Chapter XXIII.
 

It is never wise to despise an enemy, no matter how humble he may be. The mouse liberated the enmeshed lion. Jennie Brewster should have been thankful that circumstances, working in her favour, had rendered her account of the discoveries she made about the mines unnecessary. She was saved the bitterness of acknowledged defeat by the cable despatch that awaited her at Queenstown, telling her not to forward her information. The letter she received from the editor of the Argus later explained the cable message. The Argus had obtained from a different source what purported to be an account of the reports on the mines, and this had been published. If Jennie's contribution corroborated this article, it was unnecessary; if it contradicted what had been already published, then, of course, it was equally unavailable, for the Argus was a paper that never stultified itself by acknowledging an error. So the editor sent his correspondent a short cable message to save the expense of a long and costly despatch that would have been useless when it reached the Argus office.

Instead, however, of being grateful to the stars that fought so well for her, Jennie became bitterly resentful against Fleming, and hardly less so against Miss Longworth. If it had not been for the meddling politician's interference, Wentworth would never have discovered who she was, and the whole train of humiliating events that followed would not have taken place. She would have parted with Wentworth on a friendly basis, at least. She was forced, reluctantly, to admit to herself that she liked Wentworth better than any young man she had ever before met; and now that there was little chance of seeing him again, her regret had become more and more poignant as time went on. He had told her all his hopes about the mica-mine before their unfortunate disaster, and had taken her into his confidence in a way, she felt sure, he had never done with any other woman. She saw the earnest look in his honest eyes whenever she closed her own, and this look haunted her day and night, alternating with the remembrance of that gaze of incredulous reproach with which he regarded her when he discovered her mission, which was even harder to bear than the recollection of his confidence and esteem.

And the sting of the situation lay in the fact that it had all been so useless and unnecessary. She had wounded her friend and humiliated herself all for nothing! The rapid changes that had taken place in the newspaper office since she left, had rendered her sacrifices futile, and while she had buoyed herself up on shipboard by holding that she was merely doing her duty to her employers, even that consolation had been made naught by the editor's letter.

Thus it ever is in that kaleidoscopic, gigantic and fascinating lottery, the modern press. The sensation for which an editor to-day would sell his soul, is to-morrow worthless. The greatest fool in the office will sometimes stumble stupidly upon the most important news of the day, while the cleverest reporter may be baffled in his constant fight against time, for the paper goes to press at a certain hour, and after that, effort is useless. The conductor of a great paper is like the driver of a Roman chariot; he needs a cool head and a strong arm, with a clear eye that peers into the future, and that pays little heed to the victims of the whirling scythe-blades at the hub. He may overturn a Government or be himself thrown, by an unexpected jolt, under the wheels. The fiery steeds never stop, and when one drops the reins, another grasps them, to be in turn lost and forgotten in the mad race, wherein never a glance is cast to the rear. The best brains in the country are called into requisition, squeezed, and flung aside. With a lavish but indiscriminating hand are thrown broadcast fame and dishonour, riches and disaster. Unbribable in the ordinary sense of the word, the press will, for the accumulation of the smallest coins of the realm, exaggerate a cholera scare and paralyze the business of a nation; then it will turn on a corrupt Government and rend it, although millions might be made by taking another course. It is the terror of scoundrels and the despair of honest men.

Jennie Brewster, in the midst of her unavailing regrets, clenched her little fist when she thought of Fleming. It is both customary and consoling to place the blame on other shoulders than our own. Human nature is such an erring quantity, that usually we can find a scapegoat among our fellow-beings, who can be made responsible for any misdeeds or failings which are so much a part of ourselves that they escape recognition. If Fleming had only attended his own business, as a man should, Wentworth would never have known that Jennie wrote for the Argus, and Jennie might have had a friend in London who would have added that spice of interest to her visit which usually accompanies the friendship of an agreeable young man for a girl so pretty and fascinating.

Fleming put up at the hotel that Jennie had at first selected, and now and then she met him in the extensive halls of the great building; but she invariably passed him with the dignity of an offended queen, although the unfortunate man always took off his hat, and once or twice paused as if about to speak with her.

On the last day of her stay at the hotel, she met Fleming oftener than ever before; but it did not occur to her that the unhappy politician was lying in wait for her, never being able to muster up enough courage to address her when his opportunity came. At last a note was brought up to the room she occupied, from Fleming, in which he said that he would like to have a few moments' conversation with her, and would wait for a reply.

'Tell him there is no reply,' said the girl to the messenger.

It is sometimes well to know the point of view, even of an enemy, but Jenny was too angry with him to think of that. However, a politician, to be successful, must not be easily rebuffed, and as a rule he is not.

Fleming, when he got the curt reply to his note, threw away his cigar, put on his hat, took the lift, passed through the long corridor, and knocked at Jennie's door.

The girl's amazement at seeing her enemy there was so great that the obvious act of shutting the door in his face did not occur to her until it was too late, and Fleming had carelessly placed his large foot in the way of its closing.

