I stood there, with the long-handled preserving spoon still in my hand, staring after Lady Alicia and the dust that arose from her car-wheels. I stood there in a sort of trance, with all the valor gone out of my bones and that foolish declamation of mine still ringing in my ears.
I began to think of all the clever things I might have said to Lady Alicia Elizabeth Newland. But the more I thought it over the more desolated I became in spirit, so that by the time I meandered back to the shack I had a face as long as a fiddle. And there I was confronted by a bristling and voluble Struthers, who acknowledged that she'd heard what she'd heard, and could no longer keep her lips sealed, whether it was her place to speak or not, and that her ladyship was not all that she ought to be, not by any manner of means, or she would never have left England and hidden herself away in this wilderness of a colony.
I had been rather preoccupied with my own thoughts, and paying scant attention to the clattering-tongued Struthers, up to this point. But the intimation that Lady Allie was not in the West for the sake of her health brought me up short. And Struthers, when I challenged that statement, promptly announced that the lady in question was no more in search of health than a tom-cat's in search of water and no more interested in ranching than an ox is interested in astronomy, seeing as she'd 'a' been co-respondent in the Allerby and Crewe-Buller divorce case if she'd stayed where the law could have laid a hand on her, and standing more shamed than ever when Baron Crewe-Buller shut himself up in his shooting-lodge and blew his brains out three weeks before her ladyship had sailed for America, and the papers that full of the scandal it made it unpleasant for a self-respecting lady's maid to meet her friends of a morning in Finsbury Park. And as for these newer goings-on, Struthers had seen what was happening right under her nose, she had, long before she had the chance to say so openly by word of mouth, but now that the fat was in the fire she wasn't the kind to sit by and see those she should be loyal to led about by the nose. And so forth. And so forth! For just what else the irate Struthers had to unload from her turbulent breast I never did know, since at that opportune moment Dinkie awakened and proceeded to page his parent with all the strength of his impatient young lungs.
By the time I'd attended to Dinkie and finished my sadly neglected marmalade—for humans must eat, whatever happens—I'd made an effort to get some sort of order back into my shattered world. Yet it was about Duncan more than any one else that my thoughts kept clustering and centering. He seemed, at the moment, oddly beyond either pity or blame. I thought of him as a victim of his own weakness, as the prey of a predaceous and unscrupulous woman who had intrigued and would continue to intrigue against his happiness, a woman away from her own world, a self-complacent and sensual privateer who for a passing whim, for a momentary appeasement of her exile, stood ready to sacrifice the last of his self-respect. She was self-complacent, but she was also a woman with an unmistakable physical appeal. She was undeniably attractive, as far as appearances went, and added to that attractiveness was a dangerous immediacy of attack, a touch of outlawry, which only too often wins before resistance can be organized. And Dinky-Dunk, I kept reminding myself, was at that dangerous mid-channel period of a man's life where youth and age commingle, where the monotonous middle-years slip their shackles over his shoulders and remind him that his days of dalliance are ebbing away. He awakens to the fact that romance is being left behind, that the amorous adventure which once meant so much to him must soon belong to the past, that he must settle down to his jog-trot of family life. It's the age, I suppose, when any spirited man is tempted to kick up with a good-by convulsion or two of romantic adventure, as blind as it is brief and passionate, sadly like the contortions of a rooster with its head cut off.
I tried, as I sat down and struggled to think things out, to withhold all blame and bitterness. Then I tried to think of life without Dinky-Dunk. I attempted to picture my daily existence with somebody else in the place that my Diddums had once filled. But I couldn't do it. I couldn't forget the old days. I couldn't forget the wide path of life that we'd traveled together, and that he was the father of my children—my children who will always need him!—and that he and he alone had been my torch-bearer into the tangled wilderness of passion.
Then I tried to think of life alone, of going solitary through the rest of my days—and I knew that my Maker had left me too warm-blooded and too dependent on the companionship of a mate ever to turn back to single harness. I couldn't live without a man. He might be a sorry mix-up of good and bad, but I, the Eternal Female, would crave him as a mate. Most women, I knew, were averse to acknowledging such things; but life has compelled me to be candid with myself. The tragic part of it all seems that there should and could be only one man. I had been right when I had only too carelessly called myself a neck-or-nothing woman.
It wasn't until later that any definite thought of injustice to me at Dinky-Dunk's hands entered my head, since my attitude toward Dinky-Dunk seemed to remain oddly maternal, the attitude of the mother intent on extenuating her own. I even wrung a ghostly sort of consolation out of remembering that it was not a young and dewy girl who had imposed herself on his romantic imagination, for youth and innocence and chivalric obligation would have brought a much more dangerous fire to fight. But Lady Alicia, with all her carefully achieved charm, could scarcely lay claim to either youth or the other thing. Early in the morning, I knew, those level dissecting eyes of hers would look hard, and before her hair was up she'd look a little faded, and there'd be moments of stress and strain when her naively insolent drawl would jar on the nerves, like the talk of a spoiled child too intent on holding the attention of a visitor averse to precocity. And her disdain of the practical would degenerate into untidiness, and her clinging-ivyness, if it clung too much, would probably remind a man in his reactionary moments of ennui that there are subtler pursuits than being a wall, even though it's a sustaining wall.
And somewhere in her make-up was a strain of cruelty or she would never have come to me the way she did, and struck at me with an open claw. That cruelty, quite naturally, could never have been paraded before my poor old Dinky-Dunk's eyes. It would be, later on, after disillusionment and boredom. Then, and then only, it would dare to show its ugly head. So instead of feeling sorry for myself, I began to feel sorry for my Diddums, even though he was trying to switch me off like an electric-light. And all of a sudden I came to a decision.
I decided to write to Dinky-Dunk. That, I felt, would be safer than trying to see him. For in a letter I could say what I wanted to without being stopped or side-tracked. There would be no danger of accusations and recriminations, of anger leading to extremes, of injured pride standing in the path of honesty. It would be better than talking. And what was more, it could be done at once, for the mysterious impression that time was precious, that something ominous was in the air, had taken hold of me.
So I wrote to Dinky-Dunk. I did it on two crazy-looking pages torn out of the back of his old ranch ledger. I did it without giving much thought to precisely what I said or exactly how I phrased it, depending on my heart more than my brain to guide me in the way I should go. For I knew, in the marrow of my bones, that it was my last shot, my forlornest ultimatum, since in it went packed the last shred of my pride.
"Dear Dinky-Dunk," I wrote, "I hardly know how to begin, but I surely don't need to begin by saying we haven't been hitting it off very well of late. We seem to have made rather a mess of things, and I suppose it's partly my fault, and the fault of that stupid pride which keeps us tongue-tied when we should be honest and open with each other. But I've been feeling lately that we're both skirting a cut-bank with our eyes blindfolded, and I've faced an incident, trivial in itself but momentous in its possibilities, which persuades me that things can't go on as they are. There's too much at stake to let either ruffled nerves or false modesty—or whatever you want to call it—come between you and the very unhappy woman who still is your wife. It's time, I think, when we both ought to look everything squarely in the face, for, after all, we've only one life to live, and if you're happy, at this moment, if you're completely and tranquilly happy as I write this, then I've banked wrong, tragically wrong, on what I thought you were. For I have banked on you, Dinky-Dunk, banked about all my life and happiness—and it's too late to change, even if I wanted to. I'm alone in the world, and in a lonely part of the world, with three small children to look after, and that as much as anything, I suppose, drives me to plain speaking and compels me to clear thinking. But even as I write these words to you, I realize that it isn't really a matter of thought or speech. It's a matter of feeling. And the one thing I feel is that I need you and want you; that no one, that nothing, can ever take your place.... I thought I could write a great deal more. But I find I can't. I seem to have said everything. It is everything, really. For I love you, Dinky-Dunk, more than everything in life. Perhaps I haven't shown it very much, of late, but it's there, trying to hide its silly old ostrich-head behind a pebble of hurt pride. So let's turn the page and start over. Let's start with a clean slate, before we lose the chance. Come back to me. I'm very unhappy. I find it hard to write. It's only that big ache in my heart that allows me to write at all. And I've left a lot of things unsaid, that I ought to have said, and intended to say, but this will have to be enough. If there's nothing that speaks up to you, from between these lines, then there's nothing that can hold together, I'm afraid, what's left of your life and mine. Think this over, Dinky-Dunk, and answer the way your heart dictates. But please don't keep me waiting too long, for until I get that answer I'll be like a hen on a hot griddle or Mary Queen of Scots on the morning before she lost her head, if that's more dignified."
The hardest part of all that letter, I found, was the ending of it. It took me a long time to decide just what to sign myself, just how to pilot my pen between the rocks of candor and dignity. So I ended up by signing it "Chaddie" and nothing more, for already the fires of emotion had cooled and a perplexed little reaction of indifferency had set in. It was only a surface-stir, but it was those surface-stirs, I remembered, which played such a lamentably important part in life.
