The Prairie Child
by Arthur Stringer
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Dinkie, I notice, has just compiled a list of horses. I read from his carefully ruled half-page:

"Draght horses; carriege horses; riding horses; racing horses; ponyies; percheron from france; Belgain from Beljium; shire clyesdale and saffold punch from great Britain; french coach and German coach; contucky saddle horses; through-breads; Shetland ponies; mushstand ponies; pacers and pintoes." Thus recordeth my Toddler.

Sunday the Ninth

I have had Dinkie in bed for the last five days, with a bruised foot. Duncan shortened the stirrups and put the boy on Briquette, who had just proved a handful for even an old horse-wrangler like Cuba Sebeck. Briquette bucked and threw the boy. And Dinkie, in the mix-up, got a hoof-pound on the ankle. No bones were broken, luckily, but the foot was very sore and swollen for a few days. No word about the episode has passed between Duncan and me. But I'm glad, all things considered, that I was not a witness of the accident. The clouds are already quite heavy enough over Casa Grande.

Dinkie and his mater, however, have been drawn much closer together during the last few days. I've talked to him, and read to him, and without either of us being altogether conscious of it there has been an opening of a closed door or two. Dinkie loves to be read to. The new world of the imagination is just opening up to him. And I envy the rapture of the child in books, rapture not yet spoiled by the intellectual conceit of the grown-up.

But I'm not the only reader about this ranch. I'm afraid the copy of Burns which Santa Claus brought to Whinstane Sandy last Christmas is not adding to his matrimonial tendencies as love-plaints of that nature should. At noon, as soon as dinner is over, he sits on the back step, poring over his beloved Tammas. And at night, now that the evenings are chillier, he retreats to the bunk-house stove, where he smokes and reads aloud. His own mother, he tells me, used to say many of those pieces to him when he was a wee laddie. He both outraged and angered poor Struthers, last Sunday, by reading Tam O'Shanter aloud to her. That autumnal vestal proclaimed that it was anything but suitable literature for an old philanderer who still saw fit to live alone. It showed, she averred, a shocking lack of respect for women-folk and should be taken over by the police.

Struthers even begins to suspect that this much-thumbed volume of Burns lies at the root of Whinnie's accumulating misanthropy. She has asked me if I thought a volume of Mrs. Hemans would be of service in leading the deluded old misogynist back to the light. The matter has become a more urgent one since Cuba Sebeck suffered a severe bilious attack and a consequent sea-change in his affections. But I'm afraid our Whinnie is too old a bird to be trapped by printer's ink. I notice, in fact, that Struthers is once more spending her evenings in knitting winter socks. And I have a shadow of a suspicion that they are for the obdurate one.

My Dinkie, by the way, has written his first poem, or, rather, his first two poems. The first one he slipped folded into my sewing-basket and I found it when I was looking for new buttons for Pauline Augusta's red sweater. It reads:

No more we smel the sweet clover, Floting on the breeze all over. But now we hear the wild geese calling; And lissen, tis the grey owl yowling.

The second one, however, was a more ambitious effort. He worked over it, propped up in bed, for an hour or two. Then, having looked upon his work and having seen that it was good, he blushingly passed it over to me. So I went to the window and read it.

O blue-bird, happy robbin— Who teached those birds to stick theirselves together? Who teached them how to put their tails on? Who teached them how to hold tight on the tree tops? Who gived them all the fetthers on their brest? Who gived them all the eggs with little birdies in them? Who teached them how to make the shells so blue? Who teached them how to com home in the dark? Twas God. Twas God. He teached him!

I read it over slowly, with a crazy fluttering of the heart which I could never explain. They were so trivial, those little halting lines, and yet so momentous to me! It was life seeking expression, life groping so mysteriously toward music. It was man emerging out of the dusk of time. It was Rodin's Penseur, not in grim and stately bronze, but in a soft-eyed and white-bodied child, groping his stumbling way toward the border-land of consciousness, staring out on a new world and finding it wonderful. It was my Little Stumbler, my Precious Piece-of-Life, walking with his arm first linked through the arm of Mystery. It was my Dinkie looking over the rampart of the home-nest and breaking lark-like into song.

I went back to the bed and sat down on the edge of it, and took my man-child in my arms.

"It's wonderful, Dinkie," I said, trying to hide the tears I was so ashamed of. "It's so wonderful, my boy, that I'm going to keep it with me, always, as long as I live. And some day, when you are a great man, and all the world is at your feet, I'm going to bring it to you and show it to you. For I know now that you are going to be a great man, and that your old mother is going to live to be so proud of you it'll make her heart ache with joy!"

He hugged me close, in a little back-wash of rapture, and then settled down on his pillows.

"I could do better ones than that," he finally said, with a glowing eye.

"Yes," I agreed. "They'll be better and better. And that'll make your old Mummsy prouder and prouder!"

He lay silent for several minutes. Then he looked at the square of paper which I held folded in my hand.

"I'd like to send it to Uncle Peter," he rather startled me by saying.

Saturday the Twenty-Ninth

Once more I'm a grass widow. My Duncan is awa'. He scooted for Calgary as soon as his threshing-work was finished up. But that tumult is over and once more I've a chance to sit down and commune with my soul. Everything here is over-running with wheat. Our bins are bursting. The lord of the realm is secretly delighted, but he has said little about it. He has a narrow course to steer. He is grateful for the money that this wheat will bring in to him, yet he can see it would never do to harp too loudly on the productiveness of our land—on my land, I ought to say, for Casa Grande has now been formally deeded to me. I find no sense of triumph, however, in that transfer. I am depressed, in fact, at the very thought of it. It seems to carry a vague air of the valedictory. But I refuse to be intimidated by the future.

Gershom and I, indeed, have been indulging in the study of astronomy. The air was crystal clear last night, so that solemn youth suggested that we take out the old telescope and study the stars. Which we did. And which was much more wonderful than I had imagined. But Gershom had no reflector, so after getting a neck-ache trying to inspect the heavens while on our feet we took the old buffalo-robe and a couple of rugs out to a straw-pile that had been hauled in to protect our winter perennials. There we indecorously reposed on our backs and went stargazing in comfort. And Gershom even forgot that painful bashfulness of his when he fell to talking about the planets. He slipped out of his shell and spoke with genuine feeling.

He suggested that we begin with the Big Dipper, which I could locate easily enough well up in the northern sky. That, Gershom told me, was sometimes called the Great Bear, though it was only a part of the real Ursa Major of the astronomers. Then he showed me Benetnasch at the end of the Dipper's handle, and Mizar at the bend in the handle, then Alioth, and then Megrez, which joins the handle to the bowl. Then he showed me Phaed and Merak, which mark the bottom of the bowl, and then Dubhe at the bowl's outer rim.

I tried hard, but I was very stupid about getting the names right. Then Gershom asked me to look up at Mizar, and see if I could make out a small star quite close to it. I did so, without much trouble, and Gershom thereupon condescended to admit that I had exceptionally good eyes. For that star, he explained, was Alcor, and Alcor was Arabic for "the proof," and for centuries and centuries the ability to see that star had been accepted as the proof of good vision.

Then Gershom went on to the other constellations, and talked of suns of the first and second magnitude, and pointed out Sirius, in whose honor great temples had once been built in Egypt, and Arcturus, the same old Arcturus that a Hebrew poet by the name of Job had sung about, and Vega and Capella and Rigel, which he said sent out eight thousand times more light than our sun, and is at least thirty-four thousand times as big.

But it only made me dizzy and staggered my mind. I couldn't comprehend the distances he was talking about. I just couldn't make it, any more than a bronco that had been used to jumping a six-barred gate could vault over a windmill tower. And I had to tell Gershom that it didn't do a bit of good informing me that Sirius was comparatively close to us, as it stood only nine light-years away. I remembered how he had explained that light travels one hundred and eighty-six thousand miles a second, and that there are thirty million seconds in a year, so that a light-year is about five and a half million million of miles. But when he started to tell me that some of the so-called photographic stars are thirty-two thousand light-years away from us my imagination just curled up and died. It didn't mean anything to me. It couldn't. I tried in vain to project my puny little soul through all that space. At first it was rather bewildering. Then it grew into something touched with grandeur. Then it took on an aspect of awfulness. And from that it grew into a sort of ghastliness, until the machinery of the mind choked and balked and stopped working altogether, like an overloaded motor. I had to reach out in the cold air and catch hold of Gershom's arm. I felt a hunger to cling to something warm and human.

"We call this world of ours a pretty big world," Gershom was saying. "But look at Betelgeuse up there, which Michelson has been able to measure. He has, at least, succeeded in measuring the angle at the eye that Betelgeuse subtends, so that after estimating its parallax as given by a heliometer, it's merely a matter of trigonometry to work out the size of the star. And he estimated Betelgeuse to be two hundred and sixty million miles in diameter. That means it would take twenty-seven million of our suns to equal it in bulk. So that this big world of ours, which takes so many weeks to crawl about on the fastest ships and the fastest trains, is really a mote of dust, something smaller than the smallest pin-prick, compared to that far-away sun up there on the shoulder of Orion!"

"Stop!" I cried. "You're positively giving me a chill up my spine. You're making me feel so lonesome, Gershom, that you're giving me goose-flesh. You're not leaving me anything to get hold of. You haven't even left me anything to stand on. I'm only a little speck of Nothing on a nit of a world in a puny little universe which is only a little freckle on the face of some greater universe which is only a lost child in a city of bigger constellations which in turn have still lonelier suns to swing about, until I go on and on, and wonder with a gasp what is beyond the end of space. But I can't go on thinking about it. I simply can't. It upsets me, the same as an earthquake would, when you look about for something solid and find that even your solid old earth is going back on you!"

