The Greater Power/Chapter 16


CHAPTER XVI
ACTON'S WARNING

IT was with somewhat natural misgivings, the next afternoon, that Nasmyth strolled forward along the Tillicum's deck toward the place where Mrs. Acton was sitting. Immaculately dressed, as usual, she reclined in a canvas chair with a book, which she had been reading, upon her knee. As Nasmyth approached her he became conscious that she was watching him with a curious expression in her keen, dark eyes. The steamer had dropped anchor in a little land-locked bay, and Nasmyth had just come back in the dinghy, after rowing one or two of the party ashore. Mrs. Acton indicated with a movement of her hand that he might sit upon the steamer's rail, and then, turning towards him, looked at him steadily. She was a woman of commanding personality, and imperiously managed her husband's social affairs. If he had permitted it, she probably would have undertaken, also, to look after his commercial interests.

"I wonder why you decided not to visit the Indian settlement with the others?" she inquired.

Nasmyth smiled. "I have been in many places of the kind," he answered. "Besides, there is something I think I ought to tell you."

"I almost fancied that was the case."

"Then I wonder if you have connected me with Martial's disappearance?"

"I may admit that my husband evidently has."

"He told you, then?" And Nasmyth realized next moment that the faint astonishment he had displayed was not altogether tactful.

"No," said Mrs. Acton, with a smile, "he did not. That was, I think, what made me more sure of it. James Acton can maintain a judicious silence when it appears advisable, and there are signs that he rather likes you."

Nasmyth bowed. "I should be very pleased to hear that you shared his views in this respect," he observed.

"I am, in the meanwhile, somewhat naturally rather uncertain upon the point," she returned.

"Well," confessed Nasmyth humbly, "I believe I am largely responsible for your guest's sudden disappearance. It was, of course, almost inexcusable, and I could not complain if you were very angry with me."

"I should, at least, like to know exactly what you did."

"That," said Nasmyth, "is a thing I would sooner you did not urge me to explain. After all, I feel I have done Martial sufficient injury, and I do not think he would like you to know. There are," he added somewhat diffidently, "one or two other reasons why I should prefer not to say anything further, but I would like to assure you that the explanation one of your friends suggested is not the correct one. I ventured to make this, at least, clear to Miss Hamilton."

Mrs. Acton regarded him with a suggestive smile. "Mr. Martial was not effusively pleasant to you. The affair was premeditated?"

"My one excuse is that the thing was done on the spur of the moment. I should never have undertaken it if I had reflected." Nasmyth made a gesture of submission. "I am in your hands."

Mrs. Acton sat silent for perhaps a minute gazing at the woods that swept round three sides of the little bay. Great cedars and pines and hemlocks rolled down to the water's edge, and the stretch of smooth green brine between them and the steamer flashed like a mirror.

"Well," she said, after a long pause, "I must admit that at first I was angry with you. Now"—and her eyes grew a bit scornful—"I am angry with Martial, instead. In fact, I think I shall wash my hands of him. I have no sympathy with a man who allows himself to be placed in a ludicrously painful position that reflects upon his friends."

"Especially when he has the privilege of your particular favour," added Nasmyth.

Mrs. Acton laughed. "That," she returned, "was a daring observation. It, at least, laid a certain obligation on Martial to prove it warranted, which he has signally failed to do. I presume you know why he took some little pains to make himself unpleasant to you?"

Nasmyth fancied that she was really angry with Martial, and that he understood her attitude. She was a capable, strong-willed woman, and had constituted herself the ally of the unfortunate man who had brought discredit on her by permitting himself to be shamefully driven from the field. It was also evident that she resented the fact that a guest from her husband's yacht should have been concerned in any proceedings of the nature that the schooner's deck-hand had described.

"I think I suspect why he was not cordial to me," Nasmyth admitted. "Still, the inference is so flattering that one would naturally feel a little diffident about believing that Martial's suppositions were correct."

"That," replied Mrs. Acton, "was tactfully expressed." She looked at the young man fixedly, and her next remark was characterized by the disconcerting frankness which is not unusual in the West. "Mr. Nasmyth," she said, "unless you have considerable means of your own, it would be wiser of you to put any ideas of the kind you have hinted at right out of your head."

