The Greater Power/Chapter 4

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CHAPTER IV
LAURA WAYNEFLEET'S WISH


IT was a hot summer evening, and a drowsy, resinous fragrance stole out of the shadowy bush when Nasmyth, who had now spent six months at Waynefleet's ranch, lay among the wineberries by the river-side. Across the strip of sliding water the sombre firs rose in a great colonnade from the grey rock's crest, with the fires of sunset blazing behind their wide-girthed trunks. The river was low and very clear, and the sound of it seemed to intensify the solemn stillness of the Bush. Nasmyth had come there to fish, after a long day of tolerably arduous labour, but he did not expect much success, though the trout rise freely just after sunset in those rivers. Indeed, he had almost forgotten that the rod and net lay near his side, for his employer's daughter sat on a fallen cedar not far away from him.

She had laid her hat aside, and, as it happened, two humming-birds that flashed, bejewelled, in a ray of ruddy light hung poised on invisible wings about the clustered blossoms of an arrow-bush that drooped above her head. She was, however, not looking at them, but watching Nasmyth with thoughtful eyes. Everything she wore was the work of her own fingers, but the light print dress became her curiously well.

"You have been here six months now," she said.

"I have," answered Nasmyth, with a little laugh. "I almost venture to think I do you credit, in view of the state I was in when I reached the ranch. If you hadn't taken me in hand, two or three days would probably have been the length of my stay."

The girl made no disclaimer. She was one who admitted facts, even when they did not chime with her wishes, and she still regarded Nasmyth thoughtfully. He certainly did her credit, so far as his physical appearance went, for his strength had fully come back to him, and, as he lay among the wineberries in an easy pose, his thin duck garments displayed the fine proportions of a figure that had been trained almost to muscular perfection by strenuous labour. The light of the paling sunset was on his bronzed face, and it revealed the elusive delicacy that characterized it. Nasmyth was certainly a well-favoured man, but there were respects in which his companion was not altogether satisfied with him. She had, as she admitted, restored him to bodily health, but, after all, that was only going so far, and she felt it was possible that she might accomplish a little more, though there was no very evident reason why she should wish to do so. Still, she was conscious of the wish.

"I was wondering," she said, "how long you would be content to stay."

Nasmyth gazed at her in evident astonishment. "Stay!" he exclaimed. "Oh, you can call it twenty years, if one must be precise."

"Ah!" replied Laura, "in one sense, that is an admission I'm not exactly pleased that you should make."

The man raised himself slowly, and his face became intent as he strove to grasp her meaning. He was not in the least astonished that she should speak to him as she did, for there are few distinctions drawn between the hired man and those who employ him on the Pacific slope, and he had discovered already that the girl was at least his equal in intelligence and education. In fact, he had now and then a suspicion that her views of life were broader than his. In the meanwhile it was in one respect gratifying to feel that she could be displeased at anything he might think or do.

"I'm not quite sure I see the drift of that," he said.

"You would be content to continue a ranch-hand indefinitely?"

"Why not?" Nasmyth asked, with a smile.

Laura once more looked at him with an almost disconcerting steadiness, and she had, as he was already aware, very fine eyes. She, however, noticed the suggestive delicacy of his face, which had, as it happened, more than once somewhat displeased her, and a certain languidness of expression, with which she had also grown almost impatient. This man, she had decided, was too readily acquiescent.

"That," she continued, "is rather a big question, isn't it?"

"Ah!" said Nasmyth reflectively. "Now I begin to understand. Well, I don't mind admitting that I once had ambitions and the means of gratifying them, as well as an optimistic belief in myself. That, however, was rudely shattered when the means were withdrawn, and a man very soon learns of how little account he is in Western Canada. Why shouldn't I be content to live as the ranch-hands do, especially when it's tolerably evident that I can't do anything else?"

"You are forgetting that most of them were born to it. That counts for a good deal. Have you noticed how far some of the others drift?" A faint trace of heightened colour crept into her cheeks. "Perhaps one couldn't blame them when they have once acquired the whisky habit and a Siwash wife."

Nasmyth lay very still for a few moments, resting on one elbow among the wineberries, for she had, after all, only suggested a question that had once or twice troubled him. It was, however, characteristic of him that he had temporized, and, though he knew it must be answered some day, had thrust it aside.

"Ah!" he exclaimed, "you want to send me away. Now, I had almost fancied I had made things easier in various ways for you, and we have been good comrades, haven't we? One could call it that?"

"Yes," agreed Laura slowly; "I think one could call it that."

"Then," returned Nasmyth, "why do you want me to go?"

It was difficult to answer, and, to begin with, Laura did not exactly know she desired him to leave the ranch—in fact, she was willing to admit that there were several reasons why she wished him to stay. Still, perhaps because she had watched over him in his sickness, and, so Gordon said, had snatched him back to life again, she had a certain pride in him, and vaguely felt that. In one sense, he belonged to her. She would not have him throw away the life she had saved, and she had recognized, as many of his English friends had not, the perilously acquiescent side of his character. He was, she feared, one who had an unfortunate aptitude for drifting.

