THE PRAIRIE MOTHER
THE PRAIRIE MOTHER
By ARTHUR STRINGER
AUTHOR OF THE PRAIRIE WIFE, THE HOUSE OF INTRIGUE THE MAN WHO COULDN'T SLEEP, ETC.
ILLUSTRATED BY ARTHUR E. BECHER
INDIANAPOLIS THE BOBBS-MERRILL COMPANY PUBLISHERS
Copyright 1920 The Pictorial Review Company
Copyright 1920 The Bobbs-Merrill Company
Printed in the United States of America
PRESS OF BRAUNWORTH & CO. BOOK MANUFACTURERS BROOKLYN, N. Y.
THE PRAIRIE MOTHER
The Prairie Mother
Sunday the Fifteenth
I opened my eyes and saw a pea-green world all around me. Then I heard the doctor say: "Give 'er another whiff or two." His voice sounded far-away, as though he were speaking through the Simplon Tunnel, and not merely through his teeth, within twelve inches of my nose.
I took my whiff or two. I gulped at that chloroform like a thirsty Bedouin at a wadi-spring. I went down into the pea-green emptiness again, and forgot about the Kelly pad and the recurring waves of pain that came bigger and bigger and tried to sweep through my racked old body like breakers through the ribs of a stranded schooner. I forgot about the hateful metallic clink of steel things against an instrument-tray, and about the loganberry pimple on the nose of the red-headed surgical nurse who'd been sent into the labor room to help.
I went wafting off into a feather-pillowy pit of infinitude. I even forgot to preach to myself, as I'd been doing for the last month or two. I knew that my time was upon me, as the Good Book says. There are a lot of things in this life, I remembered, which woman is able to squirm out of. But here, Mistress Tabbie, was one you couldn't escape. Here was a situation that had to be faced. Here was a time I had to knuckle down, had to grin and bear it, had to go through with it to the bitter end. For other folks, whatever they may be able to do for you, aren't able to have your babies for you.
Then I ebbed up out of the pea-green depths again, and was troubled by the sound of voices, so thin and far-away I couldn't make out what they were saying. Then came the beating of a tom-tom, so loud that it hurt. When that died away for a minute or two I caught the sound of the sharp and quavery squall of something, of something which had never squalled before, a squall of protest and injured pride, of maltreated youth resenting the ignominious way it must enter the world. Then the tom-tom beating started up again, and I opened my eyes to make sure it wasn't the Grenadiers' Band going by.
I saw a face bending over mine, seeming to float in space. It was the color of a half-grown cucumber, and it made me think of a tropical fish in an aquarium when the water needed changing.
"She's coming out, Doctor," I heard a woman's voice say. It was a voice as calm as God's and slightly nasal. For a moment I thought I'd died and gone to Heaven. But I finally observed and identified the loganberry pimple, and realized that the tom-tom beating was merely the pounding of the steam-pipes in that jerry-built western hospital, and remembered that I was still in the land of the living and that the red-headed surgical nurse was holding my wrist. I felt infinitely hurt and abused, and wondered why my husband wasn't there to help me with that comforting brown gaze of his. And I wanted to cry, but didn't seem to have the strength, and then I wanted to say something, but found myself too weak.
It was the doctor's voice that roused me again. He was standing beside my narrow iron bed with his sleeves still rolled up, wiping his arms with a big white towel. He was smiling as he scrubbed at the corners of his nails, as though to make sure they were clean. The nurse on the other side of the bed was also smiling. So was the carrot-top with the loganberry beauty-spot. All I could see, in fact, was smiling faces.
But it didn't seem a laughing matter to me. I wanted to rest, to sleep, to get another gulp or two of that God-given smelly stuff out of the little round tin can.
"How're you feeling?" asked the doctor indifferently. He nodded down at me as he proceeded to manicure those precious nails of his. They were laughing, the whole four of them. I began to suspect that I wasn't going to die, after all.
"Everything's fine and dandy," announced the barearmed farrier as he snapped his little pen-knife shut. But that triumphant grin of his only made me more tired than ever, and I turned away to the tall young nurse on the other side of my bed.
There was perspiration on her forehead, under the eaves of the pale hair crowned with its pointed little cap. She was still smiling, but she looked human and tired and a little fussed.
"Is it a girl?" I asked her. I had intended to make that query a crushingly imperious one. I wanted it to stand as a reproof to them, as a mark of disapproval for all such untimely merriment. But my voice, I found, was amazingly weak and thin. And I wanted to know.
"It's both," said the tired-eyed girl in the blue and white uniform. And she, too, nodded her head in a triumphant sort of way, as though the credit for some vast and recent victory lay entirely in her own narrow lap.
"It's both?" I repeated, wondering why she too should fail to give a simple answer to a simple question.
"It's twins!" she said, with a little chirrup of laughter.
"Twins?" I gasped, in a sort of bleat that drove the last of the pea-green mist out of that room with the dead white walls.
"Twins," proclaimed the doctor, "twins!" He repeated the monosyllable, converting it into a clarion-call that made me think of a rooster crowing.
"A lovely boy and girl," cooed the third nurse with a bottle of olive-oil in her hand. And by twisting my head a little I was able to see the two wire bassinets, side by side, each holding a little mound of something wrapped in a flannelette blanket.
I shut my eyes, for I seemed to have a great deal to think over. Twins! A boy and girl! Two little new lives in the world! Two warm and cuddling little bairns to nest close against my mother-breast.
"I see your troubles cut out for you," said the doctor as he rolled down his shirt-sleeves.
They were all laughing again. But to me it didn't seem quite such a laughing matter. I was thinking of my layette, and trying to count over my supply of binders and slips and shirts and nighties and wondering how I could out-Solomon Solomon and divide the little dotted Swiss dress edged with the French Val lace of which I'd been so proud. Then I fell to pondering over other problems, equally prodigious, so that it was quite a long time before my mind had a chance to meander on to Dinky-Dunk himself.
And when I did think of Dinky-Dunk I had to laugh. It seemed a joke on him, in some way. He was the father of twins. Instead of one little snoozer to carry on his name and perpetuate his race in the land, he now had two. Fate, without consulting him, had flung him double measure. No wonder, for the moment, those midnight toilers in that white-walled house of pain were wearing the smile that refused to come off! That's the way, I suppose, that all life ought to be welcomed into this old world of ours. And now, I suddenly remembered, I could speak of my children—and that means so much more than talking about one's child. Now I was indeed a mother, a prairie mother with three young chicks of her own to scratch for.
I forgot my anxieties and my months of waiting. I forgot those weeks of long mute protest, of revolt against wily old Nature, who so cleverly tricks us into the ways she has chosen. A glow of glory went through my tired body—it was hysteria, I suppose, in the basic meaning of the word—and I had to shut my eyes tight to keep the tears from showing.
But that great wave of happiness which had washed up the shore of my soul receded as it came. By the time I was transferred to the rubber-wheeled stretcher they called "the Wagon" and trundled off to a bed and room of my own, the reaction set in. I could think more clearly. My Dinky-Dunk didn't love me, or he'd never have left me at such a time, no matter what his business calls may have been. The Twins weren't quite so humorous as they seemed. There was even something disturbingly animal-like in the birth of more offspring than one at a time, something almost revolting in this approach to the littering of one's young. They all tried to unedge that animality by treating it as a joke, by confronting it with their conspiracies of jocularity. But it would be no joke to a nursing mother in the middle of a winter prairie with the nearest doctor twenty long miles away.
I countermanded my telegram to Dinky-Dunk at Vancouver, and cried myself to sleep in a nice relaxing tempest of self-pity which my "special" accepted as calmly as a tulip-bed accepts a shower. But lawdy, lawdy, how I slept! And when I woke up and sniffed warm air and that painty smell peculiar to new buildings, and heard the radiators sing with steam and the windows rattle in the northeast blizzard that was blowing, I slipped into a truer realization of the intricate machinery of protection all about me, and thanked my lucky stars that I wasn't in a lonely prairie shack, as I'd been when my almost three-year-old Dinkie was born. I remembered, with little tidal waves of contentment, that my ordeal was a thing of the past, and that I was a mother twice over, and rather hungry, and rather impatient to get a peek at my God-given little babes.
Then I fell to thinking rather pityingly of my forsaken little Dinkie and wondering if Mrs. Teetzel would keep his feet dry and cook his cream-of-wheat properly, and if Iroquois Annie would have brains enough not to overheat the furnace and burn Casa Grande down to the ground. Then I decided to send the wire to Dinky-Dunk, after all, for it isn't every day in the year a man can be told he's the father of twins....
I sent the wire, in the secret hope that it would bring my lord and master on the run. But it was eight days later, when I was up on a back-rest and having my hair braided, that Dinky-Dunk put in an appearance. And when he did come he chilled me. I can't just say why. He seemed tired and preoccupied and unnecessarily self-conscious before the nurses when I made him hold Pee-Wee on one arm and Poppsy on the other.
"Now kiss 'em, Daddy," I commanded. And he had to kiss them both on their red and puckered little faces. Then he handed them over with all too apparent relief, and fell into a brown study.
"What are you worrying over?" I asked him.
"I'm wondering how in the world you'll ever manage," he solemnly acknowledged. I was able to laugh, though it took an effort.