When Whinstane Sandy came in at noon for his dinner, a full quarter of an hour ahead of Peter, I had his meal all ready for him by the time he had watered and fed his team. I cut that meal short, in fact, by handing him my carefully sealed letter and telling him I wanted him to take it straight over to Casa Grande.
I knew by his face as I helped him hitch Water-Light to the buckboard—for Whinnie's foot makes it hard for him to ride horseback—that he nursed a pretty respectable inkling of the situation. He offered no comments, and he even seemed averse to having his eye meet mine, but he obviously knew what he knew.
He was off with a rattle of wheels and a drift of trail-dust even before Peter and his cool amending eyes arrived at the shack to "stoke up" as he expresses it. I tried to make Peter believe that nothing was wrong, and cavorted about with Bobs, and was able to laugh when Dinkie got some of the new marmalade in his hair, and explained how we'd have to take our mower-knives over to Teetzel's to have them ground, and did my best to direct silent reproofs at the tight-lipped and tragic-eyed Struthers, who moved about like a head-mourner not unconscious of her family obligations. But Peter, I suspect, sniffed something untoward in the air, for after a long study of my face—which made me color a little, in spite of myself—he became about as abstracted and solemn-eyed as Struthers herself.
To my dying day I shall never forget that wait for Whinnie to come back. It threatened to become an endless one. I felt like Bluebeard's wife up in the watch tower—no, it was her Sister Anne, wasn't it, who anxiously mounted the tower to search for the first sign of deliverance? At any rate I felt like Luck—now before the Relief, or a prisoner waiting for the jury to file in, or a gambler standing over an invisible roulette-table and his last throw, wondering into what groove the little ivory ball was to run. And when Whinnie finally appeared his seamed old face wore such a look of dour satisfaction that for a weak flutter or two of the heart I thought he'd brought Dinky-Dunk straight back with him.
But that hope didn't live long.
"Your maun's awa'," said Whinnie, with quite unnecessary curtness, as he held my own letter out to me.
"He's away?" I echoed in a voice that was just a wee bit trembly, as I took the note from Whinnie, "what do you mean by away?"
"He left three hours ago for Chicago," Whinstane Sandy retorted, still with that grim look of triumph in his gloomy old eyes.
"But what could be taking him to Chicago?" I rather weakly inquired.
"'Twas to see about buyin' some blooded stock for the ranch. At least, so her ladyship informed me. But that's nae more than one of her lies, I'm thinkin'."
"What did she say, Whinnie?" I demanded, doing my best to keep cool.
"Naethin'," was Whinnie's grim retort. "'Twas me did the sayin'!"
"What did you say?" I asked, disturbed by the none too gentle look on his face.
"What was needed to be said," that old sour-dough with the lack-luster eyes quietly informed me.
"What did you say?" I repeated, with a quavery feeling just under my floating ribs, alarmed at the after-light of audacity that still rested on his face, like wine-glow on a rocky mountain-tip.
"I said," Whinstane Sandy informed me with his old shoulders thrust back and his stubby forefinger pointed to within a few inches of my nose, "I said that I kenned her and her kind well, havin' watched the likes o' her ridden out o' Dawson City on a rail more times than once. I said that she was naethin' but a wanton"—only this was not the word Whinnie used—"a wanton o' Babylon and a temptress o' men and a corrupter o' homes out o' her time and place, bein' naught but a soft shinin' thing that was a mockery to the guid God who made her and a blight to the face o' the open prairie that she was foulin' with her presence. I said that she'd brought shame and sorrow to a home that had been filled with happiness until she crept into it like the serpent o' hell she was, and seein' she'd come into a lonely land where the people have the trick o' tryin' their own cases after their own way and takin' when need be justice into their own hands, she'd have one week, one week o' seven days and no more, to gather up what belonged to her and take herself back to the cities o' shame where she'd find more o' her kind. And if she was not disposed to hearken a friendly and timely word such as I was givin' her, I said, she'd see herself taken out o' her home, and her hoorish body stripped to the skin, and then tarred and feathered, and ridden on the cap-rail of a corral-gate out of a settlement that had small taste for her company!"
"Whinnie!" I gasped, sitting down out of sheer weakness, "you didn't say that?"
"I said it," was Whinnie's laconic retort.
"But what right had you to—"
He cut me short with a grunt that was almost disrespectful.
"I not only said it," he triumphantly affirmed, "but what's more to my likin', I made her believe it, leavin' her with the mockin' laugh dead in her eyes and her face as white as yon table-cover, white to the lips!"
Sunday the Twenty-seventh
I've been just a little mystified, to-day, by Whinstane Sandy's movements. As soon as breakfast was over and his chores were done he was off on the trail. I kept my eye on him as he went, to satisfy myself that he was not heading for Casa Grande, where no good could possibly come of his visitations.
For I've been most emphatic to Whinstane Sandy in the matter of his delightful little lynch-law program. There shall be no tarring and feathering of women by any man in my employ. That may have been possible in the Klondike in the days of the gold-rush, but it's not possible in this country and this day of grace—except in the movies. And life is not so simple that you can ride its problems away on the cap-rail from a corral. It's unfortunate that that absurd old sour-dough, for all his good intentions, ever got in touch with Lady Alicia. I have, in fact, strictly forbidden him to repeat his visit to Casa Grande, under any circumstances.
But a number of things combine to persuade me that he's not being as passive as he pretends. He's even sufficiently forgotten his earlier hostility toward Peter to engage in long and guarded conversation with that gentleman, as the two of them made a pretense of bolting the new anchor-timbers to the heel of the windmill tower. So at supper to-night I summoned up sufficient courage to ask Peter what he knew about the situation.
He replied that he knew more than he wanted to, and more than he relished. That reply proving eminently unsatisfactory, I further inquired what he thought of Lady Alicia. He somewhat startled and shocked me by retorting that according to his own personal way of thinking she ought to be spanked until she glowed.
I was disappointed in Peter about this. I had always thought of him as on a higher plane than poor old Whinnie. But he was equally atavistic, once prejudice had taken possession of him, for what he suggested must be regarded as not one whit more refined than tar and feathers. As for myself, I'd like to choke her, only I haven't the moral courage to admit it to anybody.
Thursday the First
Lady Alicia has announced, I learn through a Struthers quite pop-eyed with indignation, that it's Peter and I who possibly ought to be tarred and feathered, if our puritanical community is deciding to go in for that sort of thing! It is to laugh.
Her ladyship, I also learn, has purchased about all the small-arms ammunition in Buckhorn and toted the same back to Casa Grande in her car. There, in unobstructed view of the passers-by, she has set up a target, on which, by the hour together, she coolly and patiently practises sharpshooting with both rifle and revolver.
I admire that woman's spunk. And whatever you may do, you can't succeed in bullying the English. They have too much of the bull-dog breed in their bones. They're always at their best, Peter declares, when they're fighting. "But from an Englishwoman trying to be kittenish," he fervently added, "good Lord, deliver us all!"
And that started us talking about the English. Peter, of course, is too tolerant to despise his cousins across the Pond, but he pregnantly reminded me that Lady Allie had asked him what sort of town Saskatchewan was and he had retorted by inquiring if she was fond of Yonkers, whereupon she'd looked puzzled and acknowledged that she'd never eaten one. For Peter and Lady Allie, it seems, had had a set-to about American map-names, which her ladyship had described as both silly and unsayable, especially the Indian ones, while Peter had grimly proclaimed that any people who called Seven-Oaks Snooks and Belvoir Beever and Ruthven Rivven and Wrottesley Roxly and Marylebone Marrabun and Wrensfordsley Wrensley had no right to kick about American pronunciations.
But Peter is stimulating, even though he does stimulate you into opposition. So I found myself defending the English, and especially the Englishman, for too many of them had made me happy in their lovely old homes and too many of their sons, aeons and aeons ago, had tried to hold my hand.
"Your Englishman," I proclaimed to Peter, "always acts as though he quite disapproves of you and yet he'll go to any amount of trouble to do things to make you happy or comfortable. Then he conceals his graciousness by being curt about it. Then, when he's at his crankiest, he's apt to startle you by saying the divinest things point-blank in your face, and as likely as not, after treating you as he would a rather backward child of whom he rigidly disapproves, he'll make love to you and do it with a fine old Anglo-Saxon directness. He hates swank, of course, for he's a truffle-hound who prefers digging out his own delicacies. And it's ten to one, if a woman simply sits tight and listens close and says nothing, that he'll say something about her unrivaled powers of conversation!"
Sunday the Fourth
Peter, as we sat out beside the corral on an empty packing-case to-night after supper, said that civilization was a curse. "Look what it's doing to your noble Red Man right here in your midst! There was a time, when a brave died, they handsomely killed that dead brave's favorite horse, feeling he would course the plains of Heaven in peace. Now, I find, they have their doubts, and they pick out a dying old bone-yard whose day is over, or an outlaw that nobody can break and ride. And form without faith is a mockery. It's the same with us whites. Here we are, us two, with—"
But I stopped Peter. I had no wish to slide on rubber-ice just for the sake of seeing it bend.
