Monday the Twelfth
Golden weather again, with a clear sky and soft and balmy air! Just before our mid-day meal Olie arrived with mail for us. We've had letters from home! Instead of cheering me up they made me blue, for they seemed to bring word from another world, a world so far, far away!
I decided to have a half-day in the open, so I strapped on my duck-gun and off I went on Paddy, as soon as dinner was over and the men had gone. We went like the wind, until both Paddy and I were tired of it. Then I found a "soft-water" pond hidden behind a fringe of scrub-willow and poplar. The mid-day sun had warmed it to a tempting temperature. So I hobbled Paddy, peeled off and had a most glorious bath. I had just soaped down with bank-mud (which is an astonishingly good solvent) and had taken a header and was swimming about on my back, blinking up at the blue sky, as happy as a mud-turtle in a mill-pond, when I heard Paddy nicker. That disturbed me a little, but I felt sure there could be nobody within miles of me. However, I swam back to where my clothes were, sunned myself dry, and was just standing up to shake out the ends of this short-cropped hair of mine when I saw a man's head Across the pond, staring through the bushes at me. I don't know how or why it is, but I suddenly saw red. I don't remember picking up the duck-gun, and I don't remember aiming it.
But I banged away, with both barrels, straight at that leering head—or at least it ought to have been a leering head, whatever that may mean! The howl that went up out of the wilderness, the next moment, could have been heard for a mile!
It was Dinky-Dunk, and he said I might have put his eyes out with bird-shot, if he hadn't made the quickest drop of his life. And he also said that he'd seen me, a distinct splash of white against the green of the prairie, three good miles away, and wasn't I ashamed of myself, and what would I have done if he'd been Olie or old man Dixon? But he kissed my shoulder where the gun-stock had bruised it, and helped me dress.
Then we rode off together, four or five miles north, where Dinky-Dunk was sure we could get a bag of duck. Which we did, thirteen altogether, and started for home as the sun got low and the evening air grew chilly. It was a heavenly ride. In the west a little army of thin blue clouds was edged with blazing gold, and up between them spread great fan-like shafts of amber light. Then came a riot of orange yellow and ashes of roses and the palest of gold with little islands of azure in it. Then while the dying radiance seemed to hold everything in a luminous wash of air, the stars came out, one by one, and a soft cool wind swept across the prairie, and the light darkened—and I was glad to have Dinky-Dunk there at my side, or I should have had a little cry, for the twilight prairie always makes me lonesome in a way that could never be put into words.
I tried to explain the feeling to Dinky-Dunk. He said he understood. "I'm a Sour-Dough, Gee-Gee, but it still gets me that way," he solemnly confessed. He said that when he listened to beautiful music he felt the same. And that got me thinking of grand opera, and of that Romeo and Juliet night at La Scala, in Milan, when I first met Theobald Gustav. Then I stopped to tell Dinky-Dunk that I'd been hopelessly in love with a tenor at thirteen and had written in my journal: "I shall die and turn to dust still adoring him." Then I told him about my first opera, Rigoletto, and hummed "La Donna E Mobile," which of course he remembered himself. It took me back to Florence, and to a box at the Pagliano, and me all in dimity and cork-screw curls, weeping deliciously at a lady in white, whose troubles I could not quite understand. Then I got thinking of New York and the Metropolitan, and poor old Morris's lines:
And still with listening soul I hear Strains hushed for many a noisy year: The passionate chords which wake the tear, The low-voiced love-tales dear....
Scarce changed, the same musicians play The selfsame themes to-day; The silvery swift sonatas ring, The soaring voices sing!
And I could picture the old Metropolitan on a Caruso night. I could see the Golden Horse-Shoe and the geranium-red trimmings and the satiny white backs of the women, and smell that luxurious heavy smell of warm air and hothouse flowers and Paris perfumery and happy human bodies and hear the whisper of silk along the crimson stairways. I could see the lights go down, in a sort of sigh, before the overture began, and the scared-looking blotches of white on the musicians' scores and the other blotches made by their dress-shirt fronts, and the violins going up and down, up and down, as though they were one piece of machinery, and then the heavy curtain stealing up, and the thrill as that new heaven opened up to me, a gawky girl in her first low-cut dinner gown!
I told Dinky-Dunk I'd sat in every corner of that old house, up in the sky-parlor with the Italian barbers, in press-seats in the second gallery with dear old Fanny-Rain-in-the-Face, and in the Westbury's box with the First Lady of the Land and a Spanish Princess with extremely dirty nails. It seemed so far away, another life and another world! And for three hours of "Manon" I'd be willing to hang like a chimpanzee from the Metropolitan's center chandelier. I suddenly realized how much I missed it. I could have sung to the City as poor Charpentier's "Louise" sang to her Paris. And a coyote howled up near the trail, and the prairie got dark, with a pale green rind of light along the northwest, and I knew there would be a heavy frost before morning.
To-night after supper my soul and I sat down and did a bit of bookkeeping. Dinky-Dunk, who'd been watching me out of the corner of his eye, went to the window and said it looked like a storm. And I knew he meant that I was the Medicine Hat it was to come from, for before he'd got up from the table he'd explained to me that matrimony was like motoring because it was really traveling by means of a series of explosions. Then he tried to explain that in a few weeks the fall rush would be over and we'd have more time for getting what we deserved out of life. But I turned on him with sudden fierceness and declared I wasn't going to be merely an animal. I intended to keep my soul alive, that it was every one's duty, no matter where they were, to ennoble their spirit by keeping in touch with the best that has ever been felt and thought.
When I grimly got out my mouth-organ and played the Pilgrim's Chorus, as well as I could remember it, Dinky-Dunk sat listening in silent wonder. He kept up the fire, and waited until I got through. Then he reached for the dish-pan and said, quite casually, "I'm going to help you wash up to-night, Gee-Gee!" And so I put away the mouth-organ and washed up. But before I went to bed I got out my little vellum edition of Browning's The Ring and the Book, and read at it industriously, doggedly, determinedly, for a solid hour. What it's all about I don't know. Instead of ennobling my spirit it only tired my brain and ended up in making me so mad I flung the book into the wood-box.... Dinky-Dunk has just pinned a piece of paper on my door; it is a sentence from Epictetus. And it says: "Better it is that great souls should live in small habitations than that abject slaves should burrow in great houses!"
Sunday the Eighteenth
I spent an hour to-day trying to shoot a hen-hawk that's been hovering about the shack all afternoon. He's after my chickens, and as new-laid eggs are worth more than Browning to a homesteader, I got out my duck-gun. It gave me a feeling of impending evil, having that huge bird hanging about. It reminded me there was wrong and rapine in the world. I hated the brute. But I hid under one of the wagon-boxes and got him, in the end. I brought him down, a tumbling flurry of wings, like Satan's fall from Heaven. When I ran out to possess myself of his Satanic body he was only wounded, however, and was ready to show fight. Then I saw red again. I clubbed him with the gun-butt, going at him like fury. I was moist with perspiration when I got through with him. He was a monster. I nailed him with his wings out, on the bunk-house wall, and Olie shouted and called Dinky-Dunk when they came back from rounding up the horses, which had got away on the range. Dinky-Dunk solemnly warned me not to run risks, as he might have taken an eye out, or torn my face with his claws. He said he could have stuffed and mounted my hawk, if I hadn't clubbed the poor thing almost to pieces. There's a devil in me somewhere, I told Dinky-Dunk. But he only laughed.
Monday the Nineteenth
To-night Dinky-Dunk and I spent a solid hour trying to decide on a name for the shack. I wanted to call it "Crucknacoola," which is Gaelic for "A Little Hill of Sleep," but Dinky-Dunk brought forward the objection that there was no hill. Then I suggested "Barnavista," since about all we can see from the door are the stables. Then I said "The Builtmore," in a spirit of mockery, and then Dinky-Dunk in a spirit of irony suggested "Casa Grande." And in the end we united on "Casa Grande." It is marvelous how my hair grows. Olie now watches me studiously as I eat. I can see that he is patiently patterning his table deportment after mine. There's nothing that silent rough-mannered man wouldn't do for me. I've got so I never notice his nose, any more than I used to notice Uncle Carlton's receding chin. But I don't think Olie is getting enough to eat. All his mind seems taken up with trying to remember not to drink out of his saucer, as history sayeth George Washington himself once did!
Tuesday the Twentieth
I knew that old hen-hawk meant trouble for me—and the trouble came, all right. I'm afraid I can't tell about it very coherently, but this is how it began: I was alone yesterday afternoon, busy in the shack, when a Mounted Policeman rode up to the door, and, for a moment, nearly frightened the life out of me. I just stood and stared at him, for he was the first really, truly live man, outside Olie and my husband, I'd seen for so long. And he looked very dashing in his scarlet jacket and yellow facings. But I didn't have long to meditate on his color scheme, for he calmly announced that a ranchman named McMein had been murdered by a drunken cowboy in a wage dispute, and the murderer had been seen heading for the Cochrane Ranch. He (the M. P.) inquired if I would object to his searching the buildings.