"For every little foot God sends a little shoe," I told him, remembering the aphorism of my old Irish nurse. "And the sooner you get me home, Dinky-Dunk, the happier I'll be. For I'm tired of this place and the smell of the formalin and ether and I'm nearly worried to death about Dinkie. And in all the wide world, O Kaikobad, there's no place like one's own home!"
Dinky-Dunk didn't answer me, but I thought he looked a little wan and limp as he sat down in one of the stiff-backed chairs. I inspected him with a calmer and clearer eye.
"Was that sleeper too hot last night?" I asked, remembering what a bad night could do to a big man.
"I don't seem to sleep on a train the way I used to," he said, but his eye evaded mine. And I suspected something.
"Dinky-Dunk," I demanded, "did you have a berth last night?"
He flushed up rather guiltily. He even seemed to resent my questioning him. But I insisted on an answer.
"No, I sat up," he finally confessed.
"Why?" I demanded.
And still again his eye tried to evade mine.
"We're a bit short of ready cash." He tried to say it indifferently, but the effort was a failure.
"Then why didn't you tell me that before?" I asked, sitting up and spurning the back-rest.
"You had worries enough of your own," proclaimed my weary-eyed lord and master. It gave me a squeezy feeling about the heart to see him looking so much like an unkempt and overworked and altogether neglected husband. And there I'd been lying in the lap of luxury, with quick-footed ladies in uniform to answer my bell and fly at my bidding.
"But I've a right, Dunkie, to know your worries, and stand my share of 'em," I promptly told him. "And that's why I want to get out of this smelly old hole and back to my home again. I may be the mother of twins, and only too often reminded that I'm one of the Mammalia, but I'm still your cave-mate and life-partner, and I don't think children ought to come between a man and wife. I don't intend to allow my children to do anything like that."
I said it quite bravely, but there was a little cloud of doubt drifting across the sky of my heart. Marriage is so different from what the romance-fiddlers try to make it. Even Dinky-Dunk doesn't approve of my mammalogical allusions. Yet milk, I find, is one of the most important issues of motherhood—only it's impolite to mention the fact. What makes me so impatient of life as I see it reflected in fiction is its trick of overlooking the important things and over-accentuating the trifles. It primps and tries to be genteel—for Biology doth make cowards of us all.
I was going to say, very sagely, that life isn't so mysterious after you've been the mother of three children. But that wouldn't be quite right. It's mysterious in an entirely different way. Even love itself is different, I concluded, after lying there in bed day after day and thinking the thing over. For there are so many different ways, I find, of loving a man. You are fond of him, at first, for what you consider his perfections, the same as you are fond of a brand-new traveling bag. There isn't a scratch on his polish or a flaw in his make-up. Then you live with him for a few years. You live with him and find that life is making a few dents in his loveliness of character, that the edges are worn away, that there's a weakness or two where you imagined only strength to be, and that instead of standing a saint and hero all in one, he's merely an unruly and unreliable human being with his ups and downs of patience and temper and passion. But, bless his battered old soul, you love him none the less for all that. You no longer fret about him being unco guid, and you comfortably give up trying to match his imaginary virtues with your own. You still love him, but you love him differently. There's a touch of pity in your respect for him, a mellowing compassion, a little of the eternal mother mixed up with the eternal sweetheart. And if you are wise you will no longer demand the impossible of him. Being a woman, you will still want to be loved. But being a woman of discernment, you will remember that in some way and by some means, if you want to be loved, you must remain lovable.
Thursday the Nineteenth
I had to stay in that smelly old hole of a hospital and in that bald little prairie city fully a week longer than I wanted to. I tried to rebel against being bullied, even though the hand of iron was padded with velvet. But the powers that be were too used to handling perverse and fretful women. They thwarted my purpose and broke my will and kept me in bed until I began to think I'd take root there.
But once I and my bairns were back here at Casa Grande I could see that they were right. In the first place the trip was tiring, too tiring to rehearse in detail. Then a vague feeling of neglect and desolation took possession of me, for I missed the cool-handed efficiency of that ever-dependable "special." I almost surrendered to funk, in fact, when both Poppsy and Pee-Wee started up a steady duet of crying. I sat down and began to sniffle myself, but my sense of humor, thank the Lord, came back and saved the day. There was something so utterly ridiculous in that briny circle, soon augmented and completed by the addition of Dinkie, who apparently felt as lonely and overlooked as did his spineless and sniffling mother.
So I had to tighten the girths of my soul. I took a fresh grip on myself and said: "Look here, Tabbie, this is never going to do. This is not the way Horatius held the bridge. This is not the spirit that built Rome. So, up, Guards, and at 'em! Excelsior! Audaces fortuna juvat!"
So I mopped my eyes, and readjusted the Twins, and did what I could to placate Dinkie, who continues to regard his little brother and sister with a somewhat hostile eye. One of my most depressing discoveries on getting back home, in fact, was to find that Dinkie has grown away from me in my absence. At first he even resented my approaches, and he still stares at me, now and then, across a gulf of perplexity. But the ice is melting. He's beginning to understand, after all, that I'm his really truly mother and that he can come to me with his troubles. He's lost a good deal of his color, and I'm beginning to suspect that his food hasn't been properly looked after during the last few weeks. It's a patent fact, at any rate, that my house hasn't been properly looked after. Iroquois Annie, that sullen-eyed breed servant of ours, will never have any medals pinned on her pinny for neatness. I'd love to ship her, but heaven only knows where we'd find any one to take her place. And I simply must have help, during the next few months.
Casa Grande, by the way, looked such a little dot on the wilderness, as we drove back to it, that a spear of terror pushed its way through my breast as I realized that I had my babies to bring up away out here on the edge of this half-settled no-man's land. If only our dreams had come true! If only the plans of mice and men didn't go so aft agley! If only the railway had come through to link us up with civilization, and the once promised town had sprung up like a mushroom-bed about our still sad and solitary Casa Grande! But what's the use of repining, Tabbie McKail? You've the second-best house within thirty miles of Buckhorn, with glass door-knobs and a laundry-chute, and a brood to rear, and a hard-working husband to cook for. And as the kiddies get older, I imagine, I'll not be troubled by this terrible feeling of loneliness which has been weighing like a plumb-bob on my heart for the last few days. I wish Dinky-Dunk didn't have to be so much away from home....
Old Whinstane Sandy, our hired man, has presented me with a hand-made swing-box for Poppsy and Pee-Wee, a sort of suspended basket-bed that can be hung up in the porch as soon as my two little snoozers are able to sleep outdoors. Old Whinnie, by the way, was very funny when I showed him the Twins. He solemnly acknowledged that they were nae sae bad, conseederin'. I suppose he thought it would be treason to Dinkie to praise the newcomers who threatened to put little Dinkie's nose out of joint. And Whinnie, I imagine, will always be loyal to Dinkie. He says little about it, but I know he loves that child. He loves him in very much the same way that Bobs, our collie dog, loves me. It was really Bobs' welcome, I think, across the cold prairie air, that took the tragedy out of my homecoming. There were gladness and trust in those deep-throated howls of greetings. He even licked the snow off my overshoes and nested his head between my knees, with his bob-tail thumping the floor like a flicker's beak. He sniffed at the Twins rather disgustedly. But he'll learn to love them, I feel sure, as time goes on. He's too intelligent a dog to do otherwise....
I'll be glad when spring comes, and takes the razor-edge out of this northern air. We'll have half a month of mud first, I suppose. But "there's never anything without something," as Mrs. Teetzel very sagely announced the other day. That sour-apple philosopher, by the way, is taking her departure to-morrow. And I'm not half so sorry as I pretend to be. She's made me feel like an intruder in my own home. And she's a soured and venomous old ignoramus, for she sneered openly at my bath-thermometer and defies Poppsy and Pee-Wee to survive the winter without a "comfort." After I'd announced my intention of putting them outdoors to sleep, when they were four weeks old, she lugubriously acknowledged that there were more ways than one of murderin' infant children. Her ideal along this line, I've discovered, is slow asphyxiation in a sort of Dutch-oven made of an eider-down comforter, with as much air as possible shut off from their uncomfortable little bodies. But the Oracle is going, and I intend to bring up my babies in my own way. For I know a little more about the game now than I did when little Dinkie made his appearance in this vale of tears. And whatever my babies may or may not be, they are at least healthy little tikes.
Sunday the Twenty-second
I seem to be fitting into things again, here at Casa Grande. I've got my strength back, and an appetite like a Cree pony, and the day's work is no longer a terror to me. I'm back in the same old rut, I was going to say—but it is not the same. There is a spirit of unsettledness about it all which I find impossible to define, an air of something impending, of something that should be shunned as long as possible. Perhaps it's merely a flare-back from my own shaken nerves. Or perhaps it's because I haven't been able to get out in the open air as much as I used to. I am missing my riding. And Paddy, my pinto, will give us a morning of it, when we try to get a saddle on his scarred little back, for it's half a year now since he has had a bit between his teeth.
It's Dinky-Dunk that I'm really worrying over, though I don't know why. I heard him come in very quietly last night as I was tucking little Dinkie up in his crib. I went to the nursery door, half hoping to hear my lord and master sing out his old-time "Hello, Lady-Bird!" or "Are you there, Babushka?" But instead of that he climbed the stairs, rather heavily, and passed on down the hall to the little room he calls his study, his sanctum-sanctorum where he keeps his desk and papers and books—and the duck-guns, so that Dinkie can't get at them. I could hear him open the desk-top and sit down in the squeaky Bank of England chair.
