Under Sealed Orders by H. A. Cody
Chapter I. The Lure of Falling Water
It was evening and a late April wind was whipping down the valley. It swayed the tops of the tall pine and spruce trees as they shouldered up from the swift brook below. It tossed into driving spray the water of Break Neck Falls where it leaped one hundred feet below with a thundering roar and swirl. It tossed as well the thin grey hair, long beard, and thread-bare clothes of an old man standing upon a large rock which towered high above the stream.
The entire scene was wild and made weird by the approach of night. But the old man did not seem to notice anything except the falling of the waters. His eyes glowed with an intense light as he kept them fixed upon the leaping and swirling columns below. His face was like the face of a lover turned toward the object of his affection.
For some time the man stood there drinking in the scene before him. Then he took a step forward which brought him perilously near the edge of the steep rock. His lips moved though no sound could be heard for the tumult of the falls which was rending the air. What connection had such a man with his surroundings? No boor or clown was he, for the simple dignity of face and manner marked him as one of Nature's true gentlemen.
It was almost dark when he at last reluctantly left the rock and entered the thick woods where a trail led away from the falls. Along this he moved with the unerring instinct of one who had travelled it often and was sure of his bearings. But ever and anon he paused to listen to the sound of the falling waters which followed him like the voice of a loved one urging him to return.
"Yes, you want me," he at length cried, as he once more paused. "I hear your voice calling, and I know its meaning. Others need you, too, but they do not know it. You have been calling to them for years, but they have not understood your language. It was left for me to listen and take heed. They will some day, and then you will show your power. I can see what you will do, beautiful falls, and the changes which will come to this fair land when your luring voice is heeded."
He stood for awhile as if entranced after uttering these mystic words. Then he continued on his way and night wrapped more closely about him her dark mantle. He had to walk very cautiously now for the trail was rough, and there were sharp stones and roots ready to strike his feet and trip him up.
At length the trail ended and he reached the smooth surface of the broad highway. Along this he sped with the quick elastic step of one who has seen a vision. The fire of a great idea was burning fiercely within him which caused him to take no heed to his surroundings.
He had not gone far, however, ere some strong impulse caused him to pause again and listen to that fascinating sound of falling waters far off in the distance. It was on an elevation in the road where he stopped, and here the shadows which enwrapped the forest were not so heavy. The lingering light of departing day was still in the west and touched this part of the highway with its faint glow. It brought out into clear relief the silhouette of the old man as he stood there with his right hand placed to his ear so as not to miss the least sound drifting down the valley.
So intent was he upon what he heard that he did not notice the sounds of approaching footsteps, so when a man stopped a few yards away and watched him curiously, he was completely unaware of his presence. "Ring on, sweet waters," he cried. "Your voice follows me no matter how far I go. I alone can understand your language, and know what you are saying. All are deaf but me. They hear but do not know your meaning." He ceased, and again listened for a few seconds.
A strange half-mocking laugh startled him, and caused him to look quickly around. Seeing that he was observed, he was about to hurry away, when a man stepped forward.
"Pardon me," he began. "I did not mean to offend you. But your words seem so strange, that I could not help laughing."
"And were you listening to the voice?" the old man eagerly asked. "Do the falling waters speak to you as they do to me? Is that why you are here?"
"Yes, I hear them," was the reply. "But they do not bring any special message to my mind."
"And they do not tell you of power, of the wonderful things they are ready and willing to do when men will heed what they are saying?"
"No, I can't say that they do. They make a noise up there among the trees, but I do not know what they are saying."
"Strange, strange," and the old man placed his hand to his forehead. "You are like all the rest, then. You hear but you do not understand."
"What do you hear?" the newcomer asked, thinking that he was talking to a weak-minded creature.
"I hear great things, which will be for the welfare of the whole community. The waters tell me what they will do. They will make life worth living. They will give light and power to the people all along the river and revolutionise their daily tasks. Instead of hard labour by the sweat of the brow, the waters will do the work. People will be happy, and have time for the beautiful things of life. Grinding toil and sorrow will be banished forever."
"Umph! So that is what you hear, eh? What is the good of hearing such a voice, if you have no power to make it come true?"
"But the people will hear and understand," the old man insisted. "I am telling them about it."
"Yes, I know you are, and they think you are a fool for your efforts. They laugh at you, and call you crazy."
"But they will come to see that I am right. They, too, will hear the voice, and then they will not be able to resist its pleadings."
