The Greater Power/Chapter 25
A SHADED lamp stood on the table of Acton's room, and, as Nasmyth entered, he saw Wisbech, whom he had not met since his arrival, sitting just inside the light of it in a lounge-chair. He strode forward and shook hands with his uncle.
"Until I got your letter I almost fancied you were in Japan," he said.
Wisbech smiled at him. "I shall probably start very shortly. In fact, I never expected to stay here half so long as I have done, but I found a good deal to interest me in this country, and it's twenty years since I have been away from business for more than a week or two. The works were mine until very recently, but there are times now when I'm not altogether sorry I'm merely a director of the company."
Acton laid a handful of cigars on the table, and drew out a chair for Nasmyth.
"Well," he replied reflectively, "there is a good deal in this country that would interest a sensible man, but I'm not sure that's exactly what has kept Mr. Wisbech so long in Victoria. I've a point or two to mention later, but I'll let him speak first. It's his affair."
Nasmyth sat down, and he did not immediately notice that while Acton had placed his chair where the light struck full upon his face, Wisbech sat a little farther back in the shadow cast by the shade of the lamp. After a moment Acton sought the dimmer part of the room. Wisbech turned to Nasmyth.
"I understand that you expect to marry Miss Hamilton by-and-by," he said. "No doubt you have thought over the question of what you're going to keep a wife on?"
"I admit that it's one that has caused me a good deal of anxiety;" and Nasmyth leaned forward, with his elbows on the table. "Still, it hasn't troubled me quite so much of late. If I succeed with the scheme I have in hand, it will bring me money enough to make a start with a larger venture of the kind, or to enable me to undertake ranching on a reasonably extensive scale. When the land is ready for cultivation, and you haven't to face the initial cost of getting rid of heavy timber, the business is a profitable one."
"It is possible that Miss Hamilton would not care to live at even a tolerably extensive ranch. She has been accustomed to comfort of every kind and cheerful society, and there can't be very much of either in the Bush; while, if you undertake any further work of the kind you suggest, it would be a few years before you made your mark. Now, I'm not sure it would be reasonable to expect a young woman like Miss Hamilton to wait indefinitely."
Nasmyth flushed a little. "I think," he replied, "that is a question which concerns Miss Hamilton and me alone."
Acton leaned forward in his chair. "Mrs. Acton seems to fancy it concerns her, too. In fact, that's one reason why I wrote to you. Well, I'm going to lay before you a business proposition. You have probably heard of the Hecla Mineral Exploitation concern? It's run by two friends of mine, who have made a great deal of money out of their claims. They're getting elderly, and are open to take in a younger man—a man of education, who has some acquaintance with the work that's done in the Bush. He must take hold now, and hold stock in the concern. Here's the last letter they wrote me."
He passed it across to Nasmyth, whose face grew eager, and then suddenly hardened again. The concern in question was, as he had heard, one of excellent repute, and supposed to be carrying on a profitable mining business.
"It's out of the question that I should raise the capital," he said.
"The money can be raised," Wisbech broke in quietly. "I'll buy that stock for you, and, if you insist on it, you can treat it as a loan."
Nasmyth sat very still for a moment or two, and slowly closed one hard hand. He had never expected such an offer from Wisbech, and he recognized that it would free him of all his difficulties if he accepted it. There was, however, an obstacle in the way.
"Well," asked Wisbech very dryly, "isn't the Hecla Minerals good enough for you?"
Nasmyth looked at Acton. "I must go there—now?"
"That is one of the conditions. They want to fix the thing before Kekewich, who hasn't been well lately, starts East on a trip to Montreal. I promised to wire if you were willing to go down and see them to-morrow."
Nasmyth turned to Wisbech, and his voice was strained.
"I am under many obligations to you already, sir, but I'm sorry I can't profit by your generosity in this case," he said.
"Why?" queried Wisbech sharply.
"It's a little difficult to explain. You see, the idea of lowering the river was mine. Some of the boys up yonder have mortgaged their ranches, and put every dollar they could raise in that way into the scheme. They look to me to put the thing through; so that they may get their money back again."
"Is there no one else who could do that?" Acton asked. "It seems to me there's nothing wrong with that man Gordon. I guess you could leave it to him."