When I was sure that Dinkie was off, for good, I tiptoed out and shut the nursery door. Even big houses, I began to realize as I stood there in the hall, could have their drawbacks. In the two-by-four shack where we'd lived and worked and been happy before Casa Grande was built there was no chance for one's husband to shut himself up in his private boudoir and barricade himself away from his better-half. So I decided, all of a sudden, to beard the lion in his den. There was such a thing as too much formality in a family circle. Yet I felt a bit audacious as I quietly pushed open that study door. I even weakened in my decision about pouncing on Dinky-Dunk from behind, like a leopardess on a helpless stag. Something in his pose, in fact, brought me up short.
Dinky-Dunk was sitting with his head on his hand, staring at the wall-paper. And it wasn't especially interesting wall-paper. He was sitting there in a trance, with a peculiar line of dejection about his forward-fallen shoulders. I couldn't see his face, but I felt sure it was not a happy face.
I even came to a stop, without speaking a word, and shrank rather guiltily back through the doorway. It was a relief, in fact, to find that I was able to close the door without making a sound.
When Dinky-Dunk came down-stairs, half an hour later, he seemed his same old self. He talked and laughed and inquired if Nip and Tuck—those are the names he sometimes takes from his team and pins on Poppsy and Pee-Wee—had given me a hard day of it and explained that Francois—our man on the Harris Ranch—had sent down a robe of plaited rabbit-skin for them.
I did my best, all the time, to keep my inquisitorial eye from fastening itself on Dunkie's face, for I knew that he was playing up to me, that he was acting a part which wasn't coming any too easy. But he stuck to his role. When I put down my sewing, because my eyes were tired, he even inquired if I hadn't done about enough for one day.
"I've done about half what I ought to do," I told him. "The trouble is, Dinky-Dunk, I'm getting old. I'm losing my bounce!"
That made him laugh a little, though it was rather a wistful laugh.
"Oh, no, Gee-Gee," he announced, momentarily like his old self, "whatever you lose, you'll never lose that undying girlishness of yours!"
It was not so much what he said, as the mere fact that he could say it, which sent a wave of happiness through my maternal old body. So I made for him with my Australian crawl-stroke, and kissed him on both sides of his stubbly old face, and rumpled him up, and went to bed with a touch of silver about the edges of the thunder-cloud still hanging away off somewhere on the sky-line.
Wednesday the Twenty-fifth
There was indeed something wrong. I knew that the moment I heard Dinky-Dunk come into the house. I knew it by the way he let the storm-door swing shut, by the way he crossed the hall as far as the living-room door and then turned back, by the way he slowly mounted the stairs and passed leaden-footed on to his study. And I knew that this time there'd be no "Are you there, Little Mother?" or "Where beest thou, Boca Chica?"
I'd Poppsy and Pee-Wee safe and sound asleep in the swing-box that dour old Whinstane Sandy had manufactured out of a packing-case, with Francois' robe of plaited rabbit-skin to keep their tootsies warm. I'd finished my ironing and bathed little Dinkie and buttoned him up in his sleepers and made him hold his little hands together while I said his "Now-I-lay-me" and tucked him up in his crib with his broken mouth-organ and his beloved red-topped shoes under the pillow, so that he could find them there first thing in the morning and bestow on them his customary matutinal kiss of adoration. And I was standing at the nursery window, pretty tired in body but foolishly happy and serene in spirit, staring out across the leagues of open prairie at the last of the sunset.
It was one of those wonderful sunsets of the winter-end that throw wine-stains back across this bald old earth and make you remember that although the green hasn't yet awakened into life there's release on the way. It was a sunset with an infinite depth to its opal and gold and rose and a whisper of spring in its softly prolonged afterglow. It made me glad and sad all at once, for while there was a hint of vast re-awakenings in the riotous wine-glow that merged off into pale green to the north, there was also a touch of loneliness in the flat and far-flung sky-line. It seemed to recede so bewilderingly and so oppressively into a silence and into an emptiness which the lonely plume of smoke from one lonely shack-chimney both crowned and accentuated with a wordless touch of poignancy.
That pennon of shack-smoke, dotting the northern horizon, seemed to become something valorous and fine. It seemed to me to typify the spirit of man pioneering along the fringes of desolation, adventuring into the unknown, conquering the untamed realms of his world. And it was a good old world, I suddenly felt, a patient and bountiful old world with its Browningesque old bones set out in the last of the sun—until I heard my Dinky-Dunk go lumbering up to his study and quietly yet deliberately shut himself in, as I gave one last look at Poppsy and Pee-Wee to make sure they were safely covered. Then I stood stock-still in the center of the nursery, wondering whether, at such a time, I ought to go to my husband or keep away from him.
I decided, after a minute or two of thought, to bide a wee. So I slipped quietly down-stairs and stowed Dinkie's overturned kiddie-car away in the cloak-room and warned Iroquois Annie—the meekest-looking Redskin ever togged out in the cap and apron of domestic servitude—not to burn my fricassee of frozen prairie-chicken and not to scorch the scones so beloved by my Scotch-Canadian lord and master. Then I inspected the supper table and lighted the lamp with the Ruskin-green shade and supplanted Dinky-Dunk's napkin that had a coffee-stain along its edge with a fresh one from the linen-drawer. Then, after airing the house to rid it of the fumes from Iroquois Annie's intemperate griddle and carrying Dinkie's muddied overshoes back to the kitchen and lighting the Chinese hall-lamp, I went to the bottom of the stairs to call my husband down to supper.
But still again that wordless feeling of something amiss prompted me to hesitate. So instead of calling blithely out of him, as I had intended, I went silently up the stairs. Then I slipped along the hall and just as silently opened his study door.
My husband was sitting at his desk, confronted by a litter of papers and letters, which I knew to be the mail he had just brought home and flung there. But he wasn't looking at anything on his desk. He was merely sitting there staring vacantly out of the window at the paling light. His elbows were on the arms of his Bank of England swivel-chair for which I'd made the green baize seat-pad, and as I stared in at him, half in shadow, I had an odd impression of history repeating itself. This puzzled me, for a moment, until I remembered having caught sight of him in much the same attitude, only a few days before. But this time he looked so tired and drawn and spineless that a fish-hook of sudden pity tugged at my throat. For my Dinky-Dunk sat there without moving, with the hope and the joy of life drawn utterly out of his bony big body. The heavy emptiness of his face, as rugged as a relief-map in the side-light, even made me forget the smell of the scones Iroquois Annie was vindictively scorching down in the kitchen. He didn't know, of course, that I was watching him, for he jumped as I signaled my presence by slamming the door after stepping in through it. That jump, I knew, wasn't altogether due to edgy nerves. It was also an effort at dissimulation, for his sudden struggle to get his scattered lines of manhood together still carried a touch of the heroic. But I'd caught a glimpse of his soul when it wasn't on parade. And I knew what I knew. He tried to work his poor old harried face into a smile as I crossed over to his side. But, like Topsy's kindred, it died a-borning.
"What's happened?" I asked, dropping on my knees close beside him.
Instead of answering me, he swung about in the swivel-chair so that he more directly faced the window. The movement also served to pull away the hand which I had almost succeeded in capturing. Nothing, I've found, can wound a real man more than pity.
"What's happened?" I repeated. For I knew, now, that something was really and truly and tragically wrong, as plainly as though Dinky-Dunk had up and told me so by word of mouth. You can't live with a man for nearly four years without growing into a sort of clairvoyant knowledge of those subterranean little currents that feed the wells of mood and temper and character. He pushed the papers on the desk away from him without looking at me.
"Oh, it's nothing much," he said. But he said it so listlessly I knew he was merely trying to lie like a gentleman.
"If it's bad news, I want to know it, right slam-bang out," I told him. And for the first time he turned and looked at me, in a meditative and impersonal sort of way that brought the fish-hook tugging at my thorax again. He looked at me as though some inner part of him were still debating as to whether or not he was about to be confronted by a woman in tears. Then a touch of cool desperation crept up into his eyes.
"Our whole apple-cart's gone over," he slowly and quietly announced, with those coldly narrowed eyes still intent on my face, as though very little and yet a very great deal depended on just how I was going to accept that slightly enigmatic remark. And he must have noticed the quick frown of perplexity which probably came to my face, for that right hand of his resting on the table opened and then closed again, as though it were squeezing a sponge very dry. "They've got me," he said. "They've got me—to the last dollar!"
I stood up in the uncertain light, for it takes time to digest strong words, the same as it takes time to digest strong meat.
I remembered how, during the last half-year, Dinky-Dunk had been on the wing, hurrying over to Calgary, and Edmonton, flying east to Winnipeg, scurrying off to the Coast, poring over township maps and blue-prints and official-looking letters from land associations and banks and loan companies. I had been called in to sign papers, with bread-dough on my arms, and asked to witness signatures, with Dinkie on my hip, and commanded by my absent hearth-mate to send on certain documents by the next mail. I had also gathered up scattered sheets of paper covered with close-penciled rows of figures, and had felt that Dinky-Dunk for a year back had been giving more time to his speculations than to his home and his ranch. I had seen the lines deepen a little on that lean and bony face of his and the pepper-and-salt above his ears turning into almost pure salt. And I'd missed, this many a day, the old boyish note in his laughter and the old careless intimacies in his talk. And being a woman of almost ordinary intelligence—preoccupied as I was with those three precious babies of mine—I had arrived at the not unnatural conclusion that my spouse was surrendering more and more to that passion of his for wealth and power.