Would I object? I most assuredly did not, for little chills began to play up and down my spinal column, and I wasn't exactly in love with the idea of having an escaped murderer crawling out of a hay-stack at midnight and cutting my throat. The ranchman McMein had been killed on Saturday, and the cowboy had been kept on the run for two days. As I was being told this I tried to remember where Dinky-Dunk had stowed away his revolver-holster and his hammerless ejector and his Colt repeater. But I made that handsome young man in the scarlet coat come right into the shack and begin his search by looking under the bed, and then going down the cellar.
I stood holding the trap-door and warned him not to break my pickle-jars. Then he came up and stood squinting thoughtfully out through the doorway.
"Have you got a gun?" he suddenly asked me.
I showed him my duck-gun with its silver mountings, and he smiled a little.
"Haven't you a rifle?" he demanded.
I explained that my husband had, and he still stood squinting out through the doorway as I poked about the shack-corners and found Dinky-Dunk's repeater. He was a very authoritative and self-assured young man. He took the rifle from me, examined the magazine and made sure it was loaded. Then he handed it back.
"I've got to search those buildings and stacks," he told me. "And I can only be in one place at once. If you see a man break from under cover anywhere, when I'm inside, be so good as to shoot him!"
He started off without another word, with his big army revolver in his hand. My teeth began to do a little fox-trot all by themselves.
"Wait! Stop!" I shouted after him. "Don't go away!"
He stopped and asked me what was wrong. "I—I don't want to shoot a man! I don't want to shoot any man!" I tried to explain to him.
"You probably won't have to," was his cool response. "But it's better to do that than have him shoot you, isn't it?"
Whereupon Mr. Red-Coat made straight for the hay-stacks, and I stood in the doorway, with Dinky-Dunk's rifle in my hands and my knees shaking a little.
I watched him as he beat about the hay-stacks. Then I got tired of holding the heavy weapon and leaned it against the shack-wall. I watched the red coat go in through the stable door, and felt vaguely dismayed at the thought that its wearer was now quite out of sight.
Then my heart stopped beating. For out of a pile of straw which Olie had dumped not a hundred feet away from the house, to line a pit for our winter vegetables, a man suddenly erupted. He seemed to come up out of the very earth, like a mushroom.
He was the most repulsive-looking man I ever had the pleasure of casting eyes on. His clothes were ragged and torn and stained with mud. His face was covered with stubble and his cheeks were hollow, and his skin was just about the color of a new saddle.
I could see the whites of his eyes as he ran for the shack, looking over his shoulder toward the stable door as he came. He had a revolver in his hand. I noticed that, but it didn't seem to trouble me much. I suppose I'd already been frightened as much as mortal flesh could be frightened. In fact, I was thinking quite clearly what to do, and didn't hesitate for a moment.
"Put that silly thing down," I told him, as he ran up to me with his head lowered and that indescribably desperate look in his big frightened eyes. "If you're not a fool I can get you hidden," I told him. It reassured me to see that his knees were shaking much more than mine, as he stood there in the center of the shack! I stooped over the trap-door and lifted it up. "Get down there quick! He's searched that cellar and won't go through it again. Stay there until I say he's gone!"
He slipped over to the trap-door and went slowly down the steps, with his eyes narrowed and his revolver held up in front of him, as though he still half expected to find some one there to confront him with a blunderbuss. Then I promptly shut the trap-door. But there was no way of locking it.
I had my murderer there, trapped, but the question was to keep him there. Your little Chaddie didn't give up many precious moments to reverie. I tiptoed into the bedroom and lifted the mattress, bedding and all, off the bedstead. I tugged it out and put it silently down over the trap-door. Then, without making a sound, I turned the table over on it. But he could still lift that table, I knew, even with me sitting on top of it. So I started to pile things on the overturned table, until it looked like a moving-van ready for a May-Day migration. Then I sat on top of that pile of household goods, reached for Dinky-Dunk's repeater, and deliberately fired a shot up through the open door.
I sat there, studying my pile, feeling sure a revolver bullet couldn't possibly come up through all that stuff. But before I had much time to think about this my corporal of the R. N. W. M. P. (which means, Matilda Anne, the Royal North-West Mounted Police) came through the door on the run. He looked relieved when he saw me triumphantly astride that overturned table loaded up with about all my household junk.
"I've got him for you," I calmly announced.
"You've got what?" he said, apparently thinking I'd gone mad.
"I've got your man for you," I repeated. "He's down there in my cellar." And in one minute I'd explained just what had happened. There was no parley, no deliberation, no hesitation.
"Hadn't you better go outside," he suggested as he started piling the things off the trap-door.
"You're not going down there?" I demanded.
"Why not?" he asked.
"But he's got a revolver," I cried out, "and he's sure to shoot!"
"That's why I think it might be better for you to step outside for a moment or two," was my soldier boy's casual answer.
I walked over and got Dinky-Dunk's repeater. Then I crossed to the far side of the shack, with the rifle in my hands.
"I'm going to stay," I announced.
"All right," was the officer's unconcerned answer as he tossed the mattress to one side and with one quick pull threw up the trap-door.
A shot rang out, from below, as the door swung back against the wall. But it was not repeated, for the man in the red coat jumped bodily, heels first, into that black hole. He didn't seem to count on the risk, or on what might be ahead of him. He just jumped, spurs down, on that other man with the revolver in his hand. I could hear little grunts, and wheezes, and a thud or two against the cellar steps. Then there was silence, except for one double "click-click" which I couldn't understand.
Oh, Matilda Anne, how I watched that cellar opening! And I saw a back with a red coat on it slowly rise out of the hole. He, the man who owned the back of course, was dragging the other man bodily up the narrow little stairs. There was a pair of handcuffs already on his wrists and he seemed dazed and helpless, for that slim-looking soldier boy had pummeled him unmercifully, knocking out his two front teeth, one of which I found on the doorstep when I was sweeping up.
"I'm sorry, but I'll have to take one of your horses for a day or two," was all my R. N. W. M. P. hero condescended to say to me as he poked an arm through his prisoner's and helped him out through the door.
"What—what will they do with him?" I called out after the corporal.
"Hang him, of course," was the curt answer.
Then I sat down to think things over, and, like an old maid with the vapors, decided I wouldn't be any the worse for a cup of good strong tea. And by the time I'd had my tea, and straightened things up, and incidentally discovered that no less than five of my cans of mushrooms had been broken to bits below-stairs, I heard the rumble of the wagon and knew that Olie and Dinky-Dunk were back. And I drew a long breath of relief, for with all their drawbacks, men are not a bad thing to have about, now and then!
Thursday the Twenty-second
It was early Tuesday morning that Dinky-Dunk firmly announced that he and I were going off on a three-day shooting-trip. I hadn't slept well, the night before, for my nerves were still rather upset, and Dinky-Dunk said I needed a picnic. So we got guns and cartridges and blankets and slickers and cooking things, and stowed them away in the wagon-box. Then we made a list of the provisions we'd need, and while Dinky-Dunk bagged up some oats for the team I was busy packing the grub-box. And I packed it cram full, and took along the old tin bread-box, as well, with pancake flour and dried fruit and an extra piece of bacon—and bacon it is now called in this shack, for I have positively forbidden Dinky-Dunk ever to speak of it as "sowbelly" or even as a "slice of grunt" again.
Then off we started across the prairie, after duly instructing Olie as to feeding the chickens and taking care of the cream and finishing up the pit for the winter vegetables. Still once again Olie thought we were both a little mad, I believe, for we had no more idea where we were going than the man in the moon.
But there was something glorious in the thought of gipsying across the autumn prairie like that, without a thought or worry as to where we must stop or what trail we must take. It made every day's movement a great adventure. And the weather was divine.
We slept at night under the wagon-box, with a tarpaulin along one side to keep out the wind, and a fire flickering in our faces on the other side, and the horses tethered out, and the stars wheeling overhead, and the peace of God in our hearts. How good every meal tasted! And how that keen sharp air made snuggling down under a couple of Hudson Bay five-point blankets a luxury to be spoken of only in the most reverent of whispers! And there was a time, as you already know, when I used to take bromide and sometimes even sulphonal to make me sleep! But here it is so different! To get leg-weary in the open air, tramping about the sedgy slough-sides after mallard and canvas-back, to smell coffee and bacon and frying grouse in the cool of the evening, across a thin veil of camp-fire smoke, to see the tired world turn over on its shoulder and go to sleep—it's all a sort of monumental lullaby.
The prairie wind seems to seek you out, and make a bet with the Great Dipper that he'll have you off in forty winks, and the orchestra of the spheres whispers through its million strings and sings your soul to rest. For I tell you here and now, Matilda Anne, I, poor, puny, good-for-nothing, insignificant I, have heard that music of the spheres as clearly as you ever heard Funiculi-Funicula on that little Naples steamer that used to take you to Capri. And when I'd crawl out from under that old wagon-box, like a gopher out of his hole, in the first delicate rosiness of dawn, I'd feel unutterably grateful to be alive, to hear the cantatas of health singing deep in my soul, to know that whatever life may do to me, I'd snatched my share of happiness from the pantry of the gods! And the endless change of color, from the tawny fox-glove on the lighter land, the pale yellow of a lion's skin in the slanting autumn sun, to the quavering, shimmering glories of the Northern Lights that dance in the north, that fling out their banners of ruby and gold and green, and tremble and merge and pulse until I feel that I can hear the clash of invisible cymbals. I wonder if you can understand my feeling when I pulled the hat-pin out of my old gray Stetson yesterday, uncovered my head, and looked straight up into the blue firmament above me. Then I said, "Thank you, God, for such a beautiful day!"
