THE NEXT-YEAR COUNTRY
KATHLEEN REDMAN STRANGE
"AND I can tell you,” boomed the deep voice of Bill Farnham, their bachelor neighbor, “that this early snowfall is going to put a lot of good moisture into the ground. Don’t you worry, Lynn, you’ll be sure of a good crop—next year.”
Lynn Harding shook his head dejectedly. “I’m beginning to grow pessimistic,” he said slowly. “Last year's drought and this year’s drought have set us back so far that it takes the crimp out of one’s enthusiasm. A good crop this year would have put us right with the bank and perhaps have allowed for one or two badly needed improvements. I’d like to have fixed things up a bit more comfortable for Mary here. Well, perhaps you're right and we’ll be able to make it next year.”
Mary Harding, sewing mechanically in the soft glow of the lamplight at the kitchen table, did not glance up at her husband’s words, but a deep surge of bitterness flooded her. Always this talk of next year. For four years now she had been listening to it, ever since she had left her comfortable home in the East to seek fame and fortune with her newly acquired husband on an Alberta farm. It was always the wonderful crop they would have next year! And next year, when it came along: what had it brought them in four successive seasons, bur one moderate crop and three disheartening failures.
“We've only got to sit tight for a few years more to be on Easy street,” she heard Lynn telling the visitor. “I've got the dope all right and I figure that with this new clover that I’m growing and some hundred odd acres in seed wheat, with an increasing acreage every year, we should be able to make the grade. It’s just a matter of keeping up one’s spirits against these setbacks—and finding the cash to carry on.” He added, more to himself.
"You'll be all right,” agreed Bill Famham. “In this country you have to look at things over a period of at least five years to gain a proper perspective. W e had years and years of good crops before you came in and there's no reason why next year shouldn’t see a bumper harvest.”
“If we do I’m going to spend some money on putting up a decent house,” said Lynn, glancing round the small but comfortable one-roomed shack. “There’s a fine location up by the poplar bluff on that south-west corner, and maybe we’ll run an auto and get around a bit. There’s plenty of time for all that, though.”
Bitterness surged up in Mary anew. There wasn’t plenty of time to be happy and enjoy oneself, with the present slipping by, day after day, and month after
One does not need to be a prairie dweller to understand Mary Harding and her longings. One needs only to have been young and in love with lije.
month. With all due respect to Lynn and his sentiments to yard her, she rather doubted if next year, even though it brought forth the bountiful harvest they were prophesying, would see the realisation of her hopes in regard to a change in their mode of living. There was always new machinery to buy, and necessary expenditures that Lynn assured her were vital to the successful operation of the farm.
More than all this, however, Mary’s keenest resentment had arisen over Lynn’s own attitude towards their joint recreation.
“We can’t go out to-night, my dear,” he would tell her, when she mentioned a dance or a skating party at a neighbour’s farm, or perhaps a little trip to town to take in a movie. “I’m too tired, and I have to start grinding early to-morrow morning. Wait a bit, dear, till things are running smoothly and we can afford to keep a hired man all the year round.”
Always too busy or too tired. And always that hated assurance of the visionary good times that the future would hold.
“But, Lynn,” she would plead, “you’re not so young as I am, and in ten years’ time, even if we do make lots of money, you won’t feel so much like gadding around as you do now. And I won’t be so young either, even if I am ten years younger than you.”
She had him in a vulnerable spot there. He would wince, but always he would turn off her pleading with the old time-worn excuse.
“Next time perhaps, dear.”
And nowsomething was happening. The years that were passing were sapping Lynn’s vitality and her own radiant youth; taking their toll in hard unremitting toil and disheartening failures. They were beginning, too, to take their toll in a widening breach between her and Lynn.
“It isn’t the hard work that I mind, Lynn,” Mary told her husband when Bill Farnham had clattered on his way. “But I do feel that I must get out sometimes or go crazy. And you never seem to want to go any
more. Won’t you take me to the Armistice Night Dance in Prairietown?”
