The Greater Power/Chapter 22

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CHAPTER XXII
NASMYTH SETS TO WORK

IT was a scorching afternoon on the heights above, where rocky slope and climbing firs ran far up towards the blue heavens under a blazing sun, but it was dim and cool in the misty depths of the cañon. There was eternal shadow in that tremendous rift, and a savage desolation rolled away from it; but on this afternoon the sounds of human activity rang along its dusky walls. The dull thud of axes fell from a gully that rent the mountain-side, and now and then a mass of shattered rock came crashing down, while the sharp clinking of the drills broke intermittently through the hoarse roar of the fall. Wet with the spray of the fall, Nasmyth, stripped to blue shirt and old duck trousers, stood swinging a heavy hammer, which he brought down upon the head of the steel bar that his companion held so many times a minute with rhythmic precision. Though they changed round now and then, he had done much the same thing since early morning, and his back and arms ached almost intolerably; but still the great hammer whirled about his head, and while he gasped with the effort, came down with a heavy jar upon the drill. So intent was he that he did not notice the three figures scrambling along the narrow log-work staging pinned against the rocky side above the fall, until his companion flung a word at him. Turning with a start, he dropped his hammer.

He saw Gordon hold out a hand to Laura Waynefleet, who sprang down from the staging upon the strip of smooth-worn stone that stretched out from the wall of the cañon above the fall. Wheeler was a few paces behind them. Nasmyth looked around for his jacket, and, remembering that he had left it in the gully, he moved forward to shake hands with his visitors.

"I scarcely expected to see any of you here. You must have had a hard scramble," he said.

Gordon waved his hand. "You don't say you're pleased, though after the trouble we've taken, it's a sure thing that you ought to be," he declared. "Anyway, I'm not going back up that gully until I've had supper. Wheeler's held up because his folks haven't sent him some machines, and I came along to see if I'd forgotten how to hold a drill. I don't quite know what Miss Waynefleet came for."

Laura laughed good-humouredly. "Oh," she said, "I have my excuse. My father is at Victoria, and I have been staying with Mrs. Potter for a day or two. She lent me a cayuse to ride over to Fenton's ranch, and the trail there leads close by the head of the gully."

Mattawa looked up at Gordon with a grin. "If you want to do some drilling, you can start right now," he remarked. "Guess Nasmyth doesn't know he has a back on him."

Gordon took up the hammer, and, when Wheeler went back to the gully to inquire whether one of the men at work there would undertake some timber-squaring he wanted done at the mill, Laura Waynefleet and Nasmyth were left together. It was wetter than was comfortable near the fall, and, scrambling back across the staging, they sat down among the boulders near the foot of the rapid that swirled out of the pool. Nasmyth looked at Laura, who smiled.

"I am afraid I have taken you away from your work, and I haven't Gordon's excuse," she said. "He, at least, is able to drill."

Nasmyth laughed. "I observe that Tom seems very careful of his hands," he returned. "As to the other matter, I am very glad you did come. After all, drilling isn't exactly a luxurious occupation; and while, as Tom remarked, I'm a little uncertain about my back, I'm quite sure I'm in possession of a pair of arms, because they ache abominably. Besides"—and his gaze was whimsically reproachful—"do you really think any excuse is needed for coming to see me?"

"In any case, I have one; there is something I want to say. You see, I have not come across you since the meeting at the settlement."

"I suppose you object to your father taking any share in our crazy venture?"

A faint flicker of colour crept into Laura's cheek. "You know I don't," she replied. "It is the one thing I could have wished for him; indeed, I shall be thankful if he takes a sustaining interest in the scheme, as he seems disposed to do. It will be of benefit to him in many ways. He grows moody and discontented at the ranch."

She broke off for a moment, and her voice had changed when she went on again. "There is one point that troubles me—you provided my father with the money to take his share in the venture."

