The Greater Power/Chapter 17

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CHAPTER XVII
AN EVENTFUL DAY

IT was about eleven o'clock on a cloudy, unsettled morning when Nasmyth stood knee-deep in a swirling river-pool, holding a landing-net and watching Miss Hamilton, who stood on a neighbouring bank of shingle with a light trout-rod in her hand. The rod was bent, and the thin line, which was drawn tense and rigid, ripped through the surface of the pool, while there was also a suggestion of tension in the pose of the girl's figure. She was gazing at the moving line, with a fine crimson in her cheeks and a brightness in her eyes.

"Oh," she cried, "I'm afraid I'm going to lose it, after all."

Nasmyth smiled reassuringly. "Keep the butt well down, and your thumb upon the reel," he continued. "You have only to keep on a steady strain."

A big silvery object broke the surface a dozen yards away, and then, while the reel clinked, went down again; but the line was moving towards Nasmyth now, and, in another minute or two, he flung a sharp warning at the girl as he made a sweep with the net. Then he floundered ashore, dripping, with the gleaming trout, which he laid at her feet.

"You ran that fish very well," he told her. "In fact, there were one or two moments when I never expected you to hold it."

The colour grew a little plainer in his companion's face, though whether this was due to his commendation or to elation at her own success was a question. As she had just caught her first big fish, it was, perhaps, the latter.

"Oh," she said complacently, "it isn't so very difficult after all. But I wonder what can have become of the others of our party?"

It was at least an hour since Nasmyth had last seen their companions considerably lower down the river. He and Miss Hamilton had pushed on ahead of them into the Bush, which was a thing they had fallen into the habit of doing. The girl sat down on a boulder and seemed to be listening, but there was nothing to indicate the presence of any of the party. Except for the murmur of the river and the sighing among the pine-sprays high overhead, the Bush was very still, but it seemed to Nasmyth that there was more wind than there had been.

"I suppose we had better go back to them," observed the girl. The manner in which she spoke conveyed the impression that she would have been more or less contented to stay where she was with him; but next moment she added: "After all, they have the lunch with them, and it must have been seven o'clock when we breakfasted."

"Yes," said Nasmyth, "I think it was. Still, until this minute I had quite forgotten it."

"I certainly hadn't," said Violet Hamilton. "I don't think I ever had breakfast at seven o'clock in my life until this morning."

The fact had its significance to Nasmyth. It was one of the many little things that emphasized the difference between his life and hers, but he brushed it out of his mind, and they went back together down the waterside. Their progress was slow, for there was no trail at all, and while they laboriously plodded over the shingle, or crept in and out among the thickets, the wail of the breeze grew louder. Half an hour had passed when the faint hoot of the Tillicum's whistle reached them among the trees.

"What can the skipper be whistling for?" asked the girl.

"I fancy the wind is setting inshore moderately fresh, and he wants us to come off before it roughens the water," said Nasmyth.

They went on as fast as possible after that, though it was remarkably rough travelling; but they saw no sign of their companions, and the whistle, which had shrieked again, was silent, which evidently meant that the gig had already gone off. When they reached the inlet the river fell into, and found only the Tillicum's dinghy lying on the shingle, Nasmyth, looking down the lane of smooth green water somewhat anxiously, noticed that the sea was flecked with white. The Tillicum, as he remembered, was also lying well out from the beach.

"We had better get off at once," he said. "The breeze is freshening, and this dinghy isn't very big."

He helped the girl into the boat, and when he had thrust the little craft off sent her flying down the riband of sheltered water; but he set his lips and braced himself for an effort when they slid out past a point of froth-lapped shingle. There was already a white-topped sea running, and the spray from the oar-blades and the dinghy's bows blew aft into his companion's face in stinging wisps as he drove the plunging craft over it. Now and then an odd bucketful of brine came in and hit him on the back, while Miss Hamilton, who commenced to get very wet, shivered and drew her feet up as the water gathered deeper in the bottom of the boat.

"I'm afraid I must ask you to throw some of that water out," he said. "There is a can to scoop it up with."

