The Greater Power/Chapter 29


CHAPTER XXIX
A FUTILE SCHEME

THERE was bright sunshine at Bonavista when Nasmyth, who had been told at the station that Acton had arrived from Victoria the day before, limped out from the shadow of the surrounding Bush, and stood still a moment or two, glancing across the trim lawn and terrace towards the wooden house. The spacious dwelling, gay with its brightly painted lattice shutters, dainty scroll-work, and colonnades of wooden pillars, rose against the sombre woods, and he wondered with some anxiety whether Mrs. Acton had many guests in it. He had no desire to fall in with any strangers, for he was worn out and aching, and he still wore the old duck clothing in which he had left the cañon. It might, he fancied, be possible to slip into the house and change before he presented himself to Mrs. Acton, though he was by no means sure that the garments in the valise he carried in his hand were dry. He could see nobody on the terrace, and moved forward hastily until he stopped in consternation as he crossed one of the verandas. The sunlight streamed in, and Mrs. Acton and Violet Hamilton sat upon the seat which ran along the back of it. The girl started when she saw him, and Nasmyth stood looking down on her, worn in face and heavy-eyed, with his workman's garb clinging, tight and mire-stained, about his limbs. There was, however, a certain grimness in his smile. He had seen the girl's start and her momentary shrinking, and it occurred to him that there was a significance in the fact that it had not greatly hurt him.

"I must make my excuses for turning up in this condition," he apologized. "I had to start for the railroad at a moment's notice, and it rained all the way, while, when I reached it, the train was in the depôt. You see, my business is rather urgent."

Mrs. Acton laughed. "Evidently," she said. "I think we were both a trifle startled when we saw you. I should be sorry to hear that anything had gone seriously wrong, but you remind one of the man who brought the news of Flodden."

Nasmyth made a quick gesture of denial. "Well," he announced bravely, "our standard is flying yet, and I almost think we can make another rally or two. Still, I have come for reinforcements. Mr. Acton is in?"

"He is. As it happened, he came up from Victoria yesterday. I believe he is discussing some repairs to the steamer with George just now. I'll send you out a plate of something and a glass of wine. You can't have had any lunch."

Mrs. Acton rose, and Nasmyth, who sat down, looked at Violet with a smile. She was evidently not quite at ease.

"You really haven't welcomed me very effusively," he remarked.

The girl flushed. "I don't think I could be blamed for that," she returned. "I was startled."

"And perhaps just a little annoyed?"

The colour grew plainer in Violet's cheeks. "Well," she averred, "that isn't so very unnatural. After all, I don't mind admitting that I wish you hadn't come like this."

Nasmyth glanced down at his attire, and nodded gravely. "It's certainly not altogether becoming," he admitted. "I made that hole drilling, but I fancied I had mended the thing. Still, you see, I had to start on the moment, and I rode most of twenty-four hours in the rain. I suppose"—and he hesitated while he studied her face—"I might have tidied myself at the depôt, but, as it happened, I didn't think of it, which was, no doubt, very wrong of me."

"It was, at least, a little inconsiderate."

Nasmyth laughed good-humouredly, though he recognized that neither his weariness nor the fact that it must manifestly be business of some consequence that had brought him there in that guise had any weight with her. He had, after all, a wide toleration, and he acknowledged to himself that her resentment was not unreasonable.

"I've no doubt that I was inconsiderate," he said. "Still, you see, I was worried about our affairs in the cañon."

"The cañon!" repeated Violet reproachfully. "It is always the cañon. I wonder if you remember that it is at least a month since you have written a line to me."

Nasmyth was disconcerted, for a moment's reflection convinced him that the accusation was true.

"Well," he confessed, "I have certainly been shamefully remiss. Of course, I was busy from dawn to sunset, but, after all, I'm afraid that is really no excuse."

The girl frowned. "No," she said, "it isn't."

It was a slight relief to Nasmyth that a maid appeared just then, and he took a glass of wine from the tray she laid upon a little table.

"To the brightest eyes in this Province!" he said, when the servant had gone, and, emptying the glass, he fell upon the food voraciously.