"No," explained Nasmyth; "I think I can say that I didn't. I have merely set apart for him so many acres of swamp and virgin forest. He will have to earn his title to them by assisting in what we may call the administration, as well as by physical labour."

Laura looked at Nasmyth with quiet eyes. "Would you or Gordon consider it a good bargain to part with a single acre for all the advice he can offer you?" she asked.

Nasmyth sat silent a moment, gravely regarding her. There was a little more colour in her face, but her composure and her fearless honesty appealed to him. She was attired very plainly in a print dress, made, as he knew, by her own fingers. The gown had somehow escaped serious damage in the scramble down the gully. It harmonized with the pale-tinted stone, and it seemed to him that its wearer fitted curiously into her surroundings. He had noticed this often before, and it had occurred to him that she had acquired something of the strength and unchangeableness of the wilderness. Perhaps she had, though it is also possible that the quiet steadfastness had been born in her, and perfected slowly under stress and strain.

"Well," Nasmyth broke out impulsively, "if it had been you to whom we made that block over, I could have abdicated with confidence and have left it all to you."

Laura smiled, and Nasmyth became sensible that his face had grown a deeper red.

"Whatever made you say that?" she asked.

"I don't quite know." Nasmyth's manner was deprecatory. "After all, it's hardly fair to hold a man accountable for everything he may chance to say. Anyway, I think I meant it."

Something in his voice suggested that he was of the same mind still, but Laura glanced at him again.

"Aren't we getting away from the subject?" she queried. "The land you made over to my father must have cost you something. It is a thing I rather shrink from mentioning, but have you any expectation of ever getting the money back?"

Nasmyth did not exactly understand, until a considerable time afterwards, why he was so deeply stirred by what she had said, and he was quite mistaken in fancying that it was merely her courage that touched his heart. In the meanwhile, he was clearly sensible of at least a great pity for her.

"Well," he told her, "we can look at things openly, and not try to persuade ourselves that they're something else. I think that is one of the things that you have taught me. Now, suppose I haven't any expectation of the kind you mention. How does that count? Didn't you take me in when you found me lying in the snow? Isn't it practically certain that I owe my life to you? Admitting all that, is there any reason why you shouldn't permit me to offer you a trifling favour, not for your own sake, but your father's?"

He broke off for a moment with a forceful gesture. "I might, no doubt, have suppressed all this and made some conventional answer, but, you see, one has to be honest with you. Can you persuade yourself that I don't know what you have to bear at the ranch, and how your father's moody discontent must burden you? Isn't it clear that if he takes an interest in this project and forgets to worry about his little troubles, it will make life easier for both of you?"

Laura looked at him curiously. "After all, it is my life. Why should you be so anxious to make it easier?"

The question troubled Nasmyth. It seemed to go beyond the reason he had offered her a moment or two earlier. Indeed, it flashed upon him that the fact that he certainly owed a good deal to her was not in itself quite sufficient to account for the anxiety he felt.

"Well," he answered, "if the grounds I mentioned don't appear to warrant my doing what I did, I can't at the moment think of anything more convincing. It's one consolation that you couldn't upset the little arrangement now, if you wanted to. Your father's going into the thing headlong."

Somewhat to his astonishment the girl appeared embarrassed as she glanced away from him. It was a moment or two before she looked around again.

"Ah!" she exclaimed, "I don't want to upset it. He has not been so well and contented for several years. It has lifted him out of his moodiness." Then she leaned a little toward him. "I dare not refuse this favour from you."

Nasmyth was puzzled by a vague something in her manner.

"I certainly can't see why you should want to; but we'll talk of something else," he replied. "As you have noticed, I have set to work, though I expect it will be winter before we make any very great impression."

Laura glanced up the gloomy cañon, which was filled with the river's clammy, drifting mist. "Winter," she said, "will be terrible here. Then you are not going back to the coast or Victoria for some time?"

"Certainly not, if I can help it."

Nasmyth spoke without reflection, but he felt what he said, and it was a moment before he realized that he might have expressed himself less decisively. He saw the smile on Laura's lips.