"I might, perhaps, ask you for one or two reasons why I should adopt the course you suggest."

"You shall have them. Violet Hamilton is a lady with possessions, and I look upon her as a ward of my own. Any way, her father and mother are dead, and they were my dearest friends."

"Ah," agreed Nasmyth, "that naturally renders caution advisable. Well, I am in possession of three or four hundred dollars, and a project which I would like to believe may result to my advantage financially. Still, that is a thing I cannot be very sure about."

Mrs. Acton gazed at him thoughtfully. "Your uncle is a man of means."

"I believe he is. He may put three or four thousand dollars into the venture I mention, if he continues pleased with me. That is, I think, the most I could expect from him."

Mrs. Acton sat silent a while, and, though Nasmyth was not aware of it, favoured him with one or two glances of careful scrutiny. He was, as she had naturally noticed, a well-favoured man, and the flannels and straw hat he wore were becoming to him. What was more to the purpose, there was a certain graceful easiness in his voice and manner which were not characteristic of most of her husband's friends. Indeed, well-bred poise was not a characteristic of her own, though she recognized her lack. The polish that she coveted suggested an acquaintance with a world that she had not as yet succeeded in persuading her husband to enter. Acton was, from her point of view, regrettably contented with his commercial status in the new and crudely vigorous West.

"Well," she remarked thoughtfully, "none of us knows what there is in the future, and there are signs that you have intelligence and grit in you." Then she dismissed the subject. "I think you might take me for a row," she said.

Nasmyth pulled the dinghy alongside, and rowed her up and down the bay, but his intelligence was, after all, not sufficient for him to recognize the cleverness with which she led him on to talk about his uncle and England. He was not aware that he had been particularly communicative, but when he rowed back to the yacht Mrs. Acton was in possession of a great deal of information that was more or less satisfying.

The Tillicum steamed away again when the remainder of the party arrived, and she was leisurely swinging over a little froth-flecked sea that night, with the spray flying at her bows, when Acton came upon Nasmyth leaning on the rail.

"I wasn't quite certain what view Mrs. Acton might take of Martial's disappearance," said Acton. "Just now, however, I think that she is rather pleased with you."

"The fact," replied Nasmyth, "is naturally a cause for satisfaction."

Acton appeared amused. "Well," he said, "to some extent it depends upon what views she has for you. Mrs. Acton is a capable woman."

Acton strolled forward, leaving Nasmyth thoughtful. The hint was reasonably plain, but the younger man was not quite sure that he would be willing to fall in with the strong-willed woman's views. There was no doubt that Violet Hamilton attracted him—he admitted that without hesitation—for she had grace and wit and beauty, but she had, also, large possessions, which might prove a serious obstacle. Besides, he was sensible of a tenderness for the woman who had given him shelter and a great deal more than that in the lonely Bush. Laura, however, was still in the wilderness, and Miss Hamilton, whose society he found very pleasant, was then on board the Tillicum, facts that had their significance in the case of a man liable to be swayed by the impulses of the moment. By-and-by, he started, for while he thought about her, Miss Hamilton came out of the little companion-way, and stood looking round her, with her long light dress rustling in the breeze, until she moved forward as her eyes rested on him.

Nasmyth fancied that there was a particular significance in the fact that she appeared just then. He walked to meet her, and, drawing a low canvas chair into the shelter of the skylights, sat down with his back against them close at her feet. He did not remember what they talked about, and it was in all probability nothing very material, but they had already discovered that they had kindred views and likes, and they sat close together in the shelter of the skylights with a bright half-moon above them, while the Tillicum lurched on over a glittering sea. Both of them were surprised to discover that an hour had slipped by when their companions came up on deck, and Nasmyth was once more thoughtful before he went to sleep that night.

Next day the Tillicum brought up off a little mining town, and George, who went ashore, came back with several letters. Among the letters was a note for Nasmyth from a man interested in land exploitation. This man, with whom Nasmyth had been in communication, was then in the mining town, and he suggested that Nasmyth should call upon him at his hotel. Nasmyth showed Acton the letter.

"I understand these folks are straight?" the younger man remarked with inquiry in his tone.