The girl made an attempt to do so, but it was not surprising that in a few minutes, when the dinghy lurched viciously, she let the can slip from her fingers. Nasmyth set his lips tighter, and his face was anxious as he glanced over his shoulder. The sea was white-flecked between him and the Tillicum, which lay rolling wildly farther down the beach, at least half a mile away. It already taxed all Nasmyth's strength to drive the dinghy off shore, and every sea that broke a little more sharply than the rest splashed into the boat. He held on for another few minutes, glancing over his shoulder and pulling cautiously, for it was evident that he might fill the dinghy up or roll her over if he failed to swing neatly over the crest of some tumbling comber. In spite of his efforts, a wave broke on board, and sitting ankle-deep in water, he waited until there was a slightly smoother patch in front of him, and then swung the dinghy round.

"I'm afraid we'll have to make for the beach," he announced.

He would have preferred to head for the inlet, but that would have brought the little white seas, which were rapidly getting steeper, dangerously on her beam, and the thrust of one beneath her side probably would have been sufficient to turn the diminutive craft over. He accordingly pulled straight for the beach before the wind, and the perspiration dripped from his set face as he strove to hold the dinghy straight, when, with the foam boiling white about her, she swung up on the crest of a comber. Once or twice Nasmyth glanced at Violet Hamilton reassuringly, but she sat, half-crouching, against the transom, gazing forward, white in face, with her wet hair whipping about her. Nasmyth had not noticed it before, but her hat had evidently gone over. Speech was out of the question. He wanted all his breath, and recognized that it was not advisable to divert his attention for a moment from his task, for it depends very largely upon the man at the oars whether a diminutive dinghy keeps right side uppermost in any weight of breeze. Once or twice he risked a glance at the approaching land.

Sombre forest rolled down to the water's edge, and he could see that there was already a broad ribbon of frothy whiteness beneath it, while so far as he had noticed that beach consisted of rock ledges and very large boulders. It was about the last place he would have chosen to make a landing on, in a light and fragile dinghy.

After that, he looked resolutely astern over his companion's shoulders as she swung up between him and the sea with the slate-green ridges and tumbling white tops of the combers behind her. At length a hazarded glance showed him that they were close inshore, and he wondered for a moment whether he could swing the dinghy round without rolling the boat over. He did not think it could be done, and set his lips as he let her go, careering on a comber's crest, with at least half her length out of the water.

Then there was a white upheaval close alongside, and for a moment a black mass of stone appeared amidst the leaping foam. They swept by it, and he gasped with relief as he looked at Miss Hamilton.

"Get hold of me when she strikes," he said.

The dinghy swung round, twisting broadside-on with the brine pouring into her in spite of all that he could do; and while he tore at one oar, another white sea that curled menacingly rose up astern. It broke right into the boat, and in another moment there was a crash, and Nasmyth, who let the oars drop, stretched out his arms to the girl. He jumped when she clutched him, and found himself standing amid the swirling froth on what seemed to be a ledge of very slippery stone, with both arms about her, while the crushed-in dinghy swept up among the foam-lapped boulders. He sprang down from the stone as another sea came in, and floundered ashore waist-deep with it, after which he set his dripping companion down upon the beach.

"I'm afraid you're rather wet," he said, when he got his breath again. "Still, I really couldn't help it. There was a good deal more sea than I had expected."

Miss Hamilton, who sat down on a boulder with the water dripping from her skirt, looked ruefully at him and the dinghy, which was rolling over in the surf.

"How are we going to get off?" she inquired.

"Not in that dinghy, any way," answered Nasmyth. "She has knocked all one bilge in. They'll probably send the Tillicum's gig ashore for us by-and-by."

"But she's going away!" said the girl, with a gasp of consternation.

Nasmyth, who turned round, saw that this was certainly the case. A cloud of steam blew away from beside the yacht's funnel, and in another moment the shriek of a whistle reached him.

"I don't think we need worry about that," he remarked. "They evidently watched us get ashore. You see, with the breeze freshening she couldn't very well lie where she was. Still, if I remember, there's an inlet a couple of leagues or so away along the coast where she'd find shelter."

"But why didn't they send for us first?"

"The trouble is that there is really a nasty sea, and they couldn't very well take us off if they knocked a big hole in the gig. I fancy the wisest thing would be to walk towards that inlet along the beach."