"That," she said, "is rather more than I could explain either to myself or to you, but I will tell you something. They are going to build the pulp-mill down the valley, and they are now asking for tenders for the construction of the dam. The thing, I have heard, is not big enough to interest contractors from the cities, and most of the men round here have their hands full with their ranches."

Nasmyth became a trifle more intent. "Still," he remarked, "I have never built a dam."

"You told me you were rather a good chopper, and I think you are. You have made roads, too, and know how to handle giant-powder in the rock-cutting, and how to use the drill."

"There are shoals of men in this country who know considerably more about those things than I do."

Laura made a little impatient gesture. "Yes," she admitted, "there are, but they are simple Bushmen for the most part; and does intellect count for nothing at all? Are a trained understanding and a quick comprehension of no use when one builds a dam?"

Nasmyth frowned, though she saw a little glow kindle in his eyes. "I'm by no means sure that I possess any of those desirable qualities. Besides, there's a rather serious objection—that of finance."

Then Laura Waynefleet made it clear that she had considered the question, and she favoured the man with a glimpse of the practical side of her character.

"The stores give long credit, and partial payments are generally made as a work of that kind goes on. Then it is not a very unusual thing for workmen to wait for their wages until the contract is carried through."

Nasmyth lay still for at least another minute. He had gradually lost his ambition during the few years he had wandered through the Bush of British Columbia. The aimless life was often hard, but it had its compensations, and he had learned to value its freedom from responsibility and care. When he did not like a task he had undertaken, he simply left it and went on again. Still, he had had misgivings now and then when he noticed how far some of his comrades had drifted. Presently he rose slowly to his feet.

"Well," he said, "you're right, I think, and, if I'm given an opportunity, I'll undertake the thing. The credit will be yours if I'm successful."

The girl rose. "Then," she admonished, with a faint smile, "don't tell me that you have failed."

She turned away and left him somewhat abruptly, but Nasmyth did not resume his fishing, though he could hear the big trout splashing in the pool as the sunset light faded off the water. He lay down among the wineberries, which were scattered among the glossy leaves like little drops of blood, to think harder than he had thought for a considerable time. An hour ago, as he had told Laura Waynefleet, he would have been well content to stay on at the ranch, and, though she had roused him, he knew that it would cost him an effort to leave it. He was not, he fancied, in love with her. Indeed, he now and then admitted that she would probably look for more from the man who won her favour than there was in him, but the camaraderie—he could think of no better word for it—that had existed between them had been very pleasant to him.

He realized that he was in one sense hers to dispose of. She had, in all probability, saved his life, and now she was endeavouring to arouse his moral responsibility. She was sending him out to play a man's part in the battle of life. He admitted that he had shrunk from it, of late, or, at least, had been content to sink back among the rank and file. He had made the most of things, but that, he was beginning to realize, was, after all, a somewhat perilous habit. Laura Waynefleet evidently considered that a resolute attempt to alter conditions was more becoming than to accept them, even though one was likely to be injured while making it. He heard footsteps, and, looking up, saw Gordon sit down upon the cedar-log.

"I came to look at Wiston's hand, and walked across when I heard that Waynefleet hadn't been about," he explained. "I don't think you need feel any particular anxiety about your employer."

Nasmyth grinned at this. Waynefleet had spent part of one day chopping a big balsam, and was apparently feeling the effects of the very unusual exertion. Then Gordon took out his pipe.

"I guess you're fishing?" he observed.

"I came here to get a trout for breakfast."

"You look like it." Gordon smiled. "As it happened, I saw Miss Waynefleet crossing the clearing. It occurs to me that she may have said something that set you thinking."

"I wonder," said Nasmyth reflectively, "what made you fancy that?"

Gordon regarded him with a little twinkle in his eyes. "Well," he replied, "I have the honour of Miss Waynefleet's acquaintance, and have some little knowledge of her habits."

Men make friends with one another quickly in the Western forests, and Nasmyth had acquired a curious confidence in his companion, in spite of the story Gordon had told him. As the result of this he related part, at least, of what the girl had said. Gordon nodded.

"It's quite likely you'll get that contract if you apply for it. The folks about the settlement haven't sent an offer in," he said. "The notion is naturally Miss Waynefleet's. It's the kind of thing that would appeal to her, and, in a way, it's fortunate you have fallen into her hands. She's one of the protesters."

"The protesters?"

"Yes," answered Gordon; "I can't think of a better name for them, though it doesn't exactly convey all I mean. To make the thing a little clearer, we'll take the other kind—in this country they're best typified by the Indians. The Siwash found it a wilderness, and made the most of it as such. They took their toll of the salmon, and fed their ponies on the natural prairie grass. If we'd left it to them for centuries it would have remained a wilderness. We came, and found Nature omnipotent, but we challenged her—drove the steel road down the great cañon to bring us provisions in, dyked the swamp meadows, ploughed up the forest, and rent the hills. We made our protest, and, quite often, it was no more than that, for the rivers were too strong for us, and the Bush crept back upon our little clearings. Still, we never let go, and it's becoming evident that we have done more than hold our own."