Lynn Harding looked at the small wistful face. He wanted so badly to make her happy, and yet the farm was dragging on him—dragging. After his hard day’s work he was too tired to think of amusement. A year or two more of close application and he would give Mary all the time and attention she craved. It could not possibly hurt her to wait a year or two more. He believed that the happiness they would realize when the hard days of climbing were passed would well repay them for the temporary renouncing of social pleasures.
But for the moment he was prepared to be generous.
“I’ll take you, Mary,” he promised her, “unless something very important crops up. Guess we can take that early afternoon train and come out next day on the mixed. That way I won’t lose much time.”
Mary’s lips tightened for a moment, giving her soft face a strangely hard appearance.
“Very well, Lynn. That’s a promise.”
That night as her husband slept peacefully beside her, Mary lay for a long while gazing up into the shadows cast by the flickering of the stove at the side of their bed. Her thoughts were travelling round in circles. This year, next year, some time, never. It might well be never.
Even Lynn’s little caresses, his thoughtful care of her, were becoming less and less. He had ceased to play. The necessity for carving a living out of Mother Earth had fastened its tentacles upon him. Slowly, surely, he was becoming submerged by the demon urge of toil to the exclusion of all those little vital intimacies which had made their early married life so exquisite.
Mary reached out a hand in the darkness and slipped •her fingers into those of her husband. In sleep, his grasp tightened on hers with a warmth that was unmistakable. She felt a little happier. After all, he had promised to take her to the Armistice Dance.
ON THE morning of the eleventh of November, Mary was busy pressing her one pretty silk dress, two rosy spots burning in her cheeks, her eyes alight with excitement and anticipation. Lynn, coming into the kitchen suddenly in the middle of the morning for a bowl of hot milk to carry to a sick cow, seemed somehow distrait and a little clutching hand gripped at Mary’s heart strings. Suppose he should break his promise?
“Old Betsy's due to calve to-day,” he reminded Mary as he poured some milk into a kettle and set it on the stove. “She’s looking pretty sick and restless. Guess I’ll have to watch her pretty closely or I may lose
both her and her calf. And she’s one of the most valuable animals I have.”
“You won’t have to stay home from the dance, will you?” Mary asked quietly. But she sensed his answer even before he put it into halting words.
“Well, dear, you know how much it means to me to be on the spot with Betsy likely to calve at any minute. Of course, I promised, but I don’t see how I’m going to get away without' running the risk of things going wrong. I hate to disappoint you, but we’ll have lots of time foT such things later on and then we’ll make up for all of these disappointments.”
It was an unfortunate remark.
“I can see very well you don’t want to go, Lynn Harding,” Mary burst out passionately. “But I do, and what’s more I’m going. I’ll find a way to get there and I’m just going to have a grand old time. I always had plenty of partners before I was married, and I guess I haven’t forgotten how to dance, even if you have been too busy to take me out for the last two years.”
She rushed out of the house, to hide the blinding tears which this last disappointment brought to her eyes.
After she had a good cry, Mary wandered out into the deserted hay field and pondered how she was going to get into Prairietown for the big dance. She could hardly go without an escort, for the small prairie towns were very rigid in their observance of the formalities. Perhaps the Carters would be going. She might join them, for Mrs. Carter had more than once asked them to make up a party on their frequent trips into town in their new Big Six. They were young people and even though Lynn privately despised Herman Carter as a slovenly, unambitious farmer, content to stay in debt and live above his income, Mary observed that they managed to extract a good time out of life, and their worries, such as they might be, sat very lightly on their shoulders.
With this thought in mind Mary went back to the house, to find that Lynn had carried his milk to the barn where he could be heard talking cheerfully to the cow. She made up the stove and set the kettle to boil; then she slipped on her sweater and a white wool cap and started out for the Carter’s farm, which was a scant mile away to the north.
