The Greater Power/Chapter 19


CHAPTER XIX
NASMYTH HEARS THE RIVER

DARKNESS had settled down on Bonavista next evening when Nasmyth lay in a canvas chair on the veranda, while Gordon leaned against the balustrade in front of him with a cigar in his hand. A blaze of light streamed out from one of the long open windows a few yards away, and somebody was singing in the room behind it, while the splash of the gentle surf came up from the foot of the promontory in a deep monotone. Now and then a shadowy figure strolled into the veranda or crossed it to the terrace below, but for the time being nobody disturbed the two men.

"I haven't had a word with you since last night," said Nasmyth. "How are the boys at the settlement?"

"Hustling along as usual." Gordon laughed. "Is there anybody else you feel inclined to ask about?"

"Yes," said Nasmyth, "there certainly is. How is Miss Waynefleet?"

Gordon looked down at his cigar. "Well," he said, "I'm a little worried on her account. She was attempting to do a great deal more than was good for her when I last saw her. They have no longer a hired man at the ranch. Waynefleet, I understand, is rather tightly fixed for money, and, as you know, he isn't the kind of man who would deny himself. He was talking of selling some stock."

Nasmyth suddenly straightened himself, and closed one hand rather hard on the arm of his chair.

"What right have you and I to be lounging here when that girl is working late and early on the ranch?" he asked. "Gordon, you will have to buy two or three head of that stock at double value for me."

"It's rather a big question;" and Gordon's tone was serious. "In fact, I fancy it's one that neither you nor I can throw much light upon. Anyway, I may as well point out that I arrived here only yesterday, and I'm going on again in the morning. As to the other matter, Laura Waynefleet has friends who will stand by her."

"Don't you count me one of them?" Nasmyth demanded. "That girl saved my life for me."

Gordon glanced round sharply, for there were light footsteps on the veranda, and he almost imagined that a white figure in filmy draperies stopped a moment. It, however, went on again and vanished in the shadow.

"I believe she did," he admitted. "Well, if there's anything that can be done, you may rely on me." He made an abrupt gesture, and as he turned, the light from the window fell upon his face, showing the curious smile on it. "What are you doing here?"

He flung the question at his comrade, and Nasmyth, who knew what he meant, sat for a moment or two with wrinkled forehead. There was no reason why he should not stay there so long as Mr. and Mrs. Acton desired his company, but it did not seem fitting that he should spend those summer days in luxurious idleness while Laura Waynefleet toiled late and early at the lonely ranch. Again, he seemed to see her steady eyes with the quiet courage in them, and the gleam of her red-gold hair. Even then she was, he reflected, in all probability occupied with some severe drudgery. It was a thing he did not like to contemplate, and he almost resented the fact that Gordon should have brought such thoughts into his mind. His comrade had broken in upon his contentment like a frosty wind that stung him to action. Still, he answered quietly.

"I am within easy reach of the city here," he explained. "Acton, who has once or twice given me good advice, is acquainted with most of the folks likely to be of any use to us, and has laid the scheme before one or two of them. That, at least, is one reason why I am staying at Bonavista. It's perfectly evident that it wouldn't be any benefit to Miss Waynefleet if I went back to the Bush."

"No," agreed Gordon grimly; "if you were likely to be of any use or consolation to her, you'd go, if I had to drag you."

Nasmyth smiled. He was too well acquainted with his comrade's manner to take offence at this remark, and the man's devotion to the girl who, he knew, would never regard him as more than a friend also had its effect.

"Well," he said, "since plain speaking seems admissible, you are probably aware that Laura Waynefleet has nothing beyond a kindly interest in me. She is, I needn't point out, a remarkably sensible young lady."

He stopped somewhat abruptly, for Wisbech emerged from the shadows beneath the pillars, and sat down in a chair close by.

