The Three Partners by Bret Harte
When Philip Demorest left the stagecoach at the cross-roads he turned into the only wayside house, the blacksmith's shop, and, declaring his intention of walking over to Hymettus, asked permission to leave his hand-bag and wraps until they could be sent after him. The blacksmith was surprised that this "likely mannered," distinguished-looking "city man" should walk eight miles when he could ride, and tried to dissuade him, offering his own buggy. But he was still more surprised when Demorest, laying aside his duster, took off his coat, and, slinging it on his arm, prepared to set forth with the good-humored assurance that he would do the distance in a couple of hours and get in in time for supper. "I wouldn't be too sure of that," said the blacksmith grimly, "or even of getting a room. They're a stuck-up lot over there, and they ain't goin' to hump themselves over a chap who comes traipsin' along the road like any tramp, with nary baggage." But Demorest laughingly accepted the risk, and taking his stout stick in one hand, pressed a gold coin into the blacksmith's palm, which was, however, declined with such reddening promptness that Demorest as promptly reddened and apologized. The habits of European travel had been still strong on him, and he felt a slight patriotic thrill as he said, with a grave smile, "Thank you, then; and thank you still more for reminding me that I am among my own 'people,'" and stepped lightly out into the road.
The air was still deliciously cool, but warmer currents from the heated pines began to alternate with the wind from the summit. He found himself sometimes walking through a stratum of hot air which seemed to exhale from the wood itself, while his head and breast were swept by the mountain breeze. He felt the old intoxication of the balmy-scented air again, and the five years of care and hopelessness laid upon his shoulders since he had last breathed its fragrance slipped from them like a burden. There had been but little change here; perhaps the road was wider and the dust lay thicker, but the great pines still mounted in serried ranks on the slopes as before, with no gaps in their unending files. Here was the spot where the stagecoach had passed them that eventful morning when they were coming out of their camp-life into the world of civilization; a little further back, the spot where Jack Hamlin had forced upon him that grim memento of the attempted robbery of their cabin, which he had kept ever since. He half smiled again at the superstitious interest that had made him keep it, with the intention of some day returning to bury it, with all recollections of the deed, under the site of the old cabin. As he went on in the vivifying influence of the air and scene, new life seemed to course through his veins; his step seemed to grow as elastic as in the old days of their bitter but hopeful struggle for fortune, when he had gayly returned from his weekly tramp to Boomville laden with the scant provision procured by their scant earnings and dying credit. Those were the days when her living image still inspired his heart with faith and hope; when everything was yet possible to youth and love, and before the irony of fate had given him fortune with one hand only to withdraw her with the other. It was strange and cruel that coming back from his quest of rest and forgetfulness he should find only these youthful and sanguine dreams revive with his reviving vigor. He walked on more hurriedly as if to escape them, and was glad to be diverted by one or two carryalls and char-a- bancs filled with gayly dressed pleasure parties--evidently visitors to Hymettus--which passed him on the road. Here were the first signs of change. He recalled the train of pack-mules of the old days, the file of pole-and-basket carrying Chinese, the squaw with the papoose strapped to her shoulder, or the wandering and foot-sore prospector, who were the only wayfarers he used to meet. He contrasted their halts and friendly greetings with the insolent curiosity or undisguised contempt of the carriage folk, and smiled as he thought of the warning of the blacksmith. But this did not long divert him; he found himself again returning to his previous thought. Indeed, the face of a young girl in one of the carriages had quite startled him with its resemblance to an old memory of his lost love as he saw her,--her frail, pale elegance encompassed in laces as she leaned back in her drive through Fifth Avenue, with eyes that lit up and became transfigured only as he passed. He tried to think of his useless quest in search of her last resting- place abroad; how he had been baffled by the opposition of her surviving relations, already incensed by the thought that her decline had been the effect of her hopeless passion. He tried to recall the few frigid lines that reconveyed to him the last letter he had sent her, with the announcement of her death and the hope that "his persecutions" would now cease. A wild idea had sometimes come to him out of the very insufficiency of his knowledge of this climax, but he had always put it aside as a precursor of that madness which might end his ceaseless thought. And now it was returning to him, here, thousands of miles away from where she was peacefully sleeping, and even filling him with the vigor of youthful hope.
The brief mountain twilight was giving way now to the radiance of the rising moon. He endeavored to fix his thoughts upon his partners who were to meet him at Hymettus after these long years of separation.
Hymettus! He recalled now the odd coincidence that he had mischievously used as a gag to his questioning fellow traveler; but now he had really come from a villa near Athens to find his old house thus classically rechristened after it, and thought of it with a gravity he had not felt before. He wondered who had named it. There was no suggestion of the soft, sensuous elegance of the land he had left in those great heroics of nature before him. Those enormous trees were no woods for fauns or dryads; they had their own godlike majesty of bulk and height, and as he at last climbed the summit and saw the dark-helmeted head of Black Spur before him, and beyond it the pallid, spiritual cloud of the Sierras, he did not think of Olympus. Yet for a moment he was startled, as he turned to the right, by the Doric-columned facade of a temple painted by the moonbeams and framed in an opening of the dark woods before him. It was not until he had reached it that he saw that it was the new wooden post-office of Heavy Tree Hill.