"On the contrary," said Gershom as he put down his telescope, "I know nothing more conducive to serenity than the study of astronomy. It has a tendency to teach you, in the first place, just how insignificant you are in the general scheme of things. The naked eye, in clear air like this, can see over eight thousand stars. The larger telescopes reveal a hundred million stars, and the photographic dry-plate has shown that there are several thousands of millions which can be definitely recorded. So that you and I are not altogether the whole works. And to remember that, when we are feeling a bit important, is good for our Ego!"

I didn't answer him, for I was busy just then studying the Milky Way. And I couldn't help feeling that it must have been on a night like this that a certain young shepherd watching his flocks on the uplands of Canaan sat studying the infinite stairways of star-dust that "sloped through darkness up to God" and was moved to say: "When I consider the heavens, the work of Thy fingers, the moon and the stars which Thou hast ordained, what is man that Thou art mindful of him, or the son of man that Thou visitest him?"

"Yes, Gershom, it's horribly humiliating," I said as I squinted up at those serene heavens. "They last forever. And we come and go out, and nobody knows why!"

"Pardon me," corrected the literal-minded Gershom. "They do not last forever. They come and go out, just as we do. Only they take longer. Consider the Dipper up there, for instance. A hundred thousand years from now that Dipper will be perceptibly altered, for we know the lateral movement of Dubhe and Benetnasch will give the outer line of the bowl a greater flare and make the crook of the handle a trifle sharper. Even a thousand years would show change enough for instruments to detect. And a million years will probably show the group pretty well broken up. But the one regrettable feature, of course, is that we will not be here to see it."

"Where will we be?" I asked Gershom.

"I don't know," he finally admitted, after an unexpectedly long silence.

"But will it all go on, forever and forever and forever?"

"To do so is not in the nature of things," was Gershom's quiet-toned reply. "It is the destiny of our own earth, of course, which most interests us. And however we look at it, that destiny is a gloomy one. Its heat may fail. Stupart, in fact, has established that its temperature is going down one and a half degrees every thousand years. Or its volcanic elevating forces may give out, so that the land will subside and the water wash over it from pole to pole. Or a comet may wipe up its atmosphere, the same as one sponge-sweep wipes up moisture from a slate. Or the sun itself may cool, so that the last of our race will stand huddled together in a solarium somewhere on the Equator. Or as our sun rushes toward Lyra, it may bump into a derelict sun, just as a ship bumps into a wreck. If that derelict were as big as our sun, astronomers would see it at least fifteen years before the collision. For five or six years it would even be visible to the naked eye, so that the race, or what remained of the race, would have plenty of time to think things over and put its house in order. Then, of course, we'd go up like a singed feather. And there'd be no more breakfasts to worry over, and no more wheat to thresh, and no more school fires to start in the morning, and no more children to make think you know more than you really do, and not even any more hearts to ache. There would be just Emptiness, just voiceless and never-ending Nothingness!"

Gershom stopped speaking and sat staring up at Orion. Then he turned and looked at me.

"What's the matter?" he asked, for he must have felt my shiver under the robe.

"Nothing," I said in a thin and pallid voice. "Only I think I'll go back to the house. And I'm going to make a pot of good hot cocoa!" ... And that's mostly what life is: making little pots of cocoa to keep our bodies warm in the midst of a never-ending chilliness!

Tuesday the Eighth

My husband is home again. He came back with the first blizzard of the winter and had a hard time getting through to Casa Grande. This gives him all the excuses he could desire for railing at prairie life. I told him, after patiently listening to him cussing about everything in sight, that it was plain to see that he belonged to the land of the beaver. He promptly requested to know what I meant by that.

"Doesn't the beaver regard it as necessary to dam his home before he considers it fit to live in?" I retorted. But Duncan, in that estranging new mood of his, didn't relax a line. He even announced, a little later on, that a quick-silver wit might be all right if it could be kept from running over. And it was my turn to ask if he had any particular reference to allusions.

"Well, for one thing," he told me, "there's this tiresome habit of hitching nicknames on to everything in sight."

I asked him what names he objected to.

"To begin right at home," he retorted, "I regard 'Dinkie' as an especially silly name for a big hulk of a boy. I think it's about time that youngster was called by his proper name."

I'd never thought about it, to tell the truth. His real name, I remembered, was Elmer Duncan McKail. That endearing diminutive of "Dinkie" had stuck to him from his baby days, and in my fond and foolish eyes, of course, had always seemed to fit him. But even Gershom had spoken to me on the matter, months before, asking me if I preferred the boy to be known as "Dinkie" to his school mates. And I'd told Gershom that I didn't believe we could get rid of the "Dinkie" if we wanted to. His father, I knew, had once objected to "Duncan," as he had no liking to be dubbed "Old Duncan" while his offspring would answer to "Young Duncan." And "Duncan," as a name, had never greatly appealed to me. But it is plain now that I have been remiss in the matter. So hereafter we'll have to make an effort to have our little Dinkie known as Elmer. It's like bringing a new child into the family circle, a new child we're not quite acquainted with. But these things, I suppose, have to be faced. So hereafter my laddie shall officially be known as "Elmer," Elmer Duncan McKail. And I have started the ball rolling by duly inscribing in his new books "Elmer D. McKail" and requesting Gershom to address his pupil as "Elmer."

I've been wondering, in the meantime, if Duncan is going to insist on a revision of all our ranch names, the names so tangled up with love and good-natured laughter and memories of the past. Take our horses alone: Tumble-weed and timeless Tithonus, Buntie and Briquette, Laughing-gas and Coco the Third, Mudski and Tarzanette. I'd hate now to lose those names. They are the register of our friendly love for our animals.

It begins to creep through this thick head of mine that my husband no longer nurses any real love for either these animals or prairie life. And if that is the case, he will never get anything out of prairie living. It will be useless for him even to try. So I may as well do what I can to reconcile myself to the inevitable. I am not without my moments of revolt. But in those moods when I feel a bit uppish I remember about my recent venture into astronomy. What's the use of worrying, anyway? There was one ice age, and there is going to be another ice age. I tell myself that my troubles are pretty trivial, after all, since I'm only one of many millions on this earth and since this earth is only one of many millions of other earths which will swing about their suns billions and billions of years after I and my children and my children's children are withered into dust.

It rather takes my breath away, at times, and I shy away from it the same as Pauline Augusta shies away from the sight of blood. It reminds me of Chaddie's New York lady with whom the Bishop ventured to discuss ultimate destinies. "Yes, I suppose I shall enter into eternal bliss," responded this fair lady, "but would you mind not discussing such disagreeable subjects at tea-time?"

Speaking of disagreeable subjects, we seem to have a new little trouble-maker here at Casa Grande. It's in the form of a brindle pup called Minty, which Dinkie—I mean, of course, which Elmer, acquired in exchange for a jack-knife and what was left of his Swiss Family Robinson. But Minty has not been well treated by the world, and was brought home with a broken leg. So Whinnie and I made splints out of an old cigar-box cover, and padded the fracture with cotton wool and bound it up with tape. Minty, in the moderated spirits of invalidism, was a meek and well behaved pup during the first few days after his arrival, sleeping quietly at the foot of Elmer's bed and stumping around after his new master like a war veteran awaiting his discharge. But now that Minty's leg is getting better and he finds himself in a world that flows with warm milk and much petting, he betrays a tendency to use any odd article of wearing apparel as a teething-ring. He has completely ruined one of my bedroom slippers and done Mexican-drawn-work on the ends of the two living-room window-curtains. But what is much more ominous, Minty yesterday got hold of Dinky-Dunk's Stetson and made one side of its rim look as though it had been put through a meat-chopper. So my lord and master has been making inquiries about Minty and Minty's right of possession. And the order has gone forth that hereafter no canines are to sleep in this house. It impresses me as a trifle unreasonable, all things considered, and Elmer, with a rather unsteady underlip, has asked me if Minty must be taken away from him. But I have no intention of countermanding Duncan's order. The crust over the volcano is quite thin enough, as it is. And whatever happens, I am resolved to be a meek and dutiful wife. But I've had a talk with Whinnie and he's going to fix up a comfortable box behind the stove in the bunk-house, and there the exiled Minty will soon learn to repose in peace. It's marvelous, though, how that little three-legged animal loves my Dinkie, loves my Elmer, I should say. He licks my laddie's shoes and yelps with joy at the smell of his pillow ... Poor little abundant-hearted mite, overflowing with love! But life, I suppose, will see to it that he is brought to reason. We must learn not to be too happy on this earth. And we must learn that love isn't always given all it asks for.

Thursday the Seventeenth

The crust over the volcano has shown itself to be even thinner than I imagined. The lava-shell gave way, under our very feet, and I've had a glimpse of the molten fury that can flow about us without our knowing it. And like so many of life's tragic moments, it began out of something that is almost ridiculous in its triviality.