"Yes," said Wisbech, "I heard, and it seems to me Derrick's right in one respect. Though I don't know how far it accounts for the other fact he has just impressed on you, Miss Waynefleet certainly possesses a considerable amount of sense. She is also a young lady I have a high opinion of. Still, if he had gone back to the Bush merely because you insisted on it, I think I should have cast him off."

Gordon appeared to ponder over this, and he then laughed softly. "It's quite natural, and I guess I sympathize with you," he remarked. "In one way, however, your nephew's acquitting himself creditably, considering that there are apparently three people anxious to exert a beneficent influence upon him. The effect of that kind of thing is apt to become a trifle bewildering, especially as it's evident their views can't invariably coincide."

"Three?" said Wisbech, with a twinkle in his eyes. "If you count me in, I almost fancy there are four."

Nasmyth said nothing, though he felt his face grow hot. Gordon smiled.

"As a matter of fact," he admitted, "I had a notion that Miss Hamilton resented my being here. Any way, she didn't take any very noticeable trouble to be pleasant to me to-day. No doubt she considers any influence she may choose to exert should be quite sufficient."

"It should be," said Nasmyth. "That is, to any man who happened to be a judge of character, and had eyes in his head."

Gordon waved one hand. "Oh," he averred, "she's very dainty, and I think there's a little more than prettiness there, which is a very liberal admission, since I'm troubled with an impression that she isn't quite pleased with me. Still, when the woods are full of pretty girls, I guess it's wisest of a man who has anything worth while to do in front of him to keep his eyes right on the trail, and go steadily ahead." He turned to Wisbech deprecatingly. "We don't mind you, sir. We regard you as part of the concern."

"Thanks," said Wisbech, with a certain dryness. "I believe I am interested in it—at least, financially."

"Well," said Gordon, "when I break loose, as I do now and then, I quite often say a little more than is strictly advisable without meaning to. It's a habit some folks have. Your observation, however, switches us off on to a different matter. I've been telling your nephew we leave him to handle the thing and stand by our offers."

"That is precisely what I mean to do. The affair is Derrick's. He must take his own course," declared Wisbech.

Gordon grinned as he turned to Nasmyth. "There will be no reinforcements. You have to win your spurs." Then he looked at Wisbech. "If you will not be offended, sir, I would like to say I'm pleased to notice that your ideas coincide with mine. He'll be the tougher afterwards if you let him put up his fight alone."

"The assurance is naturally satisfactory," said Wisbech with quiet amusement. Then he held up one hand. "It seems to me the person at the piano is playing exceptionally well."

They sat silent while the crashing opening chords rang out from the lighted room, and then Nasmyth, who was a lover of music, found himself listening with a strained attention as the theme stole out of them, for it chimed with his mood. He had been restless and disturbed in mind before Gordon had flung his veiled hints at him, and the reality underlying his comrade's badinage had a further unsettling effect. He did not know what the music was, but it seemed in keeping with the throb of the sea against the crag and the fitful wailing of the pines. There was a suggestion of effort and struggle in it, and, it seemed to him, something that spoke of a great dominant force steadily pressing on; and, as he listened, the splash of the sea grew fainter, and he heard instead the roar of the icy flood and the crash of mighty trees driving down upon his half-built dam. These were sounds which sometimes haunted him against his will, and once or twice he had been a little surprised to find that, now that they were past, he could look back upon the months of tense effort with a curious, half-regretful pleasure. He was relieved when the music, that swelled in a sonorous crescendo, stopped, and he saw Gordon glance at Wisbech.

"I think that man has understanding and the gift of expressing what he feels," said Wisbech. "The music suggested something to you?"

"The fast freight," confessed Gordon.—"When she's coming down the big cañon under a full head of steam. I don't know if that's quite an elegant simile, in one way. Still, if you care to think how that track was built, it's not difficult to fancy there's triumph in the whistles and the roar of the freight-car wheels."

Wisbech made a sign of comprehension, and Gordon looked hard at Nasmyth. "It's your call."

