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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesLonesome Land - Chapter 13. Arline Gives A Dance
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Lonesome Land - Chapter 13. Arline Gives A Dance Post by :Paris Category :Long Stories Author :B. M. Bower Date :May 2012 Read :3286

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Lonesome Land - Chapter 13. Arline Gives A Dance


A house, it would seem, is almost the least important part of a ranch; one can camp, with frying pan and blankets, in the shade of a bush or the shelter of canvas. But to do anything upon a ranch, one must have many things--burnable things, for the most part, as Manley was to learn by experience when he left Val at the hotel and rode out, the next day, to Cold Spring Coulee.

To ride over twenty miles of blackness is depressing enough in itself, but to find, at the end of the journey, that one's work has all gone for nothing, and one's money and one's plans and hopes, is worse than depressing. Manley sat upon his horse and gazed rather blankly at the heap of black cinders that had been his haystacks, and at the cold embers where had stood his stables, and at the warped bits of iron that had been his buckboard, his wagon, his rake and mower--all the things he had gathered around him in the three years he had spent upon the place.

The house merely emphasized his loss. He got down, picked up the cat, which was mewing plaintively beside his horse, snuggled it into his arm, and remounted. Val had told him to be sure and find the cat, and bring it back with him. His horses and his cattle--not many, to be sure, in that land of large holdings--were scattered, and it would take the round-up to gather them together again. So the cat, and the horse he rode, the bleak coulee, and the unattractive little house with its three rooms and its meager porch, were all that he could visualize as his worldly possessions. And when he thought of his bank account he winced mentally. Before snow fell he would be debt-ridden, the best he could do. For he must have a stable, and corral, and hay, and a wagon, and--he refused to remind himself of all the things he must have if he would stay on the ranch.

His was not a strong nature at best, and now he shrank from facing his misfortune and wanted only to get away from the place. He loped his horse half-way up the hill, which was not merciful riding. The half-starved cat yowled in his arms, and struck her claws through his coat till he felt the prick of them, and he swore; at the cat, nominally, but really at the trick fate had played upon him.

For a week he dallied in town, without heart or courage though Val urged him to buy lumber and build, and cheered him as best she could. He did make a half-hearted attempt to get lumber to the place, but there seemed to be no team in town which he could hire. Every one was busy, and put him off. He tried to buy hay of Blumenthall, of the Wishbone, of every man he met who had hay. No one had any hay to sell, however. Blumenthall complained that he was short, himself, and would buy if he could, rather than sell. The Wishbone foreman declared profanely--that hay was going to be worth a dollar a pound to _them_, before spring. They were all sorry for Manley, and told him he was "sure playing tough luck," but they couldn't sell any hay, that was certain.

"But we must manage somehow to fix the place so we can live on it this winter," Val would insist, when he told her how every move seemed blocked. "You're very brave, dear, and I'm proud of the way you are holding out--but Hope is not a good place for you. It would be foolish to stay in town. Can't you buy enough hay here in town--baled hay from the store--to keep our horses through the winter?"

"Well, I tried," Manley responded gloomily. "But Brinberg is nearly out. He's expecting a carload in, but it hasn't come yet. He said he'd let me know when it gets here."

Meanwhile the days slipped away, and imperceptibly the heat and haze of the fires gave place to bright sunlight and chill winds, and then to the chill winds without the sunshine. One morning the ground was frozen hard, and all the roofs gleamed white with the heavy frost. Arline bestirred herself, and had a heating stove set up in the parlor, and Val went down to the dry heat and the peculiar odor of a rusted stove in the flush of its first fire since spring.

The next day, as she sat by her window up-stairs, she looked out at the first nip of winter. A few great snowflakes drifted down from the slaty sky; a puff of wind sent them dancing down the street, shook more down, and whirled them giddily. Then the storm came and swept through the little street and whined lonesomely around the hotel.

Over at the saloon--"Pop's Place," it proclaimed itself in washed-out lettering--three tied horses circled uneasily until they were standing back to the storm, their bodies hunched together with the chill of it, their tails whipping between their legs. They accentuated the blank dreariness of the empty street. The snow was whitening their rumps and clinging, in tiny drifts, upon the saddle skirts behind the cantles.

