Harold Bindloss.

The Girl from Keller's online

. (page 1 of 22)
Online LibraryHarold BindlossThe Girl from Keller's → online text (page 1 of 22)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


Produced by Dagny;John Bickers; David Widger





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



CHAPTER I

THE PORTRAIT

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.



CHAPTER II

THE PICNIC

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,


1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22

Online LibraryHarold BindlossThe Girl from Keller's → online text (page 1 of 22)