"I heard the river," said Nasmyth. "In fact, I often hear it, and now and then wish I didn't. It's unsettling."

Gordon laughed in a suggestive fashion. "Well," he declared, "most of us hear something of that kind at times, and no doubt it's just as well we do. It's apt to have results if you listen. You have been most of a month in the city one way or another. You took to it kindly?"

"I didn't," Nasmyth answered, and it was evident that he was serious. "I came back here feeling that I had had quite enough of it."

"Bonavista is a good deal more pleasant?" And there was a certain meaning in Gordon's tone. "You seemed to have achieved some social success here, too."

He saw the flush in Nasmyth's face, and his gaze grew insistent. "Well," he said, "you're not going to let that content you, now you can hear the river. You'll hear it more and more plainly frothing in the black cañon where the big trees come down. You have lived with the exiles, and the wilderness has got its grip on you. What's more, I guess when it does that it never quite lets go."

He broke off abruptly, and just then Acton stepped out from the window. "Mr. Gordon," he said, "it's my wife's wish that you should come in and sing."

Gordon said that he was in Mrs. Acton's hands, and then turned to Nasmyth.

"I've had my say," he observed. "If there's any meaning in my remarks, you can worry it out."

He went away with Acton, and Wisbech looked at his nephew over his cigar.

"Mr. Gordon expresses himself in a rather extravagant fashion, but I'm disposed to fancy there is something in what he says," he commented.

Nasmyth did not answer him. He was, on the whole, glad that Gordon had gone, but he still seemed to hear the river, and the restlessness that had troubled him was becoming stronger. He retired somewhat early, but he did not sleep quite so soundly as usual that night. As it happened, Gordon rose before him next morning. Gordon went out of doors, and presently came upon Miss Hamilton, who was strolling bareheaded where the early sunshine streamed in among the pines. It struck him that he was not the person whom she would have been most pleased to see, but she walked with him to the crown of the promontory, where she stopped and looked up at him steadily.

"Mr. Gordon," she inquired, "what is Laura Waynefleet?"

Gordon started, and the girl smiled.

"I crossed the veranda last night," she told him, when he hesitated before answering her.

The man looked down on her with an unusual gravity. "Well," he said simply, "Laura Waynefleet is quietness, and sweetness, and courage. In fact, I sometimes think it was to make these things evident that she was sent into this world."

He thought he saw a gleam of comprehension in the girl's eyes, and made a gesture of protest. "No," he assured her, "I'm not fit to brush her little shoes. For that matter, though he is my comrade, Nasmyth isn't either. What is perhaps more to the purpose, I guess he is quite aware of it."

A delicate tinge of colour crept into Violet Hamilton's face, and the man realized that in case his suppositions were correct, what he had implied could hardly be considered as a compliment. He could also fancy that there was a certain uneasiness in her eyes.

"Ah," she said, "perhaps it is a subject I should not have ventured to inquire into."

Gordon smiled reassuringly. "I don't know of any reason why you shouldn't have done so, but I have scarcely told you anything about her yet. Miss Waynefleet lives at a desolate ranch in the Bush. Sometimes she drives oxen, and I believe she invariably makes her own clothes. I don't think Nasmyth would feel any great diffidence in speaking about her."

He believed this, or at least he strove to convince himself that he did, but he was relieved when the appearance of Acton, who strolled towards them, rendered any further confidential conversation out of the question. Gordon set out for Victoria that afternoon, and Nasmyth, who went with him to the railroad, returned to Bonavista in a restless mood, and almost disposed to be angry with his comrade for having rudely broken in upon his tranquillity. In fact, he felt disinclined to face his fellow-guests, which was one reason why he was sauntering towards the inlet when he came upon Wisbech sitting with a book in the shadow of the pines. Wisbech looked up at his moody face.

"You are annoyed because Gordon wouldn't stay?" he suggested.