Wealth and power, of course, are big words in the language of any man. But I had more than an inkling that my husband had been taking a gambler's chance to reach the end in view. And now, in that twilit shadow-huddled cubby-hole of a room, it came over me, all of a heap, that having taken the gambler's chance, we had met a fate not uncommon to gamblers, and had lost.
"So we're bust!" I remarked, without any great show of emotion, feeling, I suppose, that without worldly goods we might consistently be without elegance. And in the back of my brain I was silently revising our old Kansas pioneer couplet into
In land-booms we trusted And in land-booms we busted.
But it wasn't a joke. You can't have the bottom knocked out of your world, naturally, and find an invisible Nero blithely fiddling on your heart-strings. And I hated to see Dinky-Dunk sitting there with that dead look in his eyes. I hated to see him with his spirit broken, with that hollow and haggard misery about the jowls, which made me think of a hound-dog mourning for a dead master.
But I knew better than to show any pity for Dinky-Dunk at such a time. It would have been effective as a stage-picture, I know, my reaching out and pressing his tired head against a breast sobbing with comprehension and shaking with compassion. But pity, with real men-folks in real life, is perilous stuff to deal in. I was equally afraid to feel sorry for myself, even though my body chilled with the sudden suspicion that Casa Grande and all it held might be taken away from me, that my bairns might be turned out of their warm and comfortable beds, overnight, that the consoling sense of security which those years of labor had builded up about us might vanish in a breath. And I needed new flannelette for the Twins' nighties, and a reefer for little Dinky-Dunk, and an aluminum double-boiler that didn't leak for me maun's porritch. There were rafts of things I needed, rafts and rafts of them. But here we were bust, so far as I could tell, on the rocks, swamped, stranded and wrecked.
I held myself in, however, even if it did take an effort. I crossed casually over to the door, and opened it to sniff at the smell of supper.
"Whatever happens, Dinky-Dunk," I very calmly announced, "we've got to eat. And if that she-Indian scorches another scone I'll go down there and scalp her."
My husband got slowly and heavily up out of the chair, which gave out a squeak or two even when relieved of his weight. I knew by his face in the half-light that he was going to say that he didn't care to eat.
But, instead of saying that, he stood looking at me, with a tragically humble sort of contriteness. Then, without quite knowing he was doing it, he brought his hands together in a sort of clinch, with his face twisted up in an odd little grimace of revolt, as though he stood ashamed to let me see that his lip was quivering.
"It's such a rotten deal," he almost moaned, "to you and the kiddies."
"Oh, we'll survive it," I said with a grin that was plainly forced.
"But you don't seem to understand what it means," he protested. His impatience, I could see, was simply that of a man overtaxed. And I could afford to make allowance for it.
"I understand that it's almost an hour past supper-time, my Lord, and that if you don't give me a chance to stoke up I'll bite the edges off the lamp-shade!"
I was rewarded by just the ghost of a smile, a smile that was much too wan and sickly to live long.
"All right," announced Dinky-Dunk, "I'll be down in a minute or two."
There was courage in that, I saw, for all the listlessness of the tone in which it had been uttered. So I went skipping down-stairs and closed my baby grand and inspected the table and twisted the glass bowl that held my nasturtium-buds about, to the end that the telltale word of "Salt" embossed on its side would not betray the fact that it had been commandeered from the kitchen-cabinet. Then I turned up the lamp and smilingly waited until my lord and master seated himself at the other side of the table, grateful beyond words that we had at least that evening alone and were not compelled to act up to a part before the eyes of strangers.
Yet it was anything but a successful meal. Dinky-Dunk's pretense at eating was about as hollow as my pretense at light-heartedness. We each knew that the other was playing a part, and the time came when to keep it up was altogether too much of a mockery.
"Dinky-Dunk," I said after a silence that was too abysmal to be ignored, "let's look this thing squarely in the face."
"I haven't the courage."
"Then we've got to get it," I insisted. "I'm ready to face the music, if you are. So let's get right down to hard-pan. Have they—have they really cleaned you out?"
"To the last dollar," he replied, without looking up.
"What did it?" I asked, remaining stubbornly and persistently ox-like in my placidity.
"No one thing did it, Chaddie, except that I tried to bite off too much. And for the last two years, of course, the boom's been flattening out. If our Associated Land Corporation hadn't gone under—"
"Then it has gone under?" I interrupted, with a catch of the breath, for I knew just how much had been staked on that venture.
Dinky-Dunk nodded his head. "And carried me with it," he grimly announced. "But even that wouldn't have meant a knock-out, if the government had only kept its promise and taken over my Vancouver Island water-front."
That, I remembered, was to have been some sort of a shipyard. Then I remembered something else.
"When the Twins were born," I reminded Dunkie, "you put the ranch here at Casa Grande in my name. Does that mean we lose our home?"
I was able to speak quietly, but I could hear the thud of my own heart-beats.
"That's for you to decide," he none too happily acknowledged. Then he added, with sudden decisiveness: "No, they can't touch anything of yours! Not a thing!"
"But won't that hold good with the Harris Ranch, as well?" I further inquired. "That was actually bought in my name. It was deeded to me from the first, and always has been in my name."
"Of course it's yours," he said with a hesitation that was slightly puzzling to me.
"Then how about the cattle and things?"
"The cattle we've kept on it to escape the wild land tax? Aren't those all legally mine?"
It sounded rapacious, I suppose, under the circumstances. It must have seemed like looting on a battlefield. But I wasn't thinking entirely about myself, even though poor old Dinky-Dunk evidently assumed so, from the look of sudden questioning that came into his stricken eyes.
"Yes, they're yours," he almost listlessly responded.
"Then, as I've already said, let's look this thing fairly and squarely in the face. We've taken a gambler's chance on a big thing, and we've lost. We've lost our pile, as they phrase it out here, but if what you say is true, we haven't lost our home, and what is still more important, we haven't lost our pride."
My husband looked down at his plate.
"That's gone, too," he slowly admitted.
"It doesn't sound like my Dinky-Dunk, a thing like that," I promptly admonished. But I'd spoken before I caught sight of the tragic look in his eyes as he once more looked up at me.
"If those politicians had only kept their word, we'd have had our shipyard deal to save us," he said, more to himself than to me. Yet that, I knew, was more an excuse than a reason.
"And if the rabbit-dog hadn't stopped to scratch, he might have caught the hare!" I none too mercifully quoted. My husband's face hardened as he sat staring across the table at me.
"I'm glad you can take it lightly enough to joke over," he remarked, as he got up from his chair. There was a ponderous sort of bitterness in his voice, a bitterness that brought me up short. I had to fight back the surge of pity which was threatening to strangle my voice, pity for a man, once so proud of his power, standing stripped and naked in his weakness.
"Heaven knows I don't want to joke, Honey-Chile," I told him. "But we're not the first of these wild-catting westerners who've come a cropper. And since we haven't robbed a bank, or—"
"It's just a little worse than that," cut in Dinky-Dunk, meeting my astonished gaze with a sort of Job-like exultation in his own misery. I promptly asked him what he meant. He sat down again, before speaking.
"I mean that I've lost Allie's money along with my own," he very slowly and distinctly said to me. And we sat there, staring at each other, for all the world like a couple of penguins on a sub-Arctic shingle.
Allie, I remembered, was Dinky-Dunk's English cousin, Lady Alicia Elizabeth Newland, who'd made the Channel flight in a navy plane and the year before had figured in a Devonshire motor-car accident. Dinky-Dunk had a picture of her, from The Queen, up in his study somewhere, the picture of a very debonair and slender young woman on an Irish hunter. He had a still younger picture of her in a tweed skirt and spats and golf-boots, on the brick steps of a Sussex country-house, with the jaw of a bull-dog resting across her knee. It was signed and dated and in a silver frame and every time I'd found myself polishing that oblong of silver I'd done so with a wifely ruffle of temper.
"How much was it?" I finally asked, still adhering to my role of the imperturbable chorus.
"She sent out over seven thousand pounds. She wanted it invested out here."
"Because of the new English taxes, I suppose. She said she wanted a ranch, but she left everything to me."
"Then it was a trust fund!"
Dinky-Dunk bowed his head, in assent.
"It practically amounted to that," he acknowledged.
"And it's gone?"
"Every penny of it."
"But, Dinky-Dunk," I began. I didn't need to continue, for he seemed able to read my thoughts.
"I was counting on two full sections for Allie in the Simmond's Valley tract. That land is worth thirty dollars an acre, unbroken, at any time. But the bank's swept that into the bag, of course, along with the rest. The whole thing was like a stack of nine-pins—when one tumbled, it knocked the other over. I thought I could manage to save that much for her, out of the ruin. But the bank saw the land-boom was petering out. They shut off my credit, and foreclosed on the city block—and that sent the whole card-house down."
I had a great deal of thinking to do, during the next minute or two.
"Then isn't it up to us to knuckle down, Dinky-Dunk, and make good on that Lady Alicia mistake? If we get a crop this year we can—"
But Dinky-Dunk shook his head. "A thousand bushels an acre couldn't get me out of this mess," he maintained.
"Because your Lady Alicia and her English maid have already arrived in Montreal," he quietly announced.
"How do you know that?"
