The Greater Power/Chapter 9


CHAPTER IX
GORDON SPEAKS HIS MIND

IT was a nipping morning, and the clearing outside the ranch was flecked with patches of frozen snow, when Waynefleet sat shivering in a hide chair beside the stove. The broken viands upon the table in front of him suggested that he had just made a tolerable breakfast, but his pose was expressive of limp resignation, and one could have fancied from the look in his thin face that he was feeling very sorry for himself. Self-pity, in fact, was rather a habit of his, and, perhaps, because of it, he had usually very little pity to spare for anybody else. He looked up when, flushed and gasping, his daughter came in with two heavy pails of water. She shivered visibly.

"It would be a favour if you would shut that door as soon as you can," said Waynefleet. "As I fancy I have mentioned, this cold goes right through me. It occurred to me that you might have come in a little earlier to see if I was getting my breakfast properly."

Laura, who glanced at the table, thought that he had acquitted himself reasonably well, but she refrained from pointing out the fact, and, after shutting the door, crossed the room to her store-cupboard, and took out a can of fruit which she had set aside for another purpose. Waynefleet watched her open it and made a little sign of impatience.

"You are very clumsy this morning," he said.

The girl's hands were wet and stiff with cold, but she quietly laid another plate upon the table before she answered him.

"Charly is busy in the slashing, and I don't want to take him away, but there are those logs in the wet patch that ought to be hauled out now the ground is hard," she said. "I suppose you don't feel equal to doing it to-day?"

"No," said Waynefleet with querulous incisiveness, "it is quite out of the question. Do I look like a man who could reasonably be expected to undertake anything of that kind just now?"

It occurred to Laura that he did not look as if there was very much the matter with him, and she stood still a minute considering. As Gordon had said, it was she who managed the ranch, and she recognized that it was desirable that the trees in question should be dragged out of the soft ground while the frost lasted. Still, there was the baking and washing, and it would be late at night before she could accomplish half she wished to do, if she undertook the task in question. While she thought over it her father spoke again.

"I wish you would sit down," he said. "I feel I must have quietness, and your restless habits jar upon me horribly."

That decided her, and slipping into her own room, she put on an old blanket coat, and went out quietly. She walked through the orchard to the little log stable where the working oxen stood, and, after patting the patient beasts, shackled a heavy chain to the yoke she laid upon their brawny necks. Then, picking up a handspike, she led them out, and for an hour walked beside them, tapping them with a long pointed stick, while they dragged the big logs out of the swamp. Now and then it taxed all her strength to lift the thinner end of a log on the chain-sling with a handspike, but she contrived to do it until at length one heavier than the others proved too much for her. She could hear the ringing of the hired man's axe across the clearing, but there was a great deal for him to do, and, taking up the handspike again, she strained at it.

She heard footsteps behind her, and she straightened herself suddenly. She turned and saw Gordon watching her with a curious smile. Tall and straight and supple, with a ruddy, half-guilty glow on her face, she stood near the middle of the little gap in the Bush, the big dappled oxen close at her side. The wintry sunlight, which struck upon her, tinted the old blanket dress a shining ochre, and the loose tress of red-gold hair, which had escaped from beneath her little fur cap, struck a dominant tone of glowing colour among the pale reds and russets of the fir-trunks and withered fern.

Gordon shook his head reproachfully. "Sit down a minute or two, and I'll heave that log on to the sling," he said. "This is not the kind of thing you ought to be doing."

Laura, who was glad of the excuse, sat down on one of the logs, while the man leaned against a fir and gravely regarded her.

"The work must be done by somebody, and my father is apparently not very well again," she explained. "Charly has his hands full in the slashing. We must get it cleaned up, if it is to be ploughed this spring."

"Nasmyth contrived to look after all these things. Why didn't you keep him? The man didn't want to go away."

The colour deepened in Laura's face, and Gordon, who saw it, made a sign of comprehension. "Well," he added, "I suppose that wasn't a thing one could expect you to tell me, though I don't quite see why you shouldn't think of yourself now and then. You know it wasn't on your own account you sent him away."

"How does this concern you?" she asked.

Gordon flung one hand out. "Ah," he said, "how does it concern me?" Then he seemed to lay a restraint upon himself. "Well, it does in one sense, anyway. After all, I am a doctor, and a friend of yours, and I'm going to warn you against attempting things women weren't meant to do. If that doesn't prove efficacious, I'll say a word or two to Nasmyth, and you'll have him back here again. It's a sure thing your father would be glad to get him."

"If you do, I shall never forgive you," warned Laura, with a flash in her eyes.

She was sorry she had spoken so plainly when she saw that Gordon winced. She had guessed more or less correctly what the man felt for her, and she had no wish to pain him. Except for that, however, the admission she had made did not greatly matter, since she fancied that he was quite aware why she had sent Nasmyth away. Gordon changed the subject abruptly.

