The Greater Power/Chapter 24
THOUGH there was bitter frost in the ranges, it had but lightly touched the sheltered forests that shut in Bonavista. The snow seldom lay long there, and only a few wisps of it gleamed beneath the northern edge of the pines. Mrs. Acton, as usual, had gathered a number of guests about her, and Violet Hamilton sat talking with one of them in the great drawing-room one evening. The room was brilliantly lighted, and the soft radiance gleamed upon the polished parquetry floor, on which rugs of costly skins were scattered. A fire of snapping pine-logs blazed in the big English hearth, and a faint aromatic fragrance crept into the room.
Miss Hamilton leaned back in a softly padded lounge that was obviously only made for two, and a pleasant-faced, brown-eyed young Englishman, who had no particular business in that country, but had gone there merely for amusement, sat at the other end of it, regarding her with a smile.
"After all," he said reflectively, "I really don't think I'm very sorry the snow drove us down from our shooting camp in the ranges."
Violet laughed. She had met the man before he went into the mountains, and he had been at Bonavista for a week or two now.
"It was too cold for you up there?" she queried.
"It was," answered the man, "at least, it was certainly too cold for Jardine, who came out with me. He got one of his feet nipped sitting out one night with the rifle on a high ledge in the snow, and when I left him in Vancouver the doctor told him it would be a month before he could wear a boot again."
He laughed. "I have a shrewd suspicion that one has to get hardened to that kind of thing, and, surely, this is considerably nicer."
"This," repeated Violet, who fancied she understood what he meant, "is very much the same thing as you are accustomed to in London, except that the houses are, no doubt, more luxuriously furnished, and the company is more brilliant and entertaining."
"You would not expect me to make any admission of that kind?" and the man looked at her reproachfully. "In any case, it wouldn't be warranted."
"Then," said Violet, "I must have some very erroneous notions of your English mansions."
The man smiled. "Ah!" he said, "I was referring to the company."
He had expressed himself in a similar fashion once or twice before, but Violet did not resent it. She admitted that she rather liked him, and she did not know that, although he had been a week or two at Bonavista, he had only intended to stay there a few days. It had naturally occurred to Mrs. Acton that there might be a certain significance in this, but she was misled by the open manner in which another young woman had annexed him.
There were other guests in the room, and among them was a little bald-headed man, whom Violet had heard had philanthropic tendencies, and was connected with some emigration scheme. This man was talking to Acton. He spoke in a didactic manner, tapping one hand with his gold-rimmed spectacles, and appeared quite content that the rest should hear him.
"There is no doubt that this country offers us a great field," he said. "In fact, I have already made arrangements for settling a number of deserving families on the land. What I am particularly pleased with is the manner in which the man who makes his home here is brought into close contact with Nature. The effect of this cannot fail to be what one might term recuperative. There is a vitality to be drawn from the soil, and I have of late been urging the manifold advantages of the simple life upon those who are interesting themselves in these subjects with me."
Violet glanced at her companion, and saw the amusement in his eyes.
"Do you all talk like that in England?" she inquired.
The man raised his hand reproachfully. "I'm afraid some of us talk a good deal of rubbish now and then. Still, as a matter of fact, we don't round up our sentences in that precise fashion, as he does. Just now we're rather fragmentary. Of course, he's right to some extent. I'm fond of the simple life—that is, for a month or so, when I know that a two days' ride will land me in a civilized hotel. The trouble is that most of the folks who recommend it would certainly go all to bits in a few weeks after they tried it personally. Can you fancy our friend yonder chopping tremendous trees, or walking up to his knees in snow twelve hours with a flour-bag on his back?"
Violet certainly could not. The man was full-fleshed, plethoric, and heavy of foot, and he spoke with a throaty gasp.
"The tilling of the soil," he went on, apparently addressing anybody who cared to listen, "is man's natural task, and I think Nature's beneficent influences are felt to their fullest extent in the primeval stillness of these wonderful Western woods."
Violet's companion looked up at her with a smile.
"The primeval stillness sounds rather nice, only it isn't still except you go up into the snow upon the peaks," he said. "In most of the other places my trail led through you can hear the rivers, and they make noise enough for anything. Now, there's a man yonder I haven't seen before, who, I fancy, could tell us something about it if he liked. His face suggests that he knows. I mean the one talking to Mrs. Acton."
