The Greater Power/Chapter 6
THE BREAKING OF THE DAM
A FAINT grey light was creeping into the shanty when Nasmyth awoke again, and lay still for a minute or two, while his senses came slowly back to him. The first thing of which he was definitely conscious was a physical discomfort that rendered the least movement painful. He felt sore all over, and there was a distressful ache in one hip and shoulder, which he fancied was the result of falling on the log, or perhaps of having been hurled against the boulders by the rapids through which he had reached the bank. His physical condition did not trouble him seriously, for he had grown more or less accustomed to muscular weariness, and the cramping pains which spring from toiling long hours in cold water, and, although he made a grimace, as he raised himself a trifle, it was the sound outside that occupied most of his attention.
The door stood open, as he had left it, and a clean, cold air that stirred his blood came in, with the smell of fir and cedar, but what he noticed was the deeper tone in the roar of the river that seemed flung back in sonorous antiphones by the climbing pines. It had occurred to him on other occasions when he was in a fanciful mood that they were singing a majestic Benedicite, but just then he was uneasily conscious that there was a new note in the great reverberating harmonies. Stately pine and towering cedar had raised their voices, too, and a wild wailing fell through the long waves of sound from the highest of them on the crest of the hill. It was evident that a fresh breeze was blowing down the valley, and, as it must have swept the hollow farther up among the ranges, which was filled with a deep blue lake, Nasmyth realized that it would drive at least another foot of water into the river as well as set adrift the giant logs that lay among the boulders. Even then they were, he fancied, in all probability driving down upon his half-finished dam.
Rousing himself with an effort, he clambered out of his bunk, and then gripped the little table hard, for his hip pained him horribly as his weight came upon it. Then, as he struggled into his clothing, there was a heavy thud outside, that was followed by a crashing and grinding, and a gasping man appeared in the door of the shanty.
"Big log across the run," he cried, "three or four more of them coming along."
Nasmyth, who said nothing, set his lips tight, and was out of the shanty in another moment or two. A glance at the river showed him that any effort he could make would, in all probability, be futile; but he and the others waded out into the flood and recommenced the struggle. That, at least, was a thing they owed to themselves, and they toiled for an hour or two very much as they had done in the darkness; only that fresh logs were now coming down on them every few minutes, and at last they recognized that they were beaten. Then they went back dejectedly, and Nasmyth sat down to breakfast, though he had very little appetite. He felt that all the strength he had would be needed that day.
After breakfast he lay among the boulders gnawing his unlighted pipe and watching the growing mass of driftwood that chafed and ground against the piles of the dam. Nothing, he recognized, could save the dam now. It was bound to go, for the piles were only partly backed with stone, and, in any case, men do not build in that new country as they do in England. Their needs are constantly varying, and their works are intended merely to serve the purpose of the hour. It is a growing country, and the men in it know that the next generation will not be content with anything that they can do, and, what is more to the purpose, they themselves will want something bigger and more efficient in another year or two. Hence the dam was a somewhat frail and temporary structure of timber as well as stone, but it would probably have done what was asked of it had it been completed before the floods set in. As it was, Nasmyth knew that he would see the end of it before another hour slipped by.
It came even sooner than he had expected. There was a dull crash; the piles that rose above the flood collapsed, and the mass of grinding timber drove on across the ruined dam. Then Nasmyth rose, and, stretching himself wearily, went back to his shanty. He felt he could not face the sympathy of his workmen. He was still sitting there in a state of utter physical weariness and black dejection, when, towards the middle of the afternoon, the door was quietly opened, and Laura Waynefleet came in. She looked at him as he remembered she had done once or twice at the ranch, with compassion in her eyes, and he was a little astonished to feel that, instead of bringing him consolation, her pity hurt him. Then he felt the blood rise to his face, and he looked away from her.
"You have heard already?" he asked.
"Yes," said the girl softly. "I was at the settlement, and they told me there. I am so sorry."
Nasmyth winced, but he contrived to say, "Thank you," and then glanced round the untidy shanty, which was strewn with dripping clothes. "Of course," he added, "it is something to know that I have your sympathy; but I must not keep you here."
It was not a tactful speech, but Laura smiled. "I meant to take you out," she said. "You have been sitting here brooding since the dam went, and from what Mattawa told me, you haven't had any dinner."
"No," said Nasmyth; "now I come to think of it, I don't believe I have. I'm not sure it's very astonishing."
"Then we'll go away somewhere and make tea among the pines."