"So you have heard?" he asked. "There was, of course, no reason why Gordon shouldn't have told you. It was a thing I had meant to do myself, only, as it happened, I haven't seen you. After that last speech of mine, I must explain that I feel there is a certain obligation on me to stay away. Miss Hamilton, as a matter of fact, is not engaged to me. Nothing can be settled until I carry out this project successfully."

Laura Waynefleet's face was very quiet, and he sat silent a moment or two, wondering somewhat uneasily what she was thinking. He was also slightly surprised at himself, for he realized that, after all, he had found it considerably easier to stay away than he had expected. Indeed, during the last few weeks, when every moment of his time had been occupied, he had thought of nothing except the work before him. It occurred to him for the first time that it was curious that he had been able to do so.

"You see," he made haste to explain, "in the meanwhile I must endeavour to put everything except this scheme out of my mind."

Again he was troubled by Laura Waynefleet's little smile.

"Yes," she said; "in one way, no doubt, that would be the wisest course. I'm not sure, however, that everybody would have sufficient strength of will."

Nasmyth said nothing further for a while, but—though he was probably not aware of this—his face grew thoughtful as he gazed at the river until his companion spoke again.

"Was it Miss Hamilton's wish that you should make your mark first?" she inquired.

"No," answered Nasmyth decisively; "I want you to understand that it was mine. She merely concurred in it."

He changed the subject abruptly. "Tell me about yourself."

"There is so little to tell. One day is so much like another with me, only I have been rather busier than usual lately. My father has had to cut down expenses. We have no hired man."

Nasmyth set his lips and half-consciously closed one hand. It seemed to him an almost intolerable thing that this girl should waste her youth and sweetness dragging out a life of unremitting toil in the lone Bush. Still, while her father lived, there was nothing else she could look forward to, and he could imagine how the long colourless years would roll away with her, while she lost her freshness and grew hard and worn with petty cares and labour that needed a stronger arm than hers. She might grow discontented, he fancied, and perhaps a trifle bitter, though he could not imagine her becoming querulous.

As yet there was a great patience in her steady eyes. Then it became evident that she guessed what he was thinking.

"Sometimes I feel the prospect in front of me is not a very attractive one," she responded in answer to his thoughts. "Still, one can get over that by not regarding it as a prospect at all. It simplifies the thing when one takes it day by day."

She smiled at him. "Derrick, you have done wisely. I think you need a sustaining purpose and a woman to work for."

Nasmyth's face paled. "Yes," he agreed dryly; "it is, perhaps, rather a significant admission, but I really think I do."

It was a relief to both of them that Wheeler came floundering along the shingle just then with a box and a coil of wire in his hand.

"I've brought you a little present, Nasmyth," he announced. "Firing by fuse is going to be uncertain when there's so much spray about, and I sent down for this electric fixing. We can charge it for you at any time at the mill. Have you put in any giant-powder yet?"

Nasmyth said they had not fired a heavy charge about the fall, but that there were several holes ready for filling, and Wheeler's eyes twinkled.

"I'm quite anxious to try this little toy," he said. "When I was young, a rancher gave me an old played-out shot-gun, and I was out at sun-up next morning to shoot something. That's the kind of being a man is, Miss Waynefleet. Put any kind of bottled-up power in his hands, and he feels he must get up and make a bang with it. After all, I guess it's fortunate that he does."

"Are all men like that?" Laura asked with a strange undertone in her voice.

"Most of them," said Wheeler, with an air of reflection. "Of course, you do run across one here and there who would put the bottled power carefully away for fear that, when it went off, it might hurt him or somebody. The trouble is that when a man of that kind at last makes up his mind to use it he's quite likely to find that the power has gradually leaked out of the bottle. Power's a very curious thing. If you don't use it, it has a way of evaporating."

Gordon had joined them in the meanwhile, and Laura looked at him.

