Francis Lynde.

The City of Numbered Days



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"I came to tender my good offices in the – the disagreement, as you call it, between you and father. Can't you be complaisant for once, in a way, Mr. Brouillard?"

Brouillard's laugh came because it was summoned, but there was no mirth in it.

"I have never been anything else but complaisant in the little set-tos with your father, Miss Genevieve. He has always carried too many guns for me. You may tell him that I am acting upon his suggestion, if you please – that the telegram to Washington is written. He will understand."

"And about this Massingale affair – you will not interfere again?"

Brouillard's jaw muscles began to set in the fighting lines.

"Does he make that a command?" he asked.

"Oh, I fancy not; at least, I didn't hear him say anything like that. I am merely speaking as your friend. You will not be allowed to do as you wish to do. I know my father better than you do, Mr. Brouillard."

"What he has done, and what he proposes to do, in Massingale's affair, is little short of highway robbery, Miss Genevieve."

"From your point of view, you mean. He will call it 'business' and cite you a thousand precedents in every-day life. But let it go. I've talked so much about business that I'm tired. Let me see, what was the other thing I came up here for? – oh, yes, I remember now. We are making up a party to motor down to the Tri'-Circ' Ranch for a cow-boy supper with Lord Falkland. There is a place in our car for you, and I know Sophie Schermerhorn would be delighted if you should call her up and tell her you are going."

She had turned toward the door and he went to open it for her.

"I am afraid I shall have to offer my regrets to you, and to Miss Schermerhorn as well, if she needs them," he said, with the proper outward show of disappointment.

"Is it business?" she laughed.

"Yes, it is business."

"Good-by, then. I'm sorry you have to work so hard. If Miss Massingale were only rich – but I forgot, the ideals would still be in the way. No, don't come to the elevator. I can at least do that much for myself, if I am a 'giddy butterfly.'"

After she had gone Brouillard went back to the window and stood with his hands behind him looking out at the great dam with its stagings and runways almost deserted. But when the westering sun was beginning to emphasize the staging timbers whose shadow fingers would presently be reaching out toward the city he went around to his chair and sat down to take the Washington telegram from beneath its paper-weight. Nothing vital, nothing in any manner changeful of the hard conditions, had happened since he had signed his name to the cipher at the end of the former struggle. Notwithstanding, the struggle was instantly renewed, and once more he found himself battling hopelessly with the undertow in the tide-way of indecision.

XVIII
Love's Crucible

For half an hour after the motor-cars of the Falkland supper party had rolled away from the side entrance of the Hotel Metropole, Brouillard sat at his desk in the empty office with the momentous telegram before him, searching blindly for some alternative to the final act of treachery which would be consummated in the sending of the wire.

Since, by reason of Cortwright's tamperings with the smelter people and the railroad, the "Little Susan" had become a locked treasure vault, the engineer, acting upon his own initiative, had tried the law.

As soon as he had ascertained that David Massingale had been given sixty days longer to live, solely because the buccaneers chose to take his mine rather than his money, Brouillard had submitted the facts in the case to a trusted lawyer friend in the East.

This hope had pulled in two like a frayed cord. Massingale must pay the bank or lose all. Until he had obtained possession of the promissory notes there would be no crevice in which to drive any legal wedge. And even then, unless some pressure could be brought to bear upon the grafters to make them disgorge, there was no chance of Massingale's recovering more than his allotted two thirds of the stock; in other words, he would still stand committed to the agreement by which he had bound himself to make the grafters a present, in fee simple, of one third of his mine.

Brouillard had written one more letter to the lawyer. In it he had asked how David Massingale could be unassailably reinstated in his rights as the sole owner of the "Little Susan." The answer had come promptly and it was explicit. "Only by the repayment of such sums as had been actually expended in the reorganization and on the betterments – for the modernizing machinery and improvements – and the voluntary surrender, by the other parties to the agreement, of the stock in dispute," the lawyer had written; and Brouillard had smiled at the thought of Cortwright voluntarily surrendering anything which was once well within the grasp of his pudgy hands.

Failing to start the legal wedge, Brouillard had dipped – also without consulting Massingale – into the matter of land titles. The "Little Susan" was legally patented under the land laws, and Massingale's title, if the mine were located upon government land, was without a flaw. But on a former reclamation project Brouillard had been brought in contact with some of the curious title litigation growing out of the old Spanish grants; and in at least one instance he had seen a government patent invalidated thereby.