Night before last, when Struthers was rather late in setting her bread, she heard Minty scratching and whimpering at the back door, and without giving much thought to what she was doing, let him into the house. Minty, of course, went scampering up to Dinkie's bed, where he slept secretly and joyously until morning. And all might have been well, even at this, had not Minty's return to his kingdom gone to his head. To find some fitting way of expressing his joy must have taxed that brindle pup's ingenuity, for, before any of us were up, he descended to the living-room, where he delightedly and diligently proceeded to remove the upholstery from the old Chesterfield. By the time I came on the scene, at any rate, there was nothing but a grisly skeleton of the Chesterfield left. Now, that particular piece of furniture had known hard use, and there were places where the mohair had been worn through, and I'd even discussed the expediency of having the thing done over. But I knew that Minty's efforts to hasten this movement would not meet with approval. So I discreetly decided to have Whinnie and Struthers remove the tell-tale skeleton to the bunk-house. Before that transfer could be effected, however, the Dour Man invaded the living-room and stood with a cold and accusatory eye inspecting that monument of destructiveness.

"Where's Elmer?" he demanded, with a grim look which started by heart pounding.

"Elmer's dressing," I said as quietly as I could. "Do you want him?"

"I do," announced my husband, whiter in the face than I had seen him for many a day.

"What for?" I asked.

"I think you know what for," he said, meeting my eye.

"I'm not sure that I do," I found the courage to retort. "But I'd prefer being certain."

Duncan, instead of answering me, went to the foot of the stairs and called his son. Then he strode out of the room and out of the house. Struthers, in the meantime, circumspectly took possession of Minty, who was still indecorously shaking a bit of mohair between his jocund young teeth. She and Minty vanished from the scene. A moment later, however, Duncan walked back into the room. He had a riding-quirt in his hand.

"Where's that boy?" he demanded.

I went out to the foot of the stairs, where I met Elmer coming down, buttoning his waist as he came. For just a moment his eye met mine. It was a questioning eye, but not a cowardly one. I had intended to speak to him, but my voice, for some reason, didn't respond to my will. So I merely took the boy's hand and led him into the living-room. There his father stood confronting him.

"Did that pup sleep on your bed last night?" demanded the man with the quirt.

"Yes," said the child, after a moment of silence.

"Did you hear me say that no dog was to sleep in this house?" demanded the child's father.

"Yes," said Elmer, with his own face as white as his father's.

"Then I think that's about enough," asserted Duncan, turning a challenging eye in my direction.

"What are you going to do?" I asked. My voice was shaking, in spite of myself.

"I'm going to whale that youngster within an inch of his life," said the master of the house, with a deadly sort of intentness.

"I don't want you to do that," I quavered, wondering why my words, even as I uttered them, should seem so inadequate.

"Of course you don't," mocked my husband. "But this is the limit. And what you want isn't going to count!"

"I don't want you to do that," I repeated. Something in my voice, I suppose, must have arrested him, for he stood there, staring at me, with a little knot coming and going on one side of his skull, just in front of his upper ear-tip.

"And why not?" he asked, still with that hateful rough ironic note in his voice.

"Because you don't know what you're punishing this child for," I told him with all the quietness I could command. "And because you're in no fit condition to do it."

"You needn't worry about my condition," he cried out—and I could see by the way he said it that he was still blind with rage. "Come here, you!" he called to Dinkie.

It was then that the fatal little bell clanged somewhere at the back of my head, the bell that rings down the curtain on all the slowly accumulated civilization the centuries may have brought to us. I not only faced my husband with a snort of scorn, but I tightened my grip on the child's hand. I tightened my grip on his hand and backed slowly and deliberately away until I came to the door of my sewing-room. Then, still facing my husband, I opened that door and said: "Go inside, Dinkie." I could not see the boy, but I knew that he had done as I told him. So I promptly slammed the door shut and stood there facing the gray-lipped man with the riding-quirt in his hand. He took two slow steps toward me. His chin was thrust out in a way that made me think of a fighting-cock's beak. He had not shaved that morning, and his squared jaw looked stubbled and blue and ugly.

"You can't pull that petticoat stuff this time," he said in a hard and throaty tone which I had never heard from him before. "Get out of my way!"

"You will not beat that child!" And I myself couldn't have made a very pretty picture as I flung that challenge up in his teeth.

"Get out of my way," he repeated. He did not shout it. He said it almost quietly. But I knew, even before he reached out a shaking hand to thrust me aside, that he was in deadly earnest, that nothing I could say would hold him back or turn him aside. And it was then that my eye fell on the big Colt in its stained leather holster, hanging up high over one corner of the book-cabinet, where it had been put beyond the reach of the children.

I have no memory of giving any thought to the matter. My reaction must have been both immediate and automatic. I don't think I even intended to bunt my husband in the short-ribs the way I did, for the impact of my body half twisted him about and sent him staggering back several steps. All I know is that holster and belt came tumbling down as I sprang and caught at the Colt handle. And I was back at the door before I had even shaken the revolver free. I was back just in time to hear my husband say, rather foolishly, for the third time: "Get out of my way!"

"You stay back there!" I called, quite as foolishly, for by this time I had the Colt balanced in my hand and was pointing it directly at his body.

He stopped short, with a vacuous look in his eyes.

"You fool!" he said, in a sort of strangled whisper. But it was my face, and not the weapon, that he was staring at all the while.

"Stay back!" I said again, with my eyes fixed on his.

He hesitated, for a moment, and made a sound that was like the short bark of a laugh. It was too hard and horrible, though, ever to be taken for laughter. And I knew that he was not going to do what I had said.

"Stay back!" I warned him still again. But he stepped forward, with a grim sort of deliberation, with his challenging gaze locked on mine. I could hear a thousand warning voices, somewhere at the back of my brain, and at the same time I could hear a thousand singing devils in my blood trying to drown out those voices. I could see my husband's narrowed eyes slowly widen, slowly open like the gills of a dying fish, for the hate that he must have seen on my face obviously arrested him. It arrested him, but it arrested him only for a moment. He dropped his eyes to the Colt in my hand. Then he moved deliberately forward until his body was almost against the barrel-end. I must have known what it meant, just as he must have known what it meant. It was his final challenge. And I must have met that challenge. For, without quite knowing it, I shut my eyes and pulled the trigger.

There had been something awful, I know, in that momentary silence. And there was something awful in the sound that came after it, though it was not the sound my subconscious mind was waiting for. It was distinct enough and significant enough, heaven knows. But instead of the explosion of a shell it was the sharp snap of steel against steel.

The revolver was empty. It was empty-had been empty for weeks. But the significant fact remained that I had deliberately pulled the trigger. I had stood ready, in my moment of madness, to kill the man that I lived with....

Had a ball of lead gone through that man's body, I don't think he could have staggered back with a more startled expression on his face. He looked more than bewildered; he looked vaguely humiliated, oddly and wordlessly affronted, as he stood leaning against the table-edge, breathing hard, his skin a mottled blue-white to the very lips. He made an effort to speak, but no sound came from him. For a moment the dreadful thought raced through me that I had indeed shot him, that in some mysterious way he was mortally hurt, without this particular bullet announcing itself as bullets usually do. I looked at the revolver, stupidly. It seemed to have grown heavy, as heavy as a cook-stove in my hand.

"You'd do that?" whispered my husband, very slowly, with a stricken light in his eyes which I couldn't quite understand. I intended to put the Colt on the table. But something must have been wrong with my vision, for the loathsome thing fell loathsomely to the floor. I felt sick and shaken and a horrible misty feeling of homelessness settled down about me, of a sudden, for I remembered how closely I had skirted the black gulf of murder.

"Oh, Dinky-Dunk!" I blubbered, weakly, as I groped toward him. He must have thought that I was going to fall, for he put out his arm and held me up. He held me up, but there wasn't an atom of warmth in his embrace. He held me up about the same as he'd hold up an open wheat-sack that threatened to tumble over on his granary floor. I don't know what reaction it was that took my strength away from me, but I clung to his shoulders and sobbed there. I felt as alone in the gray wastes of time as one of Gershom's lost stars. And I knew that my Dinky-Dunk would never bend down now and whisper into my ear any word of comfort, any word of forgiveness. For, however things may have been at the first, I was the one who was now so hopelessly in the wrong, I was the big offender. And that knowledge only added to my misery as I stood there clinging to my husband's shoulders and blubbering "Oh, Dinky-Dunk!"

It must have grown distasteful to him, my foolish hanging on to him as though he were a hitching-post, for he finally said in a remote voice: "I guess we've had about enough of this." He led me rather ceremoniously to a chair, and slowly let me down in it. Then he crossed over to the old leather holster and picked it up, and stooped for the revolver, and pushed it down in the holster and buckled the cover-flap and tossed the whole thing up to the top of the book-cabinet again. Then, without speaking to me, he walked slowly out of the room.

I was tempted to call him back, but I knew, on second thought, that it would be no use. I merely sat there, staring ahead of me. Then I shut my eyes and tried to think. I don't know why, but I was thinking about the bigness of Betelgeuse, which was twenty-seven million times as big as our sun and which was going on through its millions of miles of space without knowing anything about Chaddie McKail and what had happened to her that morning. I was wondering if there were worlds between me and Betelgeuse with women on them, with women as alone as I was, when I felt a pair of small arms tighten about my knees and an adoring small voice whispered "Mummsy!" And I forgot about Betelgeuse. For it was my Dinkie there, with his little rough hand reaching hungrily for mine....

Minty has been removed from Casa Grande. I took him over to the Teetzel ranch in the car, and young Dode Teetzel is to get a dollar a week for looking after him and feeding him. Only Elmer and I know of his whereabouts. And once a week the boy can canter over on Buntie and keep in touch with his pup.

