The Greater Power/Chapter 18
THE afternoon was very hot when Nasmyth plodded down a steep hillside through the thick red dust of the waggon trail. A fire had swept the undergrowth away, and there was no shade among the trees which, stripped of their branches, towered about him, great charred and blackened columns. Close ahead the primeval Bush rose in an unbroken sombre mass, and Nasmyth, who quickened his pace a trifle, sat down with a gasp of satisfaction when he reached the first of the shadow. It was fresh and cool there. The Bush was scented with the odours of pine and cedar, and filled with the soft murmur of falling water, while he knew that just beyond it Bonavista stood above the sparkling sea.
He was on his way from the railroad depôt. It was just a fortnight since he had left the Tillicum at the little mining town, on the day after the one he and Violet Hamilton had spent on the beach, and he had not seen her before he went. Now he fancied that a welcome awaited him, and he felt sincerely pleased to be back again. As he sat beneath a great cedar filling his pipe, it seemed to him only appropriate that he should approach Bonavista through that belt of cool, sweet-scented Bush. It made it easier to feel that he had left behind him all that associated him with the strife and bustle of the hot and noisy cities. At Bonavista were leisure, comfort, and tranquillity, which were, after all, things that made a strong appeal to one side of his nature, and he had made no progress in the city. There was also no doubt that both Mr. and Mrs. Acton were glad to entertain him for a time. He sat still a few minutes, and then went on slowly beneath the towering redwoods and cedars until he came out of the forest, and saw the sunlight stream down on the shingled roof of Bonavista close ahead.
The house appeared to be empty, and he had shed his dusty city clothes in his room and had dressed again before he came upon Mrs. Acton, sitting half asleep on a secluded strip of veranda. She roused herself and smiled when she saw him.
"So you have come back at last. We have been expecting you all the past week," she said.
"That," returned Nasmyth, "was remarkably good of you. In fact, I have wondered now and then, with some misgivings, whether you have not seen too much of me already."
Mrs. Acton laughed. "You needn't worry yourself on that point. We have all our little hobbies. My husband's is the acquisition of dollars and the opening of mines and mills. Mine is the amusing of my friends, or, rather, the permitting them to amuse themselves, which is why I had Bonavista built. I make only one stipulation—it is that when you stay with us, you are amused."
With a little sigh of content, Nasmyth settled himself in a canvas chair, and glanced out between the slender pillars of the cool veranda at the wall of dusky forest and the flashing sea.
"Ah," he replied, "can you doubt it, my dear lady? After logging camp and mine and city, this is an enchanted land. I think it is always summer afternoon at Bonavista."
Mrs. Acton smiled at him graciously. "That," she observed, "was quite nice of you. Things haven't gone just as you would have liked them to go, in the city?"
"They haven't," admitted Nasmyth whimsically. "As a matter of fact, they very seldom do. Still, I wouldn't like you to think that was the only reason I am glad to get back."
Mrs. Acton's eyes twinkled. "I imagine I am acquainted with the other. You were rather tactful in going away."
"I went because Mr. Acton handed me a letter which said that a business man in Victoria would like a talk with me."
"In any case, Miss Hamilton seems to be under the impression that it was nice of you."
"Nice of me to go away?" and Nasmyth's tone was mildly reproachful.
"One would not resent a desire to save one any little embarrassment."
"Still," observed Nasmyth, with an air of reflection, "the trouble is that I couldn't contrive to keep out of her sight continually even if I wanted to, and"—he lowered his voice confidentially—"as it happens, I don't."
Mrs. Acton laughed. "I don't know of any particular reason why you should do that. Violet has probably quite recovered her equanimity and decided on her attitude towards you." Then she changed the subject abruptly. "I wonder if I may point out that there has been a change in you, since my husband brought you here. For one thing, you are much more amusing. Even your voice is different."
Nasmyth bowed. "But not my hands," he said; and as he held up one hand, she noticed the scars on it and the coarseness of his nails. "That tells a tale, I think. My dear lady, I scarcely think you quite realize all that you have given me. You have never seen how we lived in the lonely logging camps—packed like cattle in a reeking shed—and you do not know the grim side of our life in the Bush. It would be no great use to tell you that I have now and then limped for days together over the ballast of a railroad track, wondering where my next dollar was to come from. These are the things one could not expect you to understand."