Dinky-Dunk promptly said that I was blasphemous—he's so strict and solemn! But as I stared up into the depths of that intense opaline light, so clear, so pure, I realized how air, just air and nothing else, could leave a scatter-brained lady like me half-seas over. Only it's a champagne that never leaves you with a headache the next day!
Saturday the Twenty-fourth
Dinky-Dunk, who seems intent on keeping my mind occupied, brought me home a bundle of old magazines last night. They were so frayed and thumbed-over that some of the pages reminded me of well-worn bank-notes. I've been reading some of the stories, and they all seem silly. Everybody appears to be in love with somebody else's wife. Then the people are all divided so strictly into two classes, the good and the bad! As for the other man's wife, prairie-life would soon knock that nonsense out of people. There isn't much room for the Triangle in a two-by-four shack. Life's so normal and natural and big out here that a Pierre Loti would be kicked into a sheep-dip before he could use up his first box of face-rouge! You want your own wife, and want her so bad you're satisfied. Not that Dinky-Dunk and I are so goody-goody! We're just healthy and human, that's all, and we'd never do for fiction. After meals we push away the dishes and sit side by side, with our arms across each other's shoulders, full of the joy of life, satisfied, happy, healthy-minded, now and then a little Rabelaisian in our talk, meandering innocent-eyed through those earthier intimacies which most married people seem to face without shame, so long as the facing is done in secret. We don't seem ashamed of that terribly human streak in us. And neither of us is bad, at heart. But I know we're not like those magazine characters, who all seem to have Florida-water instead of red blood in their veins, and are so far, far away from life.
Yet even that dip into politely erotic fiction seemed to canalize my poor little grass-grown mind into activity, and Diddums and I sat up until the wee sma' hours discoursing on life and letters. He started me off by somewhat pensively remarking that all women seem to want to be intellectual and have a salon.
"No, Dinky-Dunk, I don't want a salon," I promptly announced. "I never did want one, for I don't believe they were as exciting as we imagine. And I hate literary people almost as much as I hate actors. I always felt they were like stage-scenery, not made for close inspection. For after five winters in New York and a couple in London you can't help bumping into the Bohemian type, not to mention an occasional collision with 'em up and down the Continent. When they're female they always seem to wear the wrong kind of corsets. And when they're male they watch themselves in the mirrors, or talk so much about themselves that you haven't a chance to talk about yourself—which is really the completest definition of a bore, isn't it? I'd much rather know them through their books than through those awful Sunday evening soirees where poor old leonine M—— used to perspire reading those Socialist poems of his to the adoring ladies, and Sanguinary John used to wear the same flannel shirt that shielded him from the Polar blasts up in Alaska—open at the throat, and all that sort of thing, just like a movie-actor cowboy, only John had grown a little stout and he kept spoiling the Strong-Man picture by so everlastingly posing at one end of the grand-piano! You know the way they do it, one pensive elbow on the piano-end and the delicately drooping palm holding up the weary brains, the same as you prop up a King-orange bough when it gets too heavy with fruit! And then he had a lovely bang and a voice like a maiden-lady from Maine. And take it from me, O lord and master, that man devoured all his raw beef and blood on his typewriter-ribbon. I dubbed him the King of the Eye-Socket school, and instead of getting angry he actually thanked me for it. That was the sort of advertising he was after."
Dinky-Dunk grinned a little as I rattled on. Then he grew serious again. "Why is it," he asked, "a writer in Westminster Abbey is always a genius, but a writer in the next room is rather a joke?"
I tried to explain it for him. "Because writers are like Indians. The only good ones are the dead ones. And it's the same with those siren affinities of history. Annie Laurie lived to be eighty, though the ballad doesn't say so. And Lady Hamilton died poor and ugly and went around with red herrings in her pocket. And Cleopatra was really a redheaded old political schemer, and Paris got tired of Helen of Troy. Which means that history, like literature, is only Le mensonge convenu!"
This made Dinky-Dunk sit up and stare at me. "Look here, Gee-Gee, I don't mind a bit of book-learning, but I hate to see you tear the whole tree of knowledge up by the roots and knock me down with it! And it was salons we were talking about, and not the wicked ladies of the past!"
"Well, the only salon I ever saw in America had the commercial air of a millinery opening where tea happened to be served," I promptly declared. "And the only American woman I ever knew who wanted to have a salon was a girl we used to call Asafetida Anne. And if I explained why you'd make a much worse face than that, my Diddums. But she had a weakness for black furs and never used to wash her neck. So the Plimpton Mark was always there!"
"Don't get bitter, Gee-Gee," announced Dinky-Dunk as he proceeded to light his pipe. And I could afford to laugh at his solemnity.
"I'm not bitter, Honey Chile; I'm only glad I got away from all that Bohemian rubbish. You may call me a rattle-box, and accuse me of being temperamental now and then—which I'm not—but the one thing in life which I love is sanity. And that, Dinky-Dunk, is why I love you, even though you are only a big sunburnt farmer fighting and planning and grinding away for a home for an empty-headed wife who's going to fail at everything but making you love her!"
Then followed a few moments when I wasn't able to talk,
... The sequel's scarce essential— Nay, more than this, I hold it still Profoundly confidential!
Then as we sat there side by side I got thinking of the past and of the Bohemians before whom I had once burned incense. And remembering a certain visit to Box Hill with Lady Agatha's mother, years and years ago, I had to revise my verdict on authors, for one of the warmest memories in all my life is that of dear old Meredith in his wheelchair, with his bearded face still flooded with its kindly inner light and his spirit still mellow with its unquenchable love of life. And once as a child, I went on to tell Dinky-Dunk, I had met Stevenson. It was at Mentone, and I can still remember him leaning over and taking my hand. His own hand was cold and lean, like a claw, and with the quick instinct of childhood I realized, too, that he was condescending as he spoke to me, for all the laugh that showed the white teeth under his drooping black mustache. Wrong as it seemed, I didn't like him any more than I afterward liked the Sargent portrait of him, which was really an echo of my own first impression, though often and often I've tried to blot out that first unfair estimate of a real man of genius. There's so much in the Child's Garden of Verse that I love; there's so much in the man's life that demands admiration, that it seems wrong not to capitulate to his charm. But when one's own family are one's biographers it's hard to be kept human. "Yet there's one thing, Dinky-Dunk, that I do respect him for," I went on. "He had seen the loveliest parts of this world, and, when he had to, he could light-heartedly give it all up and rough it in this American West of ours, even as you and I!" Whereupon Dinky-Dunk argued that we ought to forgive an invalid his stridulous preaching about bravery and manliness and his over-emphasis of fortitude, since it was plainly based on an effort to react against a constitutional weakness for which he himself couldn't be blamed.
And I confessed that I could forgive him more easily than I could Sanguinary John with his literary Diabolism and that ostentatious stone-age blugginess with which he loved to give the ladies goose-flesh, pretending he was a bull in a china-shop when he's really only a white mouse in an ink-pot! And after Dinky-Dunk had knocked out his pipe and wound up his watch he looked over at me with his slow Scotch-Canadian smile. "For a couple of hay-seeds who have been harpooning the salon idea," he solemnly announced, "I call this quite a literary evening!" But what's the use of having an idea or two in your head if you can't air 'em now and then?
Tuesday the Twenty-seventh
To-day I stumbled on the surprise of my life! It was A Man! I took Paddy and cantered over to the old Titchborne Ranch and was prowling around the corral, hoping I might find a few belated mushrooms. But nary a one was there. So I whistled on my four fingers for Paddy (I've been teaching him to come at that call) and happened to glance in the direction of the abandoned shack. Then I saw the door open, and out walked a man.
He was a young man, in puttees and knickers and Norfolk jacket, and he was smoking a cigarette. He stared at me as though I were the Missing Link. Then he said "Hello!" rather inadequately, it seemed to me.
I answered back "Hello," and wondered whether to take to my heels or not. But my courage got its second wind, and I stayed. Then we shook hands, very formally, and explained who we were. And I discovered that his name was Percival Benson Woodhouse (and the Lord forgive me if they ever call him Percy for short!) and that his aunt is the Countess of D—— and that he knows a number of people you and Lady Agatha have often spoken of. He's got a Japanese servant called Kino, or perhaps it's spelt Keeno, I don't know which, who's housekeeper, laundress, valet, gardener, groom and chef, all in one,—so, at least Percival Benson confessed to me. He also confessed that he'd bought the Titchborne Ranch, from photographs, from "one of those land chaps" in London. He wanted to rough it a bit, and they told him there would be jolly good game shooting. So he even brought along an elephant-gun, which his cousin had used in India. The photographs which the "land chap" had showed him turned out to be pictures of the Selkirks. And, taking it all in all, he fancied that he'd been jolly well bunked. But Percival seemed to accept it with the stoicism of the well-born Britisher. He'd have a try at the place, although there was no game.