“Come right along in,” invited Mrs. Carter, as Mary timidly mounted the back stoop. “You don’t very often honor me with a visit and I’m mighty pleased to see you. I think we should all be better for a little more visiting in this community. Folks get into such a rut when they stay at home too much.”
“You’re right,” Mary agreed with a fervor that surprised her listener.
“I was wondering,” she went on,
“if you folks intended taking in the dance to-night down at Prairietown.
Lynn promised to take me but we have a cow sick and he doesn’t feel like leaving her. I had so counted on going, too. I thought perhaps you might let me come along with you, since you have invited us so often.
That is, of course, if you are going.”
“We sure are,” assented Mrs.
Carter. “Herme never misses a dance if he can help it. He’d rush me off my feet if I’d let him. You should get Lynn tr fake you out more, Mary. It doesn’t do to let a husband get into a rut. The deeper they get in, the harder it is to pull them out. And, as Herme says, we’re only young once.”
“Well,” Mary said, half in defence of the absent Lynn,* “we are so busy these days and Lynn has so many ambitious plans that take all his time and money. Maybe, we’ll be able to have a good time one of these days like the rest of you.” She hardly realized that she was voicing her husband’s own oft-repeated phrases. Even in her present embittered state, she felt a little thrill of pride in the fa,ct that Lynn was a worker.
“We’ll be over for you at seven,”
Mrs. Carter said as Mary prepared to leave. “Herme knows most of the boys in Prairietown so you won’t lack for partners. Tell that man of yours that we’ll see to it that you have a good time, and I’ll keep my eye on you!”
Mary walked briskly homewards, lighter of heart. What if Lynn didn’t care to come? She would cast care out of her heart and enjoy herself for once. Heaven knew she had had precious little enjoyment during the past three or four years, and oh, how she loved to dance.
Lynn came in late for his dinner.
“The Carters are going to take me to-night,” Mary informed him as she laid the dishes on the table. “You don’t mind, of course.”
“Why, no,” her husband rejoined. “Fact is, I’m glad, Mary. I shouldn’t have had one easy moment there to-night, thinking of Betsy and one thing and another. I’m glad you’ve fixed it to go, my dear. I hated to disappoint you, but you know how it is.”
“Yes, I know how it is.” There was something deadly in his wife’s quiet voice, but he let it pass. Mary was acting highly strung and nervous these days, he mused.
“Well, have a good time and don’t flirt too much. You’re a mighty pretty girl, Mary, and I’m not so sure I should let you out of my sight,” he told her playfully. “Well, I guess I’d better be getting about my work. I’ll be up for supper early so you’ll be able to get away in good time.”
BRIGHT lights, a big crowd of laughing, jostling young people. An imported band emitting strains of lively jazz music. Mary, piloted in the close embrace of a young railroad engineer, to whom she had been introduced early in the evening, felt a thrill such as she had not experienced since the days when Lynn had been her constant partner at similar gatherings. Oh, but it was good to float over the shiny floor, to the strains of a good band, with lights and color everywhere, and happy flushed faces on every side. Even if Prairietown was only a little one-horse burg, as Lynn dubbed it, it knew how to put on a good dance now and again, and this, of course, was a special affair.
“Enjoying yourself?” her partner asked, as they paused to clap vigorously for an encore to a specially seducive foxtrot. “You are some little stepper, Mrs.
rictruiiig. v> ny uun i you C.OIT16 to LJIGSG CiânCGS morG often? I don’t believe I’ve ever seen you here before, have I?”
Mary admitted that this was only her second appearance at the Prairietown public dances. Her husband she explained, was too busy to find the time or energy to take her out very much. She felt rather disloyal by this admission, yet it was the truth, and this nice young man seemed to draw confidences from her. She looked into his dancing eyes and thrilled to the admiration she plainly read mirrored in their brown depths. It was nice to feel that she was still attractive.