We have a tacit understanding that the occurrences of yesterday morning are a closed chapter, are not to be referred to by word or deed. Duncan himself found it necessary to team in to Buckhorn and left word with Struthers that he would stay in town over night. The call for the Buckhorn trip was, of course, a polite fabrication, an expedient pax in bello to permit the dust of battle to settle a little about this troubled house of McKail. All day to-day I have felt rather languid. I suppose it's the lethargy which naturally follows after all violence. Any respectable woman, I used to think, could keep a dead-line in her soul, beyond which the impulses of evil dare not venture. But I must have been wrong.... All week I've been looking for a letter from Peter Ketley. But for once in his life he seems to have forgotten us.

Sunday the Twentieth

I've been wondering to-day just what I'd do if I had to earn my own living. I could run a ranch, I suppose, if I still had one, but two or three years of such work would see me a hatchet-faced old termagant with fallen arches and a prairie-squint. Or I could raise chickens and peddle dated eggs in a flivver-and fresco hen-coops with whitewash until the trap-nest of time swallowed me up in oblivion. Or I could take a rural school somewhere and teach the three R's to little Slovenes and Frisians and French-Canadians even more urgently in need of soap and water. Or perhaps I could be housekeeper for one of our new beef-kings in his new Queen-Anne Norman-Georgian Venetian palace of Alberta sandstone with tesselated towers and bungalow sleeping-porches. Or I might even peddle magazines, or start a little bakery in one of the little board-fronted shops of Buckhorn, or take in plain sewing and dispose of home-made preserves to the elite of the community.

But each and all of them would be mere gestures of defeat. I'm of no value to the world. There was a time when I regarded myself as quite a Somebody, and prided myself on having an idea or two. Didn't Percy even once denominate me as "a window-dresser"? There was a time when I didn't have to wait to see if the pearl-handled knife was the one intended for the fish-course, and I could walk across a waxed floor without breaking my neck and do a bit of shopping in the Rue de la Paix without being taken for a tourist. But that was a long, long time ago. And life during the last few years has both humbled me and taught me my limitations. I'm a house-wife, now, and nothing more—and not even a successful house-wife. I've let everything fall away except the thought of my home and my family. And now I find that the basket into which I so carefully packed all my eggs hasn't even a bottom to it.

But I've no intention of repining. Heaven knows I've never wanted to sit on the Mourner's Bench. I've never tried to pull a sour mug, as Dinky-Dunk once inelegantly expressed it. I love life and the joy of life, and I want all of it I can get. I believe in laughter, and I've a weakness for men and women who can sing as they work. But I've blundered into a black frost, and even though there was something to sing about, there's scarcely a blue-bird left to do the singing. But sometime, somewhere, there'll be an end to that silence. The blight will pass, and I'll break out again. I know it. I don't intend to be held down. I can't be held down. I haven't the remotest idea of how it's going to happen, but I'm going to love life again, and be happy, and carol out like a meadow-lark on a blue and breezy April morning. It may not come to-morrow, and it may not come the next day. But it's going to come. And knowing it's going to come, I can afford to sit tight, and abide my time....

I've just had a letter from Uncle Chandler, enclosing snap-shots of the place he's bought in New Jersey. It looks very palatial and settled and Old-Worldish, shaded and shadowed with trees and softened with herbage, dignified by the hand of time. It reminds me how many and many a long year will have to go by before our bald young prairie can be tamed and petted into a homeyness like that. Uncle Chandler has rather startled me by suggesting that we send Elmer through to him, to go to school in the East. He says the boy can attend Montclair Academy, that he can be taken there and called for every day by faithful old Fisher, in the cabriolet, and that on Sunday he can be toted regularly to St. Luke's Episcopal Church, and occasionally go into New York for some of the better concerts, and even have a governess of his own, if he'd care for it. And in case I should be worrying about his welfare Uncle Chandler would send me a weekly night-letter "describing the condition and the activities of the child," as the letter expresses it. It sounds very appealing, but every time I try to think it over my heart goes down like a dab-chick. My Dinkie is such a little fellow. And he's my first-born, my man-child, and he means so much in my life. Yet he and his father are not getting along very well together. It would be better, in many respects, if the boy could get away for a while, until the raw edges healed over again. It would be better for both of them. But there's one thing that would happen: he would grow away from his mother. He'd come back to me a stranger. He'd come back a little ashamed of his shabby prairie mater, with her ten-years-old style of hair-dressing and her moss-grown ideas of things and her bald-looking prairie home with no repose and no dignifying background and neither a private gym nor a butler to wheel in the cinnamon-toast. He'd be having all those things, under Uncle Chandler's roof: he'd get used to them and he'd expect them.

But there's one thing he wouldn't and couldn't have. He wouldn't have his mother. And no one can take a mother's place, with a boy like that. No one could understand him, and make allowances for him, and explain things to him, as his own mother could. I've been thinking about that, all afternoon as I ironed his waists and his blue flannellet pajamas with frogs on like his dad's. And I've been thinking of it all evening as I patched his brown corduroy knickers and darned his little stockings and balled them up in a neat little row. I tried to picture myself as packing them away in a trunk, and putting in beside them all the clothes he would need, and the books that he could never get along without, and the childish little treasures he'd have to carry away to his new home. But it was too much for me. There was one thing, I began to see, which could never, never happen. I could never willingly be parted from my Dinkie. I could think of nothing to pay me up for losing him. And he needed me as I needed him. For good or bad, we'd have to stick together. Mother and son, together in some way we'd have to sink or swim!

Wednesday the Thirtieth

The tension has been relieved by Dinky-Dunk going off to Calgary. Along with him he has taken a rather formidable amount of his personal belongings. But he explains this by stating that business will keep him in the city for at least six or seven weeks. He has been talking a good deal about the Barcona coal-mine of late, and the last night he was with us he talked to Gershom for an hour and more about the advantages of those newer mines over the Drumheller. The newer field has a solid slate roof which makes drifting safe and easy, a finer type of coal, and a chance for big money once the railway runs in its spur and the officials wake up to the importance of giving them the cars they need. The whole country, Dinky-Dunk claims, is underlaid with coal, and our province alone is estimated to contain almost seventeen per cent. of the world's known supply. And my lord and master expressed the intention of being in on the clean-up.

I don't know how much of this was intended for my ears. But it served to disquiet me, for reasons I couldn't quite discern. And the same vague depression crept over me when Dinky-Dunk took his departure. I kept up my air of blitheness, it is true, to the last moment, and was as casual as you please in helping Duncan to pack and reminding him to put his shaving-things in his bag and making sure the last button was on his pajamas. I kissed him good-by, as a dutiful wife ought, and held Pauline Augusta up in the doorway so that she might attempt a last-minute hand-waving at her daddy.

But I slumped, once it was all over. I felt mysteriously alone in an indifferent big world with the rime of winter creeping along its edges. Even Gershom, after the children had had their lesson, became conscious of my preoccupation and went so far as to ask if I wasn't feeling well.

I smilingly assured him that there was nothing much wrong with me.

"Lerne zu leiden ohne zu klagen!" as the dying Frederick said to a singularly foolish son.

"But you're upset?" persisted Gershom, with his valorous brand of timidity that so often reminds me of a robin defending her eggs.

"No, it's not that," I said with a shake of the head. "It's only that I'm—I'm a trifle too chilly to be comfortable."

And the foolish youth, at that, straightway fell to stoking the fire. I had to laugh a little. And that made him study me with solemn eyes.

"Just think, Gershom," I said as I gathered up my sewing, "my heart is perishing of cold in a province which is estimated to contain almost seventeen per cent. of the world's known coal supply!"

And that, apparently, left him with something to think about as I made my way off to bed ... It's hard to write coherently, I find, when you're not living coherently ...

Syd Woodward, of Buckhorn, having learned that I can drive a tractor, has asked me if I'll take part in the plowing-match to-morrow. And I've given my promise to show Mere Man what a woman can do in the matter of turning a mile-long furrow. I feel rather audacious over it all. And I'm glad to inject a little excitement into life ... I'm saving up for a new sewing-machine ... Tarzanette has got rather badly cut up in some of our barb-wire fencing.

Friday the Fifteenth

The plowing-match was good fun, and I enjoyed it even more than I had expected. The men "kidded" me a good deal, and gave me a cheer at the end (I don't quite know whether it was for my work or my costume) and I had to pose for photographs, and a moving-picture man even followed me about for a round, shooting me as I turned my prairie stubble upside down. But the excitement of the plowing-match has been eclipsed by a bit of news which has rather taken my breath away. It is Peter Ketley who has bought the Harris Ranch.

Saturday the Twenty-Third

The rains have brought mushrooms, slathers of mushrooms, and I joy in gathering them.

Yesterday afternoon I rode past the Harris Ranch. The old place brought back a confusion of memories. But I was most disturbed by the signs of building going on there. It seems to mean a new shack on Alabama Ranch. And a new shack of very considerable dimensions. I've been wondering what this implies. I don't know whether to be elated or depressed. And what business is it, after all, of mine?

My Dinkie—I have altogether given up trying to call my Dinkie anything but Dinkie—came home two evenings ago with a discolored eye and a distinct air of silence. Gershom, too, seemed equally reticent. So I set about discreetly third-degreeing Poppsy, who finally acknowledged, with awe in her voice, that Dinkie had been in a fight.