"Can you imagine anything lovelier," I remarked as a derailer, "than the prairie at this time of the year, and this time of day?"
Peter followed my eye out over the undulating and uncounted acres of sage-green grain with an eternity of opal light behind them.
"Think of LaVerendrye, who was their Columbus," he meditated aloud. "Going on and on, day by day, week by week, wondering what was beyond that world of plain and slough and coulee and everlasting green! And they tell me there's four hundred million arable acres of it. I wonder if old Verendrye ever had an inkling of what Whittier felt later on:
'I hear the tread of pioneers, Of cities yet to be— The first low wash of waves where soon Shall roll a human sea.'"
Then Peter went on to say that Bryant had given him an entirely false idea of the prairie, since from the Bryant poem he'd expected to see grass up to his armpits. And he'd been disappointed, too, by the scarcity of birds and flowers.
But I couldn't let that complaint go by unchallenged. I told him of our range-lilies and foxglove and buffalo-beans and yellow crowfoot and wild sunflowers and prairie-roses and crocuses and even violets in some sections. "And the prairie-grasses, Peter—don't forget the prairie-grasses," I concluded, perplexed for a moment by the rather grim smile that crept up into his rather solemn old Peter-Panish face.
"I'm not likely to," he remarked.
For to-morrow, I remembered, Peter is going off to cut hay. He has been speaking of it as going into the wilderness for meditation. But what he's really doing is taking a team and his tent and supplies and staying with that hay until it's cut, cut and "collected," to use the word which the naive Lady Allie introduced into these parts.
I have a suspicion that it is the wagging of tongues that's sending Peter out into his wilderness. But I've been busy getting his grub-box ready and I can at least see that he fares well. For whatever happens, we must have hay. And before long, since we're to go in more and more for live stock, we must have a silo at Alabama Ranch. Now that the open range is a thing of the past, in this part of the country at least, the silo is the natural solution of the cattle-feed problem. It means we can double our stock, which is rather like getting another farm for nothing, especially as the peas and oats we can grow for ensilage purposes give such enormous yields on this soil of ours.
Tuesday the Sixth
For the second time the unexpected has happened. Lady Alicia has gone. She's off, bag and baggage, and has left the redoubtable Sing Lo in charge of Casa Grande.
Her ladyship waited until one full day after the time-limit imposed upon her by Whinstane Sandy in that barbarous armistice of his, and then, having saved her face, joined the Broadhursts of Montreal on a trip to Banff, where she'll be more in touch with her kind and her countrymen. From there, I understand, she intends visiting the Marquis of Anglesey ranch at Wallachie.
I don't know what she intends doing about her property, but it seems to me it doesn't show any great interest in either her crop or her cousin, to decamp at this particular time. Struthers protests that she's a born gambler, and can't live without bridge and American poker. Banff, accordingly, ought to give her what she's pining for....
But I'm too busy to worry about Lady Allie. The Big Drama of the year is opening on this sun-steeped plain of plenty, for harvest-time will soon be here and we've got to be ready for it. We're on the go from six in the morning until sun-down. We're bringing in Peter's crop of hay with the tractor, hauling three wagon-loads at a time. I make the double trip, getting back just in time to feed my babies and then hiking out again. That means we're all hitting on every cylinder. I've no time for either worries or wishes, though Peter once remarked that life is only as deep as its desires, and that the measure of our existence lies in the extent of its wants. That may be true, in a way, but I haven't time to philosophize over it. Hard work can be more than a narcotic. It's almost an anesthetic. And soil, I've been thinking, should be the symbol of life here, as it is with the peasants of Poland. I feel that I'm getting thinner, but I've an appetite that I'm ashamed of, in secret.
Dinky-Dunk, by the way, is not back yet, and there's been no word from him. Struthers is resolute in her belief that he's in hiding somewhere about the mountain-slopes of Banff. But I am just as resolute in my scorn for all such suspicions. And yet, and yet,—if I wasn't so busy I'd be tempted to hold solemn days of feasting and supplication that Lady Alicia Elizabeth Newland might wade out beyond her depth in the pellucid waters of Lake Louise.
Friday the Sixteenth
Peter surprised me yesterday by going in to Buckhorn and bringing out a machinist to work on the windmill tower. By mid-afternoon they had it ready for hoisting and rebolting to its new anchor-posts. So just before supper the team and the block-and-tackle were hitched on to that attenuated steel skeleton, Whinnie took one guide rope and I took the other, and our little Eiffel Tower slowly lifted itself up into the sky.
Peter, when it was all over, and the last nut tightened up, walked about with the triumphant smile of a Master-Builder who beholds his work completed. So I said "Hello, Halvard Solness!" as I stepped over to where he stood.
And he was bright enough to catch it on the wing, for he quoted back to me, still staring up at the tower-head: "From this day forward I will be a free builder."
Whereupon I carelessly retorted, "Oh, there's some parts of Ibsen that I despise."
But something in Peter's tone and his preoccupation during supper both worried and perplexed me. So as soon as I could get away from the shack I went out to the windmill tower again. And the small platform at the end of the sloping little iron ladder looked so tempting and high above the world that I started up the galvanized rungs.
When I was half-way up I stopped and looked down. It made me dizzy, for prairie life gives you few chances of getting above the flat floor of your flat old world. But I was determined to conquer that feeling, and by keeping my eyes turned up toward the windmill head I was able to reach the little platform at the top and sit there with my feet hanging over and my right arm linked through one of the steel standards.
I suppose, as windmills go, it wasn't so miraculously high, but it was amazing how even that moderate altitude where I found myself could alter one's view-point. I felt like a sailor in a crow's-nest, like a sentinel on a watch-tower, like an eagle poised giddily above the world. And such a wonderful and wide-flung world it was, spreading out beneath me in mottled patches of grape-leaf green and yellow and gold, with a burgundian riot of color along the western sky-line where the last orange rind of the sun had just slipped down out of sight.
As I stared down at the roof of our shack it looked small and pitiful, tragically meager to house the tangled human destinies it was housing. And the fields where we'd labored and sweated took on a foreign and ghostly coloring, as though they were oblongs on the face of an alien world, a world with mystery and beauty and unfathomable pathos about it.
I was sitting there, with my heels swinging out in space and an oddly consoling sense of calmness in my heart, when Peter came out of the shack and started to cross toward the corral. I couldn't resist the temptation to toss my old straw hat down at him.
He stopped short as it fell within twenty paces of him, like a meteor out of the sky. Then he turned and stared up at me. The next minute I saw him knock out his little briar pipe, put it away in his pocket, and cross over to the tower.
I could feel the small vibrations of the steel structure on which I sat poised, as he mounted the ladder toward me. And it felt for all the world like sitting on the brink of Heaven, like a blessed damozel the second, watching a sister-soul coming up to join you in your beatitude.
"I say, isn't this taking a chance?" asked Peter, a little worried and a little out of breath, as he clambered up beside me.
"It's glorious!" I retorted, with a nod toward the slowly paling sky-line.
That far and lonely horizon looked as though a fire of molten gold burned behind the thinnest of mauve and saffron and purple curtains, a fire that was too subdued to be actual flame, but more an unearthly and ethereal radiance, luring the vision on and on until it brought an odd little sense of desolation to the heart and made me glad to remember that Peter was swinging his lanky legs there at my side out over empty space.
"I find," he observed, "that this tower was sold to a tenderfoot, by the foot. That's why it went over. It was too highfalutin! It was thirty feet taller than it had any need to be."
Then he dropped back into silence.
I finally became conscious of the fact that Peter, instead of staring at the sunset, was staring at me. And I remembered that my hair was half down, trailing across my nose, and that three distinctly new freckles had shown themselves that week on the bridge of that same nose.
"O God, but you're lovely!" he said in a half-smothered and shamefaced sort of whisper.
"Verboten!" I reminded him. "And not so much the cussing, Peter, as the useless compliments."
He said nothing to that, but once more sat staring out over the twilight prairie for quite a long time. When he spoke again it was in a quieter and much more serious tone.
"I suppose I may as well tell you," he said without looking at me, "that I've come into a pretty clear understanding of the situation here at Alabama Ranch."
"It's kind of a mix-up, isn't it?" I suggested, with an attempt at lightness.
Peter nodded his head.
"I've been wondering how long you're going to wait," he observed, apparently as much to himself as to me.
"Wait for what?" I inquired.
"For what you call your mix-up to untangle," was his answer.
"There's nothing for me to do but to wait," I reminded him.
He shook his head in dissent.
"You can't waste your life, you know, doing that," he quietly protested.
"What else can I do?" I asked, disturbed a little by the absence of color from his face, apparent even in that uncertain light.