They set off, when Nasmyth had pulled the dinghy out, but the beach was strewn with driftwood which was difficult to flounder over, as well as very rough. They made no greater progress when they tried the Bush. Fallen trees lay across one another, and there were thorny thickets in between, while, here and there, the undergrowth seemed as impenetrable as a wall. By-and-by it commenced to rain, and for an hour or two they plodded on dejectedly through the pitiless deluge. It rains exceedingly hard in that country. At last the girl sat down on a fallen tree. She had already lost her hat, and the water soaked out of Nasmyth's jacket, which he had tied by the arms about her shoulders. Her drenched skirt clung about her, rent to tatters, and one of her little shoes was caked with mire. The other gaped open.

"How far have we gone?" she asked.

"About a league," answered Nasmyth quietly. "I think we could make the inlet in another two hours. That is, if the beach isn't very much rougher."

The girl leaned against a branch wearily. "I'm afraid I can't go a step further," she replied with trembling lips.

The rain beat upon them, and Nasmyth stood still a moment looking at her.

"Well," he said, "we really can't stay here. Since there seems no other way, I think I could carry you."

His diffidence was evident, and Violet smiled. "Have you ever carried anybody—a distance—before?" she asked.

"No," said Nasmyth, "I certainly haven't."

"Then I don't think there would be much use in trying. You couldn't carry me for more than four or five minutes. That wouldn't be worth while, would it?"

Nasmyth said nothing for a minute or two, for he felt compassionate as well as a trifle confused. He had, in fact, already discovered that there are occasions when a young woman is apt to show greater self-possession and look facts in the face more plainly than a man. Then he set to work furiously with a branch which he tore from the fallen tree, ripping off rough slabs of bark, and in the course of half an hour had constructed a shelter about the base of a cedar. It, at least, kept the rain off when Violet sat under it.

"It might be as well if I pushed on for the inlet and brought George or Acton back with me," he suggested. "We could make something to carry you in, if there was too much sea for the gig."

A flush crept into the girl's face, and she looked at him reproachfully.

"How could I stay here alone?" she asked. "Don't say those foolish things. Come in out of the rain."

The bark shelter would just hold the two of them, and Nasmyth, dripping, sat down close beside her. She looked very forlorn.

"I'm sorry for you," he said awkwardly.

The girl showed faint signs of temper. "You have told me that before. Why don't you do something? You said you had lived in the Bush, and now you have only been a few hours in it. It was seven o'clock when we had breakfast. Can't you even make a fire?"

"I'm afraid I can't," answered Nasmyth deprecatingly. "You see, one has usually an axe and some matches, as well as a few other odds and ends, when one lives in the Bush. A man is a wretchedly helpless being when he has only his hands."

The fact was borne in upon Violet forcibly as she glanced out at the wet beach, tumbling sea, and dreary, dripping Bush. The Bush rolled back, a long succession of straggling pines that rose one behind the other in sombre ranks, to the rugged hills that cut against the hazy sky. There was, no doubt, all that man required to provide him with warmth and food and shelter in that forest, but it was certain that it was only by continuous and arduous toil that he could render it available. Indeed, since he could not make himself an axe or a saw or a rifle, it was also evident that his efforts would be fruitless unless backed by the toil of others who played their part in the great scheme of human co-operation.

It is, however, probable that Violet did not concern herself with this aspect of the matter, but she had led a sheltered life, and it was curiously disconcerting to find herself brought suddenly face to face with primitive realities. She was wet through and worn out, and although evening was not far away, she had eaten nothing since seven o'clock that morning. The momentary petulance deserted her.

"Oh!" she cried, "they mayn't be able to send off for us for perhaps a day or two."

"It is quite likely that the breeze will drop at sunset," Nasmyth replied cheerfully. "These westerly breezes often do. Anyway, the rain seems to be stopping, and I may be able to dry my matches. In the meanwhile I might come across something to eat. There are oysters on some of these beaches."

Violet glanced at the Bush apprehensively, and once more it was evident that she did not wish him to leave her. This sent a little thrill of satisfaction through him, and although he half-consciously contrasted her with Laura Waynefleet, it was not altogether to her disadvantage. It is a curious fact that some men, and probably women, too, feel more drawn to the persons upon whom they confer a benefit than to those from whom they receive one. Laura Waynefleet, he realized, would have urged him to make some attempt to reach the Tillicum, and in all probability would have insisted on taking a share in it, while his companion desired only to lean on him. After all, Laura's attitude was more pleasant to the subconscious vanity that was in his nature, and in this respect he probably differed but little from most of his fellows.

"You won't be very long away?" she said.