Nasmyth glanced suggestively at his attire. His duck jacket had shrunk with constant wetting, and would not button across the old blue shirt, which fell apart at his bronzed neck. The sleeves had also drawn up from his wrists, and left the backs of his hands unduly prominent. His hands were scarred, and the fingers were bruised where the hammer-head had fallen on them in wet weather as it glanced from the drill. The girl was immaculate in a white hat and a dress of light flowered print.
"Do I look like going on a picnic with you?" he said. "The few other things I possess are in much the same condition."
Laura had naturally noticed the state of his attire, but it was his face that troubled her. It was haggard and his eyes were heavy. As she had decided long before, it was a face of Grecian type, and she would sooner have had it Roman. This man, she felt, was too sensitive, and apt to yield to sudden impulses, and just then her heart ached over him. Still, she contrived to laugh.
"Pshaw!" she said. "I told Mattawa to get me a few things ready."
Nasmyth followed her out of the shanty, and when he had picked up the basket and kettle somebody had left at the door, she turned to him.
"Where shall we go?" she asked.
"Anywhere," said Nasmyth, "that is, as long as it's away from the river."
Laura saw the shrinking in his eyes as he gazed at the swirling flood, and though she was sorry for him, it roused in her a momentary spark of anger. Then she went with him up the hillside beneath the climbing pines until they reached a shadowy hollow near the crest of it, out of which a little stream trickled down.
"Now light a fire, while I see what there is in the basket," she said.
She found a splendid trout, a packet of tea, and a little bag of self-raising flour, among other sundries, and for the next half-hour she kept Nasmyth busy making flapjacks and frying the trout. Then they sat down to a simple meal, and when it was over, Nasmyth laughed.
"It's a little astonishing, in view of how I felt at breakfast, but there's nothing left," he sighed. "In one way the admission's a little humiliating, but I almost feel myself again."
"It's supposed to be a very natural one in the case of a man," said Laura. "You can smoke if you like. I want to talk to you."
Nasmyth stretched himself out on the other side of the fire, and Laura, leaning forward a little, looked at him. Without knowing exactly why, he felt somewhat uneasy beneath her gaze.
"Now," she said, "I would like to hear what you are going to do."
The man made a little rueful gesture. "I don't know. Chop trees again for some rancher, most probably—in fact, I was wondering whether you would have me back as a ranch-hand."
"Ah!" cried the girl sharply, while a trace of hardness crept into her eyes, "that is very much what I expected. As it happens, I am far from satisfied with the man we have, but I should not think of replacing him with you just now."
Nasmyth winced, and it was characteristic of him that he endeavoured to beguile her away from the object she evidently had in view.
"What's the matter with the man?" he asked.
"A diversity of gifts. Among other things, he appears to possess an extensive acquaintance with Colonial politics, and he and my father discuss the regeneration of the Government when they might with advantage be doing something else."
Nasmyth frowned. "I understand. That's one reason why I wanted to come back. After all, there is a good deal I could save you from. In fact, I get savage now and then when I think of what you are probably being left to do upon the ranch. I ventured a hint or two to your father, but he seemed impervious." He hesitated for a moment. "No doubt it's a delicate subject, but it's a little difficult quietly to contemplate the fact that, while those men talk politics, you——"
"I do their work?" suggested Laura with a lifting of her arched eyebrows. "After all, isn't that or something like it what generally happens when men turn their backs upon their task?"
Nasmyth flushed. "I admit that I was trying to break away from mine, but it seems you have undertaken to head me off and drive me back to it again."
"That was more or less what I wished," said Laura quietly.
"Well," Nasmyth replied, "as I think you're a little hard on me, I'll try to put my views before you. To begin with, the dam is done for."
"You are quite sure? You built it so far once. Is it altogether out of the question for you to do as much again?"
Nasmyth felt his face grow hot. She was looking at him with quiet eyes, which had, however, the faintest suggestion of disdain in them.
"The question is why I should want to do it," he said.
"Ah!" rejoined Laura, "you have no aspirations at all? Still, I'm not quite sure that is exactly what I mean—in fact, I think I mean considerably more. You are quite content to throw away your birthright, and relinquish all claim to the station you were born in?"
The man smiled somewhat bitterly. "I think you understand that it's a custom of this country not to demand from any man an account of what he may have done before he came out to it. In my particular case it was, however, nothing very discreditable, and I once had my aspirations, or, as you prefer to consider it, I recognized my obligations. Then the blow fell unexpectedly, and I came out here and became a hired man—a wandering chopper. After all, one learns to be content rather easily, which is in several ways fortunate. Then you instilled fresh aspirations—it's the right word in this case—into me, and I made another attempt, only to be hurled back again. There doesn't seem to be much use in attempting the impossible."