It was unfortunate that in such unattractive guise he had come upon Violet, and the fashion in which he ate also had its effect on her. In the last thirty hours he had had only one hasty meal, and he showed a voracity that offended her fastidious taste. He was worn out and anxious, and since all his thoughts were fixed upon the business that he had in hand, he could not rouse himself to act according to the manner expected of a lover who returns after a long absence. It was, however, once more borne in upon him that this was significant.

Violet, on her part, felt repelled by him. He was gaunt and lean, and the state of his garments had shocked her. His hands were hard and battered. She was very dainty, and in some respects unduly sensitive, and it did not occur to her that it would have been more natural if, in place of shrinking, she had been sensible only of a tender pity for him. Perhaps there were excuses for her attitude. She had never been brought into contact with the grim realities of life, and it is only from those whom that befalls that one can expect the wide sympathy which springs from comprehension. Nasmyth, lounging at Bonavista with amusing speeches on his lips and his air of easy deference, had been a somewhat romantic figure, and the glimpses of the struggle in the Bush that he had given her had appealed to her imagination. She could feel the thrill of it when she saw it through his eyes with all the unpleasantly realistic features carefully wiped out, but it was different now that he had come back to her with the dust and stain of the conflict fresh upon him. The evidences of his strife were only repulsive, and she shrank from them. She watched him with a growing impatience until he rose and laid his empty plate aside.

"Well," he observed, "you will excuse me. I must see Mr. Acton as soon as I can."

It was not in any way a tactful speech, and Violet resented it. The man, it seemed, had only deferred the business he had on hand for a meal. She looked at him with her displeasure flashing in her eyes.

"In that case," she said, "I should, of course, be sorry to keep you away from him."

Nasmyth gazed at her curiously, but he did not reply. He went away from her. A few minutes later when he entered Acton's room he was attired in conventional fashion. His host shook hands with him, and then leaned back in a chair, waiting for him to speak, which he did with a trace of diffidence.

"My object is to borrow money," he explained frankly. "I couldn't resent it in the least if you sent me on to somebody else."

"I'll hear what you have to say in the first case," replied Acton. "You had better explain exactly how you stand."

Nasmyth did so as clearly as he could, and Acton looked at him thoughtfully for a moment or two.

"I've been partly expecting this," he observed. "It's quite clear that one or two of the big land exploitation people have a hand in the thing. I guess I could put my finger right down on them. You said the man's name was Hames?"

Nasmyth said it was, and Acton sat thinking for several minutes.

"It seems to me that the folks I have in my mind haven't been quite smart enough," he declared at length. "They should have put up a sounder man. As it happens, I know a little about the one they fixed upon. Mr. Hames is what you could call a professional claim-jumper, and it's fortunate that there's a weak spot or two in his career."

Acton paused, and Nasmyth waited in tense expectancy until the older man turned to him again, with a twinkle in his eyes.

"I almost think I can take a hand in this thing, and to commence with, we'll go down to Victoria this afternoon and call on Mr. Hames," he added. "If he has bought that land, it will probably be registered in his name. The men you have against you are rather fond of working in the dark. Then we come to another point—what it would be wisest to do with Waynefleet, who went back on you. You said he had a mortgage on his ranch. You know who holds it?"

Nasmyth said he did not know, and Acton nodded. "Any way," he rejoined, "we can ascertain it in the city. Now, I guess you would like that man run right out of the neighbourhood? It would be safest, and it might perhaps be done."

Nasmyth was startled by this suggestion, and with a thoughtful face he sat wondering what was most advisable. He bore Waynefleet very little good-will, but it was clear that Laura must share any trouble that befell her father, and he could not at any cost lay a heavier load upon her. He was conscious that Acton was watching him intently.

"No," he objected, "I don't want him driven out. In fact, I should be satisfied with making it impossible for him to enter into any arrangement of the kind again."

"In that case, I guess we'll try to buy up his mortgage," remarked Acton. "Land's going to be dearer in that district presently."

Nasmyth looked at him with a little confusion. "It is very kind, but, after all, I have no claim on you."