All the little hollows of the rough, frozen ground were filling slowly, making white patches against the brown of the earth--patches which widened and widened until they met, and the whole street was blanketed with fresh, untrodden snow. Val shivered suddenly, and hurried down-stairs where the air was warm and all a-steam with cooking, and the odor of frying onions smote the nostrils like a blow in the face.

"I suppose we must stay here, now, till the storm is over," she sighed, when she met Manley at dinner. "But as soon as it clears we must go back to the ranch. I simply cannot endure another week of it."

"You're gitting uneasy--I seen that, two or three days ago," said Arline, who had come into the dining room with a tray of meat and vegetables, and overheard her. "You want to stay, now, till after the dance. There's going to be a dance Friday night, you know--everybody's coming. You got to wait for that."

"I don't attend public dances," Val stated calmly. "I am going home as soon as the storm clears--if Manley can buy a little hay, and find our horses, and get some sort of a driving vehicle."

"Well, if he can't, maybe he can round up a _ridin' vee-hicle," Arline remarked dryly, placing the meat before Manley, the potatoes before Val, and the gravy exactly between the two, with mathematical precision. "I'm givin' that dance myself. You'll have to go--I'm givin' it in your honor."

"In--my--why, the _idea! It's good of you, but--"

"And you're goin', and you're goin' to take your vi'lin over and play us some pieces. I tucked it into the rig and brought it in, on purpose. I planned out the hull thing, driving out to your place. In case you wasn't all burned up, I made up my mind I was going to give you a dance, and git you acquainted with folks. You needn't to hang back--I've told everybody it was in your honor, and that you played the vi'lin swell, and we'd have some real music. And I've sent to Chinook for the dance music--harp, two fiddles, and a coronet--and you ain't going to stall the hull thing now. I didn't mean to tell you till the last minute, but you've got to have time to mate up your mind you'll go to a public dance for oncet in your life. It ain't going to hurt you none. I've went, ever sence I was big enough to reach up and grab holt of my pardner--and I'm every bit as virtuous as you be. You're going, and you'n Man are going to head the grand march."

Val's face was flushed, her lips pursed, and her eyes wide. Plainly she was not quite sure whether she was angry, amused, or insulted. She descended straight to a purely feminine objection.

"But I haven't a thing to wear, and--"

"Oh, yes, you have. While you was dillydallying out in the front room, that night, wondering whether you'd have hysterics, or faint, or what all, I dug deep in that biggest trunk of yourn, and fished up one of your party dresses--white satin, it is, with embroid'ry all up 'n' down the front, and slimpsy lace; it's kinda low-'n'-behold--one of them--"

"My white satin--why, Mrs. Hawley! That--you must have brought the gown I wore to my farewell club reception. It has a train, and--why, the _idea!_"

"You can cut off the trail--you got plenty of time--or you can pin it up. I didn't have time that night to see how the thing was made, and I took it because I found white skirts and stockin's, and white satin slippers to go with it, right handy. You're a bride, and white'll be suitable, and the dance is in your honor. Wear it just as it is, fer all me. Show the folks what real clothes look like. I never seen a woman dressed up that way in my hull life. You wear it, Val, trail 'n' all. I'll back you up in it, and tell folks it's my idee, and not yourn."

"I'm not in the habit of apologizing to people for the clothes I wear." Val lifted her chin haughtily. "I am not at all sure that I shall go. In fact, I--"

"Oh, you'll go!" Arline rested her arms upon her bony hips and snapped her meager jaws together. "You'll go, if I have to carry you over. I've sent for fifteen yards of buntin' to decorate the hall with. I ain't going to all that trouble for nothing. I ain't giving a dance in honor of a certain person, and then let that person stay away. You--why, you'd queer yourself with the hull country, Val Fleetwood! You ain't got the least sign of an excuse You got the clothes, and you ain't sick. There's a reason why you got to show up. I ain't going into no details at present, but under the circumstances, it's _advisable_." She smelled something burning then, and bolted for the kitchen, where her sharp, rather nasal voice was heard upbraiding Minnie for some neglect.

