The Greater Power/Chapter 20


MRS. ACTON was sitting on the veranda next morning when Nasmyth, fresh from a swim in the deep cold water of the inlet, came up across the clearing. It had brought a clear glow into his bronzed skin and a brightness to his eyes, and as he flung a word to a man who greeted him, his laugh had a clean, wholesome ring. He walked straight toward the veranda, and Mrs. Acton, sitting still, favoured him with a very keen and careful scrutiny. He was dressed in light flannels, which, she admitted, became him rather well; but it was the lithe gracefulness of his movements that she noticed most. His easy, half-whimsical manner had their effect on her; they won her favour. He was the kind of guest she had pleasure in welcoming at Bonavista.

He went up the veranda stairway, and, stopping near where she was sitting, looked down at her with a curious little glow in his eyes. She started, for she had not expected to see it there so soon.

"You seem unusually satisfied with everything this morning," she observed. "There is probably some cause for it?"

Nasmyth laughed. "I believe I am. As I dare say you have noticed, tranquil contentment is one of my virtues. It is, however, one that is remarkably easy to exercise at Bonavista."

"Still, contentment does not, as a rule, carry a young man very far in this country. In fact, it is now and then a little difficult to distinguish between it and something else that is less creditable to the man who possesses it."

Nasmyth smiled good-humouredly. "Well," he replied, "I have discovered that if you worry Fortune too much she resents it, and flies away from you. It seems to me there is something to be said for the quietly expectant attitude. After all, one is now and then given much more than one could by any effort possibly deserve."

Mrs. Acton noticed the faint ring in his voice. "Ah," she said, "then something of that kind has befallen you? Hadn't you better come to the point?"

Nasmyth became grave. "Madam," he said, "I have a confession to make. I am very much afraid I lost my head yesterday, and I should not be astonished if you were very angry with me."

He spoke with a certain diffidence, and Mrs. Acton, who straightened herself in her chair, watched him steadily while he made his confession. He paused with a gesture of deprecation.

"In one sense, it is a preposterous folly, but I am not quite sure that folly is not now and then better than wisdom," he added. "It has certainly proved to be so in my case."

"No doubt." Mrs. Acton's tone was suggestive. "It is, however, Miss Hamilton I am most interested in."

Nasmyth spread one hand out forcibly. "I want you to understand that she is absolutely free. I have only told you because you once mentioned that you considered her a ward of yours. Nothing will be said to anybody else, and, if she should change her mind, I will not complain. In fact, I have decided that it would be most fitting for me to go away."

"I think," asserted Mrs. Acton, "you have been either too generous or not quite generous enough. The trouble with men of your kind is that when for once they take the trouble to reflect, they become too cautious."

"I'm afraid I don't quite grasp the point of that."

"You should either have said nothing, which is the course you ought to have adopted, or a little more. I fancy Violet would have been just as pleased if you had shown yourself determined to make sure of her."

Nasmyth stood silent, and Mrs. Acton, who surveyed him again with thoughtful eyes, was not surprised that he should have appealed to the girl's imagination. The man was of a fine lean symmetry, and straight of limb. The stamp of a clean life was on him, showing itself in the brightness of his eyes and his clear bronzed skin, while he had, as Wisbech had said, the classical Nasmyth features. These things, as Mrs. Acton admitted, counted for something, while the faint lines upon his face, and the suggestive hardness that now and then crept into it, were, she decided, likely to excite a young woman's curiosity.

"Well," she said, "I feel myself considerably to blame, and I may admit that I had at first intended to make my husband get rid of you. I really don't know why I didn't. You can make what you like of that."

Nasmyth bowed with a deferential smile, and she laughed.

"Still," she said, "you must go away. Violet must be free to change her mind, and, after all, it's consoling to reflect that she has not seen so very much of you yet. In one way, it would please me if she did. It would free me of a rather heavy responsibility."

She stopped a moment, and looked at him with softening eyes. "Go and run the water out of that valley, or do anything else that will make a mark," she advised.

Nasmyth's face was set as he replied: "If the thing is in any way possible, it shall be done. I think I will go into Victoria again to-day."

He turned away and left her, and it was an hour later when she came upon Violet sitting alone in a shady walk beneath the pines. She looked at the girl severely.

"If I had been quite sure of what was going on, I should have sent that young man away," she remarked. "As it is, I am very glad that he is going to Victoria."

Violet slipped an arm about Mrs. Acton's neck and kissed her shyly. "You would never have been so cruel, and now you are going to be my friend," she said. "I don't want him to go back to that horrible cañon."