As a man in reasonably close touch with his superiors in Washington, the chief of construction knew that there was a Spanish-grant involvement which had at one time threatened to at least delay the Niquoia project. How it had been settled finally he did not know; but after the legal failure he had written to a man – a college classmate of his own – in the bureau of land statistics, asking for data which would enable him to locate exactly the Niquoia-touching boundaries of the great Coronida Grant. To this letter no reply had as yet been received. Brouillard had cause to know with what slowness a simple matter of information can ooze out of a department bureau. The letter – which, after all, might contain nothing helpful – lingered on the way, and the crisis, the turning-point beyond which there could be no redemption in a revival of the speculative craze, had arrived.

Brouillard took up the draught of the Washington telegram and read it over. He was cooler now, and he saw that it was only as it came from the hand of a traitor, who could and would deliberately wreck the train of events it might set in motion, that it became a betrayal. Writing as the commanding officer in the field, he had restated the facts – facts doubtless well known in the department – the probability that Congress would intervene and the hold the opposition was gaining by the suspension of the work on the dam. If the work could be pushed energetically and at once, there was a possibility that the opposition would become discouraged and voluntarily withdraw. Would the department place the men and the means instantly at his disposal?

"If I were the honest man I am supposed to be, that is precisely the message I ought to send," he mused reflectively. "It is only as the crooked devil in possession of me will drive me to nullify the effort and make it of no effect that it becomes a crime; that and the fact that I can never be sure that the Cortwright gang hasn't the inside track and will not win out in spite of all efforts. That is the touchstone of the whole degrading business. I'm afraid Cortwright has the inside track. If I could only get a little clear-sighted daylight on the damnable tangle!"

Obeying a sudden impulse, he thrust the two copies of the telegram under the paper-weight again, sprang up, put on his hat, and left the building. A few minutes later he was on the porch of the stuccoed villa in the Quadjen?? road and was saying gravely to the young woman who had been reading in the hammock: "You are staying too closely at home. Get your coat and hat and walk with me up to the 'Little Susan.' It will do you good."

The afternoon was waning and the sun, dipping to the horizon, hung like a huge golden ball over the yellow immensities of the distant Buckskin as they topped the final ascent in the steep trail and went to sit on the steps of the deserted home cabin at the mine.

For a time neither spoke, and the stillness of the air contributed something to the high-mountain silence, which was almost oppressive. Work had been stopped in the mine at the end of the previous week, Massingale declaring, morosely, that until he knew whose ore he was digging he would dig no more. Presumably there was a watchman, but if so he was invisible to the two on the cabin step, and the high view-point was theirs alone.

"How did you know that I have been wanting to come up here once more before everything is changed?" said the girl at length, patting the roughly hewn log step as if it were a sentient thing to feel the caress.

"I didn't know it," Brouillard denied. "I only knew that I wanted to get out of Gomorrah for a little while, to come up here with you and get the reek of the pit out of my nostrils."

"I know," she rejoined, with the quick comprehension which never failed him. "It is good to be out of it, to be up here where we can look down upon it and see it in its true perspective – as a mere little impertinent blot on the landscape. It's only that, after all, Victor. See how the great dam – your work – overshadows it."

"That is one of the things I hoped I might be able to see if I came here with you," he returned slowly. "But I can't get your point of view, Amy. I shall never be able to get it again."

"You did have it once," she asserted. "Or rather, you had a better one of your own. Has Gomorrah changed it?"

"No, not Gomorrah. I could shut the waste-gates and drown the place to-morrow for all that Mirapolis, or anything in it, means to me. But something has changed the point of view for me past mending, since that first day when we sat here together and looked down upon the beginnings of the Reclamation construction camp – before Gomorrah was ever thought of."

"I know," she said again. "But that dreadful city is responsible. It has robbed us all, Victor; but you more than any, I'm afraid."

"No," he objected. "Mirapolis has been only a means to an end. The thing that has changed my point of view – my entire life – is love, as I have told you once before."

"Oh, no," she protested gently, rising to take her old place, with her back to the porch post and her hands behind her. And then, still more gently: "That is almost like sacrilege, Victor, for love is sacred."

