Francis Lynde.

The City of Numbered Days



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"I see," was the rejoinder, and it was made in the same half-absent monotone. "But while we are still on the knife-blade edge … a little push… Mr. Cortwright, if there were one solitary righteous man left in Mirapolis – "

"There isn't," chuckled the promoter, turning back to his desk while the engineer was groping for the door-knob – "at least, nobody with that particular brand of righteousness backed by the needful inside information. You go ahead and do your part and we'll do the rest."

XVI
The Man on the Bank

Brouillard, walking out of Mr. Cortwright's new offices with his thoughts afar, wondered if it were by pure coincidence that he found Castner apparently waiting for him on the sidewalk.

"Once more you are just the man I have been wanting to see," the young missionary began, promptly making use of the chance meeting. "May I break in with a bit of bad news?"

"There is no such thing as good news in this God-forsaken valley, Castner. What's your grief?"

"There is trouble threatening for the Cortwrights. Stephen Massingale is out and about again, and I was told this morning that he was filling himself up with bad whiskey and looking for the man who shot him."

Brouillard nodded unsympathetically.

"You will find that there is always likely to be a second chapter in a book of that sort – if the first one isn't conclusive."

"But there mustn't be this time," Castner insisted warmly. "We must stop it; it is our business to stop it."

"Your business, maybe; it falls right in your line, doesn't it?"

"No more in mine than in yours," was the quick retort.

"Am I my brother's keeper?" said the engineer pointlessly, catching step with the long-legged stride of the athletic young shepherd of souls.

"Not if you claim kinship with Cain, who was the originator of that very badly outworn query," came the answer shot-like. Then: "What has come over you lately, Brouillard? You are a friend of the Massingales; I've had good proof of that. Why don't you care?"

"Great Heavens, Castner, I do care! But if you had a cut finger you wouldn't go to a man in hell to get it tied up, would you?"

"You mean that I have brought my cut finger to you?"

"Yes, I meant that, and the rest of it, too. I'm no fit company for a decent man to-day, Castner. You'd better edge off and leave me alone."

Castner did not take the blunt intimation. For the little distance intervening between the power company's new offices and the Niquoia Building he tramped beside the young engineer in silence. But at the entrance to the Niquoia he would have gone his way if Brouillard had not said abruptly:

"I gave you fair warning; I'm not looking for a chance to play the Good Samaritan to anybody – not even to Stephen Massingale, much less Van Bruce Cortwright. The reason is because I have a pretty decent back-load of my own to carry. Come up to my rooms if you can spare a few minutes.

I want to talk to a man who hasn't parted with his soul for a money equivalent – if there is such a man left in this bottomless pit of a town."

Castner accepted the implied challenge soberly, and together they ascended to Brouillard's offices. Once behind the closed door, Brouillard struck out viciously.

"You fellows claim to hold the keys of the conscience shop; suppose you open up and dole out a little of the precious commodity to me, Castner. Is it ever justifiable to do evil that good may come?"

"No." There was no hesitation in the denial.

Brouillard's laugh was harshly derisive.

"I thought you'd say that. No qualifications asked for, no judicial weighing of the pros and cons – the evil of the evil, or the goodness of the good – just a plain, bigoted 'No.'"

Castner ran a hand through his thick shock of dark hair and looked away from the scoffer.

"Extenuating circumstances – is that what you mean? There are no such things in the court of conscience – the enlightened conscience. Right is right and wrong is wrong. There is no middle ground of accommodation between the two. You know that as well as I do, Brouillard."

"Well, then, how about the choice between two evils? You'll admit that there are times – "

Castner was shaking his head. "That is a lying proverb. No man is ever compelled to make that choice. He only thinks he is."

"That is all you know about it!" was the bitter retort. "What can you, or any man who sets himself apart as you do, know about the troubles and besetments of ordinary people? You sit on the bank of the river and see the water go by; what do you know about the agonies of the fellow who is fighting for breath and life out in the middle of the stream?"

"That is a fallacy, too," was the calm reply. "I am a man as other men, Brouillard. My coat makes no difference, as you have allowed at other times when we have been thrown together. Moreover, nobody sits on the bank in these days. What are your two evils?"

Brouillard tilted back in his chair and pointedly ignored the direct question.