The band blared forth again and they swung easily into the lilting rhythm of the dance. She had her share of partners during the evening, but Alec Armstrong with whom she had now danced three consecutive dances, outclassed them all. Their steps fitted so naturally together, they might have been made for each other
Mary knew, without vanity, that she was pretty, but she did not realize how the unwonted excitement and pleasure had brought an added flush to her cheeks had set her eyes alight with all the dancing fires of youth The young man at her side experienced an unexpected attraction for the company of this cute little stranger He had an eye for a pretty girl. Funny he had never met her before and yet she had lived within easy reach of Prairietown for four years or more. However, there was a husband in the background and it wouldn’t do to play with fire.
They danced again and again, till Mrs. Carter wagged a playful finger at Mary and beckoned her to her side
“You’ll have to watch your step with Alec,” she said' “He’s a perfect fiend for the girls and he’s no respecter of persons. He even tried to start a flirtation with yours truly.” She smiled up at the tall, brown young man who was still looking at Mary with undisguised admiration.
They made up a party for supper, Alec and Marysitting by themselves on the steps of the wide veranda outside the dance hall. It was a warm night, flickering northern lights patterning the starry sky, a faint breeze stirring the leafless trees. The Carters were close at hand but keeping a discreet distance from the two who seemed to have struck up so pleasant a friendship.
“She knows how to take care of herself,” Mrs. Carter murmured to her husband, with a glance at the small dark head beneath them. “And the poor kid deserves a good time. Lynn Harding has kept her shut up for two years or more and it’s time she struck out for herself and found her own pleasures, since he won’t make them for her."
Mary and Alec w-ere talking in subdued voices. Somehow or other they seemed strangely drawn to each other. Youth calling to youth as naturally as a flower turns its face to the sun. Mary feared, whilst she welcomed, this wholly indescribable feeling that was besetting her, tumultuous, unsteadying. .
“And you’ll try to come to the next dance, Mrs. Harding?” Alec was asking her. “If Mr. Harding can’t come along I am sure the Carters will love to bring you. They are such good friends of mine.” ‘You must come and see me some week end,” Mary suggested half heartedly. Somehow" she hoped that he would not accept her invitation. She did not want him to meet Lynn, for some reason that she could not even formulate in her own thoughts.
“Y hy, yes,” Alec Armstrong agreed. “That would be nice.”
But he did not nante a date and Mary was glad. Perhaps he. too. realized the desirability of keeping their new found friendship a thing apart. After all. it was just an ordinary friendship chat might bring forth many pleasant hours in the future. She would tell Lynn all about Alec Armstrong, of course, and yet, behind her repeated mental assurances to this effect, she sense"1 an element of danger in this r,v friendship—quicksands ?’ which she would have r “Don't forget, I s' every dance just ( meeting you,” they parted C
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her to come,” he begged Mrs. Carter as the latter climbed into the car after the younger girl. “She’s the finest partner I ever had, barring yourself, of course,” he added gallantly.
“You and Alec make a splendid team,” Mrs. Carter told Mary as they sped homewards in the early hours of the morning. “I do hope that Lynn will let you come along with us more frequently, now that you have made the plunge. Just stand up for your rights, child. If you can’t induce him to come too, don’t let him deprive you of your natural right to joy and laughter.”
Mary nodded sleepily. Oh, but it had been a glorious night. She had danced the soles almost off her feet; she was •healthily tired; and she carried home with her the memory of a laughing pair of eyes, alight with admiration for her, Mary Harding, five years married and almost resigned to a life of hum-drum routine.
“In the country nothing ever happens,” Mary quoted to herself, then with a little mischievous chuckle, “almost always!”
PRAIRIETOWN had not enjoyed a scandal since the last chairman of the school board had eloped with the youngest teacher in the High School. There is so little to talk about in a small country town that, unless one discusses one’s neighbors, there is little else left to give a quip to conversation.
It was not surprising, then, that Mary Harding’s frequent appearances at the Lyceum Dance Hall should receive their full share of comment, and since her husband never accompanied her and she was to be seen in the constant company of one certain not unattractive young man, the consequent tongue wagging was to be expected. Not that Mary ever overstepped the bounds of convention, for she always appeared in the company of her friends, the Carters, and avoided all possibilities for tete-a-tete encounters with Alec Armstrong; the mere fact that she danced with him frequently, and danced so surprisingly well as to excite comment, brought her into the limelight.