It was, according to my petticoated Herodotus, a truly terrible fight. Noses got bloodied, and no one could make the fighters stop. But Dinkie was unquestionably the conqueror. Yet, oddly enough, I am informed that he cried all through the combat. He was a crying fighter. And he had his fight with Climmie O'Lone—trust the Irish to look for trouble!—who seems to have been accepted as the ring-master of his younger clan. Their differences arose out of the accusation that Dinkie, my bashful little Dinkie, had been forcing his unwelcomed attention on one Doreen O'Lone, Climmie's younger sister. That's absurd, of course. And Dinkie must have realized it. He didn't want to fight, acknowledged Poppsy, from the first. He even cried over it. And Doreen also cried. And Poppsy herself joined in.

I fancy it was a truly Homeric struggle, for it seems to have lasted for round after round. It lasted, I have been able to gather, until Climmie was worsted and down on his back crying "Enough!" Which Poppsy reports Dinkie made him say three times, until Doreen nodded and said she'd heard. But my young son, apparently, is one of those crying fighters, who are reckoned, if I remember right, as the worst breed of belligerents!

I have decided not to tell Dinkie what I know. But I'm rather anxious to get a glimpse of this young Mistress Doreen, for whom lances are already being shattered in the lists of youth. The O'Lones regard themselves as the landed aristocracy of the Elk-trail District. And Doreen O'Lone impresses me as a very musical appellative. Yet I prefer to keep my kin free from all entangling alliances, even though they have to do with a cattle-king's offspring....

I had a short letter from Dinky-Dunk to-day, asking me to send on a package of papers which he had left in a pigeon-hole of his desk here. It was a depressingly non-committal little note, without a glimmer of warmth between the lines. I'm afraid there's a certain ugly truth which will have to be faced some day. But I intend to stick to the ship as long as the ship can keep afloat. I am so essentially a family woman that I can't conceive of life without its home circle. Home, however, is where the heart is. And it seems to take more than one heart to keep it going. I keep reminding myself that I have my children at the same time that I keep asking myself why my children are not enough, why they can't seem to fill my cup of contentment as they ought. Now that their father is so much away, a great deal of their training is falling on my shoulders. And I must, in some way, be a model to them. So I'll continue to show them what a Penelope I can be. Perhaps, after all, they will prove our salvation. For our offspring ought to be the snow-fences along the wind-harried rails of matrimony. They should prevent drifting along the line, and from terminal to lonely terminal should keep traffic open ... I have to-night induced Poppsy to write a long and affectionate letter to her pater, telling him all the news of Casa Grande. Perhaps it will awaken a little pang in the breast of her absent parent.

Monday the Twenty-Fifth

I have aroused the ire of the Dour Man. He has sent me a message strongly disapproving of my conduct. He even claims that I've humiliated him. I never dreamed, when that movie-man with the camera followed me about at the plowing-match, that my husband would wander into a Calgary picture-house and behold his wife in driving gauntlets and Stetson mounted on a tractor and twiddling her fingers at the camera-operator, just to show how much at home she felt! Dinky-Dunk must have experienced a distinctly new thrill when he saw his own wife come riding through that pictorial news weekly. He would have preferred not recognizing me, I suppose. But there I was, duly named and labeled—and hence the ponderous little note of disapproval.

But I'm not going to let Duncan start a quarrel over trivialities like this. I intend to sit tight. There'd be little use in argument, anyway, for Duncan would only ignore me as the predatory tom-cat ignores the foolishly scolding robin. I'm going to be a regular mallard, and stick to these home regions until the ice forms. And our most mountainous troubles, after all, can't quite survive being exteriorated through the ink-well. It relieves me to write about them. But I wish I had a woman of my own age to talk to. I get a bit lonely, now that winter is slipping down out of the North again. And I find that I'm not so companionable as I ought to be. It comes home to me, now and then, how far away from the world we are, how remote from everything that counts. The tragedy of life with Chaddie McKail, I suppose, is that she's let existence narrow down to just one thing, to her family. Other women seem to have substitutes. But I've about forgotten how to be a social animal. I seem to grow as segregative as the timber-wolf. There's nothing for me in the woman's club life one gets out here. I can't force myself into church work, and the rural reading-club is something beyond me. I simply couldn't endure those Women's Institute meetings which open with a hymn and end up with sponge-cake and green tea, after a platitudinous paper on the Beauty of Prairie Life. It has its beauties, God knows, or we'd all go mad. We women, in this brand-new land, try to bolster ourselves up with the belief that we have greatnesses which the rest of the world must get along without. But that is only the flaunting of La Panache, the feather of courage in our cap of discouragement. There is so much, so much, we are denied! So much we must do without! So much we must see go to others! So much we must never even hope for! Oh, pioneers, great you are and great you must be, to endure what you have endured! You must be strong in your hours of secret questioning and you must be strong in your quest for consolation. If nothing else, you must at least be strong. And these western men of ours should all be strong men, should all be great men, because they must have been the children of great mothers. A prairie mother has to be a great woman. She must be great to survive, to endure, to leave her progeny behind her. I've heard the Wise Men talk about nature looking after her own. I've heard sentimentalists sing about the strength that lies in the soil. But, oh, pioneers, you know what you know! In your secret heart of hearts you remember the lonely hours, the lonely years, the lonely graves! For in the matter of infant mortality alone, prairie life shows a record shocking to read. We are making that better, it is true, with our district nursing and our motherhood clubs and our rural phones and our organized letting in of light and passing on of knowledge. We are not so overburdened as those nobler women who went before us. But, oh, pioneers along these lonely northern trails, I salute you and honor you for your courage! Your greatness will never be known. It will be seen only in the great country which you gave up your lives to bring to birth!

Wednesday the Twenty-Seventh

What weather-cocks we are! My blue Monday is over and done with, this is a crystalline winter day with all the earth at peace with itself, and I've just had a letter from Peter asking if I could take care of his sister's girl, Susie Mumford, until after Christmas. The Mumfords, it seems, are going through the divorce-mill, and Susie's mother is anxious that her one and only child should be afar from the scene when the grist of liberty is a-grinding.

I know nothing of Susie except what Peter has told me, that she is not yet nineteen, that she is intelligent, but obstreperous, and much wiser than she pretends to be, that the machinery of life has always run much too smoothly about her for her own good, and that a couple of months of prairie life might be the means of introducing her to her own soul.

That's all I know of Susie, but I shall welcome her to Casa Grande. I'll be glad to see a city girl again, to talk over face-creams and the Follies and Tchaikowsky and brassieres and Strindberg with. And I'll be glad to do a little toward repaying big-hearted old Peter for all his kindnesses of the past. Susie may be both sophisticated and intractable, but I await her with joy. She seems almost the answer to my one big want.

But Casa Grande, I have been realizing, will have to be refurbished for its coming guest. We have grown a bit shoddy about the edges here. It's hard to keep a house spick and span, with two active-bodied children running about it. And my heart, I suppose, has not been in that work of late. But I've been on a tour of inspection, and I realize it's time to reform. So Struthers and I are about to doll up these dilapidated quarters of ours. And I intend to have my dolorously neglected Guest Room (for such I used to call it) done over before the arrival of Susie....

I rode over to the Teetzels' this afternoon, to explain about our cattle getting through on their land. It was the road-workers who broke down the Teetzel fence, to squat on a coulee-corner for their camp. And they hadn't the decency to restore what they had wrecked. So Bud Teetzel and I rode seven miles up the new turn-pike and overtook those road-workers and I harangued their foreman for a full fifteen minutes. But it made little impression on him. He merely grinned and stared at me with a sort of insolent admiration on his face. And when I had finished he audibly remarked to one of his teamsters that I made a fine figure of a woman on horseback.

Bud says they're thinking of selling out if they can get their price. The old folks want to move to Victoria, and Bud and his brother have a hankering to try their luck up in the Peace River District. I asked Bud if he wouldn't rather settle down in one of the big cities. He merely laughed at me. "No thank you, lady! This old prair-ee is comp'ny enough for me!" he said as he loped, brown as a nut, along the trail as tawny as a lion's mane, with a sky of steel-cold blue smiling down on his lopsided old sombrero. I studied him with a less impersonal eye. He was a handsome and husky young giant, with the joy of life still frankly imprinted on his face.

"Bud," I said as I loped along beside him, "why haven't you ever married?"

That made him laugh again. Then he turned russet as he showed me the white of an eye.

"All the peaches seemed picked, in this district," he found the courage to proclaim.

This made me trot out the old platitude about the fish in the sea being as good as any ever caught—and there really ought to be an excise tax on platitudes, for being addicted to them is quite as bad as being addicted to alcohol, and quite as benumbing to the brain.

But Bud, with his next speech, brought me up short.

"Say, lady, if you was still in the runnin' I'd give 'em a race that'd make a coyote look like a caterpillar on crutches!"

He said it solemnly, and his solemnity kept it respectful. But it was my turn to laugh. And ridiculous as it may sound, this doesn't impress me as such a dark world as I had imagined! A woman, after all, is a good deal like mother earth: each has to be cultivated a little to keep it mellow.

... Where the Female is, there also is the Unexpected. For when I got home I found that my decorous Poppsy, my irreproachable Poppsy, had succumbed before the temptation to investigate my new sewing-machine. And once having nibbled at the fruit of the tree of knowledge, she went rampaging through the whole garden. She made a stubborn effort to exhaust the possibilities of all the little hemmers, and tried the shirrer and the fire-stitch ruffler, and obviously had a fling at the binder and a turn at the tucker. What she did to the tension-spring heaven only knows. And my brand-new machine is on the blink. And my meek-eyed little Poppsy isn't as impeccable as the world about her imagined!