He paused, and laughed in a deprecatory fashion before he went on again. "Now and then I have an outbreak of this kind," he added lightly. "The thing would make an epic, but, if one could write it, it wouldn't be worth while. The protest that counts in this land is made with the axe and drill."

The outbreak was comprehensible, for it must be remembered that the average Westerner, either by birth or adoption, is seldom a reticent man. He is, in fact, usually characterized by a daring optimism, and not infrequently filled to overflowing with the clean pride of achievement. One can hear this new-world enthusiasm bubble over on public platforms and at brilliant functions, as well as in second-rate saloons, but it is most forcibly expressed where men toil waist-deep in icy water building dyke and dam, or blast their waggon roads out of the side of the gloomy cañons. Their handiwork is not always beautiful, but one wonders to see what they have made of that great desolation.

Nasmyth lay still among the wineberries, for a minute or two, and, though a cold green transparency had replaced the fires of sunset behind the tall trunks now, and the trout were splashing furiously in the pool, he forgot all about the rod beside him as he pondered over a question which had often occurred to him.

"How is it that Miss Waynefleet is content to stay here?" he asked.

"You would hardly expect her to leave her father."

"No," said Nasmyth. "Any way, that is scarcely an answer. What keeps Waynefleet here? One wouldn't fancy he likes living in the Bush."

"It's a little curious that you haven't heard. Anyway, somebody is bound to tell you. Waynefleet had to get out of the Old Country. Some trouble about trust-money. He came out to Victoria and set up in the land agency business, but it was his misfortune that he couldn't keep out of politics. There are folks like that. When they can't handle their own affairs, they're anxious to manage those of the community. Somebody found out the story and flung it in his face. The man hadn't the grit in him to live it down; he struck up into the Bush and bought the half-cleared ranch."

For the next minute or two Nasmyth gazed straight in front of him with a very thoughtful face, for he had now a vague recollection of hearing or reading of the affair in which his employer had played a discreditable part. He had already decided that he was not in love with Laura Waynefleet—in fact, it was perhaps significant that he had done so more than once, but he had a warm regard for the girl who had saved his life, and, after all, his ideas were not quite so liberal as he fancied they had become in the Western forest. It was a trifle disconcerting to discover that she was the daughter of a swindler.

"It hurts?" inquired Gordon dryly.

Nasmyth rose. "To be frank," he admitted, "it does. Still, though the subject's a rather delicate one, I don't want you to misunderstand me. After all, Miss Waynefleet is not in the least responsible for anything her father may have done."

"That," said Gordon, "is a sure thing. Well, I must be hitting the trail home. Aren't you going to try for some of those trout in the pool?"

"No," answered Nasmyth, and his smile was a trifle grim; "I don't think I am."

He watched Gordon stride away through the undergrowth, and then, in the creeping dusk, went slowly back to the ranch. Waynefleet was out when he reached it, but Laura was sitting sewing by the lamp, and she looked at him sharply when he came in. He was unpleasantly conscious that the light was on his face. Then the girl laid down her sewing and turned fully towards him.

"I saw Mr. Gordon cross the clearing. He has told you why we are living here?" she said.

"I think," said Nasmyth, with a slowness that was very expressive, "it was not done out of unkindness."

"Oh, no," and Laura smiled in a rather curious fashion, "he had probably quite another motive." Then she leaned forward a little, looking at him steadily. "I knew that he would tell you."

Nasmyth stood still, with his forehead deeply furrowed, and an unusual gravity in his eyes. The girl's courage and serenity appealed to him, and he was conscious that his heart was beating rapidly. He said nothing, for a moment or two, and afterwards remembered how still the little room was, and how the sweet, resinous scent of the firs flowed in through the open window. Then he made a vague gesture.

"There is, perhaps, a good deal one could say; but I fancy most of it would savour of impertinence," he said. "After all, the thing doesn't affect you in any way."

Laura glanced down at her hands, and Nasmyth guessed what she was thinking, for they were hard, and work-roughened. The toil that her hands showed was, as he realized, only a part of her burden.

"I think it affects me a very great deal," she declared slowly.

Then a curious compassion for her troubled the man. She was young and very comely, and it was, he felt, cruelly hard on her that, bearing her father's shame, she must lead a life of hard labour at that desolate ranch. He felt an almost uncontrollable desire to comfort her, and to take her cares upon himself, but that was out of the question, since he was merely a ranch-hand, a Bush-chopper, who owed even the food he ate and the clothes he wore to her. There is, as he realized then, after all, very little one can do to lighten another's load, but in that moment the half-formed aspirations that she had called into existence in his mind expanded suddenly. There was, he felt, no reason why he should not acquire money and influence, once he made the effort.

"Miss Waynefleet," he said haltingly, "I can only offer you my sincere sympathy. Still"—and perhaps he did not recognize how clear the connection of ideas was—"I am going down to see about that dam-building contract to-morrow."

Then Laura smiled, and took up her sewing again. Her burden, as she realized, was hers alone, but she knew that this man would no longer drift. She had called up his latent capacities, and he would prove his manhood.