The Gold Trail/Chapter XXX
Chapter XXX: Defeat
There had been trouble at the Board Meeting, and, now that it was almost over, the directors of the Grenfell Consolidated sat in dejected silence, listening to the animadversions of one of their comrades. They did not agree with everything he said, but it scarcely seemed worth while to raise minor objections, for they were willing to admit that the situation was desperate.
"We should never have proceeded to allotment," he said. "I warned you that the applications for our stock were quite insufficient to warrant the flotation of the concern at the time, but you apparently lost your heads over those specimens, and you overruled me. Now it's unpleasantly evident that we cannot expect to go on much longer, and I venture to predict a voluntary liquidation during the next few months."
"It certainly looks like that," said one of the others, gloomily. "Still, you might give us your reasons for counting on the thing, if you have any."
The man laughed--a little harsh laugh that had in it a hint of contempt for the intelligence of his colleagues.
"Will you let me have those estimates again, Mr. Weston?" he asked.
Weston, who sat with a set face gazing at the papers in front of him, handed several of them across the table. It was now some time since he had left the mine, and in the meanwhile trouble after trouble had crowded thick upon him. He realized also that he was rapidly losing the confidence of his companions. They were not men of any great account in that city, and it was significant that the Board Meeting was held in Wannop's little back office, where there was scarcely room for all of them.
"You have discussed those estimates at length already," he said. "I should, however, like to point out that I consider them absurdly high. In fact, I'd undertake to do the work at not more than two-thirds of the cost."
"This company," said the first speaker, severely, "has no intention of taking up road-making and the building of flumes and dams. It has, as I think you will admit, gentlemen, quite enough already on its hands."
There was some show of agreement from all but Wannop, and Weston set his lips. There had been a time when they had listened to his suggestions, but now it was becoming evident that they regarded him with suspicion.
"This," said his colleague, "is a little list of our requirements and expenditures before we can expect to get to work. Tools, drilling-machines and labor on the heading." He read out the cost of each item. "Then we have to provide a stamp-mill, turbines, flumes and dam; and, though Mr. Weston suggests a wood-burning engine to supply the crushing power, the saving effected would be no great matter. The point is that we now discover that the cost of these things will in one way or another be nearly double what we stated in our prospectus."
"That," said Wannop, dryly, "isn't altogether unusual."
"What is more to the purpose is that it will approximately absorb our whole available capital," said the first speaker, who took up another paper. "Then we have as an alternative scheme several leagues of road and trail cutting, including wooden bridges and a strip that must be dug out of an impassable mountainside. You have to add to it the cost and maintenance of pack-horses and the rates you'd have to pay the owners of the nearest crushing-plant to do your reducing. Gentlemen, I can only move that these estimates stand over, and that in the meanwhile we merely proceed with the heading."
They agreed to this. Then another of them spoke.
"It seems to me that there's a way in which we could save something as well as our credit," he said. "I've had a hint that another big concern might be willing to take us over."
They looked at one another in a manner which suggested that this was not altogether a new idea. Weston straightened himself suddenly.
"It will never be done with my consent," he said.
"Then," remarked the first speaker, "it is quite likely that you will find yourself in a minority of one."
"Mr. Weston can count on at least one supporter," said Wannop, shortly.
Then there was an awkward silence, until one of the others thrust back his chair.
"It's becoming quite clear that we can't go on," he said. "This concern was started wrong. We should have spent more money, taken first-class offices, and turned out floods of illustrated pamphlets."
"I just want to ask how you're going to spend money that you haven't got?" said Wannop. "I was quite willing to take the money. You wouldn't put it up."
There was a little laughter, and the meeting broke up; but Weston stayed behind with Wannop when the others went down the stairway. The broker, who sat down again, made a little dejected gesture.
"I guess the game is up. They're going back on us," he said. "In a way, I don't blame them. The Hogarth people have scared them off. They're not big enough."
"Have you any idea as to what they'll do?" Weston asked.
Wannop nodded. "Oh, yes," he said. "They'll hold out a month or two, and piffle away at the adit to save appearances. Then they'll call the stockholders together, and suggest turning the mine over to the Hogarth people on such terms as they can get. There are just two things that could save us--a strike of extra high-grade ore, or a sudden whim of investors to purchase western mining stock." He smiled in a wry fashion. "I don't expect either of them."
Weston sat still a moment, and then rose with an air of weariness.
"Well," he said, "I'm going back to the mine tomorrow. We'll hold on as long as possible."
He left; and a few minutes later Stirling came in. He sat down and handed Wannop a cigar.
"Now," he said, "we have got to talk."
"If you'd come a little earlier you'd have met Weston."
"Yes," said Stirling, "that's just why I didn't. Now, where's the trouble?"
"I'll tell you--though to some extent it's a breach of confidence. It's the shortage of money, and the fact that our stock is tumbling down."
Wannop smiled. "I might have said being clubbed down."
"I want to get the thing quite straight," said Stirling. "What made you take up this mine?"
"Mr. Weston's representations. I think I attached as much weight to them as I did to the specimens. I felt that was a man that I could put my money on."
