The Greater Power/Chapter 30
IT was getting dusk when Wheeler swung himself from the saddle near the head of the gully and, with the bridle of the jaded horse in his hand, stood still a few moments looking about him. A wonderful green transparency still shone high up above the peaks, whose jagged edges cut into it sharply with the cold blue-white gleam of snow, but upon the lower slopes there was a balmy softness in the air, which was heavy with the odours of fir and cedar. Summer was breaking suddenly upon the mountain-land, but Wheeler, who had crossed the divide in bright sunshine, was sensible of a certain shrinking as he glanced down into the depths of the cañon. A chilly mist streamed up out of it, and the great rift looked black and grim and forbidding.
Wheeler noticed a dusky figure beneath the firs, and, moving towards it, came upon a man with a pipe in his hand, sitting upon a fallen tree. In view of the strenuous activity that was the rule in the cañon, such leisure was unusual.
"Well," he remarked, "you don't seem busy, any way."
The man grinned. "I'm looking out," he replied. "Guess I've had my eye on you for the last few minutes, and a stranger wouldn't have got quite so far. You haven't got any papers from the courts on you?"
"No," said Wheeler, who noticed that there was a rifle lying near the man, "I haven't. Still, if I'd looked like a lawyer or a court officer——"
"Then," asserted the man, "it's a sure thing you wouldn't have got in. The boys have enough giant-powder rammed into the heading to lift the bottom right out of the cañon two minutes after any suspicious stranger comes along."
Wheeler laughed, for it was evident to him that Nasmyth had been taking precautions, and, turning away, he led his horse down the gully. It grew colder as he proceeded, and a chilly breeze swept the white mist about him. The trees, that shook big drops of moisture down on him, were wailing, but he could hear them only faintly through the clamour of the fall. He left the horse with a man he came upon lower down, and, reaching the shingle at the water's edge, saw the great derrick swing black athwart the glare of a big fire. The smoke whirled about the dark rock wall, and here and there dusky figures were toiling knee-deep amid the white froth of the rapid. The figures emerged from the blackness and vanished into it again, as the flickering radiance rose and fell. Scrambling to the ledge above the fall, Wheeler found two men standing near the mouth of the heading, which was just level with the pool.
"Where's Nasmyth, boys?" he inquired.
"Inside," answered one of the men. "Guess he's wedging up the heading. If you want him, you'd better crawl right in."
Wheeler glanced down at the black mouth of the tunnel, on which the streaming radiance fell. He fancied that the river flowed into it, and the man's suggestion did not appeal to him.
"Won't you tell him that I'd like a talk with him?" he asked.
The man laughed. "Guess that's not going to bring him. It will be daylight, any way, before he lets up. You'll have to go right in."
Wheeler dropped cautiously upon a slippery staging, across which the water flowed, and, crawling into the heading, with a blinking light in his eyes, fell into a sled that was loaded with broken rock. He crept round the obstruction, and a few moments later found himself knee-deep in water before a little dam that had been thrown across the heading. The heading dipped sharply beyond it, which somewhat astonished him, and when he had climbed over the barricade, he descended cautiously, groping towards another light. Big drops of water fell upon him, and here and there a jet of it spurted out. At last he stopped, and saw Nasmyth lying, partly raised on one elbow, in an inch or two of water, while he painfully swung a heavy hammer. The heading was lined with stout pillars, made of sawn-up firs, and Nasmyth appeared to be driving a wedge under one of them. Two or three other men were putting heavy masses of timber into place.
The smoky flame of a little lamp flared upon the rock above, which trickled with moisture, and the light fell upon Nasmyth's wet face, which was deeply flushed. Nasmyth gasped heavily, and great splashes of sand and mire lay thick upon his torn, drenched shirt. He appeared to see Wheeler, for he looked up, but he did not stop until he had driven the wedge in. Then he rose to his knees and stretched himself wearily.
"The rock's badly fissured. We've got to get double timbers in as soon as we can," he explained. "I'm going to do some boring. We'll go along."
Wheeler crept after him down the inclined heading until they reached the spot where Gordon sat crouched over a machine. Gordon did not move until Nasmyth seized his shoulders.
"You can get back to the wedging, and send two or three boys along to heave the water out. I'll keep this thing going," he said.
