The Greater Power/Chapter 12


CHAPTER XII
WISBECH MAKES INQUIRIES

A LITTLE pale sunshine shone down into the opening between the great cedar trunks when Laura Waynefleet walked out of the shadowy Bush. The trail from the settlement dipped into the hollow of a splashing creek, just in front of her, and a yoke of oxen, which trailed along a rude jumper-sled, plodded at her side. The sled was loaded with a big sack of flour and a smaller one of sugar, among other sundries which a rancher who lived farther back along the trail had brought up from the settlement in his waggon. Waynefleet's hired man was busy that morning, and as her stores were running out, Laura had gone for the goods herself. Other women from the cities have had to accustom themselves to driving a span of oxen along those forest trails.

The beasts descended cautiously, for the slope was steep, and Laura was half-way down it when she saw that a man, who sat on the little log bridge, was watching her. He was clearly a stranger, and, when she led the oxen on to the bridge, tapping the brawny neck of one with a long stick, he turned to her.

"Can you tell me if Waynefleet's ranch is near here?" he asked.

Laura glanced at him sharply, for there was no doubt that he was English, and she wondered, with a faint uneasiness, what his business was. In the meanwhile the big, slowly-moving beasts had stopped and stood still, blowing through their nostrils and regarding the stranger with mild, contemplative eyes. One of them turned its head towards the girl inquiringly, and the man laughed.

"One could almost fancy they wondered what I was doing here," he remarked.

"The ranch is about a mile in front of you," said Laura in answer to his question. "You are going there?"

"I am," said the man. "I want to see Miss Waynefleet. They told me to ask for her at the store."

Laura looked at him again with some astonishment.

He was a little man, apparently about fifty, plainly dressed in what appeared to be English clothing. Nothing in his appearance suggested that he was a person of any importance, or, indeed, of much education, but she liked the way in which he had laughed when the ox had turned towards her.

"Then," she replied, "as that is my name, you need not go any further."

The man made a little bow. "Mine's Wisbech, and I belong to the Birmingham district, England," he explained. "I walked over from the settlement to make a few inquiries about a relative of mine called Derrick Nasmyth. They told me at the store that you would probably know where he is, and what he is doing."

Laura was conscious of a certain resentment against the loquacious storekeeper. It was disconcerting to feel that it was generally recognized that she was acquainted with Nasmyth's affairs, especially as she realized that the fact might appear significant to his English relative. It would scarcely be advisable, she decided, to ask the stranger to walk on to dinner at the ranch, since such an invitation would probably strengthen any misconceptions he might have formed.

"Mr. Nasmyth is expecting you?" she asked.

"No," said Wisbech—and a little twinkle, which she found vaguely reassuring, crept into his eyes—"I don't think he is. In all probability he thinks I am still in England. Perhaps, I had better tell you that I am going to Japan and home by India. It's a trip a good many English people make since the C. P. R. put their new Empress steamers on, and I merely stopped over at Victoria, thinking I would see Derrick. He is, as perhaps I mentioned, a nephew of mine."

There was a certain frankness and something whimsical in his manner which pleased the girl.

"You have walked from the settlement?" she asked.

"I have," answered Wisbech. "It is rather a long time since I have walked as much, and I found it quite far enough. A man is bringing a horse up to take me back, but I am by no means at home in the saddle. That"—and he laughed—"is, I suppose, as great an admission in this country as I have once or twice found it to be at home."

Laura fancied she understood exactly what he meant. Most of her own male friends in England were accustomed to both horses and guns, and this man certainly did not bear the unmistakable stamp that was upon his nephew.

"Then my father and I would be pleased if you will call at the ranch and have dinner with us," she said, and continued a trifle hastily: "Anyone who has business at a ranch is always expected to wait until the next meal is over."

Wisbech, who declared that it was evidently a hospitable land, and that he would be very pleased, went on with her; but he asked her nothing about Nasmyth as they walked beside the plodding oxen. Instead, he appeared interested in ranching, and Laura, who found herself talking to him freely and naturally, supplied him with considerable information, though she imagined once or twice that he was unobtrusively watching her. He also talked to Waynefleet and the hired man, when they had dinner together at the ranch, and it was not until the two men had gone back to their work that he referred to the object he had in hand.