"But there is game," I told him, "slathers of it, oodles of it!"
He mildly inquired where and what? I told him: Wild duck, prairie-chicken, wild geese, jack-rabbits, now and then a fox, and loads of coyotes. He explained, then, that he meant big game—and how grandly those two words, "big game," do roll off the English tongue! He has a sister in the Bahamas, who may join him next summer if he should decide to stick it out. He considered that it would be a bit rough for a girl, during the winter season up here.
Yet before I go any further I must describe Percival Benson Woodhouse to you, for he's not only "our sort," but a type as well.
In the first place, he's a Magdalen College man, the sort we've seen going up and down the High many and many a time. He's rather gaunt and rather tall, and he stoops a little. "At home" they call it the "Oxford stoop," if I'm not greatly mistaken. His hands are thin and long and bony. His eyes are nice, and he looks very good form. I mean he's the sort of man you'd never take for the "outsider" or "rotter." He's the sort who seem to have the royal privilege of doing even doubtfully polite things and yet doing them in such a way as to make them seem quite proper. I don't know whether I make that clear or not, but one thing is clear, and this is that our Percival Benson is an aristocrat. You see it in his over-sensitive, over-refined, almost womanishly delicate face, with those idealizing and quite unpractical eyes of his. You see it in the thin, high-arched, bony nose (almost as fine a beak as the one belonging to His Grace, the Duke of M——!) and you see it in the sad and somewhat elongated face, as though he had pored over big books too much, a sort of air of pathos and aloofness from things. His mouth strikes you as being rather meager, until he smiles, which is quite often, for, glory be, he has a good sense of humor. But besides that he has a neatness, a coolness, an impersonal sort of ease, which would make you think that he might have stepped out of one of Henry James's earlier novels of about the time of the Portrait of a Lady. And I like him. I knew that at once. He's effete and old-worldish and probably useless, out here, but he stands for something I've been missing, and I'll be greatly mistaken if Percival Benson and Chaddie McKail are not pretty good friends before the winter's over! He's asked if he might be permitted to call, and he's coming for dinner to-morrow night, and I do hope Dinky-Dunk is nice to him—if we're to be neighbors. But Dinky-Dunk says Westerners don't ask to be permitted to call. They just stick their cayuse into the corral and walk in, the same as an Indian does. And Dinky-Dunk says that if he comes in evening dress he'll shoot him, sure pop!
Thursday the Twenty-ninth
Percy (how I hate that name!) was here for dinner last night, and all things considered, we didn't fare so badly. We had tomato bisque and scalloped potatoes and prairie-chicken (they need to be well basted) and hot biscuits and stewed dried peaches with cream. Then we had coffee and the men smoked their pipes. We talked until a quarter to one in the morning, and my poor Dinky-Dunk, who has been working so hard and seeing nobody, really enjoyed that visit and really likes Percival Benson.
Percy got talking about Oxford, and you could see that he loved the old town and that he felt more at home on the Isis than on the prairie. He said he once heard Freeman tell a story about Goldwin Smith, who used to be Regius Professor of History at the University. G. S. seemed astonished that F. couldn't tell him, at some viva voce exam, whatever that may mean, the cause of King John's death. Then G. S. explained that poor John died of too much peaches and fresh ale, "which would give a man considerable belly-ache," the Regius Professor of History solemnly announced to Freeman.
Percy said his lungs rather troubled him in England, and he has spent over a year in Florence and Rome and can talk pictures like a Grant Allen guide-book. And he's sat through many an opera at La Scala, but considered the Canadian coyote a much better vocalist than most of the minor Italian tenors. And he knows Capri and Taormina and says he'd like to grow old and die in Sicily. He got pneumonia at Messina, and nearly died young there and after five months in Switzerland a specialist told him to try Canada.
I've noticed that one of the delusions of Americans is that an Englishman is silent. Now, my personal conviction is that Englishmen are the greatest talkers in the world, and I have Percy to back me up in it. In fact, we sat about talking so long that Percy asked if he couldn't stay all night, as he was a poor rider and wasn't sure of the trails as yet. So we made a shake-down for him in the living-room. And when Dinky-Dunk came to bed he confided to me that Percy was calmly reading and smoking himself to sleep, out of my sadly scorned copy of The Ring and the Book, with the lamp on the floor, on one side of him, and a saucer on the other, for an ash-tray. But he was up and out this morning, before either of us was stirring, coming back to Casa Grande, however, when he saw the smoke at the chimney-top. His thin cheeks were quite pink and he apologetically explained that he'd been trying for an hour and a half to catch his cayuse. Olie had come to his rescue. But our thin-shouldered Oxford exile said that he had never seen such a glorious sunrise, and that the ozone had made him a bit tipsy. Speaking of thin-shouldered specimens, Matilda Anne, I was once a thirty-six; now I am a perfect forty-two.
Friday the Fifth
The weather has been bad all this week, but I've had a great deal of sewing to do, and for two days Dinky-Dunk stayed in and helped me fix up the shack. I made more book-shelves out of more old biscuit-boxes and my lord made a gun-rack for our fire-arms. Percival Benson rode over once, through the storm, and it took us half an hour to thaw him out. But he brought some books, and says he has four cases, altogether, and that we're welcome to all we wish. He stayed until noon the next day, this time sleeping in the annex, which Dinky-Dunk and I have papered, so that it looks quite presentable. But as yet there is no way of heating it. Our new neighbor, I imagine, is very lonesome.
Sunday the Seventh
The weather has cleared: there's a chinook arch in the sky, and a sort of St. Martin's-Summer haze on all the prairie. But there's news to-day. Kino, our new neighbor's Jap, has decamped with a good deal of money and about all of Percival Benson's valuables. The poor boy is almost helpless, but he's not a quitter. He said he chopped his first kindling to-day, though he had to stand in a wash-tub, while he did it, to keep from cutting his feet. Dinky-Dunk's birthday is only three weeks off, and I'm making plans for a celebration.
Tuesday the Ninth
The days slip by, and scarcely leave me time to write. Dinky-Dunk is a sort of pendulum, swinging out to work, back to eat, and then out, and then back again. Olie is teaming in lumber and galvanized iron for a new building of some sort. My lord, in the evenings, sits with paper and pencil, figuring out measurements and making plans. I sit on the other side of the table, as a rule, sewing. Sometimes I go around to his side of the table, and make him put his plans away for a few minutes. We are very happy. But where the days fly to I scarcely know. We are always looking toward the future, talking about the future, "conceiting" for the future, as the Irish say. Next summer is to be our banner year. Dinky-Dunk is going to risk everything on wheat. He's like a general plotting out a future plan of campaign—for when the work comes, he says, it will come in a rush. Help will be hard to get, so he'll sell his British Columbia timber rights and buy a forty-horse-power gasoline tractor. He will at least if gasoline gets cheaper, for with "gas" still at twenty-six cents a gallon horse-power is cheapest. But during the breaking season in April and May, one of these engines can haul eight gang-plows behind it. In twenty-four hours it will be able to turn over thirty-five acres of prairie soil—and the ordinary man and team counts two acres of plowing a decent day's work.
To-night I asked Dinky-Dunk why he risked everything on wheat and warned him that we might have to revise the old Kansas trekker's slogan to—
"In wheat we trusted, In wheat we busted!"
Dinky-Dunk explained that to keep on raising only wheat would be bad for the land, and even now meant taking a chance, but situated as he was it brought in the quickest money. And he wanted money in a hurry, for he had a nest to feather for a lady wild-bird that he'd captured—which meant me. Later on he intends to go in for flax—for fiber and not for seed—and as our land should produce two tons of the finest flax-straw to the acre and as the Belgian and Irish product is now worth over four hundred dollars a ton, he told me to sit down and figure out what four hundred acres would produce, with even a two-third crop.
The Canadian farmer of the West, he went on to explain, mostly grew flax for the seed alone, burning up over a million tons of straw every year, just to get it out of the way, the same as he does with his wheat-straw. But all that will soon be changed. Only last week Dinky-Dunk wrote to the Department of Agriculture for information about courtai fiber—that's the kind used for point-lace and is worth a dollar a pound—for my lord feels convinced his soil and climatic conditions are especially suited for certain of the finer varieties. He even admitted that flax would be better on his land at the present time, as it would release certain of the natural fertilizers which sometimes leave the virgin soil too rich for wheat. But what most impressed me about Dinky-Dunk's talk was his absolute and unshaken faith in this West of ours, once it wakes up to its opportunities. It's a stored-up granary of wealth, he declares, and all we've done so far is to nibble along the leaks in the floor-cracks!
Saturday the Twenty-first
To-day is Dinky-Dunk's birthday. He's always thought, of course, that I'm a pauper, and never dreamed of my poor little residuary nest-egg. I'd ordered a box of Okanagan Valley apples, and a gramophone and a dozen opera records, and a brier-wood pipe and two pounds of English "Honey-Dew," and a smoking-jacket, and some new ties and socks and shirts, and a brand new Stetson, for Dinky-Dunk's old hat is almost a rag-bag. And I ordered half a dozen of the newer novels and a set of Herbert Spencer which I heard him say he wanted, and a sepia print of the Mona Lisa (which my lord says I look like when I'm planning trouble) and a felt mattress and a set of bed-springs (so good-by, old sway-backed friend whose humps have bruised me in body and spirit this many a night!) and a dozen big oranges and three dozen little candles for the birthday cake. And then I was cleaned out—every blessed cent gone! But Percy (we have, you see, been unable to escape that name) ordered a box of cigars and a pair of quilted house-slippers, so it was a pretty formidable array.