Polycarp Jenks came in, eyed Val and Manley from under one lifted, eyebrow, smiled skinnily, and pulled out a chair with a rasping noise, and sat down facing them. Instinctively Val refrained from speaking her mind about Arline and her dance before Polycarp, but afterward, in their own room, she grew rather eloquent upon the subject. She would not go. She would not permit that woman to browbeat her into doing what she did not want to do, she said. In her honor, indeed! The impertinence of going to the bottom of her trunk, and meddling with her clothes--with that reception gown, of all others! The idea of wearing that gown to a frontier dance--even if she consented to go to such a dance! And expecting her to amuse the company by playing "pieces" on the violin!

"Well, why not?" Manley was sitting rather apathetically upon the edge of the bed, his arms resting upon his knees, his eyes moodily studying the intricate rose pattern in the faded Brussels carpet. They were the first words he had spoken; one might easily have doubted whether he had heard all Val said.

"Why not? Manley Fleetwood, do you mean to tell me--"

"Why not go, and get acquainted, and quit feeling that you're a pearl cast among swine? It strikes me the Hawley person is pretty level-headed on the subject. If you're going to live in this country, why not quit thinking how out of place you are, and how superior, and meet us all on a level? It won't hurt you to go to that dance, and it won't hurt you to play for them, if they want you to. You _can play, you know; you used to play at all the musical doings in Fern Hill, and even in the city sometimes. And, let me tell you, Val, we aren't quite savages, out here. I've even suspected, sometimes, that we're just as good as Fern Hill."

"We?" Val looked at him steadily. "So you wish to identify yourself with these people--with Polycarp Jenks, and Arline Hawley, and--"

"Why not? They're shaky on grammar, and their manners could stand a little polish, but aside from that they're exactly like the people you've lived among all your life. Sure, I wish to identify myself with them. I'm just a rancher--pretty small punkins, too, among all these big outfits, and you're a rancher's wife. The Hawley person could buy us out for cash to-morrow, if she wanted to, and never miss the money. And, Val, she's giving that dance in your honor; you ought to appreciate that. The Hawley doesn't take a fancy to every woman she sees--and, let me tell you, she stands ace-high in this country. If she didn't like you, she could make you wish she did."

"Well, upon my word! I begin to suspect you of being a humorist, Manley. And even if you mean that seriously--why, it's all the funnier." To prove it, she laughed.

Manley hesitated, then left the room with a snort, a scowl, and a slam of the door; and the sound of Val's laughter followed him down the stairs.

Arline came up, her arms full of white satin, white lace, white cambric, and the toes of two white satin slippers showing just above the top of her apron pockets. She walked briskly in and deposited her burden upon the bed.

"My! them's the nicest smellin' things I ever had a hold of," she observed. "And still they don't seem to smell, either. Must be a dandy perfumery you've got. I brought up the things, seein' you know they're here. I thought you could take your time about cuttin' off the trail and fillin' in the neck and sleeves."

She sat down upon the foot of the bed, carefully tucking her gingham apron close about her so that it might not come in contact with the other.

"I never did see such clothes," she sighed. "I dunno how you'll ever git a chancet to wear 'em out in this country--seems to me they're most too pretty to wear, anyhow, I can git Marthy Winters to come over and help you--she does sewin'--and you can use my machine any time you want to. I'd take a hold myself if I didn't have all the baking to do for the dance. That Min can't learn nothing, seems like. I can't trust her to do a thing, hardly, unless I stand right over her. Breed girls ain't much account ever; but they're all that'll work out, in this country, seems like. Sometimes I swear I'll git a Chink and be done with it--only I got to have somebody I can talk to oncet in a while. I couldn't never talk to a Chink--they don't seem hardly human to me. Do they to you?

