The Greater Power/Chapter 14

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CHAPTER XIV
IN THE MOONLIGHT

THERE was a full moon in the clear blue heavens, and its silvery light streamed into the pillared veranda where Nasmyth sat, cigar in hand, on the seaward front of James Acton's house, which stood about an hour's ride from Victoria on the Dunsmer railroad. Like many other successful men in that country, Acton had begun life in a three-roomed shanty, and now, when, at the age of fifty, he was in possession of a comfortable competence, he would have been well content to retire to his native settlement in the wilderness. There was, however, the difficulty that the first suggestion of such a course would have been vetoed by his wife, who was an ambitious woman, younger than he, and, as a rule, at least, Acton submitted to her good-humouredly. That was why he retained his seat on several directorates, and had built Bonavista on the bluff above the Straits of Georgia, instead of the ranch-house in the Bush he still hankered for.

Bonavista had cost him much money, but Mrs. Acton had seen that it was wisely expended, and the long wooden house, with its colonnades of slender pillars, daintily sawn scroll-work, shingled roof, and wide verandas, justified her taste. Acton reserved one simply furnished room in it for himself, and made no objections when she filled the rest of it with miscellaneous guests. Wisbech had brought him a letter from a person of consequence, and he had offered the Englishman and his nephew the freedom of his house. He would not have done this to everybody, though they are a hospitable people in the West, but he had recognized in the unostentatious Wisbech one or two of the characteristics that were somewhat marked in himself, and his wife, as it happened, extended her favour to Nasmyth as soon as she saw him. She had been quick to recognize something she found congenial in his voice and manner, though none of the points she noticed would in all probability have appealed to her husband. Acton leaned upon the veranda balustrade, with a particularly rank cigar in his hand, a gaunt, big-boned man in badly-fitting clothes. It was characteristic of him that he had not spoken to Nasmyth since he stepped out from one of the windows five minutes earlier.

"It's kind of pretty," he said, indicating the prospect with a little wave of his hand.

Nasmyth admitted that it was pretty indeed, and his concurrence was justified. Sombre pinewoods and rocky heights walled in the wooden dwelling, but in front of it the ground fell sharply away, and beyond the shadow of the tall crags a blaze of moonlight stretched eastwards athwart the sparkling sea.

"Well," said Acton, "it's 'most as good a place for a house as I could find anywhere the cars could take me into town, and that's partly why we raised it here."

Then he glanced down at the little white steamer lying in the inlet below. "That's one of my own particular toys. You're coming up the coast with us next week for the salmon-trolling?"

Nasmyth said that he did not know what his uncle's intentions were, but he was almost afraid they had trespassed on their host's kindness already. Acton laughed.

"We have folks here for a month quite often—folks that I can't talk to and who don't seem to think it worth while to talk to me. Now I can get along with your uncle; I can mostly tell that kind of man when I see him. You have got to let him stay some weeks yet. It would be in one way a kindness to me. What makes the thing easier is the fact that Mrs. Acton has taken to you, and when she gets hold of anyone she likes, she doesn't let him go."

Nasmyth was content to stay, and he felt that it would be a kindness to his host. Acton appeared willing to fall in with the views of his wife, but Nasmyth fancied that he was now and then a little lonely in his own house.

"Both of you have done everything you could to make our stay pleasant," Nasmyth declared.

"It was quite easy in your case," and a twinkle crept into his host's eyes. "Your uncle's the same kind of a man as I am, and one can see you have been up against it since you came to this country. That's one of the best things that can happen to any young man. I guess it's not our fault we don't like all the young men they send us out from the Old Country." He glanced down at his cigar. "Well, I've pretty well smoked this thing out. It's the kind of cigar I was raised on, but I'm not allowed to use that kind anywhere in my house."

In another moment Acton swung round, and stepped back through an open window. He generally moved abruptly, and was now and then painfully direct in conversation, but Nasmyth had been long enough in that country to understand and to like him. He was a man with a grip of essential things, but it was evident that he could bear good-humouredly with the views of others.

Nasmyth sat still after Acton left him. There were other guests in the house, and the row of windows behind him blazed with light. One or two of the big casements were open, and music and odd bursts of laughter drifted out. Somebody, it seemed, was singing an amusing song, but the snatches of it that reached Nasmyth struck him as pointless and inane. He had been at Bonavista a week, but, after his simple, strenuous life in the Bush, he felt at times overwhelmed by the boisterous vivacity with which his new companions pursued their diversions. There are not many men without an occupation in the West, but Mrs. Acton knew where to lay her hands on them, and her husband sometimes said that it was the folks who had nothing worth while to do who always made the greatest fuss. But Nasmyth found it pleasant to pick up again the threads of the life which he had almost come to the conclusion that he had done with altogether. It was comforting to feel that he could sleep as long as he liked, and then rise and dress himself in whole, dry garments, while there was also a certain satisfaction in sitting down to a daintily laid and well-spread table when he remembered how often he had dragged himself back to his tent almost too worn out to cook his evening meal. On the whole, he was glad that Acton had urged him to remain another week or two.