"You agree with that?" she asked.

Gordon's smile was suggestively grim. "Oh, yes," he said. "I guess our friend now and then says some rather forceful things. Anyway, he has hit it with this one. For instance, there was that little matter of the man who was sick at his mill. A surgeon with nerve and hands could have fixed him up. We"—and he made an expressive gesture—"packed him out to Victoria."

He laughed harshly as he went on: "Well, that's partly why we're going to set our mark on this cañon, if it's only to make it clear that we're not quite played out yet. You'll ram that hole full of your strongest powder, Derrick."

Nasmyth turned and waved his hand to a man at the foot of the gully.

"Bring me down the magazine!" he ordered. "We're going to split that rock before supper."

The man, who disappeared, came back again with an iron box, and for the next few minutes Nasmyth, who scrambled about the rocks above the fall, taking a coil of thin wire with him, was busy. When he rejoined his companions, he led them a little further down the cañon until he pointed to a shelf of rock from which they had a clear view of the fall. A handful of men had clambered down the gully, and now they stood in a cluster upon the strip of shingle. Nasmyth indicated them with a wave of his hand before he held a little wooden box with brass pegs projecting from it up to Laura.

"It's the first big charge we have fired, and they seem to feel it's something of an event," he said. "In one way, it's a declaration of war we're making, and there is a good deal against us. You fit this plug into the socket when you're ready."

"You mean me to fire the charge?" inquired Laura.

"Yes," answered Nasmyth quietly. "It's fitting that you should be the one to set us at our work. If it hadn't been for you, I should certainly not have taken this thing up, and now I want to feel that you are anxious for our success."

A faint flush of colour crept into Laura Waynefleet's face. For one thing, Nasmyth's marriage to the dark-eyed girl whom Gordon had described to her depended on the success of this venture, and that was a fact which had its effect on her. Still, she felt, the scheme would have greater results than that, and, turning gravely, she glanced at the men who had gathered upon the shingle. They looked very little and feeble as they clustered together, in face of that almost overwhelming manifestation of the great primeval forces against which they had pitted themselves in the bottom of the tremendous rift. It seemed curious that they did not shrink from the roar of the river which rang about them in sonorous tones, and then, as she looked across the mad rush of the rapid and the spray-shrouded fall to the stupendous walls of rock that shut them in, the thing they had undertaken seemed almost impossible. Wheeler appeared to guess her thoughts, for he smiled as he pointed to the duck-clad figures.

"Well," he declared, "in one way they're an insignificant crowd. Very little to look at; and this cañon's big. Still, I guess they're somehow going through with the thing. It seems to me"—and he nodded to her with sudden recognition of her part in the project—"it was a pretty idea of Nasmyth's when he asked you to start them at it."

Laura remembered that the leader of the men had once said that he belonged to her. She smiled, and raised the hand that held the firing key.

"Boys," she said, "it's a big thing you have undertaken—not the getting of the money, but the beating of the river, and the raising of tall oats and orchards where only the sour swamp-grasses grew." She turned and for a moment looked into Nasmyth's eyes, as she added simply: "Good luck to you."

She dropped her hand upon the little box, and in another moment or two a rent opened in the smooth-worn stretch of rock above the fall. Out of it there shot a blaze of light that seemed to grow in brilliance with incredible swiftness, until it spread itself apart in a dazzling corruscation. Then the roar of the river was drowned in the detonation, and long clouds of smoke whirled up. Through the smoke rose showers of stones and masses of leaping rock that smote with a jarring crash upon the walls of the cañon. After that came a great splashing that died away suddenly, and there was only the hoarse roar of the river pouring through the newly opened gap. Laura turned and handed the box to Nasmyth.

"Now," she said, "I have done my part, and I am only sorry that it is such a trifling one."

Nasmyth looked at her with a gleam in his eyes.

He answered softly: "You are behind it all. It is due to you that I am making some attempt to use the little power in my possession, instead of letting it melt away."