"I can't help it. Love has made a great scoundrel of me, Amy; a criminal, if man's laws were as closely meshed as God's."

"I can't believe that," she dissented loyally.

"It is true. I have betrayed my trust. Cortwright will make good in all of his despicable schemes. Congress will intervene and the Niquoia project will be abandoned."

"No," she insisted. "Take a good, deep breath of this pure, clean, high-mountain air and think again. Mirapolis is dying, even now, though nobody dares admit it. But it is. Tig Smith hears everything, and he told father last night that the rumor about the Quadjen?? placers is true. They are worked out, and already the men have begun to move up the river in search of new ground. Tig said that in another week there wouldn't be a dozen sluice-boxes working."

"I have known about the Quadjen?? failure for the past two weeks," Brouillard put in. "For at least that length of time the two steam dredges have been handling absolutely barren gravel, and the men in charge of them have had orders to go on dredging and say nothing. Mirapolis is no longer a gold camp; but, nevertheless, it will boom again – long enough to let Mr. J. Wesley Cortwright and his fellow buccaneers loot it and get away."

"How can you know that?" she asked curiously.

"I know it because I am going to bring it to pass."

"You?"

"Yes, I. It is the final act in the play. And my part in this act is the Judas part – as it has been in the others."

She was looking down at him with wide-open eyes.

"If any one else had said that of you … but I can't believe it! I know you, Victor; I think I must have known you in the other world – the one before this – and there we climbed the heights, in the clear sunlight, together."

"There was one thing you didn't learn about me – in that other world you speak of," he said, falling in with her allegory. "You didn't discover that I could become a wretched cheat and a traitor for love of you. Perhaps it wasn't necessary – there."

"Tell me," she begged briefly; and, since he was staring fixedly at the scored slopes of Jack's Mountain, he did not see that she caught her lip between her teeth to stop its trembling.

"Part of it you know: how I did what I could to bring the railroad, and how your brother's teaspoonful of nuggets was made to work a devil's miracle to hurry things along when the railroad work was stopped. But that wasn't the worst. As you know, I had a debt to pay before I could say: 'Come, little girl, let's go and get married.' So I became a stockholder in Cortwright's power company, knowing perfectly well when I consented that the hundred thousand dollars' worth of stock he gave me was a bribe – the price of my silence and non-interference with his greedy schemes."

"But you didn't mean to keep it; you knew you couldn't keep it!" she broke in; and now he did not need to look to know that her lips were trembling piteously.

"I did keep it. And when the time was fully ripe I sold it back to Cortwright, or, rather, I suppose, sold it through him to some one of his wretched gulls. I meant to pay my father's debt with the money. I had the letter written and ready to mail. Then the tempter whispered that there was no hurry, that I might at least keep the money long enough to make it earn something for myself. Also, it struck me that this same devil was laughing at the spectacle of a man so completely lost to a decent sense of the fitness of things as to be planning to pay an honor debt with graft money. And so I kept it for a while."

She dropped quickly on the step beside him and a sympathetic hand crept into his.

"You kept it until the unhappy day when you gave it to my father, and he – and he threw it away." She was crying softly, but his attempt to comfort her was almost mechanical.

"Don't cry about the money. It had the devil's thumb-prints on it, and he merely claimed his own and got it." Then he went on as one determined to leave nothing untold. "Cortwright had bought me, and I served him as only a man in my position could serve him. I became a promoter, a 'booster,' with the others. There have been times when a word from me would have pricked the bubble. I haven't said the word; I am not saying it now. If I should say it I'd lose at a single stroke all that I have been fighting for. And I am not a good loser, Amy."

For once the keen, apprehending perception failed.

"I don't understand," she said, speaking as if she were groping in thick darkness. "I mean I don't understand the motive that could – "

He turned to her in dumb astonishment.

"I thought I had been making it plain as I went along. There has been but the one motive – a mad passion to give, give, never counting the cost. Love, as it has come to me, seems to have neither conscience nor any scruples. Nothing is too precious to be dragged to the sacrifice. You wanted something – you needed it – therefore it must be purchased for you. And the curious part of the besetment is that I have known all along that I was killing your love for me. If it wasn't quite dead before, it will die now – now that I have told you how I am flinging the last vestiges of uprightness and honor to the winds."