No word of it reached Lynn Harding, plodding steadily along with his various activities on the farm. Mary had told him of her encounter with Alec Armstrong but she had vouchsafed no details and Lynn had not troubled to ask any. Lynn’s immersion in his own interests troubled her less as time went on, and Lynn himself seemed pleased that Mary had found a solution to her immediate troubles in her friendship with the Carters. He did not begrudge her the frequent trips to town which were now becoming a matter of course.
“Glad you’re having a good time, old girl,” he volunteered one evening, whilst Mary was dressing for one of her weekly visits to the dance hall. “Next year I’ll come along too, maybe, and then we’ll sure'show ’em something.”
Mary smiled. Lynn was still harping on the next year strain, but it ceased to irritate her any more. Poor, dear old Lynn. She put an affectionate hand on
his head, bent over some stupid old technical book. After all, he did care for her, but he seemed so far away these days. More like a kindly elder brother. Something vital seemed to have departed from their relationship.
Alec was so much in her thoughts these days. She felt guilty when his laughing brown face followed her about at her work. He smiled at her across the small meal table. It was his voice she listened for even while Lynn was talking to her.
She was true to Lynn in word and deed. But in thought? She dared not pursue the question any further. Youth calling to youth; music, lights, laughter, love. . . .
THAT night when she greeted Alec at the dance hall and they swung silently into the familiar steps, Mary sensed a change in his manner. Some of the camaraderie had gone from their relationship. There was a restraint in his voice, in the way he held her. Mary, waiting, knew that to-night would see a vital change in the tenor of their friendship. She anticipated, and at the same time dreaded, the impending crisis.
“Come out here,” Alec whispered, guiding her past the hateful watching eyes towards the open doorway and the long stretch of veranda, almost deserted now, despite the fact that a Chinook was blowing from the south-west and the air was mild for March. He slipped her wrap over her shoulders and walked her briskly down toward the sheltered end.
“Listen, Mary,” he began, speaking quickly in a voice that trembled a little with the emotion he was striving to keep under control. “I hate to tell you, dear, but people are talking; saying hateful things about you, and our friendship. I can’t bear to think of anyone saying, or even thinking, evil things of you. I know how sweet you are and how true to that bear of a husband. No”—as she put out a protesting hand—“you must let me go on. He is a bear, neglecting you the way he does. You think I don’t see through it all. Why doesn’t he ever take you out? Why does he let you come alone to all these affairs? If you belonged to me, why I guess I’d spend every moment of my life trying to make you happy, to keep those bright eyes smiling. Oh, I know I’ve no right to be saying all this, but you’ve got to hear it before we settle this thing. I love you. I’ve loved you since the moment I first set eyes on you. Next week I’m going down to the States—to California—and I want you to come with me. Will you come, Mary?” Mary Harding leaned against the wall, a trembling hand pressed to her heart. She knew, had known for a long time, that events were all leading up to this moment. For a long time Lynn hadn’t seemed to count. All that mattered was Alec, and herself, and this new and wonderful emotion that was encompassing them. Was love after all such a fickle thing? She thought, five years ago, that she had found love, real enduring love, when she met and married Lynn. And now again, the same sweet, terrifying flame was springing into existence for another, threatening to devastate and devour.
Her thoughts flew back and forth, seeking to escape the issue. And then, like a light breaking in upon the chaotic darkness of her problem, came remembrance—remembrance that stripped the halo of romance from this dangerous dream. Tiny baby fingers, clutching at her heart. Little fingers that, even though they had long been stilled in death, still had the power to bring the quick, agonizing tears of pain and regret to her eyes. The little life, love-beckoned, that had come to bless the first year of her married life, only to be snatched from her eager arms at the end of three brief days. Oh, the agony of the pain and loss that she and Lynn had shared together.
