, but I was always where some big job was rushed along. Hauling logs across the snow, driving them down rivers, and after I joined the railroad, checking calculations, and track-grading in the rain. It was a fierce hustle from sunrise to dark, with all your senses highly strung and your efforts speeded up."
"Then one can understand why it's a relief to lounge. But would that satisfy you long?"
Festing laughed. "It would certainly satisfy me for a time, but after that I don't know. It's a busy world, and there's much to be done."
Muriel studied him as they walked back along the terrace. He wore no hat, and she liked the way he held his head and his light, springy step, though she smiled as she noted that he pulled himself up to keep pace with her. It was obvious that he was not used to moving leisurely. Then his figure, although spare, was well proportioned, and his rather thin face was frank. He had what she called a fined-down look, but concentrated effort of mind and body had given him a hint of distinction. He was a man who did things, and she wondered what Helen, who was something of a romantic dreamer, would think of him. Then she reflected with a touch of amusement that he would probably find the errand his friend had given him embarrassing.
"You don't look forward to seeing the Daltons to-morrow," she remarked.
"That's so," Festing admitted. "I didn't quite know what I'd undertaken when I gave my promise. The thing looks worse in England. In fact, it looks very nearly impossible just now."
"But you are going?"
Festing spread out his hands. "Certainly. What can I do? Charnock hustled me into it; he has a way of getting somebody else to do the things he shirks. But I gave him my word."
"And that's binding!" remarked Muriel, who was half amused by his indignation. She thought Charnock deserved it, but Festing could be trusted.
"I wish I could ask your advice," he resumed. "You could tell me what to say; but as I don't know if Charnock would approve, it mightn't be the proper thing."
Muriel was keenly curious to learn the truth about her friend's love affair, but she resisted the temptation. Because she liked Festing, she would not persuade him to do something for which he might afterwards reproach himself.
"No," she said, "perhaps you oughtn't to tell me. But I don't think you need be nervous. If you have the right feeling, you will take the proper line."
Then they went into the house where the curate was talking to Gardiner.
FESTING KEEPS HIS WORD
Next afternoon Festing leaned his borrowed bicycle against the gate at Knott Scar and walked up the drive. He had grave misgivings, but it was too late to indulge them, and he braced himself and looked about with keen curiosity. The drive curved and a bank of shrubs on one side obstructed his view, but the Scar rose in front, with patches of heather glowing a rich crimson among the gray rocks. Beneath these, a dark beech wood rolled down the hill. On the other side there was a lawn that looked like green velvet. His trained eye could detect no unevenness; the smooth surface might have been laid with a spirit level. Festing had seen no grass like this in Canada and wondered how much labor it cost.
Then he came to the end of the shrubs and saw a small, creeper-covered house, with a low wall, pierced where shallow steps went up, along the terrace. The creeper was in full leaf and dark, but roses bloomed about the windows and bright-red geraniums in urns grew upon the wall. He heard bees humming and a faint wind in the beech tops, but the shadows scarcely moved upon the grass, and a strange, drowsy quietness brooded over the place. Indeed, the calm was daunting; he felt he belonged to another world and was intruding there, but went resolutely up the shallow steps.
Two white-haired ladies received him in a shady, old-fashioned room with a low ceiling. There was a smell of flowers, but it was faint, and he thought it harmonized with the subdued lighting of the room. A horizontal piano stood in a corner and the dark, polished rosewood had dull reflections; some music lay about, but not in disorder, and he noted the delicate modeling of the cabinet with diamond panes it had been taken from. He knew nothing about furniture, but he had an eye for line and remarked the taste that characterized the rest of the articles. There were a few landscapes in water-color, and one or two pieces of old china, of a deep blue that struck the right note of contrast with the pale-yellow wall.
Festing felt that the house had an influence; a gracious influence perhaps, but vaguely antagonistic to him. He had thought of a house as a place in which one ate and slept, but did not expect it to mold one's character. Surroundings like this were no doubt Helen Dalton's proper environment, but he came from the outside turmoil, where men sweated and struggled and took hard knocks.
In the meantime, he talked to and studied the two ladies. Although they had white hair, they were younger than he thought at first and much alike. It was as if they had faded prematurely from breathing too rarefied an atmosphere and shutting out rude but bracing blasts. Still they had a curious charm, and he had felt a hint of warmth in Mrs. Dalton's welcome that puzzled him.
"We have been expecting you. Bob told us you would come," she said in a low, sweet voice, and added with a smile: "I wanted to meet you."
Festing wondered what Bob had said about him, but for a time they tactfully avoided the object of his visit and asked him questions about his journey. Then Mrs. Dalton got up.
"Helen is in the garden. Shall we look for her?"
She took him across the lawn to a bench beneath a copper beech, and Festing braced himself when a girl got up. She wore white and the shadow of the leaves checkered the plain dress. He noted the unconscious grace of her pose as she turned towards him, and her warm color, which seemed to indicate a sanguine temperament. Helen Dalton was all that he had thought, and something more. He knew her level, penetrating glance, but she had a virility he had not expected. The girl was somehow stronger than he portrait.
"Perhaps I had better leave you to talk to Mr. Festing," Mrs. Dalton said presently and moved away.
Helen waited with a calm that Festing thought must cost her much, and moving a folding chair, he sat down opposite.