Acton smiled dryly. "Any way," he said, "they're as straight as most. It's not a business that's conducive to unswerving rectitude. Hutton has come up here to see you about the thing?"

"He says he has some other business."

"Well," replied Acton, "perhaps he has." Then he turned to Wisbech, who sat close by. "I'll go ashore with Nasmyth. Will you come along?"

"No," said Wisbech; "I almost think I'll stay where I am. If Derrick can hold out any reasonable prospect of making interest on the money, it's quite possible I may put three or four thousand dollars into the thing, but I go no further. It's his affair. He must handle it himself."

Acton nodded. "That's sensible, in one way," he declared, and one could have fancied there was a certain suggestiveness in the qualification.

Wisbech appeared to notice it, for he looked hard at Acton. Then he made an abrupt gesture.

"It's my nephew's affair," he said.

"Oh, yes!" returned Acton, significantly. "Any way, I'll go ashore with him, as soon as George has the gig ready."

Acton and Nasmyth were rowed off together half an hour later, and they walked up through the hot main street of the little colliery town. It was not an attractive place, with rickety plank sidewalks raised several feet above the street, towering telegraph-poles, wooden stores, and square frame houses cracked by the weather, and mostly destitute of any adornment or paint. Blazing sunshine beat down upon the rutted street, and an unpleasant gritty dust blew along it.

There was evidently very little going on in the town that afternoon. Here and there a man leaned heavy-eyed, as if unaccustomed to the brightness, on the balustrade in front of a store, and raucous voices rose from one or two second-rate saloons, but there were few other signs of life, and Nasmyth was not sorry when they reached the wooden hotel. Acton stopped a moment in front of the building.

"Hutton's an acquaintance of mine, and if you have to apply to men of his kind, he is, perhaps, as reliable as most," he said. "Still, you want to remember that in this country it's every man for himself, especially when you undertake a deal in land." He smiled suggestively. "And now we'll go in and see him."

They came upon a man who appeared a little older than Nasmyth. He was sitting on the veranda, which was spacious, and had one or two wooden pillars with crude scroll-work attached to them in front. Acton nodded to the stranger.

"This is Mr. Nasmyth," he said. "He came up with me. Doing much round here?"

The question was abrupt, but the man smiled.

"Oh," he answered, "we endeavour to do a little everywhere."

"Then I'll leave you to it, and look round again by-and-by. I guess I may as well mention that Mr. Nasmyth is coming back with me."

Acton looked hard at Hutton, who smiled again.

"Oh, yes," replied Hutton, "I understand that. It's quite likely we'll have the thing fixed up in half an hour or so. A cigar, Mr. Nasmyth?"

Nasmyth took a cigar, and went with Hutton to the little table which had been set out, on the inner side of the veranda, with a carafe of ice-water and a couple of bottles. They sat down at it, and Hutton took out two letters and glanced at them.

"Now," he said, "we'll get to work. I understand your proposition is to run the water out of the Cedar Valley. What's the area?"

"About four thousand acres available for ranching land, though it has never been surveyed."

"And you want to take up as many acres beforehand as you can, and can't quite raise the capital?"

Nasmyth said that was very much the state of affairs, and Hutton drummed his fingers on the table. He was a lean-faced man, dressed quietly and precisely, in city fashion, but he wore a big stone in a ring on one hand, which for no very evident reason prejudiced his companion against him.

"Well," he averred, "we might consider going into the thing and finding part of the capital. It's our business, but naturally we would want to be remunerated for the risk. It's rather a big one. You see, you would have to take up the whole four thousand acres."

"Then," replied Nasmyth, "what's your proposition?"

"We'll put up what money you can't raise, and our surveyor will locate land at present first-class Crown land figure. We'll charge you bank rate until the land's made marketable when you have run the water out. In a general way, that's my idea of the thing."

Nasmyth laid down his cigar and looked at him. "Isn't it a little exorbitant? You get the land at cost value, and a heavy charge on that, while I do the work?"

Hutton laughed. "Well," he said, "it's money we're out for, and unless you take it all up, your claim's no good. Anybody else could jump right in and buy a few hundred acres. Then he could locate water rights and stop you running down the river, unless you bought him out."