'How dare you come here, when I refused to see you?' she cried, with her eyes ablaze.

'Oh, I understood the messenger to say I might come,' replied the untruthful politician. 'You see, it's not a personal matter, but the very biggest sensation that ever went under the ocean on a cable, and I thought--Well, you know, I felt I had done you--quite unintentionally--a mean trick on board the Caloric and this was kind of to make up for it, don't you know.

'You can never repair what you have done.'

'Oh yes, I can, Jennie.'

'I shall be obliged to you if you remember that my name is Miss Brewster,' said the girl, drawing herself up; but Fleming noticed, with relief, that since he had mentioned the sensation she had made no motion to close the door, while the eagerness of the newspaper woman was gradually replacing the anger with which she had at first regarded him.

'All right, Miss Brewster. I meant no disrespect, you know; and, honestly, I would rather give you a big item than anybody else.'

'Oh, you're very honest--I know that.'

'Well, I am, you know, Jen--I mean Miss Brewster; although I tell you it don't pay in politics any more than in the newspaper business.'

'If you only came to speak like that of the newspapers, I don't care to listen to you.'

'Wait a minute. I don't blame you for being angry----'

'Thank you.'

'But, all the same, if you let this item get away, you'll be sorry. I'm giving you the straight tip. I could get more gold than you ever saw for giving this snap away, yet here you're treating me as if I were----'

'A New York politician. Why do you come to me with this valuable piece of information? Just because you have a great regard for me, I suppose?'

'That's right. That's it exactly.'

'I thought so. Very well. There is a parlour on this floor where we can talk without being interrupted. Come with me.'

Jennie closed the door and walked down the passage, followed by Fleming, who smiled with satisfaction at his own tact and shrewdness, as, indeed, he had every right to do.

In the deserted sitting-room was a writing-table, and Jennie sat down beside it, motioning Fleming to a chair opposite her.

'Now,' she said, drawing some paper towards her, and taking up a pen, 'what is this important bit of news?'

'Well, before we begin,' replied Fleming, 'I would like to tell you why I interfered on shipboard and let that Englishman know who you were.'

'Never mind that. Better let it rest.' There was a flash of anger in the girl's eye, but, in spite of it, Fleming continued. He was a persistent man.

'But it has some bearing on what I'm going to tell you. When I saw you on board the Caloric, my heart went down into my boots. I thought the game was up, and that you were after me. I was bound to find out whether the Argus knew anything of my trip or not, and whether it had put you on my track. Only five men in New York knew of my journey across, and as a good deal depended on secrecy, I had to find out in some way whether you were there for the purpose of--well, you know. So I spoke to the Englishman, and raised a hornets' nest about my ears; but I soon saw you had no suspicion of what I was engaged in, otherwise I would have had to telegraph to certain persons then in London, and scatter them.'

'Dear me! And what villainy were you concocting? Counterfeiting?'

'No; politics. Just as bad, I suppose you think. Now, do you know where Crupper is?'

'The Boss of New York? I heard before I left that he was at Carlsbad for his health.'

'He was there,' said Fleming mysteriously; 'but now----'

The politician solemnly pointed downwards with his forefinger.

'What! Dead?' cried Jennie, the ominous motion of Fleming's finger naturally suggesting what all good people believed to be the arch-thief's ultimate destination.

'No,' said Fleming, laughing; 'he's in this hotel.'

'Oh!'

'Yes, and Senator Smollet, leader of the Conscientious Party, is here too, although you don't meet them in the halls as often as you do me. These good men supposed to be political opponents, are lying low and saying nothing.'

'I see. And they've had a conference.'

'Exactly. Now, it's like this.' Fleming pulled a sheet of paper towards him, and drew on it an oval. 'That's New York. We'll call it a pumpkin-pie, if you like, the material of which it is composed being typical of the heads of its conscientious citizens. Or a pigeon-pie, perhaps, for the New Yorker is made to be plucked. Well, look here.' Fleming drew from a point in the centre several radiating lines. 'That's what Crupper and Smollet are doing in London. They're dividing the pie between the two parties.'

'That's very interesting, but how are they going to deliver the pieces?'

'Simple as shelling peas. You see, our great pull is the conscientious citizen--the voter who wants to vote right, and for a good man. If it weren't for the good men as candidates and the good men as voters, New York politics would be a pretty uncertain game. You see, the so-called respectable element in both parties is our only hope. Each believes in his party, thinks his crowd is better than the other fellow's, so all you have to do is to nominate an honest man to represent each party, and then that divides what they call the reputable vote, and we real politicians get our man in between the two. That's all there is in New York politics. Well, Senator Smollet threatened not to put up a good man on the conscientious ticket, and that would have turned the whole unbribable vote of both parties against us, so we had to make a deal with him, and throw in the next Presidential election. Crupper's no hog; he knows when he's had plenty, and New York's good enough for him. He don't care who gets the Presidency.'

'And this conference has been held?'