"There are very few of those blanket dresses this side of the Rockies," he said. "You probably got it back East."

The girl's eyes had a wistful look as she answered: "We spent our first winter in Montreal, and we had some friends who were very kind to us. I like to look back upon those first few months in Canada."

Gordon nodded. "Oh, yes," he replied. "I know—sleigh-rides, snowshoe meets, skating-rinks, toboggan-slides. Quite as lively as a London season, and considerably more invigorating; I guess you've been through that, too. In one way it's a pity you didn't stay in Montreal."

He saw her sudden embarrassment, and fancied that she could have stayed there, if she had wished to do so, but he felt that he must speak frankly, and he shook his head severely.

"Do you never think of your own advantage at all?" he inquired. "Have you none of the ambitions that most women seem to have?"

"Aren't you forgetting?" Laura asked with sudden quietness. "My father found it would not be advisable for him to settle in Montreal—for the same reason that afterwards led us to leave Victoria—and we went West. Perhaps he could have faced the trouble and lived it down, but I could not leave him alone."

Gordon sat silent a moment or two. He knew, though she very rarely mentioned it, how heavy was the burden that had been laid upon her, and he was divided between a great pity for her and anger against her father. Then he rose slowly to his feet.

"Miss Waynefleet," he said, "if I have said anything that hurt you, I'm sorry, but there are times when I must talk. I feel I have to. In the meanwhile I'll heave those logs up on a skid so that you can slip the chain round them."

For the next half-hour he exerted himself savagely, and when at last he dropped the handspike, his face was damp with perspiration. He smiled grimly when Laura, who had hauled one or two of the logs away, came back tapping the plodding oxen.

"Now," he said, "I'm going in to see your father. Custer happened to tell me he was feeling low again, and it's going to afford me a good deal of pleasure to prescribe for him."

He swung off his wide hat, and, when he turned away, Laura wondered with a few misgivings what had brought the little snap into his eyes. Three or four minutes later he entered the house, where Waynefleet lay beside the stove with a cigar in his hand.

"I ran across Custer at the settlement, and I came along to see how you were keeping," said Gordon.

Waynefleet held out a cigar-box. "Make yourself comfortable," he answered hospitably. "We'll have dinner a little earlier than usual."

The sight of the label on the box came near rousing Gordon to an outbreak of indignation. "I'm not going to stay," he declared. "It seems to me Miss Waynefleet has about enough to do already."

He saw Waynefleet raise his eyebrows, and he added: "I guess it's not worth while troubling to point out that it's not my affair. Now, if you'll get ahead with your symptoms."

Waynefleet looked hard at him for a moment. The older man was not accustomed to being addressed in that brusque fashion, and it jarred upon him, but, as a matter of fact, he was not feeling well, and, as he not infrequently pointed out, he had discovered that one had to put up with many unpleasant things in that barbarous country. He described his symptoms feelingly, and was rather indignant when Gordon expressed neither astonishment nor sympathy.

"That's all right," said Gordon. "The thing's quite plain—especially the general lassitude you complain of. The trouble is that if you don't make an effort it's going to become chronic."

Again Waynefleet looked at him in astonishment, for Gordon's tone was very suggestive.

"Yes," added the medical adviser, "it's a complaint a good many men, who haven't been raised to work, are afflicted with. Well, I'll mix you up a tonic, and you'll drive down for it yourself. The thing won't be half as efficacious if you send the hired man. Then you'll set to every morning soon as breakfast's over, and do a couple of hours' smart chopping for a week. By that time you'll find it easy, and you can go on an hour or two in the afternoon. Nobody round here will recognize you, if you keep it up for the next three months."

Waynefleet's thin face grew red, but Gordon's imperturbable demeanour restrained him from betraying his indignation.

"You don't understand that I couldn't swing an axe for five minutes together," he objected.

"The trouble," answered Gordon, "is that you don't want to."

Waynefleet made an attempt to rise, but his companion laid a hand upon his arm and pressed him down again.

"You were anxious for my advice, and now I'm going to prescribe," Gordon continued. "Two hours' steady chopping every day, to be raised by degrees to six. Then I'd let up on smoking cigars of that kind, and practise a little more self-denial in one or two other respects. You could make things easier for Miss Waynefleet with the money you save."

He rose with a laugh. "Well, I'm going. All you have to do is to carry out my suggestions, and you may still make yourself and your ranch a credit to the district. In the meanwhile, this place would be considerably improved by a little ventilation."

He went out, and left Waynefleet gazing in indignant astonishment at the door he carefully fixed open. It seemed to Waynefleet almost incredible that such words should have been spoken to him, and the suggestion that at the cost of a painful effort he should endeavour to make himself a credit to that barbarous neighbourhood rankled most of all. He had felt, hitherto, that he had conferred a favour on the community by settling there. He lay still until his daughter came in and glanced at him inquiringly.

"You have seen Mr. Gordon?" she queried.

