Chapter XX
 

On the evening of the third day after his latest interview with Doctor Jones, Keith threw down his paper with a cry of triumph. He had been scanning the columns of every issue with minute care, combing even the fine print for the auctioneer's advertisements. Here was what he wanted: top of column, third page, where every one would be sure to see it. The commissioners issued a signed statement, calling public attention to the details of their appointment, and warning that titles issued under sheriff's sale would be considered invalid.

Keith read this with great attention, then drew his personal check against Palmer, Cook & Co. for eleven thousand dollars in favour of Doctor Jones. After some search he unearthed the little man in a downtown rookery, and from him obtained an assignment of his judgment against the city. Doctor Jones lost no time spreading the news, with the additional statement that he considered himself well out of the mess. He proceeded to order himself a long-coveted microscope, and was thenceforth lost to sight among low-tide rocks and marine algae. The sheriff's sale came off at the advertised date. There were no bidders; the commissioners' warning had had its effect. Keith himself bought in the lots for $5,000. This check about exhausted his resources. This, less costs, was, of course, paid back to himself as holder of the judgment. He had title, such as it was, for about what he had given Jones.

The bargain amused Keith's acquaintance hugely. Whenever he appeared he was deluged with chaff, all of which he took, good naturedly. He was considered, in a moment of aberration, to have bought an exceedingly doubtful equity. Some thought, he must have a great deal of money, arguing that only the owner of a fat bank account could afford to take such fliers; others considered that he must have very little sense. Keith was apparently unperturbed. He at once began to look about him, considering the next step in his scheme. Since this investment had taken nearly every cent he had left, it was incumbent to raise more money at once.

He called on John Sherwood at the Empire. The gambler listened to him attentively.

"I can't go into it," he said, when Keith had finished. A slight smile sketched itself on his strong, impassive face. "Not that I do not believe it will work; I think it will. But I have long made it a rule never to try to make money outside my own business--which is gambling. I never adopt ordinary honest methods."

Keith's honest but legally trained mind failed to notice the quiet sarcasm of this. "Well, you know everybody in town. Where can I go?"

Sherwood thought a moment.

"I'll take you to Malcolm Neil," he said at last. It was Keith's turn to look thoughtful.

"All right," he said at last. "But not just right away. Give me a couple of days to get ready."

At the appointed time Sherwood escorted Keith to Malcolm Neil's office, introduced and left him. Keith took the proffered wooden chair, examining his man with the keenest attention.

Malcolm Neil, spite of his Scotch name, was a New Englander by birth. He had come out in '49, intending, like everybody else, to go to the mines, but had never gone farther than San Francisco. The new city offered ample scope for his talents, and he speedily became, not only rich, but a dominating personality among financial circles. He accomplished this by supplementing his natural ability with absolute singleness of purpose. It was known that his sole idea was the making of money. He was reputed to be hard, devoid of sentiment, unscrupulous. Naturally he enjoyed no popularity, but a vast respect. More people had heard of him, or felt his power, than had seen him; for he went little abroad, and preferred to work through agents. John Sherwood's service in obtaining for Keith a personal interview was a very real one. Neil's offices were small, dingy, and ill lighted, at the back of one of the older and cheaper buildings. In the outer of the two were three bookkeepers; the other contained only a desk, two chairs, and an engraving of Daniel Webster addressing the Senate.

The man himself sat humped over slightly, his head thrust a little forward as though on the point of launching a truculent challenge. He was lean, gray, with bushy, overhanging brows, eyes with glinting metallic surfaces, had long sinewy hands, and a carved granite and inscrutable face, His few words of greeting revealed his voice as harsh, grating and domineering.

Keith, reading his man, wasted no time in preliminaries.

"Mr. Neil," he said, "I have a scheme by which a great deal of money can be made."

Neil grunted. If it had not been for the fact that John Sherwood had introduced the maker of that speech, the interview would have here terminated. Malcolm Neil deeply distrusted men with schemes to make large sums of money. After a time, as Keith still waited, he growled;

"What is it?"

"That," said Keith, "I shall not disclose until my standing in the matter is assured."

"What do you want?" growled Neil.

"Fifty per cent of the profits, if you go in."

"What do you want of me?"

"The capital."

"What is the scheme?"

"That I cannot tell you without some assurance of your good intention."

"What do you expect?" rasped Neil, "that I go into this blind?"

"I have prepared this paper," said Keith, handing him a document.

Neil glanced over the paper, then read it through slowly, with great care. When he had finished, he looked up at Keith, and there was a gleam of admiration in his frosty eye.