"She wrote to me from New York. She's had influenza, and it left her with a wheezy tube and a spot on her lungs, as she put it. Her doctor told her to go to Egypt, but she says Egypt's impossible, just now, and if she doesn't like our West she says she'll amble on to Arizona, or try California for the winter." He looked away, and smiled rather wanly. "She's counting on the big game shooting we can give her!"
"Grizzly, and buffalo, and that sort of thing?"
"I suppose so!"
"And she's on her way out here?"
"She's on her way out here to inspect a ranch which doesn't exist!"
I sat for a full minute gaping into Dinky-Dunk's woebegone face. And still again I had considerable thinking to do.
"Then we'll make it exist," I finally announced. But Dinky-Dunk, staring gloomily off into space, wasn't even interested. They had stunned the spirit out of him. He wasn't himself. They'd put him where even a well-turned Scotch scone couldn't appeal to him.
"Listen," I solemnly admonished. "If this Cousin Allie of yours is coming out here for a ranch, she's got to be presented with one."
"It sounds easy!" he said, not without mockery.
"And apparently the only way we can see that she's given her money's worth is to hand Casa Grande over to her. Surely if she takes this, bag and baggage, she ought to be half-satisfied."
Dinky-Dunk looked up at me as though I were assailing him with the ravings of a mad-woman. He knew how proud I had always been of that prairie home of ours.
"Casa Grande is yours—yours and the kiddies," he reminded me. "You've at least got that, and God knows you'll need it now, more than ever, God knows I've at least kept my hands off that!"
"But don't you see it can't be ours, it can't be a home, when there's a debt of honor between us and every acre of it."
"You're in no way involved in that debt," cried out my lord and master, with a trace of the old battling light in his eyes.
"I'm so involved in it that I'm going to give up the glory of a two-story house with hardwood floors and a windmill and a laundry chute and a real bathroom, before that English cousin of yours can find out the difference between a spring-lamb and a jack-rabbit!" I resolutely informed him. "And I'm going to do it without a whimper. Do you know what we're going to do, O lord and master? We're going to take our kiddies and our chattels and our precious selves over to that Harris Ranch, and there we're going to begin over again just as we did nearly four years ago!" Dinky-Dunk tried to stop me, but I warned him aside. "Don't think I'm doing anything romantic. I'm doing something so practical that the more I think of it the more I see it's the only thing possible."
He sat looking at me as though he had forgotten what my features were like and was, just discovering that my nose, after all, hadn't really been put on straight. Then the old battling light grew stronger than ever in his eyes.
"It's not going to be the only thing possible," he declared. "And I'm not going to make you pay for my mistakes. Not on your life! I could have swung the farm lands, all right, even though they did have me with my back to the wall, if only the city stuff hadn't gone dead—so dead that to-day you couldn't even give it away. I'm not an embezzler. Allie sent me out that money to take a chance with, and by taking a double chance I honestly thought I could get her double returns. As you say, it was a gambler's chance. But the cards broke against me. The thing that hurts is that I've probably just about cleaned the girl out."
"How do you know that?" I asked, wondering why I was finding it so hard to sympathize with that denuded and deluded English cousin.
"Because I know what's happened to about all of the older families and estates over there," retorted Dinky-Dunk. "The government has pretty well picked them clean."
"Could I see your Cousin Allie's letters?"
"What good would it do?" asked the dour man across the table from me. "The fat's in the fire, and we've got to face the consequences."
"And that's exactly what I've been trying to tell you, you foolish old calvanistic autocrat! We've got to face the consequences, and the only way to do it is to do it the way I've said."
Dinky-Dunk's face softened a little, and he seemed almost ready to smile. But he very quickly clouded up again, just as my own heart clouded up. For I knew, notwithstanding my willingness to deny it, that I was once more acting on impulse, very much as I'd acted on impulse four long years ago in that residuary old horse-hansom in Central Park when I agreed to marry Duncan Argyll McKail before I was even in love with him. But, like most women, I was willing to let Reason step down off the bridge and have Intuition pilot me through the more troubled waters of a life-crisis. For I knew that I was doing the right thing, even though it seemed absurd, even though at first sight it seemed too prodigious a sacrifice, just as I'd done the right thing when in the face of tribal reasoning and logic I'd gone kiting off to a prairie-ranch and a wickiup with a leaky roof. It was a tumble, but it was a tumble into a pansy-bed. And I was thinking that luck would surely be with me a second time, though thought skidded, like a tire on a wet pavement, every time I tried to foresee what this newer change would mean to me and mine.
"You're not going to face another three years of drudgery and shack-dirt," declared Dinky-Dunk, following, oddly enough, my own line of thought. "You went through that once, and once was enough. It's not fair. It's not reasonable. It's not even thinkable. You weren't made for that sort of thing, and—"
"Listen to me," I broke in, doing my best to speak calmly and quietly. "Those three years were really the happiest three years of all my life. I love to remember them, for they mean so much more than all the others. There were a lot of the frills and fixin's of life that we had to do without. But those three years brought us closer together, Dinky-Dunk, than we have ever been since we moved into this big house and got on bowing terms again with luxury. I don't know whether you've given it much thought or not, husband o' mine, but during the last year or two there's been a change taking place in us. You've been worried and busy and forever on the wing, and there have been days when I've felt you were almost a stranger to me, as though I'd got to be a sort of accident in your life. Remember, Honey-Chile, I'm not blaming you; I'm only pointing out certain obvious truths, now the time for a little honest talk seems to have cropped up. You were up to your ears in a fight, in a tremendously big fight, for success and money; and you were doing it more for me and Dinkie and Poppsy and Pee-Wee than for yourself. You couldn't help remembering that I'd been a city girl and imagining that prairie-life was a sort of penance I was undergoing before passing on to the joys of paradise in an apartment-hotel with a mail-chute outside the door and the sound of the Elevated outside the windows. And you were terribly wrong in all that, for there have been days and days, Dinky-Dunk, when I've been homesick for that old slabsided ranch-shack and the glory of seeing you come in ruddy and hungry and happy for the ham and eggs and bread I'd cooked with my own hands. It seemed to bring us so gloriously close together. It seemed so homy and happy-go-lucky and soul-satisfying in its completeness, and we weren't forever fretting about bank-balances and taxes and over-drafts. I was just a rancher's wife then—and I can't help feeling that all along there was something in that simple life we didn't value enough. We were just rubes and hicks and clodhoppers and hay-tossers in those days, and we weren't staying awake nights worrying about land-speculations and water-fronts and trying to make ourselves millionaires when we might have been making ourselves more at peace with our own souls. And now that our card-house of high finance has gone to smash, I realize more than ever that I've got to be at peace with my own soul and on speaking terms with my own husband. And if this strikes you as an exceptionally long-winded sermon, my beloved, it's merely to make plain to you that I haven't surrendered to any sudden wave of emotionalism when I talk about migrating over to that Harris Ranch. It's nothing more than good old hard-headed, practical self-preservation, for I wouldn't care to live without you, Dinky-Dunk, any more than I imagine you'd care to live without your own self-respect."
I sat back, after what I suppose was the longest speech I ever made in my life, and studied my lord and master's face. It was not an easy map to decipher, for man, after all, is a pretty complex animal and even in his more elemental moments is played upon by pretty complex forces. And if there was humility on that lean and rock-ribbed countenance of my soul-mate there was also antagonism, and mixed up with the antagonism was a sprinkling of startled wonder, and tangled up with the wonder was a slightly perplexed brand of contrition, and interwoven with that again was a suggestion of allegiance revived, as though he had forgotten that he possessed a wife who had a heart and mind of her own, who was even worth sticking to when the rest of the world was threatening to give him the cold shoulder. He felt abstractedly down in his coat pocket for his pipe, which is always a helpful sign.
"It's big and fine of you, Chaddie, to put it that way," he began, rather awkwardly, and with just a touch of color coming to his rather gray-looking cheek-bones. "But can't you see that now it's the children we've got to think of?"
"I have thought of them," I quietly announced. As though any mother, on prairie or in metropolis, didn't think of them first and last and in-between-whiles! "And that's what simplifies the situation. I want them to have a fair chance. I'd rather they—"
"It's not quite that criminal," cut in Dinky-Dunk, with almost an angry flush creeping up toward his forehead.
"I'm only taking your own word for that," I reminded him, deliberately steeling my heart against the tides of compassion that were trying to dissolve it. "And I'm only taking what is, after all, the easiest course out of the situation."
Dinky-Dunk's color receded, leaving his face even more than ever the color of old cheese, for all the tan of wind and sun which customarily tinted it, like afterglow on a stubbled hillside.
"But Lady Alicia herself still has something to say about all this," he reminded me.
"Lady Alicia had better rope in her ranch when the roping is good," I retorted, chilled a little by her repeated intrusion into the situation. For I had no intention of speaking of Lady Alicia Newland with bated breath, just because she had a title. I'd scratched dances with a duke or two myself, in my time, even though I could already see myself once more wielding a kitchen-mop and tamping a pail against a hog-trough, over at the Harris Ranch.
"You're missing the point," began Dinky-Dunk.
"Listen!" I suddenly commanded. A harried roebuck has nothing on a young mother for acuteness of hearing. And thin and faint, from above-stairs, I caught the sound of a treble wailing which was promptly augmented into a duet.