"Theories," he said half contemptuously. "And they never fit. See here, Castner; suppose it was clearly your duty, as a man and a Christian and to subserve some good end, to plant a thousand pounds of dynamite in the basement of this building and fire it. Would you do it?"

"The case isn't supposable."

"There you are!" Brouillard broke out impatiently. "I told you you were sitting on the bank. The case is not only supposable; it exists as an actual fact. And the building the man ought to blow to high heaven contains not only a number of measurably innocent people but one in particular for whose life and happiness the man would barter his immortal soul – if he has one."

The young missionary left his chair and began to walk back and forth on his side of the office desk.

"You want counsel and you are not willing to buy it with the coin of confidence," he said at length, adding: "It is just as well, perhaps. I doubt very much if I am the person to give it to you."

"Why do you doubt it? Isn't it a part of your job?"

"Not always. I am not your conscience keeper, Brouillard. Don't misunderstand me. I may have lived a year or so longer than you have, but you have lived more – a great deal more. That fact might be set aside, but there is another: in the life of every man there is some one person who knows, who understands, whose word for that man is the one only fitting word of inspiration. That is what I mean when I say that I am not your conscience keeper. Do I make it clear?"

"Granting your premises – yes. Go on."

"I will. We'll paste that leaf down and turn another. Though I can't counsel you, I can still be your faithful accuser. You have committed a great sin, Brouillard, and you are still committing it. If you haven't been the leader in the mad scramble for riches here in this abandoned city, you have been only a step behind the leaders. And you were the one man who should have been like C?sar's wife, the one whose example counted for most."

Brouillard got up and thrust out his hand across the desk.

"You are a man, Castner – and that is better than being a priest," he asserted soberly. "I'll take back all the spiteful things I've been saying. I'm down under the hoofs of the horses, and it's only human nature to want to pull somebody else down. You are one of the few men in Mirapolis whose presence has been a blessing instead of a curse – who hasn't had a purely selfish greed to satisfy."

Again Castner shook his head. "There hasn't been much that I could do. Brouillard, it is simply dreadful – the hard, reckless, half-demoniac spirit of this place! There is nothing to appeal to; there is no room or time for anything but the mad money chase or the still madder dissipation in which the poor wretches seek to forget. I can only try here and there to drag some poor soul out of the fire at the last moment, and it makes me sick – sick at heart!"

"You mustn't look at it that way," said Brouillard, suddenly turning comforter. "You have been doing good work and a lot of it – more than any three ordinary men could stand up under. I haven't got beyond seeing and appreciating, Castner; truly I have not. And I'll say this: if I had only half your courage… but it's no use, I'm in too deep. I can't see any farther ahead than a man born blind. There is one end for which I have been striving from the very first, and it is still unattained. I'm past help now. I have reached a point at which I'd pull the whole world down in ruins to see that end accomplished."

The young missionary took another turn up and down the room and then came back to the desk for his hat. At the leave-taking he said the only helpful word he could think of.

"Go to your confessor, Brouillard – your real confessor – and go all the more readily if that one happens to be a good woman – whom you love and trust. They often see more clearly than we do – the good women. Try it; and let me help where a man can help."

For a long hour after Castner went away Brouillard sat at his desk, fighting as those fight who see the cause lost, and who know they only make the ruin more complete by struggling on.

Cortwright's guess had found its mark. He was loaded to break with "front feet" and options and "corners." In the latest speculative period he had bought and mortgaged and bought again, plunging recklessly with the sole object of wringing another hundred thousand out of the drying sponge against the time when David Massingale should need it.

There seemed to be no other hope. It had become plainly evident after a little time that Cortwright's extorted promise to lift the smelting embargo from the "Little Susan" ore had been kept only in the letter; that he had removed one obstacle only to interpose another. The new obstacle was in the transportation field. Protests and beseechings, letters to traffic officials, and telegrams to railroad headquarters were of no avail. In spite of all that had been done, there was never an ore-car to come over the range at War Arrow, and the side-track to the mine was as yet uncompleted. Brouillard had seen little of Massingale, but that little had shown him that the old miner was in despair.

It was this hopeless situation which had made Brouillard bend his back to a second lifting of the "Little Susan's" enormous burden. At first the undertaking seemed easily possible. But with the drying of the speculative sponge it became increasingly difficult. More and more he had been compelled to buy and hold, until now the bare attempt to unload would have started the panic which was only waiting for some hedging seller to fire the train.