I, accordingly, had Olie secretly team this array all the way from Buckhorn to Percy's house, where it was duly ambushed and entrenched, to await the fatal day. As luck would have it, or seemed to have it, Dinky-Dunk had to hit the trail for overnight, to see about the registration of his transfers for his new half-section, at the town of H——. So as soon as Dinky-Dunk was out of sight I hurried through my work and had Tumble-Weed and Bronk headed for the old Titchborne Ranch.
There I arrived about mid-afternoon, and what a time we had, getting those things unpacked, and looking them over, and planning and talking! But the whole thing was spoilt.
We forgot to tie the horses. So while we were having tea Bronk and Tumble-Weed hit the trail, on their own hook. They made for home, harness and all, but of course I never knew this at the time. We looked and looked, came back for supper, and then started out again. We searched until it got dark. My feet were like lead, and I couldn't have walked another mile. I was so stiff and tired I simply had to give up. Percy worried, of course, for we had no way of sending word to Dinky-Dunk. Then we sat down and talked over possibilities, like a couple of castaways on a Robinson Crusoe island. Percy offered to bunk in the stable, and let me have the shack. But I wouldn't hear of that. In the first place, I felt pretty sure Percy was what they call a "lunger" out here, and I didn't relish the idea of sleeping in a tuberculous bed. I asked for a blanket and told him that I was going to sleep out under the wagon, as I'd often done with Dinky-Dunk. Percy finally consented, but this worried him too. He even brought out his "big-game" gun, so I'd have protection, and felt the grass to see if it was damp, and declared he couldn't sleep on a mattress when he knew I was out on the hard ground. I told him that I loved it, and to go to bed, for I wanted to get out of some of my armor-plate. He went, reluctantly.
It was a beautiful night, and not so cold, with scarcely a breath of wind stirring. I lay looking out through the wheel-spokes at the Milky Way, and was just dropping off when Percy came out still again. He was in a quilted dressing-gown and had a blanket over his shoulders. It made him look for all the world like Father Time. He wanted to know if I was all right, and had brought me out a pillow—which I didn't use. Then he sat down on the prairie-floor, near the wagon, and smoked and talked. He pointed out some of the constellations to me, and said the only time he'd ever seen the stars bigger was one still night on the Indian Ocean, when he was on his way back from Singapore. He would never forget that night, he said, the stars were so wonderful, so big, so close, so soft and luminous. But the northern stars were different. They were without the orange tone that belongs to the South. They seemed remoter and more awe-inspiring, and there was always a green tone to their whiteness.
Then we got talking about "furrin parts" and Percy asked me if I'd ever seen Naples at night from San Martino, and I asked him if he'd ever seen Broadway at night from the top of the Times Building. Then he asked me if I'd ever watched Paris from Montmartre, or seen the Temple of Neptune at Paestum bathed in Lucanian moonlight—which I very promptly told him I had, for it was on the ride home from Paestum that a certain person had proposed to me. We talked about temples and Greek Gods and the age of the world and Indian legends until I got downright sleepy. Then Percy threw away his last cigarette and got up. He said "Good night;" I said "Good night;" and he went into the shack. He said he'd leave the door open, in case I called. There were just the two of us, between earth and sky, that night, and not another soul within a radius of seven miles of any side of us. He was very glad to have some one to talk to. He's probably a year or two older than I am, but I am quite motherly with him. And he is shockingly incompetent, as a homesteader, from the look of his shack. But he's a gentleman, almost too "Gentle," I sometimes feel, a Laodicean, mentally over-refined until it leaves him unable to cope with real life. He's one of those men made for being a "spectator," and not an actor, in life. And there's something so absurd about his being where he is that I feel sorry for him.
I slept like a log. Once I fell asleep, I forgot about the hard ground, and the smell of the horse-blankets, and the fact that I'd lost my poor Dinky-Dunk's team. When I woke up it was the first gray of dawn. Two men were standing side by side, looking at me under the wagon. One was Percy, and the other was Dinky-Dunk himself.
He'd got home by three o'clock in the morning, by hurrying, for he was nervous about me being alone. But he found the house empty, the team standing beside the corral, and me missing. Naturally, it wasn't a very happy situation. Poor Dinky-Dunk hit the trail at once, and had been riding all night looking for his lost wife. Then he made for Percy's, woke him up, and discovered her placidly snoring under a wagon-box. He didn't even smile at this. He was very tired and very silent. I thought, for a moment, that I saw distrust on Dinky-Dunk's face, for the first time. But he has said nothing. I hated to see him go out to work, when we got home, but he refused to take a nap at noon, as I wanted him to. So to-night, when he came in for his supper, I had the birthday cake duly decked and the presents all out.
But his enthusiasm was forced, and all during the meal he showed a tendency to be absent-minded. I had no explanations to make, so I made none. But I noticed that he put on his old slippers. I thought he had done it deliberately.
"You don't seem to mellow with age," I announced, with my eyebrows up. He flushed at that, quite plainly. Then he reached over and took hold of my hand. But he did it only with an effort, and after some tremendous inward struggle which was not altogether flattering to me.
"Please take your hand away so I can reach the dish-towel," I told him. And the hand went away like a shot. After I'd finished my work I got out my George Meredith and read Modern Love. Dinky-Dunk did not come to bed until late. I was awake when he came, but I didn't let him know it.
Sunday the Twenty-ninth
I haven't felt much like writing this last week. I scarcely know why. I think it's because Dinky-Dunk is on his dignity. He's getting thin, by the way. His cheek-bones show and his Adam's apple sticks out. He's worried about his land payments, and I tell him he'd be happier with a half-section. But Dinky-Dunk wants wealth. And I can't help him much. I'm afraid I'm an encumbrance. And the stars make me lonely, and the prairie wind sometimes gives me the willies! And winter is coming.
I'm afraid I'm out of my setting, as badly out of it as Percival Benson is. It wouldn't be so bad, I suppose, if I'd never seen such lovely corners of the world, before coming out here to be a dot on the wilderness. If I'd never had that heavenly summer at Fiesole, and those months with you at Corfu, and that winter in Rome with poor dear dead Katrinka! Sometimes I think of the nights we used to look out over Paris, from the roof above 'Tite Daneau's studio. And sometimes I think of the Pincio, with the band playing, and the carriages flashing, and the officers in uniform, and the milky white statues among the trees, and the golden mists of the late afternoon over the Immortal City. And I tell myself that it was all a dream. And then I feel that I am all a dream, and the prairie is a dream, and Paddy and Olie and Dinky-Dunk and all this new life is nothing more than a dream. Oh, Matilda Anne, I've been homesick this week, so unhappy and homesick for something—for something, and I don't even know what it is!
Monday the Seventh
Glory be! Winter's here with a double-edged saber wind out of the north and snow on the ground. It gives a zip to things. It makes our snug little shack seem as cozy as a ship's cabin. And I've got a jumper-sleigh, and with my coon-skin coat and gauntlets and wedge-cap I can be as warm as toast in any wind. And there's so much to do. And I'm not going to be a piker. This is the land where folks make good or go loco. You've only got yourself to depend on, and yourself to blame, if things go wrong. And I'm going to make them go right. There's no use wailing out here in the West. A line or two of Laurence Hope's has been running all day through my head:
"These are my people, and this my land; I hear the pulse of her secret soul. This is the life that I understand, Savage and simple, and sane and whole."
Friday the Eleventh
Dinky-dunk came home with an Indian girl to-day, a young half-breed about sixteen years old. She's to be both companion and parlor-maid, for Dinky-Dunk has to hurry off to British Columbia, to try to sell his timber-rights there to meet his land payments. He's off to-morrow. It makes me feel wretched, but I'm consuming my own smoke, for I don't want him to think me an encumbrance. My Indian girl speaks a little English. She also eats sugar by the handful, whenever she can steal it. I asked her what her name was and she told me "Queenie MacKenzie." That name almost took my breath away. How that untutored Northwest aborigine ever took unto herself this Broadway chorus-girl name, Heaven only knows! But I have my suspicions of Queenie. She has certain exploratory movements which convince me she is verminous. She sleeps in the annex, I'm happy to say.
At dinner to-night when I was teaching Dinky-Dunk how to make a rabbit out of his table-napkin and a sea-sick passenger out of the last of his oranges, he explained that he might not get back in time for Christmas, and asked if I'd mind. I knew his trip was important, so I kept a stiff upper lip and said of course I wouldn't mind. But the thought of a Christmas alone chilled my heart. I tried to be jolly, and gave my repertory on the mouth-organ, which promptly stopped all activities on the part of the round-eyed Queenie MacKenzie. But all that foolery was as forced as the frivolity of the French Revolution Conciergerie where the merry diners couldn't quite forget they were going to lose their heads in the morning!