'That's right. It took place in this hotel.'

'The bargain was made, I suppose?'

'It was. The pie was divided.'

'And you didn't get a slice?'

'Oh, I beg your pardon, I did!'

'Then, why do you come to me and tell me all this--if it's true?'

Honest indignation shone in Fleming's face.

'If it's true? Of course it's true. Why do I come to you? Because I want to be friendly with you, that's why.'

Jennie, nibbling the end of her pen, looked thoughtfully across at him for a few moments, then slowly shook her head.

'If you get me to believe that, Mr. Fleming, I'll not cable a word. No, I must have an adequate motive, for I won't cable anything I don't believe to be absolutely true.'

'I assure you, Jennie----'

'Wait a moment. You say you are promised your share in the new deal, but it is not as big a slice as what you have now. It stands to reason that, if Crupper is to divide with Smollet's rascals, each of Crupper's rascals must content himself with a smaller piece. The greater the number of thieves, the smaller each portion of booty. You didn't see that when you left New York, and therefore you were afraid of publicity. You see it now, and you want a sensational article published, so that Senator Smollet will be forced to deny it, or further arouse the suspicions of the honest men in his party. In either case publicity will nullify the results of the deal, and you will hold the share you have. As you didn't know any of the regular London representatives of the New York papers, you couldn't trust them not to tell on you, and so you came to me. Now that I see a good substantial selfish motive for your action, I am ready to believe you.'

An expression of dismay at first overspread the countenance of the politician, but this gave way to a look of undisguised admiration as the girl went on.

'By Jove, Jennie!' he cried, bringing his fist down on the table when she had finished; 'you're wasted in the newspaper business; you ought to be a politician! Say, girl, if you marry me, I'll be President of the United States yet.'

'Oh no, you wouldn't,' said Jennie, quite unabashed by his handsome, if excited, proposal. 'No corrupt New York politician will ever be President of the United States. You have the great honest bulk of the people to deal with there, and I'm Democrat enough to believe in them when it comes to big issues, however much you may befog them in small; you can't fool all people for all time, Mr. Fleming, as a man who was not in little politics once said. Every now and then the awakened people will get up and smash you.'

Fleming laughed boisterously.

'That's just it,' he said. 'It's every now and then. If they did it every year I would have to quit politics. But will you send the particulars of this meeting to the Argus without giving me away?'

'Yes, I recognise its importance. Now, I want you to give me every detail--the number of the room they met in, the exact hour, and all that. What I like to get in a report of a secret meeting is absolute accuracy in small matters, so that those who were there will know it is not guesswork. That always takes the backbone out of future denials. I'll mention your name----'

'Bless my soul, don't do that!'

'I must say you were present.'

'Why?'

'Why? Dear me! you can't be so stupid as not to see that, if your name is left out, suspicion will at once point to you as the divulger?'

'Yes I suppose that is so.'

'And this man is a ruler in one of the greatest cities in the world! Go on, Mr. Fleming; who else was there besides Crupper, Smollet, and yourself?'

The account--two columns and a half--was a bombshell in political New York the morning it appeared in the Argus. Senator Smollet cabled from Paris that there wasn't a word of truth in it, that he wasn't in London on the date mentioned, and had never seen Crupper there or elsewhere. Crupper cabled from Carlsbad that he was ill, and had not been out of bed for a month. He would sue the Argus for libel, which, by the way, he never did. The reporters flocked to meet Fleming when his steamer came in, but of course he knew nothing about it; he had been across the ocean solely on private business that had no connection with politics. He knew nothing of Crupper's whereabouts, but he knew one thing, which was that Crupper was too honest and honourable a man to traffic with the enemy.

Notwithstanding all these denials, the report bore the marks of truth on its face, and everybody believed it, although many pretended not to. The division of the spoils aroused the greatest consternation and indignation among Crupper's own following, and a deputation went over to see the old man.

Meanwhile, the Argus, with much dignity of diction, explained that it stood for the best interests of the people, and in the people's cause was fearless. It defied all and sundry to bring libel suits if they wanted to; it was prepared to battle for the people's rights. And its circulation went up and up, its many web presses being taxed to their utmost in supplying the demand. Thus are the truly good rewarded.

A great newspaper is as lavishly generous as a despotic monarch, to those who serve it well, and the cheque which Jennie cashed when Lady Willow accompanied her to the City lined her purse with banknotes to a fulness that receptacle had never known before.

After a few weeks with Lady Willow, Jennie seemed to tire of the frivolities of society, and even of the sedate company of the good lady with whom she lived. She announced that she was going to Paris for a week or two, but, owing to uncertainty of address, her letters were not to be forwarded. She merely took a hand-bag, leaving the rest of her luggage with Lady Willow, who was thus sustained by the hope that her paying guest would soon return.

Jennie took a hansom to Charing Cross, but instead of departing on the Paris express, she hailed a four-wheeler, and, giving a West End address to the driver, entered the closed vehicle.