The Greater Power/Chapter 7
LAURA MAKES A DRESS
THE frost had grown keener as darkness crept over the forest, and the towering pines about the clearing rose in great black spires into the nipping air, but it was almost unpleasantly hot in the little general room of Waynefleet's ranch. Waynefleet, who was fond of physical comfort, had gorged the snapping stove, and the smell of hot iron filled the log-walled room. There was also a dryness in its atmosphere which would probably have had an unpleasant effect upon anyone not used to it. The rancher, however, did not appear to feel it. He lay drowsily in a big hide chair, and his old velvet jacket and evening shoes were strangely out of harmony with his surroundings. Waynefleet made it a rule to dress for the six o'clock meal, which he persisted in calling dinner.
He had disposed of a quantity of potatoes and apples at the settlement of late, and had now a really excellent cigar in his hand, while a little cup of the Mocha coffee, brought from Victoria for his especial use, stood on the table beside him. Waynefleet had cultivated tastes, and invariably gratified them, when it was possible, while it had not occurred to him that there was anything significant in the fact that his daughter confined herself to the acrid green tea provided by the settlement store. He never did notice a point of that kind, and, if anyone had ventured to call his attention to it, he would probably have been indignant as well as astonished. As a rule, however, nobody endeavours to impress unpleasant facts upon men of Waynefleet's character. In their case it is clearly not worth while.
"Do you intend to go on with that dressmaking much longer?" he asked petulantly. "The click of your scissors has an irritating effect on me, and, as you may have noticed, I cannot spread my paper on the table. It cramps one's arms to hold it up."
Laura swept part of the litter of fabric off the table, and it was only natural that she did it a trifle abruptly. She had been busy with rough tasks, from most of which her father might have relieved her had he possessed a less fastidious temperament, until supper, and there were reasons why she desired an hour or two to herself.
"I will not be longer than I can help," she said.
Waynefleet lifted his eyebrows sardonically as he glanced at the scattered strips of fabric. "This," he said, "is evidently in preparation for that ridiculous pulp-mill ball. In view of the primitive manners of the people we shall be compelled to mix with, I really think I am exercising a good deal of self-denial in consenting to go at all. Why you should wish to do so is, I confess, altogether beyond me."
"I understood that you considered it advisable to keep on good terms with the manager," said Laura, with a trace of impatience. "He has bought a good deal of produce from you to feed his workmen with."
Her father made a gesture of resignation. "One has certainly to put up with a good deal that is unpleasant in this barbarous land—in fact, almost everything in it jars upon one," he complained. "You, however, I have sometimes wondered to notice, appear almost content here."
Laura looked up with a smile, but said nothing. She, at least, had the sense and the courage to make the most of what could not be changed. It was a relief to her when, a minute or two later, the hired man opened the door.
"If you've got the embrocation, I guess I'll give that ox's leg a rub," he said.
Waynefleet rose and turned to the girl. "I'll put on my rubber overshoes," he announced. "As I mentioned that I might have to go out, it's a pity you didn't think of laying out my coat to warm."
Laura brought the overshoes, and he permitted her to fasten them for him and to hold his coat while he put it on, after which he went out grumbling, and she sat down again to her sewing with a strained expression in her eyes, for there were times when her father tried her patience severely. She sighed as she contemplated the partly rigged-up dress stretched out on the table, for she could not help remembering how she had last worn it at a brilliant English function. Then she had been flattered and courted, and now she was merely an unpaid toiler on the lonely ranch. Money was, as a rule, signally scarce there, but even when there were a few dollars in Waynefleet's possession, it seldom occurred to him to offer any of them to his daughter. It is also certain that nobody could have convinced him that it was only through her efforts he was able to keep the ranch going at all. She never suggested anything of the kind to him, but she felt now and then that her burden was almost beyond her strength.
