Chapter XV. The Doors of the Vault Swing Shut
 

"I say, old man, just how do we stack up?" questioned Alton Clyde, when, later in the week, he had succeeded in pinning Boyd down for a moment's conversation. "Blessed if I know what's going on."

"Well, we're up against it."

"How?"

"That newspaper story started it." Emerson's teeth snapped angrily, and Clyde's colorless eyes shifted. "Fraser let his tongue wag, and immediately the banks closed up on me. I've tried every one in this city, in Tacoma, in Vancouver, and in Victoria, but it seems that they have all been advised of war in the canning business. Our ship was taken away from us, and although I have found another, I'm afraid to charter it until I see my way out. Then there have been delays in various shipments--boilers, tin, lumber, and all that. I haven't worried you with half the details; but George and I have forgotten what a night's rest looks like. Now Bloc & Company are trying to get out of their contract to take our output." Emerson sighed heavily and sank deeper into his chair, his weariness of mind and body betrayed by his utter relaxation. "I guess we are done for. I'm about all in."

"Glory be!" exclaimed the dapper little club-man, with a comical furrow of care upon his brow. "When you give up, it is quitting time."

"I haven't given up; I am doing all I can, but things are in a diabolical tangle. Some of our supplies are here; others are laid out on the road; some seem to be utterly lost. We have had to make substitutions of machinery, our bills are overdue, and--but what's the use! We need money. That's the crux of the whole affair. When Hilliard balked, he threw the whole proposition."

"And I'm stung for ten thou," reflected Clyde, lugubriously. "Ten thousand drops of my heart's red blood! Good Lord! I'm a fierce business man. Say! I ought to be the purchasing agent for the Farmers' Alliance; gold bricks are my specialty. I haven't won a bet since the battle of Bull Run."

"What about the twenty-five thousand dollars that you raised?" Emerson asked.

Clyde began to laugh, shrilly. "That's painfully funny. I hadn't thought about that."

"The situation may be remarkable, but I don't see anything humorous in it," said Emerson, dryly.

"Oh, you would if you only knew, but I can't tell you what it is. You see, I promised not to divulge where the money came from, and when I give my word I'm a regular Sphinx. But it's funny." After an instant he said, in all seriousness: "If Hilliard holds the combination to this thing, why don't you have Cherry help us?"

"Cherry! How can she help?"

"She can do anything she wants with him."

"What do you mean?"

"I may be a heavy autumn frost as a financier," the younger man remarked, "but when it comes to women I'm as wise as a wharf rat. I've been watching her work, and it's great; people have begun to talk about it. Every night it's a dinner and a theatre party. Every day, orchids and other extortionate bouquets, with jewel-boxes tied on with blue ribbons. His motor is at her disposal at all times, and she treats his chauffeur with open contempt. If that doesn't signify--"

"Nonsense!" exclaimed the other with disgust. "She is too nice a girl for that. You have misconstrued Hilliard's politeness."

Finding his worldly wisdom at issue, Clyde defended himself stoutly. "I tell you, he has gone off his blooming balance; I know the symptoms; leave it to old Doctor Clyde."

"You say other people have noticed it?"

"I do! Everybody in town except you and the news-dealer at the corner-- he's blind."

Emerson rose from his chair, and began to pace about slowly. "If Hilliard has turned that girl's head with his attentions, I'll--"

Clyde threw back his head and laughed in open derision. "Don't worry about her--he is the one to be pitied. She's taking him on a Seeing-Seattle trip of the most approved and expensive character."

"She isn't that kind," Emerson hotly denied.

"Now don't be a boy until your beard trips you up. That girl is about to break into old Hilliard's vault, and while she's in there, with the gas lighted and a suit case to lug off the bank-notes, why not tell her to toss in a few bundles for us?"

"If I can't get along without taking money from a woman, I'll throw up the whole deal."

The curious look which Boyd had noted once before came into Clyde's eyes, and this time, to judge by the young fellow's manner, he might have translated it into words but for the entrance at that moment of Cherry herself, accompanied by "Fingerless" Fraser.

"What luck in Vancouver?" she inquired,

"None whatever. The banks won't listen to me and I can't interest any private parties."

"See here," volunteered Fraser, "why don't you let me sell some of your stock? I'm there with the big talk."

Emerson turned on him suddenly. "You have demonstrated that. If you had kept your mouth shut we'd have been at sea by now."

The fellow's face paled slightly as he replied: "I told you once that I didn't tip your mit."

"Don't keep that up!" cried Boyd, his much-tried temper ready to give way. "I can put up with anything but a lie."

Noting the signs of a rising storm, Clyde scrambled out of his chair, saying: "Well, I think I'll be going." He picked up his hat and stick, and hurriedly left the room, followed in every movement by the angry eyes of Fraser, who seemed on the point of an explosion.

"I don't believe Fraser gave out the story," said Cherry, at which he flashed her a grateful glance.

"You can make a book on that," he declared. "I may be a crook, but I'm no sucker, and I know when to hobble my talk and when to slip the bridle. I did five years once when it wasn't coming to me, and I can do it again--if I have to." He jammed his hat down over his ears, and walked out.

"I really think he is telling the truth," said the girl. "He is dreadfully hurt to think you distrust him."

"He and I have threshed that out," Emerson declared, pacing the room with nervous strides. "When I think what an idiotic trifle it was that caused this disaster, I could throttle him--and I would if I didn't blame myself for it." He paused to stare unseeingly at her." I'm waiting for the crash to come before I walk into room 610 at the Hotel Buller and settle with 'Mr. Jones, of New York.'"

"You aren't seriously thinking of any such melodramatic finish, are you?" she inquired.