"I have," answered Waynefleet with fine disdain. "You will understand that if he comes back here, he must be kept away from me. The man is utterly devoid of refinement or consideration."

In the meanwhile Gordon was riding, circumspectly, down the rutted trail, and it was an hour later when he dismounted at the shanty of Nasmyth's workmen, and shared a meal with the gang employed on the dam. After that he sat with Nasmyth, who still limped a little, in the hut, from which, as the door stood open, they could see the men stream up into the Bush and out along the dam. The dam now stood high above the water-level, for the frost had bound fast the feeding snow upon the peaks above, though the stream roared and frothed through the two big sluice-gates. By-and-by, the ringing of axes and the clink of drills broke through the sound of the rushing waters. Gordon, who stretched himself out on a deer-hide lounge, smiled at Nasmyth as he lighted his pipe.

"I've been talking a little sense to Waynefleet this morning. I felt I had to, though I'm afraid it's not going to be any use," he announced.

"Whether you were warranted or not is, of course, another matter," said Nasmyth. "Perhaps you were, if you did it on Miss Waynefleet's account. Anyway, I don't altogether understand why you should be sure it will have no effect."

Gordon looked at him with a grin. "Well," he remarked oracularly, "it's easy to acquire an inflated notion of one's own importance, though it's quite often a little difficult to keep it. Something's very apt to come along and prick you, and you collapse flat when it lets the inflation out. In some cases one never quite gets one's self-sufficiency back. The scar the prick made is always there, but it's different with Waynefleet. He is made of self-closing jelly, and when you take the knife out the gap shuts up again. It's quite hard to fancy it was ever there."

Nasmyth nodded gravely, for there was an elusive something in his comrade's tone that roused his sympathy.

"Gordon," he said, "is it quite impossible for you to go back East again?"

Gordon leaned back in his chair, and glanced out across the toiling men upon the dam, at the frothing river and rugged hillside, with a look of longing in his eyes.

"In one way it is, but I want you to understand," he replied. "I might begin again in some desolate little town—but I aimed higher—and was once very nearly getting there. As it is, if I made my mark, the thing I did would be remembered against me. We'll let it go. As a surgeon of any account I'm done for."

"Still, it's a tolerably big country, and folks forget. You might, at least, go so far, and that would, after all, give you a good deal—a competence, the right to marry."

Gordon laughed, but his voice was harsh.

"This is one of the days on which I must talk. I feel like that, now and then," he said. Then he looked at Nasmyth hard. "Well, I've seen the one woman I could marry, and it's certain that, if I dare make her the offer, she would never marry me."

"Ah," said Nasmyth, "you seem quite sure of that?"

"Quite," declared Gordon, and there was, for a moment or two, an almost uncomfortable silence in the shanty.

Then he made a little forceful gesture as he turned to his companion again.

"Well," he said, "after all, what does it count for? Is it man's one and only business to marry somebody? Of course, we have folks back East, who seem to act on that belief, and in your country half of them appear to spend their time and energies philandering."

"I don't think it's half," said Nasmyth dryly.

"It's not a point of any importance, and we'll let it go. Anyway, it seems perilously easy for a man who gets the woman he sets his mind upon to sink into a fireside hog in the civilized world. Now and then, when things go wrong with folks of that kind, they come out here, and nobody has any use for them. What can you do with the man who gets sick the first time he sleeps in the rain, and can't do without his dinner? Oh, I 98 know all about the preservation of the species, but west of the Great Lakes we've no room for any species that isn't tough and fit."

He broke off for a moment. "After all, this is the single man's country, and—we—know that it demands from him the best that he was given, from the grimmest toil of his body to the keenest effort of his brain. Marriage is a detail—an incident; we're here to fight, to grapple with the wilderness, and to break it in, and that burden wasn't laid upon us only for the good of ourselves. When we've flung our trestles over the rivers, and blown room for the steel track out of the cañon's side, the oat-fields and the orchards creep up the valleys, and the men from the cities set up their mills. Prospector, track-layer, chopper, follow in sequence here, and then we're ready to hold out our hands to the thousands you've no use or food for back yonder. I'm not sure it matters that the men who do the work don't often share the results of it. We bury them beside our bridge trestles and under tons of shattered rock, and, perhaps, when their time comes, some of them aren't sorry to have done with it. Anyway, they've stood up to man's primeval task."

He rose with another half-deprecatory laugh, but his eyes snapped. "You don't talk like that in your country—it would hurt some of you—but if we spread ourselves now and then, you can look round and see the things we do." Then he touched Nasmyth's shoulder. "Oh, yes, you understand—for somebody has taught you—and by-and-by, you're going to feel the thing getting hold of you."

He moved towards the doorway, but turned as he reached it. "Talking's cheap, and I have several dozen blamed big firs to saw up, as well as Waynefleet's tonic to mix. He'll come along for it when that prick I gave him commences to heal."