Sitting in the silence of the sixth-floor office he saw that Cortwright had shown him the one way out. Beyond doubt, the resumption in full force of the work on the dam would galvanize new life into Mirapolis, temporarily, at least. After that, a cautious selling campaign, conducted under cover through the brokers, might save the day for David Massingale. But the cost – the heaping dishonor, the disloyalty of putting his service into the breach and wrecking and ruining to gain the one personal end…

The sweat stood out in great drops on his forehead when he finally drew a pad of telegraph blanks under his hand and began to write a message. Painstakingly he composed it, referring often to the notes in his field-book, and printing the words neatly in his accurate, clearly defined handwriting.

When it was finished he translated it laboriously into the department code. But after the copy was made and signed he did not ring at once for a messenger. Instead, he put the two, the original and the cipher, under a paper-weight and sat glooming at them, as if they had been his own death-warrant – was still so sitting when a light tap at the door was followed by a soft swishing of silken skirts, a faint odor of crushed violets, and Genevieve Cortwright stood beside him.

XVII
The Circean Cup

While one might count ten the silence of the upper room remained unbroken, and neither the man nor the woman spoke. It was not the first time by many that Genevieve Cortwright had come to stand beside the engineer's desk, holding him with smiling eyes and a charming audacity while she laid her commands upon him for the afternoon's motoring or the evening's bridge party or what other social diversion she might have in view.

But now there was a difference. Brouillard felt it instinctively – and in the momentary silence saw it in a certain hard brilliance of the beautiful eyes, in the curving of the ripe lips, half scornful, half pathetic, though the pathos may have been only a touch of self-pity born of the knowledge that the world of the luxury-lapped has so little to offer once the cold finger of satiety has been laid upon the throbbing pulse of fruition.

"You have been quarrelling with father again," she said, with an abruptness that was altogether foreign to her habitual attitude toward him. "I have come to try to make peace. Won't you ask me to sit down?"

He recalled himself with a start from his abstracted study of the faultless contour of cheek and chin and rounded throat and placed a chair for her, apologizing for the momentary aberration and slipping easily from apology into explanation.

"It was good of you to try to bring the wine and oil," he said. "But it was scarcely a quarrel; the king doesn't quarrel with his subjects."

"Now you are making impossible all the things I came to say," she protested, with a note of earnestness in her voice that he had rarely heard. "Tell me what it was about."

"I am afraid it wouldn't interest you in the least," he returned evasively.

"I suppose you are punishing me now for the 'giddy butterfly' pose which you once said was mine. Isn't there a possibility, just the least little shadow of a possibility, that I don't deserve to be punished?"

He had sat down facing her and his thought was quite alien to the words when he tried again.

"You wouldn't understand. It was merely a disagreement in a matter of – a matter of business."

"Perhaps I can understand more than you give me credit for," she countered, with an upflash of the captivating eyes. "Perhaps I can be hurt where you have been thinking that the armor of frivolity, or ignorance, or indifference is the thickest."

"No, you wouldn't be hurt," he denied, in sober finality.

"How can you tell? Can you read minds and hearts as you do your maps and drawings? Must I be set down as hopelessly and irreclaimably frivolous just because I have chosen to laugh when possibly another woman might have cried?"

"Oh, no," he denied again. Then he tried to meet her fairly on the new ground. "You mustn't accuse yourself. You are of your own world and you can't very well help being of it. Besides, it is a pleasant world."

"But an exceedingly shallow one, you would say. But why not, Mr. Brouillard? What do we get out of life more than the day's dole of – well, of whatever we care most for? I suppose one ought to be properly shocked at the big electric sign Monsieur Bongras has put up over the entrance to his caf?; 'Let us eat, drink, and be merry, for to-morrow we die.' He meant it as a cynical gibe at the expense of Mirapolis, of course; but do you know it appeals to me – it makes me think."

"I'm listening," said Brouillard. "Convert me if you can."

"Oh, I don't know how to say it, or perhaps even how to think it. But when I see Monsieur Bongras's cynical little fling I wonder if it isn't the real philosophy, after all. Why should we be always looking forward and striving and trying foolishly to climb to some high plane where the air is sure to be so rare that we couldn't possibly breathe it?"

Brouillard's smile was a mere eye-lifting of grave reminiscence when he said: "Some of us have quit looking forward – quit trying to climb – and that without even the poor hope of reaping the reward that Poodles's quotation offers."