Wednesday the Third

Susie Mumford arrived yesterday. The weather, heaven be thanked, was perfect, an opal day with the earth as fresh-smelling as Poppsy just out of her bath. There was just enough chill in the air to make one's blood tingle and just enough warmth in the sunlight to make it feel like a benediction. Whinstane Sandy, in fact, avers that we're in for a spell of Indian Summer.

I motored in to Buckhorn and met Susie, who wasn't in the least what I expected. I was looking for a high-spirited and insolent-eyed young lady who'd probably be traveling with a French maid and a van-load of trunks, after the manner of Lady Alicia. But the Susie I met was a tired and listless and rather white-faced girl who reminds me just enough of her Uncle Peter to make me like her. The poor child knows next to nothing of the continent on which she was born, and the immensity of our West has rather appalled her. She told me, driving home, that she had never before been this side of the Adirondacks. Yet she has crossed the Atlantic eight times and knows western Europe about as well as she knows Long Island itself. There is a matter-of-factness about Susie which makes her easy to get along with. Poppsy took to her at once and was a garrulous and happy witness of Susie's unpacking. Dinkie, on the other hand, developed an altogether unlooked-for shyness and turned red when Susie kissed him. There was no melting of the ice until the strange lady produced a very wonderful toy air-ship, which you wind up and which soars right over the haystacks, if you start it right. This was a present which Peter sent out. Dinkie, in fact, spent most of his spare time last night writing a letter to his Uncle Peter, a letter which he intimated he had no wish for the rest of the family to read. He was willing to acknowledge, this morning, that since he and Susie both had the same Uncle Peter, they really ought to be cousins....

Susie has not been sleeping well, and for all her weariness last night had to take five grains of veronal before she could settle down. The result is that she looks whiter than ever this morning and ate very little of Struthers' really splendiferous breakfast. But she made a valorous enough effort to be blithe and has rambled about Casa Grande with the febrile, quick curiosity of a young setter, making friends with the animals and for the first time in her life picking an egg out of a nest. I was afraid, at first, that she was going to complain about the quietness of existence out here, for our pace must seem a slow one, after New York. But Susie says the one thing she wants is peace. It's not often a girl not yet out of her teens makes any such qualified demand on life. I can't help feeling that the break-up of her family must be depressing her more than she pretends. She speaks about it in a half-joking way, however, and said this morning: "Dad certainly deserves a little freedom!" We sat for an hour at the breakfast-table, pow-wowing about everything under the blessed sun.

In some ways Susie is a very mature woman, for nineteen and three-quarters. She is also an exceptionally companionable one. She has a sort of lapis-lazuli eye with paler streaks in the iris, like banded agate. It is a brooding eye, with a great deal of beauty in it. And she has a magnolia-white skin which one doesn't often see on the prairie. It's not the sort of skin, in fact, which could last very long on the open range. It's the sort that's had too much bevel plate between it and the buffeting winds of the world. But it's lovely to look upon, especially when it's touched with its almost imperceptible shell-pink of excitement as it was this afternoon when Susie climbed on Buntie and tried a canter or two about the corrals. Susie, I noticed, rode well. I couldn't quite make out why her riding made me at once think of Theobald Gustav. But she explained, later, that she had been taught by a German riding-master—and then I understood.

But I must not overlook Gershom, who duly donned his Sunday best in honor of Susie's arrival and who is already undertaking to educate the brooding-eyed young lady from the East. He explained to her that there were eight hundred and fifty thousand square miles of Canada still unexplored, and Susie said: "Then lead me into the most far-away part of it!" And when he told her, during their first meal together, that the human brain was estimated to contain half a billion cells and that the number of brain impressions collected by an average person during fifty years of life aggregated three billion, one hundred and fifty-five million, seven hundred and sixty thousand, Susie sighed and said it was no wonder women were so contradictory. Which impressed me as very like one of my own retorts to Gershom. I saw Susie studying him, studying him with a quiet and meditative eye. "I believe your Gershom is one of the few good men in the world," she afterward acknowledged to me. And I've been wondering why one so young should be saturated with cynicism.

A small incident occurred to-night which disturbed me more than I can explain to myself. Susie, who had been looking through one of Dinkie's school scribblers, guardedly passed the book over to me where I sat sewing in front of the fire. For, whatever may happen, a prairie mother can always find plenty of sewing to do. I looked at the bottom of the page which Susie pointed out to me. There I saw two names, one above the other, with certain of the letters stricken out, two names written like this:

[E][l]m[e][r] McKai[l]——love Do[r][e][e]n O'[L]on[e]——friendship

[Transcriber's note: In original, letters in brackets are struck out, each with a diagonal slash.]

And that set me off in a brown study which even Susie seemed to fathom. She smiled understandingly and turned and inspected Dinkie, bent over his arithmetic, with an entirely new curiosity.

"I suppose that's what every mother has to face, some day," she said as she sat down beside me in front of the fire.

But it seemed a fire without warmth. Life, apparently, had brought me to another of its Great Divides. My boy had a secret apart from his mother. My son was no longer all mine.

Friday the Fifth

This morning at breakfast, when Dinkie and I were alone at the table, I crossed over to him and sat down beside him.

"Dinkie," I said, with my hand on his tousled young head, "whom do you love best in all the world?"

"Mummy!" he said, looking me straight in the eye. And at that I drank in a deep breath.

"Are you sure?" I demanded.

"As sure as death and taxes," he said with his one-sided little smile. It was a phrase which his father used to use, on similar occasions, in the long, long ago. And it didn't quite drive the mists out of my heart.

"And who comes next?" I asked, with my hand still on his head.

"Buntie," he replied, with what I suspected to be a barricaded look on his face.

"No, no," I told him. "It has to be a human being."

"Then Poppsy," he admitted.

"And who next?" I persisted.

"Whinnie!" exclaimed my son.

But I had to shake my head at that.

"Aren't you forgetting somebody very important?" I hinted.

"Who?" he asked, deepening just a trifle in color.

"How about daddy?" I asked. "Isn't it about time for him there?"

"Yes, daddy," he dutifully repeated. But his face cleared, and my own heart clouded, as he went through the empty rite.

Dinkie was studying that clouded face of mine, by this time, and I began to feel embarrassed. But I was determined to see the thing through. It was hard, though, for me to say what I wanted to.

"Isn't there somebody, somebody else you are especially fond of?" I inquired, as artlessly as I could. And it hurt like cold steel to think that I had to fence with my own boy in such a fashion.

Dinkie looked at me and then he looked out of the window.

"I think I like Susie," he finally admitted.

"But in your own life, Dinkie, in your work and your play, in your school, isn't—isn't there somebody?" I found the courage to ask.

Dinkie's face grew thoughtful. For just a moment, I thought I caught a touch of the Holbein Astronomer in it.

"There's lots of boys and girls I like," he noncommittally asserted. And I began to see that it was hopeless. My boy had reservations from his own mother, reservations which I would be compelled to respect. He was no longer entirely and unequivocally mine. There was a wild-bird part of him which had escaped, which I could never recapture and cage again. The thing that his father had foretold was really coming about. My laddie would some day grow out of my reach. I would lose him. And my happiness, which had been trying its wings for the last few days, came down out of the sky like a shot duck. All day long, for Susie's sake, I've tried to be light-hearted. But my efforts make me think of a poor old worn-out movie-hall piano doing its pathetic level best to be magnificently blithe. It's a meaningless clatter in a meaningless world.

Thursday the Eleventh

It ought to be winter, according to the almanac, but our wonderful Indian Summer weather continues. Susie and I have been "blue-doming" to-day. We converted ourselves into a mounted escort for Gershom and the kiddies as far as the schoolhouse, and then rode on to Dead Horse Lake, in the hope of getting a few duck. But the weather was too fine, though I managed to bring down a couple of mallard, after one of which Susie, having removed her shoes and stockings, waded knee-deep in the slough. She enjoys that sort of thing: it's something so entirely new to the child of the city. And Susie, I might add, is already looking much better. She is sleeping soundly, at last, and has promised me there shall be no more night-caps of veronal. What is more, I am getting to know her better—and I have several revisions to make.

In the first place, it is not the family divorce cloud that has been darkening Susie's soul. She let the cat out of the bag, on the way home this afternoon. Susie has been in love with a man who didn't come up to expectations. She was very much in love, apparently, and disregarded what people said about him. Then, much to her surprise, her Uncle Peter took a hand in the game. It must have been rather a violent hand, for a person so habitually placid. But Peter, apparently, wasn't altogether ignorant of the club-talk about the young rake in question. At any rate, he decided it was about time to act. Susie declined to explain in just what way he acted. Yet she admits now that Peter was entirely in the right and she, for a time, was entirely in the wrong. But it is rather like having one's appendix cut out, she protests, without an anesthetic. It takes time to heal such wounds. Susie obviously was bowled over. She is still suffering from shock. But I like the spirit of the girl. She's not the kind that one disappointment is going to kill. And prairie life is already doing her good. For she announced this morning that her clothes were positively getting tight for her. And such clothes they are! Such delicate silks and cobwebs of lace and pale-pink contraptions of satin! Such neatly tailored skirts and short-vamped shoes and thing-a-ma-jigs of Irish linen and platinum and gold trinkets to deck out her contemptuous little body with. For Susie takes them all with a shrug of indifference. She loves to slip on my oil-stained old hunting-jacket and my weather-beaten old golf-boots and go meandering about the range.

