The Greater Power/Chapter 15
THERE was not a breath of wind, and the night was soft and warm, when Nasmyth lay stretched upon the Tillicum's deck, with his shoulder against the saloon skylights and a pipe in his hand. The little steamer lay with her anchor down under a long forest-shadowed point, behind which a half-moon hung close above the great black pines. Some distance astern of her, a schooner lay waiting for a wind with the loose folds of her big mainsail flapping black athwart the silvery light, and her blinking anchor-light flung a faint track of brightness across the sliding tide. There was only the soft lap of the water along the steamer's side and the splash of the little swell upon the beach to break the stillness, for the sea was smooth as oil.
The Tillicum would not have compared favourably with an English steam-yacht. She had been built for the useful purpose of towing saw-logs, and was sold cheap when, as the mill she kept supplied grew larger, she proved too small for it. Acton, however, was by no means a fastidious person, and when he had fitted her with a little saloon, and made a few primitive alterations below, he said she was quite good enough for him. For that matter, anyone fond of it might navigate the land-locked waters of Puget Sound and the Straits of Georgia in an open whaleboat with satisfaction in summer-time. There are islands everywhere, wonderful rock-walled inlets that one can sail into, beaches to which the primeval forest comes rolling down, and always above the blue waters tower tremendous ramparts of never-melting snow.
On the evening in question, Acton was not on board. He had taken his wife and guests ashore that morning for an excursion to a certain river where there was excellent trout-fishing, and, as a hotel had lately been built for the convenience of sportsmen visitors, it was uncertain whether they would return that night. Nasmyth had not made one of the party because there was scarcely room for everybody in the gig, and six miles, which was the distance to the river mouth, was rather far to row in the dinghy. Another guest called Martial also had been left behind, and afterwards had been rowed ashore to visit a ranching property somewhere in the neighbourhood. He was the man who had followed Miss Hamilton out on to the veranda one night, and Nasmyth, who did not like him, understood that he was connected with a big land exploitation agency.
Nasmyth felt more or less contented with everything, as he lay upon the Tillicum's deck listening to the faint murmur of the swell upon the boulder beach. He had made certain propositions to the Crown lands authorities, which he believed they would look into, and while he waited he found the customs and luxuries of civilization pleasant. He found the society of Violet Hamilton more pleasant still, and the demeanour of the man, Martial, was almost the only thing that ruffled him. Martial had constituted himself Miss Hamilton's special attendant, and though Nasmyth fancied Mrs. Acton connived at this, it was by no means as evident that the girl was pleased with it. Indeed, he surmised that she liked the man as little as he did. Martial was brusque in mariner, and, though that is not usually resented in British Columbia, he now and then went even further than is considered permissible in that country, and he had gained the sincere dislike of the red-haired George, who acted as the Tillicum's deck-hand, cook, and skipper.
George sat upon the skylights sucking at his pipe, and it presently became evident that his thoughts and Nasmyth's were very much alike. There was nobody else on board, for the man who fired and drove the engines was ashore.
"I guess you can catch trout?" the skipper remarked.
"Oh yes," answered Nasmyth indifferently. "As a matter of fact, I've had to, when there was very little else to eat."
George, who was big and lank, and truculent in appearance, nodded.
"Juss so!" he rejoined. "You've been up against it in the Bush. Anybody could figure on that by the look of you and the way you use your hands. A city man takes holds of things as if they were going to hurt him. That's kind of why I froze on to you."
Nasmyth took this as a compliment, and smiled his acknowledgment, for George was a privileged person, and most of his r0ecent companions held democratic views. He, however, said nothing, and George went on again.
"Mrs. Acton's a mighty smart woman, but she plays some fool tricks," he commented. "Where's the blame use in taking a boatload of folks after trout when none of them but the boss knows how to fish?" Then he chuckled. "You'd have gone with the rest this morning if she wanted you to. Guess the gig would have carried another one quite nicely."
Nasmyth fancied that this was possible, though he naturally would not admit it to his companion. The fact that his hostess had somewhat cleverly contrived to leave him behind had its significance, since it seemed to indicate that she recognized that Miss Hamilton regarded him with a certain amount of favour.
"Well," said George reflectively, "the boss is quite smart, too! Mrs. Acton crowded you out of the gig. The boss says nothing, but he knocks off that blame Martial. That makes the thing even, and, unless he does it, none of them gets any fish. Now, it kind of seems to me that for a girl like Miss Hamilton to look at a man like Martial is a throwing of herself away. I guess it strikes you like that, too?"