"Nothing's suggested itself, I suppose?" he ventured, after a silence.
"Nothing that prompts me into any immediate action," I told him. "You see, Peter, I'm rather anchored by three little hostages down in that little shack there!"
That left him silent for another long and brooding minute or two.
"I suppose you've wondered," he finally said, "why I've stuck around here as long as I have?"
I nodded, not caring to trust myself to words, and then, realizing I was doing the wrong thing, I shook my head.
"It's because, from the morning you found me in that mud-hole, I've just wanted to be near you, to hear your voice when you spoke, to see the curve of your lips and the light come and go in your eyes when you laugh," were the words that came ever so slowly from Peter. "I've wanted that so much that I've let about everything else in life go hang. Yet in a way, and in my own world, I'm a man of some little importance. I've been cursed with enough money, of course, to move about as I wish, and loaf as I like. But that sort of life isn't really living. I'm not in the habit, though, of wanting the things I can't have. So what strikes me as the tragic part of it all is that I couldn't have met and known you when you were as free as I am now. In a way, you are free, or you ought to be. You're a woman, I think, with arrears of life to make up. You've struck me, from the very first, as too alive, too sensitive, too responsive to things, to get the fullest measure out of life by remaining here on the prairie, in what are, after all, really pioneer conditions. You've known the other kind of life, as well as I have, and it will always be calling to you. And if that call means anything to you, and the—the change we've spoken of is on its way, or for some unexpected reason has to come, I'm—well, I'm going to take the bit in my teeth right here and tell you that I love you more than you imagine and a good deal more, I suppose, than the law allows!"
He pushed my hand aside when I held it up to stop him.
"I may as well say it, for this is as good a time and place as we'll ever have, and I can't go around with my teeth shut on the truth any longer. I know you've got your three little tots down there, and I love 'em about as much as you do. And it would seem like giving a little meaning and purpose to life to know that I had the chance of doing what I could to make you and to make them happy. I've—"
But I couldn't let him go on.
"It's no use, Peter," I cried with a little choke in my voice which I couldn't control. "It's no earthly use. I've known you liked me, and it's given me a warm little feeling down in one corner of my heart. But I could never allow it to be more than a corner. I like you, Peter, and I like you a lot. You're wonderful. In some ways you're the most adorable man I've ever known in all my life. That's a dangerous thing to say, but it's the truth and I may as well say it. It even hurts a little to remember that I've traded on your chivalry, though that's the one thing in life you can trade on without reproof or demand for repayment. But as I told you before, I'm one of those neck-or-nothing women, one of those single-track women, who can't have their tides of traffic going two ways at once. And if I'm in a mix-up, or a maelstrom, or whatever you want to call it, I'm in it. That's where I belong. It would never, never do to drag an innocent outsider into that mixed-up mess of life, simply because I imagined it could make me a little more comfortable to have him there."
Peter sat thinking over what I'd said. There were no heroics, no chest-pounding, no suggestion of romantically blighted lives and broken hearts.
"That means, of course, that I'll have to climb out," Peter finally and very prosaically remarked.
"Why?" I asked.
"Because it's so apt to leave one of us sailing under false colors," was his somewhat oblique way of explaining the situation. "I might have hung on until something happened, I suppose, if I hadn't shown my hand. And I hadn't quite the right to show my hand, when you take everything into consideration. But you can't always do what you intend to. And life's a little bigger than deportment, anyway, so what's the use of fussing over it? There's just one thing, though, I want to say, before we pull down the shutters again. I want you to feel that if anything does happen, if by any mischance things should take a turn for the worse, or you're worried in any way about the outcome of all this"—he indulged in a quiet but comprehensive hand-wave which embraced the entire ranch that lay in the gray light at our feet—"I want you to feel that I'd be mighty happy to think you'd turn to me for—for help."
It was getting just a little too serious again, I felt, and I decided in a bit of a panic to pilot things back to shallower water.
"But you have helped, Peter," I protested. "Look at all that hay you cut, and the windmill here, and the orange marmalade that'll make me think of you every morning!"
He leaned a little closer and regarded me with a quiet and wistful eye. But I refused to look at him.
"That's nothing to what I'd like to do, if you gave me the chance," he observed, settling back against the tower-standard again.
"I know, Peter," I told him, "And it's nice of you to say it. But the nicest thing of all is your prodigious unselfishness, the unselfishness that's leaving this talk of ours kind of—well, kind of hallowed, and something we'll not be unhappy in remembering, when it could have so easily turned into something selfishly mean and ugly and sordid. That's where you're big. And that's what I'll always love you for!"
"Let's go down," said Peter, all of a sudden. "It's getting cold."
I sat staring down at the world to which we had to return. It seemed a long way off. And the ladder that led down to it seemed a cobwebby and uncertain path for a lady whose heart was still slipping a beat now and then. Peter apparently read the perplexity on my face.
"Don't worry," he said. "I'll go down one rung ahead of you. Even if you did slip, then, I'll be there to hold you up. Come on."
We started down, with honest old Peter's long arms clinging to the ladder on either side of me and my feet following his, step by step, as we went like a newfangled sort of quadruped down the narrow steel rungs.
We were within thirty feet of the ground when I made ever so slight a misstep and brought Peter up short. The next moment he'd caught me up bodily in his right arm, and to steady myself I let my arms slip about his neck. I held on there, tight, even after I knew what I was doing, and let my cheek rest against the bristly side of his head as we went slowly down to the bottom of the tower.
It wasn't necessary, my holding my arms about Peter's neck. It wasn't any more necessary than it was for him to pick me up and carry me the rest of the way down. It wasn't true-to-the-line fair play, even, when you come to think of it in cold blood, and it wasn't by any manner of means just what sedately married ladies should do.
But, if the terrible truth must be told, it was nice. I think both our hearts were a little hungry for the love which didn't happen to be coming our way, which the law of man and his Maker alike prohibited. So we saved our dignity and our self-respect, oddly enough, by resorting to the shallowest of subterfuges. And I don't care much if it wasn't true-to-the-line ethics. I liked the feel of Peter's arm around me, holding me that way, and I hope he liked that long and semi-respectable hug I gave him, and that now and then, later on, in the emptier days of his life, he'll remember it pleasantly, and without a bit of bitterness in his heart.
For Alabama Ranch, of course, is going to lose Peter as soon as he can get away.
Tuesday the Twenty-fourth
Peter is no longer with us. He went yesterday, much to the open grief of an adoring and heart-broken Struthers. I stood in the doorway as he drove off, pretending to mop my eyes with my hankie and then making a show of wringing the brine out of it. He laughed at this bit of play-acting, but it was rather a melancholy laugh. Struthers, however, was quite snappy for the rest of the morning, having apparently construed my innocent pantomime as a burlesque of her tendency to sniffle a little.
I never quite knew how much we'd miss Peter until he was gone, and gone for good. Even Dinkie was strangely moody and downcast, and showed his depression by a waywardness of spirit which reached its crowning misdemeanor by poking a bean into his ear.
This seemed a trivial enough incident, at first. But the heat and moisture of that little pocket of flesh caused the bean to swell, and soon had Dinkie crying with pain. So I renewed my efforts to get that bean out of the child's ear, for by this time he was really suffering. But I didn't succeed. There was no way of getting behind it, or getting a hold on it. And poor Dinkie bawled bitterly, ignorant of why this pain should be inflicted on him and outraged that his own mother should add to it by probing about the already swollen side of his head.
I was, in fact, getting a bit panicky, and speculating on how long it would take to get Dinkie in to Buckhorn and a doctor, when Struthers remembered about a pair of toilet tweezers she'd once possessed herself of, for pulling out an over-punctual gray-hair or two. Even then I had to resort to heroic measures, tying the screaming child's hands tight to his side with a bath-towel and having the tremulous Struthers hold his poor little head flat against the kitchen table.
It was about as painful, I suppose, as extracting a tooth, but I finally got a grip on that swollen legume and pulled it from its inflamed pocket of flesh. I felt as relieved and triumphant as an obstetrician after a hard case, and meekly handed over to Dinkie anything his Royal Highness desired, even to his fifth cookie and the entire contents of my sewing-basket, which under ordinary circumstances is strictly taboo. But once the ear-passage was clear the pain went away, and Dinkie, at the end of a couple of hours, was himself again.
But Peter has left a hole in our lives. I keep feeling that he's merely out on the land and will be coming in with that quiet and remote smile of his and talking like mad through a meal that I always had an incentive for making a little more tempting than the ordinary grub-rustling of a clodhopper.
The only person about Alabama Ranch who seems undisturbed by Peter's departure is Whinstane Sandy. He reminds me of a decrepit but robustious old rooster repossessing himself of a chicken-run after the decapitation of an arrogant and envied rival. He has with a dour sort of blitheness connected up the windmill pump, in his spare time, and run a pipe in through the kitchen wall and rigged up a sink, out of a galvanized pig-trough. It may not be lovely to the eye, but it will save many a step about this shack of ours. And the steps count, now that the season's work is breaking over us like a Jersey surf!