"The difficulty is that the Crown authorities haven't been selling land lately, and would sooner lease. They seem inclined to admit that this is a somewhat exceptional case; in fact, they have granted me one or two privileges."

"What you would call a first option?"

Nasmyth remembered Acton's manner when he had mentioned his acquaintance with his companion, and one or two things he had said.

"No," he said, "not exactly that. I merely mentioned certain privileges."

"Then, what's to stop me or anybody going right down to Victoria and buying the whole thing up to-morrow?"

"I'm inclined to fancy you would discover one or two things that would make it difficult," answered Nasmyth dryly. "For another thing, I hardly think you would get any of the regular rock-cutting or mine-sinking people to undertake the work about the fall at a figure that wouldn't make the risk too big. It's not a place that lends itself to modern methods or the use of machinery. Besides, after approaching you to a certain extent in confidence, it wouldn't be quite the thing."

Hutton waved the hand which bore the ring. "Well," he said, "we'll get back to our original offer. If it isn't good enough, how much more do you want?"

Nasmyth explained his views, and they discussed each proposition point by point, gradually drawing nearer to an agreement. Nasmyth was quite aware that in a matter of this kind the man who provides the capital usually takes the lion's share, but, after all, the project was his, and he naturally wanted something for himself. At length Hutton leaned forward with both elbows on the table, and a certain intentness in his lean face.

"Now," he said, "I've gone just about as far as I can. You have either got to close with my proposition or let it go."

Nasmyth said nothing, and there was silence for almost a minute while he lay back in his chair gazing at the weather-cracked front of the store across the street, and thinking hard. There was, he was quite aware, a very arduous task in front of him—one that he shrank from at times, for it could only be by strenuous toil that he could succeed in lowering the level of the river, and it was clear that if he accepted Mutton's offer, his share of the proceeds would not be a large one. Still, he must have more capital than he could see the means of raising, and once or twice he was on the point of signifying his concurrence. His face grew grimmer, and he straightened himself a trifle, but he did not see that the man who could supply the money was watching him with a smile.

Then it seemed to Nasmyth that he heard a footstep in the room behind him, but it was not particularly noticeable, and Hutton touched his arm.

"Well," said the promoter, "I'll just run over our terms again." He did so rapidly, and added: "If that doesn't take you, we'll call it off."

Nasmyth made a gesture which was vaguely expressive of resignation, and in another moment would have closed the bargain, but the footsteps grew plainer, and, as he turned round, Acton appeared at the open window close behind them. He stood still, looking at them with amusement in his shrewd eyes, and then, stepping out, dropped heavily into the nearest chair.

"Not through yet? I want a drink," he said.

It was probably not often that Hutton was disconcerted, but Nasmyth saw his fingers close sharply on his cigar, which crumpled under them, and that appeared significant to him. Acton looked round again as he filled his glass.

"When you're ready we'll go along," he suggested. "You can worry out anything Hutton has put before you to-night. When I've a matter of consequence on hand, I generally like to sleep on it."

Nasmyth rose and turned to Hutton. "I don't want to keep Mr. Acton, and I'm afraid I can't decide just yet," he said. "I'll let you know when I make up my mind."

Hutton made a sign of concurrence, but there was a suggestive frown on his face, when he leaned upon the balustrade, as Nasmyth and Acton went down the stairway together. When they were half-way down the street, Acton looked at Nasmyth with a dry smile.

"Well," he commented, "you have still got most of the wool on you?"

Nasmyth laughed, but there was relief in his voice.

"I was very nearly doing what I think would have been an unwise thing," he said. "It was fortunate you came along when you did."

Acton waved his hand. "I'm open to admit that Hutton has a voice like a boring bit. It would go through a door, any way. It's a thing he ought to remember."

"There is still a point or two I am not very clear upon;" and Nasmyth looked at him steadily.

Acton smiled again. "The fact is, Mrs. Acton gave me some instructions concerning you. She said I was to see you through." He made an expressive gesture. "She seemed to figure it might be advisable."

"Well," said Nasmyth reflectively, "I fancy she was right."

They said nothing further, but Nasmyth was unusually thoughtful as they proceeded towards the water-front.