This was rather too pointed a question for Nasmyth to answer, but, so far as it went, he could readily have agreed with the skipper. As a matter of fact it suggested the query why he should object to Miss Hamilton throwing herself away.
"Well," he observed, "I'm not quite sure that it's any concern of mine."
George's grin was expressive of good-natured toleration. "Oh!" he replied, "I guess that's plain enough for me. You're not going to talk about the boss's friends. Still, one man's as good as another in this country, and, if I wasn't way better than Martial, I'd drown myself. That's the kind of pernicious insect a decent man has no use for. What's he come on board for with three bags ram full of clothes, when many a better man humps his outfit up and down the Bush in an old blanket same as you have done? It's a sure thing that no man with a conscience wants to get into the land agency business. It's an institution for selling greensuckers ranching land that's rock and gravel and virgin forest. Besides, I heard the blame insect telling Miss Hamilton that nobody not raised in the hog-pen could drink my coffee."
It seemed to Nasmyth that there was a little reason in the skipper's observations, though he thought that Martial's strictures upon the coffee accounted for most of them.
"I guess it might have been wiser if Martial had kept on good terms with the skipper," he laughingly rejoined.
George chuckled softly. "Well," he declared, "when anyone up and says my coffee's only fit for the hog-pen, I'm going to get even with him. I kind of feel I have to. It's up to me."
He said nothing further for some little time, and Nasmyth, who fancied that he would sooner or later carry out his amiable intentions, lay prone upon the deck smoking placidly. Nasmyth was one who adapted himself to his environment with readiness, and on board the Tillicum the environment was particularly comfortable. Through Acton's hospitality, he was brought into contact with the luxuries of civilization without the galling restraints. Miss Hamilton had been gracious to him of late. That was a cause for satisfaction in itself. The days when he swung the heavy axe, or, drenched with icy water, stood gripping the drill had slipped far away behind him. For the time, at least, he could bask in the sunshine with ears stopped against the shrill trumpet-call to action that he had heard in the crash of rent trees and the turmoil of the wild flood.
A faint cry came from the shore out of the stillness of the woods, and George listened carefully.
"That can't be the boss. Guess he's stopping at the hotel," he said. "It's quite likely it's that blame insect Martial coming back. Those ranchers he has been trying to freeze off their holding have no use for him."
The cry rose again, a trifle louder, and George nodded complacently.
"Oh, yes," he exulted, "it's Martial sure! We'll let him howl. Any way, he can walk down the beach until he's abreast of us. When anybody expects me to hear him, he has got to come within half a mile."
It seemed to Nasmyth that Martial would not have a pleasant walk in the dark, for most of the beach lay in the black shadow of the pines, and beneath highwater mark was covered with the roughest kind of boulders. Above the tide-line, a ragged mass of driftwood interspersed with undergrowth separated the water from the tangled Bush. Both George and Nasmyth were aware that one could readily tear one's clothes to pieces in an attempt to struggle through such a labyrinth. Judging by the shouts he uttered at intervals, Martial appeared to be floundering along the beach, and presently Nasmyth laughed.
"He appears to be getting angry," he said. "After all, it's only natural that he doesn't want to sleep in the woods all night."
George filled his pipe, apparently with quiet satisfaction, but, some time later, he stood up suddenly with an exclamation.
"The blame contrary insect means swimming off," he announced.
Nasmyth, glancing shorewards, saw a dim white object crawling on all-fours towards the water where the moonlight streamed down upon a jutting point, and it was then that the idea which had results that neither of them anticipated first dawned on the skipper, who broke into a hoarse chuckle.
"I guess he wouldn't want Miss Hamilton to see him like that," he said. "Some folks look considerably smarter with their clothes on."
"How's she going to see him when she isn't here?"
George grinned again. "Her dresses are, so's her hat and her little mandolin. If you were pulled in tight you'd have quite a figure."
It was clear to Nasmyth that the scheme was workable, though he was quite aware that the thing he was expected to do was a trifle discreditable. Still, he had lived for some time in the Bush, where his comrades' jests were not particularly delicate, and Martial once or twice had been aggressively unpleasant to him. What was more to the purpose, he felt reasonably sure that Miss Hamilton would be by no means sorry to be free of Martial, and it was probable that their victim would never relate his discomfiture, if their scheme succeeded.
As the result of these reflections he went down with George to the little saloon. The skipper, who left him there a few minutes, came hack with an armful of feminine apparel. They had no great difficulty in tying on the big hat with the veil, but when Nasmyth had stripped his jacket off there was some trouble over the next proceeding. Indeed, Derrick did not feel quite comfortable about appropriating Miss Hamilton's garments, but he had committed himself, and it was quite clear that his companion would not appreciate his reasons for drawing back.