Mrs. Acton's face softened a little. "Still, I think my husband does," she replied. Then she smiled at him. "It almost seems to me that you need never go back to that life again unless you like it. I mean, of course, that, for one thing, your uncle has his views concerning you. He has to some extent taken Mr. Acton into his confidence."
Nasmyth made no comment, and Mrs. Acton sank down a little further into her long chair. "The others are down on the beach," she announced drowsily. "I really think I was going to sleep when you made your appearance."
Nasmyth could take a hint, and he strolled away down the veranda stairway and around the edge of the wide clearing in the shadow of the Bush, until he stood looking down upon the sea from the crown of the bluff. Then he felt a little thrill, for some twenty or thirty feet beneath him was a patch of something white in the shadow of the shrubbery. He went down quietly until he stopped, and, stooping, touched Violet Hamilton's shoulder. She looked around with a start, and a faint trace of embarrassment crept into her face at the sight of him.
"Oh," she said, "I thought you were in Victoria."
Nasmyth stretched himself out upon a ledge of rock near her feet. "Mrs. Acton was good enough to imply that she had been expecting me more or less anxiously for several days," he rejoined in a tone of reproach. "In fact, she used the plural pronoun, which led me to believe that somebody else must have shared her anxiety. She did not, however, point out who it was that she meant."
"Her husband, in all probability. She could, at least, speak for him."
Nasmyth appeared to ponder over this, though his heart was beating faster than usual, for the suggestion of confusion which he had noticed in the girl's manner had its significance for him.
"Well," he conceded, "it may have been Acton, but I almost ventured to believe she meant somebody else. In any case, I shouldn't like to think you were displeased at my reappearance. If you are, I can, of course, go away again."
"I am not the only person at Bonavista. Wouldn't anybody else's wishes count—Mr. Acton's, for instance?"
"No," asserted Nasmyth reflectively. "At least, not to anything like the same extent."
Violet laughed. "The difficulty is that nobody can tell how much you really mean. You are so seldom serious." She cast a quick glance at him. "You were not like that when you first came here."
"Then," said Nasmyth, "you can blame it on Bonavista. As I have been trying to explain to Mrs. Acton, who made a similar observation, there is glamour in this air. It gets hold of one. I was, no doubt, a tediously solemn person when I left the Bush, but you will remember that soon after I arrived here, you and I sailed out together into the realms of moonlight and mystery. I sometimes feel that I must have brought a little of the latter back with me."
Violet said nothing for half a minute, during which she lay resting on one elbow, looking down upon the cool, green flashing of the water a hundred feet below, and again Nasmyth felt a little thrill run through him. She was so very dainty in speech and thought and person, a woman of the world he had once belonged to, and which it now seemed he might enter again. Her delicately chiselled, half-averted face matched the slight but finely moulded figure about which the thin white draperies clung. She turned and looked at him.
"You certainly can't be serious now," she declared.
"I assure you that when I mentioned the glamour and mystery, I was never half so serious in my life. They are, after all, very real things."
He was, as a matter of fact, grimly serious for the moment as he wondered at the change that had come over him. His life in the silent Bush, the struggle with the icy river, and even Laura Waynefleet, who had encouraged him in his work of rehabilitation, had by degrees become no more than a dim, blurred memory. He knew that he could recall it all, but he had no wish to make the effort, for it was more pleasant to hear the sighing of the summer wind about the firs of Bonavista, and wonder languidly what his companion thought.
"I haven't thanked you for taking care of me the day we were left behind on the beach," said Violet.
Nasmyth made a sign of protest. "I don't think you are under any very great obligation to me. As a matter of fact, my efforts on your behalf nearly resulted in my drowning you. Besides, you see, there was really not the slightest cause for uneasiness. Acton certainly would have sent for us when the wind dropped."
"But it might have blown for days."
"Then," said Nasmyth, with a twinkle in his eyes, "we would have lived on salmon and berries until it stopped. One really can live on them for a considerable time, though they are not remarkably palatable when one has anything else to eat; in fact, it's a thing I've done."
Salmon is not esteemed in that country, except for the purpose of sending East in cans, and it is seldom that anybody eats it except the Indians. There is probably no diet that more rapidly grows satiating.
"Ah," exclaimed the girl, with a shiver, "it would have been horrible."
She was evidently not thinking of the salmon, but of the dreary, dripping Bush, and Nasmyth looked at her with reproach in his eyes.
"I really don't think it would have been," he said. "In fact, I believe we could have lived there for a little while very contentedly—that is, when I had fixed things up a bit. After all, there is a certain glamour in the Bush when one gets used to it."