And now the buildings of the new settlement began to faintly appear. But the obscurity of the shadow and the equally disturbing unreality of the moonlight confused him in his attempts to recognize the old landmarks. A broad and well-kept winding road had taken the place of the old steep, but direct trail to his cabin. He had walked for some moments in uncertainty, when a sudden sweep of the road brought the full crest of the hill above and before him, crowned with a tiara of lights, overtopping a long base of flashing windows. That was all that was left of Heavy Tree Hill. The old foreground of buckeye and odorous ceanothus was gone. Even the great grove of pines behind it had vanished.
There was already a stir of life in the road, and he could see figures moving slowly along a kind of sterile, formal terrace spread with a few dreary marble vases and plaster statues which had replaced the natural slope and the great quartz buttresses of outcrop that supported it. Presently he entered a gate, and soon found himself in the carriage drive leading to the hotel veranda. A number of fair promenaders were facing the keen mountain night wind in wraps and furs. Demorest had replaced his coat, but his boots were red with dust, and as he ascended the steps he could see that he was eyed with some superciliousness by the guests and with considerable suspicion by the servants. One of the latter was approaching him with an insolent smile when a figure darted from the vestibule, and, brushing the waiter aside, seized Demorest's two hands in his and held him at arm's length.
"Demorest, old man!"
"Stacy, old chap!"
"But where's your team? I've had all the spare hostlers and hall- boys listening for you at the gate. And where's Barker? When he found you'd given the dead-cut to the railroad--his railroad, you know--he loped over to Boomville after you."
Demorest briefly explained that he had walked by the old road and probably missed him. But by this time the waiters, crushed by the spectacle of this travel-worn stranger's affectionate reception by the great financial magnate, were wildly applying their brushes and handkerchiefs to his trousers and boots until Stacy again swept them away.
"Get off, all of you! Now, Phil, you come with me. The house is full, but I've made the manager give you a lady's drawing-room suite. When you telegraphed you'd meet us here there was no chance to get anything else. It's really Mrs. Van Loo's family suite; but they were sent for to go to Marysville yesterday, and so we'll run you in for the night."
"Nonsense!" said Stacy, dragging him away. "We'll pay for it; and I reckon the old lady won't object to taking her share of the damage either, or she isn't Van Loo's mother. Come."
Demorest felt himself hurried forward by the energetic Stacy, preceded by the obsequious manager, through a corridor to a handsomely furnished suite, into whose bathroom Stacy incontinently thrust him.
"There! Wash up; and by the time you're ready Barker ought to be back, and we'll have supper. It's waiting for us in the other room."
"But how about Barker, the dear boy?" persisted Demorest, holding open the door. "Tell me, is he well and happy?"
"About as well as we all are," said Stacy quickly, yet with a certain dry significance. "Never mind now; wait until you see him."
The door closed. When Demorest had finished washing, and wiped away the last red stain of the mountain road, he found Stacy seated by the window of the larger sitting-room. In the centre a table was spread for supper. A bright fire of hickory logs burnt on a marble hearth between two large windows that gave upon the distant outline of Black Spur. As Stacy turned towards him, by the light of the shaded lamp and flickering fire, Demorest had a good look at the face of his old friend and partner. It was as keen and energetic as ever, with perhaps an even more hawk-like activity visible in the eye and nostril; but it was more thoughtful and reticent in the lines of the mouth under the closely clipped beard and mustache, and when he looked up, at first there were two deep lines or furrows across his low broad forehead. Demorest fancied, too, that there was a little of the old fighting look in his eye, but it softened quickly as his friend approached, and he burst out with his curt but honest single-syllabled laugh. "Ha! You look a little less like a roving Apache than you did when you came. I really thought the waiters were going to chuck you. And you are tanned! Darned if you don't look like the profile stamped on a Continental penny! But here's luck and a welcome back, old man!"
Demorest passed his arm around the neck of his seated partner, and grasping his upraised hand said, looking down with a smile, "And now about Barker."
"Oh, Parker, d--n him! He's the same unshakable, unchangeable, ungrow-upable Barker! With the devil's own luck, too! Waltzing into risks and waltzing out of 'em. With fads enough to put him in the insane asylum if people did not prefer to keep him out of it to help 'em. Always believing in everybody, until they actually believe in themselves, and shake him! And he's got a wife that's making a fool of herself, and I shouldn't wonder in time--of him!"
Demorest pressed his hand over his partner's mouth. "Come, Jim! You know you never really liked that marriage, simply because you thought that old man Carter made a good thing of it. And you never seem to have taken into consideration the happiness Barker got out of it, for he did love the girl. And he still is happy, is he not?" he added quickly, as Stacy uttered a grunt.
"As happy as a man can be who has his child here with a nurse while his wife is gallivanting in San Francisco, and throwing her money-- and Lord knows what else--away at the bidding of a smooth-tongued, shady operator."