Gordon, who greeted Wheeler, floundered away, and Wheeler sat down in the dryest spot he could find, while Nasmyth grasped the handle of the machine.
"There's no reason why you shouldn't smoke," he said.
"That," replied Wheeler, "is a point I'm not quite sure about. How many sticks of giant-powder have you rammed into this heading? As you know, it's apt to be a little uncertain."
Nasmyth laughed as he glanced at the flaring lamp above his head. "There's a hole with a stick in it just at your elbow. I've been filling the holes as we made them. In view of what I expect those folks in the city are arranging, it seemed advisable."
Wheeler was sensible of a certain uneasiness as he listened to the crunch of the boring tool and the jarring thud of the hammers.
"What are you going so far down for?" he asked.
"To get into sounder rock. It's costing us considerable time that we can badly spare, but once or twice I fancied the whole river was coming in on us. Now we're getting almost through, I want to make quite sure."
Wheeler nodded. "I guess that's wise. So far, we have come out ahead of Hutton and the rest of them," he asserted. "Our people hold the timber rights, and we have got the shingle-splitting plant in. You headed him off in Waynefleet's case, and there only remains the man with the old Bush claim. There's, unfortunately, no doubt about his title to the ranch, and it's a sure thing the folks in the city will put him up again. Have you heard from him lately?"
"I have," answered Nasmyth, with a smile. "As you know, I made him half a dozen different offers to buy him out. He naturally didn't close with them, but he wrote trying to raise me, and kept the thing up rather well. Of course, it was evident that his friends were quite willing to let me get most of the work done before they showed their hand too visibly. I scarcely fancy they know how near we are to getting through, though that rancher man's lawyer said something about taking proceedings a little while ago."
"Suppose they went to court, and served you with a notice to quit what you're doing?"
Nasmyth, turning, pointed with a wet, scarred hand to several holes in the side of the heading, from which a wire projected.
"Well," he said, "they'd have to serve it, and while their man was trying to get down the gully I'd rip most of the bottom out of this strip of cañon. I'm not sure we haven't gone far enough already to split up the whole ridge that's holding back the river. Still, I'm going on a little. I mean to make sure." He bent over the machine. "You have brought up some letters? The man has, perhaps, been trying to worry me again."
"Two or three," replied Wheeler. "I called at the settlement for them. One is evidently from a lady."
Nasmyth swung round again and took the little dainty envelope from him. He smeared it with his wet hands as he opened it, and then his voice broke sharply through the thud of the hammers.
"Can't you move? I'm too far from that lamp," he said.
He scrambled by Wheeler and crouched close beneath the smoky, flickering flame, dripping, spattered with mire, and very grim in face. The note was from Violet Hamilton, and it was brief.
"I should like to see you as soon as you can get away," it read. "There is something I must say, and since it might spare both of us pain, I feel almost tempted to try to explain it now. That, however, would perhaps be weak of me, and I think you will, after all, not blame me very greatly."
He flung the note down in the water, and straightened himself wearily.
"I am invited to go down to Bonavista, and it's tolerably clear that I have another trouble to face," he announced in a dull tone. "In the meanwhile there's this heading to be pushed on, and it seems to me that the thing that counts most is what I owe the boys."
Wheeler, who had heard something from Gordon, looked at him with grave sympathy, but Nasmyth made an expressive gesture as he glanced down at his attire.
"Well," he remarked, "I probably look very much what I am—a played-out borer of headings and builder of dams, who has just now everything against him. Still, I was fool enough to indulge in some very alluring fancies a little while ago." He turned to Wheeler with a sudden flash in his eyes. "You can take those letters to Gordon and tell him to open them. I've a little trouble to grapple with, and I don't feel inclined for conversation."
Wheeler could take a hint, and he crawled away along the heading, while Nasmyth toiled for the next half-hour strenuously at the machine. The perspiration dripped from him. He gasped as he ripped the handle around; then he let it go suddenly, and his face became softer as he picked up the letter again.
"Well," he told himself, "I don't think I can blame her, after all, and with what she has to say it would hurt if I kept her waiting."