"No," said Nasmyth. "In fact, I'm a little relieved that he has gone away. I naturally like Gordon, but just now he has an unsettling effect on me."

Wisbech made a gesture of comprehension. "That man," he said, "is in some respects fortunate. He has a simple programme, and is evidently more or less content with it. His work is plain in front of him. You are not quite sure about yours yet. To some extent, you feel yourself adrift?"

"I have felt something of the kind."

Wisbech thought for a moment. "I suppose," he said, "it hasn't occurred to you that your classical features—they're Nasmyth features—might be of some assistance to you in your career?"

Nasmyth felt the blood rise into his face, but he laughed. "They certainly haven't proved of any great benefit to me hitherto. It is scarcely likely that they will do so either in the cañon."

"Then you are still determined on directing operations in person? I was commencing to wonder if you had any reason for modifying your plans."

The man's tone was dry, but Nasmyth met his gaze, which was now inquisitive.

"If it is in my power to do it, I shall certainly run the water out of the valley," said Nasmyth.

Then he swung round and strolled away, while Wisbech smiled in a fashion which suggested that he was pleased. It was some little time later when Nasmyth, pacing moodily over the white shingle beside the winding inlet, came upon Violet Hamilton sitting in the shadow of a great boulder. The girl's light dress matched the rock's pale tinting, and he did not see her until he was within a yard or two of her. He stopped abruptly, with a deepened colour in his face. Violet made a sign, which seemed to invite him to sit down, and he stretched himself out upon the shingle close in front of her.

"It is very hot in the house this afternoon, but it is cool and quiet here," she observed.

Nasmyth glanced at the still water and the shadow that the pines which clung in the crevices flung athwart the dark rock's side.

"Stillness sometimes means stagnation. Miss Hamilton," he said.

The girl flashed a quick glance at him. "Well," she rejoined, "I suppose it does; but, after all, that is a question we need not discuss. What were you thinking of so hard as you came along? You didn't see me until you almost stepped upon my dress."

"That," said Nasmyth, with a laugh, "is proof that I was thinking very hard indeed. It's not a thing I often indulge in, but I was thinking of the Bush."

"You sometimes feel you would like to be back there?"

"No," answered Nasmyth reflectively; "I suppose I ought to feel that, but I'm not sure that I do."

"Ah," Violet remarked, "you have told me a good deal at one time or another about your life and friends there, but I almost fancied now and then that you were keeping something back. After all"—and she smiled at him—"I suppose that would have been only natural."

Nasmyth raised himself on one elbow, and looked hard at her. "Well," he admitted, "there was one thing I did not tell you, though I had meant to do so sooner or later. You see, there was nothing to warrant it in the meanwhile."

"Ah," queried the girl, "it concerns Miss Waynefleet?"

Nasmyth's face grew suddenly grave. He did not ask himself how she came to know. Indeed, for the time being, that did not seem to matter. There was, it seemed, only one course open to him, and he adopted it.

"Yes," he answered, "I will tell you about her."

He had meant to be brief and matter-of-fact in his narrative, but as he proceeded, the subject carried him away. Indeed, he was scarcely conscious that Miss Hamilton was intently watching him, for once more he seemed to feel Laura Waynefleet's eyes fixed upon his face, and they were clear and brave and still. He spoke with a certain dramatic force, and it was a somewhat striking picture he drew of the girl. Violet could realize her personality and the self-denying life that she led. It is possible that Nasmyth had told her more than he intended, when he broke off for a moment with a startling abruptness.

"I believe she saved my life," he added. "She certainly gave me back my courage, and set me on my feet again."

Violet looked at him with a strained expression in her eyes. "And because of that she will have a hold upon you while you live."

Nasmyth seemed to consider this. "I think I shall always realize what I owe to her. Still—and how shall I say it?—that recognition is the most I would venture to offer, or that she would accept from me."