Then he became interested as a girl stepped out of one of the lighted windows some little distance away, and, without noticing him, leaned upon the veranda balustrade. The smile in her eyes, he fancied, suggested a certain satisfaction at the fact that what she had done had irritated somebody. Why it should do so he did not know, but it certainly conveyed that impression. In another minute a man appeared in the portico, and the manner in which he moved forward, after he had glanced along the veranda, was more suggestive still. The girl who leaned on the balustrade no doubt saw him, and she walked towards Nasmyth, whom, apparently, she had now seen for the first time. Nasmyth thought he understood the reason for this, and, though it was not exactly flattering to himself, he smiled as he rose and drew forward another chair. He believed most of Mrs. Acton's guests were acquainted with the fact that he was an impecunious dam-builder.

The girl, who sat down in the chair he offered, smiled when he flung his half-smoked cigar away, and Nasmyth laughed as he saw the twinkle in her eyes, for he had stopped smoking with a half-conscious reluctance.

"It really was a pity, especially as I wouldn't have minded in the least," she observed.

Nasmyth glanced along the veranda, and saw that the man, who had discovered that there was not another chair available, was standing still, evidently irresolute. Probably he recognized that it would be difficult to preserve a becoming ease of manner in attempting to force his company upon two persons who were not anxious for it, and were sitting down. Nasmyth looked at the girl and prepared to undertake the part that he supposed she desired him to play. She was attired in what he would have described as modified evening dress, and her arms and neck gleamed with an ivory whiteness in the moonlight. She was slight in form, and curiously dainty as well as pretty. Her hair was black, and she had eyes that matched it, for they were dark and soft, with curious lights in them, but, as she settled herself beside him in the pale moonlight it seemed to him that "dainty" did not describe her very well. She was rather elusively ethereal.

"I really don't think you could expect me to make any admission of that kind about my cigar, Miss Hamilton," he said. "Still, it would perhaps have been excusable. You see, I have just come out of the Bush."

Violet Hamilton smiled. "You are not accustomed to throw anything away up there?"

"No," answered Nasmyth, with an air of reflection; "I scarcely think we are. Certainly not when it's a cigar of the kind Mr. Acton supplies his guests with."

He imagined that his companion satisfied herself that the man she evidently desired to avoid had not gone away yet, before she turned to him again.

"Aren't you risking Mrs. Acton's displeasure in sitting out here alone?" she inquired. "You are probably aware that this is not what she expects from you?"

"I almost think the retort is obvious." And Nasmyth wondered whether he had gone further than he intended, when he saw the momentary hardness in his companion's eyes. It suggested that the last thing her hostess had expected her to do was to keep out of the way of the man who had followed her on to the veranda. He accordingly endeavoured to divert her attention from that subject.

"Any way, I find all this rather bewildering now and then," he said, and indicated the lights and laughter and music in the house behind him with a little movement of his hand. "This is a very different world from the one I have been accustomed to, and it takes some time to adapt oneself to changed conditions."

He broke off as he saw the other man slowly turn away. He looked at the girl with a smile. "I can go on a little longer if it appears worth while."

Violet Hamilton laughed. "Ah," she said, "one should never put one's suspicions into words like that. Besides, I almost think one of your observations was a little misleading. There are reasons for believing that you are quite familiar with the kind of life you were referring to."

It was clear to Nasmyth that she had been observing him, but he did not realize that she was then watching him with keen, half-covert curiosity. He was certainly a well-favoured man, and though his conversation and demeanour did not differ greatly from those of other young men she was accustomed to; there was also something about him which she vaguely recognized as setting him apart from the rest. He was a little more quiet than most of them, and there were a certain steadiness in his eyes, and a faint hardness in the lines of his face, which roused her interest. He had been up against it, as they say in that country, which is a thing that usually leaves its mark upon a man. It endues him with control, and, above all, with comprehension.

"Oh," he said, "a man not burdened with money is now and then forced to wander. He naturally picks up a few impressions here and there. I wonder if you find it chilly sitting here?"

The girl rose, with a little laugh. "That," she said, "was evidently meant to afford me an opportunity. I think I should like to go down to the Inlet."

Nasmyth, who understood this as an invitation, went with her, and, five minutes later, they strolled out upon the crown of the bluff, down the side of which a little path wound precipitously. Nasmyth held his hand out at the head of it, and they went down together cautiously, until they stood on the smooth white shingle close by where the little steamer lay. The girl looked about her with a smile of appreciation.

A lane of dusky water, that heaved languidly upon the pebbles, ran inland past them under the dark rock's side, and it was very still in the shadow of the climbing firs. On the further shore a flood of silvery radiance, against which the dark branches cut black as ebony, streamed down into the rift, and beyond the rocky gateway there was brilliant moonlight on the smooth heave of sea. The girl glanced at it longingly, and then, though she said nothing, her eyes rested on a little beautifully modelled cedar canoe that lay close by. In another moment Nasmyth had laid his hands on it, and she noticed how easily he ran it down the beach, as she had noticed how steady of foot he was when she held fast to his hand as they came down the bluff. With a curious little smile that she remembered afterwards, he glanced towards the shadowy rocks which shut in the entrance to the Inlet.