"Does he complain of it?" asked Demorest.
"Not he; the fool trusts her!" said Stacy curtly.
Demorest laughed. "That is happiness! Come, Jim! don't let us begrudge him that. But I've heard that his affairs have again prospered."
"He built this railroad and this hotel. The bank owns both now. He didn't care to keep money in them after they were a success; said he wasn't an engineer nor a hotel-keeper, and drew it out to find something new. But here he comes," he added, as a horseman dashed into the drive before the hotel. "Question him yourself. You know you and he always get along best without me."
In another moment Barker had burst into the room, and in his first tempestuous greeting of Demorest the latter saw little change in his younger partner as he held him at arm's length to look at him. "Why, Barker boy, you haven't got a bit older since the day when-- you remember--you went over to Boomville to cash your bonds, and then came back and burst upon us like this to tell us you were a beggar."
"Yes," laughed Barker, "and all the while you fellows were holding four aces up your sleeve in the shape of the big strike."
"And you, Georgy, old boy," returned Demorest, swinging Barker's two hands backwards and forwards, "were holding a royal flush up yours in the shape of your engagement to Kitty."
The fresh color died out of Barker's cheek even while the frank laugh was still on his mouth. He turned his face for a moment towards the window, and a swift and almost involuntary glance passed between the others. But he almost as quickly turned his glistening eyes back to Demorest again, and said eagerly, "Yes, dear Kitty! You shall see her and the baby to-morrow."
Then they fell upon the supper with the appetites of the Past, and for some moments they all talked eagerly and even noisily together, all at the same time, with even the spirits of the Past. They recalled every detail of their old life; eagerly and impetuously recounted the old struggles, hopes, and disappointments, gave the strange importance of schoolboys to unimportant events, and a mystic meaning to a shibboleth of their own; roared over old jokes with a delight they had never since given to new; reawakened idiotic nicknames and bywords with intense enjoyment; grew grave, anxious, and agonized over forgotten names, trifling dates, useless distances, ineffective records, and feeble chronicles of their domestic economy. It was the thoughtful and melancholy Demorest who remembered the exact color and price paid for a certain shirt bought from a Greaser peddler amidst the envy of his companions; it was the financial magnate, Stacy, who could inform them what were the exact days they had saleratus bread and when flapjacks; it was the thoughtless and mercurial Barker who recalled with unheard-of accuracy, amidst the applause of the others, the full name of the Indian squaw who assisted at their washing. Even then they were almost feverishly loath to leave the subject, as if the Past, at least, was secure to them still, and they were even doubtful of their own free and full accord in the Present. Then they slipped rather reluctantly into their later experiences, but with scarcely the same freedom or spontaneity; and it was noticeable that these records were elicited from Barker by Stacy or from Stacy by Barker for the information of Demorest, often with chaffing and only under good-humored protest. "Tell Demorest how you broke the 'Copper Ring,'" from the admiring Barker, or, "Tell Demorest how your d----d foolishness in buying up the right and plant of the Ditch Company got you control of the railroad," from the mischievous Stacy, were challenges in point. Presently they left the table, and, to the astonishment of the waiters who removed the cloth, common brier- wood pipes, thoughtfully provided by Barker in commemoration of the Past, were lit, and they ranged themselves in armchairs before the fire quite unconsciously in their old attitudes. The two windows on either side of the hearth gave them the same view that the open door of the old cabin had made familiar to them, the league-long valley below the shadowy bulk of the Black Spur rising in the distance, and, still more remote, the pallid snow-line that soared even beyond its crest.
As in the old time, they were for many moments silent; and then, as in the old time, it was the irrepressible Barker who broke the silence. "But Stacy does not tell you anything about his friend, the beautiful Mrs. Horncastle. You know he's the guardian of one of the finest women in California--a woman as noble and generous as she is handsome. And think of it! He's protecting her from her brute of a husband, and looking after her property. Isn't it good and chivalrous of him?"
The irrepressible laughter of the two men brought only wonder and reproachful indignation into the widely opened eyes of Barker. He was perfectly sincere. He had been thinking of Stacy's admiration for Mrs. Horncastle in his ride from Boomville, and, strange to say, yet characteristic of his nature, it was equally the natural outcome of his interview with her and the singular effect she had upon him. That he (Barker) thoroughly sympathized with her only convinced him that Stacy must feel the same for her, and that, no doubt, she must respond to him equally. And how noble it was in his old partner, with his advantages of position in the world and his protecting relations to her, not to avail himself of this influence upon her generous nature. If he himself--a married man and the husband of Kitty--was so conscious of her charm, how much greater it must be to the free and inexperienced Stacy.