He sat down again at the machine, and the boring tool crunched on steadily into the rock until after some time, a man took his place, and, crouching in the narrow heading, swung the heavy hammer as they wedged the extra timbers fast. A faint grey light was creeping into the eastern sky when Nasmyth crawled out of the heading and scrambled back to the shanty. Gordon, who was getting up when he entered, looked at him curiously.
"I'm going into Bonavista after breakfast," Nasmyth said. "I don't want to leave the boys now, but I can't help it."
Gordon asked no injudicious questions, for Wheeler had mentioned the letter, and his comrade's voice had its significance for him.
"Then," he said, "I'll tell Mattawa to have the horse ready."
Nasmyth slept soundly until the meal was laid out. He rode into the settlement a little before dark that night. It was the next afternoon when he reached Bonavista, and he found Violet Hamilton sitting upon the veranda alone. She appeared embarrassed when she saw him, and he leaned against one of the pillars, quietly looking down on her. For a moment or two neither of them said anything, and it was Nasmyth who broke the awkward silence.
"I felt very bitter when I got that note," he said. "When I grappled with the thing, however, I commenced to realize that you might be right. Of course, I quite realized all you wished to imply."
"Ah!" answered the girl softly, "then you are not very angry with me." She leaned forward and met his gaze. "I think we were both very nearly making a terrible mistake."
"I scarcely think that is a thing you could expect me to admit—that is, at least, as far as my part in it goes," said Nasmyth.
"Still," replied Violet, "you admitted that you felt I might be right."
She looked anxious, and Nasmyth realized that, since she might have written what she had to say, it must have cost her a good deal to break with him personally. The courage which had prompted her to summon him appealed to him, and, in place of anger, he was conscious of a certain sympathy for her.
"In one sense you were certainly right," he said. "We belong to different worlds, and I should never have spoken to you as I did. That is a thing you must try to forgive me, and you have no reason to blame yourself. As I told you at the time, you were free."
"Ah!" cried Violet, "you are very generous. After all, I expected that from you, and I think it will not hurt you very much to give me up."
"I wonder why?" asked Nasmyth gravely.
Violet sat silent a moment or two, and then looked up at him quietly.
"Oh," she said, "you owe so much to that girl in the Bush! She would always have come between us. I think you made me recognize it when you told me about her, though it was only by degrees I came to understand it clearly."
Nasmyth's face flushed. "That," he queried, "is your reason for wishing to get rid of me?"
Violet looked away from him, and there was a telltale self consciousness in her manner when she turned to him again. Nasmyth, who noticed it, winced.
"Well," he hazarded, "it was, perhaps, not the only one."
"No," confessed Violet very softly, "there was another thing which influenced me rather more."
Nasmyth, who understood her, stood silent a moment or two, with one hand tightly closed. "In that case there is nothing to be said, and I must try to face it gracefully," he told her. "Reproaches are not exactly becoming in the case of a discarded man." He took off his wide hat as he held out his hand. "Miss Hamilton, the thing naturally hurts me, but perhaps I cannot reasonably blame you. I'm not sure you could expect me to go any further now."
"Ah!" exclaimed Violet, "you have made it easy. I would like to assure you of my good-will."
He held her hand a moment and swung abruptly away. He met Mrs. Acton as he went down a corridor. He stopped in front of her, and she looked at him questioningly when she saw his face.
"I have not come up to expectations. It is, perhaps, fortunate Miss Hamilton found it out when she did," he said.
"Oh!" Mrs. Acton replied, "I told you it would not be well to stay away very long."
"I scarcely think the result would have been different in any case," Nasmyth declared.
Mrs. Acton was silent for a moment. Then she looked at him sharply.
"Where are you going now?" she asked.
"Back to the world I belong to," answered Nasmyth,—"to the railroad, in the first case. I'm not sure that Miss Hamilton would like to feel that I was in the house."
Mrs. Acton made no protest, and ten minutes later he had crossed the clearing and plunged into the Bush.
Mrs. Acton, crossing the veranda, laid her hand on the girl's shoulder.
"I naturally don't know what he said to you, but I can't help believing that he acquitted himself rather well," she observed. "After all, it must have been a little painful to him."
"Perhaps it was," replied Violet. "Still, I don't think it hurt him dreadfully."
She was more or less correct in this surmise, for, as Nasmyth walked on through the Bush, he became conscious of a faint relief.