"If you had the money they would listen to you, for that is the only voice people will heed to-day. If you came here with an abundance of gold, people would hear anything you asked them to in the falls up yonder. But because you are poor, like myself, your ideas will have no more weight with them than the lightest feather. Back your visions with money and people will crowd around you, and you will be heeded. But try to get along without money, and, bah! you are a fool."
Scarcely had these words left his lips ere a raucous honk up the road startled him. Then an auto with blazing lights leaped out of the night. The old man was standing right in its way, unconscious of his danger. Almost instinctively two strong hands clutched him and hurled him into the ditch as the car swept past. Shouts of merriment sounded forth upon the night air from the occupants of the car. The fright they had given the two by the side of the road evidently gave them much amusement. Their laughter caused the rescuer to straighten suddenly up, and clutch the old man fiercely by the arm.
"Did you hear them?" he asked, and his voice was filled with suppressed emotion.
"Yes," was the reply. "They are only thoughtless youths having a good time, I suppose."
"It's just what money does, though. I know who they are, for I caught a glimpse of them as they sped past. It's money that talks with them; that is the only voice they hear. They will ride over the less fortunate, and crush them down as worms beneath their feet. They have been doing it for ages, and look upon it as their right. What do they care about the meaning of the falling waters when they are always listening to the voice of money. Curse them. Why should they revel and sport with ill-got gains, when honest men can hardly get enough to keep breath in their bodies."
The young man was standing erect now on the side of the road. His companion shrank away somewhat fearful lest he should turn upon him and smite him.
"You seem to have suffered," he at length remarked. "You appear to be annoyed at people who have money."
"And why shouldn't I?" was the savage reply. "Haven't I suffered at their hands, young as I am? Haven't I been scorned by them to the limit of all endurance? Haven't they made a mock of me for years, calling me names behind my back? And why? Just because I happen to be poor, and have tried honestly to make my way in life. But there, enough of this. What's the use of talking about such things? It will do no more good than the voice of the waters which you are continually hearing."
Along the road the two walked in deep silence. The old man found it hard to keep up with his companion, and he was at last forced to fall behind. Soon he was alone, and then his thoughts went once more back to the falls, and the glorious vision which was in his mind.
It was only when he reached a small building by the side of the road that he stopped. Pushing open the door, he entered. All was dark and silent within. The strange loneliness of the place would have smitten any one else with the feeling of dread. But the old man never seemed to mind it. Fumbling in his vest pocket, he found a match. This he struck and lighted a tallow dip which was stuck into a rude candle-stick upon a bare wooden table. One glance at the room revealed by the dim light showed its desolate bareness. Besides the table there were two small benches and a wash-stand, containing a granite-iron basin. A small broken-down stove stood at one end of the room, by the side of which was a couch. Not a scrap of mat or rug adorned the floor. There were no blinds or curtains to the cheerless, windows, and not a picture adorned the walls.
But the old man did not notice the desolation of the place. It was quite evident that he was beyond the influence of earthly surroundings for the moment. Going at once to the couch, he brought forth a roll of paper hidden away beneath the pillow. Carrying this over to the table, he sat down upon one of the benches and spread the paper out before him. By the light of the candle it was easy for him to study the carefully-made lines upon the large sheet. Eagerly he scanned the drawings, and then placing the forefinger of his right hand upon one central point, he moved it along one line extending farther than the rest until it stopped at a small square in which was the word "City." This action gave him much satisfaction and a pleased expression lighted up his face. "Power, power," he murmured. "Ay, quicker than thought, and bright as the sun shining in its strength. Great, wonderful! and yet they do not realise it. But they shall know, and understand."
Along the other lines he also ran his finger, pausing at the end of each where was marked "Town," "Village," or "Settlement." He talked continually as he did so, but it was all about "glory" and "power." Over and over again he repeated these words, now in a soft low voice, and again in a loud triumphant manner.
At length he rose from the bench, crossed the room, opened the door, and stepped outside. Not a star was to be seen, and the wind was stronger than ever. It was keen, piercing. But the man heeded neither the one nor the other. He was listening intently, and the faint sound of Break Neck Falls drifting in from the distance was to him the sweetest of music.
And as he stood there a sudden change took place. His dead drooped, and he leaned against the side of the building for support. A shiver shook his body, and as he turned and entered the house his steps were slow, and he half-stumbled across the threshold. He looked at the wood-box behind the stove, but there was not a stick in it. He next opened the door of the little cupboard near by, but not a scrap of food was there. Almost mechanically he thrust his hand into his pocket and brought forth a purse. This he opened, but there was nothing inside. Half-dazed he stood there in the centre of the room. Then he glanced toward the paper with the drawings lying upon the table, and as he did so a peculiar light of comprehension shone in his eyes.