She quietly went on with her sewing. There was to be a dance at the new pulp-mill, which had just been roofed, and, after all, she was young, and could take a certain pleasure in the infrequent festivities of her adopted country. Besides, the forest ranchers dance well, and there were men among them who had once followed other occupations; while she knew that Nasmyth would be there—in fact, having at length raised his dam to the desired level, he would be to a certain extent an honoured guest. She was not exactly sure how she regarded him, though it was not altogether as a comrade, and she felt there was, in one sense, some justice in his admission that he belonged to her. She had, in all probability, saved his life, and—what was, perhaps, as much—had roused him from supine acquiescence, and inspired him with a sustaining purpose. After the day when she had saved him from abject despair over his ruined dam, he had acquitted himself valiantly, and she had a quiet pride in him. Moreover, she was aware of a natural desire to appear to advantage at the approaching dance.
There was, however, difficulty to be grappled with. The dress was old, and when remade in a later style would be unfortunately plain. The few pairs of gloves she had brought from England were stained and spotted with damp, and her eyes grew wistful as she turned over the stock list of a Victoria dry goods store. The thing would be so easy, if she had only a little more money, but she sighed as she glanced into her purse. Then she took up the gloves and a strip of trimming, and looked at them with a little frown, but while she did so there were footsteps outside, and the door was opened. A man, whom she recognized as a hired hand from a ranch in the neighbourhood, stood in the entrance with a packet in his hand.
"I won't come in," he said. "I met Nasmyth down at the settlement. He'd just come back from Victoria, and he asked me to bring this along."
He went away after he had handed her the packet, and a gleam of pleasure crept into Laura's eyes when she opened it. There was first of all a box of gloves of various colours, and then inside another packet a wonderful piece of lace. The artistic delicacy of the lace appealed to her, for though she possessed very few dainty things she was fond of them, and she almost fancied that she had not seen anything of the kind more beautiful in England.
As she unfolded it a strip of paper fell out, and the warm blood swept into her face as she read the message on it.
"Considering everything, I really don't think you could regard it as a liberty," it ran. "You have given me a good deal more than this."
Then for just a moment her eyes grew hazy. In proportion to the man's means, it was a costly gift, and, except for him, nobody had shown her much consideration since she had left England. She was a trifle perplexed, for she did not think there was lace of that kind on sale often in Victoria, and, in regard to the gloves, it was not evident how he had known her size. Then she remembered that one of the cotton ones she sometimes wore had disappeared some little time before, and once more the flush crept into her cheeks. That almost decided her not to wear his lace, but she felt that to refrain from doing so would raise the question as to how they stood with regard to one another, which was one she did not desire to think out closely then; and, after all, the lace was exactly what she wanted to complete the dress. She rolled it together, and put it and the gloves away, but she treasured the little note.
It was a week later when her father drove her to the pulp-mill in a jolting waggon, and arrived there a little earlier than he had expected. A dance usually begins with a bountiful supper in that country, but Waynefleet, who was, as a rule, willing to borrow implements or teams from his Bush neighbours, would seldom eat with them when he could help it. He was accordingly not quite pleased to find the supper had not yet been cleared away, but Laura, who understood what he was feeling, contrived to lead him into a vacant place at one of the tables. Then she sat down, and looked about her.
The great room was hung with flags and cedar boughs, and the benches down the long uncovered tables were crowded. The men's attire was motley—broadcloth and duck; white shirts, starched or limp, and blue ones; shoes with the creeper-spikes filed down, and long boots to the knees. There were women present also, and they wore anything from light print, put together for the occasion, to treasured garments made in Montreal or Toronto perhaps a dozen years before, but for all that the assembly was good to look upon. There was steadfast courage in the bronzed faces, and most of those who sat about the long tables had kindly eyes. The stamp of a clean life of effort was upon them, and there was a certain lithe gracefulness in the unconscious poses of the straight-limbed men. There was no sign of limp slovenliness about them. Even in their relaxation they were intent and alert, and, as she watched them, Laura realized something of their restless activity and daring optimism. They believe in anything that is good enough in that country, and are in consequence cheerfully willing to attempt anything, even if to other men it would appear altogether visionary and impossible, and simple faith goes a long way when supplemented by patient labour. Laura suddenly became conscious that the manager of the pulp-mill, a little wiry man, in white shirt and store clothes, was speaking at the head of the table.