Another revision which I am compelled to make is that while I expected to be the means of cheering Susie up, Susie has quite unconsciously been the means of rejuvenating me. I think I've been able to catch at least a hollow echo of her youth from her. I know I have. Two days ago, when we motored in to Buckhorn with my precious marketing of butter and eggs—and Susie never before quite realized how butter and eggs reached the ultimate consumer—a visiting Odd-Fellows' band was playing a two-step on the balcony of the Commercial Hotel. Susie and I stopped the car, and while Struthers stared at us aghast from the back seat, we two-stepped together on the main street of Buckhorn. We just let the music go to our heads and danced there until the crowd in front of the band began to right-about-face and a cowboy in chaps brazenly announced that he was Susie's next partner. So we danced to our running-board, stepped into our devil-wagon, and headed for home, in the icy aura of Struthers' sustained indignation.

I begin to get terribly tired of propriety. I don't know whether it's Struthers, or Struthers and Gershom combined, or having to watch one's step so when there are children about one. But I'm tired of being respectable. I'm tired of holding myself in. I warn the world that I'm about ready for anything, anything from horse-stealing to putting a dummy-lady in Whinstane Sandy's bed. I don't believe there's any wickedness that's beyond me. I'm a reckless and abandoned woman. And if that cold-blooded old Covenanter doesn't get home from Calgary pretty soon I'm going buckboard riding with Bud Teetzel!

I've been asking Susie if we measure up to her expectations. She said, in reply, that we fitted in to a T. For her Uncle Peter, she acknowledged, had already done us in oils on the canvas of her curiosity. She accused me, however, of reveling in that primitiveness which is the last resort of the sophisticated—like the log cabins the city folk fashion for themselves when they get up in the Adirondacks. And Casa Grande, she further amended, impressed her as being almost disappointingly comfortable.

After that Susie fell to talking about Peter. She is affectionately contemptuous toward her uncle, protesting that he's forever throwing away his chances and letting other people impose on his good nature. It was lucky, averred Susie, that he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. For he was a hopeless espouser of Lost Causes. She inclined to the belief that he should have married young, should have married young and had a flock of children, for he was crazy about kiddies.

I asked Susie what sort of wife Peter should have chosen. And Susie said Peter should have hitched up with a good, capable, practical-minded woman who could manage him without letting him know he was being managed. There was a widow in the East, acknowledged his niece, who had been angling for poor Peter for years. And Peter was still free, Susie suspected, because in the presence of that widow he emulated Hamlet and always put an antic disposition on. Did the most absurd things, and appeared to be little more than half-witted. The widow in question had even spoken to Susie about her uncle's eccentricities and intimated that his segregative manner of life might in the end affect his intellect!

The thought of Peter marrying rather gave me a shock. It was like being told by some authority in astronomy that your earth was about to collide with Wernecke's Comet. And, vain peacock that I was, I rather liked to think of Peter going through life mourning for me, alone and melancholy and misogynistic for the rest of his days! Yet there must be dozens, there must be hundreds, of attractive girls along the paths which he travels. I found the courage to mention this fact to Susie, who merely laughed and said her Uncle Peter would probably be saved by his homeliness. But I can't say that I ever regarded Peter Ketley as homely. He may never carry off a blue ribbon from a beauty show, but he has the sort of face that a woman of sense can find tremendous appeal in. Your flapper type, I suppose, will always succumb to the curled Romeo, but it's the ruggeder and stronger man with the bright mind and the kindly heart who will always appeal to the clearer-eyed woman who has come to know life.... Susie has told me, by the way, that Josie Langdon and her husband quarreled on their honeymoon, quarreled the first week in Paris and right across the Continent for the momentous reason that Josie insisted on putting sugar in her claret!

I've been doing a good deal of thinking, the last few hours. I've been wondering if I'm a Lost Cause. And I've been wondering why women should want to put sugar in their claret. If it's made to be bitter, why not accept the bitterness, and let it go at that?

Friday the Twelfth

Dinky-Dunk has just sent word that he will be home to-morrow night and asks if I'll mind motoring in to Buckhorn for him.

It impresses me as a non-committal little message, yet it means more to me than I imagined. My husband is coming home.

Susie has been eying me all afternoon, with a pucker of perplexity about her lapis-lazuli eyes. We are busy, getting things to rights. And I've made an appallingly long list of what I must buy in Buckhorn to-morrow. Even Struthers has perked up a bit, and is making furtive preparations for a sage-tea wash in the morning.

Tuesday the Sixteenth

Why is life so tangled up? Why can't we be either completely happy or completely the other way? Why must wretchedness come sandwiched in between slices of hope and contentment, and why must happiness be haunted by some ghostly echo of pain? And why can't people be all good or all bad, so that the tares and the wheat never get mixed up together and make a dismal mess of our harvest of Expectation?

These are some of the questions I've been asking myself since Duncan went back to Calgary last night. He stayed only two days. And they were days of terribly complicated emotions. I went to the station for him, on Saturday, and in my impatience to be there on time found myself with an hour and a half of waiting, an hour and a half of wandering up and down that ugly open platform in the clear cool light of evening. There was a hint of winter in the air, an intimidating northern nip which made the thought of a warm home and an open fire a consolation to the chilled heart. And I felt depressed, in spite of everything I could do to bolster up my courage. In the first place, I couldn't keep from thinking of Alsina Teeswater. And in the second place, never, never on the prairie, have I watched a railway-train come in or a railway-train pass away without feeling lonesome. It reminds me how big is the outside world, how infinitesimal is Chaddie McKail and her unremembered existence up here a thousand miles from Nowhere! It humbles me. It reminds me that I have in some way failed to mesh in with the bigger machinery of life.

I had a lump in my throat, by the time Dinky-Dunk's train pulled in and I saw him swing down from the car-steps. I made for him through the crowd, in fact, with my all but forgotten Australian crawl-stroke, and accosted him with rather a briny kiss and so tight a hug that he stood back and studied my face. He wanted to ask, I know, if anything had happened. He was obviously startled, and just a trifle embarrassed. My lump, by this time, was bigger than ever, but I had to swallow it in secret. Dinky-Dunk, I found, was changed in many ways. He was tired, and he seemed older. But he was prosperous-looking, in brand-new raiment, and reported that luck was still with him and everything was flourishing. Give him one year, he protested, and he'd show them he wasn't a piker.

I waited for him to ask about the children, but his mind seemed full of his Barcona coal business. The railway was learning to treat them half decently and the coal was coming out better than they'd hoped for. They'd a franchise to light the town, developing their power from the mine screenings, and what they got from this would be so much velvet. And he had a chance to take over one of the finest houses in Mount Royal, if he had a family along with him to excuse such magnificence.

That final speech of his brought me up short. It was dark along the trail, and dark in my heart. And more things than one had happened that day to humble me. So I took one hand off the wheel and put it on his knee.

"Do you want me to go to Calgary?" I asked him.

"That's up to you," he said, without budging an inch. He said it, in fact, with a steel-cold finality which sent my soul cringing back into its kennel. And the trail ahead of me seemed blacker than ever.

"I'll have to have time to think it over," I said with a composure which was nine-tenths pretense.

"Some wives," he remarked, "are willing to help their husbands."

"I know it, Dinky-Dunk," I acknowledged, hoping against hope he'd give me the opening I was looking for. "And I want to help, if you'll only let me."

"I think I'm doing my part," he rather solemnly asserted. I couldn't see his face, in the dark, but there was little hope to be wrung from the tone of his voice. So I knew it would be best to hold my peace.

Casa Grande blazed a welcome to us, as we drove up to it, and the children, thank heaven, were relievingly boisterous over the adventure of their dad's return. He seemed genuinely amazed at their growth, seemed slightly irritated at Dinkie's long stares of appraisal, and feigned an interest in the paraded new possessions of Poppsy and her brother—until it came to Peter's toy air-ship, which was thrust almost bruskly aside.

And that reminds me of one thing which I am reluctant to acknowledge. Dinky-Dunk was anything but nice to Susie. He may have his perverse reasons for disliking everything in any way connected with Peter Ketley, but I at least expected my husband to be agreeable to the casual guest under his roof. Through it all, I must confess, Susie was wonderful. She made no effort to ignore Duncan, as his ignoring of her only too plainly merited. She remained, not only poised and imperturbable, but impersonal and impenetrable. She found herself, I think, driven just a tiny bit closer to Gershom, who still shows a placid exterior to Duncan's slightly contemptuous indifference.

My husband, I'm afraid, was not altogether happy in his own home. In one way, of course, I can not altogether blame him for that, since his bigger interests now are outside that home. But I begin to see how dangerous these long separations can be. Somewhere and at some time, before too much water runs under the bridges, there will have to be a readjustment.

I realized that, in fact, as I drove Duncan back to the station last night, after I'd duly signed the different papers he'd brought for that purpose. I had a feeling that every chug of the motor was carrying him further and further out of my life. Heaven knows, I was willing enough to eat crow. I was ready to bury the hatchet, and bury it in my own bosom, if need be, rather than see it swinging free to strike some deeper blow.

"Dinky-Dunk," I said after a particularly long silence between us, "what is it you want me to do?"

My heart was beating much faster than he could have imagined and I was grateful for the chance to pretend the road was taking up most of my attention.

"Do about what?" he none too encouragingly inquired.

"We don't seem to be hitting it off the way we should be," I went on, speaking as quietly as I was able. "And I want you to tell me where I'm failing to do my share."

That note of humility from me must have surprised him a little, for we rode quite a distance without a word.