"Hold your breath while I get this blame hook in," said the skipper.
Nasmyth did so; but he could not continue to hold it indefinitely, and in a few moments there was a suggestive crack, and George desisted in evident dismay.
"Come adrift from the stiffening quite a strip of it," he said. "Well, I guess I can somehow fix the thing up so as nobody will notice it. It should be easier than putting a new cloth in a topsail, and I've a mending outfit in the locker."
Nasmyth was by no means sure of George's ability to make the damage good, but he permitted the skipper to tie on the loose skirt, and then to hang the beribboned mandolin round his neck. When this was done George surveyed him with a grin of satisfaction.
"Well," said George, "I guess you'll do. Now you'll keep behind the skylights, and only get up and bang that mandolin when Martial wants to come on board. Guess when he sees you he'll feel 'most like jumping right out of his skin. Miss Hamilton's not going to mind. I've seen her looking at him as if she'd like to stick a big hatpin into him."
They went up, and Nasmyth, who felt guilty as he crouched in the shadow, could see a black head and the flash of a white arm that swung out into the moonlight and disappeared again. Martial was swimming pluckily, and the tide was with him, for his head grew larger every minute, and presently the gleam of his skin became visible through the pale shining of the brine. His face dipped as his left arm came out at every stroke, and the water frothed as his feet swung together like a flail. He paddled easily while the tide swept him on until he reached the Tillicum. Then his voice rose, breathless and cautious.
"Anchor watch," he called. "Anybody else on board?"
George, who kept out of sight, did not answer. Martial called again.
"Don't let anybody out of the companion while I get up," he commanded.
The Tillicum had a high sheer forward, and he could not reach her rail, but as the tide swept him along he raised himself to clutch at it where it was lower abreast of the skylights.
"Now," said George softly, "you can play the band."
Nasmyth rose and swept his knife-haft across the strings of the mandolin. For a moment he saw something like horror in Martial's wet face, and then the man, who gasped, went down headforemost into the water. Martial was nearly a dozen yards astern when his head came out again, and he slid away with the tide, with his white arm swinging furiously. George sat down upon the deck, and expressed his satisfaction by drumming his feet upon the planking while he laughed.
"He's off," he said. "Might have a high-power engine inside of him. Guess he's going to scare those schooner men 'most out of their lives. It's quite likely they won't keep anchor watch when they're lying snug in a place of this kind."
Nasmyth managed to control his laughter, and went down to divest himself of his draperies. When he came up again, George reported that he had just seen Martial crawling up the schooner's cable, and in another few moments what appeared to be a howl of terror rose from the vessel. It was not repeated, and shortly afterwards Nasmyth went to sleep.
Martial remained on board the schooner that night, and Nasmyth was not surprised when he failed to appear next morning. Acton had come back with his party when a man dropped into the boat astern of the schooner, and pulled towards the Tillicum leisurely. Everybody was on deck when he slid alongside, and, standing up in his boat, laid hold of the rail.
"I've a message for Mr. Acton," he said, holding up a strip of paper.
Acton, who took the paper from him, was a trifle perplexed when he glanced at it.
"It seems that Martial didn't stay at that ranch last night as I thought he had done," he remarked.
Mrs. Acton, who sat next to Miss Hamilton, looked up sharply. She was a tall woman with an authoritative manner.
"Where is he?" she inquired.
"Gone back to Victoria," said her husband, who handed her the note. "It's kind of sudden, and he doesn't worry about saying why he went. There's a little remark at the bottom that I don't quite like."
George naturally had been listening, and Nasmyth saw his subdued grin, but he saw also Mrs. Acton's quick glance at Miss Hamilton, which seemed to suggest that she surmised the girl could explain why Martial had departed so unceremoniously. There was, however, only astonishment, and, Nasmyth fancied, a trace of relief in Violet Hamilton's face. Mrs. Acton turned to her husband with a flush of resentment in her eyes.
"I should scarcely have believed Mr. Martial would ever write such a note," she said. "What does he mean when he says that he does not appreciate being left to sleep in the woods all night?"
"That," answered Acton, "is what I don't quite understand. If he'd hailed anchor watch loud enough, George would have gone off for him. Still, we're lying quite a way out from the beach."
Then he remembered the man from the schooner, who still gripped the rail.
"How did you come to get this note?" he asked.
"The man who came off last night gave it to the skipper," said the schooner's deck-hand with a very suggestive grin.