Sunday the Thirteenth
Not only is Duncan gone, but Queenie has also quite unceremoniously taken her departure. It arose from the fact that I requested her to take a bath. The only disappointed member of the family is poor old Olie, who was actually making sheep's eyes at that verminous little baggage. Imagination falters at what he might have done with a dollar's worth of brown sugar. When Queenie went, I find, my mouth-organ went with her. I'd like to ling chih that Indian girl!
Wednesday the Sixteenth
It was a sparkling clear day to-day, with no wind, so I rode over to the old Titchborne Ranch with my little jumper-sleigh. There I found Percival Benson in a most pitiable condition. He had been laid up with the grip. His place was untidy, his dishes were unwashed, and his fuel was running short. His appearance, in fact, rather frightened me. So I bundled him up and got him in the jumper and brought him straight home with me. He had a chill on the way, so as soon as we got to Casa Grande I sent him to bed, gave him hot whisky, and put my hot water bottle at his feet. He tried to accept the whole thing as a joke, and vowed I was jolly well cooking him. But to-night he has a high fever and I'm afraid he's in for a serious siege of illness. I intend to send Olie over to get some of his things and have his live stock brought over with ours.
Sunday the Twentieth
Percy has had three very bad nights, but seems a little better to-day. His lung is congested, and it may be pneumonia, but I think my mustard-plaster saved the day. He tries so hard to be cheerful, and is so grateful for every little thing. But I wish Dinky-Dunk was here to tell me what to do.
I could never have survived this last week without Olie. He is as watchful and ready as a farm-collie. But I want my Dinky-Dunk! I may have spoiled my Dinky-Dunk a little, but it's only once every century or two that God makes a man like him. I want to be a good wife. I want to do my share, and keep a shoulder to the wheel, if the going's got to be heavy for the next year or two. I won't be the Dixon type. I won't—I won't! My Duncan will need me during this next year, and it will be a joy to help him. For I love that man, Matilda Anne,—I love him so much that it hurts!
Sunday the Twenty-seventh
Christmas has come and gone. It was very lonely at Casa Grande. I prefer not writing about it. Percy is improving, but is still rather weak. I think he had a narrow squeak.
Wednesday the Thirtieth
My patient is up and about, looking like a different man. He shows the effects of my forced feeding, though he declares I'm trying to make him into a Strasburg goose, for the sake of the pate de foies gras when I cut him up. But he's decided to go to Santa Barbara for the winter: and I think he's wise. So this afternoon I togged out in my furs, took the jumper, and went kiting over to the Titchborne Ranch. Oh, what a shack! What disorder, what untidiness, what spirit-numbing desolation! I don't blame poor Percival Benson for clearing out for California. I got what things he needed, however, and went kiting home again.
Thursday the Thirty-first
I hardly know how to begin. But it must be written or I'll suddenly go mad and start to bite the shack walls. Last night, after Percy had helped me turn the bread-mixer (for, whatever happens, we've at least got to eat) I helped him pack. Among other things, he found a copy of Housman's Shropshire Lad and after running through it announced that he'd like to read me two or three little things out of it. So I squatted down in front of the fire, idly poking at the red coals, and he sat beside the stove with his book, in slippers and dressing gown. And there he was solemnly reading out loud when the door opened and in walked Dinky-Dunk.
I say he walked in, but that isn't quite right. He stood in the open door, staring at us, with an expression that would have done credit to the Tragic Muse. I imagine Enoch Arden wore much the same look when he piped the home circle after that prolonged absence of his. Then Dinky-Dunk did a most unpardonable thing. Instead of saying "Howdy!" like a scholar and a gentleman, he backed out of the shack and slammed the door. When I'd caught my breath I went out through that door after him. It was a bitterly cold night, but I did not stop to put anything on. I was too amazed, too indignant, too swept off my feet by the absurdity of it all. I could see Dinky-Dunk in the clear starlight, taking the blankets off his team. He'd hurried to the shack, without even unharnessing the horses. I could hear the wheel-tires whine on the crisp snow, for the poor beasts were tired and restless. I went straight to the buckboard into which Dinky-Dunk was climbing. He looked like a cinnamon-bear in his big shaggy coat. And I couldn't see his face. But I remembered how it had looked in the doorway. It was the color of a tan shoe. It was too weather-beaten and burnt with the wind and sun-glare ever to turn white, or, I suppose, it would have been the color of paper.
"Haven't you," I demanded, "haven't you any explanation for acting like this?" He sat in the buckboard seat, with the reins in his hands.
"I guess I've got the first right to that question," he finally said in a stifled voice.
"Then why don't you ask it?" was my answer to him. Again he waited a moment before speaking, as though he felt the need of weighing his words.
"I don't need to—now!" he said, as he tightened the reins.
"Wait," I called out to him. "There are certain things I want you to know!"
I was not going to make explanations. I would not dignify his brute-man stupidity by such things. I scarcely know what I intended to do. As I looked up at him there in his rough fur coat, for a moment, he seemed millions and millions of miles away from me. I stared at him, trying to comprehend his utter lack of comprehension. I seemed to view him across the same gulf which separates a meditative zoo visitor from some abysmally hirsute animal that eons and eons ago must have been its cave-fellow and hearth-mate. But now we seemed to have nothing in common, not even a language with which to link up those lost ages. Yet from all that mixture of feelings only one survived: I didn't want my husband to go.
It was the team, as far as I can remember, that really decided the thing. They had been restive, backing and jerking and pawing and nickering for their feed-box. And suddenly they jumped forward. But this time they kept going. Whether Dinky-Dunk tried to hold them back or not I can't say. But I came back to the shack, shivering. Percy, thank Heaven, was in his room.
"I think I'll turn in!" he called out, quite casually, through the partition.
I said "All right," and sat down in front of the fire, trying to straighten things out. My Dinky-Dunk was gone! He had glared at me, with hate in his eyes, as he sat in that buckboard. It's all over. He has no faith in me, his own wife!
I went to bed and tried to sleep. But sleep was out of the question. The whole thing seemed so absurd, so unreasonable, so unjust. I could feel waves of anger sweep through my body at the mere thought of it. Then a wave of something else, of something between anxiety and terror, would take the place of anger. My husband was gone, and he'd never come back. I'd put all my eggs in one basket, and the basket had gone over, and made a saffron-tinted omelet of all my life.
And that's the way I watched the New Year in, I couldn't even afford the luxury of a little bawl, for I was afraid Percy would hear me. It must have been almost morning when I fell asleep.
When I woke up Percival Benson was gone, bag and baggage. At first I resented the thought of his going off that way, without a word, but on thinking it over I decided he'd done the right thing. There's nothing like the hard cold light of a winter morning to bring you back to hard cold facts. Olie had driven Percy in to the station. So I was alone in the shack all day. I did a heap of thinking during those long hours of solitude. And out of all that straw of self-examination I threshed just one little grain of truth. I could never live on the prairie alone. And whatever I did, or wherever I went, I could never be happy without my Dinky-Dunk....
I had just finished supper to-night, as blue as indigo and as spiritless as a wet hen, when I heard the sound of voices. It took me only ten seconds to make sure whose they were. Dinky-Dunk had come back with Olie! I made a high dive for a book from the nearest shelf, swung the armchair about with a jerk, and sank luxuriously into it, with my feet up on the warm damper and my eyes leisurely and contentedly perusing George Moore's Confessions of a Young Man (although I hate the libidinous stuff like poison!) Then Dinky-Dunk came in. I could see him stare at me a little awkwardly and contritely (what woman can't read a book and study a man at the same time?) and I, could see that he was waiting for an opening. But I gave him none. Naturally, Olie had explained everything to him. But I had been humiliated, my pride had been walked over, from end to end. My spirit had been stamped on—and I had decided on my plan of action. I simply ignored Duncan.
I read for a while, then I took a lamp, went to my room, and deliberately locked the door. My one regret was that I couldn't see Dinky-Dunk's face when that key turned. And now I must stop writing, and go to bed, for I am dog-tired. I know I'll sleep better to-night. It's nice to remember there's a man near, if he happens to be the man you care a trifle about, even though you have calmly turned the door-key on him.
Sunday the Third
Dinky-Dunk has at least the sensibilities to respect my privacy of life. He knows where the deadline is, and doesn't disregard it. But it's terribly hard to be tragic in a two-by-four shack. You miss the dignifying touches. And you haven't much leeway for the bulky swings of grandeur.
For one whole day I didn't speak to Dinky-Dunk, didn't even so much as recognize his existence. I ate by myself, and did my work—when the monster was around—with all the preoccupation of a sleep-walker. But something happened, and I forgot myself. Before I knew it I was asking him a question. He answered it, quite soberly, quite casually. If he had grinned, or shown one jot of triumph, I would have walked out of the shack and never spoken to him again. I think he knew he was on terribly perilous ground. He picked his way with care. He asked me a question back, quite offhandedly, and for the time being let the matter rest there. But the breach was in my walls, Matilda Anne, and I was quite defenseless. We were both very impersonal and very polite, when he came in at supper time, though I think I turned a visible pink when I sat down at the table, for our eyes met there, just a moment and no more. I knew he was watching me, covertly, all the time. And I knew I was making him pretty miserable. But I wasn't the least bit ashamed of it.