The italics were in Barker's thought; for in those matters he felt that Stacy and even Demorest, occupied in other things, had not his knowledge. There was no idea or consciousness of heroically sacrificing himself or Mrs. Horncastle in this. I am afraid there was not even an idea of a superior morality in himself in giving up the possibility of loving her. Ever since Stacy had first seen her he had fancied that Stacy liked her,--indeed, Kitty fancied it, too,--and it seemed almost providential now that he should know how to assist his old partner to happiness. For it was inconceivable that Stacy should not be able to rescue this woman from her shameful bonds, or that she should not consent to it through his (Barker's) arguments and entreaties. To a "champion of dames" this seemed only right and proper. In his unfailing optimism he translated Stacy's laugh as embarrassment and Demorest's as only ignorance of the real question. But Demorest had noticed, if he had not, that Stacy's laugh was a little nervously prolonged for a man of his temperament, and that he had cast a very keen glance at Barker. A messenger arriving with a telegram brought from Boomville called Stacy momentarily away, and Barker was not slow to take advantage of his absence.
"I wish, Phil," he said, hitching his chair closer to Demorest, "that you would think seriously of this matter, and try to persuade Stacy--who, I believe, is more interested in Mrs. Horncastle than he cares to show--to put a little of that determination in love that he has shown in business. She's an awfully fine woman, and in every way suited to him, and he is letting an absurd sense of pride and honor keep him from influencing her to get rid of her impossible husband. There's no reason," continued Barker in a burst of enthusiastic simplicity, "that because she has found some one she likes better, and who would treat her better, that she should continue to stick to that beast whom all California would gladly see her divorced from. I never could understand that kind of argument, could you?"
Demorest looked at his companion's glowing cheek and kindling eye with a smile. "A good deal depends upon the side from which you argue. But, frankly, Barker boy, though I think I know you in all your phases, I am not prepared yet to accept you as a match-maker! However, I'll think it over, and find out something more of this from your goddess, who seems to have bewitched you both. But what does Mistress Kitty say to your admiration?"
Barker's face clouded, but instantly brightened. "Oh, they're the best of friends; they're quite like us, you know, even to larks they have together." He stopped and colored at his slip. But Demorest, who had noticed his change of expression, was more concerned at the look of half incredulity and half suspicion with which Stacy, who had re-entered the room in time to hear Barker's speech, was regarding his unconscious younger partner.
"I didn't know that Mrs. Horncastle and Mrs. Barker were such friends," he said dryly as he sat down again. But his face presently became so abstracted that Demorest said gayly:--
"Well, Jim, I'm glad I'm not a Napoleon of Finance! I couldn't stand it to have my privacy or my relaxation broken in upon at any moment, as yours was just now. What confounded somersault in stocks has put that face on you?"
Stacy looked up quickly with his brief laugh. "I'm afraid you'd be none the wiser if I told you. That was a pony express messenger from New York. You remember how Barker, that night of the strike, when we were sitting together here, or very near here, proposed that we ought to have a password or a symbol to call us together in case of emergency, for each other's help? Well, let us say I have two partners, one in Europe and one in New York. That was my password."
"And, I hope, no more serious than ours," added Demorest.
Stacy laughed his short laugh. Nevertheless, the conversation dragged again. The feverish gayety of the early part of the evening was gone, and they seemed to be suffering from the reaction. They fell into their old attitudes, looking from the firelight to the distant bulk of Black Spur without a word. The occasional sound of the voices of promenaders on the veranda at last ceased; there was the noise of the shutting of heavy doors below, and Barker rose.
"You'll excuse me, boys; but I must go and say good-night to little Sta, and see that he's all right. I haven't seen him since I got back. But"--to Demorest--"you'll see him to-morrow, when Kitty comes. It is as much as my life is worth to show him before she certifies him as being presentable." He paused, and then added: "Don't wait up, you fellows, for me; sometimes the little chap won't let me go. It's as if he thought, now Kitty's away, I was all he had. But I'll be up early in the morning and see you. I dare say you and Stacy have a heap to say to each other on business, and you won't miss me. So I'll say good-night." He laughed lightly, pressed the hands of his partners in his usual hearty fashion, and went out of the room, leaving the gloom a little deeper than before. It was so unusual for Barker to be the first to leave anybody or anything in trouble that they both noticed it. "But for that," said Demorest, turning to Stacy as the door closed, "I should say the dear fellow was absolutely unchanged. But he seemed a little anxious to-night."
"I shouldn't wonder. He's got two women on his mind,--as if one was not enough."
"I don't understand. You say his wife is foolish, and this other"--
"Never mind that now," interrupted Stacy, getting up and putting down his pipe. "Let's talk a little business. That other stuff will keep."
"By all means," said Demorest, with a smile, settling down into his chair a little wearily, however. "I forgot business. And I forgot, my dear Jim, to congratulate you. I've heard all about you, even in New York. You're the man who, according to everybody, now holds the finances of the Pacific Slope in his hands. And," he added, leaning affectionately towards his old partner, "I don't know any one better equipped in honesty, straightforwardness, and courage for such a responsibility than you."
"I only wish," said Stacy, looking thoughtfully at Demorest, "that I didn't hold nearly a million of your money included in the finances of the Pacific Slope."
"Why," said the smiling Demorest, "as long as I am satisfied?"