He stopped for a moment, and then went on a trifle hastily. "Laura Waynefleet could never have taken more than a half-compassionate interest in me," he asserted. "There could scarcely be any doubt upon that point."

"You said half-compassionate?"

"Yes," replied Nasmyth; "I almost think that describes it. You see, I am naturally aware of my own disabilities."

"Still," persisted Violet, "she nursed you when you were very ill, and, as you said, set you on your feet again. That would probably count for a good deal with her."

Nasmyth made a hasty gesture. "You don't understand. She would no doubt have taken pity on any dumb creature. She did it because she could not help it. One could fancy that kind of thing was born in her."

Violet did not speak for a moment or two. Although it still remained uncertain whether the girl in the Bush had any tenderness for the man she had set upon his feet again, he had spoken of her in a manner which did not quite please Violet.

"Well," she ventured, with a little diffident glance at him, "some day you will go back into the Bush."

Nasmyth nodded. "Yes," he said, "I think that's certain. In fact, it's probable that I shall go back very soon. As it happens, I have undertaken a big and rather difficult thing, which will give me a considerable lift up if I am successful."

He lay silent for a minute before he turned to her again. "You see, I have been some time in this country, and never have done anything worth mentioning. Chopping trees and driving cattle are no doubt useful occupations, but they don't lead to anything. I feel that I am, so to speak, on my probation. I have still to win my spurs."

"I wonder if that is one of the ideas Miss Waynefleet gave you?"

Nasmyth smiled. "I really believe it originated with her, but, as a matter of fact, it might have gone no further, which is an admission. Still, the desire to win those spurs has been growing so strong of late that I can't resist it. In one way, I scarcely think that is very astonishing."

Violet looked away from him, for she saw the gleam in his eyes, and fancied she understood what the new motive he had hinted at might be. Still, he did not appear disposed to mention it.

"Then you would have to go away?" she asked.

A flush crept into Nasmyth's face. She was a woman of his own caste, and probably without intending it, she had shown him in many ways that she was not averse from him. He felt his heart beat fast when for a moment she met his gaze.

"The trouble is that if I do not go I shall never have the right to come back again," he told her.

"Then," replied the girl very softly, "you wish to come back?"

"That is why I am going. There are those spurs to win. I have to make my mark."

"But it is sometimes a little difficult to make one's mark, isn't it? You may be ever so long, and it must be a little hazardous in that horrible cañon."

"If it gives me the right to come back, I think it will be very well worth while."

"But suppose you don't succeed, after all?"

"That," admitted Nasmyth, "is a thing I daren't contemplate, because, if it happened, it is scarcely likely that any of my friends at Bonavista would ever be troubled with me again."

Violet looked away from him. "Ah," she said, "don't you think that would be a little hard on them? Is it very easy for you to go away?"

The restraint Nasmyth had imposed upon himself suddenly deserted him. He moved a little nearer to her, and seized one of her hands. She sat still, and made no effort to draw it away from him.

"I had never meant to say what I am going to say just now," he declared. "I had meant to wait until there was something successfully accomplished to my credit. I am, you see, a thriftless, wandering adventurer—one who has taken things as they came, and never has been serious. When I have shown that I can also be something else, I shall ask you formally if you will marry me. Until then the thing is, of course, out of the question."

He broke off for a moment, and held her silent by a gesture until he went on again. "I have been swept away, and even if you were willing to make it, I would take no promise from you. Until I have won the right to come back you must be absolutely free. Now you know this, it would be very much wiser if I went away as soon as possible."

"Ah," the girl answered with a thrill in her voice, "whenever you come back you will find me ready to listen to you."

Nasmyth let her hand go. "Now," he asserted, "I think I cannot fail. Still, it must be remembered that you are absolutely free."

He would have said something more, but there was just then a laugh and a patter of feet on the path above, and, looking up, he saw two of Mrs. Acton's guests descending the bluff.