After supper he indifferently announced that he had nothing to do and might as well help me wash up. I went to hand him a dish-towel. Instead of taking the towel he took my hand, with the very profane ejaculation, as he did so, of "Oh, hell, Gee-Gee, what's the use?"
Then before I knew it, he had me in his arms (our butter-dish was broken in the collision) and I was weak enough to feel sorry for him and his poor tragic pleading eyes. Then I gave up. If I was silly enough to have a little cry on his shoulder, I had the satisfaction of feeling him give a gulp or two himself.
"You're the most wonderful woman in the world!" he solemnly told me, and then in a much less solemn way he began kissing me again. But the barriers were down. And how we talked that night! And how different everything seemed! And how nice it was to feel his arm over my shoulder and his quiet breathing on the nape of my neck as I fell asleep. It seemed as though Love were fanning me with its softest wings. I'm happy again. But I've been wondering if it's environment that makes character, or character that makes environment. Sometimes I think it's one way, and sometimes I feel it's the other. But I can't be sure of my answer—yet! It's hard for a spoiled woman to remember that her life has to be merged into somebody else's life. I've been wondering if marriage isn't like a two-panel screen, which won't stand up if both its panels are too much in line. Heaven knows, I want harmony! But a woman likes to feel that instead of being out of step with her whole regiment of life it's the regiment that's out of step with her. To-night I unlaced Dinky-Dunk's shoes, and put on his slippers, and sat on the floor between his knees with my head against the steady tick-tock of his watch-pocket. "Dinky-Dunk," I solemnly announced, "that gink called Pope was a poor guesser. The proper study of man should have been woman!"
Thursday the Seventh
Everything at Casa Grande has settled back into the usual groove. There is a great deal to do about the shack. The grimmest bug-bear of domestic work is dish-washing. A pile of greasy plates is the one thing that gets on my nerves. And it is a little Waterloo that must be faced three times every day, of every week, of every month, of every year. And I was never properly "broke" for domesticity and the dish-pan! Why can't some genius invent a self-washing fry-pan? My hair is growing so long that I can now do it up in a sort of half-hearted French roll. It has been quite cold, with a wonderful fall of snow. The sleighing could not be better.
Saturday the Ninth
Dinky-Dunk's Christmas present came to-day, over two weeks late. He had never mentioned it, and I had not only held my peace, but had given up all thought of getting a really-truly gift from my lord and master.
They brought it out from Buckhorn, in the bobsleigh, all wrapped up in old buffalo-robes and blankets and tarpaulins. It's a baby-grand piano, and a beauty, and it came all the way from Winnipeg. But either the shipping or the knocking about or the extreme cold has put it terribly out of tune, and it can't be used until the piano-tuner travels a couple of hundred miles out here to put it in shape. And it's far too big for the shack, even when pushed right up into the corner. But Dinky-Dunk says that before next winter there'll be a different sort of house on this spot where Casa Grande now stands.
"And that's to keep your soul alive, in the meantime," he announced. I scolded him for being so extravagant, when he needed every dollar he could lay his hands on. But he wouldn't listen to me. In fact, it only started an outburst.
"My God, Gee-Gee," he cried, "haven't you given up enough for me? Haven't you sacrificed enough in coming out here to the end of nowhere and leaving behind everything that made life decent?"
"Why, Honey Chile, didn't I get you?" I demanded. But even that didn't stop him.
"Don't you suppose I ever think what it's meant to you, to a woman like you? There are certain things we can't have, but there are some things we're going to have. This next ten or twelve months will be hard, but after that there's going to be a change—if the Lord's with me, and I have a white man's luck!"
"And supposing we have bad luck?" I asked him. He was silent for a moment or two.
"We can always give up, and go back to the city," he finally said.
"Give up!" I said with a whoop. "Give up? Not on your life, Mister Dour Man! We're not going to be Dixonites! We're going to win out!" And we were together in a death-clinch, hugging the breath out of each other, when Olie came in to ask if he hadn't better get the stock stabled, as there was bad weather coming.
Monday the Eleventh
We are having the first real blizzard of the winter. It began yesterday, as Olie intimated, and for all the tail-end of the day my Dinky-Dunk was on the go, in the bitter cold, looking after fuel and feed and getting things ship-shape, for all the world like a skipper who's read his barometer and seen a hurricane coming. There had been no wind for a couple of days, only dull and heavy skies with a disturbing sense of quietness. Even when I heard Olie and Dinky-Dunk shouting outside, and shoring up the shack-walls with poles, I could not quite make out what it meant.
Then the blizzard came. It came down out of the northwest, like a cloudburst. It hummed and sang, and then it whined, and then it screamed, screamed in a high falsetto that made you think poor old Mother Earth was in her last throes! The snow was fine and hard, really minute particles of ice, and not snow at all, as we know it in the East, little sharp-angled diamond-points that stung the skin like fire. It came in almost horizontal lines, driving flat across the unbroken prairie and defying anything made of God or man to stop it. Nothing did stop it. Our shack and the bunk-house and stables and hay-stacks tore a few pin-feathers off its breast, though; and those few feathers are drifts higher than my head, heaped up against each and all of the buildings.
I scratched the frost off a window-pane, where feathery little drifts were seeping in through the sill-cracks, when it first began. But the wind blew harder and harder and the shack rocked and shook with the tension. Oh, such a wind! It made a whining and wailing noise, with each note higher, and when you felt that it couldn't possibly increase, that it simply must ease off, or the whole world would go smash, why, that whining note merely grew tenser and the wind grew stronger. How it lashed things! How it shook and flailed and trampled this poor old earth of ours! Just before supper Olie announced that he'd look after my chicks for me. I told him, quite casually, that I'd attend to them myself. I usually strew a mixture of wheat and oats on the litter in the hen-house overnight. This had two advantages, one was that it didn't take me out quite so early in the morning, and the other was that the chicks themselves started scratching around first thing in the morning and so got exercise and kept themselves warmer-bodied and in better health.
It was not essential that I should go to the hen-house myself, but I was possessed with a sudden desire to face that singing white tornado. So I put on my things, while Dinky-Dunk was at work in the stables. I put on furs and leggings and gauntlets and all, as though I were starting for a ninety-mile drive, and slipped out. Dinky-Dunk had tunneled through the drift in front of the door, but that tunnel was already beginning to fill again. I plowed through it, and tried to look about me. Everything was a sort of streaked misty gray, an all-enveloping muffing leaden maelstrom that hurt your skin when you lifted your head and tried to look it in the face. Once, in a lull of the wind when the snow was not so thick, I caught sight of the hay-stacks. That gave me a line on the hen-house. So I made for it, on the run, holding my head low as I went.
It was glorious, at first, it made my lungs pump and my blood race and my legs tingle. Then the storm-devils howled in my eyes and the ice-lashes snapped in my face. Then the wind went off on a rampage again, and I couldn't see. I couldn't move forward. I couldn't even breathe. Then I got frightened.
I leaned there against the wind calling for Dinky-Dunk and Olie, whenever I could gasp breath enough to make a sound. But I might as well have been a baby crying in mid-ocean to a Kensington Gardens nurse.
Then I knew I was lost. No one could ever hear me in that roar. And there was nothing to be seen, just a driving, blinding, stinging gray pall of flying fury that nettled the naked skin like electric-massage and took the breath out of your buffeted body. There was no land-mark, no glimpse of any building, nothing whatever to go by. And I felt so helpless in the face of that wind! It seemed to take the power of locomotion from my legs. I was not altogether amazed at the thought that I might die there, within a hundred yards of my own home, so near those narrow walls within which were warmth, and shelter, and quietness. I imagined how they'd find my body, deep under the snow, some morning; how Dinky-Dunk would search, perhaps for days. I felt so sorry for him I decided not to give up, that I wouldn't be lost, that I wouldn't die there like a fly on a sheet of tanglefoot!
I had fallen down on my knees, with my back to the wind, and already the snow had drifted around me. I also found my eye-lashes frozen together, and I lost several winkers in getting rid of those solidified tears. But I got to my feet and battled on, calling when I could. I kept on, going round and round in a circle, I suppose, as people always do when they're lost in a storm. Then the wind grew worse again. I couldn't make any headway against it. I had to give up. I simply had to! I wasn't afraid. I wasn't terrified at the thought of what was happening to me. I was only sorry, with a misty sort of sorrow I can't explain. And I don't remember that I felt particularly uncomfortable, except for the fact I found it rather hard to breathe.
It was Olie who found me. He came staggering through the snow with extra fuel for the bunk-house, and nearly walked over me. As we found out afterward, I wasn't more than thirty steps away from that bunk-house door. Olie pulled me up out of the snow the same as you'd pull a skein of darning-silk out of a work-basket. He half carried me to the bunk-house, got his bearings, and then steered me for the shack. It was a fight, but we made it. And Dinky-Dunk was still out looking after his stock and doesn't know how nearly he lost his Lady Bird. I've made Olie promise not to say a word about it. But the top of my nose is red and swollen. I think it must have got a trifle frost-nipped, in the encounter. The weather has cleared now, and the wind has gone down. But it is very cold, and Dinky-Dunk has just reported that it's already forty-eight below zero.