"Because I am not. If you're satisfied, I'm a wretched idiot and not fit for my position. Now, look here, Phil. When you wrote me to sell out your shares in the Wheat Trust I was a little staggered. I knew your gait, my boy, and I knew, too, that, while you didn't know enough to trust your own opinions or feeling, you knew too much to trust any one's opinion that wasn't first-class. So I reckoned you had the straight tip; but I didn't see it. Now, I ought not to have been staggered if I was fit for your confidence, or, if I was staggered, I ought to have had enough confidence in myself not to mind you. See?"
"I admit your logic, old man," said Demorest, with an amused face, "but I don't see your premises. When did I tell you to sell out?"
"Two days ago. You wrote just after you arrived."
"I have never written to you since I arrived. I only telegraphed to you to know where we should meet, and received your message to come here."
"You never wrote me from San Francisco?"
Stacy looked concernedly at his friend. Was he in his right mind? He had heard of cases where melancholy brooding on a fixed idea had affected the memory. He took from his pocket a letter-case, and selecting a letter handed it to Demorest without speaking.
Demorest glanced at it, turned it over, read its contents, and in a grave voice said, "There is something wrong here. It is like my handwriting, but I never wrote the letter, nor has it been in my hand before."
Stacy sprang to his side. "Then it's a forgery!"
"Wait a moment." Demorest, who, although very grave, was the more collected of the two, went to a writing-desk, selected a sheet of paper, and took up a pen. "Now," he said, "dictate that letter to me."
Stacy began, Demorest's pen rapidly following him:--
"Dear Jim,--On receipt of this get rid of my Wheat Trust shares at whatever figure you can. From the way things pointed in New York"--
"Stop!" interrupted Demorest.
"Well?" said Stacy impatiently.
"Now, my dear Jim," said Demorest plaintively, "when did you ever know me to write such a sentence as 'the way things pointed'?"
"Let me finish reading," said Stacy. This literary sensitiveness at such a moment seemed little short of puerility to the man of business.
"From the way things pointed in New York," continued Stacy, "and from private advices received, this seems to be the only prudent course before the feathers begin to fly. Longing to see you again and the dear old stamping-ground at Heavy Tree. Love to Barker. Has the dear old boy been at any fresh crank lately?
"Yours, Phil Demorest."
The dictation and copy finished together. Demorest laid the freshly written sheet beside the letter Stacy had produced. They were very much alike and yet quite distinct from each other. Only the signature seemed identical.
"That's the invariable mistake with the forger," said Demorest; "he always forgets that signatures ought to be identical with the text rather than with each other."
But Stacy did not seem to hear this or require further proof. His face was quite gray and his lips compressed until lost in his closely set beard as he gazed fixedly out of the window. For the first time, really concerned and touched, Demorest laid his hand gently on his shoulder.
"Tell me, Jim, how much does this mean to you apart from me? Don't think of me."
"I don't know yet," said Stacy slowly. "That's the trouble. And I won't know until I know who's at the bottom of it. Does anybody know of your affairs with me?"
"No confidential friend, eh?"
"No one who has access to your secrets? No--no--woman? Excuse me, Phil," he said, as a peculiar look passed over Demorest's face, "but this is business."
"No," he returned, with that gentleness that used to frighten them in the old days, "it's ignorance. You fellows always say 'Cherchez la femme' when you can't say anything else. Come now," he went on more brightly, "look at the letter. Here's a man, commercially educated, for he has used the usual business formulas, 'on receipt of this,' and 'advices received,' which I won't merely say I don't use, but which few but commercial men use. Next, here's a man who uses slang, not only ineptly, but artificially, to give the letter the easy, familiar turn it hasn't from beginning to end. I need only say, my dear Stacy, that I don't write slang to you, but that nobody who understands slang ever writes it in that way. And then the knowledge of my opinion of Barker is such as might be gained from the reading of my letters by a person who couldn't comprehend my feelings. Now, let me play inquisitor for a few moments. Has anybody access to my letters to you?"
"No one. I keep them locked up in a cabinet. I only make memorandums of your instructions, which I give to my clerks, but never your letters."
"But your clerks sometimes see you make memorandums from them?"
"Yes, but none of them have the ability to do this sort of thing, nor the opportunity of profiting by it."
"Has any woman--now this is not retaliation, my dear Jim, for I fancy I detect a woman's cleverness and a woman's stupidity in this forgery--any access to your secrets or my letters? A woman's villainy is always effective for the moment, but always defective when probed."
The look of scorn which passed over Stacy's face was quite as distinct as Demorest's previous protest, as he said contemptuously, "I'm not such a fool as to mix up petticoats with my business, whatever I do."
"Well, one thing more. I have told you that in my opinion the forger has a commercial education or style, that he doesn't know me nor Barker, and don't understand slang. Now, I have to add what must have occurred to you, Jim, that the forger is either a coward, or his object is not altogether mercenary: for the same ability displayed in this letter would on the signature alone--had it been on a check or draft--have drawn from your bank twenty times the amount concerned. Now, what is the actual loss by this forgery?"
