Read PRELUDE of The Homesteaders A Novel of the Canadian West , free online book, by Robert J. C. Stead, on ReadCentral.com.

Six little slates clattered into place, and six little figures stood erect between their benches.

“Right! Turn!” said the master. “March! School is dismissed”; and six pairs of bare little legs twinkled along the aisle, across the well-worn threshold, down the big stone step, and into the dusty road, warm with the rays of the Indian summer sun.

The master watched them from the open window until they vanished behind a ridge of beech trees that cut his vision from the concession. While they remained within sight a smile played upon the features of his strong, sun-burned face, but as the last little calico dress was swallowed by the wood the smile died down, and for a moment he stood, a grave and thoughtful statue framed within the white pine casings of the sash. His sober grey eyes stared unseeing into the forest, while the light wind that stirred the golden maple leaves toyed gently with his unruly locks.

His brown study lasted only a moment. With a quick movement he walked to the blackboard, caught up a section of sheepskin, and began erasing the symbols of the day’s instructions.

“Well, I suppose there’s reward in heaven,” he said to himself, as he set the little schoolroom in order. “There isn’t much here. The farmers will pay a man more to doctor their sick sheep than to teach their children. But, of course, they get both mutton and wool from a sheep. I won’t stand it longer than the spring. If others can take the chance I can take it too. If it were not for her I would go to-morrow.”

The last remark seemed to unlink a new chain of thought. The grey eyes lit up again. He wielded the broom briskly for a minute, then tossed it in a corner, fastened the windows, slipped a little folder into his pocket, locked the door behind him, carefully placed the key under the stone step where the first child in the morning would find it, and swung in a rapid stride down a by-path leading from the little schoolhouse into the forest.

Ten minutes’ quick walking in the woods, now glorious in all their autumn splendour, brought him to a point where the sky stood up, pale blue, evasive, through the trees. The next moment he was at the water’s edge, and a limpid lake stretched away to where the forests of the farther shore mingled hazily with sky and water. The point where he stood was a little bay, ringed with water-worn stones and hemmed around by the forest, except for one wedge of blue that broadened into the distance. He glanced about, as though expecting someone; he whistled a line of a popular song, but the only reply was from a saucy eavesdropper which, perched on a near-by limb, trilled back its own liquid notes in answer.

“I may as well improve the moments consulting my chart,” he remarked to his undulating image in the water. “This thing of embarking on two new seas at once calls for skilful piloting.” He seated himself on a stone, drew from his pocket the folder, and spread a map before him.

In a few moments he was so engrossed that he did not hear the almost noiseless motion of a canoe as it thrust its brown nose into the blue wedge before him. The canoe slid with its own momentum gracefully through the quiet waters, suddenly revealing a picture for the heart of any artist. Kneeling near its stern, her paddle held aloft and dripping, her brown arms and browner hair glistening in the mellow sun, her face bright with the light of its own expectancy, was a lithe and beautiful girl. In an instant her eye located the young man on the bank, and her lips moulded as though to speak; but when she saw how unobserved she was she remained silent and upright as an Indian while the canoe slipped gently toward the shore. Presently it cushioned its nose in the velvety sand. She rose silently from her seat, and stole on moccasined tip-toes along the stones until she could have touched his hair with her fingers. But her eyes fell over his shoulder on the papers before him.

“Always at your studies,” she cried, as he sprang eagerly to his feet. “You must be seeking a professorship. But I suppose you have to be always brushing up,” she continued, banteringly. “Your oldest pupil must be let me see not less than eight?”

He smothered her banter with his affection, but she stole the map from his fingers.

“I declare, if it isn’t Manitoba! What next? Siberia or Patagonia? I thought you were still in the Eastern Townships.”

“So I am in school. But out of school I am spending a good deal of my time in Manitoba, Mary.”

She caught a grave note in his voice as he said her name. Seizing his cheeks between her hands she turned his face to her. “Answer me, John Harris. You are not thinking of going to Manitoba!”

“Suppose I say I am?”

“Then I am going too!”

“Mary!”

“John! Nothing unusual about a wife going with her husband, is there?”