"No," agreed Acton, with a smile, "you haven't in one way. This is, however, a kind of thing I'm more at home in than you seem to be, and there was a little promise I made your uncle. For another thing"—and he waved his hand—"I'm going to take a reasonable profit out of you."

Nasmyth made no further objections, and they set out for Victoria that afternoon. Hames was, however, not readily traced; and when, on the following morning, they sat in Acton's office waiting his appearance, Nasmyth was conscious of a painful uncertainty. Acton, with a smile on his face, leaned back in his chair until Hames was shown in. Hames was a big, bronze-faced man, plainly dressed in city clothes, but there was, Nasmyth noticed, a trace of half-furtive uneasiness in his eyes. Acton looked up at him quietly, and let him stand for several moments. Then he waved his hand toward a chair.

"Won't you sit down? We have got to have a talk," said Acton. "I'll come right to the point. You have have been buying land."

Hames sat down. "I can't quite figure how that concerns you," he replied. "I'm not going to worry about it, any way."

"I want that land—the block you bought from Waynefleet."

"It's not for sale," asserted Hames. "If you have nothing else to put before me, I'll get on. I'm busy this morning."

Acton leaned forward in his chair. "When I'm in the city, I'm usually busy, too," he said; "in fact, I've just three or four minutes to spare for you, and I expect to get through in that time. To begin with, you sent Mr. Hutton a note from your hotel when my clerk came for you. He never got it. You can have it back unopened. I can guess what's in the thing." He handed Hames an envelope. "Now," he went on, "you can make a fuss about it, but I guess it wouldn't be wise. Hutton doesn't know quite as much about you as I do. I've had a finger in most of what has been done in this Province the last few years, and it's not often I forget a man. Well, I guess I could mention one or two little affairs that were not altogether creditable which you had a share in."

Hames laughed. "It's quite likely."

"Still, what you don't know is that I'm on the inside track of what was done when the Hobson folks jumped the Black Crag claim. There was considerable trouble over the matter."

Nasmyth saw Hames start, but he apparently braced himself with an effort.

"Any way," replied Hames, "that was 'most four years ago, and there's not a man who had a hand in it in this Province now."

Acton shook his head. "There's one. I can put my hand on your partner Okanagon Jim just when I want to."

There was no doubt that Hames was alarmed.

"Jim was drowned crossing the river the night the water broke into the Black Crag shaft," he declared.

"His horse was, and the boys found his hat. That, however, is quite a played-out trick. If you're not satisfied, I can fix it for you to meet him here any time you like."

Hames made a motion of acknowledgment. "I don't want to see him—that's a sure thing! I guess you know it was fortunate that Jim and two or three of the other boys got out of the shaft that night. Well, I guess that takes me. If Jim's around, I'll put down my cards."

"It's wisest," advised Acton. "Now, I'm going to buy that land Waynefleet sold from you—or, rather, he's going to give you your money back for it. You can arrange the thing with Hutton—who, I believe, supplied the money—afterwards as best you can."

Nasmyth fancied Hames was relieved that no more was expected from him.

"I guess I'm in your hands," observed Hames.

"Then," Acton said, "you can wait in my clerk's office until I'm ready to go over with you to Waynefleet's hotel."

Hames went out, and Acton turned to Nasmyth. "He was hired with a few others to jump the claim he mentioned, and there was trouble over it. As usual, just what happened never quite came out, but that man left his partner to face the boys, who scarcely managed to escape with their lives that night. The man who holds Waynefleet's mortgage should be here at any moment."

The man arrived in a few minutes. After he had sat down and had taken the cigar Acton offered him, he was ready to talk business.

"You have a mortgage on Rancher Waynefleet's holding in the Bush," said Acton. "I understand you've had some trouble in getting what he owes you."

The man nodded. "That's certainly the case," he said. "I bought up quite a lot of land before I laid down the mill, but after I did that I let most of it go. In fact, I'm quite willing to let up on Waynefleet's holding, too. I can't get a dollar out of him."

"Have you offered to sell the mortgage to anybody?"