"Poppsy's got Pee-Wee awake," I announced as I rose from my chair. It seemed something suddenly remote and small, this losing of a fortune, before the more imminent problem of getting a pair of crying babies safely to sleep. I realized that as I ran upstairs and started the swing-box penduluming back and forth. I even found myself much calmer in spirit by the time I'd crooned and soothed the Twins off again. And I was smiling a little, I think, as I went down to my poor old Dinky-Dunk, for he held out a hand and barred my way as I rounded the table to resume my seat opposite him.
"You don't despise me, do you?" he demanded, holding me by the sleeve and studying me with a slightly mystified eye. It was an eye as wistful as an old hound's in winter, an eye with a hunger I'd not seen there this many a day.
"Despise you, Acushla?" I echoed, with a catch in my throat, as my arms closed about him. And as he clung to me, with a forlorn sort of desperation, a soul-Chinook seemed to sweep up the cold fogs that had gathered and swung between us for so many months. I'd worried, in secret, about that fog. I'd tried to tell myself that it was the coming of the children that had made the difference, since a big strong man, naturally, had to take second place to those helpless little mites. But my Dinky-Dunk had a place in my heart which no snoozerette could fill and no infant could usurp. He was my man, my mate, my partner in this tangled adventure called life, and so long as I had him they could take the house with the laundry-chute and the last acre of land.
"My dear, my dear," I tried to tell him, "I was never hungry for money. The one thing I've always been hungry for is love. What'd be the good of having a millionaire husband if he looked like a man in a hair-shirt on every occasion when you asked for a moment of his time? And what's the good of life if you can't crowd a little affection into it? I was just thinking we're all terribly like children in a Maypole dance. We're so impatient to get our colored bands wound neatly about a wooden stick, a wooden stick that can never be ours, that we make a mad race of what really ought to be a careless and leisurely joy. We don't remember to enjoy the dancing, and we seem to get so mixed in our ends. So carpe diem, say I. And perhaps you remember that sentence from Epictetus you once wrote out on a slip of paper and pinned to my bedroom door: 'Better it is that great souls should live in small habitations than that abject slaves should burrow in great houses!'"
Dinky-Dunk, as I sat brushing back his top-knot, regarded me with a sad and slightly acidulated smile.
"You'd need all that philosophy, and a good deal more, before you'd lived for a month in a place like the Harris shack," he warned me.
"Not if I knew you loved me, O Kaikobad," I very promptly informed him.
"But you do know that," he contended, man-like. I was glad to find, though, that a little of the bitterness had gone out of his eyes.
"Feather-headed women like me, Diddums, hunger to hear that sort of thing, hunger to hear it all the time. On that theme they want their husbands to be like those little Japanese wind-harps that don't even know how to be silent."
"Then why did you say, about a month ago, that marriage was like Hogan's Alley, the deeper one got into it the tougher it was?"
"Why did you go off to Edmonton for three whole days without kissing me good-by?" I countered. I tried to speak lightly, but it took an effort. For my husband's neglect, on that occasion, had seemed the first intimation that the glory was over and done with. It had given me about the same feeling that we used to have as flapperettes when the circus-manager mounted the tub and began to announce the after-concert, all for the price of ten cents, one dime!
"I wanted to, Tabbie, but you impressed me as looking rather unapproachable that day."
"When the honey is scarce, my dear, even bees are said to be cross," I reminded him. "And that's the thing that disturbs me, Dinky-Dunk. It must disturb any woman to remember that she's left her happiness in one man's hand. And it's more than one's mere happiness, for mixed up with that is one's sense of humor and one's sense of proportion. They all go, when you make me miserable. And the Lord knows, my dear, that a woman without a sense of humor is worse than a dipper without a handle."
Dinky-Dunk sat studying me.
"I guess it was my own sense of proportion that got out of kilter, Gee-Gee," he finally said. "But there's one thing I want you to remember. If I got deeper into this game than I should have, it wasn't for what money meant to me. I've never been able to forget what I took you away from. I took you away from luxury and carted you out here to the end of Nowhere and had you leave behind about everything that made life decent. And the one thing I've always wanted to do is make good on that over-draft on your bank-account of happiness. I've wanted to give back to you the things you sacrificed. I knew I owed you that, all along. And when the children came I saw that I owed it to you more than ever. I want to give Dinky-Dink and Poppsy and Pee-Wee a fair chance in life. I want to be able to start them right, just as much as you do. And you can't be dumped back into a three-roomed wickiup, with three children to bring up, and feel that you're doing the right thing by your family."
It wasn't altogether happy talk, but deep down in my heart I was glad we were having it. It seemed to clear the air, very much as a good old-fashioned thunder-storm can. It left us stumbling back to the essentials of existence. It showed us where we stood, and what we meant to each other, what we must mean to each other. And now that the chance had come, I intended to have my say out.
"The things that make life decent, Dinky-Dunk, are the things that we carry packed away in our own immortal soul, the homely old things like honesty and self-respect and contentment of mind. And if we've got to cut close to the bone before we can square up our ledger of life, let's start the carving while we have the chance. Let's get our conscience clear and know we're playing the game."
I was dreadfully afraid he was going to laugh at me, it sounded so much like pulpiteering. But I was in earnest, passionately in earnest, and my lord and master seemed to realize it.
"Have you thought about the kiddies?" he asked me, for the second time.
"I'm always thinking about the kiddies," I told him, a trifle puzzled by the wince which so simple a statement could bring to his face. His wondering eye, staring through the open French doors of the living-room, rested on my baby grand.
"How about that?" he demanded, with a grim head-nod toward the piano.
"That may help to amuse Lady Alicia," I just as grimly retorted.
He stared about that comfortable home which we had builded up out of our toil, stared about at it as I've seen emigrants stare back at the receding shores of the land they loved. Then he sat studying my face.
"How long is it since you've seen the inside of the Harris shack?" he suddenly asked me.
"Last Friday when I took the bacon and oatmeal over to Soapy and Francois and Whinstane Sandy," I told him.
"And what did you think of that shack?"
"It impressed me as being sadly in need of soap and water," I calmly admitted. "It's like any other shack where two or three men have been batching—no better and no worse than the wickiup I came to here on my honeymoon."
Dinky-Dunk looked about at me quickly, as though in search of some touch of malice in that statement. He seemed bewildered, in fact, to find that I was able to smile at him.
"But that, Chaddie, was nearly four long years ago," he reminded me, with a morose and meditative clouding of the brow. And I knew exactly what he was thinking about.
"I'll know better how to go about it this time," I announced with my stubbornest Doctor Pangless grin.
"But there are two things you haven't taken into consideration," Dinky-Dunk reminded me.
"What are they?" I demanded.
"One is the matter of ready money."
"I've that six hundred dollars from my Chilean nitrate shares," I proudly announced. "And Uncle Carlton said that if the Company ever gets reorganized it ought to be a paying concern."
Dinky-Dunk, however, didn't seem greatly impressed with either the parade of my secret nest-egg or the promise of my solitary plunge into finance. "What's the other?" I asked as he still sat frowning over his empty pipe.
"The other is Lady Alicia herself," he finally explained.
"What can she do?"
"She may cause complications."
"What kind of complications?"
"I can't tell until I've seen her," was Dinky-Dunk's none too definite reply.
"Then we needn't cross that bridge until we come to it," I announced as I sat watching Dinky-Dunk pack the bowl of his pipe and strike a match. It seemed a trivial enough movement. Yet it was monumental in its homeliness. It was poignant with a power to transport me back to earlier and happier days, to the days when one never thought of feathering the nest of existence with the illusions of old age. A vague loneliness ate at my heart, the same as a rat eats at a cellar beam.
I crossed over to my husband's side and stood with one hand on his shoulder as he sat there smoking. I waited for him to reach out for my other hand. But the burden of his troubles seemed too heavy to let him remember. He smoked morosely on. He sat in a sort of self-immuring torpor, staring out over what he still regarded as the wreck of his career. So I stooped down and helped myself to a very smoky kiss before I went off up-stairs to bed. For the children, I knew, would have me awake early enough—and nursing mothers needs must sleep!
Thursday the Second
I have won my point. Dinky-Dunk has succumbed. The migration is under way. The great trek has begun. In plain English, we're moving.
I rather hate to think about it. We seem so like the Children of Israel bundled out of a Promised Land, or old Adam and Eve turned out of the Garden with their little Cains and Abels. "We're up against it, Gee-Gee," as Dinky-Dunk grimly observed. I could see that we were, without his telling me. But I refused to acknowledge it, even to myself. And it wasn't the first occasion. This time, thank heaven, I can at least face it with fortitude, if not with relish. I don't like poverty. And I don't intend to like it. And I'm not such a hypocrite as to make a pretense of liking it. But I do intend to show my Dinky-Dunk that I'm something more than a household ornament, just as I intend to show myself that I can be something more than a breeder of children. I have given my three "hostages to fortune"—and during the last few days when we've been living, like the infant Moses, in a series of rushes, I have awakened to the fact that they are indeed hostages. For the little tikes, no matter how you maneuver, still demand a big share of your time and energy. But one finally manages, in some way or another. Dinky-Dunk threatens to expel me from the Mothers' Union when I work over time, and Poppsy and Pee-Wee unite in letting me know when I've been foolish enough to pass my fatigue-point. Yet I've been sloughing off some of my old-time finicky ideas about child-raising and reverting to the peasant-type of conduct which I once so abhorred in my Finnish Olga. And I can't say that either I or my family seem to have suffered much in the process. I feel almost uncannily well and strong now, and am a wolf for work. If nothing else happened when our apple-cart went over, it at least broke the monotony of life. I'm able to wring, in fact, just a touch of relish out of all this migrational movement and stir, and Casa Grande itself is already beginning to remind me of a liner's stateroom about the time the pilot comes aboard and the donkey-engines start to clatter up with the trunk-nets.