"You feel that now?"
"I do," Wannop admitted. "In fact, it's hard to believe he will be beaten, though the rest of us are going back on him."
Stirling nodded in a manner which might have meant anything.
"So your stock is being sold down?" he said. "As I pointed out to Mr. Weston, considering that you haven't a great deal of it, that's rather a dangerous game. Are any actual holders parting?"
They had spoken without reticence, in terse, sharp sentences, as men who recognized the advisability of coming straight to the point, which is, after all, a custom that usually saves trouble for everybody concerned. The men who shrink from candor, lest they should give themselves away, not infrequently waste a good deal of time wondering what the other person means, and then decide incorrectly.
"They are," said Wannop. "Besides several small lots, one parcel of six hundred shares held in England changed hands, though that was when we stood near par and the stock was only beginning to break away. What we want is such a strike of ore as will startle mining investors."
"Anything else?" Stirling asked suggestively.
"Well," said Wannop, "we're not likely to get it. If a good strong buyer, who could wait, were to take hold, it would help us as much as anything."
"Quite sure?" asked Stirling very dryly.
"Isn't it evident? It would stiffen prices and scare off the Hogarth brokers. What's more, it would steady my colleagues' nerves."
"Yes," admitted Stirling, "it would do all that. However, I want to suggest that that isn't quite enough. Anyway, that's my view of it."
They looked at each other steadily for a moment or two, and then Stirling made a little forceful gesture.
"Now," he said, "I'm going to take hold of this thing; and in the first place I'll give you an order on my bank for all the money that seems necessary. You will take up some of that stock for me; and, as the Hogarth men will offer more freely as soon as they strike an actual buyer, in case prices stiffen you'll follow their lead and pitch the stock you bought on to the market."
"Some men would consider that was playing the other people's game," commented Wannop, with a chuckle.
"It would be, in the meanwhile," said Stirling. "Well, you won't let your sales--if you make any--get out of hand. You'll have to put on one or two smart men, and cover or sell at a lower price through different ones when it appears advisable. I shall naturally lose a little on every deal of that kind, but the only real trouble will be when you quietly gather in as much as possible of the stock the other people are offering. It will have to be done without raising suspicions, and before their broker can report and ask for instructions."
Wannop struck the table. "There's some hazard in it--but it's a great idea," he said. "They'll club the Grenfell Consols down quite flat."
"Until settling day. Then, when the other people have to deliver, they can't get the stock. We'll shove the prices up on them to anything we like."
Wannop gazed at him in exultation, but presently he asked a disconnected question.
"Why are you doing all this?"
"For money, for one thing," said Stirling, with a little flush in his face. "For another, because I've been sweated and bluffed and bullied by people of the kind you're up against, and now I feel it's 'most a duty to strike back." He clenched a big, hard hand. "I've watched my wife scrubbing and baking and patching my clothes in the old black days when I lived in a three-roomed shack because I was bluffed out of half my earnings by people who sent their daughters to Europe every year. I've nothing to say against legitimate dealing, but it's another thing when these soft-handed, over-fed-men suck the blood out of every minor industry and make their pile by the grinding down of a host of struggling toilers. By next settling day one or two of them are going to feel my hand."
He reached out for his hat, rather red in face.
"If I've any other reasons, they don't concern you," he added in a different tone. "All I expect from you is to do your part judiciously, and, as a matter of fact, it will have to be done that way."
He went out, and left Wannop sitting with the light of a somewhat grim satisfaction in his eyes.
In the meanwhile, Weston went moodily back to his hotel, and spent an unpleasant hour or two before he proceeded irresolutely toward Stirling's house. He realized that this was in some respects most unwise of him, but he was going away on the morrow and he felt that he could not go without a word with Ida.
She was sitting near the fire, which burned upon the open hearth, when he was shown into a daintily-furnished room. After a swift glance at him she rose and followed the maid to the door.
"I cannot receive anybody else just now," she said.
Then she came back and sat down not far from him, feeling that there was a crisis on hand, for, though the man's manner was quiet, there was trouble in his face.
"You have something to tell me. About your meeting, perhaps?"
"Yes," said Weston. "I don't, however, wish to trouble you much about the meeting. I merely want to thank you for your sympathy before I go away. You see, I'm going west to-morrow."
"Will you be long away?"
"Yes," said Weston, with a strained quietness that jarred on her. "In fact, it's scarcely probable that I shall come back here at all. The game's up. My directors have lost their nerve. The Grenfell Consolidated must go down in the next few months."
It was evident to Ida that whatever could be done must be done by her, or the man would go away again without a word, and this time he would, as he had said, not come back at all. For a moment or two she sat very still.
"Ah," she murmured, "I needn't tell you that I'm sorry."
"No," said Weston, simply. "I know you are."
Then there was, for a minute or two, a silence that both found almost intolerable and that seemed emphasized by the snapping of the fire. There was before the girl a task from which she shrank, but it was clear to her that, since she could not let him go, one of them must speak.
"What are you going to do in the west?" she asked.
"Push on the heading until we have to let the mine go."
Weston spread out his hands.