"What makes you feel that way?" he finally asked.

I found it hard to answer that question. It would never be easy, at any rate, to answer it as I wanted to.

"Because things can't go on this way forever," I found the courage to tell him.

"Why not?" he asked. He seemed indifferent again.

"Because they're all wrong," I rather tremulously replied. "Can't you see they're all wrong?"

"But why do you want them changed?" he asked with a disheartening sort of impersonality.

"For the sake of the children," I told him. And I could feel the impatient movement of his body on the car seat beside me.

"The children!" he repeated with acid-drop deliberation. "The children, of course! It's always the children!"

"You're still their father," I reminded him.

"A sort of honorary president of the family," he amended.

Hope ebbed out of my heart, like air out of a punctured tire.

"Aren't you making it rather hard for me?" I demanded, trying to hold myself in, but feeling the bob-cat getting the better of the purring tabby.

"I've rather concluded that was the way you made it for me," countered Duncan, with a coolness of manner which I came more and more to resent.

"In what way?" I asked.

"In shutting up shop," he rather listlessly responded.

"I don't think I quite understand," I told him.

"Well, in crowbarring me out of your scheme of life, if you insist on knowing," were the words that came from the husband sitting so close beside me. "You had your other interests, of course. But you also seem to have had the idea that you could turn me loose like a range horse. I could paw for my fodder and eat snow when I got thirsty. You didn't even care to give me a wind-break to keep a forty-mile blizzard out of my bones. You didn't know where I was browsing, and didn't much care. It was up to me to rustle for myself and be rounded up when the winter was over and there was another spell of work on hand!"

We rode on in silence, for almost a mile, with the cold air beating against my body and a colder numbness creeping about the corner of my heart.

"Do you mean, Dinky-Dunk," I finally asked, "that you want your freedom?"

"I'm not saying that," he said, after another short silence.

"Then what is it you want?" I asked, wondering why the windshield should look so blurred in the half-light.

"I want to get something out of life," was his embittered retort.

It was a retort that I thought over, thought over with an oddly settling mind, like a stirred pool that has been left to clear itself. For that grown man sitting there beside me seemed ridiculously like a spoiled child, an indulged child forlornly alone in the fogs of his own arrogance. He made me think of a black bear which bites at the bullet wound in his own body. I felt suddenly sorry for him, in a maternal sort of way. I felt sorry for him at the same time that I remained a trifle afraid of him, for he still possessed, I knew, his black-bear power of inflicting unlooked-for and ursine blows. I simply ached to swing about on him and say: "Dinky-Dunk, what you need is a good spanking!" But I didn't have the courage. I had to keep my sense of humor under cover, just as you have to blanket garden-geraniums before the threat of a black frost. Yet, oddly enough, I felt fortified by that sense of pity. It seemed to bring with it the impression that Duncan was still a small boy who might some day grow out of his badness. It made me feel suddenly older and wiser than this overgrown child who was still crying for the moon. And with that feeling came a wave of tolerance, followed by a smaller wave of faith, of faith that everything might yet come out right, if only I could learn to be patient, as mothers are patient with children.

"And I, on my part, Dinky-Dunk, want to see you get the very best out of life," I found myself saying to him. My intentions were good, but I suppose I made my speech in a very superior and school-teachery sort of way.

"I guess I've got about all that's coming to me," he retorted, with the note of bitterness still in his voice.

And again I had the feeling of sitting mother-wise and mother-patient beside an unruly small boy.

"There's much more, Dinky-Dunk, if you only ask for it," I said as gently as I was able.

He turned, at that, and studied me in the failing light, studied me with a sharp look of interrogation on his face. I had the feeling, as he did so, of something epochal in the air, as though the drama of life were narrowing up to its climactic last moment. Yet I felt helpless to direct the course of that drama. I nursed the impression that we stood at the parting of the ways, that we stood hesitating at the fork of two long and lonely trails which struck off across an illimitable world, farther and farther apart. I vaguely regretted that we were already in the streets of Buckhorn, for I was half hoping that Duncan would tell me to stop the car. Then I vaguely regretted that I was busy driving that car, as otherwise I might have been free to get my arms about that granitic Dour Man of mine and strangle him into submitting to that momentary mood of softness which seems to come less and less to the male as he grows older.

But Duncan merely laughed, a bit uneasily, and just as suddenly grew silent again. I had a sense of asbestos curtains coming down between us, coming down before the climax was reached or the drama was ended. I couldn't help wondering, as we drove into the cindered station-yard where the lights were already twinkling, if Dinky-Dunk, like myself, sat waiting for something which failed to manifest itself, if he too had held back before the promise of some decisive word which I was without the power to utter. For we were only half-warm, the two of us, toying with the ghosts of the dead past and childishly afraid of the future. We were Laodiceans, neither hot nor cold, without the primal hunger to reach out and possess what we too timidly desired. We were more neutral even than Ferdinand and the Lady of the Bust, for we no longer cared sufficiently to let the other know we cared, but waited and waited in that twilight where all cats are gray.

There was, mercifully, very little time left for us before the train came in. We kept our masks on, and talked only of every-day things, about the receipt for the ranch taxes and what steers Whinnie should "finish" and the new granary roof and the fire-lines about the haystacks. Without quite knowing it, when the train pulled in, I put my arm through my husband's—and for the second time that evening he turned sharply and inspected my face. I felt as though I wanted to hold him back, to hold him back from something unescapable but tragically momentous. I think he felt sorry for me. At any rate, after he had swung his suit-case up on the car-platform, he turned and kissed me good-by. But it was the sort of kiss one gets at funerals. It left me standing there watching the tail-lights blink off down the track, as desolate as though I had been left alone on the deadest promontory of the deadest planet lost in space. I stood there until the lights were gone. I stood there until the platform was empty again and my car was the only car left along the hard-packed cinders. So I climbed into the driving-seat, and pulled on my gauntlets, and headed for home....

Back at Casa Grande I found Dinkie and Whinnie beside the bunk-house stove, struggling companionably through the opening chapters of Treasure Island. My boy smiled up at me, for a moment, but his mind, I could see, was intent on the page along which Whinnie's stubbled finger was crawling like a plowshare beside each furrow of text. He was in the South Pacific, a thousand miles away from me. In my own house Struthers was putting a petulant-voiced Poppsy to bed, and Gershom, up in his room, was making extraordinary smells at his chemistry experiments. Susie I found curled comfortably up in front of the fire, idling over my first volume of Jean Christophe.

She read three sentences aloud as I sat down beside her. "How happy he is! He is made to be happy!...Life will soon see to it that he is brought to reason."

She seemed to expect some comment from me, but I found myself with nothing to say. In fact, we both sat there for a long time, staring in silence at the fire.

"Why do you live with a man you don't love?" she suddenly asked out of the utter stillness.

It startled me, that question. It also embarrassed me, for I could feel my color mount as Susie's lapis-lazuli eyes rested on my face.

"What makes you think I don't love him?" I countered, reminding myself that Susie, after all, was still a girl in her teens.

"It's not a matter of thinking," was Susie's quiet retort. "I know you don't."

"Then I wish I could be equally certain," I said with a defensive stiffening of the lines of dignity.

But Susie smiled rather wearily at my forlorn little parade of hauteur. Then she looked at the fire.

"It's hell, isn't it, being a woman?" she finally observed, unconsciously paraphrasing a much older philosopher.

"Sometimes," I admitted.

"I don't see why you stand it," was her next meditative shaft in my direction.

"What would you do about it?" I guardedly inquired.

Susie's face took on one of its intent looks. She was only in her teens, but life, after all, hadn't dealt over-lightly with her. She impressed me, at the moment, as a secretly ardent young person whose hard-glazed little body might be a crucible of incandescent though invisible emotions.

"What would you do about it?" I repeated, wondering what gave some persons the royal right of doing the questionable and making it seem unquestionable.

"Live!" said Susie with quite unlooked-for emphasis. "Live—whatever it costs!"

"Wouldn't you regard this as living?" I asked, after a moment of thought.

"Not as you ought to be," averred Susie.

"Why not?" I parried.

Susie sighed. She began to see that it was beyond argument, I suppose. Then she too had her period of silence.

"But what are you getting out of it?" she finally demanded. "What is going to happen? What ever has happened?"

"To whom?" I asked, resenting the unconscious cruelty of her questioning.

"To you," was the reply of the hard-glazed young hedonist confronting me.

"Are you flattering me with the inference that I was cut out for better things?" I interrogated as my gaze met Susie's. It was her turn to color up a bit. Then she sighed again, and shook her head.

"I don't suppose it's doing either of us one earthly bit of good," she said with a listless small smile of atonement. "And I'm sorry."

So we let the skeletons stalk away from our pleasant fireside and secrete themselves in their customary closets of silence.

But I've been thinking a good deal about that question of Susie's. What has happened to me, out here on the prairie? What has indeed come into my life?...

I married young and put a stop to those romantic adventurings which enrich the lives of most girls and enlighten the days of many women. I married a man and lived with him in a prairie shack, and sewed and baked for him, and built a new home and lost it, and began over again. I had children, and saw one of them die, and felt my girlhood slip away, and sold butter and eggs, and loved the man of my choice and cleaved to him and planned for my children, until I saw the man of my choice love another woman. And still I clung to my sparless hulk of a home, hoping to hold close about me the children I had brought into the world and would some day lose again to the world. And that was all. That was everything. It is true, nothing much has ever happened to me....

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