For three whole days I simply ached to get at the Harris Ranch shack, just to show what I could do with it. And I realized when Dinky-Dunk and I drove over to it in the buckboard, on a rather nippy morning when it was a joy to go spanking along the prairie trail with the cold air etching rosettes on your cheek-bones, that it was a foeman well worthy of my steel. At a first inspection, indeed, it didn't look any too promising. It didn't exactly stand up on the prairie-floor and shout "Welcome" into your ears. There was an overturned windmill and a broken-down stable that needed a new roof, and a well that had a pump which wouldn't work without priming. There was an untidy-looking corral, and a reel for stringing up slaughtered beeves, and an overturned Red River cart bleached as white as a buffalo skeleton. As for the wickiup itself, it was well-enough built, but lacking in windows and quite unfinished as to the interior.
I told Dinky-Dunk I wanted two new window-frames, beaverboard for inside lining, and two gallons of paint. I have also demanded a lean-to, to serve as an extra bedroom and nursery, and a brand-new bunk-house for the hired "hands" when they happen to come along. I have also insisted on a covered veranda and sleeping porch on the south side of the shack, and fly-screens, and repairs to the chimney to stop the range from smoking. And since the cellar, which is merely timbered, will have to be both my coal-hole and my storage-room, it most assuredly will have to be cemented. I explained to Dinky-Dunk that I wanted eave-troughs on both the shack and the stable, for the sake of the soft-water, and proceeded to point out the need of a new washing-machine, and a kiddie-coop for Poppsy and Pee-Wee as soon as the weather got warm, and a fence, hog-tight and horse-high, about my half-acre of kitchen garden.
Dinky-Dunk sat staring at me with a wry though slightly woebegone face.
"Look here, Lady-Bird, all this sort of thing takes 'rhino,' which means ready money. And where's it going to come from?"
"I'll use that six hundred, as long as it lasts," I blithely retorted. "And then we'll get credit."
"But my credit is gone," Dinky-Dunk dolorously acknowledged.
"Then what's the matter with mine?" I demanded. I hadn't meant to hurt him, when I said that. But I refused to be downed. And I intended to make my ranch a success.
"It's still quite unimpaired, I suppose," he said in a thirty-below-zero sort of voice.
"Goose!" I said, with a brotherly pat on his drooping shoulder. But my lord and master refused to be cheered up.
"It's going to take more than optimism to carry us through this first season," he explained to me. "And the only way that I can see is for me to get out and rustle for work."
"What kind of work?" I demanded.
"The kind there's a famine for, at this very moment," was Dinky-Dunk's reply.
"You don't mean being somebody else's hired man?" I said, aghast.
"A hired man can get four dollars a day and board," retorted my husband. "And a man and team can get nine dollars a day. We can't keep things going without ready money. And there's only one way, out here, of getting it."
Dinky-Dunk was able to laugh at the look of dismay that came into my face. I hadn't stopped to picture myself as the wife of a hired "hand." I hadn't quite realized just what we'd descended to. I hadn't imagined just how much one needed working capital, even out here on the edge of Nowhere.
"But never that way, Diddums!" I cried out in dismay, as I pictured my husband bunking with a sweaty-smelling plowing-gang of Swedes and Finns and hoboing about the prairie with a thrashing outfit of the Great Unwashed. He'd get cooties, or rheumatism, or a sunstroke, or a knife between his ribs some fine night—and then where'd I be? I couldn't think of it. I couldn't think of Duncan Argyll McKail, the descendant of Scottish kings and second-cousin to a title, hiring out to some old skinflint of a farmer who'd have him up at four in the morning and keep him on the go until eight at night.
"Then what other way?" asked Dinky-Dunk.
"You leave it to me," I retorted. I made a bluff of saying it bravely enough, but I inwardly decided that instead of sixteen yards of fresh chintz I'd have to be satisfied with five yards. Poverty, after all, is not a picturesque thing. But I didn't intend to be poor, I protested to my troubled soul, as I went at that Harris Ranch wickiup, tooth and nail, while Iroquois Annie kept an eye on Dinkie and the Twins.
These same Twins, I can more than ever see, are going to be somewhat of a brake on the wheels of industry. I have even been feeding on "slops," of late, to the end that Poppsy and Pee-Wee may thrive. And already I see sex-differences asserting themselves. Pee-Wee is a bit of a stoic, while his sister shows a tendency to prove a bit of a squealer. But Poppsy is much the daintier feeder of the two. I'll probably have to wean them both, however, before many more weeks slip by. As soon as we get settled in our new shack and I can be sure of a one-cow supply of milk I'll begin a bottle-feed once in every twenty-four hours. Dinky-Dunk says I ought to take a tip from the Indian mother, who sometimes nurses her babe until he's two and three years old. I asked Ikkie—as Dinkie calls Iroquois Annie—about this and Ikkie says the teepee squaw has no cow's milk and has to keep on the move, so she feeds him breast-milk until he's able to eat meat. Ikkie informs me that she has seen a papoose turn away from its mother's breast to take a puff or two at a pipe. From which I assume that the noble Red Man learns to smoke quite early in life.
Ikkie has also been enlightening me on other baby-customs of her ancestors, explaining that it was once the habit for a mother to name her baby for the first thing seen after its birth. That, I told Dinky-Dunk, was probably why there were so many "Running Rabbits," and "White Pups" and "Black Calfs" over on the Reservation. And that started me maun enlarging on the names of Indians he'd known, the most elongated of which, he acknowledged, was probably "The-Man-Who-Gets-Up- In-The-Middle-Of-The-Night-To-Feed-Oats-To-His-Pony," while the most descriptive was "Slow-To-Come-Over-The-Hill," though "Shot-At-Many-Times" was not without value, and "Long-Time-No-See-Him," as the appellative for a disconsolate young squaw, carried a slight hint of the Indian's genius for nomenclature. Another thing mentioned by Dunkie, which has stuck in my memory, was his running across a papoose's grave in an Indian burying-ground at Pincer Creek, when he was surveying, where the Indian baby had been buried—above-ground, of course—in an old Saratoga trunk. That served to remind me of Francois' story about "Old Sun," who preceded "Running Rabbit"—note the name—as chief of the Alberta Blackfoot tribe, and always carried among his souvenirs of conquest a beautiful white scalp, with hair of the purest gold, very long and fine, but would never reveal how or where he got it. Many a night, when I couldn't sleep, I've worried about that white scalp, and dramatized the circumstances of its gathering. Who was the girl with the long and lovely tresses of purest gold? And did she die bravely? And did she meet death honorably and decently, or after the manner of certain of the Jesuits' Relations?...
I have had a talk with Whinnie, otherwise Whinstane Sandy, who has been ditching at the far end of our half-section. I explained the situation to him quite openly, acknowledging that we were on the rocks but not yet wrecked, and pointing out that there might be a few months before the ghost could walk again. And Whinstane Sandy has promised to stick. Poor old Whinnie not only promised to stick, but volunteered that if he could get over to Seattle or 'Frisco and raise some money on his Klondike claim our troubles would be a thing of the past. For Whinnie, who is an old-time miner and stampeder, is, I'm afraid, a wee bit gone in the upper story. He dreams he has a claim up North where there's millions and millions in gold to be dug out. On his moose-hide watch-guard he wears a nugget almost half as big as a praline, a nugget he found himself in ninety-nine, and he'd part with his life, I believe, before he'd part with that bangle of shiny yellow metal. In his chest of black-oak, too, he keeps a package of greasy and dog-eared documents, and some day, he proclaims, those papers will bring him into millions of money.
I asked Dinky-Dunk about the nugget, and he says it's genuine gold, without a doubt. He also says there's one chance in a hundred of Whinnie actually having a claim up in the gold country, but doubts if the poor old fellow will ever get up to it again. It's about on the same footing, apparently, as Uncle Carlton's Chilean nitrate mines. For Whinnie had a foot frozen, his third winter on the Yukon, and this, of course, has left him lame. It means that he's not a great deal of good when it comes to working the land, but he's a clever carpenter, and a good cement-worker, and can chore about milking the cows and looking after the stock and repairing the farm implements. Many a night, after supper, he tells us about the Klondike in the old days, about the stampedes of ninety-eight and ninety-nine, and the dance-halls and hardships and gamblers and claim-jumpers. I have always had a weakness for him because of his blind and unshakable love for my little Dinkie, for whom he whittles out ships and windmills and decoy-ducks. But when I explained things to simple-minded old Whinnie, and he offered to hand over the last of his ready money—the money he was hoarding dollar by dollar to get back to his hidden El Dorado—it brought a lump up into my throat.
I couldn't accept his offer, of course, but I loved him for making it. And whatever happens, I'm going to see that Whinnie has patches on his panties and no holes in his socks as long as he abides beneath our humble roof-tree. I intend to make the new bunk-house just as homy and comfortable as I can, so that Whinnie, under that new roof, won't feel that he's been thrust out in the cold. But I must have my own house for myself and my babes. Soapy Stennet, by the way, has been paid off by Dinky-Dunk and is moving on to the Knee-Hill country, where he says he can get good wages breaking and seeding. Soapy, of course, was a good man on the land, but I never took a shine to that hard-eyed Canuck, and we'll get along, in some way or other, without him. For, in the language of the noble Horatius, "I'll find a way, or make it!"