“No, of course, but you know ”

“Yes, I know” glancing at the ring on her finger. “This still stands at par, doesn’t it?”

“Yes, dear,” he answered, raising the ring to his lips. “You know it does. But to venture into that wilderness means you see, it means so much more to a woman than to a man.”

“Not as much as staying at home alone. You didn’t really think I would do that?”

“No, not exactly that. Let us sit down and I will tell you what I thought. Here, let me get the cushion...There, that’s better. Now let me start at the beginning.

“Until you came here last summer until all this happened, you know I was quite satisfied to go on teaching ”

“And I have sown discontent ”

“Please don’t interrupt. Teaching seemed as good as anything else ”

“As good as anything else! Better than anything else, I should say. What is better than training the tender child, inspiring him with your ideals ”

“Oh, I know all about that. Until I began to have some genuine ideals of my own I was satisfied with it. But now well, everything is different.”

“I know,” she answered. “The salary won’t support two. There’s the rub.”

They sat for some minutes, gazing dreamily across the broad sheet of silver.

“And so you are going to Manitoba?” she said at length.

“Yes. There are possibilities there. It’s a gamble, and that is why I didn’t want to share it with you at first. I thought I would spend a year; locate a homestead; get some kind of a house built; perhaps break some land. Then I would come back.”

“And you weren’t going to give me a word in all those preparations for our future? You have a lot to learn yet, John. You won’t find it in that folder, either.”

He laughed lightly a happy, boyish laugh. For weeks the determination to seek his fortune in the then almost unknown Canadian West had been growing upon him, and as it grew he shrank more and more from disclosing his plans to his fiancee. Had she been one of the country girls of the neighbourhood, a daughter of the sturdy backwoods pioneers, bred to hard work in field and barnyard, he would have hesitated less. But she was sprung from gentler stock. It seemed almost profane to think of her in the lonely life of a homesteader on the bleak, unsettled plains to see her in the monotony and drudgery of the pioneer life. He had been steeling himself for the ordeal; schooling himself with arguments; fortressing his resolve, unconsciously, perhaps, with the picture of his own heroism in braving the unknown. And she had scaled every breastwork at a bound, and captured the citadel by the adroit diplomacy of apparent surrender.

She had snatched his confession at an unguarded moment. He had not meant to tell her so much so soon. As he thought over the wheels he had set in motion their possible course staggered him, and he found himself arguing against the step he contemplated.

“It’s a gamble,” he repeated. “The agricultural possibilities of the country have not been established. It may be adapted only to buffalo and Indians. They say the Selkirk settlers have seen hardships compared with which Ontario pioneers lived in luxury...We may be far back from civilization, far from neighbours, or doctors, or churches, or any of those things which we take as a matter of course.”

“Then you will need me with you, John, and I am going.”

She could not mistake the look of admiration in his eyes. “Mary,” he said, “you are a hero. I didn’t think it was in you. I mean I ”

“A heroine, if you please,” she corrected. “But I am not that not the least bit. I want go because because to go with you, even to Manitoba, is not nearly so dreadful as to stay home without you.”

“But come,” said the girl, springing lightly to her feet, “we have matters of great moment for immediate consideration.”

He was at her heels. One hand resting on his strong arm sufficed to steady her firm body as she tip-toed over the stones. Somewhere in the canoe she found a parcel, wrapped in a white napkin. Under a friendly beech she laid her dainties before him.

In a crimson glory the sun had sunk behind the black forest across the lake. The silver waters had draped in mist their fringe of inverted trees along the shore, and lay, passive and breathing and very still, beneath the smooth-cutting canoe... One by one the stars came out in the heavens, and one by one their doubles wavered and mimicked in the lake. A duller point of light bespoke a settler’s cabin on the distant shore.

“And we shall build our own home, and live our own lives, and love each other always, only, for ever and ever?” she breathed.

“For ever and ever,” he answered.

A waterfowl cut the air in his sharp, whistling flight. The last white shimmer of daylight faded from the surface of the lake. The lovers floated on, gently, joyously, into their ocean of hope and happiness.