"Very little; for you've got a good price for your stocks, considering the depreciation in realizing suddenly on so large an amount. I told my broker to sell slowly and in small quantities to avoid a panic. But the real loss is the control of the stock."
"But the amount I had was not enough to affect that," said Demorest.
"No, but I was carrying a large amount myself, and together we controlled the market, and now I have unloaded, too."
"You sold out! and with your doubts?" said Demorest.
"That's just it," said Stacy, looking steadily at his companion's face, "because I had doubts, and it won't do for me to have them. I ought either to have disobeyed your letter and kept your stock and my own, or have done just what I did. I might have hedged on my own stock, but I don't believe in hedging. There is no middle course to a man in my business if he wants to keep at the top. No great success, no great power, was ever created by it."
Demorest smiled. "Yet you accept the alternative also, which is ruin?"
"Precisely," said Stacy. "When you returned the other day you were bound to find me what I was or a beggar. But nothing between. However," he added, "this has nothing to do with the forgery, or," he smiled grimly, "everything to do with it. Hush! Barker is coming."
There was a quick step along the corridor approaching the room. The next moment the door flew open to the bounding step and laughing face of Barker. Whatever of thoughtfulness or despondency he had carried from the room with him was completely gone. With his amazing buoyancy and power of reaction he was there again in his usual frank, cheerful simplicity.
"I thought I'd come in and say goodnight," he began, with a laugh. "I got Sta asleep after some high jinks we had together, and then I reckoned it wasn't the square thing to leave just you two together, the first night you came. And I remembered I had some business to talk over, too, so I thought I'd chip in again and take a hand. It's only the shank of the evening yet," he continued gayly, "and we ought to sit up at least long enough to see the old snow-line vanish, as we did in old times. But I say," he added suddenly, as he glanced from the one to the other, "you've been having it pretty strong already. Why, you both look as you did that night the backwater of the South Fork came into our cabin. What's up?"
"Nothing," said Demorest hastily, as he caught a glance of Stacy's impatient face. "Only all business is serious, Barker boy, though you don't seem to feel it so."
"I reckon you're right there," said Barker, with a chuckle. "People always laugh, of course, when I talk business, so it might make it a little livelier for you and more of a change if I chipped in now. Only I don't know which you'll do. Hand me a pipe. Well," he continued, filling the pipe Demorest shoved towards him, "you see, I was in Sacramento yesterday, and I went into Van Loo's branch office, as I heard he was there, and I wanted to find out something about Kitty's investments, which I don't think he's managing exactly right. He wasn't there, however, but as I was waiting I heard his clerks talk about a drop in the Wheat Trust, and that there was a lot of it put upon the market. They seemed to think that something had happened, and it was going down still further. Now I knew it was your pet scheme, and that Phil had a lot of shares in it, too, so I just slipped out and went to a broker's and told him to buy all he could of it. And, by Jove! I was a little taken aback when I found what I was in for, for everybody seemed to have unloaded, and I found I hadn't money enough to pay margins, but I knew that Demorest was here, and I reckoned on his seeing me through." He stopped and colored, but added hopefully, "I reckon I'm safe, anyway, for just as the thing was over those same clerks of Van Loo's came bounding into the office to buy up everything. And offered to take it off my hands and pay the margins."
"And you?" said both men eagerly, and in a breath.
Barker stared at them, and reddened and paled by turns. "I held on," he stammered. "You see, boys"--
Both men had caught him by the arms. "How much have you got?" they said, shaking him as if to precipitate the answer.
"It's a heap!" said Barker. "It's a ghastly lot now I think of it. I'm afraid I'm in for fifty thousand, if a cent."
To his infinite astonishment and delight he was alternately hugged and tossed backwards and forwards between the two men quite in the fashion of the old days. Breathless but laughing, he at length gasped out, "What does it all mean?"
"Tell him everything, Jim,--everything," said Demorest quickly.
Stacy briefly related the story of the forgery, and then laid the letter and its copy before him. But Barker only read the forgery.
"How could you, Stacy--one of the three partners of Heavy Tree--be deceived! Don't you see it's Phil's handwriting--but it isn't Phil!"
"But have you any idea who it is?" said Stacy.
"Not me," said Barker, with widely opened eyes. "You see it must be somebody whom we are familiar with. I can't imagine such a scoundrel."
"How did you know that Demorest had stock?" asked Stacy.
"He told me in one of his letters and advised me to go into it. But just then Kitty wanted money, I think, and I didn't go in."
"I remember it," struck in Demorest. "But surely it was no secret. My name would be on the transfer books for any one to see."
"Not so," said Stacy quickly. "You were one of the original shareholders; there was no transfer, and the books as well as the shares of the company were in my hands."
"And your clerks?" added Demorest.
Stacy was silent. After a pause he asked, "Did anybody ever see that letter, Barker?"
"No one but myself and Kitty."
"And would she be likely to talk of it?" continued Stacy.
"Of course not. Why should she? Whom could she talk to?" Yet he stopped suddenly, and then with his characteristic reaction added, with a laugh, "Why no, certainly not."