Nasmyth felt that Wisbech was watching him with a curious intentness.
"Gordon," he answered slowly, "is at least as well fitted to lead the boys as I am. In fact, I might go farther than that. After all, however, there is a little more to be said."
He stopped abruptly, and sat silent a moment or two, leaning with one elbow on the table, and the light full upon his face. There was trouble in his expressive eyes, but his mouth was tense and grimly resolute. He remembered the pleasant summer days that he and Violet Hamilton had spent together, but he also heard the roar of the river in the misty depths of the cañon, and the crash of stream-driven pines. The familiar sounds rang in his ears, rousing him to action, and something in his nature responded. In the meanwhile there was a heavy silence in the room. His companions watched him closely, and Acton, who looked round for a moment, noticed the suggestive glint in Wisbech's eyes.
Nasmyth straightened himself suddenly. "I know what I am turning my back upon," he added. "It is very probable that I shall never get another opportunity of this kind again. Still, I owe the boys something, and I feel I owe a little to myself. This scheme in the cañon is the first big thing I have ever undertaken. I can't quite make the way that I look at it clear to you, but"—and he brought one hand down on the table in an emphatic fashion—"I feel that I must go on until it breaks me or I put it through."
Wisbech noisily thrust his chair back, and Acton laughed—a laugh that had a faint ring in it.
"Well, I guess I partly expected this," said Acton. "Mr. Nasmyth, it's a sure thing that river's not going to break you."
Nasmyth looked embarrassed, but next moment Wisbech laid a hand upon his shoulder.
"Derrick," he said simply, "if you had closed with my offer, I wouldn't have blamed you, but I'd have felt I had done my duty then, and I'd never have made you another. As it is, when things are going wrong, all you have to do is to send a word to me."
Then, to the relief of his companions, Acton, whose expression changed suddenly, broke in again. "Well," he commented, "I'm not quite sure that Miss Hamilton will look at the thing from Nasmyth's point of view. I guess we'll leave him to explain it to her and Mrs. Acton."
Nasmyth fancied that the explanation would not be an easy task. In fact, it was one he shrank from, but it had to be undertaken, and, leaving the others, he went back to the drawing-room. Violet Hamilton was surrounded by several companions, and he did not approach her until she glanced at him as she slipped out into the big cedar hall. She sat down on a lounge near the fire, and he leaned upon the arm of it, looking down on her with grave misgivings. He recognized that it was scarcely reasonable to expect that she would be satisfied with the decision he had made.
"You have seen your uncle and Acton?" she asked.
"Yes," answered Nasmyth; "I have something to tell you."
The girl turned towards him quickly. "Ah!" she said, "you are not going to do what they proposed?"
"I'm sorry the thing they suggested was out of the question. You will let me tell you what it was?"
Violet made a sign of assent, and Nasmyth spoke quietly for a minute or two. Then a faint flush crept into the girl's cheeks and a sparkle into her eyes.
"You said no!" she interrupted.
"I felt I had to. There seemed no other course open to me."
Violet looked at him in evident bewilderment, and Nasmyth spoke again deprecatingly. "You see," he explained, "I felt I had to keep faith with those ranchers."
"Didn't it occur to you that you had also to keep faith with me?" she inquired sharply.
"I think that was the one thing I was trying to do."
Violet showed no sign of comprehension, and it was borne in upon Nasmyth then that, in her place, Laura Waynefleet would have understood the motives that had influenced him, and applauded them.
"My dear," he said, "can't you understand that you have laid an obligation on me to play a creditable part? I couldn't turn my back on my comrades now that they have mortgaged their possessions, and, though I think Gordon or one of the others could lead them as well as I could, when I asked them to join me, I tacitly pledged myself to hold on until we were crushed or had achieved success."
He looked at her wistfully when he stopped speaking; but she made a gesture of impatience.
"The one thing clear to me is that if you had done what Mr. Acton suggested you could have lived in Victoria, and have seen me almost whenever you wished," she declared. "Some of those ranchers must know a good deal more about work of the kind you are doing than you do, and, if you had explained it all to them, they would have released you."