"And say! I've got some allover lace--it's eecrue--that you can fill in the neck with; you're welcome to use it--there's most a yard of it, and I won't never find a use for it. Or I was thinkin', there'll be enough cut off'n the trail to make a gamp of the satin, sleeves and all." She lifted the shining stuff with manifest awe. "It does seem a shame to put the shears to it--but you never'll git any wear out of it the way it is, and I don't believe--"

"Mis' _Hawley!_" shrilled the voice of Minnie at the foot of the stairs. "There's a couple of _drummers off'n the _train_, 'n' they want _supper_, 'n' what'll I _give 'em?"

"My heavens! That girl'll drive me crazy, sure!" Arline hurried to the door. "Don't take the roof off'n the house," she cried querulously down the stairway. "I'm comin'."

Val had not spoken a word. She went over to the bed, lifted a fold of satin, and smiled down at it ironically. "Mamma and I spent a whole month planning and sewing and gloating over you," she said aloud. "You were almost as important as a wedding gown; the club's farewell reception--'To what base uses we do--'"

"Oh, here's your slippers!" Arline thrust half her body into the room and held the slippers out to Val. "I stuck 'em into my pockets to bring up, and forgot all about 'em, mind you, till I was handin' the drummers their tea. And one of 'em happened to notice 'em, and raised right up outa his chair, an' said: 'Cind'rilla, sure as I live! Say, if there's a foot in this town that'll go into them slippers, for God's sake introduce me to the owner!' I told him to mind his own business. Drummers do get awful fresh when they think they can get away with it." She departed in a hurry, as usual.

Every day after that Arline talked about altering the satin gown. Every day Val was noncommittal and unenthusiastic. Occasionally she told Arline that she was not going to the dance, but Arline declined to take seriously so preposterous a declaration.

"You want to break a leg, then," she told Val grimly on Thursday. "That's the only excuse that'll go down with this bunch. And you better git a move on--it comes off to-morrer night, remember."

"I won't go, Manley!" Val consoled herself by declaring, again and again. "The idea of Arline Hawley ordering me about like a child! Why should I go if I don't care to go?"

"Search me." Manley shrugged his shoulders. "It isn't so long, though, since you were just as determined to stay and have the shivaree, you remember."

"Well, you and Mr. Burnett tried to do exactly what Arline is doing. You seemed to think I was a child, to be ordered about."

At the very last minute--to be explicit, an hour before the hall was lighted, several hours after smoke first began to rise from the chimney, Val suddenly swerved to a reckless mood. Arline had gone to her own room to dress, too angry to speak what was in her mind. She had worked since five o'clock that morning. She had bullied Val, she had argued, she had begged, she had wheedled. Val would not go. Arline had appealed to Manley, and Manley had assured her, with a suspicious slurring of his _esses that he was out of it, and had nothing to say. Val, he said, could not be driven.

It was after Arline had gone to her room and Manley had returned to the "office" that Val suddenly picked up her hairbrush and, with an impish light in her eyes, began to pile her hair high upon her head. With her lips curved to match the mockery of her eyes, she began hurriedly to dress. Later, she went down to the parlor, where four women from the neighboring ranches were sitting stiffly and in constrained silence, waiting to be escorted to the hall. She swept in upon them, a glorious, shimmery creature all in white and gold. The women steed, wavered, and looked away--at the wall, the floor, at anything but Val's bare, white shoulders and arms as white. Arline had forgotten to look for gloves.

Val read the consternation in their weather-tanned faces, and smiled in wicked enjoyment. She would shock all of Hope; she would shock even Arline, who had insisted upon this. Like a child in mischief, she turned and went rustling down the ball to the dining room. She wanted to show Arline. She had not thought of the possibility of finding any one but Arline and Minnie there, so that she was taken slightly aback when she discovered Kent and another man eating a belated supper.

Kent looked up, eyed her sharply for just an instant, and smiled.

"Good evening, Mrs. Fleetwood," he said calmly. "Ready for the ball, I see. We got in late." He went on spreading butter upon his bread, evidently quite unimpressed by her magnificence.

The other man stared fixedly at his plate. It was a trifle, but Val suddenly felt foolish and ashamed. She took a step or two toward the kitchen, then retreated; down the hall she went, up the stairs and into her own room, the door of which she shut and locked.