Thursday the Twenty-sixth
I've got Struthers in jumpers, and she's learning how to handle a team. Whinnie laughed at her legs, and said they made him think a-muckle o' a heron. But men are scarce in this section, and it looks as though Alabama Ranch was going to have a real wheat crop. Whinnie boasts that we're three weeks ahead of Casa Grande, which, they tell me, is taking on a neglected look.
I've had no message from my Dinky-Dunk, and no news of him. All day long, at the back of my brain, a nervous little mouse of anxiety keeps nibbling and nibbling away. Last night, when she was helping me get the Twins ready for bed, Struthers confided to me that she felt sure Lady Alicia and my husband had been playmates together in England at one time, for she's heard them talking, and laughing about things that had happened long ago. But it's not the things that happened long ago that are worrying me. It's the things that may be happening now.
I wonder what the fair Lady Alicia intends doing about getting her crop off. Sing Lo will scarcely be the man to master that problem.... The Lord knows I'm busy enough, but I seem to be eternally waiting for something. I wonder if every woman's life has a larval period like this? I've my children and Bobs. Over my heart, all day long, should flow a deep and steady current of love. But it's not the kind I've a craving for. There's something missing. I've been wondering if Dinky-Dunk, even though he were here at my side, would still find any "kick" in my kisses. I can't understand why he never revealed to me the fact that he and Lady Allie were playmates as children. In that case, she must be considerably older than she looks. But old or young, I wish she'd stayed in England with her croquet and pat-tennis and broom-stick-cricket, instead of coming out here and majestically announcing that nothing was to be expected of a country which had no railway porters!
Wednesday the First
The departed Peter has sent back to us a Victrola and a neatly packed box of records. Surely that was kind of him. I suppose he felt that I needed something more than a banjo to keep my melodious soul alive. He may be right, for sometimes during these long and hot and tiring days I feel as though my spirit had been vitrified and macadamized. But I haven't yet had time to unpack the music-box and get it in working-order, though I've had a look through the records. There are quite a number of my old favorites. I notice among them a song from The Bohemian Girl. It bears the title of Then You'll Remember Me. Poor old Peter! For when I play it, I know I'll always be thinking of another man.
Sunday the Fifth
Life is a club from which Cupid can never be blackballed. I notice that Struthers, who seems intent on the capture of a soul-mate, has taken to darning Whinstane Sandy's socks for him. And Whinnie, who is a bit of a cobbler as well as being a bit of renegade to the ranks of the misogynists, has put new heels and soles on the number sevens which Struthers wears at the extremities of her heron-like limbs. Thus romance, beginning at the metatarsus, slowly but surely ascends to the diastolic region!
Wednesday the Eighth
I've just had a nice little note from Peter, written from the Aldine Club in Philadelphia, saying he'd neglected to mention something which had been on his mind for some time. He has a slightly rundown place in the suburbs of Pasadena, he went on to explain, and as his lazy summer would mean he'd have to remain in the East and be an ink-coolie all winter, the place was at my disposal if it so turned out that a winter in California seemed desirable for me and my kiddies. It would, in fact, be a God-send—so he protested—to have somebody dependable lodged in that empty house, to keep the cobwebs out of the corners and the mildew off his books and save the whole disintegrating shebang from the general rack and ruin which usually overtakes empty mansions of that type. He gave me the name and address of the caretaker, on Euclid Avenue, and concluded by saying it wasn't very much of a place, but might be endured for a winter for the sake of the climate, if I happened to be looking for a sunnier corner of the world than Alabama Ranch. He further announced that he'd give an arm to see little Dinkie's face when that young outlaw stole his first ripe orange from the big Valencia tree in the patio. And Peter, in a post-script, averred that he could vouch for the flavor of the aforementioned Valencias.
Tuesday the Fourteenth
Whinstane Sandy about the middle of last week brought home the startling information that Sing Lo had sold Lady Allie's heavy work-team to Bud O'Malley for the paltry sum of sixty dollars. He further reported that Sing Lo had decamped, taking with him as rich a haul as he could carry.
I was in doubt on what to do, for a while. But I eventually decided to go in to Buckhorn and send a telegram to the owner of Casa Grande. I felt sure, if Lady Allie was in Banff, that she'd be at the C. P. R. hotel there, and that even if she had gone on to the Anglesey Ranch my telegram would be forwarded to Wallachie. So I wired her: "Chinaman left in charge has been selling ranch property. Advise me what action you wish taken."
A two-day wait brought no reply to this, so I then telegraphed to the hotel-manager asking for information as to her ladyship. I was anxious for that information, I'll confess, for more personal reasons than those arising out of the activities of Sing Lo.
When I went in for my house supplies on Friday there was a message there from the Banff hotel-manager stating that Lady Newland had left, ten days before, for the Empress Hotel in Victoria. So I promptly wired that hotel, only to learn that my titled wanderer might be found in San Francisco, at the Hotel St. Francis. So I repeated my message; and yesterday morning Hy Teetzel, homeward bound from Buckhorn in his tin Lizzie, brought the long-expected reply out to me. It read:
"Would advise consulting my ranch manager on the matter mentioned in your wire," and was signed "Alicia Newland."
There was a sense of satisfaction in having located the lady, but there was a distinctly nettling note in the tenor of that little message. I decided, accordingly, to give her the retort courteous by wiring back to her: "Kindly advise me of ranch manager's present whereabouts," and at the bottom of that message inscribed, "Mrs. Duncan Argyll McKail."
And I've been smiling a little at the telegram which has just been sent on to me, for now that I come to review our electric intercourse in a cooler frame of mind it looks suspiciously like back-biting over a thousand miles of telegraph-wire. This second message from San Francisco said: "Have no knowledge whatever of the gentleman's movements or whereabouts."
It was, I found, both a pleasant and a puzzling bit of information, and my earlier regrets at wasting time that I could ill spare betrayed a tendency to evaporate. It was satisfying, and yet it was not satisfying, for morose little doubts as to the veracity of the lady in question kept creeping back into my mind. It also left everything pretty much up in the air, so I've decided to take things in my own hand and go to Casa Grande and look things over.
Thursday the Sixteenth
I didn't go over to Casa Grande, after all. For this morning the news came to me that Duncan had been back since day before yesterday. And he is undoubtedly doing anything that needs to be done.
But the lady lied, after all. That fact now is only too apparent. And her equerry has been hurried back to look after her harried estate. The live stock, I hear, went without water for three whole days, and the poultry would all have been in kingdom-come if Sing Lo, in choosing a few choice birds for his private consumption, hadn't happened to leave the run-door unlatched....
I was foolish enough to expect, of course, that Duncan might nurse some slight curiosity as to his family and its welfare. This will be his third day back, and he has neither put in an appearance nor sent a word. He's busy, of course, with that tangle to unravel—but where there's a will there's usually a way. And hope dies hard. Yet day by day I find less bitterness in my heart. Those earlier hot tides of resentment have been succeeded, not by tranquillity or even indifference, but by a colder and more judicial attitude toward things in general. I've got a home and a family to fight for—not to mention a baby with prickly-heat—and they must not be forgotten. I have the consolation, too, of knowing that the fight doesn't promise to be a losing one. I've banked on wheat, and old Mother Earth is not going to betray me. My grain has ripened miraculously during these last few weeks of hot dry weather. It's too hot, in fact, for my harvest threatens to come on with a rush. But we'll scramble through it, in some way.
Sunday the Nineteenth
It's only three days since I wrote those last lines. But it seems a long time back to last Thursday. So many, many things have happened since then.
Friday morning broke very hot, and without a breath of wind. By noon it was stifling. By mid-afternoon I felt strangely tired, and even more strangely depressed. I even attempted to shake myself together, arguing that my condition was purely mental, for I had remembered that it was unmistakably Friday, a day of ill-omen to the superstitious.
I was surprised, between four and five, to see Whinstane Sandy come in from his work and busy himself about the stables. When I asked him the reason for this premature withdrawal he pointed toward a low and meek-looking bank of clouds just above the southwest sky-line and announced that we were going to have a "blow," as he called it.
I was inclined to doubt this, for the sun was still shining, there was no trace of a breeze, and the sky straight over my head was a pellucid pale azure. But, when I came to notice it, there was an unusual, small stir among my chickens, the cattle were restless, and one would occasionally hold its nose high in the air and then indulge in a lowing sound. Even Bobs moved peevishly from place to place, plainly disturbed by more than the flies and the heat. I had a feeling, myself, of not being able to get enough air into my lungs, a depressed and disturbed feeling which was nothing more than the barometer of my body trying to tell me that the glass was falling, and falling forebodingly.