He saw the faint colour creep into her face, and, though it cost him an effort, laid a restraint upon himself.
"Well," he said, "I at least would not have felt that I had any cause to complain, though, no doubt, it would have been different with you. You see"—and he made an expressive gesture—"I have had a long tough tussle since I came to Canada, and experiences of that sort have their effect on one. In fact, they set one apart from those who haven't undergone them. It seems to have struck you that I was prematurely solemn and serious when I came to Bonavista."
He thought he saw sympathy in Violet Hamilton's eyes, and her next observation made it clear that her mind was busy with the suggestion that he had conveyed.
"After all," she said softly, "you cannot be very much older than I am."
"Four years, perhaps," returned Nasmyth, with a trace of grimness. "That is, in one sense. In another, I think I am double your age. You see, you have never been brought into contact with the realities of life. If you had been, you would probably not be so ready to take me for what you think I am, as I believe you have graciously done. After all, you know so very little about me."
He felt that he was doing no more than discharging an obligation in giving her this warning. He desired to afford her every opportunity of satisfying herself concerning him, for he was not a fool, and he had seen for a moment or two a suggestive softness in her face. It is possible that she did not know it had been there, but he felt that if he roused himself and made the effort, he might sweep away the barriers between them.
Violet appeared troubled by his words. She sat silent, while Nasmyth wondered what she would say. He was aware that a good deal depended upon her next remark. Then there were footsteps on the slope behind them, and, turning suddenly, he saw Acton and another man approaching them. He rose with a little start when he recognized the second man as Gordon, who was neatly attired in city clothes. Gordon looked down at Nasmyth with a faint sardonic smile.
"Mr. Gordon turned up half an hour ago," Acton said. "It appears that he was going into the city, and got off the cars to talk over things with you. I believe he had a notion of going on again to-night, but Mrs. Acton won't hear of it."
Gordon bowed in the direction of his host.
"I'd have put up a more vigorous protest against troubling Mrs. Acton than I did, if I had felt it would have been of any use," he said.
"Well," replied Acton, smiling, "I guess they'll be getting supper ready, and we were sent here to bring our friend and Miss Hamilton in."
They went back to the house together, where they found the long table spread. It was characteristic of the owner of Bonavista that he still called the evening meal supper. There were, besides Nasmyth and Wisbech, five or six other guests from Victoria and one of the rising cities on Puget Sound, and Gordon speedily made himself very much at home. Most of his new acquaintances found what he had to say entertaining, but Miss Hamilton was, as Nasmyth noticed, somewhat silent. Nasmyth, on his part, felt slightly restless, for his old comrade's presence had an unsettling effect on him. It was, however, not until an hour or two later that he and Gordon were able to discuss their own affairs. They sat on the veranda looking down upon the sea, while the dusk slowly crept up from the east.
"Now," said Gordon, "I should like to hear what you have done."
"I'm afraid it's not a great deal," replied Nasmyth. "The Crown land authorities appear disposed to sell the land instead of leasing it, which of late has been the more usual course; but they insist on counting a certain proportion of the hillside and big timber in. I may get one or two concessions, and I'm still keeping the affair before them. In the meanwhile I've been seeing what can be done to raise enough capital to take up all the land, but haven't met with any great success. The folks I've been in communication with, as usual, want all the profit; in fact, I almost fancy it might be as well to raise what money we can around the settlement, and content ourselves with locating a portion of the valley."
Gordon nodded. "You can't do much about the fall until after the autumn freshets, anyway, and there's a good deal you can't get at until the frost sets in," he declared. "In the meanwhile the offers Wheeler and I made you hold."
They discussed the matter until Mrs. Acton appeared on the veranda and shook her head at them.
"What are you two doing here when there are pretty girls in the house waiting for a dance?" she inquired.
"I'm afraid we have been very remiss," apologized Nasmyth, when they joined her. "Still, we didn't know, and we had some business to talk about."
"There will be plenty of time for that to-morrow."
"The trouble is that I shall be in the city then," said Gordon.
Mrs. Acton laughed. "Oh, no!" she contradicted. "We are all going for a sail on the straits to-morrow, and we certainly expect you to join us. In the meanwhile, I believe there are two young women waiting for partners."
She silenced Gordon's objections as they turned back towards the house. They found the dancing had commenced, and Nasmyth failed to secure Miss Hamilton as a partner for any time in the evening. He could not help a fancy that she had taken some little trouble to bring about this result.