Mrs. Acton smiled. "I almost feel that I could shake both of you, but I suppose I shall have to marshal my forces on your behalf."

She set about her plans that evening, when she invaded Acton's smoking-room, and her husband listened to her with a little dry smile.

"I guess this is about the first time I have ever known you to do a real foolish thing," he observed.

"Well," said Mrs. Acton, "it is, perhaps, to my credit that I have done one now. Anyway, I like the man."

Acton nodded. "Oh, yes;" he agreed, "that's quite comprehensible. There's a good deal of tone about him, but except with women that's not a thing that counts in this country. It's the bulldog grip and grit that goes farthest here—anyway, when a man has no money behind him."

"You wouldn't consider Nasmyth a weak man?"

"Not in one way. When he's right up against it, he'll stiffen himself and fight, but when the strain slackens a little his kind are apt to let go too easily."

This, as a matter of fact, was more or less correct, but Mrs. Acton's intention was not to discuss Nasmyth's character, and she smiled at her husband.

"Well," she announced; "I expect you to take a hand in the thing."

Acton's gesture was expressive of resignation. "I guessed it. However, it seems to me that young man has quite enough friends to give him a shove here and there already. To begin with, there's Wisbech."

"What would Wisbech do?"

"Not much." And Acton smiled understandingly. "He means to let his nephew feel his own feet. He's a sensible man. Then there's that man Gordon from the Bush, and it seems I'm to do my share, too. Guess if I was Nasmyth, I'd say 'thank you,' and go right ahead without listening to one among the crowd of us."

"That," Mrs. Acton said, "isn't quite the question. I think I pointed out what I expect from you."

Acton's eyes twinkled. "You did," he assured her. "I'll try to set things in train the first time I go down to the city."

This was somewhat vague, but Mrs. Acton was satisfied. Nevertheless, she said nothing to Nasmyth on the subject, and next afternoon he left Bonavista for Victoria. A day or two later he called by appointment at the office of a certain land exploitation agency, and found Hutton waiting for him. Hutton, who sat with his elbows on the table, pointed to a chair.

"You have taken my view of the thing?" he said in a questioning tone. "If you'll sit down a minute, I'll call my clerk in, and he'll get the papers ready."

Nasmyth smiled. "I don't think you need trouble to do that just yet. You see, I haven't the least intention of closing with your offer."

It is just possible that Hutton had expected this, but, in any case, he betrayed no astonishment. He leaned forward, regarding his visitor with an almost expressionless face.

"Then," he returned, "I'll hear your proposition."

"What do you think of the one I had the pleasure of making you some time ago?" Nasmyth inquired.

"Quite out of the question."

Nasmyth smiled. "That," he remarked, "is in one sense a pity, as I couldn't repeat it to-day. If we are to do business together, I should have to ask you for a considerably larger share of the profit. In fact, I was wondering if you could see your way to offer half as much again."

Hutton gazed at him with sardonic amusement. "Oh," he replied, "has somebody left you a fortune, or are they going to run a railroad through that valley?"

Nasmyth sat silent a moment or two, and it happened that his easy indifference served him tolerably well. Had he been a keener man, the anxiety to get about his work in the cañon, of which he was certainly sensible, might have led to his undoing; but he was not one who often erred through undue precipitancy. The waiting fight was, perhaps, the one for which he was particularly adapted. If anything, he was rather too much addicted to holding out his hand, and he realized that it behooves the man without capital to be particularly wary in his negotiations with the one in possession of money. His recent interview with Violet Hamilton also had a stirring effect on him, and now he sat quietly prepared to hold his own.

"No," he declared, "there has been no particular change in my affairs. I have only been thinking things over, and it seems to me I ought to get the terms I mentioned."

"Then you had better try. It won't be from any of the accredited land agencies."

Nasmyth noticed the faint ring in his companion's voice. This, it seemed to him, was not bluff. The man, he believed, meant what he said.

"You seem quite sure of it," he observed.

As a matter of fact, Hutton was, but he felt annoyed with himself.

"Well," he said, "I naturally know what they would think of any proposition like the one you made me. Anyway, as I suggested, all you have to do is to try them."

Again Nasmyth, conscious that his companion was unobtrusively watching him, sat silent a moment or two. He knew that if he broke with Hutton he might have considerable difficulty in raising the money he required from any corporation interested in such matters in that city; but he had also another plan in his mind. He was far from sure that the scheme would prove successful, and it was at least certain that it would cost him a good deal of trouble to carry it out.