"You are a lawyer, I take it?" he surmised.

Keith nodded. Neil went over the document for the third time.

"And a good one," added Neil. "This is watertight. It seems to be a contract agreeing to the division you suggest, providing I go into the scheme. Very well, I'll sign this." He raised his voice. "Samuels, come in and witness this. Now, what is the scheme?"

Keith produced another paper.

"It is written out in detail here."

Neil reached for it, but Keith drew it back.

"One moment."

He turned it over on the blank side and wrote:

"This is in full the financial deal referred to in contract entered into this 7th of June, 1852, by Malcolm Neil and Milton Keith."

To this he appended his signature, then handed the pen to Neil.

"Sign," he requested.

Neil took the pen, but hesitated for some moments, his alert brain seeking some way out. Finally and grudgingly he signed. Then he leaned back in his chair, eying Keith with rather a wintry humour, though he made no comment. He reached again for the paper, but Keith put his hand on it.

"What more do you want?" inquired Neil in amused tones. His sense of humour had been touched on its only vulnerable point. He appreciated keen and subtle practice when he saw it,

"Not a thing," laughed Keith, "but a few words of explanation before you read that will make it more easily understood. Can you tell me how much water lots are worth?"

"Five to eight thousand for fifty varas."

"All right. I've bought ten fifty vara lots at sheriff's sale for five thousand dollars."

Neil's eye went cold.

"I've heard of that. Your title is no good. The reason you got them so cheaply was that nobody would bid because of that."

"That's for the courts to decide. The fact remains that I've a title, even though clouded, at $500 per lot."

"Proceed."

"Well, the commissioners are now advertising a sale of these same lots at auction on the 15th."

"So I see."

"Well," said Keith softly, "it strikes me that whoever buys these lots then is due for a heap of trouble."

"How so?"

"My title from the sheriff may be clouded, but it will be contested against the title given at that sale. The purchaser will have to defend himself up to the highest court. I can promise him a good fight."

Neil was now watching him steadily,

"If that fact could be widely advertised," went on Keith slowly, "by way of a threat, so to speak, it strikes me it would be very apt to discourage bidding at the commissioners' sale. Nobody wants to buy a lot of lawsuits, at any price. In absence of competition, a fifty vara lot might be sold for as low as--say $500."

Neil nodded, Keith leaned forward.

"Now here's my real idea: suppose I buy in against this timid bidding. Suppose I am the one who gets the commissioners' title for $500. Then I have both titles. And I am not likely to contest against myself. It's cost me $1,000 per lot--$500 at each sale--a profit of from $4,000 to $7,000 on each lot."

He leaned back. Malcolm Neil sat like a graven image, no expression showing on his flintlike face nor in his eyes. At length he chuckled harshly. Then, and not until then, Keith proceeded:

"But that isn't all. There's plenty more scrip afloat. If you can buy up as much of it as you can scrape together, I'll get judgment for it in the courts, and we can enlarge the deal until somebody smells a rat. We need several things."

"What?"

"Secrecy."

Neil made no reply, but the lines of his mouth straightened.

"Influence to push matters along in official circles."

"Matters will be pushed along."

"A newspaper."

"Leave that to me."

"Agents--not known to be connected with us."

Neil nodded.

"Working capital--but that is provided for in the contract. And"--he hesitated--"it will not harm to have these matters brought before a court whose judge is not unfriendly."

"I can arrange for that, Mr. Keith."

Keith arose.

"Then that is settled." He picked up the duplicate copy of the contract. "There remains only one other formality."

"Yes? What?"

"Your check for $12,000."

"What for?"

"For my expenses in this matter up to date."

"What!" cried Neil.

"The contract specifies that you are to furnish the working capital," Keith pointed out.

"But that means the future--"

"It doesn't say so."

Neil paused a moment.

"This contract would not hold in law, and you know it," he asserted boldly. "It would be held to be an illegal conspiracy."

"I would be pleased to have you point out the illegality in court," said Keith coldly, his manner as frosty as Neil's. "And if conspiracy exists, your name is affixed to it."

Neil pondered this point a moment, then drew his checkbook toward him with a grim little smile.

"Young man, you win," said he.

Keith thawed to sunniness at once.

"Oh, we'll work together all right, once we understand each other," he laughed. "Send your man out after scrip. Let him report to me."

Neil arose rather stiffly, and extended his hand.

"All right, all right!" he muttered, as though impatient. "Keep In touch. Good-day. Good-day."