Nasmyth reassured her upon this point, and floundered down to the beach, where he carefully laid out to dry the little block of sulphur matches that he carried. Then he crawled among the boulders near low-water mark, and, since oysters are tolerably plentiful along those beaches, succeeded in collecting several dozen of them. After that he sat down and gazed seaward for a minute or two. There was no sign of the Tillicum, only a strip of dingy, slate-green sea smeared with streaks of froth, which shone white beneath a heavy, lowering sky. Close in front of him the sea hove itself up in rows of foam-crested ridges, which fell upon the boulders and swirled over them and among them a furious white seething. He fancied that it was near sunset, and it was clear that the breeze was a little lighter. It seemed to him just possible that four capable seamen might keep the gig afloat close enough to the beach for one to wade out to her, though there would be a certain peril in such a proceeding. Still, there were not four capable seamen on board the Tillicum!

Gathering up his matches, which had dried, Nasmyth went back to the bark shelter. He was pleasantly conscious of the relief in Miss Hamilton's eyes when he reached it, and fancied that she was too overwrought and anxious to care whether he noticed it or not; but he set about making a fire, and she helped him to collect brittle undergrowth and fallen branches. Then they sat down and ate the oysters that he had laid among the embers. He thought they were not in season, and they were certainly burnt and shrivelled, as well as somewhat gritty; but one is glad to eat anything after a long day of exertion, and Nasmyth watched his companion with quiet appreciation as she handled the rough shells daintily with little delicate fingers. Her evident reliance upon him had its effect.

He carried an armful of branches to the beach, and started another fire where it could be seen from seawards, after which he went back and sat outside the shelter near Miss Hamilton, while darkness crept up from the eastwards across the Bush. It grew dim and solemn, and the doleful wailing of the pines was curiously impressive. The girl shivered.

"The wind is very chilly," she said, with a tremor in her voice. "You will stay here where I can see you. You won't go away?"

"Only to keep up the fire on the beach," Nasmyth answered reassuringly.

She crept into the shelter, and he could see her dimly when the flickering light blazed up, but he could never remember how many journeys he made to the fire upon the beach before his eyes grew heavy as he sat amid the whirling smoke. He endeavoured to keep awake, and resolutely straightened himself once or twice, but at last his eyes closed altogether, and he did not hear the shriek of the Tillicum's whistle ring far across the shadowy Bush. Indeed, he did not waken when Acton and Wisbech came floundering into the light of the fire; and the two men looked at each other when they stopped beside it and saw him lying there, and then discovered the girl inside the shelter. Acton raised his hand warningly, while a faint twinkle crept into his eyes.

"I guess there's no reason why anybody else should hear of this," he said. "It seems to me that Miss Hamilton would be just as well pleased if we were not around when she awakens."

He stooped and shook Nasmyth's shoulder as Wisbech disappeared among the shadows.

"Get up," said Acton. "Wait until I get away, and then waken her."

It was a minute before Nasmyth, who stood up stiffly, quite understood him, and then the blood rose to his face as he crept into the shelter and touched the girl. She sprang to her feet with a little cry and clutched his arm. Then she suddenly let her hand fall back, and her cheeks flushed crimson.

"The steamer's close by," said Nasmyth reassuringly. "They have sent for us at last."

They went out together, and it was a minute or two later when they came upon Wisbech and Acton in the Bush. Nasmyth entered into confused explanations as they proceeded towards the beach. The sky was a little lighter when they reached it, and standing near the sinking fire, they could dimly see the gig plunging amidst the froth and spray. Then George's voice reached them.

"Can't you let us have them, Mr. Acton? It's most all we can do to keep her off the beach," he said.

Acton glanced at the strip of tumbling foam—through which he had waded waist-deep—between them and the boat, and Nasmyth turned towards Miss Hamilton, who, to his astonishment, recoiled from him. Acton, however, made him a sign of command.

"I guess," he said, "she'd be safer with you."

Nasmyth said nothing, but he picked the girl up, as unconcernedly as he could, for the second time that day, and staggered down the rough beach with her. He contrived to keep his footing when a frothing sea broke against him, and, floundering through the seething water, reached the lurching boat. George seized his burden, and gently deposited it in one of the seats. Scrambling on board, Nasmyth groped for an oar, and in another minute or two they laboriously drove the gig out towards the blinking lights of the Tillicum.