"But how?" she queried. "You haven't told me."

"You said a few minutes ago that Mirapolis is dying. That is true; and it is dying a little too soon to suit the purposes of the Cortwright gang. It must be revived, and I am to revive it by persuading the department to rush the work on the dam. You would say that this would only hasten the death of the city. But the plot provides for all the contingencies. Mirapolis needs the money that would be spent here in the rushing of the government work. That was the real life-blood of the boom at first, and it could be made to serve again. Am I making it plain?"

She nodded in speechless disheartenment, and he went on:

"With the dam completed before Congress could intervene, Mirapolis would, of course, be quite dead and ready for its funeral. But if the Cortwright people industriously insist that the spending of another million or two of government money is only another plum for the city and its merchants and industries, that, notwithstanding the renewed activities, the work will still stop short of completion and the city will be saved by legislative enactment, the innocent sheep may be made to bleed again and the wolves will escape."

She shuddered and drew a little apart from him on the log step.

"But your part in this horrible plot, Victor?" she asked.

"It is as simple as it is despicable. In the first place, I am to set the situation before the department in such a light as to make it clearly a matter of public policy to take advantage of the present Mirapolitan crisis by pushing the work vigorously to a conclusion. After thus turning on the spigot of plenty, I am expected to crowd the pay-rolls and at the same time to hold back on the actual progress of the work. That is all – except that I am to keep my mouth shut."

"But you can't, you can't!" she cried. Then, in a passionate outburst: "If you should do such a thing as that, it wouldn't kill my love – I can't say that any more; but it would kill me – I shouldn't want to live!"

He looked around at her curiously, as if he were holding her at arm's length.

"Shall I do what you would have me do, Amy? Or shall I do what is best for you?" The opposing queries were as impersonal as the arm's-length gaze. "Perhaps I might be able to patch up the ideals and stand them on their feet again – and you would pay the penalty all your life in poverty and privation, in hopes wrecked and ruined, and I with my hands tied. That is one horn of the dilemma, and the other is … let me tell you, Amy, it is worse than your worst fears. They will strip your father of the last thing he has on earth and bring him out in debt to them. There is one chance, and only one, so far as I can see. Let me go on as I have begun and I can pull him out."

The tears had burned out of the steadfast eyes which were resting, with the shining soul looking out through them, upon the crimsoning snow peaks of the distant Timanyonis.

"How little you know the real love!" she said slowly. "It neither weighs nor measures, nor needs to; it writes its own law in the heart, and that law can make no compromise with evil. It has but one requirement – the best good of the beloved. If the way to that end lies through sacrifice – if it asks for the life itself – so let it be. If you knew this, Victor, you would know that I would gladly lose all – the mine, my father's chance of his reward for the years of toil, even my brother's better chance for reformation – and count myself happy in having found a love that was too great to do evil that good might come."

He got up stiffly and helped her to her feet and together they stood looking down upon the city of the plain, lying now under the curved, sunset shadow cast by the mighty, inbending sweep of the great dam.

"I don't know," he said after a time. "Once, as I told you a few weeks ago, the best there was in me would have leaped up to climb the heights with you. But I've gone far since the going began. I am not sure that I could find my way back if I should try. Let's go down. I mustn't keep you out on the mountain after dark. I haven't happened to meet her, but I suppose there is a Mrs. Grundy, even in Gomorrah."

She acquiesced in silence and they made the descent of the steep trail and walked across in the growing dusk from the foot of Chigringo to the stuccoed villa in the suburb, misers of speech, since there were no deeper depths to which the spoken word could plunge. But at the villa steps Brouillard took the girl in his arms and kissed her.

"Put me out of your mind and heart if you can," he said tenderly, repeating the words which he had once sent across the distances to her in another moment of despair, and before she could answer he was gone.

Monsieur Poudrecaulx Bongras, rotund, smiling, and roached and waxed to a broad burlesque of Second-Empire fierceness, looked in vain among his dinner guests that evening for the chief of the Reclamation Service, and Brouillard's absence held a small disappointment for the Frenchman. Rumor, the rumor which was never quiet and which could never be traced conclusively to its source, was again busy with exciting hints of a new era of prosperity about to dawn, and Bongras had hoped to drop his own little plummet of inquiry into the Reclamation Service chief.



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