Chapter XIX
 

One morning Keith was sitting in his office cogitating these things. His door opened and a meek, mild little wisp of a man sidled in. He held his hat in his hand, revealing clearly sandy hair and a narrow forehead. His eyebrows and lashes were sandy, his eyes pale blue, his mouth weak but obstinate. On invitation he seated himself on the edge of the chair, and laid his hat carefully beside him on the floor.

"I am Dr. Jacob Jones," he said, blinking at Keith. "You have heard of me?"

"I am afraid I have not," said Keith pleasantly.

The little man sighed.

"I have held the City Hospital contract for three years," he explained, "and they owe me a lot of money. I thought you might collect some of it."

"I think if you'd put in a claim through the usual channels you'd receive your dues," advised Keith, somewhat puzzled. He had not heard that the city was refusing to pay legitimate claims.

"I've done that, and they've given me these," said Doctor Jones, handing Keith a bundle of papers.

Keith glanced at them.

"This is 'scrip,'" he said. "It's perfectly good. When the city is without current funds it issues this scrip, bearing interest at 3 per cent. a month. It's all right."

"Yes, I know," said the little man ineffectually, "but I don't want scrip."

Keith ran it over. It amounted to something like eleven thousand dollars.

"What do you want done about it?" he asked,

"I want you to collect the money for me."

But Keith, had recollected something.

"Just wait a minute, please," he begged, and darted across the hall to a friend's office, returning after a moment with a file of legislative reports. "I thought I'd heard something about it; here it is. The State Legislature has voted an issue of 10 per cent. bonds to take up the scrip."

"I don't understand," said Doctor Jones.

"Why, you take your scrip to the proper official and exchange it for an equal value of State bonds."

"But what good does that do me?" cried Jones excitedly. "It doesn't get me my money. They don't guarantee I can sell the bonds at par, do they? And answer me this: isn't it just a scheme to cheat me of my interest? As I understand it, instead of 3 per cent. a month I'm to get 10 per cent. a year?"

"That's the effect," corroborated Keith.

"Well, I don't want bonds, I want money, as is my due."

"Wait a minute," said Keith. He read the report again slowly. "This says that holders of scrip may exchange, for bonds; it does not say they must exchange," he said finally. "If that interpretation is made of the law, suit and judgment would lie against the city. Do you want to try that?"

"Of course I want to try it!" cried Jones.

"Well, bring me your contract and vouchers, and any other papers to do with the case, and I'll see what can be done."

"I have them right here," said Doctor Jones.

This, as Keith's first case, interested him more than its intrinsic worth warranted. It amused him to bring all his powers to bear, fighting strongly for the technical point, and finally establishing it in court. In spite of the evident intention of the Legislature that city scrip should be retired in favour of bonds, it was ruled that the word may in place of the word must practically nullified that intention. Judgment was obtained against the city for eleven thousand dollars, and the sheriff was formally instructed to sell certain water-front lots in order to satisfy that judgment. The sale was duly advertised in the papers.

Next morning, after the first insertion of this advertisement, Keith had three more callers. These were men of importance: namely, John Geary, the first postmaster and last alcalde of the new city; William Hooper, and James King of William, at that time still a banker. These were grave, solid, and weighty citizens, plainly dressed, earnest, and forceful. They responded politely but formally to Keith's salute, and seated themselves.

"You were, I understand, counsel for Doctor Jones in obtaining judgment on the hospital scrip?" inquired Geary.

"That is correct," acknowledged Keith.

"We have called to inform you of a fact that perhaps escaped your notice: namely, that these gentlemen and myself have been appointed by the Legislature as commissioners to manage the funded debt of the city; that, for that purpose, title of all city lands has been put in our hands."

"No, I did not know that," said Keith.

"Therefore, you see," went on Geary, "the sheriff cannot pass title to any lots that might be sold to satisfy Doctor Jones's judgment."

Keith pondered, his alert mind seizing with avidity on this new and interesting situation.

"No, I cannot quite see that," he said at last; "the actual title is in the city. It owns its property. You gentlemen do not claim to own it, as individuals. You have delegated to you the power to pass title, just as the sheriff and one or two others have that power; but you have not the sole power."

"We have advice that title conveyed under this judgment will be invalid."

"That is a matter for the courts to settle."

"The courts----" began Hooper explosively, but Geary overrode him.

"If all the creditors of the city were to adopt the course pursued by Doctor Jones, the city would soon be bankrupt of resources."

"That is true," agreed Keith.

"Then cannot I appeal to your sense of civic patriotism?"

"Gentlemen," replied Keith, "you seem to forget that in this matter I am not acting for myself, but for a client. If it were my affair, I might feel inclined to discuss the matter with you more in detail. But I am only an agent."

"But----" interrupted Hooper again.

"That is quite true," interjected James King of William.

"Well, we shall see your client," went on Geary, "But I might state that on the side of his own best interests he would do well to go slow. There is at least a considerable doubt as to the legality of this sale. It is unlikely that people will care to bid."

After some further polite conversation they took their leave. Keith quickly discovered that the opinion held by the commissioners was shared by most of his friends. They acknowledged the brilliance of his legal victory, admired it heartily, and congratulated him; but they considered that victory barren.

"Nobody will buy; you won't get two bits a lot bid," they all told him.

Little Doctor Jones came to him much depressed. The commissioners had talked with him.

"Do you want my advice?" asked Keith, "Then do this: stick to your guns."

But little Jones was scared.

"I want my money," said he; "perhaps I'd better take those bonds after all."

"Look here," suddenly said Keith, who had been making up his mind. "I'll guarantee you the full amount in cash, within, say, two weeks, but only on this condition: that you go out now, and spread it about everywhere that you are going to stand pat. Tell 'em all you are going to push through this sale."

"How do I know----"

"Take a chance," interrupted Keith. "If at the end of two weeks I don't pay you cash, you can do what you please. Call off the sheriff's sale at the last minute; I'll pay the costs myself. Come, that's fair enough. You can't lose a cent."

"All right," agreed Jones after a minute.

"Remember: it's part of the bargain that you state everywhere that you're going to force this sale, and that you don't let anybody bluff you."

The affair made quite a little stir. Men like Sam Brannan, Dick Blatchford, the contractor, and Jim Polk discussed Keith and his ability.

"Got a pretty wife, too," added Brannan. "--never heard of the fall of man."

"Well, she's going to, if the Morrell woman has her way," observed Ben Sansome dryly.

Polk stretched his long legs, and smiled his desiccated little smile.

"He's a pretty enterprising youngster--more ways than one," said he.