By this time I could see Whinnie's cloud-bank rising higher above the horizon and becoming more ragged as it mushroomed into anvil-shaped turrets. Then a sigh or two of hot air, hotter even than the air about us, disturbed the quietness and made the level floor of my yellowing wheat undulate a little, like a breast that has taken a quiet breath or two. Then faint and far-off came a sound like the leisurely firing of big guns, becoming quicker and louder as the ragged arch of the storm crept over the sun and marched down on us with strange twistings and writhings and up-boilings of its tawny mane.
"Ye'd best be makin' things ready!" Whinnie called out to me. But even before I had my windows down little eddies of dust were circling about the shack. Then came a long and sucking sigh of wind, followed by a hot calm too horrible to be endured, a hot calm from the stifling center of which your spirit cried out for whatever was destined to happen to happen at once. The next moment brought its answer to that foolish prayer, a whining and whistling of wind that shook our little shell of a house on its foundations, a lurid flash or two, and then the tumult of the storm itself.
The room where I stood with my children grew suddenly and uncannily dark. I could hear Struthers calling thinly from the kitchen door to Whinnie, who apparently was making a belated effort to get my chicken-run gate open and my fowls under cover. I could hear a scattering drive of big rain-drops on the roof, solemn and soft, like the fall of plump frogs. But by the time Whinnie was in through the kitchen door this had changed. It had changed into a passionate and pulsing beat of rain, whipped and lashed by the wind that shook the timbers about us. The air, however, was cooler by this time, and it was easier to breathe. So I found it hard to understand why Whinnie, as he stood in the half-light by one of the windows, should wear such a look of protest on his morose old face which was the color of a pigskin saddle just under the stirrup-flap.
Even when I heard one solitary thump on the roof over my head, as distinct as the thump of a hammer, I failed to understand what was worrying my hired man. Then, after a momentary pause in the rain, the thumps were repeated. They were repeated in a rattle which became a clatter and soon grew into one continuous stream of sound, like a thousand machine-guns all going off at once.
I realized then what it meant, what it was. It was hail. And it meant that we were being "hailed out."
We were being cannonaded with shrapnel from the skies. We were being deluged with blocks of ice almost the size of duck-eggs. So thunderous was the noise that I had no remembrance when the window-panes on the west side of the house were broken. It wasn't, in fact, until I beheld the wind and water blowing in through the broken sashes that I awakened to what had happened. But I did nothing to stop the flood. I merely sat there with my two babes in my arms and my Dinkie pressed in close between my knees, in a foolishly crouching and uncomfortable position, as though I wanted to shield their tender little bodies with my own. I remember seeing Struthers run gabbing and screaming about the room and then try to bury herself under her mattress, like the silly old she-ostrich she was, with her number sevens sticking out from under the bedding. I remember seeing Whinnie picking up one of the white things that had rolled in through the broken window. It was oblong, and about as big as a pullet's egg, but more irregular in shape. It was clear on the outside but milky at the center, making me think of a half-cooked globe of tapioca. But it was a stone of solid ice. And thousands and thousands of stones like that, millions of them, were descending on my wheat, were thrashing down my half-ripened oats, were flailing the world and beating the life and beauty out of my crops.
The storm ended almost as abruptly as it had begun. The hammers of Thor that were trying to pound my lonely little prairie-house to pieces were withdrawn, the tumult stopped, and the light grew stronger. Whinstane Sandy even roused himself and moved toward the door, which he opened with the hand of a sleep-walker, and stood staring out. I could see reflected in that seamed old face the desolation which for a minute or two I didn't have the heart to look upon. I knew, even before I got slowly up and followed him toward the door, that our crop was gone, that we had lost everything.
I stood in the doorway, staring out at what, only that morning, had been a world golden with promise, rich and bountiful and beautiful to the eye and blessed in the sight of God. And now, at one stroke, it was all wiped out. As far as the eye could see I beheld only flattened and shredded ruin. Every acre of my crop was gone. My year's work had been for nothing, my blind planning, my petty scheming and contriving, my foolish little hopes and dreams, all, all were there, beaten down into the mud.
Yet, oddly enough, it did not stir in me any quick and angry passion of protest. It merely left me mute and stunned, staring at it with the eyes of the ox, with a dull wonder in my heart and a duller sense of deprivation away off at the back of my brain. I scarcely noticed when little Dinkie toddled out and possessed himself of a number of the larger hailstones, which he promptly proceeded to suck. When a smaller one melted in the warmth of his hand, he stared down at the emptiness between his little brown fingers, wondering where his pretty pebble had vanished to, just as I wondered where my crop had gone.
But it's gone. There's no doubt of that. The hail went from southwest to northeast, in a streak about three miles wide, like a conquering army, licking up everything as it went. Whinnie says that it's the will of God. Struthers, resurrected from her mattress, proclaims that it's Fate punishing us for our sins. My head tells me that it's barometric laws, operating along their own ineluctable lines. But that doesn't salve the sore.
For the rest of the afternoon we stood about like Italian peasants after an earthquake, possessed of a sort of collective mutism, doing nothing, saying nothing, thinking nothing. Even my seven dead pullets, which had been battered to death by the hail, were left to lie where they had fallen. I noticed a canvas carrier for a binder which Whinnie had been mending. It was riddled like a sieve. If this worried me, it worried me only vaguely. It wasn't until I remembered that there would be no wheat for that binder to cut and no sheaves for that carrier to bear, that the extent of what had befallen Alabama Ranch once more came fully home to me. It takes time to digest such things, just as it takes time to reorganize your world. The McKails, for the second time, have been cleaned to the bones. We ought to be getting used to it, for it's the second time we've gone bust in a year!
It wasn't until yesterday morning that any kind of perspective came back to us. I went to bed the night before wondering about Dinky-Dunk and hoping against hope that he'd come galloping over to make sure his family were still in the land of the living. But he didn't come. And before noon I learned that Casa Grande had not been touched by the hail. That at least was a relief, for it meant that Duncan was safe and sound.
In a way, yesterday, there was nothing to do, and yet there was a great deal to do. It reminded me of the righting up after a funeral. But I refused to think of anything beyond the immediate tasks in hand. I just did what had to be done, and went to bed again dog-tired. But I had nightmare, and woke up in the middle of the night crying for all I was worth. I seemed alone in an empty world, a world without meaning or mercy, and there in the blackness of the night when the tides of life run lowest, I lay with my hand pressed against my heart, with the feeling that there was nothing whatever left in existence to make it worth while. Then Pee-Wee stirred and whimpered, and when I lifted him into my bed and held him against my breast, the nearness of his body brought warmth and consolation to mine, and I remembered that I was still a mother....
It was this morning (Sunday) that Dinky-Dunk appeared at Alabama Ranch. I had looked for him and longed for him, in secret, and my heart should have leapt up with gladness at the sight of him. But it didn't. It couldn't. It was like asking a millstone to pirouette.
In the first place, everything seemed wrong. I had a cold in the head from the sudden drop in the temperature, and I was arrayed in that drab old gingham wrapper which Dinkie had cut holes in with Struthers' scissors, for I hadn't cared much that morning when I dressed whether I looked like a totem-pole or a Stoney squaw. And the dregs of what I'd been through during the last two days were still sour in the bottom of my heart. I was a Job in petticoats, a mutineer against man and God, a nihilist and an I. W. W. all in one. And Dinky-Dunk appeared in Lady Alicia's car, in her car, carefully togged out in his Sunday best, with that strangely alien aspect which citified clothes can give to the rural toiler when he emerges from the costume of his kind.
But it wasn't merely that he came arrayed in this outer shell of affluence and prosperity. It was more that there was a sense of triumph in his heart which he couldn't possibly conceal. And I wasn't slow to realize what it meant. I was a down-and-outer now, and at his mercy. He could have his way with me, without any promise of protest. And whatever he might have done, or might yet do, it was ordained that I in my meekness should bow to the yoke. All that I must remember was that he stood my lord and master. I had made my foolish little struggle to be mistress of my own destiny, and now that I had failed, and failed utterly, I must bend to whatever might be given to me.
"It's hard luck, Chaddie," he said, with a pretense at being sympathetic. But there was no real sorrow in his eye as he stood there surveying my devastated ranch.
"Nix on that King Cophetua stuff!" I curtly and vulgarly proclaimed.
"Just what do you mean?" he asked, studying my face.
"Kindly can the condescension stuff!" I repeated, taking a wayward satisfaction out of shocking him with the paraded vulgarity of my phrasing.
"That doesn't sound like you," he said, naturally surprised, I suppose, that I didn't melt into his arms.
"Why not?" I inquired, noticing that he no longer cared to meet my eye.
"It sounds hard," he said.
"Well, some man has said that a hard soil makes a hard race," I retorted, with a glance about at my ruined wheatlands. "Did you have a pleasant time in Chicago?"
He looked up quickly.
"I wasn't in Chicago," he promptly protested.
"Then that woman lied, after all," I remarked, with a lump of Scotch granite where my heart ought to have been. For I could see by his face that he knew, without hesitation, the woman I meant.