"I don't know. Act as somebody's camp-packer. Shovel on the railroads. Work on the ranches."
It was very evident to Ida that his quietness was the result of a strenuous effort. The barrier of reticence between them was very frail just then, and she meant to break it down. She leaned forward in her chair with her eyes fixed on him, and now the signs of tension in his face grew plainer.
"You speak as if that would be easy for you," she said.
Weston shut his eyes to one aspect of the question. He had not the courage to face it, and he confined himself to the more prosaic one.
"As a matter of fact, I'm afraid it won't be," he admitted. "The life I've led here, and the few weeks I spent at Kinnaird's camp, have rather spoiled me for the bush. Some of the customs prevalent in the trail-choppers' shanties and the logging-camps are a little primitive, and one can't quite overcome a certain distaste for them."
"That was not quite what I meant," said Ida.
Weston was startled, but she saw that he would not allow himself to wonder what she really did mean.
"Anyway," he answered doggedly, "I suppose I can bear any unpleasantness of that kind, which is fortunate, because there's apparently no way out of it. After all, it's one consolation to feel that I'm only going back to what I was accustomed to before I found the mine."
"Ah," said Ida, "you are very wrong in one respect. You speak as if you could bear the trouble alone. Don't you think it would hurt anybody else as much to let you go?" Then, while the blood crept into her face, she fixed her eyes on him. "Yes," she added simply, "I mean myself."
Weston rose, and stood leaning on the back of his chair, with one hand tightly closed. He had struggled stubbornly, but it was evident that his strength had suddenly deserted him and that he was beaten now.
"It would hurt you as much?" he said, with a curious harshness. "That's quite impossible. The hardest, bitterest thing I could ever have to face would be to go away from you."
He flung out the closed hand.
"Now," he said, "you know. I've thrown away common sense and prudence, all sense of what is fitting and all that is due to you. None of those things seem to count just now."
He drew a little nearer.
"I fell in love with you at Kinnaird's camp, and tried hard to crush that folly. Then I found the mine, and for a few mad weeks I almost ventured to believe that I might win you. After that, the fight to drive your memory out of my heart had to be made again."
"It was hard?" asked Ida very softly.
"It was relentlessly cruel." Weston's voice grew sharper. "Still, I tried to make it. I gave way in only one point--I came to see you now and then. Now it's so hard that I'm beaten. I've failed in this thing as I've failed in the other."
He straightened himself suddenly, with a little forceful gesture.
"I'm beaten all round, beaten to my knees; but I don't seem ashamed. Even if you can't forgive me, I'm glad I've told you."
"I think," said Ida, "I could forgive you for one offense--the one you seem to think most important--rather easily. It would have been ever so much harder to do that had you gone away without telling me."
"You mean that?" cried Weston, and, stooping over her, he caught one hand and gripped it almost cruelly.
"Can't you take anything for granted?" Ida asked demurely. "Must one always explain in full to you?"
She felt the man's arms close about her, and his lips hot on her cheek; but in another moment he drew away from her.
"But this is madness," he said. "I have nothing. In a few more weeks I shall be an outcast."
"Ah," said Ida, "you have given me all that counts for anything, and"--she looked up at him with shining eyes and burning cheeks--"you belong to me."
He stood silent for several moments, with trouble in his face, apparently struggling with himself.
"What are you thinking of?" she asked,
Weston raised his head.
"I dare not think," he said. "I've won you by unfair means--and yet, knowing that, I'm only filled with the exultation of it. Still, this thing has to be faced and decided now. You know I love you--but is it right that you should be bound to a man who may never be able to marry you?"
"Is that any great obstacle," asked Ida, "if I don't object?"
"It is," said Weston, hoarsely. "I want you now."
The girl was almost startled by the change in him. His restraint had broken down once for all, at last, and she saw by the tension in his face and the glow in his eyes that his nature was stirred to its depths. In a moment or two, however, he seemed to succeed in imposing a partial control upon himself.
"I had meant to come to you only when we had made the mine a success," he said.
"To save your pride!--you could think of that?"
Weston laughed harshly.
"My pride--there isn't a shred of it left. But now, at least, the situation has to be faced."
"Is it so very dreadful?" asked Ida, with a smile. "You have told me that you love me. Is that a thing to be ashamed of? Must I tell you that I am glad you came to me when you were beaten, and not when you had won? Is there anything that I should trouble myself about?"
"Your friends' opinion, your father's opposition----"
He broke off, and Ida, who turned in her chair, looked around suddenly with her cheeks flushed.
"My father," she said, "is able to speak for himself."
Weston started, for he saw Stirling standing just inside the doorway looking at them gravely. Their attitude and the girl's expression would, he realized, be significant to a man of the contractor's intelligence. Then Ida rose and faced the elder man.
"I think I would better tell you that I have promised to marry Mr. Weston when things are propitious," she said. She looked around at Weston with a smile. "At least, I suppose I have."
"Ah!" said Stirling, dryly, "the situation rather suggested it. Mr. Weston has, no doubt, something to say to me."
Ida glanced at Weston and slipped out of the room.