"Such a fool!" she whispered vehemently, and stamped her white-shod foot upon the carpet. "He looked perfectly disgusted--and so did that other man. And no wonder. Such--it's _vulgar_, Val Fleetwood! It's just ill-bred, and coarse, and horrid!" She threw herself upon the bed and put her face in the pillow.

Some one--she thought it sounded like Manley--came up and tried the door, stood a moment before it, and went away again. Arline's voice, sharpened with displeasure, she heard speaking to Minnie upon the stairs. They went down, and there was a confusion of voices below. In the street beneath her window footsteps sounded intermittently, coming and going with a certain eagerness of tread. After a time there came, from a distance, the sound of violins and the "coronet" of which Arline had been so proud; and mingled with it was an undercurrent of shuffling feet, a mere whisper of sound, cut sharply now and then by the sharp commands of the floor manager. They were dancing--in her honor. And she was a fool; a proud, ill-tempered, selfish fool..

With one of her quick changes of mood she rose, patted her hair smooth, caught up a wrap oddly inharmonious with the gown and slippers, looped her train over her arm, tool her violin, and ran lightly down-stairs. The parlor, the dining room, the kitchen were deserted and the lights turned low. She braced herself mentally, and, flushing at the unaccustomed act, rapped timidly upon the door which opened into the office--which by that time she knew was really a saloon. Hawley himself opened the door, and in his eyes bulged at sight of her.

"Is Mr. Fleetwood here? I--I thought, after all, I'd go to the dance," she said, in rather a timid voice, shrinking back into the shadow.

"Fleetwood? Why, I guess he's gone on over. He said you wasn't going. You wait a minute. I--here, Kent! You take Mrs. Fleetwood over to the hall. Man's gone."

"Oh, no! I--really, it doesn't matter--"

But Kent had already thrown away his cigarette and come out to her, closing the door immediately after him.

"I'll take you over--I was just going, anyway," He assured her, his eyes dwelling upon her rather intently.

"Oh--I wanted Manley. I--I hate to go--like this, it seems so--so queer, in this place. At first I--I thought it would be a joke, but it isn't; it's silly and,--and ill-bred. You--everybody will be shocked, and--"

Kent took a step toward her, where she was shrinking against the stairway. Once before she had lost her calm composure and had let him peep into her mind. Then it had been on account of Manley; now, womanlike, it was her clothes.

"You couldn't be anything but all right, if you tried," he told her, speaking softly. "It isn't silly to look the way the Lord meant you to look. You--you--oh, you needn't worry--nobody's going to be shocked very hard." He reached out and took the violin from her; took also her arm and opened the outer door. "You're late," he said, speaking in a more commonplace tone. "You ought to have overshoes, or something--those white slippers won't be so white time you get there. Maybe I ought to carry you."

"The idea!" she stepped out daintily upon the slushy walk.

"Well, I can take you a block or two around, and have sidewalk all the way; that'll help some. Women sure are a lot of bother--I'm plumb sorry for the poor devils that get inveigled into marrying one."

"Why, Mr. Burnett! Do you always talk like that? Because if you do, I don't wonder--"

"No," Kent interrupted, looking down at her and smiling grimly, "as it happens, I don't. I'm real nice, generally speaking. Say! this is going to be a good deal of trouble, do you know? After you dance with hubby, you've got to waltz with me."

"_Got to?" Val raised her eyebrows, though the expression was lost upon him.

"Sure. Look at the way I worked like a horse, saving your life--and the cat's--and now leading you all over town to keep those nice white slippers clean! By rights, you oughtn't to dance with anybody else. But I ain't looking for real gratitude. Four or five waltzes is all I'll insist on, but--" His tone was lugubrious in the extreme.

"Well, I'll waltz with you once--for saving the cat; and once for saving the slippers. For saving me, I'm not sure that I thank you." Val stepped carefully over a muddy spot on the walk. "Mr. Burnett, you--really, you're an awfully queer man."

Kent walked to the next crossing and helped her over it before he answered her. "Yes," he admitted soberly then, "I reckon you're right. I am--queer."

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