"I saw Martial and the Charters people not long ago. They'd give about eighty cents on the dollar. Hutton said he'd make me a bid, but he didn't."

"Well," said Acton, "my friend here wants that ranch for a particular purpose. He'd bid you ninety."

"I can't do it. If the new roads that have been suggested are made, the ranch ought to bring me a little more. Still, I don't mind letting you in at what I gave for it."

Acton looked at Nasmyth.

"Then," said Acton, "we'll call it a bargain. You can write me a note to that effect, and I'll send my clerk across with the papers presently."

The man went out a few minutes later, and Acton rose.

"I'll charge you bank interest; but if you care to put the mortgage up for sale, you'll get your money back 'most any time after they start those roads," Acton said to Nasmyth. "Now we'll go along and call on Waynefleet."

They went out with Hames, and a little while later came upon Waynefleet sitting on the veranda of a second-rate hotel. He was dressed immaculately, and with a cigar in his hand, lay in a big chair. He started when he saw them. Hames grinned, and sat down close in front of him.

"I'm going back on my bargain. I want my money and you can keep your land," he said. "The fact is Mr. Acton has got on my trail, and he's not the kind of man I have any use for fighting."

There was consternation in Waynefleet's face, but he straightened himself with an effort.

"I suppose you have brought this man, Mr. Nasmyth, and I scarcely think it is quite what one would have expected from you—at least, until you had afforded me the opportunity of offering you an explanation," he blustered.

"Can you offer me one that any sensible man would listen to?" Nasmyth asked sharply.

"He can't," Acton broke in. "We're out on business. You may as well make it clear that we understand the thing."

Waynefleet turned and looked at Acton with lifted brows, and had he been less angry, Nasmyth could have laughed at his attitude. Waynefleet's air of supercilious resentment was inimitable.

"You have some interest in this affair?" he inquired.

"Oh, yes," answered Acton cheerfully. "Still, you needn't worry about me. All you have to do is to hand this man over the money and record the new sale. We don't want any unpleasantness, but it has to be done."

Waynefleet appeared to recognize that there was no remedy.

"In that case there is the difficulty that I can't quite raise the amount paid," he said. "Travelling and my stay in the city have cost me something."

"How much are you short?"

"About a hundred dollars."

"Then," replied Acton, "I'll take a bill for the money. We'll go along and record the sale as soon as Mr. Nasmyth's ready. I expect he has something to say to you."

Acton went into the hotel with Hames, and there was an awkward silence when they had disappeared. Nasmyth leaned against a wooden pillar, and Waynefleet sat still, waiting for him to speak. Nasmyth turned to him.

"It would, perhaps, be preferable to regard this affair from a strictly business point of view," said Nasmyth. "You are, of course, in our hands, but to save your credit and to protect Miss Waynefleet from any embarrassment, we shall probably not insist upon your handing over the land to anybody else. I think we are safe in doing that. Now that you have signally failed, you will not have nerve enough to attempt to betray us again."

Waynefleet waved his hand. "I resent the attitude you have adopted. It is not by any means what I am accustomed to, or should have expected from you."

Nasmyth felt a faint, contemptuous pity for the man, who still endeavoured to retain his formality of manner.

"I'm afraid that hasn't any great effect on me, and my attitude is, at least, a natural one," he said. "I believe that Gordon and I can arrange that the boys do not hear of your recent action, and though you will take no further part in our affairs, you will stay on at the ranch. I may mention that I have just bought up your mortgage."

A flush of anger showed in Waynefleet's cheeks.

"Is it in any way your business where I live?" he asked.

"No," answered Nasmyth, "not in the least—that is, as far as it affects yourself. Still, I am determined that Miss Waynefleet shall have no fresh cause for anxiety. I don't mind admitting that I owe a great deal to her." He paused for a moment, and then turned to Waynefleet with a forceful gesture. "When you have bought back the land from Hames, I don't suppose you will have a dollar in your possession, and the ranch belongs to me. As I said, you will stay—at least, until you can satisfy me that you can maintain yourself and Miss Waynefleet in some degree of comfort if you go away. Now I believe the others are waiting. We will go along and get the sale recorded."