Violet followed his glance, and saw a man standing beside Mrs. Acton near the great English hearth; but his face was turned away from her, and it was a moment or two before he looked round. Then she started, and the blood crept into her cheeks as she met Nasmyth's gaze.
He had changed since she last saw him—changed, she felt, in an almost disconcerting fashion. He wore plain city clothes, and they hung about him with a suggestive slackness. His face was darkened and roughened by exposure to the winter winds; it had grown sharp and stern, and there was a disfiguring red scar down one side of it. His eyes were keen and intent, and there was a look in them that she did not remember having noticed before, while he seemed to have lost his careless gracefulness of manner. Even his step seemed different as he moved towards her. It was, though neither exactly understood why, a difficult moment for both of them when he stopped close by her side, and it was made no easier by the fact that they were not alone. Violet turned to her companion, who rose.
"Mr. Carshalton, from the Old Country," she said. "This is Mr. Nasmyth."
Carshalton nodded. "Glad to meet you. Won't you sit down?" he said. "As it happens, I had just pointed you out to Miss Hamilton. We were talking about the wilderness—or, to be more precise, the great primeval stillness. I ventured to suggest that you could tell us something about it."
Nasmyth smiled significantly. "Well," he replied, "I have certainly spent a few months in the wilderness. That is one of the results."
He meant to indicate the hand that hung by his side in a thick, soft glove by the gesture he made, but it was the other one that Violet and Carshalton glanced at. It was scarred and battered, and had opened in raw red cracks under the frost.
"Ah!" said Carshalton, "I think I was quite warranted in assuring Miss Hamilton that it was a good deal nicer here. You see, I was up in the ranges for a week or two. I had to come down with my comrade, who sat out one night in the snow. The primeval stillness didn't agree with him."
He met Violet's eyes, and next moment glanced across the room.
"I don't think I've spoken to Mr. Acton this evening," he said. "We'll have a talk about the wilderness by-and-by, Mr. Nasmyth."
He strolled away, and Nasmyth sat down by Violet's side.
"I fancied the man meant to stay," he remarked.
Violet leaned back in the lounge, and looked at him a moment or two silently. Her thoughts were confused, and she was uneasy. In the first place, she almost wished it had not been so easy to make Carshalton understand that she wished him to go away; for the fact that she had been able to do so by merely looking at him suggested that there was at least a certain confidence between them, and she was unwilling to admit that such was the case. That, however, was only a minor point. While Carshalton had spoken of the simple life, and admitted that a few weeks of it was quite enough for him, she had thought with a certain tenderness of the man who had spent months of strenuous toil in the misty depths of the cañon. She was glad of this, and felt a slight compunction over the fact that she had seldom thought of him of late. Still, when she saw him bearing the marks of those months of effort on his body and in his worn face, she was sensible that she shrank from him, as she had once done from the dreary, dripping wilderness. This was disconcerting, but she could not drive out the feeling. His worn face vaguely troubled her, and she was sorry for him, but she would not have liked to touch his scarred and roughened hands. She glanced at the injured hand inquiringly.
"It is almost well again. It was crushed beneath a mass of timber," he told her briefly.
Conscious that the meeting so far left a good deal to be desired, Violet sat still a moment. It certainly had not afforded her the pleasure she might reasonably have expected, and she subconsciously resented the fact. There was also, as she noticed, a suggestion of uneasiness in the man's scarred face.
"I have been in Victoria a few days," he explained. "There was a machine I had to buy, and one or two other matters had to be attended to. Then I got a letter forwarded from Waynefleet's ranch, from which it appeared that Mr. Acton wished to see me."
A faint sparkle crept into Violet Hamilton's eyes. "It is evident," she observed, "that we both find it a little difficult to say the right thing."
"I'm afraid I am now and then a little remiss in that respect. Still, how have I offended?"
Violet contrived to smile. "I'm not sure it was particularly judicious of you to explain so fully what brought you here. Couldn't you have left me to suggest another reason that would have been a little more satisfactory?"
Nasmyth laughed. "My dear, you know I have been longing to see you."
"Ah!" exclaimed Violet, "I am not altogether sure. Indeed, I could almost fancy that you have been thinking of nothing beyond what you are doing in that horrible cañon."
Nasmyth raised his hand in protest, though Violet was quick to notice the uneasiness in his face; but now the worn look in it roused her pity.