"Of course, everybody knew that you had bought the shares at Sacramento?"
"Yes. Why, you know I told you the Van Loo clerks came to me and wanted to take it off my hands."
"Yes, I remember; the Van Loo clerks; they knew it, of course," said Stacy with a grim smile. "Well, boys," he said, with sudden alacrity, "I'm going to turn in, for by sun-up to-morrow I must be on my way to catch the first train at the Divide for 'Frisco. We'll hunt this thing down together, for I reckon we're all concerned in it," he added, looking at the others, "and once more we're partners as in the old times. Let us even say that I've given Barker's signal or password," he added, with a laugh, "and we'll stick together. Barker boy," he went on, grasping his younger partner's hand, "your instinct has saved us this time; d----d if I don't sometimes think it better than any other man's sabe; only," he dropped his voice slightly, "I wish you had it in other things than finance. Phil, I've a word to say to you alone before I go. I may want you to follow me."
"But what can I do?" said Barker eagerly. "You're not going to leave me out."
"You've done quite enough for us, old man," said Stacy, laying his hand on Barker's shoulder. "And it may be for us to do something for you. Trot off to bed now, like a good boy. I'll keep you posted when the time comes."
Shoving the protesting and leave-taking Barker with paternal familiarity from the room, he closed the door and faced Demorest.
"He's the best fellow in the world," said Stacy quietly, "and has saved the situation; but we mustn't trust too much to him for the present--not even seem to."
"Nonsense, man!" said Demorest impatiently. "You're letting your prejudices go too far. Do you mean to say that you suspect his wife."
"D--n his wife!" said Stacy almost savagely. "Leave her out of this. It's Van Loo that I suspect. It was Van Loo who I knew was behind it, who expected to profit by it, and now we have lost him."
"But how?" said Demorest, astonished.
"How?" repeated Stacy impatiently. "You know what Barker said? Van Loo, either through stupidity, fright, or the wish to get the lowest prices, was too late to buy up the market. If he had, we might have openly declared the forgery, and if it was known that he or his friends had profited by it, even if we could not have proven his actual complicity, we could at least have made it too hot for him in California. But," said Stacy, looking intently at his friend, "do you know how the case stands now?"
"Well," said Demorest, a little uneasily under his friend's keen eyes, "we've lost that chance, but we've kept control of the stock."
"You think so? Well, let me tell you how the case stands and the price we pay for it," said Stacy deliberately, as he folded his arms and gazed at Demorest. "You and I, well known as old friends and former partners, for no apparent reason--for we cannot prove the forgery now--have thrown upon the market all our stock, with the usual effect of depreciating it. Another old friend and former partner has bought it in and sent up the price. A common trick, a vulgar trick, but not a trick worthy of James Stacy or Stacy's Bank!"
"But why not simply declare the forgery without making any specific charge against Van Loo?"
"Do you imagine, Phil, that any man would believe it, and the story of a providentially appointed friend like Barker who saved us from loss? Why, all California, from Cape Mendocino to Los Angeles, would roar with laughter over it! No! We must swallow it and the reputation of 'jockeying' with the Wheat Trust, too. That Trust's as good as done for, for the present! Now you know why I didn't want poor Barker to know it, nor have much to do with our search for the forger."
"It would break the dear fellow's heart if he knew it," said Demorest.
"Well, it's to save him from having his heart broken further that I intend to find out this forger," said Stacy grimly. "Good-night, Phil! I'll telegraph to you when I want you, and then come!"
With another grip of the hand he left Demorest to his thoughts. In the first excitement of meeting his old partners, and in the later discovery of the forgery, Demorest had been diverted from his old sorrow, and for the time had forgotten it in sympathetic interest with the present. But, to his horror, when alone again, he found that interest growing as remote and vapid as the stories they had laughed over at the table, and even the excitement of the forged letter and its consequences began to be as unreal, as impotent, as shadowy, as the memory of the attempted robbery in the old cabin on that very spot. He was ashamed of that selfishness which still made him cling to this past, so much his own, that he knew it debarred him from the human sympathy of his comrades. And even Barker, in whose courtship and marriage he had tried to resuscitate his youthful emotions and condone his selfish errors--even the suggestion of his unhappiness only touched him vaguely. He would no longer be a slave to the Past, or the memory that had deluded him a few hours ago. He walked to the window; alas, there was the same prospect that had looked upon his dreams, had lent itself to his old visions. There was the eternal outline of the hills; there rose the steadfast pines; there was no change in them. It was this surrounding constancy of nature that had affected him. He turned away and entered the bedroom. Here he suddenly remembered that the mother of this vague enemy, Van Loo,--for his feeling towards him was still vague, as few men really hate the personality they don't know,--had only momentarily vacated it, and to his distaste of his own intrusion was now added the profound irony of his sleeping in the same bed lately occupied by the mother of the man who was suspected of having forged his name. He smiled faintly and looked around the apartment. It was handsomely furnished, and although it still had much of the characterlessness of the hotel room, it was distinctly flavored by its last occupant, and still brightened by that mysterious instinct of the sex which is inevitable. Where a man would have simply left his forgotten slippers or collars there was a glass of still unfaded flowers; the cold marble top of the dressing-table was littered with a few linen and silk toilet covers; and on the mantel-shelf was a sheaf of photographs. He walked towards them mechanically, glanced at them abstractedly, and then stopped suddenly with a beating heart. Before him was the picture of his past, the photograph of the one woman who had filled his life!