On the way back to Casa Grande to-night, after a hard day's work, I asked Dinky-Dunk if we wouldn't need some sort of garage over at the Harris Ranch, to house our automobile. He said he'd probably put doors on the end of one of the portable granaries and use that. When I questioned if a car of that size would ever fit into a granary he informed me that we couldn't keep our big car.
"I can get seventeen hundred dollars for that boat," he explained. "We'll have to be satisfied with a tin Lizzie, and squander less on gasoline."
So once again am I reminded that the unpardonable crime of poverty is not always picturesque. But I wrestled with my soul then and there, and put my pride in my pocket and told Dinky-Dunk I didn't give a rip what kind of a car I rode in so long as I had such a handsome chauffeur. And I reached out and patted him on the knee, but he was too deep in his worries about business matters, I suppose, to pay any attention to that unseemly advance.
To-night after supper, when the bairns were safely in bed, I opened up the baby grand, intent on dying game, whatever happened or was to happen. But my concert wasn't much of a success. When you do a thing for the last time, and know it's to be the last time, it gives you a graveyardy sort of feeling, no matter how you may struggle against it. And the blither the tune the heavier it seemed to make my heart. So I swung back to the statelier things that have come down to us out of the cool and quiet of Time. I eased my soul with the Sonata Appassionata and lost myself in the Moonlight and pounded out the Eroica. But my fingers were stiff and my touch was wooden—so it was small wonder my poor lord and master tried to bury himself in his four-day-old newspaper. Then I tried Schubert's Rosamonde, though that wasn't much of a success. So I wandered on through Liszt to Chopin. And even Chopin struck me as too soft and sugary and far-away for a homesteader's wife, so I sang
"In the dead av the night, acushla, When the new big house is still,"—
to see if it would shake any sign of recognition out of my harried old Dinky-Dunk.
As I beheld nothing more than an abstracted frown over the tip-top edge of his paper, I defiantly swung into The Humming Coon, which apparently had no more effect than Herman Lohr. So with malice aforethought I slowly and deliberately pounded out the Beethoven Funeral March. I lost myself, in fact, in that glorious and melodic wail of sorrow, merged my own puny troubles in its god-like immensities, and was brought down to earth by a sudden movement from Dinky-Dunk.
"Why rub it in?" he almost angrily demanded as he got up and left the room....
But that stammering little soul-flight has done me good. It has given me back my perspective. I refuse to be downed. I'm still the captain of my soul. I'm still at the wheel, no matter if we are rolling a bit. And life, in some way, is still going to be good, still well worth the living!
Wednesday the Eighth
Dinky-Dunk has had word that Lady Alicia is on her way west. He seems to regard that event as something very solemn, but I refuse to take seriously either her ladyship or her arrival. To-night, I'm more worried about Dinkie, who got at the floor-shellac with which I'd been furbishing up the bathroom at Casa Grande. He succeeded in giving his face and hair a very generous coat of it—and I'm hoping against hope he didn't get too much of it in his little stomach. He seems normal enough, and in fairly good spirits, but I had to scrub his face with coal-oil, to get it clean, and his poor little baby-skin is burnt rather pink.
The winter has broken, the frost is coming out of the ground and the mud is not adding to our joy in life. Our last load over to the Harris shack was ferried and tooled through a batter. On the top of it (the load, and not the batter!) I placed Olie's old banjo, for whatever happens, we mustn't be entirely without music.
Yesterday Dinky-Dunk got Paddy saddled and bridled for me. Paddy bucked and bit and bolted and sulked and tried to brush his rider off against the corral posts. But Dinky-Dunk fought it out with him, and winded him, and mastered him, and made him meek enough for me to slip up into the saddle. My riding muscles, however, have gone flabby, and two or three miles, for the first venture, was all I cared to stand. But I'm glad to know that Paddy can be pressed into service again, whenever the occasion arises. Poor old Bobs, by the way, keeps looking at me with a troubled and questioning eye. He seems to know that some unsettling and untoward event is on the way. When a coyote howled last night, far off on the sky-line, Bobs poured out his soul in an answering solo of misery. This morning, when I was pretty busy, he poked his head between my knees. I had a dozen things calling me, but I took the time to rub his nose and brush back his ears and tell him he was the grandest old dog on all God's green earth. And he repaid me with a look of adoration that put springs under my heels for the rest of the morning, and came and licked Pee-Wee's bare heels, and later Poppsy's, when I was giving them their bath.
Friday the Tenth
Lady Alicia has arrived. So have her trunks, eleven in number—count 'em!—trunks of queer sizes and shapes, of pigskin and patent leather and canvas, with gigantic buckles and straps, and all gaudily initialed and plastered with foreign labels. Her ladyship had to come, of course, at the very worst time of year, when the mud was at its muckiest and the prairie was at its worst. The trails were simply awful, with the last of the frost coming out of the ground and mother earth a foot-deep sponge of engulfing stickiness. All the world seemed turned to mud. I couldn't go along, of course, when Dinky-Dunk started off in the Teetzels' borrowed spring "democrat" to meet his English cousin at the Buckhorn station, with Whinstane Sandy and the wagon trailing behind for the luggage.
We expected a lady in somewhat delicate health, so I sent along plenty of rugs and a foot-warmer, and saw that the house was well heated, and the west room bed turned down. Even a hot-water bottle stood ready and waiting to be filled.
But Lady Alicia, when she arrived with Dinky-Dunk just before nightfall, didn't impress me as very much of an invalid. She struck me more as a very vital and audacious woman, neither young nor old, with an odd quietness of manner to give a saber-edge to her audacity. I could hear her laughing, musically and not unpleasantly, at the mud-coated "democrat," which on its return looked a good deal like a 'dobe hut mounted on four chariot wheels. But everything, for that matter, was covered with mud, horses and harness and robes and even the blanket in which Lady Alicia had wrapped herself. She had done this, I could see, to give decent protection to a Redfern coat of plucked beaver with immense reveres, though there was mud enough on her stout tan shoes, so unmistakably English in their common-sense solidity, and some on her fur turban and even a splash or two on her face. That face, by the way, has an apple-blossom skin of which I can see she is justly proud. And she has tourmaline eyes, with reddish hazel specks in an iris of opaque blue, and small white teeth and lips with a telltale curve of wilfulness about them. She isn't exactly girlish, but with all her worldly wisdom she has a touch of the clinging-ivy type which must make her inordinately appealing to men. Her voice is soft and full-voweled, with that habitual rising inflection characteristic of the English, and that rather insolent drawl which in her native land seems the final flower of unchallenged privilege. Her hands are very white and fastidious looking, and most carefully manicured. She is, in fact, wonderful in many ways, but I haven't yet decided whether I'm going to like her or not. Her smile strikes me as having more glitter than warmth, and although she is neither tall nor full-bodied, she seems to have the power of making point take the place of weight. Yet, oddly enough, there is an occasional air of masculine loose-jointedness about her movements, a half-defiant sort of slouch and swagger which would probably carry much farther in her Old World than in our easier-moving New World, where disdain of decorum can not be regarded as quite such a novelty.
It wasn't until she was within the protecting door of Casa Grande that I woke up to the fact of how incongruous she stood on a northwest ranch. She struck me, then, as distinctly an urban product, as one of those lazy and silk-lined and limousiny sort of women who could face an upholstery endurance-test without any apparent signs of heart-failure, but might be apt to fall down on engine-performance. Yet I was determined to suspend all judgment, even after I could see that she was making no particular effort to meet me half-way, though she did acknowledge that Dinkie, in his best bib and tucker, was a "dawling" and even proclaimed that his complexion—due, of course, to the floor-shellac and coal-oil—reminded her very much of the higher-colored English children. She also dutifully asked about Poppsy and Pee-Wee, after announcing that she found the house uncomfortably hot, and seemed surprised that Dinky-Dunk should descend to the stabling and feeding and watering of his own horses.
She appeared rather constrained and ill-at-ease, in fact, until Dinky-Dunk had washed up and joined us. Yet I saw, when we sat down to our belated supper, that the fair Allie had the abundant and honest appetite of a healthy boy. She also asked if she might smoke between courses—which same worried the unhappy Dinky-Dunk much more than it did me. My risibilities remained untouched until she languidly remarked that any woman who had twins on the prairie ought to get a V.C.
But she automatically became, I retorted, a K.C.B. This seemed to puzzle the cool-eyed Lady Alicia.
"That means a Knight Commander of the Bath," she said with her English literalness.
"Exactly," I agreed. And Dinky-Dunk had to come to her rescue and explain the joke, like a court-interpreter translating Cree to the circuit judge, so that by the time he got through it didn't seem a joke at all and his eyes were flashing me a code-signal not to be too hard on a tenderfoot. When, later on, Lady Alicia looked about Casa Grande, which we'd toiled and moiled and slaved to make like the homestead prints in the immigration pamphlets, she languidly acknowledged that it was rather ducky, whatever that may mean, and asked Dinky-Dunk if there'd be any deer-shooting this spring. I notice, by the way, that she calls him "Dooncan" and sometimes "Cousin Doonk," which strikes me as being over-intimate, seeing he's really her second cousin. It seems suggestive of some hidden joke between them. And Duncan addresses her quite openly as "Allie."