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The Secret Power

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A cloud floated slowly above the mountain peak. Vast, fleecy and white as the crested foam of a sea-wave, it sailed through the sky with a divine air of majesty, seeming almost to express a consciousness of its own grandeur. Over a spacious tract of Southern California it extended its snowy canopy, moving from the distant Pacific Ocean across the heights of the Sierra Madre, now and then catching fire at its extreme edge from the sinking sun, which burned like a red brand flung on the roof of a roughly built hut situated on the side of a sloping hollow in one of the smaller hills. The door of the hut stood open; there were a couple of benches on the burnt grass outside, one serving as a table, the other as a chair. Papers and books were neatly piled on the table,—and on the chair, if chair it might be called, a man sat reading. His appearance was not prepossessing at a first glance, though his actual features could hardly be seen, so concealed were they by a heavy growth of beard. In the way of clothing he had little to trouble him. Loose woollen trousers, a white shirt, and a leathern belt to keep the two garments in place, formed his complete outfit, finished off by wide canvas shoes. A thatch of dark hair, thick and ill combed, apparently served all his need of head covering, and he seemed unconscious of, or else indifferent to, the hot glare of the summer sky which was hardly tempered by the long shadow of the floating cloud. At some moments he was absorbed in reading,—at others in writing. Close within his reach was a small note-book in which from time to time he jotted down certain numerals and made rapid calculations, frowning impatiently as though the very act of writing was too slow for the speed of his thought. There was a wonderful silence everywhere,—a silence such as can hardly be comprehended by anyone who has never visited wide-spreading country, over-canopied by large stretches of open sky, and barricaded from the further world by mountain ranges which are like huge walls built by a race of Titans. The dwellers in such regions are few—there is no traffic save the coming and going of occasional pack-mules across the hill tracks—no sign of modern civilisation. Among such deep and solemn solitudes the sight of a living human being is strange and incongruous, yet the man seated outside his hut had an air of ease and satisfied proprietorship not always found with wealthy owners of mansions and park-lands. He was so thoroughly engrossed in his books and papers that he hardly saw, and certainly did not hear, the approach of a woman who came climbing wearily up the edge of the sloping hill against which his cabin presented itself to the view as a sort of fitment, and advanced towards him carrying a tin pail full of milk. This she set down within a yard or so of him, and then, straightening her back, she rested her hands on her hips and drew a long breath. For a minute or two he took no notice of her. She waited. She was a big handsome creature, sun-browned and black-haired, with flashing dark eyes lit by a spark that was not originally caught from heaven....