Miss Cortwright left her chair and began to make an aimless circuit of the room, passing the blue-prints on the walls in slow review, and coming finally to the window looking out over the city and across to the gray, timber-crowned wall of the mighty structure spanning the gap between the Niquoia's two sentinel mountains.

"You haven't told me yet what your disagreement with father was about," she reminded him at length; and before he could speak: "You needn't, because I know. You have been getting in his way – financially, and he has been getting in your way – ethically. You are both in the wrong."

"Yes?" said Brouillard, neither agreeing nor denying.

"Yes. Father thinks too much of making money – a great deal too much; and you – "

"Well?" he prompted, when the pause threatened to become a break. "I am waiting to hear my indictment."

"You puzzle me," she acknowledged frankly. "At first I thought you were going to be a thirsty money hunter like all the others. And – and I couldn't quite understand why you should be. Now I know, or partly know. You had an object that was different from that of the others. You wanted to buy some one thing – not everything, as most people do. But there is something missing, and that is what puzzles me. I don't know what it is that you want to buy."

"There have been two things," he broke in. "One of them you know, because I spoke of it to you long ago. The other – "

"The other is connected in some way with the Massingales; so much I have been able to gather from what father said."

"Since you know part, you may know all," he went on. "David Massingale owes your father – technically, at least – one hundred thousand dollars, which he can't pay; which your father isn't going to let him pay, if he can help it. And if Massingale doesn't pay he will lose his mine."

"You interested yourself? Would you mind telling me just why?" she asked.

"That is one of the things you couldn't understand."

She turned a calmly smiling face toward him.

"Oh, you are mistaken, greatly mistaken. I can understand it very well, indeed. You are in love with David Massingale's daughter."

Once more he neither denied nor affirmed, and she had turned to face the window again when she went on in the same unmoved tone:

"It was fine. I can appreciate such devotion even if I can't fully sympathize with it. Everybody should be in love like that – once. Every woman demands that kind of love – once. But afterward, you know – if one should be content to take the good the gods provide…" When she began again at the end of the eloquent little pause there was a new note in her voice, a note soothingly suggestive of swaying poppies in sunlit fields, of ease and peace and the ideal heights receding, of rose-strewn paths pleasant to the feet of the weary wayfarer. "Why shouldn't we take to-day, the only day we can be sure of having, and use and enjoy it while it is ours? Money? – there is money enough in the world, God knows; enough and to spare for anything that is worth the buying. I have money, if that is all – money of my own. And, if I should ask him, father would give me the 'Little Susan' outright, to do with it as I pleased."

Brouillard was leaning back in his chair studying her faultless profile as she talked, and the full meaning of what she was saying did not come to him at once. But when it did he sprang up and went to stand beside her. And all the honesty and manhood the evil days had spared went into what he said to her.

"I was a coward a moment ago, Miss Genevieve, when you spoke of the motive which had prompted me to help David Massingale. But you knew and you said the words for me. When you love as I do you will understand that there is an ecstasy in the very madness of it that is more precious than all the joys of a gold-mounted paradise without it. I must go on as I have begun."

"You will marry her?" she asked softly.

"There has never been any hope of that, I think; not from the very beginning. While I remained an honest man there was the insurmountable obstacle I once told you of – the honor debt my father left me. And when I became a thief and a grafter for love's sake I put myself out of the running, definitely and hopelessly."

"Has she told you so?"

"Not in so many words; there was no need. There can be no fellowship between light and darkness."

Miss Cortwright's beautiful eyes mirrored well-bred incredulity, and there was the faintest possible suggestion of lenient scorn in her smile.

"What a pedestal you have built for her!" she said. "Has it never occurred to you that she may be just a woman – like other women? Tell me, Mr. Brouillard, have you asked her to marry you?"

"You know very well that I haven't."

"Then, if you value your peace of mind, don't. She would probably say 'yes' and you would be miserable forever after. Ideals are exceedingly fragile things, you know. They are made to be looked up to, not handled."

"Possibly they are," he said, as one who would rather concede than dispute. The reaction was setting in, bringing a discomforting conviction that he had opened the door of an inner sanctuary to unsympathetic eyes.

Followed a little pause, which was threatening to become awkward when Miss Cortwright broke it and went back to the beginning of things.



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