"In one way, it's not a very big thing we have done, boys," he said; and Laura was quick to notice the significance of the fact, which was also characteristic of the country, that he counted himself as one of them. "We've chopped a hole in the primeval forest, held back the river, and set up our mill. That's about all on the face of it, but there's rather more behind. It's another round with Nature, and we've got her down again. It's a thing you have to do west of the Rockies, or she'll crush the life out of you. There are folks in the Eastern cities who call her beneficent; but they don't quite understand what was laid on man in Eden long ago. Here he's up against flood and frost and snow. Well, I guess we've done about all we can, and now that I've paid my respects to the chopper and carpenter-gang, there's another man I want to mention. He took hold of the contract to put us up our dam, and kept hold through the blamedest kind of luck. There's hard grit in him and the boys he led, and the river couldn't wash it out of them. Well, when the big turbines are humming and the mill's grinding out money for all of you, I guess you're going to remember the boys who built the dam."
There was a shout which shook the wooden building, and Laura sat very still when Nasmyth stood up. There was no doubt that he was a favourite with everybody there, and she knew that she had nerved him to the fight. He did not appear altogether at ease, and she waited with a curious expectancy for what he had to say. It was very little, but she appreciated the tact which made him use the speech his audience was accustomed to.
"I had a good crowd," he said. "With the boys I had behind me I couldn't back down." Then his voice shook a little. "Still, I was mighty near it once or twice. It was the boys' determination to hold on—and another thing—that put new grit in me."
Without being conscious of what he was doing, he swept his glance down the long table until it rested on Laura Waynefleet's face. She felt the blood creep into her cheeks, for she knew what he meant, but she looked at him steadily, and her eyes were shining. Then he spread his hands out.
"I felt I daren't shame boys of that kind," he said, and hastily sat down.
His observations were certainly somewhat crude, but the little quiver in his voice got hold of those who heard him, and once more the big building rang with cheering. As the sound of hearty acclamation died away there was a great clatter of thrust-back benches through which the tuning of a fiddle broke. Then out of the tentative twang of strings rose, clear and silvery, the lament of Flora Macdonald, thrilling with melancholy, and there were men and women there whose hearts went back to the other wild and misty land of rock and pine and frothing river which they had left far away across the sea. It may be that the musician desired a contrast, or that he was merely feeling for command of the instrument, for the plaintive melody that ran from shift to shift into a thin elfin wailing far up the sobbing strings broke off suddenly, and was followed by the crisp jar of crashing chords. Then "The Flowers of Edinburgh" rang out with Caledonian verve in it and a mad seductive swing, and the guests streamed out to the middle of the floor. That they had just eaten an excellent supper was a matter of no account with them.
Nasmyth, in the meanwhile, elbowed his way through the crowd of dancers until he stood at Laura's side, and as he looked at her, there was a trace of embarrassment in his manner. She wore his lace, but until that moment her attire had never suggested the station to which she had been born. Now she seemed to have stepped, fresh and immaculate, untouched by toil, out of the world to which he had once belonged. She was, for that night at least, no longer an impoverished rancher's daughter, but a lady of station. With a twinkle in his eyes, he made her a little formal inclination, and she, knowing what he was thinking, answered with an old-world curtsey, after which a grinning ox-teamster of habitant extraction turned and clapped Nasmyth's shoulder approvingly.
"V'la la belle chose!" he said. "Mamselle Laura is altogether ravissante. Me, I dance with no one else if she look at me like dat."
Then Nasmyth and Laura laughed, and glided into the dance, though, in the case of most of their companions, "plunged" would have been the better word for it. English reserve is not esteemed in that land, and the axemen danced with the mingled verve of grey Caledonia and light-hearted France, while a little man with fiery hair from the misty Western Isles shrieked encouragement at them, and maddened them with his fiddle. Even Nasmyth and Laura gave themselves up to the thrill of it, but as they swung together through the clashing of the measure, which some of their companions did not know very well, confused recollections swept through their minds, and they recalled dances in far different surroundings. Now and then they even fell back into old tricks of speech, and then, remembering, broke off with a ringing laughter. They were young still, and the buoyancy of the country they had adopted was in both of them.
The dance ended too soon, and, when the music broke off with a crash of clanging chords, Nasmyth led his partner out of the press into a little log-walled room where the half-built dynamos stood. It was lighted, but a sharp cool air and the fret of the river came in through a black opening in one wall. Laura sat upon a large deal case, and Nasmyth, looking down upon her, leaned against a dynamo. He smiled as he recognized that she grasped the significance of the throbbing roar of water.