"I understand that my nephew spent some time here," he said.

Laura admitted that this was the case, and when he made further inquiries, related briefly how Nasmyth had first reached the ranch. She saw the man's face grow intent, as he listened, and there was a puzzling look in his eyes, which he fixed upon her.

"So you took him in and nursed him," he said. "I wonder if I might ask why you did it? He had no claim on you."

"Most of our neighbours would have done the same," Laura answered.

"That hardly affects the case. I presume he was practically penniless?"

"I wonder why you should seem so sure of that. As a matter of fact, he had rather more than thirty dollars in his possession when he set out from the logging camp, but on the journey he lost the belt he kept the money in."

A queer light crept into Wisbech's eyes. "That is just the kind of thing one would expect Derrick Nasmyth to do. You see, as I pointed out, he is my nephew."

"You would not have lost that belt?"

Wisbech laughed. "No," he said, "I certainly would not. What I meant to suggest was that I am naturally more or less acquainted with Derrick Nasmyth's habits. In fact, I may admit I was a little astonished to hear he had contrived to accumulate those thirty dollars."

Laura did not know exactly why she felt impelled to tell him about the building of the dam, but she did so, and made rather a stirring story of it. She was, at least, determined that the man should realize that his nephew had ability, and it is possible that she told him a little more than she had intended, for Wisbech was shrewd. Then it suddenly flashed upon her that he had deliberately tricked her into setting forth his nephew's strong points, and was pleased that she had made the most of them.

"The dam seems to have been rather an undertaking, and I am glad he contrived to carry it through successfully," he commented. Then he looked at her with a twinkle in his eyes. "I do not know yet where he got the idea from."

The girl flushed. This was, she felt, regrettable, but she could not help it, for the man's keenness was disconcerting, and she was, also, a little indignant with him. She had recognized that Derrick Nasmyth's character had its defects, but she was by no means prepared to admit it to his relatives.

"Then it didn't occur to you that an idea of that kind was likely to appeal to your nephew?" she said.

"No," declared Wisbech, "to be candid, it didn't." He smiled again. "After all, I don't think we need trouble about that point, especially as it seems he has acquitted himself very well. I, however, can't help feeling it was in some respects fortunate that he fell into your hands."

Laura was usually composed, but he saw her face harden, for she was angry at his insistence. "It is evident," he went on, "that he would not have had the opportunity of building the dam unless you had nursed him back to health and taken him into your employment."

"It was my father who asked him to stay on at the ranch."

"I am not sure that the correction has any very great significance. One would feel tempted to believe that your father is, to some extent, in the habit of doing what you suggest."

Laura sat still a moment or two. She was certainly angry with the stranger, and yet, in spite of that fact, she felt that she liked him. There was a candour in his manner which pleased her, as his good-humoured shrewdness did, though she would have preferred not to have the shrewdness exercised upon herself. It may be that he guessed what she was thinking, for he smiled.

"Miss Waynefleet," he said, "I almost fancy we should make excellent friends, but there is a point on which I should like you to enlighten me. Why did you take the trouble to make me understand that you were doing nothing unusual when you asked me to dinner?"

Laura laughed. "Well," she said, "if one must be accurate, I do not exactly know. I may have been a little unwise in endeavouring to impress it on you. Why did you consider it worth while to explain you had very seldom been in the saddle?"

Wisbech's manner became confidential. "It's a fact that has counted against me now and then. Besides, I think you noticed my accent—it's distinctly provincial, and not like yours or Derrick's—as soon as I told you I was a relative of his. You see, I know my station. In fact, I'm almost aggressively proud of it." He spread out his hands in a forceful fashion. "It's a useful one."

He reached out, and, to the girl's surprise, took up a bowl from the table, and appeared to weigh it in his hands. It was made of the indurated fibre which is frequently to be met with in the Bush ranches.