Tuesday the Nineteenth
The days slip away and I scarcely know where they go. The weather is wonderful. Clear and cold, with such heaps of sunshine you'd never dream it was zero weather. But you have to be careful, and always wear furs when you're driving, or out for any length of time. Three hours in this open air is as good as a pint of Chinkie's best champagne. It makes me tingle. We are living high, with several barrels of frozen game—geese, duck and prairie-chicken—and also an old tin trunk stuffed full of beef-roasts, cut the right size. I bring them in and thaw them out overnight, as I need them. The freezing makes them very tender. But they must be completely thawed before they go into the oven, or the outside will be overdone and the inside still raw. I learned that by experience. My appetite is disgraceful, and I'm still gaining. Chinkie could never again say I reminded him of one of the lean kine in Pharaoh's dream.
I have been asking Dinky-Dunk if it isn't downright cruelty to leave horses and cattle out on the range in weather like this. My husband says not, so long as they have a wind-break in time of storms. The animals paw through the snow for grass to eat, and when they get thirsty they can eat the snow itself, which, Dinky-Dunk solemnly assures me, almost never gives them sore throat! But the open prairie, just at this season, is a most inhospitable looking pasturage, and the unbroken glare of white makes my eyes ache.... There's one big indoor task I finally have accomplished, and that is tuning my piano. It made my heart heavy, standing there useless, a gloomy monument of ironic grandeur.
As a girl I used to watch Katrinka's long-haired Alsatian putting her concert grand to rights, and I knew that my ear was dependable enough. So the second day after my baby grand's arrival I went at it with a monkey-wrench. But that was a failure. Then I made a drawing of a tuning-hammer and had Olie secretly convey it to the Buckhorn blacksmith, who in turn concocted a great steel hollow-headed monstrosity which actually fits over the pins to which the piano wires are strung, even though the aforesaid monstrosity is heavy enough to stun an ox with. But it did the work, although it took about two half-days, and now every note is true. So now I have music! And Dinky-Dunk does enjoy my playing, these long winter evenings. Some nights we let Olie come in and listen to the concert. He sits rapt, especially when I play ragtime, which seems the one thing that touches his holy of holies. Poor Olie! I surely have a good friend in that silent, faithful, uncouth Swede!
Dinky-Dunk himself is so thin that it worries me. But he eats well and doesn't anathematize my cooking. He's getting a few gray hairs, at the temples. I think they make him look rather distingue. But they worry my poor Dinky-Dunk. "Hully Gee," he said yesterday, studying himself for the third time in his shaving-glass, "I'm getting old!" He laughed when I started to whistle "Believe me if all those endearing young charms, which I gaze on so fondly to-day," but at heart he was really disturbed by the discovery of those few white hairs. I've been telling him that the ladies won't love him any more, and that his cut-up days are over. He says I'll have to make up for the others. So I started for him with my Australian crawl-stroke. It took me an hour to get the taste of shaving soap out of my mouth. Dinky-Dunk says I'm so full of life that I sparkle. All I know is that I'm happy, supremely and ridiculously happy!
Sunday the Thirty-first
The inevitable has happened. I don't know how to write about it! I can't write about it! My heart goes down like a freight elevator, slowly, sickeningly, even when I think about it. Dinky-Dunk came in and saw me studying a little row of dates written on the wall-paper beside the bedroom window. I pretended to be draping the curtain. "What's the matter, Lady Bird?" he demanded when he saw my face. I calmly told him that nothing was the matter. But he wouldn't let me go. I wanted to be alone, to think things out. But he kept holding me there, with my face to the light. I suppose I must have been all eyes, and probably shaking a little. And I didn't want him to suspect.
"Excuse me if I find you unspeakably annoying!" I said in a voice that was so desperately cold that it even surprised my own ears. He dropped me as though I had been a hot potato. I could see that I'd hurt him, and hurt him a lot. My first impulse was to run to him with a shower of repentant kisses, as one usually does, the same as one sprinkles salt on claret stains. But in him I beheld the original and entire cause—and I just couldn't do it. He called me a high-spirited devil with a hair-trigger temper. But he left me alone to think things out.
Tuesday the Ninth
I've started to say my prayers again. It rather frightened Dinky-Dunk, who sat up in bed and asked me if I wasn't feeling well. I promptly assured him that I was in the best of health. He not only agreed with me, but said I was as plump as a partridge. When I am alone, though, I get frightened and fidgety. So I kneel down every night and morning now and ask God for help and guidance. I want to be a good woman and a better wife. But I shall never let Duncan know—never!
Wednesday the Seventeenth
Do you remember Aunt Harriet who always wept when she read The Isles of Greece? She didn't even know where they were, and had never been east of Salem. But all the Woodberrys were like that. Dinky-Dunk came in and found me crying to-day, for the second time in one week. He made such valiantly ponderous efforts to cheer me up, poor boy, and shook his head and said I'd soon be an improvement on the Snider System, which is a system of irrigation by spraying overnight from pipes! My nerves don't seem so good as they were. The winter's so long. I'm already counting the days to spring.
Thursday the Twenty-fifth
Dinky-Dunk has concluded that I'm too much alone; he's been worrying over it. I can tell that. I try not to be moody, but sometimes I simply can't help it. Yesterday afternoon he drove up to Casa Grande, proud as Punch, with a little black and white kitten in the crook of his arm. He'd covered twenty-eight miles of trail for that kitten! It's to be my companion. But the kitten's as lonesome as I am, and has been crying, and nearly driving me crazy.
Tuesday the Second
The weather has been bad, but winter is slipping away. Dinky-Dunk has been staying in from his work, these mornings, helping me about the house. He is clumsy and slow, and has broken two or three of the dishes. But I hate to say anything; his eyes get so tragic. He declares that as soon as the trails are passable he's going to have a woman to help me, that this sort of thing can't go on any longer. He imagines it's merely the monotony of housework that is making my nerves so bad.
Yesterday morning I was drying the dishes and Dinky-Dunk was washing. I found the second spoon with egg on it. I don't know why it was, but that trivial streak of yellow along the edge of a spoon suddenly seemed to enrage me. It became monumental, an emblem of vague incapabilities which I would have to face until the end of my days. I flung that spoon back in the dish-pan. Then I turned on my husband and called out to him, in a voice that didn't quite seem like my own, "O God, can't you wash 'em clean? Can't you wash 'em clean?" I even think I ran up and down the room and pretty well made what Percival Benson would call "a bally ass" of myself. Dinky-Dunk didn't even answer me. But he dried his hands and got his things and went outdoors, to the stables, I suppose. His face was as colorless as it could possibly get. I felt sorry; but it was too late. And my sniffling didn't do any good. And it startled me, as I sat thinking things over, to realize that I'd lost my sense of humor.
Thursday the Fourth
Dinky-Dunk thinks I'm mad. I'm quite sure he does. He came in at noon to-day and found me on the floor with the kitten. I'd tied a piece of fur to the end of a string. Oh, how that kitten scrambled after that fur, round and round in a circle until he'd tumble over on his own ears! I was squeaking and weak with laughing when Dinky-Dunk stood in the door. Poor boy, he takes things so solemnly! But I know he thinks I'm quite mad. Perhaps I am. I cried myself to sleep last night. And for several days now I've had a longing for caviare.
Wednesday the Seventeenth
Spring is surely coming. It promises to be an early one. I feel better at the thought of it, and of getting out again. But the roads are quite impassable. Such mud! Such oceans of glue-pot dirt! They have a saying out here that soil is as rich as it is sticky. If this is true Dinky-Dunk has a second Garden of Eden. This mud sticks to everything, to feet, to clothes, to wagon-wheels. But there's getting to be real warmth in the sun that shines through my window.
Saturday the Twenty-seventh
A warm Chinook has licked up the last of the snow. Even Dinky-Dunk admits that spring is coming. For three solid hours an awakened blue-bottle has been buzzing against the pane of my bedroom window. I wonder if most of us aren't like that fly, mystified by the illusion of light that fails to lead to liberty? This morning I caught sight of Dinky-Dunk in his fur coat, climbing into the buckboard. I shall always hate to see him in that rig. It makes me think of a certain night. And we hate to have memory put a finger on our mental scars. When I was a girl Aunt Charlotte's second fiend of a husband locked me up in that lonely Derby house of theirs because I threw pebbles at the swans. Then off they drove to dinner somewhere and left me a prisoner there, where I sat listening to the bells of All Saints as the house gradually grew dark. And ever since then bells at evening have made me feel lonely and left me unhappy.
But the renaissance of the buckboard means that spring is here again. And for my Dinky-Dunk that means harder work. He's what they call a "rustler" out here. He believes in speed. He doesn't even wait until the frost is out of the ground before he starts to seed—just puts a drill over a two-inch batter of thawed-out mud, he's so mad about getting early on the land. He says he wants early wheat or no wheat. But he has to have help, and men are almost impossible to get. He had hoped for a gasoline tractor, but it can't be financed this spring, he has confessed to me. And I know, in my secret heart of hearts, that the tractor would have been here if it hadn't been for my piano!