"Isn't that an unnecessarily harsh word?" he asked, trying, of course, to shield her to the last. And if he had not exactly winced, he had done the next thing to it.
"What would you call it?" I countered. It wouldn't have taken a microphone, I suppose, to discover the hostility in my tone. "And would it be going too far to inquire just where you were?" I continued as I saw he had no intention of answering my first question.
"I was at the Coast," he said, compelling himself to meet my glance.
"I'm sorry that I cut your holiday short," I told him.
"It was scarcely a holiday," he remonstrated.
"What would you call it then?" I asked.
"It was purely a business trip," he retorted.
There had, I remembered, been a great deal of that business during the past few months. And an ice-cold hand squeezed the last hope of hope out of my heart. She had been at the Coast.
"And this belated visit to your wife and children, I presume, is also for business purposes?" I inquired. But he was able to smile at that, for all my iciness.
"Is it belated?" he asked.
"Wouldn't you call it that?" I quietly inquired.
"But I had to clear up that case of the stolen horses," he protested, "that Sing Lo thievery."
"Which naturally comes before one's family," I ironically reminded him.
"But courts are courts, Chaddie," he maintained, with a pretense of patience.
"And consideration is consideration," I rather wearily amended.
"We can't always do what we want to," he next remarked, apparently intent on being genially axiomatic.
"Then to what must the humble family attribute this visit?" I inquired, despising that tone of mockery into which I had fallen yet seeming unable to drag myself out of its muck-bottom depths.
"To announce that I intend to return to them," he asserted, though it didn't seem an easy statement to make.
It rather took my breath away, for a moment. But Reason remained on her throne. It was too much like sticking spurs into a dead horse. There was too much that could not be forgotten. And I calmly reminded Dinky-Dunk that the lightest of heads can sometimes have the longest of memories.
"Then you don't want me back?" he demanded, apparently embarrassed by my lack of hospitality.
"It all depends on what you mean by that word," I answered, speaking as judicially as I was able. "If by coming back you mean coming back to this house, I suppose you have a legal right to do so. But if it means anything more, I'm afraid it can't be done. You see, Dinky-Dunk, I've got rather used to single harness again, and I've learned to think and act for myself, and there's a time when continued unfairness can kill the last little spark of friendliness in any woman's heart. It's not merely that I'm tired of it all. But I'm tired of being tired, if you know what that means. I don't even know what I'm going to do. Just at present, in fact, I don't want to think about it. But I'd much prefer being alone until I am able to straighten things out to my own satisfaction."
"I'm sorry," said Dinky-Dunk, looking so crestfallen that for a moment I in turn felt almost sorry for him.
"Isn't it rather late for that?" I reminded him.
"Yes, I suppose it is," he admitted, with a disturbing new note of humility. Then he looked up at me, almost defiantly. "But you need my help."
It was masterful man, once more asserting himself. It was a trivial misstep, but a fatal one. It betrayed, at a flash, his entire misjudgment of me, of my feelings, of what I was and what I intended to be.
"I'm afraid I've rather outlived that period of Bashi-Bazookism," I coolly and quietly explained to my lord and master. "You may have the good luck to be confronting me when I seem to be floored. I've been hailed out, it's true. But that has happened to other people, and they seem to have survived. And there are worse calamities, I find, than the loss of a crop."
"Are you referring to anything that I have done?" asked Dinky-Dunk, with a slightly belligerent look in his eye.
"If the shoe fits, put it on," I observed.
"But there are certain things I want to explain," he tried to argue, with the look of a man confronted by an overdraft on his patience.
"Somebody has said that a friend," I reminded him, "is a person to whom one need never explain. And any necessity for explanation, you see, removes us even from the realm of friendship."
"But, hang it all, I'm your husband," protested my obtuse and somewhat indignant interlocutor.
"We all have our misfortunes," I found the heart, or rather the absence of heart, to remark.
"I'm afraid this isn't a very good beginning," said Dinky-Dunk, his dignity more ruffled than ever.
"It's not a beginning at all," I reminded him. "It's more like an ending."
That kept him silent for quite a long while.
"I suppose you despise me," he finally remarked.
"It's scarcely so active an emotion," I tried to punish him by retorting.
"But I at least insist on explaining what took me to the Coast," he contended.
"That is scarcely necessary," I told him.
"Then you know?" he asked.
"I imagine the whole country-side does," I observed.
He made a movement of mixed anger and protest.
"I went to Vancouver because the government had agreed to take over my Vancouver Island water-front for their new shipbuilding yards. If you've forgotten just what that means, I'd like to remind you that there's——"
"I don't happen to have forgotten," I interrupted, wondering why news which at one time would have set me on fire could now leave me quite cold. "But what caused the government to change its mind?"
"Allie!" he said, after a moment's hesitation, fixing a slightly combative eye on mine.
"She seems to have almost unlimited powers," I observed as coolly as I could, making an effort to get my scattered thoughts into line again.
"On the contrary," Dinky-Dunk explained with quite painful politeness, "it was merely the accident that she happened to know the naval officer on the Imperial Board. She was at Banff the week the board was there, and she was able to put in a good word for the Vancouver Island site. And the Imperial verdict swung our own government officials over."
"You were lucky to have such an attractive wirepuller," I frigidly announced.
"The luck wasn't altogether on my side," Dinky-Dunk almost as frigidly retorted, "when you remember that it was giving her a chance to get rid of a ranch she was tired of!"
I did my best to hide my surprise, but it wasn't altogether a success. The dimensions of the movement, apparently, were much greater than my poor little brain had been able to grasp.
"Do you mean it's going to let you take Casa Grande off her ladyship's hands?" I diffidently inquired.
"That's already arranged for," Dinky-Dunk quite casually informed me. We were a couple of play-actors, I felt, each deep in a role of his own, each stirred much deeper than he was ready to admit, and each a little afraid of the other.
"You are to be congratulated," I told Dinky-Dunk, chilled in spite of myself, never for a moment quite able to forget the sinister shadow of Lady Alicia which lay across our trodden little path of everyday life.
"It was you and the kiddies I was thinking of," said my husband, in a slightly remote voice. And the mockery of that statement, knowing what I knew, was too much for me.
"I'm sorry you didn't think of us a little sooner," I observed. And I had the bitter-sweet reward of seeing a stricken light creep up into Dinky-Dunk's eyes.
"Why do you say that?" he asked.
But I didn't answer that question of his. Instead, I asked him another.
"Did you know that Lady Alicia came here and announced that she was in love with you?" I demanded, resolved to let the light in to that tangled mess which was fermenting in the silo of my soul.
"Yes, I know," he quietly affirmed, as he hung his head. "She told me about it. And it was awful. It should never have happened. It made me ashamed even—even to face you!"
"That was natural," I agreed, with my heart still steeled against him.
"It makes a fool of a man," he protested, "a situation like that."
"Then the right sort of man wouldn't encourage it," I reminded him, "wouldn't even permit it." And still again I caught that quick movement of impatience from him.
"What's that sort of thing to a man of my age?" he demanded. "When you get to where I am you don't find love looming so large on the horizon. What—"
"No, it clearly doesn't loom so large," I interrupted.
"What you want then," went on Dinky-Dunk, ignoring me, "is power, success, the consolation of knowing you're not a failure in life. That's the big issue, and that's the stake men play big for, and play hard for."
It was, I remembered in my bitterness of soul, what I myself had been playing hard for—but I had lost. And it had left my heart dry. It had left my heart so dry that my own Dinky-Dunk, standing there before me in the open sunlight, seemed millions of miles removed from me, mysteriously depersonalized, as remote in spirit as a stranger from Mars come to converse about an inter-stellar telephone-system.
"Then you've really achieved your ambition," I reminded my husband, as he stood studying a face which I tried to keep tranquil under his inspection.
"Oh, no," he corrected, "only a small part of it."
"What's the rest?" I indifferently inquired, wondering why most of life's victories, after all, were mere Pyrrhic victories.
"You," declared Dinky-Dunk, with a reckless light in his eyes, "You, and the children, now that I'm in a position to give them what they want."
"But are you?" I queried.
"Well, that's what I'm coming back to demonstrate," he found the courage to assert.
"To them?" I asked.
"To all of you!" he said with a valiant air of finality.
I told him it was useless, but he retorted that he didn't propose to have that stop him. I explained to him that it would be embarrassing, but he parried that claim by protesting that sacrifice was good for the soul. I asserted that it would be a good deal of a theatricality, under the circumstances, but he attempted to brush this aside by stating that what he had endured for years might be repeated by patience.
So Dinky-Dunk is coming back to Alabama Ranch! It sounds momentous, and yet, I know in my heart, that it doesn't mean so very much. He will sleep under the same roof with me as remote as though he were reposing a thousand miles away. He will breakfast and go forth to his work, and my thoughts will not be able to go with him. He will return with the day's weariness in his bones, but a weariness which I can neither fathom nor explain in my own will keep my blood from warming at the sound of his voice through the door. Being still his wife, I shall have to sew and mend and cook for him. That is the penalty of prairie life; there is no escape from propinquity.