Precious, cleansing memory. Mary looked through a mist of tears into the eager young face of Alec Armstrong. After all, she had led the boy on; it was her fault alone that he had succumbed to this overwhelming emotion that had caught them.
Mary reached out a trembling hand. The boy caught it and drew her to him, but she restrained him with a quick gesture of protest.
“Alec, Alec!—it’s all been too sweet to spoil that way,” she began haltingly. “I do care for you. I can’t help that.
You’re such a . . . boy. But this isn’t love. Not the love that would carry us through all the years that lie ahead, so that we could look our neighbors honorably in the face, without the shadow of shame and disgrace and regret forever hanging over us. I believe I’ve wakened up. I’m going home—to Lynn.”
TT SEEMED strange to Lynn Harding A that Mary should suddenly discontinue her frequent trips to town. Not but that he was secretly glad. He had to confess to a feeling of lonesomeness during those long evenings when Mary was absent, tripping the hours away on light, careless feet. His best loved books hadn’t the power to compensate him for the absence of that small piquant face, that beloved dark head bent over some piece of work during the long winter evenings. He was lonely . . . and afraid. Supposing, after all, he had been wrong? Wrong to submerge himself in his work and his plans for the future when all the time, as Mary had so often warned him, the days were slipping by.
Quietly they slipped back into the routine of life. But the shadow remained. Something intangible, indefinable stood between them. Spring merged into summer, a year of growth promoting rains and gloriously ripening sunshine. The plentiful harvest was theirs at last.
On the day that the threshing crew pulled off his land, Lynn Harding came up from the fields with a fixed determination in his mind. He was going to change. This coming season he would take Mary out, strive to recapture something of their old-time comradeship, to break down the invisible barriers that seemed to stand between them. Poor little kid, she had had a hard time.
He found Mary standing at the door of the shack, gazing with a rapt expression at the purple-edged hills, where banks of dark clouds were gathering, presaging a storm. He stood silently by her side for a moment, drinking in the glory of the scene, the colorful grandeur of land and sky. Fair Alberta, Land of Promise! He slipped an arm about his wife and they stood for a long moment, heart to heart, gazing deep into each other's eyes.
“I’ve been all wrong,” Lynn began brokenly. “I’ve put my work and this old farm before my love and my need of you. I see it all now. I’ve been such a fool. We’ll have a little money to spare this winter and I’m going to spend it giving my wife a good time. We’ll take a little trip to town, dear, and get you some new clothes. And you won’t have a stay-at-home husband any more. Will you give me another chance?”
“Oh, Lynn, Lynn!” Mary cried, in the warm shelter of her husband’s arms. “I’ve been the fool. I’ve been disloyal and indiscreet. I’ve got myself talked about. But I’ve never ceased loving you for a moment, deep in my heart!”
And in halting, broken words she told him of Alec Armstrong, not sparing herself, nor daring to meet the keen grey eyes that she felt would only hold reproach and anger.
But Lynn was holding her closer. Her face was tilted up, her eyes were forced to meet his. And in them she read, not condemnation, but love and understanding, and yes, even a faint twinkle of amusement.
“Poor little girl. Of course I know you love me. You were just in love with love. I knew something about this long ago, dear, but I guessed it wouldn’t be serious. I let you have your fling because I knew you would come back to me. And I was so much to blame in the first place. I didn’t realise my terrible need of you until I found you were drifting away. But I banked on our love, and all those things which have made life precious to us both, to bring you back. And you came, you see. This winter we’ll make up for the past two years. We’ll soon prove to those small town people that their pet scandal had no bottom to it. Cheer up, sweetheart. Everything’s going to be all right now that we’ve found each other once more.”
“Yes, everything’s going to be all right, Lynn,” Mary murmured into the rough tweed of his coat. “Because— because, next year”—and she whispered the rest of her secret, her glowing face pressed to his, the evening shadows creeping up and enfolding them, safe and secure.