"Then I don't think I need keep you any longer," he told Hutton after a long pause. "I'll leave the thing over for a day or two, and you can send across to my hotel if you wish to discuss it again."

He rose and reached out for his hat, and Hutton, who watched him cross the room, was once or twice on the point of calling him back. Hutton did not speak, however, since he fancied that Nasmyth would presently return of his own accord—which was an expectation that proved unwarranted.

The office was on the second floor of a big stone building, and, as he descended the stairway, Nasmyth fancied he caught sight of Martial in the entrance-hall. Before he could be quite sure, the man turned down a corridor, and Nasmyth, who did not trouble himself about the matter, went out into the street. He was not altogether satisfied that he had done wisely, but he meant, at least, to wait until events should prove him wrong.

A few minutes later, Martial strolled into the office where Hutton sat, and smiled at him suggestively. He was also, as Acton had once told Nasmyth, interested in the land exploitation business, and it was evident that Hutton had expected him.

"Nasmyth has been here," Martial observed; "I saw him on the stairway. I suppose you got hold of him?"

Hutton's gesture was forcibly expressive of annoyance. "As a matter of fact, I didn't," he confessed. "The man's either considerably smarter than I gave him credit for being, or a thick-headed, obstinate fool. The one's as hard to handle as the other. I don't know which he is, and it doesn't greatly matter. The result's the same."

"I guess it's the latter;" and Martial laughed. "Well, since you can't come to terms, have you any notion what his programme is?"

"It's not a sure thing that he has one. Anyway, he didn't mention it. We'll let him wait a day or two. It's quite likely he'll try the Charters people."

Both of them smiled, for it was then not an unusual thing for the men interested in such affairs to put their heads together and take a joint hand in any deal that seemed to warrant it, and when they did so, the results were not, as a rule, encouraging to the outsider.

Martial looked at his comrade suggestively.

"I had a talk with Charters yesterday," he said. "He told me that if there was anything in it, he didn't expect us to let the thing go."

Hutton thought for a moment. "One could sell quite a few ranches in the valley; but it's going to cost considerable to run the water out, and I can't quite put my hand on anybody I'd feel like trusting with the work in the cañon. It's going to be difficult. Besides, Nasmyth has what you might call a first option on the land. Nobody else seems to want it, and the Crown people have evidently given way on a point or two. It's a sure thing they'd make no concession if we show our hands." He broke off for a moment, and flung a quick glance at his visitor. "You don't like the man?"

"I don't," said Martial—"that's a solid fact. Still, it's not going to count for much. This"—and he waved his hand—"is a matter of business."

He sat still for a moment or two, with a curious look in his face; for he had called at the hotel Acton's party had visited on the night that he had endeavoured to crawl unobserved on board the Tillicum. He had no difficulty in discovering that Mrs. Acton and Miss Hamilton had spent the night there, which made it evident that the girl could not have been on board the steamer. He had, however, not made the inquiries until business took him to the hotel several weeks afterwards, and Acton's manner, when they met in the city, convinced him that the schooner men had been communicative. On thinking the matter over, it became clear that Nasmyth and the skipper had played a trick on him; and, since it had cost him Mrs. Acton's good-will, without which he could not approach Miss Hamilton, he cherished a bitter grievance against Nasmyth.

"Well," he inquired, "in case he tries to raise the money elsewhere, what do you suggest?"

"I guess we'll let him try," answered Hutton. "He's not going to raise much when things are humming and every man with capital is putting it into mines and mills. Besides, the work in the cañon's evidently a big undertaking, and it's going to run into a long bill for labour. A thing of that kind usually costs four times as much as the man who starts it figures. Well, we'll leave him to it, and when his money runs out we'll chip in."

Martial laughed. "That's very much my notion. Let him do the work, and then jump in and put up our dummies to locate all the land he can't take hold of. Once we get a ranch or two recorded, there would be a dozen ways we could get a grip on him. Between us and Charters, we ought to break him."

They smiled at each other, but in a moment or two Hutton looked thoughtful again.

"You want to understand," he said, "it's not my business to break Nasmyth. It's the money I'm out for. In fact, if there's an easier way than the one I suggested, I'm going to take it; and with that in view, I'll send up a man or two I can rely on to investigate."

"If they get crawling round that cañon and up and down the valley, it will set the blame settlers talking. We want the thing run quietly," Martial cautioned.

"I guess it can be done," replied Hutton. "They'll go camping out for pleasure. In fact, to make the thing more like it, I'll send them fishing." Martial rose. "Anyway," he said, "I'll leave it with you in the meanwhile."