"Then a thing is to be considered impossible after one fails twice? There are men who fail—and go on again—all their lives long."
"I'm afraid," Nasmyth declared in a dull tone, "I am not that kind of man. After all, to be flung down from the station you were born to—I'm using your own words—and turned suddenly adrift to labour with one's hands takes a good deal of the courage out of one. I almost think if you could put yourself in my place you would understand."
Laura smiled in a suggestive fashion, and looked down at the hands she laid upon her knee. They were capable, as well as shapely, and, as he had noticed more than once, the signs of toil were very plain on them.
"I never did an hour's useful work before I came out West," she said.
She had produced the effect she probably desired, for in the midst of his sudden pity for her Nasmyth was troubled with a sense of shame. This girl, he realized, had been reared as gently as he had been himself, and he knew that she now toiled most of every day at what in the older country would have been considered most unwomanly tasks. Still, she had borne with it cheerfully, and had courage to spare for others whose strength was less than hers.
He sat silent for almost a minute, looking down between the great pines into the valley, and, as he did so, he vaguely felt the influence of the wilderness steal over him. The wind had fallen now, and there was a deep stillness in the climbing forest which the roar of the river emphasized. Those trees were vast of girth, and they were very cold. In spite of whirling snow, and gale, and frost, they had grown slowly to an impressive stateliness. In Nature, as he recognized, all was conflict, and it was the fine adjustment of opposing forces that made for the perfection of grace, and strength, and beauty. Then it seemed to him that his companion was like the forest—still, and strong, and stately—because she had been through the stress of conflict too. These were, however, fancies, and he turned around again to her with a sudden resolution expressed in his face and attitude.
"There's an argument you might have used, Miss Waynefleet," he told her. "I said I would try to do you credit, and it almost seems as if I had forgotten it. Well, if you will wait a little, I will try again."
He rose, and, crossing over, stood close beside her, with his hand laid gently on her shoulder, looking down on her with a quiet smile. "After all," he added, "there's a good deal you might have said that you haven't—in fact, it's one of your strong points that, as a rule, you content yourself with going just far enough. Well, because you wish it, I am somehow going to build that dam again."
She looked up at him swiftly with a gleam in her eyes, and Nasmyth stooped a little, while his hand closed hard upon her shoulder.
"You saved my life, and you have tried to do almost as much in a different way since then," he went on. "It is probably easier to bring a sick man back to health than it is to make him realize his obligations and to imbue him with the courage to face them when it's evident that he doesn't possess it. Still, you can't do things of that kind without results, and I think you ought to know that I belong to you."
There was a trace of colour in Laura Waynefleet's face, and she quivered a little under his grasp, but she looked at him steadily, and read his mind in his eyes. The man was stirred by sudden, evanescent passion and exaggerated gratitude, while pity for her had, she fancied, also its effect on him; but that was the last thing she desired, and, with a swift movement, she shook off his hand.
"Ah!" she said; "don't spoil things."
Her tone was quiet, but it was decisive, and Nasmyth, whose face flushed darkly, let his hand fall back to his side. Then she rose, and turned to him.
"If we are to be friends, this must never happen again," she added.
Then they went down the hillside and back to the settlement, where Nasmyth harnessed the team, which the rancher who lived near occasionally placed at Waynefleet's disposal, to a dilapidated waggon. When she gathered the reins up, Laura smiled down on him.
"After all," she reminded him, "you will remember that I expect you to do me credit."
She drove away, and Nasmyth walked back to his camp beside the dam, where the men were awaiting the six o'clock supper. He leaned upon a pine-stump, looking at them gravely, when he had called them together.
"Boys," he said, "the river, as you know, has wiped out most of the dam. Now, it was a tight fit for me to finance the thing, and I don't get any further payment until the stone-work's graded to a certain level. Well, if you leave me now, I've just enough money in hand to square off with each of you. You see, if you go you're sure of your pay. If you stay, most of the money will go to settle the storekeeper's and the powder bills, and should we fail again, you'll have thrown your time away. I'd like you to understand the thing; but whether you stay or not, I'm holding on."
There was silence for half a minute, and then the men, gathering into little groups, whispered to one another, until Mattawa stood forward.
"All you have to do is to go straight ahead. We're coming along with you solid—every blame one of us," he said.
A red flush crept into Nasmyth's face.
"Thank you, boys. After that I've got to put this contract through," he answered.