"Shall we go and see what there is out yonder beyond those gates?" he asked.

"Ah," replied the girl, "what could there be? Aren't you taking an unfair advantage in appealing to our curiosity?"

Nasmyth made a whimsical gesture as he answered her, for he saw that she could be fanciful, too. "Unsubstantial moonlight, glamour, mystery—perhaps other things as well," he said. "If you are curious, why shouldn't we go and see?"

She made no demur, and helping her into the canoe, he thrust the light craft off, and, with a sturdy stroke of the paddle, drove it out into the Inlet. It was a thing he was used to, for he had painfully driven ruder craft of that kind up wildly-frothing rivers, and the girl noticed the powerful swing of his shoulders and the rhythmic splash of his paddle, though there were other things that had their effect on her—the languid lapping of the brine on shingle, and the gurgle round the canoe, that seemed to be sliding out towards the moonlight through a world of unsubstantial shadow. She admitted that the man interested her. He had a quick wit and a whimsical fancy that appealed to her, but he had also hard, workman's hands, and he managed the canoe as she imagined one who had undertaken such things professionally would have done.

When the shimmering blaze of moonlight lay close in front of them, he let his paddle trail in the water for a moment or two, and, turning, glanced back at the house on the bluff. Its lower windows blinked patches of warm orange light against the dusky pines.

"That," he said, "in one respect typifies all you are accustomed to. It stands for the things you know. Aren't you a little afraid of leaving it behind you?"

"I think I suggested that you were accustomed to them, too!"

Nasmyth laughed. "Oh," he said, "I was turned out of that world a long while ago. We are going to see a different one together."

"The one you know?"

"Well," returned the man reflectively, "I'm not quite sure that I do. It's the one I live in, but that doesn't go very far after all. Now and then I think one could live in the wilderness a lifetime without really knowing it. There's an elusive something in or behind it that evades one—the mystery that hides in all grandeur and beauty. Still, there's a peril in it. Like the moonlight, it gets hold of you."

The girl fancied that she understood him, but she wondered how far it was significant that they should slide out into the flood of radiance together when he once more drove the light craft ahead.

The smooth sea shimmered like molten silver about the canoe, and ran in sparkling drops from the dripping paddle. The bluff hung high above them, a tremendous shadowy wall, and the sweet scent of the firs came off from it with the little land breeze. They swung out over the smooth levels that heaved with a slow, rhythmic pulsation, and Nasmyth wondered whether he was wise when he glanced at his companion. She sat still, looking about her dreamily, very dainty—almost ethereal, he thought—in that silvery light, and it was so long since he had talked confidentially to a woman of her kind, attired as became her station. Laura Waynefleet's hands, as he remembered, were hard and sometimes red, and the stamp of care was plain on her; but it was very different with Violet Hamilton. She was wholly a product of luxury and refinement, and the mere artistic beauty of her attire, which seemed a part of her, appealed to his imagination.

He did not remember how she set him talking, but he told her whimsical, and now and then grim, stories of his life in the shadowy Bush, and she listened with quick comprehension. She seemed to endow him with that quality, too, since, as he talked, he began to realize, as he had never quite comprehended before, the something that lay behind the tense struggle of man with Nature and all the strenuous endeavour. Perhaps he expressed it in a degree, for now and then the girl's eyes kindled as he told of some heroic grapple with giant rock and roaring river, gnawing hunger, and loneliness, and the beaten man's despair. He found her attention gratifying. It was certainly pleasant, though he had not consciously adopted the pose, to figure in the eyes of such a girl as one who had known most of the hardships that man can bear and played his part in the great epic struggle for the subjugation of the wilderness. As it happened, she did not know that those who bear the brunt of that grim strife are for the most part dumb. Their share is confined to swinging the axe and gripping the jarring drill.

It was an hour after they left the Inlet when the land breeze came down a little fresher, and swinging the canoe round, he drove it back over a glittering sea that commenced to splash about the polished side of the light craft. Then both of them ceased talking until, as they approached the shadowy rift in the rock, the girl looked back with a laugh.

"It is almost a pity to leave all that behind," she said softly.

Nasmyth nodded as he glanced up at the lighted windows of the house. "In one sense it is. Still, it's rather curious that I think I never appreciated it quite so much before." He let his paddle trail as he wondered whether he had gone too far. "I suppose you are going up the coast with Mrs. Acton in the steamer?" he inquired.

"Yes," answered Violet Hamilton, with an air of reflection; "I was not quite sure whether I would or not, but now I almost think I will."

Nasmyth was sensible of a little thrill of satisfaction, for he knew it was understood at Bonavista that he was going too. He decided that he could certainly go. He dipped his paddle strongly, and laughed as they slid forward into the shadow.

"Now," he said, "you are safely back in your own realm again."

"You called it a world a little while ago," said the girl.

"I did," replied Nasmyth. "Still, I almost think the word I substituted is justifiable."

Violet Hamilton said nothing as they climbed the bluff, but she wondered how far the change he had made was significant. All the men at Bonavista were her subjects, but until that night, at least, Nasmyth had in that sense stood apart from them, and it is always more or less gratifying to extend one's sovereignty.