But that life can go on in this way, indefinitely, is unthinkable. What will happen, I don't know. But there will have to be a change, somewhere. There will have to be a change, but I am too tired to worry over what it will be. I'm too tired even to think of it. That's something which lies in the lap of Time.
Saturday the Twenty-fifth
Dinky-Dunk is back. At least he sleeps and breakfasts at home, but the rest of the time he is over at Casa Grande getting his crop cut. He's too busy, I fancy, to pay much attention to our mutual lack of attention. But the compact was made, and he seems willing to comply with it. The only ones who fail to regard it are the children. I hadn't counted on them. There are times, accordingly, when they somewhat complicate the situation. It didn't take them long to get re-acquainted with their daddy. I could see, from the first, that he intended to be very considerate and kind with them, for I'm beginning to realize that he gets a lot of fun out of the kiddies. Pee-Wee will go to him, now, from anybody. He goes with an unmistakable expression of "Us-men-have-got-to-stick-together" satisfaction on his little face.
But Dinky-Dunk's intimacies, I'm glad to say, do not extend beyond the children. Three days ago, though, he asked me about turning his hogs in on my land. It doesn't sound disturbingly emotional. But if what's left of my crop, of course, is any use to Duncan, he's welcome to it....
I looked for that letter which I wrote to Dinky-Dunk several weeks ago, looked for it for an hour and more this morning, but haven't succeeded in finding it. I was sure that I'd put it between the pages of the old ranch journal. But it's not there.
Last night before I turned in I read all of Meredith's Modern Love. It was nice to remember that once, at Box Hill, I'd felt the living clasp of the hand which had written that wonderful series of poems. But never before did I quite understand that elaborated essay in love-moods. It came like a friendly voice, like an understanding comrade who knows the world better than I do, and brought me comfort, even though the sweetness of it was slightly acidulated, like a lemon-drop. And as for myself, I suppose I'll continue to
"............sit contentedly And eat my pot of honey on the grave."
Sunday the Second
I have written to Uncle Carlton again, asking him about my Chilean Nitrate shares. If the company's reorganized and the mines opened again, surely my stock ought to be worth something.
The days are getting shorter, and the hot weather is over for good, I hope. I usually like autumn on the prairie, but the thought of fall, this year, doesn't fill me with any inordinate joy. I'm unsettled and atonic, and it's just as well, I fancy, that I'm weaning the Twins.
It's not the simple operation I'd expected, but the worst is already over. Pee-Wee is betraying unmistakable serpentine powers, and it's no longer safe to leave him on a bed. Poppsy is a fastidious little lady, and apparently a bit of a philosopher. She is her father's favorite. Whinstane Sandy is loyal to little Dinkie, and, now that the evenings are longer, regales him on stories, stories which the little tot can only half understand. But they must always be about animals, and Whinnie seems to run to wolves. He's told the story of the skater and the wolves, with personal embellishments, and Little Red Riding-Hood in a version all his own, and last night, I noticed, he recounted the tale of the woman in the sleigh with her children when the pack of wolves pursued her. And first, to save herself and her family, she threw her little baby out to the brutes. And when they had gained on her once more, she threw out her little girl, and then her little boy, and then her biggest boy of ten. And when she reached a settlement and told of her deliverance, the Oldest Settler took a wood-ax and clove her head clear down to the shoulder-blades—the same, of course, being a punishment for saving herself at the expense of her little ones.
My Dinkie sat wriggling his toes with delight, the tale being of that gruesome nature which appeals to him. It must have been tried on countless other children, for, despite Whinnie's autobiographical interjections, the yarn is an old and venerable one, a primitive Russian folk-tale which even Browning worked over in his Ivan Ivanovitch.
Dinky-Dunk, wandering in on the tail end of it, remarked: "That's a fine story, that is, with all those coyotes singing out there!"
"The chief objection to it," I added, "is that the lady didn't drop her husband over first."
Dinky-Dunk looked down at me as he filled his pipe.
"But the husband, as I remember the story, had been left behind to do what a mere husband could to save their home," my spouse quietly reminded me.
Monday the Tenth
There was a heavy frost last night. It makes me feel that summer is over. Dinky-Dunk asked me yesterday why I disliked Casa Grande and never ventured over into that neighborhood. I evaded any answer by announcing that there were very few things I liked nowadays....
Only once, lately, have we spoken of Lady Allie. It was Dinky-Dunk, in fact, who first brought up her name in speaking of the signing of the transfer-papers.
"Is it true," I found the courage to ask, "that you knew your cousin quite intimately as a girl?"
Dinky-Dunk laughed as he tamped down his pipe.
"Yes, it must have been quite intimately," he acknowledged. "For when she was seven and I was nine we went all the way down Teignmouth Hill together in an empty apple-barrel—than which nothing that I know of could possibly be more intimate!"
I couldn't join him in his mirth over that incident, for I happened to remember the look on Lady Alicia's face when she once watched Dinky-Dunk mount his mustang and ride away. "Aren't men lawds of creation?" she had dreamily inquired. "Not after you've lived with them for a couple of years," I had been heartless enough to retort, just to let her know that I didn't happen to have a skin like a Douglas pine.
Sunday the Sixteenth
I've just had a letter from Uncle Carlton. It's a very long and businesslike letter, in which he goes into details as to how our company has been incorporated in La Association de Productores de Salitre de Chile, with headquarters at Valparaiso. It's a new and rather unexpected arrangement, but he prophesies that with nitrate at ten shillings per Spanish quintal the returns on the investment, under the newer conditions, should be quite satisfactory. He goes on to explain how nitrate is shipped in bags of one hundred kilos, and the price includes the bags, but the weight is taken on the nitrate only, involving a deduction from the gross weight of seven-tenths per cent. Then he ambles off into a long discussion of how the fixation method from the air may eventually threaten the stability of our entire amalgamated mines, but probably not during his life-time or even my own. And I had to read the letter over for the third time before I winnowed from it the obscure but essential kernel that my shares from this year forward should bring me in an annual dividend of at least two thousand, but more probably three, and possibly even four, once the transportation situation is normalized, but depending largely, of course, on the labor conditions obtaining in Latin America—and much more along the same lines.
That news of my long-forgotten and long-neglected nest-egg should have made me happy. But it didn't. I couldn't quite react to it. As usual, I thought of the children first, and from their standpoint it did bring a sort of relief. It was consoling, of course, to know that, whatever happened, they could have woolens on their little tummies and shoe-leather on their little piggies. But the news didn't come with sufficient force to shock the dull gray emptiness out of existence. I've even been wondering if there's any news that could. For the one thing that seems always to face me is the absence of intensity from life. Can it be, I found myself asking to-day, that it's youth, golden youth, that is slipping away from me?
It startled me a little, to have to face that question. But I shake my fist in the teeth of Time. I refuse to surrender. I shall not allow myself to become antiquated. I'm on the wrong track, in some way, but before I dry up into a winter apple I'm going to find out where the trouble is, and correct it. I never was much of a sleep-walker. I want life, Life—and oodles of it....
Among other things, by the way, which I've been missing are books. They at least are to be had for the buying, and I've decided there's no excuse for letting the channels of my mind get moss-grown. I've had a "serious but not fatal wound," as the newspapers say, to my personal vanity, but there's no use in letting go of things, at my time of life. Pee-Wee, I'm sure, will never be satisfied with an empty-headed old frump for a mother, and Dinkie is already asking questions that are slightly disturbing. Yesterday, in his bath, he held his hand over his heart. He held it there for quite a long time, and then he looked at me with widening eyes. "Mummy," he called out, "I've got a m'sheen inside me!" And Whinnie's explorations are surely worth emulating. I too have a machine inside me which some day I'll be compelled to rediscover. It is a machine which, at present, is merely a pump, though the ancients, I believe, regarded it as the seat of the emotions.
Saturday the Twenty-ninth
Dinky-Dunk is quite subtle. He is ignoring me, as a modern army of assault ignores a fortress by simply circling about its forbidding walls and leaving it in the rear. But I can see that he is deliberately and patiently making love to my children. He is entrenching himself in their affection.
He is, of course, their father, and it is not for me to interfere. Last night, in fact, when Pee-Wee cried for his dad, poor old Dinky-Dunk's face looked almost radiumized. He has announced that on Tuesday, when he will have to go in to Buckhorn, he intends to carry along the three kiddies and have their photograph taken. It reminded me that I had no picture whatever of the Twins. And that reminded me, in turn, of what a difference there is between your first child and the tots who come later. Little Dinkie, being a novelty, was followed by a phosphorescent wake of diaries and snap-shots and weigh-scales and growth-records, with his birthdays duly reckoned, not by the year, but by the month.