"This," he said, "is, I suppose, the kind of thing they are going to turn out at that wood-pulp mill. You have probably observed the thickness of it?"

"I believe it is, though they are going to make paper stock, too."

"Well," pursued Wisbech; "it may meet the requirements of the country, but it is a very crude and inartistic production. I may say that it is my business to make enamelled ware. The Wisbech bowls and cups and basins are justly celebrated—light and dainty, and turned out to resemble marble, granite, or the most artistic china. They will withstand any heat you can subject them to, and practically last for ever."

He broke off for a moment with a chuckle. "I can't detach myself from my business as some people seem to fancy one ought to do. After all, it is only by marriage that Derrick Nasmyth is my nephew." His manner became grave again. "I married his mother's sister—very much against the wishes of the rest of the family. As Derrick has lived some time here, the latter fact will probably not astonish you."

Laura said nothing, though she understood exactly what he meant. She was becoming more sure that she liked the man, but she realized that she might not have done so had she met him before she came out to Canada, where she had learned to recognize the essential points in character. There were certainly respects in which his manner would once have jarred upon her.

Her expression was reassuring when he turned to her again.

"I was a retail chemist in a little pottery town when I discovered the properties of one or two innocuous fluxes, and how to make a certain leadless glaze," he said. "Probably you do not know that there were few more unhealthy occupations than the glazing of certain kinds of pottery. I was also fortunate enough to make a good deal of money out of my discovery, and as I extended its use, I eventually started a big enamelling works of my own. After that I married; but the Nasmyths never quite forgave me my little idiosyncrasies and some of my views. They dropped me when my wife died. She"—his face softened curiously—"was in many ways very different from the rest of them."

He broke off, and when he sat silent a moment or two Laura felt a curious sympathy for him.

"Won't you go on?" she said.

"We had no children," said the man. "My own folks were dead, but I contrived to see Derrick now and then. My wife had been very fond of him, and I liked the lad. Once or twice when I went up to London he insisted on making a fuss over me—took me to his chambers and his club, though I believe I was in several ways not exactly a credit to him."

Laura liked the little twinkle that crept back into his eyes. It suggested the genial toleration of a man with a nature big enough to overlook many trifles he might have resented.

"Well," he continued, "his father died suddenly, and, when it became evident that his estate was deplorably involved, Derrick went out to Canada. None of his fastidious relatives seemed inclined to hold out a hand to him. Perhaps this was not very astonishing, but I was a little hurt that he did not afford me the opportunity. In one way, however, the lad was right. He was willing to stand on his own feet. There was pluck in him."

He made an expressive gesture. "Now I'm anxious to hear where he is and what he is doing."

Laura was stirred by what he had said. She had imagination, and could fill in many of the points Wisbech had only hinted at. Nevertheless, she was not quite pleased to recognize that he seemed to consider her as much concerned about his nephew as he was himself.

"He is"—she tried to speak in an indifferent tone—"He is at present engaged in building a difficult trestle bridge on a railroad. It is not the kind of work any man, who shrank from hazardous exertion, would delight in; but I believe there is a reason why the terms offered were a special inducement. He has a new project in his mind, though I do not know a great deal about it."

"I think you might tell me what you do know."

Laura did so, though she had never been in the cañon. The man listened attentively.

"Well," he said, "I fancy I can promise that he shall, at least, have an opportunity of putting that project through. You haven't, however, told me where the railroad bridge is."

The girl made him understand how he could most easily reach it, and, while she was explaining the various roads he must follow, there was a beat of hoofs outside. Wisbech rose and held out his hand.

"I expect that is the man with my horse, and I'm afraid I have kept you talking a very long while." He pressed her hand as he half apologized. "I wonder if you will permit me to come back again some time?"

Laura said it would afford her and her father pleasure, and she did not smile when he went out and scrambled awkwardly into his saddle. The man who had brought the horse up grinned broadly as he watched Wisbech jolt across the clearing.

"I guess that man's not going to make the settlement on that horse. He rides 'most like a bag of flour," he remarked, with evident enjoyment of the stranger's poor horsemanship.