Nasmyth sighed. Apart from the obligation to his comrades, there were other motives which had influenced him. He vaguely felt that it was incumbent on him to prove his manhood in this arduous grapple with Nature, and, after a purposeless life, to vindicate himself. The wilderness, as Gordon had said, had also gotten hold of him, and that described what had befallen him reasonably well. There are many men, and among them men of education, in those Western forests who, having once taken up the axe and drill, can never wholly let them go again. These men grow restless and morose in the cities, which seldom hold them long. The customs of civilization pall on them, and content comes to them only when they toil knee-deep in some frothing rapid, or hew the new waggon-road through a stupendous forest. Why this should be they do not exactly know, and very few of them trouble themselves about the matter. Perhaps it is a subconscious recognition of the first great task that was laid on man to subdue the earth and to make it fruitful. Nasmyth, at least, heard the river. Its hoarse roar rang insistently in his ears, and he braced himself for the conflict that must be fought out in the depths of the cañon. These, however, were feelings that he could not well express, and once more he doubted Violet's comprehension.
"My dear," he told her humbly, "I am sorry; but there was, I think, only one thing I could do."
Violet, looking up, saw that his face was stern, and became sensible of a faint and perplexing repulsion from him. His languid gracefulness had vanished, and he was no longer gay or amusing. A rugged elemental forcefulness had come uppermost in him, and this was a thing she did not understand. Involuntarily she shrank from this grave, serious man. There was a disfiguring newly healed cut on one of his cheeks, and his hand was raw and horribly scarred.
"You have changed since you were last here," she said, looking at him with disapproval. "Perhaps you really are a little sorry to leave me, but I think that is all. At least, you will not be sorry to get back to the cañon."
Nasmyth started a little. It was a thing that he would at one time certainly not have expected, but he realized now that he was driven by a fierce impatience to get back to the work he had undertaken.
"I think that is not astonishing in one respect," he replied. "I told you why I feel that I must carry the project through. The sooner I am successful, the sooner I can come back to you."
The girl laughed somewhat bitterly. "If you would only be sensible, you need not go away. Are you quite sure it is not the project that comes first with you?" she questioned.
Nasmyth felt the blood creep into his face, for it suddenly dawned on him that the suggestion she had made was to some extent warranted.
"My dear," he answered quietly, "you must try to bear with me."
Violet rose. "Well," she said, "when do you go away?"
"In the morning."
There was resentment in the girl's expression. "Since you have made up your mind to go, I will make no protest," she declared. Then, with a swift change of manner, she turned and laid her hand upon his arm. "After all, I suppose you must go. Derrick, you won't stay away very long!"
They went into the drawing-room together, and half an hour had passed when Mrs. Acton beckoned to Nasmyth, and he followed her into an adjoining alcove. She sat down and looked at him reproachfully.
"I am very angry with you," she asserted; "in fact, I feel distinctly hurt. You have not come up to my expectations."
"I'm sorry," replied Nasmyth quietly. "Still, I'm not astonished. Your indignation is perfectly natural. I felt at the time Mr. Acton made me the offer that he had been prompted by you. That"—and he made a deprecatory gesture—"is one reason why I'm especially sorry I couldn't profit by it."
Mrs. Acton sat silent a moment or two, regarding him thoughtfully. "Well," she declared, "from now I am afraid you must depend upon yourself. I have tried to be your friend, and it seems that I have failed. Will you be very long at the cañon?"
"If all goes as I expect it, six months. If not, I may be a year, or longer. I shall certainly not come back until I am successful."
"That is, of course, in one sense the kind of decision I should expect you to make. It does you credit. Unfortunately, I'm not sure that it's wise."
Nasmyth looked at her with quick apprehension. "I wonder," he said, "if you would tell me why it isn't?"
Mrs. Acton appeared to weigh her words, "My views are, naturally, not always correct," she answered. "Even if they were, I should scarcely expect you to be guided by them. Still, I think it would not be wise of you to stay away very long."
She rose, and smiled at him. "It is advice that may be worth taking. Now I must go back to the others."
Nasmyth pushed aside the portieres for her, and then sauntered into the hall, where in a very thoughtful mood, he sat down by the fire.