He cast a hurried glance around the room as if he half expected to see the original start up before him, and then eagerly seized it and hurried with it to the light. Yes! yes! It was she,--she as she had lived in his actual memory; she as she had lived in his dream. He saw her sweet eyes, but the frightened, innocent trouble had passed from them; there was the sensitive elegance of her graceful figure in evening dress; but the figure was fuller and maturer. Could he be mistaken by some wonderful resemblance acting upon his too willing brain? He turned the photograph over. No; there on the other side, written in her own childlike hand, endeared and familiar to his recollection, was her own name, and the date! It was surely she!
How did it come there? Did the Van Loos know her? It was taken in Venice; there was the address of the photographers. The Van Loos were foreigners, he remembered; they had traveled; perhaps had met her there in 1858: that was the date in her handwriting; that was the date on the photographer's address--1858. Suddenly he laid the photograph down, took with trembling fingers a letter-case from his pocket, opened it, and laid his last letter to her, indorsed with the cruel announcement of her death, before him on the table. He passed his hand across his forehead and opened the letter. It was dated 1856! The photograph must have been taken two years after her alleged death!
He examined it again eagerly, fixedly, tremblingly. A wild impulse to summon Barker or Stacy on the spot was restrained with difficulty and only when he remembered that they could not help him. Then he began to oscillate between a joy and a new fear, which now, for the first time, began to dawn upon him. If the news of her death had been a fiendish trick of her relations, why had she never sought him? It was not ill health, restraint, nor fear; there was nothing but happiness and the strength of youth and beauty in that face and figure. He had not disappeared from the world; he was known of men; more, his memorable good fortune must have reached her ears. Had he wasted all these miserable years to find himself abandoned, forgotten, perhaps even a dupe? For the first time the sting of jealousy entered his soul. Perhaps, unconsciously to himself, his strange and varying feelings that afternoon had been the gathering climax of his mental condition; at all events, in the sudden revulsion there was a shaking off of his apathetic thought; there was activity, even if it was the activity of pain. Here was a mystery to be solved, a secret to be discovered, a past wrong to be exposed, an enemy or, perhaps, even a faithless love to be punished. Perhaps he had even saved his reason at the expense of his love. He quickly replaced the photograph on the mantel-shelf, returned the letter carefully to his pocket-book,--no longer a souvenir of the past, but a proof of treachery,--and began to mechanically undress himself. He was quite calm now, and went to bed with a strange sense of relief, and slept as he had not slept since he was a boy.
The whole hotel had sunk to rest by this time, and then began the usual slow, nightly invasion and investment of it by nature. For all its broad verandas and glaring terraces, its long ranges of windows and glittering crest of cupola and tower, it gradually succumbed to the more potent influences around it, and became their sport and playground. The mountain breezes from the distant summit swept down upon its flimsy structure, shook the great glass windows as with a strong hand, and sent the balm of bay and spruce through every chink and cranny. In the great hall and corridors the carpets billowed with the intruding blast along the floors; there was the murmur of the pines in the passages, and the damp odor of leaves in the dining-room. There was the cry of night birds in the creaking cupola, and the swift rush of dark wings past bedroom windows. Lissome shapes crept along the terraces between the stolid wooden statues, or, bolder, scampered the whole length of the great veranda. In the lulling of the wind the breath of the woods was everywhere; even the aroma of swelling sap--as if the ghastly stumps on the deforested slope behind the hotel were bleeding afresh in the dewless night--stung the eyes and nostrils of the sleepers.
It was, perhaps, from such cause as this that Barker was awakened suddenly by the voice of the boy from the crib beside him, crying, "Mamma! mamma!" Taking the child in his arms, he comforted him, saying she would come that morning, and showed him the faint dawn already veiling with color the ghostly pallor of the Sierras. As they looked at it a great star shot forth from its brethren and fell. It did not fall perpendicularly, but seemed for some seconds to slip along the slopes of Black Spur, gleaming through the trees like a chariot of fire. It pleased the child to say that it was the light of mamma's buggy that was fetching her home, and it pleased the father to encourage the boy's fancy. And talking thus in confidential whispers they fell asleep once more, the father-- himself a child in so many things--holding the smaller and frailer hand in his.
They did not know that on the other side of the Divide the wife and mother, scared, doubting, and desperate, by the side of her scared, doubting, and desperate accomplice, was flying down the slope on her night-long road to ruin. Still less did they know that, with the early singing birds, a careless horseman, emerging from the trail as the dust-stained buggy dashed past him, glanced at it with a puzzled air, uttered a quiet whistle of surprise, and then, wheeling his horse, gayly cantered after it.