"How'd he come off?" Acton asked. "Did you go ashore for him?"
"We didn't!" said the man. "He must have swum off and crawled up the cable. Any way, when he struck the skipper he hadn't any clothes on him."
There was a little murmur of astonishment, and Mrs. Acton straightened herself suddenly, while Nasmyth saw a gleam of amusement creep into Acton's eyes. The schooner man evidently felt that he had an interested audience, for he leaned upon the rail as he began to tell all he knew about the incident.
"I was asleep forward, when the skipper howled as if he was most scared out of his life," he said. "I got up out of the scuttle just as quick as I could, and there he was crawling round behind the stern-house with an axe in his hand, and the mate flat up against the rail.
"'Shut that slide quick,' says the skipper. 'Shut it. He's crawling up the ladder.'
"'I guess you can shut it yourself if you want it shut.' He asked for whisky. 'Tell him where it is,' says the mate."
There was no doubt that the listeners were interested, and the man made an impressive gesture. "It was kind of scaring. There was a soft flippety-flop going on in the stern-house, and I slipped out a handspike. Then the skipper sees me.
"'There's a drowned man crawling round the cabin with water running off him,' he says.
"Then a head came out of the scuttle and a wet arm, and a voice that didn't sound quite like a drowned man's says, 'Oh you——'"
Acton raised his arm restrainingly, and the narrator made a sign of comprehension.
"He called us fools," the man explained, "and for 'most a minute the skipper was going to take the axe to him. Then he hove it at the mate for being scared instead, and they all went down together, and I heard them light the stove. After that I went back and dropped off to sleep, and the skipper sent me off at sun-up to fetch the stranger's clothes. We set him ashore as soon as he'd got some breakfast into him."
The man rowed away in another minute or two, and, as he had evidently told his story with a relish, Nasmyth wondered whether Martial had contrived to offend him by endeavouring to purchase his silence. There are, of course, men one can offer a dollar to on that coast, but such an act requires a certain amount of circumspection.
Acton's eyes twinkled, and the men who were his guests looked at one another meaningly.
"Well," answered one of them, "I guess there is an explanation, though I didn't think Martial was that kind of man."
Nasmyth said nothing, but he saw Mrs. Acton's face flush with anger and disdain, and surmised that it was most unlikely that she would forgive the unfortunate Martial. The women in the party evidently felt that it would not be advisable to say anything further about the matter, and when George broke out the anchor the Tillicum steamed away.
It was after supper that night, and there was nobody except the helmsman on deck, when Miss Hamilton approached the forward scuttle where Nasmyth sat with his pipe in his hand. Nasmyth rose and spread out an old sail for her, and she sat down a little apart from him. The Tillicum was steaming northwards at a leisurely six knots, with her mastheads swaying rhythmically through the soft darkness, and a deep-toned gurgling at her bows. By-and-by Nasmyth became conscious that Miss Hamilton was looking at him, and, on the whole, he was glad that it was too dark for her to see him very well.
"I wonder if you were very much astonished at what you heard about Mr. Martial?" she asked.
"Well," said Nasmyth reflectively, "in one way at least, I certainly was. You see, I did not think Martial was, as our friend observed, that kind of man. In fact, I may admit that I feel reasonably sure of it still."
"I suppose you felt you owed him that?"
"I didn't want to leave you under a misapprehension."
There was silence for half a minute, and then Nasmyth turned towards the girl again.
"You are still a little curious about the affair?" he suggested.
"I am. I may mention that I found a certain dress of mine, which I do not remember tearing, had evidently been repaired by somebody quite unaccustomed to that kind of thing. Now there were, of course, only the skipper and yourself on board while we were away."
Nasmyth felt his face grow hot. "Well," he replied, "if it's any consolation to you, I am quite prepared, in one respect at least, to vindicate Martial's character. In any case, I think I shall have an interview with Mrs. Acton to-morrow."
His heart beat a little faster, for the girl laughed.
"It really wouldn't be any consolation at all to me," she admitted.
"Ah," said Nasmyth, "then, although you may have certain fancies, you are not dreadfully vexed with me?"
Violet Hamilton appeared to reflect. "Considering everything, I almost think you can be forgiven."
After that, they talked about other matters for at least an hour, while the Tillicum, with engines throbbing softly, crept on through the darkness, and Acton, who happened to notice them as he lounged under the companion scuttle with a cigar in his hand, smiled significantly. Acton had a liking for Nasmyth, and though he was not sure that Mrs. Acton would have been pleased had she known where Miss Hamilton was, the matter was, he reflected, after all, no concern of his.