"It was very pleasant while it lasted, but—and it's a pity—the music has stopped," he said. "What we are now listening to is the turmoil of a Canadian river."
Laura laughed, though there was a wistfulness in her eyes. "Oh, I understand, but couldn't you have let me forget it just for to-night?" she said. "I suppose that privilege was permitted to Cinderella."
The man felt curiously sorry for her as he remembered how hard her life was at the lonely ranch, but he knew she would not be pleased if he expressed his thoughts.
"Well," he observed reflectively, "a thing often looks most attractive when it's forbidden you, or a long way off, and, you see, there are always compensations. In fact, I'm beginning to come across quite a few of them."
He broke off for a moment, and Laura, who noticed that he looked at her, fancied she understood in what direction his thoughts were drifting; but he went on again with a laugh.
"After all," he said, "there are exiles who realize that they are in various ways better off than in all probability they would have been had they stayed in the land they were driven out of."
"Ah," answered Laura, "would you go back if you were given the opportunity?"
"No," Nasmyth asserted slowly, "I don't think I should do that—now."
Again she understood him, the more clearly because she saw by the slight wrinkling of his forehead, during the significant pause, that he had grappled with the question. She did not think he was altogether in love with her, but she knew, at least, that he did not wish to go away while she was left behind in Canada. It seemed desirable to change the subject, and she touched the lace.
"I have to thank you for this," she said. "It has given me pleasure." Then—and the words were wholly unpremeditated—she added: "I wanted to look well—just for once—to-night."
She was sorry, a moment later, when she saw the quick change in the man's expression, for she remembered that they had always seemed to understand what the other meant. It was clear that the qualification just for once had not misled him, but, after all, it seemed to her that he must presently realize that the admission was not one a reticent woman really in love with him would have made.
"Oh," he said, "you are always beautiful." Then his manner became deprecatory. "I didn't think you'd mind. In one way what I owe you makes me a privileged person. I felt that I could venture——"
This, too, was clear to her, and though she considered his attitude the correct one, it jarred a little upon her. She was content that they should be merely comrades, or, at least, that was what she had endeavoured to convince herself, but, after all, there was no reason why he should emphasize the fact.
"Yes," she replied quickly, "I think I understand." Then once more she changed the subject. "I want to compliment you on building the dam."
Nasmyth laughed, but there was a light in his eyes. "I should never have built it, if it hadn't been for you. Still"—and he made her a reverent bow—"I owe you a good deal more than that."
Laura made no response to this. She had thrilled at his achievement, when she had heard the manager's speech, and it became still plainer that there was a certain hazard in dwelling upon his success. She could also be practical.
"In one way," she said, "I suppose the result was not quite so satisfactory?"
"It certainly wasn't. Of course, the work is not quite completed yet, but after settling up everything, the interim payment left me with about fifteen dollars in hand."
Laura was not astonished at this, but she was more than a little perplexed, for she fancied that the lace she was wearing must have cost a good deal more than fifteen dollars. Still, she had no wish to make it evident that he had been extravagant; and, while she considered the matter, a man appeared in the doorway.
"I guess you two have got to come right out," he said. "What d'you figure you were asked here for?"
Nasmyth held his arm out, but when Laura would have laid her hand upon it, the man broke in with a grin.
"No, sir," he said severely, "Miss Waynefleet's going right round. Now you're coming along with me, and we'll show them how to waltz."
Laura smiled good-humouredly, and he swept her into the dance, while Nasmyth was seized upon by a girl, who drove him through it much as she did her brother's steers in the Bush.
"A bump or two don't count for much. What you want to do is to hump yourself and make things hum," said Nasmyth's partner, when another couple jostled them.
Nasmyth expressed his concurrence in a gasp, and contrived to save her from another crash, but when the dance was over, he felt limp, and was conscious that his partner was by no means satisfied with him.
"I'm sorry," he said. "Still, I really think I did what I could."
The girl regarded him half compassionately. "Well," she said, "it wasn't very much, but I guess you played yourself out building that blamed dam."