"When I first met you in Kalvik, I said I would stop at nothing to succeed. Well, I meant it. I am more desperate now than I was then. I could have stood over that wretch at the dock, the other day, and watched him drown, because he dared to step in between me and my work, I could walk into Willis Marsh's room and strangle him, if by so doing I could win. Yes!" he checked her, "I know I am wrong, but that is how I feel. I have wrung my soul dry. I have toiled and sweated and suffered for three years, constantly held down by the grip of some cursed evil fortune. A dozen times I have climbed to the very brink of success, only to be thrust down by some trivial cause like this. Can you wonder that I have watched my honor decay and crumble?--that I've ceased to care what means I use so long as I succeed? I have fought fair so far, but now, I tell you, I've come to a point where I'd sacrifice anything, everything to get what I want--and I want that girl."

"You are tired and overwrought," said Cherry, quietly. "You don't mean what you say. The success of this enterprise, with any happiness it may bring you, isn't worth a human life; nor is it worth what you are suffering."

"Perhaps not, from your point of view," he said, roughly, then struck his palm with closed fist. "What an idiot I was to begin all this--to think I could win with no weapons and no aid except a half-mad fisherman, an addle-brained imbecile, a confidence man--"

"And a woman," supplemented Cherry. Then, more gravely: "I'm the one to blame; I got you into it."

"No, I blame no one but myself. Whatever you're responsible for, there's only one person you've harmed--yourself."

"What do you mean?" asked Cherry.

Her surprise left him unimpressed.

"Let's be frank," he said. "It is best to have such things out and be done with them. I traded my friendship for money and I am ruined. You are staking your honor against Hilliard's bank-notes." Her look commanded him, pleaded with him, to stop; but her silence only made him the more fiercely determined to force an explanation. "Oh, I'm in no mood to speak gently," he said; then added, with a sting of contempt in his tone: "I didn't think you would pay quite that price for your copper-mine."

Cherry Malotte paled to her lips, and when she spoke her voice was oddly harsh. "Kindly be more explicit; I don't know what you are talking about."

"Then, for your own good, you'd better understand. According to accepted standards, there is one thing no woman should trade upon."

"Go on!"

"You have set yourself to trap Hilliard, and, from what I hear, you are succeeding. He is a married man. He is twice your age. He is notorious-- all of which you must know, and yet you have deliberately yielded yourself to him for a price."

Suddenly he found the girl standing over him with burning eyes and quivering body.

"What right have you to say such things to me?" she cried. "A moment ago you acknowledged yourself a murderer--at least in thought; you said you would sacrifice anything or everything to gain your ends. Do you think I'm like that, too? Are my methods to be called shameful because your own are criminal? And suppose they were! Do you think that you and your love for that unfeeling woman, who sent you out to toil and suffer and sweat your soul dry in the solitude of that horrible country, are the only issues in the world?"

"We won't speak of her," he broke in, sharply.

"Oh yes, we will You say I have set a price on myself. Well, she set a price on herself, but you can't see it. Her price was your honor, that has crumbled; your conscience, that has rotted. You have paid it, and you would pay double if she exacted it. But one thing you shall not do: you shall not judge of my bargains, nor decide what I have paid to any man."

Never before had Boyd seen a woman so transformed by the passion of anger. Her lids had drooped, half hiding her eyes. Her whole expression had hardened; she was the picture of defiant fury. The mask had slipped, and he caught a glimpse of the naked, passionate soul, upheaved to its depths. Oddly enough, he felt it thrill him.

"I beg your pardon," he said. "You are your own mistress, and you have the right to make any bargain you choose."

She turned away, and, going to the window, stared down upon the busy street, striving to calm herself. For a time the room was silent, save for the muffled sounds from below; then she faced him again, and he saw that her eyes were misty with tears. "I want you to know," she said, "that I understand your position perfectly. If you don't succeed, you not only lose the girl but ruin yourself, for you can never repay the men who trusted you. That is a very big thing to a man, I know, yet there must be a way out--there always is. Perhaps it will present itself when you least expect it." She gave him a tired little smile before lowering her veil.

He rose, and laid his hand on her arm. "Forgive my brutal bluntness. I'm not clever at such things, but I would have said as much to my sister if I had one."

It was an honest attempt to comfort her, but it failed. "Good-bye," she said; "you mustn't give up."

All the way back to her hotel her mind dwelt bitterly upon his parting words. "His sister! his sister!" she kept repeating. "God! Can't he see?" If he had shown even a momentary jealousy of Hilliard it would not have been so hard, but this impersonal attitude was maddening! The man had but one idea in the world, one dream, one vision--another woman. Alone in her room, she still felt the flesh of her arm burn, where he had laid his hand, and then came the thrill of that forgotten kiss. How many times had she felt the pressure of his lips upon hers! How many hopes had she built upon that memory! But the thought of Boyd's indifference rose in sharp conflict with the tenderness that prompted her to help him at any cost. After all, why not take what was offered her and let this man shift for himself? Why not live her life as she had planned it before he came? The reward was at hand--she had only to take it and let him go down as a sacrifice to that ice-woman he coveted.

Dusk was falling when she ceased pacing the floor, and with set, defiant face went to the telephone, to call up Hilliard at the Rainier Club.

"I have thought over your proposition and I have changed my mind," she said. "Yes, you may send the car for me at seven." Then, in reply to some request, she laughed back, through white lips: "Very well, if you wish it --the blue dress. Yes! The blue decollete dress." She hung up the receiver, then stood with hands clinched while a shiver ran through her slender body. She stepped to a closet, and flung open the door to stare at the array of gowns.

"So this is the end of my good resolutions," she laughed, and snatched a garment recklessly from its hook. "Now for all the miserable tricks of the trade!"