"Well," she said, "you can show how anxious you were by staying here at least a week. I want you to stay. Besides, you must for another reason—you are looking almost ill."
There was, for the first time, a softness in her voice that stirred the man, but the uneasiness that had troubled him did not disappear. Indeed, it seemed to grow stronger as he glanced about the room, which was furnished artistically, and flooded with light. Mrs. Acton's guests were of the station to which he had belonged, and he would once have found the sound of their voices and their light laughter pleasant. These, however, were things that no longer appealed to him, and he was conscious of a feverish impatience to get back to his work again in the misty cañon.
"I'm afraid," he replied gravely, "it will be out of the question for me to stay just now. There is so much to do at the cañon; and I think you know why I am so anxious to carry the work through."
The girl looked at him in a curious fashion, and though she was probably not aware of it, there was doubt in her eyes. For the moment she was troubled with a sense of comprehension, and she could not be quite sure whether it was only on her account that he was so determined to carry out the project.
"Well," she told him, "I know that Mr. Acton and your uncle are anxious to see you. In fact, I believe they have some suggestions to put before you, and though I do not know exactly what it is, I imagine that you need not go back to the Bush if you will do what they wish." She broke off and glanced at him wistfully. "Derrick, you won't decide rashly. I don't want you to stay away from me."
Nasmyth smiled reassuringly; but one of Violet's companions approached them just then, and when she leaned upon the back of the lounge and spoke to the girl, Nasmyth rose. He crossed the room, and a few minutes later, in the big cedar hall, came upon a man connected with the Crown land agency. There was an open fire in the hall, and the man, who sat down by it, offered Nasmyth a cigar.
"Mrs. Acton will excuse us for a few minutes," the Stranger remarked. "You are evidently fresh from the Bush. How are you getting on there?"
Nasmyth told him, and the man looked thoughtful.
"You don't hold all the valley," the man said. "I wonder if you know that folks are taking an interest in the land that's still unrecorded?"
"I don't," said Nasmyth. "It's mostly heavy timber that would cost a deal to clear. Any way, as we couldn't take up any more than we hold, it doesn't appear to affect me at all."
"Well," returned his companion, "that's a point I'm not quite sure about. You only hold a provisional charter to lower the river. There's only one unworked holding near the valley, and, as you couldn't injure anybody's property, we permitted you to go ahead. Still, if any parties supplied us with a sufficient reason for withdrawing that permission, we might have to listen to them." He broke off for a moment and waved his hand. "Of course, I'm not speaking officially. I'm merely giving you a hint that may be useful. Some persons might take up that land with the object of putting the screw on you. You see, it would be possible to get over any difficulty they might raise by buying them out."
Nasmyth's lips closed firmly. He was quite aware that, in view of the state of his finances, the course suggested was not one that he could adopt.
"What kind of people are they?" he inquired.
His companion laughed in an ominous fashion. "Small ranchers, though it's just possible that there may be some of the big men connected with the land business behind them. The big promoters occasionally prefer to act through a dummy. Our object is, of course, to get men who will cultivate the land, and keep it out of the hands of anyone who merely wants to hold it. Now, while I'm far from sure my superiors would be pleased to hear I'd said so much to you, there's one piece of advice I can offer." He leaned forward and looked at Nasmyth confidentially. "Get that work through as soon as you can. Once you lower the level of the river, nobody could compel you to put it back again. Any man who wanted land would have to buy it as it was."
"A man who wished to start a ranch would naturally prefer it with the water run out of it."
"Precisely!" argued Nasmyth's informant. "That is why you got the charter. Still, I wasn't contemplating the man who merely wished to ranch."
His smile suggested that he intended to say no more upon that subject, and when he turned and glanced through the doorway into the lighted room, Nasmyth saw that he was looking at Violet Hamilton. Nasmyth also noticed that Carshalton was once more seated beside the girl.
"I rather like that Englishman," declared the stranger. "Acton apparently gets on with him, too. He seems to have been here some time. In fact, while it's nobody else's business, I've been inclined to wonder what Miss Hamilton thinks of him."
Nasmyth made no reply, but the observation slightly troubled him. A little later Acton crossed the hall.
"If you can give us a few minutes, your uncle and I have something to put before you," he said. "I'll go along with you to my room."